May 14, 2020 § 14 Comments
A story, or part of one, I wrote a few years ago…
I tie my basket to the length of rope and lower it over the rail of the veranda. It swings down like a slow pendulum and dangles above the busy pavement waiting for the Armenian. His name is Ishkhan and he keeps the shop on the ground floor of my apartment building, but he doesn’t come; instead, one of his boys, the one with the ragged T-shirt and improbably white Reeboks, reaches into the basket for my shopping list, looks up and waves.
I’m glad it’s not Ishkhan, he always asks too many questions. Why are you living alone? Where is your husband? Why do you never leave the apartment?’ As he raises his voice above the noise of the traffic I want to shrink back to the solitary comfort of my cool, dark room – but he is insistent. ‘You must be lonely. You should come and drink tea with my wife.’ I try to explain that I won’t come out until I’ve finished writing the book, but Ishkhan never listens, never hears; he seems incapable of understanding what he calls the strangeness of the English woman.
His boy stands on the crowded pavement, pulls gently on the rope and makes a sign with his hands to tell me I will have to wait. I never allow myself to watch the city as it distracts me from the task I have set myself, but today, after covering my head and shoulders with the black silk shawl Adam bought me in London, I pour a glass of iced tea and sit.
It has been over twenty years since I visited this place. I was with Adam then and it was the final year we lived together. The city looks the same, yet I know it is not. It is liquid: sometimes its surface is calm and benign, and then, with no warning, a rolling turbulence surges deep from its heart and unnerves me. I know it must change or it will die, but I have to protect myself from its moods.
I close my eyes, and at that moment of blindness, the muezzins, calling the faithful to prayer, isolate themselves from the other sounds of the city. Their amplified voices, as always, are everywhere, but today they fill my ears colliding with one another in the hot, thick air. The Turkish call is louder, the Egyptian more insistent – as if they are competing with one another, each believing they are right.
Different tongues rise from the babble of the city: some I don’t recognize without a face to help me place the language. Many Armenians, Jews and Greeks lived here before we came, but most left during the national uprising. After that, sexual minorities moved into this street – I remember them – gays, grotesque yet somehow beautiful transvestites, but they too are gone – and each has left his imprint, his memories behind.
With my eyes still closed, the smells of the city begin to separate. There is always the odour of stale cooking oil. I remember the young man who sold deep fried mussels on the corner next to the mosque where McDonalds is now, and the white haired grizzled Arab who pitched next to the young man, grilling lamb intestines over charcoal which he chopped with a frightening Berber knife and made into sandwiches. Both are now gone, but the delicious smell remains.
Today the wind blows off the Bosphorus. I can’t see the water, but my nose tells me it is close. I smell salt, diesel, and perhaps fish because I expect it to be there. Adam and I had taken an apartment overlooking the water, and we would slip through the ancient arched door of the walled yard to watch the men waiting patiently with their fishing rods, and the ferries sailing between the European and Asian parts of the city. When a strong wind comes from the sea it brings forgotten objects. Many people flock to the shore. The women say that inside these objects there are secrets to be found, and they believe it will bring good luck if they decorate their houses with them. The secrets they say, will be safe with them. But the men don’t care about such things, collecting anything that might be of value in old plastic bags to sell at the bazaar.
I can’t remember as much as I would like, and wished I had kept a diary; but it is easier and kinder to forget, and I have not yet arranged my memories in the right order. I feel so like this city, with a history so complex, so multi-layered – and yet, because so little is committed to paper, much appears to be lost forever.
The Persian with the tabla arrives as usual. It is lunchtime. He sits close to the old men playing backgammon outside Ishkhan’s shop. He begins to play, and soon Ishkhan, as he always does, will bring him coffee in a small glass cup with a gold pattern around the rim.
I open my eyes and lean over the railings. The boy reappears, loads my basket, and almost manages a smile…
March 16, 2019 § 3 Comments
A pair of green wellies walked in – inside them was the girl from the flower shop four doors down – and he knew without looking in the mirror that his ears had turned the colour of the apples he’d piled up in the wicker basket on the counter. The deli was seething with lunchtime customers and Toby was wishing he hadn’t given the new girl the day off. He tried to concentrate on serving the queue that was snaking through the door. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said to the man with the straw hat and red polka dot shirt. ‘How much Camembert did you say?’
The man lifted his chin and looked down his nose. ‘Two hundred grammes, please. I’ll take a slice of the ripe one.’ He pointed to the round flat Camembert sagging gently in the middle, its creamy insides oozing onto the plate.
Toby sighed, put on his best smile and leaned forward into the cheese cabinet. ‘Of course, sir.’
The girl from the flower shop had orange hair like his, and Toby decided as he’d watched her arranging buckets of flowers on the pavement last week that he might just be falling in love. Her hair didn’t stick out like his at odd angles; it was darker and smoother, and she had gathered it up on the top of her head with a pair of black chopsticks. Stray wisps had escaped, and she brushed them away from her pale face as she inspected the artisan breads in the window. Toby imagined running his fingers through her silky hair and holding it to his lips.
‘That’s not the one I want,’ said the polka dot shirt. ‘I asked for the ripest.’
‘Whoops,’ said Toby. My mistake.’ His stomach was beginning to feel as if there was a bird in there trying to get out. Pull yourself together, he chanted under his breath.
‘Are you alright?’ asked the man. ‘Your lips are moving but no words are coming out.’
‘So sorry,’ Toby lied. ‘I feel a bit out of sorts today.’ He weighed the slice of Camembert and wrapped it neatly in a parcel of grease proof paper decorated with pictures of fig leaves. ‘That’ll be three pounds sixty, please.’
The girl had chosen a green olive and pumpkin seed loaf, and was inspecting the chutneys displayed along the back wall. She had a neat, slender back and Toby could see the pale skin and fine blue veins on the backs of her knees.
He tried to put her out of his mind and concentrate on the queue of customers. Heaving a sigh of relief, he looked up to greet the last one. It was HER. There she was, smiling up at him with her pale green eyes. She was close enough to touch. Toby’s stomach gurgled.
‘You need lunch too, then?’ she laughed. He’d been planning this moment and now the words refused to come out.
‘Err…. I suppose I do,’ he mumbled weakly.
Her teeth were large and even, and she tucked an escaped strand of her glossy hair behind an ear and tilted her head to one side. ‘Can you recommend a cheese to go with this bread, please?’ She placed it on the counter. Her hands were small and fine, her fingers long and shapely. Toby stared. ‘I had a delicious cheese at a friend’s last week,’ she continued. ‘But I forget the name. It smelled of pine needles and was wrapped in some sort of bark.’
Toby pinched himself. ‘That’s probably Vacherin Mont D’or, and we just happen to have some.’ He continued staring, not able to believe she was so close. ‘Shall I cut you a sliver to taste?’
‘That would be perfect, thank you.’
Toby remembered to smile and decided he had definitely fallen in love.
‘I’m Chloe,’ she said. ‘I work at the flower shop.’
‘I know you do,’ he said. I’m Toby.’ And as he passed her the piece of cheese on a plate, their hands brushed.
‘I know who you are too…’, she said slowly. ‘I’ll take a hundred and fifty grammes please. Perhaps enough for two.’
February 16, 2019 § 10 Comments
Her mother slammed the kitchen door behind her. Freya was alone. Now it was safe. She slipped through the shadows of the damp back hall to the door with the silver key. The room smelled of hot dust. She pulled back the faded curtains and let in a sharp yellow sun. It streaked itself through the cobwebs. Her father’s music room wasn’t as she had remembered. Smaller, darker, it smelled of something not quite forgotten yet not quite recalled.
She slid onto the piano stool and inspected the creases on her palms. Now she was there she 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 – shifting gear – becoming hesitant. Freya began to think in slow motion, and her breathing slowed.
Her father’s dreaming hat lay on the top of the piano with his unfinished scores. She picked it up and held it to her face. It still smelt of his cigarettes, but the tang of his skin had gone. He would wear the hat 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, sometimes he carried nothing but his thoughts. Freya knew she should not interrupt him until he spoke and broke the 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 grew stiff and heavy. She flexed the joints of her fingers as her father had shown her, and then stretched them wide into two starfish. But 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 long and slow, she made the music sad. Her fingers began to move without thought between the major and minor keys of Fur Elise. Something caught her breath – she could feel her father’s warmth on the back of her neck: he was breathing in and out in time to the music. Freya froze – she dared not turn around to look at him. As she played the final notes, she felt a chill on her neck and she knew he had gone. She closed the lid and went to the window. She wiped away the cobwebs and closed the curtains. As she left the room she locked 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, put his pencils in the mug on the piano lid. She again 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 on her neck, 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 familiar chill.
Freya pulled the curtains closed and locked the door with the silver key. She went to the garden and watched her mother. Freya would gather flowers for the music room.
Her mother stood up and arched her back ‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘Just picking roses,’ Freya replied.
‘And where’, her mother responded, ‘did you find your father’s hat?’
image courtesy Robert Langley
March 6, 2018 § 8 Comments
‘The river’s different today,’ she said, speaking the words as if they might break.
‘How?’ He replied. She gave no sign she’d heard him as she began to scratch the dull orange lichen lacing the parapet of the millpond bridge. Her fingers bled and soaked into the crumbling brick. ‘That must hurt,’ he said.
‘What? What must?’
‘Your fingers.’ She didn’t answer, but suddenly leaned too far over the parapet. Robert jerked as if stung, his hand flying to the small of her back.
‘Look’, she pointed. ‘The trout are back’. An arc of sunlight streaked through the crack willow leaning away from the bank as if it would surely fall, and the bright patch of water glittered as the river trout flickered silver in the light. Robert held her tight.
‘They like the warmth,’ he said.
‘No, no,’ she insisted. ‘They’re playing.’
He breathed in deep. ‘So how is the river different today?’
‘That day it was screaming. Today it whispers.’
Robert had become her bridge to before. Every day he had sat stiffly on the hard cane chair in the white hospital room, and read her poetry. After a while, when the pills had begun to shield her from the past, he took her walking in the grounds amongst the trees. Today, she had asked to be taken beyond the gates. ‘To the river,’ she breathed.
‘Shall we walk now?’ Robert slid his arm around her shoulders and eased her away from the bridge.
‘No,’ she replied, the skin around her eyes wrinkling into a smile. ‘It’s quite safe. I won’t do anything silly’. She took a small square of white paper from her pocket and began to fold. Creasing and tucking, her blood staining the paper, she folded again and again. She blew sharply on a seam and flattened the shape with two fingers. ‘Look,’ she smiled, holding the boat in her palm. ‘That was what we were doing.’ She blew again, and the boat fluttered from her hand and rocked through the air above the water. It landed on its side and drifted under the crack willow. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Now I remember. The river was full after the thaw. It screamed at us to stay away. It spat at us as it spewed from under the bridge. We stood there.’ She nodded towards the willow. ‘We took no notice.’
‘You were on the bank to float paper boats?’
‘I was showing him what happened to the rain on its way to the sea. James thought the river was angry. He wanted to give it our boat… he didn’t hear my warning. He slipped, and the current…’
Her paper boat hit the bank and quivered. Again and again the ripples pushed it into the bank. ‘It will sink,’ sighed Robert.
‘Wait,’ she urged, tears trickling down her cheeks. The breeze suddenly changed direction and lifting the boat upright, it floated downstream.
‘I’m finished here, she said, taking his arm. ‘We can go home.’
January 20, 2018 § 7 Comments
‘It’s daybreak, Jack. The break of day…a broken day, I don’t know what to call it anymore. I climbed out of our bedroom window onto the garage roof to watch the sunrise, but it didn’t come and I cut my hand on the glass and bled all over my dress.
That wind the colour of fire came again last night, but hotter. It blew another window out. Now they’ll be no difference between day and night. Like last time.You remember? In July when we had to cycle home from work with our hats and gloves on singing Bob Dylan to keep ourselves warm. I hate not knowing how long this will last. I know it isn’t supposed to be winter – the calendar on the kitchen wall says it’s May and nearly time for your birthday. I’d send you a cake if I knew where you were…
I’m getting to know when the wind will come because the dogs in the forest bark, and their noise bounces through the dead trees and makes me jumpy. Yesterday they howled and yipped like those prairie wolves we saw in Mexico, and I wanted to warn you. They don’t come into town anymore because people shoot at them. I know one was killed last week because the Townsend’s on the corner made a barbeque. The smell wasn’t right. If I don’t see people doing the killing it’s not so bad, and they’re doing it because there’s no other kind of meat to be had now all the pigs have been eaten. I don’t know what dog tastes like, and I don’t want to find out. I so miss Bobby. I have some tins of his food waiting, and keep his lead on the back of the kitchen door for when he comes home.
The leaves that began to bud on the oak tree, you remember the one in the front garden by the fence? ( we carved our names on its trunk last year) It’s curled up its leaves and they crackled to red dust between my fingers. Everything is covered in this strange skin – a shroud like rust.
Every day I stand by the garden gate and wait. I wait for you, and I wait for passersby to tell me things I think I’ve blocked out of my mind. I shan’t go into the street until you come home. Where would I go? Some people stopped by our fence and told me they’d heard the sun was dying, that it was burning from the inside out. Killing itself. You remember that documentary we watched about solar flares? They remind me of these red winds – but they’re bigger and stronger than the flares we watched spewing from the sun when we wore our special glasses and lay in the grass and held hands. I don’t know whether to believe these people or not – they were kind because they took all my letters to post to you – but their eyes stared and they forgot to blink and smile. After they’d gone I locked myself in.
Jack, the vegetable garden is wrecked. There were carrots and beetroot left, but people came and dug them up. The red wind has killed all the flowers – except for that beautiful red rose I planted by the front door. I found a bud this morning and put it in a vase on the kitchen table so I can think of you whenever I like. I know how sorry you will be about the garden – but it really doesn’t matter – we have plenty of tins of food and a few vitamin pills left. I lock the garden gate now and have stapled the razor wire to the top of the fence. I feel much safer.
The electricity stopped coming from the central grid last week – the lights flickered on and off for a while, but now it doesn’t come at all – so there is no TV, no telephone and no computer. But we’re lucky, Jack, the red wind brings a light that is stored in the solar panels for a few days so I can read our books and write my daily letter to you. It’s better than nothing.
More news. Your rainwater collector is still working well. I had to tie a pair of tights over the main inlet pipe to filter out the dust and they do the job. The water has a pink stain but has not made me sick. You’ll be pleased to hear I am looking after myself without you. I have a wash every day, then rinse my clothes and the dirty pots in the same water. After that I water the garden with any that is left.
There’s not so much noise since you went. The neighbours make none at all now, like they’re sleeping or not there any more, and the gangs of boys have gone elsewhere. The birds still come: I think they must be sparrows. I’m not sure what they are eating but I do enjoy their singing. A new kind of bird has come: it has a long sharp beak and great wings like the sort they have in Tibet. It circles high in the sky for hours on end, then swoops down on whatever it has found to eat. Then others of its kind appear from nowhere. They must have a strong sense of smell. I have forgotten the name of the bird, but I’m sure you will know.
Jack, there are smells that I don’t know. People are making fires. The smoke smells rancid, like they are burning stale fat – I don’t know what it is – maybe they’re cold. Someone set fire to a car yesterday and it looked like ours. It was the one that drove into the lamppost at the end of our street just after you went for a drive to look for Bobby. You might have seen it. There was an arm hanging out of the window for a while – it didn’t move – I watched it. Then the arm was gone, and I smelt petrol and someone torched the car.
I am going to sort the tins of food into alphabetical order now, but I will write again tomorrow. Come home soon, Jack. I need you.’
image courtesy micky**
December 31, 2017 § 10 Comments
‘Dad. Can we call it Lucifer?’
‘I had a bull called that once,’ he grinned, showing the black front tooth with the bit missing from when our horse kicked him.
‘And what happened to it?’ Dad drew a line with a finger from one ear to the other. Maybe it wasn’t such a good name after all.
The ram fidgeted in the back of the car and watched us with its mean slit-yellow eyes. It looked cross, and its horns curled round the sides of its head so it couldn’t see sideways. I screwed up my eyes and squinted through the rear view mirror, then turned on the radio and began to sing – I knew, and the ram knew, that frightened people don’t sing. Every few minutes a long stream of wee splashed onto the empty paper feed sacks Dad had put down to save the carpet. Strong and yellow, it reminded me of the smell when Mum scrubbed the kitchen floor. It steamed up the windows so we opened them to let out the stink.
I liked going out with Dad, and I liked being useful. Sometimes on Saturday mornings we’d go to the livestock market where he met his friends, that’s where we got the ram. I liked the cows best because they had kind eyes and cold, wet noses. There was a boy I didn’t like called Eddie who stood in the auction ring and hit the cows with a stick. ‘It’s his job,’ said Dad. ‘Makes them look lively.’ But I knew it scared them because they bashed into one another and rattled the rusty metal railings trying to get out. The men laughed and rattled the bars back. Other times we’d go and look at tractors or old bits of machinery, and sometimes we’d just go hunting for a bargain. Dad got things like warm eggs straight from the nest, or a bag of potatoes with the dirt still on. He said it kept Mum happy, which wasn’t an easy thing to do.
We often went to Marianne’s on the way home as it was a good place to go when you got peckish. She wasn’t as pretty as Mum, and her hands were hard and wrinkled like a road map. Sometimes she wore lipstick, and skirts so short you could see where her stockings stopped. Mum didn’t wear skirts like that except when she got dressed up – she said ahe didn’t have the time for that sort of thing. I liked Marianne, she was kind and smiled a lot.
We didn’t knock when we got to her cottage. ‘How are you doing?’ asked Dad. ‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ He filled it up from the cold tap without waiting for an answer.
‘You hungry?’ she said, slicing into a shoulder of ham with an evil looking knife. She sharpened it on the stone and it made a rasping sound that nearly hurt my ears.
‘Yes please,’ I said.
She made a pile of sandwiches. ‘That’s Eric the pig. You remember him?’ Eric’s skin tasted of honey. Marianne spread English mustard on him too.
After a while Dad refilled the kettle. That was his signal to me to make myself scarce, so I wandered outside to talk to the hens. Chickens are just as nice as cows. When they’re happy they sang to one another in a crooning kind of way. I sat in the grass and crumbled the bread I’d stolen from the kitchen. The chickens raced across the meadow their wings spread like sails. The cockerel always arrived first. Marianne said he was a gentleman. As his hens arrived, he stepped backwards making little bowing movements telling the hens they should eat first. After they’d had their fill he jumped into my lap and took the biggest piece he knew I’d saved for him. That was how we did things.
The ram was lying down and panting even though Dad had left the sunroof open. I went inside and told him, but as usual it was half an hour before he took any notice.’Thanks for the Eric sandwiches,’ I said to Marianne.
‘Do I get a kiss?’ she winked. I planted one on her cheek and breathed in her smell. Flowery perfume, cigarettes. Hot mustard.
The stink burned the inside of my nose as we got in the car. The ram was standing now and he’d spread his droppings in the boot. Small and round like rabbit shit, they rolled around as we drove away with the front windows open wide and the wind in our hair. It was my job to open the gates on our drive. There were three. If we didn’t keep them shut the sheep would get out and go looking for fresh grass. Dad couldn’t do the gates by himself because he’d got a bad back. I pulled the spring-loaded latch, put one leg on the gate, then pushed myself off with the other. Dad let the handbrake off, freewheeled past, then I jumped back in.
‘Tea’s ready,’ Mum called from the kitchen door pretending she didn’t mind we were late. The table was laid, and the grandfather clock with the rusty pendulum struck seven.
‘Don’t need tea,’ said Dad grinning. ‘Come and see what I’ve got.’ He opened the tailgate and the ram jumped out. ‘The new bloodline,’ he announced, puffing out his chest. The ram hobbled towards the ewes holding his head in the air and snorting. A ewe stood still and he mounted her. ‘Pretty good timing, eh?’ he said. Mum said nothing, and pulled the soggy paper sacks from the car boot and dragged them to the compost heap.
‘Looks like he’s been in there for hours,’ she said, holding her nose. ‘And he’s limping. We’ll have to disinfect the car.’ She muttered something about infectious disease and went to the barn for disinfectant. We scrubbed until the car smelled like a hospital.
Dad couldn’t help, he was getting ready to go down the pub. Mum sat at the table eating spoonfuls of stew straight from the casserole. ‘Why are you not using a plate?’ I asked.
‘Lost my appetite,’ she said.
We watched TV for a while then went to bed. ‘Mum?’ I asked, as she came to tuck me in. ‘Why don’t you ever wear lipstick?’
‘I used to,’ she replied. ‘But I don’t get much opportunity these days.’ Mum had sad eyes that night. She didn’t sleep when Dad went out, and neither did I. I listened to her waiting. She read a lot and sighed, and blew her nose. When she heard the car coming up the drive she’d turn the light off and pretend to be asleep. I wondered how he managed to do the gates with his back.
After Dad went drinking he had a lie-in. Mum laid the table for breakfast and we ate our toast and eggs without him. We filled buckets for the sheep. Every morning they had to be counted. Mum liked that bit. She leaned on the sheep gate and blew smoke rings as she counted. She said it was like being on holiday for half an hour.
A week after the new ram came, most of the ewes had gone lame. The vet came and shook his head. The next day he came back and brought men with guns. Mum went indoors, closed all the windows and turned the radio up loud so she couldn’t hear. It took all day to shoot them and the bonfire kept smoking for days.
Dad did a lot of sleeping after that, but on New Years Eve he got out of bed. Mum and I dressed up for the party in the village hall. She looked beautiful. She wore a silky dress the colour of poppies, and shiny, black high heels. She piled her hair on top of her head, and wispy bits dangled around her face. She put on some red lipstick, and I wore my best red velvet dress. Dad looked at himself in the mirror and trimmed his beard with the bacon scissors.
The band was playing and Mum and I danced. Dad leant against the wall and watched us for a while, then disappeared. ‘I’m thirsty, Mum,’ I shouted above the music. Dad was laughing at the bar with his friends.
‘You’re well away there,’ one of them said. ‘Not a bad pair of legs either, and very accommodating so I hear.’ They watched Marianne and sneered. She had her red lipstick on too, and was wearing tight black jeans and a glittery top. She looked very nice. Dad walked over to her, then I didn’t see them after that.
‘What would you like to drink?’ Mum asked.
‘Orange juice, please,’ I replied. She ordered a double something for herself. We pushed our way to the front to see the band. Mum danced by herself. She was better than everyone else – wilder and faster – and she flung her arms above her head. Her hair fell down around her shoulders and she kicked off her shoes.
It was nearly midnight and we waited for Big Ben on the radio so we could link arms and kiss. I still couldn’t see Dad anywhere, but I knew he was supposed to kiss us. Mum was swaying from side to side and her lipstick was smudged. ‘Someone should get her home,’ said the barman. The clock struck twelve and people hugged. Mum sat on a chair wiping her face with a handkerchief. Dad appeared and tried to drag her outside but she wouldn’t budge. She screamed at him, then he slapped her face and she went quiet. I followed them out to our car. It still smelled of sheep. Mum said nothing. Neither did Dad until they got to the first gate on our drive.
‘I’m waiting,’ he said.
‘Wait all night then,’ said Mum. Dad leant across and pushed open her door. She slammed it shut.
‘You’ve made a complete fool of me,’ he shouted.
‘And you have made a fool of both of us,’ she replied, ‘for years’. Suddenly Mum wasn’t drunk. ‘I will not open the gates anymore.’ I wanted to tell them they needn’t fight about the gates because the sheep were dead. Mum turned in her seat and looked at me as if she wanted to ask me something. I made myself very still and looked back at her in the dark, then at Dad. I made up my mind and put my hand on Dad’s shoulder. Mum opened the door, kicked off her shoes, and ran down the road towards the village.
December 17, 2017 § 26 Comments
Paulina didn’t know why she’d invited him to dinner. Neither did she know his name, did not want to know it – but everyone called him the birdman. The old man was coming tonight, and meeting him had triggered a remembering in her that shone like a bright light and was feeding upon itself.
That first day she had seen him in the square she thought her mind had been playing a trick. Surely he had been an illusion. But the birds knew better. He stood quietly under the cherry tree with his arms raised as if saluting the sun. The sparrows swooped down from the tree, then swaying like pendulums landed on his shoulders. Some fluttered around his head then dropped like soft stones knowing it was safe to be in his open palms.
People talked. Some said he had been in the war and it had addled his brain, others said he had no family and the birds had become his kin. No one knew where he lived. He always wore a dusty satin dinner jacket with a white bow tie – not the sort that fastened with elastic – and clean white socks that were visible because his trousers – which he wore with red braces – were always too short.
This morning he sat on the bench by the cherry tree. His mouth was turned down at the corners as he whispered to a robin perched quietly in the palm of his hand. The bird cocked its head, then flittered away and landed beside a woman reading a book on a bench. She looked up and smiled as the bird fluttered around her head. After that the old man’s mouth turned upwards.
Paulina thought he looked very alone in the early morning mist – like a statue, a megalith, hardly moving and always there. He stared at the pavement. The first leaves were falling and skittered at his feet. Strands of moist, white hair fell forward over his face. He drew his fingers through the thinning strands and smoothed them flat. He seemed to be waiting for something, and today, even more than other days, he looked so like her father.
She sat down on the bench beside him.
‘The birds are gone, ‘ she said.
‘They always go in the end,’ he replied.
She pointed to a branch on the cherry tree. ‘Look. The robin’s back.’
They sat awhile and talked about everyday things, then Paulina stood up, clenching her fists tightly until the knuckles turned the colour of the mist. ‘Would you do something for me please?
‘Of course. And what would that be?’
‘Come to dinner.’
The old man looked surprised and blinked. But why?’
‘Why thank you. I am only used to giving kindness.’
As she left the square, she knew exactly what she would cook.
She trimmed the flesh from the neck of lamb and set the bones in a saucepan of water to boil. She chopped the meat into chunks, rolling each piece in flour, and sealing them in hot fat. She sliced onions and carrots, cutting away the coarse outer leaves of the leeks and rinsing away the grit. She had cooked this dish so many times for her father. She sighed, peeling the coarse fibres from the head of celery – they always got stuck between his teeth. She peeled and sliced potatoes, arranging a thick layer on the bottom of the casserole dish. She mixed the vegetables with the lamb, seasoned it with herbs, and poured it into the pot on top of the potatoes. She arranged the remaining potato slices in a spiral on the top, then removing the hot bones from the saucepan, strained the liquid and poured it over the stew. She slid the casserole dish onto the bottom shelf of the oven, and began to cry.
She dabbed at her eyes with the tea cloth and remembered what she had to do. She peeled and chopped apples, mixing them with blackberries she had picked from their thicket at the bottom of the garden. She rubbed margarine into flour, and stirred in soft brown sugar. She tipped the fruit into a pie dish and poured the crumble topping over it. The cream was in the fridge – he had liked his crumble with cream.
Paulina laid the table carefully. He would sit on one side, she the other. She took a large winter overcoat from the cupboard under the stairs, shook the dust away, and draped it carefully over the back of his chair. Then she curled up in the window seat, clasped her hands together on her lap, and waited.
December 5, 2017 § 8 Comments
Ally ducked under the honeysuckle arch and the wooden gate clicked shut. The whooshing sound of tyres on tarmac vanished. In it’s place was a different kind of noise. Bees. Hundreds of them. Doing relays in the lavender hedge, rolling yellow and drunken in the buddleia, tiny brown honey bees grazing love-in-a-mist. Some bees were so heavy with pollen they lay, hardly moving, comatose, in the long grass under the almond tree. Ally had walked into a water colour painting. The shapes blurred, colours overlapping. She took off her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes, but still nothing looked distinct or separate.
This wasn’t a garden for serious digging. It was a pleasure garden for dozing, deadheading, for musing and drinking tea from china cups. No bright colours were allowed, just graded washes and modified hues. Thin raw umber and zinc white with a dash of faded purple for an old blowsy rose, diluted cadmium red with a touch of white and a hint of black for a swaying hollyhock. The flowers looked fragile, as if they would be gone tomorrow. She sat down at the table. There were paints, and a square of thick wet paper stretched tight over a board with masking tape. With a sponge, a rag and a voluptous sable brush, she dripped coloured washes onto the paper. The paint spread and granulated, and Ally allowed the painting freedom to form itself, occasionally directing by mopping or tipping the board from side to side. There was no detail – just traces, a vague promise, an intimation of what might be.
A bee made fat with pollen crash landed upside down on the table. It sounded cross. She tipped it over and watched it shake itself, flex it’s wings then struggle into the thick warm air.
Time suddenly shifted, and the rumbling of lorries got loud. She put on her sunglasses, ducked under the arch and lifted the latch.
July 10, 2017 § 10 Comments
She sat on the stairs and stared. The spider behind the central heating pipe stared right back. Sophie had taken to wearing sunglasses in the house which made it hard to spot the cobwebs, but it did mean the spiders couldn’t tell when she was spying on them. This one was smart. It hung upside down pretending it didn’t know she was there, swinging beneath its huge, dusty web waiting for something to set off its booby trap. Discarded bits of woodlouse and fly lay in a pile on the white carpet, and Sophie remembered why spiders got on her nerves.
As she leaned forward to get a closer look, the spider vibrated its web so fast it turned into a blur and made Sophie’s head spin. It didn’t look like a very nice spider because it had a pattern like a tattoo of a human skull on its fat, round body; and after she’d looked it up in her arachnid book and found out about its bad habits – including its fondness for eating its own babies – she decided to suck it up with the vacuum cleaner. That way it could do the nasty things it did inside the paper dust bag and she wouldn’t have to watch.
She switched on the machine and the spider vibrated its web again as a sign she should clear off. The closer she got the more manic it became. But Sophie took no notice, pointed the hose, and sucked the spider into the brown paper bag.
‘Hi, sweetheart,’ called Colin. ‘I’m home. Had a good day?’
Sophie kissed him on the cheek. ‘Lovely,’ she smiled.
‘What have you been up to?’
‘Just a bit of spring cleaning, my love.’
The next day Sophie bought one of those small, hand held vacuum cleaners people use to clean the inside of their cars, and every day for a week she sucked up everything that made a web. It made her very happy.
Mosquitoes were next on Sophie’s list because they kept coming in through the bedroom window to steal her blood and give her malaria. They were easy to deal with because Sophie knew where they lived: inside the water butt in the back yard. She liked to swish them around with a stick as they wriggled on the surface breathing in air through tubes sticking out of their heads. But that was yesterday. Today, Sophie turned on the tap at the bottom of the barrel until it emptied itself. She sat on a garden chair and drank fizzy lemonade while she waited until the larvae stopped squirming on the steaming concrete. Soon they began to shrivel and turn black in the sun.
‘Did you forget to turn the tap off, sweetie?’ asked Colin when he got home.
‘Sorry, darling. All my fault. Not to worry. Rain’s forecast for the weekend.’
Sophie thought she was doing rather well getting rid of all the irritating things in her life, and that evening just after sunset, she attended to number three on her list. She leaned the stepladder against the apple tree where the wasps were settling in for the night, and dropped a deadly smoke bomb into their nest. She ran off as fast as she could as she’d heard wasps could be rather vengeful.
The following morning she went to get the ladder – not a single wasp in sight. She celebrated with a bowl of strawberries and cream underneath the apple tree, and another long cool glass of homemade lemonade. All was well in Sophie’s world until a bumblebee came to sniff out the strawberries. This took the edge off her sense of achievement and set her thinking.
She felt a bit guilty about the bees. She liked them buzzing about in the garden, but they would keep getting trapped in the kitchen and bashing themselves against the windows. They could turn quite nasty when she tried to rescue them. The buzzing was making Sophie rather bad tempered, so she decided that a little bit of meddling wouldn’t make any difference to the world bee population.
She bought some ant poison that said in big red letters on the tin that it was harmful to wildlife, particularly bees, and poured it down their holes in the garden. Then she plugged the holes up with cotton wool. Sophie was sure they wouldn’t suffer, and in any case the poison would come in handy if she got an ant infestation in the front garden like last year.
‘Are you bored, my love?’ Colin enquired.
‘Not at all, sweetheart,’ replied Sophie. ‘Why do you think that?’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s just that you seem to want to change things all of a sudden.’
‘Like what?’ asked Sophie.
‘First you vacuumed up all the spiders. Then you got rid of the mosquitoes. Then there was the wasps’ nest.’ Colin didn’t know about the bees.
‘Really, I’m fine, sweetie. Just trying to make life easier for us. That’s all.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Colin brightly. ‘But if you want to go out and get a little job, I really wouldn’t mind, you know.’
Sophie didn’t believe in God, so she didn’t believe in divine retribution either, but when the rats appeared in the front garden and took up residence in the foundations because the airbrick had fallen out, she did wonder if there was a God around who’d decided she needed teaching a lesson.
Sophie liked domesticated rats – the female sort with silky white fur that lived in cages, smelled sweet, and got taken to the vet when they were under the weather – but Sophie didn’t know the pet varieties were exactly the same species as the wild ones that were eating their way through her floorboards. Fancy Pants had been Sophie’s pet when she was four years old, and her favourite place had been up Sophie’s jumper. Every Monday they would go to the post office and wait in the queue, and when it was her mum’s turn Sophie poked Fancy Pants to make her pop her head out of her sleeve and make the woman behind the counter scream her head off. She liked eating spaghetti too – and could eat one strand of the long variety in twelve seconds flat. Fancy Pants died of stomach cancer when she was snacking on rhubarb crumble and listening to The Archers, and although Sophie wept as they buried her in the rose garden, she knew she’d had a good life.
But Sophie knew there was one difference between pet rats and the vermin sort: one type she loved and the other she didn’t. After a day or two of settling in under the floorboards, the rats began to take liberties. Every evening they’d come out for a bit of fresh air and exercise. Dad first, then Mum, then the babies, all in a long line, smallest last. Sophie decided it was a bit of a cheek to take over the garden as well, and wondered what to do. But while she was wondering, she started having nightmares. Rats the same size as she was barged into the house without knocking, then marched from room to room in a regimental line on their hind legs, big one first, baby last. When she told them to clear off, they growled in unison, showed their yellow fangs, and gnawed spitefully at any piece of furniture close to hand.
Sophie decided if she sorted out the rat problem then the nightmares would stop, so she emptied a whole tin of rat bait into the hole, and stuffed a new brick into the gap with some ready made cement.
Sophie was pleased with herself. She was getting good at setting her life in order. She’d taken the cat off her list because the postman had accidentally reversed over it, which she hadn’t minded about because it was black and left bits of mouse on the kitchen floor. That was the other thing: Sophie didn’t like anything that was black, and this soon refined itself into an aversion to anything that wasn’t white.
And then the smell started. At first it was a slightly sweet, not sure whether it was really there, type of smell. Sophie opened the windows and bought a plug-in air freshener that gave off a sharp, chemical stink of something that was supposed to be roses. At least it masked the other smell – for a while. After a few days Sophie worked out what it was – it was the rats rotting.
‘What’s that pong? said Sophie’s husband. So she told him. ‘Don’t worry, darling,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we take that holiday to Brazil you’ve been after? The smell will be gone by the time we get back.’
But Sophie had been reading up on Brazil. She knew about the man-eating caimans that lay in wait for days lusting for the taste of human flesh, and the Surucucu Bushmaster snake that sent you into a coma if you as much as poked it. Malaria, dengue fever, rabies, Chagas’ disease, leprosy, bilharzia, she knew about them all. Then there were the rats as big as cats that would bite off your nose while you slept, and the chiggers that laid eggs under your toenails then crawled into your blood stream and fed off your brain.
‘Changed my mind,’ she said decisively. ‘Too uncivilized. Why don’t we spend the money refurnishing the house instead?’
‘If you like, darling. But what’s wrong with it as it is?’
‘It isn’t white,’ she said.
The next day Sophie got down to the serious business of ordering the right colour furniture and gallons of white paint. A skip was delivered and Sophie began filling it with anything that wasn’t white.
‘Good morning,’ said Maria from next door.
‘Good morning,’ said Sophie panting a bit.
‘You look like you could do with a coffee. Kettle’s on.’
So Sophie and Maria became friends. Maria helped lug the heavy furniture into the skip and began telling Sophie her life story. She started with her husband. ‘He never talks to me,’ she moaned.
Maria took to knocking on Sophie’s door at eleven o’clock every weekday for coffee and more life story instalments. Maria’s complaining soon began to get on Sophie’s nerves, so she changed the subject and told her about the grand plan that had changed her life. Maria was so impressed she decided to have a go herself. Sophie lent her the little vacuum cleaner, and soon a skip turned up in Maria’s front garden.
Then Maria’s husband disappeared. ‘He said I was obsessive and he’d had enough.’ Every day at eleven o’clock Maria wept her heart out all over the brand new white kitchen table until Sophie decided she’d had enough too.
The rat bait came in little pellets, and Sophie thought that if she put one in Maria’s coffee every day it might make her feel a bit poorly and she’d stop coming over. Nothing happened for a while, until one day Maria complained she was feeling dizzy.’ It must be the anti-depressants the doctor put me on,’ she said.
‘Perhaps you should stop taking them and see if you feel better,’ said Sophie helpfully.
Sophie carried on putting a pellet in Maria’s coffee every day but it made no difference to the frequency of her visits.
‘Did the doctor take you off the happy pills then?’ she enquired.
‘He did. And he’s put me on some stronger ones. Now I feel even worse.’
Maria began to get quite wobbly on her feet, so Sophie advised her to go to bed and stay there until she felt better. She promised to pop in for a chat every day.
But Sophie was so excited about getting the house just right that she forgot. Colin said it looked very beautiful and what a resourceful woman she was, so Sophie changed her mind about the last item on her list and crossed it off with a thick black pen.
Sophie’s life was perfect. Everything was as it should be, and Maria was now in excellent health and had found herself a new husband.
‘I love my new job,’ she told Sophie. ‘Perhaps you should get one too.’
‘Perhaps I should,’ Sophie agreed.
‘I’m drinking Earl Grey these days. Milk or lemon?’
‘Lemon, please,’ she said.
‘You know,’ said Maria thoughtfully. ‘My stomach has been absolutely fine since I stopped drinking that coffee.
‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy the job,’ said Colin. ‘You’re getting so bored here by yourself.’
Sophie was grateful to Maria for putting in a good word for her at the nursing home. Maria introduced her to all the elderly patients and showed her what to do.
‘They’re so sweet and so loving,’ said Sophie happily. Just like children.’
Sophie and Maria were put on dining room duty. ‘It reminds me so much of when my children were babies,’ laughed Maria, spooning scrambled egg into an old lady’s mouth.
‘Sometimes I regret not having children of my own,’ sighed Sophie.
‘Did you have a choice?’ asked Maria.
‘I did, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle their toys all over the place, and all that dreadful noise.’
‘Wise move then,’ she replied.
‘I’m not sure now. This is so rewarding.’
Everyone was excited. ‘What’s going on?’ asked Sophie.
‘A new patient’s arriving today. All the ladies have dressed up and had their hair done. It’s a rare thing to have a new man in their midst. He’ll be spoilt something rotten.’
Daniel had a shock of white hair, an innocent smile and a short fuse. ‘It’s quite normal for patients with advanced dementia to have little outbursts,’ said Sophie. ‘He doesn’t mean it. He’s lovely.’
Sophie was right, and Daniel became the centre of the old ladies lives. A week later Michael arrived. He was a rather deaf, mild mannered man of few words, and now Daniel had to compete for the ladies attention. He didn’t like it. He began to make a fuss at mealtimes, shouting at Michael and upsetting the ladies. ‘What can we do?’ asked Sophie.
‘I really don’t know. We’ll have to keep a close eye on him. Matron will make sure they don’t sit at the same table.’
‘But surely if he is told to behave, then he will,’ said Sophie.
‘Life isn’t like that here,’ said Maria. ‘Remember, some of them really are like children.’
‘In that case,’ said Sophie, ‘I shall treat him like one.’
Sophie began to punish him. She smacked him when she thought no one was looking, and sent him to bed without supper if he wouldn’t do as he was told.
‘You can’t treat him like that,’ said Maria. ‘If Matron were to hear of it you would be sacked.’
Daniel didn’t stop behaving badly and neither did Sophie.
‘This is not working out,’ said Matron. ‘Your behaviour towards Daniel is unacceptable. I am giving you one week’s notice.’
Sophie began to cry. ‘I really don’t want to go, it will break my heart.’
Maria was silent until Matron had gone. Then she hugged Sophie very tightly until she couldn’t breathe. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Maria with the kind of smile she reserved for the old people. ‘I’ve learnt so much from you. I know just what to do.’