The Centre of these Endless Glows
Bring back all the memories
Swing on in with me
Wrap them in a ball of twine
And never let them leave
Tear up all the photographs
I shall tell you how it went
Take a chair and pour a brew
Ill show you what they meant
Touch and squeeze my weathered face
Stroke these labrynthed wrinkled paths
Share then what is whispered
And ill answer what you ask.
I pass you on this twine of mine
First encase some tales of ours
And throw it to the skies above
Let it dance upon our stars.
Then pick out any glow you wish
Unwravel every nook
But replace each strand there after
For another one to look.
We were a chaotic centre
We were eachothers tales
We are involved in many
We are these endless trails.
Ellen looked from the girl in the doorway to the wall clock, it read 4:53. “You`re early?” she said.
“Oh dad picked me up on the Model farm road,” her daughter replied, “Said he was finished for the day and drove by on the chance he might see me.” She dumped her rucksack on the kitchen floor, going straight to the table and the plate of food already set out, “Mmmm, sausages and chips, my favourite, thanks mum.”
But before she could sit, Ellen, pointing to the discarded schoolbag, said, “That’s not where that belongs young lady.”
Patsy, who had already pulled back the chair, gave her a look of utter misery, “But muuumm, I`m starving. I`ll do pick it up I’ve eaten.”
Ellen, hands now on hips, gave her daughter her best, stern mother look, “Now… Madam... I didn’t spend all day cooking and cleaning for you to turn the house into a pigsty ten seconds after you walk through the door.”
For a moment they stood staring at each other, then Patsy relented. “Aaaww,” she moaned as, pouting, shoulders slumped, she trudged the whole ten feet back her bag.
It was all Ellen could do to stop herself from smiling; only twelve, she thought, and already she`s got the disgruntled teenager act down pat.
In an act of defiance Patsy didn’t pick up the bag, but still in full twelve labours of Hercules mode, dragged it laboriously back to the kitchen table, only then hefting it onto the seat next to her own. “There,” she said as she flounced into her chair, “satisfied?”
“Very,” her mother said, tugging playfully on her daughter’s blonde ponytail. Which earned her a complaining, “Muummm, quit it, I’m not a baby.”
As she clicked on the kettle to make John a cup of coffee, Ellen asked, “Where is your father anyway?”
“He said he had to get some things from the boot,” Patsy said between mouthfuls.
Ellen nodded, john was always fiddling with something, he was one of the world’s last great tinkerers. Probably rescued something from a skip somewhere, she thought. Still, she consoled herself that he confined his projects to the garage, and hadn’t burned the house down… yet.
Fetching the carton of milk from the fridge, she went back to the table, and as she filled her daughter`s glass asked, “So how was school?”
Patsy made a face, “Mrs O`Murchu gave us two pages of Irish homework,” she said indignantly, “Two whole pages.”
“Oh no!” her mother said, both hands going to her cheeks in mock horror.
“Muummm, I hate Irish,” Patsy complained, “I dunno why we have to do it, it`s stupid.”
“You know you have to have…..” Ellen broke off, startled by the sound of John`s voice close to her ear, “Let her go honey,” he murmured.
She jumped, began to look around, then turned back to the table, determined to remind Patsy that she needed Irish to go to college.
For a moment she stood in utter bafflement; there was no-one sitting at the table, the plate of food untouched, not a morsel gone from it. Then the memories came flooding back, knocking the strength from her legs and she had to grab the table to stop herself from collapsing, easing into the nearest chair, sitting down before she fell down.
Patsy wasn’t home; Patsy was never coming home again. Not since that day eleven months earlier when John had given her a lift after finishing work early, not since the truck driver, too busy texting to notice the lights had changed, drove into the junction without braking, slamming into the side of her husband’s Volvo, killing their only child.
She turned in her seat, meaning to scream at him, “THIS IS YOUR FAULT, WHY`D YOU HAVE TO FINISH WORK EARLY, SHE`D BE ALIVE IF YOU HADN`T.” But she never did, because she was alone, the truck had had to go through John to get to their daughter and she had only been able to identify what was left of him by the suit he`d gone to work in that morning.
As she always did in that moment, Ellen collapsed forward, elbows on her knees, head bowed, sobbing uncontrollably.
When she`d stopped weeping, Ellen used the hem of her apron to blot the tears from her cheeks and chin, levered herself out of the chair, and on wobbly legs went to get some kitchen towel to blow her nose.
As she torn a couple of sheets from the paper, foil and Clingfilm dispenser, she was reminded, as she always was in that moment of the day she`d bought it. How absurdly childishly giddy she`d felt when she saw it in Lidl, and only €11.99, and how she`d nagged John to put it up as soon as he`d gotten home, the last odd-job he ever did, somehow, in her mind the two events were inextricably linked.
She blew her nose noisily, torn off a square foot of Clingfilm, carrying it back to the table, hands apart, keeping it tight so it wouldn’t fold into itself. Then carefully, wrapped it over the untouched food, making sure the plastic was tight as a drum, before putting the plate back in the freezer, where it would forever remain pristine, ready for tomorrow, ready for when Patsy came home.
Ellen stood in front of the fridge for a long moment, a puzzled frown on her face, then she remembered what she had to do next.
She`d recorded that days re-run of Star Trek Voyager, Patsy`s favourite, they`d watch it together… when she got home from school.
A dreamy smile on her face, humming “Frere Jacques,” Ellen stumbled towards the living room.
PLAYING THE GAME
Monte Carlo? Listen! I'll tell you about Monte Carlo.
I'd set it up good. Everything seemed just right; the timing, the punters; the setting. How could it fail? The casino was full and the croupiers on duty. The Cote d'Azur never looked brighter.
I planned this for over a year. Finding the right player is always the difficult part. I need glamour and skill; star quality and good knowledge of casino games. After months searching the gaming houses of South America, I found Mario in a flophouse in Buenos Aires. He was thin and dirty but I could see his style had not deserted him. He still possessed that spark he had as a first class gigolo. He smiled when I outlined the game to him and I'd found the man.
Alexia was never a problem. Her auburn hair and full breasted figure had been a feature of six or seven magazine covers before she fell out with Harvey Weinstein and lost her contract in Hollywood. When I rang her she was 'resting' in a motel in downtown San Diego, a long way from the bright lights.She had been 'resting 'for quite a few years.
"You sweet man! Of course I can make it to Monte! I'm having a break from filming and would be happy to help. What's the gig?"
I outlined the plot and she jumped at the idea; two days later she was in Nice looking at dress shops at my expense.
As they sauntered along the boulevard leading to the Grand Casino, I knew they looked the part. Mario wore his tuxedo with elan, his long black hair pulled back into a shiny knot like a bull-fighting torero and his slim figure completed the image. He smoked a cheroot in a jade holder and strolled with the studied ease of a rich sportsman. Alexia took his arm and they made the picture of a celebrity couple as they walked up the long flight of steps to the main entrance. I was their chauffeur in black cap and dark suit, carrying an aluminium briefcase.
"Good evening," The major domo bowed and presented an orchid to the beautiful Alexia, "May I ask you to sign in and I will take you to a table."
His smile was warm but his eyes were like flints. I warned Mario that the staff would check on them and I provided him with the name of a Spanish bull fighter who was fighting in Mexico at that time.
A dark suited clerk took me aside and examined the briefcase; it contained one hundred thousand US dollars. His fingers flickered over the notes like the touch of a butterfly, then he nodded to me and I closed the lid. We were in.
The money belonged to me. If you think I have a hundred thousand dollars -think again! It was made for me by Luigi Macron in Lille. Of course it would not fool a Treasury Official but good enough for a quick show at the guichet of a casino and it worked perfectly. The clerk issued a chitty for chips to that figure and I drew them from the counter and handed them ostentatiously to 'my Boss.' They made a pretty pile as he sat at the big roulette table. I positioned Alexia at the far end of the same table with a few chips so that when she leant forward to play, she accidentally showed her cleavage . When she did, no man could watch Mario and no woman would take her steely eyes off her.
My role was to spend time in the basement like a good servant, chatting and gossiping with the others. I held the briefcase tightly since the Company would not accept responsibility for punter's assets. I sat apart and no one watched me as I pinpointed the fusebox for the lighting system. The plan was to switch off the interior lighting and 'top hat' the winning numbers at the best table.
Give me a moment and I'll explain.
If you can quickly add extra chips to the winning counters, then you can make thirty five times the stake on each coup. It takes quick hands and good timing but two working together make it easy. How do you make the switch? Kill the lights for a second and it's done.
We had set it up for midnight plus five minutes and I watched the clock.
Just before I moved to the switch I felt something was wrong.
The staff around me began to gather round the screens showing the gaming tables. Then one screen zoomed in on the table where Mario sat. His hands filled the screen; in his fingers you could see three 100 dollars chips ready to flick onto winning numbers as soon as the lights went out.
What could I do? What would anyone do? I pulled the switch.
There was uproar in the basement and I slipped upstairs to the Gaming Salon. Within a a few seconds, the emergency lighting came on and I confronted bedlam.What had been the sophisticated social scene , was a madhouse. At every table glamorous women old and young were grappling with each other or stretched across the green baize to reach any chips still lying on the table. A man in a wheelchair barged through the crowd to reach one of the Baccarat tables, scooping up chips on his way.
Alexia? I found her under the gaming table, half naked, struggling with an ancient crone who managed to snatch the chips Alexia had pinched from the croupier.
There was no sign of Mario. His chair was empty and his pile of chips had disappeared. The Casino staff were struggling through the swarming mass to reach the tables and rushing to close the doors to the Gaming rooms. I squeezed out just before they closed and ran downstairs to get my briefcase. It had gone.
Before I got my head together, a burly Gendarme grabbed me by the arm and shoved me out into the street.
"What's up Monsewer?" Says I,
He gave me a sickly smile, "About five years, I reckon." He pointed to the briefcase and the fake dollars.
"But I can explain," I said. He shoved me into a van and we drove off.
As we passed through the square, I peered out of the window. There, at a café, sat Mario with a large plastic bag; it bulged with what I knew to be casino chips. He looked content.
It all depends on the staff you pick. I struck out this time but in a few years I'll be out and give it another go. You've got to keep playing the game, haven't you?
The Dangerous Game
When I reached inside my jacket she smiled and handed me a whisky sour.
“Surely you’re not looking to pay me, Mr Lazarus.”
“Oh, I don’t think I have enough money for that.” I answered. I bought out a cigarette case.
“You don’t mind…”
“Of course not. I’ll have one of my own. They’re French. They’re what everyone is smoking in New York. You should go there sometime.”
“Just for a smoke? It’s an awfully long way to go for that.”
She moved towards the fireplace and lit her cigarette. I watched her do it and wondered how such a beautiful dame could be so cold. She took one long pull and blew a cool plume of smoke towards the ceiling.
“You didn’t come here for a cigarette, did you Mr Lazarus?” Her voice was chocolate. “Best get it off your chest, whatever it is you want to tell me.”
I grinned. She knew why I’d come but she wasn’t going to admit it. She was tough and I made a mental note never to play poker with her.
“You killed your husband.”
She smiled, walked over to the table and stubbed out a perfectly good smoke then adjusted her posture deliberately revealing a cleavage that would take me a week to find my way out of.
“What makes you think that?” she replied. “I loved him.”
It was my turn to smile. I walked over to the window. Outside, kids played make believe. We were playing the exact same game here.
I chuckled. “You’re good. If you were a man, you’d be me.” I leant back. She wasn’t fazed at all. She sat on the divan, crossed her legs and stared right through me.
“He was a complex man, Mr Lazarus? Complex men have problems. Paul couldn't handle his."
"So he blew his brains out."
"Such a pity. I wish he'd done it in the garage. It ruined an expensive carpet."
I looked at the floor. "You've had it cleaned?"
"I've had it replaced." She poured herself a drink. "I take it the witch hired you."
"If you mean..."
"His mother hated me. From the first time I walked in here I could see the hate in her eyes. Paul was a mother's boy, Mr Lazarus. Mothers never give up their sons."
”She never thought it was suicide. The DA’s office thinks you’re guilty too, but they’re a little confused by that expensive perfume of yours. It’s called money.”
"Of course, you have no evidence or you wouldn't be here, would you."
"Everyone makes mistakes, It's just a matter of finding them."
“And you? “She stood up and walked over. “ What are your mistakes. I'm sure I can find yours." Her hand ran over my chest.
"Can you smell that perfume, Mr Lazarus?"
“It’s a long time since I smelled anything so...”
“Dangerous.” I replied. I kissed her on the lips but she didn’t respond.
“You can help me beat the rap.” She said. “I mean, I have money now, lots of it and money and this..." She stepped back and struck a pose, " ...can be very, very persuasive. “
Then she kissed me.
I don't know what time it was, two, maybe three in the morning but the room was lit by a dying moon and my body felt as if I'd gone ten rounds with Marciano. I looked at her sleeping and wondered if she was dreaming of me or plotting how to get rid of me. How something so perfect, so giving and warm could also be so remote, cold and evil was a conundrum and I was never too good at puzzles.
I called the cops and told them to pick her up. I’d lied about the evidence. She blew me a kiss as they took her away.
That was five years ago, but I still smell Gitanes on hot summer nights...
Playing the Fame Game
Directors telling you to lose 15lbs pronto
or do a naked line up
wind up, lookup
take your tits out
another elevator ride to the top floor
who knows what happens there?
you just keep stum!
your agent leans on those words over and over
do or leave the f**king room
take the first stagecoach out of Dodge
out of the city of lights, of angels
of PTSD, of secrets of lies, of bad hair dyes of
Corey Feldman disbelieved on the View
of countless starlets shaking in the back of limousines, in Cannes in London, in New York in f**king Timbuktu
The Official Visit
‘I understand you know our honoured guest?’
Elaine had deliberately let slip to her PA that he was an old friend, knowing that the story would circulate the organisation in an hour flat. But the Chairman had waited until the day of the visit before he said anything. The official party was due in five minutes.
‘We were in the same College. I shouldn’t think he remembers me. Twenty years is a long time.’
She wasn’t sure why she was lying. They had been lovers for more than a year. He would remember her alright.
‘Still, it can’t do any harm can it?’
Bernard was an astute chairman. He used his status as a TV boffin to attract funding and publicity for the national charity where Elaine was Chief Executive. He was claiming all the credit for the Prime Minister’s visit, but she couldn’t help wondering if he had accepted the invitation because he wanted to see her again.
‘Ah, here they come,’ said Bernard, as the police out-riders barreled down the traffic-cleared road, with their flashing lights, closed visors and grim faces. The limo followed, sluggish under the weight of armor-plating and bullet-proof glass. The security detail and yet more bikes covered the rear. When they stopped, a Special Branch officer leapt from the front seat to open the rear door and shield the PM from the assassin’s viewfinder. And there he was, smiling and waving. The handsome features coarsened by age, but the azure eyes and gleaming smile were undimmed.
Bernard offered some brief words of welcome and then ushered the PM down the receiving line, as if they were at a wedding.
‘I don’t believe I need introduce our Chief Executive.’
‘Elaine, how wonderful to see you again.’ All that charisma beamed down on her. The firm handshake and a kiss on the cheek. People cheered, the cameras flashed.
‘We’re delighted to welcome you Prime Minister…’
‘Oh. I’m Tim to you Elaine.’ Was that a wink?
But Bernard was bustling him on. The tour of the new facility. The plaque unveiling. He didn’t wince when he sat on his haunches for the photo op with the kids in wheelchairs, subliminally broadcasting his youth. Then he had kind words for the care-warn Mums. Here’s someone who cares, too. After all, the election was in just three weeks.
All of a sudden he was leaving for his next engagement. Was that 30 minutes already? More waves and smiles as he climbed back into the limo. He’d hardly spoken to her.
A tiny harassed young woman had materialised at her elbow. ‘Hello, Mrs. Davidson?’ She blinked at Elaine owlishly through oversized glasses. ‘I’m Mandy, the PM’s Assistant PS.’
‘Oh yes?’ Elaine tried to decipher the initials, but failed.
‘He was wondering if you were free for dinner this evening.’
‘Yes, would seven be convenient?’
‘Seven, yes I suppose…’
‘Good, we’ll send a car.’ Mandy was walking away, tapping at her Blackberry, another box ticked. She stopped and turned back. ‘Oh, and it’s a private visit, not official.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Oh, you know?’ She waved her hand in Elaine’s general direction. ‘No need to dress up. He’ll probably wear jeans.’ With that, a car whizzed up alongside her and Mandy was gone.
No need to dress up? Of course Elaine had rushed to the shops before they closed.
It was only when she was putting in her earrings that she stopped to consider what he could possibly want. Surely it wasn’t a booty call? Ridiculous. Powerful men have these things arranged for them, don’t they? He wouldn’t get a civil servant to procure an old flame, the wrong side of forty. Still, as she turned in front of the bedroom mirror, she worried that the dress looked shorter and tighter than it had in the shop.
A disappointingly ordinary saloon slid to a halt at the end of the drive. The driver wore an ordinary suit, not a chauffeur’s uniform with a peaked cap.
‘How did you know where I lived?’ Perhaps they had a file on her. She imagined all Tim’s exes lined up in manilla folders.
‘No idea Ma’am, I just go where they tell me.’ Ma’am? Jesus, he made her sound like the Queen.
‘We’re using the service entrance, I’m afraid. Security.’ Now she felt even more like a hooker. But they used the regular lifts, not the service elevator. The Special Branch man on the door had an ear-piece like they do in the films, but he didn’t whisper into his cuff as he opened the door for her. Tim had a mobile to his ear as she walked in. The statesman in action.
‘Yes Helmut, I understand.’ He smiled and winked at her, gesturing for her to sit on the sofa in the vast hotel suite. A stunning vista of the city was visible through the windows behind him. Mandy knew her master, he was wearing jeans and an open-necked white shirt.
‘We’ll sort it out in Davos.’ He plucked a bottle of wine from an ice bucket and filled her glass with Chablis. Had he remembered or was that in the file too?
‘Auf Wiedersehen, Helmut!’ he said before throwing the handset on the coffee table and leaning in to kiss her cheek. ‘Sorry about that,’ he said as he sat in the armchair next to her, ‘I’ve told them to hold all calls.’
‘I don’t know how you stand it. You must be in constant demand?’
‘Oh I am. But you can’t let it get to you. You learn to say “no” very quickly. To sort out what you can delegate. I have a great team behind me.’ A politician’s answer.
‘And yet you found time for me.’
‘That’s part of staying sane. Finding time for old friends and family – away from the circus.’ Ah yes, the family. The ferociously ambitious Scottish wife, who the tabloids like to caricature as Lady Macbeth. Did Morag let him get away from it all?
‘It’s so good to see you again, Elaine- and to see the impressive work you’re doing. Tell me what’s happening with you.’
‘Why, wasn’t it in your briefing paper?’ The smile left his lips and she could tell that he was hurt. ‘I’m sorry, I was joking. I suppose politicians are always being accused of cynicism?’
‘Yes we are.’ A smile had returned, but more rueful this time. ’Sometimes with good cause.’
‘I’m just wondering what I’m doing here, Tim. I haven’t heard from you in twenty years, then all of a sudden you invite me to a clandestine rendezvous. What’s going on?’
There was a knock at the door.
‘Ah, that’ll be the food. Come in!’ He was on his feet again. A waiter in a white jacket pushed a trolley loaded with silver salvers through the door.
‘You don’t mind eating here do you? We would be on display in the restaurant.’
The waiter set a table in the suite’s bay window, briefly lifting the lids of the salvers to explain each course. After he had gone, Tim held out a chair for her with a flourish.
‘Mad’am, I zink you will find zis seat has ze best view!’ She laughed at the comic French accent. Who would believe that the Prime Minister would act the fool just for her?
They were both famished, and Elaine was on her second helping of crab terrine, before the conversation turned away from the spread in front of them.
‘You were telling me about your family.’ She hadn’t been, of course. She’d been avoiding it.
‘John and I divorced a couple of years ago. You knew John at College, didn’t you? We have a son, Craig.’
‘How old is he? I bet you’re proud of him?’
‘He’s nineteen and I am very proud of him. But he’s had his problems. He was badly upset by the divorce, dropped out of school and fell in with a bad crowd. But things are improving now.’ She took a large gulp of wine. ‘Tim, you haven’t told me what I’m doing here.’
He sighed. ‘You could always read me Elaine. We were talking about the pressures of being a politician earlier.’
‘Well they are always digging around in your past – the press, the opposition, the bloggers. Hoping to find an embarrassing picture, an ill-advised comment or, better still, something sexual.’
‘And they dug up me?’ Elaine couldn’t help laughing, ‘Oh come on Tim. Who cares about an old flame you haven’t seen for twenty years?’
‘They care because you got married three months after we split up and had a baby six months after that.’
‘Stop right there!’ She couldn’t believe her ears. ‘Craig is John’s son, not yours.’
‘Oh Elaine, you don’t know what these people are like. They’ve dug up Craig’s membership of the white supremacist group and his conviction for spraying racist graffiti on that Asian shop. They have pictures. Even you must have seen the resemblance?’
‘But that’s not proof. It’s all circumstantial. It’s John’s name on the birth certificate.’
‘They don’t care about that. They use social media, anonymous tweets and blogs. Mix fact, fiction and innuendo. I’ve kept it out of the mainstream press until now, but it’s going to surface now - because of John.
‘John? John would never do anything to harm Craig.’
‘I’m sure he hasn’t done it deliberately. But after your divorce he got drunk one night and told a friend that he had always known the baby was mine. Now the friend has money problems and thinks the tabloids can solve them.’
St. John. Besotted with her. Offering to bring Craig up as his own, all those years ago. Yes, soft-hearted John would have trusted a friend like that.
‘Elaine, why didn’t you come to me for help, back then?’
He had dumped her the day after his finals. The Party high-flyer, off to London to write speeches for the Home Secretary. By the time Elaine realised she was pregnant, Morag was already installed on his arm, the useful daughter of a Trade Union leader. The last thing he needed was unwelcome baggage.
‘Help? I know what your help would have been.’
Tim held up his hands, ‘I probably deserve that.’ He went into the other room and fetched a sheet of paper. ‘We’ve been asked to comment on this story before it’s published.’
The title alone had her crying, “Is Racist Thug PM’s Love Child?” They had the police mug shots. Craig’s shaved head and insolent sneer.
‘What do you want from me?’
‘John won’t speak to us. A joint statement from you and John confirming Craig is your son would be ideal. But if John won’t help, who better than the mother?’
Of course John won’t help. The lover of truth. What had he said when she confessed the affair?
‘You always have to pay for lies.’ His doe-eyed anguish, like a Baroque Madonna.
‘Will that stop them?’
‘Probably not altogether. We just need to keep a lid on it for three weeks.’
Of course, the penny dropped, the election.
‘I thought you might have better luck with John?’
‘You’re right, ‘I’ll go now,’ she said as she stood up. ‘Best done face to face.’
‘Oh Elaine, I’m so sorry to put you through this. It’s so kind of you.’
But kindness was the last thing on Elaine’s mind. What was it that he had said about bloggers mixing fact and fiction? Well she could do the same. Wouldn’t an exclusive kiss-and-tell story from the mother of the PM’s love-child be better than the circumstantial speculation they had just now? She could spice it up with kinky sex and how he had callously abandoned her. In return, the journalist would have to play down Craig’s conviction. He could give a contrite interview. The foolish prank of a disturbed adolescent from a broken home.
‘You’ll be hearing from me,’ she said and kissed Tim’s cheek.
Playing the game
of pretending to be
asleep when he creeps in:
Giggling and carrying a tray
he can only just manage.
Tea, barely warm.
Toast, crisp shall we say
dripping with syrup that he, not I love.
as I pretend to jump
and grab for the tray as he leaps on the bed
knocking the tea with his foot.
with a five year old boy who's now snuggled up
eating my toast
as his father looks on,
longing for the day
he will get a lie in
and won't have to change the duvet!
Playing the Game
“Six an’ Out! And you have to find the ball!”
“Aaaah – Ray! Ain’t yiz gonna help? It’ll be quicker …!”
Pete was still reliving the satisfaction of his glorious boundary shot, disappearing into the cutting of a disused railway line, but the team’s unwritten Rule was inviolable, sacred as anything contained in Wisden’s Almanac. His adenoidal Scouse twang lent an edge of pathos to his plea.
“Fair enough, I guess.” team captain Paul conceded. “It’s the only decent ball we’ve got with us, and we’ll get back to the game quicker.”
He nodded to the rest of the team and they all trotted off to the point where they’d seen the ball vanish into the undergrowth.
The cherry-red ball nestled clearly in the middle of an unidentified weed, raising an automatic cheer from the search party. This died as every pair of eyes locked on a curious object right beside it.
“A rocking horse! My Dad got one fer me kid sister last Christmas.”
“Yeah, Tom” Paul agreed, “ but it’s got no head, it must have been dumped.”
“Bet my Dad could fix it, though, if we took it back.”
“Your Dad’s a good chippie, Gerry. Let’s have a decko …”
The Noble Game was forgotten for a few minutes while fifteen boys (mostly clad in once-white shorts and T-shirts) investigated the unexpected find.
Being a whole three days older than anyone else Paul took command of the Usual Suspects. He swung an investigative kick at the curved runners, punched a flank, then dug into the frayed opening where the missing head had once been.
“There’s something solid in here …”
With a grunt of effort he managed to extract whatever "it" might be. A spray of ancient rag stuffing fluttered to the ground: he ignored it and opened his fist.
“What the … !”
“Jeez, Paul …!”
Everyone tried to speak at once as Paul removed a thick elastic band and flattened out a sheaf of banknotes: an impressive
wad with the magic numeral 20 in the top corner.
“Right, guys. One at a time – no shoving, we’ll all have a crack! Let’s see if there’s more moolah in old Dobby!”
Ten minutes later, fifteen identical bundles of notes lay side by side in the dirt. At first glance they appeared identical in size: Paul’s initial find was counted carefully and checked, and they agreed it came to £2000.
“Times sixteen – that’s thirty-two grand! Jaysus, I’ve never seen so much cash …!”
“ … all in one place, Tom.”
“ Point is, Paul: what are we going to do with it? ’Cause for the first, it’s not ours …”
“ … an’ for the second-third-fourth, if I was to go home with so much as a fiver, me Mam’d go ape: I’m not sure if I ever had any ‘folding money’ in my pocket, ’cept on me birthday, maybe.”
Fifteen heads nodded instant agreement. They stared at each other in silence. Paul sensed he had to earn his Leader stripes.
“It’s not ours, guys. Nice to look at, lovely to hold …”
“But if you break it…” Tom added.
“Consider it sold!” the rest of the team chorused, adding the ‘tag line’ of a large poster in the window of a local china and crockery shop. They collapsed into genuine, heartfelt laughter as the excitement and tension of the moment disappeared.
“We have to do what’s right” Paul said, with a flick of his head towards the opposite end of the park. “We came here to play cricket. Now we’ve got to Play the Game, take this cash down to the Cop Shop.”
The Police Station was across Springfield Park, next to Alder Hey childrens’ hospital.
“Play up, play up, and Play the Game” Tom muttered the words of a poem they all knew by heart. Looking at the faces of his friends, Paul was certain each of them was also reciting the same verses in his mind. There was only one possible solution.
“We’ve got to hand it in, tell the cops where we found it. Whoever stashed it here had a reason for not putting it in a bank. We can be certain they’ll be back looking for it before long, and I for one don’t want to be here when they do. C’mon, it’s not safe to hang about. Grab the cricket gear on the way past, we won’t be coming back today!”
“ … and that’s about all we can tell you, officer. We counted the one bundle, an’ they all look the same to us. But we’ve not kept any o’ the roll we opened an’ counted, honest!” Paul insisted. The Desk Sergeant and the DI he’d called in as a witness while he took the statement nodded reassuringly.
“I believe you, and I’m sure Inspector Bradley does, too. If the times you’ve given me are even vaguely accurate, you’ve had no time to do more than collect the money and bring it here. Just one more thing, though. Did you see anyone in the park, anyone watching you?”
“Don’t think so” Paul said “I mean, I tried to keep my eyes open, but I’ve got no idea what a robber, y’know, looks like?”
Both policemen laughed, setting all the boys at ease.
“If we knew what a criminal looks like, this job would be a lot easier!” the Sergeant said. “But I’m glad to see you decided to do what’s right …”
“Play the Game” Paul murmured “It’s part o’ cricket, isn’t it?”
“And there will be a reward, of course.” the Inspector added, “though I can’t say how much it might be. We’re pretty sure we know which supermarket this cash was stolen from, and I’m sure they’ll show their appreciation! There are also funds the police can draw on to reward law-abiding citizens. You won’t be out of pocket, promise!”
Gerry caught Paul’s eye, then pushed his way to the front.
“Sergeant, will you want the rockin’ ’orse as evee-dence or sump’n? ’Cos my Dad’s a carpenter, I’d sorta hoped I could keep it, ask ’im to fix it …”
Gerry clung possessively to the rocking horse, now stripped down to a basic wooden skeleton. Most of the stuffing which had been pulled out of it had been crammed into a variety of plastic bags and placed in one corner of the Interview Room.
“If you can Play the Game, I’m sure we can do the same!” the Inspector said, absolving the Desk Sergeant of responsibility for the decision. “Now, I can arrange for you to have a lift home …”
There was an instant, horrified wail of protest all round. Paul took the initiative and explained:
“If we arrive home in cop cars, we’ll never live it down – me Mam’d probably have a heart attack! No disrespect, Sir, but on our street …!”
“I understand. People assume, any passenger in a police car is there …”
“Cos they’ve been arrested!” Paul nodded, as the DI hesitated, looking for the best phrase.
“ ’Sright!” Tom confirmed. Paul shot his cousin a grateful look, which the Desk Sergeant noted. He closed his notebook with a loud snap.
“Best if I send a PC out to make sure there’s no odd characters on the street without a good reason for hanging around. Once you lot get out there mob-handed you’ll be noticed, a group that size can’t help being seen – and you’ve no grounds to hide yourselves away, you’ve done nothing wrong!”
The Sergeant paused, then turned to Inspector Bradley.
“Sir, can I suggest something? Later this evening an unmarked van would save our young heroes the bother of hauling the remains of the Rocking Horse a mile or more up the road. That also gives us the opportunity to take some photos, keep Forensics happy.”
“Why not? That seems the least we can do. We also know how to Play the Game.”
My first kiss was spent
in a hidden copse,
leaves in yellow, orange, green,
like a canopy of sticky notes
curling from the edges.
He asked my age, was told twenty one,
asked again, and was given nineteen.
I caught a glance to my jaw,
school shoes, and blazer,
so I offered sixteen, which he took,
but not before a smile
to let me know he knew
we were just playing the game.
They offered me an abortion. Then insisted on it. One of them even suggested it would be for the best.
Better for me, better for the baby. The doctor used the rubber tip of a pencil to point out the abnormalities on the screen.
My eight-week scan should have been a time of joy, seeing life growing inside me for the first time.
First and last time, if the staff had had their way.
Naturally, I was devastated.
When it was time for the 12-week scan I had hoped it would show that it had all been a mistake, a malfunction of the equipment. Or something - anything - had blocked a clear view of the foetus.
Just let them be wrong.
But they weren’t wrong.
The pressure on me to abort intensified.
What kind of life was I going to inflict on my son? Didn’t I realise he’d constant care? Or how much of a burden he would be? I was young enough to have other children, whole complete children, who in turn would one day have children of their own.
He has no legs, they said. Part of his forearm is missing. There could be other problems.
“Like what?” I said
“Brain damage,” they said. “We could terminate now.”
I refused, through tears, screams and an attempt to punch one of the doctors.
What about the father, someone said.
“What about him? He cleared off twenty minutes after conception.”
They continued to persist. I continued to resist.
“It’s my body, my son and he’s going to stay in there until he’s ready to come out,” I said.
And come out he did.
Life wasn’t easy, as you can probably guess. But we muddled through it all.
And now, twenty years later, I sit in this stadium in Brazil as my son runs down the track as fast as his blades will carry him.
I stand, because everyone else is on their feet, cheering and screaming and jumping as he is first to cross the line.
It’s a gold medal for my son and a Paralympic record.
People are hugging, some are giving high-fives, while others are overcome and dry their eyes on the Union Jacks draped around their shoulders.
Those who know I’m his mother throw their arms around me, kiss me, and through their tears tell me how proud I must be.
During his lap of honour my son, all smiles, is followed by a TV camera. The image of him enjoying his victory and lapping up the adoration from the crowd, is put up on the screen.
I know it’s a picture that will be beamed to every nation across the world.
And I wonder if those doctors are watching.
Playing the game
It’s warm in the bar, but not uncomfortable. It’s an inviting kind of heat, just warm enough to encourage you to take off your coat and relax but not so warm that you’ll perspire. The couches are deep and comfortable, the air lightly perfumed with the multitude of candles they have burning; all citrus fruits and sandalwood. The lighting is warm and dimmed, flowing out from wall sconces and delicate trails of fairy lights. It’s my favourite bar in town, welcoming and personal and cosy. I come here frequently and I don’t think it’s hard to see why. I’ve ordered an Irish coffee. I’m trying to give off the right vibe, you know? I don’t want to order a pint, not at this time of day, and seem like I’m too into my alcohol and the ‘bar scene’; but a plain coffee isn’t quite right either, might make it seem like it’s a flying visit or ‘just a coffee’. I want to make sure I’m coming across the right way. Friendly, fun, interested,
“So tell me about yourself” I say, and I think I’ve used just the right amount of enthusiasm. Eager to learn, good listener; this is what I want her to be thinking right now, ticking off my positive attributes on her mental check list. I want to make a good impression. I already know everything she tells me from her profile and our texts, but it’s always nice to be attentive. She’s in her early thirties, has kids from a failed marriage, but she doesn’t want to talk about that. Her kids are at their dads for the weekend. She hasn’t been online dating for long, but her friends told her to get back out there,
“That all sounds really interesting! I’m glad I messaged you quickly then before somebody else caught your attention.” She smiles at me then and I know I’ve said the right thing. There’s a delicate blush creeping up her cheeks and I find it adorable, “Can I get you another drink?” I ask and flash her a grin. She asks for a G&T this time; just a single and without the cucumber. I think that’s a good order. Assertive. It shows that she clearly has a social life if she has a preference for how to ask for her drink. She may even have come to this bar before with her friends for a girls night, sat in our exact seats and gossiped about who was going where and fighting with whom,
“What do you do for a living?” she enquires when I sit back down with our drinks. I don’t like this question, it always leads into complicated explanations of systems and structures and business requirements. Far too tedious for a date,
“I’m in IT.” I reply instead. Far easier this way, “I run a website.”
“Sounds dull.” She replies with a cheeky grin, and I let out a little bark of laughter. I like her honesty, and her attempt at making things humorous. I decide to glow with the flow and tell her a few jokes and she laughs. I like her laugh. It’s deep and throaty and she smiles when she laughs. Her teeth are straight and neat, not perfectly white but not discoloured like a smoker. She has an averagely pretty face, a little round with full cheeks. Her eyebrows are a bit odd, severe and dark, but her eyes are friendly and expressive. There are bags under her eyes; not surprising with kids and a full time job, but she looks good and not unwell.
The hours pass pretty quickly and it’s soon approaching one AM,
“You guys; we’re closing in a few minutes.” The barmaid announces to us in a friendly tone with a smile, “Sorry to break up the party love birds but it’s time to go.” I laugh, and she does too. It’s a girly little giggle and it gives away how much she’s had to drink. I stand up and offer her my hand, tugging her out of her chair with relative ease. I link her arm with mine and we head outside,
“I’ve had a lovely night.” She half-whispers to me once we are stood by the taxi rank,
“Me too!” I reply steadily, “I’ve really enjoyed meeting you. Maybe we could do this again soon?”
“Oh yes, please! Definitely.” She replies, and then hiccups. I smile at her and lean down toward her slowly to kiss. The evening has been a success, “Can we get a selfie?” She asks, “My friends won’t believe I actually came out and met someone if I don’t.” We both laugh and pose, and I take the opportunity to take a photo myself as well, since she already brought it up. I begin to say goodbye and promise to be in contact soon, I turn to leave and move extra slowly, I don’t really want to go home, “Wait!” She exclaims, and I turn to look at her. She looks nervous and unsure, but she takes a deep breath and begins to speak, “Why don’t we carry the night on at my place?”
#63 – Honey, the kids came home!
Well dear readers, here is another Friday update for you all! We’re on week 63 of our experiment. The aim of the game? Get 100 women to instigate first date sex. The rules? No prompting, suggesting or hinting – It must be 100% their choice. The reason? The glory!
This week I met up with ‘Anna’, a 32 year old divorcee, who I met online. Recently single, she was new to the online game and oh boy did I use that to my advantage.
I’d give our encounter a solid 6/10! If I’m honest boys; if you don’t mind the chub then I’d give Anna a go – she was PHENOMINAL in bed. Lack of self-confidence and eagerness to make a good impression? Killer combination!
I’d take her back to a hotel though boys; you don’t want the nasty surprise that I got on my way out this morning – her ex on the doorstep with the kids. AWKWARD!
Here’s the usual picture proof for your enjoyment. As usual; if you see anyone you think is right for the game – get your recommendations sent over pronto!
Playing the Game
Drunkenly we drew the plans,
Your half cut eyes fixed on my shaking hand,
Each alone, each had come alone
To the dark west sky, to the fighting sea.
Savagely, with hearts too loose for peace
We moved to cross a line, thinking nothing,
Each alone, each with words unfit
To hold our lives, to cradle all that hope.
But we said some things
(Now the art of growing old)
Like how to crush wild garlic best,
Or how to take a morning’s rest,
And the promise that we’d love
Each day the other’s crooked heart.
I've always played The Game.
It started when I was about seven, the earliest I can really remember. There were one or two others that played, though in hindsight I don't think they really understood what was going on at that age.
At the age of eight, I'd reached a new town and school. I got other people involved in The Game. Two, sometimes three, extra players, up-to eight by the time I had reached twelve. Some players phased in and out, while the core few remained.
People grow and drift throughout school years, and I slowly lost my players to sport, girls or underage drinking and drug use. I tried to jump on the band-wagon with all of the above to no avail, I always fell back into playing The Game.
So what was the game? It had no name and was somewhat difficult to describe to others. It was a fully immersive role-playing world of imagination with a variety of influences that changed throughout the years. I would go to a field with my best (real life) friends, and the group of us would battle enemies; make friends and allies; go on incredible adventures; save the world that we created on a daily basis. The closest match would probably be Dungeons and Dragons except we had no cards or board, nothing was ever written down aside from a few maps we drew up together, and the theme of the world changed every-so-often when the players craved it.
Our themes were varied: Sometimes we would play a sci-fi version, space age with an ongoing intergalactic war; Sometimes we would be an up-and-coming tribal gang in a post-apocalyptic world; Often we were in medieval times with the wonder of magic and the might of dragons to guide our way.
The earliest influence was the children's morning TV show The Power Rangers, long before we'd discovered Dragon Ball Z. Computer games were the biggest influences during The Game's Golden Age when it was mostly three players.
Throughout the years, throughout all the themes, characters, personalities and politics we created, there were always common denominators that I only see now in hindsight. We always started The Game off as low-powered, unknown beings from different backgrounds that happen to meet, whether it be at a spy-training academy or a mystical summit. Something would happen which would set us on a quest or mission, which would inevitably lead to an unending storyline with bigger and stronger enemies to take down. There was always a memorised levelling system, with an agreed upon maximum: our goal. If we ever hit the maximum level, which happened only once during a theme that lasted over a year, we would invent a new system (discovering a new planet with stronger enemies, or finding a portal to a new world), putting us straight back at the bottom of a more powerful world.
I was always insistent that this extreme form of escapism was somehow good for us, that the worlds we created helped us learn how to live and deal with obstacles ahead. I remember starting secondary school, meeting my new classmates for the first time in a large circle of tables, name badges and everything. In my head, I had been called into an international assassins academy, along with two lifelong bounty hunter friends, to be tested against the best of the best. I would meet at the back of the room with another player having secret in-game conversations, while our third comrade was in another class alone. He still played, The Game was great for playing solo aswell, we would just catch each other up when we met.
So did playing The Game help me on my long and treacherous path through life? Helping me make the right decisions and boost my confidence?
Unfortunately, I have to be honest, not really. In reality The Game made it really easy for me to escape harsh realities of life. When all the other players left for better things, I played alone until about the age of sixteen. I developed a bit of a complex about my maturity and became embarassed if caught running around and jumping off of things, and it was always difficult to explain to the police why I was climbing on walls looking sketchy. So I began to try and avoid The Game, tried to be more normal. I tried to like more normal things. However, there were a couple of really hard times after that, where I needed escapism to get me through.
The most difficult time was when I was twenty. I abandoned the acting-out parts of The Game for fear of ridicule, and settled for laying with my eyes shut while playing. I engulfed my world in The Game to an extent greater than ever before, rarely leaving bed, speaking to no-one, just completely detached. It was deep within that particular game, that I found what I was looking for, I found that moment of clarity.
I reached the maximum power level I'd created, then pushed it further. The bigger, stronger enemies would fall beneath me, and when I stood as a God, I grew bored. I introduced time travel, multiple dimensions and played out the most convoluted storyline I'd ever conceived (Reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time was a big influence this time round). When I finally overcame every obstacle I would muster up, I entered the final battle, a battle that threatened to destroy the universe. My enemy was defeated of course, but in the process, so was my character. I killed him off.
I realised that the goal was not to reached the highest possible level in my imagined universe, the goal was the universe itself. The creation and empowerment of a new world, a world I could invite others to enjoy, no matter how long they stayed.
It was at that moment, I realised that I had always been a storywriter, I'd just never written anything down.
After that my life as a writer began.
There is a pointless game that people play on the daily commute. The aim is to correctly predict the side on which the train doors open. You can play this game in two ways.
You can hedge your bets by standing in the doorway, leaving the vestibule clear, so that you gain the opportunity to wait to see which side the platform appears. It's a safe bet; most people will stand behind the internal door to avoid having to continually press the 'open' button. There are risks, of course. Unless you are in the end carriage, someone may come from the other direction and take a place at one of the doors. Still, you have a fifty per cent chance of being correct. If two come, and each take one door then you have LOST. It's rare though. Human nature would suggest that the shortest route between the seat and the door is the best.
But some people do that to WIN the game.
Once someone else has occupied one of the free doors, you have no choice but to take position at the other empty door, even if you believe it is an inferior choice. YOUR HAND HAS BEEN FORCED. It's no longer your decision. Even if you win, it is as a result of being compelled to take this choice. It is not so much a win as an avoidance of loss.
The drawback of this technique is that your victory is not visible. Why win if nobody has seen you win? Sure, you'll be first off, you might turn round and smile, but who sees the build up, the choices you made? You start to edge forward into the vestibule, far enough for people to group behind you and witness your glory, but not far enough to force you to commit one way or the other. The balance is as fine as a tripwire. You could be Indiana Jones.
The second strategy is higher risk, but infinitely higher reward. This is to actively select a door. YOU CHOOSE. Of course it helps to be a regular on the train. Perhaps that's the prize, to be able to shout (silently, without actually making any noise) that you alone repeat this journey so often that only you know which side the doors open.
If only life were that predictable. You undertake a journey every day, every week, stand by the window with complete confidence - you would bet your house on it - and for no reason, FOR NO REASON AT ALL, the driver chooses a different platform. Perhaps it's not the driver, perhaps it's the signalman, or signalwoman. Or is it remote controlled by computer now? Beaten by a random digital decision to reroute you to a different platform.
'It always stops this side,' you mouth to the woman opposite whom you have never previously seen. She doesn't even do this trip every day. You want to lunge through the crowded space to beat her off the train, but you see she has a child at her feet. HOW DID SHE KNOW?
This game is of course best played on routes where the design of stations alternates between those where the track runs between two opposite platforms, and those that have a central platform serving tracks running both ways. It's easy to learn the sequence.
A higher skill level may be available at mainline stations - London King's Cross, Victoria, Manchester Piccadilly - where platform allocation may be unpredictable. But over time, you start to see a pattern that you know nobody else can see. You alone have an insight into the predictability of the apparently random choice of platform.
You alone can win the game.
‘You’re not playing the game’, A said, swaying as if he was dancing with his beer can, ‘all Kate's housemates are letting one of us sleep on their floor.’
I looked at my friend. She nodded, said: ‘I’ve known him since school, it’s OK.’
It wasn’t OK.
When my boyfriend moved out I was left with the lodger, B. He said he just wanted to kiss me. I said no.
He shouted my boyfriend told him I was frigid. I shoved the wardrobe against my bedroom door. He forced it open, snarled it was no wonder no man stayed with me.
I thought about climbing out of the window.
I said I wasn’t interested, his wife was in the next room. C gave me that look, the one that makes it seem a hood has been pulled over their faces. He shook his head and pushed me back on the bed.
‘If you make a sound she’ll know, it will kill her. Shut up! Be silent. Be still!.’
And I was.
We flirted on the phone for months, D’s voice made me shiver but he was a client, I needed the sale. As he agreed he asked if we could meet in the flesh.
I was painstakingly clear. Dinner - nothing else. Somewhere neutral. At the end of the evening he refused to accept going dutch. I didn’t want to kiss him but he’d driven all that way.
D said he was too drunk to drive. I’d get him arrested.
I wish I had. I wish I’d known this isn’t playing a game. We are taught we need to be desirable but you cannot protect yourself in that role. Don’t be pretty girls – be real, turn as ugly as you need to be. Don’t play the game.
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who's the shadow at the door?
Balaclava & bucket bomb in tow,
To blow his extremism through our home,
Western Isis supporter born & bred,
Home grown terrorist wishes us dead.
Free school, fire service and healthcare; an unholy trinity?
A welcome mat laid down by our society,
Enough free speech to incite race hate,
A virginal paradise used as bait,
Shoot your Islamist interpreter instead,
Visit your misplaced wrath on his head.
'So taste you (the results of your evil actions)' said Muhammed,
'No increase shall we give you, except in torment' the Prophet cited,
Be a hapless martyr for your cause,
'Allahu Akbar' will be your last words,
When you blow yourself to smithereens,
Pestilent vapours are the remains of vented spleen.
Terrorist extremists to white supremacists,
Opposite ends of a venomous spectrum,
In between sits the peaceful Muslim,
Our sense of humanity keeps us a cut above,
If your tribe is hate, then ours is love.
The first morning, and I’m sat in limbo
on the edge of my new bed –
new in that we are newly acquainted,
but I fear the sheets left by college staff
are not there to protect the mattress
Mum drove me here two hours too early
to beat the pre-rush hour rush
and all that time since with a door
coyly left ajar,
and music pouring outwards,
have given no results.
No choice but to play my trump card -
without friends by noon
it can only be game over.
I channel Blue Peter pomp to reveal biscuits
and tour my halls – here are some
I made earlier.
We Blind Mice
I am labelled by a tongue
everywhere I find myself.
But scoured of skin I am a soul,
drawn blinkered through a maze of blinding light,
to leap the pool that held Narcissus rapt.
We journey toward our heart all down the years
and battle with inherited disgrace.
To be - is ball and chain;
one part only of a symphony,
as other songs are snowflakes on our lips.
Difference is beauty in a life,
but we have wrapped it in a flag and sold it cheap.
Gabbling as birds do in a coop,
strutting little boys and girls at play
becoming killers dressed in our own deaths.
Your tribe is mine,
and all my butchered meat is yours.
Say you love me and I'll say it back.
Fools are we who run amongst the hounds.
We're just the littered leaves,
and sun-bleached bones;
the patterns of the ermine - white and black.
I'd been watching the family surreptitiously since we'd arrived at the campsite. Whilst the Aboriginal owner chatted to them I studied their responses, curious. We'd been on the road for a few months and spending most of the time in the outback, we'd not seen many people. Hamish and I were a tribe of two, our home for the moment our tent and a bike called Bertha. I loved people watching anyway and having been starved of many opportunities I couldn't help but watch them. The family was made up of three children with coffee-coloured skin and two older, peach-skinned parents. I guessed the children were adopted, but their English was brand new, learned as older children. The children, somewhere between ten and fifteen, looked slightly ill at ease in their bush surroundings. Perhaps they were city kids, dragged unwillingly away by parents keen for a wholesome holiday.
As dusk fell I wandered over to their fire to say hello. The father was called David and the mother, Marge. When we did see people in the outback we found that everyone was friendly, being as we were in the middle of a huge country, surrounded mostly by the bush. We fell into easy conversation and David, in answer to my, Where are you from? smiled.
'All over the place,' he said. 'These three are from West Papua and we're all living in Melbourne.' He went on to explain that the children were refugees whom he and his wife were fostering. 'A lot of West Papuans end up in Melbourne, because of a charity we work for that helps West Papuans resettle in Australia. We campaign to get them released from the damn detention centres.'
I said hello as we were introduced to the children. They giggled with shy smiles, looking - now that I knew - uncomfortable in their brand new western clothes. I asked Marge how they were coping.
'Oh,' she said. 'They don't talk about it all too much. The biggest problem I have now is trying to keep them on the straight and narrow - suddenly they have access to phones, city infrastructure, friends who don't always have their best interests at heart... they go to school but I struggle to get them to study when all they want to do is hang out in the malls and do what kids they've seen on the telly do. But they're good kids,' she said, more slowly, so they'd understand. 'They've been through a lot.'
'Yes,' David said. 'Alphonse has one helluva story... do you mind if I tell it?' he asked the oldest lad.
The boy shook his head but looked down.
'The kids are from one family. Their elder brother was shot trying to stand up to the Indonesian Military who were trying to take his father. Their mother knew she had to get them out so she got them the last three spaces on a boat heading out. One night they got in and set off, with not much idea of where they were going. Turns out the 'captain' didn't have much idea either, and the boat was only just seaworthy, from what they've told me. Not much more than a rowboat.
'There were fifteen passengers all crowded together. There was hardly any food and not enough water for the journey, which they were told would take a week. They trapped rainwater, tried to catch fish, and drifted for days. After about two weeks they saw land.
'They were too afraid to row the boat very close because they wanted to be able to escape if they were attacked. They got as close as they dared as the sun began to set, and Alphonse offered to swim to shore to see if he could find out what the land was. He was a good swimmer and he could read a little English. He wanted to save his siblings. Strong, brave lad.' David smiled at the boy who grinned shyly back.
He continued, 'So Alphonse slipped over the side and started swimming. He reached the shore and saw a sign, so he went to read it. It said, Beware of Crocodiles. No Swimming. And that was how he knew they'd reached Australia.'
'Oh my god!' I said.
Alphonse was grinning widely now.
'What happened next?' I asked.
Marge said, 'Alphonse yelled to the boat, began to swim back and they picked him up. They rowed to shore and were immediately arrested by Government patrols looking for boat people. They were taken to Christmas Island, spent weeks in a detention centre, and then we got them out. We have good lawyers.'
'Puts things into perspective, eh?' said David.
Alphonse nodded to his brother and sister and they went off into the dusk together. I watched them go, trying to digest their story, wondering what it was like to be them.
Ron, the campsite owner came over to talk to us, swinging a large sack over his shoulder.
'I cook bushmeat for you,' he said, and tipped the contents of the sack onto the sand. It was a small kangaroo, still pretty intact.
Not wanting to appear ungrateful we said, 'Mmmm,' and watched him bury it in the fire.
We sat around and chatted about the state of the world in general, refugees and Steve Irwin, who'd just been killed in an accident with a stingray. 'Stupid bugger,' said David and I disagreed and as the beer flowed we disagreed a little more, good-naturedly. By then the kangaroo was sizzling and Ron pulled a huge knife from somewhere on his person. The kids reappeared and looked in faint horror at their dinner. It was surprisingly good, if you could turn off your mind.
'This is great,' said Marge, 'This is why we came out here. To show these guys what Australia is really like, away from the western 'burbs. To show them that people are people, wherever you go. To show them, too, what we whites did to our country, to show them that everyone can screw it up...'
'Yeah,' David said. ' My great-grandfather nicked a loaf of bread and got deported to Sydney. We all come from somewhere else. Except these fellas,' he nodded at Ron, with respect. 'These fellas come from the land itself.'
Ron looked into the flames. 'Don't matter where you from. You share a fire and a little bushmeat, you all one tribe together. Fellas ought to rem'ber that.'
I have been feeling beside myself,
unhooked from humanity, in need
of that sense of belonging.
Came to this exhibition
- Wildlife photography -
looking for something beyond
the visual experience, a re-wilding,
a pinning back to fear, focus, flight.
The perfect brown balloons
of that bird’s eyes follow me
I’m being stalked by my lost tribe.
Listen intently for the trigger
that must sound for us all,
start the sardine run, stampede,
salmon swarm, spawn, commute
that massing, pressure building inside,
erupting, surging, spilling out
into a connection, a moving column
of the same, yet distinct, beings
possessed by a need
that has no name.
And here I am again,
in the herd, returning.
My tribe is a plastic train set, thrown at the perfect velocity to cut through the tension above the kitchen table and smash on an unrelenting forehead.
My tribe is a row of stones and oak saplings, marking the graves of three dogs, one cat and two chickens. The dogs lovingly carried in their blankets to the fresh wet earth, the chickens scraped on the end of a shovel.
My tribe is arguing about vaccines, and whether meat is bad for your health, and how to use the acre of land. But not about politics or history, where we only discuss.
My tribe is tracing its lineage back to a fifteenth century Polish earl, is fleeing the Nazis in 1939, is hiding the Republican Army from the Black and Tans in a fish shop in Clambrassil Street, is going over the trenches in no-man’s land to pull back wounded soldiers, and sniper fire be damned.
My tribe is two little girls walking thousands of kilometres to watch their mother die in Kazakhstan.
My tribe is building surveys, interior design, astrophysics, veterinary, landscaping, table waiting, school, and a gifted toddler being scared by uncle’s growling.
It’s mountain biking, chicken rearing, canvas painting, rock climbing.
It’s theatre tickets as Christmas presents. It’s fights so bad reconciliation is inconceivable.
It’s never having the time, and growing up pretending.
It’s crying at the kitchen table, and cars leaving in the night, and a decade of putting pieces together.
It’s laughing on a mountaintop, and a new business idea, and wishing we spoke polish (Przepraszam!).
My tribe is a house full of more books than you could read in a lifetime, and one Netflix account.
It’s weird like everyone’s, only mine is weirder.
My tribe is County Wicklow; Glendalough, Carrick Mountain, Avonmore House, the Sally Gap.
It was never GAA in Ashford, and only football in Roundwood to fit in.
My tribe is convincing her to take Elmo as a confirmation name, and laughing when the priest had to say it.
My tribe is dogs, washed in the bath. It’s decking rotting through. It’s half-painted gable walls. It’s flowers potted in old wellies and the guts of car tyres.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Grace decided she would go for a run. She sat up and swung her legs over the bed. She placed her foot on the carpet and sat there for a second and changed her mind - she would go to the toilet and then decide about the run.
She walked to the bathroom, pulled down her pyjama bottoms and rested her elbows on her knees.
There was a faded ceramic slate on the wall opposite, with a poem on it, and a strange little picture of a sexless toddler holding a bath mat. She closed her eyes and whispered the poem to herself to see if she could still say it.
She heard her grandmother cough. A wave of goose bumps crept down her lower back.
Her grandmother lay in the room next door which looked over the garden. She would be lying on her side, her teeth in a jar, listening to the radio in that grey morning light and morning smell.
Grace pulled up her pyjamas, washed her hands and slipped out of bathroom as quietly as she could. She held her breath until she’d taken the four steps to her grandmother’s room, out of some strange childhood habit and pushed the door open.
The radio was on and Grace saw her grandmother in bed, in the light and the smell she had expected. Grace walked across the room and searched for a space on the edge of the bed to sit, breathing in as she sat down, as if to make herself smaller and placing her hand on the covers over the old woman's leg.
Her eyes were still shut.
“Granny?” she whispered.
A small, thick hand darted up from under the covers and ran across the front of her hair net. Her eyes opened: “Oh Grace! Good morning. I was just listening to a writer, it's very good.”
Grace paused until the woman’s voice on the radio finished a sentence.
“Did you sleep?”, she whispered.
“It was alright.”
Grace looked over to see if she had been down for her toast and tea, and saw a plate by the radio, but no mug.
“Would you like some tea and toast gran?”
She squeezed her leg above the covers. It was a habit, hardened into a ritual by her mother and aunt, to take granny tea and toast in the morning. Her granny seemed so small in the bed, curled towards the radio, in the room with the mirror and dresser. The mirror, with a crack in it, that lay face down on the dressing table, which was set back into the wall between two cupboards. It was one of the big round, Victorian looking ones, with a long handle that Grace had seen in period dramas on TV and in paintings. The mirror, like the crucifix on the wall above the now empty bed on the other side of the room, were always there, as far back as she could remember.
She felt responsible for the crack in the mirror which, she had become convinced, had happened in one of her childhood summers. She dug around for the memory now. She had snuck in and climbed onto the stool in front of the dresser, leaning forward on her knees to pick everything up. The mirror, so heavy, the blusher, the little comb, and with the voices mummering downstairs, put the lipstick on. Then she got down, walked over to where her grandfather’s shoes were standing by the bed, and stood into them. She began hauling the two enormous things across the carpet. “Arasure, I’m grand. Whasheveryouwant now,” she whispered, in their accent. And, holding the mirror up, lips pink, hair freshly combed, she started dancing in the huge shoes, her little body, probably just six years old, bouncing up and down, swaying around at the waist, the mirror heavily swinging around by her side. “Grace, howaya? Grace, Grace, Grace” she started to say, out loud, “Wash? Wash? Wash?” As she repeated the delicious soft t making the word totally different, there was the sound of footsteps on the upper stairs. Had she felt fear explode in her head? Yes, her head had pumped with fear. She tried to get to the dresser but the shoes were too heavy. She pulled one foot out. The mirror was so far form the dresser. Did she fall? She heard the click of the paint from the door unsticking from the wooden line across the floor.
She couldn’t put the mirror anywhere. It was her grandfather. No, she didn't fall. Now she was standing in his shoes. She could taste the lipstick in her mouth. Her body was suddenly wrapped in shame. Bound like a little mummy.
He looked at her, looked around the room, his mouth opened and his eyes narrowed a little in concentration.
“What are you doing, you ejit? Get out of here!” he said.
He pulled the mirror from her hand and placed it back on the dressing table. He grabbed her under the armpits and lifted her little feet out of the shoes.
Grace thought now of her little cheeks going red, and a ball of pain rising in her throat. “Sorry, granddad,” she must have said, squashing her face and closing her eyes to try and hide herself. How could she have explained what she had been doing? She never meant to put his shoes on, or take the mirror that far away from the dresser. Could she have felt ashamed that he knew she was so interested in his things and granny’s things?
Yes, that must have been that summer the mirror broke, Grace thought, as she made her way downstairs now, stepping quietly down each step.
She turned right and back along the line of the stairs towards the kitchen door. She still had goosebumps from her back to her thighs. She pulled the handle down on the kitchen door. It had three kinks in it as she pushed down, the first, which was the final, crucial click if you were closing it, was the release, the other two followed automatically, almost. TRA, ta, ta. Yes, everything was the same. In order, clean from the night before and the smell of fish had gone.
Recently, perhaps over the past five years, her granny had started eating brown bread. It was a delayed concession to her adult children and grandchildren who would return to the kitchen from their various homes and shuffle about for it in the breadbin. For a while her granny had bought bread with hidden wholemeal wheat flour in it – Kingsmill 50-50. But now, even when she was alone, she ate brown. Grace reached up and opened the waxy packaging of the half loaf and put a slice in the toaster. She lifted the kettle and put in under the tap without taking the lid out. A small jet of water shot out towards the window sill. She watched the drops drip and thought about whether or not to tell her granny she would go for a run. She had to smooth things over before she went out. She put the kettle on the stand, clicked the button down. She didn’t really want to go. You get lazy here Grace, she told herself. She walked over to the fridge and stopped to look out of the kitchen window and scratch her head. The lawn was wet, grey clouds hung in the sky, and the damp green colour of the shed, where she and her cousin Ruth had snuck in with their mothers’ Silk Cut, looked depressing and determined to keep being rained on.
The garden had a small bit of patio at the top where the grown-ups had sat on summer afternoons. Mum and dad, uncle Davo and Marie, Jim and Carrie. The plastic table pushed up into a corner would have been scattered with 7Up bottles and sunglasses and empty plates of ham sandwiches. The kids played football on the lawn. They would practice when the adults weren’t there - against the rough wall on the patio and when the ball hit the kitchen window, they would stop and look up for that face to appear, confirming what they knew already. If it didn’t appear, they watched the door, for something worse to happen, or wonderfully, when luck would have it, no one would appear at all.
You never get those walls in England, Grace thought. She opened the fridge and reached for the Kerry Gold, I’ll go for a short run and won’t mention anything about a run unless she asks, she resolved.
The kettle rumbled and immediately after the toast popped. She began to make the tea. Back over to get the milk, and then, once that was done, butter and marmalade on the toast. Back over to get the marmalade. By the time she was buttering the toast it was cool enough for the butter to stay yellow and the toast to stay firm. Her grandmother liked it softened, so the butter melted and then, when Grace had seen her do it, she pasted the marmalade on top, so it soaked into the soft dents where the knife and the butter had been pulled across the slice. It was like a tea-cake then. White bread toast was really the best for that. It irritated her that she had made it crunchy.
When she returned to her granny’s room she was in the same position, but now her eyes were closed as if she was sleeping. She was small, but not too thin. She was 89. Grace felt a lump in her throat rising as she placed the toast and tea down. She hadn’t made it nearly enough times for her. She hadn’t really been there since her late teens. It had been twelve years since the summer visits had ended, when her grandfather had died, and steadily the trips had become harder and harder, because she felt too big, too loud, too grown.
She watched her grandmother open her eyes again.
“Oh Grace, thank you, that is lovely.”
“No worries,” she replied.
“You know your hair Grace? Why don’t you wear it down like that? You have such a lovely head of hair, and when you came in before, it was so beautiful, and you tie it back,” she said.
Grace looked at the steam rising from the tea. She had made it weak and half a cup, which was the way her grandmother liked it. Her mother only ever drank half a cup. The house in Birmingham was always scattered with mugs of half drunk tea.
“Ha, yes, I know, well I take it out for the boys,” she joked, “It just gets in the way when I’m doing stuff.”
“Ah no, I don’t mean for boys, it is beautiful Grace, if I had hair like yours I would wear it down with a little Alice band,” she made a quick tap of her head, a motion to demonstrate the delicacy of an Alice band.
Grace felt sad. Alice bands, she would look like a Stepford Wife, but that wasn’t what her grandmother meant.
She felt as if she were watching herself from above - that she was on her own stage.
Was it that every single thing in the house had a meaning that belonged only to her? There was no movement, no act, no habit that didn’t have a bloodstream back into early childhood that, as she headed into her twenties, she had written off - or tried to write off. It had finished. Ireland was a place her parents had left. Mass, presses, rashers, Taytos, the neighbours in and out, and the fixedness. The fixedness - that was Ireland.
She leant in to give her grandmother a kiss, walked across the room to the door and said: "I'm nipping out for a run, but I don't actually want to go."
"Don't then," her grandmother's voice hovered in the air.
The Last Sad song (a tale for children of a certain disposition)
This is a story about horrible things happening to children. Horrible things happen to countless children throughout the universe, but we will focus on one particular child, on one particular planet, in one particular galaxy.
This tale is about Penelope.
Penelope lived on a planet very much like our own except for the fact that it wasn’t. It had a name, which is of no significant importance to our tale but which for the sake of useful uselessness is called Clifford.
Cliffordian children did not enjoy parties, or birthdays, Halloween or Christmases. The thought of happy children would have caused Cliffordians a blue apoplexy, which is the very worst kind of apoplexy.
Happy or La-la music as the adults called it was deemed unnecessary to the daily lifecycle of Cliffordian society and to ensure it stayed that way, three bar blues music was piped loudly through large loudspeakers placed on each street corner with a dose of Swedelfish bagpipe dirges each second Sunday.
There was a time long ago and half way past midnight, when Cliffordians had been exceedingly joyous. Howlingers, Tinglers and Wormers who made up most of the population, lived in harmony; until the day some children accidentally broke the Light that lit the World.
The accident or the Great Breakage, as it came to be known, happened when the Howlinger children were told to come in for tea but being children of a stubborn and argumentative nature, disobeyed and continued playing. Walter Howlinger the Third, an overly muscular child of highly strung parents, threw a high pass; the ball flew upwards and onwards until it broke the Light that lit the world and Clifford was plunged into everlasting darkness.
From that day, all children were banned from growing up. Penelope for posterity is nine years old. She’s been nine for a long time.
The Grand Precedent, (who was actually the Grand President, but the darkening darkness meant the typographer could not see and had misspelt his name on the Declaration of Office), declared that all children had to submit to daily doses of asafoetida and have their earwax removed painfully to make candles, for that was the only source of light in the twilight world of Clifford.
Penelope was a Wormer. Wormers differed to Howlingers in the fact that they a blue right eye and a brown left eye whereas Howlingers had a brown right eye and a blue left one. The Tinglers also had a brown right eye and a blue left eye but were not related to Howlingers , as all Tinglers sported a hairy mole on their left cheek.
Penelope Wormer’s parents treated her with unkindly abuse. Occasionally she’d ask “Why?” and her disbelieving parents would administer an extra dose of asafoetida for talking out of turn and life would continue.
It happened that on the first day of Wintertide, Penelope Wormer and Joshua Howlinger, were walking to school. It was a long walk as both families had obeyed the Grand Precedent’s Fifth Edict which was to live as far away from schools as was possible. The small ear wax candle they’d been given at the start of the journey seemed wholly inadequate.
“Do you feel like dying?” Joshua said.
“If we did,” she replied, “they’d have no one to blame.”
“They’d blame Howlingers’ because we’re different. We don’t have a Tingler mole and our eyes are brown and blue, not blue and brown. We’d be blamed, then when all the Howlingers are killed off the Wormers would declare war on the Tinglers for having that darned mole and soon there’d be no-one left at all.”
Penelope opened her bag and pulled out a mirror. She held it up and in the dying flame of the ear wax candle held it close to their faces.
“Look.” She pointed to their reflection. “Now I’m a Howlinger and you’re a Wormer. United! Together forever.”
Joshua smiled and felt an inexplicable sensation. Had he known what a sensation was he may have been able to explain why he kissed Penelope Wormer. It was just a quick peck, on the cheek, short but decidedly sweet.
It changed everything.
The next day the dark became a little less black and the blues had a little more swing. At bedtime both children communicated by throwing paper planes over the garden fence inscribed with words written in cold cabbage ink and sealed with a kiss. Joshua never really understood what was happening but he liked it all the same.
On the last evening of Wintertide with the temperature gauge on Grandpa Wormers’ barometer showing “Bone Snapping”, Penelope Wormer climbed out of her bedroom window, ran across the yard and out towards the Leafless Forest where she and Joshua had agreed to meet.
However an unfortunate misunderstanding at the Howlingers’ household where both Ma and Pa Howlinger had unknowingly and separately doled out a measure of asafoetida to a protesting Joshua had resulted in the poor boy being tied to a toilet seat for the whole evening and therefore unable to escape.
Penelope waited under the branches of a Whenworther tree and listened to the refrain of Billie Whatsaholiday, singing something sad but nice; real nice. She closed her eyes and never once felt cold.
Next day, Cliffordians woke up to a day; a real day with morning and birdsong and light. They swarmed out of their houses, saw each other as they really were and smiled. They hugged their children and bought each and every one a cherry topped sundae. The Grand Precedent announced NewChristmas would last three weeks then set all precedents aside including himself and ordered as his final edict that the world should listen only to Fifties’ rock’ n roll.
Joshua Howlinger ran as fast as he could through crisp snow to the Whenworther tree but only found the red ribbon from her hair. Penelope herself could not be found. He fell to his knees and sobbed; then slowly, lifted up his eyes towards the sky, where from the centre of a bright ball of light he saw the face of Penelope Wormer smiling down at him and he understood.
There would be no more sad songs.
Victoria tentatively eased a few strands of recently cut hair from her cheek to behind her ear, vaguely aware of a man watching her from the seat diagonally behind. She would turn round later and he would have left, presumably at Stoke.
Shall I be Victoria or Vicky? she wondered. The question had been weighing on her recently. No doubt she would keep her soon-to-be-ex's surname, that was so much easier when you have a child. 'Ex', what a horrible word. Surely there was a better way to describe him.
She glanced at Sacha who was waiting expectantly for chocolate. 'I'm sorry darling, miles away. Antibacterial gel first, then biscuits. You have no idea who has touched what on this train. I don't think they ever clean it.'
Sacha ate her chocolate biscuit, leaning over the napkin to ensure the crumbs were caught.
Vicky, I'm going to be Vicky. Vicky unfolded the sheet of lined A4 paper from her floral handbag. She had memorised each of the eight houses listed, and had written them out in the order in which they were to be seen over the next two days. It would only upset Sacha to see pictures and floor layouts and prices. None of them were as pretty or as large as the house she had decided to leave.
'Will there be a trampoline in the new garden?' Vicky knew there wouldn't.
It was late afternoon by the time they reached the fourth house and Vicky's spirits were starting to fail. She was more concerned whether the Premier Inn they had booked would serve a decent white wine. She parked a few doors away and dropped her head to the steering wheel. The car was silent.
'Aren't you hungry?'
'No,' replied Sacha. 'I like that last house. They were nice.'
Vicky remembered the large slice of chocolate cake the couple had presented to Sacha. 'Our children have grown up, flown the nest, we're downsizing, this has been such a lovely family house.' And the freshly made coffee smell. And the trampoline in the garden, which looked brand new and too large for the space. How Sacha had managed to keep it all down after that was beyond her. Of course she wasn't hungry.
'Will they have chocolate cake here too?' she asked.
'I don't know if we - I think we'll give this one a miss.' There was something about this street that she didn't like. She trusted her gut feel and this wasn't where she wanted to live. She turned the ignition and the engine banged. She turned it off. 'Christ!' This was the last place she wanted to get stuck.
But it wasn't the engine, of course it wasn't, how could she have been so stupid? It was someone banging on her window. A man, with a woman leaning in to see. She pressed the door button to drop the window a few inches, just enough to talk but not far enough for the man to be able to grab her keys.
'We're down there,' the woman shouted. 'You've not gone far enough.' And Vicky had no choice but to get out with Sacha and follow the couple down to their fourth appointment.
A group of four children around Sacha's age were sitting quietly on the wall. They were somehow different from Sacha's current friends, although Vicky didn't understand how. Their clothes were older, the style different, they had a look of children who spent a large part of their lives outside.
'Daniel, he lives next door. Ali, she's across the road.' The woman was picking each child off on her fingers.
Vicky's heart jumped at the thought of Sacha crossing the road on her own.
'Gilly, she's Ali's best friend. And Doug, he's almost part of the family.'
Vicky arched her arm over Sacha's shoulder to draw her away. This would be the shortest possible viewing without being rude. The estate agent stood by the front door, waving at them, waiting to be useful.
But Sacha wriggled free whilst her mother's attention was distracted. 'I'm Sacha,' she said in a monotone, standing facing the group. She smiled. 'We're moving here from Bristol. To be near my gran.'
Victoria would have immediately told Sacha off for talking to strangers but Vicky was slightly more patient. She watched the stand off, assuming that Sacha would follow her inside the house after an uncomfortable pause. It was her favourite technique; Sacha never liked being left behind.
'We have frogs in our pond,' offered one of the girls. 'Want to see.'
'No,' interrupted Vicky.
'Yes,' said Sacha.
'Sacha, we have to -'
'It'll take two minutes. Then we'll bring her back to Mrs Johnson's house.' The girl was more confident than her height would have suggested.
'How old are you?' asked the girl.
'Eight,' replied Sacha.
'I'm eight too. So is Ali.' She ignored the boys.
It wasn't that Vicky let Sacha go, it was that she did nothing to stop her. Sacha didn't even look back as she followed the other children across the road and into the front garden opposite. Had the mother even told the daughter to be careful?
Just before she entered the house, Vicky looked back and saw all five children sitting by the pond laughing like she'd never seen Sacha laugh before.
The Marina Waltz
I was there because of an absence. Well, not quite; it was because of a refusal really. When the lads pulled up and knocked on the door Donard had said,
"Youse can fuck off - don't call for me 'til the bee hits the window."
But spring was two long months away.
You can't beat a wise old head.
I was young then, of course, and I'd worked with Tommy and the Nipper before. This one was for a stone retaining wall on the North-eastern side of the lough next to the new marina. I had recently returned from a job in what was then West Germany and I needed work to keep me occupied. I wasn't really seeking money as much as I was seeking, I don't know, engagement I suppose; an escape from introspection perhaps.
Most days were the same.
We would drive in and park up.
In grim silence, punctuated by sudden heavy squalls of sleet, we would survey our battlefield. Usually the swans would tell me all I needed to know. They were beautiful; smaller cousins of the Whooper. I thought of them as Tsars and Tsarinas escaping the white death of a Russian winter to dance here on our inland sea.
If they were in the shelter of the marina - it was for good reason.
"No waltzes today ladies and gentlemen." I said.
"The swans boys - look."
"Fuck the swans."
Out we would stumble, valiantly trying to resist the gales, and bend double - at the double - like troops exiting a hovering helicopter. Nothing could be heard above the tumult unless you roared directly into someone's face. Every morning the sheet of zinc we hid the buckets and starting handle under would be playing the intro of 'Voodoo Chile'. The wave spume from the lough and the driving sleet soaked us in minutes. We would then retreat to the confines of our vehicle once more.
Always it was the same,
"Ah, we'll give it an hour."
I would look at the Nipper and he would look at me, and we would roll our eyes. Then all of us would steam gently until nothing could be discerned through the windows as the car succumbed to its wind induced epilepsy.
This, then, was the 'portion of our cup'.
The tar squad had the unenviable task of finishing the roadway that ended in the teardrop shaped 'car-park' where we anchored our vehicle with our own combined body weight. We passed these poor buggers every morning on the way in. I used to imagine that survivors of incendiary blasts would look like them. They would morph in and out of our vision like pipe-cleaner models; bright yellow oilskins whipped by slashes of black; tigers on their hind-legs.
They had no choice but to work through all weathers; we couldn't - and wouldn't.
Their fresh liquorice river lengthened inexorably, day by day, as our wall collapsed at the same pace. The crashing waves would wash out the mortar joints long before they had a chance to hold.
On one memorable occasion I was dispatched to steal tarpaulins that we might cover our work overnight to give it a chance to dry.
As I zig-zagged across the open ground to the cement hut howls of consternation could be heard as our sheet of zinc buckarooed up into the leaden sky with the velocity of a hard back-hander - within half a minute it had disappeared into the blizzard.
That was the first thing.
Later, a soldier from a foot patrol knocked on the window and asked us what we were doing there.
"We're havin' a fuckin' picnic." The Nipper replied.
Ordered out of the car, sandwiches abandoned, we stood at rifle-point as the rest of the squad ripped the seats to pieces.
That was the second thing.
About an hour later, frozen to the bone, we covered our work as best we could against the latest assault of a screaming north-westerly - and something shattered.
Well, two things shattered actually; one was the front windscreen of McCann's bile-green Hymac digger - from an unusually accurate strike by a stone thrown by the Nipper.
( He had previous in this regard.)
"I was trying to wake that lazy bastard Maguire." He said.
And the second was Tommy's composure.
Usually fairly laconic, he erupted into a maelstrom of violence that corresponded nicely with the raging storm around us.
That was the third thing.
They do say that things generally come in threes. Well, they do were I come from anyway. I laughed until I could see lights. It was the hilarity of a youth with little to lose; even the swans joined in.
In short, we abandoned operations for a month - until the weather improved.
Many years later I would regale my sons with the tale, and it was nice to see that paroxysms of laughter could still ensue.
Echoes of my own, and just as carefree.
When we eventually returned to the job, the winter was reeling on its feet like a punch-drunk fighter. We made progress. We executed our art.
The swans never came inshore now. I would watch them dance far out in the lough, bowing and preening like the lords and ladies they were. They would soon be off; and so would I.
They would journey into the sun's eye, dozing on the wing; led by the shimmer of the stars to their ancestral home.
And I would prevaricate, and run, and fall, and totter further on into the maw of the open road.
The Navajo Legacy
A Chevy pick-up, painted ashen by swirling sand dust drove across the Chihuahuan Desert on a dying mid-summer evening.
The driver, a middle-aged Navajo called Ben Ayze drove with his face almost over the wheel. Although he had driven this lonely road a thousand times he held the speedometer at a steady forty-five. Squinting against the light of the disappearing sun he turned on the radio but only heard the steady sound of static.
To his left, his elderly mother, her head slumped against the window, slept. Ben lifted the blanket that had slipped to the floor. He only took his eyes off the road for a second when he felt the impact. He gripped the steering and slammed his foot down.
His mother awoke with a start and stared wide-eyed at the dirty windshield. There was a smear of blood on the driver’s side. She spoke in her native tongue to Ben who replied in English.
“A coyote, maybe. I’ll go see.”
Stepping out into the dusk, Ben looked around. At the edge of the scrub he knelt and called out in Navajo. The old woman, the blanket still draped around her shoulders appeared at his shoulder.
He spoke softly. “It’s a man, “There was a slight hesitation. “I think. He’s still alive.”
Picking up the bloodied figure as if it was weightless he laid it gently in the rear of the pick-up. As his mother started back towards the motor, she bent down and picked up a small metallic box.
Thirty-five years later Ben Ayze sat alone, contemplating the past. The burden of years weighed heavy on sagging shoulders and his face was beat, lined with dry crevices and straggly shards of hoar frost colored hair. Only his eyes, pools of cobalt blue still sparked.
“Grandfather? You wanted to see me?” The voice belonged to Haloke, his grandson.
Ben turned and for a fleeting moment saw his younger self, a tall, gangly youth of seventeen, oozing nervousness.
“Come with me.” Said the old man. They walked into the next room where a small crowd was gathered. The room fell silent as Ben took centre stage.
“The spirits are silent. Jimmy Moonman has been consumed and the footprints of the Elders are scattered to the wind. Remember him well.” He walked over to a tall ornate dresser, opened up a drawer and brought out a small metal box. He nodded to his wife who answered with a silent muted smile.
They drove into the desert for about an hour, the road straight as an arrow. Only once did Hal try to make conversation but his words were met with silence and he knew his grandfather well enough not to try again. When the pick-up pulled up, Ben got out and walked towards a small canyon about a half a mile away. In silence the grandson followed at a respectful distance.
The old Indian was seated on a rock atop a small grey gorge which housed a small flat lake at its foot when Hal approached. There was no noise save that of a distant breeze on which a fragrance of magnolia rested, although no plants could be seen.
Hal scrambled up the scree of grey rock and wondered how the old man was not as breathless as he was. Ben stared at the horizon as if he expected something or someone.
“Jimmy Moonman is dead.” He said.
“You knew Jimmy.”
“He was always at your house, grandfather.”
“He was my best friend. What did you think of him.”
“He wasn’t Navajo, but he was a good man, different to anyone I’ve met. A great mechanic…”
“Different, yes. There are words that must be spoken.”
He stood up and whispered an old Navajo prayer into the breeze.
” Thirty-five years ago, along that road down there, I accidentally hit him with my pick-up. Your great grandmother and I took him back to the reservation. He was unconscious for three days. When he awoke, he was ok, just a little dazed. It was June, nineteen forty seven. Thirty-five miles away that night, something happened in Roswell.”
“The Roswell thing. Yeah, I know about that.”
“The man I hit that night was part of it all. Jimmy Moonman was not human, as we know it. Jimmy Moonman was from…” He glanced towards the sky.
“From Rhode Island…”
The old man chuckled. “No, he wasn’t.”
Over the next hour, Ben talked thirty-five years of history and of the man known as Jimmy Moonman. He spoke of how when Jimmy woke up, he informed them that he had come from another galaxy with a message for the world.
“He was injured, confused so at first, no-one believed him but then he showed what he could do.”
“What was that?”
“A horse broke its leg. We decided to shoot it but he came over. He placed his hands on its leg and fixed it. No break. Best damn horse we ever had. People from Government were nosing around after Roswell and the tribe Elders decided that we would not abandon him. We gave him the tribal name of Moonman. Jimmy became Navajo.”
“This is crazy…”
“Have you never wondered why no-one has a new car on the reservation? There are more forties and fifties motors here than Havana. Jimmy could fix anything. We sheltered him.”
“But this…message. What was it?”
The old man sighed and reached inside his jacket. He bought out the little metal box.
“Your great grandmother picked it up that evening. Jimmy said the message was inside but the box would not open until the time was right.” He handed the box to Hal.
“What? Why me?”
“He was specific. When you were born, he said the box belonged only to you.”
Hal took the box.
“He said you would know. He said you would know when the time was right.”
President Hal Azoke is sixty-five years old today. The world is on the brink of war. The time is right. The box opened…
We'd sit in traffic every morning on our way to work so we'd take turns choosing CD's to play or inventing silly games: spot the goon, car billiards, the late for work limerick challenge... Then after our eight and a half hours Adam would pick me up near 'John Lewis' and we'd get home in time for a microwave meal in front of 'Eastenders'. I don't watch it now. There's enough misery in the world.
When Adam first got diagnosed, I stopped being a passenger. He had so much on his mind and a day at work was more than enough stress so he was in charge of CD's, pointing out daft dogs, old duffers in insufficient rainwear and the swearing at cyclists running red lights... He tried not to swear at me and I tried to understand when he did. We still laughed sometimes. The laughter was different though. Subdued. I suppose you'd call it hollow.
I'd pick him up from the lay-by near the bus station and I'd nip into 'Sainsbury's' and stock up on fresh meat and fish, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. I'd get home and cook. Something proper. I ditched the microwave and bought a juicer. I found ways to economize on the time it took. Bought a slow cooker and took to getting up an hour earlier to prepare our evening meal before we even left for work.
The early days were the worst. When it hadn't sunk in yet. When everything and everyone else seemed just out of our grasp in a kind of haze and we'd slip in and out of reality like slipping in and out of consciousness. We'd almost forget and then get slapped in the face by remembering: it wasn't just some awful dream. Things really had changed...
Slowly, the world caught up with our bad news. Bosses were informed, colleagues given the heads up. When friends found out they'd beg us to tell them if there was anything - anything at all - they could do and then, disappointingly quickly, most of them went 'awol'. I suppose they had enough drama in their own lives and I was too busy trying to stick ours back together. I was in charge of the sticky stuff: mostly just cheap parcel tape - just enough to keep everything from splitting and spilling but when I needed to I could still pull out the super glue...
22nd November 2009. Rush hour. I remember sitting in traffic, heading for the hospital. Cars, lorries, vans pressed in at every window and I had to remind myself to breathe. Neither of us spoke much. It was all I could do to stay in the right gear. Even the smaller roads were choked. School kids, cyclists, mums with prams and I didn't want to end up sending anyone else to hospital that day. I clawed at my cheeks and chin, pinched hard, bit my mouth to shreds trying to keep myself alert. Everything else - thoughts, feelings, fears - had to take a back seat while I concentrated on that long drive to the Oncology department...
We must have got there. I must have parked. I don't remember that bit at all, or the waiting room, or the magazine I probably flicked through. I just remember that office, the cream coloured blinds moving slightly in a draught, the strips of pale buttermilk sunlight slicing the floor, the desk, our hands locked together... I remember the too long short time it took for Dr Ahmed to close the door and take his seat, find the sheet of paper and the amazing, heart stopping wave of joy as I judged his face before the words even left his mouth: Cancer Free.
You'd think we'd have been immediately ecstatic. You'd think we'd have danced back to the car, doing the congo with the nurses and auxillaries on their lunch breaks, the porters pushing beds to theatre. We got to the car park in silence. We got into the car and put on our seat belts. I pushed the key into the ignition and broke down... floods of tears. A tsunami of built up unspoken thoughts and fears, a torrent of dread. And when it stopped we drove off in silence, still trembling with pent up emotion.
I drove to the big roundabout and took the turning that would take us further away from work, from home. I took the dual carriageway, the sun warming my hands on the wheel. I kept driving until the silence was broken and the smiles returned and I didn't stop until I reached the sea.
We climbed down onto the beach and breathed in the salt spray. We hugged, we ran, we laughed and finally we felt alive again.
On this wide, demanding stretch we walk, and walk.
Attempts to hitch a ride futile, and for that, prohibited
Along this artery heading to Sezanne from Paris.
Sore feet, three sets aching and sore
Then chilly September night shrouds us as we settle in
Under the concrete bridge that echoes and exacerbates the rolling lorries
That disturb attempted sleep on this wide, unforgiving highway.
Daylight and we walk with exhausted eyes, but our relentless feet
Are resilient, defying pain, supported by hardened slog
And a beautiful bus at the end of this stretch
Shuttles us three in glory along feasts of scene
As glorious warm sun beats through glass on our faces
And I dream of croissants, and wine and a bed.
Hot soaking showers, and blisters then bliss
Then views at sunset, follow sleep at this two dime hotel
That speaks indulgence for the food it supplies.
And the planning commences for more open road
To Champagne and beyond, I think sipping my wine
In a café somewhere viewing stretches of pine scented paths
That twist and turn through early autumn days.
The Open Road
Is very tempting,
Stretching out to unknown delights,
But also very dangerous.
If we stay on the known highway
We may not glimpse the sudden
Breath-taking sights round the corner
But we will not get lost.
The Open Road
holds out the promise of adventure,
But what if the car breaks down,
Or a tree falls on us?
Bears shambling across the track
May drag us from the safety
Of our cosy car
And tear us limb from limb.
On the Open Road
We may meet strangers.
Everyone knows about Stranger Danger.
Stay safe, my friend.
Better by far to stay in the car
Keeping to our familiar, if tedious
Life. Forget the Open Road.
Keep on towards a peaceful death.
Lessons from the Open Road - A Short Memoir
There's a sum I've tried to work out many times - it's days on the road X hours spent in the saddle X distance and speed. Or something. Maths isn't my strong point but whichever way I've worked out the sum, the rough answer (give or take a few hours) is 3000.
That's 3000 hours spent riding pillion on the back of a big BMW motorbike called Bertha.
Yep, you read it right. Now, aside from all the incredible experiences we had over two and a quarter years on the road, all the amazing people we met and all the wonderful places we visited, 3000 hours was a hell of a long time to spend in your own head, which is essentially what I did. My husband and I had helmet to helmet communication so we chatted and listened to music. We played daft games, we talked - but often we didn't talk; we sat and swish-swayed our way across the world, from Malaysia, where we were living, to Scotland, where we still live now.
And during those 3000 hours, in the silences, my thoughts ran wild; looped over and through themselves; tortured me, sometimes; took me places I'd been trying to avoid and at times, it was damned hard. Most of the time, we do anything to avoid having to spend too much time in our own heads (except us writers, I suppose, but even then we stop from time to time) - we read, cook, listen to music, talk, socialise, drink, watch TV, etc etc. On the back of a bike there's not much you can do. There was always so much to see, we never retrod our own tyre tracks so every day brought new sights, so there was an element of distraction but mainly, I was stuck in my head. And this brings me to lesson one.
No matter where you go, what you do, what you see, you cannot escape the boundaries of your own mind. You cannot escape yourself: your thoughts, your fears, your own tangled waking nightmares and anxieties. This was a revelation. I knew it, on an intellectual level but to truly experience it was life-changing. Those who travel to escape, can't. You cannot escape yourself. And on the back of the bike, the loops of my thoughts showed me that I really really needed to talk to someone professional and do a bit of untangling. (I did, on our return, and it was great.)
There is a lot of fear surrounding long-term travel. Most of that fear revolves around people. When we arrived in Texas, people were literally speechless when we told them we'd ridden a motorbike through Central America and South America. 'What, alone??' they'd ask, once they found their voices again. Of course, we did meet people who'd been held-up, some at gunpoint. But not many, and they were the ones who ignored advice (freely given) by locals not to ride in certain areas after dark, not to stop in such and such a town. A frission of danger makes it fun, however, what we learned time and time again is that most people are good. Most people are kind and most people want to help when your bike breaks down in the middle of nowhere, or you are hungry and haven't found a shop. There are bad people but there are bad people everywhere. I still know more people who've been mugged in London than in the rest of the world. (except me - I've been robbed a few times but each time was due to me being completely stupid and naive, usually when I first arrived somewhere new - but those are other stories). If you're sensible, you're generally safe. We met some absolutely fantastic people, rich and poor. We had dinner in shacks and dinner in mansions. Most people are good. Great lesson, and one that I've carried with me ever since. And I hope I've become a better person as a result. I try to be kind, whenever there's an opportunity.
Travelling by motorbike and sleeping in a tent a lot is a great way to practise DIY marriage guidance.
We met a lot of other travellers on our journey, whether travelling by bike, truck, bus or thumb. The ones who carried positivity with them were the ones who had positive experiences. The ones who were whingy, who moaned, who got angry when people behaved differently - well, you can imagine the world they saw. Ralph Waldo Emerson sums it up perfectly:
'Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we will find it not.'
Tight pack, loose plan. This became our mantra. It doesn't matter how much you plan - the road ahead is completely unknowable. Those who got upset when forced to change their plans struggled. We became flexible enough to go where the road took us, with a rough destination in mind. We left Malaysia and the past eight years of our lives and jobs, with no idea where we'd end up. Somewhere along the way we decided to go home to Scotland so we pointed the bike in that direction and followed the road. If plans changed, we changed with them.
We left Malaysia in April 2006 and we crossed the border into Scotland on July 7th 2008. By that time I was four months pregnant and we were ready to stop riding - for a bit. But we've never, ever stopped adventuring - they are just smaller adventures. I struggle with the time frame - the memories are all so fresh so how is it possible that we set off on this journey 11 years ago? Sometimes, when we're bogged down with life, however, it all seems like a wonderful dream that we happened to have together. We still talk about our adventures - the children never tire of hearing Bertha the Bike stories and this year Bertha finally got herself running again, with a bit of help from my husband. We're thinking of getting a sidecar, just for Sunday days out...
The lessons I learned travelling may all sound very obvious and simple. However, what I learnt has stayed with me and helps me still. Those five lessons have made me see and experience the world differently and I hope I never forget them.
If you'd like to read more about our journey, here's the blog we co-authored. We were technology light and didn't carry any phones or computers so this was usually written in a rush, in internet cafes, with dodgy connections and ancient, slow computers, usually surrounded by noisy teenagers.
And just in case you're considering a trip, big or small, here's what to do. Pick a date. That's often the hardest thing to do and until you've done it, it will remain a dream. We picked a date two years into the future. My husband came home from work one day and said, Right! That's it! I've had enough! We figured it would take us two years to save/plan/leave a country and our jobs. That was April 2004. Two years later, we pushed the keys though the letterbox of our home of seven years, and got on our bike. Was I afraid? Oh, yes. I'll write about overcoming fear another time. But I shoved that fear into a box, climbed onto the back, plugged 'Born to be Wild' into our headphones and clung on.
Got a dream? Pick a date, and get packing...
The open road
had tricked her
promising such riches
yet leaving her bereft of all but tiredness
Cocksure like toad
she'd scorned the life she'd left
packed neatly in a two roomed flat,
library books returned
just in time.
Dawn had seen her
quietly close the door
and skip away passed curtains closed on the everydayness she now so dearly longed for.
“Going far love?”
A car drew up and a window wound down
Tears threatened to spill
but in one last act of sheer defiance
She shouted "Yes"
The window wound back up
and the car left her alone again
on the side of a beastly leaf filled lane.
Her phone began to shudder
silently lighting up a message :
she stared and pressed the tab that would take her
back to a life she both loved
“So, you understand the nature of our predicament, don’t you Jeremy?” The Dean of Students peered over his small, round eyeglasses. I sat with my backpack slumped over my lap on his conformable leather chair, enclosed in stale plants, shelves of pungent old books and certificates of education hung carefully on the wall. Sweat formed in tiny beads on my forehead. Wiping them away seemed an impossible move. I kept stealing glances at the small plastic zip-lock bag deliberately placed at the centre of his desk.
An hour before, it had fallen out of an unknown hole in the bottom of my bag while talking to my professor of developmental psychology. I had heard a small thud behind my feet. Silently, I prayed to every deity, powerful alien race and ghost of my dead grandfather to let it be a pen, a notebook, a condom. Anything other than that. But I knew that it was as soon as I observed professor Jenkins’ calm smile melt into a troubled frown. The hairs on my arms prickled as the air conditioning washed over them. Too cold. Always too cold in these hallways.
“Jeremy, what is that?” She had asked, an accusatory finger prodded the air in its direction.
“It’s- um,” I stammered. Stupid, stupid. ‘Run,’ I thought, ‘run now’. Get out of her sight. Maybe she’ll choose to forget, maybe she’ll take pity on me, such a small amount of psychedelics can’t possibly be new to her. She must have gone to college in the 70s, for god’s sake. There was no way she could be so uptight. “It’s just some dried mushrooms for soup I was planning to make, professor. I have to go to a lecture now!”
I snatched up the bag and spun on my heels. Half-running, I glanced back, briefly locking with her stern eyes. A beastly glare that burned a hole in my back the length of the corridor.
I had been intercepted before entering the lecture theatre. One of the TAs laid their hand on my shoulder and instructed me that the Dean wanted to see me, right now. I was knocked out of that doorway and into a hole eight-feet deep, my parents and professors staring down at me with morbidly sullen faces. Professor Jenkins was standing next to me, and reached her long, manicured fingers into my chest, closing them around my heart and ripping it through the hard bone, snapping tendons and muscles fibres, splintering and splitting open my breast bone with a agonising crack. Maniacally laughing, she presented it to my superiors as I collapsed to my knees.
Deep crevices formed along the length of the Dean’s forehead as he raised his eyebrows. “You understand, don’t you, that we must adhere to our zero-tolerance policy on drugs?”
I swallowed. Bullshit. This is bullshit. Surely just a warning would suffice? It’s not as though I had enough to sell. Panic and anger bubbled in my gut. Anger at myself for not remembering to put them into the zip pocket. Panic that he might decide to call the police who would give me a criminal record. Or worse, prison. Anger at my backpack, which had been my trusty companion for years, holding my expensive textbooks and overnight clothes and a number of different illegal substances throughout my educational career. How could it have forsaken me now?
“I understand that, sir. I want you to know that this is not an accurate reflection of who-,”
“I’m not interested in your excuses, Jeremy.” He silenced me with a wave of his hand. My lips pursed in frustration, “I am interested in the reputation of this school. We are a religious institution with certain… expectations for the type of students we admit here. We simply cannot be seen to allow our students bringing illegal substances to campus.”
He pushed forward an official-looking pile of paper.
“Do you know what this is?”
Glancing down, I recognised it from the start of the previous year. Naturally, I had not read it. “It’s the student handbook, sir.”
“Very good, and do you know why we give this to our incoming freshmen?” He leaned back on his chair and looked down his nose at me.
“To introduce them to the university?”
He took a considered breath. “Clearly you never took the time to read it. These are the rules we expect our students to comply with as part of our agreement to teach you. Could you read out for me, please, page twenty-three, section two?”
I picked up and opened the handbook, passing dry looking sections on ‘Administration’ and ‘Responsibility’. I vaguely recalled my eighteen year old self flicking through and tossing it into my bedside drawer before heading out for a night of heavy celebration. Page twenty-three. Section two. I cleared my throat:
“Illegal Drugs: Possessing, distributing or selling illegal drugs as defined by… um… as defined by state and federal law is against University policy,” I paused and lifted my gaze to his, met with a nod of encouragement. “Students who choose to violate the illegal drug policy will be subject to disciplinary actions. Sanctions may include removal from on-campus living and, or suspension… or expulsion from the University-,”
“That’s enough. Thank you, Jeremy.” He let a few moments of static silence fall between us. Leaning forward, he clasped his large, wrinkled hands together and set them on his leather-topped desk. His old, extravagant chair creaked under his shifting weight, “This is not the first time you have been in this office. Do you remember the first?”
I nodded. Last year I had been caught bringing beer into the student accommodation. I had narrowly missed being evicted, getting away with a caution from the house master.
“Good. Now, I’m going to make myself very clear. In this handbook, it outlines the procedure of student tribunals. They are long, tedious things. If you choose to go down that route, I can assure you, the presence of this evidence-” he indicated towards the baggie of mushrooms, “-Alongside your previous run-in with underage drinking will ensure the result. You will be expelled. The tribunal and all of its transcripts will be a permanent mark on your record. We may even have to get the police involved.” He paused. The room held its breath. “On the other hand, if you choose to unenroll from this university of your own volition, we could avoid all of that, and your record will simply state your grades at the time of your departure.”
The space between my face and skull began to heat up. On the border of rage and torment, my fingers clenched into fists. Hot, short intakes of air dried and parched my mouth. I was a desert without oasis. I was a forest fire wreaking disaster. His superior gaze I could no longer take, so I locked eyes with the grotesquely ornate rug, its blooming patterns unravelling in front of me as I digested his request.
“Jeremy, I understand this must be hard to hear, but until you clean yourself up, I have to-”
“I’m not a fucking drug addict.” I blurted before my thoughts were able to catch up, but with this renewed volition I lifted my head again, “I get good grades. All A’s so far this year. My mother is working her ass off to pay for me go to this expensive fucking school,” I stopped, unsure where I was going. “This is…” I stammered, searching for the right words. “This is bullshit!”
I almost shouted. He flinched a little. I felt good about that.
“Look, if you continue to raise your voice with me, I will have to call security. Maybe your mother’s money would be better spent in a rehabilitation centre-“
“Rehab?!” I cried, “you think I need rehab? Dean, you really need to understand your students a bit better than this.” He began reaching for the phone beside the desktop computer, “No need. I’m leaving. And don’t worry, I’m not coming back.”
He let me have that last word.
I nearly flew out of his office, unintentionally slamming the door behind me. My long, silk shirt fluttered with my momentum, a pen dropped from the hole in my bag and clattered onto the floor. The Dean’s office was in the fanciest building on campus. In my peripheral vision, the garish stone pillars repeated tauntingly as I hurtled towards the beautifully engraved university motto, ‘Hoc est Enim Orbis Terrarum’, above the doors at the end of the hall.
“Hey! Jeremy- are you alright?” My friend Kayleigh was walking the opposite direction, she reached for my arm to slow me, “what’s going on?” I snatched my hand to my chest, nearly pushing her out of my way.
“Don’t follow me.”
“Jer? We’re supposed to study later, will I see you then?” she yelled after me, I wanted to reply, but I couldn’t say another word. I couldn’t bring myself to face her, to face the disappointment that she would try to disguise as shared resentment. She would still go here, she would still grovel at the Dean’s feet and create playful banter with Jenkins to better her grade. The doors gasped noisily as I lurched through them. The scorching sun cut into my eyes. I squinted through it, looking over the picturesque, green campus, with its looming glass buildings and idyllic wooden benches.
The path darkened and turned to black, the scene melted away and I was running towards the gaping centre of a volcano. I leaped in, falling through burning hellfire. A vision came to me. My father, slapping me on the back with is his leathery, work-hardened hand:
“An acceptance to a private university. My boy, I am so proud of you. Me and your mother,” he picked up the letter from our old kitchen table and gave it a satisfied smile, “you will do great things, Jeremy, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” The image shattered into tiny, callous shards.
My body twisted and spun as it plummeted towards the hot lava. A huge rendition of the Dean’s face, a perverse smile and furrows bulging disturbingly across his forehead: “We cannot allow stupid, scum like you onto our campus of good, Catholic students,” his voice boomed and echoed around the chamber of the mountain.
Hitting the scalding liquid, my limbs and torso and face melted grotesquely before turning to ash.
I had reached the edge of campus. Slowing to a stop, I leaned against a towering streetlight, panting and sweating. I drew my hand around the back of my neck, moving the hairs that clung to its dripping skin. Looking up, the open road of the highway stretched endlessly out in front of me. I dropped into a limp pile, put my face between my knees and finally allowed the tears to fall.
The Open Road
Hailey hugged Mary at the church picnic. She rarely saw her now. They’d been in the same class at school until Mary married 6 months ago. Initially Mary did not want to marry and came to school covered in bruises before she agreed.
Hailey told Ma about it. Ma breathed deeply and said every family was different but parents knew best and sometimes were strict with children for their own good.
Hailey had enjoyed the excitement of being a bridesmaid and seeing all Mary’s pretty new clothes but now she only got to see her at church.
Mary’s husband had been in a bad mood at the service, turning to snap at his first wife, telling her to stop their small children clambering on the seats. His straight blond hair was sparse on the top of his head and he was thickening around the waist. He was 35, an old man compared to the boys at school.
Marylou confided that the first wife, her sister wife, made her do all the housework and mind the children.
“It could be worse, Brian’s only got one other wife, some men have several. Don’t be in a hurry to ask your parents to marry you off.” she warned Hailey.
Hailey laughed, no chance of that. Patsy, her pretty blond older sister was 18 and bound to marry first. Usually it rankled to get Patsy’s old dresses. Patsy always got to sit next to Pa in the front seat of the car. This was one time she did not mind Patsy getting first pick.
Hailey was hoping to train as a nurse before her own wedding came around. She wanted to support herself, instead of being trapped in the house after school, likely to get a slap from Ma if she did not wash up or mind the younger children.
It was not certain though. She’d overheard Ma and Pa talking at night about the overdue accounts at their brickyard business. The housing market was slow and customers could not to settle their substantial bills until they sold their new build houses. Taking other church members to court was frowned upon. Unless it was resolved, they would struggle to finance Hailey’s studies. Even when things were going well, a family of 6 was expensive.
Ma said to him “We need to get Patsy settled, she’s old enough. “
The sisters had different looks. Patsy was a petite blond who turned heads. Hailey was athletic from chores around the farm, tall with long dark hair.
Pa said “That won’t be easy. Patsy wants to be a first wife. Neighbour men are asking about Patsy but they have wives already. It will take time to find a fellow who has not married before.”
He continued, “It might work out for Hailey if she marries someone willing to finance nursing training. The cost will deter some men. She can’t be fussy like Patsy and may have to settle for being a second or third wife.
Plus an educated woman is likely to question a man’s decisions as the head of the household. What man wants that?
You know I don’t see the point of all this education for women. She will have children soon enough and be too busy to work outside the home but if it makes her happy, I will try to get her what she wants.”
He’d tell Ma another time that a local builder, Lester, had offered for Hailey. While they were talking about their finances, Ma might point out Lester’s bill was 6 months overdue and ask how he could afford another wife. Pa judged Lester would pay when he could and if he married Hailey in the meantime, they would not have to pay for her studies.
One Saturday a couple of weeks later Ma made a fuss of Hailey and brushed her long dark hair in the morning. Pa told her to put on her best dress because he wanted to show off his pretty second daughter when they went out to brunch, just the two of them, at Briarwood Mall, ten miles away. At this, Patsy went to her room, slamming the door because as the oldest, if anyone got to go with Pa on their own, it ought to be her.
Hailey had shot up a couple of inches and filled out. Her dress had risen 4 inches above her ankles, short by their community’s standard. Ma tugged at the hem and thought she could just get away with it, since it was long sleeved and high necked.
Hailey hadn’t been to a Mall for ages. She tucked her babysitting money into her bag, hoping for a chance to spend it. Patsy being annoyed made the treat all the sweeter but she would bring her back some candy.
She sat in the front seat of the car next to Pa, looking forward to the day. Pa stopped for a chat at Lester’s office. He gave her a bottle of water to drink and said he would not be long. Then the three of them drove to the Mall to eat.
Walking to the restaurant, they passed an electronics store. There was a TV in the window showing girls in mesmerising bright sleeveless dresses, showing their knees. She was shocked. One girl in a red dress was laughing and holding hands with a tall, tanned boy her own age. John and Lester lingered a little by the store and then they went to the restaurant.
Hailey felt shy and kept her eyes on her plate. She was thinking about the girls she had seen in the TV show, free to do what they wanted and mixing with boys, as if it was not wrong. She would love a red dress like that, but longer and with sleeves.
Lester did not speak to her, but if he did, she would tell him she knew two of his daughters in school. Best not to mention she avoided them. They avoided her too because she did not cover her head with a scarf. Her family had a more liberal dress code.
She guessed because his hair was greying he must be really old, 50 at least. He was fat. The sister wives competed to feed up their man.
Lester talked distractedly to her father about Church and the lull in the building trade. Since he walked out to the car he'd been thinking how to say he’d mixed up John’s daughters. This brunette girl was the wrong one.
He had 3 brunette wives. John’s blond daughter would have been a nice change for a fourth wife. There was no way Lester could risk antagonising him by admitting his mistake. Pity Hailey was not the blond, but still, she was a looker and it’s all the same in bed in the dark.
It was not a good time to take on the expense of another wife but John was a major creditor, the last one to let him buy on account. His other suppliers no longer gave him credit. If the housing market did not pick up, Lester would be bankrupted. Marrying into this family was a safety measure. John would not cut off supplies to a son in law and might even help him if the bank threatened to foreclose on his mortgage.
The other wives complained the last time he married. But why should he explain himself? He was head of the household. If they got any funny ideas, well, there would be a sweet new wife to sleep with and they would soon get back into line.
He father touched her arm and she looked up. “What do you think, Honey? Lester says he will pay for you to study nursing.”
She spluttered, unable to form a sentence. Was her father saying that if she married Lester, she could go to college?
The two men laughed at her open mouth and wide eyes. “Cat got your tongue?” Lester asked her and nodded to her father, “Ain’t she cute.”
Her head pounded. She was being offered her dream, but with a price tag of marrying a man as old as her father. She’d have to live with his disagreeable daughters.
In spite of the air conditioning in the restaurant, she was burning up. The more she blushed, the more the two men laughed.
She excused herself and went to the bathroom. She looked at her red face in the mirror and splashed herself with cold water. She opened the high window over the sink for air.
She fought the urge to retch. Pa was less strict than most but girls did not get a say about their marriage. Hailey took another deep breathe. The washroom was empty.
She scrambled onto the edge of the washbasin and looked down through the narrow window into a delivery yard with a service road. Beyond, she could see a young woman jogging up a wooded hill. She pulled herself up and stuck her head out of the window. Her long dress snagged on the window fittings but she eased it free, wriggling her hips round in the opening and she lowered herself carefully behind a garbage bin.
She felt her lungs fill with excitement. In her bag she had a water bottle and money. She made her way to the footpath and ran into the trees. She must get out of sight before they knew she’d gone. She decided to stay clear of the freeway today and tomorrow make her way, somewhere, anywhere, away from everything she knew.
You said I must stop
took me to the blank wall
of my fear, you said I must
Held out that old teddy
the child dropped, reminded me how
if she'd just clutched him,
clenched her eyes tight
she wouldn't have been afraid.
You showed me the minutes saved
on our open road trip.
I countered with lives lost
cellophaned bunches of flowers.
That road ran over us,
our ancient woodlands,
left just pink innards,
glistening parts, the scrape
of the asphalt, flattened worms.
Look at their spined bodies,
black and white rugs of fur
those spilled-out frogs,
not shy enough newts.
All of us are road kill now
the blank wall is silent
because it voices our sounds.
Unfettered access to asphalt
The glimmer as the sun sphere's
Unyielding, yet lovingly receiving a
Landscape arching away as
Fumes explode into freedom
A grey cord leading to places as yet unknown
Hedges, leaves, a canopy embracing,
Encroaching onto the tarmac
A reminder that this route
Is a blip
In their story.
The car an interloper,
One they urge forward only to
Reclaim the road.
The 4 o'clock sun
gilds the wintery weeds
curved onto the collar of the highway
where they grow
despite an annoyance of cars
I am made bold
by their gold-laden pretense
and imagine that I am driving
mountain roads in Virginia with you
only you would choose another state
perhaps western Pennsylvania
not for its beauty
but for its defiance
of the lake.
Adele Anthony's Violin Concerto, somber
sounding window to window
carries me deep into mountain valleys
my own measure of life
and the life you chose
not to live.
The river here curls
around each curve of road
sweeps a path both rippling
and reflective. Your whereabouts
unknown to me
alludes me still
and I am swept
into mirror images
yellowing leaves and
Sometimes a Car Crashes and Nothing Else is Near
Do objects discarded from cars retain
memory of the disgust, the destruction,
A brown boot sits motionless, rests
on one side; a passenger misses
A wedding ring, faintly glinting;
why would you admit to an affair
A blue scarf following an unloved
team; a fight breaks out before the
next service station.
The right leg of a plastic doll;
Only a vengeful older brother
would do this.
A pink ribbon, embracing drooping
flowers; a red ribbon, loosely holding
The rear light of a small family
car flickering through the gap,
a tidy hedge.
I’ll See you in an Experience
Tonight I embark on another foot driven journey,
Through buildings and parks to absorb the night’s delights.
Enlightened by inhalation I look over the setting.
Tonight I watch a man play with fire; watch him swing orbs of flames in a circular motion,
Though my mind cannot help but speak of the dangers and scream at the rules I should know.
I cannot help but be still.
As I, like my fellow onlookers watch with admiration at the beauty before us,
Whilst they snap memories of the occasion.
I can only feel warm from the sight and the intriguing motions.
Tonight it was not the call of the songbird that caught my attention,
Nor the smile on a child’s face as they beheld the image of love in the work worn eyes of parents.
Nor were it the smell of the evening’s crisp cool air announcing the coming of another harsh winter.
Instead it was danger and the excitement of watching my man with flames,
Watch him gliding golden spheres through the gripping air,
Whilst the parents took their children home and the birds called yet another sweet song.
With its clusters of freckles that had once been traced with the soft pad of my index finger. Brilliant blue centres and hazel edges, those colourful eyes I had carefully studied, too far away now, but I could still picture each subtle change in hue I had observed when our faces were inches apart.
Now, feet apart, in the World Food aisle of a supermarket. The artificial lights aggressively illuminated her form, the great landscapes of her body hidden under the folds of her favourite coat that I had bought her in Paris on a lazy mid-June day. I remembered how it used to sit in a crumpled heap on my comfy red chair, set in the form of her waist and lower back for an entire weekend if we decided to stay in.
I had not let myself think of her for weeks. To the relief of my friends I had stopped going on about how things ended; although grateful for their support, I could tell they were growing tired of my pining and never-ending realisations. But now, as if by some twist of ambivalent fate, I found myself staring at her as she frowned over a can of coconut milk.
Did she think as I did? Or was she moving on as though nothing had happened? As though I had never explored her skin, her lips and darkest trenches of her mind with our wasted hours of examination and debate? Moments before, I had veered around the supermarket shelves to find pickled olives when the bliss of mundanity was violently ripped from me. The feverish optimism of olives vanished, leaving me shaken by a cascade of white water memories, my inner monologue pulled and twisted and thrown about by this living, breathing token of the past.
Her hair was short again, above the shoulders. Last time it was that length, it had grazed my collar bone while she confided the reason for her low self-esteem: the childhood trauma of losing her mother, and the fear of never being able to live up to her memory. It was the half-light of dusk, our flesh pushed together, whispering thoughtfully as though keeping secrets from ghosts.
What would she do if I reminded her of that now? I wondered if she was sorry for all we had shared. If those exotic beaches and strange cities we had together explored were now tinged forever with regret; I imagined falling to my knees, confessing that no matter how things were now, no place or photograph or happy memory meant less to me than they had done before. How I longed to know if she felt the same!
I stiffened with panic as she placed the can back on the shelf. If she turns now, she would see me with my ruffled hair, clutching my basket to my chest, staring at her. I wanted to go for the olives, let the chance encounter happen with dignity and grace. But I felt my feet shift and carry me down the cold, repeating corridors of shelves towards Home Goods.
A deep breath in.
A deep one out.
Once my friend had shouted at me for cowering in behind a tree when we had played paintball in the woods out of town. The hard, colourful bullets whizzed over my head, so I tucked it between my legs and closed my eyes tight shut like a child hiding from a nightmare. He had told me that if I didn’t like the game, I shouldn’t have agreed to come. I was letting his team down.
My right hand ached from clenching the basket so unnaturally. I was only halfway through my list, but at this point I needed home more than groceries. As I walked, soundbites of wisdom rotated in my head: heartbreak is something everyone goes through, you will come out the other side stronger, this too shall pass. Maybe for some they helped to ground meaningful experience, but these hollow words offered no comfort against the fire of doubts raging through me. I doubled my pace to the check outs. The chill of the frozen section bit at my nose. My heart rate rose and fell, seconds becoming hours as memories and thoughts and reflections raced around the circuits of my brain. I locked in the target of the shortest line.
“Alex!” A familiar voice just to my left thwarted me, a hand falling onto my shoulder. “Hey. How have you been?”
In the Mirror
my eyes, they are yours
I noticed that time on the plane
when you looked at me
and my eyes looked back
I almost couldn't bear it -
it was too naked
like my soul had been peeled away
it scared you too
that much I could see
we both looked away
as if we were embarrassed
it's easier not to talk
to use the half-world distance
as an excuse, too far
to try again to get on
the times zones a barrier
too high to use skype
when we'd have to see
each other's eyes again
and look away, glance down
or our of the window
like we did on that plane
my skinny forearms are yours
a bit freakish
with our otherwise big bones
but they're strong, yours
too strong when I was little
and my tiny arm snapped
mine are strong in another way
when I hold my children close
the way you never could
with me or with my babies
and never will again
my face contorted by anger
that's all of it yours
I stare at myself
and wish it away, wish
I'd not been given that gift
and instead had been born
gentle like you weren't
I can't blame you any more
my mistakes are all mine
but I wish not to have the anger
or your face, frowning
you're diluted in my children
more of their dad
and all his genes
my deepest sadness
isn't that you don't know them
it's that I'm glad you don't
so they don't look into themselves
and the mirror
and see you, frightening
and difficult, narcissistic
to the end, a mirror only to yourself
The Mirror Man
It stood in the hall, set high, the way Alex liked it, reflecting his antiques; pieces his mother had also left him. He thought it needed a polish though, recalling the last time he’d given it a rub with a cloth, fine bees wax.
‘You looking at that fucking mirror again,’ asked Dawn, his girlfriend. She’d been living with him for the past year.
‘So what of it,’ he cried.
She returned to the kitchen, Alex watching her, despising her taunts, her audacity, her clumsy gait.
‘It’s an important thing, you know that,’ he shouted, going to grab some polish and a rag.
‘Oh shut it for fucks sake,’ she replied. She was re-heating the take out neither of them had eaten the previous evening. Chinese.
‘You having a beer or not,’ she asked moments later, then opened one herself and sipped greedily from its lip.
‘In a moment’ came a voice from the hallway
‘Please yer fucking self,’ she muttered, and continued slurping from the can.
‘Tea’ll be up in a moment,' she finished, and scratched away at an itch between her legs.
Alex polished the glass, admiring the shine emerging on the mirror. It appealed to him more these days; helping to remind him of the old times, warm nights, dark winters, childhood giggles. He finished up and went into the kitchen.
‘What’s this,’ he said sitting down ‘It looks like shit,’
‘You shoulda eaten it last night then. We have to pay for this shit as you call it.’
‘Alright, alright,’ he replied getting a Heineken from the fridge. ‘Keep yer fuckin hair on.’
They sat in silence, eating away. At one-point Dawn took a third beer from the fridge, sat down and finished her meal. She released a large belch, and then giggled.
‘That wasn’t too bad eh,’ she said, and blew her nose.
‘It was okay,’ said Alex. He felt a little better now after some food had hit his belly.
‘You’ve ketchup on yer chin,’ said Alex pointing to her mouth.
She ran a finger along the small mess, then licked it.
‘Yep’ she replied then lit a cigarette, inhaled hard and blew, the smoke reaching Alex.
‘When you gonna quit those coffin nails,’ he asked, finishing up the beer.
‘I fuckin aint am I,’ she uttered.
‘When you gonna stop paying all your attention to that stupid fuckin mirror?’ Anyone would think it was all you had. What about me?’ she asked.
‘What about you?’ He got up and took two beers from the chiller and handed one to her.
In the background the six o clock news played out; Alastair Stewart exercising stern, serious, informative rhetoric. Rain pelted against the kitchen window. A police siren whizzed away in the distance along with rush hour congestion along their road, snapping at the front door.
‘You and your fuckin mirror. You’re a real asshole Alex,' she yelled, dropping her Lambert in one of the empty Heineken cans.
‘Right we need to talk,’ he said, banging his fist on the table hard enough for one of the rickety legs to almost give way.
‘What about, another fucking lecture from the mirror man I suppose’
‘Us for Christ sake. ‘he said ignoring her remarks, that were starting to concern him.
‘If you say so, mirror man,’ said Dawn and finished her beer. ‘Let’s go down the Fox then, we’re out of lager anyway. We can talk there.’
They left the council flat by the rear of the building; the front door still had a broken lock after Dawn had forced her way in one late night several days ago. A wooden wedge securing it for now. Rain fell against them as they hurried in to the pub. Pool balls clattered as merry patrons played away to sounds of the nineties with raucous shouts of ‘asshole’ and ‘twat’ making up energetic chatter.
They sat with pints at their usual corner table, nightly table. A bag of scratchings lay unopened.
‘It’s that fucking mirror of yours, that’s the cause of all this,’
‘I don’t think so, Dawn. It means a lot to me, you just don’t see it.’
‘If you say so Mr mirror man,’ she replied ignoring his remark. Then she cackled.
Alex opened the scratchings.
‘I don’t understand you. I mean look at the state of you. Your fuckin teeth for one thing. Half of them are falling out.’
‘Well if you got off your fuckin ass and got a job then I could do something about them eh,’ she wailed.
‘Oh come on Dawn you know I can’t work. The Doc said so. We’ve been through all this.’
‘Get the beers in Alex before I clobber you,’ She said pushing her empty glass across the table.
‘When I return were going to have this out proper, Dawn,’
A few patrons looked his way at the bar. Alex ignored comments that he ought to find another bird, or that he could do better for himself with a nicer bit of stuff. He just smiled at them, and ordered two more pints. He also ordered a double scotch which he necked before returning to his table, as it aided in calming the challenging inferno in his head.
It helped. For a bit.
‘Whaddya mean I can get a job, Dawn. You fuckin know I can’t.’ he said, continuing the discussion. He placed the pints down, both of them overflowing from the unsteady table wobble.
‘Sure you can. You can get out and about can’t you? So why can’t you work?’
‘Not yet it’s too soon. Ever since Afghanistan, you know that.’
More of the beer spilled as she brought it to her mouth, the chilled liquid dripping down her orange frock, already stained with dried specks of Chinese take-away.
‘Okay Ok, you made yer point,’ she fired.
‘And the mirror helps, you fuckin know that, don’t you, You FUCKING KNOW THAT YOU STUPID FUCKIN BITCH,’ he bellowed
Dawn silenced, several pairs of surprised, intoxicated eyes looked across, and the pub cat- a shabby grey overweight thing- shot away from his bowl of food, out the door.
‘Listen to me, Dawn,’ said Alex up close, perspiring. ‘The mirror helps me get things back. It’s just started to work after all this time. Starting to remember my past, my mum, my dad. Can’t you see that. Why can’t you see that,’ he begged.
He grabbed her hand, squeezed it. It felt warm and sticky in his. He looked at her, wanting to despise her, wanting to hate her, but couldn’t
‘I don’t know’ she muttered through spittle that had formed on her lips
‘I don’t know, Alex.’ She said again. ‘I’m a pain aint I. A fuckin pain.’
‘At the best of times yeah, I’ll say,’
He drained a good half of the pint, huddled up to Dawn and put his arm round her. She had started to cry.
‘You knew what happened to me out there, didn’t you? I told all when we got together. Its real important I start to remember stuff.’
‘I’m sorry Alex,’ she burst through tears. ‘I just get so sad and wasty.’
‘Listen, I think you should see the Doc again’
She looked at him. Alex thought her face was badly off colour.
‘Promise me you’ll go see him tomorrow,’
‘I’m always angry at you. I don’t know why,’ she said, disregarding his request, tears flowing. She took a sip of beer.
‘See the doc tomorrow, he’ll help.’ Alex knew she was quite drunk. He also knew they’d both been hitting it hard recently, but realised his woman needed help, again
‘There’s anger rising in me all the time. I get really sca…'
‘Shh’ said Alex., interrupting. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll go with you tomorrow,’
‘Will you?’ she asked
‘Course I will,’ He finished up his beer, and they went outside so she could smoke. Unsteady on her feet, but nevertheless with-it, she lit up.
‘Don’t let them take me back to that place, Alex,’ she wailed. ‘I don’t wanna go back that fucking place,’
‘You’re not as irrational as you were before, okay. I don’t think they’ll do that,’ he said.
The November rain chilled them. Her hair fell against her eyes and she swept it back.
‘Come on let’s get back in for one more,’
The grey shabby cat was back in the corner of the room, eating a few crisps off the floor. A scent of marijuana drifted in from the rear door leading to the toilets. A man wearing glasses dropped his pint, the shatter of glass sending up a wave of cheers from the mass. Alex brought two large whiskies to their table.
‘Drink this Dawn, then we’re going home,’
‘I just dont wanna be locked up again,’ she said.
‘Your ABH is spent, love. You haven’t done anything since, so I don’t think they’ll do that.
But you are bubbling over again.'
She downed the whisky
‘Lets go home. We can get those teeth of yours sorted too,’
‘Oh fuck off,’ she said, managing a smile.
‘Well, get that lock fixed, cheeky’ she replied.
‘The one you bust, ok I will.’
They went home.
I told my mirror self
dated blue/green carpet under feeble feet
as I polished myself into your tin trophies
pride of place on a mantelpiece
in a kitchen, 70’s, yellow yolk
garish wallpaper, festering, mould-filled
hoarding our years of damp
your cold voice rising it as fog
I saw it reflected each morning
to me, a delicate beautiful thing
curling opaquely underneath my chin
not noticing the condensation
drooling down my vagus nerve
dripping steadily along my thinning breastbone
to pool dead, dark
beside a mound, empty
Reflections on Insomia
I can't sleep.
The clock on my wall says 1.35am, my watch says 1.40am and I'm locked someplace in-between.
I turn on my radio and listen to a talk show and wonder why all night time announcers have that same lazy, beat up languid style.
"Hi. This is Jefferson Robbins and I'm your night-time companion through this long LA night..."
"Where would you rather be now?", he asks in a voice that is as smooth as a crème caramel chocolate. I look out at the rain and think anyplace but this.
"I mean you Roy". he says, "yeah you! Don't turn me off Roy because we want to know about you".
This geek does this all the time. He mentions a name and pretty soon, every Edith, Mike or Roy in the tri state area calls in. I guess a row of flashing lights on his monitor tells him that there are a lot of Roys' out there and I thank the Lord that my name is Dan.
Roy from Tulsa says he'd rather be anyplace but Tulsa. Wouldn't anyone. Another Roy this time from Tupelo tells everyone that he's the reincarnation of Elvis and he'd rather be in Vegas. I listen and think to myself that there's a lot of Roys' out there and I try to recall any Roy's that I've come across but I can't think of any.
I look at my face in the mirror. It doesn't get any prettier. I need a shave. My skin is loose. The mirror tells me it's too late to change my ways.
Outside the rain stops and I think of life someplace other than downtown LA. The guy on the radio plays a slow dreamy tune that sets the mood for the night. My life is held together by four walls and a dumb assed voice on a radio station that only comes alive at night. Over the road the neon light flickers every few seconds and illuminates my room. I've asked the landlady for new drapes and she promised to get some last July. It's March now. Life is slow.
I look out but there's not much to see. My reflection in the window is distorted by raindrops. It's a better sight than what the mirror gave me.
I read a book that I read last night and the night before and make a note to buy a new one. I think Hemingways' a pretty cool writer but there's only so much of a fishing story a guy can take. I light up a cigarette and promise myself that someday soon I'll give up another bad habit.
My life is full of those; bad habits. A half empty glass of cheap whiskey remains on the bedside cabinet from yesterday. I look at it and blow smoke rings. Another bad habit.
The guy on the radio asks if we know our neighbor. He thinks society is selfish and greedy and we've all become our own little islands. Very profound. I can't recall if I've ever seen my neighbor although I hear them often enough. I ask myself if that's enough to call in but then I remember that I don't have a phone.
I walk over to the mirror and wonder what I'd look like with a beard. I don't have a razor so my options are halved.
Life sucks. Night in LA carries on regardless and I wait and wonder and close my eyes and hope for sleep that never comes.
I live a long night.
Mirrors eat people with each glance,
snatch seconds away,
stop us from seeing
anything beyond ourselves.
Take that awful etched-glass thing
left like a curse in my bathroom.
It drives me mad playing tricks
showing me a face
only I can see, a reversal
of the reality, not
the world’s view of me.
That old gold-framed thing
Dad helped me lug from Rye.
Did it steal his hand-hold,
did it suck him inside?
Is that why I think of him
every single time I pass?
That one you left behind
creates endless pure images
of your face, but just in my mind
as its surface shows the yellow wall.
So why do I hear your laughter
when I look at it, suspect
it sunk you thousands of times
in its silvered depths?
I wake from the infinite possibilities of my dreams
to a spot-the-difference locked between silver and glass,
familiar templates for the expectations of the coming day.
I set my features to match the projected patterns,
my eyes wide open, my teeth a creamy white
painting by numbers the perfect shade for my lips.
I practice a pose until I find the acceptable balance
indicating patience, a parent’s compassionate smile,
and ‘hope you have a good day at school’.
The speed of my changeover would impress mechanics,
the assertive brow (neither aggressive nor passive)
approachable, a team worker, but don’t mess with me.
Just before I leave, I cast one final glance,
lingering to make final, tiny adjustments,
snip, the hairdresser removes stray hairs.
Later, I see only the unexplored,
adding layers to the infinitive depth,
and what I want to see in the mirror
is an image that I do not recognise.
‘Beep…beep…beep…’ will it ever end thought Sheeren scanning the items on the conveyor belt. This shift was really dragging.
“Any carriers love?” said shereen chewing her gum.The well kept lady, stood in front of her in her long buttoned up beige duffle coat and perfect make up.Mutton dressed as lamb, or a madame trying to look like a little hooker, her nan would have said.
The lady held up a bag for life that she had brought with her and pointed at it with her perfectly manicured hand. The bag was the brown one with the picture of the world on it. Should have guessed. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a posh one! They always had their world-saving recycle bags then got in their gas guzzling four by fours.
The lady scooped up all her fresh produce mostly vegetables and fruit and placed them carefully into the bag.
Sheeren looked quickly around to see if her manager Cindy was lurking anywhere. All that woman ever did was nag nag nag. Do this! This isn't right! You're late!
When she was sure she was sure there was no one in sight she pulled her phone out of her overall.
Depriving people of their social media accounts and phones was basically a human rights violation. Some nut could be shooting up a block away and half the world would know while she was sat there ringing tills. Everyone knew who won the last big brother before her. If there was a hell It would be sitting there for all eternity with a phone you could not use.
She looked down at her mobile - thirteen missed calls! She felt a little tickle in her stomach and a little smirk cross her face. Her and Daz had gotten into a huge argument last night. She’d ignored him all day. She loved her man.She loved him like crazy and she loved making him crazy sometimes too. Her moods had been all over the place recently. At least now she knew why.
“Erm excuse me. I'm collecting the vouchers. You know the ones for the schools,” said the lady.
Sheeren looked up and shot the woman an angry look for interrupting her. She held up the phone to emphasize she was in the middle of something. The woman scowled, picked up her bag for life and trotted off.
Daz was the reason why she had taken the job. When school had ended all her mates had gone off to university or different colleges. Her and Daz were going to travel the world. They had it all planned. They were planning to leave for Thailand in three months. The full moon party in Thailand, trekking through India. The pyramids, the statue of liberty. She couldn't wait to ride an elephant and swim with dolphins. She cleaned the bogs at her aunties pub in the morning and did the night shifts at the supermarkets. She wasn't proud. A job was a job. Now all that would have to be put on the back burner. She’d wait until the little one was about two then they'd go traveling. It would all be fine.
A blond girl with a side ponytail put down a pile of magazines on the checkout. Yes! Sheeren hadn't read this week's heat magazine. She had a quick flick through the magazine stopping to read an article on her favorite reality T.V stars break up.
“Knew he was a cheater. I said, he’s a cheater.” Shereen held up the magazine to the waiting girl who nodded. Sheeren had a quick look at her horoscope before scanning the magazine then picking up the next one. Brides monthly Sheeren started hungrily looking through the pages. Her and Daz had spoken about their wedding at length. She was having twelve bridesmaids. Her Best mates. They'd all been tight since primary.
“You getting hitched?” The girl's face changed from mildly impatient to beaming with pride.
“C.mon,” boomed Shereen.”Show me the bling!” The girl held out her slender hand with a rock of a diamond on it. “Girl that's huge! Bet he's got a small one.” Sheeren burst into laughter she had a big holler of a laugh and her whole body shook. The girl gave Sheeren a weak smile as she left.
She and Daz had been together for four years. They'd met at an all-night Halloween rave in Clapham. He was dressed as a giant condom. She had thought he was a complete idiot when he'd tried chatting her up. She still thought he was a complete idiot.But he was her idiot. Her nan didn't like him at first, she thought his eyes were too close together and she didn't think real men wore jeans as tight as he did.
She realized she was smiling like a lunatic when a clatter of a customer's basket shook her out of her thoughts.
Tall man in his fifties, cheap suit, beard. We have loner! A string of ready meals and a load of pet food she guessed. She took out the frozen ready meals and scanned them in procession. Then the bulk buys of toothpaste and shampoo and toilet rolls on offer. Then cat food. She knew it! Crazy cat ladies had a bad rap. There were just as many crazy cat men.
“37 quid mate,” she said blowing a bubble with her chewing gum. He took out two crisp twenty-pound notes out of his wallet and she snatched them out of his hand just as she caught sight of
Cindy again making her regular patrols up and down the checkouts.
“Had a nice night sir?” She said brightly her demeanor changing immediately. The man looked slightly confused as she handed his change back politely.
‘’Have a nice night.”
“Everything ok my love.” Called Cindy.
“All good hun.Quiet” They both gave each other the biggest faked smiles they could muster.
Sheeren imagined banging her head repeatedly into the conveyor belt. It Helped sometimes.Sheeren was on her final warning for using her phone in work. If she was caught one more time she'd be out the door.
When Cindy was out of sight Shereen plucked out her phone again. Three texts.
‘Babe I'm sorry!’ ‘STOP IGNORING ME!!!!!’ ‘Sorry I didn't mean to lose my temper. I want to hear your voice.’
Her finger hovered over reply when she saw another man approach her checkout station. She put the phone away and rolled her eyes. Never get two minutes peace in this place!
The six-foot hunk of a man stood in a pair of shorts and vest in November. Here, ladies and gentleman, we have the bodybuilder. Always after the gym sessions at 6 pm or late ones like this. The gym bunnies. Trollies full of meats and health foods. Oh and strawberry ice cream. He has a girlfriend
“Busy shift?”He said warmly his biceps bulging as he picked each thing out of the trolley.
“How are things in Hawaii?” she erupted with laughter again.
He looked down at his unseasonal clothes. “Caning the gym. Get so lazy in the winter months. Bored and restless.”
“That's what X Factor and Dominoes are for mate.” She giggled to herself sliding his items down the conveyor belt .”22.95”
“Keep the change. Night.”
She heard her phone buzz again. She quickly looked around and took out her phone. A text off nan.
“DON'T FORGET THE BREAD AND MILK AND GET THE BREAD FROM THE BACK. THAT'S THE FRESHEST AND TEXT WHEN YOU'RE ON THE BUS SO I KNOW YOU AIN'T RAPED”
Sheeren had given up trying to explain that in text speak capitals meant you were screaming.
She clicked on her Facebook app and scrolled through quickly. She pressed the top of the phone then put it back into her pinafore. Then changed her attention back to her customer.
A young girl, younger than Sheeren had been stood behind the man.They both lived on the same estate the girl had three little ones.
“Alright?” said the scraggly girl the giant puffer jacket she was wearing making her her seem even more smaller.
Sheeren picked up the Four pinter of milk and scanned it and noticed the two packs of nappies stuffed into each side of her jacket.
“A quid love.”
The girl handed her a pound and smiled weakly, “Bye.”
Shereen watched her walk slowly towards the entrance, the security guard wasn't there and the bleepers might not go off. She let out a sigh of relief when girl disappeared through the sliding doors with no fuss.
Two nights before Sheeren had taken down a drunk man trying to steal four cans of cider. Growing up on the estate she had, her nan had told always told her how ever big or mean or nasty they are they’re balls hurt all the same. The shoplifter came running towards the entrance and shereen had kicked him straight in the unmentionables. Down he went. Some people wanted to steal, some people needed to steal. The girl had three kiddies and nobody else.
Her and Daz had both wanted kids. Daz wanted four. He was one of six. It had always been just her and her nan. Cancer had stolen her father and alcoholism had stolen her mother. People had worser lives she told herself. Life is for the living her nan would shout dancing round the living room, half cut swinging round her glass of Gin.
Her and Daz had come to a compromise of two kids. What would be a three minute job for him would be a nine month job for her. That sounded well unfair.
She imagined them strolling on Sunday mornings to the park, the autumn leaves blowing around the buggy. Then in the summer, lying in the sun in Low Heath little Ikeam laying on a picnic blanket gurgling, the park alive and buzzing around them, people stopping to tell them how beautiful he was, asking his name.
Shereen pulled out her mobile again and slowly scrolled through Facebook then Twitter like anything earth shattering had happened in the minutes since she last checked.
She got up the text screen and was about to arrange to meet him after work when a voice in front of her interrupted.
‘Ya got change for twenty quid?”
Sheeren clicked open the til pondering over Daz not really thinking.
‘Give me the money. Everything. Now. Leave it open stand the fuck back!!!”
“Wow mate chill.”Sheeren felt her stomach drop. The lanky boy stood in front of her baseball cap pulled down, jacket zipped up and he was holding a knife.She’d seen enough junkies in her time to know this boy was off his head. He was trembling all over. Idiot thought Sheeren. He’ll be crying for his mummy in a police cell in twenty minutes.
“Look mate chill yeah. Take whatever you want. You should see my payslip. I get mugged every month.” She held her hands up and realized her mobile phone was on the her seat. Shereen heard the click clacking of cindy's heals followed by derek the beefy security guard
The boy really looked on edge now his head swinging from person to person, his hand quivering, holding onto the knife.
“The police are already on they way mate.” Called Derek calmly. “Just put the knife away.”
The scraggly looking boy looked at Derek for a moment. Sheeren kept her eye on the mobile phone on the seat. Waiting for the perfect moment to grab it. She lunged forward causing the boy to dive at her.
The knife went straight into her. The boy looked down in horror and despair at his blood filled hands.
With one plunge of a knife, a lifetime of love and pain, joy and heartache, and tears and laughter were wiped out in an instant.
Paths More Travelled
“When you find your path, you must not be afraid. You need to have sufficient courage to make mistakes. Disappointment, defeat, and despair are the tools God uses to show us the way.”
― Paulo Coelho, Brida
Should you ever read this,
This sub 'A' Level attempt at creative writing
Meet me at the Old Quarry
Where we shall once again
Walk the path we have so often travelled
Down the rutted lane to the Enchanted Gardens
Where may be found, on occasion
The finest cakes available to humanity
Soundtracked on red letter days
By a jolly retro jazz band
An enchanted cabaret of woodland sprites
Once again let me lead you
Down the wooded slope to the canal
(But don’t forget your practical shoes!)
Cross the bridges over the gullies
Pause to rest awhile on my "contemplative bench"
The cathedral-like arching of branches overhead
Imbuing the setting with a quiet numinosity
Listen beyond the whispering leaves
The chug of passing boats
and walkers summoning their dogs
And you may hear an answer
To soothe your troubled mind
Each walk along this path brings new resonances
Overlaying the old with current truths
He Loves Me ... He Loves Me Not
Today I sit here alone
Having set you free to pursue your knightly quest
Heart a little heavy
Yet, paradoxically, lightened by the hope that
I have Done The Right Thing”
So as I sit and reflect I wait for the voice
Which comes, as ever, in its own time
"Whatever lies ahead, be thankful
for the joy you have known"
On another day
Another lifetime perhaps
We shall sit here together again
And write the next chapter ...
Continue to the grand amphitheatre
Of the Old Quarry
Circle the seven rings of the stone labyrinth
In search of deeper meaning
Did we ever find enlightenment?
Perhaps not ...
But it was fun trying
Paths Less Travelled
Her first great exploration was her own body. She had craving one day deep inside herself that she found only her hand could quash. Once she had started she couldn’t stop. She explored herself regularly in the outhouse buildings behind her parents ex farmhouse in southern France. During the endless summer holidays lying amongst the old piles of wood with the exquisite sun beaming down on her face, through the shattered weather beaten roof, mirroring the hot exquisite feeling she provoked in her own body. It was just the spiders, cobwebs and the silence.
She explored her body the minute she opened her eyes, surrounded by childhood fads she had outgrown - she was a woman now. She explored herself on freezing cold nights with the moon peeking through the nets forsaking dreams for sensations. She was like a foreign tourist in her own body exploring her landscape carefully and gingerly at first, then greedily and with confidence because now she knew the way. Her body then became like a favourite country that she kept returning to. Always excited to go there, the familiarity was comforting. Her hands were the compass and navigator.
It wasn’t planned when she strayed from her own island. She and her friends were drunk and in a bar that they weren’t old enough to be in. They got talking to some men.
She was fifteen and he was much older. He didn’t kiss her and he didn’t tell her he loved her. It was her first time she didn’t cry tears of romance but a little tear of pain. He left her to pull up her own skirt, amongst the bins and wooden gates in the lane. He left her with a bit of himself inside her and a longing for more. From that moment on exploring her own island felt pointless when she had the whole world to discover.
She sailed through college, then university taking every man she could. Some with different accents and different nationalities. Some of the views were good some were bad, some were big some were small- all were experiences. Each one she met was like reading a book. She couldn’t wait for the excitement of reaching the end except when she got there the excitement lasted as long as it took to turn a page. Just like a book when you finished it there was nothing left except a longing for more. The reading wasn’t entirely pointless though she took bits of information and learning from each then recycled and dispensed the knowledge at her will.
Faking orgasms was never a problem but love: that was a completely different matter. Faking love was hard and all the while she had restless feet. Some of the men she had met wanted to stop her sailing. They wanted her to be still and stop there. She just wanted to be ships passing in the night. She never wanted to stop and talk. They tried to anchor her. Then she let someone visit her island a little too much. She had always been the one that had gotten away but there was no getting away from him. So she tried to take a holiday from her travels and stay in one place, let another person onto her island, another person and only that person alone.
All the while she kept looking out at the endless sea and sky and wondered about the world. She felt like all she did was go round in circles on their island. All they ever did were see the same things, talk about the same things, watch the same things and just eat the same fish out of the same water. She soon felt she wasn’t sharing an island she were imprisoned on one. She wanted to swim away as fast as she could but he couldn’t let her go. She tried to let them drift apart but that didn’t work. One person’s happy island wasn’t necessarily someone else’s.
She was sorry but hungry for someone else. So she left him alone in the water. She had no idea he would drown himself. Sunken by rejection, heartbreak and spite. She felt like she never wanted to see him again and now she never would. Nobody would. He might not ever laugh again but he had definitely had the last laugh. Unlike most men he left her with something she would never forget - an unhappy accident. Whenever she swam with someone she made sure there were life jackets and rubber armbands but with him she must have gotten careless. Maybe the life jackets weren’t fastened right maybe one was torn maybe she let her guard down one night stuck on that desolate island just him and her.
This time there was something different inside her, growing by the day every day, for nine months. Now she was marooned again on her own private island all alone. Her feelings were conflicted. Now her needs and thoughts were for someone else. She worried also. Trying to travel with baggage was tricky. She would be anchored again only this time for the rest of her life. After much pondering she decided to give her baggage away. If you love something set it free but she set it free before she loved it. In case she loved it. She wasn’t the steadiest of ships. She knew there would always be the option to pull up the anchor and sail away regardless of who was on board. It was for the best.
She would always remember the pain and the smell of the hospital, the close foggy day. But she’d never remember it. It had been a him. She didn’t want to see it. She was scared her emotions might betray her. She was scared one look at him would trick her into thinking she could handle the responsibility. She gave her baggage away to someone who didn’t have baggage. Who couldn’t have baggage of their own. Someone who would take care of her baggage and love it unconditionally.
After that she told herself she wouldn’t travel so much. Then her body healed as quickly as her appetite. She threw herself into work and more men. Her 30’s and 40’s flew by. She climbed up her career ladder like she climbed onto men - quick and fast. She had everything she had ever wanted, not necessarily what everybody else wanted, but what she had wanted. She’d forgotten some of the countries she'd been to until she bumped into them again and got reminded. She gave a hasty apology and felt a rush of embarrassment.
Age! Slows! Everything! Her body had always felt like a vessel. First she was a speedboat, then a hovercraft, at her prime she felt like a cruise ship then a canoe going out occasionally on the water when she could. Then finally like a slow moving canal boat where she watched life pass her bye. Her travels got less frequent. She was determined to keep on sailing but the ship was getting old and the passengers were less eager and frequent. When she reached sixty her body had an apocalypse. The apocalypse every woman goes through. This time she was mooring up for good.
She tried different things different medications. It got better than it was but it wasn’t the same. An adventurous spirit was only as good as the legs that carried it, and her legs had gotten old. She got old. She reached a point where she realized there would be no more sightseeing. She didn’t have wooden carvings from Africa or bits of sand from mediterranean beaches shed walked on. She didn't have pebbles or shells she had collected from the four corners of the globe. She didn't have a lifetime of souvenir’s to surround her in her luxury apartment.
Instead she had memories and experiences. There were no children and grandchildren surrounding her deathbed but she was fine with that. Like some of the greatest travellers and explorers of all time she had travelled alone.
The Well Trodden Path
'Are you nervous, Ani?' Mother's soft voice comes from the doorway. For a moment I decide to pretend to be asleep but after tomorrow this will no longer be my home and I will regret not talking to her, one last time.
In my village, when woman marries, she may no longer call her mother, 'Mother'. Mother is her husband's mother and she is never allowed to visit her own blood family without him accompanying her.
'Yes,' I say. And I am. Tomorrow morning my life will change forever.
In my village, if a new wife doesn't bear children within one year of marriage, she is outcast and her husband may cancel the contract.
Mother comes and sits by me, on my mat. I lay my head in her lap. 'When I married Father, I felt the same,' she says.
And now? I want to ask her. Now how do you feel every single morning, not knowing what mood he will greet you with? Don't you still feel nervous?
In my village, violence against women is part of life. We are property. But in the market, some months ago, we heard a woman speaking. She didn't look like us, but what she said was about us. She told us that we were equal. I'd gone there to trade sugar with Mia. What we heard changed our lives. Like a light in my head, Mia told me later.
Mother rubs her hand against her face, where I know a bruise has almost faded. It's the palest yellow. She burned the food. I'd always felt her pain like my own and felt my own useless anger rise up and strike him back. But after hearing the woman in the market, I almost did it. Only Mother's warning, held in her eyes as she seemed to read my mind and my actions, stopped me. He would strike her again, and we all knew it.
Janu, the man I am going to marry, is gentle now. but they always are, in the beginning, Mia tells me. Her husband to be is called Feon. We are going to be neighbours, in our new lives.
'The night before I married your father, I almost ran away,' Mother says, not meeting my eyes. She takes my hand. 'But then I'd not have you, sweet Ani,' she says. 'It is always worth it. If I had run, I'd never have been able to come back. They would have looked for me. Nowadays they can look even further.'
Is she trying to tell me something?
In my village, love between women is forbidden. It is punishable by death. Mia and I, we are very careful.
'If I had run away, I'd have gone South. I hear there is help there, for women who need it.' Mother touches my cheeks with her loving hands. 'I will be here for you, when you are married. I will still be your mother, even though you musn't name me such.'
We hold each other, hard, each, I know, filled with words we cannot or must not say. I long to tell her and equally I know she longs to tell me her secrets, but it isn't our way. Secrets in a village are dangerous and would damage our ability to survive as a community. This is what the chief tells us.
Mother turns at the door and we hold each others gaze. She gives the slightest of nods, then leaves the room.
I think of Janu's size. His big hands. His booming voice.
In my village, when a woman is married, she must do whatever her husband tells her.
I've never been alone with Janu. But I know what he will want to do when we are. It will be nothing like the soft harmony that I share with Mia.
From a dark corner of my room, I withdraw my pack. There's not much in it; a few tools, some clothes, a little food.
In my village, women behaving strangely, hoarding food, talking too much to other women are there to be spied on. We have had to be very, very careful.
The men are in the village centre hut tonight. Before a marriage ceremony they creep together in the dark and do something, none of us women know what and we are all too afraid to try and look. If we were caught...
In my village, there are stories. Stories of ancestors who broke the rules. Like Luka, who argues with her husband in front of his family. Like Freya, who refused to bear her husband's children. Like her sister, who was unable to have any. They all come to bad ends. In my village, it is easiest to agree.
But things are changing. The woman in the market spoke of women who led. Women who hunted. Women who left their villages and travelled. before she was chased away, we heard.
Behind my village, there's a hill. It's on top of it that I've arranged to meet Mia. We've nevber been beyond it; it's forbidden.
In the darkest hour, I pull on my boots and strap on my pack. I creep from the room, into the common area, into the kitchen. I take a last glance around the lumpen darkness, filled with so many memories. The door sighs shut as I slip out.
And walk straight into someone.
A hand is clamped over my mouth, which is the only reason I don't scream.
'Hushhhhh,' whispers a voice in the blackness and my heart falls to the ground.
Mother. She has guessed.
I nod and she removes her hand. What is she going to do? Take me to the central hut now? Tell Father? Lock me in the room? All along, she's known.
'After talking to you earlier, I could see it in your eyes. I know you like I know myself. You came from me. I cannot let you do this...'
'No!' I begin, but she hasn't finished.
We stare at each other, the starlight enough for us to see each other's will.
'We talk later. Hush.' She pulls me into the shadows. 'If we are caught...' but she clamps that spoken thought down.
I can't speak. Mother? This? Then I notice the pack, strapped to her back. Hand in hand we slip behind and between huts. When we reach the safety of the edge of the wood I whisper, 'Stop.' I turn to face her. 'I have to tell you something. Mia and I...'
'You love her,' Mother says. 'I can see it. Where are we meeting her?'
In my village, women know each other. Far more than the men think we do.
When we heard the woman in the market talking, Mia and I felt something light up within us. A spark, like the ones that leap form the men's flints. We spoke of it often. Our love kept that spark shining. Now, with Mother next to me, fleeing silent in the darkness, I feel the spark grow into a flame, which burns hot inside me. Suddenly my fear is gone.
We climb the hill, helping each other over rocks; balancing each other.
Eventually, we reach the place I've arranged to meet Mia. She's not there. Mother and I sink down, our breath coming ragged.
'She'll be here,' I say but what are are both thinking is this: She's been caught. And this is the end.
We wait and we wait. We don't speak.
As dawn's slender fingers reach up over the edge of our world the pain in me has solidified into a rock of anger and fear. I want to go and fight them all, grab her back - for she's been caught, I am sure of it.
Then Mother notices something in the dim light, half-sticking up out of the earth. It's a piece of leather. She pulls at it and it breaks free of the stony ground.
We stare at what lies in her hand. It's a necklace I made Mia the first time we discovered our love. I feel the rock of anger dissolve back into pain. My tears fall between Mother and me. She knows, without me telling her. She pulls me close.
'Ani,' she croons, and rocks me back and forth.
'We must go,' she says. 'By now, they are close to discovering us. It's too late to go back.'
'I don't want to go back,' says my anger.
Mother stands and pulls me to my feet. 'For now, we must move. Lock those feelings away. Time for them later. Come, let's go.'
We begin to walk, faster and faster as we realise the danger we're in. The sun is coming up and we are exposed. In my village, women do as they're told. As far as I know, we are the first to run.
I hear the alarm-horn first, with my younger hearing, with ears that haven't been kicked and punched.
'They're coming,' I say, hearing the panic in my own voice.
And my mother, the stone in her voice striking down my panic, says, 'So we walk faster. And we find somewhere to hide until darkness falls. And in the night, we find a path, and we keep walking.'
The syrup strings of the last dance sound and my mates peel off like World War II bombers, targets in sight, blazing fire and fury through the strobes. I don’t follow them, avert my eyes as Stu gets a shake of the head from the best-looking girl, her nostrils twitching at his audacity. Pete has better luck randomly selecting a girl from the middle of the pack, she’s so surprised she accepts and they clutch at each other like neither can believe their luck.
Andy sways around the group as if he’s stuck in a current until a forward little thing asks him. I make a note of that tactic, not that I’m ever going to use it myself, not that I’d want one as hard as his looks, all elbows and eyebrows. I note it for someone who'll want every detail, who might just be able to kid themselves they were here too if I tell them everything.
I don’t even glance at who’s left, there’s no point, I took a group photo at the beginning. Stu launches himself on to the floor with the best-looking girl’s friend. It makes me smile how Stu still thinks he's making an impact despite the size of his undercarriage. The friend keeps peering over her shoulder to see what accepting Stu has done to her status in the group. Best-looking seems faintly crest-fallen as her expected partner selects someone else. She raises her chin and stares at me. She’s got to be kidding, once bitten twice shy. I still haven’t forgotten the mouthful she gave me last week.
All I’d done was refuse her kiss. She actually snorted at me. ‘For God’s sake! Have you learnt nothing? You’re a real paths more travelled type, aren’t you? You’re acting like we’re still sixteen. This is 2017, it's OK for a woman to kiss a man.’
Well that left me a bit flat because I’ve always thought of myself as an innovator, a guy who does things differently, who isn’t anything like all the rest. I definitely don't think I'm sexist like she implied. I know only too well a woman can do things much better than a man but I'm no follower. These school disco nights were my idea, a way to try and get Stu , Pete and Andy back on the social scene after their divorces. I thought it would make them feel more comfortable if it was less about profiles and side-swipes and more about luck like the rest of life.
I have to confess I was a bit nostalgic myself, kept thinking about the weekly disco where I met my wife, Sal. Eyes meeting in a crowd for weeks on end, shuffling gradually towards each other and how comfortable it felt when we finally did get to dance. Sally made it all so easy for me, it was like we'd known each other before but neither of us could remember where or when. I took my leather jacket off that night, wrapped it round her shoulders and that old, cool image never really went back on.
Did I truly appreciate my luck? Glorious butter-yellow hair, winsome grey eyes the size of saucers just before I kissed her that first time. Those lips the colour and warmth of diluted blood. Her chin tapering to such a fine point I love to stroke it, teasing her its sharpness cuts my fingers. She's fierce though when she needs to be. Five foot two of determination. But why would I fight her when she only wanted to make things right?
Even now she wants the best for me. She insisted I came these last few weeks, was adamant I should have the full experience. She’s got it into her head she wants to vet the next wife. She says widowers tend to remarry within a year and she needs to know I won't make a mistake. I said I’m not even a widower yet, you never know I might never be. She says I’m being an ostrich, burying my head in my hands rather than the sand and we must be practical. We have to face reality, choose our path through it.
I go and get my coat, ignoring the stare from the best-looking girl, woman actually, she must be in her forties. I don’t want to be here, I won’t come again. I’ll go home and sit on Sal’s bed. I’ll try and make her laugh describing Stu’s rejection and Andy’s new tactic. I’ll tell her the one she’ll need to vet is Andy’s new squeeze in case she eats him alive.
No I won't be bitchy about the women, Sal wouldn't like that. I won't tell her it was like walking into a wall of need, all those eyes darting, that fear of being left alone as palpable as it used to be. I won't say it moved me because I feel it so strongly myself, because I'm petrified that Sal can't fix things anymore. I can't even tell her because it wouldn't be fair.
I’ll reassure her that I do know she’s dying but I can't give in to it, not yet. I'll face it only when I have to and even then I won’t take the path most travelled. I've thought about it, of course I have. I could do what Andy, Stu and Pete are doing - hoping fate will fill a gap in themselves with someone who will do. But I can't stand the thought of being with someone else. I'm going to keep my gap because it's Sal-sized.
The smog of London's North hung outside the window, suspended motionlessly in the frozen air. Small birds vocalised their delight at the morning sun that rose without the promise of warmth on this foggy November morning.
Her bed, as any bed, was whispering that the universe outside these covers would have to wait. It was that special period just after the first alarm is switched off, where time ceases to measure seconds and begins counting moments before sinking back into sleep. The dream recaptured: adopting a cat that multiplied into five identical cats. One of them started scratching at the sofa her landlord had emphasised was particularly precious. What would he think of her, for adopting cats without permission? A disaster! She ran to stop it, but her mind was violently pulled into reality by the 'ping' of her phone.
The audacity of it. These felt like the most essential minutes of sleep before facing the day. And it was Wednesday. Where the weekend was still an eternity away, yet the exhaustion of Monday and Tusday had firmly set in.
'Good morning, Poppy! Please bring my blanket when you come this evening, Annabel is staying overnight. Love, Mum.'
The blue light of the screen caused the details of the room around it to blur and fade. She distantly remembered a conversation in which her mother had told her about the family get together on Wednesday, November 1st. It was unfortunate that this was the first time she recalled it since agreeing to attend.
Dropping the phone back on the bedside table, she rolled onto her back and resolved to reply later in the morning, she had told Mum last week she shouldn't text before 8am.
Closing her eyes and taking in a deep, irritated breath, she gingerly lugged her weight upright and staggered to the window, throwing open the curtains. The first light of day forced its way into eyes still accustomed to darkness, illuminating the tangled curls that stood almost on end and the tiny cartoon sheep on her button-up pyjamas.
Living alone for the first time, silence had become a bittersweet friend that had long outstayed their welcome, so she flicked on the radio upon reaching the kitchen.
'- minor delays on the M25 clockwise, further east-' change station.
Some unbearable pop song. Change station.
'- although there were no deaths, the court has ruled the attacker -' change station.
'- you know who would be a great sidekick for you? Olly Murs -' change station.
'- here on More Music Breakfast, Classic FM.' Perfect.
The memory of her previous commute haunted weekday mornings. Although rather demining, bring the lodger in the centre of London with a more successful younger sibling had certainly had its perks. Deciding to live alone had demanded moving further out, something she did not regret so much as she willed her Archive Assistant’s salary to double. The dread of the coming journey festered as she poured semi-skimmed milk over bran flakes, glided a hot iron over her blue and white striped blouse and shouldered her new winter coat. She relived the thrill of spotting it in an RSPCA shop window three days before. The scarlet garment had been draped over a cheap mannequin towering over her as she pressed her fingers to the glass, like a child gazing longingly at icecream.
Switching off the radio, she turned to the mirror by the front door. Admiring her bargain, she peered over her left shoulder as though her reflection was a photographer for a fashion spread, smiling wryly to herself. It had so far successfully sheltered her from Tuesday's ferocious winds, and Monday's sub-zero evening.
Although the flat was not heated, stepping out into the naked winter caused immediate recoil, the biting breeze washed over her wet lips like a thousand tiny needles. Onward march. This time of year the morning shadows stretched out endlessly, cutting sharp lines against the pale, heatless sunshine. The cold seeped passed her coat and into her viscera as she took it into her lungs, the air rushed towards her face with unfaltering urgency, forcing her to squint against it.
Her hands pressed tightly against the inner seam of the coat's pockets, one a tight fist and the other grasping her mobile phone. As she walked passed the corner shops and bakeries in their first hours of business, the time it had been stolen came to mind. It was summer then, at a crowded bus stop on Oxford Street. She had felt it slide away from her body, and in an unexpected surge of adrenaline she had spun around to grab a wrist that had already snached away into the crowd. She shuddered at the deflating memory, feeling again the painful realisation that her pictures would be impossible to recover. The insurance her father had insisted on buying covered the theft, but those frozen memories would never be replaced. Now, she hung tightly onto it in the safe sheath of her pocket, the dangers of living in a capital city learned and bypassed from experience.
Before she reached the station, her pocket vibrated. Shit, Mum again. In her strategy to put off replying to her first text she had forgotten about it altogether. Her mother's blanket lay in a limp heap at the foot of her sofa. Too late now. She would have to pretend she had not seen this one, either.
'Please do get back to me when you get this, dear! Love, Mum.'
She rocked back on her heels in exasperation. No need for that, there was nothing she could do now. 'Just reply at work,' she thought, 'you won't be blamed, and she might even be happy thinking you don't look at your phone until you get to work.'
Peering into the main entrance of the underground, the characteristic crowd of jaded, semi-animate statues packed closely together in the wide passage to the escalators. When a train came, they glibly shuffled forwards, repeating four or five times before making it onto the carriage. Among the faces were furrowed brows, pursed lips and vacant expressions staring off into the distance.
Although her destination was the same, she did not break pace and instead veered into the next, narrower corridor that led to a spiral staircase connecting the over and underground platforms. She had been awfully pleased with herself when she worked out this shortcut a month into her tenancy. Here, she tapped her oyster on the wall-mounted reader and joined the crawling descent of those changing from the Greater Northern to the Victoria line: the same throng of grim faces, black expressions and frustrating periods of static as the other route, but only twice did this group lurch forward and stop before reaching its goal.
On the platform, the red of her coat blazed among the subdue browns, blacks and greys. WIth her hair swept up in a slick style and black leather handbag tightly pressed to her side, she felt like a French business woman. Sometimes, she fantasised she was on the Metro in Paris, en route to some billionaire CEO to close a deal that would make her hundreds of thousands of euros. Silly distractions, but at least she looked the part.
The familiar voice sliced through the uncomfortable quiet: 'Victoria line. The train now approaching is to Brixton. Please stand back from the platform edge.'
A gradual crescendo reverberated from deep within the tunnel, bringing with it gusts of chilly artificial wind. Then, the vivid headlights, followed by blurred carriages crashing through like a ferocious artery as it came into dock.
Poppy had managed to slip into the second row back, but even still boarding was not certain. The anticipative passengers swarmed around the doors with hundreds of tiny, insistent stops. The passive travellers utilised as much force as was polite, pulling themselves in front of those that could make it before then, each one determined their destination was most imperative. Apart from one man, she noticed, who shoved his way rudely onto the carriage behind her target.
She spied a small unfilled space. The frantic beeping that warned of departure spurred her to leap onto the train, the doors flying closed behind her.
Her heart pulsating in her ears, she leant back on the glass and lowered her face into the upturned collar. While the coat had managed against ghastly winds, it was no shelter from the anguish of standing at 5’4” on a packed tube. Here, cocooned in the necks, chests and armpits of ordinary-sized people, she faced an arm stretched upwards with a pit of body odour; an intoxicatingly perfumed neck at eye level; and the body of a 6’ man whose liberally applied aftershave radiated from his chest. The hot stench from each mingled inescapably in front of her nose. The next carriage over, the man she had observed worked his way to the middle of the mass.
A forest of fabric, limbs and faces loomed. After such eagerness to board, none ever seemed grateful for making it. The diverse group were uniformly dressed, suits, ties, shirts and blouses clutching briefcases and handbags, folded newspapers and closed books without enough space to open them. Poppy envied a younger man with close-cropped curled hair sporting a pair of expensive-looking headphones. She wished to escape this solitary crowd as he did.
The man began fumbling around inside his backpack.
“The next station is King’s Cross St. Pancras. Doors will open on the left hand side. Change for-”
An ear-splitting crack drowned the announcement.
Her feet were ripped from the ground they stood on. The scene in front of her swallowed by a blinding yellow light punctuated by brilliant silver lines.
Time slowed. Her body contorted as it was tossed backwards. Each nerve jolted and quaked. Passing milliseconds poured forth waves of madding agony. Mouth filled with iron. Hair come undone and soared around her head. Hands glided out of their pockets and towards her face.
The crack left behind it a deafening ringing that smothered wailing screams.
Hitting the ground again. Breathing is hard now. Yellow had turned to orange.
Song Lyrics, rather than Poetry
(yes, I've written a melody accompaniment)
Hope basic formatting shows this as 8-line verses, each 'marked' by a variation on the final line
Paths more Travelled
Now once again country roads are calling And my old boots are full of holes
And I have just carved my secret symbol
Behind a roadsign at Westward Ho!
I'll leave from Cornwall and head for Scotland, Forgotten now winter's hungry days
I'll sharpen knives or I'll edge your scissors
I'll polish sunshine to pay my way
Where did my youth go? I can't recall it
But it was glorious, each day that passed I slept in flowerbeds along the roadside
Or in the arms of a pretty lass
With her it was my delight to dally
The scent of Spring in her lap it lay, I only sharpened her knives and scissors
But I got sunshine, and paid my way
For I was only a crazy tinker, Without a home or a resting place A petty thief, or a puppy stealer
And farmers slammed their gate in my face
So self-important, they knew their roots
Were planted in rich and fertile earth
I sharpened knives and I sharpened scissors
I polished sunshine and knew my worth
In those days poteen belonged to all men
'Twas cheap and cheerful, and bitter too!
The plants to spice it grew at the roadside
They gave some colour to every brew
Oh, drinking brothers, Oh late night singers
You drank yourselves to an early grave
But I kept sharpening knives and scissors
And picked absinthe on Midsummer's Day
Those who work daily will always judge me
A roving tinker who travels light But I'm a poet, and I'm a dreamer. And I'm a part of the summer nights
There are so many much better poets
Compared with them, I'm not worth a thing
But I can sharpen their knives and scissors
And thank them kindly to let me sing
Where are you now all the folk I once knew? Each pretty girl, every alehouse mug?
Half of you ended in Institutions
The rest died, drowned by the bottle's glug
But I am still hale and fresh and hearty! My hair's turned white, and my nose is red
While I still sharpen my knives and scissors
And polish sunshine to earn my bread
And now the long roads are ever calling
Cold in the mornings, midday so hot
But I can easily turn my grindstone And keep my nose red, deep in a pot I'm leaving Scotland, I'll head for Cornwall
Forgotten now winter's hungry days
I'll sharpen knives or I'll edge your scissors I'll polish sunshine to pay my way
Why are there so many people in the way?
I’m trying to traverse Trafalgar Square on my route to an important meeting, and there are people everywhere. They’re all staring around, moving at glacial speeds, blocking the walkways.
Don’t they know there are London residents attempting to get through, who don’t care about the living statues, and don’t have to stop in the middle of the pavement to consult a map?
I should have known better than to try and cut through here in the middle of the afternoon. I never learn.
A man dawdles right across my path and, in my haste, I don’t see the wheeled suitcase trailing behind him. Then I’m falling and the hard paving stones make for a jarring impact on palms and knees.
A loud voice sounds right in my ear, the words stretched out by a broad Amercian accent.
“Oh my god! Are you okay?”
There’s a hand under my elbow, and a plump, older woman, complete with yellow leisure suit and bum-bag, helps me to my feet.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I’m okay. Really.”
“No, it’s not. That man didn’t even stop to see if you’re injured. And you’re trembling. Come over here a minute and sit down.”
She leads me to the low wall around the fountain and sits me down next to the water. I find myself unable to resist. Even seated, I don’t have to look up very far to meet her eyes. They are crinkled with concern within a florid, fleshy face that nevertheless conveys motherly affection.
“There now. You just catch your breath.” She takes one of my hands and inspects the palm. “Doesn’t look like you’ve broken the skin. But that was a nasty fall.”
“Really, I’m okay,” I say. “Thank you, but I have to go. I have a business meeting.”
Her eyes widen. “Wait. Do you live here? In London?”
I nod, and her features transform into a delighted grin.
“You’re so lucky!” She sweeps an arm around to encompass the whole square. “To think you get to walk through here every day. It’s all so marvellous!”
I follow the arc of her arm with my gaze. The water sparkles in the afternoon sunshine. The stately stone lions look down on the scene with grave pride. The faint scent of honeyed nuts wafts from a nearby cart. People mill about, relaxed and happy, enjoying their holiday in the city I call home.
My rescuer points off to one side. “And Buckingham Palace is just down there.”
I know that. I’ve walked The Mall many times, but I can’t remember the last time I actually registered the beauty of the tree-lined approach to the palace. The dappling of sunlight through the leaves, the shining golden statue in the centre of the roundabout, the intricate royal seals all along the railings.
I travel the streets of London every day. I don’t think familiarity has bred contempt, but it’s certainly resulted in inattention.
I smile back at the woman.
“I’m really okay now,” I say. “Thank you for your help.”
And this time I mean it.
I have a question for the tiger, padding
endlessly around a path she has worn away
through three years of exploration.
She always keeps her home on her left,
and on the right a giant metal fence
that she has only once made contact with.
Why would you when it doesn't bend
with the wind, or run away in fear?
This same animal burnt bright for Blake.
If I could I would ask the tiger, what
would she do if the cage disappeared?
Would she stick to the path she knew,
or would she take the chance in a new world?
Paths more Traveled
Eyes glaced smondged upon.
Bodys left. souls lived on.
Faded their human form.
Animals too out of the blue.
A mission to survive.
But nature took.
The vision form.
But it doesn't stop.
The special souls, in thou thought.
With glistening eyes and silent thoughts.
Happy memories of closeness bonds.
From akeing ribs.
And laughter loud.
Important is they choose our love.
Given in return.
When entering the universe, we travel the way.
Stength and survival will carry us through.
Our thoughts and paths belong to us.
The hidden key is locked within.
It can't be spoilt.
You have a choice.
Past is past there's no going back, no magic wand no fairy dust.
Today all breaths, of all around.
Important noise, important sounds.
Help is needed for all of us, from the smallest word,or a lovely smi
Electrodes guide her hand like weathervanes
that watch the wind,
tracking errant current
as it flashes through his mind and limbs,
leaving jerks and shudders
in its wake.
A surgeon mapping epilepsy,
her scalpel searching
for the guilty spark.
Mapping the Storm
I only seem to write when I’m miserable. Ink across paper, tears across skin. I’m told that it’s good to keep a journal like this, to track these wild moods and make a map of the storm inside me. But the problem is it’s not a map, it’s just a record, a pitiful list. A map could show me a way to the edge of the woods, but instead I write words, insignificant black scrawls: futile, like dropping breadcrumbs along a path. I will only ever be able to trace my steps. Sometimes it does help, though, to let it all spill out, to feel cathartically cleansed. Sometimes it fools me into thinking that I’m finding my way out, only to look up and realise I’ve just made it to a clearing, and beyond the thick trees continue, gloomier than ever. Frustrated and in anger I rip out pages, throwing them across the room. The leaves fall pathetically, and my breadcrumbs blow away in the wind.
Tonight I’m at a hotel, in a grand ballroom. Rich curtains hang across ancient looking windows. Their glinting panes wink at me. The opulence of the chandeliers and the candle light reflect off the polished wooden floor. It’s a beautiful night, desperately beautiful. People talk and I smile, sipping wine and dancing. But colours begin to swim in front of my eyes. A woman in white and a man in black, and then a broader smudge of pastel violet. I can feel my skin turn cloudy and grey. At my wrists the veins grow in black silhouettes up my forearms. I clench my fists. Knuckles crack like frozen branches in the wind. I take another drink, let the bubbles tickle my tongue and then roll down my throat. Laughter comes to me from faceless figures, and outstretched arms invite me back. It’s too much to bear and I’m turning, walking, running, past the winking windows and up the stairs. I don’t stop moving until I find a space where I can be alone. It comes to me at last in the form of a smaller function room, abandoned apart from a low sofa and a bookcase set into the wall. I feel hollow yet weighted, and sink down into the cushions. The arms of the sofa curve round from the back, stretching forwards, far enough that I feel safely cocooned. They’re covered in a brownish pink velvet, quilted with matching buttons. The base cushions are a print of leaves and flowers. Broad magenta petals are clumped together amongst little white daisies and folding, mustard yellow perennials. All grow out of strokes of green blossom. My chest feels constricted and I loosen the fastening of my dress. The fabric lies heavily across me, and I want to crawl out of it, to crawl out of my skin even. I feel the emptiness in my stomach. I want to fill it up, I need to drown it. My eyes are closed and I’m watching the storm emerge, hearing the sky growl with the hunger that I feel. I need to be sick, but I’m not ill, just struggling to cope with the numbness. Finally, when I don’t think I can take it any longer, feeling rushes into me, and I am swelling with the consuming ache of sadness.
Tears rush down my itching cheeks. I welcome the misery, urging it to fill every void within me. I feel it prick the backs of my eyes, stinging the top of my nose, then running like phlegm down my throat. It finally fills my stomach and I wait until it soothes the arches of my feet. I am saturated. This hurricane has swept me up, a wild tornado, of which I feel every part. All control has been surrendered and I beg to disappear into the material beneath me. I let my hand fall to the side, run my fingers over the mossy carpet. Relaxing into the pain I feel myself starting to fade. Painted flowers
crawl up my sides; roots pull me under. Rain is pounding, soaking the soil that I am becoming. My sense of the wind weakens as I am drawn further from the surface. Sheltered in the ground, worms crawl across my skin, their trails replacing those once left by tears. I am disintegrated, yet more whole than ever. I am part of the earth, and I want to stay down here forever.
But time passes and I know that it cannot last. I will need to pick myself up, or somebody else will come to clean up the mess of my splintered soul. I will return to life for a while, but when I am calm and dull again I will begin to miss the sheer intensity of misery. Then the darkness will begin to creep in at my edges and I will return inevitably to a place of solitude where I can feed this crippling addiction. I am the storm chaser in his armoured van, suspended until the lightning comes to shock me, charging my yearning mind. I can never escape the storm, only map it, make a chart of its movements. Within it, I'm the sodden fields after the rivers have burst their banks. Without it, I’m a canyon, deeply empty, parched and cracked, waiting to be flooded again.
Your poems have distracted me
from my market strategy.
Well, I say distracted, but
it's always there, that
obsession with the intersection
of manmade / natural.
If this were a fairy tale
I would come downstairs to
find my report completed
by some kindly, bureaucratic
elves; but alas, it is not and
my brain always does this:
removes itself at points of
human stress to the lyrical,
the natural. Your poems
tell me f a life now past
and of what went before:
of flowers and mothers
now gone, and of
not much going on
but always half the
dialogue supplied by
the weather, the shadowy
hills, the lanes, the tracks
As it should be: people
using their brains to
study their brains
is never going to work;
what did the wind just say?
You know this place, you know the tides. You know it so well that you can almost identify the day of the year from the height of the tide, from the high of the spring and autumn tides to the lows or the summer and winter tides. You know the shape, the pattern of the waves, depending on the precise direction of the wind, how the waves flow, break, how the white surf skims off the tops of the waves under certain wind conditions. You know that at high tide the movement of the swell flattens out as a sine wave, barely advancing or receding as it turns. For quite a while you can sit in a place and watch the sea almost touch your feet and know that it will come no higher. A little bit further up there is a dried bunch of flowers where a man died only a few weeks ago. He went in chasing his dog in a storm. The dog survived but the man, he was pulled out to sea by the current. The water flows as it it is a thicker liquid than it actually is. At times it seems to boil, and you would believe that it is boiling except that the cold spray is spitting on your face. You feel the coldness in your hair, on your cheeks, on your chin. The wind dries the salt to your lips, and you feel the tiny cracks as you grimace at the incoming wind. The sea rises and falls like a heartbeat, insistent, endless, pulsing. The wind picks up for a second and there is an arrhythmia in the beat, which temporarily stops. Then a wave crashes harder onto the stone below, and your hair is full of spots of salty water. You laugh, because, yes, this does sometimes happen. You look around to see whether anyone saw this, but the promenade is deserted. The wind picks up quickly, whipping up the waves. And yet you stay where you are, somehow believing that you are greater than the force of the sea. More and more spray marks your body and your clothes. You pull your coat up around you, but you know you can never get dry from the salty water. The waves lash over your head and you have to close your eyes to stop the stinging. You feel the water all around you. You feel the water enter your shoes. Your feet are damp, your socks are saturated. Little by little the water covers every space on your clothing. The wind is nearly unbearable now, and yet you sit there facing the storm, believing that somehow you can beat it.
I sense one now
building from your soft pink skin.
like the vanilla seeds
I stir into purees,
comfort foods, custards
I can’t quite get time to eat,
whirlwind to the walls
when your limbs flail.
Sunlight, moisture, wind
making a hammerhead,
storm nurseries breeding.
sweep of features,
less than two-foot long
you’re a weather factory,
I’m just mapping the storm.
Chronic rain squalls,
thunder inside me then
your electric smile strikes.
Vast reaches flashing
so I wonder how close
you still are to the elements.
Only just born
do you know better than me
how to be truly alive?
Summer and spring are considered the best times of year to travel to Lithuania. The landscape is green and forested all the way down to the white dunes by the Baltic Sea. The days are long and the evenings are warm. They went in winter.
A man who claimed to be their dad had appeared out of nowhere on a late summer evening as their mum was in the courtyard hanging the laundry. She dropped socks and pegs and went as white in the face as a black woman can get. Then began a peculiar sounding banter, a language they’d not heard before. Jayce and Darryll stopped kicking their football and stood and stared. After a few minutes Glynis suddenly noticed her boys’ staring and hissed ‘Get inside, both of you. Now!’ They ran into the living room and pressed their little noses against the window to keep up with what was going on.
Eventually, hands on hips, Glynis looked down, shaking her head, as though defeated. She brought the man inside and said, ‘Boys.’ She took a deep breath. ‘This man is your father.’ Being ten, Darryll knew what a father was. He’d met fathers of his mates from school. Fathers were men who lived at home with the mother. This is what Miss Albertson called a family. Mum, dad, two children. They were children, Jayce and Darryll, and they had a mum. Now it seemed, as they also had a dad, they were a family. But Darryll’s mum didn’t see it that way and neither did the man who wasn’t called Dad but Maurice. Jayce was only six so he probably didn’t get it. He sat on the sofa next to Darryll and swung his legs, whining, ‘Mum, can I have banana pancakes for tea?’ But now they had a dad to boast about in school.
Somehow, Maurice had arrived at some cash. Glynis didn’t ask questions. She never had cash left over from her cleaning jobs so she let him take Darryll and Jayce out on ‘grand escapades’ to the seaside where he bought them ice cream, smoked dope while they ate it, and then took them home again. Before Christmas came sneaking round the corner that year, they had learned in school about how some countries have snow all winter and people go skiing. There was a place called the Alps which had mountains. The boys ran home after school that day and asked their dad eagerly, ‘Dad, can we go skiing? Do you know what the Alps are? Have you ever seen snow? Because we have once and it was the best!’ Maurice inhaled deeply on his joint, said, ‘The Alps, eh,’ and passed out on the sofa. Their mum said, ‘Your dad has never seen snow and wouldn’t know what to do with a shovel.’ Then mumbled quietly to herself ‘But I would.’
At dinner the following day he announced cheerfully, ‘We will go skiing!’ Jayce and Darryll were overjoyed and couldn’t wait to tell their mates at school the next day. Their mum didn’t say a word until after they’d gone to bed. Then they heard the peculiar banter through the living room door. ‘Mum’s probably having a go at dad’, Darryll whispered to Jayce. ‘Probably because he didn’t ask her first if he could take us.’ Darryll heard his mum say in English, ‘If anything happens to those boys, I will chase you back to that no-good mother of yours and stuff you up with your own pot and burn you till the whole village weeps.’ Dad’s reply was too low for Darryll to hear.
Rules were set. Promises were made. Suitcases were dragged out from storage cupboards. They were ready to go. Maurice was loading baggage into ‘my royal carriage’ that was the old battered VW van that he was to drive to a friend’s in London. Here, he and the boys would get on an airplane and fly to a place in the Alps called Lithuania. Jayce and Darryll couldn’t wait. Right before Darryll got in the car his mum grabbed him by the arm and pulled him close, held his face in her hands and looked into his large brown eyes with a fierce expression on her face. ‘Don’t let Jayce out of your sight’, she said, and Darryll nodded solemnly. On the road to London Darryll thought of all the things he had heard about the Alps: tall mountains, tall trees, lots of snow, skis you put on your feet to glide down a hill, right on top of the snow. He was very excited. When they got to Lithuania there was not an altitude in sight. Snow hadn’t touched the ground in days. But there were lots of tall trees.
Maurice had rented a small cottage in a small village in a big forest. It looked like it was built of clay, had two small squares for windows, with no glass, just shutters that clapped away during the windy nights. Jayce and Darryll sat huddled by the fireplace until their dad finally understood and went looking for firewood. After a few attempts he managed to control his frozen fingers long enough to get a fire going. But it went out after a draft of cold air shot down the chimney chute and snuffed out the puny flames. The landlady eventually took pity on the two small dark boys and got her husband to check on the fire a couple of times a day.
On the second evening Maurice exclaimed, ‘We will go to Jamaica. We’ll feel more at home among our own people. People of our colour,’ he said.
‘We won’t have any friends to play with,’ said Darryll.
‘Don’t worry about that, my boy. I have lots of kids your age to play with’.
‘What about mum?’
Maurice ignored the question and said, ‘How about you Jayce? Wouldn’t you like to come home with your daddy?’
‘But I don’t want to go! I want my mum,’ cried Jayce.
‘Don’t worry about your mum, son. She must go back home soon. England is no place for her, but she is a stubborn woman. A stubborn woman.’
‘Now, don’t worry son, everythin’s gonna be alright.’ He leant back in the creaking old rocking chair and puffed on his joint some more and started humming a tune they didn't know.
The next day as the boys were poking about the forest with sticks while their dad sat in the house smoking joints, Jayce said, ‘Darryll, I don’t like dad.’
‘He’s not our real dad, Jayce. I don’t believe he is.’ Jayce was quiet for a moment, then said, ‘So, it’s OK not to like him?’
‘Yeah, it’s OK. I don’t like him either.’
‘I wanna go home to mum.’ Jayce threw his arms around his brother’s waist and began to sob.
They sat down against a tree and Darryll held Jayce close as they pulled their hoods up against the bitter cold wind.
‘Jayce, we’ll go home soon. Don’t worry. We’ll go home soon.’ If only it would snow, he thought.
As the wind continued to blow, large, fluffy, weightless snowflakes began to drift among the trees. Single flakes drifted gently down, then more and more until the boys could see the snow settling on the dead leaves on the ground, on dried branches, on the pine needles and on rocks. First a sprinkling, then covering all that it fell on. Slowly, determinedly.
It wasn’t going to stop snowing. It just went on and on. ‘Look Jayce, snow.’ Jayce allowed his first smile since they’d got to Lithuania. As the winds began to whip up the snow into a frenzy, Jayce and Darryll struggled to find their way back to the cottage. They weren’t lost, they just couldn’t see for the snow. It kept stinging their eyes and they walked into a tree because they had to keep their eyes shut. Suddenly, Darryll decided not to go to the cottage. ‘Let’s make it to the cave,’ he shouted, his words muffled by the snow and the winds. He dragged Jayce along behind him and they got to the little pile of branches they’d built as a playhouse on the second day of their stay. They crawled underneath and the lumps of dead leaves and soil they had stuffed between the branches kept some of the wind out. The snow fell all around the little den and quickly created a white mound among the trees. As the snowstorm raged on it seemed that a tiny igloo had materialised in the vast Lithuanian forest.
The boys didn’t hear their dad calling as he waded into the snowstorm to look for them. He didn’t see the mound of snow under which his sons lay huddled. The snowstorm obliterated all words and froze all movement. It became so fierce that Maurice could not continue in the knee-deep piles, or against the speed of the winds that pulled his scarf so tight around his neck he could barely breathe. A sudden gust pushed him over and he fell on his face into the snow. He clawed his way towards a tree to hold on to. Until his arms let go and he fell deeper into the cold white comfort.
Darryll and Jayce awoke, their two little bodies kept warm in the air trapped beneath the layers of snow. It was a crisp winter day. A blue sky stretched above the forest and brilliant white snow covered everything in sight. The cottage was snowed in. Jayce and Darryll were exalted and plodded about and rolled in the white fluff. They built a snowman and dug deep for rocks and twigs to make a face. They looked at each other with red roses in their cheeks, their broad smiles resembling that of the snowman.
They’d made it snow.
We were expecting her unwelcome visit thanks to the ingenious invention of Radar, which had been developed during the dark, frightful years of World War II. All we could do was prepare for her inevitable onslaught. She was conceived and born on the African continent and like all newly born, was small, but would soon grow into an uncontrollable, raging demon.
She knew that she would be well fed as she wafted slowly out over the rugged coastline and started her journey of utter destruction. She met several others just like herself as she travelled westward, all from the same nursery. Soon, they joined together in their deadly dance and began their feeding frenzy. The ocean temperature being warmer than normal became a vast, sustaining hotplate and she delighted in this.
The suction created by her rotating winds allowed her to draw copious amounts of moisture into her ravenous coils and encouraged her to spin furiously. As she approached the Leeward Islands she knew that a useless name and meaningless numbers would be assigned to her in a futile attempt to understand her. Maybe it was believed that in doing so it might lessen her fury but she knew better. She had become a grotesque, howling monster and desired to enter the history books.
She was the first of many, many more to come and now there would be no stopping her. Sated, she headed straight for the nearest land mass to wreak her vengeance.
It started well. One of the more community-focused mothers contacted the Residents’ Association, asked if we’d be interested in the County Council's self-policing parking scheme. There was universal enthusiasm at the committee meeting and I’m not sure that’s ever happened before. I joined when I first moved here, keen to meet new people now I'd retired.
Sadly it’s the same bunch of tutting bookends month after month. There's nobody lively, like me, no one I would want to spend more time with. Every time I suggest something new they gather themselves up and point out it didn’t work back in 1982. The meetings have got so dusty I start sneezing the day before.
But this time they listened so I met with the proposer straight away and it sounded straight-forward, a perfect project, a way to make a difference, unite our little community. We both had a bit of time on our hands so we agreed we would lead it, be the ones that came out if there was a problem. We made ourselves a poster, contacted the organisers, asked for more details.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when those details arrived. It was a proper, serious set-up and they were giving out high-vis jackets. I showed the proposer, otherwise known as Pam, the signs to erect, mobile numbers to call, direct links to the police and the County Council. All we needed now was someone to park illegally.
Sharon didn’t count, of course. I mean where she is you have to park on the pavement, the road isn't wide enough, we measured it together. George too, he can’t walk all the way from the parking bays to his apartment, there was no way we could send the pictures of his car.
I was more enthusiastic about the cowboy mothers dropping off at the primary school but they all seemed to know Pam’s name. After a couple of weeks they all knew mine too, I’m doing a bit of child-minding for a few of them now. I mean Charlotte has no time at all, she can barely still the engine as she flings the kids out.
Well a month went by and I got a snarky email from the scheme leader pointing out the kit was expensive and we didn’t seem to be very effective with it. I nearly sent his high-vis jacket where the sun doesn’t shine but Pam thought we should have a meeting. We invited everyone, we really did but when I looked round the room it was the same old suspects sitting there. My nose started running.
They all agreed we should be extra-hard on the tradespeople with big vans, the idiots with campervans who used them twice a year and blocked people’s views the rest of the time. We thought there might be a problem with people moving here from London – they didn’t seem to understand not parking on yellow lines. I agreed with that one. The young guy opposite me had obviously just split with his wife and she seemed to be always dropping the kids off, sat in the middle of the road like a great, squat toad.
The next time I spoke to her, showed her the signs and she told me to stuff myself. I took a video of her car as she screamed abuse at me. He came out and told her she couldn’t treat people like that and there she went again ruining everything for him. We were left in the road with the kids after she’d fingered both of us in turn and screeched away. ‘Well really,’ I said.
‘You try being married to her. I’m Duncan by the way.’ He held his hand out while the other arm gathered the children to him and shepherded them on to the pavement. Turns out he wasn’t from London at all, nice local boy but he’d rather I didn’t send the video because it would be him who had to pay the fine, not the woman we both now referred to as bitch-face.
Undeterred I tackled the family with four cars. It wasn’t illegal parking as such but they weren’t leaving much room for the rest of us which might contribute to the yellow-line problem. The parents were charming, virtually running the scout group singlehanded, him a solicitor on call at night and her a social worker who did complicated adoption cases, often in other bits of the country. In other words they needed two cars. Then the eldest daughter worked at Gatwick and couldn’t get there on public transport for the night shifts. The younger one was a community nurse. I came away thinking we should be providing them all with chauffeurs.
Then Pam got lucky and found a company van right on a corner blocking the way. She called me and I marched right round to join her. I was so disappointed when I saw that it was Colin, the local handyman, even worse when we found out he’d abandoned the van to try to help Pauline at Number 22 whose water was doing a fountain impression in the kitchen. Although we did have a bit of a laugh while we were mopping up he also put us right on the making vans park elsewhere thing. Colin reckoned there was expensive equipment in his van and he needed it within earshot overnight.
Finally an HGV ignored the specific no entry for HGVs sign and blocked the top road good and proper. Both Pam and I were there in our smart vests snapping away while the driver swore at us in a language I still haven’t identified.
‘Please,’ the driver stopped swearing and gestured at me, ‘come and see my problem.’ He opened the back of the lorry up and there was a huge bathroom suite, one of those specialist disabled ones. ‘It doesn’t fit in the smaller lorry and the Mr Albert is coming home from hospital tomorrow. I have to get it there for them to plumb it in. I can’t carry it from the main road, can I?’
Probably not. We knew who Mr. Albert was, our oldest resident, been here since he was a boy. Mrs Albert, Jean, had told me the hospital wouldn’t let him come home unless there was a ground-floor bathroom and he’d been stuck in there for months. She thought he was losing the will to live. You don’t argue with that so Pam, Colin, Pauline and I helped the guy unload. He told us his company didn’t care about finding the right sized vehicle for the job. He was forever being sent places his lorry didn’t fit. It had been good for his turning skills but not for his nerves. He didn’t like upsetting people.
We supervised him reversing back up the one-way street. Neither Pam or I took any photos at all, just waved him off at the end. Then we looked at each other as we took off our vests. ‘You know what?’ I said. ‘I think we should send these things back.’
She grinned at me. ‘Too right. They’ve done nothing for the community at all . We haven’t gained any insight into our neighbours, we’ve made no new friends and neither of us looks good in that yellow.’
Franz Meyer gazed out of the mullioned window on the second floor with a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. Perhaps satisfaction was the wrong word. Contentment fitted better, maybe. In any case, it was of no consequence whatever.
He took off his glasses and began to polish the lenses with the dainty little handkerchief that had been his wife's. It had a little edelweiss in the corner which he stroked absentmindedly as he smiled at the loneliness of the winter sun. He was what most might call an average looking man. He was of medium height and slim build. His thin white hair was clean and combed. His clothes were neat and functional: grey slacks; white shirt; black shoes. He was the epitome of economy - but this was more, how would one say? A by-product, than a personal mantra. The Meyers were a happy clan. They had always been so. Franz thought it was because they had never been 'needy'. Franz's father, Otto, was ninety-three and still walked to the bakery at ten 'o' clock every morning to pick up the moist rye bread that he loved so well. Like Otto, Franz had never had a severe illness in his life. Of course there had been the usual childhood maladies like whooping cough and mumps, and he remembered that he had had a head cold in the spring of seventy-five, but that had been it.
His wife, Lotte, had never understood any of it; she had not understood him either. She had left him, when he was fifty, for a postman who lived in Gunzburg. He had since learned that she had left the postman too. It was just one of those things, he supposed. She would always be a far away field. A lot of people were like that.
He had tried to explain the whole thing to her once, but she had thought him mad. It had been after the death of their son Julius.
The bakery had been in the family since Otto's paternal Grandfather had built it in the middle of the nineteenth century. His father, Albert, had added another four ovens in the autumn of nineteen twenty and the business had prospered under succeeding generations of Meyers, the most recent of which was Willi: Franz's eldest boy.
All the Meyers attributed their successes and relative prosperity to the 'Mutti'. Franz checked his cheap wristwatch and was surprised to see that it was almost twelve. Father would be at Gratz's soon.
He put his spectacles back on and walked over to the mahogany hat stand to fetch his overcoat. It was not yet spring, but he could almost taste it in the crisp air as he closed the front door of his apartment building. He loved this time of year as he loved all the other seasons. Each one held an endless fascination for him. His thirst for understanding remained undiminished, and indeed strengthened, with every month that passed.
At sixty-four he felt that the world lay stretched in front of him like a treasure map - especially now when he was so nearly there. Another few nights perhaps. He had almost succeeded yesterday, after all.
Although young Willi understood the Mutti as well as any of them, Franz sensed that this age was gasping for air. If it wasn't for his absolute faith, he might have despaired. But he knew that the Meyers would continue to thrive - not because it was an ordained thing; but precisely because it was unordained. The individual was responsible for the continuation of the process. Everything, that could and would be, lay with the person. Once one understood that - it was easy.
He pondered the flumes of fog his breath made as he turned up the collar of his coat against the icy breeze borne by the river below. His father would take his weekly beer ration today. He enjoyed these gentle meetings with Otto. Together they took stock of their world and their people; they were co-conspirators, he supposed.
As he turned into the side alley, he saw his father seated at his usual table on the cobbles.
Otto was a belligerent turtle in a thick brown overcoat.
At this particular moment the old man was luxuriating in a beam of sunshine that gave him a bright white aura and suffused his face with pale golden light. He was drinking coffee from an orange cup and had a large slice of gateau at the ready.
" You're late Franz, I almost had yours as well."
He said, gesturing at the plate.
One of the things that Franz loved about his father was his innate honesty. Otto ordered another coffee from a passing waiter and smiled at his son fondly.
"Oh, nothing much Father, I lost track of time watching the starlings this morning."
The old man took a silver box out of one of his voluminous pockets and tapped some snuff onto the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger.
"Very interesting birds."
"Yes, do you remember telling me about little Hans?"
Otto rubbed his nose and blinked furiously for several seconds before replying.
"Ah, yes. Little Hans. He kept me alive. I think about him still."
During the war Otto had fought with the sixth army, under Paulus at Stalingrad. Ivan had encircled them. It had been bestial.
"You know, he came limping to my hand one morning when I was trying to roll a cigarette."
" Yes Father, I know." Replied Franz, smiling.
"Little bugger thought I had food. Well, that's what I thought then. 'Course now I know it was the Mutti all along; just like Papa had told me. Did I tell you that I had to fight off Muller? Caught him just as he was trying to catch him. Wanted to eat him, you see. Yes, he came to me Franz. All the others were in huge flocks. Sometimes you'd see them in such numbers that it was hard to tell the difference between them and the smoke. They looked like the smoke, but the eye knew that they weren't. The smoke could never flow and warp like the birds. There was no beauty in the smoke, you see. There was only ugliness. Yes, those birds would swarm up from the corpses at dusk heading for their roost. But before they flew they would dance their dance. Little Hans would watch them too, but he never showed any interest. He liked my coat pocket far too much, the beggar. Figured he owed me one for fixing his leg you see."
Franz took a drink from his steaming cup.
"Stayed with me right to the end he did. Never made a sound unless he wanted to draw my attention. Once, it was a Russki food convoy. We were well into our run then alright. The Stukas had blown it sky-high; but Hans smelt it out. Led me straight to a crater with three boxes of grub in it. Pristine they were. Ham and sausage; good bread and butter, and over a thousand tins of fish. Just me, Muller and Stoppsel. We walked right through their sentries; all the way back to a smashed army. I'd put on about a stone. Our 'sawbones' couldn't believe it; couldn't believe I wasn't in the same nick as the other two. Stoppsel died the following day. But, you see, I knew that everything would be alright. I had the belief. That was the difference. It still is."
Franz nodded as he finished the last of the cake. Smacking his lips, he took Lotte's handkerchief out and wiped the corners of his mouth.
"Their cherry gets better every Thursday Father, I swear."
The old man grinned.
"I know, but it's still not as good as ours is it?"
"No, that's true." He said.
As he made his way back, past the Rathaus, he remembered the day when his father had taken him down to the Fischerviertel. After a few obligatory weissbiers his father had shown him the spot, on the Blau, where he had thrown away his military decorations. He had laughed as he watched them sink into the inky depths.
"Your Grandfather Albert showed me this exact same place, Franz. He came home without a scratch on him. When I was about your age he said, 'Come with me lad'. He told me about Frezenburg Ridge; Flers-Courcelette and Poelcapelle and he flung all his iron-mongery straight in here, like I did. You should have seen him laugh."
That was the day when Franz learnt about the Mutti, and how she looked after those who looked after themselves; how she conferred happiness on those who saw happiness in her creatures and her weather and her promise: a snail-trail in the dawn-light; a laugh from an old Grandmother; grass blown sleek in the wind - the hidden landscape of infinite hope that was all around us. And above all, the beauty that reposed in oneself waiting to be found. This was his truth.
It took a little perseverance of course. That's what made Franz the baker that he was too. As a child he had marvelled at the intangible life of yeast. To mix up a few simple ingredients and return to find a piece of dough doubled, or trebled, in size still amazed him. It was magic. He had imagined the process. He had read about the science. He had instituted it himself thousands of times in the hot cellars below Wilhelmstrasse. For the last three years he had dreamt about it at least once a week: the slow upwelling; the lightness; the lift.
And he was so close.
What was required was nothing. Nothing, but the Mutti.
Franz entered his apartment quietly and removed his coat. The shadows of evening were creeping along the walls, and outside a steady sleet had begun to fall. He turned on the gas fire and struck a match with a steady hand and thought of the hungry carp that would be prowling along the margins of the Danube in search of supper. The flames flickered and danced like the starlings of Stalingrad. He smiled to himself and set a small pan of milk on to boil on the ugly rings of the old cooker in his small scullery. As he shook the coffee can he imagined Lotte moving from window to window in a high street somewhere. Tomorrow there would be more windows and more coats or bags or ... whatever. He hoped that she could find some measure of contentment before it was too late. She had been a good Mother; she could have understood the Meyers' faith.
Franz did not understand the reverence in which this generation held acquisition. Such emptiness; such lack of vision, he thought.
He sat on the tiles in front of the small fire and prayed that Willi would not fall prey to the inanity of wealth and all the evil that could come of it. He thanked his Mother for all that he had and for all that he had not.
Julius was his lost child; killed by a tram right here in this town. In his heart, Meyer knew that the Mutti held his boy, ageless and perfect, in her arms. He moaned softly as the torrent of tears streamed from him. He had once thought that it was self-pity that caused his immense sorrow - but it was not. The despair that was still so sharp, after all the years that had passed, was as natural as the yeast that he dreamt of. And as he thought this comfort came to him, and the milk smelt good. He had no little Hans; but he had little Julius. He closed his eyes and, slowly, began to hover. Franz Meyer was rising. He smiled, and the hidden world smiled back.
We heard the Earth die
thirteen minutes late,
broadcasters bleeding into static,
our isolation wrought by clichés.
Mushroom clouds and escalation.
We are rootless.
Settlers who came to draw
the barest outline of mankind
now practice necromancy,
forcing life from Martian soil, and treasure
from fool’s gold.
Conflict has been our inheritance
since the Romans saw blood red
and named it for their god of war.
We came here as rivals, claiming lands
careful distances apart,
homeworld nations replayed
under new skies.
Now borders turn to vapour
like our homeworld.
United we stand.
Uneasy, but we stand.
It's a cliché to say
A chain breaks at it's weakest link
But the most cunning adversary
Can spot that fault from a distance.
Their stare running along
The length of a line of militant defenders
Whose eyes all focus forward
Picking out those without the will to fight.
Or going one by one in turn
From house to house, office to office
Where each individual has most to lose
Seeking out unseen differences.
Planting the seed of doubt
That grows in every unique mind
That asks the question:
How united are you, really?
Because it's not enough
To be united
You have to believe
Everyone else is too.
I opened the door and found I was employing my secretary to polish her nails.
“You expecting any?”
“Velma, that mouth of yours is going to be your undoing one day.”
“Don’t bet on it. You got company though. In your office.”
“This is the waiting area.”
Velma crossed her legs. She has the kind worth crossing.
“Listen, I can take one crying dame but two...”
“...of a kind. You’d better straighten your tie before you go in there.”
“What do they want?”
Velma stood up and grabbed her coat.
“Guess they need an attorney, Jimmy. That’s what it says on the door. You go figure it out. I’ve got a hot date waiting.”
She brushed by me, close enough to drown me in her scent. She knew how to make an exit.
I straightened my tie, took a deep breath and opened the door.
“Ladies, I’m sorry I’m...”
They both turned around. “Mr Valentine? Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. I was just telling my sister here that you might never come today...”
I looked over at the quiet one.
“I told her not to fret, Mr Valentine. I knew you’d be back. Your secretary told us you had a previous appointment.”
“She says a lot of things. Most of them you shouldn’t believe.” I walked over to my desk and sat down.
“So I guess you are...”
“Twins.” They both shrieked it in perfect time. “See, Myrna, I said he’d be good.”
I sat back. Apart from the fact that one wore a red fox fur stole and the a white one, possibly ermine or maybe polar bear, I couldn’t tell them apart. Their faces were heavily powdered, their lipstick smeared a little too thick. They wore gold looped earrings that were identical and their fingernails were long, almost claw like and painted in the same deep red as their lips.
“Can I offer you a drink?”
“Oh, we don’t drink Mr Valentine. We’re Mormon you see. From Utah, originally.”
“Is that so? Mormon, eh. I would never have guessed.”
I opened my desk drawer and pulled out a bottle and one glass.
“I hope you don’t mind but it helps me think. So what brings you all the way from Utah?”
I poured out a small snifter and glanced at the one wearing the dead fox. Her eyes were on the bottle and the look on her face seemed to betray her religion somewhat.
Myrna began to cry. Her sister passed her a handkerchief.
“Don’t fret so Myrna. Mr Valentine, my name is Erline Neeskens. This is my sister Myrna White, that's her married name. We have a problem, Mr Valentine,” she paused. It was well rehearsed. “Well Myrna does, one which I hope you might help us with. I'm her sister and if she has a problem, so do I."”
“All for one..." I quipped. They giggled. "Go on.” I was more than intrigued.
“Myrna and her husband...”
“I’m not a divorce attorney.”
“Oh, divorce is not an option.” She nudged her sister. “Show him, Myrna.”
Myrna White stood up, put one leg on the chair and brushed away her coat. She lifted up her skirt to reveal the tops of her stocking. It was quite a show. It was also quite a bruise.
“He kicked me.”
“It’s not the first time, Mr Valentine. And he drinks and he does things with..." She held her sister's hand tightly. "...other women.”
“It still smacks of divorce to me.”
“Let’s cut to the chase, Mr Valentine. My husband is worth a fortune. He's a Mormon of course. Have you heard of Logan White? No, I don't suppose you have..."
"He owns hardware stores, in Utah. Ten of them in fact." Erline interrupted.
"And three in Idaho and one in Illinois. There's a lot of money in hardware, Mr Valentine. If I divorce him I won’t get a penny. However in the event of his death I get everything.”
“He hasn’t made a will.” Erline said.
“I need you to be a little clearer.”
“We want you to defend us.”
The sisters looked at each other and spoke in unison.
I sat up straight and poured myself another drink although this time the glass was grateful.
“Murder? Whose murder?”
“My husband’s of course. We don’t kill perfect strangers do we, Erline?”
Erline shook her head.
“But he’s not dead.”
“Not yet,” Erline whispered, “and we plan to get away with it. We’ll be the most obvious suspects, you see so we thought we’d run it by you, you being an attorney and all.”
“Are you two crazy? I’d be an accessory. What’s to stop me going to the cops?”
“Well, apart from client confidentiality...”
“Technically you’re not my clients.”
“... then how about one million dollars. Myrtle’s husband is a very rich man.”
I paused and gave a little whistle.
“One million dollars, you say. Hardware certainly does have its merits. Okay. I’m all ears. Run it past me.”
They both crossed their legs in perfect synchronicity.
"All for one..." said Erline
"...and one for all." Myrna said. " You know Mr Valentine, perhaps we will have a drink after all...”
The heat under the dome was oppressive, and sweat dripped from Alejandra’s forehead as she waited for the umpire’s whistle. The whistle would sound, the winches would lift the barricade, and the blood would flow. Like the last time, and the time before that. But this time it was noon they awaited, and she could smell the sheen of sweat accumulating under Abigail’s leathers to her left, feel the heat radiating from Hugo’s bare arms on her right.
As always, before the fight, her thoughts were troubled and strange. When they won the first fight, the crowd had bayed for blood, but Hugo showed mercy. They’d been flogged for that afterwards, in the cage below the dome. Hugo hadn’t shown mercy the second time. Alejandra could still feel the changing resistance as her short sword pierced the throat of the blonde girl, helpless and kneeling before her. She closed her eyes against the thought, tried to clear her mind.
“Alex! Focus.” When Hugo whispered it was harder to detect the high voice, unsuited to his dense frame. She opened again.
If they won, would Hugo show mercy? Had he thought the flogging more terrible, or the sawing off of heads, the vicious cheers of the thousand spectators?
And if they lost, what mercy could they expect? What had they a right to?
She looked at the sky. The sun almost directly above now, the little ring of perfect blue around it, and the yellow-orange haze stretching to the horizon in all directions. That blue had been the whole sky once, before The End. If they won today she would ask for inks and paper, she would draw the time before humanity’s dregs fought in the radioactive dust of its former glory.
There was a long, sharp blast from the whistle, a roar from the crowd, and a deep groan from the winch chains as they protested the strain of lifting the barrier. Alejandra checked the strap on her hide buckler and pulled down the half-visor on her helmet. Her sword flashed in the sun as she pulled it from the scabbard, glorious and shining.
Not long after, perhaps an hour though she had no way of knowing, her hands shook as she washed down the sword. She’d opened a man’s guts with it, and the stink of his blood, shit and bile had to be washed out of the leather handle unless she wanted to smell it forever. The heat had gotten worse, far worse, when the fighting started. That had saved them in the end, Hugo’s insistence that the three of them carry water flasks.
When the barrier went up, all seven of the enemy burst through at once, swinging maces and clubs, hoping for a quick victory. That shattered their front line. Alejandra rolled away, and Hugo and Abigail ran. The other four didn’t react so quickly. Big Axel managed to take two of them down with his spear before they caved his head in. The other were surrounded and clubbed to a pulp in moments. Then began a long, slow manoeuvring game around the dome. With lighter weapons and less armour, Alejandra’s friends didn’t dare engage. They retreated, and when they were surrounded they parried and slashed and ran, drawing blood from a dozen cuts, drinking from their flasks.
Eventually the enemy began to shed armour, but by then the sun had done its work. Slow reactions and weakened limbs meant no time to block a quick thrust, and no armour meant those thrusts were fatal. It was the last man’s guts she was now using to turn the water in her basin a sickly brown-red.
A wave of dizziness swept over her and she leant forwards, steadying herself on the basin and drawing big gasping breaths. When she opened her eyes the girl who stared back from the water didn’t look like her. Drawn around the eyes. Dried clumps of spattered flesh in her tangle of hair. Little scar like a question mark on her cheek.
She sobbed then, and vomited more than once. Wretched and hot and cold and shaking, she told herself that it would be okay. There was only one team left, only one fight remaining, and she was a survivor, like her mama had been.
In the month’s wait until the next time they entered the dome, she begged and pleaded, waited patiently and bribed with her body, and eventually she got her inks and her paper. Sitting in her three steps by three cell, cross legged, she re-made the world that had been, drawing with her fingertips the way she would with charcoal.
The first image she made was a black figure, standing on black ground, staring up at a deep, deep blue sky that stretched out forever. She showed it to Abigail and Hugo after their training the day before the fight. Abigail snorted derisively and asked why she hadn’t used her whore mouth to get them extra food before storming away, but to Alejandra’s surprise Hugo took a seat beside her and spoke to her about the picture, complementing her finger strokes and the sense of scale the figure gave. He began retying the bandage on the stump of the last two fingers on his left hand and asked “where did you learn to do that?”
“From my mama.”
“And where did she learn?”
Alejandra shrugged, she’d never thought about it, it was just something mama had known.
The next time they waited for the barricade to lift, it was nearly midnight, and the dome was lit by flaring torches. There were only the three of them this time, no other fighters had been brought to join them. She could only guess the enemy was similarly depleted. Maybe this led to more tension for the crowd.
Abigail took a small step closer to her “We’re fucked.”
“I spoke to one of the guards this morning. There’s still six of them.”
“Six?” That was horrible odds, and they had no midday heat to aid them now. “What do we do?”
Abigail shrugged “Die like squealing pigs I guess.”
Alejandra didn’t want to die. She would fight, she would run, she would beg for mercy. Anything. She wished she had Abigail’s uncaring courage.
The umpire stood up at his podium. This was it. The whistle hung from a cord around his neck. This was maybe her final few seconds of breathing, of feeling the bright young blood pump life and vitality around her veins. She took a deep breath, trying to steel herself.
“People of El Solitario, the High Culter will address you know.”
From the shadows behind him unfolded the gaunt figure of the High Culter. White robed, head shaven, eyes burning with zeal, he was the very image of the culters. The umpire backed away and the High Culter stood surveying the crowd before he spoke. “People. People.” His voice was cracked clay, dry and hard and brittle “You are the word and the world. You are the remnant, the strain, the last descendants of the broken world that was, remade by fire into our paradise!” this last word was a thundering crescendo.
He gestured down into the dome, towards Alejandra, then swept his hand to the other side. “And this. This, though you knew it not, and nor did they, has been The Trial!”
Hugo’s breath caught beside her. Could it be? The Trial, the culters had always taught, would come from the skies, brought about a great storm. This was a cage fight, a death match. The largest tournament heard of, for sure, the most elaborate, but surely no different for all that. She dared say nothing.
“Warriors! Lay down your weapons.”
Abigail quietly growled “not a fucking chance” but Hugo gestured and embedded his long knives in the dirt. Alejandra took of her belt and laid the scabbard on the ground, rested the buckler beside it and, after a moment’s hesitation, pulled the knife out of her boot to lay it on the little pile.
When they’d finished doors opened on all sides of the cage, and culters poured out. More than she’d ever seen at once, more than she’d known existed. White robes flowing, heads gleaming in the torchlight. They flowed around the three, carrying away the weapons, stripping off the armour, and finally taking tiny scissors and cutting away their clothes, so that when they fell back Alejandra had to stop herself from covering her flesh.
A signal was given and the chains protested once again. The barricade creaked upwards. And there were the six. Four men, one woman, and a girl younger than herself, barely out of her teens. All naked. All staring, shocked, unsure how to act.
One of the culters, she couldn’t tell if it was male or female, approached and whispered in her ear “You must choose first.”
“Choose?” and she realised. The choice was not so difficult; two of the men were hulking monsters; one brutally emaciated, with a terrible glint in his eyes; the last a dark-skinned boy, with curtains of dark hair that hung to each side of his face. He cast his eyes down when she looked at him, and when she approached and placed a hand on his chest, he whispered that his name was Cain.
It was all over soon afterwards. Abigail picked the bigger of the hulks, Hugo the girl. Then the smaller hulk and the man with the eyes were each given a knife, and when the man with the eyes had opened the hulk’s throat, he took the woman by the arm.
Cain was hanging the ink painting she had finished the night before the fight on the wall next to the others. Most of her paintings had been permitted because of their melancholic tone. Alejandra cradled the bulge in front as she entered the room; the purpose of The Trial, society’s tribute The End. Cain looked up at her and smiled, then quickly supressed it. Smiling, of course, was not permitted.
There had been laughter in the beginning, when she’d first discovered the pregnancy. But that had come to a brutal end when Abigail and her huge partner were carried in, chests cut open and hearts removed, to remind them of the price of happiness.
The old world had been a happy one, and it had fallen, and failed, and died in fire. This world could not afford happiness.
She looked at Cain and wondered again if it might be better to ask him to strangle her in her sleep. She could scarcely think of a crueller fate for their son, than to come into the world and be raised by them together, to be the Saddest Boy in the World.
You packed your bag full of clothes & stuff.
"I'll see you in a week," you said.
Slamming the front door behind you, shut.
I waited & waited, but you never came home to your bed.
The house is just a shell & a place you once stayed.
Umbilical cord unceremoniously severed.
Pain overwhelms me in waves.
Snatched away, instead of delivered.
I keep you frozen in your photos, next to the stopped clock.
Until you become afraid of shadows again & want to spend some time,
Rest your head on your pillow & recline,
Be a boy in slumber & dream of childhood memories in their number.
But I remember that moment.
That terrifying moment.
When I lost my mind.
Where the world had once made sense,
Now it whispered and span,
In a dizzying contortion of vibrancy.
And no one knew except I,
About the colours that ate my head alive,
Enveloping me in stains of every shade.
Say nothing. Shhh!
Let me go quietly.
But my head is inescapable.
Christ, I am drowning,
And you are no driftwood upon which I can float,
I am lost at sea, and you,
You are a woeful captain,
Not willing to halt the world for a single man.
So let me drown.
And that day, I knew I had gone,
So far gone,
Past that line that binds us within the confines of sanity.
Strict prohibitions of imagination,
Loosed themselves when I succumbed,
And let the waters engulf me.
My god, I tasted fire.
You could not begin to imagine,
How sweet the submission could be,
Ethereality ghosted a touch to my forehead,
And turned the depths of shadows,
To pure vibrancy.
It was so powerful.
I had to nod.
I had to smile.
To let them know that this had happened.
But hush child, hush,
And try on that pretty disposition,
We mustn't let them know.
Don't tell them I am clinging to the stake!
The flames lick my unarmed skin,
Kissing me with madness,
Taunting me with such strangled laughter,
That I can't help but roll my eyes,
To the back of my head,
To the man in my mind,
To ask him if he sees the future?
Clinging to the pyre,
To this mad desire,
To stay mad.
Because coming down,
Is not so much a crash,
As an all consuming plummet,
From the height of heaven itself.
When the passion is dissolved in acid,
And I am devoid of any sensation,
The writing on the walls.
The feather light giggles.
The utter ferocity of confused anger.
All swept under the vintage armchair in the living room.
As the industrial lights are switched on in my head.
And the last sigh of madness passes my lips.
Is this what normal feels like?
A Cat's Tale
Being born, he remembered, was a difficult and messy business. Pain and discomfort had to be endured while being forced from a cosy, warm environment into a harsh, cold and noisy world. Eventually the birth was over. A teet was either placed in his mouth or he instinctively reached out for it. He sucked on it and fell asleep, not bothering to open his eyes. There would be plenty of time for that.
How long he stayed in that sleep-food state he did not know. But now there was work to be done. He opened his eyes. The light was too much. Images swam before him. He blinked a couple of times. At last, he had something to focus on. It was mainly white with some patches of black and brown. It seemed to move rhythmically, like a calm white pond. Good God, he thought, it’s a cat.
Before he could react the animal leaned forward and licked his face.
“Yuk, that’s disgusting. Get off me you minging old moggie.”
“That’s no way to talk to your mother, you ungrateful little stray,” said the cat. His jaw fell open.
“Oh my God. If you’re my mother then I must have come back as a cat.”
“Well done, genius.”
A quick inspection was all it needed to take in the four legs and a tail. He tentatively licked his front paw. It was like sandpaper on velvet. “There must be some mistake,” he said. “I should be in human form. Who’s in charge around here?”
“Get used to it, kid. It’s going to be a long time before you’re walking around on two legs and have opposable thumbs.”
“This is outrageous,” he hissed. “I am an important man with vital work to carry out. I must complete my mission.”
“You can’t do it as a kitten,” said the mother. “Listen kid, you obviously didn’t listen to the rules. They are quite simple. If you’ve been a bad ’un as a human then you get reincarnated as a cat, time and time again. Eventually you can return as a human but only when you are no longer a threat to society.”
“I see,” said the kitten. “Who were you before you became a cat?” The mother purred. “My name won’t mean anything to you but you’ll probably know me by my nickname. I was Jack the Ripper.”
“Wow. I’ve heard of you. Didn’t you kill five women in London?”
“Eleven, actually. There’s about five or six officially attributed to me but there were others, believe me. What about yourself?” The kitten’s chest swelled with pride.
“I was Adolf Hitler.”
“Never heard of you.”
“Never heard of me? I was the most dominant and feared world leader of the 20th century. There has never been a more powerful figure than me. I took over half of Europe and started a war which involved just about every nation on earth. How could you not know who I am?”
“Listen, kid. I spent the whole of the last century as various cats. I didn’t have access to newspapers and news reels. Come on, tell me more about this war.”
“Oh, where do I start? I invaded lots of countries like Austria, Poland, France, Italy, Russia and Belgium. I took it upon myself to wipe out the entire Jewish race. I didn’t quite do it but I killed six million of them. But that’s nothing compared with the Russians. I reckon about 20 million died because of me. There were millions of others if you include the Americans, Canadians, British and most of the rest of Europe.”
The mother sat up. “This isn’t fair. I’ve spent the past hundred and fifty years as a cat and all I did was kill less than a dozen women. But you wiped out half the world. You should have been a cockroach for a couple of thousand years first before working your way up to a cat.”
“Nonsense. I am from a superior race. You are just a common or garden psycho.”
“Ooh Mr Kettle, come and meet Mr Pot.”
“How dare you! I am Adolf Hitler and – ”
“Were, kid. You were.”
“Don’t keep calling me kid. You may address me as Mein Fuhrer.”
“No I won’t. I’ll call you Tibbles.”
“This is outrageous,” the kitten hissed.
“Get over yourself, you little runt.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I’m sure you’ve been called worse.”
“I could have you shot for this.”
The mother laughed. “No one takes orders from a kitten. You are nothing but a ball of fur and therefore not in the least bit frightening. Get used to the feline life, son. Embrace it.”
“I just want things to go back to normal,” said the kitten.
“This is the new normal,” said the mother, her tone softening. “You are going to spend a lot of time in this form so give up the idea of world domination.”
She leaned forward and licked his ears.
“Why do I get all the nutters,” she sighed.
“What do you mean?”
“A couple of years ago I gave birth to someone like you. He said he was called Mussolini.”
“Benito! How is he?”
“Dead. I can’t remember if he was the one who got hit by a bus or ended up in a kebab shop.”
“Nasty. It ended badly for him as a human too.”
“Yes, he told me. Did you get shot and then strung up by an angry mob?”
The kitten sighed. “I killed myself.”
“We were under siege in Berlin. We had the Russians on one side, the Americans on the other. The war was lost. I got out.”
“Hang on, did I hear you right? You killed tens of millions of people and you still lost?”
“Don’t you start. There are – ”
A hand picked him up and bundled him into a sack. There was only a brick for company. He realised what was happening even before he was thrown into the air.
The cold water scared him and as he sunk to the bottom of the river he knew he would have to start the whole process over again.
The New Normal
After swearing I never would, I'm getting married in eight days. I met him on 9.9.99, in Malaysia, on one of my adventures. We are getting married 18 years later, to the day. I'll be 45, I have two young children, have survived breast cancer and Graves disease and depression, and near-misses due to me being negligent of my life; I've lived in 18 different houses and several different countries; I've had several careers and insane chapters to my life. There has never been a normal, just several different lives which have been clear, different chapters in my life so far. And yet I find myself thinking, 'In just over eight days, life can go back to normal,' before I catch myself and try to decide exactly what I mean.
I've been thinking a lot about what 'normal' is. Before we started planning our wedding I had a rough idea what my normal was. Chaos and change, yes, but the oxymoron of roughly a smooth ride between one chapter to another. In the year or so since we first booked the huge farm shed that is going to be our venue, so many things have changed that life felt distinctly abnormal and I began to wonder why.
Life moves on, never stops flowing, things never stop changing; the only constant is change. Life in flux. Waves, currents, energy that never stops moving, life, and death. I know this; we all know this. You can't stop change, halt the progression of energy or control anything, and I've lived knowing this and accepting it for 45 years. However, since we decided to get married it's seemed more changeable than usual. It took me a while but I realised that it's because I've now got a distinct period of life with bookends either end - Before Wedding Decision and Post Wedding Decision. BWP and PWD.
In the period PWD all sorts of life has happened. There was all the breast cancer stuff ongoing which has temporarily ended (until next July) with my first mammogram one year post-op coming back clear. The day before that, I lost a new friend to cancer. I was really looking forward to telling him I'd got one up on Cancer with clear results, but he left too soon. He was called Pink George and I met him properly when he turned up at my kitchen window several years ago in a crash helmet, looking for my mother. At his funeral everyone wore pink and his body was committed to Pink Floyd's Great Gig in the Sky. He'd just turned 70 and he had no regrets; although I didn't know him especially well he'd become a friend I knew would be there for life and visits to him at the hospice were inspirational, despite the tears and fears. Turns out 'life' wasn't that long and I will miss dancing with him at my wedding.
His was the third funeral of four that I've been to this year. The other three were uncles and my future husband's granny, all different services, all huge reminders. I also lost an uncle who was a big part of my childhood who lived in Australia so I didn't get to make his funeral but I hope to be there to help scatter him to the winds in our native Yorkshire later this year.
Both Scottish uncles should have been at the wedding and one had been promising me a game of golf for the last 17.5 years.
Two of our best friends from Asia were supposed to be flying in from Australia for the wedding, but in the last week I've heard the sad news that one of their mums has been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. It is wholly right that they stay with her. But to balance things out, we have an extra, unplanned guest in a brand new family member - a 16 year old boy who's my cousin's son, found through social media after a brief relationship 17 years ago. He is definitely one of us - big boned and reddish-haired, and I can't wait to meet him.
I've learnt how not to plan a wedding (for eg - DO NOT offer to book accommodation for people) but more than that I have learnt all over again how full of LIFE, life is. I've learnt I should have forced that uncle to play that game of golf, turned up at his house one day with golf bag over shoulder, because one day he'll be found dying of an undiagnosed stomach ulcer in his bathroom. I've learned that if you feel like visiting someone but are a bit tired/lazy/busy, go and see them anyway, because the following week they won't be there. You'll get a text message announcing an untimely death, five weeks post-diagnosis instead of the predicted three months. I have learnt again, despite not thinking I needed to - to tell people you love them, PWD.
I've learnt to accept that people will still bullshit you but you need to carry on loving them anyway because their reason for bullshit is that they're, perhaps, not as enlightened and scarily honest as you are. (Don't tell me you can't come because you're skint - you had a year to save. Tell me you don't want to be there/haven't the energy/don't like large gatherings, loud music/Scotland is just too far away/you cannot be bothered.) Give me the truth anytime, and dare to tell the truth to other people. Tell it with love, but tell it. What was it Pearl Buck once said? Tell the truth, because Truth is always exciting. Something like that.
PWD I've realised that we're all, each one of us, staring death in the face every moment of every day, that we fill our daily lives chock-full with things to avoid thinking about this. Death walks with us every hour. Death has flirted with me this past year, taken people from our lives, threatened me over and over. I used to be terrified of dying. What I learned was this, that I was terrified of living because to truly live, you've got to let death stroll along next to you, accept it's there and live all the harder for the very fact it is there.
I've learned that I love my husband to be even more than I thought I did, despite the fact that I now know for certain that he procrastinates as much as I thought he did. And I've also learned how many tables you can procure at little cost at very short notice because said husband to be didn't quite do it earlier...
BWD I was aware of all of the lessons above. But this past year has thrown everything into sharp focus. We are lucky to have lots of good friends and our wedding guest list is 194 for the day plus another 100 or so for the evening. However, this is with a 20% or so unable-to-come rate and the reasons for people being unable to come are varied. I'm now aware of every little thing that's going on in my family's / friends' lives, be they friends from primary school in Surrey, family in Yorkshire, crazy party days in Malaysia, teaching friends in various schools, writing friends, university friends from Wales, friends we met travelling on our two year motorbike journey, all of our family members, wherever they are in the world. All of the time there are Big Things going on in all of their lives, and this year I've been completely aware of them, in touch with everyone who you might not think of/write to.
There've been injuries, illnesses, accidents, promotions, babies, pregnancies, wins and losses, deaths and miscarriages, money problems and difficult people, journeys, homecomings and ongoing issues which continue to affect people I love every day, things I hardly knew of. All of this has reminded me over and over again how FULL life is in all aspects, in all areas. How testing it is on our emotional strengths. How impossible to predict. How downright bloody strange.
So my new normal, PWD, will be to love more, stay in touch more, be aware of exactly all the stuff that everyone goes through; it'll be to not put things off, it'll be to take risks, hug people, laugh a lot and keep perspective in mind at all times.
People tell me I'll feel a lull, a flop, a sense of anticlimax after I'm married. Our wedding will last three days, from live music in our local next Friday night, to the 13 hour ceremony/party on Saturday, to the hairy dog bbq the following day. I am SOOOOOOO excited. But I'm looking forward to life Post Wedding - PW. PW I've got a new normal to look forward to. One of the risks I took last year, after being told I had cancer, was to start a business. I've got that to build on, words to write and life to live. And after reconnecting with so many people and realising how lucky we are, I'll pick up the phone/send messages/write letters more often.
Back to The New Normal. Bring it on!
They would be coming soon.
Telantis glanced towards the window. The sun was just dipping below the horizon, bathing the sky with hues of red and orange. It was beautiful, if you liked that sort of thing. And soothing, if you weren’t about to die.
Telantis shifted his attention to the canvas before him. Urgency flashed through him but he kept his hand steady. He wanted to finish the painting, but not at the cost of making a mistake. It was his best work yet, but would be his last.
He took a step back and regarded the painting critically. It showed him, seated upon his throne, his robes of state draped around his shoulders, their rich fur rendered in stark white. In his left hand, he held a globe, representing his mastery over his domain. In his right, the hilt of a sword, which stood straight and proud beside the throne. Sadly, the might it represented was fading fast. No soldiers in gleaming armour would be coming to protect him this night. If there were soldiers amongst those on their way, their swords would likely end up in his belly, rather than defending it.
Telantis sighed. He had accepted his fate, even welcomed it on some level. As long as he had time to finish the painting. If they arrived before he was done, might they allow him some extra time, as a last request? He doubted it. In fact, they would probably burn the painting, finished or not.
But Telantis would die knowing it had existed, if only for the briefest of moments, and that would have to be enough. He tilted his head to one side. The pose was perhaps a little self-indulgent, and the chiseled features perhaps a little too flattering. But, if you couldn’t over-indulge in a little self-flattery with a mob about to batter down your door, when could you?
He couldn’t blame them, of course. From certain points of view, he had been a terrible ruler. And those points of view were now in the ascendant. Bit by bit, they had built their power base and chipped away at his influence. One by one, his supporters had disappeared or gone mysteriously silent. One had even popped up on the other side, spouting mob-inciting vitriol that had been quite hurtful at the time. It paled into insignificance compared to what Telantis suspected would befall him later that night.
Still, it had been marvellous while it lasted. Luxurious clothes, the best food, hot and cold running servants, and all the art supplies he could possibly want. What it was to be a king! Of course, it turned out there was a bit more to it than lounging around on silk divans and spending hours perfecting his use of oils. There were decisions to be made that affected the lives of thousands of people, and complex systems to support and maintain that would ensure the kingdom’s continued prosperity.
Nobody had prepared Telantis for that. He didn’t think it was entirely his fault. If someone had taken him aside and explained things to him sternly, instead of just doing whatever he said without question, perhaps things might have been different.
But everyone around him had given way to his every whim. And he had had so many whims. Banquets and parties. Galas and festivals. Holidays and celebrations. It had been spectacular, and all those at court had been ecstatic in their praise. Telantis had basked in their adoration, assuming it extended right to the kingdom’s borders and beyond, not only as far as the castle walls. Not even that far, it transpired, since the collapse of his support network must have begun from within.
He daubed the canvas with a carefully placed splash of red. Perhaps there would be an art lover amongst those on their way, who would rescue the painting from harm. Or a historian who would want to preserve it for posterity. Even if it ended up being used as part of a cautionary tale for school children, at least it would survive as his artistic legacy.
The sound of shouting drifted in through the open window. Telantis heard many footsteps, drawing closer. So the time of glory was at an end. By tomorrow, common sense and fiscal planning would be back in control of the land, after the brief, bright interlude of his rule. Normality was such a drab and dreary state to which to return.
Telantis was glad he wouldn’t be there to witness it. He put the final touches to the painting and threw a cover over it to protect it from the violent passions of the mob. Then he moved to the other side of the room so that his blood wouldn’t get on the canvas and ruin it.
He folded his hands in front of him and awaited his fate.
He unfurled for nine months
like paper folded
more than eight times over,
springing outwards in his eagerness,
and this morning parts of him
were birthed again.
MRI round three
and it’s knockout,
brain scans showing water before it boils,
traitor cells writhe
like rising bubbles
while he sleeps, a calm surface
in the chamber.
There have been more unlikely things.
Americans taught bumblebees
to find bombs, taught them their scent
meant nectar, but the swarms inside my son
are set to go, and his doctors
can’t diffuse them.
They rebuilt his brain
with quick spurts of plastic
layer on layer
til it was finished, yellow and crinkled
like squashed honeycomb,
a model to help me understand
future cuts and slices.
But tonight, we’re back to normal.
Tonight we have warm milk
and Doctor Who, his head
on my lap, and his brain
on the floor.
He’s lived five years, and won’t live
five more, but this testament
will last five hundred.
The calendar shows we're stuck in July,
and it's nearly September now.
Summer recess: August, the dark ship of
disappearance we don't talk about. Would I rather
be back there, with it all to come? We spill out
into autumn, uniformed up, buttoned down
wondering what went down, but what happens in
August stays unaugust, and victims of sun-stroke
Frank Landow’s late. In the twenty two years since he’d started working at The Hermeson Bureau he’s always been sat at his desk at 09:00 prompt and even though he abhors what he does, he is too far embroiled in the bureau to quit.
His temperament is severely tested this morning when his company car, a moderately inexpensive Japanese Mazda, inexplicably overheats, a trait not normally associated with Japanese fan assisted motors vehicles. He believes the designers in Tokyo or Fukishima or wherever should experience a 41 degree New York heatwave one day and decides to check out Mazda designers when he gets to work.
The subway now is his only alternative, a mode of transport he detests. It isn’t so much the train but the people he'll have to travel with, those of low intellect, the sad commute of loud, coughing, whingeing plebeians, and the inevitable touching of strangers that a crowded compartment offers.
A group of Japanese tourists delays his wait for a couple of minutes longer at the ticket machine. They are probably Mazda workers. This may be a bad day for Japan.
The morning gets rapidly worse. He’s missed one train already when there's an announcement.
“Please evacuate the station. There’s no need to panic. Please use the stairs. Do not use the elevators. Please evacuate in an orderly manner. I repeat, there’s no need to panic.”
People panic. Frank watches the writhing throng head up the stairwell and calls work.
“Late you say? A breakdown? Mazda’s never break down. You’re where…the subway. Evacuation. You think it’s a bomb. Wait…no, there’s no bomb scheduled in that area for two years. Trust me, okay. Get here when you can!”
He switches off. He glances at the stairwell and thinks “Fuck it” and heads for the elevator.
It's still in operation so he enters and presses the “up” button. The doors close and it starts ascending, then with a shuddering jolt it stops. The lights flicker and in the darkness he swears, slamming his hand against the door. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. In the silence he hears the drip, drip, dripping of water. He moves his feet. A splosh. Looking down he sees he’s treading water.
“You signed the paper.”
Franks’ knees buckles at the sound and he twists back, slamming himself into a corner. The lights come on again exposing a crouched figure in the opposite corner. The figure wears a hoodie and sits squat in a foetal position. Water drips from its clothing.
“What the… who are…how did you get here?”
The figure raises its head and uncovers the hood. It’s a woman, her drenched face coloured ashen grey seems devoid of life, her hair limp and straggly sticks in emaciated strands to her face and her eyes although just opaque pools of darkness hides behind them a hellish whirlpool of circumstance.
“You signed the paper, you’re just as guilty as much as my killer is.”
Frank Landow’s face twists in fear.
“l…I don’t know what you’re talking about. I work in insurance, I do claims…”
“My name is Rose Wilson. Two days ago I was murdered. They haven’t found my body yet, it’s still in the Hudson. I’m dead.” She shuffles forward. “I didn’t believe there was an afterlife Mr Landow, but there is. You know that because you work for Hermeson. You work for the Deparlier section, the one that signs off the killing lists. The lists that end lives. You never read them, do you?”
Frank shakes his head.
“It’s just my job.” He mutters
“The Deparlier group’s part of the Four Horsemen, a secret, ethereal society that controls life, death, famine and war. Look, don’t let’s waste any more time. You know when you die you’re put in a big white room and told about everything there is to know. Angels, fate, heaven, everything and about Hermeson and the Four Horsemen. Everyone thought it’s quite cool. How these things really are so Twilight Zone. Look, I want you to get my papers rescinded, I want my murderer found before he kills again.”
“What! You know that’s impossible. How did you get out anyway? It breaks all the rules.”
“The Gate Keepers asked me about my life. I’m one of life’s losers. It was one lump of crap from start to finish. Abused, bullied, drugs, prostitution; then just as it seemed to be taking a turn for the better, I get raped and killed. I put it more eloquently there and gave one of them a blow job. Old habits, you know. There wasn’t a dry eye in heaven, so they gave me a redemption card, a last chance but only if my death can be rescinded. As I said, I’m a loser but I want to win, Frank. Just once. You don’t know what it’s like, do you? To be one of life’s losers? It’s like a faulty tap. Drip, drip dripping. Little thinks go against you, all day, every day. I accepted it in the end. I accepted that I am…was, one of life’s losers. That is until I found about the truth; about life and death and then I got angry and that’s when I decided that I wanted to be a winner. I wanted to know what it really felt like. I want my life back, Frank. A little bit of normal, you know, another chance.”
She stood close to Frank Landow’s face.
“Elation, Frank. To me, it’s just a word, like symbiotic. I have no idea what it means. I’d like the chance to find out. I want to be a winner, Frank. I want to win the Lottery, I want to marry Johnny Depp. I want…I really want normal and nice, Frank. Maybe I will, if you’ll give me that chance. I’m not asking you for a winning run of good fortune but just this once Frank, just once, I really want to win. I want my life back.”
“In all my years of working at Hermeson, I’ve never known anyone get…oh God, I hate my job I can’t do this anymore. The misery I’ve wrought. I’ll give it up….”
“No, please. Please Frank, at least not yet.”
The elevator restarts. Landow startled, looks up then back at the woman but she’d gone.
When he finally arrives in work he asks to see copies of the death files for two days ago.
“In case we have an audit,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to make a mistake.” Later that day he pulls out another file, postdates it two years ahead and signs that off too.
At four fifteen that afternoon Patrolman Ryan Wyzinski radios in to his precinct.
“The Wilson woman. I’ve found her, yeah, in the Hudson. Got caught up in a reed bank just off Fisherman’s Wharf. She must’ve been here while and she’s in a bad way but she’s alive.”
Two years later, as serial killer Rodney Anders sits in the electric chair, he looks at the gathered group that have come to witness the execution. Some are judiciary, some guards and there’s that fucking Wilson dame that fingered him. How had she survived?
He stares at the smiling man behind her, who’s waving a piece of paper. Who the fuck is he?
There had been people taking photos, videos, climbing hills to find reception for their phones. He had gone back into the twisted carriage once, before the emergency services arrived, and pulled out a child whom he knew had survived. But Robert had denied he had done this and his involvement was never recorded. Now, he just wanted everything to return to normal.
'Weren't you close to that train wreck outside Bordeaux?' a work colleague asked on Robert's first day back. 'Thought you'd have marked yourself safe on Facebook if you were, so I suppose you were nowhere near. Just shows.'
Yes, it just shows. One minute you're looking ahead to retirement six years ahead, the next your life flashes before you. Or that's what he assumed. It all happened so quickly. He couldn't quite remember the noise, nor the smell of the brakes that everyone had talked about. Only the painful impact of his shoulder on a blunt corner and then his back on the floor.
'I suppose I could easily have been,' replied Robert vaguely.
'Thin line between life and death,' said his colleague absent-mindedly.
That's what troubled Robert. Exactly how thin was this line? At the moment of impact his body must have been launched in such a direction to cause him minimum harm. what was the chance? A random path that ended in life not injury or death. The child (he forgets already if it was a boy or girl) was only alive because he pulled them out to be amongst the first to receive attention.
'Back to normal then?'
'Yes,' replied Robert unconvincingly.
'What a story though, if you had been there. You'd have been the centre of attention for weeks. As it is I'll give you three days and I bet you'll be back to normal.'
But of course the memory hadn't gone, and it never would. Try as he might, it wasn't the images that were fused behind his eyes, but the road that lay ahead, stretching into the distance. It all looked very different now.
I close the door on Kris a little too firmly. Lock it before he’s two steps down the path. The path away from me back to his arty-farty existence, his highbrow friends, his glittering bloody life. I hope one of my feral neighbours has keyed his Audi TT, I really do. That Irish git, Terry, I once saw putting a tack in my tyre for parking outside his house. I hope Terry’s done that and Kris’s tyre blows when he’s driving too fast on the M25. Back to Gatwick, out of here.
But I don’t hope that and I find myself clutching the banister, crying to release those pent-up tears. Maybe because all the things I once thought I could be went with him today. I shut the door on them when I asked him to go. He came in here thinking I was still the person he knew two years ago. His expectation was like standing in front of one of those trick mirrors where you appear four times your real physical size.
My heart and mind are huge but I’m a little, shrunken thing, not much more than bones. I’m fierce yes, concentrated but I have no substance, even I can see that. I’m like the bits left behind when you peel a plaster, press it on a wound. All that I was have been applied to your wound and I’m those irritating bits of chaff left behind. I could hear my little bleating voice when Kris asked how we were. How it produced scrapings of a life.
‘Oh Ryan’s stable,’ I said, ‘he’s doing really well.’
‘Is he?’ Kris stood too close to you, you hate it when the light’s blocked, when you can’t see that silver birch’s leaves flickering. They make you smile, sometimes you move your head and I can tell you’re dancing with them, you hear their music. ‘The guys and I have talked about what we can do. We’re happy to help financially. You could move Ryan into one of those fancy clinics. Switzerland say. We’ll pay for the best.’
‘Thank you. Can I think about it?’ I bend my head to disguise the pinpricks of tears. We’ve been struggling with money and your bandmates don’t owe you really. Well apart from the fact that you were the band, the frontman, the composer, the life and soul. Still it’s generous of them and I’m touched even if I’m unconvinced we could get better care than we have right here. Your sister does your physio and the gentle way she teases as she pushes you breaks me up. Your mum cooks for us, she’s spent weeks on the internet researching the best nutrition after a stroke.
I look at you. Your pupils are more dilated than I’ve seen them before. I try to read you, searching for the person I love buried alive in this scrambled egg of a brain, this almost static body. It’s silly how I clap when icebound muscles start to twitch. I hunt expressions in your eyes, sometimes I think I catch them but then they’re gone. I squeeze your hand for hours trying to make you understand I’m here whatever, I will always be here. I squeeze it now and you blink twice at me.
Which startles me. Years ago that was our symbol for telling each other we didn’t like where we were. Two deliberate blinks meant I want to leave. Are you trying to tell me you want to go to one of those clinics? ‘Let’s ask Ryan.’ I say.
Kris was at the door, he jerks back round. ‘Are you mad, Marie? Ryan’s a nothing now. He can’t express an opinion. I just don’t get…’ His eyes dart around the room from me to Ryan to the sickroom stuff.
My voice is ice. ‘What don’t you get, Kris. It all seems rather starkly clear to me.’
‘I don’t get you. Why are you still here? It was bad enough you chose him over me back then but now? What’s wrong with you Marie? I’m making this offer to free you. Don’t look like that. I’m not a monster, I don’t expect you to be with me. Ryan would be expertly cared for and you could do whatever you wanted with your life. Remember that – having a life?’
I swallow. We had a thing, back in the day, Kris and I. We were different people once, both less layered, closer to our sensitive cores. He’s piled on a few personas since then, almost believes his own hype. I don’t think there’s any vestige of the boy who saw me as an equal, a life partner. I shake my head instinctively and as my viewpoint changes I see Ryan shake his. He clearly shook his head.
‘Get out of here. We don’t need you. We’re getting back to normal.’
I can't go back to normal.
Normal is choking cries with a pillow,
watching day turn into night turn into day
when I can't sleep-- when my body feels
like it wants to crawl in on itself and supernova.
It is forgetting how to love anything.
My normal depends on the day,
depends on what chemicals
my mixologist brain wants to add
to the shaker cup.
Don't ask me if I want to be normal.
Bipolar untreated IS my normal.
My first 39 years of walking across
a land of loose trampolines.
It is a prayer to know
what solid ground feels like.
And the hope that I can learn to walk it.
This, here, now, is not normal.
A litany of pills
(blessed be Lamictal, blessed be Abilify)
and the biweekly confessional
answering the question,
"So, how have be you been?"
Give me these odd moments-
these know my pharmicist by their name moments.
These twice a day pill swallow
and diaphragmatic breathing moments.
I'll take every one of them I can get.
But don't ask me to go back to normal.
I love myself too much to do that.
“Jesus, can’t you go a minute without checking that thing?”
“I`m just replying to Marks text, chill will ya”
“Well at least don’t do it while dri…. TRUCK!!!!”
The phone tumbled out of Tony`s hand as he looked up, his right foot going to the brake pedal too late to make any difference. His mind having just enough time to register the pickups glowing brake lights, and the bundle of steel rods jutting out past its lowered tailgate.
Mary`s terrified scream was drowned out by the shriek of steel on steel as they collided, and the staccato explosions of the cars airbags deploying almost simultaneously.
When tony came to, dazed, struggling to breath, the car filled with a dense white chemical fog, he heard a voice say, “Jesus Christ, oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Hello there`s been an accident..” then he passed out for the second time.
When he came to again the fog was gone, but the car seemed to be filled with steel bars, he could feel some of them pressing into his chest; Outside blue lights were strobing. I`ll have to tell them to turn them off, he thought, I have Photo-sensitive…. Photo-sensitive… but for some reason he couldn’t think of the third word.
He heard a man`s voice outside the window and turned his head, intending to ask about his wife. His head felt too heavy for his neck to support, so he tried to rest it on the glass, but it flopped against the empty doorsill; that`s funny, he thought, I was sure the window was up.
He tried to say, “Is Mary alright?” but all that came out was “Ih Mayhe Awwwhi?”
The man glanced at him, then looked away again.
“We`ve got a two vehicle collision, two occupants badly injured, one male, one female. To Tony he appeared to be talking to his left shoulder; great, he thought, a lunatic.
“The male is responsive but incoherent; the female is non respon…” Tony blacked out again.
When he awoke the fourth time, two men in heavy jackets were kneeling on the bonnet of the car; they appeared to be holding what looked to Tony like the world’s largest scissors. The one nearest him noticed his eyes were open and said, “We`ll have you out of there as soon as we can. Now hold on, this is going to hurt a little.” There was a mechanical whine from somewhere to his right and the jaws of the scissors began to close on one of the steel bars.
You`ll never cut that Mate, he thought, as the blades met steel, and then gurgled a shriek when it felt as if someone had just stabbed him in the chest; he passed out for the fifth time.
When he next awoke he was on his back, rocking slightly from side to side, as white lights went past overhead. Don’t go towards the light, he told himself, whatever you do don’t go towards the light, gotta stay alive for Mary and the kids.
A female voice said, “His heart rates erratic, not surprising really, couldn’t they have cut it a little shorter? His blood pressures 100 over 70 and dropping.”
Tony wanted to tell them to stop moving so fast, it made the pain in his chest worse, but all that came out was, “Muh huuh guu uh.” No-one took any notice of him, and he wondered if he`d only imagined making any sound.
“We need to get that thing out of him fast,” a man said, “But first we need to know how bad it is. You two take him to X-ray, I`ll page Sorenson, he`ll need to be in on this, And….” Tony didn’t get to find out what else the man had in mind as blessed darkness descended again.
When he woke up in the hospital bed the next day he had no idea how he`d gotten there. He grinned stupidly at the pretty nurse as she bent over him, giving him a close up of her cleavage, fussing at something on his chest.
Whee, he thought, this is better than weed. He would have asked the nurse what they`d given him, but it felt like a snake had slithered down his throat and had gotten stuck half-way, making speech impossible. He managed to think how peculiar it was that he wasn’t alarmed by this. He knew he should be outraged at the idea that the hospital allowed serpent’s free reign to go crawling into the open mouths of sleeping patients, but really he didn’t have the energy, besides it didn’t appear to be doing him any harm, he slipped back into sleep with a smile on his face.
The sensation of the bed moving under him woke him next. He opened his eyes to find a chubby, balding, middle-aged man in a white lab coat, sitting on his bed, he was in the act of stripping back the blanket when he saw Tony`s eyes were open. “Ahh, you`re awake, good, good.”
“Whehes Mahhee?” Tony said, struggling to get his words past the thing still nesting in his mouth and gullet.
The man looked around, “Nurse!” he spoke in the tone of someone used to being obeyed.
A nurse, not the same one; but a man, a black man with muscles so large they deformed his white short-sleeved top, appeared on the other side of the bed, “Doctor?”
The bald man pointed to Tony`s mouth, “Remove that will you.”
The nurse loomed over Tony, who stared up at him in wide-eyed terror, weakly flailing at him with limp arms. “All right Mr Anderson,” the nurse said in the same soothing tone Tony used on his own children after they`d had a bad dream. “I`m just going to remove that tube in your throat; this is going to be a little unpleasant, so bear with me alright?”
Still bug-eyed, Tony watched the man`s enormous hands close in on his face, and in a panic grabbed one of the wrists, the hand stopped. The nurse smiled down at him, “It`s okay Mr Anderson, I`m not going to hurt you, I`ve just got to remove that tube so you can talk; will you let me to do that?”
Tony replied by releasing his grip, letting his own hand flop lifelessly back onto the bed, the nurse`s smile broadened.
He explained what he was about to do before he did it, “I need to remove this tape that`s holding the tube in place,” this was followed by a “Zzipp,” sound Tony knew only too well.
“Sorry about that,” the nurse said, “But I always think it`s better to just get it over with quick, don’t you? Now for that nasty old tube,” and even he grimaced slightly as he slowly pulled on the plastic pipe.
“Okay?” he asked when he was done.
And when Tony croaked a “Yes,” his smile broadened, “My name is Patrick by the way.” And it was then that Tony understood what had been nagging at him about the man, he had a thick Kerry accent.
“You`re a very lucky man,” the doctor told him, as he began to prod at Tony`s chest with both index fingers, “If that bar had been a couple of millimetres to the right you`d have been killed outright. As it was you`re old heart only lasted long enough to get you into theatre. I tell you I don’t believe in coincidence but…..”
He stopped when Tony grabbed his forearm, “Mary?” he said in the same hoarse whisper, “Where`s Mary?”
The doctor looked from him to Patrick, who was still standing beside the bed, “He doesn’t know?”
The nurse shook his head, “This is the first time he`s been lucid…..” he said, faltering into an awkward silence.
Tony looked from one man to the other, then squeezed the doctors arm to get his attention, feeling his heart begin to pick up speed as panic threatened to swamp him, “Mary?” he begged, knowing the answer from the way the nurse looked away.
“I`m sorry Mr Anderson, I assumed you`d already been told. Your wife…. Mary, she passed away on the operating table. We did everything we could….” He shrugged, as if that explained everything.
He patted Tony on the shoulder, “If it`s any consolation, a lot of people will benefit from her organs.” And then quite tactlessly went on, “Why if it wasn’t for her, you wouldn’t be here. Damnedest thing, It`s rare for spouses to be tissue matches, but a heart transplant from one to the other, don’t think it`s ever been done before. Just think, you`ll always carry a little bit of her wherever you go.”
The horizon marks me
who needs help,
my boat sailing
for no shore,
no landing in sight,
paint a canvas
in the pointillist style
and I am
in every dot,
crying for the Sun
to set on the water,
weaving a path
for me to follow
until it disappears
in the rushing darkness.
I am adrift,
the line of demarcation
out of reach
like a true
I have been marked
have no use for
and the seas
bury like treasure.
Take a fast sloop,
a rusted dhow,
fly a seaplane
from island to island,
please come for me
before the horizon
cuts me in two.
A Welsh Wake
Sunlight illuminated the horizons’ shadow. A low mist blew gently across the rippling sea. There was no sound save for the light waft of waves upon a pebbled shore.
The morning awoke in the slipshod, seashore village to a clink of full fat milk bottles on polished slate doorsteps. Clocks on mantelpieces counted down in reverential silence until the allotted hour when their hands at quarter to eleven, automatically opened front doors, spewing out families, women in widows’ weeds and men in ill- fitting suits and hand me down hats walked, heads bowed staring at spit polished shoes, towards Moriah Chapel.
Mam, being the one to whom the village turned to in times of pestilence and plague had two days before laid out the dead and organised the wake with military zeal. I sat in slow motion on a fine upholstered chair, staring wide eyed at the coffin of the late Mrs Stanley Sheridan, twenty-three, Balaclava Terrace, widow of the parish and a close friend of my grandfather by all accounts.
At eleven fifteen, several men, black coated, top-hatted and tall picked up the coffin and took her away. I recalled my Sunday school teachings and wondered if like Jesus on the third day; Mrs Stanley Sheridan would rise again, reappearing, rejuvenated and smelling of peppermint and rosewater.
Curtains sealed shut with Presbyterian piety were drawn open when the lamenters returned. Thankfully there was no Mrs Sheridan in tow. Men wearing drab, demob suits reeking of pungent moth balls, rolled their own with tobacco stained fingers. I, rendered invisible, buried myself away under the table which was covered in snow white Damask bought especially for seventeen shillings and six pence by Mr Jenkins Post from Pryce’s Emporium in Tenby. The label still attached, hung down as proof of his benevolence. I held my paper plate in hand, feasting on paste sandwiches, potato crisps, and shop bought Battenberg cake, looking on as the womenfolk walked in short staccato steps, dishing out steaming cups of tea from a perpetual polished teapot, pushing thick slices of home cooked fruitcake onto men who bore full fat, barrel curved stomachs.
Food reserved for pious Chapel preachers, tinned ham and summer salads, spring onions and scones with cream and jam were served while Miss Price Spinster and Mrs Price Divorcee, held a discourse on the cost of such frippery. A full fresh salmon, pink and smelling of the sea, donated by Enoch’s of Abernant, took pride of place, centre stage in memory of her weekly order.
I witnessed nods and nudges and a sharp pursing of lips from several members of the village choir over the merits of the hymns chosen and the stilted playing of the chapel organist, Mr Moc Morgan, while Mrs Protheroe Thomas, sat statuesque on a hard wooden chair in the corner, sipping tea from a transparent China cup. Her face, pinched winter chilled from years of absolution barely moved yet she saw through walls and her thin lips tut-tutted at the goings on of strangers and the gossiping of the gatherers.
As the dim radiance of an ancient afternoon slowly matured into dusk, I found myself sitting on the stairs, sipping a flat ginger ale through a limp straw, throwing an occasional glance at the English King’s castle over the water.
In the hallway, the reed-like voice of Walter Williams, village rat catcher rang out the quintessential “Myfanwy” a melody minted in heaven. Walter, stammering in speech, performed like a Cathedral cherub, with the sing-song, flim-flam words sung like gossamer chocolate. The crowd broke into a spontaneous combustion of applause and others took the stage. Rosi Rees recited poetry and the choir found their voice again.
At the dry edge of mortality, there is a spiritual oasis in the wake and as the gathering departed in dribs and drabs we left, leaving the men to their ale, their whisky breath and bawdy jokes.
We walked in silence, in the dark through narrow streets, down towards the lane that led towards the waters’ edge and I squeezed my mothers’ hand.
“What happens when you die, mam?” I asked.
“Some think you’ll go to heaven boy, if you’ve been good. And if you’ve been bad… well...” She smiled, pursed her lips and took in a sharp intake of breath. “To be honest, Davy, if you’ve lived right, you’ll never die. And if you've lived wrong...well I suppose it's the same. There'll always be someone who remembers. It's a circle, life and death, never ending see."
I wasn't sure what she meant by that, not at the time
“Was she a nice woman, mam?” I asked “Like they were all saying.”
“Nice?" She paused. "Well, they tell the truth in this village, Davey, but they tell it slant.” She replied.
I understood and as we walked across the shoreline and heard the soft lapping of the estuary waters there was no thoughts of sadness and no tears. The pale white light of the crescent moon emitted an eerie glow and Mrs Stanley Sheridan, six foot under, lay well remembered.
The night of our divorce
I dreamt we were back
at our beginning.
We hadn’t yet touched
but when we did it had the heat
of a thousand fingertips.
We were building a garden
somewhere I’d never been
I asked you if we would succeed
you said of course we will
and I knew
you were utterly sincere yet
your words would become a lie.
I woke up yearning
not so much for you
but for who I’d been
when we were together.
That dog - he wouldn't touch a soul; he wouldn't harm a fly
But then you catch him staring from the corner of his eye
It's now you smell a flavour of the beast he used to be
Never doubt your instincts; let them work - and you will see.
He lies there twitching on the tiles dreaming somewhere in the deep
Of chasing many sprinting things
And eviscerating sheep
In our minds too - there is no choice
A million thoughts at play
And we know that some can never, ever, see the light of day.
What is it though?
What is the spur
That pricks and tears our hides?
Is it Alpha and Omega riding shotgun in the tides?
Perhaps reversion and subversion
Like the salt within the sea
Are the building blocks of yesterday; tomorrow; you and me?
What use is pomp and arrogance?
Every dog will have its day
We're fettered by the irons of our chain-link DNA
Old hominid emotions make all that's new arcane
He helps me cross the road - they say he keeps me sane.
And on some other sliding scale
Held in another's hands
My Waterloo awaits me on the softly sighing sands
And the smug guns of my sniper soul are ready for the fray
As today becomes tomorrow
And tomorrow - yesterday.
Of course, everything seems forever to a child. The summer holidays, then being at school and waiting to become an adult, they all stretch ahead like lines upon a page of a Dickens novel.
She thought her grandparents would always be coming to stay and suffered their visits with the unconscious ungratefulness of a child. Her mother, stressed by the impending arrival, would suddenly start tidying under the stairs and shouting about shoes left in the hall and dirty plates in the bedrooms. All ridiculous and pointless as she seemed to leave behind a mess greater than that she had started with.
As soon as Nana arrived, she swept through the house, and before she'd even got her coat off, she'd be polishing the kettle and saying 'I'm so glad I've come to visit Sue, I can see that you obviously need my help'. Mum hated this, she knew, but within days, the house would be in order and a delicious stew would be simmering on the stove. She didn't have to endure her mother's experimental soups for the whole week and didn't even mind that the stew was of such vast quantities that it was served up every day. The mashed potato was as soft as a cloud and with the gravy soaking in and the only vegetables being carrots, it was nigh on heaven. Nana also made the most perfect, delicious cakes. Not only that, she'd always bring something that they all liked. Nana knew that she liked her chocolate cake, perfectly delineated into segments and topped off with tiny sugar flowers. No longer was she hungry after school, Nana was always there to offer tea and treats.
All this time, Poppa was busy painting something - not just with a brush and the paint tin, he had a paint kettle and was very particular about the state of his brushes. His father had been a painter and decorator, he loved to explain, and care of brushes was very important to him. He would sigh at Mum's clumped and dried brushes and spend hours cleaning them with a smell of turps wafting from him. He wore work overalls which never got a speck of paint on them. He also ate a full English breakfast every morning - no cereal for him. He also loved white bread which meant that Mum had to buy it and she was saved having to chew on their usual cardboard-brown bread for the length of the visit.
Mum also had a phase of buying goat's milk off a friend. 'So much better for you than the cow's milk you'd get in the shops', Mum said. All it meant was that she'd stopped drinking milk at all, but when Nana and Poppa arrived, the cow's milk made a swift and very welcome return too. The grandparents wouldn't understand Mum's fads.
With the delicious food, the never-ending supply of snacks, and the helpful DIY, however, also came the refrains.
'I don't know why you can't draw your curtains evenly in the morning, it only takes a minute darling and it looks so much better'...
'When you take clothes out of your drawers, do take a moment to close them again, it looks so untidy to leave everything hanging out like that.'
'You must take a coat to school, it's cold outside, I can't believe you've forgotten it, oh and here's your tie, it must have slipped down the side of the sofa...'
'Now, when you've made your bed in the morning, it would be very nice if you could also go and make your brother's....'
She didn't hide her annoyance very well and usually complied with ill-grace, tearing her tie off at the end of the road and stuffing it into her bag.
Finally, when the grandparents left, and the house returned to its usual warm but chaotic self, she knew they would soon be returning. It was inevitable. It was life. It would never end.
Of course, it did end. First Nana got Alzheimers and started seeing strangers at the window and having to wear a bib to eat. And then Poppa, too old finally to drive, just withered away at home, falling shy of his centenary by a mere 3 years. So inevitably, their visits, which had annoyed and delighted her at the time, did end. It seemed unfair that when she finally got old enough to appreciate them, they were no longer around. All that love and attention that they had poured onto her had poured straight off again hadn't it?
As a parent, she was unlike her own Mum. Tidy and organised, with no flair for improvisation, she cooked from a cookbook. Her children however, drove her to distraction. One day when she had watched one of her teenagers slope off down the drive in the rain, shoulders hunched against the wet onslaught did she remember how annoyed she had been when her own Nana had forced her to wear a coat.
And only the other day had she gone into her teenage daughter's bedroom and berated her for not drawing her curtains straight and for her clothes drawers which looked like 'Vesuvius erupting'. Her daughter hadn't even replied but had simply pulled the bedclothes over her head in a perfect display of non-verbal communication.
Now, standing at the front window, watching the water rivulets slowly inching down the glass, she realised that things actually did go on forever. She had filtered those visits into herself and so her grandparents were truly a part of her, just as she would be a part of the next generation, and so on and so on.
She smiled and turning back to the kitchen, she got out her laptop and looked up a recipe for beef stew. The week's menu was sorted, so she had time to pop down to the hardware shop in town and see if they sold such a thing as a paint kettle.
Low Cut Blouses and Songs about Sex
She wanted back in. After fifteen months on her own, needing to “follow my own mojo”, she walked through the door. I know my eyes were wide, the surprise eating my face like all eight tentacles of an octopus. I didn’t have to look at Hot Rod to know his eyes were filled with anger. You only got once chance with him, and Cherry took a shit on hers. Little D would have rolled out a red carpet if we had one. Lust will make you stupid even quicker than love.
None of us spoke for way too long. The tension in the room stretched until it had spun all four of us in a web. Cherry’s opening words still hung in the air, slapping me with thin, sharp fingers.
“Are you still looking for a singer? I’d like to audition.”
Hot Rod was sucking air in through gritted teeth while Little D melted in his chair, unable to speak or likely even think. I turned so I was facing her full-on. For some reason, I was surprised she looked the same as the day she walked out on us. Thigh-high boots, mini-skirt, loose-hanging blouse, and denim jacket, all in black, playing off her pale skin and messy red hair.
“Yeah,” I mumbled through a dry mouth. “We could use a singer.”
“We don’t need her,” Hot Rod spit out.
“I do,” Little D said louder than he meant to. When we all turned to look at him, he walked to the corner of the room like a child in a timeout.
“We don’t need her,” Hot Rod repeated.
Cherry walked farther into the cramped garage we used as a rehearsal space. “I know you’re all mad at me,” she started.
“I’m not,” Little D said from the corner.
“Shut up, D!” Hot Rod yelled. He leaned into me. “We’re doing fine without her.”
“Are you?” Cherry asked.
“Tell her,” Hot Rod said before sitting on the stool behind his drum kit.
Cherry’s eyes turned to me. Why was I congealing into oatmeal inside? I was furious with her when she left the band to perform solo. All the momentum we had had evaporated overnight, but when she stared at me, I became a puddle on the floor. Maybe, I thought, I should join Little D in the corner.
“It’s been better recently,” I finally said. “We got our weekly gig back at the Rock All Night club downtown.”
“Just like before,” Hot Rod interjected.
“Half the money,” Little D muttered.
“Shut your pie hole.”
The corner of Cherry’s mouth curled up, and she shook her head while still looking at me. Some things never change, she was saying without opening her mouth.
“You said you got the gig back,” Cherry said.
“Yeah,” I began. “We lost it right after you left. Mr. Dibbs said no one wanted to hear us play without you singing.”
“That’s bullshit,” Cherry responded.
“Doesn’t matter what it was, we got fired.”
“But you got back in?”
“With Little D’s sister singing.”
“Charlotte? I didn’t even know she could sing.”
“Like an angel,” Hot Rod said, followed by a rim shot on the drums.
“Yeah, well, not quite an angel,” I laughed. “But good enough to get us the gig back.”
“At half the money,” Little D reminded us again.
“At half the money,” I agreed.
Cherry walked over to the microphone and caressed the stand with her fingers. “So, why did you advertise for a singer on Music Finder?”
“Charlotte’s going to college. Out of state. If we want to keep the regular club gig, we need a female singer.
“We need you,” Little D said, turning to face Cherry for the first time.
“NO, we don’t!” Hot Rod shouted, crashing his cymbals.
“That’s one for and one against,” Cherry said. She took the microphone off the stand, held it in front of her with both hands. Looking me in the eyes, she spoke into it. “What do you say?”
I had been in love with her once when we were seniors, but that worked out like most high school romances. We were both immature. I had a problem with wanting to be in charge all the time, and she liked to flirt with other guys. Our relationship for the last seven years had been equal parts attraction, distrust, ambition, and forgiveness. The trouble was that I agreed with both of my band mates. We did need her, and we didn’t. Whatever I decided, there was a question I needed answered first.
“Why did you leave?”
Cherry’s boots clicked on the cement floor as she slowly walked in a haphazard circle, rolling the microphone between her hands.
“The first night we played the Rock All Night club, after we finished, I was coming out of the ladies’ room. I jumped back when I saw Mr. Dibbs, all three hundred plus pounds of him, standing there waiting for me. He proceeded to tell me that he liked my voice, but what he liked more were my tits.”
Cherry paused and let the last word reverberate through the room from the speakers.
“He told me our band was pretty good, but the real reason he had given us the job was so he could watch me jiggle while I jumped around on stage.”
“Bullshit,” Hot Rod said.
Cherry smiled. “Oh, Hot Rod. Simple, black or white Hot Rod. You just told me you got the job back because Charlotte sang for you and now to keep it you need another female singer. Mr. Dibbs is a dirty old man.”
“Did he . . . touch you?” Little D asked.
“No. He said he had “learned his lesson with that shit.” Never found out exactly what happened, but now he just wanted to watch.”
“Why did you leave?” I asked quietly.
“This is who I am when I sing with you guys.” Cherry spun around like a fashion model. “And don’t get me wrong, I love it, and I know the guys are watching me. But I needed to know if they really wanted to hear me sing, too. When I performed on my own, I wasn’t Cherry. I was Paulette Spencer from Lancaster Pennsylvania. I didn’t dress like this, and I didn’t do the hard music we did. I had to know if Paulette was good enough. Or if it was just Cherry.”
“What did you find out?”
“Paulette can sing. She can write songs. She can bring two hundred people into a club to make them dance and cheer.”
“Why is she back here then?” Little D asked.
“This is home. I missed our music, our show, our fans. I missed all of you, even the nutsack behind the drum kit.”
A soft, slow rim shot left Hot Rod’s sticks. I looked at him for affirmation. He rolled his eyes and then looked away but not before nodding his head. I turned back to Cherry.
“Do you really want to re-join Rat City?”
“I have a closet full of low cut blouses and a dozen new songs about sex,” Cherry said.
It's social worker o'clock, thought Gill, as her old Casio beeped the hour at her. Seconds later, there was a knock at the door; Marie's smart rat-a-tat which vibrated through the flat. Gill, expecting it, jumped regardless and put a hand to her chest before standing up and walking to the door.
In the hallway was Marie, with two very large holdalls. Gill raised her eyebrows and Marie waved the unspoken question away.
'Later. Some gifts. How are you?' Marie went to embrace her and Gill stiffened, before remembering that it was okay, that she'd asked Marie to do this, to practise being normal again. Being open again. Being the self she knew was still in there somewhere.
Gill opened herself to a brief hug and found her smile. 'I'm okay,' she said, 'It was a shock, obviously, but I'm all right. I'm fine. I'm safe, right? And he's...' She couldn't say "going to die" in case she somehow got the blame for killing him. She didn't tell Marie about the sleepless nights, the fears, the regression to the person she'd been a year ago.
'I'm so sorry... it must have brought up... all kinds of things.'
Gill nodded, but stopped herself from speaking. Marie was now a friend as well as her social worker, although Gill didn't know if she could trust her with everything. Once a social, always a social, her mother used to say.
Gill put the kettle on whilst Marie walked through to the lounge. Gill braced herself, and didn't have to wait long.
'Oh my god, Gill!' Marie's voice was too loud. Gill flinched.
'This is incredible! This place really feels like yours, now. Your home. How did you do so much?'
Gill, hiding in the steam of the kettle, imagined it though Marie's eyes. Every wall was a different colour now - several shades of a different colour - and the patterns were even more intricate than before. They crept around the windows, up and down the door frames, in depths and shapes which pulled the viewer in. Gill smiled, as she made the tea.
Carrying it through to the living room she felt again the shiver of excitement that walking around her flat gave her.
'You like it?' she smiled at Marie, an open, smile which shaped her face into a heart.
'I love it,' the social worker replied. 'It's amazing... it's...' and she brushed a tear from her eye. 'I'm so happy for you,' she said.
Gill didn't trust herself to speak - again, the trust issue. If she told nobody, she'd be safe.
'Can I see what's in the bags now?' she asked, thinking how like a child she sounded.
'Not yet. After I've gone, is probably best,' said Marie, not meeting Gill's eyes.
ONE YEAR EARLIER
Marie entered the flat first. Gill was stooped, head low, breathing harsh and Marie wanted to go in and turn on the lights so her new charge wouldn't trip and fall the very first time she walked into the flat.
The lights were too bright and Marie cursed herself for not checking it out first. The hospital was bright; she'd wanted Gill's first entry into her new home to be as far removed from hospital triggers as possible.
Gill followed her in and leaned against the hallway wall.
'That's the lounge, ahead; the kitchen is to the left here and there are two bedrooms off to the right. The bathroom's next to the kitchen,' Marie said.
Gill nodded but didn't move.
'Come on through. Let me show you the kitchen -- I put some food in for you.'
Gill followed her through to the small clean room. Marie had put flowers in a vase but all Gill could see was white and an off white/magnolia colour. She shuddered.
'Do you want me to stay a bit?' The social worker asked.
Gill shook her head. 'Thank you,' she muttered.
'I'll be by in the morning. Go and explore. This is yours, now, Gill. Nobody else is here. I know this is what you want but if you find it overwhelming in any way, call me, okay?'
Gill nodded again.
After Marie had gone Gill walked from room to room, running her fingers along the back of the sofa, turning on the tap in the bathroom, on and off, on and off, just to see the water run. She nodded at herself in the mirror, and then switched off the lights.
The next time Marie came she brought painting supplies. Gill glanced at them and didn't touch them for over a week, thinking, how dare she? But they called to her, those colours, and demanded that she open them and let them live. The first time she sat down she painted until all the paper was used up. That night she dreamt about her ex-husband, and the way he used to jeer at her paintings and how he - drunk - burned them all one night, because she burned his dinner. In the dream he was fiercer, darker than in real life. In the morning she hid the paintings and it was weeks before she let Marie see them.
The next time Marie came, she brought three times as much paper.
The weeks went by and Gill felt life returning. Life in the hospital had been empty but safe. Life in her new flat was every day a challenge - far form safe but interesting, an adventure, days full of firsts and one day she caught herself passing in a mirror and saw that she was smiling.
She'd painted over fifty pictures, over fifty unique, slightly surreal, colour-filled dream scenes of fabulous creatures and things she was at night and people she'd seen at the hospital and Marie's eyes, eyes that she was beginning to trust, before she first signed her name. It was tiny, printed in the bottom right hand corner of the paper, By Gill, so tiny it was hardly there.
'But it is there,' said Marie, squeezing her shoulder. 'You didn't let him beat you. You still exist. He, on the other hand, is locked up, stripped of his name. You have your life back.'
Gill shivered and Marie, realising she'd broached it all too early, was angry with herself all the way home. She'd wanted to be Gill's social worker since she first heard the story, so similar to her own. The next time she went, however, Gill showed her a painting of a grey cell, surrounded by the outside world like a flowergardenjungle, all around the outside. Inside was a very small man.
Gill's name at the bottom of her paintings grew larger and her paintings grew bolder, filled with new colours, shades she imagined she'd invented herself. One day she woke up and realised the flat was far, far too plain.
Marie laughed when she walked in. 'Oh,' she said, 'this is YOU. Now I can see you.' And Gill laughed back, her face feeling doughy and all out of practice at laughter.
Colours and patterns grew in layer after layer, getting ever more intricate. Gill began to love the flat; it was no longer a way station on her way back to normal life - now it was her home. Colour was her home. She existed in shades of green, yellow, red, blue. She found herself in deep purples and rose pinks. She saw her moods in the blues of the sky and the craziness of a rainbow. She found herself in the swirling patterns that covered her kitchen cupboards.
And then one day, eleven months after she'd moved in, she'd noticed, as if for the first time, how grey the village was. Her flat was an oasis of colour amidst a desert of grey. One morning, she knew exactly what to do about it.
It was Marie who brought the first newspaper cutting round.
'Mystery Painter Baffles Villagers' one head line read. In another a plea - 'Police Want to Talk to Mystery Artist' and in the last one Marie gave her was something that made Gill shiver deliciously inside. 'The Colours Make Us Happy, say Residents'.
'Don't suppose you know anything about this?' Marie said, eyebrows raised. Gill looked at the cuttings again, glad of the red in the cupboards which might hide her blush in their glow.
'No,' she said, shaking her head. 'Not at all. Nothing.'
'Because,' Marie continued, 'I'd hate whoever is doing this to get into trouble.'
'Hmm,' said Gill.
'If somebody found out who it was and that person had a bit of a background that people might misunderstand - well, it might not go too well.'
'Hmm-mmm,' said Gill.
'However, people do seem to be enjoying it. And you, Gill Anderson, look positively radiant.'
Gill tried to stop. But the greyness was everywhere she looked. She forced herself to travel farther afield to get art supplies in case anyone put two and two together and came up with eight.
One day, a year after she moved in, saw a headline herself:
'Monster Husband to be Released on Compassionate Grounds'. Before the shaking took her over completely she scanned the story.
...Paul Anderson - terminal cancer - early release - wife so traumatised after years of abuse that she was hospitalised for five months - will be guarded at private hospital...
That night she painted nightmares all night, thinking that if she let them out, they wouldn't get to her first. All the next day her pictures were dark. But the day after that, she went out and did some decorating. The old phone box now had a facelift.
Her overriding concern, to her surprise, was her lack of art supplies. She'd run out of DIY shops where she'd not be recognised and she still wasn't able to travel too far. The paint she had left was dwindling.
'Can I see what's in the bags now?' Gill asked, thinking how like a child she sounded.
'Not yet. After I've gone, is probably best,' said Marie, not meeting Gill's eyes.
Gill waited until Marie's car was off away down the road before she unzipped one of the bags.
Inside she saw trust and true friendship, spelled out in tin after tin of outdoor paint; brushes in all shapes and sizes; thinner; brush cleaner; and yet more paint.
Tears fell onto the colour charts as she opened the second bag and saw more and more tins; every shade glowing at her, the promise of healing in every shade.
She looked outside at the fading light and the grey lampposts, and wondered how she'd get to the top, as she decorated them, every single one, so they could stand there as individuals, instead of uniform posts, as they sent light out to the world.
Twelve years had passed since the last Summer that I saw and spoken to her. Every Summer since then had been nothing in comparison to the Summer of 1976.
Today is different, I woke up instantly and knew it. As if an intruder and been in my mind, it was something that I just could not put my finger on, but when I woke up today, the air felt different. It was thicker and I struggled to breath yet when I went outside to the front of my house to collect my morning paper, the grass looked greener than before and the sky even brighter. An unnerving feeling shadowed over me as I sipped my black coffee. It was when I turned to page four of the Newspaper when it dawned on me that my greatest fear and yet my biggest hope had been confirmed.
‘JENNIFER DAVIS, MURDERER OF BELOVED HIGH SCHOOL HEAD TEACHER, KENNETH BRITTON RELEASED FROM PRISON 12 YEARS EARLY.’
My blood ran cold as I looked at the photo supplementing the article, her mugshot that is famous throughout the country, but mostly here, in Chicago. The one which showed her perfectly waved hair, all uniformly neat, each wave looking as if it was a golden circle, shining around her head like a halo. Jennifer’s pale blue eyes, wide and pleading contradicting her cat like smile on her perfect lips. Not quite a smirk but not quite crying for her life either. She was crudely named as a vixen, a murderess that everyone secretly desired. This was partly because of her looks but also because of her status, she came from a well off family, went to a good school and was meant to go to an Ivy League College. I was going to go to Brown and she was meant to go to Columbia. We never did. She was a bit of the classic ‘girl next door’ stereotype, but with shorter dresses. Her father worked in the City and her mother stayed at home, a popular socialite who played tennis during the week. You know the sort of family, the ones that belonged to country clubs. They don’t anymore.
There was a time, before Kenneth Britton’s death, where every woman wanted to be her and every man wanted to be with her. But they couldn’t have her then, they definitely cannot now. Our friendship made me so needy, I relied on her so much I used to think that she was mine, that she belonged to me, not anyone else. But I know now that I was very wrong. You cannot own people; they are not yours to own. Even now though, after all this time – I know that she owns me.
I shouldn’t have gone. If there was even a small chance of her finding me, then I should avoid it at all costs. It’s the first place that she’ll look – that is, if she wants to find me. I don’t really want to be found though, do I? I have a lot to do today. I’m refurbishing the whole house, I have a team of builders coming soon and I want to leave them to it, I need to choose some furniture, get some new clothes for this new season and do this all before my husband, Michael comes home from his work trip in a few days. He left so early, I barely even remember him saying goodbye.
I pull up outside the dated, familiar diner and look through the window to see if Jennifer happens to be in there – but the coast is clear. I sigh with relief and sit in a booth quietly and look through the menu though I’m not actually taking anything in. A middle aged woman with hair that has been bleached so much that it doesn’t move comes over to ask what I want, I just say coffee and toast, I’m not sure how much I could stomach right now. I packed my laptop to fill up the time, I reply to a few emails as if that was my purpose of being here, to any outsider I would look normal, not as if I was half expecting the best friend from my youth who happened to kill our ex head teacher. After an hour had passed, my coffee refills were getting colder each time, I started to gather up my belongings. The jingle of the bell above the front door rang, and feeling eyes staring into me, I looked up to meet her pale, yet electric blue eyes.
“I had a feeling that I could find you here” Jennifer said softly.
I stood in silence, staring at her, bereft of words while she awkwardly fills the silence. Unexpectedly, she says “It’s so good to see you, Veronica” and leans in to hug me tightly, I pat her on the back, loosen her grip around me and sit back down.
Her skin has aged, her hair is a bit darker and is straighter, her face has softened with age, but otherwise, she still looks exactly the same and I hate myself for allowing her to captivate me so easily by her charm and typical self. I was always the follower, doing whatever she wanted to do, going wherever she wanted to go, even as a child. My Mum used to say “Monkey see, monkey do. Always following Jennifer around!” but I didn’t care. I loved being her follower, her my cult leader. This was before things went so far, before she lost control.
The waitress, her name badge with ‘Donna’ printed on poking through her hair came over to our booth and looked at Jennifer, barely looking up from her notepad and asked her if she wanted anything.
Jennifer paused for just a few moments too long, long enough for Donna to look at her, stare at her and squint, clearly trying to work out where exactly she knew her from. After what seemed like an eternity, Jennifer said “Pie.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that such an establishment would have so much choice. I’ll have an apple pie” with her cat like smile belittling Donna while she turned around and walked off.
“You didn’t have to be rude, you know.” I muttered, staring at the table.
“Yes, you were. You have no right to be. You’re a felon, you’re hardly in a position to be rude to people.”
“Yes. I’m a felon. One that’s coming home.”
This time I looked up and said “Home? To your parents?”
“That’s not my home. Anyway, I don’t think they’ll have me. It would ruin their image that far too much.”
At this point Donna put down the limp, pale apple pie with half melted vanilla ice cream on the table with a little too much force.
“Thank you” Jennifer said, sweetly this time. She could change so quickly, like the wind, so unpredictably.
“So Veronica, what have you been doing with your life for the last, oh, I don’t know, say twelve years? Except for not bailing me out of prison, not standing up for me to the Police.”
“You murdered an innocent man, Jen. You took the whole hippy, wiccan satanic cult thing too far. What did you expect me to do? Go down with you?”
“I never turned you in. I never dragged you down with me.”
“I never said that you did, but I had Brown…”
“I had Columbia. But I made a choice. I would have stuck up for you.”
“I wouldn’t have expected you to stand by me for all of these years if I had murdered an innocent man!”
“Can you stop saying that?”
“That he’s innocent.”
“Well he is!”
“No, he isn’t. Don’t you get it? All those mysterious disappearances? All those deaths of those girls who seemed to be so happy on the outside? The ones with the broken eyes? Does it not seem at all suspicious?”
“What does that have to do with this?”
“Don’t act dumb, Ronnie. Do you not think that there was a reason that I was so messed up? Why I had such an easy attitude?”
“…I don’t know, Jen. You always seemed, I don’t know, erratic I guess.”
“You didn’t notice that I was especially odd in high school?”
“He told me that I was a flirt the minute I turned a teenager.”
“Jen…are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“If only you answered your phone, or opened the letters that I sent you then you would have known all this and I wouldn’t have to be dragging it all up. I don’t even get why you’re here. You knew I would come looking for you but you didn’t act like you wanted me to find you.”
“Of course I wanted you to find me. You’re like a sister to me, Jen.”
“I still don’t quite understand, why you did it. Why not just go to the Police?”
“Right, as if they would believe me. He was a figure in the community, a Head Teacher. He told me that I deserved it. It was just the one time.”
“Why didn’t you tell me at the time?”
“He told me that no one would believe me.”
“I would have believed you. I do believe you.”
“You just let me go in the Police car, you ran off.”
“I was scared, Jen.”
This time it was her to look at the ground, tears filling in her eyes.
I touched her hand and said “But hey, you’re out now, we can start moving on. You’ve put it behind you, you’ve paid the price now.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“You’re not sorry?”
“No, of course not. He deserved it.”
“No, Ronnie. You can’t second guess this, you’re either with me, or you’re not. If anyone did that to you, I would kill them in a heartbeat. Do you remember Rita?”
“Rita Thomas. Why are you bringing up Rita?”
“She killed herself, remember?”
“Yes, I do. About a month before…”
“and Charlotte Stephenson?”
“She disappeared. They never found her, you know.”
“I know. They never will. That was 5 months before Rita. They were his other victims, that I know of. The rest, well who knows.”
“Still, we could have built a case against him, gone to the Police, the press, done it properly, instead of you throwing your life away.”
“I didn’t throw my life away, I got the justice that they deserved.”
“You can’t take the law into your own hands!”
Jennifer laughs and says “So you don’t fancy robbing a liquor store and driving to Death Valley with me?” half joking – I think.
“No! I’m married! I have a house! So, I take it you need a place to stay.”
“If a place is going, I’m not going to turn it down.”
“I’m pretty lonely in that house a lot, Michael travels for work often. I could do with the company - I doubt he’d notice.”
“Check you out with a big slick husband, your Mum would be so proud. Any children?”
“Michael. No, no kids. Wasn’t destined.”
“You still believe in destiny, even after all of this time?
“Well, we’re both here, aren’t we?”
“Yes, yes we are. It feels so natural, yet so strange. This pie sucks, by the way. Still, much better than prison food.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes, until I finally say “What was it that made you steal your Dad’s gun though, walk around with it all day at school and stare at him right in the face and pull the trigger as he was sitting at his desk in his office?”
“He told me that you were next.”
A rubber tack that won't drive home - this thought
Of faces, smells and weather wrought
From ash of once-upon-a-time.
The fissured lane beneath my tread spills stones that roll away
Until they are impossible to find
Like half-remembered nights;
Or colour palettes for the blind.
A house-dog's yelp: the fox who
Wails for loss of love, or cub, or carrion
In the ditches of my dreams
And what we were is a tale told by others
Until the words come apart at the seams.
Soft afterthoughts of myrtle on a breeze
Tempered with manure and bacon grease
And I am home.
The boy I was strapped to my back;
the man I am - stripped to the bone.
There is no doubt about it; Heathrow Bus Station has to be the most depressing place on Earth! The very place where all roads meet and yet, this iterant traveller can only see the workers going about their daily routines. Not a jumbo jet in sight, even though they can be heard flying overhead; just a sea of haggard faces - not the archetypal London worker by any stretch of the imagination - straining under years of hard, thankless work for little more than what passes as a living wage in this city.
It is 6:20 in the morning and I have not slept in two days. I am neither away nor home; just somewhere in between, waiting for the coach back home. I used to like the sensation of not being anywhere when waiting for a train or bus connection. So little matters when one exists in a state where one is neither somewhere nor anywhere; one is just here. Sometimes I think it is the best part of any journey. One's obligations are somewhere completely different; the only tasks to be performed here are merely to sit and wait, and trying not to fall asleep before the coach arrives. Oh, and wondering if, after 12 hours on a moving hunk of metal, wearing the same clothes two days in a row, without so much as some toothpaste, if I look as bad as I feel.
I forgot to mention; there is another task one can perform while waiting here: thinking! There's plenty of time for that. Never mind if my thoughts run in to one another or if, every time I try to catch one, it quickly disappears in to the ether. Being holed up in a place like this is the perfect opportunity to think without necessarily being distracted. What else is there to do? Reading is impossible because my mind is too fuzzy; texting or messaging anyone is futile as most of them are probably still asleep or on their way to work; and what would I say to them anyway? I am sitting in a grubby, rundown bus station, somewhere north of the Old Smoke, scrutinising the departure times on the LCD screen to the point where my eyes are starting to water? I guess it's slightly more interesting than posting the items I had for breakfast on Facebook (a cup of coffee and two cigarettes in case you were wondering).
Yet, for all those thoughts rushing in and out of my head, there is one which continues to linger with overwhelming clarity: I do not want to get on that coach. Not because I have spent the best part of a day on one already, although that does have some bearing on my new found hatred of large, wheeled conveyances. Only that where I must go and to what it is I am returning will be the ruin of me. Ardent though I am to be back in my own bed and fast asleep, I know I do not want to go back. I never wanted to be there in the first place. I just arrived one day and ended up staying for 13 years.
No, that isn't quite it. The actual place, with its odd mixture of architectural styles and a harbour once famous (infamous) for its almost infinite capacity to export human cargo to distant lands are not the problem. It is a city, more or less like any other, apart from its historical contradictions. It is my life within it which bothers me. For, every time I go away to visit friends and family, I find myself quickly acclimatising myself to being in the company of others again; to know that, if I go for a walk or take a trip somewhere, upon my return there will always be someone there with whom I can share my adventures.
Alas, no such luck where I'm going. Every wall, of every street, of every thoroughfare exudes memories of a past life I have never quite been able to shake. Too many ghosts and I am so incredibly tired of being haunted. I long for some kind of succour - more than the stories I tell myself each night so that I might yet be able to fall asleep before 3am - the like of which I seem completely and utterly unable to find in what was meant to be - and has become - my home, if only by default. My ship sailed while my back was turned a long time ago; only recently did I finally look behind me and realise it has gone.
By default? Well, yes, very much so. Such friends as I might have once had have now moved on or moved away, and there really is nowhere else for me to go. I know its streets and alleys like the back of my hand; the names of the best pubs; the best places to get cheap, tasty meals; the cinemas and theatres; everything but that which is the most important thing of all to know: its people. Thirteen turbulent years in that place and I still know nothing of its people. I can tell you the number and route of every bus in the city (purely by accident, I can assure you); I can name every street, square and alley within a three mile radius; I know all the landmarks; and I could tell you myriad mischievous tails from the pubs I once frequented, of which there were many. And yet, I cannot tell you the name of a single person I know well enough to call a friend.
So perhaps not a home after all; I wonder if I can still remember what that word actually means anymore. I suppose, in much the same way as pondering the meaning of life, its definition is fluid, in the sense that, like any word or object, it has no meaning until we bestow one upon it. There! I have, it seems, answered at least one of the most important philosophical questions in the history of the human race: what is the meaning of life? Why, the meaning of life is the one we each give it! Not bad for someone suffering from the rigours of extreme tiredness and still reeling from what has to be a close contender for one of the worst journeys I've ever undertaken.
You see? Heathrow Bus Station really is the most depressing place on Earth. From its utilitarian architecture, the like of which might once have been fashionable in the 1960s and 70s - now little more than a massive collection of drab, dirty car parks and waiting areas - to the marauding mass of cleaners, bus drivers, cashiers and whoever else found themselves lost in this concrete jungle, it retains a somewhat bleak and forlorn atmosphere. The only comfort to be drawn from being here is that my waiting time is finite; not so for the poor souls who arrive every day to do the jobs "good" English folk now consider beneath them. Not that it has ever stopped such "good" folk from complaining about how those jobs rightfully belong to the English and have been stolen right from under their noses; something which has always puzzled me because, if there were jobs to be taken by immigrants when they arrived, why did our indigenous population never take them before those immigrants arrived? Their respective races and religions may well be different now, but they still make convenient scapegoats for this country's woes.
So I guess I should be grateful. Regardless of where I go at least I can go. All I have to do during this short interlude, besides thinking and staring at the LCD screen, is look on while these people, old before their time and not a single smile between them, work themselves in to an early grave so that they might eek out a living. I will get on another coach and, sooner or later, forget I ever saw those workers, so often taken for granted and, in the eyes of many a traveller passing through, completely invisible. These workers, who are the lifeblood of this God forsaken place and, in all probability, the city itself are, in the eyes of the majority, persona non grata. Or so it seems to me. But maybe I am wrong; after all, I have not slept for two days and my head is starting to feel funny...
At last, after my long and careful scrutiny of the 'Departures' board, my coach finally arrives.
For the first time in two days I am glad to be going back home.
Trent cursed. He hated the dust here. Now it was all over the entry to their ‘keep breathing’ tube set. But they were all past worrying about running out of air. The technology was good. The air in Clover Module was brilliant. Of course, it had taken Claire up to a year of panic attacks to believe it. ‘Trent just explain to me’, she would plead ‘don’t go inwards! assume I don’t know anything! and then walk me through how we are not going to run out of air’. His conclusion in the ‘settle days’ of stage one onboard the Inter Mars transport was that she had lied on her personality tests. Now he saw that if it weren’t for her none of them would relate.
Trent himself loved to spend hours on his own with the nearby rover. She was his real pal. In the early days, he kept Jubilation dust free and assisted with positioning her to search for signs of life as we know it and if they were feeling desperate for life as we did not know it.
Today, as he cleaned her down he could still taste last night’s rocket stew. Adnan the other Clover Module member kept their hydroponic plants galley flourishing. ‘Eat vegan and your spirit will be clean’ he would chant. The truth was none of them were religious but here they often had to dig deep into their spiritual reserves to colour the grey of losing sight of—her. Earth that is…. their ever-fixed point. They had not had a working satellite now for one year. And so, when Earth’s star and moon passed out of view depression would take hold in all the modules. It was during this time they would use a ritual to battle profound feelings of home loss. Adnan had come up with the idea. He would pull out a photo of a candle, they would lay hydroponic plants near it and chant ‘Gaia Gaia come back into our eyes let your star be enough to purge us of our longing for return help us let you go….’ To fill their earth emptied beings, for several days after the ritual, they would celebrate something Mars – a longer ray of sunlight, the end of a dust storm or the discovery of an exciting ridge.
Trent wiped the rover’s timers in the ever-stronger sunlight and was surprised to see them working. So, half of the 687-day Martian year had now passed. The current serene day to day in their group had emerged half a year ago and was therefore deep. They had adapted to the idea of never coming home again.
From behind him Trent could see the shadow of someone waving. It was Claire. As he walked towards her and back to Clover Module he sensed her excitement. Inside, the household was gathered around the communicator.
‘Satellite back?’ he asked
“yeah we’re still trying to work out ...’
‘Can only be one thing- a space ship has docked and fixed it'.
‘There’s a message coming through now’. They stood and waited for the 22-minute lag.
After a long briefing in part from the United Nations they found out that the security council saw their one-way mission to Mars as an injustice. A Mars ascent vehicle was on its way following breakthroughs during deep space tests. It would transport them to the earth-bound space ship for a one-year journey back home. As Claire started to clap and say how she had always had her suspicions about the fairness of the one-way deal Trent kicked several chairs over. 'Not coming home again' he yelled ' was the supreme sacrifice made by couples who had divorced for it, children who had lost a parent for it. It was at the core of the near suicidal but lofty goal of colonising Mars in record time. For being remembered in 1000 year’s time. And now an ascent vehicle was coming to take them home again and destroy the dream....'
It didn’t give her any comfort, going back there. She felt surreal, as if in a time warp. Her head had that weird feeling you get after flying long haul. Like it just wasn’t the right time to be up. The large sunglasses blocked out the worst of the sun, and hid the bruise that she’d tried to mask with makeup.
“Get out then, back to your parents,” Steve had said, as if he could not hurl a worse insult at her. He would not expect her to call his bluff. She had surprised herself. He hadn’t pushed her around that badly. Nothing more than the usual. Still, something inside felt broken. He had gone to the pub and she'd taken her chance. She’d hastily thrown random belongings into a bag and left. Fleeing like an animal released from its cage. The taxi drove in slow motion down the freeway. She wound down the window, realising she needed to breathe. The driver had given up on his mindless banter and stared ahead, listening to the radio.
She realised she wanted a drink. She’d have to stop on the way. Hell, her parents were teetotallers. She felt a stab in her gut at the thought of seeing them. She popped a Valium and lit a smoke, ignoring the shakiness in her hand. The last time they’d lectured her for days. Coming into her room at intervals as she slept it off. But the worst was the look on her Dad’s face. The one that said ‘where did we go wrong?’ It wasn’t the drink that was the problem. They didn’t understand. Another round of rehab wouldn’t help. She needed someone to take care of her, to understand her. She’d be alright. Get herself together again. Just get some more pills and some vodka to keep herself numb til she could get her head straight. Get some sleep. She stretched and curled up, leaning her head against the door. When she closed her eyes his face was there. “Hey beautiful,” he’d said last night. She remembered how sexy she felt when he looked at her that way. His burly hand pulling her to him and the charming smirk. The scraping of his stubble against her cheek. The smell of bourbon and Coke and cigarettes which made her want to taste his mouth on hers.
“Hey buddy, can you pull in here?” she asked, seeing a drive-thru bottle shop. She’d just buy a couple. She didn’t need it, but it would be hard going at her parent’s place. She wished she could just take a break from her life, without having to answer to anyone or apologise to anyone.
“You running from something or to something?” The driver eyed her in the rear vision mirror and she adjusted herself, pulling her dress down to cover her thigh.
“What makes you think I’m running?”
He shrugged. “You look like you left in a hurry, I guess.”
“No, just visiting the family.” She giggled. The pill was kicking in, boosted by a swig of vodka. The traffic had cleared now, and although the suburbs whizzed past, she was not too wasted to notice the familiar landmarks of her childhood. “Whoa, slow down, getting a little carsick back here.” She rested back in the wash of chemical haze. She thought of him coming back and finding her gone. Imagined the forlorn look on his face. She’d seen that look before, always after the worst days. He was so kind and sorry, truly sorry. So sorry it made her feel bad for being hard on him. Then it was good again, for awhile. He wasn’t that bad. He took care of her. He wouldn’t give her a hard time for drinking like they would. He really didn’t want her to leave.
It was getting dark, and she felt safe to take her glasses off. Her eye didn’t feel so bad now. She asked the driver to turn around and the car sped back across the city. Blurry lights flashed across her face in a kaleidoscopic caress. Despite its soreness her body ached for him, and only he understood what she needed. She had to learn not to stress him out so much. She would just rest her head until she was home again.
THE OLD HOUSE ON A HILL
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
Saavni… say that again? pleaded the man.
Saavni Shridhar Deshpande roomed a little girl voice, as she practiced saying her name over and over again in a tiny apartment on the 2nd floor of a suburban locality. Her father echoed her voice in his baritone.
Some echoes have memories etched in them ...
20 years later, Saavni walked the old road of memories, and relived them!
One at a time…
‘Baba’! said Saavni, out loud, surprised, at how her little girl voice had turned older, it had a distinctive quality to it. Did her voice carry the love and the pain in equal measures? Just the way she felt them, on most days…
Do voices carry feelings? Or Do feelings turn the voices mute?
Saavni's father -the man on the sofa in the house of the very suburban locality hadn’t changed much, however, his jet-black beard had turned grey, lines had marked their territory on his face… age had graced him.
The house, that had been home to many voices and feelings had grown in the years that had passed. It had changed, it had grown gloomier, just like Saavni, but that was about to change.
‘Somethings never change’ thought Saavni
‘Such as?’ asked a voice from somewhere
Such as places… people… replied Saavni with a sigh.
I am certain, though, that change is the only constant.
‘Well, only if you allow it to be’ said the voice
Do I have a choice? Asked Saavni
‘Yes, you always have a choice’ replied the voice
But, wouldn’t I rather change and move ahead?
Silence fell… The voice vanished. Saavni, now had only one voice, her own, and either she could trust it or stay untrusting… in her unknowing, limited zone.
She could say what needed to be said and pay the price. Truths that liberate us come with a price… but… We always have the choice! And yet…
Some truths need to be told.
What was Saavni Shridhar Deshpande’s truth?
Saavni had many truths. But she owed her father only one!
She didn’t want to burden him with the others.
Like the one, where, her little girl voice was muted behind a closed door by a man who knew her father well. Like the times, she felt like slashing her little girl wrists with a large kitchen knife because of the man who had muted her voice.
And the one where her teenage self-had gone from drug store to drug store hoping to find sleeping pills, but had failed!
And the one where her tiny frail body had been hurt so bad that all she wanted to do was, cry, loudly and say ‘Baba, I’m hurting’… But, hadn’t because, she knew it would be in vain. And, that would hurt more.
That’s why some truths remain untold
It’s better that way. Believed Saavni. Because, with every recount…
The bearer’s pain grows deeper
It reaches the gut
Making itself known
Then, the voice becomes mute
And tears flow
Some truths need to be told, for they liberate us.
What was the truth that could liberate Saavni?
Saavni, who had been raised in a conservative town, but had grown into a modern woman. Life had taught her, and she had allowed herself to learn. Pausing, often, when the pain arrived. Mute. Pauses. Pain. Causes. Mute Pain. Pauses. Pause. Pause. Pause…. Let the pain go away now! I have lived it.
A lifetime, had circled in a couplet
To one conclusion
The truth stood there with Saavni…
It was in her heart and outside it. Next to her… Opposite the sofa, on which her father sat.
Baba, I love her… said Saavni
(In her mind, she said a lot … the silent voice had bloomed. It wanted to say-I forgive you for not protecting me when I needed it. I forgive you for sacrificing my dignity at the cost of your needs. But, I love you… please accept this!)
Some unsaid recounts remain unsaid… forever!
(This woman loves me, she has healed the wounds that took place behind closed doors and muted pauses. I’m free from them, Baba… I am learning to love again. I’m healing. Slowly. Now, let me live, let me love… I accepted it all for you. Why can’t you…)
But, they lived in a world where the muted pauses were silenced, as was love!
Everything happened behind closed doors, drawn curtains.
But, not anymore…
Some doors need to be broken into, some curtains need to fall
‘A girl in love with another girl’ it’s unnatural, abnormal!’ stormed Saavni’s father.
The right-doings were only for the world. Behind closed doors, wrong doings reaped wounds into little hearts, and little bodies. And, fathers stood silent, mothers stood silent. They all stood silent. And watched.
Don’t you have hearts?
‘Hearts?’ ‘Use your brain, you live among these people, you must prove yourself capable of living amidst them’ ‘After all, my honour is at stake’!
‘Your honour was slashed, the day your daughter felt like killing herself. Because you didn’t have the heart, to save her. You had only excuses.’
‘People. Society. Honour.’
Where does love stand, Baba?
If you love me you will not love another woman that way. In an ‘unnatural way’.
Can love be unnatural?
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
So, what happened to Saavni?
Is this where the story begins. And ends.
Most definitely not!
Certain home-comings free us.
Love does meet us beyond our ideas of right doing and wrong doing.
5 Years later:
Birds are making the most of the beautiful weather that has graced them. Birds always make the most out of little things. A blue jay and a swan are circling near the pond, the lawn around the pond is freshly mowed. On the porch, there are magazines, books. Two coffee mugs are steaming a heady coffee bean aroma around the open doors.
Some broken doors, lead to open destinies
Tap them, knock them, break them down
The Old house on the hill has been refurbished to contain new memories. Happy ones.
A beautiful white home, for a better, colourful life
Children are busy planting seeds in the garden. Their names often echo around the silent spaces in the house. Etching new memories. Mira and Siddharth. Saavni’s children.
The survivor wins!
And where was Sriradha?
She was where she belonged. Beside Saavni, in her truth, in life and in love.
Did they live happily ever after?
Some stories never end
Forgive, but don’t forget
To Live fully. To Love fiercely…
I should have left our house
how it was for a while,
been gentler with myself - not pushed
to have some control - tightly clasp
these writhing pink worm days.
Not thrown away your odd blue sock
that haunted the clothes dryer for years.
It made you laugh,
I wish I had it still.
Emptied shelves reproach me too.
Great books you pored over thrown out
into a world that prefers Google.
Does sorry count if no one hears?
I feel like a contestant being shouted at
on one of those game shows
where you snatch as much as you can
of what’s thrown from the air.
Yet I’ve clutched so little of you.
I gave away your favourite clothes
not thinking they’d lost you too,
might never be worn again,
might never be touched.
Your glasses left on a window sill
in your study, looking at me still,
but this isn’t our home anymore,
their smeared lenses show
I’m no longer seen.
Adapt or Die
“Where can all this water be coming from?”
Bella Badger scrubbed desperately at the cloying, evil-smelling mud between her long, beautifully-manicured claws. They were long, strong, and flawless, without a single chip or rough edge to them, but several hours of strenuous digging and repairing of one of the deeper runs of the family’s sett had left their mark. As she inspected them closely, checking for damage, she wondered if she’d ever again manage to get them clean: really, properly clean.
An untidy hump of soil quivered and collapsed as her partner backed awkwardly out of his latest excavation. He shook himself, muttering and cursing as soil and rubble flew in every direction. Within seconds, Bruin’s fur was as clean as if he’d spent the last hour or more grooming himself for the annual Woodlands Ball.
“How bad is it?”
“Most of the tunnel I dug last season has fallen in. Just as well we didn’t have anything stored there yet: we’d have lost it, for certain! We won’t be able to dig in that direction for some time. We’ll have to tunnel off on the other end of the sett next time we need more living space. The ground out that way needs time to settle.”
This with a lazy flap of his tail in the direction of the collapsed passage.
“Best we go tell the cubs, sweetheart. They’ll soon be old enough to help me dig – and we’ll need an extra bedroom before long!” he added with an exaggerated wink. Bella’s pot belly was rounded with the promise of twins expected in the not-very-distant future.
“Where’s all this water coming from, Dad? And why does it stink so much?”
Billy hero-worshipped his father, and believed without question that Bruin knew all that could possibly be known about everything Above and Below the entrance to the complex maze of tunnels he’d carved, adapting to the growing family’s needs.
Bruin sipped thoughtfully at his dandelion tea. Billy’s younger sister, Blue, put aside her favourite doll, willing her father to find a solution.
“The Tall Ones are building more of their Caves not far from here,” Bruin sighed.
“We know – that is your mother and I know!” he corrected himself “ … that they don’t care how they deal with their waste properly, in the way Nature intended …”
“Like we do!” Blue chirped.
Bruin nodded and smiled, but it was a tired smile of resignation and reluctant agreement.
“That’s right, little one! We take what we need (and no more) from Nature, we recycle what can be recycled, and we bury our waste. Much of what we bury will break down and fertilise the soil to grow more plants for your children and theirs in the future.”
“They use untold amounts of water as if it were worth little or nothing at all, use it to send their waste Somewhere Else, for others to deal with – at least, I think that's the reason they send it there.” Bruin said. He was on unsafe ground here. He didn’t have any proof this was what happened to the waste products flushed away from the ugly Caves the Tall Ones preferred to live in.
“You mean, the Tall Ones don’t even know how to shit in the woods?” Billy asked, his eyes showing horror at the thought.
“You mind your language, Billy Badger!” his mother warned him. A half-smile hovered on her lips, suggesting she wasn’t too offended by her son’s choice of phrase.
“All the same, he’s right!” Bruin said. Billy took this as a sign of his superhero’s approval: the highest compliment his young mind could imagine. His heart swelled with pride. He raised himself to sit on his haunches.
“What can we do about it, Dad? I’m big enough, I can help you dig – even if we have to move and start building a whole new sett …!”
Bruin shook his head and set down his empty mug.
“For the moment, son, we can do what we’ve always done. We adapt ourselves and our comfortable, warm home, and carry on. In a few years from now, we may be able to work again in tunnels and passages in that part of the woods, but for now we change our plans, expand in another direction. And yes, I believe you’re both old enough to help me build a new bedroom …”
This with a loving glance at Bella, who suddenly became intensely preoccupied with a meticulous (and completely unnecessary) claw inspection and manicure.
“Let the Tall Ones carry on with their wasteful, inefficient ways of dealing with their stinking, polluted water and their foul-smelling wastes.” Bruin declared.
“Our paths seldom cross, and when they do the Tall Ones always seem to come out on top – literally! For they live Above ground, in the full glare of daylight. They spend their days (and perhaps their nights?) fighting against Nature.”
“We will continue as we have always done, by Adapting to our safe, secure homes Below ground, at one with Nature and at peace with ourselves.”
Adapt or Die
You say adapt or die
but I don't want your cockroach shell.
It’s cold and dark and callous
You used to be slow and awkward.
I liked that.
But now you move so quickly
that I can hardly make out your edges;
they seem so undefined.
I may be clumpy, and conspicuous,
but you, you travel so lightly that your footprints barely mark.
Soon you’ll sprout silent feathers and leave no tread at all.
So I grow wonky, and it makes it hard to balance,
Well I’m stronger than you think,
and I manage.
While you’ve developed sandpaper hands
to navigate these rough walls,
my fingers are still fragile, wrapped in peach skin,
which will shrivel when I get old.
But they’re soft.
You’d know if you’d let me touch you.
But nobody can touch you.
Nobody can crawl inside
or feel down your back to check for your spine.
Nobody can scratch beneath the surface
to make sure that, if cut, you still bleed.
You’ve peeled back your skin so many times,
and like a pass the parcel, each time you get smaller.
Soon there’ll be nothing left, but the smell of black ink on kid’s fingers.
And you tell me adapt or die?
Don’t you see that you’ve already died?
And this shell has grown back in your place,
this tiny, hollow shell.
Maybe I’m wrong and it’s not hollow but watertight.
Perhaps that’s even worse.
Because I don’t want to live cold and dark and callous
I like my peach skin and how I bruise and tear
I would rather die than be re-cast like you.
From the pale shadows that shrouded the valley that kept the slumbering secrets of the village that was home to the run-down cottage … there through the crackling, frost-tipped grass, the tread of a weary, broken pair of boots quietly crushed each tiny icicle. And Gareth tried to march bravely. Tried to show his faith and courage in his choice to serve.
“With distinction”, urged the recruiting sergeant. His mother snorted disdainfully when he told her but she gave him bread, cheese, an apple – where had she got an apple from? – as the frail edge of dawn nudged its way into the day and Gareth accepted the consequence of his choice. But she didn’t believe he was going forth in faith, and bravely too, no more than he did. She surmised what he knew to be true. This was escape and he would return to rescue her one day from this valley that held the tiny village in its grip that encircled the run-down little cottage where they survived day after day, year after year. He would come back for her. And for his brother and sister.
“I’ll keep in touch, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
Her eyes burned with the ferocity of an animal whose young are threatened and she cursed the recruiting sergeant for not seeing the boy, instead pretending to see a faltering, skinny, ungainly man, driven by determination and demons. She had no truck with soldiering, not since her own brother – too many years ago to remember now – never came back from a skirmish somewhere unpronounceable in Africa. Politicians and generals: murderers all. She wiped her hands on her apron and turned back inside as he disappeared into those pale shadows, shrouding the valley that muffled the sleeping sounds and hidden secrets of the valley. She would cope because there were the other two.
In the woods that nestled on that same hilltop over which Gareth had trod towards his destiny last autumn – a Thursday morning – Susannah sat on a withered, fallen tree trunk, anticipating the words, the smile, the actions of this boy that she was unsure if she loved: Alwyn. He, the boy from the butcher’s shop and the pride of his father’s congress with the world, was driven more by ardour and daring than affection, certainly not love, though he could hardly explain the difference. The pain of passion he mistook for longing … and Susannah was the object of that longing.
When Alwyn’s father, in great haste, packed him off to a college of commerce in Cardiff, it might as well have been the ends of the earth; she watched the pony and trap shrinking into the paleness of the early Spring morning, the dampness cold on her cheeks along with the few tears she shed and she recalled that he only turned to wave once, and said, “I’ll keep in touch, don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”
She had worried she might be pregnant - she wasn’t – and she knew, though he never said, that Cardiff had been his own suggestion, planted in the head of the proud and fretful father; and so he went. She had made love; he had fucked. Together they laughed and kissed and felt the warmth of their skin melding one with the other, in the musky, shadowy woods atop the hill that harboured the gateway to the valley that gave shelter to the village. Susannah didn’t want him to return. She would find a way to begin her young life again. This wasn’t the end she thought it was.
Only the boy David, who knew every stream in the valley, every nesting site in the woods, who drew beautiful studies of birds – resting, nesting, flying – only he lived so quietly in the shrouded valley that people barely knew he was there. Except when he smiled sweetly as he trod his tired steps back towards home, his own nesting, resting place after whole days in the nooks and crannies of the valley that he loved. His mother would return his smile, surprised once again to see him and confounded by the realisation that he didn’t occupy more of her thoughts, as much as Gareth and Susannah. Perhaps his quietness, his solitude lulled her into pallid forgetfulness; he was a sweet and kindly boy deserving of more and she gave it when she remembered. Thank God he is untroubled.
On a hot summer’s morning when insects buzzed and the smell of the warm, coarse grass caught in his throat and the reckless shudder of the brook rattling over the stones filled his ears, David raced along the farthest edge of the valley that led away into the mountains. He raced toward the deeper, darker woods with the tall trees and the concealed break in the foliage where a small, natural clearing gave home to a makeshift tent and a primitive camp fire, a small pony and a broken, little cart. And a boy. Older than David. Alone. Sitting on a rock and smiling. Like the product of a phantasmagoria – all shadows and demons and magic and wondrous in nature – this mud-streaked boy, lean and muscular and tanned by all of the seasons not just unrelenting summer, sat and smiled slyly as David approached. He was a child of nature, through and through. More mature, leaner, fitter, more powerful than David.
The bruises – a source of ardour in the night and a mark of tenderness in the morning – were harbingers of secrecy and mild panic as he concocted myriad ruses to avoid any prying glance from his mother. When she noticed she said nothing, telling herself that they were the product of a fall in the woods but there had been others a week ago that she noticed – and David was fleet of foot, had been since childhood. He could climb like a squirrel, the better to find a lodging place in the high branches, the better to hide and sit and draw his pictures of the birds. He worked on their smallholding, helping her to scratch a living from the valley and he worked at the blacksmith’s, none too successfully, to make a pittance to bring home to her.
David was unusually quiet this time of returning, his thoughts engulfed by that final conversation in the clearing.
“You’ll keep in touch?”
“I can’t write.” There was a self-contained smile and then, “Maybe I’ll come back next year.” But he never returned and David kept silent. That summer that saw a change in Susannah and gave constant reminders of the absence of Gareth and gave David knowledge and solitude.
The long, ragged shadow of the Great War reached to the valley and the village that clung to the sheltering slopes and windswept moorlands, robbing them of sons who never returned. Leaving daughters bereft, nursing abandoned promises.
“My husband died when the children were young and we got by as best we could … the smallholding, David's job with the blacksmith that didn’t last, a shop assistant’s position in the butcher’s for Susannah that lasted one year – long enough for the grocer’s conscience to feel absolved. They thought I didn’t know but there was gossip. So of course I knew.
“And the eldest to the army. He never came back. He met a girl in the north of England and stayed there, raising his own family. He visited every year and always left an envelope with money that was never referred to – by either of us. He was always a kind boy … reserved and not given to showing his feelings. It was seven years before I met his wife and children – poverty prevented visits until then. But there was always a Christmas card that they wrote in. I have them all.
“A mother will feel especially close to her youngest – but I never did. Such a shy, withdrawn boy but so independent. He left the blacksmith shortly after a travelling theatre had played for the villages in the area and I assumed he had run off to join them. He couldn’t have given his life to the village – people were wary of him, I learned. Or simply ignored him. Or … I don’t know. He didn’t fit in. How does a boy come to be born in a place that he can’t call home? I got a postcard once. He said he loved me and hoped I was well. The picture was Truro. I’d never heard of it.”
Moody’s Travelling Theatre was pared to the bone, completely devoid of young male actors as a result of the fighting; old men played young heroes. They were a troupe of eight, playing each village in each valley before wending their way towards England via the outskirts of Cardiff. Giving excerpts from Shakespeare and Dickens, followed by full performances of Fanny By Gaslight or some such. With rudimentary equipment and the help of locals and an abundance of imagination – not to mention the highly popular ten-minute shadow show which gripped the senses of young and old alike with its elementary magic. Performances brought light relief and momentary escape from the realities of poverty and the war effort. Church halls were generally given over to performance unless they were strict chapel. Then a barn was commandeered, to the delight of the mistress of said farm and the casual pride of the master.
“Susannah wedded the blacksmith, after rumours concerning her and the grocer’s son made it difficult for her to find a beau. Better if the grocer had not offered her the position only to let her go after a year. Tongues wagged. The blacksmith wasn’t given to gossip – nor to conversation much, either. But in these later years they have been kind to me; God loves a dutiful daughter. Every two weeks she walked from the neighbouring valley, over the tops to visit me. Even in winter. They moved there shortly after the wedding; the gossiping played a part in that. When she had her own, she brought them too – two girls and a boy. When arthritis afflicted her, her girls made the journey to check that I was fine. And every year I would go and stay – at Christmas and at Whitsun. Only three days at a time, mind. I could never take to the blacksmith but he was good to her. He gave me the necklace that my John gave to me for our first Christmas and that I had given to her when she wed. He gave it back to me when she died. I saved it for her eldest girl.
“I never heard a word from David after he disappeared. But in 1947 I received an envelope … no note or anything. Just a postal order for £20. A small fortune! There was one every month for five months. Never an indication of who sent them. Postmark was London. Who did I know in London? I showed the envelopes to Gareth when he visited that summer. I went to the Post Office with them. No doubt there was gossip. So I suppose they were from David.
“By then, Gareth’s wife always came with him on a visit. They’d got on their feet and their children were working. She was a good woman, his wife … took care of him. They were let down by their youngest. She had a baby. That war changed a lot of things … attitudes.
“They keep in touch. Apart from David. I tell them not to worry. I’m fine. Mrs. Cole next door is very kind and helpful in between Susannah’s visits. And her girls’ visits. I need more help than I used to."
In the pale shadows that shrouded the valley that kept the slumbering secrets of the village that was home to the run-down cottage, people adapted. And survived.
Message in the Bottle
After saying their farewells to our chief, my tribe left the pyre, their heads bowed. But I have remained, waiting to be left alone, because Chief Tyson was more than a chief to me, he was my grandfather.
Standing on the headland, I look out across the expanse of sea, a sea dotted with islands much like our own. Islands inhabited by our enemies, who legend would have it, had once been our kith and kin. That had been just one of the stories my grandfather had told his people. And yet it was hard to believe, given the great battles and skirmishes that had taken place between their tribe and ours, in an attempt to control the seas between us.
I could barely comprehend that my grandfather was dead. Only the stench of burning flesh and the curl of smoke, rising to the sky, confirmed I was not in dream time. And with him gone, I worried for the future. Would I be able to earn the respect of the people, like he had? He’d been as wise as the spirits that protected us. His knowledge of our people and our past, had, he assured us, been passed down from his grandfather and his grandfather before that - and so on and so on. But his tales were so fantastical, that without respect for him, I was sure many of the islanders doubted their truth. But isn’t that the place of myth and legend?
The sun was beginning to set behind the island of Skiddaw now – a full orange sun, burnishing on the sea and not for the first time, I wondered what was beyond. Once, thousands of years ago, our island of Helvellyn had been a mountain and Skiddaw the same. And where the sea was now, had been dotted with beautiful, fresh-water lakes. It had been a place of peace and beauty, an escape from that other place they’d known as tar and cement.
But legend would have it, that our ancestors had conjured up a storm. A storm so otherworldly, that it had ended life as they had known it. Hungry bellies and selfish desires had harnessed what they could, no matter the outcome. They'd robbed from the land, thirsty for more and more. They didn’t understand they were mere caretakers and some say, they did not care. They had lost sight of what was important.
The more unusual stories, told tales of people being able to speak to each other across the seas, see each other on the other side of vast landscapes. Others whispered that they’d climbed up to the moon, to find the man and then flown, like birds, around the stars. Those same stars, that were just becoming visible now.
Apparently, they had been a blasé people and despite the warnings written across the skies and in the rising of the seas, they had been persuaded by the money Gods that they could have it all, so they took it. And they kept taking. The more they had, the more they wanted. A given, a truth, a right. They guzzled and consumed until it was too late.
My grandfather described storms that had rumbled until the skies had cracked, crimson with fire– the air had gotten hotter and hotter, until our ancestors had choked for breathe. Even the wildlife had suffered. The winged life began to fall limp, plummeting to earth. Flies swarmed- flesh eating. Rank, putrid smells hung in the air and invaded nostrils. And out at sea, great tidal surges had thundered towards the land, bringing with it, the finned and swollen - their bodies diseased and left to perish on the beaches. Corals, once orange, green and brown, sea lettuce and grape, smothered, choked and bleached, as their sun faded. There was no breakers - no end to push the tide back. Great civilisations were destroyed and drowned. The world had imploded and the people with it.
The people had grown weaker, disillusioned as their bodies failed. They prepared to die and did. Only the fittest made it, taking refuge on the peaks, whilst the troughs rose higher and higher. Only a few survived long enough to populate the mountains and eek out an existence, foraging on a land that had nothing to give.
Of course, these were just stories; ancient folklore based on witchcraft and daemons and couldn’t possibly be true. Could they? I’d often asked my grandfather this very question and once, he’d taken me down to the water’s edge and made me fish one of the clear and battered containers out of the sea. ‘Where do these come from?’ He had asked, holding up the container towards the light.
We knew them as bottles and we collected and drank from them, we buried them in the ground to collect bugs for our food and we built totems with them. Where they’d come from, I hadn’t rightly cared. I’d shrugged my shoulders, ‘well they’re a gift from the sea.’
‘A gift you say.’ My grandfather had looked thoughtful, as he combed his greying beard with his fingers. ‘Well they are a gift of sorts. Look at them, littering the beaches,' he'd motioned with his arms. 'But their gift, is not their usefulness. Their gift is the message they bring from our forbearers.’
‘Message?’ I’d looked at him, dumbfounded. The vessel was empty, save for a mouthful of dirty water and sand. ‘But there is no message’, I’d said, ‘and how could something so old, last so long anyway?’
‘Well that my son, I can’t tell you, but I do know you must guard its message, always. Guard it and pass it on to your children and beyond.’
Bending down now, I fish a similar bottle from the beach, remembering how he’d leaned over his staff that day and whispered conspiratorially, into my ear. ‘Our ancestors reaped what they had sown, so learn from it' he'd warned. 'Be neither blind nor deaf. Never get complacent, son, never get greedy, never go after riches and convenience and most of all, remember that we are mere caretakers of this land. When we forget that,' he'd continued 'it will be the beginning of our own destruction.’
Just like then, I looked at the bottle now, bemused, searching for these hidden messages and could see none. And just like then, I brought it to my ear, listening, but heard nothing. Frustrated, I kicked the dust over the last, burning embers of my grandfather and decided his warnings, were just the ramblings of an old man. Times were different now and we must adapt and change, in order to survive. We must survive, whatever the cost might be.
"'Premium top floor flotation apartment in weather ready development, guaranteed water tight and to withstand hyper-storm events to level 4.' ... How can we afford to rent somewhere like that?"
"How can we afford not to? We're not moving into some down-river death trap. We'll just have to tighten our belts."
They both fell silent, listening to the hail bounce off the solar windows and thermo-roofing. Beth picked at her nails, tearing them off in ragged edged strips, biting at her fingertips. Joe pressed his fingers into flushed temples, rubbed at his wrinkled forehead. They both knew there was nothing left. No belt to tighten. After paying their rent to the Housing Syndicate, the Garden syndicate for food, the Environs Council for their utilities allowance and the People's Council their Welfare Tax, they had nothing... This was not unusual - it was the same for all Sector dwellers. All wages were logged and no 'profit' was allowed. For people like them, there was no hope of moving to a safer area. That was for those who had been raised into the Betterment Sector - no one outside it seemed to know how to get in - and now they had outstayed their welcome in the Rescue Sector. The message had flashed up on their bulletin screen that morning...'Your temporary shelter capsule has been reallocated to new refugee status citizens. Please vacate within seven days.'
They'd heard of other refugee status citizens - Virtual Teachers and Information Analysts like themselves - who had been forced to move back to the Unsafe Zones. Someone had to live there. Sometimes they were lucky enough to find a micro-climate enclave on a small patch of good upland and they survived. Sometimes they just disappeared. Dead or just off-radar - no one seemed to know. The daily Citizen Bulletins never discussed the matter. They just bombarded their viewers with advice - health, hygiene, life enhancing tips - always ending with a reminder: 'Never converse with Unknowns. Stay inside your capsule at all curfew times. Only the safe survive.'
Sometimes Joe felt it it was all completely futile. There was no future he could contemplate. Four plastic walls, work and friends confined to Sealed Networks, no way to move up any kind of ladder - or even sideways - unless you were already in that mysterious Citizen Betterment loop. Beth had these same thoughts but both kept their thoughts to themselves and only spoke of change. Of improvements. It was the only way they could adapt to their situation: to talk of a future. A future with happy children, looking forward to the possibilities of Ultra-drainage and reclamation, new field sites, new crops and a return of hope, of social integration: a return of trust.
(abecedarian with addendum)
Always adapt, adopt, amend, absolve
as agnostics and atheists appeal to
blossoms bold beauty and barren buxom,
cursing choir and curdling canon.
Desperate deadened diatribes dictate
empty, evil, evanescent ebbs and ends.
Febrile, futile felons and festering fibbers
gather to gab goodly and grotesquely,
herding heathens and herald hobnobbing,
incestuous insolent ingrates. Inspired
Jehovah judges and jesters jeer as
knaves knock, knife, and knot lies.
Lobbyists and litigators lean and lust,
mischievously maniacal monsters
neglect neighbors and negate nebbish.
Ominous organs operated by others pray
pious psalms to panderers and pimps alike.
Quitters quit as quisling quash rising
religious rancor, robbing Rome of rich,
sacred sonnets and serving sinister
turncoats and traitors, two by two.
Unbridled urchins and unadapted ululate
victories and vanquish the virtuous
wallowing in willful wrath, wicked wonder.
Executioners expel exes and x-gamers,
yammering youth yell and yo-yo
zingers with zeitgeist and zip! Adage:
aspire to absolve and ascend with adaptation.