Wednesday, 9 December 2020

So I found out what happened to the painting of the slave trader - It's proudly on display in The Box

A painting of the former slave trader and Plymouth seafaring legend which was bought in 1928 by newspaper owners for Plymouth museum remains in the care of The Box.

Research by me following the controversial decision to remove the street sign honouring Sir John Hawkins from the square next to Plymouth Magistrates' Court uncovered a Western Morning News and Mercury clipping from January 7, 1928 which announced how the proprietors of the newspaper, Sir R Leicester Harmsworth and Mr Harold C Harmsworth had purchased a painting of the seafarer "for presentation to the town".

You'll find all the details (and can laugh at the name of the one-time
art gallery's committee chairman Mr Bastard here)

Headlined "Famous Painting of Sir John Hawkins - Presented to Plymouth By The Western Morning News" the article claimed the historic painting was by Italian artist Federigo Zuccaro and described Admiral Sir John Hawkins as "the famous Elizabethan sea captain, who was born at Plymouth in 1532 and represented the borough in Parliament in 1572".

The article explained that the painting was to be presented to the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery Committee "in perpetuity".

At the time it revealed that the Viscountess Astor was also "keenly interested in the picture", but on learning of the Harmsworth's plan to gift the painting to the city, she "graciously waived an option to purchase".

If you read my last blog you'll already know the report noted how it was "fitting that a portrait of one ranking among the first of those to whose undaunted spirit Britain's sea supremacy is due should be in possession of the town of Plymouth, for John Hawkins was not only born here, but he represented the borough in Parliament, and though the official records contain no direct proof of the fact, he was also at one time the Mayor of Plymouth."

It added: "Zuccaro's painting bears the date 1591 and is described by Mr A J Caddie, curator of the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, as a superb half-length Elizabethan period painting on panel."

Mr Caddie was reported as saying that the painting "is in a fine state of preservation and has never been in any way restored, whilst, furthermore, it has never been out of the possession of the Hawkins family from the time it was painted until the present day. It was obtained from Miss Hawkins, of Torquay, by Mr J Rochelle Thomas" who sold it to the Harmsworths.

The detailed report noted how Mr Caddie had seen the portrait advertised and recognising its potential value to Plymouth, informed the museum and art gallery's committee chairman, Mr W L Bastard.

The article, which took up most of Page 7 of the paper, revealed that at Mr Bastard's insistence Mr Caddie travelled to London where he met with Viscountess Astor at her St James' square residence and inspected the portrait. While the article noted that she wanted it for herself, she was willing to allow "the Plymouth Corporation" to buy it if they could produce the £500 asking price.

According to a number of art websites, Zuccaro's works currently hang in the Louvre, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Art Institute of Chicago. At one stage Zuccaro was employed by Pope Pius IV and painted "The History of Moses and Pharaoh".

The 1928 Western Morning News article went on to give a potted history of Sir John Hawkins, noting that he was the son of William Hawkins, who was not only "a great Plymouth sea captain" himself but also "a friend of bluff King Hal" [the unkind nickname for King Henry the Eighth] and "sometime mayor of the borough".

It added that Sir John was born in a house in Kinterbury Street, Plymouth in 1532, twelve years before the birth of Sir Francis Drake at Tavistock.

It added: "After several trips to Spain and Portugal and the Canary Islands, his first great voyage was begun in 1562, then he was thirty years of age. He sought to establish himself as a trader to the West Indies. The expedition, fitted out at Plymouth, consisted of three ships of 120, 100 and 40 tons burthen respectively, and was engaged principally in the slave trade, not then regarded in the same light as at the present age."

Following his three trading trips he was promoted to Treasurer to the British Navy which the article notes was: "a post for which all his qualities recommended him".

It claimed: "A great citizen of Plymouth and England, he was amongst the pioneers in that band of English seamen whose heritage to their country is beyond estimation. He was a freeman of the borough of Plymouth".

Turns out, after I did a little more digging, I was able to confirmed that the painting still remains in the possession of The Box, the new name for the £42million complex in North Hill which combines the former museum and art gallery with other remarkable cultural and historical items relating to Plymouth.

However, it turns out that research carried out in the 1960s revealed that it was not painted by Zuccaro, but by an artist called Hieronymus Custodis, a Flemish portrait painter active in England during the reign of Elizabeth 1. The painting is currently on display in The Box's "100 Journeys' gallery.

A spokesperson for The Box said: "The most likely explanation is that it was attributed to Zuccaro at the time but over the decades since, and as a result of improved research/digitisation/collections care, it’s now attributed to Hieronymous Custodius. It’s not unusual for this sort of thing to come to light in historic museum collections from time to time – especially with objects or works of art that are as old as this painting."

They added: "A historic reattribution doesn’t diminish the cultural and educational value of a public collection that includes a portrait of a figure with local ties and global impact.

"Paintings by Custodis are rare, so even though he has less name-recognition than Zuccaro, the portrait of Sir John Hawkins still holds important art historical value.

"Our records show the painting has been attributed to Custodis since the 1960s.

"The original attribution to Zuccaro was probably due to the excitement around the Italian artist’s visit to England in the 1570s. He was only here for a short while though, so many portraits once attributed to him have now been reassessed."

According to historians, Custodis, a native of Antwerp, was one of a number of Flemish artists of the Tudor court who had fled to England to avoid the persecution of Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands. One of his portraits, of Field Marshal Sir William Pelham, Lird Justice of Ireland, sold at Sotheby's in 2009 for a reported $92,001 US.

Clearly, Mr Bastard would have been rather put out by this turn of events...

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Sir John Hawkins Square - how the past catches up with us

Plymouth has more than one link with the controversial seafaring legend and despicable slave-trader

Since the explosion of protest and counter-protest following the killing of George Floyd and the super-charged return of the Black Lives Matter movement, many eyes have focused on some of England's darker past - and parts.
Last month, the country watched as Bristolians tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and hurled the bronze Grade II listed structure into the harbour to resounding cheers.
This in turn saw counter-protesters - some of whom appeared to have more affiliations with the Nazi-salute-throwing far-right than studious historical conservationists - form lines around other statues claiming they were protecting them from the Black Lives Matter supporters.
This, in turn, was followed by confrontations by said statue protectors and police ending in shocking violence in the nation's capital. Because nothing says patriotism and historical protectionism than drinking warm Stella, ripping off your Union Jack T-shirt and kicking a copper from behind.
Plymouth became quickly drawn into the furore when it was pointed out the city had produced what was, effectively, the nation's first slave trader and had honoured him by naming a square after him. In fairness Plymouth also produced comedian and actress Dawn French, Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies and footballer Trevor Francis. So, you know, not all bad.
Sir John Hawkins

Sir John Hawkins Square is nestled between Plymouth Magistrates' Court, The Mission restaurant, The Swan public house, Kitty O'Hanlon's pub and the dBs Music Plymouth. It is but a few yards from the Elizabethan House and it's probably best known to many people in the city as a place you cut through to get from Notte Street to Royal Parade, while trying to avoid an assortment of men, many of whom appear to sit in the square for long periods of the daytime with tins of extra-strength alcohol kept in a carrier bag.

Plymouth City Council reacted surprisingly swiftly to the tsunami of steely questions about the square - ripping off the street name and confirming they would seek suggestions for a new, more suitable, far-less divisive name. Currently, it appears the plan is to name it after pioneering Plymouth Argyle player Jack Leslie - the only professional black player in England when he played for the club between 1921 and 1934.

He scored more than 137 goals for Argyle in 401 appearances and remains the Pilgrims' fourth highest goal-scorer of all time.
The only clue given to how, or when Sir John Hawkins came to have a square named after him was given by council leader Tudor Evans who announced on June 9 that it was "created in the early 1980s".

The Elizabethan seafarer from Plymouth is considered to be the first English slave trader, transporting captured Africans to work on plantations in the Americas in the 16th Century. Born in Plymouth in 1532 he became a sea captain
In 1562 he became the first Englishman to start capturing people from Guinea, in West Africa and selling them as slaves to Spanish West Indies - which provoked conflict with the Spanish authorities who did not allow unauthorised foreigners to trade with their colonies. Problematic trading with Europe? Like that's going to happen again in 2020, hmm?
After his first slave-trading voyage was so financially successful he was able to raise even more money thanks to a syndicate of London merchants - and Queen Elizabeth I - to make a second expedition.
Consider this - his coat of arms bore a bound slave. The Queen at the time, invested part of her sizeable fortune in the purchase and sale of African slaves with the intent of getting a healthy return for her money. You do wonder how many streets in England are named after Queen Elizabeth I.
There is a statue of Queen Elizabeth I - it is London's oldest statue and the only one remaining that was carved during her reign. It's tucked up in a niche on the wall of the church of St Dunstan in the West, on Fleet Street. You know, Fleet Street? Where the #mediascum hashtag is based?
Hawkins' third voyage was less successful. According to the Encyclopeadia Britannica, he and Sir Francis Drake - yes, statue, bowls on the Hoe, questionable slave-trade history of his own, that Sir Francis - having sold the slaves in the Caribbean: "Hawkins was forced by needed repairs and lack of water to take refuge at San Juan de Ulua, near Veracruz, Mexico.

Sir Francis Drake

A Spanish fleet attacked him in the harbour, and, of the six ships, only the two commanded by Hawkins and Drake were able to escape. This episode marked the beginning of the long quarrel between England and Spain that eventually led to open war in 1585."
From here Hawkins was involved in uncovering the plot which would have seen English Roman Catholics, with Spanish assistance, depose Queen Elizabeth and install Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. Hawkins informed his government and the plotters were arrested.
He went on to become the treasurer of the navy, assume the additional duties of controller and set about rebuilding the British navy - apparently often using his own money - which went on to withstand the Spanish Armada in 1588. As third in command during the Armada crisis - which earned him a knighthood - he then set about blockades to intercept Spanish treasure ships returning from the New World.
In 1595, Hawkins and Drake sailed with 27 ships to raid the Spanish West Indies. Hawkins died the night before an unsuccessful attack on Puerto Rico.
On July 22, 1983 - 388 years after his death - a city engineer's report for the Plymouth Highways Sub-committee on the topic of "street naming and numbering" is the only reference as to how Sir John Hawkins - slaver, entrepreneur, war-causer and loyal subject - got his name attached to one of the most unattractive buildings in the city - built in 1979 - overlooking an equally ugly squidge of cobbled-and concrete-slabbed ground.
In the driest of council-speak terms, and best read in a nasal voice that would probably grate steel, the document notes that "following the consideration by the Policy and Resources Committee and the Public Services Committee, the last meeting of this Committee asked for proposals to be presented to commemorate the names of Sir John Hawkins and the City of Gdynia."

For Sir John Hawkins, the document explains: "Because of Sir John Hawkins' association with the Elizabethan period and the importance of his contributions towards the standing of the old City, it is felt that the commemoration should be linked with the Elizabethan part of the City in the vicinity of the Magistrates Court.
"The most suitable streets for renaming are Abbey Place, St Andrew's Place, St Andrew's Street and Finewell Street. The first three streets already have strong connections with the area and, although Finewell Street does not have buildings with an address upon it and as such would be the easiest to rename, it has been in existence for a number of years.
"There is, however, a hard landscaped area to the east of the Magistrates Court (cross hatched on the accompanying plan) which is unnamed and which could be further improved.
"The options, therefore, appear to be the renaming of Finewell Street as Sir John Hawkins Street, or the naming of the landscaped area as Sir John Hawkins Square."
How apt - but for the whims of the Plymouth Highways Sub-committee of July 1983, a dead-end street at the rear end of the Elizabethan House and bordering the back of Catherine Street Baptist church where the homeless try and find safe shelter could have been named after our great naval sailor and pre-eminent inaugural slave trader.
By comparison, and just for the fun of it, there's a Sir John Hawkins car park in Chatham, Kent.
Sir John Hawkins car park - you wouldn't want to be clamped here would you?

Yes, there have been calls to rename that too.
Medway Council are apparently considering it and will discuss the matter at their next meeting on July 16. Medway's leading Conservative group said it could not comment ahead of the meeting.
They may want to name it after someone else famous from the region.
Perhaps we shouldn't remind them that according to the history books Sir Francis Drake lived in nearby Upnor and learnt to sail on the Medway. But according to local newspapers Jools Holland lives nearby now. That'd be a safe bet for a car park, surely? Jools Holland car park, pay and display? Five boogie woogie length songs just £1.20. Full album including covers with Ruby Turner and Tom Jones, £4.40
But let's not get all holier than though about casting stones at the council's Plymouth Highways Sub-committee of July 1983, God rest their souls.
I say this because for anyone doing a little bit of research, the British Newspaper Archive has a sting in its tale for this tale.
Next to a story about Militarism In The Schools (Teachers Condemn Propaganda. The Prime Minister Congratulated) a newspaper report from January 7, 1928, notes in stirring and blood-thickening terms how a Famous Painting of Sir John Hawkins has been Presented To Plymouth.
The historic painting, by Italian artist Federigo Zuccaro, of Admiral Sir John Hawkins "the famous Elizabethan sea captain, who was born at Plymouth in 1532 and represented the borough in Parliament in 1572" was to be presented to the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery Committee "in perpetuity".

Federigo Zuccaro's painting of Sir John Hawkins
The Committee "whilst fully appreciating the value and desirability of having the painting in the local gallery, they were, owing to lack of funds, unable to recommend the Council to make the purchase".
Viscountess Astor - oh, she gets everywhere where there's a bit of controversy doesn't she? - "who was keenly interested in the picture, graciously waived an option to purchase which she held in order that" another wealthy group "might secure the portrait for the town of Plymouth"
The report noted how "it is fitting that a portrait of one ranking among the first of those to whose undaunted spirit Britain's sea supremacy is due should be in possession of the town of Plymouth, for John Hawkins was not only born here, but he represented the borough in Parliament, and though the official records contain no direct proof of the fact, he was also at one time the Mayor of Plymouth."
It goes on, somewhat breathlessly: "Zuccaro's painting bears the date 1591 and is described by Mr A J Caddie, curator of the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, as a superb half-length Elizabethan period painting on panel."
Mr Caddie said the painting "is in a fine state of preservation and has never been in any way restored, whilst, furthermore, it has never been out of the possession of the Hawkins family from the time it was painted until the present day. It was obtained from Miss Hawkins, of Torquay, by Mr J Rochelle Thomas" who in turn sold it onto the wealthy philanthropic souls who gifted it to the city. Bless them.
Mr Caddie had seen the portrait advertised and recognising its potential value to Plymouth, informed the museum and art gallery's committee chairman - Mr W L Bastard.
Yes, that's right. Mr Bastard.
At Mr Bastard's insistence Mr Caddie travelled to London where he met with Viscountess Astor at her St James' square residence and inspected the portrait. She wanted it for herself, but was willing to allow "the Plymouth Corporation" to buy it - if they had the money, that is.
Viscountess Astor

£500 was the asking price.
Now, if we take it purely as cash vs inflation £500 in 1928 is equivalent in purchasing power to about £31,617.87 in 2020.
But that means nothing, because if you'd bought the first edition of Action Comics in June 1938 - starring the first appearance of Superman - it would have cost you just 10 US cents. In 2011 actor Nicolas Cage sold his copy for $2.16 million. 

But then Zuccaro's works hang in the Louvre, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Art Institute of Chicago. And we can be quite sure not one of his paintings has a guy throwing a car-full of thieves about with a cape and a big S on his chest.
The article goes on to give little history lesson about Mr Hawkins. He was son of William Hawkins, a great Plymouth sea captain, "a friend of bluff King Hal" [the unkind nickname for King Henry the Eighth] and "sometime mayor of the borough".
Born in a house in Kinterbury Street, Plymouth in 1532, twelve years before the birth of Sir Francis Drake at Tavistock. "After several trips to Spain and Portugal and the Canary Islands, his first great voyage was begun in 1562, then he was thirty years of age. He sought to establish himself as a trader to the West Indies. The expedition, fitted out at Plymouth, consisted of three ships of 120, 100 and 40 tons burthen respectively, and was engaged principally in the slave trade, not then regarded in the same light as at the present age."
Yes, because in 1928 the western world was so enlightened, and so done with apartheid, the colour bar and lynchings. The white bedsheets had been tucked away in 1927 and there was very little burning in Mississippi and you could sit anywhere on a bus if you wanted, especially if you were black. Thank God the British government brought the Race Relations Act of 1968 forward by 40 years, but just lost the paperwork until The Beatles ironically released The White Album that year.
After his three "trading" trips - which is code for kidnapping or buying human beings, packing them tightly into ships and selling them into a lifetime of abuse, torture and degradation - he was promoted to Treasurer to the British Navy which the article notes was: "a post for which all his qualities recommended him".
The John Hawkins coat of arms featured a bound slave
One must wonder how the quality of remorselessly treating another human as a commodity purely because their skin colour was darker and they came from a foreign land transferred over to preparing the British retort to the Spanish Armada, but perhaps chains, whippings and self-enrichment has its due benefits. He was rewarded for "his gallantry in that historic battle" and "was knighted upon his own quarter-deck, on board the Victory". Probably to rousing cheers of "hurrah and hussar" with hats being tossed high into the air.
There's a little more in the report about how two more expeditions met with "only meagre success" - meaning he didn't make or steal much money from the Spanish - and ended with him falling ill with fever, lingering for three weeks and dying on January 28, 1596.
The article notes: "A great citizen of Plymouth and England, he was amongst the pioneers in that band of English seamen whose heritage to their country is beyond estimation. He was a freeman of the borough of Plymouth".
A Freeman - what a horrible, horrible irony. A man who made his fortune trading in slaves is made a Freeman with all the honours which that befits.
And, much much later, gave his name to a forlorn piss-smelling square hidden behind a court house where desperate ne'er do wells spend their days hoping to avoid a prison cell.
But what of the painting, by Zuccaro who at one stage in his life was employed by Pope Pius IV and painted "The History of Moses and Pharaoh" - who certainly knew a bit about slaves himself.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I - best you don't mention investing in the slave trade though
Zuccaro went on to paint a "famous picture" of Queen Elizabeth I in a fancy dress at Hampton Court. Yes, that Queen - the one who invested in one of John Hawkins' entrepreneurial slave excursions. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to buy and sell human beings for personal profit.
But the painting, what about the painting and the generous and charming philanthropists who happily spaffed £500 up the wall for the greater glory of Plymouth's museum and art gallery?
Well, according to the article - on page seven of Saturday January 7, 1928's Western Morning News and Mercury - that'd be Sir R Leicester Harmsworth, Bart and Mr Harold C Harmsworth... proprietors of The Western Morning News.
Mr Bastard must've been overjoyed with their generosity.
Where is the painting now? Well, that's another mystery to unravel.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you to ponder this...

Monday, 2 December 2019

Suicide doesn’t end the pain, it just shares it around

(I wrote this in February this year after a series of distressing inquests. Thought I'd post it here as I've been rather quiet on my blog for too long... )

I lost a friend to suicide - and seeing first-hand how the heartbreaking death of dad Trystan Bryant's death affected his family and those who tried to save him will stay with me forever

The most profound statement I have ever encountered regarding suicide came from a comment to an online article on our own website.
I wish I could remember who wrote it, but with the nature of online commenters, it was a made-up name. Regardless, the single line written has stuck with me for nearly a decade and I thank them for it, because it is as true as grief itself.

“Suicide doesn’t end the pain, it just shares it around”


Suicide is all about pain.

The pain suffered by the individual becomes so profound, so all encompassing, so complete and overwhelming that they become convinced the only way to stop that pain is to stop their life. Once they have stopped that life, the pain will evaporate like morning mist as the sun comes out.

It doesn’t though. Instead, the pain is handed on like a legacy. It gets willed to partners, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, parents, friends, workmates. The pain is merely shared out so more and more and yet more people feel a part of that pain. It turns to regret and recrimination, to guilt and sadness, grief and even anger at the final decision taken. The pain gets shared around.

When you go to an inquest as a reporter, especially when you go to an inquest of someone who has taken their own life, you can’t help your mind from playing a pitiful game of ‘what if?’ What would have happened if..?

I have been to hundreds and hundreds of inquests and increasingly, over the last few years, I have gone to inquests where the coroner has recorded a verdict of suicide. In line with recent changes, it’s recorded as the person has taken their own life, but the old words do stick.

As an industry we – I mean the media - have changed the way we report on suicides, following advice from the Samaritans and the more direct intervention of friends and family of the deceased. I’ve learned bitter lessons about how tiny, inconsequential details stick like a hot needle in the soft skin of those left grieving.

Inquests, particularly suicides, are desperately sad, heartbreaking affairs. Sometimes they are short but others, where the circumstances of the death are contested, are longer, more detailed, more desperate.
The inquest of Trystan Bryant was possibly the most heartbreaking I’ve attended in 22 years as a reporter, not necessarily because of the untimely and too-early death of the much-loved father-of-one, but the pain he left behind.
Trystan with his daughter

That is not to blame him. The deceased cannot be blamed, as senior coroner Ian Arrow always sympathetically states at every inquest he presides over.

During a series of witness statements a picture was drawn of Trystan’s last moments, the Herculean efforts made by fire crews to rescue him, the empathy offered by medical staff and the police officers at the scene.

But it was the evidence of David Kay, a paramedic with South Western Ambulance Services’ Hazardous Area Response Team (HART) which was the most distressing to witness.
A very experienced paramedic, working at the very sharpest end of the service for a number of years, he explained how he introduced himself by name to Trystan, trying to create a human bond.

Yet just moments into his evidence, having recalled shaking Tristan's hand as he took him into his care, David – a robust, clearly very skilled and well-trained paramedic – broke down sobbing. The sobbing you get where it catches you unexpectedly, without warning, taking your breath away and leaving you gulping in air, shocked at your own emotional response.

The coroner politely asked the inquest jury to retire and called for a short break. While the paramedic attempted to insist he was okay to continue, Mr Arrow gently overruled him, urging to sit amongst his colleagues. After a couple of minutes Mr Arrow gently ordered that the rest of the written statement the paramedic was reading out should be read by a coroner’s officer, again gently accepting and then overruling the paramedic’s insistence that he could continue.

The jury listened intently as David explained how Trystan had fled from the ambulance, scaled three fences in quick succession and eventually threw himself from the Tamar bridge, despite the continuing efforts of the many emergency service personnel, including trained negotiators, who had stayed with him throughout the incident.

At the conclusion of his evidence, Mr Arrow allowed the jury to leave, but as they filed out, the paramedic stood up and hesitated. He began to offer his apologies to Trystan’s family, who were sitting behind their lawyer.

David’s words became choked and again he found himself unexpectedly sobbing as he tried to say “I’m so sorry for you”. He even began to apologise for being so upset, so distressed, apologising because he feared it should not be him that was upset, because they were the ones suffering the loss.

Trystan’s brave family stood as one and, ignoring the bank of stern-faced lawyers in front of them, they walked around them, against all forms of inquest protocol, and together they embraced the sobbing paramedic, firmly reassuring him and thanking him for his efforts.

I look down at my pad, writing what I was seeing. My eyes filled up, my throat went tight, and all I could think was “poor man, poor man”. I was thinking of the sobbing paramedic and of Trystan, so in pain that he found no other way forward.

As Trystan’s loved ones hugged a stranger who was sobbing at the death of a man he had never met before that night, it would be impossible to deny that suicide is about pain and it is a pain which is only ever shared, it is not ended.

And now Plymouth Live reporter Charlotte Turner, who has shone as our health reporter and as a passionate voice on mental health, has launched our Reach Out campaign in the hope of raising awareness of men’s issues, urging them to get help if they need it.

It has brought back memories of a friend I lost to suicide, many years ago, and reminds me yet again that suicide does not end the pain, it just shares it around.

I knew Sean from our class in junior school. He was tall, angular, gawky, friendly, kind and funny, with dark, wild hair and a quick smile. If he was a Disney character he would’ve been Goofy, but with the heart and mind of Mickey. By the time we reached the local comprehensive, he was put in another tutor group, but was still a friend you’d say hello to and pass some time with.

By the time I left school at 16 we’d lost touch but a couple of years later we reunited and a group of us would meet up every Friday at the local pub and sit, eat crisps, drink cheap beer and laugh. There was always a lot of laughing.

By this time Sean was fully into the environment and he’d regale us with his tales of late night badger-watching at the local nature reserve. He hunted out rare Victorian bottles and had located a local Victorian rubbish dump where he found an array of incredible glass remains – old beer bottles, glass-ball stopper bottles, green hexagonal poison bottles. His black hair meant his chin sported a real beard while the rest of us were still dealing with bumfluff faces.

And then Sean stopped coming to the pub. Phone calls asking him out were met with excuses. Then they were met with his mum having to make excuses on his behalf. She wanted him to meet with his friends, but you could tell she did not like acting as an intermediary saying he wasn’t coming out.

Time passed and two of our group went off to university. Their summers were spent inter-railing. We occasionally met up at the pub when they were back. Sean would still rebuff attempts to get him to come along, like old times. We didn’t think any more of it. We weren’t aware of depression.

Depression was something that happened to other people, in other places, not to us or our friends.

I quit my job in London, applied for a degree at a remote Polytechnic and while waiting to start the course went off to work on a kids camp in America for a few months. I called home occasionally and late into the summer learned from my mum that Sean had been in touch. He had phoned my home – an incredibly rare event – and told her he wanted to get back into the fold. She said he’d revealed he’d been down but was better now and wanted to reconnect. I was overjoyed at the news. I looked forward to the homecoming and reunion.

A couple of months later, back home, I met up with my two inter-railing friends at a cafe. We shared our tales of adventure and nearing the end I suddenly remembered my mum’s good news about Sean. Excitedly I said how Sean had phoned and was rejoining the pub gang.

Stonefaced, they told me the desperately sad tale. He’d phoned their homes looking for them and had left the same uplifting message. Like me, they were away for a few months.

Like me, they came home, expectant and hopeful.

After making his fruitless phone calls to us Sean had written a letter to his mum, urging her not to be sad, saying that she didn’t need to worry about him any more. He’d written a will, bequeathing his bottle collection to one of my inter-railing friends who also collected the glass antiques. He also bequeathed a record he liked, Golden Brown by The Stranglers to one of our group. Sean had then gone out into his back garden and taken his life. I still can’t listen to that song without feeling a sense of loss and sadness.

Quote by Matt Haig from his book Reasons To Stay Alive
By the time we had all arrived back home to our dull little town in south Essex, Sean’s funeral had already taken place. He had believed that by ending his life, his mother’s suffering, her worries about her lovely, beautiful, funny, kind boy, would be over.

We all played that “what if” game afterwards. What if I hadn’t gone to America? What if I had been at home when he called? What if the others hadn’t gone inter-railing? What if Sean had held on just a little bit longer, when we’d all made it back home and we could’ve all gone to the pub and talked about badgers and women and crisps and just laughed?

What if we had realised sooner just how much pain Sean was in?

I’m sure the emergency staff who attended the Tamar Bridge when Trystan stood on the wrong side of the railings have played the same awful game, asking what if they had done something different that night. I’m sure Trystan’s family, his wife, his friends have all asked what if, what if, what if. They’ve felt that awful pain of imagining what if, what if they had done something, then maybe the person they loved would still be here. That they could somehow help stop or ease that pain that living can cause.

What if they could somehow make that person see that suicide is not the answer to their pain.

Because suicide doesn’t end the pain, it just shares it around.

So please, in any way you think you can, support our Reach Out campaign - talk, communicate, reach out, find a way through the pain. Share your love, your heart, your kindness, your consideration, your feelings, your laughter and your empathy.

Don’t let suicide and the pain it causes be your legacy.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Short story on my birthday...

Been a while so I thought I'd post a story I wrote about four or five years back. I don't write stories as much as I used to but I was particularly proud of this one. Like all the best stories, it's partly based on real life. I'll leave it to you to work out which bits were real and which were just made up. 

This Is Art

Clancy Berkshire was one of the most unfortunately named people I have ever met. He was new to my senior school, arriving in the middle of the fifth year. This was when the fifth year was the final year of “big” school, where kiss chase had become much more serious and could end in unwanted teenage pregnancy or genital warts.

Clancy and I quickly become friends during our respective art classes. I was doing pottery with Mrs Heighington while Clancy was in the adjoining class room, doing art with Miss Cubrillo.

Miss Cubrillo had a special place in the heart of every schoolboy at our school thanks to her fashion for wearing the lowest of low-cut tops. This in itself was not such a big deal. Mrs Bowers, the Home Ec teacher, wore low cut tops during most the summer months, but then she was stick thin, bow legged and in her late 60s. But Miss Cubrillo was none of these things. She was in her mid 20s, shapely like an hourglass and the owner of the most magnificent breasts to ever pass through the school gates in something other than a training bra. They often appeared to have a life of their own and she would casually rest them on her desk as she wrote reports, leaving her students to consider primary colours and what they looked like in the flesh.

Now, you’d think she’d draw the jealous ire of the pretty girls at school for upstaging them, but no, this never came about, primarily because she’d regularly take not just the cool sporty cute girls for bi-weekly sessions of hockey, but also the less-cool, less-cute, bookish ones. She would pass on her knowledge and skills, amazing them all with her deft stick control and somewhat mischievous tales of growing up in the Caribbean and the handsome young men she had known there. The boys would look on from the demountable classrooms which sat beside the sports field, with legs crossed and imaginations vivid.

Now personally, I always held a special fondness for Miss Cubrillo, and not in any way because of her breasts.  Okay, maybe just a little, but mainly it was because of two very much unexpected and somewhat life-changing compliments she paid me during a pottery lesson.

She had sauntered in from her art class next door, as she often did, and airily announced she was bored with her students and wanted to see what we were up to.
Our class, taught by the wise and wonderful Mrs Heighington, was a collection of slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging students who had failed to get into any proper studious classes and were quietly dumped in the cul-de-sac of pottery. And there was me, the Oliver Twist in a room full of Artful Dodgers. I was the odd man out being classified as the boff who had strangely chosen pottery over the more suitable academic subjects of chemistry, geography and latin. We didn’t actually do latin at my comprehensive, but if we did, I would’ve been expected to take it. I would’ve been expected to even get the accent right.  

While outside the lesson, I was considered fair game for the more predatory students, inside that room I was not teacher’s pet, I was King Rat. I was the boy who “could”. I could work the kiln, I could create the slip glue which put clay figures back together, I could throw a pot on the wheel and make it rise and fall like a teenage boy’s member at the school disco during the slow dance. A boy who could is in great demand in a class like that, ready to help the other students at the drop of a hat with their ashtrays and coil pots, guiding them through the tortuously artistic interpretations of ‘war’, ‘entropy’ and ‘desolation’. Yes, Mrs Heighington had been a true Sixties star-child and as such was wonderfully bohemian in her approach to setting project titles.

Anyways, Miss Cubrillo had cast her gaze across the room before she settled on my work. I was diligently engrossed in constructing a full-size Samurai warrior helmet and facemask which I had researched and designed myself during numerous lunch-breaks in the school library. Ah, the school library - the holiest of sanctuaries for any discerning boff who liked the finer things in life. Like not having their balls kicked in on the school playing field each and every lunch-break.

She sidled up to my workstation and I was alerted to her presence when her breast casually bumped into my arm, startling me a tad. In fairness, it probably startled more than just my tad. I was 15 and a half, remember.

As I coughed and tried to regain my composure, she asked me what I was going to do after school. While I very quickly reasoned this was not an invitation to join her in her hand-painted 2CV for a romantic liaison, this did not prevent a round of filthy giggles from my nearest classmates.

As I put the finishing touches to the insignia at the front of the helmet, which honours the Samurai’s master to whom he is beholden, I told her I was probably going to work in a bank or some such unutterably boring and safe environment which would please my parents hugely because it meant I would be paying them most of my wages each month. She tutted and said, in sad, almost pitying tones, that having seen my work over the past two years this would be a great waste and I should instead be going to art college.

I was quite taken aback. I had never been so complimented at school before. At any school before when I come to think of it. Scratch that – I think I can safely say I’d not had any kind of compliment, anywhere, ever, which had made me glow inside. But then, just as I was momentarily enjoying this little button of warmth which was pulsating in my chest, she metaphorically hit the hockey ball into the back of the net.

Miss Curbrillo turned to our pottery teacher who was on the other side of the room, and loudly pronounced: “Mrs Heighington? I do so love Carl’s helmet...”

Needless to say, there was a two second lag of silence before the room effectively exploded. Matt Paulson had been drinking some water at the time and two jets of it erupted from his nose as he snorted with laughter. Anthony Lord guffawed so hard he fell off his stool and landed on his back, cracking his head on the ground. Christopher Selfridge was so agog he went to pick up a figurine which had been drying and, because he was looking at Miss Cubrillo with his mouth open, instead grabbed a pot which had only just come out of a kiln. He screamed, dropped the pot and ran for the sink to immerse his fast blistering hand.

I’ll never know whether Miss Cubrillo’s gorgeous Caribbean skin hid any kind of blush. But I do remember her turning back to me and smiling warmly, as if she knew full well what she’d done. Dumbfounded, I watched her sashay back to her own class, leaving me feeling more confident and around 72 places higher on the official “cool at school” list. Gareth Stone, who two years earlier had pinned me to a Home Ec cooker and grilled my back to a crispy turn, looked at me with an element of awe and gasped: “Miss Cubrillo love’s your helmet...Nice one Carl!”

Mrs Heighington cocked an eyebrow at me from across the room, so I just smiled the unexpected smile of the boy made legend and returned to smoothing out my insignia, which is not a euphemism. But it’s true I was very much thinking rude thoughts about Miss Cubrillo as I wistfully stroked the clay of my helmet. That’s not a euphemism either.   
Anyway, back to Clancy. His art project consisted of paying specially chosen fifth-year schoolboys a small fortune to gurn with what they thought was their most amusingly pained face to camera. Over a period of four weeks he shot around seventeen rolls of 36 exposure 400ASA Kodachrome. What I found most intriguing was that each mugshot-like still was of a boy who had mercilessly teased or tormented him at some point since his arrival at the school. For the end of year art exhibition, which was open to all pupils and parents, Clancy had placed each image, grid-like, on an A2 posterboard, while a rotary slide projector threw huge colour photographs of each boy onto a large white sheet at one end of the main hall.

However, he received a week-long detention after shocked parents spotted how Clancy had placed additional slides into the projector which revealed the true title of his work – which was not “Nobility Anointed” as he had claimed, but “The Come-Faced Spunk-Muppets of the Fifth Year”. Not that most of his victims really understood what a Come Face was back then. Admittedly, a large number of them had had some kind of sexual exploit – usually with Daphne Fairfax who eventually found fame as Weightwatchers’ biggest failure - but invariably it was not a case of having a ‘come face’ as having a ‘shocked’ or more likely ‘startled’ face due to a not-entirely-unexpected premature ejaculation.

Shortly before we lost touch I learned Clancy was arrested at art college after leading a one-man crusade to create “quantum art”. This radical form of art mainly involved Clancy setting up an array of sophisticated laboratory equipment, which for several months misled lecturers into thinking they were cultivating the very essence of the Young British Artist. It was only when a Misuse of Drugs Act warrant was executed by the local constabulary that they realised Clancy was, in actual fact, cultivating the very essence of a methamphetamine laboratory on the campus.

The last time I encountered the name of Clancy Berkshire was from a local newspaper report about a Home Office investigation into a prison incident in the Midlands. Clancy was doing a short stretch for fraud, having sold three almost-perfect copies of Turner’s Ovid Banished From Rome to a Russian oligarch. He had escaped execution and torture by the Oligarch’s henchmen having already given them all completely-perfect copies of Banksy’s Urinating Royal Guard.

He had selflessly spent his time in prison educating the other inmates to read and write, as well as giving art lessons. He had encouraged free expression along with avant garde use of watercolours and oils. The governor was so pleased with the results he allowed Clancy to create a prison art department and order all manner of equipment, paints, brushes and thinners. It was only after the authorities learned that Clancy had been using the paints and cleaning solvents to create explosives that the art lessons were postponed indefinitely. That and the fact that Clancy had left via a hole created by the explosives, meaning there was no-one left to continue the supposedly therapeutic art work.

The report ended with a line about Clancy’s current whereabouts was currently unknown. An unnecessary repetition, if you ask me, but that’s the standard of reporting these days.

Me? Well, I did end up working in a bank. But in my defence, it was in the Caribbean where Miss Cubrillo taught me so much more than just hockey…

©Carl Eve 2012

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Coca Cola truck is in town. Shoot me now.

An 18-wheeler articulated lorry has brought festive cheer, because a reindeer-drawn sleigh just doesn't carry enough cans of fizzy

(This opinion column is copied here only because I know it'll be taken down eventually from the Plymouth Herald website)

The Coca Cola van is in town and I couldn’t be more appalled.

“Oh, but it’s Christmas” I hear Plymothian’s cry, in between mouthfuls of Bacon Double Cheese Burgers from Generic American Takeaway and staring slack-jawed at Sky Sports 4 - The LDV Van Trophy Replays.

Let’s be very clear. Coca Cola is not Christmas. It’s no more Christmas than being given a butt plug and a dirty raincoat from your across-the-road neighbour Alf who stares at you through his filthy net curtains while holding himself. Because yet again he picked you out for your street’s Secret Santa.

It is carbonated water, with enough sugar in it to make a toddler scream “enough already, can I have some carrot sticks and celery please!’

'Yes kids, you waddle over to the Coca Cola truck and meet Father Christmas while I sit here...'

Do we celebrate each time South West Water find a fat-berg clogging up our sewers and claim it’s part of a Christmas tradition?

Because for the last decade Coca Cola’s annual reports to the US Securities and Exchange Commission have listed obesity and its health consequences as the single greatest threat to the company profits.

To counter that threat it has deployed intensive marketing – such as suggesting somehow A Coke is for Christmas – along with lobbying and pouring millions of dollars into fighting any campaign by government to tax or cap the size of sugary drinks.

Childhood obesity - no, go on, have some more sugary drinks sweetie

‘But the Coca Cola truck is Christmas Carl, you grouchy git’. Oh really. Really? On November 14, which happened to be World Diabetes Day, the Coca Cola truck was in Newcastle, the city where it sponsors Park Lives, which encourages more exercise.

Now, whereas I consider that hitting the Irony Meter at full strength, you may think that’s noble. But it’s about as noble as Plymouth Half Marathon being sponsored by Capstan Full Strength cigarettes. Or the League Cup sponsored by Coca Cola... which they did.

But, let's be clear - November 14 is not Christmas. So far it’s still a date when if we see lots of Christmas trees being put up in people’s homes we consider them a bit mad and too keen. At least wait until November 25, for God’s sake. We’re British after all.

Eggnog and Coke? Anyone?

It’s the other small merchants I feel sorry for. There they are, paying out a fortune to the council in business rates or the City Centre Company for a ten by ten pitch in the Piazza in the hope that their Summer-house shed full of dog blankets and home-made wicker Santa Clauses will be eagerly visited by Christmas shoppers, when a ruddy great articulated truck, painted blood red with a dash of swervy white lines, like a drunk cocaine-snorting rock star, pulls up and plonks itself on their lawn.

I think the police had the right idea a few years back. In 2011 an ‘unprecedented 1,000-plus’ people swarmed the lorry like hoards of hungry zombies keen to devour a former This Life actor who we now recognise was a stalker in Love Actually and not a romantic man with a pile of vomit-inducing placards.

Shoppers, clamouring for photos of the truck – because in Plymouth they’ve clearly never seen a big red truck before – spilled into the busy Royal Parade, putting their lives at even more risk than drinking gallons of the sugary drink.

'So, that's Christmas is it?' 'No dear, it's a cheap marketing ploy used by a company which makes billions of dollars each year from selling a tar-coloured sugary drink which used to have cocaine in it...'

I say risk, but it’s all comparative. Especially when you consider one in five children are overweight or obese when they start primary school and almost one in three by the time they leave primary school.

Oh, and as for being dismembered by either zombies or by cars whizzing along Royal Parade while drivers gawp slack-jawed at the big red truck, keep in mind that 2014 was marked by a record high number of amputations – more than 8,500 – mostly due to type 2 diabetes, a condition closely linked with being overweight or obese and diets high in sugar can lead to being overweight or obese.

Should I remind you that each can of Coke has around nine teaspoons of sugar, which the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health equates to the recommended daily allowance of sugar – for a full grown male adult?

Frankly, if police started pepper-spraying the crowds around the Cola truck shouting ‘it’s for your own good, you’ll thank us one day’, I wouldn’t be complaining to Amnesty International.

‘Oh, but it’s Christmas Carl, and the Coca Cola truck is very red, which makes it very Christmassy’. Oh FFS. Look – mince pies are Christmassy, but they don’t get more Christmassy if I pour tomato sauce over them? Additionally, I struggle to buy mince pies in the middle of June.

It’s not like Lidl and Marks and Sparks are packed full of Christmas puddings shortly after the Easter holidays. And while I could possibly buy hot mulled wine, eggnog and spiced gl├╝hwein in September, the one thing I do know is that they’re not easily available from a decrepit soda machine dispensing the sugary black acidic 2p-coin cleaning gloop from the ever-so Christmassy venues such as a manky coach station located in the arse-end of every city in the world.

‘Yes, but Carl, Santa will be on board. That’s how you know it’s Christmassy’. Oh for the love of…

'Honey, the Pepsi truck is here... does that mean it's Easter?'

Look, would you get this excited if the Lilt truck or the Tango truck came to town with loud-hailers blaring out Noddy Holder’s dulcet tones as long as it had some minimum-wage-paid seasonal fat bloke wearing a beard and Lennon-glasses, plus some skimpily dressed elves who were chosen mainly because they once appeared on Babestation.

You would, wouldn’t you? I despair.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Oh, blimey

Okay - I need to get back in the saddle don't I.

Will sort something from my addled brain soon. No really, it'll be my pleasure...

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

It's my own little world, where I get to do anything I want...

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