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.’

About CageWriter

Englishman Living in France with my wife and bilingual son. I'm a struggling writer as in I struggle to write even though I feel it's my calling. I get easily side tracked, this blog being a case in point!
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