Under The Black Flag

Coffee spoons aren’t the only thing you can measure out your life with: there’s shopping trolleys, for instance.

I had a lot of men, but only two that mattered. The first I called my anchor, the second became my sail. I suppose I was a romantic, for I pictured my life as a voyage in a paper boat across an endless ocean. Or I might have the boat itself: one of those origami things my grandfather failed to teach me. I was either bowling along in a stiff breeze, becalmed in some weed-infested sea-within-a-sea, or sinking.

My anchor was a controlling kind of man. In those days a controlling man was a manly man, as long as he didn’t actually break your arm or black your eye. I loved my manly man, but he would keep taking things out of the shopping trolley. I would put something in and he would take it right back out again.

We went food shopping on Thursdays, in his car. At first this was a novelty. My mother had been in charge of the shopping and I’d never been to a supermarket before. Up and down the aisles we went, he with purpose, I with increasing gloom. I would see something I thought we needed; coffee, perhaps, or cheese. He would frown down at it and, without comment, put it back on the shelf. It wasn’t long before I stopped putting things in the basket.

I remained in charge of pushing the trolley, but I didn’t even do that right. I sensed he felt I was dawdling and daydreaming, which I was, mostly of not being married. I steered it crooked. “Goodness knows what sort of driver you’ll make if you ever manage to pass the test.”

We rented a third-floor flat; a grubby, shabby collection of rooms with a hole in the kitchen wall that you could have fallen through if you tried hard enough. Sometimes I wanted to try. We shovelled up the carpet and its rotten underlay. There was a scattering of tiny, multicoloured sweets mixed in with it, I remember. He shoved the mouse-infested furniture down one end and covered it in blankets. I grew a tomato plant in a pot on the balcony but I had planted the seed in August, which was far too late. The tomatoes stuck at green.

An Aquarian and a Virgo: an unpromising combination.

I was twenty-one and he was thirty.

My sail came along later, and for his sake I cut loose from my anchor. At intervals I wished I hadn’t because the sail, inevitably, was to turn out badly too. He and I were so alike, like mirror images: an Aquarian and an Aquarian, a disastrous collision of star signs. We lived in a place on the seafront – back to rented. The salt spray quickly started to rust my third-hand car.

We also went the supermarket for our groceries, but not necessarily on Thursdays, just when we got round to thinking about it. We had a trolley each and sailed up and down the aisle, side by side, in the whoosh of a following wind. I was not accustomed to fun. I had never scooted a trolley before, or allowed myself to giggle in the company of a man. People gave us looks but it was exhilarating, being young at last.

I was thirty-nine and he was forty.

Apparently I should have found myself an Aries, a Gemini, a Libra or a Sagittarius. It’s too late now.

Now I am so old that I cannot tell you how old I am. If I visit the supermarket at all, I go alone. Mostly I order stuff online and it gets delivered after dark by a man in a uniform who’s anxious to get home to his family. When I do go, I’m grateful for the trolley to lean on. Some days this hip’s so bad, it saves me limping.

I navigate the person-littered aisles with quiet skill, being a much better driver than my anchor once predicted. I place in my trolley what I choose to place in it, but I can’t afford much. I don’t attempt the sailing thing because I can’t. I wouldn’t even if I could because they might lock me away somewhere. Old women are always being locked away; fed with plastic spoons, showered by strangers, slid from bed to chair and back again on a board.

Sail under a black flag, that’s my motto. Don’t let the buggers catch you.

(flash fiction: 753 words)

Little Red Friends

I remember sitting at the kitchen table in my parents house, in hysterics, which wasn’t unusual. Maybe I was about fifteen. Bit of a meltdown, but this one was worse than usual. My mother was there – perched on the table edge – and she said something like “You’ll have to calm down, or you’ll end up going mad.” I remember sobbing, “And what would you do, if I went mad?”

“I’d look after you,” she said.

That was what they call nowadays a “seminal moment”.  I think. Maybe I’m getting seminal mixed up with semen, but whatever, it was one of those. My future life flashed before my eyes. The sobbing and the howling didn’t stop, but inside, the part of me that stands backs and takes notes on what “my” body and mind are doing, replied to her loud and clear – and in absolute silence.

“You will never look after me. The minute you manage to turn me back into a child, a patient or a victim, I’m lost.”

From that moment on I fought the long, dirty fight against my own inhabitants. I didn’t ask for help. To be honest, there was never exactly a tsunami of earnest/dangerous “helpers” to be fended off! I did such a good job of boring and confusing them – and people are so easily misdirected. In another life, maybe, I was a conjurer.

I was unassailable, but all the time balanced on a knife’s edge. Waiting for that momentary lapse in concentration, the teetering, the screaming descent, the ending up on the wrong side of the knife. Oh that wall of silver, that bright cliff face. I was always afraid of heights in the real world, and these – I think – are probably the heights in question.

Anyway, I am locked in now – or rather we are – me and my little red friends. We have been together for a long time.  Almost but not quite friends. We have studied each other’s games and can largely guess what the next move will be.

No doubt we will emerge together, blinking in unaccustomed sunlight, whenever this situation ends. Most of us will return to normal. The traffic will start up again, the noise; it will be easy to just go to the supermarket and buy some food. Remember that? People will forget that other people are surrounded by a cloud of infectious gubbins. They will forget to wear their masks, and eventually leave them home altogether. They will stop to chat in the street.

But by then me and my little red friends will have been locked in together for that few weeks too long. It doesn’t take long, really, for the transformation to happen. To much of me will have been lost to them. Too many of them will have mutated into me. And at last, we will have learned all there is to learn from one another.

Robinsonia Crusoe

“Imagine you’re in prison,” I suggested, transatlantically, to my unhappy sister, knowing at once that it was the wrong choice of image. But too late, so I ploughed on. “Think of yourself in your small cell, with bars at the windows – after the first shock you’d look for things to do, little routines. You might make friends with a spider or – a rat – or something. You might, um, invent an exercise routine that required – very little room – and get really, really fit. You might turn flagstones into hopscotch – there’s bound to be a bit of chalk sort of lying about, isn’t there? Maybe you could make a chess set out of – um – tiny bit of paper – and – ”

“But I don’t play chess.”

“No, neither do I. But if we did – ”

“But you wouldn’t be there to play it with me, would you? Even if you played chess. Because I’d probably be sharing a cell with the female equivalent of Jack The Ripper.”

Afterward, I realised a better metaphor would have been the desert island. “You are Robinsonia Crusoe, and you have been shipwrecked – or possibly set ashore by brigands – I’ve never read the actual book – on a Beautiful Desert Island. That’s just what three months, or possibly months and months more, forbidden to leave the house because of some piddling little plague is like. And what would you do on your – um – Canadian desert island? After the first shock you’d look for things to do, little routines. You might teach yourself to swim underwater, in those warm, clear, tropical seas. You might observe the glossy turtles and their midnight mating rituals. Make copious notes, publish a paper someday. You might make a set of drums out of coconut shells (having eaten the delicious fruit and drunk all that lovely milk first). You might – ”

We were discussing coping strategies. She has a few strategies, but not very highly developed. I have a few strategies, but am somewhat exaggerating their effectiveness. Tell the truth, I’m probably as unhappy as she is. What presses her depression-buttons is being stuck indoors, unable to get away from The House where she had to watch her husband die, rather horribly, not all that long ago.

What presses my depression buttons is a phobia, or neurosis. It’s being afraid of running out of things, of “not having enough”, of scratching around, in increasing desperation, for the things I have less or less of. I tell myself it was probably Mum’s fault – something to do with breast-feeding, all those years ago! In normal circumstances I work round this neurotic fault line and pretend, even to myself, that it isn’t there. I buy two of everything. I store stuff. I have visions of the far-too-many cats starving to death before my eyes, and having to watch, and having to decide whether to starve myself to death at the same time, rather than watch, and …

Well, so now you know. It’s daft, but now I’m not supposed to go out because of the “underlying health condition” (not that I’ve had the NHS letter, which according to the “conditions” list, I should have qualified for – which is also winding me up) so the  permitted expedition to the supermarket, with its straggling “spaced” queues and trolley-disinfecting stations is a risk not really worth taking. But worst of all, there are no slots at all left for online supermarket ordering. The whole system has – temporarily, one hopes – ground to a halt. It’s not that I need anything at the moment. It’s that I couldn’t get anything – I’m in an alleyway with no exit to it, pursued by gun-toting cops. At this point, panic begins to set in. The starved cat, starved human fantasies start up –

So, that’s my demon, or at least, the particular demon this situation is feeding. I suspect everyone, over this whole silly little hillside at the edge of the sea; over this whole country; over this whole shut-in world, is coming face to face with their own.

Nevertheless, one is coping, as Her Majesty would say. (Poor old Charlie – even he’s got it.) One is Soldiering On. I’m trying to take my own prison cell/desert island advice and have started on a range of projects. They are very long term projects, and so hopefully will outlast the current crisis. I think it’s important not to be focusing on the short term, somehow. I like the idea of continuity, beyond this. The idea is to have more projects on the go than you could do in one day. But you imagine you might do a bit of them each day, and in imagining you give yourself things to look forward to.

So, this is what I am doing, or about to do:

Patchwork quilt, English paper-piecing method, hand-sewn, tiny stitches. So far I’ve designed my basic block, and made one up. Was greatly helped by some Over 50s Life Assurance bumf through the door – exactly the right weight of paper for the templates.

Reading. At the moment, At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor (not the one with the eyebrows and Richard Burton – the other one) for, I think, the third time. It’s one of those rare books you keep finding something new in. Next, I think, Villette.

Also, Dickens’ Hard Times. About 20 years ago, grasped by a sudden obsession, and being better off then, I bought the complete set of Dickens. Cheapish paperbacks, of course, not leather-bound, gold-embossed, marbled boards, etc. A parallel reading project – Dickens plus something else.

Origami cranes – one a day, for no other reason than I have a batch of origami paper to use up, and I can only make cranes. Maybe I could string them, and hang the strings up in the front window pour encourager les autres.

Writing – I have four exercise books full of unused flash fiction ideas.

Really complicated dishcloths – all those knitting patterns I looked at and thought – what the – ? I tackled the first repeat of “Crocus Buds” today (not quite as horrendous as “Shapely Diamond” at the back of the book). I actually got it right, but then momentarily lost concentration watching politics at the same time, dropped a stitch and couldn’t retrieve the situation. Pulled it all off the needle. Cast on another 45 stitches –

And so on. And so forth.

Chemical Flight

In the old days, it would seem – though of course nothing on EduChannel is to be consumed without a pinch of salt – there were many ways in which a person could exit the life biological. Only the other day I was reading of a woman in mediaeval “times” who, finding herself without food or income, threw herself from a high cliff. Such places were popular. Star-crossed lovers jumped to their death, entwined in each other’s arms: romantic, and nowadays quite impossible. Our integrated bio-sensors do not give us that choice.

In the old days, so they say, there was something called the French Foreign Legion. Young men with broken hearts would run away to join this military band, and a combination of fierce discipline and the harshest of desert suns would cauterise their memories of Daisy, or Pearl, or whoever.

Once upon a time, so they say, a person unable to stomach his or her existence – cruel past, poor education, lack of opportunity – could ‘escape’ after a fashion by injecting themselves with the most unbelievably primitive and fatally addictive drugs such as heroin, or by consuming large quantities of liquids collectively known as ‘alcohol’, which would eventually destroy the liver. Nowadays, of course, even if these ‘alcohol’ substances could be accessed, a liver would not permit itself to be compromised.

A person in prison could starve themselves to death, though force-feeding was sometimes employed by the authorities to counteract this. A person could throw themselves in front of a mode of transport known as a ‘train’, or drive something known as a ‘car’ at 100 mph with their eyes tightly shut, in a thunderstorm. A person could brandish a gun in a public space, or brandish a Samurai sword at a police officer, with the clear expectation of being gunned down. ‘Death by cop’, that was called.

So many appalling choices, but now only one: chemical flight (ChemFli).

ChemFli, as most of you will know, was a by-product of the Time Race of Cen22. Difficult to credit it now, but in that region of the time ‘experience’ scientists assumed that time was linear, as experienced by that most deceptive of organs, the human brain. People actually thought in term of Past, Present and Future. They assumed that if only the right craft could be invented – a “time machine” – H G Wells wrote a novella (a smallish-sized fictional offering) on this subject in late Cen19 – such a contraption could ‘take them back’ to earlier times or even ‘take them forward’ to times which had not yet occurred. Of interest also might be series of films collectively entitled Back to the Future in which a mad professor type drives a car-transport ‘backwards’ in time from 1985 to 1955, and subsequently ‘forward’ into the ‘future’.

A prototype of such a machine was eventually developed by the IndoChinese Alliance in early Cen22. The world held its breath as scientists attempted to launch it into a figure-of-eight test orbit – from the Present ‘out’ to the Past, back through the Present, ‘out’ into the Future and to the Present again. Thankfully the flight was unmanned: it is now known that any living creature on board would have been mentally ‘scrambled’ by the experience. Instead, the craft was packed with the most up-to-date technology designed to register exactly where – or ‘when’ the craft disappeared to.

What happened was – apparently – nothing. The machine made a lot of noise, but – apparently – remained on the launch pad. However, the project was by no means the disaster it first seemed. Much data had been recorded during the ‘flight’. This data, when analysed – a task which in itself took several years – demonstrated that Past, Present and Future were all happening at once, ie that ‘time’ was in fact a particle – a single point which, from certain points of view – notably that of the human brain – would appear to be a wave. This discovery was to have long-term and unexpected consequences.

For some humans the need for escape from the horrors or constraints of their physical existence remains as strong as ever. But all means of escape have now been closed off, apart from one: ChemFli. Instead of technology we now have a simple drug, based upon, but not identical to, what was once known as psilocybin or ‘magic mushroom’: Cybin7.

Having made the choice, and signed his consent, the subject permits himself to be injected with a carefully calibrated dose of Cybin7. Care must indeed be taken: a fraction too much will result in physical death, a fraction too little in madness. The subject’s body is then retained in stasis whilst he – or she – is freed from it, and from the unbearable present moment. He – or she – finds themselves able to move, as it were ‘sideways’ in time, in any direction, experiencing what would once have been thought of as Past or Future, or even, occasionally, both at once. However, he can never return to ‘now’; and he cannot control where – or rather ‘when’ he travels. He has become a cork bobbing on an ocean, a particle of dust in the air, forever the gypsy in ‘time’.

Some of you may be aware that I have a personal interest in this subject, since my own son chose to avoid a life sentence for murder by signing up to the ChemFli programme. The thing was done before I knew it.

I can follow his ‘visuals’ of course – flashes of experience, faces he sees, views – sometimes. I viewed an execution through his eyes once – a knife-like device released from a great height. These fragments of witness – from my son and thousands of other ChemFli volunteers – have proven invaluable to historians. They use them to piece together a new ‘history’ and predict our communal ‘future’.

For me it is different. I simply miss him.

(Flash fiction: 969 words)

Becalmed

It doesn’t flash, it drifts, whatever they say.

Images came to him, one after another. Lying on his back, he let them do what they would. They seemed in no particular hurry to play themselves out.

Sometimes he looked up at the sky, which was a livid purple, with streaks of orange. Back home, or down home, such a sky would have meant a cold wind, distant thunder, rain on the way. He would have been shivering. But here it was pleasantly warm. This was not home. He counted the many-sized moons and noted their by now all-too familiar arrangement in this all-too familiar sky.

That would be his first request. To lie once more beneath a blue sky and watch white, summer clouds drifting over the shallow hills and valleys of his boyhood: blue and white and green. He had made daisy chains, but out of buttercups. The stems of buttercups were different from the stems of daisies. They had little corners and angles to them. The juice got under your fingernails as you split the stems: blackish-green.

And then there was the time by the river. He had been sitting on the bank, high up, looking down, and a girl was playing in the water. His parents were there too, but taking no notice. The girl wore a black one-piece, slick with water. She was swimming with the green weed as the current pulled downstream. Her hair drifted downstream too. She was beautiful, but he was just the wrong side of puberty to know how or why he knew.

At Brixham, his aunt and uncle had taken him out in a shallow tourist boat, with a glass bottom to it. The water was so clear, you could see the rocks and the fish. It was like Australia, he had thought at the time. Like looking down at a coral reef, except not like that.

He had lost count of the days since he and the metal wreckage came down in this corner of a foreign ocean. There might be land. He might come to land. There might be creatures. To begin with he had hoped for that. Now he saw how he might look through their eyes – a whiteish sea-worm adrift in a puffy orange flower; some slug unaccountably tumbled from the sky. Maybe they would eat him. More likely they would dissect him. Work out how he worked, what structure might hold him together. Or maybe they were not there. Maybe there was no land, and nobody.

He looked up at the purple sky one final time.

With an effort he rolled himself over, surrendering to the dayglo embrace of an alien sea.

(flash fiction: 446 words)

 

Oddly, this little story was inspired by Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Adlestrop’. His railway journey, with its brief stop at Adlestrop, took place in 1914. Nothing, and yet everything, happens in the poem. Although there is no mention of war, it is generally thought of as a war poem in that is is a longing for a lost and quieter time.

Mary’s Folly

When Martha had the second stroke, Mary knew her folly-building days were over for the foreseeable future. The stroke robbed Martha of her speech and put her in a wheelchair. It was a disaster, because of the garden.

Their parents died within a year of each other, the one of dementia the other of a stroke, and the sisters had lived together ever since. Strokes seemed to run in the family. Martha was the eldest by three years. For reasons different but not discussed, neither had ever married. The arrangement suited them both, though Martha found Mary aggravatingly airy-fairy and Mary found Martha somewhat rigid and overbearing.

This difference was reflected in the garden, which they both loved. It was a huge garden, by modern standards, the sort that would nowadays have a five bedroom mansion somewhere in the middle of it, rather than a two-bedroom bungalow giving onto the street.

Martha was in charge of most of it. Mary had the bit at the back, where the garden path wandered through the damson hedge. The damsons made a nice screen, to Mary’s way of thinking; out of sight, out of mind. Here she could work on her folly, whilst Martha manicured the lawn, pruned the trees overhanging the fish-pond and weeded around the rose-bushes, expansive and military. Martha needed that order.

What Mary needed was to climb up her stepladder and glue on broken china and other bits and pieces – an old clay pipe, a blue scent bottle, a discarded medal with the Angel of Mons on it, charred in some long-ago bonfire. If anything like this turned up in the garden Martha it put by for her, in a shoe box in the greenhouse, although she never admitted to any ‘putting by’. Mary’s folly was the height of – foolishness and Martha ought to be discouraging it. Nevertheless, she saved things.

Mary would make herself available to act as gardener’s assistant if, for example, Martha wanted to prune the apple tree or dig out a new flower bed. Martha did not make many such requests, for Mary was a dilatory worker, prone to day-dreaming, and as soon as she was dismissed, she would slope back through the damson hedge.

After the stroke, there could be no more sloping. Martha sat about, a blanket over her knees if it was chilly, issuing instructions. It was difficult. Her speech was impaired but Mary was good at working out what she meant and, without exactly appearing to do so, acted as interpreter when they had visitors. And in spite of her dilatoriness and inefficiency, Mary did seem to be managing Martha’s ‘half’ of the garden quite well. She must have picked up more knowledge whilst acting as gardener’s assistant than either of them realised.

It took up all of her time, but she had anticipated that. The lawn remained mown, if not manicured. The apple-tree remained pruned, though she had had to ask a nephew to help her with the heavier branches. The roses, though not up to Martha’s standard, remained alive and pleasant-scented. Mary even planted a couple of new ones, to fill in gaps, and planted underneath them with hardy geraniums: a living mulch, according the man at the garden centre.

The day of Martha’s funeral dawned cold and rainy. It was what you would expect of early February. Mary put on a thermal vest under the black suit she had had to buy for the occasion. She wrapped a thick scarf around her neck, only wishing that a woolly hat had been appropriate. As the coffin clunked its way in through the silk curtains they played something by Bach, about sheep. Martha had apparently liked it. She had left a list of such details with her will. She had left Mary her half of the bungalow, as expected, and the contents of her deposit account: more than expected; the interest would cover the cost of a professional gardener once or twice a month.

After the funeral, whilst friends and family consumed sandwiches, tea and cakes upstairs in a hired venue, Mary slipped away. They might wonder where she was, but probably wouldn’t care over much.

It felt too dank for wandering up and down the High Street so she ducked into the tea-shop and had a coffee on her own: a little time to think. There was a charity shop across the way. She made a start there, coming out with a stack of mismatched saucers and an imitation Clarice Cliff teapot. She loved Clarice Cliff, and fake was just as good. In another shop she found a tiny, broken doll; in yet another, an ashtray with pink and blue flowers and ‘Gran Canaria’ painted in wobbly black lettering. The first shop had given her a bag-for-life, but after an hour or so it started getting heavy. Time to go home, where hammer and glue awaited her.

Spring was just around the corner.

(flash fiction: 833 words)

Featured image: Clarice Cliff Crocus Tea-set, 1931

What happens in Imagination, stays in Imagination

There is a kind of logic behind obsessive worrying, which would be instantly understood by the citizens of the alternative universe from which I was, at some point, expelled in error.

The idea is that if you lie awake night after night, and every spare moment, rehearsing some terrible future scenario in the minutest of detail, that scenario will not actually happen. This is the deal the worrier strikes – with God, the Universe, the White Mice or whoever:

Dear God/Universe/White Mice

I will put all my spare energy into imagining infinite variations on post-apocalyptic Britain. I will decide, in grim detail, exactly what I will do. I will foresee everything, I will act it all out and I will also prepare for it in real life, laying in stocks, building that nuclear bunker at the bottom of the garden, so that if it should accidentally come to pass I will be ready for it.

As recompense for all that effort-expended and anguish-experienced, You will not allow said scenario to happen. I am using my imagination inventing this nightmare future-scape, but the very fact that I am imagining it means it cannot then take place in real life. My inner world is one place, my outer world is another, and the equivalent of the Red Sea stands between them. What happens in Imagination stays in Imagination.

So what has gone wrong? I spent all those years imagining exactly this – plague, panic, confined to the house for months with an army of cats, ever-decreasing supplies of Felix and Whiskas in the supermarkets or online – and now this actually seems to be taking place. I spent years devouring all those Mass Observation books about the Bulldog Spirit – How We Coped In The War – How We Nearly Didn’t Cope In The War – How Mrs Nella Last Coped In The War – never thinking it would be me needing to Cope. What sort of glitch in your vast, mathematical computer model is this?

Or perhaps it’s not a glitch. Maybe you just got bored – hmm, Conservative Party conference – hmm, discussion of strawberry propagation on Gardeners’ Question Time – 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – meh! Bored! Let’s run a proper plague. Let’s get some lager in, and a couple of bags of crisps. We’ll veg out on our celestial sofa with the entire box set.

I’m doing my best to be entertaining. I’ve knitted half a string bag and unravelled it. I’ve watched the first four episodes of This Country and discussed them with my sister by email. I’ve been washing up, and washing clothes, and doing more washing up, and then washing more clothes. I’m planning a patchwork quilt. Are you really going to be be entertained, up there on your giant sofa, as I count my tins of cat-food and hand-sew endless tiny squares onto endless tiny other squares?

Hello?

Anybody there?