Under The Black Flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Aquarian and a Virgo: an unpromising combination.

I was twenty-one and he was thirty.

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

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

I was thirty-nine and he was forty.

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

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

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

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

(flash fiction: 753 words)

Robinsonia Crusoe

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

“But I don’t play chess.”

“No, neither do I. But if we did – ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on. And so forth.

Becalmed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked up at the purple sky one final time.

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

(flash fiction: 446 words)

 

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

Mary’s Folly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring was just around the corner.

(flash fiction: 833 words)

Featured image: Clarice Cliff Crocus Tea-set, 1931

A Day At The Seaside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sky would be blue all day.

(flash fiction: 805 words)

Twelfth Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sat down and cried and cried.

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

Together we sat and waited for the spring.

(flash fiction: 671 words)

The Lion and Saint Jerome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We purr, and yes, we smile.

durer 4