The Green Elephant from Tanganyika – a bit of a story

September 2, 2017 § 13 Comments

girl

 

The beginning of a long abandoned novel, written in the voice of a child who might have second sight. But then again…

I was born twice. The first life wasn’t a long one. It was a slow time and a fast time, and sometimes the slow and the fast came together. It was a time of shininess and bright things, and a knowing it would always be summer even when it rained.

My best friend was a chicken. Her feathers were the colour of old snow, and she hid her eggs in the bike shed. If I didn’t find them first, they’d crack open and tiny, oily chicks squirmed out with sharp curly claws and wings too small to be any use at all. The thing I liked most, before I broke it, was a jade elephant with magic inside. Every morning I hung it round my neck on a string of silver.

But even during that first life when I was rather content, I had a sense I didn’t belong – I knew I should have been somewhere else. There was something missing and I couldn’t find it. A life like a book with the first chapter ripped out.

It could have been my mother’s doing. Although we shared the same words, we spoke a different language. Do this, don’t do that, I’ve told you before, you never listen. Those were her words. I couldn’t get it right. She was ice and I was fire. We spent our time colliding and running for cover, never quite knowing whether to attack or retreat. Sometimes her will, her cleverness, overpowered me, and it was then that I guessed the reason: I’d been swopped. I’d suckled the wrong breast in the maternity ward. A muddle with an identity band?  Or maybe I’d been exchanged on purpose. Had I been too big, too small, too noisy, too quiet – or just not quite right?

So I had orphan genes, and that would have explained why our house never felt like home. I never told her. Never told anyone. Some years later she told me I hadn’t been born in the hospital, but upstairs on the big bed with the midwife and the doctor and a lot of blood – but knowing that didn’t make me feel I belonged.

When I did things she didn’t like, she’d remind me about that place where bad girls were sent. It was one of the houses across the road. It was her default threat, a desperate bluff to groom me into her invisible child, a silent apparition that never made unreasonable demands or tramped across the clean kitchen floor with muddy boots. The line of terraced cottages was small and neat with gardens of garish roses and green, shaved lawns – except one. The Bad Girls House was neglected and dirty. Ragged curtains hung from the broken window frames, and I was sure something nasty was hidden inside. Paint peeled off the grey front door like curls of dirty wallpaper; and a car, weeping red with rust, sank slowly into the driveway. She never sent me there, but I thought she might.

My mother had long, black mermaid hair in those days, and Dad called her a ‘bit of a spitfire’. Her hair and her temper were what I knew best, the other things she kept secret. She was a wild woman then, and when Dad was at work she flung her shoes across the kitchen floor and danced. It was the only time I heard her laugh. The sound frightened me. She wore lipstick the colour of Sunday roast beef blood, and danced the flamenco with a flower between her teeth. In the winter she used the butter knife. She had a liking for pills and collected them in a Peek Frean’s biscuit tin. Some were to make her sleep when she couldn’t or make her happy when she wasn’t, and some she swallowed when life simply got too much. She kept the tin on top of the dresser next to the brandy used for ’emergencies’.

She came from a long line of Baptist preachers on her mother’s side, which may have accounted for her hatred of religion, but she did believe in the stars. She cut her horoscope carefully out of the paper each week, propping it up on the mantelpiece to remind her that life had already been decided and there was nothing she could do about it.  Every so often she tried to interest me in astrology saying it would make me feel safe, a bit like believing in God she insisted, but making more sense. She told me I was a Cancerian, which meant my sign was the Crab. Hers was Scorpio. She said we were the same because we were both ruled by water, had hard shells around our bodies, and got moody when the moon was full. But I knew we were different.

The full moon was the time the devil got into her, and the reason my father sat in the snug of The Hunter’s Moon until closing time nursing a warm pint of Guinness. I would stand at the kitchen door ready to run, waiting for her to stop as the dinner plates hit the floor. Plates were her favourite – they smashed loudest on the stone tiles and left razor sharp splinters in my feet as reminders. An angry red halo wobbled in the air around her, and her tantrum filled my head and burned as if I was too close to the fire. Then suddenly she would be fine, and Dad and I knew we were safe until the moon grew full again.

The beginning of my second life came suddenly – it was on the day the accident happened. I closed my eyes and found I could see things. Pictures that moved like dreams. Almost in colour but not quite. Faded and soft at the edges like the sepia photographs of long dead relatives my mother kept in the shoe box under her bed. They pressed hard against my skull trying to get out, and made the inside of my head feel too small for its bones.

At first I thought they were the daydreams my mother was always complaining I had too many of, but I knew they were real because they wouldn’t go away. I asked them nicely, I told them with words my mother said were bad, I even tried keeping my eyes open all the time – but all I got was itchy eyes and a headache. It felt like something was in there that wasn’t me. I found the spot on the top of my head, the one where the bones hadn’t joined up I wasn’t supposed to touch – and pressed my finger hard into the soft hollow. I could feel the beating heart of something small – like something was breathing and trying to get out.

I was five when the first picture appeared in my head. It made me want to crawl up like a caterpillar and hide. A man was standing at the front door of our house looking upset. My mother stood there holding the new baby in her arms, gasping like a fish and looking pale around the gills. ‘Bloody hell!’ she said.

‘Terribly sorry,’ said the man in a voice much too small for him. Mum had one of her flowery aprons on I liked to hide under, and the blood on the man was mine: bright red five year old smears of my life juice on his hands and all down the front of his black leather bomber jacket. That was the time I got confused, because I knew where I was, and it wasn’t at the front door of our house. I was lying curled up crooked, eyes tight shut, next to a fallen over motor bike and two curvy black skid marks on the white Give Way sign next to our house. I was seeping red slowly onto the tarmac…

 

*

 

 

albatross continued

February 12, 2014 § 16 Comments

albatross-help

 a short story: second and final part

The men sailed into the harbour with the albatross, their faces set and dark. The bird had drowned: caught on the long lines streamed out like deadly necklaces behind their boats. They hauled it off the deck and left it lying like a soft, white pillow on the wall, its hard, hooked beak open wide as if still gasping for life. It lay there untouched, unburied – no one would return the bad omen to the sea.

At night, when the clouds were masking the moon, Efa squatted on the cobbles and plucked the long white feathers from its wings.

‘Why are you doing that?’ asked Anghared.

‘The albatross no longer needs them. I am making sure that Penn’s soul is liberated.’

‘I don’t understand. Are you making spells?’

Efa shook her head. ‘Every albatross has the soul of a dead sailor inside. I am simply making sure he is free.’

The albatross shrank and blackened on the harbour wall, and the child growing in Anghared’s wasting body beneath the greatcoat could no longer be kept a secret.

‘I am sorry,’ said the priest. ‘Your husband’s body has been found in the bay.’

‘If I have lost him,’ she wept. ‘I do not want to live.’

‘Come to confession,’ he said. ‘Your evil thoughts must be purged.’

‘I will not,’ she wailed. ‘I have done nothing wrong.’

~

The women no longer came to the harbour wall; but still she stood, her back hardened against the wind.

‘Why do you watch?’ asked Efa.

‘I am not. I am singing to Penn.’

‘And can he hear?’

‘Of course,’ she replied coldly. ‘He sings too.’

‘Of what does he sing?’

‘I cannot say. He speaks in another tongue.’

Efa opened her arms. ‘Come to my house and eat. You are wasting away. The child will believe it is unwanted.’

‘The child is right,’ she replied, turning away. ‘I want Penn.’

~

Efa went to the church. ‘She’ll go the way of her husband,’ she told the priest.

‘That would be wrong in the eyes of the Lord,’ he said. ‘It will be a sin if she takes her own life.’

‘But she needs our help. She says she has no life without him. She is broken.’

‘I will pray for her soul,’ he said. ‘But if she will not admit her sin, there is nothing to be done.’

~

The church was full. Anghared gripped the pew until her knuckles turned white: Penn’s coat hanging from her shrunken frame, her belly full and round. As his body was lowered into the ground, Efa held her tight. ‘Stand back. You may fall.’

‘I shall fall if I want!’ she spat. ‘He lied to me.’

‘How did he lie?’

Anghared pointed at the coffin.

‘Wait a little longer,’ she replied. ‘Then you will understand.’

The two women stood silently by the grave until they were alone. Soon the priest returned. ‘Come to confession now, my child. God wants to hear of your sinful thoughts.’

‘There is no God,’ she said bitterly. ‘And I am not your child.

Efa closed her eyes for a moment then opened her bag. She took out the albatross feathers one by one, and arranged them on the mound of newly turned earth.

‘Take them away,’ ordered the priest raising his hands. ‘I will not have a pagan act on God’s soil.’  Efa gathered up the feathers and threw them angrily in the air. They floated and twisted around Anghared’s head.

~

The women jeered at Efa and called her a witch. ‘Keep away from Anghared,’ they said. But Efa took no notice, and sensing that her time was near, knocked on Anghared’s door. ‘I have come to help,’ she said simply.

‘The others say I should not have you in my house. I have no need of you.’

‘But I have food and blankets,’ said Efa. ‘And healing herbs.’ She laid them on the kitchen table, and handed her a bunch of sage leaves. ‘To protect you from evil.’

Anghared was hungry so she ate the offered food, and then the pains began. Sudden and sharp, they shot through her body like a warning. ‘I must be very sick,’ she groaned, curling her body into a tight coil upon the kitchen floor. Efa covered her with blankets, and boiled water to make medicine from the birthing herbs; but still Anghared cried with pain.

‘You are stopping this child from coming,’ sighed Efa. ‘It will not be born until it knows it will be loved.’

Anghared tossed and turned on the floor shrieking with pain. As the moon came up, her bloody waters broke. ‘My back will break in two,’ she moaned.

              But still the child would not come. ‘We must find him,’ said Efa. ‘We must go now.’ Anghared had no strength left to fight, and allowed Efa to help her to her feet. She draped the greatcoat around her shoulders, and taking her weight, helped her outside. Every few yards she stood quietly as Anghared breathed through her pain. ‘It’s not far now,’ she said. They came to the lych gate at the church. ‘I will wait here for you. Go to him.’ The gate creaked its opening, and the arc of a new moon cast empty shadows on the gravestones. Anghared struggled up the path to the new mound of earth.

Efa sank onto the bench inside the gate and closed her eyes. As her breathing slowed, a chill crept through her body and entered her heart. She began to shiver. This is a place of death, not life, she thought. We should not be here. An owl hooted. It’s warning me. I have done wrong. Exhausted, she let her eyes close, and fell into a fitful sleep.

~

She woke to a shuddering in the early morning air. Opening her eyes, she saw a great white bird lifting itself clumsily into the light. Something has ended, she thought. Efa held her breath, and waited.

A blackbird landed on the lych gate roof and began to sing. The sun rose behind the steeple. Efa walked slowly up the path, and as she approached Penn’s grave, she cried out. The ground was covered with pure white feathers. Anghared lay curled up beneath them, the rise and fall of her chest invisible. Penn’s greatcoat lay bundled on the ground beside her.

‘Anghared?’ she whispered, expecting no answer.

‘We are here,’ breathed Anghared, wrapping her arms around the greatcoat. ‘We are all here. I am whole again.’

‘But are you not alone? And why do you not cover yourself?’ Efa heard a whimper inside the greatcoat, and Anghared reached inside for the boy child.

‘He kept his promise. I will never be alone. My heart is alive again.’

*

Image courtesy national geographic

Albatross

February 10, 2014 § 12 Comments

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A Short Story. Part One of Two

Every day the woman came: her face turned towards the ocean, her back poker straight to fight the wind. All day she prayed, her lips fluttering sounds no one could understand. The dying storm caught the words and flung them, like icy fragments, back in her face.

              She paced back and forth along the harbour wall, her bare feet sliding raw inside sea boots too big for her. Each night she slipped them off and lined them up neatly beside the black, iron bed. She knew he would have liked her wearing his boots, would have understood. She wore his army greatcoat too, even though people stared. Anghared didn’t care. She wrapped the thick coat around her body like a shroud, and pulled its collar tight over her nose. She had to have the smell of him, make him flesh and blood again. She drank in his sweat, his salt, the cigarettes he smoked when his boat worked the fishing grounds.

She stopped in her tracks as if remembering something long forgotten, and stepping gingerly to the edge where the harbour wall met the waves, looked down to where the slimy film of weed settled and thrived in the cracks between the cobbles. The moon was full, casting its sheen deep into the water. Dragged by the moon like a compass point to the north, a shoal of jellyfish clustered tight against the wall, floating like thickened water, without apparent plan or will. It was time for the females to drop their eggs, and for the males to squirt their sperm into the sea. The shoal began to dance its ritual that made new life, and Anghared hugged Penn’s coat tight to her belly. Eyes wide, she smiled at the brightening horizon. ‘It’s a sign, Penn,’ she said. ‘We too have made new life, and when you return, you will see.’ Anghared didn’t see the eggs sinking to the bottom where the lobsters waited and snapped their claws with hunger.

The next day she came again. This time the moon was hidden and the jellyfish gone.

‘Go home,’ said Efa, the harbourmaster’s wife. ‘Nothing good will come of this. Penn will come back when it’s time.’

‘When?’ she asked.

‘As I said, when it is time.’

‘But when will that be?’

‘Be patient. Anghared,’ soothed Efa.

‘But I want to see him.’

‘He will come. But you may not recognise him.’

The other wives, as was their custom when a fisherman did not return, came to the wall every day for seven days. They stood back from the edge near the slime of seaweed with their mouths set in a sharp, thin line. The younger women held the hands of their children so tight their knuckles turned white, and the old wives brought fishing rods on their backs with bread and currants for bait, and pretended to fish; but they were simply waiting too. When they stood too close to Anghared, or when they lifted an arm to put around her shoulders, she lowered her gaze and gently turned her back. Her face grew stiff, and lines like grey commas stretched around the edges of her mouth.

              Sometimes she was there before dawn when the smacks left for the fishing grounds. They sailed silent and colourless out of the glassy harbour, sometimes followed by flecks of phosphorescence that flowed like the tails of the manta ray the men sometimes caught in the nets. Penn said the old men called this glittering the stars of the sea. ‘It means the boats will return with their holds full of fish,’ he said.

‘Like a sort of magic?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he laughed. ‘There’s no such thing as magic. It’s just plankton. When it comes, so do the hungry fish. All we have to do is catch them.’

The fishermen cast their eyes down to their boots as they passed through the harbour mouth, the greatcoat flapping around Anghared’s body like a clumsy bird struggling to take flight. They made no sound of greeting, but raised their arms as a mark of respect, as a sign they knew she must keep vigil.

Efa watched every day from her cottage at the end of the harbour wall. ‘Come away,’ she said on the seventh day, pulling at the young woman’s sleeve. ‘At least when the child is born it will have the soul of its father.’

‘There is no child,’ retorted Anghared bitterly.

‘You know that’s your sickness,’ said Efa sternly. ‘You can’t hide it from me. It has been growing in your belly for six weeks now.’

~

The full moon came once more, and still she waited. The plankton glittered, and the jellyfish came back and thickened the water by the harbour wall. And still he didn’t come.

~

The men sailed into the harbour with the albatross, their faces set and dark. The bird had drowned: caught on the long lines streamed out like deadly necklaces behind their boats. They hauled it off the deck and left it lying like a soft, white pillow on the wall, its hard, hooked beak open wide as if still gasping for life. It lay there untouched, unburied – no one would return the bad omen to the sea.

At night, when the clouds were masking the moon, Efa squatted on the cobbles and plucked the long white feathers from its wings.

‘Why are you doing that?’ asked Anghared.

‘The albatross no longer needs them. I am making sure that Penn’s soul is liberated.’

‘I don’t understand. Are you making spells?’

Efa shook her head. ‘Every albatross has the soul of a dead sailor inside. I am simply making sure he is free.’

The albatross shrank and blackened on the harbour wall, and the child growing in Anghared’s wasting body beneath the greatcoat could no longer be kept a secret.

~

To be continued Wednesday 12th. Feb

Because She Could: Part Two

January 11, 2014 § 27 Comments

A short story: second and final part

astral_travel_webpage_pic_2

The cold winds raced around the garden, and Isabella felt strange.

‘Best place is bed,’ said her mother, tucking her in. ‘You’re burning up.’ But Isabella got hotter. She kicked off the bedclothes and her limbs turned to ice. She made a cocoon of her duvet and her body filled with fire.  She tore off her pyjamas and thrust the cover aside. Isabella didn’t care anymore. Everything was muddled. Curling up naked on the bed, she closed her eyes and began to drift. The pain in her body floated away, and she had the oddest sensation she was losing her skin.

Then suddenly she was wide awake. Opening her eyes, she looked down and saw herself lying naked on the bed. ‘You really do look poorly,’ she said sternly. ‘And why aren’t you wearing your pyjamas?’ Isabella’s body didn’t move.  ‘Humph. Well I don’t care if you don’t answer me. It’s so nice to be flying again… only Mum said I really shouldn’t, so I suppose I…’

She stretched out her arms and aimed at her body. But like a drifting balloon, she rose higher and higher. She moved her limbs as if swimming in deep water. She paddled harder and faster. Nothing happened. ‘Help!’ she yelled. ‘I don’t want to die.’

Thump!

Isabella had crashed.

Thump, thump, thump.

High above the clouds, Isabella was hitting something hard and invisible.

‘I warned you before. Come down at once!’ It was her mother. ‘If you go any further you’ll be in heaven – and then you’ll be stuck.’

Isabella looked around and started to wobble. Losing her balance, she began to fall: faster and faster, plummeting out of control. She tumbled past the stars, between the heavy, black clouds, through the cold, sharp rain. And then she saw her street. There was her house, her garden, her swing. Spreading her limbs like a bat, she slowed herself down – pulling up sharp just before she hit the ground. Swooping through the front door, she glided up the banisters, and missing the grandfather clock at the top of the stairs, swerved around the sharp corner into her bedroom. Her body lay on the bed under the duvet. Isabella held her breath, and plunged back inside.

‘You look cold and confused,’ her mother whispered, tucking her in. ‘You’d fallen asleep with no clothes on, and I couldn’t wake you up. You do look much better.’ She put the thermometer under Isabella’s tongue.

‘I’ve had a very peculiar dream.’

‘It was probably the fever,’ she smiled, taking the thermometer out of Isabella’s mouth. ‘Good. All back to normal.’

‘Were you telling me off a minute ago?’ Isabella asked.

‘I was not. I was doing the washing up.’

The hair on her parents’ heads turned silver, and the garden swing was gone. ‘You should come and see us more often,’ her father sighed.

I wish I lived closer,’ she replied. ‘Mum isn’t herself these days.’

Her mother’s mind could only hold the past. The present did not exist.’Someone’s taken Isabella’s swing,’ she complained. ‘Isn’t it time to get her from school?’

‘Sometimes she cooks for three,’ he said. ‘Then worries when you don’t come home to eat. She’s always falling asleep; and when I wake her, it’s as if she’s in a dream and can’t escape. She says she wants to go home.’

Her mother’s mind was dividing itself in two: slipping in and out of the world she knew and shared with others, and another that no one could know but her. ‘I write labels on everything,’ said her father, with a sigh. ‘But she can’t remember what the words mean any more.’

Isabella was waiting for something to happen. She couldn’t settle. She sat bolt upright in bed when the phone rang. ‘You must come now,’ said her father. ‘It’s your mother.’

She drove fast. Kissing the warm, papery cheek, her mother opened her eyes.’She’s happy you’re here,’ he said. ‘She hasn’t responded to anyone. Not even me.’ All that day her mother slipped between this world and the next. As day turned to night her chest stopped moving – then she spluttered, struggling for air. Again and again her breathing stopped for a few moments, then she took a desperate gasp of air.

‘Don’t be frightened,’ Isabella whispered. But her mother lay quiet – her eyes flickering beneath her lids.

Her father rested in the next room, and Isabella sat by the bed. Exhausted, she passed fitfully in and out of sleep. Her father came with a blanket, and Isabella began to dream. She was alone with her mother: standing close by her side facing a closed door. She took her mother’s hand. It trembled slightly beneath her touch. ‘Soon it will be time, Mum. You can leave when you’re ready.’

‘But I want to be here. And I’m afraid. What if I don’t like it on the other side?’

‘Come with me,’ Isabella whispered. ‘We’ll go together.’  She opened the door, and their bodies flooded with a clear white light. ‘Look Mum. It’s beautiful.’

Her mother’s hand became firm. ‘Yes,’ she said. Now I remember. And it is time. And do you remember too, Isabella?’

‘What should I remember?’

‘That you are staying here. I’ll come and tell you when it’s your turn.’

Her mother untangled her hand from Isabella’s grasp, and walked into the light.

Because She Could: Part 1

January 10, 2014 § 18 Comments

A short story in two parts. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

Enjoy – and any feedback, as always, will be appreciated!

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The first time it happened, Isabella was playing in the garden. She’d fallen off the swing and landed upside down on her head. A feeling of lightness stirred in her solar plexus, spreading through her body until the tips of her toes tingled with a pleasurable kind of emptiness. Isabella looked down and saw herself lying crumpled in the grass. She was floating – or to be precise – something that had been inside her body had got out and was cruising around in the sunlight in a rather disorderly fashion. Isabella had left her body behind.

She hovered for a while trying to keep her balance, then discovering a pair of invisible limbs, moved them back and forth in a kind of frenetic breaststroke she’d been practicing at swimming club. The air was slippery and heavy like water.

‘What are you doing up there?’ her mother yelled. ‘If you go any higher you won’t come back, and you’ll stay dead forever.’

Isabella looked around but couldn’t see her mother anywhere. She pointed herself sleek as a shark, and swooping down into the garden slipped back inside her body. She had found the sensation of lightness utterly delightful.

Isabella came round and opened her eyes. Bright lights flickered at the end of her bed, and machines were clicking like the crickets that hung upside down on her bedroom ceiling. Everything echoed and was making her head swim. She closed her eyes tight shut.

Her mother sat by the bed squeezing a handkerchief.

‘Where am I?’ Isabella asked.

‘In hospital, my love.’

‘Why?’

‘You had a little accident.’

Isabella blinked, and squinted at her mother. ‘What did you mean about me staying dead forever?’

‘I said nothing of the sort. All I did was shriek and dial 999. You must have imagined it.’

‘But I didn’t.’

‘Have a little nap, sweetheart,’ her mother sniffled. ‘They think you’ve got concussion.’

Isabella never forgot that day, and on the way home from hospital she decided she’d never, ever go flying again in case she got stuck and ended up dead.

But she wasn’t altogether successful. It started happening again. If she was cross, or frightened – or just wanted to be somewhere else because she was bored – she slid out of her body and cruised around for a while. After about five minutes – although she was never sure how long it really was as time was passing in a rather peculiar way – she slid back in again. Although it was a nice feeling, Isabella found being in two places at once rather confusing.

Nobody seemed to notice anything strange, until her mother made an announcement. ‘Your father and I have thinking,’ she said. ‘You’re always falling asleep these days. It might help if you went to bed earlier.’

Isabella rarely argued with her mother – it wasn’t worth the trouble when she used her slow, loud voice – so she went to bed half an hour earlier every night. It didn’t help. She still fell asleep without warning in front of the telly, and however hard her mother shook her, Isabella wouldn’t wake up until her body had joined itself up with the rest of her.

She didn’t really mind about the early nights, because she could go places without anyone noticing. She kept an atlas under her bed, and was soon travelling the world. She flew around corners and saw things that were supposed to be private, like next door’s baby being born; and she flew so high she could see the whole planet revolving in front of her in bright shades of green and blue. If somewhere took her fancy – like Italy because it was shaped like a boot – or the Horse Latitudes where she could hunt for her favourite animal, she would point her arms into a dive, and zoom in like a telescope to get a better look.

Isabella stayed tired, but the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. ‘Must be psychological’, he said. ‘I recommend lots of sleep.’ Then it happened: Isabella stopped leaving her body.

That winter the dog got sick. Titus was old and stiff, and could no longer climb the stairs to sleep in his favourite place on Isabella’s bed. He got thinner too, because he forgot to eat. He lay in his basket all day, and even refused the chocolate she saved for him in secret.

‘His body’s wearing out,’ said her mother. ‘Soon it will be time for him to go to heaven.’

‘Is that where I nearly went?’ Isabella asked.

‘I really don’t know, my love. But it’s alright now because you don’t go there anymore, do you?’

‘No, I don’t, she replied.

Every night for a week, Isabella stroked the old dog’s bony frame. ‘It’s probably very nice in heaven,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sure you’ll like it.’

On the seventh day, his breathing slowed down to a whisper, and the air around him turned dark into a grey cloud. He opened his eyes wide, looked hard at his mistress, and breathed out a loud, slow sigh. A shiny, bright shadow rose slowly from his body and hovered above his head. Isabella put out her hand to catch it, but it floated through her flesh – like her hand wasn’t there – and was gone.

She put her lips to his ear. ‘Are you coming back, Titus? If you don’t do it soon, you might get stuck there forever.’ Titus paddled his front legs like he was having a chasing dream, then lay perfectly still.

Message From Calcutta

December 18, 2013 § 17 Comments

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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…

 

Don’t Forget To Breathe: Part Two

November 25, 2013 § 2 Comments

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Tabitha lived off her great aunt’s inheritance and didn’t know what to do with herself. But one day – perhaps by coincidence, perhaps simply by accident – she discovered something that allowed her to get closer to her obsession – the aeroplane.

‘I’m taking flying lessons,’ she announced to her husband over dinner.

‘Whatever for?’ he asked, gulping down his second glass of Verve Cliquot Rose Reserve 1985.

‘It means I’ll get a better view of the clouds, silly.’

‘That’s nice my love,’ he said, finishing the bottle. ‘Delicious. I must order some more 1985 tomorrow.’ Tabitha slid the flying logbook off the table and sat on it. He really wasn’t in the slightly bit interested.

Tabitha’s idea of heaven was no longer a new pair of Manolo Blahniks – it was gliding between her beloved clouds as her wingtips glittered like sparklers in the sunlight. But her instructor was no ordinary man: he taught her how to land on them. ‘Saves on the landing fees,’ he said. He found a cloud with a flat top and Tabitha set up the approach path. Playing with the throttle settings, she let the flaps down fifteen degrees or so to get her angle of descent right, then flew along the top pretending it was a runway. Then flaps up, full power on, and the take off was in the bag. If she messed up the landing she disappeared into the cloud and came out the other side with dewdrops on her wings. Flying was like being in a magic place – rather like a mystical experience, she decided – and she soon grew silent and sullen and didn’t want to land.

Don’t Forget To Breathe: Part One

November 22, 2013 § 6 Comments

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Tabitha liked clouds. Cirrus, altostratus, cumulonimbus, lenticular formations – it didn’t much matter. She drove for hours for the pleasure of trawling through mildewed bookshops and adding to her already considerable collection on nephology. On her return, she took her acquisitions into the garden and stretched out flat on her stomach. Carefully unwrapping each one, she flicked through the photos with the joy more often seen on a child’s face in a sweetie shop. Afterwards, bathed in a warm glow, she rolled over, pointed her face to the sky, and watched the objects of her obsession drifting overhead.

Believe It If You Want

October 5, 2013 § 5 Comments

The wonderful writing of the late Tove Jansson. Sparse, simple, powerful. I make no apologies for emulating her in this piece. Famous as a writer of children‘s books – she also excelled when she wrote for adults. She taught me a lot.

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The sun was everywhere. Everything that could move hunted for shade, and Grandma dozed on the veranda with Grandpa’s straw hat. She lifted it off her face like a lid and screwed up her eyes into slits. ‘What are you doing in the flowerbed? Getting sunstroke, I suppose.’

‘Shush,’ whispered Jenny. ‘How do you know where I am? I’m supposed to be hiding.’

            ‘You’re making too much noise to be doing that. I can hear you rustling. What are you hiding from precisely?’

            ‘Actually I’m hunting. But before I hunt, I have to hide. I’m on the look out for monitor lizards.’

            ‘That’s going to be a waste of time then,’ sighed the old lady. ‘I’ve never seen any here. Ever. If you do find one it will puff itself up and hiss while it makes up its mind whether you’re worth eating or not. In any case monitor lizards live near the equator. I expect you’re really looking for newts.’

            ‘The ones with the orange bellies that hide under stones?’ Jenny asked.

            ‘They’re newts.’

‘You win. I’m looking for newts.’

The rustling continued. The dahlias lurched as Jenny crawled between their stems, and the pea sticks holding up the delphiniums made a crackling sound as she snapped them in two.

‘You’re wrecking the garden,’ complained the old lady between snores.

‘Hunting is more important than taking care of silly flowers. Particularly when you’re after monitor lizards.’

‘Newts,’ said Grandma.

‘OK. Newts. They’re still lizards. In fact they’re just as important as monitor lizards, just smaller.’

‘Newts,’ repeated Grandma crossly.

‘Got one!’ shrieked Jenny. ‘Got four. A whole family with orange bellies. Can I bring them indoors?’

‘No. We’ll tread on them.’

Grandmother began to snore properly like she wasn’t pretending.

‘Help!’ yelped Jenny springing out of the flowerbed.

‘What is it? You’ll wake the dead. I was having a dream about cool sea breezes.’

‘Something’s biting me!’

‘Ahh,’ said the old lady. ‘Must be the midges.’

Jenny scratched herself. ‘Midges don’t live in flower beds.’

‘They do when they’re larvae.’

‘How come?’

‘They’re hatching into grown ups and I expect they’re hungry.’

‘Will they suck all my blood out?’

‘Probably not. You’ve got more than you need. But when they hatch it’s a very dangerous time, and you have to be careful you don’t tempt fate.’

‘What do I have to do or not do then?’

‘No walking under ladders or spilling salt, and if it’s Friday the thirteenth you have to keep your fingers and toes crossed all day.’

‘That’s stupid nonsense and where did you get all that from? In any case it’s Saturday!’

‘It’s called superstition,’ Grandma replied. ‘My grandmother knew a lot about that, and taught me some useful tricks on how to live a long and healthy life.’

‘Like what?’

The old lady said she couldn’t remember most of them, but there were things that her grandmother used to get very upset about because they always brought bad luck – like leaving shoes on the table or seeing two knives crossed.

‘But what is superstition exactly?’

‘It’s about never saying goodbye to a friend on a bridge, because if you do you’ll never see them again. Or if a bee lands on your head you can expect to get very rich, very quick.’

‘That’s not what superstition means, is it? Isn’t that what you think when you believe in it? Tell me properly.’

Grandmother thought for a bit then said it was probably when people believed something was true, but couldn’t find a way of explaining it. Jenny asked if that was what people thought who believed in God. Grandmother went quiet. She picked at her teeth with a stick and said God probably wasn’t a very good example because if someone believed He existed they’d find some evidence to prove to themselves that He definitely did.

‘Like what?’ asked Jenny.

‘Like if you prayed to Him asking that someone would get better after they’d had an accident and then they did.’

‘That isn’t proof, is it?’

‘It is if you believe it is.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense.’

‘I’ve got an example that my grandmother said was true. She said that if you invited someone into your house and they turned nasty, then it was all your own fault because you’d probably done something horrible before they arrived,’ explained Grandmother.

‘Like what?’

‘Killed a bee. Didn’t matter whether you’d done it on purpose or not.’ Jenny looked at her grandmother and rolled her eyes.

‘But I’ve just remembered the worst thing of all,’ said the old lady. ‘You better come and sit by me while I tell you.’

‘I’m ready,’ announced Jenny scratching herself. ‘But I haven’t got much time if it’s going to be a long, drawn out story.’

‘It isn’t a story. It’s true. The most dangerous night of the year is when the midges take their maiden flight out of the flowerbeds. If it’s a full moon you really have to watch out.’

‘What do you have to watch out for then?’ said the child picking the sand from between her toes.

‘Boats sail away by themselves, millions of tiny red spiders come out of nowhere and weave a web around peoples’ houses so they can’t get out, and children disappear and are never seen again. Anything can happen.

‘I don’t believe a word of it,’ Jenny sniggered. ‘I suppose it’s a full moon tonight then?’

The old lady nodded slowly, lay back in the armchair and closed her eyes. Soon she was snoring again.

Jenny prodded her. ‘I’ve been thinking very seriously. Do you think Dad will be safe in his fishing boat? Maybe we should warn him.’

‘I wouldn’t worry about your father; I don’t think he’s superstitious. After all, superstition is old fashioned, and you should always believe your father.’

‘I think we better go right now and see if he’s safe,’ said Jenny tugging at Grandmother’s skirt.

‘We could, I suppose. At least it’ll be cooler on the shore.’

‘I’ve suddenly turned superstitious,’ said Jenny jumping to her feet. ‘I’m going to get my rabbit’s foot – it might make all the difference.’ A few seconds later she ran out of the kitchen, her face ashen. Dad’s paper knives are crossed on his desk! Now we’re really in trouble and there’s nothing we can do about it!’

‘It’s all right. Remember it’s only superstition.’

‘That’s not what you said!’

‘Don’t make such a racket. What’s done is done.’

‘We’ll all die. I don’t want to die!’

‘Stop it. I have an idea.’ The old lady explained that her grandmother used to collect herbs and make potions. ‘That always put things right.’

‘What herbs? Can you find them?’

‘Be quiet,’ said the old lady. ‘I’m trying to remember.’

‘Be quick then!’

‘I can’t be quick. I’ve forgotten. It was a long time ago.’

‘Forgotten? How can you forget something important like that?’

‘Shut up child. Don’t make a sound. Walk on your tiptoes, don’t sneeze, don’t burp, and don’t say a word until I have finished.’

The moon was rising as they set off for the beach, and Grandmother hobbled faster than usual. She stopped to pick a sprig of heather and a young hazel twig, and stuffed them both in her pocket. Jenny began to feel calmer – maybe she had remembered the magic spell and could save them after all.

When they got to the beach the old lady collected a seagull feather, a shark’s egg case, three round pebbles and six seed heads from a yellow sea poppy. She pointed to a spot near the shoreline. ‘Find a stick and dig a hole here. Then we have to put all the things in the hole. The stones go in last – except for one – which you must keep safe in your pocket; and then we’ll fill the hole in. As soon as the sea covers it we will all be saved.’

They sat and waited as the tide rippled in. The moon had risen behind the old lady’s head and given her a halo. She looked huge and full of magic, and as

they walked back through the wood, the moon made a silvery path for them to follow.

‘I was worried about you,’ said Jenny’s father greeting them at the door. Where have you been?

‘We went for an evening stroll,’ said Grandmother cheerfully.

Jenny raised her eyebrows and fingered the stone in her pocket.

‘I’d better go and see if there are any spiders on the veranda, hadn’t I?’

Grandmother began to whistle.

‘You made it all up, didn’t you?’ spat Jenny.

‘Maybe one or two bits, but then all of it might be true.’

‘You were just trying to frighten me. Well, you succeeded. I’m not speaking to you for a week then maybe you’ll have learnt the difference between truth and lies!’

The old lady hobbled off to bed. The child waited until she heard her snores, then crept up to the bedroom door and turned the horseshoe upside down.

‘Serves you right if your luck runs out,’ she whispered spitefully through the keyhole.

Grandmother dozed on the veranda with Grandpa’s straw hat.

‘What’s wrong with your hand?’ asked Jenny, forgetting she was ignoring her. ‘It’s all red and puffed up.’

‘A bee crawled into my bed and stung me.’

‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’ said Jenny with her hand on her hip.

‘It means I shouldn’t have left my bedroom window open last night.’

Jenny went white and remembered the horseshoe. ‘I’ll get you a dock leaf then.’

***

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