An American friend has suggested I write more. All well and good, but time is short, getting shorter and my 3rd-hand laptop at home is older than my cat, does not have internet and has to sit on my lap because I don't have my own office.
But she's right.
So, in the spirit of the wilting of 2013 and the slow erection of 2014 - and yes, there's an obvious "ooeerr missus" in there - I will post two of my short stories that have come out of the magnificent Athenaeum Writer's Group, of which I am but a very minor player... but will endeavour to attend more regularly in 2014.
So I guess that's my New Year's Resolution sorted, whether I wanted to make one or not.
I hope you enjoy...
Holding hands with an adult
“I’M NOT GOING to get better, am I Dad..?”
It wasn’t just a question, like all the others Andy uttered. It was as much a statement as anything. Andy was putting on his brave face, talking like us grown-ups were supposed to.
I’d just pointed out an oil tanker on the horizon, creeping up the Thames estuary, heading towards the Coryton refinery, comparing them against the seemingly tiny cockleshell boats which would commute back and forth from nearby Old Leigh.
The cloud was hazy over the Isle of Sheppey and from the Chalkwell Cliffs it appeared we were looking out to sea, rather than the eastern fringes of London’s shabby river.
I felt that buzzing warmness around the back edges of my eyes, the one that reminds a man his tears are always waiting for him if he gives in. My tongue went dry and it felt fat and stupid, sticking to the roof of my mouth.
‘I have to be strong. I have to be a Dad… I mean, I have to be a good Dad’ I barracked myself silently.
A seagull screeched loudly a few feet from us, making me start. I turned to look at Andy, not really ready to give the speech I’d prepared weeks ago.
Like any copywriter, it was a speech I’d amended along the way, adding fragile sombre words, taking out the gags, then putting them back in again for my own sake rather than his, then changing it again, adding hope but tempering it with realism, like the bereavement counsellors at the hospice explained.
I’d never had to prepare an answer for Andy which was so onerous, so important, as this. I think I was even proud of the one I’d drafted by the end, certainly prouder than the one I’d given him when me and his mum had split up.
But as I drew breath, dreading the darkening monologue I’d rehearsed, Andy suddenly turned away, looking to the distance. His arm feebly came up, pointing towards the horizon, a pitiful mirror of the Queen Victoria statue a few yards away. He gave a forced, chipper exclamation as I turned to squint into the distance.
“A clipper… isn’t that a clipper Dad, over there?”
A handful of heartbeats tapped out the time it took for me to understand that my answer was to go unspoken for now. I knew he’d changed the subject on purpose, and he dropped his eyes suddenly to my hand holding his on the arm of his wheelchair, as if to tell me, ‘I know – I changed the subject Dad. I changed it because of this thing. This thing is just for me and I’m not going to put you through it as well.’
His beautiful blue eyes looked up to mine and his trademark lopsided smile burned across his face. Jesus, when did he get so damn smart? And who the hell did he get that from, because it wasn’t me and it certainly wasn’t his mum?
Again, the buzzing heat behind my eyes threatened me with my shame and embarrassment and weakness. I drew in the cold air quickly through my flared nostrils, the way soft men do to stop the tears taking over.
As I pushed him back along the Cliffs to the car the questions flowed like a bubbling river over a fall.
“Who won the FA cup when I was born Dad? Did the pier burn down four or five times? What’s the red dot on a seagull’s beak?” All the way through town he kept it up, urging on my replies whenever I struggled.
“Why don’t you live with us anymore?”
We had just pulled into the driveway of the hospice when he bowled me that one.
As I got out of the car, came around to open his door and pulled his wheelchair from the boot I rolled out the well-worn response as recommended by the Idiot’s Guide to Divorce (parents’ edition).
“You know why Andy. Your mum and I… well… we have different lives now. Things don’t always work out for the best in a marriage. But what’s important is that we both love you very, very much and that will never change. I love you, we both do,” I assured him, noting with despair how easily I could lift his feather-light body into the wheelchair.
“But why can’t you love each other anymore?” he demanded, suddenly insistent.
I knelt by the side of his chair, flicking the numerous clips and catches to make it more sturdy.
I sighed deeply, wondering the same, before muttering softly “I don’t know why Andy. I wish I did.”
Andy’s bird-like hand plopped on top of my head and he ruffled my greying hair.
“Well, I’ll always love you… and that’ll never change,” he laughed, knowing full well he was bouncing the approved statement back at me.
“Ha ha, very funny” I replied sarcastically, standing up and grabbing the handles of the chair.
“Ha ha very funny” he parroted, trying to drop his voice as low as mine, causing us both to laugh out loud.
Later that night, after I’d helped him eat his dinner and badgered him into swallowing what seemed like a sweet-packet of pills, I stroked his hand while he fell asleep.
I drew my palm gently up his arm, passing the multitude of bruises where different nurses had struggled to find a vein thick enough or strong enough to take another needle.
The largest blood bruise was still there, marking the time when the new student nurse had shaken with nerves as she jabbed with the syringe.
The senior nurse had been at her back, and had tried to calm her pupil with a hand placed softly on her shoulder. Andy’s cries had argued the point and I could see the young woman become increasingly distressed at the pain she knew she was causing.
She had become so het up, as Andy’s wails grew, she eventually gulped down a sob and fled the room.
“She’s new…” said the senior nurse in explanation.
“You think?” hiccupped Andy, trying to laugh while gulping down his own tears.
“A lot of them get into this because they want to help,” the senior nurse, Gloria, told me later as we shared a cigarette in the hospice car park.
“But sometimes the work here is just too much. They feel guilty, embarrassed, angry with themselves after a while. They know they can’t hack it, but it takes them several weeks to really accept the truth before they finally leave. Others learn how to cope and they’re the ones that stay. Once you learn to accept what goes on here, you stay for ever.”
The blood-bruise had gone black, then blue and had slowly faded to a large mottled yellow stain, like a smoker’s fingers.
Jules, the student nurse, had stayed the entire term of the bruise and had learned to cope. She could now find a vein even better than Gloria, despite the degeneration of Andy’s muscles and arteries.
It was my shift when Andy finally passed away and I was pleased we were alone together. After months of treatment, his mum and I had agreed a rota, some nights she would stay, and some nights me. We made sure Andy was never alone as he went to sleep, that there was always one of us with him.
It wasn’t easy since the split, but at least it meant we didn’t have to meet at Andy’s bedside and go through that awkward handover greeting.
When I arrived I realised pretty quickly the day wasn’t going to end well. I had a dark itch at my back all the way along the hospice drive and the face of the receptionist telegraphed it all. I started to leave an increasing number of phone messages and texts with Andy’s mum, but either the restaurant she had gone to with her new partner was out of signal range or she’d turned her bloody phone off again.
Gloria had given me a look which said “bugger calling, you’re needed now”, so I stopped trying to do the right thing, and just did the right thing.
I never saw the light leave Andy’s beautiful blue eyes, because he’d closed them days before when he’d slipped into a coma.
I held his hand when his heart finally stopped beating, feeling it grow colder and colder, until Gloria gently told me it was time to let it go.
As expected, his mum had screamed at me for what seemed like hours afterwards. Blaming me again and again that she should have been there, not me.
I didn’t know what to say, how to make a sensible reply, so I said nothing.
What do you say to a mother who’s missed her own son’s death in lieu of a romantic but less-than-average pasta bake with a car-wash manager called Brendan?
I didn’t go to Andy’s funeral. Well, Brendan suggested it wasn’t a good idea if I attended as it would upset Andy’s mum and he didn’t want to see her upset.
He did the whole Alpha male thing, using matey words, with the hint of what he must have seriously thought was menace. The whole time he was prattling on all I could think was he probably held his pressure-washer lance on a people-carrier thinking he’s using a flamethrower in the Vietnam War.
I didn’t argue – I’d already decided there was no point in going anyway. It wasn’t Andy in the expensive wooden box his mum had bought for him. It wasn’t Andy, it was just what remained of Andy’s body. The one he’d lived in. The one that had gone and turned on him, taking him apart bit by bit.
I haven’t gone back to work yet and though they’re being nice about it, I think they know I probably won’t ever go back. Selling advertising, copy-writing, it’s just selling false promises. Your life won’t be better if you buy this, you won’t be a richer person, you will not live longer.
I do still go up to the Cliffs and watch the boats saunter along the estuary. I sit on a bench which bears Andy’s name on a small brass plaque. When my hands begin to shake, I put them together in my lap and try to fool myself I’m holding his hand again.
No-one asks me much in the way of questions anymore. But it’s alright.
Andy taught me that some questions… well, some questions just don’t have answers.
©Carl Eve 2012
Jam And Jerusalem
“TO THE LEFT a little please Margaret, closer to the delphiniums, lovely, Jeremy dear that needs to go over the other side, in between the two Greek columns, that's right, oh Daphne those are magnificent cushion covers, but we can’t have them in this marquee, people will think they’re cruising Marks and Spencers, oh for pity’s sake Gerald, I said straight-back chairs, not those, this is Bramley House, not a housing estate...”
The shrill voice of Morag Mulwhinny rang out inside the crisp white marquee, which was festooned with colourful bunting, assuming you approved of the colours being only red, white and blue, which Morag certainly did.
She wiped her hands twice on her sensible tweed skirt and briefly hummed a particularly favourite Scottish reel to herself which she found as calming as a saucer of camomile tea.
Morag was proud of her Scottish heritage. Certainly proud enough to have retained her cut glass BBC accent which even Lord Reith would have approved of.
She caught sight of an impressive-looking fruit cake on an ivory stand and absent-mindedly straightened it so the clock-piece almonds around the edge did not appear askew.
She then noticed the elegantly written card attached to it and carefully returned the cake to its former askew position.
“Admiring my cake Morag?” said a tiny but true Scots voice beside her.
“Ah Hettie... yes, a fine cake,” said Morag. She had used the word ‘fine’ in the way people use ‘interesting’ when they are unsure of what they’re seeing. The way some parents would use ‘lovely’ when their child brings home a painting from nursery which looks like a walrus eating a Volkswagen Beetle or vice versa but your child insists is actually you.
“Perhaps a few too many almonds for my liking Hettie, but I think it’s a rather fine effort on your part. You know, I do think there’s every chance you could get a bronze this year, although Cynthia’s Victoria sponge has some admirers.”
Morag smiled sweetly at Hettie who was beginning to frown slightly at the sponge cake beside hers. It was adorned with a dusting of icing sugar which clearly displayed a silhouette of Queen Victoria. Cynthia's recent run of OCD meant she’d probably been up all night placing each individual speck using surgical tweezers and a magnifying glass borrowed from her husband’s surgery.
Morag’s petrified hair seemed to crackle as she looked up and walked with exaggerated urgency towards the marquee’s open tent flaps, her arms raised in melodramatic alarm.
“Emmett darling, you’ll need to put that trestle table out the front, there’s simply not enough room in here for any more asparagus and artichoke displays. And could you tell...” she swallowed hard “Sahara… that she really needs to get a move on. Those dahlias she’s preparing are liable to wilt in this heat, and heaven knows what will become of Glenda’s display of red hot pokers. She knows full well Major Hegarty has a tendency to become somewhat cantankerous if he has to judge wilted torch lilies.”
Morag eyes swivelled and narrowed as she spied suspicious and furtive movements at one of the tables. A voice like cheesewire sliced through the hubbub and ensured all eyes headed towards the subject of Morag’s displeasure.
“Gerald? I’ve told you before – no macaroons. You know they give you indigestion and Dr Parsival quite clearly stated they were as beneficial to your gall bladder as the Zulus were to the garrison at Rourke’s Drift."
A balding, red-faced man gingerly placed a solitary macaroon back onto a rose printed plate, which stood in line with several other similarly rose printed plates on the white cotton tablecloth.
The hubbub returned, embarrassed, as the many continued the work of the few.
An olive-skinned woman sporting a khaki baseball cap, a denim shirt and a long white cotton Gypsy-style skirt strode into the tent. She waved happily at a couple of the young girls hoisting bunting around the marquee as she approached Morag. With one hand she whipped off the cap and she shook out her long dark hair which had unconcerned strands of grey.
“Morag, I knew I’d find you here in the comp tent. How’s it going? Everything according to plan? It’s frightfully hot don’t you think? Have you had a drink? You’ve been hard at work for ages. You’re starting to look a little flushed you know.”
Morag radiated tireless determination as she gently tended her lacquered hair with the palm of her right hand. She felt the bead of sweat run down the side of her face, but ignored it testily.
“Thank you Georgina, that’s very kind of you, but I can assure you, a childhood in Kandahar, two years in Singapore and three more years as a Japanese P.O.W has left me immune to British summers. I take it you’re taking a break from the holy tent to see how we’re getting along.”
The two were now standing side by side, surveying the cakes, vegetables, flowers and fruits on glorious display on tables the length and breadth of the marquee.
“Holistic tent Morag, although we decided to rename it the ‘Chill Zone’ at our last meeting – didn’t I send you an e-mail?”
Georgina missed Morag’s brief wince at the technological term as she began to look around the marquee full of busy workers. “I must say Morag, this looks very... traditional,” she said with a genuine smile. “It really does look every inch the British summer fete – your lot have done a fantastic job.”
“Well, one does what one can.” Morag’s palm returned to primp the coiffured hair.
“Hmm, anyway, we finished a while ago and I thought I'd offer to give you a hand – do my bit for the sisters in Piggot’s Bottom as it were. The massage table’s up and running, the yoga mats are down, the Bedouin corner looks very cool and the hammocks are out the front. We’ve got whale song and Tibetan monk chants rigged up on the speakers and the organic muesli and yogurt drinks are going like hot cakes. Speaking of which, when's the judging? I'm keen to know how my hash brownies did....”
Georgina caught Morag’s sudden raised eyebrows and grinned.
“Only joking Morag, couldn't resist after that kerfuffle over the speaker I got in from the hemp collective. I actually did mean my carrot cake. I’m looking for a commended this year with some luck, although the competition does look pretty intense.” Georgina cast a questioning gaze over at the cake table which appeared to strain under the weight of this year’s efforts.
“Well, don’t count your organic chickens,” replied Morag sarcastically. “You’ve got some very stiff competition from Mrs Wetherby’s beetroot brownies. What’s so funny?” she asked as Georgina's hand raced to her mouth to stifle childish giggles.
“Nothing Morag, I’m sure Mrs Wetherby’s beetroot brownies will be looked upon with great admiration, as they are every year. Is her husband judging again this year?” she asked sweetly.
Morag took a sharp, deep and indignant breath which was followed by a long stare and a haughty reply.
“Colonel Wetherby is a much respected judge and has been for the past thirty years at each of Piggot’s Bottom Women’s Institute fayres and I’ll brook no insinuation that he is biased in any way. It just so happens that Mrs Wetherby is an exemplary baker and I would remind you and your ladies,” she stressed this word with suspicion “in the Greater Nedging WI that if they wish to compete they should ‘up their game’ to use one of your modern phrases...”
Georgina dropped her right hip and placed her right hand on it, turning to Morag with an arched eyebrow. She sucked on her dazzling white teeth, baring them as she abruptly shook her head. “Oh, we’re not going down this road again Morag – you’ve got your ways and we’ve got ours and that’s that. I respect what you do and the way that you do it, and I would suggest you do the same. But at the end of the day Morag, if the WI is going to survive the next century and get new members it will have to stop living so stubbornly in the last one.”
Morag drew herself up and puffed out her chest, her hands clasped in front of her in the stance known by servants and put-upon clerks the world over. She positively radiated indignant zeal.
“It may be old fashioned and twee to you johnny come latelies Georgina, but the Piggot’s Bottom WI has a fine tradition of flower arranging, cake making and vegetable growing competitions. Marjorie Twistleton-Ffiennes even won the national award in 1975 for her Beefeater-shaped ginger biscuits and I hardly need remind you of Daphne Fairfax's outstanding plums which made the front cover of the WI’s Life magazine last year...”
She completely ignored Georgina’s smirk and ploughed on like a Crusader in the Holy Land.
“...Like it or not, some of us still hold firm to the concept of Jam and Jerusalem. We're not all into Hamas and Hezbollah.”
“Humous,” answered Georgina, smiling indulgently.
“Pardon?” quizzed Morag.
“Humous. Not Hamas. Hamas are a political movement in Palestine considered by Israel and some in the West to be a terrorist organisation. Humus is a dip derived from chick-peas. Although I can see how you could confuse the two. You really should come along to some of our meetings Morag, there’s lots more things to learn about the world.”
Morag kept her indignant stance, but softened as she assured herself she had made her point and won the argument. She never wanted it to be said she wasn’t gracious in victory.
“That's most kind Georgina, but all I need to know about the world is here, in this marquee.”
Georgina sighed and unexpectedly reached forward with both her hands to clasp Morag’s.
“I thought as much. Look, if you need some Reiki or a shiatsu massage, pop on over to our tent – you can have one on the house – I think you need it.”
With kind and smiling eyes, Georgina gave Morag’s hands a little squeeze before turning away and walking out of the marquee, twisting up her long dark hair and placing her baseball cap back onto her head.
Morag blinked twice and the corner of her mouth twitched. The shock of the unexpectedly tactile and sympathetic offer had taken her quite by surprise and she took a second or two to regain her composure. She watched the receding sway of Georgina’s hips and the swish of her gypsy skirt.
“Shiatsu...” tutted Morag. “The day I let another Japanese get his fiendish hands on my body...” she muttered to herself.
The idea dropped from her mind like cracked eggs into a bowl of flour as she espied a guilty-looking Gerald slinking over towards the macaroons again.
©Carl Eve 2012