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)

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

Fishnet Tights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Might as well be hanged for a sheep

Janice was the bane of Miss Milligan’s life. Every teacher has at least one Bane, of course, but Janice – in Miss Milligan’s opinion – came straight from Hell equipped with her own pitchfork.

According to staff-room gossip – overheard, since for some reason Miss Milligan never seemed to be included in these gossipy huddles – Janice was some kind of genius in English and Art. On the other hand, the little beast failed abjectly in any subject that failed to engage her interest. Music was one of those subjects – the subject Miss Milligan had so far failed abjectly to teach her.

The child refused to read music. Miss Milligan was sure Janice understood perfectly well how to read music, because how could anyone not be able to grasp something so very simple? After a term with Miss Milligan every girl in class could read a simple musical score, could compose a pleasing sequence of four notes and then sing them back correctly upon request.

Janice scattered notes about the stave at random; true notes and psuedo-notes incorporating some design of her own with a hat or a smiley face. When asked to sing them back she would take a deep, shuddering breath and sing four completely different notes. The class would dissolve in laughter whilst Janice stared out of the window, seemingly having ascended to a higher plane.

It was Dumb Insolence: the child was putting it on, aiming to make a fool of her teacher. But put the little wretch up in front of the whole school and she’d have to get it right, or look like a fool. Miss Milligan flattered herself she knew a thing or two about teenage girls. Consumed with self-consciousness, they were, and Satan’s Daughter would prove no different.

Forced to turn the pages for Miss Milligan during assembly, Janice hovered by her side, perspiring, her hand trembling above the score for Jerusalem (the school song) as if hoping the exact moment to ‘turn’ might be conveyed by psychic wave or other mysterious means from Miss Milligan’s head to her own. When no such hint arrived she would make a wild snatch at the page, obliging Miss Milligan to make a similar wild snatch to turn it back.

When they were within a few bars of turning the next page, Miss Milligan waited for the girl to give in and turn it, but she did not. Miss Milligan resorted to a heavy nod. Janice did not appear to understand what was meant by the nod, and any case was now frowning at a stain on one of the floor tiles. Assembly hymn-singing proceeded in fits and starts, and with each fresh fit or start came a wave of stifled giggling. The Headmistress was also frowning at a floor tile.

Miss Milligan resolved to move the battle to an alternative field – left-handedness. Sinistrality might be an unavoidable defect in a small percentage of boys but was quite unacceptable in a girl. Miss Milligan was on the school dinner supervision rota, as were most of the teachers, and had spotted Janice lifting her dessert-spoon to her mouth with the wrong hand.

Today was jelly-and-custard, the ideal test. Miss Milligan positioned herself close to the Devil’s Spawn’s table. When it came to dessert, and the wrong hand started to convey the jelly upwards, Miss Milligan took a brisk step forward.

No, Janice – other hand.” Janice sat there, her mouth hanging slightly open, as if trying to process this perfectly simple instruction.

“In polite society, Janice, we eat with our right hands. So pick up your dessert spoon in your right hand, and eat.” Impossible to tell whether the surrounding brats were sniggering at the girl or herself.

Janice picked up the spoon in her right hand and carefully loaded it with red jelly. With equal care she lifted it towards her mouth, but failed to locate it. The spoon collided with her nose. She lowered the spoon, reloaded it, this time with a mixture of custard and red jelly, and tried again. Once again the spoon drifted wide. By now the whole room had fallen silent.

“Can I be of some help, Miss Milligan?” Miss Milligan had not been aware that the Headmistress was in the room.

“No, thank you very much. The situation is under control.”

“One more try, Janice.”

Janice was scarlet in the face and Miss Milligan scented victory. Any minute now she’d start to cry and that would teach the awkward, sullen brat. If she’s been in the WAAFS –

When the jelly – not just a spoonful but the entire plate – collided with Miss Milligan’s chest, she could not for a moment believe it. The jelly was cold, the custard even colder, and both were sliding downwards. Triumph arose in Miss Milligan’s soggy breast. Assault on a teacher: the girl would be expelled for this.

The same thought seemed to have occurred to Janice, for a whole tableful of jelly-and-custards were subsequently hurled, left-handed, with surprising accuracy. If only the girl played cricket –

And were the other girls actually passing jellies to her? Was she to be the recipient of a whole dining-roomful of red jellies?

“Headmistress!”

But the Headmistress seemed to have temporarily left the room.

The Wearing Of The Green

She found the green cloth in the market, on a stall run by an old woman. The other fabrics – greys and browns destined to make overalls and jackets for field workers, had been thoroughly picked through but this one remained neatly folded. It was of a green at once dark and bright, and reminded her of the wood beyond the village. At once she pictured herself in the gown she would make of it.

How much for the green? She hoped she sounded only mildly curious.

More than you have in your pocket, young lady.

And how would you know how much I have in my pocket?

I see through cloth to skin, said the old woman, through skin to bone and through bone to the very soul, and I know full well that you cannot afford my cloth.

Well, it was true, and the girl turned to walk away, but the old woman caught her arm. There seemed no shaking her off.

If I were to give you the cloth, she said, you would cut it askew and sew it with clumsy stitches. It would soon fall apart.

On the contrary, said the girl. If you were to give me the cloth I would cut it most carefully and sew it with the finest of fine stitches, for I have been indentured to Morwenna the seamstress since my tenth year, and will gain my freedom shortly. I plan to set up business on my own account; there is always plenty of sewing to be done.

A woman alone?

Maybe. Or it may be that I will find a husband.

Ah yes, the ploughman Aelwyn. His master’s lands are not so far from here. No doubt you pass them most days.

How did you know? Aelwyn has barely spoken to me and has certainly not mentioned marriage.

No, but he will. How could he resist that summer-fair hair of yours, those tumbling tresses? The dress would serve as both apprentice piece and wedding gown.

If Aelwyn were to ask me.

You may have the green cloth for a wedding gift, young lady. It is too fine for these bumpkins in any case. I would have been unlikely to sell it this side of Michaelmas and by then the sun will have faded it. Take it, but with a warning. Green is a fairy colour, and they believe that only they have the right to wear it. Do not, therefore, wear that dress into the woods.

The dress took many months to make, by which time the market was long gone, the leaves fallen from the trees and the old woman’s warning forgotten.

ploughman

 

When Aelwyn the ploughman became very old he was forced to rely on the kindness of his four sons. His wife had long since died and his once powerful muscles were knotted with pain. In winter a rocking-chair in the chimney-corner was his customary retreat, but when the weather was warmer he liked to get out, walk by the fields he had worked, feel the sun on his shoulders. When the sun became too hot one day, with the help of his stick he decided to venture a little further, into the cool of the wood.

It was not a large wood but by the time he got to the middle of it he found himself both weary and confused. I used to know these woods so well, he thought. Yet now the trees are dancing around me, and changing their places each time I look. So he sank down next to a comfortable-looking willow tree, half knowing that this was unwise and that he might not be able to get up again without help.

The ground here was damp. Willows thrive in damp places, he reminded himself, half asleep already. And there he remained; his aching back relaxing against the smooth, warm bark. And beyond the wood the sun was beginning to sink.

When I was a young man, he told the willow tree, there was such a pretty girl – a seamstress with yellow hair that fell all around her face. She often passed where I was ploughing. Once or twice she even glanced in my direction, but before I could get up the nerve to speak to her, she vanished.

It was fifty years ago. Before you grew here, probably. They say she was carrying a green dress over her arm, her apprentice piece, so proud of it that she was taking it over to show her cousin in Sawley. She would have come through here. Might you have seen her?

Trees do not have the languages of men, and the willow did not reply. But as Aelwyn sank into a deeper and deeper sleep she sighed, reaching down with her long and tangled tresses to stroke his beloved face.

Cakes and Wine

It was after the war had ended. A time of black cars with mechanical indicators like tiny orange wings that popped out, or sometimes failed to, at the turn of a corner; a time of belisha-beacons and zebra crossings and war memorials with the names of my great uncles inscribed on them. And a time for visiting the graveyard.

I went there often with Nan, not only to visit the slaughtered uncles but to have a word with Sarah, her long-lost mother. Up against the church wall there was a little shed. It contained little trowels and forks, and a collection of vases and jam-jars in case you were in need. Next to it was a standpipe, ending in a tap, for watering.

One afternoon, we were surprised at the tap by the vicar. His name was the Reverend Silas something and he had a very large pointy nose. A black gown flapped out behind him like wings, which somehow went with the nose. He came out of nowhere and swept by the pair of us as if we were invisible. I flattened myself against the flint wall. Nan all but curtsied.

They say that a very few individuals are obnoxious to bees. It might be their bodily odour, an alcohol taint on their breath, their leather or wool clothing, their clumsiness, the loudness of their approach, their fear, their aggression, their anger. Whatever it is, the bees smell it and take umbridge. Looking back it seems not at all surprising that the Reverend Silas should have been one of these.

All of my stories came from Nan, and in due course she told me the story of Reverend Silas and the bees.

Well, as you know my dear, when a beekeeper dies it is most important to invite the bees to his funeral. I didn’t know, but I loved that she thus connected me to the rural past I longed for but hadn’t had. There should be cakes and wine.

For the bees? Do they eat and drink them?

It’s the gesture that counts, my dear. They require our respect.

How do they know when their beekeeper has died?

Someone will go and tell them.

Do they speak English?

They speak another language.

But then – how? I was at the stage of asking too many questions.

Anyway, old Silas – she wasn’t scared to call him that now he was no longer with us – was asked by the daughter to invite the bees to the funeral, at the same time as he made the announcement. She even gave him the words he ought to say. It made him hopping mad – as if people didn’t laugh at him enough already, what with his nose. And he happened to have been stung by bees a lot of times in the past. He was one of those ones – you know.

I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to interrupt again.

So the bees were not invited. The daughter went up to the hives and tried to explain. She told them how her father loved them, and it was just the vicar being the vicar, like. Begged them not to take offence.

But they did?

Well, it’s a bit of a coincidence otherwise.

So they had the funeral and his nearest and dearest turned up along with half the village, all in their Sunday Best. So many hats – like a flower-patch it was. That in itself was a worry.

You were there?

Of course I was. As I said, half the village –

All seemed to go well, in spite of the nervous glances. There was a few bees inside the church, like – perched on ledges, crawling about in the corners – but not more than you might expect on a summer’s day; got in through the holes in the stained-glass, probably. During the war, of course –

Nan, what happened to the vicar?

Well as I say there was a bit of buzzing. Not angry-sounding, like; just talking amongst theirselves, as you might say. The church service finished and out we all traipsed into the graveyard, following the coffin. The grave was already dug and the gravedigger was leaning on his spade, ready.

They lowered it in, all solemn, and the vicar started on with his usual stuff, Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes, droning through that pointy nose, and then the bees came, like, trillions of them. A lot, anyway, in a swarm.

Everybody scattered, hats and all. Gravedigger leapt for the hedge. Only the Reverend Silas didn’t move. Maybe he was petrified with fear, or too proud to. He stood his ground, and the bees settled on every single part of him. He was a swarm in himself, my dear. They stung him and stung him and stung him. Swelled up like a balloon, he did.

Did he pop?

No, he didn’t exactly pop, he just fell down dead. And serves him jolly well right, my dear; you must always invite the bees.

Boggarts In My Back Garden

Ow, I have just been landed on by the three-legged cat, and when you have been landed on by a three-legged cat, you know it. He does like to push the keyboard back in, on its slidey-shelf, so I end up with access to the bottom two rows only.

I thought I would let you know about the writing. I have been very good, surprisingly, producing a rough version of one of my little flash fictions every day. Today I started on part II of my plan, which was to also second-edit one. It’s a system, you see. I have a stack of plastic trays and the printed out stories progress down the trays until they settle, sedimentishly, in REJ – rejected. Of course, if any were to stick at ACC, the tray above REJ, I would be extremely pleased.

I am planning to publish more stories on the blog, but have to start being disciplined about it. The aim of writing them was to try to get them published in internet flash fiction magazines, maybe even earn a cent or two. Research suggests it would only be a cent or two, too.

But when I first attempted to publish an e-book of – longer, older – short stories on Kindle I had problems. Amazon’s automated-bot-crawling-thing became convinced that I had filched my short stories from some other writer. They refused to publish the book and started emailing me, rather scarily, like I was a criminal.

I had to do quite a bit of panic-stricken emailing back before they/it accepted that ‘I’ was in fact ‘Me’ – ie the Elsewhere their had software had detected my stories in was Here. I’ve long since deleted that e-book anyway – approximately three and a half people bought it – but all the stories it contained are here. See dedicated Page at top of blog/menu for how to find them.

Anyway, my plan is to put up a new very-short-story every two weeks. That way I’ll still have the pleasure of sharing stories with you and getting your feedback. If I can continue to write one story a day there should be plenty to spare.

What else? That’s the trouble, nothing non-fictional ever seems to happen to me anymore. That’s the trouble with getting old, at least without money. The high spot – last night I had to pick up my down-the-road friend from the hairdressers in town. She likes to go to the training college, because it’s cheaper, but they are very, very slow – take aeons to complete a single hairdo to the satisfaction of their supervisors. Plus they only open on Wednesdays afternoons and evenings, finishing after the last bus has gone. So I have to wait for a text, jump in the car and drive for 25 minutes, at night, with all those headlights coming towards me. When I would normally be watching some rubbish film on Prime, or dozing.

I never did much like going out at night, especially in winter. I know it’s the same things and places exactly, only with less sunlight, but it doesn’t feel like that. The world seems altogether a different place when it’s dark. Things may be lurking in my garden when I come back. I am afraid to turn away from them to put my key in the lock, and so I fumble. Yes, readers, there are boggarts on my back lawn and they are creeping

I’d better be careful about that or I might end up like Mum. She was absolutely sure there were people, out there behind her drawn curtains, standing in the dark, invisible but watching. How terrifying a genuine psychosis must be. Note to self: remain sane.

Another elderly acquaintance phoned this morning after a long gap. She always looks kind of, well, you know, at death’s door. I hadn’t seen her over Christmas as expected, and for a horrible-creepy-man related reason I wasn’t able to phone her at home to check she was all right. The longer the silence went on the more dead I feared she must be. However, she phoned this morning and she’s not. Not that I actually asked her if she was. She isn’t too well, though.

And tomorrow – tomorrow I think it is lunch with above nocturnally-coiffed down-the-road friend, in the subterranean canteen of the local hospital. It’s a bit like eating in a fish tank. Unfortunately since I have gone gluten-free I am confined to cheese-baked-potato with whatever vegetables they happen to have. Nothing much else is safe. I now have to have cheese-baked-potatoes everywhere I go, whilst others are consuming heaped, delicious steaming great platefuls of pie, chips, pasta and so forth. I will soon begin to look like a baked potato.

To make it even more exciting, we might have to take a ticket and wait for several hours so that she can get her blood test. Note to self: take a book.

Night Bus

After eleven I get on the night bus. I know all the routes by heart and which particular one doesn’t matter, only being in the dry. Often there’ll be a café at the end of the line, one of those workmen’s ones that open their doors at dawn. You might get a free tea. Egg and chips on the house if you’re lucky. But not always. Not by any means always.

It’s hard on the legs when you can’t lie down at night. Does your circulation in. Been carted off to hospital twice. Sally Army – they do that sort of stuff. I find a seat by a window, rest my head, close my eyes and sometimes drop off to sleep. Not always.

Sometimes I have dreams, but those special dreams you get when you’re neither asleep nor awake. Once I thought I was teaching in some posh private school. Up in front of the class, writing my stuff on the board with my back to the kids. But when I turned around the room was empty. And when I turned back what I had written was all, like, scribble. And why should that surprise me? All I could ever write was my name. What was I doing up there with my piece of chalk and my academic gown, me with the greasy dreadlocks and string-tied mac?

Nobody sits next to me, ever. I mean, why would they? It’s a mixed bunch: young and drunk after parties; shabby pensioners pretending they’re not just trying to save on the gas fire. You get those in libraries, too. Tonight there’s only me and the driver. He’s got his head in one of those free newspapers as I sneak past, tiptoeing to somewhere near the back. He often manages not to see me that way. ‘Course, if I was to start being disorderly he’d turf me off. Ditched in some East End thoroughfare, some hopped-up kid coming out of an alleyway, blade glinting in the streetlight. But I’m not disorderly. Always the quiet sort.

You don’t often get an angel in full regalia, but that’s what gets on next. I wonder if he’ll catch my eye and nod, but he doesn’t. Well, why would he? The lighting down this stretch isn’t too good, one streetlamp on, the next one off. Council economies. Driver slows us down, going gingerly. I am wide awake by now and watching as shadowy terraces slide by, broken factories, bits of waste ground. The angel has his nose in a big book, leather-bound with gold lettering, like they had in the olden days. He seems very taken with it.

On we trundle. Where might an angel be off to on a night bus, I wonder. Resting his wings for a bit maybe, like me. Next minute he snaps to attention. It’s as if he can see something or hear something that I can’t. He plucks a stray feather from one of his wings and bookmarks his book with it, lays the book down on the seat. He stands up and raises his arms. There’s a kind of swish, a roaring, kind of stars, kind of butterflies. I don’t know. I hang onto the rail in front as the bus shudders to a stop.

Whatthe…? This from the driver. It’s just bleedin’ stopped. The bus just bleedin’…

The angel and his book have disappeared. Well, why wouldn’t they? I get up and stumble down to the front where the driver is opening a metal compartment and groping around for a torch. We go outside together and shine it, and there is this monster hole in the road. We can neither of us see to the bottom of the hole, it’s just too deep and black. Nearer the surface, tangled cables, water pouring out of a severed drainage pipe. That hole would have swallowed this bus. Probably several buses.

Sink’ole, says the driver, that’s what it is. All that rain we been getting. Bloody bus did an emergency stop, all on its own. I never saw that ‘ole, mate, and I swear I never touched the brakes.

Nah, I say. It was the angel.

You saw one?

I nod. Sitting across the aisle from me, it was – wings, feathers, the works.

Bleedin’ell, mate! And we look back down the hole.

Things didn’t change much after that. Nobody came and put me into sheltered accommodation. I wasn’t learned to read or offered a job. I didn’t get clothed or washed or my hair cut short or converted to Jesus. I went on catching the night bus month after month, year after year, and sometimes there was teabag-tea or egg and chips at the end café.

Three things stayed with me, though. The driver let me on without a ticket, and when we were staring down that bus-sized hole he called me mate, spoke to me like a human, not a filthy tramp. And an angel put down his book to save our lives.

But I want to be a POET!!!

Nobody trained my parents. I mean, parents are supposed to provide Guidance, right? But nobody seems to have told my parents that. In any case, we were working class and so weren’t actually going to have careers, right? People like Us had jobs, if we were lucky. And we hung on to our precious jobs, because They might not give us other jobs, if we were to lose them. People like Us accepted we’d have to barter most of our short little lives for money.

I remember only one conversation with my parents about careers. It was when we had to choose our O Level subjects. The school sent a form, with tick-boxes. At some point during this conversation – heated and tearful, like all our conversations – one of them asked Well what do you want to do with your life? And I remember wailing

But I want to be a POET!!!”

And them making that suppressed snorting noise that parents make, and telling me no one ever made any money out of being a POET and I should pick something sensible like being a TYPIST!!!

But really, I was right. What I wanted to be was what I actually was. I WAS a poet. But really, they were right. Nobody ever made any money out of it.

Shortly thereafter I taught myself to touch-type on two different mechanical typewriters – the sort that have ribbons that are one half black and one half red, for some reason and that you never really do learn to change when they run out. I was fast and accurate on the letter keys, slower and less accurate on the numbers (I abhorred numbers) and eventually I got myself a job, in fact a series of jobs, being a typist.

I continued to scribble poems in my spare time. I was a good poet, if I says so myself, as shouldn’t. And of course I had visions of my gem-like offerings twinkling from the pages of the Sunday Supplement Magazines. In my head, I was lined up for an interview with someone like Melvyn Bragg on some sort of TV Book Programme. There I was, hair swept up in some much longer and slightly birds-nesty hairdo, eccentric-yet-stylish in fringed shawls and Laura Ashley prints, lounging in some black leather armchair by a roaring fire, being effortlessly intelligent and witty for all the world to see. I was revered, my genius rewarded.

In the meantime, I carried on typing, really fast, and my hands grew gnarly and thin from all that hammering of the keys. People tended to ask me if I played the piano, because I definitely had piano-player’s hands. Long, long fingers, flexible, prehensile, splayed at the ends. Nails cut – or bitten – short. I carried on typing year after year. My hands began to hurt, suddenly, when I went to open a door or reached out for something. That damage never went away.

So – the sad story of a poet manqué.

I am no longer good at poems. My muse slunk off into the desert early on, as the muses of poets have a tendency to do, burnt out or bone idle. However, in the last few weeks has occurred to me that what I am still good at is Short. I can write Short Stuff. Anything up to a thousand words, it just sort of flows, occasionally veritably cascades out of me. Anything over a thousand words and things rapidly go wrong. I’m like one of those little clockwork puppies. Wind me up and I buzz around busily and turn the occasional somersault, all furry and appealing. Then the clockwork stops and there’s me stranded, mid table-top.

With an effort I cranked up my imagination again – clouds of dust from the ears – and started jotting down flash fiction ideas in notebooks. At first it was one idea a day: now I can’t stop them. Soaking in the bath, in the middle of washing up, or half way through a phone conversation or a really good film and – blast it, another four or five ideas. So many pesky ideas I couldn’t actually get started on writing them, till today. Today I have written one, and it didn’t take me any longer than a blog post.

But then, it isn’t any longer than a blog post. So – Yay!

When the alarm sounded…

When the alarm sounded we knew it could only be a minute or two so I took the tea-towels out of the tumble-dryer and folded them neatly (somehow I couldn’t enter Eternity without that being done) and

Pete went down the garden with a bucket to dig up the spuds for Sunday Lunch because that’s what he had been just about to do, and it wouldn’t be Sunday Lunch without new potatoes. Not that we’d get to eat them.

I thought about that Clause I’d put in my Will aimed at Cousin Julia who’d stopped talking to me in 1978 (or was it ’79?) but realised it was too late to have it taken out since all the solicitors would be down the shelters by now and anyway Armageddon was upon us and Julia was about to be toast along with the Will and all the rest of us.

Just time to let the canary out of its cage, poor dear, for one last flap around the living room.

Pete had been a very long time getting those potatoes.

new potatoes

Ah well…

(180 words)