Fogy or FOGO?

Amongst the British public, apparently, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) has been replaced by FOGO (Fear of Going Out). Little by little they have been easing the restrictions that kept us locked down for months. In the past few days there has been quite a rush to ease this and ease that. Basically, now, almost everything is open, almost everybody can go almost anywhere and almost nobody understands where they can go, how close to anybody else they can stand, whether they can get on an aeroplane, when they need to wear a mask, etc etc. Basically, nobody has the energy to untangle it all, so they are just doing what they think.

I suppose I’m one of those Old, or New, Fogos.  Technically shielding – the strictest of all the lockdowns – will be suspended from August the first. Which means it might be reapplied if everyone starts dying again – as no doubt they will – but possibly on a regional ‘whack-a-mole’ basis, as the PM puts it. Meanwhile I could in theory now “bubble” with – I forget how many friends, relatives or households, whether outdoors or indoors, whether two metres apart or one. Since I have actually no friends, relatives or households within “bubbling” distance, and since I wouldn’t be “bubbling” even if hypothetical Loved Ones were to ask me to – I don’t really need to have memorised the details.

I have decided I’m Not Going Out until such time as there is a vaccine and I, and everyone else has had one. I can’t see how the situation has changed. The virus is still there, un-mutated, un-modified etc, and I still have my “underlying health condition”. I thought about it and decided I would rather die of the “underlying, etc, etc” than this virus, since the virus I have at least something of a choice about. I don’t want to go into hospital and be unconscious and gasping on some awful machine for weeks. I’d rather fade away gently, over years, and at a totally unpredictable rate. Besides, the cats require their two-legged Tin Opener. They have given me a stern talking to – Cats Come First, Mummy.

I have decided to live in the 1950s for a bit. I found a set of six “Miss Reads” on eBay, and they arrived from Cornwall this morning. There are hundreds (well, slight exaggeration – an awful lot) of Miss Read’s chronicling the uneventful life of two villages and a village schoolmistress. I remember them from years back. Comfort Reading. I intend to gradually munch my way through Miss Read, one second-hand paperback at a time – yet another pointless-but-pleasurable project. I have taped up a list on one of the kitchen cupboards, and am crossing them off as I go, to avoid duplicate purchases.

The above is a picture of a scarf – you didn’t know that, did you? – and I have been working on it it, in between all my other half-finished and largely pointless craft projects, for weeks. It is going to be 63″ long. I am starting to use up all the odds and ends in my “stash” – or rather “stashes” since I’ve got both a wool one and a fabric one. I feel a bit silly sitting indoors in a heatwave – curtains closed against the searing heat – knitting a thick woolly scarf of enormous and unnecessary length whilst binge-watching gaelic-language portrait-painting and farmhouse cookery programmes on i-Player, but somebody’s got to do it.

Until just now I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with the scarf, once finished. Could I sell it on eBay – use the proceeds to purchase a few more Miss Reads? I was in the middle of washing up when inspiration struck – Canadian sister. It would pad out the Christmas present, and weighing relatively little would not incur too much postage. What better place for a giant, multicoloured scarf than Canada? Or, as they say in the top half of Scotland – something that sounds like a-Hannada.

I did start trying to teach myself Scottish Gaelic before, but gave up. It was too much for me – the way the spelling, the sound and the meaning of a word were totally unrelated, and furthermore, all had a tendency to shift and mutate according to what sort of grammatical state you happened to have stumbled into. But this time I seem to have got over my fury at the un-Englishness of it all. I am delighted to learn that a rabbit is a rabad, pronounced something like – rebbich! – with lots of spit. Except when it’s a coineanaich, pronounced conyanyocccchhh. Probably.

Well, you’ve got to keep busy somehow.

Haven’t you, George?

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Well, these are my worms…

Sadly only two of them. My sister started a kind of tradition of buying me one – well, buying me a small something from the concrete-somethings-place, when she came over. And somehow they always turned out to be worms. They are mating at the moment, or at least engaging in some pretty intense courtship. Often, however, they are just having a chat, chastely at right angles to one another.

I always assumed I was behind all these worm-repositionings until, every now and then, I would find they had moved of their own volition, taking up poses I would never have thought of. I thought maybe it was Charlie from over the road. People do tend to wander in and out, round here. You soon learn to put a dressing gown over your nightie before going into the kitchen. Charlie was occasionally to be spotted somewhere down among the brambles, looking for his blind old dog, or his black and white cat (who much prefers me). But somehow – I didn’t think Charlie had the wit to rearrange a worm.

I now think it might have been assorted delivery drivers. Before lockdown/shielding, the standard thing for Amazon parcels etc was to go round the back and leave them there. I was rarely away for that long. But since I’ve had to be in virtually all of the time, the worms seemed have ceased their unauthorised wiggling.  Poor delivery drivers – they can’t get much amusement, on their never-ending circuits. I never really minded…

I was quietly hoping for another worm to add to my collection – a wormage-a-trois, as you might say, but my sister is unlikely to be over from Canada any time soon. Maybe, whenever – if ever – it feels safe to actually go somewhere and buy something, I will make a pilgrimage to the concrete-something-place, meandering joyfully among as yet unpainted gnomes, naked nymphs and praying-hands birdbaths, just glad to be – ah, shopping! And if there should still be worms, I will purchase one.

Whereas for women that visceral, instinctive – now missing – necessity seems to be the leisurely shop – the browsing, the pondering, the calculating – for men it seems to be building garden sheds. There are so many men round here – white van men, small tradesmen, that sort of chap – and since lockdown there has been one bags-of-sand delivery lorry after another along our road. The lorries come with their own cranes to lift the bags, and every front garden now has its untidy heap of materials. Garden sheds seem to be the favourite.

The man down the bottom from me – the one who cut down my tree – has been threatening for years to put up in its place,  between his garden and mine, “a nice row of sheds”. Now he is out there with a hired roller, flattening the ground in readiness. All day long he and his mate shout instructions at one another. What is is with men, that they can’t just talk to one another when engaged in joint projects? Why has everything got to be high volume?

Ivy, Ivy, Give Me Your Answer Do…

Yes I know, but I didn’t have a picture of daisies. And I had a Great Aunt called Ivy.

…et o ces voix d’enfants… (or rather Grandma, to Dad, a hundred years or so ago)

“That Ivy – once she gets her feet under your table she won’t budge…”

Funny how grown-ups assume children aren’t listening – forget they are there, even – and have no thought that a hundred or so years later, when they are dead and gone, that same remark…

Poor old Ivy, whose face I can’t remember. She was single and she was lonely. No wonder she lingered overlong.

I am experimenting with one-finger typing on the tablet in an attempt to combine my photos with my writing, without a technological battle involving a box full of those black joining-up cables, only one of which will talk to my desktop. Sometimes.

Expect very short posts.

I am still shielding. Technically I could now go out for a walk once a day, with one other person, but distancing. The thing is, the virus hasn’t changed, it’s still here. And my health hasn’t changed. Therefore I am just as likely to catch it and expire most unpleasantly from it as I ever was. The only thing that’s changed is the Government’s need to re-start the economy. People have to start dying a bit more, basically. I’m not going to be experimented with. I was never much use to the economy anyway.

This morning I did have to go out, though. Four of the cats’ claws had reached the ‘dangerous’ stage, meaning they had finally entered the realm of ’emergency surgery’ and could be seen. I had had to actually email photos of the sixteen paws in question.

I haven’t had to get myself organised for anything since two weeks before lockdown, now suddenly I had to embasket (probably not a real word) four cats, one of whom is at death’s door, stow them in my car, drive (actually, physically) to the next village and deposit them, in the icy, spitting early morning rain of an English June. I phoned reception, got stuck in the “very, very busy at the moment” queue, then let them know the cats had landed.

A nurse came to the back door, and waved. Rubber gloves, mask. Cats disappeared inside. I waited in my car for half an hour. Rain on the windscreen, fighting the panic attack. I should be in there with them. I seem to be attached to my cats by that old invisible elastic band. It stretches, it stretches…

Then the cats reappear, re-embasketed, with the nurse, and a burly vet. They come right up to the car. This was not how I rehearsed it. No, I squeak, leaping back, I’m meant to be distancing.. My new pink flowery mask, I notice, is still on the dashboard, not on my face.

We do that cumbersome little social dance that only the English can do. The burly vet shuffles backwards on the gravel. The nurse has bought the paying machine out with her. I fumble in my bag for the card. We lean across the cat boxes at an awkward angle, passing bits of plastic back and forth, tapping in the PIN. It rains on us both. It rains on the cats. I mustn’t touch my face till I can get home and soap away the germs.

I mustn’t order any online groceries for at least the next fortnight. Four cats manicured equals two weeks’ food. Of course there’s still the Government’s food box, Friday. All those yummy carrots…

Old Lady Ankle Boots

They were in one of those limp little catalogues that plop through your letter-box on a Monday morning. “Cosy” – a word that nobody under forty-five can think without a flinch. But my feet were so very, very cold that I did think it, and sent for a pair of sheepskin-lined ankle boots.

I worked as a secretary for Messrs Gimp, Stanley & Co, an interesting, eccentric and notoriously parsimonious firm of solicitors. We rented half an eighteenth century building just off the High Street in a road stuffed with solicitors. The other half was taken by our rivals, Messrs Mafford Speers. Maffords were more corporate and less colourful than Gimps. They didn’t like their staff any more, but did see the benefit of central heating.

Equity partners lived on the ground floor, nearest our esteemed and much fawned-over clients. Salaried had offices on the floor above and everyone else, including me, was banished to the floor above that. The higher the floor, the shabbier and colder it got. Whatever the weather, we weren’t permitted to approach the gas fires until November. When November did finally arrive we brought in boxes of cooks’ matches – the ones with the extra-long stems. Failing cooks’ matches we would tape an ordinary match to the end of a metal letter-opener and lean as far back as possible before striking it and turning the gas on full.

The sash windows had been there since the building was new, in 1721. They rattled whenever it was windy. I typed stiff-fingered in a swirling draught, wearing the standard cheap office suit with hand-knitted fingerless gloves. I’d wind a pink woollen scarf tied around my ankles, and sometimes forget to unwind it when I stood up.

The ankle-boots drew disapproving glances from the Partners but they didn’t remark, and I wasn’t that bothered, being next on their list for constructive dismissal. People like me, with a surfeit of inspiration and a deficit in concentration, never tend to last long in offices.

It was winter when I caught sight of him. I was on my lunch break and, of course, wearing the old lady ankle boots with cosy sheepskin lining. There was a long queue in the Post Office and I joined it. My hair was a mess; I felt a bit pasty, with the beginnings of a spot on my forehead. The menopause plays havoc.

He was up the front by the Wait Here sign, next in line for a cashier. He should have been in Scotland, in a sizeable cottage, with small potted trees on either side of the door. Yet here he inexplicably was. Until that moment I had never given much thought to the expression “rooted to the spot”. The queue was closing up and I suppose I was shuffling along with it, but to all intents and purposes, I was rooted. That dear, familiar face, that that bony brow; that strange, masculine-yet-feminine shape that he unfortunately still was. Thirteen years had passed but he genuinely didn’t look any older; neatly turned-out, as always; mid-length camel coat and one of those expensive roll-neck sweaters in pastel blue.

I used to wonder if he was gay, half gay or potentially gay but he proved to be a lusty lover. He told me he had read books on technique – how to caress a woman with only his eyes, how to put her in the mood for love before ever laying hands on her.

He played the church organ, which in retrospect seems quite amusing. He had his piano delivered when we moved into the maisonette. On summer afternoons he would play Yesterday with the windows flung wide open to admit the salt breeze, and local children would drape themselves over the area gates, open-mouthed, to listen. He was good with children. He didn’t want his little girl to be upset by meeting me, so when she came over I would go out. I came to loathe her without ever having met her. Occasionally I had to disappear for a whole weekend.

He introduced me to leisurely breakfasts in the window-seat, with buttered toast, marmalade and the papers. He taught me to cook, a bit, with garlic even. He introduced me to Vivaldi, and Enya, but wasn’t at all keen a cat despite my wheedling: only later did it occur to me why.

Thirteen years since last I saw him; innumerable icy years to come – who knows what the final total will be – during which I will not to set eyes on him again. I should have tapped him on the shoulder, said something or anything to bank a fresh memory of his face that might tide me over. But those old-lady ankle-boots had glued me to the floor and struck me dumb.

He passed quite close to me on the way out. I looked away, sideways. Though my heart was beating like a thing possessed, as it had once been possessed, though I could barely breathe and tears welled up in eyes, I kept on shuffling forwards in my old lady ankle boots. I pictured him, out of the door, off down the street, off down another street, and then another; finding that expensive car in the car park and driving away. Back to Scotland, or wherever it was he now resided.

He told me once that God would always save him a parking space, in any city. God would reward all those who had faith in Him.

Coleslaw shall not live on carrots alone

It’s all going a bit pear-shaped. Or rather carrot-shaped. I’m getting weekly Government food boxes at the moment, though they keep texting me to inform me that I have said I no longer require them – which I haven’t – and so they will no longer arrive – which they continue to do. I get them because I am shielding and have no other human being (sob!) that I could bring myself to ask to do supermarket shopping for me. The neighbours all have their own problems, and many of them are shielding too.

I am grateful for the food boxes, though possibly not for the reasons the Government imagines. I look forward to Fridays all week because that is the day when Something Happens. Throughout the rest of the week Nothing Happens.

The food box is one-size-fits-all, I suspect, ie I get enough for a family of three. Every week, 2kg of potatoes, plus rice, plus pasta. Well, I like potatoes, in moderation. Every week, a monster bag of carrots. I must admit, I don’t like carrots, but I have been doing my best, because the carrots are free, and waste not, want not. I made a couple of hot-pots every week, eating one third, freezing two thirds, eating another third…until I could not face even opening one  of the little plastic tubs. They gave me wind. This was because of the tin of baked beans that went into each.

I coincided with my neighbour at the bins. She is a little deaf but we mimed and shouted a kind of conversation whilst remaining socially distanced. “Make coleslaw with them,” she said, as if it was obvious. Well, she’s a school teacher and I’m not. I imagined grating that giant bag of carrots – enough grated carrot to fill a kitchen. And then what? No onion, no cabbage, no – anything you could make coleslaw out of. Coleslaw shall not live on carrots alone, as Jesus might have have said, had coleslaw existed in those days.

Also in my box – every week, more or less – a bottle of Lynx men’s shower gel – a black bottle with an impenetrable top and writing so tiny I couldn’t read it. Until I finally wrenched it open, I wasn’t even sure what it was. Something esoteric to do with shaving, perhaps. I’ve tried it out – it smells gruff and medical – the way you’d imagine a man would want to smell – but I’d rather smell of pine disinfectant than sweat. Shower gel every week (my sister suggested I open a shop) but no toothpaste. I suppose if I ran out I could use baking powder. You can use baking powder, can’t you?

Handfuls of teabags kind of scattered randomly throughout, each tea bag in it’s own little paper packet, so you have to undo them all, but then – what else would I be doing? It’s therapy.

Tomato soup and tinned tomatoes. Two tins of each, per week. Tomato pasta sauce, two jars of each, per week. Sadly, though I gather tomato soup is the most popular kind, I simply cannot force it into my mouth. I can get the spoon half way there, then the smell makes me retch. So much tomato. Tomato soup can be made palatable by putting it in a hot-pot. But I am all hot-potted out. Which reminds me of that rather lovely older Scottish chap in Primeval – that series about dinosaurs and monsters falling through a rift in time. Eventually he left the series and the reason he gave was that he was “All Oh-My-Godded Out”. Oh My God, it’s a miniature pterodactyl! – Oh My God, it’s a super-sized flesh-eating futuristic super-killer!” Etcetera.

Six oranges. I wish I liked oranges, because they’re so good for you. I like the taste, but not the dribbly, squelchy texture. I bought an old-fashioned lemon-squeezer on Ebay (that thing you impale the fruit on is called a reamer, did you know? Ex always used to be talking about reamers) and now I squeeze all six oranges and drink the juice, an Orange Vampire.

I could go on. I am grateful for the boxes, for as long as they continue to arrive. Like the curate’s egg, they are good in parts, and those parts that are not good are a great boon to my mental health, providing me with amusement when there is absolutely no other amusement to be had. I tell a lie – this morning I went out with the secateurs and cut back some of the brambles.

It occurred to me the other day that, given the Underlying Health Condition, etc etc, I cannot safely un-shield, ie emerge from lockdown, apart from my weekly engine-boosting circuit in the car, until there is a vaccine – and there might never be a vaccine. Even if there is a vaccine – I did the math – I keep forgetting how old I am – by the time there is one, and I can get my paws on it, I may well be seventy. I cannot imagine being seventy. I cannot imagine being under house arrest until I am seventy, though equipped to survive, after a fashion, being solitary by nature.

Some days it feels like the ending of “2001” – that bit where he goes through the whatever – all those tedious lights, some kind of wormhole – and ends up in an olive-and-other-shades-of-green mansion of incredible dullness, being studied by unseen aliens – or possibly not, who knows? – whilst growing older and older (and older and older) and eventually dying, whilst reaching out to that blasted monolith yet again! What was that all about? Does anybody know? Does anybody care any more?

And some days it feels like all my Christmases have come at once. Sitting out in the sun on my plastic garden chair, an unread paperback and a mug of bitter-tasting Government coffee on the pile of paving-stones beside me; looking down the garden at a lawn somebody else has just mown for me; looking at the ratty old roses, now visible where the brambles have been thinned out; listening to the birds – so many birds – and the silence, otherwise; imagining what the world would be like if entirely emptied of human beings, if I was the only one left…

At those moments I am mercifully thinking of nothing, at one with the sunshine, thankful and at peace. At last my torment is over. The outside world is leaving me alone.

Alice down the rabbit-hole

Up till now I haven’t felt like writing anything. Other people seem to have “dropped off” (the radar, hopefully, as opposed to the perch) too. Also, my readers seem to have mostly vanished. That little world-map they give you? – is blank. That graph? One reader every few days – presumably having tripped and fallen into one of my old posts from somewhere more interesting or relevant. Like Alice down the rabbit-hole.

What is there to write about? It all seems so big, so irretrievable, so – final. Could this be the end of the world? I wouldn’t mind betting that when the End of the World finally does come, nobody will recognise it. And yet we have the wars, and rumours of wars; we have fires breaking out all over the place; we have the melting ice, the poisoned seas; we have the President of the United States suggesting people might inject themselves with disinfectant or “shine light inside their body” and now – full set, really – we have a Very Excellent Sort of Plague. No, when it ends it will be with a whimper. Everyone will be kidding themselves, right up to the last nanosecond, that it’s just a Bit of a Blip and things will go back to normal soon.

However, assuming this is not quite Armageddon, we have to manage it – and not only on a national and international level. Each one of us has to fashion a “new normal” that works for them and doesn’t endanger their neighbours.

I am supposed to be shielding, not, as you may have assumed, through old age, but because of this pesky “underlying health condition” which means my immune system is (probably) rubbish. I say probably because what I’ve got is rare and everybody seems to be hazarding guesses, rather, as to what might happen to me next – or eventually. Will she expire early, will she live out her natural lifespan, mildly but not too inconveniently symptomatic? Will she be more or less OK providing she manages to sidestep the odd, um, killer virus?

It has taken me four weeks of fruitless/answerless emailing to finally receive my “shielding” letter in the post. No Government food parcels as yet, but I suppose there’s still a faint hope. I do feel somewhat embittered about this. It’s bad enough having an illness that makes you feel wobbly and vaguely hung-over most days, without the built-in Invisibility Cloak. What is it about me, that people kind of skim over me? All my life – oy, here I am, mate, just under your nose! Grr…

However – yes, there is a however – today I took one small step towards my “new normal”. I got in my car (having looked both ways in case the neighbours were watching from behind their net curtains) and drove it as far as the roundabout above the next village, then drove it home. The roads were more or less deserted but all the while I was expecting policemen to leap out from behind the bushes, insist that I wind down my windows, and – blowing in gusts of virus-laden breath – question me as to why I had dared to leave my house at all. More than a touch paranoid by this time, obviously.

I have been inside my house and garden since two weeks before lockdown. I self-isolated, knowing I needed to, in spite of the Invisibility Cloak. I have not even walked up the road to post a letter. Meanwhile, my car was slowly dying, nose slightly downwards, on the driveway. It’s tyres began to look unhappy – squashed into the same position. It wouldn’t start. One AA man and a lecture on “How Not To Flood A Car Engine” later, I knew to start it once a week and run it for half an hour, still nose downwards on the driveway.

Then I realised that it wasn’t just the car. By the time I have my next (rearranged) hospital appointment in November, I may well have forgotten how to drive. You don’t want your first terrified time behind the wheel in seven months to be the one where you have to negotiate an hour-long, steering-wheel gripping obstacle course of traffic, traffic-lights and multi-lane roundabouts. I needed to maintain me as well as the motor. So today, with the windows tightly wound up, a green bandanna round my neck in case sudden masking should be required, a bottle of veterinary hand-steriliser and a big pack of antiseptic hand-wipes, I set forth.

It was like a small cloud lifting. I hadn’t realised how depressed I had got until I saw (through my tightly wound-up windows) that the sky was blue, the clouds white etc. Spring had sprung, in my absence. Last time I saw the fields they were brown – now they are acid yellow, with a crop of oil-seed rape. The same roads are there, with the same patches and potholes that I remember. There are people – not many, but the occasional one. Strange, upright creatures – how have I never properly looked at them before? Fancy – things that walk on two legs! I had thought – dear Lord, I had imagined I was the only one left.

In The Bleak Midwinter

(I am afraid this little story may feature the same Janice who hurled a number of jelly trifles at the music mistress in ‘Might As Well Be Hung For A Sheep’)

This story doesn’t take place in Midwinter, bleak or otherwise. Imagine late May and a long time ago. All will become clear.

She is at school. Whatever the type of gym – hockey, netball, tennis, athletics – all those torments – they get changed in the same cloakroom, in an ancient and mostly forgotten area of the school called Crimea because Florence Nightingale once nursed soldiers there, according to the headmistress. The paint is chipped and the floors are dampish concrete; the lighting isn’t up to much, the windows are high and small. All around the room are wooden benches, for sitting on whilst doing up plimsolls, and above the benches, coat hooks. The cloakroom smells of sweat, menstruation and those sticky-sweet roll-on deodorants girls favoured in the sixties.

She has forgotten her gym bag and so she can’t do gym, which means that Miss Potter will punish her. In fact, it is her mother who has forgotten it. The bag would normally by the front door, containing a pale blue ironed gym shirt, darker blue skirt-shorts, socks and plimsolls, but her mother is working up to, or possibly spiralling down from, one of her nervous breakdowns.

She is a good girl, or at least a fearful one. Her father has shouted, slapped, walloped and goaded into her a fear of all authority figures. Miss Potter is teensy-tiny whereas Janice is tall, like the shouting, slapping and walloping father – but she fears Miss Potter, who is grizzle-haired, gruffly-spoken and probably a lesbian. Miss Potter will take it as read that any gym bag forgotten had been forgotten on purpose, especially if the girl in question hates all sports, which Miss Potter knows to be the case here.

Her punishment this time is to be an unusual one. Quite often punishments involve walking round and round the sports field, still in your uniform, whilst the others are playing. You just walk round, and round for fifty minutes or so, and Potter keeps her eye on you. Another of her duties is to be in charge of the sick room and this is basically the same punishment you get for period pain – a glass of cloudy gingery stuff (briskly whisked with a glass rod, like they have in the science lab) and walking round and round the sports field, whether pouring with rain or not.

Maybe Potter is in a creative mood. “You will stay here,” she says, “and learn a hymn by heart. I will hear you recite it when I get back, and I expect you to be word perfect.” And she produces a copy of the school hymn book.

“Which hymn, Miss Potter?”

“Any hymn you choose, Janice, as long as it contains at least four verses.”

In the now-empty changing room Janice chooses In The Bleak Mid-Winter because she loves it. She offers up a little prayer of thanks to the God she already half-disbelieves in. In The Bleak Mid-Winter is not just one of those dirges penned by a Victorian vicar but a proper poem, by someone called Christina Georgina Rossetti. The name is a sonnet in itself.

She already knows the first two verses from chapel.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow… There is something revolutionary about that line, something so pure and bright and absolutely certain of itself. This Christina is a woman who has walked in snow, who has seen the water standing hard as iron, listened to the frosty wind making moan. Janice never had any problem memorising words, and words like this –how could they fail to stick?

The hardest part is doing the reciting when Miss Potter comes back. She takes the hymn book from the girl and waits. Janice recalls how the other kids used to read in her infant school class –a kind of staccato drone, with stumbles and mispronunciation. She tries to imitate that, without laying it on too thick. Potter mustn’t catch on that she has just spent one of the happiest fifty minutes of her life being punished.

But of course, she can’t keep it up. Angels and Archangels are just too much for her. Awe creeps into her voice, the hint of a sob, even.

At What can I give him, – Give my heart she sighs, knowing the game is up.

“Next time,” says Miss Potter, “algebra.”

(flash fiction: 756 words)

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.

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?

Time to grow out the moustache?

Until this morning I could think of very few positives to the coronavirus situation. As I have said before, choosing to be a hermit is one thing – having hermitry, hermitage or possibly hermitonomy imposed upon one by the Government is another. I self-isolated of my own accord a week early, knowing I was “at risk”, but now I am being compelled to I am sad. Three months, a whole summer confined with a herd of cats, trying to track down cans of catfood. If the worst really comes to the worst they will have to hold their noses and tackle the Bozita. The Bozita has been in the garage for a year. Not only would they not eat it when I bought it, they wouldn’t go within a yard of it.

But this morning I woke up with an idea. Well, I was woken up, forcibly, by Martha, my self-appointed “alarm cat”. She sees it as her duty to push, jump, scratch, dribble most persistently, hour upon hour if necessary, until I drag myself out of bed. My idea?

Let the moustache grow out!!

When will there ever be a better opportunity? Three months of seeing no one except the odd delivery driver – and delivery drivers never look at you. And now, they are so anxious to get away they linger even less. As the Tesco man said, “If you admit to symptoms we will drop your shopping on the doorstep and run away.”

I would not like anyone to think that I am, in my natural state, a grotesquely bearded lady. As far as I remember – back to when I was twelve or thirteen – the moustache was really only what you might expect to appear on a brown-haired English girl. But in those days – we’re talking Sixties, before Women’s Lib – neither facial not armpit hair was acceptable. Girls aimed to look like Twiggy – vacant, pale, pure and skinny. If it was an eyelash, you loaded it with mascara, liberally lubricated with spit. If it was in an armpit, you shaved it. If it was under your nose you bleached, tweezed, shaved, waxed, chemically removed – in fact bazooka’d it in any way you could.

We had a French girl at our school once, on an exchange visit. She was incredibly glamorous, we felt, until we all went to play tennis after school. My God, the girl was hiding a dead hamster under either arm. The horror of it! Poor girl. I hope she took no notice of our titters.

So – three months – maybe more – of not zapping the moustache. It occurs to me that since I am going grey – well pepper-and-salt, anyway – maybe el bigote will come out a soft, wispy grey. If it turns out anything like the above, though, it’s a goner.

Just as an aside. One of my two distant friends phoned me up last night, to check that I was all right. She says she will call me once a week from now on, just to touch base. The awfulness and wonderfulness of this is – that this is the same friend who has struggled all her life with bouts of clinical depression. I have witnessed – from the outside – the horrors she has gone through. I have visited her in a hospital ward, surrounded by mad people. I have found her sobbing behind her computer in the office we shared. I never, really, had any idea what to do for the best. Yet she was the one who called me.

A Day At The Seaside

It was a Monday morning and, since he was travelling the wrong way, he more or less had the carriage to himself. Somebody had abandoned a magazine. He flipped through the pages as the train clacked and jolted through the suburbs, scanning images of celebrities he’d never heard of; women with pink sausages for lips, men with broad shoulders, flat stomachs and daft little beards displaying themselves in their spotless mansions, along with their furniture, their chandeliers, their works of art and their glossy, unread books. He was longing for life to be grey, or sepia.

The sun glinted off something jammed down the divide between his seat and the next. It might just be a coin, of large enough denomination to buy himself a mug a tea when he arrived. He pictured himself in a seafront café, a steaming white china mug in front of him, the teabag string still dangling, he noticed. There appeared to be a red plastic tablecloth, a bottle of vinegar, a salt cellar and a dog-eared menu. He sensed a plate of fish and chips on the way and his mouth started watering at the thought of it.

But it wasn’t a coin, it was a mirror. The glass was filthy, as you might expect from something pushed between seats for a long time. It was the sort of thing a child would be drawn to: thick pinkish plastic round the edge and purple flower design, probably part of a set – the kind of tat down-at-heel grannies picked up in the Cheap Shop for birthday gifts and stocking-fillers.

He smeared it clean with his sleeve and, since no one was watching, glanced down at his reflection. He fully expected to see an old guy who hadn’t been bothering to cook much recently, a trifle emaciated, greyish stubble; expected also that death-by-boredom look in his eyes, that one-final-fling desperation, that nobody’s-going-to-talk-to-me expression.

Instead of that he saw a girl in a blue cotton dress with a band of complicated white embroidery across the bodice. It had those small puff sleeves with cuffs, like kids wore in the fifties. In fact her whole face was somehow antiquated – that fair, slightly greasy hair drawn up in a topknot and tied with a gingham ribbon, half-slipping down. She didn’t look at all like a kid might look like today. Was she was gazing at her own reflection, or back out at him? He ventured a smile. She smiled back, but whether she thought she was smiling at herself or back at him, he couldn’t tell.

He knew, of course, that vampires did not reflect in mirrors, and it would have surprised him less, somehow, if he’d been turned into one of those; but he’d never heard of an old man acquiring the reflection of a child, of the opposite gender and from way back in the past. If he’d been a character in one of his own crappy novels he’d no doubt have gasped, dropped the mirror, wrenched open the carriage door and jumped, breaking his neck in the process. His ghost stories or, as they called them nowadays, Supernatural Tales – didn’t sell well. Maybe he’d turn today into a story, if and when today was over.

The carriage had also changed. Above the seats were stylised, panoramic posters advertising Brighton. Pointy-breasted women in swirly skirts and woollen twinsets trailed little girls much like the one in the mirror; buckets and spades, bottles of pop, frilly sunshades – all so smug and wholesome. Everything was all right in their world.

Countryside flowed past, greener and less spoiled than it should have been. Steam clouded the windows in fits and starts. Of course, steam. Trains made a different sound in those/these days. He looked down at the unfamiliar body inside the blue dress, both of which he now somehow inhabited. He – no, she – had no breasts, which meant she would be nine or ten years old. There was a pocket in the side of dress. He/she slid the mirror into this. There was a button, and a buttonhole. He/she fastened the button carefully, and checked it. If it the mirror got lost, there might be no way back? There might be no way back in any case. He rather hoped not.

They could feel the sun on their arm through the window-glass. The window was open a crack at the top, and the smell the sea came through it –seaweed and salt from long ago. Up in the luggage rack – a string hammock – was a tin bucket shaped like a castle, with towers, and a red tin spade with a wooden handle. They would build a sandcastle, they thought. Warm sea-water would trickle between their toes. They would have fish and chips and penny cornets.

The sky would be blue all day.

(flash fiction: 805 words)

Twelfth Night

Soon after she left us, it began to snow. From now on my life would be all snow, and all falling. My husband cleared our driveway then dug a diagonal path across the lawn, starting at the back door and ending at his shed. The snow didn’t ease or stop as it normally would have; it crept up the glass in our patio doors; it piled up on our windowsills; icicles oozed down from the guttering.

It had been so very dark inside our house, and for so long. Twelfth night: the sixth of January, the day people in other houses would be taking down their decorations.

I had not crossed the threshold since it happened. I was frozen already: why would I want to be colder? But Twelfth Night made me realise I must. I couldn’t spend the rest of my days indoors. My maiden voyage would be this: I would exit by the back door, navigate the icy patio, cross the lawn diagonally via my husband’s snow-path, stand outside his shed for a minute then come back.

I wrapped my scarf around my face, covering my nose. Birds’ feet patterned the snow. What does it feel like to weigh so little? When – or if – Jesus walked on water, did he feel like one of God’s beloved sparrows, hopping about on snow?

The snow my husband shovelled aside this morning was already in the process freezing, forming a rough wall at the level of my elbows. Fresh snow was already settling on the cleared path between the walls, so I made footsteps.

Then I saw it – a small, honey-coloured arm poking out of the broken snow. In his narrow focus on the task in hand my husband must have overlooked it. He is a different man nowadays: something has been subtracted from us both.

There was no hand to grasp, only a familiar, frayed, mended, frayed-again paw. I eased the body out of the snow with care, afraid that the arm would sever itself in my hands. Touching it took me back. I was sitting by a lilac bush in my mother-in-law’s garden, with a needle and strong thread, an off-cut of yellow felt pinned to the thinning fur fabric. How warm it had been that day and how rich the scent of the lilac. Jessica must have been there that day, but somehow I couldn’t see her.

The bear had never had a name. He was just Bear. Did he know his owner had gone away? Could a stuffed bear sense that sort of thing? I stowed him inside my coat while I completed my journey to the shed. I held him close to my breast as I waited the minute or two I had promised myself to wait. We took a few quiet breaths together before setting off back to the kitchen. When I took off my coat, the jumper I wore beneath it was soaked and icy.

I washed him in soapy water, rinsed him in plain but warm. I wrapped him in a towel as if he were a child, folding the cloth carefully around his threadbare neck to keep out the draught.

I sat him in her little chair by the kitchen range.

I gave the chair a bit of a push, and it rocked as it used to do.

I sat down and cried and cried.

When he dried out, I wrapped him in a patchwork shawl and hid him in her room. I sat him on the bed with her favourite picture book. Sometimes, for variety, I propped him up in the window seat so that he could look out at the garden. Every now and then I would sit beside him, and together we watched the patterns black branches made against a grey sky. Sometimes he sat on my lap, while I knitted him a scarf. Jessica had liked pink, so I knitted her bear’s new scarf in many shades of pink.

Together we sat and waited for the spring.

(flash fiction: 671 words)

Things are [Utterly Messed Up]

Plague-wise and every-other-wise, things are going from bad to worse. This no longer surprises or depresses me. My father used to quote some music-hall comedian – I haven’t been able to find it on Google – hopefully I didn’t just imagine it! I’ll expunge the B word in case innocent kiddies are reading, however unlikely that may be, since they all hang out on Insta or PeeWee or Grommit, or whatever:

“Life were [utterly messed up] when I came into it and no doubt it will be
[utterly messed up] when I go.”

I placed my Tesco order. They have no delivery slots until Saturday. Everybody putting in massive orders for quilted toilet paper, I suppose. Toilet paper has become the staff of life, more precious than bread, milk or cheese.

I have enough to live on, if I have to self-isolate. I have a cat-food mountain, for the mountain of cats. They chomp and slurp their way through ten tins a day. I also have a cat in the bath. She’s a bit off – sneezing, etc – more likely cat flu than some hypothetical cat-coronavirus – and the bath is cool. If I hoist her out, she relocates instantly to the wash-hand basin. If I decide to clean my teeth or – yes – wash my hands yet again and slather on the magic stinky pink stuff the vet introduced me to (Hibiscrub) I have to remove a miserable, moulting, watery-eyed moggie first.

It is rumoured that within the next week to ten days, ‘the elderly’ and vulnerable will be advised to self-isolate regardless. I do not regard myself as one of ‘the elderly’ but technically I suppose I do fit into both the age and dodgy immune system category, so I suppose that’ll be me, and the cat-mountain, cut off from society.

In some ways I don’t mind. My whole life, since I tunnelled out of the work-prison, seems to have been an attempt to avoid other human beings. When I’m alone I have some dignity. Forced to mix with other people I turn into this kind of clown-figure. I never know quite what I am going to say next or what new risible/embarrassing mistake I am likely to make. So, though I can get ‘cabin fever’ like everyone else, and appreciate the need to mingle occasionally for the benefit one’s mental health, I don’t feel compelled to.

My biggest problem will be my disabled friend, who lives an inconveniently short distance from me. She climbs the walls if she can’t interact with at least nine or ten people per day, preferably at great length, in person. Her health is also ‘compromised’ and she catches everything. Then, next time I have to take her anywhere in my car, she gives it to me. So what do I do, if she asks me for a lift to the hospital? What do I do if she’s running out of groceries because ‘they’ won’t allow her to use a computer? I suppose you just have to ‘play it by ear’. I don’t like playing things by ear, but you have to, sometimes.

Then there’s my own appointments – blood tests, specialist – coming up soon. Do I stay at home, hiding from germs, or do I venture forth and swim around in a sea of illnesses and infections at two separate hospitals, trying not to breathe in? Playing it by ear, again.

Part of me, though, is attracted to the drama of it. Part of me is angry and terminally bored and longs for the romance of some great disaster – a plague, a crashing stock-market, global meltdown or whatever. How weird is that?

I’ve been reading up about the village of Eyam, in Nottinghamshire. In the 17th Century, the Plague was sweeping through Britain. The disease came to Eyam and the villagers, lead by their vicar, decided to isolate themselves in their village to protect neighbouring villages. On the outskirts of the village there was a Boundary stone. The villagers left money in the holes in the stone, and people from the surrounding area left provisions there, to keep them going. The Earl of Devonshire also helped support them. In the course of  fourteen months, 260 out of 800 isolated villagers would die. People agreed to bury their own dead, close to their own homes, rather than in consecrated ground.

People may be a pain, but some of them are noble too.

The Bag Lady

Pete scanned the atrium for a vacant seat. The hospital had recently invested in wider, squashier, blue ones: more comfortable. He had an hour to wait before the host-human’s annual physical; time to slow, then stop his second and third hearts. Human physiology has a certain lag to it. Best to adjust with caution rather than lose consciousness and have someone groping around with a stethoscope before one was ready.

The next thing he did was a mistake. He sat down next to a bag lady – a female human who either chose not to wash or lacked the opportunity to, and therefore stank to high heaven. She was old and obese, wearing layer upon layer of clothing, including a frayed, overlarge woollen item. Elastic bands above her wrists kept the garment from dangling over her hands. As he watched, she lifted her skirt to scratch her knee. It was grossly swollen.

“I saw a doctor about it,” she said. “He didn’t do nothing.”

Too late, Pete realised he had allowed her a conversational opening. The smell coming from her would have been rank, even to a genuine human. To Pete, whose olfactory nerves were ten or twelve times more efficient, it was unbearable. He switched focus from heart-slowing to the gag reflex, suppressing it, fast

“I was nanny to the stars, you know,” the old woman confided. All them Carry On chaps – I nursed all their kids…!

Force of habit, Pete accessed the supplementary database lodged just behind his pituitary gland. The names she was continuing to reel off were those of once-famous British stars but one of them, at least, had been gay. No record of progeny. If she was lying about him she was probably lying – or deluded – about all the rest. Not that it mattered. He was still sat next to her, with no alternative seating, and she was obviously planning to run through every single star of sixties comedy and tell him how affectionate they had felt towards her and how much they had admired her childcare technique. The next worst thing to a human stinker is a human bore.

“I see things,” she said, suddenly, half an hour later. He would have suppressed his hearing, but he would need it to hear his name called by the Receptionist.

“Yes?” Why had he said yes? A single word was encouragement to a human bore.

“Shall I tell you one of my visions?”

No, he thought. “What sort of visions?” his treacherous human host-mind was asking.

She leant in towards him. He suppressed the give-away nose-wrinkle of disgust. “I seed the world ending.”

“When?”

“In exactly three days and fifty-four minutes. We’ll all be blown to smithereens, my dearie.” Something about the way she said it alerted something in the alien part of his brain.

“Where did you see it?”

“In a dream, dearie.”

“But aren’t you frightened?”

“No,” she said. Something like sanity crept into her eyes. “If you were me, would you be averse to dying?”

Out of curiosity, he accessed his database again, instructing it to run on ‘future’ rather than ‘past’. To his horror, the human brain showed him image after image of fire and destruction. He saw buildings falling and people screaming, in their millions. Now that he had directed his attention to it he clearly felt the build up of forces deep within the earth’s crust.

He supposed, if he had been an actor in one of those films of the sixties – the sci-fi kind where asteroids headed towards the planet, monsters rose from the deep or killer vegetation took root and started to chomp their way through the population – he would at this point have been deciding to call the Prime Minister, or even standing up in this crowded atrium and shouting “You’re all about to die, and there’s nowhere for you to go. Your race, backward as yet, possesses neither star-ships nor space-charts, and even if you did you lack the ability to comprehend disaster and act fast enough to evacuate.

The bag lady was asleep, having slid down her blue plastic chair. The fat, grubby arms on the wooden rests were the only thing that stopped her from landing on the floor. An ancient mobile phone fell out of her pocket and landed on the floor between her feet with a clatter, cracking the glass. Human politeness dictated that he should pick it up and hand it to her, germs and all.

Instead, he reactivated both his supplementary hearts, diverted power to his ante-pituitary database, magnified power to paltry human muscle-tissue. His craft was concealed 25.7 miles from here, in an old factory on waste ground. He had a car, in the hospital car park, but he would leave it where it was.

It would be quicker, now, to run.

The Lion and Saint Jerome

If you prefer, you can imagine me in a darkly-panelled study. Imagine it similar to that which, many centuries later, will be engraved by a certain long-haired German artist. Here I am then, in my study amongst my books. As usual I am shown with a long beard, a quill pen and a ledger. This is because I lived to be old, and wrote a lot.

The German engraver has not included my eyeglasses. In the latter years of mortal existence my eyesight became very bad. After dusk I was unable to make out the letters in Greek manuscripts, even with the help of a candle. It greatly hampered my studies.

A skull gathers dust in the window-seat. This is what they used to call a memento mori, to remind us that life is short and we have only a limited time to earn our place in heaven. It is also meant to remind you that I have become very wise in my old age. Angels, apparently, whisper divine truths into my ear.

Closest to you, viewers, is my lion. He does not sleep but lies relaxed on the wooden boards, luxuriously extended within swiping distance of a plump German corgi. What a tasty snack that dog would have made for my lion, in the old days.

The artist is gifted but cannot, I think, have had a real lion in front of him as he worked. Before lions were available to view, in zoos and such, artists seemed to imagine them the size of extra-large dogs. In real life, my lion was an impressive sight indeed. He was taller than me when standing on his hind legs, and could have ripped me apart in seconds. I am eternally grateful that he chose to love me instead.

The musculature and the claws are excellent and the tail, if not quite accurate, is at least decorative. But he is too small, as I have said, and this Dürer fellow has given him the face of a domestic cat; those charming, bristled whiskers, those Siamese eyes. The ears appear to belong to another creature entirely – a bear, perhaps, or even a mouse’s, scaled up. And the creature is smiling to himself. Neither cat nor lion would be likely to do so, but we can allow him a degree of artistic licence.

They say I removed a thorn from my lion’s paw, and in fact I did. It was a very long time ago, when I lived in a monastery. He was limping badly, and made straight for me, as if he had been sent. The others ran away, in any case. He sat before me and lifted his paw, that I might inspect it. I fetched water and cloths and cleaned the wound, and then could see the great thorn he had in it. So great was it in size that I could grasp it firmly between finger and thumb, without resort to an implement.

“This will hurt, my Brother,” I said, looking straight into his eyes. He put his head on one side and gazed straight back into mine. I gave the thorn a quick, sharp tug and out it came in a gush of blood and infected matter. Afterwards I applied the same healing herbs as I would have used for my monastic brothers, binding them into a paste with spiders’ webs and wild honey. My lion sat patiently as I bound up that giant paw with linen strips.

How, what shall I say happened between me and the lion? From my vantage point I can see both past and future, and I know that my lion has become a kind of fairy-story. They say he was attached to me by mistake, centuries later. They claimed that my lion was but a fable for the entertainment of credulous pilgrims to Bethlehem, where I left behind the mortal shell that was Jerome or, as others called me, Hieronymus.

You may believe what you like. My lion died of old age some years before me. He and I are back where we began, in the All and the Everything. We are one, my lion and I. You may sense us around you; within, enfolding and permeating you. We lift up our paws to you in supplication. We rest our golden heads upon your frail human shoulders.

We purr, and yes, we smile.

durer 4

Fishnet Tights

It all started with Miriam. She was a suspicious woman, particularly when it came to a pair of tights in the glove compartment of Alfred’s taxi-cab. It wasn’t as if Alfred hadn’t strayed before, just that she hadn’t realised his tastes were so exotic. She knew immediately that they were his tastes, not those of some new mistress or tart. No woman in Alfred’s age bracket would have contemplated fishnet.

What went with the tights, she wondered; one of those teensy maid’s outfits with frilly petticoat beneath? Maybe Alf was into bondage and liked to be attired in fishnet and frilly petticoat whilst some giantess flayed him with a black leather thingummy.  Or perhaps he just liked to dress up in women’s clothes when she was out. He couldn’t be mincing around in her clothes, however. She was a good twenty-four dress size and Alf was – smallish. So where was the rest of the outfit? If he’d hidden it anywhere around the house she’d have found it by now. Miriam was a demon housewife.

Should she confront him, she wondered, or let sleeping tights lie? In the end, curiosity got the better of her. He went as red as a beet and confessed, after a lengthy pause. Yes, he said, he was a transvestite. He hadn’t liked to tell her. He didn’t sound entirely sure, so Miriam wasn’t entirely sure either.

‘Show us your dress, then, and your makeup and – all the other stuff.’ In spite of herself, she was fascinated. How did he manage the bosoms? Where did the willy go? Perhaps that didn’t matter in a frock.

And so it came about that next afternoon Alf was pacing around Marks & Spencer in the High Street searching for something long and glamorous in electric blue satin with high heels to match, this being what he imagined a transvestite – had he in fact been one which, in spite of his confession, he was not – might wear with fishnet tights. Miriam could have told him that Marks & Spencer was not the best bet for electric blue evening gowns, but she was at home making rock cakes.

That evening, having fortified himself with several of Miriam’s rock cakes washed down with a mug of strong tea, Alfred retired to the bedroom to transform himself into his alter ego. He was not an imaginative man and all he could come up with for a name, should he be asked, was Alfreda. The whole process was nerve-wracking since this was the first time he had done it.

He wasted quite a bit of time rearranging socks inside a black bra, which he had also purchased, anxious not to appear amateurishly lumpy. The fishnet tights were also a problem. His toenails, which he hadn’t considered at all, were in need of cutting and his toes kept getting snarled up in the net. By the time he’d got them on the tights had acquired several ragged tears rather than the ladders he had been half-expecting. Luckily the dress was ankle-length and would cover that.

He had gone for a rather swish emerald number in the end. It had slightly over-the-top puff sleeves and a lot of subtle “ruching” around the bodice, a technical term which the saleslady had explained to him in rather more detail than he had patience for. At her suggestion he had added a sea-green chiffon scarf – ‘so flattering to the mature décolletage’. He had not asked her to explain décolletage.

Finally, Alfreda’s makeup. Alfred was not so daft as to plaster it on and end up looking as if he’d escaped from the circus. Stroke of luck, he’d been into model-making some years back – battlefield dioramas, that sort of thing. An eye for detail and a steady hand were qualities he’d discovered then.

He was in the middle of his demonstration, wobbling up and down on the living room carpet in full kit whilst Miriam looked on, making short work of the rest of the rock cakes, when there came a knock at the door. Alfred froze – no time to run, and anyway how, in the unfamiliar heels? So it was Miriam who opened the door to the two uniformed police officers.

‘In planning to execute a bank robbery,’ said one, ‘your husband would have been better advised to go for Sun Mist, winter weight. Fishnet is somewhat…’

‘Transparent,’ said Alfreda, emerging from the living room with a sigh.