Existential Angst

Years ago there used to be a TV programme with that actor… He later ended up as one of the Star Trek Captains and – possibly in between the two – as the head of NCIS Somewhere Or Other – Scott… Bakula? Yay, the memory’s still working.

The cat photos don’t have much to do with the post – they’re a bonus.

But this thing I’m thinking of that Scott Whatsit/Bakula was in, it was a kind of gentle TV sci-fi series called Quantum Leap. I watched Quantum Leap religiously, and not because of Scott Bakula – he’s not my type – but because I’m a sucker for sci-fi and fantasy, however dreadful. Quantum Leap was pretty dreadful.

Gosh, the bin-lorry just backed up past my window. The bin-lorry, on a Monday, and on a Bank Holiday…? The Universe gets less and less explicable every day.

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But I’m sure I could help. And only one rubber glove required…

Anyway, Quantum Leap, starring Scott Whatsit, he of the unshaven manly jaw and the one-trick inscrutable acting style. I was glued to it, possibly because it made some sort of resonance, struck some sort of chord in my imagination. The basic premise was simple enough: by reason of some long-forgotten scientific mishap, the hero finds himself materialising in one episode of the past (possibly also future, I can’t recall) after another. He is obliged to Leap throughout the whole series and any number of series after that, into one body/life not-his-own after another.

The moment of his arrival could be quite startling. He would (always) just happen to look into a mirror/see himself reflected in a shiny car/lean over a conveniently still pond and discover that he looked… different. Sometimes he was young, sometimes he was old; sometimes he was black, sometimes he was white; sometimes he was male and occasionally he was female. Occasionally, presumably because full drag was required and Scott Whatsit was about the most masculine actor you could possibly imagine, short of Vin Diesel, who is my type.

Vin Diesel ought never to smile, by the way. It completely spoils the effect of simmering sullenness.

So – and this is the bit I could never quite grasp – when Scott Whatsit looked at himself in the mirror/shiny car/untroubled pond he was actually someone else. I mean, there was another actor or actress looking back at him with approximately the same expression. But when he turned round to face the camera he was Scott Whatsit again, but with lipstick and a curly wig or whatever. I could never quite get my head round this.

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If I can’t help I’m just gonna sit here and sulk!

And there often came a point – and here I am gradually getting to the point of this post – where he assumed he had achieved whatever he had been drawn back to that particular life for, ie he had managed to reconcile that warring father and son, or neatly solve a sixty-year old murder mystery – at which point – being by this time an old hand at Quantum Leaping – he would be expecting to Jump – ie for the screen to go all fuzzy and for him to find himself in yet another life – and that would be the end of the episode, till the next time, when the yet another life would unfold. Cliff-hanger.

Except that sometimes at this point he didn’t Jump, and he couldn’t understand why, and he spent a lot of time puzzling over this, and consulting with a dozy colleague back in the Lab, with whom he remained magically in touch via some sort of multi-coloured plastic box with flashing lights.

And that’s how I feel, often, now. I suppose it’s depression-in-disguise (isn’t everything?) or some form of Existential Angst, but I’m walking along and suddenly into my mind pops this self-same question: Why Am I Still Here? Mum’s “gone”, Dad’s Gone, one sister’s in Canada going through her own trauma, and I am guessing may never come over again, the other sister finds me uncool and embarrassing or something, and so has ceased to communicate. I did think I might read through all my 2,000 paperbacks again, or maybe knit a very long scarf, but I can’t seem to get started on either project. I seem to be in this kind of limbo-land, perpetually poised to find myself somewhere else, on some far distant shore, in some other (please!) younger body, and hopefully minus the red lipstick, the five o’clock shadow and the cheap wig – and yet nowhere Else materialises.

Every morning I peer into the bathroom mirror and no, I am still, relentlessly, surprisingly, me.

What’s going on? Apart from feeding nineteen cats twice a day, what part of my quantum mission have I yet to fulfil?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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The silent battle of the tails…

Featured Image: This sill ain’t big enough for the three of us..

The Sewing Machine Mouse

Now, machines are notoriously grumpy. This is why the refrigerator elects to break down just before somebody’s birthday party. This is why the washing machine floods the kitchen floor on the very day you return from your holidays bearing suitcase after suitcase of unwashed smalls and sandy bathing costumes. Machines lead a boring life, on the whole, and they blame humans for this.

And this is why household appliances do not tell us that they can grant wishes. At least, selected wishes. An electric oven, for example, has the power to make it a nice sunny day for a picnic. If it chooses. It can cause a woolly blanket to wrap itself around the shoulders of an old lady who has fallen asleep on the sofa in Midwinter. If it chooses. But it will not choose very often.

A television can, if it chooses, happen to be showing your favourite soppy romantic film of all time when you are feeling particularly down and your boyfriend has just left you for some blonde floosie he happened to bump into in a supermarket car park, just by accident.

Except of course that it might not have been an accident. Cars can grant wishes, if they choose. Why, even supermarket trolleys have been known to grant wishes to passing strangers – if they happen to have woken up feeling full of beans that day. So your faithless boyfriend may just have happened to wish for a blonde floosie of some sort as he locked his Ford Fiesta with that funny little key thing that hardly ever works, or as he passed a trolley bay…

A fridge – ah, a refrigerator can only really do things to do with cold, or at any rate cooler. In a heatwave, say, it might cause a cool breeze to flutter across the heated brow of the plumber, quietly cursing under your sink to fix that awkward bit of piping. It might send a cold shiver up your spine to remind you that you have forgotten Auntie Gertie’s birthday yet again, and better get a card in the post right now.

And what can a sewing machine do? Well, sewing machines are a bit different. They do indeed grant wishes, but only to animals. Sewing machines prefer animals to human beings, you see, and I can’t say I blame them.

So when a funny little cloth mouse appeared on my sewing machine this afternoon, all crooked button eyes and wiggly stitching, with a piece of cord for a tail and ears that looked as if they might have been sewn on backwards, I knew… George, innocently asleep now in a basket of paper patterns for, of all things, aprons… George had just been dreaming of a mouse of his very own.

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The Chain Gang

I remember reading at some point in my “Buddhist” phase that before he became The Buddha, Buddha was married and had a son, and he named that son Rahula, which means a Shackle, or Impediment. What he actually said was A rahu is born, a fetter has arisen, and what he meant was that this child could tie him to his wife, thus impeding his quest for enlightenment. At the time I remember thinking Gosh, that’s very… honest. Brutal, in fact.

Because of course we are nearly all well-and-truly shackled to/impeded by a whole host of other living beings, whether or not we admit as much to ourselves, or verbalise it. I had no children, but no doubt would have felt as shackled to them as the Buddha was to his Rahula. And now I am shackled to my poor elderly mother, who scarcely recognises me, and to nineteen cats, most of which are ungrateful and one of which bit me and ruined my Christmas.

I was thinking just now, what would I actually like to do with the rest of my life, were I to be given a choice. I found it quite difficult even to imagine what I would like to do, given that I have never had much of a choice up to now.

I closed my eyes. I could sort of imagine myself travelling. Maybe buy a camper van and go all over Britain, like a (comfortable) lady tramp or gypsy. And I could imagine myself being able to draw – how, I’m not sure, but this is fantasy, right? – and setting off on my travels equipped with sketchbook and drawing pencils. Oh, lots of pencils, beautifully sharpened, of all different grades… And maybe a tin of watercolours…

I could imagine writing a bit of a book about my travels – all the odd people I encountered and maybe discussed the Meaning of Life with along the way. I am some sort of honeypot to oddbods, so that would be no problem!

I wishfully imagined never having to see the inside of this house again – the thin, inherited carpet – ancient when I arrived – the ruined, cat-ripped furniture; the chipped plates, the unwashed windows; the damp forming morning pools on the window-sills in winter; the impossibility of ever keeping anything really clean; looking out at gone-to-seed garden; those thorny rose-stalks towering high as trees above the garage. And I think what a relief it would be to leave it all behind. To just abandon it all.

For I am a person who was meant to change, and change, and change. I am one of those skin-shedders, those metamorphosers, those shape-shifters. But now I am fixed, absolutely fixed, in this dull place, inside this dull, imperfect body and in these dire circumstances.

And now – last straw, really – I seem to be feeding a dog. As if nineteen cats was not enough, now my garden is being haunted by some large, brown creature who turns up, usually in the rain – as just now – soaking wet and ravenous. Luckily I had some dog food. He ate whole a tin of that plus six sachets of Felix, and continued to lurk around the back door for some time with an air of vague disappointment and underfedness about him. He leaps back if I get anywhere near him, so must be as frightened of me as I am of him. I don’t think I will try patting him on the head. One septic hand is quite enough.

I have no idea what sort of dog he might be. He is about as high as a supermarket trolley, and a sort of brindled brown. He is vaguely greyhound shaped but much bigger and shaggier. Narrow… He has ears like a spaniel, but smaller, and instead of drooping down they stick out kind of sideway, in tufts. I wonder if I can find a picture…

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Yeah, he looks a bit like a very large, quite a bit darker and very wet version of this, which according to the internet is a lurcher. So perhaps a gypsies’ dog. It seems almost as if this dog is living out my fantasy existence on my behalf, except he’s not having much fun doing it because he’s hungry and wet and it’s February, which is the darkest, dampest, chilliest, most horrible month of the year.

But what am I to do? I mean, about any of the above? I can’t see any possible scenario – apart from a heap of gold coins and priceless diamond descending upon me from the sky – where I could buy that camper van, abandon the grim and peeling décor of the inside of my house and abandon nineteen beloved cats to the whims of fate. Frankly, even if I had the money to buy the camper van I’d probably not have the courage to drive it, or to set off in it, on my own.

I suppose I could take arts and crafts classes. I did have a bit of a scroll down Adult Education. Can’t say I’m inspired by flower arranging or clay medallion making, and all the art classes seem to be a long way away, And full. There are waiting lists.

And the dog. If I report him to the RSPCA, what will they do with him? I don’t want to be responsible for him being carted off, shut in a concrete-floored cage for months, then unsentimentally euthanased because nobody wants him. Anyway, he eats, he vanishes. Unlike cats he keeps to no predictable routine. Am I to have an RSPCA man lurking in my garden, day in, day out, just in case?

So I expect for the time being I will just do nothing. Have dog food ready. Not take art lessons, not buy a camper van. Generally, go on exactly as before.

Lucy: I Am Everywhere

‘Lucy’ was one of many films I would have liked to see when they were new, but had to wait till they appeared on TV. And last night, at last, it did appear and I actually sat down and watched it, all the way through from start to finish. Like, amazing!

Mostly I get to see films on TV in snatches and completely out of sequence, and subsequently piece them together in my mind. That’s half the fun – imagining the missing segments, then finding out segment by segment that they were not the way I imagined them – or were. That way you get several films for the price of one, or rather for the price of an annual television licence. (And if I can survive long enough into old age even that will be free.)

My most watched-in-fragments film by far is The Fifth Element, which seems to haunt Freeview. Whichever channel you flick to, there it is. And I am still noticing new things it. Second would be Avatar. I love Avatar. I seem to be drawn to anything sci-fi or fantasy – unusual in a lady of my age, but it can’t be helped. On the other hand I loathe soaps. I’ve never managed to watch any episode East Enders, Coronation Street or Emmerdale for more than five minutes without being driven to switch over by the gloom, the grating accents, the hysteria, the bellowing and the inch-thick makeup.

And I do like Scarlett Johansson. If God gives me a choice next time round to look less like a giant racing-cyclist’s daughter I will ask to look more like Scarlett. Much more. The world would be one’s oyster with a face like that. And she can convey something like terror, for instance, with nothing more than an impassive face and a rapid flickering of the eyes. This is a contained reaction – terror as you and I would like to imagine we would manifest it, if about to be operated on and have a huge plastic wrap of some brain-enhancing blue crystal substance concealed amongst our intestines against our will. Terror without the screeching, the gibbering and the uncontrollable widdling.

Much as I like watching films I do not much enjoy going to the cinema, at least alone. Cinemas are dark. They are full of people who kick the back of your seat, try to grope you (well, not so much of that nowadays) continue using their mobile phones, eat, chat and dump their inconvenient children next to you. Yes, I once had a pair of parents pointing their horrible, fidgety, snot-nosed children to come and hem me in at the end of a side aisle, whilst they repaired to another part of the cinema completely. I have never known a pair of children to get up, go out to the loo, come back, sit down, get up… and so forth, so many times in succession.

No doubt I could learn how to stream films but that would mean committing myself to sitting down and watching them and – apart from the odd exception like ‘Lucy’ – that is something the inherited Mum side of me won’t let me do. Mum used to claim that it was Grandad, her father, making it impossible for her to sit down, stay put and concentrate on anything for more than two minutes, or rather her internalised, reproving father figure.

Grandad only lived along the road and had become, for Mum, a kind of troll-under-the-bridge bogeyman. After Nan died he was lonely, desperate to be useful and had a tendency to materialise at our back  (kitchen) door with an overlarge panful of peeled potatoes mid-morning (‘He will dig the eyes out – they’re full of craters!’). According to Mum if he caught her sitting down with a cup of tea he would ask her if she hadn’t anything better she could be getting on with.

As a know-it-all teenager I once pointed out to her that Grandad was merely an excuse to rationalise her naturally jumpy, hyperactive nature but she wasn’t into self-analysis. I on the other hand was gradually analysing myself away to some sort of vanishing point at which the real, spontaneous, basic me could no longer be accessed. The ‘real’ me seemed to have retreated to some kind of fantasy garden to which I had mislaid the key. And perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to fantasy and sci-fi. Roaming these fantastical other worlds I am hoping against hope one day to meet up with me.

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Serious Moonlight

No signal was given. As the Bridge of Mists began to form the music from both sides of the Great Chasm died down of its own accord. On the green side, pipers clutched their flutes to their chests in terror and in rapture, and the voices of green-clad choristers died in their throats. On the purple side, drummers ceased their drumming, raggedly, a beat here, a beat there. The player of the Great Viol, that beast of an instrument, dropped his electronic bow. The light was changing. As the moon rose, the bridge began to form simultaneously from either end, iridescent, sparkling, entirely without substance and yet, apparently, real.

On either side there were old folk who had witnessed this event at the second moon of every seventh year, many times before, and yet they stood open-mouthed with the rest; each Bridge seemed more magnificent, more portentous than the one it succeeded.

The structure formed slowly, the purple span and the green span creeping towards one another, coalescing out of the mist that always existed in the Chasm, obscuring that which lived beneath, the Great Dragon who kept the planet alive – guardian of crops, channel for the two suns, bringer of babes and source of all fecundity. But now it had become hungry, as had happened every seventh year, time out of mind. Now it needed them, their joint and willing sacrifice.

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Rogoth and Jessika had never met in the flesh. For the past seven years they had communicated via Sunlink, exchanging images, ideas and thoughts. They had carried mobile communicators round with them and charted their days for each other. They had even sung lullabies to each other, when one or the other couldn’t sleep. They had documented their days for each other, and had never felt alone or single. They knew each other intimately and yet, the chasm stood always between them, for Rogoth belonged to the purple side and Jessika to the green.

Such cross-Chasm friendships – business ventures, collaborations – love stories, even – were not uncommon. The Children of the Dragon were one race, or had been once. Long ago, it was said, the planet had not been divided, at least not along the entirety of its equator, and people had moved to and fro. In those days the greens and the purples were almost indistinguishable but as the aeons of isolation passed they began to diverge, physically, the purples accumulating more of the dragon’s features and markings and tending towards the purple side of its iridescence. Greens, like Jessika, tended to have fewer dragon markings and the rudimentary spinal scales were missing, but they glowed more strongly green.

Rogoth and Jessika fell in love, as the stars had always intended them to do. Over the years their love for each other had grown until it equalled and then transcended their love of life. And that was why, as the two spans of the bridge joined over the central and deepest part of the chasm, they were setting forth from either side.

As he walked Rogoth examined his feelings and finally allowed himself to acknowledge that he was afraid, not so much of death – because when it came it his death would be unimaginably swift – but of heights. Ridiculous, he thought, to fear falling when you were about to fall anyway, and had volunteered to fall.

The bridge was substantial enough for the moment. No chance of slipping through it, though it was made of nothing more than air and magic. And it was wide, curving gently inwards at the edges. No chance of slipping off. When he – when he and Jessika – did fall it would be because the bridge had dissolved beneath their feet.

Jessika wheeled her chair towards the centre. Rogoth, of course, knew of her disability, as he knew everything about her. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she would be able to reach out, touch him, look long (or at least for a long last moment) into those beautiful dragonish eyes of his. Everything about Rogoth was splendid, she thought, finding it harder to wheel herself now, as the bridge became steeper. Her dear Rogoth was …elegant… that was the word for it.

She had sometimes wondered what their children would have been like, had they been able to breed the way people did on other planets, without the intercession of the Great Dragon. Would they have inherited his eyes? Would they have been green or purple, or some intriguingly random swirl of the two? It was possible, of course, that Rogoth would not have wished to breed with her, in such alien circumstances. What could he ever have seen in such a plain, crippled little thing?

Jessika was afraid too, but there was no turning back. She had promised this – they had sworn it to each other, and she would not let him down now. He was getting closer. She could make out his tall figure, an elaborate ceremonial gown, similar to the one she wore, except his was encrusted with amethysts and hers with peridot. Not , as yet, his features.

At last they were face to face. He smiled down at her, and she smiled back and great joy overtook them. Dragon-Bridge began to make its own music, far different from anything the merely dragon-begotten could produce. The Chasm, the Bridge and the Great Dragon that lived beneath it were combining somehow, singing as one.

“Shall we dance, Jessika?” Rogoth asked, extending a courtly hand. He had rehearsed that line so long, wondering if it was too… much. His hand was long and slender, she noticed, and the palms a pale violet. There was a hint of the curved claw to the long, polished fingernails. She could have examined them for ever, she felt. Every detail of every part of him, for ever.

“I’m afraid I cannot…” she began, embarrassed, as much by her own thoughts as by the chair, but he was already reaching down and lifting her. She would never have to sit in that contraption again, she realised. A moment’s exultation! Reaching around his neck to steady herself, she felt the rudimentary triangles of dragon-spine beneath the skin. She looked into his eyes, which were purple with golden flecks, the iris more slit-like and elongated than her own.

If only we could have had more time, she thought, as they commenced their first and last dance together in the swirling mist. If only… as they locked eyes, and the music increased in beauty and intensity, and the Bridge became less and less bridge, more and more air, less causeway, more mist…

Until at last…

Are these lemons, and is lemonade what I’m making?

The last time I got my feet seen to, it must have been ten years ago. Maybe. Or eight, or fifteen. I never was good with time. I went to an alternative health centre in my old town – proper carpets, it had, and those leather-look plastic armchairs that make a kind of sighing noise when you sink into them; prints of sailing boats on the wall; a receptionist in a white uniform, with a name badge; tasteful displays of leaflets for soothing-sounding, alternative-type things: acupuncture, counselling, reiki, aromatherapy. It was expensive, but I was working then and I justified the expense by leaving over-long gaps between visits and reminding myself that you should never skimp on your feet, a saying I had adapted from one of my father’s: You should never skimp on brakes or tyres.

My then-chiropodist was a lady. She was nice, but in a loud and terrifying sort of way. As soon as I was safely tethered on her couch she, giant-thighed astride a stool at the foot of it, busy with her mini-pliers, her tiny sanders-and-polishers, her sharp little razors, would start to interrogate me about the most intimate details of my life. Somehow it seemed impossible not to answer her. In full. She didn’t so much speak as boom, and had a way of repeating and amplifying every juicy detail she had just extracted from me. I was always afraid that those in the plush waiting room outside would hear. In fact I knew they would because I myself had been waiting in that plush waiting room and overhearing.

Today I went to another chiropodist at the day-care centre up here. Cut rate because of it being an old people place. Worth being an old person, for cut rate. He met me at the door and signed me in and I followed him into a kind of utility room-cum-workshop. There was a washing-machine going in the corner. It had just reached rinse-and-spin. Part way through my appointment a Chinese gentleman dressed in a donkey jacket with a tabard over the top entered with another pile of washing. He didn’t knock, but then it was only my naked feet he was catching a fleeting glimpse of. Everything appeared to be covered in a fine film of feet-dust, not all of it mine. I was reminded of what they said about crematoria and dead people’s ashes.

However, my feet got done, nicely and professionally, and I fairly skipped back to the car park thinking My toes, my toes, what twinkling toes I do have! I had forgotten, through all the years of skimping and scrimping, what it felt like to look after myself in any physical way. Somewhere along the way I had mislaid that sense of deserving any care. It also occurred to me that that apart from fleeting interactions with the neighbours, the post-lady and the visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses – with whom, unfortunately, I now seem to be on first-name terms – the conversation with the chiropodist was probably only the second real conversation I had had here in the past four years.

And then tonight on TV there was yet another Island programme – in this case Fair Isle, which I gather is half way between Shetland and Orkney. I’m a sucker for programmes about Islands since in my younger days I had a fantasy – one of many fantasies, all totally unrealistic – of going to live on a Scottish island and becoming, somehow – how, given my total inability to join in or mingle? – part of a close-knit community. Yes, I would be knitting lovely jumpers from wool spun from Island sheep, which would be fluffy sheep, not large and greasy and obstreperous as I know real sheep to be.

I would be doubling as the island’s postmistress, pottering around windswept, rain-lashed lanes in my little red van, or possibly red tractor. I might have a workshop and… paint stuff…even though I have no artistic talent. I might help out on a fishing boat in my spare time, even though I’m a vegetarian and couldn’t bear to hurt a fish, or teach in a little school with five charming children. Any more than five, charming or not, as I discovered as a hopeless student teacher would be quite beyond me. I would be weather-beaten, spare and romantically tough. I would twist my hair up into a loose knot, with some sort of tortoiseshell slide and it would stay put, not fall apart immediately. I would wear faded jeans, check shirts, woolly hats and muddy wellingtons and I would be competent and… useful.

Subsequently it occurred to me that dreams can be very dangerous things. This indulgence in fantasies of future lives is one massive great tempting of fate. You are likely find that you have been vouchsafed instead the pale cousin of that life, its echo – its wraith, if you will – and that may be worse, far worse, than having been granted nothing at all. On the other hand, of course, it may be necessary to dream first of nectarines to pave the way for the inevitable lemons and the lemonade, of sorts, that might be made from them.

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What wondrous life is this I lead!

Ripe apples drop upon my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach…

From: The Garden, by Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)

Angel Delight

The story behind the story?

As always, miscellaneous. Late last night I thought, ‘I do believe I will try one of those six bottles of speciality, fruity-type beer I bought myself for Christmas’. I promise I only drank one bottle, in fact I drink so rarely nowadays that I’d had to buy a bottle-opener to go with it. Anyway, it was fruity, and a bit strange, and I woke at three in the morning sharing a fur-splotched pillow with Arthur (a black cat) who was snoring. No headache just a slight sense of confusion.

The Miseries arrived with a whoosh. I started thinking about Mum in that hospital bed, not ‘mobilising’ as they had so confidently predicted, not eating, not drinking, hardly responding. I was thinking how hard it was to live with the undead, the drowning, and how at some point you had to let them sink away down and out of sight, like Kate Winslet in that film ‘Titanic’. But how do you loosen your grip on the last of  your whole-life relationships? Mum has, with the best of intentions, been driving me round the bend my whole life and yet now I find I can’t imagine life without her.

And then – with that lightning switch you can only manage at three in the morning – I found myself worrying about the new broadband router instead. Would the little brown box arrive tomorrow as scheduled? Would I be able to sort out all those little plugs and wires and get it working? No doubt it would mean yet another stressful, circular call to a surly individual, barely able to speak English in a call centre half way round the globe.

At this point I gave up and got up. Stumbling downstairs I made myself a cup of builders’ tea, wrapped the spare dressing-gown round my knees to cut out the draught from the front door and turned on the TV. Mostly it was teleshopping but I managed to find something – was it Lucy Worsley wittering on about the six wives of Henry VIII? Or maybe she was the night before. Maybe last night it was endlessly-looped repeats of the unbearable carnage in Aleppo and the temporary ceasefire gone west again. The day ahead was promising to be a very, very bad one indeed, unless I could manage to write something.

And then I thought, supposing you were to get your new broadband router, plug all the bits and pieces in and get the all those little lights flashing? Something or someone materialises on your computer screen: but very much not the something or someone you had been expecting…

ANGEL DELIGHT

Two things woke Pete – bright mid-morning sun hitting his eyelids because he had forgotten to close the curtains last night, and some stupid bastard leaning on the doorbell. He squeezed his throbbing eyes tighter shut but could not shut his ears. However long he waited the ringing would not stop. He moved slightly and fell off the sofa, landing in the cold remains of a pepperoni pizza and knocking over a half-empty beer-can full of cigarette butts. Breakfast TV had already finished. They were on to the Business Program.

‘All right, all right!’ he screamed, and then wished he hadn’t. His skull hurt, and unknown creatures whistled, shrieked and reverberated inside it like bats in a cave. How much had he drunk, for God’s sake?

The cat got in his way as he staggered towards the door. He kicked out at it with his still-booted foot, not really expecting it to connect with the animal’s scrawny frame, but it did connect and the cat cried out and fell down. How long since he had fed that thing? Pete couldn’t recall. Why had it even persisted in hanging around? It wasn’t even his. Shelley had taken the kid but not the kid’s cat when she ran off to that feminist shelter place. Looked like he’d done for it this time, anyway – it wasn’t getting up.

The front door seemed unusually far from the sofa. That sun needed a dimmer switch. There wasn’t room on the carpet for him to tread without treading something underfoot: everywhere, clothes, magazines, bottles and cold, greasy take-away food. Bile rose in his throat.

‘I will never eat again,’ he told himself. Not realising it was true.

To be continued…

Angel Delight, continued

Angel Delight, concluded

Featured Image: Black Angel Cat – Green Eyes 2: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

Soldiering on when you’ve lost the plot

So there I was, having written part one of what I thought was going to be a two-, or at the very most a three-blog-post story. But just like those science fiction double episodes that you don’t immediately realise are going to be double episodes, things didn’t seem to be coming to any sort of conclusion. Rather, the plot seemed to be expanding. Dangerously.

Oh no, I’m thinking, could I have accidentally started writing a novel inside a blog? Could it be that in three years time I’ll still be posting some equivalent of War and Peace in bite-size chunks? People will long since have stopped reading by then. Why didn’t I plot the thing out in detail for heaven’s sake?

This is how I felt:

typing.jpg

I really don’t like the look of the man. Presumably it is a man?

The reason was because I was too lazy and also because I knew if I got bogged down in plotting it I’d never actually get round to writing it. I have boxes of detailed, well-thought-out plots for stories I have never written. Boxes full of files full of other files, full of A4 dividers and paper clips full of forgotten and unwritten plans for things. An aeon, an ocean of boxes.

One thing at a time, I thought. What is today’s problem? Today’s problem, me told myself, is that you/she have/has bravely/foolishly published part one of a short story having no clue as to what happens in part two, let alone the rest.

So what shall I do? me asked me.

Start asking questions, me replied.

So here are the first three of a list of questions I asked myself about The Obedience of Brother Odhran going forward, and the answers that arrived from somewhere or other – out of the ether. I spent an hour or so doing this, by the end of which I had more or less uncovered the whole plot, although the characters will keep butting in at inconvenient moments with refinements and fol-de-rols:

Where did the manuscript come from?

Italy, the Siege of Florence – and thence into the hands of a Roman ancestor of the new Abbot. The book was thrown from the battlements by an unknown hand, and he caught it. It was in some unreadable script. He was taking part in the siege and brought it back to Rome.

Why has the new Abbot been appointed – with what ulterior motive?

By the Pope himself, to root out dissolution weakness in the monastery. He has heard Henry VII means them harm (1536) And may even be thinking of destroying the monasteries. The Pope requires the monasteries to be strong and above reproach, should this happen. The new Abbot is therefore a cross between a spy and a sergeant major.

What happened to the old Abbot?

He was said to have died of a mysterious illness on a visit to a sister monastery, but there is no proof. He was got rid of.

There were many more questions and answers on my list. I’ll keep them to myself for now  so as not to give away the ending of The Obedience of Brother Odhran for anyone currently reading it. You will see, by the way, if you read the story itself, that not all of the answers were slavishly followed. Things change and rearrange themselves as you go along, sometimes quite drastically. That’s all right.

I think the thing is – a kind of practical confidence that comes from years and years of constructing stories of one sort or another. It’s really odd since I have very little confidence about anything else. It’s not conceit: it’s not believing you can write a good story, only that you’re going be able to write some sort of story. You have the bones of  this monster in your head. You will to be able to build the Creature, stitch all those charnel bits and pieces together and breathe life into, even if it’s not exactly pretty. The thing is you can perform as much cosmetic surgery as you like on It/Him/Her later (or not, in my case, since I’m posting as I go along). The only important thing is to finish what you started.

The Patience of Gryphons: part the fourth and final

The auctioneer’s assistant carried the missing gryphon out to Henry’s car. On Sybil’s instruction he placed it, very gingerly, on the driver’s seat. (She suspected that this was the same poor blighter who had been responsible for despatching a single gryphon to Surrey after the auction rather than a pair. He had probably had the Riot Act well and truly read to him by the auctioneer when his mistake had been discovered since Sybil and Henry were regular, and therefore much valued, customers.) The second little gryphon stood tall in a cardboard box, wrapped in an old army blanket; a stone ornament being treated with as much care as one of the young Princesses.

Gryphons are known for their patience but even they were becoming impatient now, Greyclaw on the back seat of this… conveyance… and Rainfeathers on the front beside their new mistress: a temporary mistress, as both of them sensed. Woman, yes, this Sybil, but not witch. They required witch.

And still they were not at the right angle and cannot lock eyes – but soon, surely. Even the auction-house man seemed to sense it. The atmosphere inside the motor-car seemed to sizzle, the moment the siblings were together. It was a bit like the Blitz, when the power cables started falling, explosions in a dark sky.

He withdrew his head rather quickly, and doffed his cap. ‘Safe journey, madam.’

The reverse seems to be happening to Sybil. As the man closed the door on the three of them; as she pressed the button on the dashboard and the yellow indicator arm bounced up, and even as she was drawing out from the kerb into the unfamiliar density of rush-hour traffic, she was starting to wonder what on earth had possessed her. Had she truly woken at the crack of dawn, crept out whilst mist still carpeted the lawn, driven for mile after mile down country lanes, scarcely knowing where she was going;  fingers crossed that no mischievous child had turned the signposts to send her off in the wrong direction. Had she really driven all the way to London without informing her husband either of where she was going or that she had learned how to drive during his absence on military duties?

What terrible complications and recriminations her actions were likely to cause – and all for the sake of two garden ornaments!

And on what mad impulse had she brought the other gryphon with her? Surely she wasn’t expecting them to have some sort of conversation on the way home?

The trip home was not even as much fun as the trip in. By the time Sybil regained Sussex and its narrow country lanes, it was getting late – much later than she had planned for. And now the car seemed to be mysteriously coughing and spluttering and slowing down. She pressed her foot down on the accelerator knowing, really, that that wasn’t going to make any difference. The car coasted into a layby beside a wood – not actually blocking the road, there was that much to be thankful for – and died.

Silence: but not before Sybil had caught sight of one of the many dials on Henry’s car’s elaborate dashboard. There was a petrol machine and a kind of gauge… even and as she watched the dial on this gauge was sliding from red to nothing at all. Why on earth had she assumed Henry’s motor-car would contain sufficient petrol for a journey of this length? For all she knew it might have been half-empty when she set off. It now dawned on her that even if she had thought to stop at a garage and ask for the tank to be refilled, she hadn’t brought enough money with her to pay for that. Henry had always been so good at dealing with that sort of…

‘Well, nothing for it, Sybil Old Girl,’ she murmured, unconsciously adopting Henry’s comforting voice. ‘You can’t stay here all night. You’ll just have to get out and start walking. There’s bound to be a farmhouse close by – or similar. Somewhere big enough to have a telephone. ‘Worse things happened in the Blitz, Old Girl, remember that. You’re still alive; it’s just that you’ve been very, very foolish.’ She could hear the ‘stiff upper lip’ voice trembling.

She glanced back into the car before locking it. ‘My poor little gryphons,’ she sighed, ‘reunited only to be abandoned in a nameless country lane! Here, let me turn you to face one another. At least you can have a chat while I’m away.’ The audible quiver was becoming more apparent. ‘But remember, my dears – Careless Talk Costs Lives.’

The siblings had locked eyes, entirely focussed on one another but waiting still; waiting for woman-not-witch to be far enough down the lane to be out of sight of the motor car.

‘Joy, sister!’

‘Joy, my brother!’

‘Three hundred years, and now…’

And then, the light.

Henry is not angry so much as puzzled. One minute he was pretending to read The Financial Times in the drawing room and trying not to worry about Sybil, whilst trying to decide whether to telephone to the police. The next minute he was overtaken – overwhelmed by a kind of longing, an irresistible compulsion to not call the police but instead scrunch down the gravel driveway and hammer on the front door of the gardener’s cottage. He didn’t even know what he was about to say when the door was opened, but it turned out to be:

‘Bert, could you give me a lift on your motorcycle? It’s Sybil – she’s in some kind of trouble.’

‘Yassir,’ said Bert, reaching for his goggles and leather coat. ‘Luckily the sidecar’s already attached so we can bring Missus back in style. But where to?’

Henry didn’t know, and felt extremely foolish. He only knew they had to go, this minute, and that somehow or other they would find her. He scanned the horizon. It seemed to him that he could see, with some alternative ‘eye’ that he had been totally unaware of until just now, a greenish glow spreading out along the horizon.

‘Do you see that, Bert?’ he said, pointing.

‘Nossir,’ said Bert. ‘But you just point the way.’

Sybil had come to hobbling a halt only a few miles down the lane. Her feet, in their town shoes, had developed blisters remarkably quickly. She bent down, wondering whether she might tear her pocket handkerchief in half and use the two pieces to pad out the back of the shoes, or take off the shoes altogether and head back to the car.

‘Chin up, Old Girl,’ she told herself, dabbing at her eyes with the handkerchief.

‘The Blitz, remember? Worse things happening?’

She turned to look back down the lane and caught sight of a greenish glow rising above the trees and blending with phantom clouds in the night sky. It seemed to be coming from where she had left the car. And now, to cap it all, she was hearing things…

The distant but unmistakeably familiar sound of a motorbike with sidecar attached.

The laughter and song of sibling gryffons as they performed an elegant pas-de-deux in the night air.

Beaks entwined, and tails. Paw seeking paw.

Three hundred years!

The Patience of Gryphons: part the third

Sybil was not having a satisfactory day. The whole world seemed to be celebrating but she, at home in Surrey, was fretting about the view from the terrace windows. Grey English drizzle ruined the lovely sloping view down the garden, to the point where it met with a field of grazing sheep. The leaded panes still bore their crosswise brown-paper strips in case of bomb-blast – though that was unlikely, since the War was in the process of ending. Yesterday had been VE Day. Sailors and drunken girls had danced in the streets. Some had climbed lamp-posts to wave at the seething crowds below. The radio had been full of talk of “Good Old Winnie” leading us to victory. Sybil knew she should be happy. She was a well-kept woman of thirty-seven, with a wealthy husband. They and what remained of their pre-War staff had come safely through the six years of War and austerity. Curtyss Manor had suffered no damage, from bombs or shrapnel at any rate. One wing of the house had been taken over by soldiers, for a while, and that had sustained some damage – boot-marks on the skirting board, rips in the curtains, cigarette burns all over the place… why did soldiers have to make such a mess?

It was scarcely patriotic to feel, as she did today, both restless and miserable.

Why does everything conspire to obscure one’s view? She murmured to herself. Now a spring mist was starting to creep in. A moment more and she would no longer be able to see…

Why was it, she wondered, that the sight affected her so, the sight of that lonely little gryphon at the far edge of the terrace? Why was she still annoyed at the auction house for their oversight in delivering only one of the pair. The other was perfectly safe in their store room, they had assured her, and would be delivered next time one of their vehicles was in Surrey. Shortage of petrol, of course. She did understand. They could hardly just leap into their van and make a special trip, for the sake of one garden ornament. But that gryphon, out there in the drizzle, in its lonely singularity, annoyed her. It was designed to be in a pair, it was part of set. Its current singularity irritated her and… and she couldn’t help feeling, illogical though it was, that this gryphon was missing it’s mate, or twin, or whatever you called it. It was as if… as if it was calling to her. Every time she passed this window she felt somehow compelled to look out, and the feeling was getting stronger. It had got so that she couldn’t pass the drawing room door without going in, going to the terrace window, looking out. Just to check…

To check what? What was she expecting, that the solitary little gryphon would have moved since last time she checked up on it? That maybe it would have packed its little stone bags and set off for London in search of its missing twin? Fanciful, thought Sybil, ridiculous! She was normally such a sensible person. Might it be a case of nerves? Perhaps the stress of war had affected her more than she realised.

The rain continued, but Sybil had had an idea. Her little ‘creature’ couldn’t move, but she could. She could pack an overnight bag and take the motor-car to London, herself.  The idea both scared and excited her. There was the London traffic and unfamiliar roads, of course, but that wasn’t it. “It” was that Sybil had been taught to drive by one of the officers billeted at Curtyss. Her husband had been posted overseas for a while, and it had happened during his absence.  For some reason, she had never told him that she could drive.

Had it been to protect his masculine pride? Henry did have rather old fashioned views on women drivers. It was an extension of his conviction that machinery and the fair sex did not mix. Or had it been because that particular officer had been rather handsome? He’d been married, of course. Five years married. Two young boys and a girl, he’d told her. Nothing untoward had happened; no meaningful glances, no accidental brushing of hands. They had been friends, and that was all. And he had taught her to drive. A useful skill, but one Henry didn’t happen to know about.

“Well, I shall just set forth”, she told herself. Her husband was not an early riser. She could be gone before he awoke and deal with the explanations… afterwards.  No doubt it would put it down to her age: hormones and such.

The poor lost creature on the terrace seemed to be calling to her now. Its distress had become hers, and since she had had her Idea the volume of that distress seemed only to be increasing. She could not ignore it. Ridiculous it might be, but she absolutely must set forth and fetch the gryphon’s mate.

The Patience of Gryphons: part the second

And so they waited, meditating, as each had done so many times before, on the moment their Three Hundred Years began.

As history wore on, in books of stories it began to be told that Greyclaw and Rainfeathers, Grimalkin’s gryphon familiars, nested in her skirts.

In fact gryphons do not nest. Being mythical creatures they need no physical shelter or place of rest – neither nest nor lair. What they do require is invisibility, to be obscured from the prying eyes of men, and Grimalkin’s magical skirts had provided this. A bargain is always struck between a witch and her familiars: their assistance – their company – in exchange for… Well, it could be many things. It could be power – her power allied with theirs. It could be invisibility, as in the case of gryphons. It could be as simple as food.

A cat, for example, is made of flesh and blood. She needs food, and the witch provides it. Any ordinary cat may pay for her food in trophy mice dropped on the doorstep, or in real or faked affection. A witch’s cat does the same, but with this sole difference – that she may carry her mistress’s essence from one reincarnation to the next. Felix-the-Cat and Robin-the-Redbreast – these alone of the animal kingdom are entrusted with the soul of a dying witch.

Then came the dreadful day when Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, moved into the County. At the age of twenty-five Hopkins was coming close to his own death, though not as yet aware of it, only of an occasional fever and the spitting of blood. Failing health only made him more determined to add to his execution-list. Increasing weariness made him cast around for proxy means of catching witches, and he was inspired, one day, with the thought that he could conserve his own energy by pitting one witch against another.

And he had the witch Thomasine, said to be the most powerful magician in the East.  The woman had been languishing in a roach-infested cell in Chelmsford for some time, awaiting the coming of the Justice. Powerful, Hopkins estimated, but as scared of death on the bonfire as any other old woman might be. For the price of her life Thomasine proved ready enough to betray her sister witches, just as Judas betrayed Our Lord.  For every visit to every town a fee of £20 plus expenses would accrue to Matthew Hopkins and his crew: some towns had to raise a special tax to pay for them. Hopkins still imagined, at the age of twenty-five, that he would be living long enough to savour his riches.

Grimalkin sensed them coming, thin-coughing-man, he of the black hat and buckled shoes, alongside Thomasine, whose energy signature was strong enough to be picked up miles off. Grimalkin warned the little gryphons, who instantly blended themselves into her skirts and adding their power to hers. Grimalkin knew she was fighting for her life, and focussed all her energies on leading the hunters astray or blocking their path.

The soundless spell-battle between the great witch Thomasine and the lesser witch Grimalkin was to last for many days. Both knew it was a battle to the death. If Thomasine won, Grimalkin would die. If Grimalkin won, Thomasine would find herself back in the cell, awaiting the Justice of the Assize at His Majesty’s Pleasure.

Many times, Thomasine and the Witchfinder found themselves lost in scrub or woodland that had not existed a moment before. Darkness fell when darkness ought not to have fallen. Hideous music surrounded the pair, maddening them and confusing their senses. At various times both Thomasine and the Witchfinder woke from a dreamless sleep they were unaware of having fallen into. At times, plagues of frogs streamed across their path and bats curved down in daylight to tangle in their hair.

But Thomasine was the more powerful witch by far, and after many a delay was to lead the Witchfinder to Grimalkin’s cottage by the river. Matthew Hopkins men arrived on horseback and Grimalkin was dragged away to await the Justice of the Assize. And the gryphons…?

Huddled together, dangerously exposed, they prayed for the soul of the Good Witch Grimalkin. They asked for a robin to alight at her barred cell window, or that the jailhouse cat might prove to be no ordinary feline. Matthew Hopkins failed to see the sibling gryphons, even without the protection of Grimalkin’s skirts, but the Witch Thomasine did. She laughed.

Three Hundred Years, she sneered. Three Hundred Years, my lion-lings, before you shall set eyes on each other again. Greyclaw shall fly North and Rainfeathers shall fly South; and when you land, my baby-eagles, you shall each be turned to stone for Three Hundred Years.

The Patience of Gryphons: part the first

Gryphons are famed for their patience.

In the auction house store-room Greyclaw and Rainfeathers had been placed close together, but back to back when they needed to be face to face and eye to eye to break the curse. This would have been an unbearably frustrating situation for others but Greyclaw and Rainfeathers, stone siblings, had waited. They had waited, in isolation from one another, as wars raged about them, as buildings rose and fell, as the skies, at first empty, filled with metal birds and skyrockets. They had waited as clouds scurried above them, as rain blew against them, as snow fell made high, white hats on their heads. They had waited, Greyclaw and Rainfeathers, banished, he to the North Country and she to the South, as summer after summer passed them by, as children were born and old men crumbled into dust in churchyards. They had lived through silence and noise. They had existed so long as stone statues that they had forgotten how long they had lived.

They had waited in dusty sheds and in damp corners of stately homes. Weeds sometimes obscured them but always, eventually, gardeners would arrive with hook and sickle to hack the weeds away.

Moss grew on their beaks and blanketed their leonine flanks, but that too died, in its season. Snow formed high white hats on their proud heads, then melted.

Lovers walked by on cobbled pathways, hand in hand, scarcely noticing that one or other of the small, stone beast was watching them. Stone eyes were sightless, but a gryphon had other, more powerful senses. Greyclaw and Rainfeathers sensed each other’s presence. The moment that second brown-coated attendant walked through the door carrying an age-worn, moss-covered Rainfeathers, waves of joy and silent greetings passed between them.

“It is I, Greyclaw.”

“And I, Rainfeathers. I have missed you so, my brother.”

“Three Hundred Years.”

Back to back they could effect nothing to break the spell. It was all in the eyes. Greyclaw and Rainfeathers had waited three hundred years to be together, and eye to gryphon eye. Now they were indeed together, but…

“Our time draws closer. Patience, sister.”

“Patience indeed, my brother. And rejoicing.”

“Patience and Rejoicing.”

Three hundred years had passed. Grimalkin’s curse had expired, and might be broken.

 

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‘Her familiars were two little griphons that nested in her skirts’

 

NaPoWriMo 3/4/16: Whatever

I used to believe in white chargers and in chain-mail knights;

Had faith that God, the Universe – Whatever –

Would come a-galloping to save the day.

 I weep for jaded angels and for melting unicorns,

For those wings of mine that first refused to sprout

Then failed to feather; for the Silver Ladder

You promised you’d let down so I could climb.

But you didn’t – did you – ever?

suckers

 Today I prayed my final ever prayer

Addressed to God, the Universe – Whatever –

Abba, my Father, why hast thou forsaken me?

Grimdusk

Dusk, the dreaded dusk. Already affected by it, labourers staggered home from stone-picking in winter fields, their eyelids heavy despite the stinging cold; children, quarrelling over their toys, abandoned them, abandoned each other and sat dully by the fireside, fighting sleep to the last. Goodwives fought it, determined to finish the sweeping, or that bit of sewing, but it was useless. Dusk seeped into them, overcame them all. They dreaded it, for they knew what to expect: in the morning, blood on the snow. Another family – sometimes two families – vanished. Sometimes a finger, sometimes a tooth or a severed hand, but mostly – only blood.

Once more the Feeders.

Sleep crept up on Gimli too, and as always he noted it’s slow progress with meticulous care. It seemed to start from the feet and work up, he noted. Pins and needles, then a general lassitude. No matter how you fought it, as you jerked awake next morning you would have forgotten – where, how, the exact moment you lost consciousness. Gimli suspected the body might continue on until it reached it’s destination. There seemed always to be a gap in time. However tardy you were in returning, in that eerie gap, your body sleepwalked to the kin-hall.

Except tonight. He and Edil Wisewife had been experimenting with herbs from one of the far valleys. She had noted the effect of her herb concoction on larbils. Administering the drug to the creature as dusk fell, she slept, but in the morning examined its cage. The sand in the bottom was churned up. She had designed a clever exercise wheel to record the number of rotations it made as the little creature ran inside it. In the morning, the larbil was exhausted and wheel showed evidence of vigorous use.

Now it was Gimli’s turn. Swiftly, before it was too late, he drew the green glass vial from his pocket and drank the bitter liquid therein.

It worked. He hid in bushes on the outskirts of the village and watched sister moons Menem and Fley, rising in tandem, bright disks in the night sky. It was beautiful – and something he had never expected to witness. It worked! Now, at last, he would see what the Feeders looked like, what monsters they were.

He had hidden his father’s broadsword under the straw. It was within arm’s reach. If the worst came to the worst and they discovered his hiding place, he would fight them. The sword was heavy, but he knew that he could lift it. His arms itched and burned for a fight. Rage coursed in his veins as he thought of his countrymen – all the lost kin. The blood on the snow every morning. Hot rage churned in his guts. He felt… strange. He felt… he was frightened of how he felt. He seemed to be growing both in height and width, splitting and breaking, growing a bony carapace. Looking down at his hands, Gimli drew a shuddering breath as he saw them elongating, changing colour, growing an extra set of finger joints and long, scimitar claws…

Overnight the snows melted. Spring was in the air, but blood was smeared on wet grass, and daubed on the door of Gimli’s kin-hall. All five of them had been taken – the father, the mother, the little sister and the baby, and of course Gimli himself, a well-liked, intrepid boy. A wooden talisman – the one Gimli had carved for his sister – was discovered cast aside at the foot of the door, it’s ties broken and bloody with shreds of flesh attached. The ties were made of leather, and cut wide to resist loss or breakage. Creature or creatures must have ripped it from her neck.

“In a way, it’s a mercy,” said the goodwives as they clustered around the wash-trough. “If he’d been spared the boy would have been in torment. How could he have lived on alone?”

Had the snow remained they might would have seen footsteps leading away from the village, footsteps which changed as they ran – from long, clawed and bony to those of a young man, barefooted.

Had the snow remained they might have tracked those footsteps all the way to the sea, and to the cliff’s edge, and they might have looked over and seen, already bleaching clean in the cold light of Spring, a young man’s splintered bones.

grimdusk.jpg

Short Story: First Person Singular

My name is Maurice Smith and until recently I spent most of my days up here, in the fourth floor day-room. It’s not popular with the other patients. Difficult to get to, you see; several sets of swing doors to negotiate, then the lift. But I preferred to be alone in those days. The sight of others depressed me.

It used to annoy the hell out of Matron, me being up here. She’d keep coming up to check on me. “I do wish we wouldn’t wheel ourselves quite so close to the glass, Mr Smith,” she’d say. “It’s a safety hazard.” What she meant was that people might look up from the street – and they might not like what they saw.

I don’t give a toss about the squeamishness and sensitivities of the general public, but I like to watch it all the same – imagine where it’s coming from in such a hurry. Where it’s going to. What it’s got in its shopping basket. And other things, like what it feels like to wave to someone you know on the other side of the street and have them smile back at you, look you straight in the eye, not over your head.

I first noticed the girl one afternoon in May. She was pushing a child in a pushchair and she’d stopped at the crossing, waiting for the lights to change. The wind was whipping her hair about. A strand of it got caught in the corner of her mouth and she shook her head to free it. She was wearing a short skirt and a long leather jacket, the two hems almost coinciding. The almond trees were showing the whites of their leaves that day, their blossom-heavy branches jerking about in the wind.

The lights changed at last. I didn’t so much as hear her high heels tap-tap-tapping across the road as feel their rhythm in my body. They synchronised themselves with my heartbeat. After she had gone I spent hours trying to define the colour of her hair, which was neither red nor blonde but a strange peppery buttercup. I decided her name was Emmeline.

I saw her most days after that. As the weeks went by she discarded her leather jacket, exposing her bare arms; they were white, with freckles, gradually turning brown as the summer moved on. I could have counted the freckles individually, just as I could have recited car number-plates a mile or so off, for I have unnaturally sharp vision. I suppose it’s a kind of compensation.

I invented backgrounds for her. It helped to pass the time. She’d been a nurse, I decided. She’d fallen in love and married very young but the husband was no good and had run off, leaving her pregnant. Soon now, though, the child would be old enough to start school. She was planning to return to nursing. And what more convenient place to come than here? I imagined that red-blonde hair pinned up underneath a white cap. Her uniform would be starched so that it rustled. Ah, that wonderful rustle…

Maybe she would be the one to plump my pillows…

It was about this point that reality always crept in to sabotage my fantasies. If Emmeline was to be my nurse she would also have to take me to the toilet, bath me. She would see me lying there crumpled and twitching and her face would take on that familiar, set expression. She would start addressing me in the plural, like Matron did. “Can we manage to turn over on our own this time, Mr Smith?” “Are we ready to get our socks on?”

The day the accident happened I had wheeled myself right up to the fourth floor window as usual. I was idly watching the workmen building the new Law Courts across the road as I waited for her. They swung about like monkeys, shouting to one another – jokes, mild obscenities. They take it all for granted, I thought: the sun on their backs, the jokes, the possession of muscles that work, muscles that can lift a hod and hold a woman tightly to them…

And then everything went out of my mind. Emmeline had just turned the corner at the end of the road. In a minute she would be here, passing underneath my window and as close to me as she was ever likely to get.

She was wearing a white cotton dress. It looked good on her with her small waist and her long hair – romantic and fresh. The child wasn’t with her this time. She was about to push the button for the pelican crossing when one of the workmen spotted her and shouted something. She looked up and grinned and he blew her a shameless, suntanned kiss like Errol Flynn playing a pirate in one of those old movies. My mind was awash with pain. Try as I might I couldn’t shut it out, the picture of this man with my Emmeline, naked, laughing; doing all those thing with her that I had never done, and never could.

I believe I was the first to see the lorry coming down the hill towards her. Of course I realised at once that it was going to fast – out of control, in fact. The driver’s face flashed into my mind quite clearly. He was screaming, his mouth making a great cartoon ‘O’.

People were beginning to turn round and look now, pointing, gasping. It seemed that everyone had noticed the lorry apart from Emmeline, who was still making eyes at Errol Flynn. I don’t know why I did what I did; pure inspiration, I suppose. With my one good arm I seized the nearest object to me – a large metallic ashtray – leaned forward in my wheelchair and hammered as hard as I could on the window of the fourth floor day-room. She couldn’t fail to hear. She whirled round and looked up at me, her face registering first surprise and then…

Was it disgust? I prefer not to think so. After all, she’s in no position to feel disgusted now. The accident hasn’t touched her face, and that glorious red-gold hair is the same as ever, but her body is twisted and paralysed out of all recognition and she can’t speak. Brain damage, you see. Couldn’t have worked out better if I’d planned it.

At my request they often park Emmeline next to me in the fourth floor day-room and I have tried to help her come to terms with what happened to her. After all, who could be better qualified than a man who has spent his whole life in a home? They approve of our friendship. I overheard Matron telling a visiting social worker recently how nice it was that Mr Smith was becoming socially adapted at last, and how fortunate it was that the new lady so enjoyed his company.

I have told Emmeline that she is still beautiful. We are all beautiful really, I tell her. Our minds – what’s in our minds, that’s all that matters. She stares back at me with those big green eyes of hers, and sometimes they fill with tears. This distresses me.

I would hate to think that the girl of my dreams was unhappy.

The Shadow Man

The shadow-man, the Prince of Aquitaine / from his dark tower is condemned to see / all, or all shall cease to be.

For his sins, which were legion, he was deprived / of all that made him human. He must / watch at this window for ever, forever weeping.

Music, he has. The lute he loved is strewn with stars / but his own star is dead; his days are ruled / by the black sun of melancholy.

In stairwells, fountains play; the wall is lined / with all books ever made. What can words signify to one / with forever to read them, no one to tell them to?

His nights are terror-bright, there is no sleeping. / Though this sin crown all others, he prays / that the world might end, or he: it is the same.

Though time and battles scar the tower wall it’s standing yet / and never shall it fall. Nor prayer or pitying ever free / the man with all creation in his keeping.

 

 

 

 

 

Midwinter

The child cried at the castle gate, and nobody knew how it had come there. One road only lead across the high moors to Castle Crome and the lookouts on the battlements could see down it for miles, past the forest of dark pines and clear across the lake. There had been no boat on the lake – and no boatman worth his oars would have set forth in this weather. There had been no sound of hooves to indicate that a horseman had brought it here and, inexplicably, abandoned it. And twisted as it was it could hardly have walked. It was as if it had dropped from the sky.

Rain blew in in icy sheet and the winds were such that a grown man would have struggled to make headway against them, yet the child’s cries could be heard over all the storm’s fury. It sounded more like a bird than anything human. There was something inhuman about the pitch, the raucous, pitiful strength, such that all those within were afraid to open the gate to this creature, twisted and spavined as it was. The rough-hewn stick it must use to support itself was sprawled on the wet stone beside it. The child looked half dead – as if not expecting rescue. And yet its cries continued.

From the spy-slot beside the portcullis Gatekeeper Marek observed his latest problem. His life had seemed to be all problems recently. Shreds of black hair were plastered to its face by the rain. It looked as if someone had hacked it off fairly recently with a knife. Its clothes were ragged too. Not even a cloak, or skins for protection. The storm had been raging like this for hours. Why was it not dead already?

Gatekeeper Marek found the hoarse cries distressing. He was a merciful man with children of his own. ‘We must put an end to its misery,’ he muttered. Either let it in and feed it or go out and slit its throat.’ It was like watching a stag die, too slowly, after a hunt – something appalling about it. The twisted child’s cries grew weaker but did not stop.

The cries were carried up on the stormy air and forced Lady Anne to rise from her couch, where she had been attempting to pick up her embroidery where pain had obliged her to abandon it three days before. She had never been physically strong. The birth of her first child had left her bloodless it seemed. No matter: the boy that would both perpetuate her husband’s blood-line and, mercifully, secure her position – always somewhat tenuous for a childless wife in ruthless times. She swayed as she stood. An embroideress hastened to her side.

Take my arm, my Lady.

But Anne shook off the woman’s help. She must be careful to show no weakness, even excusable weakness, now Tervil was gone. The castle was full of ambitious men – women, too – and such authority as she might, for the while, possess as his wife could easily be forfeit. Though weakened by childbed, too young and in no way qualified to rule, she must be Lord in his stead until his return from the Wars – assuming he did return, and in one piece. She shivered, chilled both by the dank, midwinter air and the responsibility and by what the future might hold – for him, for her and for her son. She made her voice stern, unconsciously imitating Tervil.

‘What is that unholy racket?’

A child, my lady. A girl, I think. A-crying outside the gates.

It was the first snowfall of the year…

…and time for him to go.

Again this year he had been fortunate. A minstrel could not take bread and board for granted, even at ġéol, that most festive of seasons. Twelve days of feasting, drinking and song. A roaring fire in the Great Hall, so many logs piled into it that the sparks flew high. Not infrequently these decided to nest in the tapestry hangings that lined the walls. Such hangings were priceless and must be swiftly beaten out by the two servants appointed to that task, who were armed with a ladder and damp cloths. Minstrels were much in demand over ġéol, but there were many minstrels on the roads nowadays, roaming from castle to castle and trying their luck.

You needed to be young to cover such immense distances on foot. You needed to be healthy to survive the in-between nights sleeping in barns and ditches, stealing apples from orchards and turnips from fields in passing – the occasional steaming pie from a window-ledge; the in-between days performing in market squares and taverns; the likelihood that at any time you would be attacked and robbed of the coins you had earned.

But then you also needed to be old, for the songs to be in your head. How many days and nights of walking for just one song to be born and committed to memory? How many losses and loves and close escapes for the germ of a song to expand into one of the many-versed ballads beloved of the Lord and his lordlings on winter evenings? How many days of adventuring among hedge-sparrows and serving maids, to give the songs their unique colour and beauty? How long for a complex, unforgettable tune to be born out of joy and sorrow, sunshine and snow? How many days on the road?

Sometimes, even now, there were women. This time it had been Moire, one of the kitchen girls. A brown girl, he thought with a smile: brown hair, long and horribly tangled, brown eyes, brown skin – though most of that was dirt. She had been kind to him, and he to her. He had sung for her before to lure her to his pallet in one corner of the kitchen, and sung for her afterwards, to lull her to sleep. She was weary. Kitchen girls were perpetually weary. It was a life, he supposed, but not much of one. Like him, she had survived.

He had not said goodbye to little Moire, though he knew he would be leaving when the first snows fell. He never said goodbye. In any case he would not be coming back this way. He felt it in his bones.

Felt death in his bones. He shivered, wrapping his furs more tightly around him, and hoisting onto his back the pack containing all he had in the world, including that most precious possession of all, his lute, wrapped in silk, then wool, then oilcloth. On the turn of the stone stair, through a slit in the stone wide enough to fire an arrow but narrow enough not to receive one, he felt an icy draught. The early morning sky was aflame with yellows and pinks as the sun attempted to rise and warm the earth. But the ground was frozen hard. Any snow would be bound to lay.

Soon, all would be white…

snowfall

The Fearsome Twins

This be a tale from the old days, when the Marsh was marshen still, so sodden that people came to the church in boats and tied them to iron rings on the church wall. Them were the days before sheeps and wool and ditches. Them were the days when lovers-forbidden bound themselves face to face and jumped in the sea. They died in each other’s arms to the rattle of the waves and the clank of their own chains. Them were the days of Annie Catt, innkeeper, smuggler, giantess and all round badwoman.

Annie were eight foot tall and equal to any man. She were brave, she were vicious, and ruthless in a fight. Annie Throat-Slitter was her other name, from the knife she would tend to conceal in one heel of her hobnailed boots. She could carry a rowing-boat slung over one shoulder. She beat all the men in the springtime rowing races, her sleeves rolled up to display her muscular forearms, which were tattooed from wrist to elbow with nautical designs. They say the men were beat before they even started to fight her, once they spotted them tattoos.

But the Revenue Men disliked being always outwitted, and particularly by a woman. They were charged to stamp out the rum-smuggling trade from which Annie and her like made their foul and dishonest living. So they set up a trap for her out on the Rhee Wall, a net of chains fired in the Appledore Forge, each link so strong it might tether a hellyphant. Annie broke a good few of them links, even so, before they at last got her bounden with miles of anchor rope and a hawser cable.

At the Assizes, she was sentenced to death by hanging from the neck. Though this fate were richly deserved, it placed Judge Makepiece into all sorts of difficulties. He sat for a while in puzzlement, and then he sat a while longer. He puzzled and puzzled whilst stroking his full black beard and patting his shiny-bald head. The Carpenter had come to him and warned him, no scaffold could be made that would bear the weight of Annie Catt, with her muscle-bound arms and her terrible tattoos. And the Ship’s Chandler had come to him and told him it would take a month-of -Sundays to weave a hanging-rope strong enough to suspend her; and the weaving would cost a year’s wages (the Judge’s, that is, not the Chandler’s). She will fall and fall, moaned Sarah the Soothsayer in the marketplace. She will fall through world and end up in Austral-i-yay, with the headless men and the big-legged jumping beasts. And like as not they won’t want her, so they’ll drop her back down the hole she made in the world and here will she be again, on Romney Marsh, larger than life and twice as nastiful.

Judge Makepiece had been casting about for means to be somewhat merciful, and at the same time dig himself out of the hole he himself had fallen into. He summoned Annie into his robing rooms.

Annie Catt, he says, if I grant you your life will you build me a new Courthouse, for this one is falling down?

I will not, said Annie Catt. What care I if the birds fly in through the roof? Let it crumble.

Annie Catt, he said, if I grant you your life will you ply me with rum for the rest of my days and cook for me in my kitchen?

I will not, scoffed Annie Catt. I am sworn to cook for no man, and rum is too good for you.

Annie Catt, he said, in desperation now, and having no other idea, if I grant you your life will you give me your maidenhead?

I will…. Annie Catt paused to think about this. After all these years she was still in possession of her maidenhead and secretly feared to be Sent Back To Heaven Unopened. A small enough price to pay, she thought, to avoid a dingle-dangle dancing on Saint Martin’s Field in the morning.

I will, said Annie Catt. My maidenhead for my life.

Am I hearing aright, thought the Judge.

And so the deed was done, right there and then amongst wigs and ermine robes. But the Judge got more than he bargained for: Annie she sucked him inside and swallowed him entirely. His head was the last to vanish who knows where, and she cackled aloud when his black beard tickled her fancy. Then she bent back the iron bars on the window as if they were made of butter, and made her escape across twenty-five miles of The Marsh, hopping and skipping through field, forest and farmyard till she reached the Inn.

Nine months or so later she was brought to bed of twins – one of each, a boy and a girl. The girl was  pretty as porcelain, but bald as a buzzard. The boy was the size of a house, even as a baby, and blackly, blackly bearded. They grew up together and took over their mother’s Inn. They had their picture painted and put on a sign outside, where it swung about in the breeze. In time the Inn became known as The Fearsome Twins, and people travelled for miles just to catch a glimpse of the outlandish brother and sister, now selling so much rum that Annie could give up the smuggling.

Many years later a visitor from Scotland or some such distant parts, having drunk more rum than was sensible, asked the twins a question:

What could your mother have looked like, Fearsome Twins, to have birthed the pair of you? Was she both bald and bearded?

The twins frowned at each other. The bald beauty came round from one end of the bar, the bearded giant from the other, and they met somewhere in the middle. The Scotsman took a step back, only to be captured by the Crone in the inglenook. Casting aside her tobacco pouch she grabbed him by the tartan collar and pulled his face down to hers, directing a stream of brown tobacco juice into it.  Poor man, he fainted away, in part from throttling, in part from drowning in brown tobacco juice and in part because he’d seen the old woman’s arms, which were tattooed from wrist to elbow with sea-dragons, ships-wheels and compasses; with mermaids, anchors and sperm whales a-blowing steam.