Jeremy Worman

Writer, Journalist, Teacher

Category: Short stories (page 2 of 2)

The Way

(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.
‘Bit late.’
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.’
‘Thank you.’
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.’
‘So?’
‘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.’
‘What?’
‘It’s in the way of David Wilcox’s plans for his country sports centre.’
‘So?’
‘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.

Storm at Galesburg

Prize-winning story 
(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.’
‘You heard.’
‘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.
‘Screw you.’

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.

Holy Russia

(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.

Late Love

(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, Betsy.”
“Morning, Charlie, the Sporting Life’s under the jumper over there.”
“Okay.”
”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.”
“Charlie!”
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 … ”
“You shouldn’t.”
“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.
“Tea?”
“Lovely.”
“Fruit cake?”
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.”
“Flatterer!”
”And did you see the men look around when we came in, well it wasn’t me they were gawping, was it now?”
“Charlie!”
“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.

Dominion

(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.’
‘I will!’
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.’
‘They did!’
‘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.

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