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.

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)

…wotthehell…

Well, another funny old Christmas Eve. People will keep checking – pityingly, unbelievingly – that I really will be alone all Christmas. Haven’t I got anybody to go to? Anybody at all? This is really annoying. I mean, where were you-all the last thirty or so Christmases, which I also spent alone?

Where were you nearly all the other days in between, come to that? Which I also spent alone.

My middle sister keeps ringing me from Canada. She is in a panic and going through a bad patch because she too is going to be alone – except that she has been invited to Christmas Dinner with an elderly friend down the road whose extended family – all of whom will be in attendance – all seem to smoke a lot, indoors. I would rather stay home alone than breathe in a whole lot of second-hand nicotine and have to cough it out again next morning.

But that’s just me.

“The thing is,” she says, “you’re just very good at being alone, aren’t you? I’m not, you see.”

“It’s not that I’m at all good at being alone,” I say. “It’s that I’m even worse at being with other people. It’s the lesser of two evils.”

Usually she understands stuff like this. This time she doesn’t, but hey…

My own Friend-Down-The-Road texts. She thought I seemed a bit off with her yesterday. Has she Offended me? Am I OK? She sends one of these infuriating texts every few months. There’s no way I can behave that won’t trigger this sudden rush of guilt-inducing, excuse-eliciting, explanation-demanding anxiety. Once again with the reassurance. No, I was just worn out, having driven over twenty miles in ultra-heavy Christmas traffic, visited my Mum in the Home, to find her half in and half out of bed, her nightie up around her waist and a completely blank expression on her face. Who was I?

Having then spent an hour in a noisy coffee shop trying and mostly failing to lip-read what English Sister was saying, much as I actually wanted to hear it, then another twenty miles in the same horrendous traffic, down a road so wide and fast it ought to be a motorway, but isn’t.

I drive it with gritted teeth, clinging to the steering-wheel.

This morning, Ex phones. I have had time by now to digest the fact of his getting married again and not telling me, leaving it to his sister to phone me and ‘accidentally on purpose’ I suspect, mention it. He explains, in minute detail, the financial and practical reasons behind his secret nuptials. Then he explains, in more minute detail, all the horrors and inconveniences he had to go through to treat his prostate problem. If I should ever grow a prostate and subsequently discover I have a scary problem with it I will be extremely well-prepared for the scans, biopsies, enemas and whatever. I will even be forewarned as to the places they put the tiny tattoos.

archy

I forgive him for getting married again – wotthehell, wotthehell – as Archie the cockroach, or possibly Mehitabel the alley-cat – used to type on Don Marquis’s old typewriter. We’re all three of us quite old now and, in varying degrees, sick – wotthehell. Anyway, it appears it was not last summer but last New Year that they got married. So old news.

Apart from the phone call, I have been trying to have a quiet Christmas Eve, doing random, semi-creative things, as is my wont. I have knitted part of a green dishcloth to put in my ‘sell on Etsy’ bundle. I have sorted and systematised my collection of flash fiction ideas. Tomorrow (I promise myself, ha ha!) I will start on the actual, er, writing. I so much prefer the ‘having ideas’ stage but eventually – one has to write. Wotthehell.

I have listened to the Christmas Eve carol service from Kings. I am not sure what or where Kings is – a chapel, and Cambridge, I think. I wish they would sing the ancient music, all those complex, intertwining, almost painful harmonies. Seasonal and clever though it is, this kind of choral singing tends to remind me of Sing Something Simple of a Sunday lunchtime, and Dad singing along to the radio.

I have fed the (nineteen) cats, twice. I have fed the (three) strays, three times. I have fed the birds (once). I have washed up a lot. I have washed my hair and dried it, perched on the corner of the bed. I have broken up some cardboard boxes in the garage and stacked them against the wall. I have accidentally caught the lady-next-door’s new internet dating gentleman up a ladder, fixing one of those really bright annoying lights to her front wall, and been forced to exchange wincing Hi There’s.

He has false teeth. I don’t think I could be doing with false teeth, but I suppose at our age – you probably don’t have to do that much French-kissing.

Disingenuous What?

Difficult to find an interesting picture of a carpet, so it’s a mat.

I just wondered if anyone would know what a plopcarpet actually is? I’ve had the word going round and round in my head ever since that actor – the less-funny-than-James-Cordon one from Gavin and Stacey – tweeted it at BBC political news editor Laura Kuenssberg in the middle of General Election night. It was meant to be an insult:

Resign, you disingenuous plopcarpet. 

It’s given me the worst kind of earworm – the one word kind.

I haven’t bothered to read the back story too closely, because frankly it’s not as memorable as the insult itself, but I have a feeling poor Laura – my favourite reporter, as it happens – had foolishly mentioned that Labour’s Red Wall appeared to be crumbling. Now, it was crumbling, it did crumble, and you would think it was simply her job as a political analyst to make at least a passing mention of crumbling, but less-funny-than-James-Cordon actor person took offence.

To be fair, he did (eventually) delete the tweet – or string of tweets – and apologise to poor dear Laura, who graciously accepted his apology with more humour than I would have been able to muster at the end of a long, exhausting week of trailing round after politicians.

I googled plopcarpet, assuming it was one of these ultra-trendy snowflake, gangsta, hipster or woke-type words. It was obvious what it sounded like it would have to mean, but if people were going round regularly calling each other plopcarpets, why hadn’t I noticed? Get to the back of the queue, you queue-jumping plopcarpet, you!  Or perhaps they were. Perhaps only an ancient boomer would be unaware of all this electronic plopcarpetry.

But Google had no suggestions either, which means, probably, that the less-funny-than-James-Cordon actor made plopcarpet up on the spur of the moment, and thought it just the right epithet (epithet?) to tweet at a lady news presenter.

And assuming he made it up, what made him imagine that disingenuous was the adjective to qualify it?

However, I must thank the less-funny-than-James-Cordon actor because he has given me an idea for a flash-fiction story. (I am collecting them at the moment, in an exercise book.) It is story in which a person thinks up a ludicrous insult, only to have that predictive texting gremlin helpfully correct it to something horrifyingly unpleasant. And the consequences thereof.

Just to round off this tiny post, here is a selection of famous, and slightly wittier, insults from pre-Twitter times:

She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B. (Dorothy Parker)

All morons hate it when you call them a moron. (J D Salinger)

My dear, you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly. (Winston Churchill)

I like your opera. I think I will set it to music. (Ludwig van Beethoven)

His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork. (Mae West)

She speaks five languages and can’t act in any of them. (Sir John Gielgud)

He is simply a hole in the air. (George Orwell)

Objets Perdus

Now, this is a bit of a strange one, and I have been putting off writing about it for days. Something to do with shame, I think – shame and sorrow. But what’s the best way for a writer to call up and exorcise her ghosts?

Write about them.

When I was a child I had a (very) few treasured objects, and one by one I lost them or gave them away. Something seems to compel me to ‘lose’ the things that mean the most to me – and not just objects, people. One by one, I have mislaid them all.

Setting aside the people, because nothing at all can be done about them. Those objects…

I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables. It was a beautiful book – they are ferociously expensive to buy second-hand now. You know, I thought, until this very moment, that I had given it away. I had been wracking my brains to think how I gave it away. Why would I have done that with my beloved Aesop? I read that book over and over. The fables, and the beautiful but slightly creepy illustrations, those glossy, full-page watercolours, seeped into my childhood consciousness.

But I gave it away. Or did I? I just turned sideways and there it was, sitting in the bookcase beside me. It has lost it’s cover, the boards have faded from scarlet to orange, but – still here. Inside I have written my full maiden name, in ink, in weird little-girl writing. Two pages on and an inscription reads With love to Rosie, on her 7th Birthday. From Grandma & Grandpa. Well, Rosie or, you know, whatever.

But other objects I really did lose. I once had a stone, with the impression of a prehistoric sea creature upon it, like a tiny octopus. I found it half-buried in the path between the allotments. It was as if it had been waiting for just me, that magical fossil, for billions and billions of years. If only I had kept it, if only I had not somehow lost it – what luck it might have brought me.

And I gave away my Odhams Encyclopaedia for children. I remember the struggle I had at the time. It was when my niece was born and I foolishly had this idea that the child should “inherit” something of value from her auntie. And I have regretted the loss of that book ever since.

And then there was my teddy bear. I temporarily forgot about him and instead of taking him with me when I got married I foolishly left him with Mum. In fact he was up in the attic, and I didn’t realise. Mum and my sister are alike in “getting rid”. She accidentally informed me one day, several years later, that she had given my bear to Oxfam. After all, she knew I wouldn’t want it.

I never stopped missing my bear. I mourned for him. Even now – especially now, when I am old – I want my teddy bear back. I realised today that that was what my teddy-bear buying jag had been all about. I now have a cupboard full of disreputable 1950s teddy-bears courtesy of E-bay. None of them are my bear, but I have rescued them. I couldn’t save it but I have saved them.

I know, it doesn’t make sense.

And now I have gone and saved “my” Encyclopedia. And in fact I have saved more than one of them because the other day eBay came up with a second, horribly battered copy for only £2 and I bid the £2 and won. To my surprise. The first one, which arrived a week ago, cost a massive £20 but is in excellent condition. Unlike me, its owner must have held it close, kept it. Presumably there will soon be a stack of second-hand Odhams Encyclopaedias on my coffee table, all ridiculously, pathetically rescued by some ancient woman, just in case one of them might turn out to have been her actual one.

When I was a child the page that fascinated me the most was the one with the anaconda. My mother used to take the mickey, saying that the encyclopaedia would fall open at the snakes page of its own accord. I do hope it was nothing sexual. I mean, I was very young and, lacking any kind of brother (though over-supplied with sisters) did not even suspect the existence of that appendage which, according to Dr Freud, snakes represent.

In my memory the anaconda took up the whole of the page and was vividly coloured, green and gold and glittery. Now I see that it is smaller, and in black and white, but I still like the way the artist has coiled and draped the various snakes around the branches, the way the pictures and the text bleed into one another.

How beautiful that anaconda was to me, and how utterly terrifying. In my mind’s eye I stood before him in the South American jungle, tiny-small in my cotton check school dress and pudding-basin haircut. Anaconda was looking at me out of that glittery, sardonic eye. He was weighing up whether to wrap me in his sinuous, gorgeous coils and crush me to smithereens. Because that is what anacondas do, being the largest of the boa constrictor family.

And I wished he would. And I wished he wouldn’t.

And this is him, my beloved, my childhood version of God: the anaconda, unchanged over the decades and decades since I first caught sight of him.

Why do we lose the things we love?

IMG_20191118_133816

Fungums

This is my new umbrella term, as sociologists used to love to intone in the sixties (along with ‘dichotomy ‘) for anything either unexpected or unwanted that suddenly appears in one’s garden. Above is something my mother would probably have called a honey fungus. I wonder how big it will get?

At the bottom is something disgusting and fungus-like which has begun to grow on an old cane chair I left outside. Maybe it is some exotic type of fungus that has lain dormant within the cane since it was imported from India or Malaya or wherever. Maybe it will be like Japanese Knotweed and gradually Take Over.

In the middle is a Something that my burly  next-street-down neighbour kindly left behind in my garden, having invaded whilst I was out in order to replace a fence panel. It’s too heavy for me to lift and too big to go in my car. I was quoted £50 or £60 to remove it, the dumping fee being £30.

Or, said the Quoter gently, seeing the look on my face, you could get out the secateurs and regard it as a Little Winter Project…

3: Send in the clowns

Continued from 2: Supping with the Devil (technically, posted on 6/7 – you might need to use the Search box)

It should have been funny, and it kind of was, looking back. Looking back, I can recall the struggles and contradictions of that afternoon as Mum and I listened to these two monolithic men droning on at one another about politics or whatever, beneath the ’70s artex ceiling and ghastly pine wall-covering, giant mugs of tea at the ready: exhilaration, a rather spiteful kind of satisfaction, sadness, anxiety and loss. Part of me knew that Ex had got to win, another part couldn’t bear for Dad to lose. Ridiculously, now, I am reminded of battling silverback gorillas and David Attenborough. (Who can picture a gorilla without David, whispering reverentially close by?) And I recall that last scene in The Railway Children – Daddy, my Daddy!

After twenty-three years or so I screwed up the courage to tell Ex I was leaving. He seemed unmoved, relieved as much as anything. Not long after that the lady I usually refer to as My Replacement came along – well, she’d been ‘along’ for quite some time, I just hadn’t really realised. That was probably the most painful bit.

On one particularly memorable occasion , which I now think of as my Send In The Clowns moment, I had driven across to the small town where Ex still lived. I had an appointment to get my hair cut at my old hairdressers. I had not anticipated that there would be a carnival procession going on, and so had to park some way out of town and walk back in. As I was walking along the road I realised that he – and she – were walking towards me in the far distance, hand in hand. I suppose they must have been out watching the carnival. There was no convenient side-road or alleyway to swerve into, and in any case they had already seen me. I just had to pin on a gruesome attempt at a smile and keep walking forwards on the pavement, one foot in front of the other – and so did they, of course. I found myself feeling sorry for them at the same time as I was feeling sorry for me. It seemed to take years, and he couldn’t exactly drop her hand. I can’t remember another thing about that day. That one memory was enough to last me for ever!

Although most of me knows that leaving, even in middle age, was the right decision, some disconsolate little remnant continues to prowl around my house on sleepless nights mewling Where are you? Why did you stop looking after me? Why didn’t you come and find me?  Didn’t you love me? And I realise it is not just the lost wife crying, but the lost child looking for her father.

daddy

 

In the 1980s Canadian Sister, also ADD-ish, married a man who looked not so very different from Dad. He was very definite in his opinions, very clever, very competent, would brook no arguments, etc., etc., but they remained married until his death earlier this year. Now she rages at him, in his urn on the mantelpiece. He was supposed to be her shield and protector, and in return she knew she must do what she was told and never argue; she went where he wanted to go, watched whatever he wanted to watch on TV; pretended not to be embarrassed when he was rude to shopkeepers and Indian waiters, resisting the urge to apologise on his behalf. That was the clear bargain struck on a cold May day in a black old Northern church all those years ago, and he reneged on it by going and getting cancer.

I have been wondering what conclusion to draw, what ‘advice’, with the benefit of hindsight, I would give to my parents, or any new parents of an unconventional child. Of course I have no right to advise. If I had been able to have children or my own I’m sure I’d have got it just as wrong, and probably more so.

The fashionable motto is that all you really need to be is a Good Enough parent. I would extend that a bit – I think you can be a pretty bad parent and your child will still stand a chance or surviving, more or less, if only she can get what she needs from alternative sources. Which is an argument for old-fashioned rural communal parenting as opposed to the nuclear family, in which any evils are concentrated, hidden and likely to be perpetuated.

I was saved by Nan and Grandad who, by the most enormous stroke of luck, lived at the other end of our street. Nan walked along to see Mum most days, and I spent every Sunday from about the age of three along with Nan and Grandad. To start with this was because Mum and Dad were engaged in building their own house, with Grandad’s help, whilst expecting my sister at any moment. After that it just became a tradition.

Nan and Grandad had a huge garden with a cherry blossom tree, a swing suspended from an apple tree, a lawn full of daisies and buttercups, and all sorts of flowers and vegetables. They also had a smelly old golden Labrador, a roaring fire in winter, stacks of Woman’s Weekly and Carpenter & Joiner magazines, a bookcase full of pre-War hardback books, an etymological dictionary (my favourite) and a tiny black and white TV set.

Nan cooked great Sunday dinners. She washed my hair and I sat in front of the fire to dry it. I was included in whatever she was doing. We put down newspaper and polished a mountain of brass with Brasso and blackening yellow dusters; we picked mint for the mint sauce – she chopped it fine then I stirred it in a little pot with sugar and vinegar. We sat on the back step shelling peas into an enamel bowl whilst staring up at the sky.

Over the course of the years she told me about the recent War, and the War before that. She told me about my Great Grandmother Sarah and her own many sisters. She told me the facts of life, taught me how to darn a sock and sew on a button. She chatted to me unselfconsciously as if I was just another grown-up, or she was just another child. On those Sundays with Nan I was a relaxed, ‘normal’ human being, but as soon as I returned to the other end of the road I became once again the freaky “Prima Donna” or “You Little Bitch”.

In writing this it has occurred to me that Nan had the advantage of having finished bringing up Mum – who had many of the same traits as me – considerably more pronounced, some of them – less than six years before, since Mum married at nineteen. Mum hadn’t had that advantage.

See 4: Imagine