It’s Dark In Here

November 11, 2013 § 24 Comments

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There are three cats, five girls and me. I lean against the banisters in the front hall waiting for action. I hang out with a dustbin, a pile of wellies and a giant ball of cat fluff. No one does housework so the old rectory pongs of cat. They belong to Sam whose real name is Doctor Samantha Huntingdon-Carmichael. Her dad’s a rear admiral who brays like a donkey telling the girls they would have a very nice garden if only they bothered cutting the lawn. The mower he gave them gets rusty in the woodshed with a nest of harvest mice in the grass catcher.

It’s my job to pick up local gossip, and I find out Sam does experiments on animals in the basement of the Psychology Department at the university, and no one’s supposed to know. But Angela, who lives upstairs, tells stories about pink-eyed rats with wires stuck into their brains, and beagles that like John Player Specials and cough a lot. Sam’s cats are the only creatures that talk to me. They say they got rescued – from what they haven’t a clue – but the one who’s called One has only one eye, Two has neither, and Three – who used to be a tom – has a limp and a wobbly scar between his ears.

I am newly painted green, and came from the shop behind the cathedral, next to the alley where the choirboys aren’t supposed to smoke. Rosie polishes and oils me when she remembers, and she bought me a wickerwork basket she’s tied to my handlebars and fills with food from Tesco’s every Friday before the boy with the long hair and dark brown voice comes over. Weekends are boring because he has an Austin Healey 3000. When they’re not in that, they’re in her room catching up on sleep.

            I like dodging the ruts on the cycle path into town, and trying to run down the public school boys with their silly hats. When the sun’s out the tourists come out – all with stupid Hawaiian shirts and cameras – so I try and run them down as well. It’s a good life.

The boy with the soft brown voice takes us to live in a cottage in the middle of nowhere and paints me lots of different colours with little tins of Airfix paint. But there isn’t anyone to talk to anymore. His snooty ten-geared racing bike never says a word, neither does the barn owl with the very nasty habits. The rabbits living behind the shed were very chatty, but they disappeared after a man in a Rentokil van came and threw something that smelt bad into their warren and blocked off the holes.

But it’s holiday time, and Rosie says we’re going to Wales. I only have three gears so I know there is going to be trouble. It won’t stop raining. Waterfalls splash down the mountainside and flood the roads, and I spend the night against a tree with the grumpy racing bike, while Rosie and the boy giggle in a tent and eat baked beans out of a tin.

It takes her two hours to push me up Llanberis Pass, and fifteen minutes for me to imagine what having a coronary will be like as she rips my brake pads to shreds slithering down the other side. But Rosie doesn’t care – she doesn’t even dry me off afterwards.

When we get home, things start looking up. Rosie and I go out every day as she’s got a job the other side of Beccles marshes. But she spends a lot of time wobbling with her mouth open as herons glide overhead, or jamming on the brakes as she never looks where she’s going. My chain gets noisier, and my screws get looser as she races over the marsh being chased by nosey cows. But Rosie doesn’t seem to notice. My joints are creaking and my frame is twisted. I need a rest.

Then a new bike appears. It’s a Claude Butler, and it’s new, and it looks like it goes faster than me. It arrives the same day as the JCB. As it’s digging some big holes, a cement lorry arrives. The boy with the soft brown voice begins throwing stuff in the holes: bits of old boat, rusty metal, paint tins; in fact anything goes in that looks like it isn’t any use. The boy looks at me, picks me up rather roughly, then puts me down again. The Claude Butler sniggers.

I’m wondering where Rosie is. The cement is streaming out of a long pipe filling up the holes, and the boy has his hands on his hips and he’s grinning. Then he suddenly turns, wheels me roughly to the hole, and chucks me in.

The cement is cold and sticky. Rosie appears and starts waving her arms about. Her face turns pink. I see her lips move, but I can’t hear a thing. The cement keeps coming. And now I can’t see.

It’s dark in here, and I’m cold. When is she coming to get me?

***

Don’t Mess With The Moon

November 4, 2013 § 10 Comments

Just a bit of fun. But also an exercise in character development through dialogue…

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            ‘I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up,’ said Ben, scratching ice off the bedroom window with a fingernail.

            India pressed her nose against the glass. ‘Why?’

            ‘I’ll be able to go places you can’t. Like outer space.’

            India’s bottom lip wobbled. ‘I’ve got a passport so I can come too.’

            ‘Won’t let you. I’m going to the moon like Neil Armstrong. Then I’ll get really famous and never speak to you again.’

His little sister stuck out her tongue.

            ‘Lick that ice,’ said Ben, ‘and Jack Frost’ll make sure your tongue sticks there forever. It’ll hurt like hell and you’ll starve to death.’

            India opened her eyes wide and stared. ‘Is Neil Armstrong still up there, then. On the moon, I mean?’

            ‘Are you blind? I can see him with one eye shut. And the American flag he stuck in the green cheese.’

            ‘Pants on fire,’ she replied, poking him gently.

            ‘Look,’ he pointed. ‘Eyes. Nose. Mouth.’

India turned her head to one side and squinted at the moon. ‘Hmm. Maybe I can see him after all. Oh my God!’ she cried. ‘He’s got a big scary mouth and looks really mean!’

            ‘Blaspheme again and I’ll tell on you.’

‘What’s blaspheming…’

‘Mind your own business. And in any case the man on the moon isn’t mean – he’s grumpy because he’s hungry. There’s nothing to eat but green cheese, and he’s allergic to dairy products.’

            ‘How do you know?’

            ‘Dad said.’

            ‘What else did he say?’

            ‘That Mum’s going nuts tonight because it’s a full moon.’

            ‘Why?’

            ‘Once a month something weird happens to her brain.’

            ‘Lights out,’ said their mother.

            ‘Where’s Daisy The Bobble?’ wailed India. ‘I can’t go to sleep without her. He’s hidden her again.’

            ‘Haven’t.’

            ‘Have.’ She pointed to the pink bobble hat with pointy ears and whiskers under Ben’s bed.

‘You put her there on purpose,’ said Ben.

‘Didn’t.’

‘Did.’

‘Stop it,’ sighed Mum. ‘I’ve had enough.’

            ‘Is it true?’ India whispered as they exchanged kisses. ‘Are you going to go nuts tonight?’

            ‘I will if you don’t go to sleep now,’ she replied, stroking India’s cheek.

But India couldn’t because Neil Armstrong wouldn’t stop glaring at her through the chink in the curtains. He got closer and closer, and was turning into a monster.

            ‘He’s coming to get me,’ she whined. ‘I’m going to die.’

            ‘Shut up, cry baby,’ shouted Ben, sticking his fingers in his ears.

‘What’s going on here then?’ asked Dad.

 ‘Neil Armstrong’s coming,’ replied India, putting Daisy on her head and pointing at Ben. She opened her mouth and roared. ‘Then you’ll be sorry.’

‘There,’ said Dad, rearranging the curtains. ‘And anyway, you’ll be safe because there’s going to be an eclipse and the moon will be hiding.’

‘What’s an eclipse, and is Mum going to go mad tonight?’ India breathed from under the covers.

            But Dad took no notice. ‘Night night,’ he whispered, closing the door with a loud click.

            Ben flicked bits of toast over the breakfast table, and India was making a mess with a soft-boiled egg. ‘Mum?’ she asked. ‘Ben says the moon makes you crazy.’

            ‘Did he now? That’s nothing but an old wives tale.’

            ‘What’s one of those?’

            ‘They’re stories Gran used to believe in the old days. Like it’s bad luck to point at the moon or look at it through a pane of glass. Chickens are supposed to lay more eggs on a full moon too. We’ll go and look in a minute.’

            ‘Codswallop,’ said Ben. ‘You’ll believe anything.’

            ‘Thirteen eggs,’ said Mum. ‘Double the usual. I know who did that.’

            Ben went a bit pale, and locked himself in the bathroom with the encyclopedia.

            That night he was scraping ice off the windows again. India pressed her nose against the glass, her bobble hat pulled over her eyes so she couldn’t look at the moon.

            ‘Cripes!’ shrieked Ben. ‘ Can’t find it anywhere! Or the stars.’

            India pulled Daisy off her head and calmly got into bed. ‘All your fault. You’ve frightened off the moon and broken the stars. Now you’re for it.’

*

PS. Had a think. Chickens don’t lay eggs when it’s cold. Doh!!

Yellow

October 31, 2013 § 7 Comments

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            She used to say if I really wanted something to happen I should draw a picture of it, close my eyes and wish. So after he died I drew her holding hands with him on the beach. I paid particular attention to their faces. I flushed their cheeks, filled their eyes with light and turned the corners of their mouths into smiles. I made each drawing different because it made the spell stronger. Some had blue skies, others grey, and some had the cloudy stripes of a mirage or a moon rising from the sea. I drew ochre suns, thunderstorms, and rainbows arcing over their heads. I always made the sand yellow because that was my favourite colour.

But the magic wasn’t working so I drew more and more, and the wind blew through my open window and scattered the wishes over the bedroom floor. I left them where they were. The pictures grew old. They curled at the edges and turned yellow.

Each night I traced the shape of my parents on the windowpane with my fingertips, and then knelt by my bed, my hands in supplication. But still my father didn’t come back. I became frightened of the dark after that.

            When she wasn’t sleeping, my mother wandered around the house. She peered into dusty corners, pulled open drawers, examined cupboards. She became a hunter. But when I asked her what she had lost she simply shook her head.

Soon she stopped answering my questions, and the edges of her body disappeared like the smudged shadows I made when I rubbed the charcoal off my paper with a rag.

            Our days grew still and colourless, and the house took on the faded dullness of a thing aged before its time. My mother let the range go out and the kitchen became icy cold, facing in on its own depths like a cave. The mirrors, the windows, and the silver teapot with the dented spout, no longer glittered when the sun cast its light. Even the flower garden, so beloved by my mother, began to sink back into the earth.

            I held images of our past deep inside my body. They were safe there; protected from the misery that filled our house.

But they made me feel disconnected. The kitchen had been a place of warmth where squares of sunlight slanted through the window onto the scrubbed table. My mother would butter my toast. She scraped a curl from the yellow roll wrapped in greaseproof paper, spread the butter so thickly it seeped onto the plate. There was my father’s kiss on her cheek, and the lightness of her laugh as she brushed him away. But the eggs I remembered most of all: almost green in their grassy yellowness. I cracked one open every morning with the silver spoon and watched its slither down the outside of the eggcup.

            My bedroom filled with paper, so I drew in the kitchen. Soon a pile of paper grew on the table, the edges curling inwards like dying roses. The chickens hid their eggs in the bushes and there were no eggs for breakfast. That was when her sister Maria came. On the first day she wore a cheesecloth dress the colour of sun. She cleaned and cooked and I knew she understood what would make my mother better. Maria made the house shiny and gave it back its sharp edges again, but my mother stayed in her bed.

            I drew a picture of a celandine and left it on the kitchen table. ‘Thank you,’ said my mother. The weak spring light struggled through the window, and she pressed her face against the pane until it grew misty with her breath. She began to cry, and taking the scissors, went to the garden and came back with a single celandine. She put it in an eggcup on the windowsill.

            The next day I drew a crocus. Again my mother took the scissors, and this time returned with a bunch of the yellow blooms. She filled a glass with water, arranged the flowers, and took them to her room.

‘And now she refuses to come out,’ sighed Maria. ‘But at least she says she’s hungry.’

Soon the daffodils came, but after a week I stopped drawing them. ‘It isn’t working,’ I told Maria. ‘The more she picks, the more she weeps. ‘What shall we do?

            ‘Nothing,’ replied Maria. ‘Look what she’s done to the house. She’s filling it with yellow flowers.’

            ‘But she’s getting sadder and sadder.’

            ‘No,’ said Maria. ‘That’s not what she’s doing. She’s found the tears she never cried, and now she’s using them up.’

            My mother filled more teacups with crocuses and celandines and put them on the windowsills. She filled jugs with daffodils and narcissi, and draped branches of forsythia over the inglenook. And still she wept.

            I gathered the drawings from my room and from the kitchen table. ‘I want you to burn these now,’ I said.

            ‘Why?’ Maria asked.

            ‘Perhaps she doesn’t need them anymore.’

            Maria shook her head and smiled.

            ‘Where is she?’ I asked.

            ‘Busy,’ she replied. ‘Look.’ She pointed through the open window to the garden. My mother was digging. Every few minutes she stopped to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.

            ‘But she’s not fine,’ I said. ‘She’s crying.’

            ‘Listen,’ said Maria. ‘When she’s not crying, she’s singing.’

*

A Meeting Of Friends

October 26, 2013 § 4 Comments

A Story For Children

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The ancient forest and its creatures made no sound before dawn. The night sky coloured in readiness for the sun, and Felim-dor watched the sharp purple shadows filter through the treetops as they spread in a watery pool on the forest floor.

Ruby the redbreast dozed on Felim-dor’s shoulder as he wove through the forest – silent as the other creatures who knew how to be invisible – in his moss-lined boots. His night’s work done caring for the sick animals at Silberhof Farm, his stomach began to rumble like distant thunder. It was time for a second breakfast before he went home to bed.

His mouth watered as he arrived at the clearing of his birthday tree – the tree where he had been born over a hundred years before – for he knew there would be blackberries for him alone to eat; such were the rules of the forest.

‘Wake up, Ruby. Time for grub.’ The robin poked her head out from under her wing, flew in circles round his head and chattered with alarm. The berries were gone – stripped from the branches by a large and hungry mouth. Ruby flitted to the other side of the clearing and landed heavily on the ancient oak, hopping crossly on one leg and fluttering her wings. Something was cracking twigs behind the oak; something was rubbing against it and making a strange grunting sound. Whatever it was was getting very cross and didn’t care who knew about it.

Gnomes were braver than men, and they were nosier too. Who or what had eaten his blackberries? Felim-dor crept along the edge of the clearing – over the undergrowth and under the overgrowth – until he arrived at the source of the commotion. It was a huge animal with four legs and great furry ears, and it was trying to shake something off its back and getting rather cross. Then it spotted Felim-dor hiding in the thicket. ‘Who and what are you?’ it demanded.

At this greeting, Felim-dor came out of his hiding place bowing long and low until his beard touched the ground. ‘Good morning, sir. But forgive me, perhaps it is madam. I am a wanderer in the forest.’

‘That’s good. So am I. And it is sir,’ said the creature.

‘What kind of animal are you? ‘

‘I am a donkey and they call me Maximillian. Those whom I regard as friends call me Max. And what are you?’

‘I am a gnome, and I go by the name of Felim-dor.’ He bowed again. ‘Sir. I am at your service.’

‘Then please be kind enough to relieve me of my heavy load.’

‘With pleasure, Maximillian.’ And with no more ado he began to remove the logs from the panniers on the donkey’s back.

Maximillian was eager to tell the gnome of his predicament, so Felim-dor stopped what he was doing, settled himself on a log and prepared to listen.

Early that same morning, the donkey had accompanied his owner to the place in the woods where men gathered twigs and fallen branches for their fires – indeed the pannier on his back bore witness to the truth of his words, as well as to the success of the enterprise.

‘But how is it,’ asked Felim-dor, ‘that you come to be here by yourself?’ The donkey explained what had happened. His master, hungry and thirsty after his labours, had stopped by the wayside for his breakfast, but before he had eaten, had taken a long drink. No sooner had he emptied the flask of amber liquid, than he had lain down and fallen into a deep slumber. Maximillian, fearing his master had fallen ill, decided to take a short cut through the forest to get help.

This, as it turned out, had not been very wise; for donkeys, as this one had just discovered, had no sense of direction. ‘A good job you met me then.’ said the gnome. Ruby, not wanting to be left out, twittered in agreement. Maximillian, who was by nature a polite animal when not mistreated, agreed that he had enjoyed remarkably good fortune, but could not help asking quite why this was so. ’Because,’ said Felim-dor, ‘I can climb this oak and find your way home.’

No sooner had he said it than he did it. Up and down in a flash, he told Maximillian he could see the road he and his master had been travelling upon.

‘But can you see my home?’ inquired the donkey.

‘What does it look like?’

‘It has sails.’

‘What. You live on a ship!’

‘No. No, you don’t understand, it’s a windmill. That sort of sail,’ replied Maximillian, beginning to wonder whether he had not fallen in with a rather dim sort of gnome.

A quick repetition of his up and down trick, and Felim-dor was able to supply the donkey with directions home. The problem was, he explained, he had no idea which way was left and which way was right. Ruby spread out her wings in frustration and puffed out her chest.

Felim-dor, like all gnomes, liked to be helpful; but he liked the idea of a second breakfast even more. Nevertheless, it was part of the code of the gnome to offer assistance to those who were lost; and being that sort of fellow, he put the needs of his stomach aside and guided the donkey back to the road.

When they reached the place where the master had fallen asleep, he was nowhere to be seen. Maximillian, who was, truth to be told, still hungry after having eaten Felim-dor’s blackberries, suggested that they should eat the master’s breakfast which was still in the pannier on his back. ‘It will lighten my load considerably,’ he brayed.

The two sat down and devoured the contents of the basket. There were cheeses, grapes and crusty brown bread. It all slipped down very nicely, except the sausages which they both politely ignored. The sun was hot, their stomachs full, and soon they too were fast asleep.

It was the noise of complaining which woke him. Since gnomes blend into the background if they stay still, the person making the noise had not seen Felim-dor, who was able to listen from close quarters.

‘You are one useless donkey!’ screamed the ugly man wearing leather trousers. ‘Get up you useless lump or I’ll have you turned into bratwurst!’

Ruby fluffed herself up in readiness to give him a good pecking, and Felim-dor told him to stop at once.

The man looked very surprised to see Felim-dor. ‘Who and what are you?’

Recounting the story to Maximillian later, he commented on how the man had first fallen silent before swearing he would never drink again. After that he had run off deep into the forest.

Maximillian seemed anxious on hearing what had passed. ‘I don’t want to be turned into sausages,’ he complained.

‘Do not fear,’ replied Felim-dor. My own clan is spread far and wide across this pleasant land. We will protect you from harm.’

‘Thank you, my dear friend. And by the way, please call me Max.’

Felim-dor bowed long and so low that his nose touched  his toes, and Ruby flew into the air and glided onto the soft furry spot between Max’s enormous ears.

~

 

 

A Bit Of An Education

October 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

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Boris had gone blind. He did look cleaner, but he didn’t look right. Thomas had put him feet first through the mangle and his head had got stuck. Maudie’s bottom lip trembled, and Thomas began to whistle loudly like he did when he’d mucked things up. ‘Got it Maudie!’ he yelled. ‘Quick or he’ll suffocate! We’ll turn the handle together then his head’ll go through. Ready. Steady. Go.’

Something crunched as they forced the teddy bear’s head between the rollers. The glass eyes shattered, sprayed themselves across the stone kitchen floor, tinkled, then winked like lots of diamonds. ‘You’ve squashed him like a hedgehog,’ wailed his little sister. ‘He’ll think he’s been run over! He’s dying. Muuum!’

            ‘Didn’t do it on purpose. Just wanted to see if he’d fit.’

            ‘Say sorry,’ demanded his mother. Thomas wouldn’t because it would make his sister happy. ‘And if you ever do that again I’ll get the bat out.’ The bat waited on top of the dresser: it was plastic, seasick green and left criss-cross marks on the back of his legs.

Thomas couldn’t get to sleep that night thinking about Boris and how he hadn’t meant to be nasty to him. When he finally did get off he dreamt Maudie was putting his Action Man through the mangle and singing Three Blind Mice. When he worried about things he had nightmares and wet the bed; and when he did that his mother tried not to shout but always did, and threatened to take him to the doctor to see if there was anything wrong with his bladder.

Thomas hid the Action Man under the bed and wondered what he could do that he wouldn’t get told off for. It was getting silly. He got the blame for everything. His legs were covered in bruises because Maudie kept kicking him, and he even got told off for that – nobody ever asked him why he’d had to kick her.

He locked himself in the shed with Rex to eat dog biscuits and to get some inspiration. No one would know, he thought; and it’s just an experiment. He cut off a short piece of rope and shredded it so it looked like tobacco, then he rolled it up into a kind of cigarette with toilet paper. He twisted the ends so the bits of rope wouldn’t fall out, and lit up. Rope is hemp, hemp is marijuana. It’s supposed to make me feel happy. Soon his lungs and the shed were full of hot brown smoke. It wasn’t working. He didn’t feel any happier and the dog wouldn’t stop barking.

 ‘What are you doing in there?’ shouted his mother. ‘Open the door at once! Why are you trying to set the place on fire. What’s got into you?’

She sent him to his room and told him to stay there. ‘Come and play, Maudie,’ he whispered through the keyhole. ‘I’ll give you half my marbles and let you win at tiddly winks.’

‘No way,’ she said. ‘Don’t play with bad boys.’

After supper Dad brought him baked beans on toast. ‘Girls really don’t understand boys, do they?’ he said, punching Thomas playfully on the arm.

‘I don’t get them either, otherwise I wouldn’t be getting in trouble all the time.’

‘There is a trick, you know.’

Thomas waited.

‘Think about what will happen if you do a thing, and when you’ve worked out what will happen if you do it, you decide whether the thing is worth doing or not.’

‘Right…’ said Thomas.

When he woke the next morning he knew exactly what to do.

He got up before everyone else, laid the table and loaded the bread in the toaster. He did the washing up and made his bed. He made Maudie’s too, and put all her dolls in a neat row on her pillow. He carried his gym kit to school without complaining, and didn’t ask to go to the sweetshop. He even kept quiet when Maudie blamed him for something she’d done, and went to bed without kicking up a fuss.

‘I think it’s working,’ said Dad after three days of perfect behaviour. ‘They’re getting confused. Two more days should do it.’

His mother watched with her mouth open as Thomas did the washing up yet again instead of slinking off to watch telly. Maudie followed him around asking him if he was ill. Dad just smiled.

‘Five days are up,’ he said. ‘What’s the plan now?’

‘Not telling.’

‘That’s my boy.’

‘I’ll ask if I want any help, thank you,’ said Thomas as his mother hovered around the kitchen door. ‘Go and have a lie down until supper’s ready.’

Supper was delicious – the meat pie the best they’d ever tasted.

‘Not eating?’ said Dad.

‘Feel sick,’ said Thomas. ‘They made me eat liver at school. Yuck.’

‘Did you follow that recipe I gave you for the meat pie then?’ his mother asked. ‘It was delicious.’

‘Kind of,’ he said.

In the morning after she’d walked Thomas to school, his mother went to empty the waste bin. Hidden at the bottom were two empty tins of Pedigree Chum.

Thomas was quiet on the way back that afternoon – so was his mother. When they got home he went straight to the waste bin and started poking about. ‘There’s something I need to do,’ he said, dragging a chair over to the dresser and reaching up to the top shelf.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

‘I’m doing what Dad said.’

Thomas handed her the bat and waited….

*

 

              

The Cat Who Knew

October 22, 2013 § 12 Comments

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           The mangy black tom sat politely outside the kitchen door. Give me some breakfast, then I’ll be off. He lowered his head in salutation and flicked an ear by way of completing his request. He ate hungrily yet neatly, carefully wiping his face with his paws when he’d done. Half his tail gone, battles had pocked his nose and bitten his ears into tatters. His history written all over his skin.  A flea jumped and he twitched, raised his half-sail tail and lolloped into the hedge.

            Soon he came again, but this time with a paw in the air like a performing dog. Any chance of some nosh please, and can you do something about this leg?

            ‘It means the vet,’ I said, and waited for him to flee. ‘And going in a cat basket.’

            If I must, he said with his eyes, then flicked his tail sideways and hopped in.

            ‘We’ll keep him in overnight,’ said the vet. ‘He might lose the leg.’

But he didn’t.

‘You need to change the dressing every day. Shall we neuter him while we’re at it?’

            ‘No thanks. Just see to the leg.’

            When I went to collect him he looked pleased to see me. He did a three-legged hop into the cat basket without being asked. ‘I think you’ll be staying with us for a while,’ I said.

            Fine by me. He brushed my legs with what was left of his tail. Any chance of a bite?

            I discovered I’d made a mistake. Litters of black kittens appeared in the village and signs went up in windows:

Kittens Free To Good Homes

Apply Within

He grew muscles and shiny new fur, saw off rats and picked a fight with the Jack Russell who chased the hens. He raced along the landing, leapt into the air for joy and landed with a thump and a rattle on the coffin boards. ‘Don’t worry Mum. It’s only the stray. He’s seeing off ghosts. Do you think we’ve got ourselves a new cat?’

            ‘Ask him.’

            ‘Don’t need to,’ she said. ‘He’s already decided. And his name is Stubbs.’

            ‘You have got a ghost!’ the babysitter screamed down the phone. ‘It’s jumping on the floorboards trying to scare me off.’

            ‘It’s the new cat,’ I said calmly.

            ‘Don’t like it,’ she wailed. ‘Not coming again.’

            Fine by me,’ I said. ‘We’ll save on the booze you’ve been guzzling from the drinks cupboard.’

            ‘Thanks Stubbs,’ said my daughter. ‘She used to get drunk, fall over, then wake me up with her snoring.’

            ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

            ‘Thought that’s what grown ups did.’

‘Well rid,’ I said.

He took to basking under rose bushes while the hens scratched about in billows of dust, and at the close of day he would politely round them up into the chicken coop.

‘They always do as he asks,’ she the daughter. ‘He must know what’s best.’

His whiskers turned grey and he stopped hopping. ‘You’re not looking so good,’ I said. ‘Vet?’ He looked at me and closed his eyes. ‘Ok. I’ll put you in the cat basket then.’

‘He’s winding down,’ said the vet. ‘He’s pretty old, you know.’

I brought him home with food like porridge and syringes full of steroids. He ignored the mush and put up with the daily jabs. But he got thinner and thinner, and wheezed like a steam train. He spent every day curled up like a ruin on the beanbag.

‘What shall we do with you?’

It’s nearly time, said his half closed eyes.

‘But I don’t want it to be.’

Well it is.‘ He turned his lips into a smile.

‘Here, or the vets?’

Here. In my own time. He waved his tail like the old days. But I do have one last request. Give me some proper food, then I’ll be off.

~

Letter To Jack. Version 1

October 19, 2013 § 5 Comments

A short monologue. Hope it makes sense.

I think it might be about redefining sanity in the face of disaster. Does it work for you?

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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 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. This time it blew the windows out. Now they’ll be no difference between day and night. You remember? Like dusk last January when we cycled home from work with our hats and gloves on singing Bob Dylan to keep ourselves warm. I hate not knowing how long it will last. I know it isn’t supposed to be winter – the calendar on the kitchen wall says it’s July 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 are shooting at them. I know one was killed last week, because the Townsends 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? The wind killed it this time, and it curled up their leaves and they crackled to red dust in my fingers. Everything is covered in this strange skin – a shroud like rust.

Everyday I stand by the garden gate and wait. I wait for you and for someone to tell me things I can’t remember. 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 stare and they forget to blink and smile… After they’d gone I locked myself in.

Jack, the vegetable garden is wrecked. There were carrots and beetrootleft, but people came and dug them up. And now 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 they are burning – 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 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 remember it because it was the same red colour as ours.

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.

The Strangeness Of Skin – third and final part

October 18, 2013 § 6 Comments

The story ends.

Would be so happy to receive any feedback.

Every day the child crouched high in the eagle’s nest. Her clothes grew ragged and she forgot to pull the tangles from her hair. She prized limpets off the rocks with her teeth, and swallowed whole the tiny fishes trapped in the pools.

The rocks told her she had lived in the bay in another time long ago. She hadn’t burst bloody from a woman’s body – but had hidden, fully formed inside a shark’s egg safe under a rock on the seashore. There was a shock of black hair on her head, and words and songs inside ready to come out. They said she did not need to be taught how to swim, for she had brought the knowing with her for this life. Hepzibah hooted like an owl – she didn’t believe any of it.

The child saw many things after that. One day her mother appeared – she paced the seashore as if she was hunting for something. Soon she came every day, careless of unfinished chores. She would wade to the flat rock partly hidden in the breakers, rounded by the storms, and she would weep. Always her face was turned away from the shore, and as the tide returned she would let the water wet the hem of her dress. She cupped her hands together, caught the tip of a wave, and splashed her face with the cold, salty water.

 The child didn’t understand any of this, and Phoebe would not answer her questions when they returned to the cave to sleep.

 ‘It is not time,’ she said.

 After that day Phoebe didn’t go home. She sat on the rock day and night – her dress rotting from the sea salt, her hair hanging long and sticky like the sea kelp.

 

The nights grew shorter and the sun warmed the sea. The eagles came to watch, circling above her with their young. Hepzibah, tired from the watching, fell asleep among the bones. When she woke, her mother had gone.

‘Tell me where she is,’ she asked the rocks.

‘The wind is angry,’ they replied. ‘It won’t speak of it. The sea does not know what to do – but your mother wants to come home. Ask your people.’

 

‘What have you done!’ Hepzibah demanded. Everyone was silent but the woman with the herbs and the strong hands.

‘She has gone to her other place.’

‘What other place?’

‘She has gone back to the sea to be with her own.’

‘But we are her people. Why?’

 

The old woman took her to a hole at the base of the cliff. ‘This is where she hid her clothes. The others made a fire of them so she couldn’t return. She is not one of us.’

‘The rocks say you have upset the wind,’ wailed Hepzibah. ‘You have put us in danger.’ But the woman turned away – she did not want to hear what the wild, angry child had to say.

 

‘They won’t listen,’ she told the rocks.

‘Go to the hole in the cliff. If the wind won’t forgive your people you will be safe there.’

 

The night before it happened, Hepzibah dreamed:

Skin and hearts felt the coming of a great storm, and Phoebe’s people fell to their knees and prayed for the wind and water spirits to be calm. But the spirits felt only the sadness of the child and the meanness of her people. They flew into a rage. The sea heaved and rolled itself into their cave like shards of broken glittering glass, and the rain grew wild in sympathy and streamed through the roof. The fishing boats were ground to sharp matchwood, and the cave collapsed and folded itself into rubble. Her people breathed in the sticky, dark water until they could breathe no more.

 

The night after the dream Hepzibah slept in the hole in the rock. When she woke she saw the cave had been destroyed and her people drowned. She crawled deep inside the darkness of the hole and felt a skin soft as her mother’s, but icy as the wind. Hepzibah slipped inside. She tried to walk, but the skin would not let her. She slithered to the bottom of the cliff and began to cry.

 A voice called from the sea. ‘Stop it at once. Hobble child. Your legs are now a tail. A tail for swimming.’

‘I don’t know how to swim,’ wailed Hepzibah.

‘Come. You do – and so do I.’

 

 

*

The Strangeness of Skin. Part Two

October 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

The second of three parts of my contemporary interpretation of a Northern European myth. To be concluded tomorrow.

‘Why did you give me this bad name?’ Hepzibah screamed at her mother. ‘It doesn’t come out from my mouth right. Everyone laughs at me.’ The child’s tongue was stubborn, and made her speak with the hiss of a snake.

‘What’s your name?’ sang the other children who lived in the cave – and so Hepzibah told them. Again and again they asked, and again and again she answered until she grew tired of their teasing.  Soon, they too lost interest as she learned to look straight through them. Then they ignored her too. Hepzibah became invisible.

‘I don’t remember who named you,’ replied Phoebe. ‘It just came to me. Perhaps it was the sea.’ Then she remembered where she’d heard the hiss before: from the fisherman’s lips. He had whispered his passion with a lisp.

‘I cannot trust words,’ he said. ‘They don’t say what I want them to say.’ His body had been more eloquent than his mouth.

‘And I don’t trust eyes,’ said Phoebe, closing them tight as he kissed her.

          Phoebe, it was agreed, was a beautiful woman. She had the dark eyes of the seal pups that came looking for their mothers in the shallows. Her hair was as silky as kelp, and she wound it around her head and fastened it with twigs. Hepzibah had never seen any other part of her mother’s body, for she hid it day and night with high neck dresses in the shape of a sack with long sleeves that kept her fingers warm, and skirts that dragged in the sand.

          ‘What’s wrong with your mother?’ the children teased. ‘Why does she hobble? Why can’t she run like the wind? Why doesn’t she swim in the sea like our mothers?’

Hepzibah hid from the teasing behind her mother’s skirts, but Phoebe pushed her away.

‘Your mother is a cripple,’ they taunted.

‘She is not,’ said Hepzibah quietly.

Phoebe remained silent.

One day she crept up behind her mother as she plucked the soft down from three fat puffins, and felt for her legs through the cloth of the thick dress. The flesh felt smooth and soft and rounded. Phoebe swung around and the feathers filled the air like flakes of snow. 

           ‘No!’ her mother cried, her face twisting itself into an angry knot. ‘You hurt me girl. What are you wanting?’

‘They say there is something wrong with your legs,’ said the child. ‘They want to know why do you not like the water. I want you to teach me how to swim.’

Phoebe rubbed her body gently beneath her skirt. ‘My mother didn’t think it was right for me to go in the sea; and the rocks say there are bad creatures in there which will hurt us.’

‘What creatures, Mother?’

‘I have never seen them, but the rocks tell me they are there.’

Hepzibah ignored the taunting after that because Phoebe said the rocks whispered more sense than they did. ‘Can you teach me how to hear them?’

‘Tomorrow I will teach you how to listen.’

 

Hepzibah listened hard to what her mother said, and soon she began to hear the sounds. But they made no sense.

‘They speak in a foreign tongue.’

‘Then every day,’ said Phoebe, ‘you must climb high into an empty eagles nest, and wait until you know the words. You must be careful you don’t fall.’

 The child grew her nails long, and threw her shoes away so she could grip the rocks with her toes. She tied a stick to her back to protect herself from the eagles. But the birds kept away, and in time, Hepzibah learned to climb and understand the language of the ancient cliffs.

The Strangeness Of Skin

October 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

A short story in daily instalments. A variation of a northern European folk tale.

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Phoebe, a private woman who didn’t like words, had been slicing the insides out of herring when the fourth child decided to be born. Hepzibah ejected herself feet first with a fierce wail that should have woken the dead. She came out wide-eyed and wilful onto a sleeping ledge – lined with heather that itched and lice that sucked – deep inside a cave large enough to echo the indignity of it for a long time afterwards. The woman with the herbs and strong hands was shooed away after she cut the cord, and Phoebe curled up with the child and hid away like an animal.

The cave lay inside a bay that wasn’t sheltered from the north wind. Shaped like the inside of a horse’s foot, its sand was pale and silky as the skin on Phoebe’s cheek, its shoreline stained with glittering mica like the speckles on the egg of an Arctic tern. The cliff grew out of rock that had started its life a long time ago. Bleak and brooding to the eye, the women said it whispered stories to the few who knew how to listen. Sea eagles lodged themselves above the cave on ledges overflowing with fish bones, and whales snorted fountains and frightened off the fish.

Phoebe knew she was different from the others. She could read the weather, the tides, and the songs of the whales – but the language of her body was foreign. She complained bitterly of backache for months before Hepzibah was born, and for three months after that. She complained about the others in her belly too, not understanding that what had been planted there was the result of unexpected and agreeable moments of passion.

What Phoebe recalled about the men, and this was of far more significance to her than the length of their noses or the colour of their skin, was that all of the fathers had arrived in her bed from the sea. They neither knew nor cared that she had been seduced by the salty taste of their skin. All had made a career of travelling the oceans, but none had stayed long enough to put down roots or learn how to properly love a woman.

Hepzibah’s father arrived on a boat out for the herring. He had sought shelter from a storm and impregnated the child seed without preamble or finesse – then sailed away when the sun came out without so much as a thank you for his night’s brief lodging.

The other women knew that her children had different fathers; but Phoebe felt neither guilt nor indifference, even though they pointed their fingers and whispered behind her back. In a family with only a reluctant matriarch for its backbone, the distribution of love was thin on the ground, and none of Hepzibah’s siblings took much notice of their new half blood sister. Phoebe let her offspring take care of themselves. Families like these made silent children with secrets.

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