The Comfort Zone
Winning Entry by Mac
In her final hour before passing, Ethel held her son’s hand, kissed it and told him she loved him. Then she sent him for a glass of water and spoke to Kevin.
“You take care of my boy … he’s my baby. And I know he’s yours too. We both love him, Kevin, and you’re who he’ll depend on now.”
“Don’t worry. Ethel, love … he’ll be fine. And I’ll be here.”
“I know you will. But fine … well, that’s another matter. You won’t have me here.”
“You’ve no need to worry. I’ll take care of him.”
“That’s not my point, Kevin … you won’t have me to shield you.” Then Ray reappeared with the glass of water and she smiled weakly, yet closing the conversation decisively. She held Ray’s hand, fell into a sleep and never woke again.
Ray cried and Kevin hugged him. The second night after Ethel died they made love, comforting each other and reaffirming their togetherness. Both felt guilt next morning.
Kevin glanced out of the window of the bus one cold, March morning as it pulled into the bus station, and fell in love in an instant. He leapt from his seat and pushed his way onto the pavement, looked around urgently, located the youth that had caught his eye and hurried after him. Just to take one more look, he later used to say. At the precise moment that Kevin drew level with his quarry, Ray turned and saw the young man with the brief case who was clumsily, secretly following him and felt the same.
Immediately, there were some practical problems to deal with: how to effect first introductions, how to avoid losing this chance encounter to the winds of fortune and early morning commuter jostling, how to meet again … and again. How to deal with the illegality of their unspoken thoughts in 1964. How to ascertain that the person facing you felt just the same.
“Hello,” broke the ice. Then chat about the morning’s weather; on to which direction each was walking and where they were going: Kevin to the Council Offices where he worked, Ray to college. The moment of goodbye arrived and a great yawning chasm that signalled a destitute future unless one of them acted.
This evening? After work? I finish at five.”
“I’m at college … finish at four. I’ll hang around. Where?”
The future had been salvaged. Ray spent an hour in and out of shops, keeping warm and then waited uncertainly outside the coffee shop that Kevin had suggested – one of five back then.
Kevin had a sister and two nieces, and lived alone so it became his habit by the following Spring to have Sunday tea at Ray’s after a walk out together. He grew bold and stole the occasional kiss if they were in a secluded place; Ray always reacted with alarm, followed by a sheepish laugh. Over tea, they laughed and talked and entertained Ethel with stories of their adventures in the afternoon: finding a badger, or visiting a lovely tea shop and what a pity they didn’t have a car to take Ethel. Ethel gave a dismissive wave and a smile, and wished they had one too.
Three years later – the same year that homosexuality became legal – Kevin moved in as Ethel’s lodger, the nice young man from the Council planning department. He bought a car at the same time and was able to take Ethel on their trips out, as well as to the new supermarket that had just opened. Ethel took great care to fuss around Kevin in the street and leave her lovely boy on the margins of their conversation. The neighbours were satisfied. Kevin was a lodger … and a kind young man. His friendship with Ray was incidental; Ethel saw to that.
Meanwhile at home, the boys – her boys - were loving and loved, by her and each other. And if sleeping together made them happy, she had no cause for alarm or questions. She’d had a friend during the war; he had a terrible time. Ended many a Saturday night bruised and battered. Ethel did not want that for her boy. When she washed the bedding every fortnight, she dutifully took the sheets from the empty spare room and hung out three sets of sheets to dry on the washing line. The neighbours were satisfied and Ethel was content, knowing her boys had comfort and safety.
It was Ray who became strong as they edged towards old age. They stayed in Ethel’s house after she died and nobody cared to comment, at least not openly, because Ethel had been loved and the boys had become a fixture in the street; neighbours expressed their condolences and exhorted Kevin to take care of Ethel’s lad. He needs a friend now. Several years later, both having slowly developed their careers and salaries, they decided to move to a bigger, smarter house in a more affluent neighbourhood with a drive and a garage and a large garden at the back.
They lived opposite the church community centre, a gathering point for the youth of the area and beyond. Their first inkling of trouble came with scratches to their car and the bin emptied into their forecourt at the front. Kevin spoke to the youths and to the vicar. The boys sniggered and the vicar made veiled comments about right relations in the eyes of the Lord. When the situation escalated the police were reluctant to do anything either.
“To be honest, I’m sympathetic but … well, your kind have to accept that people are going to be negative,” said the police officer who called.
“Our kind?! We’re two people getting on with our bloody lives, not bothering anyone … just … just…” Kevin was incensed and Ray tried to placate him.
Kevin became ill with the persistent intrusions: dog faeces through the letter box, notes threatening fire bombs, even rape. There was yet more damage to the car. The new millennium saw Kevin taking early retirement on health grounds and, miraculously a change in policing policy that led to a crackdown on all hate crime.
“The damage has been done, Ray, love … I’ll never be the same.” And he was correct; he wasn’t. He worried and fretted and lived in dread whenever Ray left the house alone. Ray tried his best to get things back to normal. He encouraged friends to call because they’d stopped going out much. Even the cinema trip every fortnight fell by the wayside. Kevin lived in fear and dread. And the more he feared, the more he talked. And talked. Ray listened patiently. Ray longed for the days before his mother died when they were young and safe, wrapped in the comfort of Ethel’s protection and love for her boys.
“Your mother was a rock … a rock. She was a saint, everything to us. We never knew how lucky we were.”
“Kevin … Kevin, love … there’s a chap coming to see us. He wants to talk. About being gay when we were young. Some research project at the university. I said it’d be OK. I thought you’d enjoy talking to him.”
Halfway through the interview, the young man from the university dropped his bombshell.
“So, Mr. Lace – Kevin … for three years the pair of you were in effect sex offenders. How did you manage the secret? And how did you cope with that knowledge? How did it feel?”
“Sex offenders? Us? No! we were illegal … but only until 1967; then it was legalised. I don’t think it makes us sex offenders. Not like paedophiles and the like … on this sex offenders register.”
“Well, the register isn’t just for paedophiles, Kevin, though they get the publicity. Even so … when you met, Ray was eighteen and you were twenty-two. He was under age even when it was legalised. The law said you had to be twenty-one.”
“We were! We were!”
“Yes … by then. But when your relationship began … Ray was under age. I wondered how you coped with that knowledge. That even when you were given legal status, you knew you’d been … well, in the eyes of the law, a sex offender. It must have been difficult. The worry of someone coming forward and making an allegation even after the law changed.”
Kevin felt as if his very life was being drained from him. It was a thought he had never harboured. He had never needed to, not before or after the law changed. They’d had Ethel and nobody could touch them. They’d been safe. They had loved each other – and Ethel – and lived their lives, ordinary lives. Lives of Christmas presents and birthday treats and Sunday teas and living together under Ethel’s roof. Ethel never questioned. Ethel saw how things were with her boy and his friend and she eased the path once she was sure that Kevin was the one. Kevin understood that, appreciated it even. She had that right. Any mother has for her child – boy or girl.
Ray showed the young researcher out and came back to see if Kevin wanted tea.
“It’s too early for tea.”
“I meant a cup of tea – and a biscuit.” Ray smiled and disappeared into the kitchen.
Kevin watched him leave the room and felt the cold, damp terror of self-condemnation. Had he abused that beautiful boy all those years ago? Had he damaged him? Why were they together? Why had Ethel approved and aided them in their deceit? Was he really a criminal? Did that mean that their love was worthless? All those criminal acts of vandalism and persecution: perhaps they were deserved after all.
“I remember when you were young and handsome,” said Ray, from the doorway.
Kevin raised his eyebrows questioningly but said nothing.
“You’re still young and handsome …. Just older, too!” And he laughed. “Thank God for my mother.” He said.
I stared into the void
Stretching beyond thought
Endless and empty
Nothing looked back.
The world continues to turn
I sit at my desk
Like every other day
Not like every other day
How can this be just another day
Everything has changed.
Too tired for anger
Too jaded for disbelief
There is only room for despair
There is no security blanket
To comfort us now
Will the world ever be sane again?
A Short Memoir
For years and years I've been trying to find an elusive state of being/emotion. I've never been able to find a great name for it. The closest I can come to is 'a comforted state of contentment' . It's a state of being where I'm in a house with some other people, and there is stuff going on all through the house - someone listening to music, someone cooking, someone on the phone perhaps, the sound of a TV filtering through. It's always warm and it can involve sofas and blankets and perhaps food. When in this state I feel perfectly calm and safe, people pass by, everyone's chilled, people might stop and chat, but everyone's sort of self contained and happy yet connected at the same time.
My family wasn't always completely functional (whose is?) I don't want to write about that now, suffice to say there was a lot of tension and a lot of stuff rumbling along under the surface. I think as a child I picked up on a lot of it and most nights until the age of about 11 I was terrified to sleep because I had monumentally scary dreams. Therefore I don't think it's a feeling to replicate the one I had as a child with my mum and dad and brother that I seek, because I don't remember feeling it much back then and if I did, it was in Gran's room rather than the rest of the house - she lived with us from when I was four. I had it with her, with her lovely warmth and ticking clock and Grannyness. I got it as a student, in various student digs. I had it fleetingly when I had my first child. I've had glimpses of it, over the years but after my gran's death and a change of parent through divorce and remarriage, I never felt it at home again. Until recently I could probably have named every single time I had it and described it perfectly. It definitely wasn't something I felt often and it makes me sad because the opposite of feeling it, is being uncomfortable and on edge - which adds up to a hell of a lot of time spent feeling on edge.
I'm currently in my nineteenth house, and without fail those houses (or rooms, when I was younger) have had walls absolutely hung with stuff: posters, pictures, wall hangings; now, children's drawings, paintings, wooden bits and pieces and loads of photos. There have always been colourful rugs on the floor and far too many cushions, as I try to create this feeling. I've been reading about this Norwegain craze which I can't remember how to spell and I haven't the time to look it up, but it's pronounced 'hoodah' with a Scottish 'ckkkh' on the end (I think) - it seems to mean candles and warmth and a cosy atmosphere - exactly what I've always tried to create in my living space.
About three years ago I finally dealt with the depression that had haunted me on and off for over half my life. I was put on one brand of antidepressant, and within a week I had THAT feeling, the comforted state of contentment, with me constantly. Wow, I thought. I can get it in a pill. However the pills didn't agree with me in other ways and I had to come off them. Fortunately I realised it wasn't the pill that had caused it, it was triggering something inside me. The next lot of pills didn't have the same strong effect, but after a few months, I began to get glimmers of my comforted state of contentment. I treasured them, but the more I tried to hold onto them the more quickly they vanished. I was happy, though, because I was getting the feeling more and more. I put it down to me being happier in general, less anxious the whole time, less flat, not always under the black cloud.
This year I was diagnosed with breast cancer (on Friday 13th May - the minute I saw that date I knew the news wouldn't be good!) and what could have been a disaster that buried me back under the influence of the black cloud has had a rather surprising effect.
The whole 'having cancer' thing isn't as I imagined it would be. It's scary - oh, God it's scary, especially as famous people keep reminding me how often you die from it - but generally I can keep the fear at bay and it's been a wholly positive thing in my life, creating lots of positivity inside me and in the words I write and the things I do and the love I give.
And it's given me the power to tap into the comforting contentment. Cancer has given me that. Strange, isn't it?
This is what happens. I can be anywhere, with anyone (but it happens most often with my partner and two children) and I simply stop whatever I'm doing, just for a few moments. And all I do is feel myself being RIGHT there, in that moment. I can be stirring soup or bathing the kids or folding up clothes or writing or taking out the rubbish or going for a walk or chatting to a friend or reading or watching TV or sitting (hang on, I don't sit very often; there's too much life to live!) or doing absolutely ANYTHING at all (oh, for that italics button, Alison...) and suddenly, there's that feeling! It's just there. I don't have to chase it or be in a warm room with candles and the fire lit eating ginger cookies, it's just there.
Many of you will be going, well, it's just there inside you, what's the big deal? The big deal is that it's THERE, inside ME, and I can have it and hold it and cherish it.
It's about life.
It's about love.
It's about being thankful for the tiniest things.
It's about being thankful for great big things like still being alive.
It's about me liking who I am.
It's about being able to give freely.
I recently discovered this 'stopping and being' thing has a name - The Pause. It's about mindfulness, I have tried sitting and being mindful, but my mind is always too full. I feel quite chuffed I discovered it all by myself - okay, I had Cancer as my teacher, but I still had to learn the lesson myself. I may not be able to sit still and listen to a mindfulness CD but I have learned how to be mindful whatever I'm doing, which suits me far more. I'm a better person because of it. I appreciate the small stuff. I enjoy the present moment much more than I ever did - tiny things give me a smile. Popping in to see a friend means Really Being There, not half there, but right there with them. It means when my children want me I can give them my absolute full attention. It means when I cook I am thankful for the food and the cooker and the smells that drift upwards. It means I listen to music with my soul, not just my ears. It means when I write, I write what I like, not what I think someone wants to read. If someone can relate to it, I'm very happy. If not, that's fine too.
I can finish the title now.
'...Right Here, in my Soul.'