January 1, 2018 § 6 Comments
According to eldest daughter…
- Mud splattered everywhere. Even on bedroom ceiling.
- Barking. Anytime. Especially at night when wants to play.
- No room for humans on sofas anymore.
- Chronic feeling of guilt when goes out without doggo.
- Doggo likes burping in face when feeling full and cheerful…
- Stinky ass farts (not my words, mind), when particularly full and even more cheerful…
- Paw marks on bed sheets. Bits and bobs under duvet that couldn’t have got there by themselves, like interesting twigs, pre historic sparrow corpse, rotting tennis ball…
- Recurrent teenage behaviour, eg. not listening, falling in river, getting stuck down rabbit hole. Has to be rescued so can do it again.
- No Christmas decorations this year. Mysteriously got chewed up…
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 § 20 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 9, 2017 § 8 Comments
First few paragraphs…
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, then dangles above the busy pavement waiting for the Armenian. But Ishkhan, the man who keeps the shop on the ground floor of my apartment building, 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 Kate 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; 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. Ishkan’s boy reappears, loads my basket, and almost manages a smile…
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