The Green Elephant from Tanganyika – a bit of a story
September 2, 2017 § 13 Comments
The beginning of a long abandoned novel, written in the voice of a child who might have second sight. But then again…
I was born twice. The first life wasn’t a long one. It was a slow time and a fast time, and sometimes the slow and the fast came together. It was a time of shininess and bright things, and a knowing it would always be summer even when it rained.
My best friend was a chicken. Her feathers were the colour of old snow, and she hid her eggs in the bike shed. If I didn’t find them first, they’d crack open and tiny, oily chicks squirmed out with sharp curly claws and wings too small to be any use at all. The thing I liked most, before I broke it, was a jade elephant with magic inside. Every morning I hung it round my neck on a string of silver.
But even during that first life when I was rather content, I had a sense I didn’t belong – I knew I should have been somewhere else. There was something missing and I couldn’t find it. A life like a book with the first chapter ripped out.
It could have been my mother’s doing. Although we shared the same words, we spoke a different language. Do this, don’t do that, I’ve told you before, you never listen. Those were her words. I couldn’t get it right. She was ice and I was fire. We spent our time colliding and running for cover, never quite knowing whether to attack or retreat. Sometimes her will, her cleverness, overpowered me, and it was then that I guessed the reason: I’d been swopped. I’d suckled the wrong breast in the maternity ward. A muddle with an identity band? Or maybe I’d been exchanged on purpose. Had I been too big, too small, too noisy, too quiet – or just not quite right?
So I had orphan genes, and that would have explained why our house never felt like home. I never told her. Never told anyone. Some years later she told me I hadn’t been born in the hospital, but upstairs on the big bed with the midwife and the doctor and a lot of blood – but knowing that didn’t make me feel I belonged.
When I did things she didn’t like, she’d remind me about that place where bad girls were sent. It was one of the houses across the road. It was her default threat, a desperate bluff to groom me into her invisible child, a silent apparition that never made unreasonable demands or tramped across the clean kitchen floor with muddy boots. The line of terraced cottages was small and neat with gardens of garish roses and green, shaved lawns – except one. The Bad Girls House was neglected and dirty. Ragged curtains hung from the broken window frames, and I was sure something nasty was hidden inside. Paint peeled off the grey front door like curls of dirty wallpaper; and a car, weeping red with rust, sank slowly into the driveway. She never sent me there, but I thought she might.
My mother had long, black mermaid hair in those days, and Dad called her a ‘bit of a spitfire’. Her hair and her temper were what I knew best, the other things she kept secret. She was a wild woman then, and when Dad was at work she flung her shoes across the kitchen floor and danced. It was the only time I heard her laugh. The sound frightened me. She wore lipstick the colour of Sunday roast beef blood, and danced the flamenco with a flower between her teeth. In the winter she used the butter knife. She had a liking for pills and collected them in a Peek Frean’s biscuit tin. Some were to make her sleep when she couldn’t or make her happy when she wasn’t, and some she swallowed when life simply got too much. She kept the tin on top of the dresser next to the brandy used for ’emergencies’.
She came from a long line of Baptist preachers on her mother’s side, which may have accounted for her hatred of religion, but she did believe in the stars. She cut her horoscope carefully out of the paper each week, propping it up on the mantelpiece to remind her that life had already been decided and there was nothing she could do about it. Every so often she tried to interest me in astrology saying it would make me feel safe, a bit like believing in God she insisted, but making more sense. She told me I was a Cancerian, which meant my sign was the Crab. Hers was Scorpio. She said we were the same because we were both ruled by water, had hard shells around our bodies, and got moody when the moon was full. But I knew we were different.
The full moon was the time the devil got into her, and the reason my father sat in the snug of The Hunter’s Moon until closing time nursing a warm pint of Guinness. I would stand at the kitchen door ready to run, waiting for her to stop as the dinner plates hit the floor. Plates were her favourite – they smashed loudest on the stone tiles and left razor sharp splinters in my feet as reminders. An angry red halo wobbled in the air around her, and her tantrum filled my head and burned as if I was too close to the fire. Then suddenly she would be fine, and Dad and I knew we were safe until the moon grew full again.
The beginning of my second life came suddenly – it was on the day the accident happened. I closed my eyes and found I could see things. Pictures that moved like dreams. Almost in colour but not quite. Faded and soft at the edges like the sepia photographs of long dead relatives my mother kept in the shoe box under her bed. They pressed hard against my skull trying to get out, and made the inside of my head feel too small for its bones.
At first I thought they were the daydreams my mother was always complaining I had too many of, but I knew they were real because they wouldn’t go away. I asked them nicely, I told them with words my mother said were bad, I even tried keeping my eyes open all the time – but all I got was itchy eyes and a headache. It felt like something was in there that wasn’t me. I found the spot on the top of my head, the one where the bones hadn’t joined up I wasn’t supposed to touch – and pressed my finger hard into the soft hollow. I could feel the beating heart of something small – like something was breathing and trying to get out.
I was five when the first picture appeared in my head. It made me want to crawl up like a caterpillar and hide. A man was standing at the front door of our house looking upset. My mother stood there holding the new baby in her arms, gasping like a fish and looking pale around the gills. ‘Bloody hell!’ she said.
‘Terribly sorry,’ said the man in a voice much too small for him. Mum had one of her flowery aprons on I liked to hide under, and the blood on the man was mine: bright red five year old smears of my life juice on his hands and all down the front of his black leather bomber jacket. That was the time I got confused, because I knew where I was, and it wasn’t at the front door of our house. I was lying curled up crooked, eyes tight shut, next to a fallen over motor bike and two curvy black skid marks on the white Give Way sign next to our house. I was seeping red slowly onto the tarmac…
The Chaos Of Silence
January 27, 2014 § 22 Comments
Opening chapter of a novella…
Twice a day the cows swayed down the lane like tethered boats in a sea swell. They sauntered, their stretched udders bouncing between their legs. An hour later they’d be back, jostling to be first to the fresh green of the field: dung-covered tails swishing at horseflies, bags dangling empty like burst balloons.
Jessica rounded the bend, jammed on the brakes and skidded up the bank. The cows took no notice. A few stragglers foraged under the hedge, their tongues curling around the long grass. The early mist rolled along the hollow of the lane, cleared over the cows in a dense, breathy mound; then, as the animals passed, settled back into its blind silence. A collie slid silently from deep within the herd and goaded the dawdlers: crouching, panting, nipping at heels as the cows joined the queue to pass through the five-bar gate into the milking yard. Jessica yawned, switched off the engine, and began to scratch at the raised, silver scar on her wrist.
She drove carefully after that, her chin brushing the steering wheel so she could see through the mist and dodge the cowpats splattered along the single-track road. Tufts of spindly couch grass and yellow sow thistles forced their way through the thin layer of tarmac. ‘How apt,’ Jessica remarked sourly. ‘Nature always takes back what is hers.’
She reached a line of pale lime trees, their tops hovering as if suspended above the swirling mist, and looked for the sign. Tied to the rickety fence with a length of pink baler twine, it read, Bloomsbury Cottage. It was painted carelessly in black and red in the flamboyant style of someone keen to appear both original and eccentric. She recognised Bonnie’s handwriting. Lying on the ground beside it lay a much older sign – it read Rose Haven, in neat, dark green lettering.
Jessica pulled up by the sign, turned off the engine, and inspected her face in the rear view mirror. The entrance to the cottage was across a plank of scaffolding timber that spanned the ditch into what once had been a garden. A small, black sheep, with unkind yellow eyes and four horns growing out of its head at rakish angles, stopped nibbling the tips of a stand of stinging nettles, and stared as she crossed the bridge. She liked sheep, but this one made her nervous, until she saw it was attached to a metal picket by a leather collar and a short length of chain.
She pushed her way through the overgrowth that spilled onto the brick path, feeling the cold dew on her legs. The rose that had once graced the porch was now stained grey with mildew and threatened to creep through the cracks between the doorframe and the crumbling wall. Chunks of rotten render had peeled off the walls and lay in pieces amongst the weeds either side of the doorway. This house is being swallowed up by nature too, she thought. Jessica felt the unexpected warmth of the sun as the final wisps of mist burned away. One part of her wanted it to stay misty all day.
Bonnie held a large mug of coffee in one hand and an untidy rollup in the other. Thomas had made space for himself on the cluttered table, and was spooning cornflakes idly into his mouth as he leafed through a copy of Gertrud Franck’s Companion Planting. Bonnie slouched in the worn leather armchair next to the unlit Aga blowing smoke rings at the rafters. Neither spoke.
Bonnie and Thomas had lived together for ten years: first oscillating between their own flats in London, now living in the cottage Bonnie had bought from the proceeds of her apartment in Fulham. Thomas had kept his own flat in the city, which they used often, albeit separately. Bonnie had discovered she needed a bolthole where she could spend some time away from Thomas, and for her regular fix of the city life she was beginning to miss.
She was in her early thirties and childless. Thomas, twenty years older, had a teenage son with whom he had never lived for longer than a week. They were estranged for a reason that he could no longer remember. The boy was the result of a brief and unsuitable coupling at a spiritual commune in Scotland. Gabriel, as far as Thomas was aware, still lived with his mother growing vegetables and, in Thomas’s opinion, pointlessly meditating. They described themselves – rather smugly Jessica thought – as writers, although she had seen no evidence of literary productivity since they had moved to Bloomsbury Cottage. In short, Jessica concluded, they had gone to seed. Their minds, she decided, had taken on the characteristics of the garden they had inherited: unproductive and disordered.
The cottage, partly 16th century with Victorian additions, was, historically and architecturally, unimportant; but nevertheless had been a well-kept and pretty farm labourer’s home. It was now, quite simply, neglected. An elderly man had lived there before them. A retired cowman, he had let his beloved garden go after his wife died. House maintenance had been far from his mind, and he had left clutter and chaos in his wake. As the old man’s mind had slipped painlessly into dementia, so had the cottage. After he had been persuaded rather forcefully by Social Services to move to the council-run care home in town, the cottage had lain empty over the winter. It had been duly colonised by a particularly fecund strain of field mouse, and a ginger cat that would climb in and out through a small pantry window that would no longer close.
Bonnie and Thomas had arrived the following spring full of plans and enthusiasm. At that stage, the cottage had been ripe for restoration, and crying out for someone to lavish time and money on it. What it got was two rather idealistic city dwellers who had no idea how to make up a render mix of sand, cement and lime, or the correct way to lay a damp proof course.
Six months had passed, and they had picked away tentatively at the fabric of the building. It was as if they were afraid of it. Thomas, in particular, seemed increasingly incapable of finishing any job he started, and the reality of the relentless, physical grind, and the absence of necessary skills, steadily dulled their initial ardour. Not that they were short of money – they could easily have afforded the services of a builder – but they had never considered this option. This was their project, and no one else was allowed to touch it.
This, coupled with the rapid deceleration of the pace of life that had drawn them to the idea of rural living, was steadily binding them both to a state of gloominess. They increasingly sat in silence. Not the comfortable stillness that comes from years of concord and a sure knowledge of what the other was thinking, but more a sense of disquiet and helplessness that sprang from knowing all was not well between them, and they didn’t have a clue what to do about it.
Jessica took a deep breath and knocked at the door.
Message From Calcutta
December 18, 2013 § 17 Comments
The first draft of the beginning of a short story about a young woman’s relationship with two plastic angels…
‘You’ll like it here,’ said Beth, putting the statue on the mantelpiece and flicking it with a feather duster. ‘It’s much better than being stuck in that cardboard box under the stairs. And you’ll be able to see all the goings-on in the street.’ The cherub sneezed, winked with his good eye, and giggled. ‘Behave, small fry,’ she warned.
The cherub perched at a funny angle on the shoulder of the fully grown angel. He’d been stuck there with glue – Beth could see the join where his bottom met the angel’s shoulder. The maker had overdone the epoxy and let it dribble down the angel’s robe and not bothered to wipe it off. It gave the impression of a rather impious approach to the subject of icons. The blue paint had peeled off one of the cherub’s eyes, and his wings were more fluff than feathers in a fledging kind of way. Beth decided to call him Raz – short for Raziel, the Angel of Mysteries.
The grown up angel’s wings were long and sleek which Beth found rather soothing. They shimmered with a special silvery paint that had bits of glitter mixed in which made them sparkle when Beth put the kitchen light on. The paint was beginning to peel off and made his wings look a little moth eaten. She called him Gabi after Gabriel the Messenger because he was always telling her things she ought to know but for some reason didn’t; but mostly she just called him ‘G’.
The icon was made of cheap, brittle plastic – the sort that didn’t bend if you dropped it, but shattered into vicious little splinters that stuck in your feet if you didn’t vacuum the whole lot up straight away. Beth thought it had probably been made in some sweatshop in China or Taiwan – being one of thousands churned out by small children with holes in their clothes and hunger in their bellies. It wasn’t surprising really, she decided, that they hadn’t cared enough to wipe away the dripping glue, or check that the faces had been painted on properly. G’s eyebrows were wonky and made him look like he had a question that needed answering. Raz had no eyebrows at all.
‘You should get more kip,’ said G. ‘You look knackered.’
‘Mind your own business’, said Beth, as she did the washing up.
‘And when was the last time you had your barnet seen to?’
Beth decided long ago that G hadn’t been brought up very well. He would, she was sure, have been taught a much nicer way of speaking if he’d been silver-plated. ‘I know it’s not your fault,’ she said, reminding herself that when he wasn’t being rude he often said quite useful things. ‘And just for the record,’ she hissed, ‘I went to the hairdressers last week, thank you very much.’
‘Perhaps you should shop around for a better one then.’
‘I really don’t need this right now,’ she replied. ‘And in any case, it only needs a brush.’ She slammed the kitchen door so he got the message. Sometimes G was rather thick skinned.
Beth usually enjoyed her chats with him, although it had been getting progressively harder since the cherub had embraced the stroppy toddler stage and taken to shrieking until he got her attention, or shouting ‘Mummy. Feed. Now!’ to no one in particular. But when Raz was asleep – and she could never tell for sure because he had no eyelids – Beth and the angel had nice talks about the weather, and what she should cook for dinner. If Raz stayed asleep, they’d have bigger chats about why she wasn’t getting on with Patrick anymore, or how she was worried she might be turning into a nagging wife.
Patrick took no notice of the icon unless he felt like winding her up. There was no reason why he should be interested, Beth supposed – they’d been a present from Aunty Dora when she’d been baptised a long time before they’d got married, and in any case Patrick had been brought up agnostic. ‘Talking to those fallen angels again?’ he’d said, when he caught her having a chat. You’re mad as a barrel full of squirrels.’
‘Monkeys,’ she replied. ‘You mean monkeys. I’ve never known anyone so intolerant. Live and let live.’
‘What do you get out of talking to a piece of plastic?’
‘At least they listen. Not like some people I know.’
‘How do you know they do?’ he said rather nastily.
‘Because they answer me, Not like some people I know.’
‘You need to get out more,’ he said, slamming the door…
The Paris Baby
December 6, 2013 § 13 Comments
They decided the child – conceived in his mother’s apartment in Montparnasse – should grow up in the country. ‘I hope this isn’t a terrible mistake,’ mused Finn, pushing gently on the peeling door. There was a splintering sound as the door sprang open, and something small and quick scurried down the hallway into the kitchen. A harvest mouse with ears like mussel shells lay on the doormat with its legs in the air, and the salt stain of damp crawled up the walls and across the brick floor.
‘Do you suppose they’re related?’ asked Martha.
‘Highly likely. Mouse traps?’
‘Vicious creatures. Nature red in tooth and claw and all that.’ Martha turned her back and stared at the garden. ‘Looks like a life’s work to me,’ sighed Finn. ‘What do we need? Mouse traps, ladder, scrubbing brushes, paint. Wood filler for the windows, a man to fix the damp…’
‘Cats!’ interrupted Martha. ‘Wheelbarrow, hoe, spade, fork, rotavator, seeds…’
Finn put his arm around her spreading waist. ‘Do I detect a potential division of labour coming on?’
Martha had begun to dream. She saw a spotless garden with wide herbaceous borders and neatly trimmed box hedges. She saw blowsy Albertine roses snaking up old apple trees and a line of raised beds full of vegetables. She shook herself. ‘Was miles away. I shall teach the child to garden. And I’ve been thinking.’ She rubbed her belly. ‘I don’t have to go to hospital to give birth, do I?’
‘Course not. My birth was rather relaxed, or so my mother said.’
‘Exactly,’ concluded Martha. ‘I don’t have an illness – just a baby. ‘We’ll do it our way. It will be the perfect birth.’
‘You must slow down,’ said Susie the midwife. ‘Rest. You won’t have much of that after the baby’s born.’
Martha squatted in the garden planting potatoes. ‘Rubbish,’ she scoffed. ‘It keeps me fit. Isn’t that what you want?’
So Martha dug and planted furiously; and two weeks before time – the day Finn’s piano was to be delivered – her waters broke over a sack of onion sets. ‘Blast!’ she yelled. ‘Today of all days. I’ll put my feet up for half an hour. Maybe it’ll change it’s mind.’
Susie arrived and Martha’s contraction stopped. ‘It’s normal,’ smiled the midwive. ‘Back in two hours.’ Martha lay flat on her back in the grass and spoke sternly to her belly. ‘It’s really not a good time. I’d much prefer it if you waited until tomorrow when the onions are in.’
The Paris Baby took no notice and started up again. This time it hurt. Martha’s uterus squeezed itself into spasms, and her back muscles clenched in sympathy. ‘No fun this,’ whined Martha. ‘Like sciatica in the wrong place.’ Then she rolled over onto all fours like a dog.
‘It’s you,’ said Susie. ‘You’re doing it. Mind over matter. Relax, and the baby will be out by teatime.’
But it wasn’t. Even when she did her yoga and her breathing exercises. Martha was too excited to have the baby – and too excited not too. She was stuck. Susie examined her with a frown. ‘You’re four centimetres dilated already and baby’s heartbeat is irregular. Best place is hospital.’
Martha began to cry. ‘Don’t want to. I need some homeopathy. Give me some Pulsatilla, Finn! Then it will come.’
They were in the hospital lift when it happened. ‘It’s coming. Now!’ She snorted, as they passed the fourth floor labelled Geriatrics on the list next to the buzzer. Martha began to puff like a steam train. ‘The Pulsatilla worked. Told you it would!’
‘Just hold on, sweetheart,’ soothed Finn. ‘We’re nearly there.’
‘I bloody can’t!’ she shrieked, getting down on all fours to push.
‘I can see its hair!’ said Finn in a thin, strangled voice. ‘Hang on, Martha. I’ve never done this sort of thing before.’
‘Well press the emergency button then!’ she yelled.
It turned into a noisy and public affair. The maintenance man disabled the lift because Martha refused to get out of it, and the tiny space full of mirrors filled up with people trying not to shout.
‘Don’t push ’til I tell you,’ said a voice in Martha’s ear.
‘Bugger off!’ she shrieked. Martha was making a roaring noise like a rather cross lion. The Paris Baby slithered out onto the floor and lay perfectly still. Finn burst into tears, and Martha felt a jab in her bottom. ‘I didn’t want that. You should have asked first.’ Then Martha burst into tears too.
‘It’s necessary,’ soothed the obstetrician, as if he was speaking to a child. ‘Don’t want you bleeding to death now, do we?’
‘It’s turning blue,’ said a female voice, and the cord was promptly snipped and the Paris Baby disappeared. Martha did as she was told, climbed onto a trolley, and fell asleep.
‘Your little girl’s fine now. Would you like to hold her?’
‘No, thank you. Put her in the cot.’
They put Martha’s indifference down to shock – but the truth of it was that Martha was in the most terrible temper because things hadn’t gone according to plan. ‘It was Susie’s fault,’ she complained. ‘She panicked.’
‘She was only doing her job,’ Finn spoke gently. ‘The Paris Baby could have died.’
‘Hormones talking,’ said the obstetrician jabbing another needle into Martha’s bottom without asking.
Martha began to cry again. ‘I want to go home.’
‘In the morning, my dear,’ he said patting her head. Martha fell asleep and dreamed of her garden. The Paris Baby wasn’t in it. Finn lay awake in the double bed going over the extraordinary event, and wondered – now it was all over – when he was going to get his Martha back.
Any comments – negative or otherwise – or suggestions for improvement, are always appreciated!
The Green Elephant From Tanganyika. Excerpt 2
November 20, 2013 § 9 Comments
Another excerpt from a novel in progress. I thought it was dead, but it seems I may be wrong. A first draft. Freya is in hospital after her accident. This is her first encounter with Daisy, her imaginary friend.
Freya lay on her back waiting for the dark. ‘Daisy?’ she whispered, like she had a secret to tell. ‘Speak to me.’
‘Nice name. That’s what I shall call myself,’ she said. ‘And can I smell bones?’ Daisy breathed in deep through her nose.
‘That’s because I’m in a place called an infirmary,’ answered Freya. ‘It’s where children come when they break them. Sometimes they come here to die too.’
‘Will you be my friend?’
‘I will. But first go back to sleep.’
So she did. Daisy became her sleeping draught and her cuddle after prayers.
She came when Freya called her, and sometimes when she didn’t. If she kept her eyes tight shut Daisy came and breathed warm breath on Freya’s face, but if she opened them a chink, Daisy disappeared.
Freya woke again after a few minutes. She felt the heaviness of Daisy’s hand on her head. Her toes tingled. ‘Where do you come from?’
‘Do you live on my street?’
‘Do you live in a hotel then?’
Still no answer.
‘I know. You live in the sky, don’t you?’
Freya opened her eyes, but she’d gone.
She liked to come best when it was dark. No one ever saw her but Freya – not even the night nurse who sat under the yellow light reading a book. Daisy was much too smart for that.
That first night they met she kept coming back. ‘You busy?’ she whispered.
‘Do I look like I’m busy?’ asked Freya.
‘You want to play?’
Freya tried to nod but the bandages got in the way. She kept her eyes firmly shut.
‘Let’s do make believe,’ suggested Daisy. ‘What would you like me to look like today?’
‘Don’t mind. What do you think?’
‘I think I’ll have long, yellow hair and talk to you like I’m an angel.’
‘What shall we talk about then?’
‘That’s easy,’ she said. ‘We’ll talk about nice things like getting better soon and not hurting.
But sometimes they had quiet, cloudy days when Freya felt she was floating over her bed. Daisy kept quiet then, and hovered about looking like a fairy. ‘What are you doing?’ asked Freya.
‘Not a lot,’ she said. ‘Except maybe making some magic.’
For many days Freya drifted in and out of sleep. Sometimes she didn’t know if she was real any more. ‘I keep having a funny dream.’
‘I jump off a high bridge and someone I can’t see is holding my hand.’
‘Were you scared?’ Daisy asked.
‘Very. And then I wasn’t because I stopped falling and just swung there like I was a pendulum in the grandfather clock.’
‘Don’t be scared,’ she said. ‘It was me. I was holding your hand.’
Freya dozed off. Wings grew out of her shoulders. Big and dangerous like a swan’s. She flapped hard, trying to soar up to heaven, but she wobbled and fell out of the sky. She opened her wings just before she hit the ground. She forgot about heaven and fluttered about in her garden instead. She practised swooping about like a bat hunting for flies. Freya was enjoying herself. She closed her wings like an arrow and shot through the doorway into the house, and glided up the banisters without clipping the grandfather clock. Then she remembered she wasn’t breathing, slithered down the stairs and woke up.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ asked Daisy with a pout.
‘Just stop it right now, and listen.’
‘You remember that pendant your Auntie Bea gave you?’
It was Freya’s favourite thing. ‘You mean the green one that looks like an elephant?’
‘That’s the one. Do you still have it?’
‘Course. It’s got good luck inside and came all the way from Africa.’
‘I want you to throw it away.’
‘Won’t. It takes care of me.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Daisy, turning her lips into an even bigger pout.
‘Auntie Bea said.’
Daisy screwed up her face. ‘I don’t think that’s right. It’s bought you nothing but trouble.’
The Smallest Memory
October 29, 2013 § 6 Comments
Chapter One of an unfinished novel
The month before Romy came into the world was hot and listless. Everyone in Norfolk waited for the thunderstorm that wouldn’t come, and Jenny draped herself across the overstuffed sofa and refused to budge. ‘Too hot’, she grumbled, scowling at her swollen ankles. ‘Too big,’ she muttered as she massaged the skin stretching itself tight across her belly.
The days were long and shapeless, and at night she tossed and turned under the crisp cotton sheet in the bed she shared with William. She fretted about the never-ending trips to empty the half full bladder Romy insisted on prodding with her tiny feet, and William took to camping on the sofa.
The River Waveney, a mile as the crow flew from the old house where Romy would soon be born, grew green and turgid in the drought; and the government made it a punishable offence to use anything other than grey water to keep Jenny’s precious garden alive. Six yellow plastic buckets were lined up every day outside the kitchen door waiting to be filled with water full of dirty bubbles for William to douse the roses. But they wilted anyway – their sap leeched by a sudden plague of greenfly; and their leaves, infected by black spot and mildew, littered the soil like last year’s stained confetti.
Jenny took to weeping at the slightest provocation. Tears fell as she watched the bindweed wind itself madly around everything; and she wailed loudly for the dozens of thirsty hedgehogs, out in the daytime desperate for a drink, lying flat as prickly pancakes in the lane.
Ten days before Jenny’s due date the rains finally came. The tomatoes ripening inside the conservatory exploded and scattered their seeds over the glass like insects on a windscreen, and the lawn turned an indecent green. Thunder rumbled crossly every night and exploded in glittering forks along the valley keeping everyone awake. The lane turned into a river, and the septic tank in the orchard gurgled and overflowed leaving obnoxious puddles around the base of the apple trees. The drains outside the house couldn’t cope and turned into small, determined geysers.
Jenny got the baby clothes out, and heaped them into a neat pile next to her favourite blue jellaba she would wear during labour. Then she lined up the homeopathic remedies on top of the bookcase in the bedroom. ‘I’m making a list,’ she said to William. ‘In case you can’t remember which one I’m supposed to have.’
‘I shan’t forget,’ he said gently. ‘And in any case, I’ll just ask you.’
‘You won’t,’ she replied crossly. ‘I’ll be too busy having the baby. And in any case, I might forget.’ She read out the list. ‘Caulophyllum if the contractions stop, Pulsatilla if I get weepy, Sepia for backache – and I might need a back rub as well. Staphysagria during transition if I get really cross and start swearing at the midwife, and…’ she stopped and breathed in deeply.
‘It’s all right sweetie,’ soothed William. I’ve memorized the lot already. You’ve forgotten about the Secale if the placenta doesn’t come out, and the Arnica and the Aconite for afterwards.’
Jenny woke up the next day at ten past six. ‘I’ve got a pain. Right here!’ She prodded the base of her spine. ‘It’s happening.’
‘Try to get a bit more sleep,’ sighed William. ‘I expect we’ve got a while yet.’
Jenny sat on the beanbag in half lotus and waited, but soon the contractions stopped. She went to sit in the garden, but all the weeds made her cross. William made her lunch – which made the contractions start up again – so Jenny got on all fours like she’d been practising in the yoga class. The midwife raced down the drive up in her Ford Fiesta, had a cup of tea, and went away. ‘You’ll be hours yet,’ she announced.
William took Jenny for a bumpy ride on the tractor, but the bouncing had no effect, and the noise just gave her a headache. She was in the bath meditating when the waters broke. ‘Ouch!’ she cried. ‘It’s really coming!’
The midwife came back and made Jenny get out of the bath. She put on the blue jellaba and got back on the beanbag. ‘I’m getting rather cross,’ she said. ‘I feel like swearing.’
‘Good,’ smiled the midwife. ‘Means you’re ready.’
Jenny pushed and the top of Romy’s head came out – then it went back in again. The baby bounced back and forth like a ball on a rubber band, until the midwife reached inside and unlooped the placenta from Romy’s neck.
‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘Push.’
Jenny swore and did as she was told, and at half past midnight, eighteen hours after she’d shown an interest in seeing what the world was like, Romy was catapulted across the room.
The midwife pulled at the placenta and it slithered out on the plastic sheet.
‘Ouch,’ said Jenny smiling broadly. ‘We’re keeping that. We’re going to plant it under a fig tree.’
Jenny got back in the bath, turned on the hot tap, and closed her eyes again. William appeared with a pot of tea and hot buttered toast. ‘Born in a thunderstorm,’ she said to William munching happily. ‘Listen. One, two, three seconds. It’s really close.’
Then the lights went out.
The Green Elephant From Tanganyika. An Excerpt
October 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
An excerpt from an unfinished novel…
It wasn’t right. No familiar odours. No smell of frying onions and bacon for breakfast, her mother’s cigarette, the burning toast. No. Then her nose remembered – remembered the stink that always frightened her for some unfathomable reason and made her reach for her mother’s hand. Freya opened her eyes and looked at a white ceiling. A long way away, it was moving; turning slowly round and round a light bulb. She blinked.
‘She’s coming round.’ The light bulb lit up, and Freya snapped her eyes shut. ‘Freya,’ the voice asked. ‘Can you hear me?’ It was a question, and she knew a question needed an answer. She opened her mouth but no words came out. She tried again but the words were stuck in her head. She felt something hot on her face covering her mouth and her nose. She tried to raise her arms to pull it off, but they wouldn’t move.
Why isn’t my mother here? she thought. Where is my father? Freya refused to open her eyes after that. She kept them tight shut so she could remember. A picture came: a man and a woman – they lived next to the cottage where her mother said bad girls were sent. She was not supposed to talk to him. He was tall and stringy, and had lines like a road map all over his face. She had a pink puffed up face and was crying. Freya was in their house. A coal fire was burning in the grate, and she was lying in front of it on their hearthrug. It was red. Everything was red. She was red.
‘This will make you feel better,’ said the voice, and she felt a prick in her arm.
A new picture came. Inside a white van – she was lying down, people were talking quickly – white clouds floated about, getting bigger and bigger – there was that smell again. A siren started. The biggest cloud hovered over her and began to sink – she was below swallowed up. Freya felt her the edges of her mouth turn up into a smile, and she went to sleep.
The Music Room
October 21, 2013 § 6 Comments
An excerpt – possibly the first chapter – from an unfinished longer piece. Freya, a child of maybe nine or ten, lost her father in a freak accident. He was a composer and musician. She lives with her mother in an isolated cottage. Her mother copes by fastidiously tending her garden, and by a kind of denial of her grief which manifests as a chilly pragmatism towards her only child. Freya copes by withdrawing into an inner world – an intensely private place where she believes her father comes to her when she is in his music room.
Do you want to read more? Let me know.
Her mother slammed the kitchen door behind her. Now it was safe. Freya slipped through the shadows of the dark back hall to the door with the silver key. The room smelled of hot dust. The curtains were the colour of strawberries. As she pulled them open a weak sun streaked itself through the cobwebs lacing the windows. Her father’s music room wasn’t as Freya had remembered. It was smaller and darker, and it smelled of something she had forgotten – but mostly it was different because her father wasn’t there to fill it with his brightness.
She slumped onto the piano stool and inspected the creases on her palms. Now she was there Freya did not know what to do. She wiped the layer of dust from the shiny black lid with her cardigan sleeve. The particles rose, then settled on the bare floorboards like ash from a forgotten cigarette. Time was changing: it was becoming hesitant, shifting gear. Freya began to think in slow motion.
Her father’s dreaming hat lay on the top of the piano with his unfinished scores. The old straw boater smelt faintly of cigarettes, but the tang of his skin had gone. He would wear it when he sat in the garden and didn’t want to be disturbed – it was his sign. Sometimes he would have his papers with him and a freshly sharpened pencil; and sometimes he carried nothing but his thoughts. Freya knew she should not interrupt him until he spoke and broke his spell.
Freya put on the dreaming hat and lifted the lid. Her fingers slithered lightly over the keys as he had taught her. First the scales: C Major, E, D, F; her fingers remembering when to stretch onto the black keys to sharpen the note. Then the minor scales. But as she began to play the sad notes, her hands became stiff and heavy. She flexed the joints of her fingers as her father had shown her, and then stretched them wide into two starfish. Her fingers did not want to play.
She imagined she was in a concert hall. The audience was seated around her in a semi- circle waiting for her to begin. If you imagine these people, her father used to say; you will always play your best.
But what if I make a mistake? she would counter. Then he would smile and tip his head to one side. If you don’t try hard enough, you won’t make mistakes. Your audience won’t mind one bit.
She began to play the piece she knew best. She played the notes long and slow; she made the music sad. As her fingers began to move without thought between the major and minor keys of Fur Elise, she felt her father’s breath on the parting of her hair: he was breathing in and out in time to the music.
Freya stopped breathing – she dare not turn around to look at him. As she played the final notes, she felt a chill on her scalp, and she knew he had gone. She closed the lid and went to the window. She wiped them clean with the sleeve of her cardigan and left the room, locking it with the silver key.
The next day she waited again until her mother had gone to the garden, then returned to the music room. She stacked his papers into neat piles, returned books to his bookcase, and put his pencils in the mug on the piano lid. Then she sat down and began to play. Her hands were still too small to reach some of the notes of the Gymnopedies. ‘I remember what you told me, so I shall try anyway,’ she whispered. She put on the dreaming hat and played slowly at first, nervous of the notes her fingers could not reach; and then, as she felt the warmth of her father’s breath in her hair, she leaned back to feel his body. ‘I want to see you, Dad ‘ she said. ‘I want to feel you. You are more than flickering light. Be real again.’ She played as slowly as she could wanting to prolong the feeling of his warmth; but as she pressed the final keys she felt the chill on her scalp.
Freya closed the curtains and locked the door with the silver key. She went into the garden to pick some flowers for her father’s desk.
‘What are you doing?’ asked her mother.
‘Just picking roses,’ she replied.
‘And why are you wearing your father’s hat. You know you are not allowed in there?’
The Peat Cutter’s Daughter
September 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
This might be a first chapter. It’s a first draft and needs some hard editing. What I am primarily trying to do is to create a strong sense of place.
‘This is the place.’ I pointed to the gravel car park hewn out of the granite. The wall of rock was stained with vertical lines like old blood where the iron had leached out in long, untidy ribbons. Stephen pulled off the winding single-track road. There were no other cars parked. As I remember, few people came in the winter months, although I have no idea whether my memory was serving me well, for it had been over twenty years since I had left this, my first home, in such strange circumstances. Now it was a place where there was little evidence of hardship – it was purely for recreation; and the tourists came only when the weather was hospitable, which wasn’t often. This was now climbing country; but before that, when I lived in the lee of Coigach, it had been a place where crofters tried, and often failed to make a living.
‘Breathtaking,’ Stephen sighed.
‘Desolate,’ I mumbled.
The landscape looked the same – its colours, its shapes. I suppose I remembered it so vividly because of what had happened here, and also because it marked the end of one phase in my life and the beginning of another – although I did not know it then. I knew I was lucky to be alive, and even now, I regard myself as being fortunate to have possessed sufficient common sense to take the postman’s path along the loch leading to Lochinver. I must have known intuitively that there were crofts dotted along the waterside ready to take me in if I got into difficulty. I had travelled quietly, hiding where I could if I heard voices or got close to a habitation – skirting the uncertain boundary – holding my breath – watching where I put my feet – for it was boggy. I remember clumps of carnivorous pitcher plants along the path, but did not stop – I knew I must keep moving. I had no idea why the crofters took no notice of their dogs alerting them to a stranger – perhaps they thought I was a sheep or some wild animal. Dogs would bark at anything after all – particularly if they were bored.
Stephen interrupted my thoughts. ‘Do you think you can remember the way after all this time?
‘Yes. But the path will be overgrown. I think it was by that tree.’ I pointed to a lone pine, now much taller and thinner than I remembered, but the same shape, and now bent like an old man braced against the wind. It marked the beginning of the path up the mountain.
We walked, with difficulty up what used to be a stone track. The cobbles were covered with red and yellow lichen, and the moss, which shrouded everything if it was not managed, made the going slippery. It did not look how I remembered.
We reached the top of the plateau, and in front of us was the loch. The countryside had been almost monotonous here, but over the years it had grown bumps and creases that made it look like a blanket that needed pulling flat. The fresh water loch was long with kinks in it, like a crooked finger beckoning us, and there was a small island towards its most distant edge with a straggly pine, which my father used to say was one of the last remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest. The water was black, like an oil slick, from the peat. It tasted sweet and stained my mother’s kettle and the cooking pots brown.
‘Are we close?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Near that waterfall. Be careful. There used to be bogs.’
We picked our way along the loch edge towards the rock face where the waterfall splashed, making a strange mist as it hit the water. He took my hand, which made it difficult to walk, but I squeezed his tightly, feeling the tension growing in both of us, my eyes fixed to the ground.
A watery sun appeared and shone coldly on our faces. The sky was benign today, a perfect wash of cerulean hue with streaks of wispy grey cloud that flowed down from the mountain summit like liquid.
We were nearly there. I tried to imagine that we had come here for another purpose, but I knew the truth – there was no other reason for me to bring him here, and he had been so insistent.
The croft was almost invisible; it was sinking back into the earth. The slates were long gone, and the rafters fallen inwards into the house where I had been born all those years ago. The glass that had once glazed the windows lay in muddy shards in what had once been the garden, and the door was strangely ajar, hanging at an odd angle on a single rusty hinge.
‘I don’t want to go in.’
‘I’ll go,’ said Stephen. ‘There is nothing there,’ he shouted from inside, his voice sounding strangely flat. ‘Just debris, brambles. Sheep have been using it for shelter.’
‘But this is not the place,’ I said. ‘ It’s here, behind the croft.’ I took his hand again, and led him to the ditch, the old place of the peat cutting. ‘This is the place. This is where I found the body.’