About

An introduction

This is a collection of often witty, insightful and informative short stories.  Each piece will, I think you’ll find, make your overall experience of life a little warmer, a little fuzzier and a tad more interesting. Inspiration is drawn from either conversation, observation or the first thoughts on waking. Sometimes the words fall onto the page with a carefree aplomb and other times prised out of the ether with a crowbar. I love the story that flows from the pen with a curious ease just as much as I love the challenge of writing the one that refuses to cooperate.  Hopefully you won’t be able to spot the difference. There are, or have been certain themes that reappear.  Free will pops up from time to time, is in fact woven into several pieces. Death makes the odd appearance as does the concept of betweenness, the unseen energy that passes between a thing of beauty and its admirer, be it a piece of music, a landscape or a silent understanding between lovers. Also, in a couple of pieces, I explore  ‘the spectrum of incredulity’ the notion of belief.

There are plenty of shorter pieces, little distractions, slices of fantasy and escapism to delve into should you be pressed for time. Humour is an important part of life, sometimes used to bond with others or to lighten the tension in a room or, just for the hell of it. I try to inject humour where ever appropriate in my writing, as in life, when things get heavy whip out a feather.

Enjoy.

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Oleander

Oleander 

‘124 was Spiteful.  Was Harold spiteful?’  

Rebecca sat waiting for an answer.  Her pencil hovered over the clipboard like a dog waiting for the order to fetch.  Her eyes searching, eager and bright. 

‘Yes, sometimes.  Look, why are we doing this again?’ Said Mary.

‘It helps with the processing.  It helps us build a picture so that I can help you overcome your grief.’

Mary glanced out of the kitchen window.  On the lawn, near the composter, a spade stood buried in the soil.  The spade was the last thing Harold had planted and over which he’d hung his gardening coat and cap.  She thought this effigy of her late husband looked like a scarecrow, but it didn’t scare her: it just made her sad.  Each morning Mary resolved to remove it but she never did.

‘Two months it’s been since..,’  Mary trailed off.

‘Since his death?’

‘How many more questions do you have?’

Rebecca shifted in her seat.

‘I have nothing but questions.  You choose which ones you want to elaborate on. For example, when I asked you … let me see … number 89,  ‘Was Harold caring?’ you spoke at length about his affinity with nature, how he loved to grow plants from seeds, nurture them, feed them and protect them.  You never once said that he cared for you.  That, I felt, was a cathartic moment.  Other questions you brush aside.  124 is a case in point.  Shall we delve a little deeper do you think?’

‘Was he spiteful?’ Mary mulled.

Rebecca glanced at the clock on Mary’s wall: half an hour into the session and she’d managed to coax nothing of any worth from her client. 

‘Yes let’s concentrate on that shall we?’ said Rebecca.

‘Well, he never hit me.  I thought that abuse was physical, a punch or a slap that sort of thing.  God I prayed for him to hit me.  That way I’d have something concrete to pin on him.  I’d have a way out.  But I guess he knew that.’

Mary brushed the pleats in her skirt, then met Rebecca’s gaze.

‘Is that wrong Rebecca?’

Rebecca’s day just got better.  She knew it!  Hadn’t she said as much in her journal?  Her experience told her that this revelation was just the tip of the iceberg. Hadn’t she sensed domestic violence lurking beneath the surface?  Mary wasn’t sad that her husband was dead.  She was sad because she felt relieved.

‘Abuse doesn’t have to be physical Mary.  Verbal abuse is a real thing.  Tell me more.’

Mary glanced at the scarecrow, a creature of questionable potency, but a physical reminder of the power her husband had once wielded over her.  Why hadn’t she taken it down?  Why leave it there?  Perhaps because its fate lay in her hands, she had the power to destroy it swiftly or leave it to rot slowly without dignity?

‘Did you notice the oleander hedge as you came in the drive?’ 

‘Yes, I mentioned the oleander on my first visit; don’t you remember?  Why do you bring it up it now?’

‘I’ll get to that.  I’m going to tell you something I think you already know, then I’m going to tell you something you might not know.  My husband bullied me … always, from the moment we were married.  It wasn’t what they call ‘gas-lighting’ either.  That would have required patients and subtly.  No, his method was far more direct. Outside the home he was charming, he never forgot a person’s name, or a detail about their lives. He was considerate and pleasant with other people and they liked him.  I liked him outside the home.  I would look at this man and think I’d like to take him home.  Leave the bully out on the street and just have this one.  But the nice guy left me at our threshold, every time.  Instead, I lived with a spiteful, nasty man who got immense pleasure from…’

Mary pushed her thumb into her knee until the knuckle went white.

‘Putting me down.’

A black cat entered the room through a flap in the door, sat and took a look around.  He was moving on.  The prevailing mood here smelt rancid, over cooked and – this was only his opinion – sanguinary.  No, he’d found a new place to live just a few doors down, comfortable and sweet smelling.  He’d check in here from time to time but only to make the transition easier for the widow.  The cat sat on the mat between the two women, neither lap looked accommodating. 

‘How did he put you down Mary?’

‘He just had a way of making me feel small and insignificant.  Constantly mocking me.  Why?  Why would he do that?’

‘Do you think he was insecure Mary?  Male insecurity has a lot to answer for.  In my experience a women internalises her vulnerability, takes it out on herself but a man externalises it, takes it out on others.’

Mary wanted to believe that Harold had been insecure, that he’d felt threatened by her in some way.  Because insecurity counted as something, something wasn’t right with him, he had issues and so, not able to face them, he took out his frustrations on her.  Yes, insecurity would be an excuse, however poor, but the truth was that he simply enjoyed tormenting her. 

‘Like that damned cat there.’   Mary pointed at the cat on the rug before them.

‘What do you mean Mary?’

‘He toyed with me, tortured me in the same way a cat plays with a mouse.  For fun, for his own amusement.  But I felt helpless, incapable of fighting back, less courageous than a mouse.  Years of effectively saying, ‘Yes, mock me, shout at me, insult me.  Yes take away my identity.’  He belittled me, shamed me and I let him.  I was complicit in my own misery.  But…’

‘But what Mary?’ said Rebecca.

‘Go on tell her,’ thought the cat.

‘But I saved a part of me, a tiny part that, like one of his seeds lay dormant, waiting for the right conditions to grow.’

In the corner of her eye Mary could make out the coat and hat on the spade. It looked like him standing there watching over his garden.  Watching over her.  Why had she left it like that?  Why not burn it, stamp on it, tear it to pieces?  Did she really believe that allowing this effigy to rot would have any affect on him now?  Or, and here’s a thought, did she leave it there because without that sense of him watching over her she would be rudderless?  Bobbing about on a sea of uncertainty.  Did liberty frighten her?  Could she trust her own judgment after so many years of oppression?  Destroying Harold completely gave her autonomy and God only knew what she might do with that.

Rebecca knew all about the part one keeps from the world and its tormentors, from its oppressors and rapists.  That’s the part she shares with no one. That part never had secrets to keep, never had to hide the bruises.  That part never lay terrified under the covers at night waiting to see if he would come.  That part never attended her stepfather’s funeral and never accepted the offers of condolences with a thin, feigned smile.  No, that part walked barefoot in the park and lay naked in the rain.  It sat sifting warm sand through its toes while listening to the waves caress the shore, impervious to criticism, to betrayal or molestation.  That part hummed cheerfully as the beast bore down.

‘That’s a good thing Mary. You kept some part of you away from your abuser, a part he couldn’t see, couldn’t touch and couldn’t hurt.’

‘Yes I did.’

‘And what did you do with it.  This hidden part of you?’

‘I killed him with it.’

Silences were, Rebecca knew, a part of the process. They were necessary, they gave pause for thought, for reflection or recollection.  Silence had to be managed though, allowed to alight upon but not infest a session.  One should give it space but not too much.  But, unlike any other silence, this one could be construed as her own.

‘Figuratively speaking, obviously?’  Rebecca finally managed to say.

‘Well, yes.  It was the poison that killed him.’

‘Poison?’

‘Yes. When you live with a horticulturist you learn things.  For example when Harold planted the Oleander hedge he told me that the plant was very toxic.  If you were to ingest it you could die but few people make that mistake as it’s very bitter.  I asked him if it was safe around children and he told me not to worry as we were not going to have any.’

‘Is that why you poisoned Harold?  Because he didn’t want children?’

Mary smiled. 

‘Goodness no! I don’t think so… Maybe?’ 

Before they married, Harold had said all the right things.  He said he loved her.  He said they’d have a family as soon as he got himself settled into work.  He wanted to do things in the right order.  Mary went along with him partly because he seemed confident and knowledgeable about the world and, partly because she didn’t want to upset him.  She wasn’t afraid of him then.  On the contrary she thought he was wonderful and that she was lucky to have found him.

‘He never wanted children; he lied to me.  He didn’t want to share me with anyone else.  He wanted me to revere him and him alone – to sacrifice everything for his happiness. I lost all self-respect in the process and any respect he had for me vanished too.  Harold saw a craven, miserable women, a wretched creature that he’d created, and then, disgusted by his own creation he loathed.  

Was he spiteful?  Yes he was.  Was he manipulative?  Definitely.  Do I blame him…?’

‘Do you blame him Mary?’

‘No, not really.  I blame myself.’

‘But you were young and naive.  You had no idea that men like him existed.  You were ill-prepared.  It’s a terrible crime, to trap someone emotionally, to gain their confidence, to convince them to trust you only to betray you.  What a shock it is when you suddenly realise that this person, this man you have grown to love, to trust above all others has deceived you.  And all for what?  So that he can manipulate you, use you and, in the end, abuse you.’

Mary stood and walked to the Welsh dresser.  She picked up the urn containing Harold’s ashes.   A plain, ceramic pot with a small silver plaque on which one word had been engraved.  The word came ready-inscribed with the plaque and the plaque with the urn.  Mary would not have chosen that word herself.  She would have chosen ‘Bully’ or ‘Liar’. 

‘Harold was a bitter man and so, over the years, that hidden part of me developed a taste for bitter things too.  There were a few areas of our life together that I had control over, like my domestic duties – excluding the garden, of course.’

Mary sat back down and, still holding the urn she addressed her husband’s remains:

‘I poisoned you with oleander leaves.  I ground them up and put them in your gourd curry.’

Rebecca noticed a flush of red in Mary’s cheeks, she was ready to confront her oppressor and with a trembling voice filled with anger she continued.    

‘But to be able to do that I had to first, over many years, re-educate your palette. I had to slowly introduce bitter foods into your diet.  Not only that, I had to gradually make bitter your flavour of choice.  I started small with broccoli, kale and other greens, then bitter chocolate, coffee and green tea.  After these flavours had become established I experimented with spices and curries.  Always adding more pickled lemon, more Fenugreek, more ginger.  I knew that the time was right when you complained that a dish needed more Japanese eggplant!  And so, as a special treat, just for you I made a bitter gourd curry with extra Oleander! My only regret is that I never saw you suffer.  You gobbled down your food, grunted some sort of approval and left the table.  You went outside, stuck your spade in the ground, felt hot I suppose because despite the chilly evening air you took off your coat and hat and hung them on the spade.  I saw you disappear into the greenhouse, I cleared the table and made you a mug of Jasmine green tea.  I put on my cardigan, walked across the lawn and found you dead in the green house, all sprawled out amongst your pots and cuttings.’

Mary looked up from the urn in her hands and sighed. 

‘Would you like tea? I’m going to put the kettle on.’

‘Err no, that’s ok thanks Mary.  May I ask what do you intend to do with Harold’s ashes?’

Never in her entire career had anyone admitted to murder.  An alarming number of clients had expressed a desire to do so but none, to her knowledge, had actually followed through with it.  And yet, Rebecca felt completely unperturbed.  It was as if Mary had told her a fairy tale, a fantasy, something found between the pages of a storybook.   

All she could think was, ‘Good for you’.

‘These?’ 

Mary looked at the urn as if for the first time.

‘I don’t know. I could bury them in the garden.  Maybe plant a tree over the top.  But I think I’ll just flush them down the toilet…  You know, when the time is right.’

‘I see.  And, if you don’t mind me asking what does the plaque say, I cant read it from here.’

‘It says ‘Beloved.’

‘And was he?’

‘He was liked, people were fond of him but I’m not sure he invested enough in others to be loved.  I didn’t even like him.  I didn’t like him for many reasons but mostly for the betrayal.  The promise of a man that didn’t exist.  

But that’s not important now.  Those of us that remain, the ones that carry on, we are the ones to ask.  Am I beloved?  No not really.  I’ve forgotten what that feels like.  It’s an abstract concept when you live in a vacuum.’

Mary hesitated.  She tried to look past Rebecca’s meticulously constructed professional facade, to see beyond the pinstriped, hard-shelled outer layer.   She wanted to glance the soft, vulnerable fruit within – the part Rebecca went to such lengths to protect.  Was it bitter or was it sweet?  Did it show itself at all?

‘And what about you Rebecca?’  Mary asked.  ‘When you leave here, when you put away your clipboard and pen, when you take off your mask, are you?’

‘What?’

‘Beloved?’

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Always Sunny or (another brave new world)

‘A squat grey building of only thirty four storeys,’ Mum said.

‘Anecdotes or floors?’ 

‘Floors you idiot.’

It’s OK.  I didn’t rise to it.  Her vitriol just slithered off me.   My alkali thick skin neutralised her acidic tongue.  I’m practicing a new me.  The old one got burned. 

I’m Mark II now.

‘What’s your room like? Do you have a sea view?’ I asked.

‘Not big enough to swing a cat!  I don’t know how I’m going to cope!’

‘The whole country is in lockdown mum.’ 

‘It’s all very well for you,’ she replied,  ‘You’ve been housebound for so long it barely makes a difference.’

She made it sound like I don’t count. 

Mum said, ‘Let’s do HouseParty later.’

She was putting on a front.  Best foot forward.

‘OK as long it’s just you and me,’ I said.  ‘I don’t like crowds.’

‘Just you, me and Jesus.’ 

I knew she was going to say that. 

She had to hang up; she had a synod to attend albeit online as the hotel management thought it best not to allow gatherings in its conference rooms.  She went all the way to Majorca to have a conference and now it seems she is stuck there. 

Mum’s always got something on – church stuff mainly; soul recruitment is her bread and bream, her loaves and fishes.  On a Tuesday morning she goes to Zumba in the community hall.  She is always trying to drag me to Zumba, never church, just Zumba. 

She said, ‘Jesus comes to you but Zumba, you got to put the effort in and go.’

On Thursdays after lunch it’s ‘Knit and Natter.’   Too twee!   I like to call it ‘Stitch and Bitch’.  Mum doesn’t like it when I call it that.  But that’s what it is.  A gaggle of Christian do-gooders, sitting around crocheting blankets for Afghan refugees whilst denouncing the girl in the hijab who makes the coffee in the cafeteria. Double mocha with double standards. 

It’s OK.  At least she gets out. 

I used to go out but it got me into trouble.  That’s how I ended up where I am.  I had a tendency to punch people out of principle.  I’d get angry and vengeful, emulating my mothers idol:  God One.  Not God Two.  God Two is forgiving, like Mark II only with more followers.

The jails were full of people like me: misunderstood geniuses.  There was no room at the inn.  So I became a prisoner in my own home with an ankle bracelet and a curfew.  Makes sense I suppose, from a financial standpoint, if not necessarily an ethical one.  

What is the point of incarceration?  Society should be protected from rogue elements like me, the ‘old’ me – Mark I.  But society has an obligation to rehabilitate the rogue too; for everyone’s sake.  I’m not saying everyone that goes through rehab comes out a vastly improved citizen or a better version of themselves.  Christ, if that were the case, everyone on the planet could do with a little prison time.  Everyone would benefit from a bit of confinement and some ‘one-to-one’ time with a neurotic psychotherapist and their oily glove puppet.   But surely it’s worth a shot.  Surely society owes itself the illusion of benevolence?

While stuck indoors, I had time to think, and thinking, once I got started, turned out to be easier than people make out.  I used the time I had to reevaluate my life, to consider changes, to reinvent myself.  My moral compass needed to be realigned.  I decided to cut out all the undesirable elements in my life, to rid myself of needy people, of those that wanted to keep me in the gutter.  

Mum, I’d have to keep – I didn’t have the courage to severe that particular tie. 

I also decided that violence was not the answer.  Then, soon after this revelation, a few days into living as a free man, I punched a man clean out.  It turned out to be a good punch, the right sort of punch, a well placed, timely, beautiful punch.

Mum said, ‘Violence is violence but on this occasion I think God will turn the other cheek.’ 

On the night of the good punch I had been to Benny’s.  To get to Benny’s I would go through the graveyard, past the Cobbler’s Arms, nip into the underpass and then out the other side.  It’s the quickest way.

The transaction went well; just a little weed: in through the red lacquered door, down the hall, past the piano and into the kitchen where Benny and his girlfriend sat playing cards.  That was their thing; they played cards and waited for people like me to show up. 

Benny said, ‘It’s a misconception that, drugs are bad.’

I said, ‘Well you would say that.’

He had obviously given his reply much thought,  ‘No, society is bad.  Society is so corrupt that the people at the bottom have no hope.  They can’t see a better future for themselves and so rather than abstain from pleasure in order to gain more later, they just take pleasure whenever they can; in the immediate.  The no-hopers feed the gluttony of the hopeful.  Survival of the fittest means only that those that can make sacrifices will gain more in the long term. So here’s a new meme with a qualifier,  ‘Drugs are fantastic (if used with a little common sense and due diligence).’ 

At busy times it felt more like a doctor’s surgery.  They even had a waiting room with a well-stocked record collection and an aquarium no longer holding water, its Japanese fighting fish long since dead.  People had, overtime, put their business cards in the tank.  Taxi drivers, solicitors, IT consultants, window cleaners, restaurant workers, hospital staff; the lot!  The whole of society, its cogs and levers were represented in that tank and all of them were practicing due diligence. If Chief Inspector Dorothy Cadwell had, rather than leave her card in the tank, removed the rest as evidence she would have had to interview the entire city. Rather, she left her card as a sign of solidarity.

I left Benny’s and went back into the underpass. The pass was dimly lit and had as many tags as Benny’s fish tank had business cards.  I’d made it about half way when I heard a women screaming for help further along.  She was on the floor with her dress up and he knelt between her legs. Obviously not a prearranged romantic rendezvous, nor did I believe a financial transaction had been made between the two. 

‘Hey!’ I shouted.

I could feel the old vengeful Mark rising up within me and Mark II gallantly stepped aside.

The man, wiry, tall and drunk staggered to his feet and rather than run, which is what he should have done, he tried to tuck his member back in. Member tucking takes time and its not something we normally have to do on the move. His desire to conceal the weapon before leaving the scene cost him a beautiful punch. Out cold. I then escorted the girl back to Bennies. She sat shaking in the waiting room while I fished out chief inspector Cadwell’s calling card. 

‘Hero of the underpass.’

That was the headline in the local paper.  Mum cut it out and framed it.  In the photo I’m standing next to Cadwell.  She’s all starchy and reeking of authority and I’m trying to look like catching rapists is my day job.

During the trial I had my first panic attack.  Earlier, I’d explored fantasies of leaping over the barrier and giving the accused another beating.  However, something inside (‘Jesus,’ mum said) told me that hitting him again would not be rewarded in the same way.  I had to walk the line, be the good citizen and do my duty according to the law.  Perhaps this enforced restraint, this imposed curtailment of my basic instincts, caused a panic within. My freedom to act had been compromised and it left me feeling trapped and vulnerable.  I said my bit, answered all their questions before hyperventilating into a brown paper bag.

After the trial I started on a path of self-improvement.  I got a job in an office, it wasn’t a great job but gave me structure and Mum was pleased. 

‘Praise be the lord!’ she said.

‘If I do something wrong it’s my fault but if I do something right it’s the Lord’s work.’

‘Amen to that.’

The second panic attack came in a cinema.

I always tried my best to get an aisle seat when going to the cinema or theatre or on any form of public transport.  But, on this occasion an old lady politely asked if I could be persuaded to swap seats with her.  Her seat was slap in the middle of the aisle and was, in her words not mine, ‘the sweet spot’.  I couldn’t really say ‘no’.  So with a little trepidation I shimmied my way past a dozen laps of varying dimensions until I found the old ladies sweet spot.

The film was twenty minutes in when I began to worry that I’d drank too much lemonade and might need, at some point, to shimmy past all those laps again!  The worry slowly turned to dread, I began to feel nauseous, my ears burned like the whole world was talking about me but my skin felt cold and clammy to the touch.  I saw my heart burst from my chest, catapult across the auditorium and splatter onto the IMAX screen before me.  I hyperventilated and passed out.  The young women to my left, nothing more than a lap before, noticed my condition. She, without worrying about disturbing others, had me dragged out of the auditorium by two beefy men and into the foyer. Gayle, my rescuer, (the girl with the lap), stayed with me until the Ambulance arrived. 

From Hero to Zero!’  might have been an appropriate headline.  

I don’t think I could construct a more embarrassing scenario if I tried.  Nevertheless, that’s what I do all day; worry about what might happen.  After the cinema debacle I tried to carry on with my life as normally as I could but with one concession, I never went to the movies again, I went online instead.  

Actually, that wasn’t the concession I made at all: the concession I made was to not sit anywhere in public, no busses, theatres, trains, waiting rooms, restaurants

or cafes.  I would not sit anywhere that, should something happen, I couldn’t escape easily.  Crazy isn’t it?  Or is it, really?  When you think about what I’d been through? 

Life went on like this for some time until I realised that driving my car to work was really dangerous, not just for me but for the other road users too.  What if I had another panic attack while in the car, driving along at fifty miles an hour?  I had to stop using the car immediately but the thought of cycling to work, which was the only option left to me, brought on another panic attack, this time at my desk, in the office, in front of everyone.  I had basically tarred and feathered myself in public and paraded my nakedness before the crowd…  I couldn’t go back to work after that. 

My life narrowed considerably, yet at first I couldn’t see it that way.  I replaced the things I’d lost with new things.  Cinema with downloads, a desk in the office with one at home, shopping in a supermarket with a home delivery service and friends and acquaintances with a cat named Rambo.  Then, one day, I realised that I had not left my house in three months; It felt like an achievement, something to be applauded, not worried about.

After my melt down at the office some co-workers called to see how I was doing, my mother rang sporadically and Nester, the milkman popped in for a cup of herbal.  But, after a while, concern for my well-being calmed down and I let out a sigh of relief, a sigh of relief that people were no longer concerned for me.  Weird isn’t it?   This meant that I could continue with my self-imposed isolation and do so under the radar, undetected… but for how long?  Not long as it turned out.

Mum turned up on my doorstep one morning and offered to take me to lunch.

‘Lunch?’ I said, the word filling my mouth like a lump of coal.

‘Yes, Lunch. I thought we could try the new place in Theale.’

‘Theale?’ I said, my mouth now very dry from all the coal.

‘Yes dear, go get your coat.’

‘Coat?’ I said now feeling the panic bubbling up inside me.

‘Yes, coat.  What’s with all the monosyllabic?’

‘Monosyl….’  I couldn’t get that one out.

‘The cat!’ I said suddenly inspired.

‘The cat?  What about the cat?’

‘I can’t leave the cat.  Rambo’s got abandonment issues.  Needs constant attention.  He barely leaves my side.’

We both watched as, with perfect timing,  Rambo walked through his flap and out onto the street without so much as a backward glance.

‘Seems alright to me,’ said Mum laconically.

So, I told her the real reason I couldn’t go to lunch with her.

Mum listened carefully, sympathetically even, which was surprising as she is defiantly of the ‘socks up’ generation.

It felt good to get it all out in the open, tell someone what I was going through and share the burden.

‘You need to come to my Zumba class on Wednesday evenings!’  was her response.  ‘ That will do you the world of good, plenty of younger girls go, not just my age.’

‘Zumba?’

‘Yes, Zumba.  Why not?’

‘I can’t.’

‘You are agoraphobic,’ said mum.

‘No I’m not, I’m just sensible!’ I retorted.

‘How so?’

‘Well, I just feel that I’m better off not putting myself in harm’s way.  I can limit the situations in which I might have a panic attack to an arbitrary amount by not leaving my house.’

‘The trouble with comfort zones, dear, is that it is always sunny there but nothing ever grows.’

My comfort zone remains small but for the first time in years I’m not alone because everyone else’s world has been reduced to the footprint of their home. I never thought that If I stuck at it long enough the rest of humanity would follow. But here I am spending my time giving guidance to people on how to fill their days under confinement! I’ve become a Guru, an authority, I answer peoples questions and give orientation.  I’m magnetic North and everyone is drawn to me. A shining star! I go south, everyone goes south. I’m a trailblazer in a brave new world shouting out instructions, ‘Left right, up, down, South- south-west.  South, south east…East.

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Bamboozled

‘What’s he doing?’ said Andy, as much to himself as to his wife Cathy.

‘Why don’t you just come away from the window and let the poor man get on with it?’ 

Andy could tell that her comment was to be considered a favourable option failing any plausible reason he could muster for lingering behind the curtain.

‘I’m not paying him to just stand there scratching his chin,’ he said knowing full well that this observation would not fulfil the criteria of a ‘good argument’.

‘I’m going to walk Calculus and when I come back I expect to see you pursuing a more productive pastime,’ said Cathy.

Calculus stretched on the sofa, his sofa, a sofa he’d won through a combination of will and charm, or as Andy was apt to say ‘pure doggedness’.  Time to inspect his realm, to check for interlopers and mark the boundaries.  Calculus shuffled across the kitchen floor and sat expectantly at Cathy’s feet. 

‘Yes, yes of course. I’ll um…?’

‘Write to your brother?’ offered Cathy.  She knew Andy was a poor correspondent, so much so that over the years she had taken to replying to letters and later e-mails meant for him.  The only letter she refused to answer was from Andy’s brother, Bobby. 

Cathy grabbed the leash from the hook by the back door and Calculus stood and wagged his tail waiting with mounting excitement for whatever the world had to offer him.

Andy watched as Calculus bounded down the garden and imposed upon Digger a thorough sniffing.  Digger suddenly sprang to life, petting and fussing over the dog.

‘Ah so he moves…’ said Andy to himself.  The fact that no one was around to appreciate his sarcasm wasn’t lost on him.  He thought fleetingly of including the tale of Digger’s apparent ineptitude in his letter to Bobby but realised that this would highlight what a shallow existence he’d become accustomed to.  No, instead, he’d have to take his rather pedestrian existence and turn it into a tale of bucolic bliss, filled with passions and passionate people and a type of poetic camaraderie once thought lost.  Feeling compelled to inject some degree of artistic licence into his hum drum existence did not, as you may think, cause a kind of spiritual introspection to occur but rather a lethargy Andy had grown to appreciate as living. 

Calculus finished his inspection of Digger and once confirmed as friend not foe he bounded after Cathy with a nimbleness commonly attributed to a dog half his age.  Andy waited for Cathy and Calculus to be out of sight and then returned his attention to Digger John who had, in the interim, taken off his T-shirt.  Now it looked as if Michael Angelo’s David had hit middle age, sought solace in beer and pies and taken up residence in his sunken Japanese Garden.

‘If he doesn’t move soon I’ll have no choice but to go down there myself…’

Digger John normally tackled the task of digging from behind the controls of his bobcat but on this occasion the task would have to be met manually. There was no access to the sunken garden other than a set of steep steps carved into the bank. Most of the area within was occupied by a Carp pond brimming with Lillie pads and reeds. In the corner by a handcrafted wooden bench thrived a patch of Bamboo. His mission was to remove the bamboo, an easy enough task for a Bob cat but evidently more challenging by hand.  

Digger had learnt that time spent mulling over a problem before initiating contact with it was time well spent.  While staring at his problem and considering it, along with other unrelated, inconsequential matters, Calculus appeared at his side.

Cathy arrived at the top of the steps, ‘How are you today John?’ (she refused to call him Digger) .

‘Morning Cathy.  Fine thanks – just eyeing up my opponent.  Shouldn’t be a problem; nothing I can’t handle,’ he said with an optimism he truly felt.

‘Excellent, just the man for the job then? I’ll leave you to it.  If you need anything Andy’s up at the house.’  

‘Right you are,’ replied Digger.  He had no intention of engaging with Andy anymore than he had to.  Andy, he thought, had no filter, which some might find refreshing, ‘You know where you are with Andy…’ but he found it galling. All Andy ever did was to find fault in the way others lived their lives.  Digger knew his faults, they were not lost and didn’t need finding; he just chose to ignore them and would appreciate it if everyone else got on board with the conspiracy.  

Andy placed his laptop on the kitchen table so that he would still have a good view down the garden. He made himself some tea, sneaked in a sugar cube and sat down to write to his brother: he didn’t have much to say.  He glanced over the top of his screen, something he’d promised himself not to do for another five minutes, and was rewarded with movement.  At that moment, Digger was returning to the sunken garden with a pickaxe the size of which Andy had never seen. 

‘What a monster!’ he exclaimed as he pushed himself up out of his chair and moved closer to the window, certain that a spectacle of some magnitude was at hand.   ‘And the pickaxe is quite impressive too,’ Andy chuckled to himself. 

Digger steadied himself, feet apart, back straight, knees bent and took aim swinging the pick with all his might.  The pick came down hard but caused little damage to the bamboo.  Digger, on the other hand, staggered backwards as the shock waves travelled up his arms. 

Having discovered the true extent of his opponent’s strength, Digger was resolute and unleashed an assault of biblical proportions upon the bamboo.  Andy could only watch in awe as the pick came down time after time. He was at last getting his money’s worth. 

‘You still staring out the window like an old maid?’  said Cathy, from the kitchen doorway.  Andy startled,

‘You trying to give me a heart attack?’

‘I forgot the poo bags.  I left Calculus with Harry Shields, by the football pitch.’

‘Oh.’

‘Oh’ indeed.  I’m running off with Harry.  He’s been pursuing me for some time. We’ll start a new life in Patagonia together.’

‘Yes dear.  Right you are,’ said Andy half hoping she would run off with the retired football coach and half hoping she cooked him lamb shank for supper. 

‘Please try to tear yourself away from Digger’s exertions, it’s most off-putting I’m sure.’

Digger experienced no pain after that initial shock, just a steady sense of ever-growing euphoria.  Him against the world, he was unstoppable, like a machine with a sense of determination. He just kept swinging that pick, drawing strength from the very core of the earth.  He was in the zone, weightless, having transcended the physical world; the pickaxe but a toothpick to him as the bamboo weakened its grip on reality.  Soon it would be no more, not even a memory, any trace of its being would be wiped from existence.

‘My God look at him go!  And only ten quid an hour!  What a Spartan!’ muttered Andy unable to pull himself away.  He counted the downward strokes checking each seventh for its strength and veracity.  As a boy he’d stood on the shore, looking out towards the Atlantic with his father.  His father, a usually remote and austere man told him to count the waves as they rolled in, informing him to take note of each seventh wave. 

‘The seventh wave is always more powerful, that’s the one the surfer wants to catch.’

So, Andy had watched and counted the waves, as he watched and counted the blows now.  He had never tried to swim in the sea, he never took up surfing, he felt better off observing life rather than actually getting involved.

‘Why get your hands dirty?’ was his stock reply to himself and to anyone with the temerity to ask.  He was one of life’s great spectators watching the miracle of existence unfold from the comfort of his armchair, if at all possible.  He watched, he counted and he judged.  ‘Numbers are my thing,’ he’d say if prompted.  He could get involved in math and there was no danger that math would get involved with him.  He liked watching sport, but only to offer his opinion on where the players went wrong.  He had the same relationship with his children, offering a running commentary on their apparent failings.  These days they seldom sought his advice and treated him with indifference.  He didn’t notice so he wasn’t offended, much to everyone’s relief but to no-one’s real surprise.  Cathy chose to put up with him and referred to him as her fourth child, which irked him but he stayed silent.

Digger stopped.

“Dear Bobby. 

I hope this letter finds you well and not too sore at me for dragging my heels in response to your colourful and detailed letter.”

Andy thought he’d started well and wondered if he should indulge in a little preamble before getting down to the main news.  He decided it was probably necessary to cover some of the banality first, but kept it short trimming his news about the kids to, ‘All doing well in their individual pursuits.’   This was a bit of a stretch he knew, if not a tad disingenuous, but his children’s failings were back burner material and would, in time, receive the airing they deserved.  Just not today: today he had juicer news to report.  So, after skimming over the phenomenon that was his immediate family (Cathy included) Andy got down to business.

“I’m sure you still remember the sunken Japanese garden we had installed back in 2004? I remember during your last visit you took your morning coffee there to enjoy the tranquility of the spot; that is, until the peace was shattered by a bounding puppy called Calculus.  He’s still going strong but with a little less bounce. Well, we recently decided that the area could do with a little TLC and called in a local tradesman to deal with the overbearing bamboo.  I’d have attacked it myself if it were not for my sciatica which seldom leaves me these days.  The tradesman in question is a colossal fellow known affectionately as ‘Digger John’ because of his occupation but also to separate him from all the other Johns resident in Little Bibcock.”

Andy wondered whether to go through the litany of Johns to illustrate the point? But decided on this occasion his brother did not need to hear about ‘Little John, Munchie John, Demi-John or Preacher John to understand the point.

“Digger John, perhaps more so than any other John you’d care to mention is defined by his moniker. He digs therefore he is. A lovable chap with an easy wit and disarming personality: a charm to have around.  In short, a real asset to the village in terms of what he does and who he is.  If only John cared for himself as much as we all care for him.  You see, like many men described as ‘larger than life’, he has a considerable appetite for erroneous things, junk food, cigarettes and no doubt beer a plenty if Bootlegger John’s attestation is anything to go by.

I have often looked on hopelessly as friends and acquaintances employ a ‘devil may care’ attitude to their health and safety.  Telling them seems to have little or no effect in my experience.  (If anything, informing someone of their mistakes only amplifies the problem).  This is by no means a reason to stand by while others make folly and in the case of Digger, I tried more than once to shame him when all else failed but, alas to no avail. 

Yesterday he may well have mocked me for my concerns but today Digger had pause for thought I’m sure. You see Bobby, as Digger was digging into that bamboo he suffered a massive heart attack!  Now, as luck would have it I was just passing the large bay window in the kitchen, the one that looks down over the garden, when I happened to notice Digger keel over.  It doesn’t take a genius to realise what had happened to the poor man.” 

Andy knew his response time was slow.  He’d stood staring at the spot where he’d seen Digger collapse and then looked towards the front gate hoping that Cathy was back in time to deal with the situation. She wasn’t. He wondered briefly whether she had run off with Harry after all?  

When the realisation finally hit him that he must act, it arrived like the seventh wave and from that point Andy did everything by the book.  He phoned the emergency services while making his way to the sunken garden.  Once there he administered CPR bouncing up and down with his hands flat on Diggers chest to the tune of Saturday night fever, “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. Ha, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive,” (but stopped short of giving Digger mouth to mouth). The paramedics arrived with a defibrillator just as Calculus came trundling down the path wondering what the hell was going on? 

“There was a bit of a struggle getting Digger out of the sunken garden but they managed with a tow rope and a winch.  He’s doing fine, in hospital for a few days under observation.  So there you have it, more excitement in little Bibcock. Bootlegger John wants to throw a bash in my honour but you know me.  I don’t like a fuss.  If however the village insists on repaying me for saving Digger’s life I’d rather they band together to remove that bloody Bamboo.” 

Digger John felt loved. His wife Maggie and four children sat by his bedside and a constant flow of friends dropped by to wish him well.  Other than feeling loved, he felt embarrassed that his life had been saved by Abacus Andy.  He considered briefly moving away, going somewhere far from little Bibcock, if only to avoid Andy’s inevitable gloating.  In the end he knew he had no choice but to stay.  After all, he had darts on Sunday and Maggie had a seance booked with a psychic at the Bear Hotel.  He was aware that if it were not for Abacus Andy’s efforts Maggie could have been talking to him via his spirit guide but on the subject of spirituality, Digger and his wife agreed to disagree (which he thought saved him a lot of earache).  

Andy re-read his e-mail to Bobby and pressed send.  Calculus, slithered off his sofa, waddled over to the kitchen table and sat at Andy’s feet looking up at his master. 

‘What is it boy? You hungry?’

Andy looked at the clock on the wall. 

‘My goodness you’re right, it’s supper time.’

‘Where’s Cathy?’

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The Tortoise effect

Clack, clack, clack… Pause… clack, clack, clack, clack… stop. 

Claudia sat with perfect bearing on the pew, right side, front row.  Her sister Annette was next to her, slightly hunched over, anxious but not yet in full ‘meltdown’.  Annette wanted the world to bend to her will, she wanted things to go her way, not just for her sake but for the sake of everyone else within her sphere of influence.  But, despite her best efforts things went wrong; outside influences from beyond the sphere entered, without permission, and messed with her plans.  

‘Clack, clack,’ until identified was a potential mess she could perhaps quash before it exploded and brought the whole structure of her day – and everyone else’s – down.

‘What the hell IS that noise?’ 

Claudia looked at her wreck of a sister and thought to herself that anyone could be mistaken for   imagining that it was Annette’s husband that had died.  Then, with a little more charity she realised that Annette was always like this and there’s nothing anyone can do but accept that life for Annette is stressful.

‘It’s Margot,’ said Claudia. 

‘Margot?’ whispered Annette clutching her purse.

Claudia paused for the full effect.  She enjoyed these moments with fiendish delight, always had done.  Watching her neurotic sister splash about in the deep end of human understanding was Claudia’s guilty pleasure. 

‘She’s wearing snow shoes.’

‘Snow shoes?’ Annette looked around her taking in the stained glass images of crucifixion, ascension, and suffering, the pews, the statuary, the font and the relics.  Below the altar on an easel, stood a photograph taken several years earlier of her brother-in-law. 

‘In a church?’ 

‘I don’t think its a cardinal sin Annette.  Jesus did not say upon the mount, ‘Behold the fool who walks into the house of My Father wearing unseasonal footwear, for he/she will feel the full force of His wrath.’

‘But why?  Why is your daughter wearing snow shoes to her father’s funeral Claudia?’

Claudia lifted her veil, took a lipstick out of her handbag and applied a generous smear of red to her lips. 

‘Actually Annette, I am not completely insensitive to protocol.  The snow shoes are a compromise: she wanted to wear skis.’

‘Skis?  For Heaven’s sake why?  Does she even ski?  I don’t think she has ever skied, you would have mentioned it.’

‘No, she just doesn’t want to fall down any holes.  Skis, she has decided in her nine-year old wisdom, will bridge most unsuspected holes.  There’s a graveyard out there don’t forget!’

Annette nodded as if she understood, then realised that she did actually understand and said so.

‘I get it.  Because of Bobby right?’

‘Yes because of Bobby.’

‘Is he still wearing that crash helmet?’

‘Yes and a full-length leg cast.  You will hear him hobbling about too – they make a fine pair.’

‘OK.  I will have them both seated here at the front, plenty of legroom, before the others arrive. Then what with the din the organist will make after the ceremony no one will notice the … err … clacking.  Then it’s quickly, and as quietly as possible, outside onto softer ground.  Right I can cope with this.’

‘Good for you,’ said Claudia, trying her best but failing to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.  She did not want to upset her sister or get into a fight with her today.

‘What does that mean?’ 

‘What?’ said Claudia stalling for time.  And then the universe sent a saviour.

‘Oh here comes the vicar.  He will want to know about Emile.  A few details.  I’ll go and round up the children,’ said Annette standing up briskly, flattening out the creases in her black dress.  She glanced at the vicar and tried to look grief stricken.  It wasn’t an easy look to convey because, truth be told, she was not in the least bit upset.  Annette wasn’t exactly glad that Emile was dead but then again she wasn’t going to miss the bastard.

As Annette took her leave, head down, body trembling, the vicar sat in her place next to Claudia.

‘My condolences Claudia.  God rest his soul.’

‘Thank you Michael.’

Michael, relatively new to the job, full of empathy but lacking in confidence wanted to start with a topic outside of the grief, something that would allow the griever to open up,

‘So tell me.  How did Bobby break his leg?’ 

‘Well…’ said Claudia lifting her veil, ‘You’ve heard of the butterfly effect?’

‘Yes,’ said Michael, rather pleased with himself and thinking, ‘That was easy.’

‘Well… this is the tortoise effect.’

 The vicar looked puzzled. 

‘My husband, Emile…’ Claudia began, as they both glanced toward the photo on the easel, ‘was standing in the garden of our holiday home in Crete.  He had what I dubbed the ‘Socratic Syndrome’.  Socrates was Emile’s hero and, like Socrates, Emile would just stop and stand still for hours on end apparently contemplating some great metaphysical question.  It could happen any time, anywhere.  

It happened frequently enough at Paddington Station for me to consider putting a label on him, like the bear, so someone might get him onto the train and home before supper.  But it also happened in supermarkets, petrol stations, university hallways, restaurants or just in the middle of the street.  I wouldn’t mind so much if he actually had an original thought but as far as I know he never once experienced an eureka moment!  He’d just come to his senses eventually and say, ‘Well never mind,’ or, ‘That’s that then.’ 

Getting him to Crete was a major logistical operation; the children were easy to organise in comparison.  I just really though that if I got him away from his work, his habits and his environment he might reconnect with us.  Or, if it was too late for Emile and me, then maybe with his children. It wasn’t too much to expect was it?  A family holiday, time to relax and connect with the immediate rather than the abstract?’

‘Sounds reasonable,’ said Michael, his confidence waning. 

‘Yes, well I thought so but… Sorry for asking… Are you married Michael?’

Michael shifted in his seat, not having realised that questions might go both ways and blushing slightly, he said, ‘No I’m afraid not.  I just haven’t been able to find the right person, much to my mother’s annoyance.’

‘How do you go about finding a partner anyway?  I mean if you are a vicar?’

Michael thought for a moment, thought about his gaucheness around women, his previous tongue tied attempts to date and decided to transcend the painful truth with a stab at humour.

’The right woman would have to give up quite a lot you see, she would have to toe the line,’ 

He wagged his finger comically.  ‘Do what is expected of her by the church and the community and not embarrass either. I put an advert in the local paper saying, ‘Virgin wanted for human sacrifice’ but I haven’t had any takers yet.’

‘What a surprise,’ laughed Claudia warming to the man next to her.

They sat quietly together on the pew facing the altar.  Michael liked the silent spaces and never felt uncomfortable. God was, after all, always with him.  Behind them they could both hear Annette whispering instructions loudly and firmly to the children.  The children, despite their handicaps (one wearing snow shoes and the other a plaster cast and motorcycle helmet), were like photon particles, never where you thought they should be. 

‘Where was I?’ asked Claudia eventually.

‘The Tortoise Effect, I believe.’

‘Oh, yes.  Well, there we were in Crete and Emile was standing in the garden with a full tray of watermelon slices that I’d given him to take to the children who were playing in the pool.  He’d made it halfway across the garden, halfway to the pool, when he did what he always does and stopped midway for a think.  I watched him from the kitchen window wondering how long I should let him stand there before intervening. I decided to finish my iced tea and then maybe bang on the window.  Do you play golf Michael?’

‘Err no.  I can’t say I do.  Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, no reason.  I just remembered an occasion several years earlier when I received a phone call from the chairman of the Whitley golf course.  He called to inform me that my husband, who had apparently just wandered onto the ninth hole and stopped there to contemplate the ineffable, had been struck, not by an irate golfer but by lightning from a freak storm.  An irate God, perhaps? God maybe got tired of all Emile’s poking around and dealt out a lightning bolt?  Anyway Emile’s heart stopped briefly but coming up from the eighth hole was a retired doctor and his wife who wasted no time resuscitating the interloper on the green.  They got him off to hospital and the doctor made par apparently.  The thing is, Emile barely registered the whole affair!  His own safety, his very existence was of no real concern to him.  Maybe because to Emile that very existence was highly debatable.  He wasn’t convinced and never would be that any of this…’ Claudia made a sweeping gesture with her gloved hand to illustrate that ‘this’ was everything, ‘… was even real.  So if he had serious doubts about whether or not he was just a thought generated by a brain in jar, then how could I expect him to give us any real consideration?’

‘Well…’ hesitated Michael, ‘I’m more of a faith man myself.’

‘Yes, sorry it wasn’t really a question, more of a statement.’

‘I see,’ said Michael feeling that he’d missed an opportunity to elaborate on God’s good grace.

‘I remember sipping my iced tea, listening to the cicadas and the laughter drifting over from the swimming pool and thinking that he was letting life pass him by.  And then he just dropped like a sack of potatoes.  A rather overweight, pasty white, lumpy, sack of potatoes. I looked first for the storm cloud suspecting another of God’s whimsical lightning bolts but saw only an eagle circling high above. I ran outside and Bobby was screaming, he’d seen it all.  I’ll spare you the gory details, the difficulty discerning head from watermelon will stay with me forever.  Bobby had also seen the eagle passing overhead but not perhaps the disgruntled tortoise gripped in the birds talons. The tortoise must have negotiated his release right above Emile’s bald head.  It was a breezeless day so it fell like a plumb-line and crack went Emile’s skull.’

‘Oh my God that’s awful!’ said Michael knowing that he’d just stated the obvious but not knowing what else to say.

‘Yes, well it was rather stressful but the good news is that the tortoise, having spent millennia evolving a hard shell, just wandered off into the garden with bits of my husband’s brain on his back.  The last thing that went through Emile’s mind was a tortoise before it disappeared under a rhododendron.  It isn’t often that the murder weapon makes its own get away!’

Michael lit upon another potentially obvious statement but found himself saying it anyway, on, if he were to be honest with himself, the off-chance he impressed Claudia with his knowledge. ‘I 

 suppose you know, not that it is of any comfort to you, that the great Greek tragedian ‘Aeschylus’ died in the same manner?  The eagle apparently mistook Aeschylus’s shinny bald head for a rock and tried to open the shell of the tortoise but err…’ He trailed off glad of an interruption from the back of the church.

New voices had joined old voices and the whispers had been raised to curt, sharp utterances of discontent.

Michael looked over his shoulder, past the empty seats to the entrance of the church.  Claudia’s red lips whispered, clipped and precise, close to his ear.

‘It’s Emile’s mother; she will want to take charge of everything.  Annette won’t want to relinquish control.  She can’t bear to be ruled.  There might well be another funeral before the day’s out.  I specifically told her not to come early because I needed time, uninterrupted time, to talk with you Michael.’

Claudia took off her gloves, put a finger from each hand in her mouth and gave a piercing whistle, momentarily startling everyone.  Michael’s ears rang like a tuning fork for some time after.

The two squabbling women returned immediately to earnest whispering and finger wagging, and the children looked at their mother in awe.

‘Outside, all of you!  We have plenty of time before anyone else is due. Go!’

Under normal circumstances Claudia would have expected some belligerence, certainly hands upon hips, a little huffing and puffing but this time both women turned obediently, with the children clacking and thumping over flag stones in loud pursuit. 

‘There.  Peace at last,’  said Claudia triumphantly pulling on her gloves.

‘I’m impressed.  A little deaf, but impressed nevertheless.’

‘Oh I do beg your pardon.’

‘Not at all, please continue. You were saying that Bobby saw everything.’

‘Yes well he saw too much. He saw the eagle drop the tortoise and he saw it hit his father’s head. He did not, thank God, see the aftermath.  I told them to run for help.  There’s a villa farther along owned by a reclusive Spanish poet called Etza who practices the spoken word.  She drops poetry bombs on people in public places but never writes it down.  It exists only for a finite moment in time, touches a few hearts then evaporates but leaves a sense of comfort or strength where before there was none.  She’s very good.  She’s loaded; her father is some wealthy banker and Etza never had to work a day in her life…  Anyway, the children ran to her for help.  While they were gone I covered Emile’s body with a towel or three.  It was all rather surreal; I mean here was a man who barely had a presence when he was alive and nothing had really changed once he was dead!  Sounds like an awful thing to say but I don’t miss him; there is nothing to miss, he wasn’t here, ever.  I mean for the sake of his children, his awful mother and a few colleagues who perhaps knew him better than me, I have to play the grieving widow.  It’s an act.  I’m devastated that the children have had to go through this experience, obviously, and they are my main concern but as for how I feel, nothing much has changed.’

‘These things take time, grief is not always predictable,’ offered Michael with a degree of hesitation.

‘That’s what everyone keeps saying but I honestly think I did my grieving years ago, while he was still alive in body but not in spirit.’

Michael decided to change direction. ‘And how are the children coping?’

‘Emile’s body was taken to the morgue. The bits they couldn’t take were hosed down and I had to deal with the repatriation of the corpse.  For the next few days the children stayed with Etza while I dealt with all the red tape.  But on the day I had to speak with the coroner Etza was due to fly to Milan where she had planned to drop a poetry bomb outside La Scala. So I had no choice but to take the children with me.  I tried to make the whole experience less about the death of their father and more about the bond we three have and the importance of keeping that bond alive.  I took them to the park, we had ice cream and it became quite apparent to me that Bobby was nervous, he kept looking up, expecting something to drop from the sky!  I told him that the chances of an accident of that nature happening again were billions to one and not to worry.  To hammer home the implausibility of such an event I decided to ask the coroner, who spoke perfect English, to verify my rationalisation. 

The Coroner seemed very understanding and agreed to speak to the children, once he’d been over his report with me, alone.  He told them that other than Aeschylus and Emile he had heard of no one else who had met with such an untimely demise.  Death by tortoise was almost unique and that it might take another fifteen hundred years before another poor soul met with the same fate.  Bobby, in particular, became visibly less tense. The fear he’d been harbouring over the past few days began to pack its bags to leave.  Why the Coroner did not leave it there I will never know.’

Michael raised an eyebrow of inquisition.

Claudia exhaled dramatically and gazed at her past though a window the vicar did not see.

‘The coroner, in his dotage, and in his inexplicable wisdom then said, “On the other hand…” and went full speed into a story from his time as a medic in a Bangalore hospital.  A rickshaw pedaller had been rushed into the hospital with a snake bite on his ankle. How an adder got into his rickshaw we do not know. The team worked quickly extracting the poison from the leg before it could reach the man’s heart and kill him.  The pedaller was a likeable chap and everyone rooted for his recovery, which happened, and all gave thanks to their gods.  The day he was released from hospital this hapless rickshaw pedaller was back in the saddle earning his keep when an eagle dropped an adder from above.  This time the adder landed on his neck, bit him and the pedaller died almost instantly!  What are the chances?  Bitten twice by an adder in almost as many days. 

I could have throttled the coroner there and then!  Bobby’s fear stopped packing to leave and decided to move in permanently.  That very afternoon, to appease my terrified and increasingly impossible son, I bought him a crash helmet.  Which by the way has only been removed once when, obsessed with the sky and all manner of falling reptiles, he tripped and fell into a hole in the ground. He broke his leg! Consequently his sister has decided to wear skis everywhere she goes to avoid the holes she cannot see due to her own keen observations of the sky. She refuses Bobby’s advise to wear a helmet because she doesn’t want to mess up her hair.’

‘I see,’ said Michael as his mind raced off in a thousands directions searching for something, if not profound, then useful, to say.  Something soothing at least, but all he came back with was, ‘What a muddle,’ and then went to work metaphorically kicking himself.  Claudia laughed, 

‘So you now have the undesirable job of getting up there and saying something profound about a man who, in the end, barely lived.  He, in some way or other, made himself become his greatest fear.  He actually no longer existed.  In truth, even to me he feels more like an idea than a reality.  He thought himself out of the realm of actuality and into the realm of ideas. You can say that if you like?’

‘Michael straightened his posture, trying to assert his own presence as a capable conduit of God. 

‘Actually, I have something that might work, might pull all these fragments together and offer a degree of hope, of understanding.’

‘Pray tell?’ smiled Claudia.

‘Well it’s an extract from a poem by Aeschylus. It goes like this:

‘Even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’The

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Perfect Medium

‘I was happy to burn.’

Andrea frowned, ‘Really… that’s what she said?’

‘That’s what she said.’ 

Andrea leaned back in her chair and pulled her cardigan tighter around her body extending the action until she was protectively hugging herself. 

‘I can’t think of a worse way to die than being set alight.  I once burnt myself ironing one of Darren’s shirts; caught my forearm on the tip of the blasted iron.’  She paused reliving the moment, ‘It bloody hurt.’

Sandrine sat straight backed and regal in the chair across from Andrea, a small kitchen table divided Medium from Seeker. Sandrine absently turned Andrea’s locket in her hand. 

‘I think it’s a question of faith actually,’ said Sandrine with just a wisp of an accent, one she’d cultivated over many years.  It made her, she thought, more mysterious than the others.

‘Faith?  What do you mean?  Like a religious fanatic?  Was it an act of martyrdom?  Did she think she would have a guaranteed place in Paradise… with virgins?’

Sandrine paused for an effectual moment, surveying her client.  The Medium’s dark chestnut eyes had seen many realms beyond this one, spoken with kings and paupers and wrestled numerous demons, or at least that’s the expression she was trying to convey. 

‘What?’  demanded Andrea a little unnerved by the medium’s gaze.

Sandrine, the Seer of Things, the Clairvoyant, the Raconteuse, leaned in towards her client in a conspiring manner.

‘With the help of your grandmothers locket’ She placed the locket between them, ‘I have shared communion with your guardian Angel. She has enlightened me to her past, her time on this earth. Your guardian angel, Agnes, was a Cathar Priestess. She was born in Occitan, now Southern France, in the early thirteenth century.’

Andrea unfolded herself and leaned into the conspiracy, the two of them now only inches apart. Andrea picked up the silver locket with exaggerated reverence and clutched it to her chest. 

‘Really?  Makes sense.  I was always very good at French at school you know?  And I’m a glutton for Camembert.’

‘Well then, there you have it.’

‘Have what?’

‘The link, the err French Connection.’

‘Wow.  What else can you see, what do you know about Agnes? Apart from the burning bit.’

Sandrine closed her eyes momentarily, reached out across the formica table top and took Andrea’s hands in her own. The locket was sandwiched like a pearl in an oyster. Then with an jubilant expression she announced, ‘Mais oui! Bien sur!  I have it now.’

‘Have what?  What do you have?’

Sandrine opened her eyes and said, almost it seemed to herself, ‘I thought as much but now I’m sure.’

A dog barked from behind the kitchen door.

‘Oh that’s Arthur, he wants to come in.’  Andrea said standing, draining all of the drama out of the scene. ‘Shall I put the kettle on?’

Sandrine still held hands that were no longer there and said in a voice that wasn’t her own, ‘You need to hear this.’

Andrea, startled, sat back down abruptly.  Arthur, sensing strange things were afoot, whimpered and then slunk away. 

‘Sorry.’

‘So, Agnes was a Cathar Priestess or Perfect.  The beliefs of the Cathars went against Catholic doctrine and threatened the stability of the church.  You must remember that back in those days the Catholic Church and its Pope were all-powerful.  The Cathars believed, unlike the Catholics, that this world we inhabit…’ Sandrine made a sweeping movement with her hand encompassing the whole of the kitchen in which they sat.  Andrea beheld her kitchen with a look of awe and anticipation.  Sandrine continued,

 ‘…is imperfect.  Too many bad things happen to good people and therefore this world…’  again the hand movement, ‘…could not have been engineered by a perfect God.  It stood to reason that this world was built by an imperfect god or demigod like Satan. They believed that this world, the same one we now inhabit, and everything in it, that is to say all material things, including our own bodies, were all corrupt, were all made by the devil himself.  That is the basis for their heresy.’

Sandrine paused.  It was a good pause; the best pause she’d achieved all day. 

Andrea let out a long breath she’d been keeping, ‘A heretic!  So that’s why they burned her?  You know I’ve always had an acute sense of smell, I can smell smoke before anyone else.  I’d douse you in water before you knew you were alight.  The fire brigade have nothing on me!  Look for smoke alarms in this house if you want but you won’t find any: no need, not with my nose.’

‘What about when you are out?’  Sandrine couldn’t help but ask.

‘Hmm? Cuppa tea? Or something a little stronger?’

Sandrine sighed inwardly, ever since she entered into the clairvoyant business it had been this way.  If only someone had warned her?  While she tried her best to convey the supernatural, bringing spirits and people together in the most respectful and serene manner, everyone else just pissed about and ate bourbons.  No-one took her too seriously, she was an aside, a freak show, an excuse to drink sherry in the middle of the day, a slice of naughty before returning to the mundane life of choice.  Today being a case in point. 

Time for a little positive mental attitude, It was her ‘calling’.  After all, she didn’t chose it, it chose her. 

‘Tea will be fine thank you.  Alcohol messes with the wavelength.’

‘What, like a radio?’

‘Yes, very much so.  Everything travels in waves. Light, sound, water of course, even those quantum particles, so why not consciousness or voices from a different place?’

‘Builders or herbal?’

‘Camomile?’

‘Sorry all out.’

‘Builders then, no sugar and a hint of milk.’

Sandrine munched on custard cream and thought about faith.  The spectrum of incredulity, what people were prepared to believe in and not believe in.  Where they chose to put their faith.  In Gods?  Spiritual after worlds? Realms of the dead?  In conspiracies? Politics?  Each other or, rarely, in nothing at all.   No faith, not even in oneself must be, she thought reaching for another biscuit, very bleak.  There was a word for that.  For believing that life was pointless, that it meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.  What was it?

‘What about X-rays?’

‘Sorry,’ said Sandrine through a mouthful of biscuit.

‘Well they travel in waves too don’t they?’

‘Yes I believe so.’

Andrea stirred tea and thought about telling Darren she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.  She wondered how he would react. He was never very good at receiving bad news; he tended to make it all about Darren.  She would have to nurse him through her cancer treatment.  In a way, that notion made her feel more empowered.  Despite all his machismo, paint-balling on weekends like a proper solider and having read ‘Bravo Two Zero’ front to back, he was not as strong as she was. 

The two women settled anew, this time with tea. 

‘I’m all ears,’ said Andrea smiling broadly.

‘’Well,’ said Sandrine, taking a sip of tea,  ‘From what I understand Agnes became a Cathar Perfect later in life, during The Crusades against her people.  She was married to a poor nobleman from the fiefdom of Foix whose mother and sister had both taken the Consolamentum. For him she bore two sons before she too took the oath, which involved celibacy, and her husband took a lover!’

‘Typical bloke then?’

‘Once someone took the oath, ‘The Consolamentum’, their only sacrament, he or she had to live the perfect life.  You see for Cathars, the soul was the only thing worth saving because it was the only thing not of this imperfect world. They believed that the soul was in fact an angel trapped on earth which might take several incarnations to reach perfection and only then could it finally return to the ‘goodness’ or the good God.  Once the oath was taken you must live an ascetic and chaste life, avoiding meat, helping others and denouncing the material world.’ 

‘I have been thinking about going vegan, I mean lots of people are these days, but Darren could never give up bacon… or sausages… or sex for that matter.’

Sandrine needed to pee. 

‘I don’t think you have to give up sex to be a vegan,’ offered Sandrine, helpfully.

‘No, but you wouldn’t have the energy would you?’ 

Sandrine pressed on.

‘Anyway Perfects like Agnes were humble, not bedecked in gold and silk but in simple cloth.  No churches were built to preach or pray in.  Rather, they toiled in the fields or sat alongside followers at the loom.  Despite their passive outlook, not believing in any form of violence, they were persecuted. 

‘What a terrible time to live in,’ offered Andrea whilst simultaneously thinking about her mammogram and the malign lump persecuting her!’

‘In the spring of 1243 Agnus’s home, Montsegur, fell to the King of France.’

‘Wow, that is a long way back isn’t it?’

Sandrine found the word she’d been searching for, ‘Nihilism’.

‘They were given just two weeks to think about their fate.’ Sandrine tried leaning over the table to close the gap and add a sense of intensity but her bladder protested so she slumped back in her chair hoping the sudden shift in her position would create a more dramatic effect. 

Andrea thought Sandrine needed to pee. 

Arthur whimpered.  He’d left his ball in the kitchen and wanted to rescue it.

‘Their choice was to either denounce their faith and embrace Catholicism or to be put to death. There were just two hundred of them left by then.  Not one of them wavered:  all two hundred chose death.

Day by day the pile of kindling grew greater; soldiers could be seen dragging huge branches onto the heap.  Stakes were hammered into the ground within the mountain of dry wood ready for the heretics to be tied to.

Before the deadline, the pile of wood seemed sufficient to the Cathars and so, without wanting to stay in this imperfect world another moment they, all of them, walked freely towards their fate.  To the obvious surprise of the soldiers they climbed onto the pyre.’

‘She was so brave.  I hope I can be that brave?’

Feeling like she needed to wrap it up Sandrine barely stopped for breath. She needed to pee and then get to her 4.30 appointment with Running Horse and Mildred Thornton on Cranberry road, two bus rides away. Running horse, other than a dutiful guardian was a stickler for time keeping. Wheres Mildred lived on a completely different planet with its own unique space time matrix. 

‘Her last moments on earth were the most serene, as if her soul knew that its freedom was imminent, that after thousands of incarnations in this world as man, women, child, master or slave  it was finally free to go.  Her mind strayed for a moment, a moment of vanity perhaps, as she thought about her children, her two sons who, if they were alive, would be young men by now. She hoped that they remembered her and that, if they did think of her, it was with kindness and understanding. 

Then closing her eyes for the last time in this world, Agnes listened to some of her friends muttering the Consolamentum in defiance of the Bishop reading out his denouncement and she heard the solider’s laughing as they put touches to the pyre.’

‘What bastards!’

‘She felt the heat of the flames as they licked her robes and then felt nothing but joy as her soul made ready to leave, to make its way towards goodness and finally return to the flock of the True God.  It is there that they find grace and good favour, it is there that they live harmoniously.  What that place was like she had no idea.  She speculated that it would be a most beautiful place, a city made purely of light, where angels sang only of joy.  Now she’s there, she has been reborn, like the Phoenix from the ashes, a True Angel.’

‘That is so touching!  And you got all that from holding my hands?’ 

‘And the locket, mainly the locket actually, waves pass freely though these personal objects it seems.’

Arthur announces his inpatients with a cowardly bark.

 Sorry can I let Arthur in now?’

‘By all means. I must get ready to leave.’

‘I have a question before you go,’ said Andrea opening the kitchen door to a relieved black Labrador.

‘Of course.’

‘Why me?  Why did Agnes chose me – I mean apart from the French connection?’

‘She sees something in you.  Goodness perhaps.  Something worth saving. Something worth protecting.’

‘You think she is protecting me?’

‘Of course. She is looking out for you.’

‘Did she say anything else that you can remember?’ 

Needing the toilet Sandrine stood up and brushed down her skirt.  Arthur took it as an invitation and came toward her wagging his tail. He’d already forgotten that from behind the closed door he’d regarded this interloper as the route of all evil.

‘Um… yes but I don’t know what it means really.  Agnes said,  “There will be no more sickness or pain when we reach the city.”

‘Oh I see.’ 

‘Do you?’

‘I’m frightened.’

‘About the cancer?’

‘My God you ARE good; I haven’t even told Darren yet!’

‘I saw the results of your mammogram on the table, there, next to the napkin holder.’

‘Oh.’

‘I need to pee.’  Sandrine made her way along the hall to the bathroom with as much haste as her dignity would allow.

Andrea patted Arthur and then gazed out of her kitchen window at the dry spot on the drive where Darren’s car had been parked this morning and where he would park it tonight when he came home from work. 

She needed faith now.  She needed to be brave and to fight for her slice of life. 

The toilet flushed.

There was comfort to be had from the thought that Agnes would watch over her and would, when the end came, which it would eventually, meet her on the other side.  Andrea found it consoling to believe that the end of this life, is not the end.  That this place was imperfect and shot full of holes. Somewhere that we needed to pass through before entering the city of light.

‘Buy for now’ Sandrine the astral traveler, the reader of crystals, the self proclaimed conduit of the dead called from the front door.

‘See you on the other side’ joked Andrea, the good wife, neighbour, daughter, sister, friend and Cancer patient.

Andrea sighed, but fought off the encroaching melancholy, grabbed Arthur’s lead and repeated the phrase that was to become her mantra..

‘There will be no more sickness or pain when we reach the city.’

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What sort of animal am I?

By the perversity of fate my father and I were eligible to fight at the same time.  My mother said goodbye to both of us, steadfast and stoic in her ever-present apron with my younger sister on her hip.  She told me to be careful and then exchanged a look with my father.  A look that said more than words; it spoke of all that they had achieved and all of their dreams for the future.  In that brief glance I imagine they saw the first time they danced and the last time they made love. Their whole world was conveyed in that single look and, at the time, I had no idea what it meant. 

That memory, seeing her standing there defiantly keeping her worst fears at bay, came back to me over and over again.  Often, while pushing forward through the mud, mist and barbed wire I’d see her ahead of me, standing as she did on that day, just the way I remembered her.  But then, with heightened senses and a shell-shocked mind, I’d wonder if she was my mother at all or some other poor soul’s?  Who ever she was, she looked as if she inhabited another world and, of course, she did. 

Only I returned to her.  The love my parents shared was deep and it was plain to see; they could not hide the affection they had for one another.  They were two halves of the same being, to the point where words were often superfluous and looks counted for everything.  People say that they are afraid of losing their identity when married but I think in my parents’ case, they completed one another.  One could not truly exist without the other: one could not be complete without the other and after the war my mother was never complete again.  A light went out inside her and she stumbled bravely on through the darkness.

As a young man I was keen for adventure, and it seemed that going to war offered ample opportunity to experience it.  Until then adventure was a tantalising and elusive concept, known only to me through the comic books I read at night by torchlight.  That, and the history lessons given by sooty old school masters, high on patriotic fever and religious certitude.

I, like a lot of young men, thought of the pride the nation felt as it watched us march off to defend The Empire from tyranny and other such atrocities.  We dreamed of fighting for King and Country in the full knowledge that God was on our side, as he always had been.

During basic training the excitement never once gave way to dread: reality never bites unless you are there and we were definitely not there.  No amount of simulation warfare in the Suffolk countryside could ever prepare you for the trenches. 

I remember thinking, and it sounds ridiculous now, that, ‘I was not the sort of person who would die in battle’.  I’m sure every other lad out there thought the same: they too were ‘not the sort’. The truth is, there is no sort that fits that bill.  Most of us going off to fight in 1916 were just kids with no idea who we really were. 

You find out soon enough.

What is this idea that we are ‘sorts of people’?  We are just people, animals in fact.  The notion that you are a ‘sort’ is your own notion, a way of recognising yourself.  We like to place markers, identifiers that circumscribe a protective boundary around ourselves.  We think that we have free will and can determine who we are, how we behave and what we do and yet it frightens us, the possibilities are too great.  We place our markers and close doors.  

What if we don’t really have a will of our own? 

 What if Schopenhauer were right and the only ‘will’ is blind and universal, malevolent in its indiscrimination?  Do we then become meaningless and expendable?  But the ‘will’ runs through us as it does all things, and that will, if nothing else, wants to survive. 

‘I’m the sort of person that would never kill someone else.’

You may think to yourself that taking another person’s life is ethically and morally wrong but The State that sent you to kill on its behalf does not consider your actions a crime.  It’s not your personal will, you didn’t plan it, premeditate it, order it.  I don’t know the names of the men I killed.  I don’t know anything about them other than they were just as scared as we were.  They were also following orders and when all the stories had been told and there was nothing left but the mud, the lice, the cold and the rats, we were all the same.  We had no sense of ‘self’; we were beyond such luxuries.  We, all of us, on both sides of the divide, were just one big homogenous mass of misery.  If it were up to us the war would have been over long before it was.

You leave the village where you grew up, the people that you know who help you to remember who you are.  You step over your boundaries one by one along the way until you are so far out of your comfort zone that, when you glance back, you no longer recognise the ‘you’ you left behind.  All my markers fell by the wayside.  All those identifiers, that not only made me who I was but made me ‘British’, lost their flavour, became insipid:  my family was irreversibly broken, my King didn’t know me from Adam, my country used me and God had deserted me. 

I had taken God with me into war: he had been a very strong presence in my life up until then, but I guess it’s easy to be in awe of God in the Wiltshire countryside.  He’s in the hedgerows, the basket of apples on the kitchen table, the laughter in the fields and in the warmth of the hearth.  But, the moment that I awoke to the full horror of war, God left me, turned on his heels and went home.  And who could blame Him? 

I could no longer identify with anyone except those men like me who sat shivering in a dug out, too wired to sleep, waiting for the artillery to stop pounding overhead and for the signal to go over the top.  I was a soldier. I had been reduced to a number: a Godless number with a strong instinct to survive.  The only way to do that was to act as one body, one mind alongside countless others. Plenty of other men held onto the notion that God had not forsaken them – He was working on some mysterious plan to save us all; or maybe just them.  God could see straight into the heart of man and he would know the righteous from the damned.  Just keep the faith, revere Him and you will be saved: if not here on earth then in Heaven. 

I had no time for God.  The God I had known would never allow such a soul-crushing thing as war.  This was not the adventure I had been looking for.  This was not what the comic books had promised.  Even ‘Scouting for Boys’ let me down in the end.

Behind the lines, in a village inhabited by frightened civilians, terrified that we would retreat and leave them to the cruelty of an advancing German army, I met a girl.  She was kind to me: she was kind to a lot of us.  We had no common language so conversation was off the table.  I called her Bernadette and she called me Tommy:  we were all Tommy.  

Bernadette became home to me. My safe place.  The place you can kick off your boots, feel relaxed, loved and understood.  She grounded me.  Her warmth, her embrace returned me to myself for a while.  That’s when I realised that there IS a core to a person: after everything else has been stripped away, there is still, cowering in a corner, the frightened child.  I clung to her and to my frightened child.

The reality was that I had created a fantasy, a dream I could live when not entrenched in that perpetual hell, never knowing if this moment would be my last.  Bernadette was a warm body, a smile and a kind person but the rest I constructed out of thin air.  I cobbled the whole thing together in an attempt to gain some normality, some worth in a Godless world I no longer understood.  It suited me for a while, the pretending, the playing house.  Years later, once I’d returned home and dealt with the worst of my nightmares, I sat bolt up in bed one morning.  It was the first time I’d thought about Bernadette since leaving France.  I felt wretched: what sort of man forgets the only soft and gentle presence he enjoyed in an otherwise savage and harsh world?

Back on the front another big push had been planned.  The Germans were, according to the officers, ‘on their knees’.  All night the artillery fired rivers of metal overhead.  The constant pounding of the guns robbed us of sleep.  Huddled in our dugouts, fending off rats and smoking Woodbines, I saw my reflection in every soldiers eyes.  Frightened, trapped and longing for home: we were carbon copies of one another.  Clones, bred to fight, to die and be replaced: of no more consequence in the scheme of things than the lice crawling all over us.  

We’d been lied-to all our lives.  It’s true that conflict had been a part of our national identity; after all, we didn’t acquire an empire by asking nicely but somewhere between the reality of war and every mother’s kitchen table the truth had been warped out of all recognition.  War was fed through several filters, waxed and polished before arriving home: the letters we wrote had to pass muster or be radically censored.  

All those good reasons we were given for fighting now seemed grotesquely romantic and very naive.  In the end, I disregarded the lies; what else could I do?  They weighed me down.  I thought of my family who were at least real, if no longer complete and my comrades, with their tattered souls and threadbare nerves, because, for whatever reason, we were one and the same.

The long night passed into a misty dawn and all along the front men were ordered over the top. Our artillery continued firing mortars, switching to the heavy field guns for longer range and the Germans returned fire.  For a while the mist cloaked and concealed us – from enemy snipers and from ourselves.  German bombs were falling indiscriminatingly all around us.  An explosion to my left sent me to the ground with a thud.  I lay still for a moment, catching my breath and waiting for the smoke to clear.  I waited, and then with trepidation cautiously got to my feet.  A quick check confirmed that I was unhurt – never sure whether that was a good thing or not – and I took a few seconds to look around me.  Several dead lay near by, their horror’s made real before finding peace in oblivion. 

I began to move forward and caught the sound of whimpering cries; a young British solider with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his arm lay ahead of me.  The wound was messy but not life threatening.  I knelt beside him, tore off his sleeve and turned it into a tourniquet.  I thought to myself, ‘If he’s lucky his war is over.’  

I shouted over the noise, ‘You can wait here for a medic to find you or make your own way back to the field hospital.’

He nodded through clenched teeth and tears.

There was nothing more I could do and was about to leave him to his fate when I heard shouts from further ahead.

 ‘Gas, gas!’ 

A chill ran through me. Death came in many forms but chlorine–phosgene had to be one of the worst. I grabbed the mask from my kit but discovered to my horror that it had been punctured by a piece of shrapnel.  I glanced down at the wounded soldier, who had, remarkably, considering his condition, managed to put his own mask on.  The deadly gas would reach me any moment; I had nothing to live for anymore but equally nothing to die for.  The core of me, that inner child, determined to live, screamed at me.  The force of life, the will to survive that runs through all living things was stronger than any logic or fear or rationale.  Without concern for ramifications and in one swift move I ripped the mask from that young man’s face and before he could put up a fight I had turned away and disappeared into the mist.

To keep living, to keep breathing, to keep going.

That’s who I am.

That’s the sort of animal I am.  I believe that’s the sort of animal we all are.  Luckily not everyone has to find out the way I did.  

There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t thought of that soldier.  What if I’d taken my chances and left him with his mask?  I’d be dead for sure but he may have survived and possibly contributed more to society than I.  Perhaps I stole more than his life?  Perhaps by playing God I inadvertently robbed the world of greatness?  If the boot were on the other foot would he have done the same?  I hope so.  I will never know.  All I know now is that when my time comes, and it will be soon, the last thing I’ll see is his frightened face and his pleading eyes.

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No man’s land

 

I stood at the top of the stairs this morning, staring at the loft hatch.  All I had to do was to reach up, press it in the right place, the hatch would open and the stairs to the loft would magically descend.  I just couldn’t do it.  I used to be able to do it, in fact I actually quite enjoyed doing it, gave me a feeling of satisfaction. 

It wasn’t the action of opening the hatch that worried me but what it would lead to…a space outside of my comfort zone.

Since my comfort zone is quite small these days (it was once considerably bigger), I have been trying to fill my time with creative endeavours.  In the loft, hidden in dusty storage boxes rest the memories of my ancestors.  I come from a long line of survivors, well we all do don’t we?  I mean anyone who survived long enough to procreate is, in terns of natural selection, a survivor.  But also, most people don’t give up; most people struggle on through whatever life throws at them.  My ancestors, like many others, endured great, sometimes all consuming, hardships.  Some hardships they were born with: God given hardships, like Uncle Thomas’s blindness.  But most of the hardships I’m referring to were constructed by society: wars, famines, concentration camps, political ideologies which led to real fears of persecution, actual persecution, torture and imprisonment. 

I want to put things into perspective.  I mean, no one is doing THIS to me, I’m doing it to myself, I’m persecuting myself.  Why?  Don’t get me wrong, I have asked this very question not only to myself but to those most qualified to mine the very deepest parts of my psychology but it remains hidden.  Which leads one to the conclusion that there is no ‘why’.  It’s just like this for me.

I thought that maybe feeling the way I do is a luxury, something I can afford to do because I live in a world where real threats from the outside are rare.  No one is going to conscript me, send me off to war, or round me up, tar and feather me and parade me naked down Sutton Veny high street.  So, in the absence of any real danger, I have constructed my own prison camp complete with a guard …me!  It’s a bit like being a vegan, denying yourself a bacon butty when half the world is starving; it’s a luxury, in a round-about way.

I’m not saying that people who went through challenging times did not suffer from anxiety too, I’m sure they did, and I bet worry was the ‘modus operandi’ of the masses.  But did it stop them from leaving the house?  Did it prevent them from doing whatever it was that they had to do to survive?  No, it didn’t because these people, my ancestors and yours no doubt, did not have the luxury of giving in to their fears.  They just jolly well pulled up their socks and got on with it.  When my great grandfather was separated from his brigade and left alone in a dugout on the Somme I bet he dammed near shit himself. I bet he would exchange that long night, with mortars exploding overhead, with a trip to the attic any day!  Anxiety attack?  What about bomb attack?  When I think of it that way I just want to give myself a bloody good shake.  

And yet, with this notion firmly embedded in my frontal lobe I remained frozen at the thought of climbing up into the loft, the one place where the answers to my ‘condition’ may well reside.  Crazy as it sounds, not going up into the loft kind of makes sense if you are me, I’ll explain.

First it started with a panic attack in the cinema.  I used to love to go to the movies, that slice of escapism, watching someone else’s struggles unfold only to be resolved in a couple of hours.  I always tried my best to get an aisle seat when going to the cinema or theatre or on any form of public transport for reasons which are now obvious to me.  But, on this occasion at the cinema, I was asked by a rather charming old lady with incontinence issues if I could be persuaded to swap seats with her.  Her seat was slap in the middle of the row and was, in her words, ‘the sweet spot’.  I couldn’t say ‘No’, not really.  So, with a little trepidation I shimmied my way past a dozen laps of varying dimensions until I found the old lady’s sweet spot.

We were about twenty minutes into the film (something about the misadventures of a crook named Harvey), when I began to worry that I’d drunk too much lemonade and might need, at some point, to shimmy past all those laps again.  The worry slowly turned to dread: I began to feel hot behind the ears, cold and clammy, coupled with the fear that I would piss myself any minute.  I felt as if my heart were about to burst from my chest, catapult across the auditorium and splatter onto the IMAX screen before me.  Either that or my bladder would give way and flood the place!  Having worked myself up into a full blown panic attack, I hyperventilated and passed out.  The young woman sitting to my left, who until then had only presented herself to me as one of the more endearing laps in a long line of laps, noticed my condition.  She, without worrying about disturbing others, had me dragged out of the auditorium by two burly men and into the foyer where I slowly came to.  Gayle, (she of the lap), stayed with me and waited until the ambulance arrived.  I don’t think I could construct a more embarrassing scenario if I tried.  But now that’s what I do all day: worry about what might happen.  

After the cinema debacle, I tried to carry on with my life as normally as I could but I never went to the movies again; I went online instead.  And I could not sit anywhere in public: no busses, theatres, trains, waiting rooms, restaurants or cafes.  Or park benches.  In fact, I could not sit anywhere that, should something happen, I couldn’t escape easily. Crazy isn’t it?  Or is it, really?  Considering what I’d been through in the cinema?

Life went on like this for some time until I realised that driving my car to work was really dangerous, not just for me but other road users too.  What if I had another panic attack while in the car, driving along at fifty miles an hour?  I had to stop using the car immediately but the thought of cycling to work, which was the only option left to me, brought on another panic attack, this time at my desk, in the office, in front of everyone! I had basically tarred and feathered myself in public and paraded my nakedness before the crowd …  I couldn’t go back to work after that…obviously. 

My life gradually narrowed considerably, yet at first I couldn’t see it that way.  I replaced the things I’d lost with new things.  Cinema with downloads, a desk in the office with one at home, shopping in a supermarket with a home delivery service and friends and acquaintances with a cat named Rambo.   Then, one day, it dawned on me that I had not left my house in three months!  To begin with, It felt like an achievement, something to be applauded for not worrying about! 

After my melt down at the office some co-workers called to see how I was doing.  My mother also rang sporadically and Nesta, the Rastafarian milkman, popped in for a cup of herbal.  But after a while, concern for my well being calmed down and I let out a sigh of relief, a sigh of relief that people were no longer concerned for me.  Weird isn’t it?  What this meant was I could continue with my self-imposed isolation and do so under the radar, undetected … but for how long?  

Not long as it turned out.

Mother turned up on my doorstep one morning and offered to take me to lunch.

 ‘Lunch?’ I said, the word filling my mouth like a lump of coal.

‘Yes, Lunch. I thought we could try the new place in Theale.’

‘Theale?’ I said, my mouth now very dry from all the coal.

‘Yes dear, go get your coat.’

‘Coat?’ I said now feeling the panic bubbling up inside me.

‘Yes, coat. What’s with all the monosyllabic?’

‘Monosyl….’  I couldn’t get that one out.

‘The cat!’ I said suddenly inspired.

‘The Cat?  What about the cat?’

‘I can’t leave the cat; Rambo’s got abandonment issues.  Needs constant attention. He barely leaves my side.’

We both watched as, with perfect timing, Rambo walked through his flap and out onto the street without so much as a backward glance.

‘Seems alright to me,’ said mother.

So, with ever increasing palpitations I told her the real reason I couldn’t go to lunch with her.

Mother listened carefully, sympathetically even, which was surprising as she is definitely of the ‘socks up’ generation.

It felt good to get it all out in the open, tell someone what I was going through and share the burden.  We had lunch at home: toasted cheese sandwiches washed down with regular tea.  Then Mother took hold of the reins: her main motivation was to have me well enough to go back out there and meet a nice girl with childbearing hips.

‘You need to come to my Zumba class on Wednesday evenings.  That will do you the world of good!  Plenty of younger girls go, not just my age.’

‘Zumba?’

‘Yes, Zumba. Why not?’

I couldn’t think of anything more ghastly then being stuck in a room full of hot sweaty women dressed in Lycra writhing about the dance floor to upbeat, rhythmic music.  What was wrong with me? 

‘You are agoraphobic,’ said Mother.

‘No I’m not!  I’m just sensible,’ I retorted.

‘How so?’ 

‘Well I just feel that I’m better off not putting myself in harm’s way.  I can limit the amount of situations in which I might have a panic attack to nil, just by not leaving my house.’

‘The trouble with comfort zones dear, is that it is always sunny there but nothing ever grows.’

These were sage words from my mother and they formed part of the catalyst that brought me to where I am today: standing frozen to the spot on the landing staring up at the loft hatch.

These are my options:  Option one, I decide once and for all not to go into the loft and find other fruitful things to do with my time, like have a one way conversation with Rambo.

Option two, pull up my socks, go up into the loft, find all the diaries and cuttings related to my grandparents and possibly, through a combination of shame and self loathing, put myself on the road to recovery.  Option three, go up into the loft, have a panic attack and die there with my corpse laying undetected for months.

Option one seems to be winning.  I mean is it worth the risk?  Knowing, as I do, that any new situation could set me off.  Any time I put myself into a new environment, outside my comfort zone, I face the potential death scenario.  It could actually happen!  The more I worry about it, the more likely it is that should I take the plunge, I’ll just end up drowning in my own misery.  

One day, I will just wake up and go into the loft without thinking twice about it.  I’ll just do it.  But for now, the moment’s gone.

It’s the speculation, the worrying about what might happen that wins every time: I just need to stop worrying and go for it.  If I can get up to that loft and retrieve my ancestors thoughts and fears I think it would really help me.  Who knows I might even be able to face Zumba classes?

 

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I drew the shrew

First impressions are important and never more so than when a boy meets a girl.  There’s more going on below the surface than most of us are aware of. Tom was aware, at least in theory of what he referred to as the ‘chemistry department’ but chose to override the boffins down in the lab!  They worked relentlessly to get him laid but he was also aware that they got excited whenever he saw a pretty girl and that this was just an unfiltered blanket response to a possible sexual encounter – even if logically Tom knew he didn’t stand a chance.  So on the occasion when he met Martha, Tom decided to concentrate on how she made him feel in other ways.  

He likened this ‘experiment’ to contemplation of a work of art or listening to a piece of well-crafted music.  He explained later how he wanted to connect with someone and that to connect with anyone there must be a ‘between-ness’, an attraction.  But more than that, you must feel as if you have always known this person.  You must feel that at some point in history you were crafted as one person but somehow, at some point you broke in two.  Each half has something the other one needs and something they want to protect. 

Martha, who at twenty-four had had it with men, or at least that’s what she told herself and anyone who asked: she almost believed it too.  She trotted out all the same platitudes, the same generalisations that have been rehearsed by cynical, love-weary, disenchanted souls forever and a day.  Martha thought that she’d met the right man: he’d ticked all the boxes but, he had his own boxes and fidelity was not one of them.  He’d turned out to be a rogue and if HE was a rogue then they were ALL rogues.  But she knew good men: her father was one and her brother another.  It would be a sorry world if they were the only two good men left.  Even so, in an attempt to guard her heart from further pain Martha held the world, and men in particular, at arms length. 

Tom’s first impressions of Martha, the masterpiece he beheld that day, was that within great sadness there is great beauty, like a rose that has reached the pinnacle of any rose’s desire to look radiant and then began to wilt… just a little.  When she smiled, she held the fullness of her smile in reserve giving only a glimmer of its potential.  When she walked she walked only with purpose, one foot in-front of the other but Tom knew she could glide and dance if she wanted to.  Another of Tom’s first impressions was that this was a woman to whom trust was paramount, and that meant he had to be himself. No tomfoolery today, no sir!  No point in trying to deceive a woman like this with false claims and bravado.  She simply would not buy it.  She wanted honesty and in return she would give herself completely. 

In the basement where the chemicals were mixed with prudence but distributed with an arbitrary devil may care fashion, the furnace got a little over-heated.  Tom, just for a second, gave in to the chemical romance: slender legs (even if they were just being functional), pert breasts and an arse worthy of its own name.  Her lips were full and extremely kissable and her eyes were made of emeralds.  But her most striking feature, her sexiest attribute to him, was the nape of her neck.  Tom didn’t know then, on that day, at that picnic in the park organised by a mutual friend with a penchant for matchmaking (or at least the desire to forge a penchant  for matchmaking), that Martha wore her hair up not to attract but to repel! Every time she turned around Tom wanted to lay tender kisses at the threshold between her mind and her body. 

Martha’s chemical engineers had not signed for her self-proclaimed abstinence from love: they saw this young man as most likely to sire healthy intelligent and adorable children.  Martha grudgingly recognised that Tom was not like the others: he was charming in a very English way; a little awkward, a little self deprecating and very good looking.  He seemed to her like a man reluctant to let go of the boy inside.  Tom still had a very rosy view of the world: an optimist, a dreamer too but, rather slyly, with one foot in the real world… just in case.   There was something else – Tom was open about his views and feelings but seemed more interested in hers.  He had, she deduced, a high level of empathy. 

Second impressions are what people are scared of.  The first time around you are thinking on your feet: everything is new to you; judgments, opinions and chemicals are coming at you at a rate of knots.  It’s easy, one would assume, to make a bad call, to misread the signals being beamed from across the room. The second time you meet, you are seeking reassurance that your first impressions marry up with what you still have to discover. 

In Martha and Tom’s case it was as though the Universe had singled them out for special attention.  All other matter ceased to exist.  The rest of the world took time out.  Tom felt like his heart would burst: he wanted her more than anything, he wanted to give her everything and keep giving it forever. 

Martha began to melt at that second encounter, to let down her defenses and before long she gave Tom the full smile.  He was spellbound and Martha recanted her vow of chastity which, in reality, had been more of an injunction. 

After the second encounter nothing could stop them, the chemistry department let rip, all hands on deck while Martha and Tom bathed in the delirium of euphoria.

Then for a long while they were truly happy: they possessed something poets had waxed lyrically about for centuries but could never really explain; they had true love.  Tom and Martha spoke often about how they were perfectly matched, how their personalities were harmonious and how they benefited one another mutually.  Martha, caring, organised, creative and visionary.  Tom forever in the now but ambitious, disorganised and absent minded in a brilliantly technical way!  They supported one-another’s dreams, they laughed a lot and made love whenever they could.  Making love was as close as it gets to being the ‘one person’ they once were.  They came as close to unity as anyone is likely too. 

And so, inevitably, the conversation one day turned to children.  As is often the case the conversation normally starts with a speculation on what the child might look like or be like?  It leads to having something you can make together and then share.  Together you could experience the joy of bringing a new life into the world, holding it, moulding it, filling it with neurosis, and eventually watching it fly the nest.

Eventually they decided to start a family. They would make it work because together they could do anything.

Caspian was born three years and four days after that first meeting.  Looking at him in those first moments, those unforgettable moments, Tom and Martha saw or recognised a relative they knew.  Tom saw his father, Martha hers, Tom saw his brother, Martha hers, fleetingly everyone in both their families was represented in this new face. Like a shape shifter, Caspian’s features changed every second until they finally settled for a harmony he felt happy with. Then he was just Caspian, as he always would be. 

Martha and Tom found a natural aptitude for parenting and Caspian’s mastery of all things childlike was indeed phenomenal.  Everyone seemed so happy but, without wanting to appear ungrateful to the universe, one more addition to the family would really seal the deal. 

Enter me, George.  

Somewhere lost in antiquity there lived the Caspian people next to the Caspian sea.  It’s a name that summons up romanticism, adventure and sea faring. George just sounds safe and dutiful. But, here’s the thing: I was the adventurous one and Caspian the dutiful and studious one.  Mum and Dad got the names the wrong way round, that’s all I can assume. 

I also had a nickname: ‘Cone-head the Barbarian’ given to me by my father on account of my cone shaped head after a Ventouse delivery.  Vacuum extraction will do that to a baby’s head and although the effect was only temporary, the nickname stuck around longer than it should have done. 

Dad said that when Caspian was born he held him to his chest and said, ‘You don’t know me yet and I don’t know you, but we are going to have so much fun finding out about each other.’  When Dad held me for the first time he felt differently, the love was the same, unconditional and infinite but he thought he knew something about my character immediately,  ‘Cone-head you are going to be a hand-full I can see that already!  You are a scallywag.  I promise you that no harm will ever come to you and we will always protect you but you mustn’t make it harder than it needs to be.  Be kind to us.  We love you.’ 

I’m not sure I always held up my end of the deal.  I really truly never felt fear once in my life.  Everything was all so exciting and new and in need of further exploration, I didn’t have time for fear!  Also, I realise now, that Tom and Martha worked hard to keep their promise: there was no need to feel afraid, I was bubble wrapped with love. 

In short we were a happy, contented family.  Tom had his surgery in the village and Martha had her studio in a barn next to the house where she pottered.  I was blessed with everything a boy needed to expand the mind and soul.  A perfect nuclear family…just like on the television. 

For my tenth birthday Caspian promised me a tree house.  He had spent hours drawing up the plans and sourcing the materials needed to build it.  It would be a recycled tree house using scrap found about the main house, the garden and the surrounding countryside.  My tenth birthday came and went while the blue prints were still wet!  When the summer holidays started Caspian finally launched ‘project tree fort’ – a house was never going to be enough.

July rolled into August and Caspian’s progress was predictably slow, partly because he was no handyman but mainly because he was so utterly meticulous that everything took forever. He spent a week just trying to decide which tree in the garden was most suitable to withstand his mighty fort. 

On the day in question, the day I died, Caspian had spent the morning sawing pieces of timber to his own specifications.  I climbed the chosen tree and hung upside down from a branch, by my legs, until all the blood drained to my head.  Martha came out with lemonade and carrot cake and told me to, ‘Come down this instant.’  I told her that she looked weird upside down. Caspian had a moan to Martha about how he couldn’t concentrate on building ‘This damned fort’ and babysit me at the same time.  I told him that I was not a baby but an orang-utan.

‘He’s just so unpredictable mother!  One minute he’s up a tree and the next he’s decided to teach himself to walk the tightrope!  I can’t work under these conditions.’

‘That was before I was an orang-utan, when I was in the circus,’ I said exasperated. 

After an early lunch Martha decided to give Caspian some peace and take me for a walk down by the dried-up riverbed in search of fossils.  Tom, who had just suspended a hammock between two trees, was enjoying the fruits of his labour and hinted at his own desire to stay where he was for a while longer.  Martha and I walked out of the garden gate and down the lane.  

Only one of us came back, neither of us returned whole.

That was the last time I saw Caspian and Tom.  Tom lazing in his hammock with a straw hat shielding the sun from his eyes and humming ‘The flight of the bumble bee’ quietly to himself.  Caspian, partly hidden amidst what looked like the remnants of a shipwreck, all nails and timbers, was cursing audibly to himself.  

I can recall every moment of my life now, but the moments I cherish most and like to replay over and again are those perfect moments that were leading to my death.  

It was a balmy Saturday afternoon in early August, I was stripped to the waist, the heat of the sun caressing my young skin and I had my mother’s exclusive attention.  We were soon beyond earshot of Caspian’s sawing and swearing and other than our voices, the only sounds to be heard were the occasional cooing of wood pigeons and the crickets chirping in the long grass.  We ambled along the path that cut through the woodland en route to where the river had once flowed.  Martha pointed out various plants informing me of their magical properties, telling me how she used to press them into a book to capture happy memories of the day she’d picked them.  I meandered along beside her, happily listening to her stories of childhood and contributing the odd detail here and there to a story she was making up for me as we walked. 

Martha was a great storyteller and this tale was one about a shrew who fell in love with a weasel. All the while I looked upon her with awe and gratitude: my mother, my champion, my love.  If a memory were like a flower I’d pick this one to press and keep in my diary forever. 

Once we arrived on the bank of the river, Martha found shade under a weeping willow in full lament and opened her book on herbal healing.  I went to explore the dry riverbed, turning over stones and poking about generally with a good stick I’d found on the path.  After a while I turned my attention to doodling in the dust of the riverbed. With my stick I drew caricatures of everyone I knew and would call out to Martha once in a while, ‘Look it’s Caspian!’ or, ‘It’s Mr. Marks the head master,’ and she would look up from her book and smile from her willow tree. 

The last thing I said was, ‘Look! I drew the shrew!’ 

Not on a par with the best dying words in history but I was pleased with my effort and wanted only my mother’s approval.  That was the last perfect moment on Earth I care to remember; it stops there, like a Polaroid snapshot.  

I don’t care to recall the moments that followed: the look on my mother’s face was pure horror as she stood up, the book falling to the ground as she clutched at her head and let out a terrified scream.  Was it that bad? I have no memory of being swept away by the freak flood.  My last real living memory is the sight of my mother’s horrified face and of my mistaken belief that her expression was directed towards my clumsy, juvenile attempt to draw a shrew in the dust with a stick.  I was mortified because I believed that she disliked my drawing. 

I don’t remember drowning.  I learned of it later.

Martha did not give up easily and after the initial shock of seeing her son snatched away from her by a hydrous bulldozer, she ran along the bank searching amidst the churned up watery turmoil of broken branches and leaves for any sign of me.  She found none.  Exhausted, she stood by the bank where she’d last seen me.  Staring at first at the muddy brown water still rushing past then, in a daze, she looked to the sky; it was blue and bar the odd wisp of cloud there was no sign of rain.  This conflict of reason led her to the conclusion that it had not happened, there must be another explanation – perhaps she was dreaming or in a coma?  The fact that my body was never found added, in due course, to the fantasy that she was only dreaming.  Throughout her life Martha held onto that thought, as unrealistic as it became: she just wanted to wake up and find me sitting next to her.

Here’s another snapshot:  my mother, clothes drenched, hair matted, grieving and clearly distraught walking in through the garden gate on a sunny afternoon in August.  My Father, returning from the house with a glass of water stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of his wife, soaking wet and obviously without me.  Caspian looking up from his labours, from the construction he was ultimately making for me, seeing his parents regarding one another, each reading the other’s mind. That’s where the betweenness that bound them together, broke.  Both fell to their knees, crumpling up under the weight of their loss.  The ‘one’ separated right there and it would take many lifetimes before the two halves found each other again.  Take that picture, three people physically separated and look at it a year later, two years later, any time later, and you will see how that is how they remained – separated.  All of my loved ones, my family, they all three of them dealt with my death alone, without one another and they all dealt with it differently.

Tom retreated from life like a frightened tortoise, not able to forgive himself for breaking his promise to me; angry at me for breaking my end of the deal and angry at Martha for not paying enough attention.  He contemplated taking his own life, he had plenty of options, but ultimately some repressed Catholicism and a little too much cowardice prevented him from activating a quick fix.  He chose instead to employ a compromise, he started smoking heavily; a slow suicide.

Martha had no choice, she had to carry on, she had Caspian to live for but she couldn’t look at Caspian without being reminded of me.  So she avoided him if she could.  She knew what she was doing, what she was denying her first born, but Martha had no other strategy for coping.  Every evening before the Valium knocked her unconscious, Martha relived that moment on the riverbank.  She tortured herself with alternative endings, ‘If she’d only done this or that then I might still be with her’.  Each morning at dawn she woke and for an instant there was noting but calm.  She would wonder at the calm, wonder for a moment who she was to possess such peace of mind and then like a sledge hammer, it all came flooding back.  She lived the rest of her life for that single fleeting moment at dawn when she would wake to ignorance and be at peace. 

Two pained parents going through the motions, never really talking about how they felt and one ignored son.  A far cry from the boundless happiness and harmony they once guarded and cherished tenaciously.  And it was all because of me.  Because I was no longer with them, I no longer existed but in memory.  Cone-head the Barbarian, that bundle of joy, that scallywag always causing trouble, always up to something most often fraught with danger, had gone. 

…But I was with them.  My parents just couldn’t see me, or they did and didn’t want to be reminded.  Caspian became both of us.  He lived both our lives. After my funeral, a sad and teary affair, he finished the tree fort and before locking it forever, he put all of my favourite things in there and it became a shrine.  Then for a while he resented me: he’d not only lost his brother but because of that he lost his parents too.  Ultimately resentment became difficult to hold on to, he just didn’t have the dogged commitment required, or the heart for it.  So Caspian changed his approach to life; it happened slowly over time but it happened nevertheless.  Whenever faced with a choice within which the old Caspian would have taken the safe option he now asked himself, ‘What would George do?’

This led to broader horizons, some positive, others less so.  Caspian grew into both our shoes and became, after a shaky start, a well balanced, slightly eccentric young man.

Caspian’s fist impression of Anna was that she was fearless… but safe.  Anna, the girl that taught Caspian to walk a tightrope, thought that he was patient, clever and thoughtful. 

They named their daughter George… a name that she grew to like more than I had.

Martha’s story of the shrew

‘There was an old mill, long abandoned that sat crumbling by a brook in the forest.  It was here, by the brook that the animals could gather to drink at sunset without fear of attack.  There was a pact between them, made long ago, before the mill was ever built, that no animal would be hunted or eaten at the brook at sunset. 

Most animals of the forest took full advantage of this pact, especially the smaller ones.  The shrew had no name that could be spoken by man, rather a scent he was known for, and loved to go to the brook whenever he had the time. Other than the water he liked to see his fellow forest dwellers up close, without fear of being gobbled up.’ 

‘You know how you like to go to the zoo and marvel at all the other animals?’ asked Martha.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Well it was like that for the shrew.  At the zoo you can look at lions and not worry about being eaten alive.  Same for the shrew.’

‘What was his favourite animal?’ I asked.

‘The shrew liked the wolf the best, because he was so elusive and mysterious and everyone paid him the highest respect.  But he also liked to watch the badgers and the foxes too.’ 

‘What about the weasel, did the shrew like the weasel too?’

‘Well yes, now you mention it there is a weasel in this story.’

‘One day the shrew made it to the brook for sunset and took his share of the water, he climbed up onto a rock to dry his fur in the setting sun and looked at all the other animals there.  First he spotted the wolf who lay on the bank alone, no one bothered the wolf.  Then he spotted some foxes and a family of field mice playing next to one another and thought that that was just the loveliest sight he’d ever seen. But then, all of a sudden….’

‘Oh look some foxgloves, right there, aren’t they lovely?’

‘Mum!’

‘Yes?’

‘Carry on with the story,’

‘Oh yes, of course, where was I?’

‘But then all of a sudden….’

‘But then all of a sudden into the clearing by the mill came a weasel.  Shrew was normally terrified of weasels and never stayed around long enough to appreciate their finer points.  But by the brook at sunset, from his rock the shrew could really study the weasel in safety.  And this weasel was, to him, more magnificent than any other creature he’d ever seen there.  She walked with such grace and confidence, like she had a really funky tune playing in her head all the time.’

‘Like what?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Err Ma baker by Boney M,’

‘Yes like that tune I suspect’,

‘Cool, I like that one too!’

‘Shrew watched the weasel make the rounds, greeting everyone she passed, stopping to sniff the odd bottom…’

‘Mum, do they really do that?’

‘I’m not sure, I put it in for comedy effect.’

‘Oh ok…arsenic license…’

‘Artistic License.’

‘Hmmm. Carry on.’

‘Shrew by nature was a nervous creature whose heart rate whilst resting was going at eight hundred beats per minute.  He had terrible paranoia; thought that everyone wanted to eat him, which to be fair, they did.  Anyway, Weasel seemed to be the complete opposite to him, she was laid back, she was cool, she was so beautiful and so elegant and so full of confidence that poor old shrew fell madly in love with her.  And this made his already beating heart beat a little faster…which made him hungry.  Shrews are always hungry, they have to eat their own body weight twice every day to survive.  So, the shrew absent-mindedly ate a grasshopper that had landed on his rock.’ 

‘Oh dear,’

‘Why, oh dear?’

‘Because of the pact; you can’t eat others while by the brook at sunset.’

‘Exactly true!’

‘What happened next?’

‘Everyone stopped when the grasshopper’s friend screamed out in horror.  The shrew had broken the pact, not intentionally; he’d just forgotten for a moment.’

‘Did he leave his manners at the door?’

‘Yes I suppose he did, metaphorically speaking.’

‘Well anyway, the little shrew’s already drumming heart drummed harder.  In fact by now it sounded more like a trill than a beat.  All eyes turned to him.  He tried really hard to look nonchalant by whistling to himself but really this just made him look more culpable than ever.  Feeling guilty made him hungry so he ate another grasshopper out of habit.

‘Oh no not again!’

‘Yes, and everyone saw him do it with their own eyes too this time.’

‘Seize him!’ cried the Wolf. 

‘Everyone edged a little closer to the shrew.  The shrew jumped down off of his rock, and feeling trapped and anxious he ate a butterfly by accident.’ 

‘He makes a lot of mistakes this shrew,’

‘Well it’s all about perception isn’t it?  The shrew is in fact so nervous that he’s eating to stay alive.  If he doesn’t eat he’ll die of fright right there on the spot.  He doesn’t mean to eat his fellow forest dwellers but instinct has kicked in.  On the other hand the other animals are regarding him more nervously, they don’t see a frightened little shrew out of his comfort zone, no, they see a psycho-killer!’ 

‘A what?’

‘A psycho-killer.  An animal so sure of its ability to survive it breaks the most sacred rule of the forest.  Either he’s plain crazy or he’s a calculating killer both of which are a little frightening.  The other animals, with each step they took, became less sure they wanted anything to do with the shrew. 

‘He needs to pay for his crime!’ roared the wolf indignantly.

‘Here, here!’ piped up the foxes.

‘Grab him’ said the wolf

‘Here, here,’ said the foxes with a little less conviction than before.

The shrew looked around desperately for a way out of this nightmare and was actually thinking of making a run for it when the weasel came and stood beside him.

She whispered, ‘Don’t eat me.’

Then to the gathering crowd of onlookers she said in her silky smooth voice. 

‘My client agrees to not eat anyone else here tonight on the condition that he’s kept well fed throughout the day.  That means if you want his full compliance you must bring him offerings every day.  My client must never feel hungry again.’

‘Here here!’ cried the foxes in unison.

‘Seems reasonable,’ said the badger.

‘Oh that’s clever,’ said the otter.

‘Nonsense,’ said the wolf, leaving the brook in disgust. 

‘I’m hungry,’ said the shrew in a shrill and frightening voice.

And all the grasshoppers shrieked so hard they literally jumped out of their skins!’

‘Is that the end Mother?’

‘Yes that’s the end my darling boy.’

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Packing for Patagonia

 

Our parents drove off leaving a thick cloud of dust swirling in the hot air.  We watched as the dust began to settle and then, like a magic trick, our parents were gone.  The invisible cord between us had not broken or been severed but given a lot more slack.  We looked at one another and then, without words, my brother Bugsy and I surveyed the camp-site for the best pitch. 

The ground was sunbaked hard: what little grass remained was soon claimed by the ponies that roamed freely around the campsite.  Some would argue that the ponies’ presence was a symbiotic one, not just with the forest as a whole but also with the people who used it.  They kept the grass short and fertilised in equal measure; they also cleaned up after, and often during, mealtimes.  I always felt that even though we shared a common space they were not remotely aware of us. There seemed to be a complete blindness on their part, so much so that I wondered whether we existed at all? Perhaps we only thought we were there?  This insecurity would only ever be relieved if, and it seemed unlikely, someone could bridge the void between us. 

After some serious head scratching, and a little stomping on hard ground we decided on a spot to pitch our tent: flat but not entirely level, close to a large thorny bush for shade and near a picnic table which we intended to colonise for the week.

Before pitching our tent we sat on the picnic table and rolled ourselves a freedom cigarette, one we could smoke without the usual fear of detection or of the consequences that detection would bring.  As we inhaled the unique and slightly acrid taste of our emancipation, the campsite warden and his son walked by.  The warden, whom we recognised as the man who, once a day (normally early in the morning) came to check we were not overstaying our welcome, walked with shoulders hunched and hands buried deep in his pockets.  He looked as if the business of warding was a heavy burden to carry. His son Nigel shuffled along as if to the beat of a drum no one else could hear.  Nigel, we thought, was probably the same age as we were, fourteen or fifteen but, well, he was different – to us he seemed ‘absent’ somehow.  Nowadays, our assessment may seem to be a little harsh or thoughtless but back then, the best way available to us to describe Nigel was, ‘Not all there’.

Nigel saw us and called out, ‘Hiya!’ giving us one of his legendary salutes.  We responded by waving back and returning his, ‘Hiya!’  We watched as father and son moved on, one determinedly miserable, the other obviously happy.  As they disappeared around the corner, we heard Nigel call out again to some unseen camper, ‘Hiya!’ and his father shouting, ‘Keep up Nigel!’

‘It must be great to be Nigel,’ said Bugsy.

‘Why?’

‘Well he doesn’t know he’s ‘different’.  When other people chat to him all he sees is niceness.  He’s really happy isn’t he?  Isn’t that what everyone wants?’ 

‘Well I suppose so.  But I wouldn’t want to swap my life for his.  I want it all – the rough and the smooth.’

‘But,’ said Bugsy getting up off the table and grabbing the tent pegs, ‘he doesn’t know what he’s missing: ignorance is bliss, like the religiously devout.’ 

The phrase ‘religiously devout’ was new to us and so therefore applied overtly and frequently whenever possible. The execution of which was coupled with a derision normally reserved for maths teachers.

As teenagers, we often presumed to know more abut the world than we actually did but this didn’t stop us speculating, often erroneously, about those around us.  

Nigel and his father were, as it would turn out, a strong case in point. 

Throughout the afternoon and early evening we met other young people staying on the campsite, all but two were with their parents. So, quite naturally, our little patch, complete with picnic table soon became the social hub.  We had tried, in vain, to keep the decks well stacked in our favour, allowing more girls than boys into our realm but, naturally, where there are girls, boys will follow.  Two boys in particular were received with grudging hospitality. They were the aforementioned two without their parents. We begrudged them because they were male and also bestowed with the awe and mystery that freedom brings.  But soon the begrudging turned to resentment and irritation. 

These two street savvy boys from Winchester had burst through the night into our cosy gathering like a couple of explorers stumbling on a primitive society. Bugsy was holding court, throwing all his charm into the ring and gaining considerable ground when his reign was brought to a premature end. The Winchesters were a curious blend of secretive mystique and romanticism, giving away the outcome of their alleged activities but never the execution. They were a novel distraction for some, full of their own mythology and audacious exploits. They began to dazzle everyone, but not us, with their stories of bravado. They had apparently stalked a deer in the forest and killed it, ‘with these bare hands.’  Walked into Brockenhurst and drank cider with a tramp.  And, most outrageously, watched through the window of a hockey team’s changing room as the girls got undressed. Our gathering, once a rapt audience complete with the temptation of a budding sexual encounter had, in a moment, abandoned us for the lure of newer, shinier things. 

The following morning we awoke to the sound of Nigel’s father outside our tent demanding to see our camping card.  He took it and crossed off the first of seven pre-paid stamps before sternly telling us to tidy up our pitch. 

After a quick consultation Bugsy and I agreed that if those two Winchester boys could walk to Brockenhurst then so could we.  We would strike out in search of adventure and, what’s more, we would bring back the spoils of our crusade and share them with the girls that evening. 

Carrying a bottle of water and, for no particular reason, a sheath knife, we set off on our journey.  As we passed the Warden’s office we saw Nigel sitting outside on the steps.  He was engrossed in something so we went over to say, ‘Hiya!’ to find that he was arranging equally sized sticks in a line, spaced exactly the same distance apart, on the step below. He didn’t respond: he seemed not to hear us at all.   We watched him absently for a moment wondering whether to try another ill-fated ‘Hiya,’ or not when his father came out of the office and onto the steps.

‘You boys stop taunting my son!’ he shouted angrily.

‘We’re not,’ I said aggrieved. 

‘I saw you!’ he shouted again pointing at us.

Nigel clapped his hands over his ears and began rocking back and forth on the step, moaning monotonously, ‘Noooooo … noooooo….’

‘Now look what you’ve done!’ shouted the warden. ‘Get out of my sight before you do any more damage.’

‘But…’ I hastened.

Nigel became more frantic.

‘Go!’ he screamed.

So we left, leaving the warden to calm his son.

‘I hate that,’ said Bugsy striding for the open road.

‘Hate what?’ I inquired.

‘Being accused of something we didn’t do.  What did we do?  We were just being nice.’

‘That Warden is an idiot,’ I replied sagely, ‘It’s probably because everyone else is on holiday apart from him.’

‘Yeah I guess, but even so, why take it out on us?’

‘I don’t know.  One thing is clear though – Nigel is not happy all the time,’ I said.

‘No I guess not.  He doesn’t like it when people shout.  He likes everything quiet and calm.’

‘Did you see how he was arranging those sticks?’

‘Yeah, very tidy.  He likes everything ‘just so’, like Goldilocks – not too hot and not too cold.’

It wasn’t long before the day’s warmth swathed us and enticed us with possibilities.  We stopped for a moment to take in our freedom.  It smelt of damp bark, pine and asphalt.  It sounded like the unseen movement of harrow-hawks hunting overhead, the rummaging of wild pigs in the thick forest undergrowth and the thoughtful meditation of the elusive red dear.  The sun was rising, already warm on our faces and thoughts of injustice evaporated with the morning dew.  Either side of the road the forest loomed, the majesty of nature, full of mystery and folklore reigned.  We decided to leave the road to tourists and take our chances in the forest.  We knew roughly which direction to go so, with the spirit of the boy scouts we were, Bugsy and I stepped off the road and onto the track.  Not once during that long eventful day did our thoughts turn to Nigel or his misguided father.  Not once did they loiter on the obvious disparity between our youthful exhilaration and Nigel’s limited experience of life.  Nor did we compare our freedom to choose, to imagine, to create or play with that of Nigel or, indeed, his father. Their lives were full of unthinkable difficulties which affected them both.  Nigel ‘wasn’t all there’, we got that, but in reality we had no idea what that was like.  Furthermore we had not even begun to consider what that might mean for a parent.  For us, life was a film set – we were the lead players, the world around us was nothing more than a backdrop full of props to pick and choose at will.  We never lingered long on someone else’s story because our story was the one that mattered.  Others were welcome to join the ensemble as long as they helped with the overall narrative.

The day seemed to be written for us.  We stepped blindly into it without trepidation – just a sense of claiming what was rightfully ours.  We stayed firmly in the ‘now’ never veering towards the past or the future; we lived that day completely and in the moment.  And our moments were bountiful.  The rapture of startling a herd of fallow deer into flight, their initial confusion and regrouping was like watching a flock of alarmed sparrows; they sped past us, eyes bulging with fright, antlers cutting through the gorse, hearts pounding in our ears. Then there was the boyish joy of finding a rope strung up over the river attached to the bough of an oak tree.  We stripped off and took turns for a while, launching ourselves off the bank and onto the rope, swinging out over the water before letting go and plunging into the deep cold pool below.  A group of girl guides came hiking through the woods into the clearing only to be treated to the full view of Bugsy’s pale but perfectly formed bottom; suspended in mid air and glistening in the midday sun.  They stopped as one, pointing and giggling before moving on.  

Stepping out of the forest back onto the road, we found an entourage of classic cars speeding past, engines roaring, horns honking and chrome glittering in the sun.  I saw goggles and leather gloves, picnic hampers, headscarves and unruly hair.  The drivers bore down on their accelerators as their passengers waved or called out to us.  One woman lifted her top and flashed her ample bosom, laughing at our startled expressions. Another passenger threw an empty bottle of champagne at a passing tree; it ricocheted and smashed onto the tarmac.  

We had gone from the timeless, peaceful surety of the forest to the noise and chaos of the road in an instant. 

Finally, we entered the village of Brockenhurst with its four thousand year history and its utter Englishness.  In the ford that cuts the road in two, ponies and horses met to exchange banter, while cows regarded them with poorly veiled contempt from the wrong side of the cattle-grid.  Into this Constablesque scene we walked, still wet from the river dousing, half dressed and covered in the foliage the forest had graciously bestowed upon us.  We, as my mother would say, made the place look untidy.  Perhaps it was our very bedraggled appearance that helped us to navigate the treacherous waters of our illicit acquisitions.  It was as though Brockenhurst were fighting an infection and was prepared to do anything to rid itself of the virus.  We bought alcohol and tobacco without difficulty and, mission accomplished, we left and I imagined an audible sigh of relief from everyone. 

On the walk home we reflected that within that myriad of humanity we hadn’t noticed a single tramp.  In fact, we suspected, the closest thing to vagrants that Brockenhurst had seen in a while was us!  Despite our appearance we were offered a lift to the campsite by an elderly couple in a camper-van.  Curiously, before allowing us to board, they made us swear allegiance to The Queen.  Our oaths were rewarded with cold drinks, homemade sausage rolls and a half hour monologue on the merits of the royal family.  We stepped out of the camper van feeling like Knights of the Round Table.

Our quest had not only succeeded but we were also armed with a bounty of anecdotes with which to regale our new friends.  We had successfully procured nourishment for both the belly and the soul without having to spill one ounce of blood! 

By seven o’clock our table had a full compliment of eager, impressionable teenagers chomping at the bit for our, only slightly, embroidered stories.  Placed firmly in the centre of our own legend we engendered envy and admiration in equal measure from our audience.  Our beguiling account of the day’s adventures overshadowed their own which, we were certain, were bound to be lack-lustre by comparison.  While we were free to pursue our own destiny they, in turn, were tied to their respective families and all the relentless compromises that came with it. 

To our delight, the girls seemed to be particularly impressed with our exploits so we took our time over the telling and retelling of our story all the while feeding off the subtle signals of attraction fluttering like winged hearts across the table.  And so, as the night drew darker and the cider burned in our bellies we revelled in our own glory and bathed in apparent admiration: our hubris was complete. 

Toward the end of the evening the Winchester Boys turned up.  I steeled myself for one more account of our day, the most important one, the one to dampen the interlopers’ fire. But, it seemed, the Winchester Boys had plenty of fire; they’d moved on from overblown trumpeting, from fanfaronade to fanfare.  Each produced, from behind his back, a firework.  Everyone soon clustered around the Winchesters as they explained that they couldn’t possibly say where they got them, but it should be known that it wasn’t easy and that it took courage and planning.  Plus they had more stashed away somewhere, ‘location top secret obviously.’

The fireworks were rockets the size of which I’d never seen.

‘Tossers,’ Bugsy whispered.

‘Oh well, we had a good run.’

‘It’s like they are just waiting in the wings; as soon as I think I’m going to get a chance with Sara out they bloody pop!’

‘Tomorrow’s another day,’ I said philosophically. 

The Winchester Boys, having caught everyone’s attention, including mine albeit reluctantly, planted their rockets in the hard ground, told everyone to stand well back and lit the fuses.  Two rockets sped skywards into the dark night giving two different displays.  One was an exploding chrysanthemum, its petals blown outwards in an infinite radius from the core.  The other resembled a weeping willow raining streams of golden tears.   Once the gasps of delight subsided, the Winchester Boys disappeared back into the night.  Our guests soon followed suit returning to their caravans and exhausted we crawled into our sleeping bags. 

We were startled awake by an angry voice outside the tent. 

‘You two bastards, come out here now!’ I grabbed a torch and unzipped the tent.  Standing like a Colossus in the moonlight was the camp warden.

‘Who is it?’ whispered Bugsy next to me loading his air pistol.

‘The site warden; he wants us to go outside.  Put the gun away, I don’t think its going to help.’

‘What does he want?’

“I don’t know, he seems really angry.’

‘I can’t go out.’

‘Why?’

‘I’ve got an erection.’

‘Good for you,’ I said.

‘If you two little shits don’t come out now, I’m coming in after you,’ shouted the Warden.

‘We don’t want him in here Bugsy,’ I said in alarm. ‘Just hop out in your sleeping bag.’

We emerged from the tent with our modesty under wraps.  The Warden stared at us, unblinking, with wild, bloodshot eyes.  He seemed lost for words, as if he hadn’t actually thought about whatever it was he wanted to say beforehand.  Time froze.  Within that timeless moment, I saw in his eyes not just contempt for us but for life itself.  But I also recognised that behind the contempt lay fear, a fear of every second to come, of an eternity of being.  I saw sadness and I saw a man resolved to carry his burden alone.   

It was as if all these feelings had suddenly awakened at the same time, they’d bubbled up from some pit inside him and were now bottlenecked.  He didn’t know which emotion to let out first, they were all stuck in his throat… but eventually he went predominantly with rage.

The Warden blasted us with a tirade of abuse and castigation; it was like watching the birth of a supernova.  He belched out spit and bad language peppered only occasionally with coherent speech.  We were totally non-plussed by his outburst at first but after a while, we began to understand the gist.  

The warden was so very angry because he thought we had set off the fireworks.  Nigel had had one of his meltdowns; it had taken the warden all night to settle him down and it was, according to him, all our fault.  We were already known to him as taunters of mentally handicapped children.  

We tried to interject, to proclaim our innocence but he wasn’t listening.  The Warden wanted us out of his campsite immediately and, to prove his sincerity, he began pulling at our tent.  We looked at one another in mute horror!  We were fourteen and fifteen years old, had no way of contacting our parents, (they were camping on another site), and would have to walk miles in the middle of the night in a vain attempt to locate them.  Even if we did find them, what the hell were we supposed to say? 

Suddenly, our panic was overtaken by immense relief; never was I so happy in the knowledge that the Winchester Boys were out there causing havoc.  Two rockets shot up into the night sky and exploded over our heads.  The warden looked from the fireworks to us, and back again in disbelief.  We, as one, gave him a knowing shrug and with that he ran off to confront the perpetrators. 

When morning came, it came in grey and overcast.  We got up early, fetched a bowl of water to make tea and lit the gas burner.  We huddled, dressed in sweaters, around our little stove, not saying much, just staring at the blue flame, watching the pan, lost in our own thoughts.   Once the water had boiled we made tea in tin cups and rolled, with practiced dexterity, a cigarette each.  I picked up a packet of tent pegs, thinking I might replace the ones the Warden had shaken loose the night before.  

We moved over to the picnic table and watched the campsite wake up.  Men striding towards their ablutions with a towel draped around their necks, wash kit in one hand and toilet paper in the other.  Fathers coming back from the newspaper van with their rag of choice, stopping to greet fellow campers, exchanging pleasantries, a chuckle here, a handshake there.  That morning walk, from caravan to newspaper van and back is where, within that tiny ritual, I learned that Elvis had died.

Mothers, still in their nighties, a cigarette loitering on the edge of a benevolent smile, arranged children around breakfast tables and poured cereals into bowls and coffee into cups. 

The ponies carried on regardless increasing my paranoia by refusing to recognise our existence.  It was while watching a group of ponies gathering by the road that I noticed Nigel shuffling along. 

‘Hiya!’ he called out as he approached us and saluted.

‘Hiya!’ we called back in unison.

‘What’s he got in his hand?’ asked Bugsy.

I hadn’t noticed until he’d pointed it out.

‘Oh… God, no!  Looks like a firework,’ I said dismounting the table.

‘One of the exploded ones from last night?’

‘Erm, not sure.  We need to try and get a closer look.’

We approached Nigel cautiously as if he were a wild animal.  We tried not to make eye contact and walked, in what we hoped, was a non-threatening manner.

‘What you found there Nigel?’ I asked pointing to the firework.

Nigel stopped and lowered his head, then raised the firework for us to see.

It still had a fuse.  Either the Winchester boys had dropped it or forgotten to light it but the fact remained that Nigel had found it and it didn’t look as if he wanted to give it up in a hurry.

‘I’ll go get the Warden,’ said Bugsy quietly.

‘You sure you want to?  He doesn’t really like us.’ I murmured back.

‘Yeah I know, but I think if he had to choose he’d like me more than you.’

‘Really?’

‘You keep Nigel here. I’ll be back soon.’

Bugsy turned and walked, seemingly casually at first, towards the office.  Now I was left with a boy and a live firework, both of which could go off at any moment.  I thought briefly to myself, ‘Well-played little brother.’

‘Hiya Nigel!’ I said again and then holding out the packet of tent pegs said, ‘You want to help arrange these pegs?’

Nigel didn’t respond, but he didn’t leave either.  I sat down on the damp ground, legs crossed like Master Po and begun to lay out the tent pegs as I’d seen Nigel do with the sticks.  Tentatively, he sat down next to me, took a peg from the bag and laid it down in the line.  We continued like this until all the pegs were out, but Nigel held on fast his firework.  I looked towards the campsite office hoping to see Nigel’s father on his way over but there was only a small boy lost in some imaginary game walking with his sister who carefully carried a bowl of water.

‘Lets see if your rocket can float?’ I said with the confidence of a military commander.

I got up slowly, not wishing to cause Nigel any alarm, and fetched a bowl of water.  I placed it down in front of him and Nigel, now smiling, dropped his rocket into the water.  It floated and Nigel watched with the avid fascination of a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse.  We stayed like that for some time, neither one of us moving until eventually I recognised the steady, downtrodden footsteps of the warden approaching.  Bugsy trailed sleepily behind.

‘Where’s the firework?’ asked the warden abruptly.

‘We put it in the water to see if it would float,’ I said calmly.

‘Good thinking.’ 

There was an uncomfortable silence, the four of us staring at the floating incendiary as it bobbed about in the water. 

The warden walked over to our picnic table and sat down.  Bugsy and I followed, taking it as some sort of invitation.

‘Look boys…’ began the Warden,  ‘Sorry I got the wrong end of the stick.  It’s hard you know, having a kid like Nigel.  It’s like you packed to go to the Seychelles but ended up in Patagonia.  I never really got used to the climate; it’s not what I thought it would be like.’  The Warden looked from Bugsy to me and back again to Bugsy. 

‘I see you boys, young, healthy, a little mischievous maybe but full of potential.  The world for you is beginning to open up, you can do anything, be anything, but for Nigel… and for me… well, we are not going anywhere.  I’ve got to look after him, protect him, that’s my job but…well…there isn’t a mother anymore.  It’s just him and me.  I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life… dwelling on what might have been is just one of them.  Misjudging people is another.  Nigel’s not one of my mistakes, I love him, it’s just that I’ve had to adjust my expectations.  I needed to let go.’

The three of us looked over towards the Warden’s son who was still fixated on his floating rocket.

A pony wandered over and started to drink the water from the bowl. Nigel recoiled rapidly but then, with obvious uncertainty reached out and touched the pony’s head.  The pony, to my amazement began to nuzzle Nigel, effectively asking for more affection.  

A connection happened; it was almost visible, like a bright blue aura around them.  An awareness passed between them, a coded, private communication.  Nigel had singlehandedly bridged that gap, he had been recognised.  In doing so he had alleviated my anxiety. 

‘I’ve never seen him do that before,’ said the Warden with pride.

That evening, there was no sign of the Winchester Boys and speculation was rife as to the possible cause of their sudden departure.  We offered many theories, each one more colourful than its predecessor but we kept the real reason under wraps.  Soon the legend of the Winchester Boys faded as young love was left to blossom. 

Nigel passed by at about eight o’clock with the pony trailing him like an obedient puppy.

‘Rocket!’ he called out giving his usual salute.

‘Rocket!’ we replied with a wave.

‘Who’s that?’ asked Sara.

‘That’s Nigel,’ I said.

‘He’s not all there is he?’ she said sympathetically.

‘He might not be all here but he’s definitely all there’ I said.

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A Rat Catcher’s Tale

 

My Grandfather, like countless grandfathers before him, told many stories.  What makes a good story well-told is perhaps the unseen legwork behind the delivery.  After all, grandfathers have had plenty of time to hone their skills.  They have told that same story countless times to various people receiving equally varied responses.  They know when to pause, when to reach out and grab you suddenly in a brief but terrifying grip, and when to add warmth with dewy-eyed reminiscence.  

Their stories are as much a part of their legacy as the Toby jugs and tortoiseshell combs.  And so it comes as no surprise that my Grandfather had spent his entire lifetime refining his story legacy.  Often he would just look up from whatever it was he was doing, fix you with a twinkling eye and say, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time…?’  and then he, with little encouragement, would take you on a short journey situated somewhere between the truth and wistful recollection.  What one got was the polished, well-rehearsed delivery of a tale that may have started life as a loosely held together concept.

He was in many ways a very self-deprecating man; he never boasted about his accomplishments during the war and his modesty and humility lent weight to his stories.  Often he portrayed himself as the butt on which the joke hinged.  Even in old age he had the ability to mock his own fragility and, at times, his foolhardy courage or ‘pluck’.  There was never any doubt about how brave he was but, to him, he was only ever treading the boards, doing what anyone else would do in those times, in that situation.  On occasion, if he played his part well enough, he got through it and other times, despite his best efforts there were consequences.  Of course, that is life but for him and so many others during the war the stakes were far greater.

Toward the end of his life he was living alone in a small cottage, in a small village in North Cornwall. He had mobility problems due, in no small measure, to the shrapnel lodged in his back. To picture what I’m about to tell you, you must first see the terraced cottage, painted white with its grey slate roof leaning sharply into a garden which was small in size but big on colour.  With your back to the garden you see the stoic old church with its graveyard and further along the road, the clock tower engraved around the base with the names of fallen sons.  

Through the low cottage front door, under the blackened oak lintel that, even as a teenager I would have to duck under, you are greeted by a steep stairway leading up to the only bedroom. Running along the staircase wall is a grab rail to aid my grandfather on the staircase. At the bottom of the stairs stands his Zimmer frame. 

To the left of the front door is his stuffy little front room (heated like a furnace) big enough to fit one comfortable chair and a tiny two-seater sofa that sags so much in the middle that getting out is not an option.  There is a chunky old television set in one corner and a curious cookie jar shaped like a new York cop sitting on a side table.  To the right of the staircase is his rudimentary kitchen with the old cast iron Rayburn in the fireplace, like an antiquated steam engine, kettle always atop, quivering and simmering away.  The kitchen table is piled with a multitude of detritus: unopened letters, bills and newspapers in amongst photographs, calendars and keys.  Smell the too-hot-to-eat pasty’s cooling by the sash window and taste the bitter tannin of tea left to brew for too long.

The place was, for want of a better word, comfortable but had its difficulties too, not least of all the laborious task of having to drag himself up and down the narrow stairs.

So when, according to Granddad, one night the police woke him from his sleep by banging nosily on the front door, it was a bit of an effort to get dressed and go downstairs.

He starts the story with information he gleaned after the event. 

‘You hear about that madman that escaped from Bodmin Hospital?’

Hooked from the start I say, ’Erm… no Granddad, what about him?’

‘Well it was last week, he took off during the night, he apparently scaled the wall like a cat and disappeared into the night.  The authorities reckoned he would show up here, in this village sooner or later. They said he was dangerous but that he had family here, so he might stop off to seek refuge and sustenance.’

I pictured an Abel Magwitch type convict, slipping into the village at night and then sitting opposite his grandmother sipping tea and eating bread and jam.

 ‘Of course I didn’t know anything about that: I go to bed early these days.  Anyhow first I know is that someone is banging on my door, shouting for me to open it!  I don’t know how long they were banging on the door, I didn’t have my hearing aid in, see?  Anyway never mind that, I heard it in the end.  Thought at first it was gunfire!  First I have to struggle to get out of bed and then getting down the stairs isn’t easy either. I get down eventually but all the while they are shouting and hollering and banging on the door. 

“Who is it?” I say through the door, standing there in my dressing gown leaning on my Zimmer frame. 

“Police open up!” they shout back.

“How do I know you are the police?” I said, because they could be anyone.  I’d seen it on ‘Crime Watch’, these rouges going around impersonating people of authority and taking advantage of elderly folks.  It’s not right is it?  Some of these people can be very persuasive.’

He pauses for a moment and then says.

‘I get six bottle of wine from the Times wine club every month, you know?  I don’t even drink wine. Karen phoned me up and we started chatting about one thing and another and before you know it I’ve agreed to what is, if you like that sort of thing, a very good deal.’

“Sir this is the police and if you don’t open the door we will be forced to knock it down!” hollered the policeman, getting all uppity at me.

Well that got my goose up to be honest with you. They are supposed to give you some form of identity. 

So I said, “Sir, if you knock down this door I will fight you.”

Of course that fellow, who, as it turns out was a policeman looking for the runaway madman, didn’t know I was leaning on a Zimmer frame.  But, he just mumbled something incoherent and left me in peace.’

I can picture what’s happening on both sides of the door and I know full well that despite his invalidity he would have, if he thought it necessary, put up a fight.  The police officer may have decided that one madman was enough for one night.

As a young boy, from the age of six, during the summer holidays I would join my Grandfather on his rounds.  My Granddad, at that point, was in the pest control business and travelled around North Cornwall in his beaten up old van visiting local farmers.  His army days were long gone, discharged due to injury he’d wound up working with the local council exterminating rats, moles and other pests.  For him, I believe, this new career was a far cry from his previous occupation and, with hindsight, I can see that he resented his change in fortune.  But, as far as I was concerned, we had the best job in the world.  Travelling the narrow winding roads, trundling past miles of hedgerow with occasional glimpses of the sea and listening to his stories, we answered to no one, but met a lot of colourful and often strange people, all of whom harboured a fondness for my grandfather and therefore, by association, me. 

The interior of that old van had a particular smell, not repugnant or offensive in any way, not like one might imagine the inside of a rat-catchers van to smell but comfortingly musty like clothes made damp by the rain but with undertones of ambrosial sweetness.  Granddad always had a bag of boiled sweets on the cluttered dashboard in amongst the invoices and appointment slips. He’d ‘kicked the habit of smoking’ after nearly forty years and these boiled sweets were all that stood between him and starting up again. 

He warned me about the hazards of smoking by way of one of his typical self-deprecating yarns.

‘I was on leave, just before the war started.  Of course everyone knew something big was about to happen that’s why we were given leave, to go home and spend time with our loved ones. Before war broke out I’d been working in Buckingham Palace you know?  Everyone was a Nazi spy so the army were brought in to do a lot of the work.  I was responsible for delivering the King his mail in the morning.  I had a problem saying ‘Majesty’, it never came out right, but the King, who had a stutter, felt sorry for me and said after a couple of days, “Just call me George.”  Well after that we got on famously.

Anyway, one night I was in the Arscott Arms, I’m not much of a drinker, not like some of the other lads, but I liked to dance, so if there was music I’d go and look for a pretty girl to dance with. Now, as I said I didn’t drink but you should know that I did like a smoke.  In fact I’d started on the Woodbines by the time I was your age!  Anyway, on this particular evening I’d met a maid, this is before I knew your grandmother of course.  I can’t remember her name but I remember that she was handsome and that she could dance really well.  We were having a good time, dancing and joking around when all of a sudden this big fellow comes into the pub and squares up to me.

“That’s my girl!” he said.

I looked at the girl and she shock her head and rolled her eyes in a fashion that said to me, “This fellow’s got delusions.”  Now I’ve come across deluded men before as it happens, the army is full of them.  I might have been deluded myself at times too.  It’s like a contagious decease that sweeps through the ranks.  There is no reckoning with a delusional man, there is nothing you can say to help them see sense. The only thing you can do is to fight them, if its worth the effort, and I thought this young girl was worth the effort.

So me and this big fellow go outside to fight, that’s just protocol you see.  No one in those days would dream of fighting inside the pub: everyone embarking on a fight took it outside, as did we. The rest of the revellers came out too; no-one wanted to miss out on seeing a good scrap.  It all started well, Queensbury rules and all that.  I landed the first punch right on his jaw and followed with a left hook.  ‘This,’ I thought, ‘was going to be easy.’  Not so son, not at all.  You see despite the fact that I started off well, this fellow had something I lacked, he had stamina!  He had what the sergeant major called, ‘staying power’.  Where I started to tire, to run out of puff due to all those Woodbines, this fellow just kept getting up and coming at me like a tank!  In the end he beat me black and blue.  I watched him leave with his arm around the girl and that was that.’

While listening to this story I had made the fatal mistake of predicting the outcome: Granddad would win the fight along with the girl and everyone would celebrate his victory.  So, to realise that he had actually lost came as a bit of a blow.  I glanced at him to see whether his expression betrayed any self-pity but all I could see in his face was a sort of wry joy in his own misfortune. 

One morning we set off for a farm near Bodmin.  Here, on this farm Granddad explained, was where he met the Beast of Bodmin, although it was not known as the Beast of Bodmin then, that came later, thanks to him.  He had, the previous year, dropped in on the farmer and his wife to see if they needed anything. 

‘A courtesy call was all it was.  I thought, as I was passing I’d pop in and see how the rat population was doing over at the Stevens’ place.  I pulled up outside the farmhouse and Mr Stevens came out immediately, flapping his hands and looking very concerned, “Charlie thank God you are here, I was just about to call you,” he said. 

‘What’s the problem?’ I said getting out of the van, thinking it might be moles again.  Of all the rodents, moles is the worst.  I have tried all sorts of ways to exterminate them, including small charges of dynamite and yet the buggers just keep on keeping body and soul together.  You got to hand it to them really.  If there is such a thing as reincarnation then coming back as a mole would be a pretty safe option I reckon.  Well if not a mole then a cockroach, cockroaches are pretty tough too you know…not least of all when they are all you have to eat.

Mr. Stevens said, all flustered, “In the end barn Charlie, go and have a look, I don’t know what to do about it really.  It’s left us in a bit of a jam to be honest.  Mrs. Stevens won’t come out of the house for hell or high water, she’s afraid it will eat her.”

Well I didn’t know what to expect to be honest with you boy, but of all the things a bloody great Puma was not one of them. 

I walked over to the end barn, pulled back the door and peered straight into the eyes of a killer. Well I damn near died on the spot.  Luckily we were trained in the army to deal with any situation but I think I must have missed the class on dangerous, feral cats.  Anyway instinct kicked in pretty quick and I closed that barn door very carefully; it was like trying to put a pin back in a hand grenade, and then I marched over to Mr. Stevens.

‘There’s a bloody Puma in your barn!’ I said.

“I know that but what are you going to do about it Charlie?” he said.

‘Me?’

“Well you are pest control and that, by anyone’s standards, is a pest Charlie,” said Mr. Stevens with his hands on his hips, all determined like.

‘Well how did it get in there anyway?’ I asked.

“It just wondered in I guess.  Must have been released from a zoo or something.  Luckily no one was in there at the time.  Mrs. Stevens was shelling peas under the elm and I was repairing the tractor.  I got up and walked over to the barn to fetch a number twelve spanner and there it was.  I closed the door and bolted it.  I was just looking for your phone number when you turned up. Which is a good thing, because you are just the man for the job Charlie.”

‘Well’ I said seeing that Mr. Stevens was adamant, ‘Do you have a shotgun in the house?’

“That’s the spirit Charlie, I’ll go get it for you.”

Mr. Stevens fetched his shotgun and I grabbed a length of rope from the back of the van.  I tied the rope to the handle of the barn door and walked backwards for as far as the rope would allow. Stevens handed me the gun. ‘It’s loaded Charlie. I’ll wait inside if that’s alright, Mrs. Stevens is all tied up in knots: you know what women are like.’ 

Yes I did, I thought, and they are a damned sight more courageous than you.

So old Stevens makes his valiant retreat and I’m left with the job of tackling a Puma.  I gathered my nerve, dug my heels into the ground and yanked on the rope.  The door flew open and I raised the gun and…nothing, no Puma in sight.  I walked tentatively toward the barn with my finger poised over the trigger and…nothing.  It was then that I noticed that the doors to the back of the barn were wide open!  It was also then that I heard a low growling noise coming from behind me.  I turned slowly, shaking now, like a puppy having a poo, and there it was glaring at me.  I pulled the trigger, and gave him both barrels, the force of which threw me onto my back.  I struggled to my feet holding the gun like a club because old Stevens had not given me any more ammunition.  I looked around and the Puma was gone. I don’t know how he got out or where he went from there.

After that there were reports of a wild cat roaming the moor killing farm stock and scaring hikers. Me and old Mr. Stevens just kept mum about it all, in fact we never mention it, and nor should you.’

One of the other stories I wasn’t to mention was the one about the lost watch.

‘You never know who you are telling,’ was Granddad’s reasoning. 

Once again, during leave from the army Granddad went home to Cornwall.  It was summertime and the weather was warm.  He borrowed his father’s motorbike and rode to the beach for a swim. 

‘In those days,’ he explained, ‘no one bothered about thieves; we just used to roll up our valuables in our socks and stuff them into our boots.  So that’s what I did, got undressed, put my valuables in my boots and went for a swim in the sea.  I came back and lay down on the sand for a while to dry off.  I fell asleep and when I woke up I had no idea what time it was!  I sat up and rummaged around in my socks and boots looking for my watch but couldn’t find it.  I never thought for one moment that someone had pinched it.  I thought I must have dropped it in the sand.  So, I start looking for it but still can’t find it.  In a while the lifeguard comes over and asks me if everything is all right. 

I explained rather sheepishly to the lifeguard that I’d lost my watch, it was a gift from my parents and I’d be mortified if I couldn’t find it.

The lifeguard, who was an elderly gentleman, all the young fellows were at war by now, began to organise a search party.  Before too long just about everyone on the beach was involved in the hunt for your Granddad’s watch.  All the children had given up on their various pursuits and joined in the hunt, walking up and down the beach in a line, paying careful attention to the sand beneath their feet.  By this time I’d got dressed and of course joined in with the hunt.  Feeling overwhelmed at the kindness of strangers I put my hands in my trouser pockets, a sort of gesture of contentment, when my fingers closed around the cold metallic contours of my watch.  My goodness, the shame I felt at that moment was immeasurable; it burnt hotter than the mid afternoon sun.  I would rather the sands beneath my feet open up and swallow me whole than have to face that crowd of well-meaning holiday-makers and fess up!  And so for another hour I allowed the search party to continue looking for a watch that didn’t need to be found.  Eventually I thanked everyone, but said it was pointless going on with the search, I feared that the watch was lost forever.  There followed a collection, and an amount of money was raised to go towards a new watch.  I had no choice but to except the money, I was in too deep by then.  I could hardly tell them the truth, not at that point.  What I should have done was to drop the watch in the sand during the search and let someone else find it.  But, truth is I’d lost it once and didn’t want to lose it again.  So, you see, you can never tell that story because you may be telling one of the searchers, and by now they have grown fat off of their own version of events.  They would be very vexed if they ever found out the truth.  

On arriving at the Stevens’ farm, Mr. Stevens and his wife came out to meet us. 

‘Charlie how are you today?’ inquired Stevens in a jovial tone.

‘Very well Mr. Stevens.  Hello Mrs. Stevens how’s the hip?’ 

‘Oh fair to middling,’ said Mrs. Stevens and they all laughed together.

‘Oh and this must be the grandson you told us about, Paul is it?’ said Mrs. Stevens crouching to get a better look at me.

‘That’s him,’ said granddad winking at me.

‘Well if he likes he can have a piece of my homemade apple pie later?’ she said smiling.

‘Well I’m sure we’d all like a piece of pie as soon as we’ve finished.  But the boy’s got work to do first,’ said Granddad.

I didn’t take much notice of what was being said.  I had one ear on the conversation and both eyes on the end barn where Granddad had confronted that Puma.

‘It’s Hercules again Charlie,’ I heard Mr. Stevens say.

‘He’s back is he?’ Said Granddad gravely.

‘Afraid so Charlie, he’s in the hayloft, bigger than ever.’

‘Well this time I’ll get ‘im, I’ve got the boy for bait.’

‘The boy Charlie?’ cried Mrs. Stevens looking very concerned.

I started to pay a little more attention now.  Was Hercules the Puma? I wondered.  If so I had mixed feelings about being bait.  On the one hand I’d get to see it up close but on the other hand I didn’t want to be ‘that’ close.

‘Who’s Hercules?’ I asked as casually as I could.

‘A bloody great rat,’ said Mr. Stevens.

‘The biggest rat you are ever likely to see my boy.  As big as a cat would you say Mr. Stevens?’

‘Bigger.’

‘Oh he’s grown.  Hercules is so big and so fierce he swallows whole chickens.  Any normal amount of poison won’t kill him.  And besides, he’s not tempted by the poisoned bait, he pretty much eats whatever he likes and he likes chickens.

‘And me?’

Granddad laughed, ‘He won’t eat you but he will come out of his hiding place when he catches a whiff of you.  As soon as that happens I’ll brain him with a spade.’

‘My God Charlie; really?’ asked Mrs. Stevens wringing her hands in her apron.

‘Now, now Mrs. Stevens, no need to worry, Charlie knows what he’s doing, don’t you Charlie?  I mean you won’t let him run off this time will you Charlie?’

‘Yes it’s all under control, you both go indoors and we will be with you in no time,’ said Granddad.

‘With a dead rat I hope? said Mr. Stevens.

The plan was simple enough although I did approach it with a degree of trepidation.  Granddad chose a hefty spade from the barn and after a few practice swings thought that it would do the job nicely.  We climbed the ladder to the hayloft as quietly as we could and stood in the middle. ‘Right,’ whispered Granddad, ‘Take off your sandals and roll up your trousers.  Hercules will smell your feet and think that you are a cheese,’ he explained. This, at the age I was, seemed perfectly reasonable.  

‘I’ll hide behind this pile of hay and as soon as he’s close enough I’ll jump out and hit him with the spade.’

I did as I was told and stood on the dusty wooden floorboards with ever mounting terror.  A long period of quiet within which I thought about that apple pie, my parents, my warm comfortable bed and my brother who was probably having a much better time of it than me right now.  Then, as if in a dream the biggest rat I had ever seen, and I’d seen a few, came out of his hiding place. Hercules was a monster; his thick black fur was covered in straw and chicken feathers.  His wiry whiskers bristled.  His large snout sniffed the air as his beady eyes fixed on me, hungrily.  To me he was a savage, almost mythical beast with a black heart and sharp, poisoner’s teeth.  To him I was a bloody great chunk of farmhouse cheddar!  After a moment in which I couldn’t move but only stare, a moment in which I heard three hearts beating at once, Granddad’s from behind the hay, Hercules’ from across the loft and my own thumping out its warning.  Finally my legs found flight and I ran.  I scrabbled back down the ladder and fled towards the van.  Behind me I heard the spade come down with a mighty thwack followed by a horrendous cry.  The scream of the Devil himself pierced the air.  I ran all the way to the van and jumped into the driver’s seat and, not knowing how to drive did the one thing I knew how to do, let the handbrake off!  The van began to move slowly at first but soon picked up speed as I held onto the steering wheel trying, without success, to direct its course.  The old white van rolled down an embankment and came to an abrupt halt when it hit a dry stone wall. 

Later, once Mr. Stevens had pulled the van out of the ditch with his tractor, we all gathered around the kitchen table for a slice of that apple pie.

‘You got him Charlie.’

‘We got him, didn’t we?’ Granddad said to me.

‘I’m sorry I ran, he was pretty scary.’

‘No need to apologise, son; you did your bit, but…’ he hesitated, ‘we must not tell your Grandmother about this; she’ll have my guts for garters.’

Everyone it seems has his Achilles heel, and for Granddad it was his wife.

It has been claimed that animal trainer Mary Chipperfield released three pumas into the wild following the closure of her Plymouth zoo in 1978, and that subsequent sightings of the animals gave rise to rumours of the Beast.

Wikipedia

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