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.’
March 25, 2017 § Leave a comment
even the lavender bends
the bees land on it
image courtesy the photographer of the (urban wildlife interface) website. Sorry not able to find your name to acknowledge this lovely photo 🙂
November 16, 2013 § 8 Comments
Another excerpt or ‘moment in time’ from a much longer piece. Freya, who some of you may have met on earlier blogs, is a fragile, passionate young woman not quite meant for this world. She possesses second sight, and feels things others do not. She tells no one what she knows, except her dog, Lily, and an ‘imaginary friend’ who appears at seemingly random points in her life. This friend does not feature here.
This short piece is what goes through her mind as she makes the decision whether or not to have an affair.
Freya’s first job was to tell the bees. ‘No one’s died,’ she said. ‘But it’s like dying, so I thought you’d want to know.’ The bees listened, circling with interest around her head. ‘I’m going to make a new life and forget about the old one.’ The bees buzzed loudly and a few settled on her face. ‘There’s really no need to concern yourselves. Nothing bad will happen.’
Freya’s second job was more difficult. The wood refused to catch. It was dry enough, but now a marsh mist was in the air. She stabbed at the bonfire with a stick until the branches of the old apple tree flared hot in her face, and sap bubbled from the bark like treacle. Insects sizzled and popped out of their shells, while others scurried from the heat and hid in the long grass.
The diaries and papers wouldn’t burn. Pages from her past glowed and made chimneys of curling smoke, but no flames would come. She threw a plastic bottle of paraffin on the fire, and as it exploded her ducks rose from the pond and flapped in alarm. Soon pages partly alight flew above the blaze in arcs, and settled in the grass; the words smouldering and partly visible amongst the ash.
But Freya felt a lightness coming: as if she was turning into a bird and her bones filling with air. She took the photo of Robert and his wife from her pocket, tore it in half, and threw the smiling Julia in the flames. Then she opened the well-thumbed letter and began to read.
Come to the cottage and sit with me in the lap of the Gods. I will cook for us and light a fire in the hearth. I will take you to the sea loch where the whales blow, and show you where the eagles watch.
I’ll meet you by the dam at Ardnamurtie Loch, thirty minutes south of Ullapool. Remember. I showed you on the map? I’ll wait for you everyday between two and four o’clock. I won’t leave until you come.
The smoke drifted into the mist making a cloud around her head, and Freya wrapped herself in the horse blanket curling up tight like a caterpillar, and slept.
As she dreamed, her mother returned. She was working: wiping her hands on the yellow striped apron and bending over a mound of freshly cut lavender. Her long fingers separated each plant stem and removed the damaged leaves with the tips of her thumb and forefinger. There was more lavender drying on another table. It rustled as her mother separated the stalks into small bunches then tied them together with lengths of fine green string. After she’d finished she hung them upside down on a line of butchers hooks screwed into the rafters of the barn. Rubbing her hands together and holding them up to her face, she breathed in and massaged the oil from the flowers into her skin. She turned to Freya standing in the doorway, and smiled. ‘If you fly too high you will crash.’
Freya woke in the damp grass: cold and unsettled that her mother had not said more. The mist had spread over the ground in thick fingers, and all colour had drained from the landscape. The fire had flattened and spread into the grass, still flickering as unburnt paper caught. She poked at the fire again, then pulling the blanket around her shoulders, went to the house and slept.
She woke late. Where the bonfire had been was now a flat circle of grey ash. The only history remaining was in Freya’s head, and that could be easily hidden – apart from her clothes that lay in a pile on the kitchen floor. She took scissors and began to cut: slicing the fabric into long strips. Then she began to cut the lengths into squares. ‘I can make a patchwork quilt of my past,’ she said. ‘Make it new – make it unrecognizable.’ She was speaking to Lily. The dog lay watching her, her head between her paws. ‘Do you think we should go?’ The collie’s tail thudded slowly on the kitchen floor.
‘Yes. You’re right,’ answered Freya. ‘I have nothing to lose.’
She jangled the car keys. ‘Come Lily. We’re going to Scotland.’