In April 2016 I was added to the shortlist of four for the Jeremy Mogford £7,500 Prize for Food and Drink Writing. I had a great time at the generous party and dinner in Oxford. You can read my story ‘Marlow Bridge in Summer’ here and there are photographs of the event, in The Oxford Times here.
I read a bit out loud each morning to inspire me. Ivan Illich is my new guru: ‘Vehicles have created more distances than they helped to bridge.’ He wrote that in Tools for Conviviality. If I’m still down I roll myself a one-skinner, always does the trick.
Traffic pounds above my head. And the Big-Brother helicopter is always in the sky, charting the street life of Hackney. ‘Down the stairs and down the years,’ that’s how I feel as I step into my basement shoemaker’s workshop. The world is going mad but I feel safe down here – this house was built at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
The green revolution could be here now if people made their own shoes and if we travelled only as far as our shoe leather would allow – it would bring us back to our roots. The quality of life would return, we should have time for things. Illich put it well: ‘Development must be in terms of low and not high energy use’.
I like sitting at my bench, working at this gentle art of last and awl, threading and stitching. I make handmade shoes for the wealthy – these Oxford brogues are for an old customer. Those rich buggers don’t deserve such perfection, but some of them really appreciate it, I have to say.
Mind you, it’s just as bad that most of Hackney is walking around in mass-produced trainers, all that sweatiness and petrochemicals. Then they chuck them away, never nurtured, never loved. Of course, everyone recycles tins and bottles with evangelical fervour, we all eat our organic carrots and stuff our faces with muesli. That’s fine, but it’s only scratching the surface.
Don’t they realise! If they made their own shoes, and saw the limits of their walking potential as the limits of their world, then a real sense of community would begin. There’s a lot of bollocks in Green politics these days, it’s run by politically-correct boy scouts and girl guides.
I made a poster for my wall, yes you guessed it, a slogan from my guru:
TRANSPORTATION BEYOND BICYCLE SPEEDS DEMANDS
POWER INPUTS FROM THE ENVIRONMENT
You’ve got it, Ivan! Those speeds are destroying our planet and the pleasure of our life. Okay, I’m going on, my sister is always telling me that, but when you live in a world that’s crazy but pretends it’s sane, the way to be truly sane is not to be afraid to be crazy. I was trying to get that across to an attractive woman at a party last week. Well, I can see it wasn’t the best chat-up line. Didn’t get anywhere. Pity, she was very fit, as they say.
A good shoe should last for fifteen years. Making a shoe is like a history lesson, but all the kids seem to live in a vacuum of designer logos and fast food. They connect to nothing.
Jesus, I sound sad. But here’s another example. At the party last week, they held it at the top of the Samuel Pepys, the pub attached to the Hackney Empire. Well, there was really crappy music coming out of the crap Big Screens. Then they showed a baseball match, then some twenty-twenty cricket where none of the players look like cricketers. There was no English draught beer on tap, it was mostly lagers from America and Poland and Holland, all with silly names and prices. There should have been a local band playing in the corner.
Buses, cars, motorbikes, all those planes scarring the sky. The planet is dying from our hysteria of movement. Tapping away at the shoes on my bench, turning, kneading, reading the stresses and strains of the leather makes me still. Shoes are like my prayer books, my litany of living. If I believed in God I should be a shoe-making monk. We should all give up our obsessions with goods and with speed. As always, Ivan has a phrase for it: ‘Joyful Renunciation’. What is the worst thing the modern world has done?: taken away people’s power to dream, to use their own imaginations…
Getting carried away again. I love the history of footwear: ‘Wellington’, now that was a good boot, though there were some awful ones around in those days – the poor old soldiers suffered from their job-lot boots.
I was born in this house, Dad was a factory inspector, Mum was a district nurse. I went to an old-fashioned grammar school, then did the hippy thing, and after that a degree in philosophy at Swansea, then Cordwainer’s for shoemaking. If you were born in Hackney everyone thinks you must be a yob. Actually, I taught in a secondary school before getting into shoes.
Both my parents are dead now, buried near Worthing, where they had a bungalow. My sister and me, Lucy, we split up the house, she’s in the top, I’ve got the bottom two floors.
Life’s all right. Used to be in a local rock group, used to be married too, but I think I was more in love with my shoes. Anyway, my wife went off with her acupuncturist. We got married too young. They’re living in Bristol now.
The smell of good leather matures, becomes alive under the touch of a finger. Connecting the shoe together – the welt and throat and top edge, the waist and the sole – until you have made something almost as complete as a person, and far less quarrelsome. The trainer-footed world has turned its back on this inheritance that could save it.
Must put on a jumper. Hackney begins to feels cleaner in November, and the basement colder. The ghosts in this house prefer the softness of autumn, as if summer bleaches them out of existence…
I love the beauty of boots most. I collect them. Those Nazi Jackboots are always at the top of the stairs, they’re authentic. When I imagine them pounding down on their heavy soles I am reminded of the fascist state just under the surface of things. Today, the shoes may be softer, and the surveillance more subtle, but it means the same thing: the state can get you when it wants to.
Anyway, consider marching boots, well, it’s a whole way of telling history: all the places those boots have trod, the routes they took, the importance of the army cobblers who kept the footwear together.
In the First World War it was the ordinary soldier who suffered from trench foot, the water and mud squelching through the lace holes. Of course the British army boot came out of the Blucher boot. The officers had their top boots, much better.
Cavalry boots are the most beautiful, with their bucket tops, I made a pair in college, still got them, half way up the stairs. Cromwell’s people knew a thing or two about boots, so do the Americans, credit where credit is due – those cowboy boots at the bottom of the stairs, amazing tooling, superb leather, got those from a bootmaker in Texas ten years ago.
If people wore proper leather shoes and boots, the level of consciousness, I mean that in the Marxist sense, would rise dramatically. Ban superstores, ban trainers, stop fast movement, and people will reconnect. You think that’s mad? Not as mad as what goes on up there, is it? Anyway, I’m off to Budapest on a cheap flight for a long weekend with an old mate. Don’t look at me like that, you can’t help a few contradictions.
Fragmented brings together short stories and sketches charting a personal journey from squatter and hippy in Seventies London to creative and stable middle age as husband, father, teacher and writer. Responding to and recording social change, often by seizing moments in the flux of city life, the stories are both self contained fragments and a cohesive narrative of a city as much as of an individual.
Many sketches are set in Hackney or Hornsey Rise – at one time the largest squat in Europe. Fragmented brings to life characters and places; examines the underside of London epitomised by outsiders, drugs, racial tension and crime, and explores deeper themes not only of childhood, family and relationships, but also of the nature of writing, political idealism, fear of oblivion and how we conjure and retain a sense of the past. The tone is variously reflective, nostalgic, critical, humorous and detached.
Read Mark Hannam’s review here. Also published in Dream Catcher
and The Short Review here
and Islington Tribune here
and Hackney Citizen here
and East London Lines (the online newspaper) review here
and Gwales review here
and Amazon readers’ review here
and Waterstones readers’ reviews here
and Nick Sweeney’s review here
and a review from The Frogmore Papers (Number 78, Autumn 2011) by Jeremy Page:
For anyone who has walked the streets of east and north London, where most of these often very personal pieces are set, this is a fascinating collection. Many of them are very short – some barely half a page – but these are texts which have been lovingly crafted from experience that was not always so sweet. The Great Wen is hauntingly evoked, and the character sketches are expertly drawn. Personal favourites here include ‘Hackney Sunday’ and the exquisitely titled ‘Myfanwy, China, Harry and a Goldfish’.
(Published in Multi-Storey 2, January 2001. Broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester, February 2001. Winner of competition)
When it rains in Salford I can taste salt in the raindrops, you know when you put your head up. I love sitting by the window in the front room in the dark. It’s started to drizzle and the days are drawing in. I think it’s the chemical factory, that’s where I worked since school, two A levels. Once I moved out of home for a month but something pulled me back, Mother I suppose.
I was always her little Terry, but sitting here I feel myself. Twenty-five-years a technician at the chemical factory isn’t everyone’s idea of an exciting life, but it suited me, all in all. I’m set in my ways, I know that. And since Mother died, two years this September, I’ve slowed up. I’ve done some tidying on the house, a Victorian terrace, otherwise I’ve been rather quiet.
‘Just do that for me will you, Terry love?’ Ooh, there was no end to it.
I don’t go out much, but I’m free inside now, that’s the difference. I get on very well with the neighbours. That’s Bola, she’s Nigerian. They moved in last year. I had a dinner round there recently, very interesting. And she wears the most lovely clothes, multicoloured material that wraps round and round. They brought some colour to the street.
Time I thought of something for tea. On a Friday I often have a takeaway, there’s a lovely Indian on the corner of Maygrove Street, but I’m feeling rather withered, you know. I might just take a mozzarella and ham pizza from the freezer and watch a video. Why not? I’m my own master now.
I love Marilyn Monroe. I’ll watch Some Like it Hot tonight, one of her very best, 1959. And all those cheeky chaps dressing up as women. Marlon and Clint, the budgies, are making such a racket behind me, but I’m very fond of them and they keep fit. We make each other laugh.
I’m going to Knutsford on Sunday, lunch with Veronica, my big sister. It’s good to get out. She was a dental nurse, married the dentist, Derek Palmer. His family are from Lytham, near the golf course. She must have given him laughing gas before he agreed. No children.
It’s a bloody ugly street, there’s no denying that.
‘Come fair bombs and fall on Salford.’
There were never much beauty in our family. Father worked in the power station, stoked boilers or summat like. He looked like a boiler too. Had this very loud voice and shouted ‘Hey up’ down the street to his mates. I don’t think he’d ever heard of art or films or film stars. He followed rugby league.
Every time he came back from a match, it was ‘Do you good, bit of rugby. You’re too soft, lad.’
I was always a thin boy, willowy, and I liked to wear my dark hair a bit long. I thought I looked nice when I smiled into the mirror after a bath, and held the little towel tight around my waist. I’ve hazel eyes and I’d pucker my lips like a film star.
If you sprinkle a little parsley on a pizza, it’s very nice. I’ll have a few glasses of Soave. Why not? I’m not short of a few bob.
I do water colours in my spare time. I might take it further one day. Dad smoked forty a day, drank stout. Over twenty-years-ago the old boiler just blew up, heat attack, Saturday afternoon, after his team Wigan had lost to St. Helens. It was a blessing, all in all.
Greta Garbo is my favourite, that feeling for the camera, those wonderful dresses, that face. Camille, Anna Karenina. I know every scene by heart. ‘You shouldn’t watch them so much,’ Mother used to say, ‘Get out more.’ But if I did she was the first to moan.
Just before Mother died I had trouble at work. Some of the lads started to taunt me. It seemed to be raining all the time and Mother had just been diagnosed. I’d got too friendly with Jimmy, a young boy in accounts. Made a fool of meself. I’d never encouraged that side of me before.
‘Quiet down, Marlon!’
I had this recurring idea that when God made the earth he gave Salford to the devil to play with, it was that ugly. I used to cry myself to sleep at night in the back room and imagine the clogs of the dead shuffling to work. And Mother used to stare at me.
Oh goodness! I thought I saw Mother coming down the street then. Sometimes I’m convinced it’s her, or me Dad – and then I’m so delighted it can’t be. Wicked, I know but she wouldn’t understand.
The doctor gave me uppers, I didn’t want to talk. On the way out, he said: ‘There’s nothing wrong, you know, your erotic feelings, nothing wrong at all.’
‘How dare you!’ I said.
But the doctor’s words kept repeating in my mind. What a nerve! When I got home I put on Anna Karenina to calm me down, and Garbo was wearing a long silky dress. I could almost feel its softness on my skin. Dad’s voice kept coming into my mind and I saw his image in the mirror: ‘You’re too quiet, lad.’ He was such a bully and everything about him was ugly, ugly, ugly.
It’s almost dark now, but I feel so bright inside me these days.
Anyway, after coming back from the doctor’s, I couldn’t settle. I went into the wardrobe where Veronica, my sister, had left a lot of her things. My heart was racing. I tried a dress, then a skirt and a slip. I felt so nice, so right, and I burst into a flood of tears.
I just sat there in front of the mirror, making up with a bit of old eyeliner and lipstick I’d found in the bottom of the wardrobe. Then I went downstairs and watched Anna Karenina all over again.
I’ll pour myself a glass of that Soave and sit here for another ten minutes before I draw the curtains. I’m going to paint the windows before the winter. I do it all myself.
After my first experience of dressing up, I bought a wig and other bits and pieces.
At the end of our street there’s a big billboard with Marilyn Monroe advertising cigarettes, and drinking a glass of champagne in the moonlight.
Oh, that’s lovely wine. I’m wearing my black cocktail dress tonight, blond wig, nicely made-up. I could almost be there, in that advertisement, drinking champagne. I’d call myself Jasmine.
When I’m like this, I’m me, only me. I’ve got no family, no Mother looking over me like I’m a bad smell. I’m just Jasmine and I don’t have any past at all.
It’s not a bad life, all in all, looking up at Marilyn. It’s started to drizzle. Marilyn’s lower lip is tilted upwards. I wonder if she can taste the salt in the raindrops too?
In his first collection of short fiction, Fragmented, Jeremy Worman traced a narrative from hippy squatter in the seventies to established husband, father and lecturer reflecting on life in inner city London in the present. In Swimming with Diana Dors he digs deeper, bringing to life memorable characters who remain with the reader. Variously personal, elegiac, political, and humorous, the stories range over themes of outsiders, loss, death, ghosts, change and the importance of place, with many stories set in London.
Several stories have been previously published in anthologies and literary magazines, including Signals-2 and Signals-3 (London Magazine Editions),The London Magazine, Ambit, The Frogmore Papers, Pen Pusher and The Penniless Press. ‘Terry’ was broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester.
(Published in Signals 2 – a London Magazine Anthology of Short Stories, 1999)
Harry Slocombe pulled back the duvet, smiled at the little wooden Buddha on the windowsill, and burped. It was 7a.m. on a grey lead coffin Hackney morning in January. But Harry had a contract with his analyst that he was going to get up in the mornings.
‘What fucking for?’ he thought. The heating hadn’t come on. The slate grey canal bubbled past, carrying its polluted secrets. He lit a Benson and Hedges and waited for the ugly plastic kettle with flowers on the side to boil. ‘Canal Side with a View’ the estate agent had said. He stood on the balcony in his dressing-gown and sucked in the diesel-rich mist which settled like sweat on his bald head.
A dead puppy, a retriever looking mongrel, its belly bloated and tight like a drum skin, in stomach-up-tickle-me position, was caught on the broken branch of a fallen willow tree. It was the second this week. Always a rush after Christmas.
He switched on the answerphone. ‘Mistah Sylvester is veree pleased you haave taken the caisse of his misssing dauughtah. He will contaact you sooon.’ The line went dead. ‘Sounds more like a fucking threat!’ He flicked his cigarette into the canal. But beggars couldn’t be choosers.
‘Positive thoughts in the morning, Harry, why is that so difficult for you?’ Roz Aust, his analyst, had asked him that at their last session. He looked wistfully at the reunion invitation on the windowsill to ‘Detective Chief Inspector Slocombe, Flying Squad.’ He’d cried when it arrived last week, it had been two years since he resigned from the squad . . .
But it was no good. Across the marshes to Walthamstow the sky was death grey. And so low he was sure it would soon take a last gasp and sink into the marshes to shroud the bronze age inhabitants who were its first human spectres. To the south east a church spire was mocked between two high rise blocks. ‘There’s nothing bleeding positive here, Roz, is there love, it’s the end, darling, this is the beginning of the bloody end.’
He sat at the kitchen table, absorbed his second fag, third mug of tea and laid out the information he had on Jasmine Sylvester, seventeen year old daughter of Mr Nicki Sylvester, Jamaican Import-Export specialist, six foot four, fourteen and a half stone, no fat, crocodile shoes, gold chains as thick as his fIngers, a driver called Pod …
Yes, pretty girl, he thought as he shaved, the instincts of the detective rising through his marsh gas of despair. Of course, the case was far too sensitive for the police to handle. Mr Sylvester loved his daughter so much he just wanted her back …
He imagined the marshes outside, the fIrst settlement, village, town, city:
Harry wanted to bring order to the world of Mr Sylvester, keep the wolves of chaos at bay. ‘Karma, Harry, everyone needs good karma.’ Beth, the yoga teacher at Hackney Institute, talked to him like that. He went for his arthritis.
He slapped on Eau Sauvage (threw away the Brut last week) and finished dressing. He’d never worn a black leather blouson before but at fifty five he was excited about the change. He leered at the eyes that analysed him in the mirror. The skin was smooth for a smoker and ex-alcoholic; the large, round moon face had lost weight. He still carried thirteen and a half stone but was training again at the gym. A powerful body, like a second row forward but taller (five foot eleven) and a belly too much like a sumu wrestler. But the head was made by the generous lips that reshaped his face when he laughed or frowned, and the hooded, hot coal eyes that surprised you with their intensity and hardness.
He hunted for his car keys. Roz Aust had cropped hair, but he’d got over that. It was part of the deal, no threats to his pension, no inquiry, if he agreed to sort out his alcoholism. But sorting that out brought on other problems so he kept her after the money ran out from the police charity which had given him twelve months therapy free.
The old off-white Volvo, a 1967 saloon, started first time and he tapped the steenng-wheel affectionately. His ex-wife, Brenda, always hated ‘that common old banger’. She’d finally kicked him out two years ago. He’d drifted for elghteen months, bought this little place last July.
The girl, Jasmine Sylvester, Jasmine Sylvester, he rolled her on his tongue, swallowed her name and let it course through his bloodstream. He would find the girl. He was on a search again, a hunt, a game, a race with gold at the end of the journey. It was his first real case since he set up the agency six months ago. The excitement carried to his genitals. He had an image of Martha the Bondage Maid handcuffing him to the bed. Control or be controlled, the dark angel that shadowed his life…
‘Sam James, Hackney Auto Sports, Furlong Lane, E9.’ His first contact, Sam’s daughter, Hope, was the best fnend of Jasmine Sylvester.
‘Sam James?’ Harry spoke loudly above the sound of the music,
‘I’m Harry Slocombe, Private Investigator, I’m working for Mr Sylvester.’
Sam turned down the cassette inside the car.
‘Like classical music, Mr James?’
‘Wagner’s my man, Songs from Goethe’s Faust, one of his early bum fluff works’.
You think niggers only like jungle music?’
‘Ha, ha, not at all, Mr James, I’m a jazz man myself.’
The tall, supple Sam James put his head deeper into the end compartment of a red MGB.
‘Mr Sylvester said you’d help me, his daughter’s gone missing.’ ‘Mr Sylvester?’ He picked up a plug spanner.
In the corner of the workshop a fierce shaved-head black guy dropped a heavy wrench. Harry tensed.
Sam hit his head against the bonnet and gestured for Harry to follow. He led the way up a metal staircase to a large, bare storage room or office.
‘I don’t see my daughter, we quarrel, she gone off … ‘ Sam wandered around.
‘Don’t know, we quarrel .. .’
‘Wonder if Mr Sylvester thinks his daughter’s got something valuable his, something he wants back .. .?’
‘You talkin’ riddles.’
Harry clicked into gear like an old boxer who never forgets his stance or his footwork. ‘Jasmine Sylvester, had a boyfriend, Winston, big handsome, clever, worked for Mr Sylvester, courier, being trained for, er, management … ‘ He gave Sam his cold owl look, known to unsettle the toughest gangsters.
‘Girls have boyfriends, man, make the world go round.’
‘And Jasmine and her boyfriend, Winston, they went off together?, It happens all the time, man.’
Harry took off his cold owl look, sighed, went over to the window, listened to Sam breathing heavily, rubbing his hands together. Harry’s trainers squeaked across the workshop floor towards the bottom of the stairs.
Harry gazed out at Homerton High Street through the grimey window, followed the endless line of roofs to the marshes. His mother’s aunts lived in Burma Road, his grandad was born in Bethnal Green, Harry had been a young copper in Bow. Now he was back, in the chaos, in the movement, the low life inevitability of misery, dealing with people who had nothing to do with his roots. He wanted to smash the whole bloody lot, Brenda and her golf professional boyfriend, blow up the fancy hall Chingford, say sorry to his daughter …
Harry shook his head and turned: ‘Mr Sylvester’s a powerful man, . doesn’t get his possessions back … ‘
‘Don’t twist me up, man.’
‘You want Mr Sylvester to find your daughter himself, use his men?’
‘So why Mr Sylvester not here now then, man, if he so keen.’
‘Keeping a professional distance, Sam, may I call you Sam?’
Harry tiptoed to the door. Sam picked up a pen and scribbled down his daughter’s address, ‘I think she know where Jasmine is, I don’t want no trouble for Hope.’
‘Sylvester’s gone crazy. Drugs, big time … ‘
‘Heroin, takin’ over London, if he trouble Hope … ‘
Harry pulled back the office door. ‘Like listening to other people’s conversations, son?’ The vicious looking man who had dropped the wrench stood motionless.
‘Me worry ’bout Sam, having an ex-old bill sniffling round like a dog on heat … ‘
‘Who told you that, son?’
‘Me got ears everywhere, remember dat, Sam!’ Got a car to work on, sonny?’
‘Rasclat!’ He slammed the door.
‘If I need you, Sam . . . drink, meal together, the Dutch Pot, best Caribbean food in London?’
‘Thought you a pie-and-mash man.’ Sam held his head in his hands. ‘Here’s my number, keep it from Voodoo Face.’
Harry sat in the Volvo, well satisfied. This is Sam’s London too, he thought, which his mind believed if not his heart. He read Hope’s address, 29 Vallance Road, Bethnal Green, and sped off. ‘Getting bigger all the time, if I get the H back to Sylvester, big money, I’ll call him, let him know I know … ‘
The adrenalin swam round his body like a narcotic, pumped his genitals like a dose of oysters. Martha the Bondage Maid, seen her for twenty years, wife never knew until the end, holding his body, his body, his self, all he was in one place, ordered, controlled. ‘Talk to the images, talk to them, perhaps enter a dialogue?’ . . . Roz Aust was keen on dialogues. But he wanted change, freedom, love …
He parked at the end of Vallance Road and rubbed the tears from his eyes. ‘Where the bloody Krays were born!’, he sniffed the curry in the air and slammed the car door.
Sam must have phoned his daughter and she let Harry in quickly. Hope was a tall, pretty girl, like a swimmer, hair in ringlocks. Like Sam she knew nothing.
‘Turn the lights off, look outside,’ he said. On the corner of the street, two black heavies slunk by a lamppost. ‘Don’t worry, love, they’re only checking I’m doing my job, they won’t get involved, after all Mr Sylvester had his reputation to consider.’
‘I’m frightened, Mr Slocombe, Jasmine Sylvester’s my best friend, we’re like sisters, such a stupid girl, so stupid, going off with Winston like that, stealing Mr Sylvester’s … ‘ Her body shook with tears and Harry handed her his damp handkerchief.
‘They won’t trouble you love, I’ll sort it, thanks for the address.’ Harry drove back slowly up Bethnal Green Road. The drizzle polished the pavements, reflecting the tail lights and the displays of drinks, perfumes and magazines in the gaudy shop windows. The things we do for money! Harry laughed suddenly and the image of the little wooden Buddha came into his mind.
Winston wanted out from Sylvester, so he thought he’d steal a kilo of heroin, and make a new life for him and Jasmine ‘back home’, in Jamaica. ‘Back home’, they were both born in the bleeding Homerton Hospital!’ He didn’t try to lose the old, red Xj6 that was following him, not yet, no need to make anyone suspicious.
Inside the maisonette, he yawned, didn’t turn on the lights, checked the towpath. By the Anchor the two heavies looked back and forth at the canal, glancing up regularly at his flat. They flicked their cans of Special Brew into the canal.
It was only 4 o’clock but Harry was dog-tired. He took a cold shower and lay on his bed, feeling as raw and bare as the marshes outside. He phoned Sylvester, insisted on talking to Sylvester. ‘No games, Mr Sylvester, two grand straight up, I’ll get it back to you, and leave the kids alone, I’ve still got contacts in the squad … ‘ ‘Of course, Mr Slocombe, no trouble, always trust an ex-Metropolitan bobby.’
He made thick coffee and straightened his mind. He would clear it up, no time for morality, too poor, got nothing. A commotion outside. Only kids with white plastic bags. Glue sniffers. Girl and two boys, white as death, going onto the marshes for their evening fun. It would never end, the muddle, the mess . . . only Martha understood, as her leather thighs straddled his tightly held body …
He woke cold from a fitful sleep. He’d dreamed of himself with his head in a plastic bag of glue, heading for the marshes. ‘Well, how different is my fucking life?’
On a whim he called George Ormrod, now a detective sergeant with the squad. Harry had trained him up. They used to call him Sissy Hot Pants, he never believed in ‘perks’, even rumoured he was a Methodist. But he gave Harry a load on Sylvester and it was all bad, and there wasn’t anything Sylvester wouldn’t do, if Harry could give them anything on him … Harry replaced the receiver and sighed deeply. What could he do, he had to make a living too, he would never change the world, and when it was over, when he’d collected his fat wedge for returning the heroin he could phone Martha, better value than his dyke therapist …
Harry shaved and dressed. There was a skylight in the ceiling which gave access to a fire escape on the other side of the buildings. He put on his mac, and climbed nimbly up the stepladders. Bellying over the V roof was more difficult with the arthritis in his knee but he kept low and out of sight of the thugs on the towpath.
He slipped round Digby Road and into the Volvo, already facing the right way. ‘Start, my darling, start.’ He charged off, into second at five thousand revs before the heavies had even shifted from their Special Brew malaise. ‘Too late, you bastards, hope Sylvester cuts off your balls, useless gits.’
He took the back roads to Commercial Road then followed it east until he turned onto the Isle of Dogs. Jasmine Sylvester and Winston were living in a posh flat on Narrow Street. He wanted to clear it up quick.
He ran to the lifts, smelt the river behind the facade of flats, sixth floor, number 129, knocked, again, again: ‘Hope James told me I would find you here, I’m Harry Slocombe, love, I’m here to sort things out … ‘ Winston opened the door, large, smiling, as if welcoming a star guest to the party. He led the way into the living-room.
‘I hate Sylvester,’ Winston shouted, ‘Praise the Lord, I hate him, evil man, son of Satan.’
Harry stood back, open mouthed.
‘Be happy, Mr Slocombe, happy days!’ jasmine shook his arm, ‘we’re born again, praise the lord. Sylvester’s not my real dad, he just live with me mum, one of his women – and he take a fancy to me too, many times – the Lord will punish him, Praise the Lord.’
‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah!’ Winston clapped his hands.
Harry, who had seen most things, stood silent, blinking, repeating their conversation over and over in his head. ‘I’m very happy for you both, naturally, but there is one small problem.’
‘The heroin, Mr Slocombe, the devil’s friend ‘ Winston’s smile widened.
‘Mr Sylvester wants his property back, he ‘
‘Never!’ Winston shot up a black panther clenched fist which Harry thought rather incongruous.
‘You destroyed it, you born again, dead again little twit … ‘
‘We hide it,’ he said.
Harry sat down while Jasmine and Winston looked out at the river, their arms round each other. Harry stared angrily at their backs, he’d never known anything so stupid – and the bloody throbbing began again in his balls, his need for Martha, for his body to be tied, controlled, known, certain – would he never change?
‘All right kids, how far you really prepared to go, will you testify against Sylvester?’
‘Testify, testify!,’ they cheered. ‘Oh my God.’
They sat down on either side of Slocombe. Jasmine held his hand, so tenderly, ‘We not mad, Mr Slocombe, we are afraid to testify, he will try to kill us, but Winston’s brother die from heroin last month, we going to do it, all the way.’ Her eyes, so clear and truthful, gazed into his. For a moment he lost all sense, felt free, heard the handcuffs unlock …
Winston stood, ‘We’re not crazy, we’ll do it, we are afraid, but the Lord will protect us.’
It’s only money, Harry sighed, he saw the two thousand pounds burning in front of his eyes. ‘All right kids, all right, if you really want to, I’ve got a contact in the Flying Squad, they’d love to hear from you two, can I use your phone?’
‘Next door, Mr Slocombe,’ Jasmine pointed.
‘In the meantime, put that chest across the door, and the wardrobe against the window … do it, do it, now!’
‘George, Harry Slocombe here, look I’ve found Sylvester’s heroin, and I the two kids will testify against him.’
‘No, George, I’ve not been drinking, they had a conversion experience.’
‘No, George, they’ve not changed to Mercury, they’re born again, explain later, get down here, now, quick.’
‘He’s on his way, kids, make us a cup of tea will you love?’
George Ormrod arrived with three other detectives, began to take statements, delighted by the turn of events.
‘George, I’ll be back in a minute, there’s something I’ve got to do.’
He opened the boot of his car in East India Dock Road, took out a package and walked across some gangplanks to the river. He tied string round the little cardboard box, and gave his favourite handcuffs a final kiss. He crouched into a military second world war grenade throwing position and flung the package as far as he could into the middle of the ancient river. ‘Won’t be needing them any more.’ Half a moon flicked highlights of silver onto the ripple tops of the little waves.
He wouldn’t be seeing Martha tonight. It was over. When Jasmine looked into his eyes he knew even he could change. ‘What’s money, Harry?’ He saw his two thousand pounds on a bonfire and laughed as it burnt to dust.
He was ugly, he hated his body. But he wanted someone to look into his eyes and, and to love him … That’s what he had always wanted. The money, the handcuffs, he’d let them go together. He sat on the mud of the river bank and cried uncontrollably. Bondage was the only way he could be loved, but no more. It had failed him.
He thought of his handcuffs travelling beneath the river towards Millwall and oblivion. The river was always moving: Bronze Age settlers, Elizabethan explorers, pirates, convicts, the Queen Mary, the end of the docks, carrying its cargo, Russian Jewish immigrants, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Jasmine and Winston, him, all citizens of London, all changing.
Harry walked back to the flat. He felt old and very alone, unchained and naked in the vast city. But from somewhere out of the deeps of London he hoped love may one day find him.
(Published in The London Magazine, October/November 1996)
I’ve had an eventful time for a boy of thirteen years and two months. My life could nearly be a film already. I love films. In my room I’ve got posters of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night – I saw these a couple of years ago – and The Birds which Mr Hitchcock signed for me. I’m playing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the best record in the world. I love writing too. My life is a bit weird. This is what happened yesterday.
June 15, 1967
I felt great after the cricket match. My housemaster, who is also head of games at my prep school, stood in the door of the pavilion and bellowed, ‘Well done Carver, that was first class, if you do that against Papplewick next week I’ll give you your colours.’
‘Thank you very much, sir.’
‘And Carver,’ he took his hands off the top of the pavilion door, and came over to me, filling up all the space he was so tall, ‘we might still get you into Charterhouse if you go on playing like that.’ He stared straight at me with his blue eyes and patted me hard on the back.
‘Wow, great sir, certainly easier than common entrance.’ ‘Don’t get too cocky, boy.’
I was taking common entrance next term and you had to be a real swot to get into Charterhouse. But as I was just thirteen I could always take it again. One of my friends who had been watching the cricket, Tubby Groves, came over to me and said, ‘that was really great Simon, 41, brilliant runs, fantastic.’ He patted me on the back too.
‘Even Matron clapped at one of your fours’, Hearson, the vice-captain said.
After showers I was combing my hair in the mirror and Miss Gifford, one of the sub-matrons, said, ‘You’d better get your hair cut or you’ll look like a film star, won’t you?’ I sort of laughed and went a bit red because she looked at me really nicely. My hair goes very fair in the summer and last holidays Rudd-Jones’s sister said it looked great.
We always had a special tea after cricket with the other side in the big hall, looking out at the cricket pitch, the tennis court and the headmaster’s garden. I loved the look of the grounds in summer, everything was perfect every year, and always the same perfect if you know what I mean. Alan, one of the gardeners, went past and put his thumbs up at me. That made me feel great. He loved cricket and knew everything about bats. I never wanted to go to Public School. I just wanted to stay here and play cricket and touch Miss Gifford everywhere when she had no clothes on. I go stiff whenever I think about her.
I left school to go home on the train. I was happy except that my mother didn’t come to watch me play. She normally does on a Saturday because we don’t live far away. Everyone really liked her and my housemaster’s ears always changed colour when he talked to her. And the headmaster used to come out of his study when he saw her and say, ‘Er, how’s that marvellous sports car, er, going, Mrs Carver?’ When she looked at him and smiled you could tell it made him feel good because his arm started twitching. He always did that when he was pleased.
I bought a Mars bar on Windsor and Eton Riverside station and looked for some girls to observe. If you looked closely you could sometimes see the tops of their legs and almost everything. As the train went past Datchet I wondered why my mother didn’t come. I really liked her watching me play. I knew she was watching everything I did and even my fielding got quicker when she was there. I watched a golfer hit a golf ball on Datchet golf course. I hated golf. Stupid little ball could go anywhere with a big hit. In cricket everything is skill, especially when you’re a slow left arm spin bowler like me. But I don’t always bowl because I’m even better as a batsman.
My mother used to be an actress. She was so good she could have gone to Hollywood, lots of people said that. My father, who is much older, and very ill, was the accountant for Alfred Hitchcock’s film company. He met my mother when she was acting in one of Mr Hitchcock’s later films.
My father had been married before and his wife had drowned somewhere. I have one half-brother, Richard, who’s at Pangbourne College and going into the Royal Navy. I’ve got an even older half-sister, who’s twenty-two and married to Captain Hitler of the Royal Green Jackets.
When I grow up I’m going to make films because I love looking at things and making different shapes with photographs and cine-films. I was in the photography club at school and my uncle was going to buy me a really good camera at Christmas. Mother stopped acting when she had me. We live in a big house outside Chobham. My father doesn’t work anymore but I think we’re rich. My mother once said to me, ‘Darling you’re always rich as long as there’s enough money for a dry martini in the cocktail bar at The Savoy.’ My father heard her and told her off.
My mother got ill sometimes and drank a lot and shouted at me and wandered all over. When she was like this she never looked at me. Yesterday she was staring into the garden, ‘The grass needs cutting, that bloody gardener.’ But it had only been cut the day before and it looked beautiful. Sometimes I felt alone with this person who was my mother but not my mother. I wondered why she didn’t come to watch me today.
I looked out of the train window at Virginia Water. I knew Lindsey wouldn’t be there because it was a Saturday. Lindsey went to a convent and I used to talk to her on the train going home. She teased me because she was a bit older and knew all about kissing and everything. One day, the train was quiet, she just said, ‘Do you want to kiss me?’
‘OK, I suppose so.’
The first time our teeth knocked. We did it a few times in the next few weeks and it got good. Then she wasn’t on the train anymore. One of her friends said that her mother had started to pick her up in the car. But I just looked in case.
Near Chobham it gets all sandy and the trees and grass disappear a bit.
It was getting cloudy too. But I wasn’t that sad not to see Lindsey again. I’d gained a lot of experience and my friends at school were impressed. It was different with Paula Day. She was the sister of a boy at school. We used to write to other boys’ sisters. She was at boarding school in Kent. Then I met her in the holidays. Justin Day was one of my good friends and I stayed with him and his family at their cottage in Wiltshire.
Paula and me liked each other straight away. She had short, dark hair, lovely eyelashes and looked brilliant in her tennis dress – and she could play nearly as well as a boy.
Justin got in a real bate with us. We couldn’t help it. When we looked at each other, phew. I don’t mean sex. I mean I looked at her and all the world went still. It just stopped. And you felt more fantastic than you ever did. Everything was perfect and still, like a game of cricket, no more, but you weren’t afraid of anything when you looked at someone like that and they looked at you too. We did kiss and went further than ever but it was the looking that was really great.
Their father worked for Burmah Oil. Justin said, ‘My father has to go to the Philippines to blow something up.’ And they took Paula with them and sent her to an embassy school. That was three months ago. And she hasn’t written. And Justin won’t give me her address. I can’t stand Justin anymore. I’m not usually like that with friends.
When I got off the train at Chobham I looked for my mother.
Sometimes she just arrived. She’d guess which train I was on. All the porters were very polite and friendly to her. But she wasn’t here to-day. It was a long walk home. I was always allowed to take a taxi from the station. My father was good like that. We discussed things properly and worked out what was right and how much pocket money I should have and everything. ‘You see old chap, you have to make a good argument to me and then we’ll see.’ He didn’t do that much now because he was so ill and everything.
I walked because I felt a bit sick and funny. Too much match tea. I stopped before the house. The long hedge, I think it is a laurel hedge, had been cut by our gardener, Bill Cranham. He always came on his bike with plants at the back. I called out ‘Bill, Bill,’ but no one was around. Our house was a big Victorian house with two huge windows at the front which let in tons oflight. My mother wanted to live on the Wentworth Estate where she had lived before she got married to my father. ‘We’re not living in Hollywood by the Lake,’ my father told her. I had to go inside now.
‘I’m home.’ There wasn’t any sound. Even Pedro, my dog, didn’t come out to say hello. My feet made masses of noise over the little tiles. They were mosaics or something. My mother had them put in. My stomach felt really bad now. It was always dark in the hallway, like being a prisoner in a huge dungeon. There was no one in the dining-room or sitting-room. I went through the long hallway to the kitchen.
‘Darling, hello.’ My mother’s hand slipped from a tumbler of whisky and she puffed up her silk nightdress round the shoulders.
‘What are you drinking now, you look horrible.’
‘Oh do sit down old chap.’ My father spoke very slowly and the words came out all muddled. His white hair needed combing and he’d spilt food down his polo shirt.
‘Your nose is all red.’ I stared at him and wanted to kick over his walking-frame. He was drinking whisky too. ‘You look like a couple of alcoholics.’
‘Oh, the thought police are home again,’ my mother sneered. She tried to put a cigarette in her mouth, first on one side of her lips and then the other. Her lips were all cracked.
‘I had a great game of cricket today, you know.’
‘Oh God can’t you think of anything but yourself?’ she stared but didn’t see me at all. Lots of little veins throbbed in her cheeks.
‘Why can’t you tell her to stop drinking, daddy, why not?’
‘Oh what a brilliant little drama queen.’ My mother put her fists up at me.
‘Shush, shush,’ my father said. His eyes were hazy like they had a lace curtain over them. And he had a circle of white round his irises which I’d never seen before.
‘Shut up, both of you.’ She flung her arms in the air and looked like she’d been kissed by Dracula. ‘I’m going out.’ She slammed the door and threw a glass in the hall. The sound spread all over the mosaic floor. ‘I hate that little bastard.’
I was afraid. I phoned the doctor. It rang for ages but no one answered. The house felt empty. I was lonely and my father looked like he was about to be sent off to Madame Tussaud’s. I don’t think the lace curtains over his eyes were ever going to come down any more. Two years ago when she was last like this he looked at her slowly and seriously. She went a bit funny but later said she was going to cook a special meal for her ‘two favourite men.’
Then I saw her rush across the lawn. She had shoes on now and a mac but I could tell she was still wearing her nightdress. Where was she going? Why? My mouth was dry. I might never see her again. I followed her. It was nice being outside. It was still sunny and the light wind felt friendly. ‘Mummy, why don’t you come back, have a cup of tea and a chat with both of us, oh come on.’
She walked fast. ‘Go away,’ she flicked her hand at me. ‘Go back to your cricket, you spoilt brat, I’m going for a long walk. Leave me alone.’ She shouted the last words so loud anyone could have heard. It was horrible. I couldn’t think of films any more. She went towards the village. Luckily no one saw her and then she turned down a footpath. It got windier. I couldn’t think any more about the nice day I’d had or my friends or girls or anything. I only had on my Aertex shirt and I was shivering.
‘Please slow down a bit,’ I pleaded. She turned round and threw stones at me. I stopped dead. ‘Oh stop being so silly will you.’
She lifted her head slowly and tossed it back. Bits of hair escaped from her bow like corkscrews on either side of her face. ‘Do you think it’s “silly,” you stupid little boy,’ she bent down and dug up a patch of weedy earth, ‘to be yourself, to have to escape from all you bastards just to be yourself.’
She flung the earth at me and nearly tottered over. I cried now, not with all my face, but just loads of tears coming straight out of my eyes. I couldn’t help it. She stared at me like I wasn’t her son at all. ‘You pathetic little boy.’ I couldn’t say anything. She held her fist straight out in front of her and turned it round and round. Then she rushed off the footpath and into the wasteground. She fell over and got up. I could see she’d cut her knee. I couldn’t move. I watched everything.
It was about seven now and wispy clouds were covering up the sun.
My mother ran through the wasteground, fell over again and got up. She turned round. There were stinging nettles moving all around her. Yellow buttercups and straggling weedy things were shushing about in the wind. Behind the footpath, on Chambers Road, all kinds of trees were dodging in the wind. My mum’s hair flew around. Everything was just moving. It was horrible. My mum shouted at me but I couldn’t hear what she said. Nothing was ever going to stop doing all these separate things. I knew now that my mum was just doing what she had to do, like weeds and stinging nettles. I knew we were all weeds and stinging nettles. Houses and schools and cricket and love were all pretend. You could never stop everything going on just the way it had to. Not even in films. I felt really sick.
I saw her rush into the station and jump on a train. She never looked round for me. I stood outside the station in the quiet by a tree. I was calmer but when I looked everything was different. I wish Paula Day had been here. I could have looked into her eyes. Then I was sad because it was probably all pretend.
“Monkeyface,” the name we gave to one of the porters, came over to me. I’d never really liked him as much as the others. ‘You look worried son.’ He looked into my eyes. His teeth were yellow and cracked. But he went on looking at me, like he really cared. ‘Was that your mum? Don’t worry, she’s an actress, she’ll be alright.’ I looked back at him. I think I might have smiled or blushed. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ He put one leg behind the other. ‘I’m off now, I’ll make you a nice cup of tea shall I?’ He nodded his big head up and down. ‘You know I’ve got a famous train set don’t you?’
‘Okay,’ I smiled. I thought of my dad. I hoped he was dead when I got home. I didn’t ever want to go home. Monkeyface looked at me like he really cared. The world felt all slow again. I wasn’t so sick inside anymore.
(Published in Storm at Galesburg and other Stories and Poems, September 2009, Cinnamon Press)
Heaving sounds, throaty coughs and barking dogs woke Alan. He realised they must be reinforcing the barricades. He stroked his unshaved chin. The canvas walls of the living space in the old army lorry, an Albion Clansman, were sticky. The cream blanket, pulled tight round his body, smelt of wood smoke. He got up and flicked on a Calor gas ring.
The red kettle soon hissed. The noticeboard was crammed: maps; eviction notice; emails of support from other travellers; potential escape routes. The chipped mug was hot in his hands as he sipped sweet Camp coffee.
On the carved Indian table there was a ring of small glass beads that his partner, Moira, had made for him before she had moved off with their two children. He wasn’t going to have them go through another eviction. The dream catcher his daughter had left for him was pinned to one of the lorry’s ceiling struts. Dangling strands of thread caressed his shoulder. He tucked the contraption away in a drawer. Above the bed his son’s brightly crayoned picture of a hairy traveller holding a placard proclaiming ‘No!’ made him laugh.
He switched on his laptop. Emails raced onto the screen. Squelching boot sounds in their encampment disturbed him.
‘Ooh, it’s Lady Muck, what’s she doing here?’ a male voice said.
He knew at once who it was. He pulled back the curtain at the other side of the lorry and gazed at the wide fields that stretched up towards the Ridgeway.
The storm of last night had abated. The early sun sent glassy yellow light across the stubbled earth. The harvest had been gathered in two weeks ago but the land retained the colour of burnt gold. He had looked out at this rather arid country each day for two years and never in his life had he loved a landscape so much. The ancient rocks and stones gave him strength. After twenty years on the road, he didn’t want to travel any more.
What the hell did she want? He brushed long hair away from his handsome face and opened the door. ‘Suppose you’d better come in.’
‘Then I shall.’
Someone shouted to him, ‘The police have blocked off two roads, one from Streatley, the other from Ashampstead.’
‘They’re trying to stop the photographers getting through,’ he said.
Her yellow Wellingtons were mud spattered and the green raincoat baggy. A Robin-Hood-style hat sported a pheasant feather. ‘I wanted to explain.’ Her eyes were bright, despite the wrinkles.
She came in with a rush, all parts of her small body in motion. Her stick fell to the floor. He picked it up and handed it to her.
‘Irish Hawthorn, it was my husband’s favourite…’
‘You didn’t come to talk about sticks.’
‘No, well…’ She put the black stick across her lap.
‘There’s time for a coffee before the police arrive.’
As the kettle burbled on the stove he peeked outside. A strange thing had happened during the time he had lived here: a small path of round stones had revealed themselves across Wilcox’s land, beginning at the lowest point, where the soil could be boggy, and reaching high towards the horizon in the west. On a few occasions he had seen a little track, almost luminous in its speckled whiteness. When he had gone to investigate, the path didn’t seem to cohere at all.
‘The kettle’s whistling,’ she said.
He handed her the coffee in the unchipped green dragon design cup. He passed her the bottle of milk.
‘You voted against us,’ he said bitterly, ‘we thought you were on our side.’
‘It was complicated.’ She took off her hat and stroked the feather. ‘It wasn’t really you, it was some of the others.’
‘What can you expect?’ he stirred his tea, ‘it’s like being a stretcher bearer at the end of a big battle. You get a lot of hangers on, losers, druggies.’
‘What’s the battle?’
‘This mad world is choking to death, the technological power of late-Capitalism…’
‘I never took you for a fanatic sort.’
He laughed in spite of himself. ‘It’s us who may be the norm soon. The rest of you won’t know how to survive.’
Bunches of dried herbs, in a variety of shades, hung from the ceiling. She shut her eyes. ‘Such a lovely smell, reminds me of my childhood.’
‘Moira grew them – why did you turn against us?’ He walked across to the window.
‘I was forced to.’
She stood by him. ‘It spoils the view, doesn’t it?’
A massive yellow combine harvester, a new Massey Ferguson, squatted in the corner of a field.
‘David Wilcox always likes to show off, his father was quite different, known locally as Basher Wilcox, had a half Blue in boxing, that was it, Oxford. He loved the land.’
‘Did you see the partridge?’ She pointed in a south-westerly direction, ‘that’s where my cottage is, I use it as a studio. I still live at The Paddock, that old Jacobean house up the hill.’
‘I won’t be living anywhere soon.’
‘I’m so sorry.’ She dropped her stick again. ‘I… life… my husband died recently, the house rattles – if you ever need boots, rainwear, all in the outhouse, I couldn’t face…’
‘Please.’ He picked up the stick.
‘I’m doing it again, putting my foot in it. You are about to be evicted, I know. I’m going to say one more thing to make you cross. How did you end up here, you seem, you’ll hate this, well born?’
‘ “Well-born!” – don’t have time to get philosophical with you.’
There was a shout outside. ‘You can’t go there!’
A tousle-haired young woman knocked at Alan’s door, ‘I’m from the Reading Mercury, I found a way through the police road blocks. There are more travellers coming.’ She pointed to a group scrambling over hedges.
‘Well done,’ he said, admiring her girl-guide enthusiasm.
A photographer stood at her side.
‘Get on the roof if you want to,’ Alan said, ‘it’s a good view from up there.’
Back inside the old lady was staring out of the window. ‘He wants to buy my cottage, you see, that’s the nub of it.’
‘It’s in the way of David Wilcox’s plans for his country sports centre.’
‘I refused, last month, well before the parish council meeting…’ Tears dripped down her cheeks.
He handed her a box of tissues.
‘I thought if I voted against you,’ she covered her eyes. ‘I’m a cowardly old woman.’ She pulled two spent 12 bore cartridges from her raincoat pocket, ‘that he would leave me alone.’
His mobile rang and one of his watchers on the local roads told him the police would be here in half an hour. He stood on the steps. ‘Get ready,’ he shouted.
He sat next to the old lady. ‘”Leave you alone?” What do you mean? Who?’
It all came out. For the past two years she had experienced much of David Wilcox’s charm, dinners at his house, and a visit to the Theatre Royal, Windsor. He plied her with arguments about how his country pursuits centre would be good for the community, and how ‘these gypsies are ruining the fabric of the village, we mustn’t cave in to woolly liberal thinking.’ There had also been silent phone calls in the night, and a dumper truck of pigs’ swill dropped on her front lawn.
The canvas roof dipped as the photographer took up position.
‘Be careful,’ Alan warned him.
‘So I thought we had an agreement,’ she continued, ‘I would vote against you – he said there had been rumours in the village of someone who had a vendetta against me – and he could put an end to it.’ An emerald ring glowed on her middle finger. ‘Then he would stop badgering me about selling my cottage. I have never known such things, Alan…’
She forced the cartridges into his hand. ‘Last night there were shots in my garden, the cartridges dumped on my front door step. The dogs yelped, I got up and sent the retrievers out. He, they, got away, but…’ She held up a piece of paper.
It was noisy outside and Alan went to investigate. People were organising themselves behind vehicles, picking up stones and lengths of wood. Two men were making Molotov cocktails. ‘We don’t want that!’ he screamed at them.
She stood by him. ‘I was once caught up in riots in Pakistan. This is kindergarten stuff. This bill,’ she thrust it into his hand, ‘someone must have dropped it, the dogs frightened them.’
‘What is it?’ He led her inside.
‘It’s for petrol from the garage David Wilcox uses for his farm vehicles, one of his men dropped it.’
‘You can’t be sure.’
‘On the back, look, “Just frighten her” in a rather uneducated hand.’
He read it. ‘That was silly of them. You must tell the police, it’s too late for us.’
‘I’m not going anywhere.’ She stood by the window. ‘I’ve been dreaming of the land.’
Police sirens wailed in the lane.
‘I shall speak to Wilcox, we’ll have an Extraordinary Meeting of the parish council, it’s not too late – and you could stay in my cottage, fair rent, I don’t want to use it any more, your family.’
There were two lines of police and behind them dogs with their handlers. The photographer stood to get a better view.
‘They’ve got the fucking press here!’ A policeman had forgotten to turn off his megaphone.
There were ironic jeers. The young journalist stood at the front of the barricade and asked if she could have an interview with the police. They ignored her as policeman and dogs clambered over the barricades. The travellers picked up their weapons.
Alan stood on the steps with a loudhailer. The old lady grabbed it and almost fell off the steps.
‘Listen to me.’ Even through the static her voice was clear. ‘Get the chief constable down here, tell him that Lady Touchard believes an injustice has been committed.’
Noise ceased. The dogs were pulled to attention.
‘There must be negotiations,’ she went on.
‘What the hell are you doing there, madam, Lady Touchit?’ a chief inspector asked.
‘I see you there, David, come out from under that tree and let’s talk. I think a solution may be found. I have something of yours that you may have left outside my house.’
‘Madam, this has nothing to do with you. Leave this site at once or be arrested,’ the senior policeman said.
‘I have no intention of leaving. I’m sure the press will report this matter fairly.’
There was a click as the policeman turned off his megaphone.
‘No one do anything.’ Alan stared at the group of anarchists. ‘Move away from the barricades. No violence. Nothing.’
Beneath the tree, David Wilcox was gesticulating at one of his farm workers. A few minutes later he walked across to the senior policeman.
‘Get on with it,’ one of the anarchists jeered, holding a Molotov cocktail above his head.
‘Put that down now!’ Alan raised his fist.
A blast of wind arrived from nowhere. The panting tongues of the police Alsatians flapped in the same direction like flags. Exhaust smoke from the police vehicles spun in the air. Policemen relaxed their grip on their shields but their eyes stared from behind the visors of their riot helmets.
The chief inspector’s megaphone crackled: ‘This is an unusual situation, Lady Touchard. After talking with Mr Wilcox and with the chief constable I am prepared to allow a discussion to take place between you, Mr Wilcox and Alan Wright, the travellers’ leader.’
There were loud cheers.
Lady Touchard stood on the steps of the army lorry with Alan. They scanned the travellers for signs of disorder. T he Molotov cocktails were on the ground, the rag fuses taken out. They went inside and arranged three chairs around the small table.
David Wilcox climbed over the barricade and walked towards them.
(Published in Storm at Galesburg and other Stories and Poems, September 2009, Cinnamon Press)
The steel-sharp Chicago wind scattered Richard’s thoughts and memories to all quarters. Cold air tore through his dark blue Aquascutum overcoat as he followed Eugene to the Oldsmobile station wagon. When Richard stroked the lines of his face he believed they had grown in number. He rubbed his hand across his cheeks and eyes in order to check his perceptions.
The car was parked a few blocks away from the Union League Club, Chicago, where Richard had been staying during the conference. The tall, quietly grand buildings reassured him about something he could not define.
‘It’s a very comfortable car,’ Eugene said and the sentence entered Richard’s consciousness in staccato bursts, as if each word had to struggle through the maelstrom.
The passenger seat was strewn with papers, cigarette packets. Dogs’ hairs stuck to the material. With a theatrical flourish Eugene tidied up, and grabbed some packages from the floor. ‘Samples,’ he explained, ‘cattle feed is a scientific business – “Try Before You Buy!” is my catchphrase – and it works most of the time. Guess I should retire soon.’ His chunky face puckered up.
Richard smiled thinly as he held his suitcase and wished he had taken the plane. But the secretary to the academic conference had arranged for Eugene, her brother, to give Richard a lift. ‘How lucky you’re going to the same place,’ she had said through her super-bright smile, and told him, with that unsullied innocence he admired in Americans, about her two children, a boy and a girl, who were both at college and doing so well.
When Eugene spoke his head moved quickly, like a boxer determined to get his punches across. His white-grey hair was in crew-cut style. I’m probably envious, Richard chastened himself, and imagined Eugene in a world of families and American football games, hot dogs and manicured lawns.
‘My cell phone’s not working,’ Eugene said, ‘got one?’
‘In England, of course…’
‘Oh well, let’s keep our fingers crossed.’
Razorblade wind cut through the iron grey sky. The car veered a little.
Richard’s spirits rallied when he thought of yesterday’s accolades after his talk. And a preppy, darkly attractive young man, a PhD student at Princeton, had said to him: ‘Professor Woodward, I so enjoyed your lecture yesterday.’ Richard recalled his smile, and the eyes that had blinked knowingly. He wished he had pursued the brief encounter.
No, life was good, if a bit lonely, but could he bear it any other way? The car’s heater thawed him out. He folded his overcoat and placed it carefully on the back seat.
‘I’m going to Galesburg on business,’ Eugene said from out of the car’s darkness, ‘glad to be of help.’
‘I’m very grateful.’
Richard felt guilty about his reservations and smiled too eagerly. This encouraged Eugene to share his views about American kids having it too easy and how it wasn’t like that for him when he was a boy in Des Plaines. As an adult, Eugene had lived all over, Cincinnati, Denver, Chicago, and now had almost retired ‘to a little place in Thedford, Nebraska, near where my wife’s family came from, Norwegians originally, cattle farmers – you got to keep moving, you know, stay young!’
‘I dare say.’
Richard locked his hands together. How big America felt, how rootless, while his own life was a sort of English B road existence, but that’s what he liked, the quiet, private connoisseurship of studying ancient things. Richard made an effort to be sociable, talked about history and identity, ‘What it was to be English’ and how ‘history has been largely forgotten’. Eugene, with American enthusiasm, embraced the idea: ‘You never said a truer word. Kids don’t understand. You say “Second World War” to them – I said to my son, “It’s you, it’s your history. Remember” – he stared at me like I was goofy.’
The rhythm of the roads soothed them and they sank into their own reflections.
‘Crackers in the glove compartment if you’re hungry,’ Eugene said.
The confident architecture gave way to areas where paint was flaking off the dingy houses. Soon they reached the suburbs: every house with a large front garden, every lawn green and trimmed.
‘Live in London, Richard?’
‘Flat near the British Museum,’ he said, but his visual recollection of his home was weak, as if he was telling a scene from a novel he didn’t much like. He pinched his hand, touched his top pocket, the handkerchief had gone, the one that Tom had given him.
‘You okay?’ Eugene asked.
‘Forgot something, not important.’ His heart raced and America felt vast and unknown, as if the car was adrift on a sheet of ice at the North Pole.
Eugene whistled, tapped the steering-wheel, fiddled with the radio, ‘it’s really crackly, the weather’s bad, but we’ll get through.’
Richard envied that American spirit, the confidence of moving forward, of getting there, but he wanted some peace now, time to think.
Eugene burbled on, about his children, both grown up: Sandie who lived in Normal, Illinois and was a teacher, she married an electrician who’s got his own business… Christ, Richard thought, I could have written the script myself, he’s going to tell me about his homemade apple pie soon. Richard yawned. Eugene’s son, Lee, was in Chicago, ran a bar, bit of a bum.
‘But Jodie, that was my wife… she died last year, cancer… together for thirty-seven years.’
He blew his nose.
‘I’m sorry.’ Richard looked distractedly out of the passenger window and his reflection dissolved into a trickle of rust over snow. He sucked hard on a mint, and tried to bring back an image of himself in the glass.
Eugene had quarrelled with both his children, but Sandie was a nice girl. ‘I want to apologise to Sandie, life’s too short.’
The long freeway opened up. Snow fell hard and giant bright trucks seared like silver ghosts across America. Where did they come from, these lithe, roaring spectres? Where were they were going? Richard patted his racing heart.
‘You married?’ Eugene asked.
‘Confirmed bachelor, I was an only child, I grew to prefer my own company.’
‘Jesus, why can’t you Brits just spit it out?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘If you’re fuckin’ gay, say so -who cares these days?’
‘I beg your pardon.’
‘I’ve no idea why you make that assumption. It’s of no interest to anyone, nor is it true.’
‘It’s true. My sister told me. Everyone in the organisation knows. No one cares. Only you.’
‘I should have gone by plane.’
‘You think I don’t know you’re treating me like some kind of low life,’ Eugene jerked his head at Richard, ‘I’m direct, that’s all.’
The car snaked into another lane.
‘Watch out!’ Richard screamed.
From under the seat Eugene drew out a revolver, held it in the air. With the other hand he straightened the car.
‘Stop!’ Richard squealed.
‘I’m direct, that’s all.’ Eugene laughed and replaced the gun beneath the seat.
They drove in silence until Eugene started crooning a Johnny Cash song, ‘On the Evening Train’, and after a while, without pausing, he told Richard about his poor Polish parents, his father, a baker, three shops, and that his mom ran one of them, as if those facts were an extension of the song’s elegy.
Richard pretended not to listen.
‘I suppose you think your rude violence has scared me? Perhaps that’s how America always wins her wars.’
‘I meant no harm. Life’s not been easy just now. I’m not always truthful with myself, and… If you just said, “Sure, I’m gay”‘
‘A moment ago you were trying to kill me.’
‘Don’t exaggerate. Pass me that Hershey’s bar from the glove compartment.’
They stopped at a diner for lunch. Snow was thick in the parking area.
Half an hour later Eugene returned excitedly from the gents, ‘We’d better push on. A trucker told me the electricity is down in Galesburg, the storm just blew it all out.’
Eugene put the heater up to high. The windscreen was almost blanked-out white as if they were alone and estranged in an igloo. All the cars headlights were on, like a thousand double spears of light probing the dark. Eugene hummed and then talked about his dead wife, Jodie, and her pink bath cap, which he found behind the shower-room door, ‘Been there over a year, never noticed it until that moment.’
‘It’s not that I’m gay, you see. I simply don’t have relations, period, as you would put it.’
‘If that’s how you want it.’
‘I live quietly. I’m a natural solitary. Strange, I know.’ And Tom probably won’t be in touch again, he thought.
‘I need people, I feel old and lonely these days.’
‘May I have a cracker?’
Richard nibbled loudly and had no wish to listen to a stranger’s confessions. He tightened the knot of his tie.
All the trucks and cars slowed. A blast of snow covered the windscreen, which intensified the hushed rumble from the world outside. A few miles on and the police were busily directing the traffic. Eugene’s eyes scanned a bigger darkness, beyond the shopping malls, McDonalds, TVs and American football. ‘Business isn’t what it was. I really must retire early, settle in Nebraska.’
Nebraska, Richard whispered, Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska…
‘Look, no more road lights. That trucker was right, the power’s gone.’
Vehicles moved forward like a long trail of settlers seeking somewhere new to start again. Ten minutes later the traffic stopped. Eugene felt beneath his seat because this was America and the lights were out.
Richard’s clammy fingers instinctively checked his top pocket, but there was no handkerchief.
‘We’ll be there soon,’ Eugene said. ‘Someone picking you up?’
‘I have to phone from the call-box on the corner of Broad Street, the dean will send someone for me.’
At the outskirts of Galesburg, the radio said that the bad weather was coming down all the way from Canada. They reached the middle of town. Eugene stopped the car but kept the engine running.
His warm eyes looked into Richard’s: ‘Some beautiful old trains in Galesburg, used to connect America, right down to Santa Fe.’ Eugene held out his thick hand. ‘Maybe the lights will come back soon. We had a disagreement. I’m sorry. Let’s move on.’
‘I’ll be fine, thank you. Very interesting drive.’
As Richard stood on the pavement he tugged his overcoat collar tight against the blizzard. The passenger door shut with a thud and Eugene set off. The tail-lights bobbed into the distance like illuminated buoys amidst the drifts of swirling snow.
Rays of light from the candlelit bars showed the name ‘Broad Street’. He could just make out a line of wood-panelled shops. At the end of the road an organ was booming from a large church. Wind chopped at him from all sides. His fingers dug into his empty top pocket. From the call-box he dialled quickly as snow covered everything.
(Published in Through the Woods, December 2004)
Anastasia Romanov’s Diary: Ekaterinburg, July 16, 1918. Evening…
Rasputin’s eyes cover me like waves of silk sheets until a soft darkness shrouds my body. I drown in that strange smell of him. He is more with us now than when he was alive. His eyes cover all of Russia.
‘Anastasia!, Anastasia!, Anastasia!’ If I call my name I can peel his eyes off me.
A soldier bangs open the door with his rifle butt. Mama, sitting closest to the door, turns.
Who was Rasputin’s whore then!’
His vodka-and-garlic sausage smell seems to curdle in the cold air. When he leaves he bows mockingly, a piece of gristle is caught in his beard. Outside other soldiers stamp their feet like wild beasts.
Then a so-called Captain comes in, filthy uniform, unshaven. ‘The commandant is coming to see you later, scum.’ He makes an obscene gesture at Papa.
Will we live in the Winter Palace again? – I see an image of a glass palace being stoned by a mob….
At least we are together once more as a family, and blessed to have with us a few of our closest helpers, including Dr Botkin and Sydney Gibbes, our tutor. How I loved the winters at Tsarsko Selo when we would toboggan through the trees and the air was so pure, the sky so blue. Now I only smell grease, oil, rotting food, soldiers, and worse.
Supper time. Papa sits erect at the top of the table and puts his hand to his ear, listening to the soldiers’ receding footsteps. From under the table he draws out a bottle of wine like a conjurer. It is our last bottle of the six, Chateau Yquem 1906, smuggled into us, a gift from a cousin in England. Papa pours a little into each of our smeared glasses: Mama, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, me, Dr Botkin and Sydney Gibbes. I write down their names, then I write them again, and again. Now I am certain they will be here forever, that all will be well.
Papa says: ‘Put your diary down, Anastasia. You’re becoming a bookworm. When we live in England I shall have to send you to Girton.’
‘That says something for my teaching, sir!’ Mr Gibbes suggests. Everyone laughs, and our happiness moves outwards, keeping us forever safe in the circle of Our Mother.
Two days ago Father Storozhev gave us mass, and I tried to think of Our Mother, but I saw rats scuttling – the biggest seemed to speak: ‘Eat the Tzar’s children, eat them.’
I take wine to Alexie who is sitting up in his little bed in the corner. He holds the glass in both hands like a child.
Dr Botkin looks at papa: ‘To the Tzar of all the Russias!’ When papa looks up Dr Bodkin lowers his eyes. Then Papa toasts Alexie. ‘To the next Tzar of all the Russias!’ Alexie salutes. Tatiana pretends to savours her herring: ‘Gorgeous salmon this year!’ I begin to watch us all as if I am no longer here.
The black woods are tipped with ice. From the dark their brooding eyes on us. The windows are boarded up. Soldiers’ boots crack on the gravel, rifles shoot into the air, they smash their empty vodka bottles. Some urinate through holes in the walls of our flimsy building, making it smell like a stable.
Yesterday, when we exercised in the yard, they sang us a revolutionary song. Their eyes turned black as if they could no longer see an outside world. One of the Letts mercenaries, his face purple-red from a wound, lifted up Tatiana’s skirt: ‘Ever had a good man up there!’
Other soldiers spun her round, and gestured with their crotches. Tatiana slipped and fell on her back. Mama stood over her and said calmly to the soldier with the purple-red face: ‘I see your foot is wounded too. Give me bandages and I shall dress it for you.’
Another soldier smirked, ‘Get your wound dressed by the Tsarina and Rasputin will guarantee you eternal life!’ They heckled, but someone handed dressings, a bowl of water and a bottle of iodine to Mama.
She bent down and undid the young soldier’s boot, cleaned his wound, whcih was a great pusy mass of flesh. The heckling stopped. Mama spoke a prayer to the Holy Mother. Marie bent down and helped Mama. ‘As you know,’ Mama said, ‘Marie and I were nurses for the Russian soldiers in the Great War.’ As they replaced the boot, light from one of the bonfires made a cross over the soldier’s foot. The others gasped, crossed themselves instinctively with their big, bruised hands – and then looked embarrassed.
As the wounded soldier stood up a tear dripped down his cheek, his lips were as soft and yielding as if taking milk form his mother’s breast. I felt as if a night of blackness had given way to a bright dawn – this was a symbol for Russia and for us. I was filled with golden light.
The love of the people will flow again. The seeds of hate sown in their hearts by Trotsky and Lenin will disappear. Papa heard a rumour that Lenin had landed at the Finland Station in early April.
I fill my mouth with Chateau Yquem, and taste the earthiness of grapes and soil. When I close my eyes I see meadows and fields and rivers…my sisters and I are dancing in white summer frocks as handsome young cavalry officers cheer us….
Soon we shall live in Somerset, Daddy will be a farmer. I know King George will help us. I shall learn perfect English: ‘China, Please.’ A crumpet? How delightful. What is the weather in your part of the country? Yes, next week Daddy is off to shoot grouses in Banffshire….’
Czechoslovakian troops are massing on the border, Papa has heard that, the White Army will charge through this black hell to save us.
But in the bottom of my wine glass I see Rasputin’s eyes as big as the globe. That was how it began. Rasputin first came to the Alexander Palace in 1905, I think. He held Alexie’s hand, Rasputin’s eyes rolled in his head, and Alexie’s bleeding stopped. Mama was so overjoyed, she sat on Alexie’s bed and squeezed Rasputin’s hand, the way she is squeezing Papa’s now. Rasputin smiled at us and his eyes made beautiful walls of silk that you wanted to live inside for ever. His eyes became spies in all our hearts.
Even a little wine has brought a tinge of joy to our cheeks. Tatiana does a jig around Alexie’s bed, Papa finds a half-smoked cigar in his pocket and lights it. I think of the old days when he told us stories sitting round the fire, and I ask him to tell us one now, to keep away the wolves.
Alexie smiles as Tatiana teases him, but his brows are furrowed like an old man’s, as if he is reflecting on a long and difficult life. He grips his silver cross, his little fingers as thin as a skeleton’s.
Nagorny, one of the two sailors who had looked after Alexie since he was very young, was shot last month when he stood in front of a Bolshevik solder who was trying to snatch Alexie’s cross. Derevenko, the other sailor, who had looked after Alexie for ten years, left soon after the revolution. He began shouting orders at Alexie, and taunting him….
How does hate enter the human heart? What makes love stay? Holy Mother, bring back the love. Democracy was coming to Russia. We never had this bloodbath of hatred.
A soldier storms in: ‘Commandant Jacob Yurovsky to see you.’
Yurovsky enters. Tatiana stops dancing and sits on Alexie’s bed. They hold hands and the silver cross flickers under their fingers.
‘Orders,’ Yurovsky says. ‘This way. Quick.’
Yurovsky’s glasses rub on the bridge of his nose, making a red stain. They must be coming at last to exchange us.
The family follows Yurovsky downstairs, his uniform unpressed, his epaulette buttons tarnished. Our friends and helpers remain upstairs.
Letts guards jostle us down the narrow stairs and into the cellar. I sit at the back and continue writing.
A representative must be coming from England to negotiate our release, I knew King George would help – or perhaps the guards know the Czech troops are on their way. Oh thank you Holy Mother!
‘What!’ Papa says, ‘What!’
The Letts snort like pigs and raise their guns, point them at us, they are always trying to scare us. Every soldier has Rasputin’s eyes, I hide my diary in the secret pocket of my skirt. I close my eyes, I am tobogganing in the beautiful air at Tsarsko Selo, we are laughing….
They fired so many bullets in our flesh they left the shape of icons on the wall.
(Published in World Wide Writers, Winter 1998)
BETSY FLUSKIE took the mugs from the huge oak welsh-dresser, checked that her hair, white going auburn, was holding at the back, smiled into the small mahogany mirror and did not feel 67 years old at all. She tied the cord around her silk dressing-gown and patted herself as if she were a warm spring egg about to hatch. The house gently rattled when the 7.20 a.m. express from Brighton to Waterloo slowed for Clapham Junction.
Upstairs, it jigged Charlie Finnegan’s soapy shaving brush on this bright May day. He smiled benevolently at the old bathroom that had faded with him over the last forty years. At twenty-nine, as foreman in a Clapham metal works, he moved his lodgings from a dingy Islington basement to the Fluskie’s top floor in Cranleigh Road, Clapham. He heard the breakfast sounds from the kitchen and thought of Betsy with a soft feeling that was new to him.
Albert Fluskie had bought the bomb damaged house in 1953. He and Betsy, his wife, had worked hard to restore the gloomy building. They decided to let the top floor. Charlie was their first and only lodger. Albert had died from a coronary and Betsy and Charlie continued the rhythm of their own distinct lives.
Charlie massaged his face with satisfaction and tapped on his favourite aftershave. His six foot frame was bent only slightly with age and the upper body retained the tone of a strong, confident and handsome man. He heard the rattle of cups and plates from the kitchen as he swept back his thick black-grey hair on either side of the crisp parting.
The spring light halted as Charlie shut the bathroom door and walked slowly down the corridor towards his bedroom. “Hmm.” He focused on the letter by the bedside table he knew to be from Dr Slattery. “Time I opened the bloody thing.”
Betsy put the bread under the grill and turned to the enormous gilt-framed fashion mirror that Alfred Cluskie had salvaged from a corsetry shop in Stoke Newington in the early sixties. “Not bad, not bad at all.” Her hands rose behind her head as they had done when she was a girl in Kilburn. Skipping lightly in front of the stained and pitted mirror she could see her parents dance all those years ago and quite forgot the toast.
She heard Charlie’s heavy footsteps on the stairs and her heart flipped a little, anticipating something she could not express.
“Morning, Charlie, the Sporting Life’s under the jumper over there.”
”You sound low, Charlie.”
”A little stiff in the back, nothing some bacon wouldn’t comfort.”
He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Of course Charlie, how many rashers will you have? It’s not like you.”
She sensed so much about him. He was impressed inside her and onto the patterns of china jugs on the shelf, glazed into the surface of the cream kitchen walls.
“What’s that letter, Charlie?” He didn’t know he was holding it.
“Oh nothing, nothing really.”
“Charlie!” She took it from his shaking fingers, read it slowly, read it again, sat down.
“Oh Charlie, my dear Charlie!”
Without thinking she walked over to him, put both arms around his shoulders and squeezed his cold, sweaty hand. He snatched back the letter which then slipped from his grasp. He kicked it under the table.
“It’s just an operation, Charlie, and you’re fit as a … ”
“It’s a tumour, Betsy, in my head … ”
“It only says … ” A few days in hospital for further tests”, and Dr Slattery has already talked to you about that. These days, Charlie … ”
“Oh Jesus Christ, Jesus bloody Christ … ”
His broad shoulders flopped onto the table, he cupped his head in his large hands and cried like a baby.
“There, Charlie, there,” she massaged his shoulders, “we’ll fight this together.”
After all these years, she thought, we are together, and the idea was a huge shock, like a large wave breaking over a sea front.
She watched Charlie settle, dry his eyes. He took a gulp of strong tea. She loved the way his shoulders loosened when he sat and expanded like cliffs as he got up.
She stood by the sink drying a cup over and over, “Oh we’re like brother and sister” they would tell their friends. She put down the cup with a little crack. But how could poor Charlie feel the new closeness she now felt? How could she be so selfish? …
”A tumour, a bloody great tumour! How shall I spend my money if I’m going to die, Betsy, you know I’ve got a tidy sum.”
The Sporting Life crackled dryly between his fingers. Sullivan and Curlie’s, a Builders Contractors, had grown and his capacity for figures led to him helping with the accounts and studying book-keeping at night-school until he became the company secretary. Now the firm (specialising in a huge range of bricks) was one of the largest of its kind in London. He owned a small farm outside Ennistimon in County Clare and was planning to move ‘home’ soon.
”Ah, I won’t die, Betsy, I never have done yet!” Tears came to his eyes in a strange revelry. He looked at the photograph of a jockey thrown from his horse in yesterday’s 3.30 at Uttoxeter.
”Any good ones?,” she turned three thick rashers. He stared transfIxed at the fate of the jockey. “Charlie, Charlie.”
“You’re a good one, Betsy and there’s no mistaking that.”
He got up, stretched and put his arms round her as she turned the bacon.
After breakfast Charlie went for a walk on his own in Falcon Park. The horror of the news returned, sealing him from the blithe air in a vacuum of damp sweat. He was angry with the little birds, babies, children, flowers, young grass. He imagined the tumour growing like a fungus in his head. Angry too with himself, with his big ego, so self contained that he and Betsy never ‘got involved'; studying art history with the Open University (Rembrandt and Goya were his loves). But all for what? He kicked away some litter.
Betsy moved the daffodils from the window ledge to the kitchen table. And there was Charlie in dazzling light. ”You fanciful old woman!” She patted her hair into place and felt a throb in her neck. Then the awful truth returned and she felt doubly guilty because it was too late for such things, and too wicked to even entertain them.
The next day Charlie went to Minogues, an Irish pub in Islington, to have lunch with some of his old pals. The boozy session fortifIed him and he took a taxi back to Clapham. He ignored the ‘Thank You for Not Smoking’ and belched fumes over the surly driver who promptly shut the dividing window.
”Why be a taxi-driver if you don’t like cigarettes?” He clawed at the petition, ‘Well, don’t expect a tip from me, that’s all I can say!”
He then sat back and explored his head for growths, confirming the taxi-driver’s worst fears of drunken Irishmen.
Betsy had an egg sandwich for lunch and tried to read but could not concentrate. She caught sight of the picture on the mantelpiece of her only child, Heather, who lived in Ontario and had her own family now. They wrote to each other at Christmas.
“Betsy!,” Charlie called out as he came in, “let’s have a proper chat, make us a coffee, will you?” He went up to her by the cooker. “Here are some daffodils for you.”
They sat in the old living-room that hadn’t altered for decades. “Those pains in my head, Betsy, they come and go, you know.”
“You must go into the hospital, you’ll be all right. You know I’m always here … ”
“Betsy, old thing, what a couple of fools!” “Fools, Charlie?”
“Fools, Betsy. Did we think we’d never die, that any day we could collect all our feelings together and make something of them … ?”
“I want to help all I can.”
“I want to spend some money and have good times – with you Betsy!”
Their coffee cups chinked on the table.
“But why now, Charlie, is it just death making you afraid? … Oh, I’m so sorry … ”
“No, Betsy, you’re not out of order. I am afraid and I want to live.
But let’s just have a bit of fun for Christ’s sake!”
“But you will still … ”
“I’ll go and have more tests on my poor old head, you can be bloody sure of that!”
The afternoon light deepened the cream walls.
Over the next days Charlie made many phone-calls, to family in Ireland and old friends, telling them what was happening and adding unselfconsciously at the end of the conversation, that “We plan to go away for a few days” and “tonight we’ve got tickets for a musical in the West End.”
Charlie made an appointment with the hospital for early next month. Time quickened. They were surprised by how much could be lived in a day, an hour, a look.
One afternoon Charlie had gone to see the bank manager. Betsy sat in the kitchen with a pot of tea and a digestive biscuit. The light was soft as it touched the daffodils in the brown jug on the table. Thinking of Charlie she felt a glow, from his voice, the smell of his room, his crinkled blue eyed smile.
One of Charlie’s art books lay open on the table. She envied the Rembrandt girls their eternal beauty. Her own stomach and breast pulsed with new life. She imagined Charlie drying her rose-fresh body.
“Is that you, Charlie?”
“It’s me.” He gave her a bunch of red roses. “Charlie!”
“I know how you like them, I was passing the new florists … ”
“Oh sure I should.” He raised his hands in a wide arc like Father Findlay used to do when he was celebrating the Eucharist in Charlie’s Childhood.
The taste of rich currants lingered on his tongue. “We’ve not been out for a few days, shall we go somewhere a bit swish for dinner tomorrow?”
“I’d love too.”
Charlie had not had any pain in his head for a few days. He’d been praying to the Virgin Mary each night and yesterday had lit candles in St. Dominic’s.
“That was a lovely dinner, Charlie.” She took off her shoes with a feeling of delicious relief
“It was Betsy, it really was, and you look so wonderful tonight, like a film-star you know.”
”And did you see the men look around when we came in, well it wasn’t me they were gawping, was it now?”
“Clear the floor,” Charlie said, “let’s put on some waltz music and have a little dance.”
”You’re a devil of a charmer,” she rested her lips on his neck. They kissed with a force that shocked them both. “Good God what is happening to us?” She felt like a Rembrandt girl. In the bedroom she undressed with pride in front of him. “You’re still quite a man, Charlie!”
“Thank God for oysters!”
She poured him his first cup of the day. “It was lovely, wasn’t it?” “It was fantastic, bloody fantastic, we should write an article, “Hot Sex for the Over Sixties. We might even get on the telly!”
“Do you think we love each other then?”
“There’s a question!”
“I think we do, but we shouldn’t live together or marry or anything.” Betsy puckered her lips.
“And why not?”
“Because everything would change, we’re not made like that.” When she woke, with Charlie gently snoring beside her, her heart leapt a little each morning as she thought of this luck.
The scan clearly showed a growth, towards the front of Charlie’s brain, but the specialist, a bluff Yorkshireman, was optimistic. As spring turned to summer they spent a July week in a good hotel in Brighton. Charlie noticed all things with a new clarity: birds sang, trees shook, waves broke with fresh power. He especially loved all sea foods for some eternal sense they gave him. And Betsy was a bright torch in all the cobwebbed areas of his heart.
He went to a faith healer and a homeopath. Dr Slattery visited him twice. Betsy knew that the pain was sometimes excruciating. There were good days and bad, when he slept or dosed himself with painkillers. As the late summer days spread shadows in Falcon Park they were hardly apart.
“Charlie, what’s wrong with you?” she asked one morning as he sat quiet and ashen.
“It was bad last night, I’m afraid now about going to the hospital.” In the middle of September Betsy helped to pack his case, pyjamas, toiletries, a new silk dressing-gown, shoes, a shirt for coming home. No, that could wait she thought, I’ll take a fresh one in two weeks, that’s all it was, two weeks, and then, recovering, nursing him, loving him, a long holiday, they’d spoken of a cruise …
He said he could not bear it if she went with him to the hospital.
She cried on his shoulder and noticed leaves fall in the garden. She waved to the taxi and said she would come and see him tomorrow.
She sat in the kitchen and felt a lump behind the cushion of the chair. She pulled out a little round box and undid it to find a beautiful ruby ring which she held so tight her knuckles went white.
It was an evening in October. The swallows had left for the winter. The doctors had done everything. He had never fully regained consciousness. But she held his hand each day and the ruby on her finger seemed to deepen as they touched.
It was January in Betsy’s kitchen and the solid fuel fire was turned to high. She had arranged Charlie’s wake and funeral as he wished.
He had left her over £150,000 and given the farm in Ennistimon to his nephew.
She went out infrequently. The noisy pavements, the changes in the neighbourhood, the teeming world, interested her less and less. She was happy in her place. She read and drew and made teas for friends.
Charlie was often in her thoughts. He was a beacon. She heard the rhythm of a train. It was the express from Waterloo going south. She listened to the trumm-trumm of the wheels until they reached their vanishing point in her memory. She sensed the presence of Charlie all round her. She knew now she could wait happily until she followed him on the long train south.
(Published in Understanding, November 2000)
Ivan Stranic, who owned one of the larger farms in Lachtonia, was going to take the sheep up the mountain this morning to graze. His wife Milenka’s bad breath infiltrated his nostrils and his half-dreams, staining the sheep dark as he imagined leading them up the steep path.
He watched Milenka’s bulbous face and was not pleased. In consolation, he chewed a small gristle of garlic sausage stuck between his back molars.
‘Come on, breakfast!’ he commanded.
She turned her arse towards him.
‘Milenka, here’s your tea.’ Ivan pushed the mug towards her and sat on the edge of the bed, chewing some oily potatoes from last night. ‘I’m taking the sheep up the mountain today.’
‘I know.’ She itched the inside of her ear.
They looked through the chink in the curtains, towards the east side of the mountain that belonged to Lachtonia.
‘All the mountain should belong to Lachtonia,’ he raged.
‘Our grandfathers were tricked out of it!’ She rubbed sleep from her left eye.
They managed to look at each other. Neither saw the ill-assorted, smelly human figure of their partner before them, but a screen of their own outrage, against the people of Shartonia who had stolen their land many decades past.
Milenka blew her nose into a dirty handkerchief. ‘And I have to be polite to those greedy Shartonians next door, when they come into my bakery.’
‘Stop serving them. They take our food.’
All of the west side of the mountain belonged to Shartonia. Each spring they rented, at a fair price, one hundred hectares of good quality grazing land to Lachtonia.
Ivan did not shave or wash and led his sheep through the village smelling much like them. Men stood on corners, knocking their heavy feet on the cobbles, sucking pipes, acknowledging him with a touch of the cap, their sour grey eyes leaning towards the mountain. The women glanced up from hanging out large damp sheets and pillowcases.
The wild thyme smelt sweet as the sheep’s hooves scrunched it beneath them on the path to the mountain. Soft hills and meadows flowed to the far distance. All kinds of birds whirled and twittered in the sky. This should belong to us, all of it. His thoughts reddened the day and birds fell bleeding from the sky as he shot down wicked Shartonians.
Petar Linberg, the small, quiet mayor of Shartonia, waited at the slight wooden gate that marked the boundary of Shartonia’s land at the east side of the mountain. ‘Good morning Mr Stranic, are you well?’
‘We’re alright.’ Ivan pulled the banknotes notes from the rear pocket of his corduroy trousers and slapped them into Petar Linberg’s hand.
‘Thank you, Mr Stranic, I hope your sheep grow well.’
As the last sheep slid through the opening, Petar’s foot jerked out, as he tried to be helpful by opening the gate, and he kicked a lamb right in the belly.
‘You’re attacking my lambs!’
‘No, Mr Stranic, my foot slipped, there’s no harm done, please.’
‘You’re attacking my lambs!’ He slid out his thick brown leather belt and in one motion swiped Petar across the face and eyes.
‘Please Mr Stranic, please.’
‘I’ll give you “please!”.’ He flayed out with his belt and right fist, leaving Petar moaning on the floor, then replaced his belt and almost skipped down the mountain. ‘You’d steal everything there was, given the chance!’
Milenka noticed a new pride in his eyes as he hunched in the kitchen chair.
‘And I didn’t serve them with bread.’
They saw again the vision, and rejoiced. That night they hugged the vision close to them, and attempted sex. The failure was as nothing in the light of their new dream of a “Greater Lachtonia”.
Ivan called a meeting in the village square. The elders, the young bucks, and the women, some with heavy soup ladles strafing the air, agreed to revenge the injustices against their ancestors.
The following months were marshalled to army training and strategic planning. Ivan became a section commander. Milenka organised a boycott of all Shartonian produce and led the small mob that ferreted any resident Shartonians out of the village. She bought new clothes, and smiled more frequently into the mirror. Over supper they ate more politely and enjoyed their new dignity.
Lachtonian soldiers laid offensive mines across the mountain, often using old badger runs, rabbit warrens or fox holes; they placed artillery in strategic places; they had live target practice on the mass of birds that flew past in abundance.
Ivan, chewing a fat, wet cigar, led his platoon up the mountain in spring. It was a damp, still day. The tanks and artillery had damaged the wildlife and the butterflies had deserted for quieter terrain.
Shartonian opposition was slight. Many had fled already. Others died bravely and hopelessly. Ivan personally bayoneted Petar Linberg and watched his blood swim into a small puddle until it clotted in a pile of dust. Ivan was awarded a medal for his valour and chosen to lead the “new settlers” from Lachtonia when they recolonised Shartonia.
A year later the Stranics woke in Shartonia at the other side of the mountain. They had requisitioned the mayor’s house, a clean well-fitted home. Ivan noticed the sagging breasts of his wife, like huge cow’s udders. She smelt the stale garlic in his breath.
‘Make me some tea, woman!’
‘What a pathetic little worm!’ She turned her arse to him, squirming it into his genitals. ‘Gone dead once and for all, has it?’
The mountain looked dreary and lifeless in the dawn light. There were fewer birds, butterflies, bushes and grasses than before. Milenka opened the curtains in their bedroom which looked towards the green fertile plateau of Dantonia.
‘Those Dantonians!,’ Ivan shouted, ‘they don’t deserve that good land.’
‘They cheated it from us long ago.’
‘A Greater Lachtonia!’ They clapped their hands in unison.
They looked lovingly towards the plateau of Dantonia. Ivan imagined leading his sheep to the fine grazing land that belonged by rights to them.
When Ivan and Milenka sat opposite each other at breakfast they saw not their putrid, ugly shapes but a rejuvinated vision of truth, and rejoiced.