Writer, journalist, teacher

Category: writing (Page 3 of 3)

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.’
‘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.

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.

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