Message From Calcutta

December 18, 2013 § 17 Comments

Image

The first draft of the beginning of a short story about a young woman’s relationship with two plastic angels…

‘You’ll like it here,’ said Beth, putting the statue on the mantelpiece and flicking it with a feather duster. ‘It’s much better than being stuck in that cardboard box under the stairs. And you’ll be able to see all the goings-on in the street.’ The cherub sneezed, winked with his good eye, and giggled. ‘Behave, small fry,’ she warned.

The cherub perched at a funny angle on the shoulder of the fully grown angel. He’d been stuck there with glue – Beth could see the join where his bottom met the angel’s shoulder. The maker had overdone the epoxy and let it dribble down the angel’s robe and not bothered to wipe it off. It gave the impression of a rather impious approach to the subject of icons. The blue paint had peeled off one of the cherub’s eyes, and his wings were more fluff than feathers in a fledging kind of way. Beth decided to call him Raz – short for Raziel, the Angel of Mysteries.

The grown up angel’s wings were long and sleek which Beth found rather soothing. They shimmered with a special silvery paint that had bits of glitter mixed in which made them sparkle when Beth put the kitchen light on. The paint was beginning to peel off and made his wings look a little moth eaten. She called him Gabi after Gabriel the Messenger because he was always telling her things she ought to know but for some reason didn’t; but mostly she just called him ‘G’.

               The icon was made of cheap, brittle plastic – the sort that didn’t bend if you dropped it, but shattered into vicious little splinters that stuck in your feet if you didn’t vacuum the whole lot up straight away. Beth thought it had probably been made in some sweatshop in China or Taiwan – being one of thousands churned out by small children with holes in their clothes and hunger in their bellies. It wasn’t surprising really, she decided, that they hadn’t cared enough to wipe away the dripping glue, or check that the faces had been painted on properly. G’s eyebrows were wonky and made him look like he had a question that needed answering. Raz had no eyebrows at all.

‘You should get more kip,’ said G. ‘You look knackered.’

Mind your own business’, said Beth, as she did the washing up.

‘And when was the last time you had your barnet seen to?’

Beth decided long ago that G hadn’t been brought up very well. He would, she was sure, have been taught a much nicer way of speaking if he’d been silver-plated. ‘I know it’s not your fault,’ she said, reminding herself that when he wasn’t being rude he often said quite useful things. ‘And just for the record,’ she hissed, ‘I went to the hairdressers last week, thank you very much.’

            ‘Perhaps you should shop around for a better one then.’

            ‘I really don’t need this right now,’ she replied. ‘And in any case, it only needs a brush.’ She slammed the kitchen door so he got the message. Sometimes G was rather thick skinned.

Beth usually enjoyed her chats with him, although it had been getting progressively harder since the cherub had embraced the stroppy toddler stage and taken to shrieking until he got her attention, or shouting ‘Mummy. Feed. Now!’ to no one in particular. But when Raz was asleep – and she could never tell for sure because he had no eyelids – Beth and the angel had nice talks about the weather, and what she should cook for dinner. If Raz stayed asleep, they’d have bigger chats about why she wasn’t getting on with Patrick anymore, or how she was worried she might be turning into a nagging wife.

Patrick took no notice of the icon unless he felt like winding her up. There was no reason why he should be interested, Beth supposed – they’d been a present from Aunty Dora when she’d been baptised a long time before they’d got married, and in any case Patrick had been brought up agnostic. ‘Talking to those fallen angels again?’ he’d said, when he caught her having a chat. You’re mad as a barrel full of squirrels.’

‘Monkeys,’ she replied. ‘You mean monkeys. I’ve never known anyone so intolerant. Live and let live.’

‘What do you get out of talking to a piece of plastic?’

‘At least they listen. Not like some people I know.’

‘How do you know they do?’ he said rather nastily.

‘Because they answer me, Not like some people I know.’

‘You need to get out more,’ he said, slamming the door…

 

Advertisements

The Paris Baby

December 6, 2013 § 13 Comments

Image

            They decided the child – conceived in his mother’s apartment in Montparnasse – should grow up in the country. ‘I hope this isn’t a terrible mistake,’ mused Finn, pushing gently on the peeling door. There was a splintering sound as the door sprang open, and something small and quick scurried down the hallway into the kitchen. A harvest mouse with ears like mussel shells lay on the doormat with its legs in the air, and the salt stain of damp crawled up the walls and across the brick floor.

‘Do you suppose they’re related?’ asked Martha.

‘Highly likely. Mouse traps?’

‘Cruel. Cats?’

‘Vicious creatures. Nature red in tooth and claw and all that.’ Martha turned her back and stared at the garden. ‘Looks like a life’s work to me,’ sighed Finn. ‘What do we need? Mouse traps, ladder, scrubbing brushes, paint. Wood filler for the windows, a man to fix the damp…’

‘Cats!’ interrupted Martha. ‘Wheelbarrow, hoe, spade, fork, rotavator, seeds…’

Finn put his arm around her spreading waist. ‘Do I detect a potential division of labour coming on?’

Martha had begun to dream. She saw a spotless garden with wide herbaceous borders and neatly trimmed box hedges. She saw blowsy Albertine roses snaking up old apple trees and a line of raised beds full of vegetables. She shook herself. ‘Was miles away. I shall teach the child to garden. And I’ve been thinking.’ She rubbed her belly. ‘I don’t have to go to hospital to give birth, do I?’

‘Course not. My birth was rather relaxed, or so my mother said.’

‘Exactly,’ concluded Martha. ‘I don’t have an illness – just a baby. ‘We’ll do it our way. It will be the perfect birth.’

‘You must slow down,’ said Susie the midwife. ‘Rest. You won’t have much of that after the baby’s born.’

Martha squatted in the garden planting potatoes. ‘Rubbish,’ she scoffed. ‘It keeps me fit. Isn’t that what you want?’

So Martha dug and planted furiously; and two weeks before time – the day Finn’s piano was to be delivered – her waters broke over a sack of onion sets. ‘Blast!’ she yelled. ‘Today of all days. I’ll put my feet up for half an hour. Maybe it’ll change it’s mind.’

Susie arrived and Martha’s contraction stopped. ‘It’s normal,’ smiled the midwive. ‘Back in two hours.’ Martha lay flat on her back in the grass and spoke sternly to her belly. ‘It’s really not a good time. I’d much prefer it if you waited until tomorrow when the onions are in.’

The Paris Baby took no notice and started up again. This time it hurt. Martha’s uterus squeezed itself into spasms, and her back muscles clenched in sympathy. ‘No fun this,’ whined Martha. ‘Like sciatica in the wrong place.’ Then she rolled over onto all fours like a dog.

‘It’s you,’ said Susie. ‘You’re doing it. Mind over matter. Relax, and the baby will be out by teatime.’

But it wasn’t. Even when she did her yoga and her breathing exercises. Martha was too excited to have the baby – and too excited not too. She was stuck. Susie examined her with a frown. ‘You’re four centimetres dilated already and baby’s heartbeat is irregular. Best place is hospital.’

Martha began to cry. ‘Don’t want to. I need some homeopathy. Give me some Pulsatilla, Finn! Then it will come.’

They were in the hospital lift when it happened. ‘It’s coming. Now!’ She snorted, as they passed the fourth floor labelled Geriatrics on the list next to the buzzer. Martha began to puff like a steam train. ‘The Pulsatilla worked. Told you it would!’

‘Just hold on, sweetheart,’ soothed Finn. ‘We’re nearly there.’

‘I bloody can’t!’ she shrieked, getting down on all fours to push.

‘I can see its hair!’ said Finn in a thin, strangled voice. ‘Hang on, Martha. I’ve never done this sort of thing before.’

‘Well press the emergency button then!’ she yelled.

It turned into a noisy and public affair. The maintenance man disabled the lift because Martha refused to get out of it, and the tiny space full of mirrors filled up with people trying not to shout.

‘Don’t push ’til I tell you,’ said a voice in Martha’s ear.

‘Bugger off!’ she shrieked. Martha was making a roaring noise like a rather cross lion. The Paris Baby slithered out onto the floor and lay perfectly still. Finn burst into tears, and Martha felt a jab in her bottom. ‘I didn’t want that. You should have asked first.’ Then Martha burst into tears too.

‘It’s necessary,’ soothed the obstetrician, as if he was speaking to a child. ‘Don’t want you bleeding to death now, do we?’

‘It’s turning blue,’ said a female voice, and the cord was promptly snipped and the Paris Baby disappeared. Martha did as she was told, climbed onto a trolley, and fell asleep.

‘Your little girl’s fine now. Would you like to hold her?’

‘No, thank you. Put her in the cot.’

They put Martha’s indifference down to shock – but the truth of it was that Martha was in the most terrible temper because things hadn’t gone according to plan. ‘It was Susie’s fault,’ she complained. ‘She panicked.’

‘She was only doing her job,’ Finn spoke gently. ‘The Paris Baby could have died.’

‘Hormones talking,’ said the obstetrician jabbing another needle into Martha’s bottom without asking.

Martha began to cry again. ‘I want to go home.’

‘In the morning, my dear,’ he said patting her head. Martha fell asleep and dreamed of her garden. The Paris Baby wasn’t in it. Finn lay awake in the double bed going over the extraordinary event, and wondered – now it was all over – when he was going to get his Martha back.

Any comments – negative or otherwise – or suggestions for improvement, are always appreciated!

The Green Elephant From Tanganyika. Excerpt 2

November 20, 2013 § 9 Comments

Another excerpt from a novel in progress. I thought it was dead, but it seems I may be wrong. A first draft. Freya is in hospital after her accident. This is her first encounter with Daisy, her imaginary friend.

Image

            Freya lay on her back waiting for the dark. ‘Daisy?’ she whispered, like she had a secret to tell. ‘Speak to me.’

            ‘Nice name. That’s what I shall call myself,’ she said. ‘And can I smell bones?’ Daisy breathed in deep through her nose.

            ‘That’s because I’m in a place called an infirmary,’ answered Freya. ‘It’s where children come when they break them. Sometimes they come here to die too.’

            ‘Thought so.’

‘Will you be my friend?’

‘I will. But first go back to sleep.’

            So she did. Daisy became her sleeping draught and her cuddle after prayers.

She came when Freya called her, and sometimes when she didn’t. If she kept her eyes tight shut Daisy came and breathed warm breath on Freya’s face, but if she opened them a chink, Daisy disappeared.

            Freya woke again after a few minutes. She felt the heaviness of Daisy’s hand on her head. Her toes tingled. ‘Where do you come from?’

            No answer.

            ‘Do you live on my street?’

            No answer.

            ‘Do you live in a hotel then?’

            Still no answer.

            ‘I know. You live in the sky, don’t you?’

            Freya opened her eyes, but she’d gone.

            She liked to come best when it was dark. No one ever saw her but Freya – not even the night nurse who sat under the yellow light reading a book. Daisy was much too smart for that.

            That first night they met she kept coming back. ‘You busy?’ she whispered.

            ‘Do I look like I’m busy?’ asked Freya.

            ‘You want to play?’

            Freya tried to nod but the bandages got in the way. She kept her eyes firmly shut.

            ‘Let’s do make believe,’ suggested Daisy. ‘What would you like me to look like today?’

            ‘Don’t mind. What do you think?’

            ‘I think I’ll have long, yellow hair and talk to you like I’m an angel.’

            ‘What shall we talk about then?’

            ‘That’s easy,’ she said. ‘We’ll talk about nice things like getting better soon and not hurting.

            But sometimes they had quiet, cloudy days when Freya felt she was floating over her bed. Daisy kept quiet then, and hovered about looking like a fairy. ‘What are you doing?’ asked Freya.

‘Not a lot,’ she said. ‘Except maybe making some magic.’

            For many days Freya drifted in and out of sleep. Sometimes she didn’t know if she was real any more. ‘I keep having a funny dream.’

            ‘About what?’

            ‘I jump off a high bridge and someone I can’t see is holding my hand.’

            ‘Were you scared?’ Daisy asked.

            ‘Very. And then I wasn’t because I stopped falling and just swung there like I was a pendulum in the grandfather clock.’

‘Don’t be scared,’ she said. ‘It was me. I was holding your hand.’

            Freya dozed off. Wings grew out of her shoulders. Big and dangerous like a swan’s. She flapped hard, trying to soar up to heaven, but she wobbled and fell out of the sky. She opened her wings just before she hit the ground. She forgot about heaven and fluttered about in her garden instead. She practised swooping about like a bat hunting for flies. Freya was enjoying herself. She closed her wings like an arrow and shot through the doorway into the house, and glided up the banisters without clipping the grandfather clock. Then she remembered she wasn’t breathing, slithered down the stairs and woke up.

            ‘What on earth are you doing?’ asked Daisy with a pout.

            ‘Just practicing.’

            ‘Just stop it right now, and listen.’

            ‘You remember that pendant your Auntie Bea gave you?’

It was Freya’s favourite thing. ‘You mean the green one that looks like an elephant?’

            ‘That’s the one. Do you still have it?’

            ‘Course. It’s got good luck inside and came all the way from Africa.’

            ‘I want you to throw it away.’

            ‘Won’t. It takes care of me.’

‘How do you know?’ asked Daisy, turning her lips into an even bigger pout.

‘Auntie Bea said.’

Daisy screwed up her face. ‘I don’t think that’s right. It’s bought you nothing but trouble.’

Telling The Bees

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.

Image

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.

Freya,

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.

Robert

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.’

*

The Green Elephant From Tanganyika. An Excerpt

October 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

An excerpt from an unfinished novel…

Image

          It wasn’t right. No familiar odours. No smell of frying onions and bacon for breakfast, her mother’s cigarette, the burning toast. No. Then her nose remembered – remembered the stink that always frightened her for some unfathomable reason and made her reach for her mother’s hand. Freya opened her eyes and looked at a white ceiling. A long way away, it was moving; turning slowly round and round a light bulb. She blinked.

‘She’s coming round.’ The light bulb lit up, and Freya snapped her eyes shut. ‘Freya,’ the voice asked. ‘Can you hear me?’ It was a question, and she knew a question needed an answer. She opened her mouth but no words came out. She tried again but the words were stuck in her head. She felt something hot on her face covering her mouth and her nose. She tried to raise her arms to pull it off, but they wouldn’t move.

Why isn’t my mother here? she thought. Where is my father? Freya refused to open her eyes after that. She kept them tight shut so she could remember. A picture came: a man and a woman – they lived next to the cottage where her mother said bad girls were sent. She was not supposed to talk to him. He was tall and stringy, and had lines like a road map all over his face. She had a pink puffed up face and was crying. Freya was in their house. A coal fire was burning in the grate, and she was lying in front of it on their hearthrug. It was red. Everything was red. She was red.

 ‘This will make you feel better,’ said the voice, and she felt a prick in her arm.

A new picture came. Inside a white van – she was lying down, people were talking quickly – white clouds floated about, getting bigger and bigger – there was that smell again. A siren started.  The biggest cloud hovered over her and began to sink – she was below swallowed up. Freya felt her the edges of her mouth turn up into a smile, and she went to sleep.

~

The Music Room

October 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

An excerpt – possibly the first chapter –  from an unfinished longer piece. Freya, a child of maybe nine or ten, lost her father in a freak accident. He was a composer and musician. She lives with her mother in an isolated cottage. Her mother copes by fastidiously tending her garden, and by a kind of denial of her grief which manifests as a chilly pragmatism towards her only child. Freya copes by withdrawing into an inner world – an intensely private place where she believes her father comes to her when she is in his music room.

Do you want to read more?  Let me know.

Image

Her mother slammed the kitchen door behind her. Now it was safe. Freya slipped through the shadows of the dark back hall to the door with the silver key. The room smelled of hot dust. The curtains were the colour of strawberries. As she pulled them open a weak sun streaked itself through the cobwebs lacing the windows. Her father’s music room wasn’t as Freya had remembered. It was smaller and darker, and it smelled of something she had forgotten – but mostly it was different because her father wasn’t there to fill it with his brightness.

She slumped onto the piano stool and inspected the creases on her palms. Now she was there Freya did not know what to do. She wiped the layer of dust from the shiny black lid with her cardigan sleeve. The particles rose, then settled on the bare floorboards like ash from a forgotten cigarette. Time was changing: it was becoming hesitant, shifting gear. Freya began to think in slow motion.

Her father’s dreaming hat lay on the top of the piano with his unfinished scores. The old straw boater smelt faintly of cigarettes, but the tang of his skin had gone. He would wear it when he sat in the garden and didn’t want to be disturbed – it was his sign. Sometimes he would have his papers with him and a freshly sharpened pencil; and sometimes he carried nothing but his thoughts. Freya knew she should not interrupt him until he spoke and broke his spell.

Freya put on the dreaming hat and lifted the lid. Her fingers slithered lightly over the keys as he had taught her. First the scales: C Major, E, D, F; her fingers remembering when to stretch onto the black keys to sharpen the note. Then the minor scales. But as she began to play the sad notes, her hands became stiff and heavy. She flexed the joints of her fingers as her father had shown her, and then stretched them wide into two starfish. Her fingers did not want to play.

She imagined she was in a concert hall. The audience was seated around her in a semi- circle waiting for her to begin. If you imagine these people, her father used to say; you will always play your best.

But what if I make a mistake? she would counter. Then he would smile and tip his head to one side. If you don’t try hard enough, you won’t make mistakes. Your audience won’t mind one bit.

She began to play the piece she knew best. She played the notes long and slow; she made the music sad. As her fingers began to move without thought between the major and minor keys of Fur Elise, she felt her father’s breath on the parting of her hair: he was breathing in and out in time to the music.

Freya stopped breathing – she dare not turn around to look at him. As she played the final notes, she felt a chill on her scalp, and she knew he had gone. She closed the lid and went to the window. She wiped them clean with the sleeve of her cardigan and left the room, locking it with the silver key.

The next day she waited again until her mother had gone to the garden, then returned to the music room. She stacked his papers into neat piles, returned books to his bookcase, and put his pencils in the mug on the piano lid. Then she sat down and began to play. Her hands were still too small to reach some of the notes of the Gymnopedies. ‘I remember what you told me, so I shall try anyway,’ she whispered. She put on the dreaming hat and played slowly at first, nervous of the notes her fingers could not reach; and then, as she felt the warmth of her father’s breath in her hair, she leaned back to feel his body. ‘I want to see you, Dad ‘ she said. ‘I want to feel you. You are more than flickering light. Be real again.’ She played as slowly as she could wanting to prolong the feeling of his warmth; but as she pressed the final keys she felt the chill on her scalp.

Freya closed the curtains and locked the door with the silver key. She went into the garden to pick some flowers for her father’s desk.

‘What are you doing?’ asked her mother.

‘Just picking roses,’ she replied.

‘And why are you wearing your father’s hat. You know you are not allowed in there?’

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with excerpt at Changing Skin and other stories.

%d bloggers like this: