I barely looked at the mug, but that was enough to send it falling out the cupboard on to my kitchen floor. I'm not usually clumsy but sometimes, when I'm upset, accidents happen.
"It didn't smash!" Vicki 's shocked reaction suggested that was further reason for her to be angry with me.
Usually I'd have joked about how lucky I was, but she was in no mood to hear about my good fortune. "Of course it didn't, I've got cushioned flooring," I said.
"No you haven't!" She reached down, "Oh! I could have sworn they were real tiles."
"Perhaps that's not the only thing you've been mistaken about?" I asked.
"It isn't," she snapped. "I thought we were friends."
"We are," I said, hoping it was still true.
"Then why charm yourself into the job I wanted?"
"You wanted the promotion?" I probably sounded as surprised as Vicki had about the mug. I knew a few others had applied for the job, but thought the main reason they'd done that was to prevent it going to someone from outside. That's caused problems in the past.
"Why wouldn't I?" Vicki demanded.
Because she wanted to have babies and be a stay at home mum. She hadn't actually said that, but I'd been so sure it was what she really wanted... Oh dear, what had I done?
Everyone else had congratulated me on the promotion, saying I'd be perfect for the role, but not Vicki. Her look had said she'd like to burn me at the stake. Later she'd barged past me hissing, "I'm on to you."
The words had made me shiver. Although she couldn't know for sure, it was possible she'd guessed the truth. Because of that, and because I didn't want her to stay angry with me, I'd used my persuasive powers to get her to come to my place after work and talk about it.
She'd followed me home, accepted my offer of tea and sat on one of my kitchen chairs, just as she'd done many times before. Everything was going fine until I dropped the mug and broke the spell.
"You lead a charmed life, Tina."
She's said things like that before and I've managed to laugh it off. Not this time.
"You always have all the luck," Vicki continued. "And if it doesn't come naturally you fix things so you get what you want. I know what tricks you played to get promoted."
"Tricks?" That's not the word I'd have used.
"It's pretty obvious how you got round Mr Roberts. He's always looking down our tops."
She thought I'd slept my way to promotion? Thinking it might be better if she believed that, I just shrugged.
"Maybe you got away with it this time, but you better watch out – what goes around comes around."
She was right about that. I could have pointed out that insulting the person who was just about to become her new line manager wasn't a good idea, but I didn't. There's no way I'd use my power to hurt her, I'd much rather patch up our friendship.
"I'm sorry you're upset over this," I said, "I honestly didn't think you were bothered about the promotion."
Vicki looked into my eyes for a moment, "If you say so." She didn't sound totally convinced, but I felt she wanted to believe me.
Conjuring up positive vibes, I made her tea in the mug I'd dropped.
"Perhaps it's the mug which is lucky, not me?" I jokingly suggested.
"Could be." She gave a brief smile, "Having to get jiggy with lecher Roberts isn't exactly lucky."
"No." I shuddered. That man was going to be my immediate supervisor and he was truly awful, but I really couldn't do to him what he deserved.
Vicki's face wobbled and I hoped she was going to laugh over the idea of me seducing the horrid Mr Roberts, but instead she started crying.
"Come on, tell me what's up. It's not about the job, is it?" I coaxed.
Between sobs, she told me I was right about her not wanting promotion; and why.
"All I want is a baby."
I learned her doctor had said, although it wasn't entirely impossible, the odds were against her.
"I did apply for the job, but only because I thought having a career might somehow make not having a family less painful. It wouldn't have helped and you'll make a much better manager than me."
Incredibly relieved that what I'd done hadn't been an awful mistake, I hugged her tight.
She hugged me back, "Sorry, Tina. Of course you wouldn't have done what I said... with Mr Roberts. I don't know what came over me."
I did. "Hormones?" I suggested, "Some women do get emotional at, you know, that time of month."
She stared at me, "But it isn't ... well, it is, but I'm not ... Oh my god! Do you think ...?"
Vicki rushed off to get a pregnancy test, leaving me very, very relieved. And absolutely determined never ever to interfere in anyone's life ever again.
As soon as she'd gone I reversed the spell on my kitchen tiles. I never did like that cushioned stuff, but at the time it was all I could think of to explain about the mug. Some people say tiles are cold but that doesn't worry me.
The myth about witches' feet not touching the floor is true. So is the one about all our deeds coming back to us threefold.
He watched her rolling and folding, placing each item into the deep suitcase. She had never let him pack when they were going away. She said he wasted too much space and she prided herself on getting everything into one case, no matter how long the holiday. Every Summer, he’d just wanted a case of his own that he could throw his things into at the end of the trip and pour out onto the bedroom floor once home, unleashing the smells of the Mediterranean into their cramped, Holloway flat. But she would just shoo him away and slot everything in, like a jigsaw made up of bras, toilet bags and shirts.
Now, however, she was packing just for one and it was not linens and bikinis for some short getaway, but clothes for her new life with a man she’d met online, whilst he had been working every hour God sent to pay for the mortgage, the kids’ school and university costs…. the holidays.
Watching her was like watching his mother making her famous Sunday trifle, thirty years earlier: A base layer of larger clothing – jumpers, jackets and formal dresses – were laid down first, then the T-shirts and trousers, balled up so they wouldn’t crease, and finally the underwear and socks, filling the gaps like thick cream oozing into any gaps between the fruit and sponge. But thinking of his mother brought no comfort as he struggled to accept his wife’s betrayal. As she rolled another T-shirt, squeezing the life out of it, searching for an air pocket in which to stuff it, his anger boiled up inside him, unleashed, never again to be packed tidily away.
And as his hands closed around her throat, squeezing the life out of it, the T-shirt fell to the floor.
As he looked into the suitcase, trying to fit everything in as neatly as she would have done, he realised that it was harder than it had ever looked and a fleeting, grudging admiration for her skill scuttled through his mind. But then this was always going to be harder than a few skirts and pants. Indeed, he was quite pleased with this first attempt. He’d put the heavy things in first, as he’d observed over all those years, making a base layer with the torso and the head, and if he could just loop this leg round a little more to line the edge of the case, he could probably get the zip done up.
Prohibition has not been imposed in Quebec; consequently ‘bootlegging’ is non-existent. This makes Papa Charlie happy. He owns the only hotel in town, a good lucrative business which keeps him rewarded in profits and luxuries he can afford. The shining Alfa Romeo parked in the sun is his pride and joy.
In his earlier life, Papa Charlie had been a co-pilot for Air India and enjoyed the travelling and good salary. Eventually he gracefully made his final landing on terra firma.
Today is 11 November, Remembrance Day and Papa Charlie is been busy lubricating his customers. ‘Bravo’ he cries, as he throws another empty whisky bottle into the recycling bin. The echo of glass hitting glass reverberates around the saloon.
Papa Charlie, is a fit man, reaching over six feet tall. He claims his health and vigour is complimented by regularly playing golf and consuming an average of one kilo of lima beans per month.
He flexes his muscles and looks across the smoke hazed room. A grin adorns his face as he observes ‘yankee’ Mike and Juliet practicing their tango. Although they are both out of step, they elegantly trip over each other’s feet unaware of the presence of Oscar, the bar ‘romeo’, a typical ‘alpha male’ who is nearby, sexually gyrating his hips into slow foxtrot frolics.
Past the twirling and rotating bodies, Papa Charlie surveys his collection of ageing and tarnished posters hanging on the opposite wall. His favourite, ‘Zulu’ portrays the backs of the red coated British soldiers pointing their guns towards the warriors. The second poster has a more temperate flavour, depicting the foothills and rise to the glorious Sierra Nevada, the high mountain range of the Iberian Peninsula.
Suddenly the door swings open and a man appears, wearing a Delta Force uniform.
“You’re late Victor,” scolds Papa Charlie.
“I had to go to the dentist”, replies Victor in a muffled voice, “My mouth tastes awful.”
Papa Charlie scans Victor’s face and observes the swollen cheek. He notices something is different.
“I haven’t seen you wear those before,” he says pointing to a large pair of plastic spectacles Victor has balanced on his nose.
“What?” Says Victor.
He looks puzzled. He slowly lifts his hand up to his face and nose. “Oh blast,” he shouts, “X-ray goggles. Well bugger me, I never noticed I still had them on.”
Papa Charlie reaches for a bottle and two glasses.
“Come on Victor, you look as if you need a drink, I’ve got a good whisky just for you.”
“What’s that one then?” asks Victor.
‘Stag’s Breath.” came the reply.
“Are you okay?” Martha asked while she fiddled with the corner of the plastic menu. Instead of answering Willem pushed back from the table. He walked over to the counter to order a portion of fried chicken. She had hoped for a meal at one of the many Lebanese cafes they’d passed on the way from his one-bedroom flat but he’d said he didn’t want to be out long, he wanted something quick and easy.
“What’s wrong?” she asked when he returned.
He didn’t reply. Instead he sat staring out the window, his blue eyes scanning the street. Not knowing what else to say she bent her head and noticed the corner of the menu had split. She picked at the sides so they separated even more and hoped for him to tell her he’d missed her, to tell her he couldn’t let her go just as he had during their nights together in Dubai. His intense kisses back then had touched a deep, empty spot inside her being. When they’d parted she’d pretended it was okay but her body had ached for weeks afterwards in London like it was going through a withdrawal process. Perhaps that’s how her father had felt when he’d tried to give up his addiction.
“I’m sorry,” Willem suddenly said.
She looked up, disorientated for a moment and wondered what she was doing here in Sydney with a man she hardly knew.
“I’m not myself at the moment,” he said.
She nodded. She’d told him in Dubai about her difficult relationship with her father, how bad it had been when he was drinking. How it had pulled her out of shape but now things were better. She was better. He’d listened quietly but she was sure she’d seen pain bound up behind his eyes.
“I’m in a bit of trouble,” he said.
She stared at the creases around his eyes and felt his leg twitch under the table. What did he want her to say? She was thankful that the waitress interrupted by dropping a box of chicken onto their table. Willem picked up a drumstick and started pulling the meat and gristle from a bone. I need you. The words he’d emailed weeks after they’d parted ran through her head. Wasn’t that why she’d booked an Emirates flight and travelled for 26-hours to be here? This wasn’t just a holiday fling. He needed her. Wasn’t it enough that she was here?
“Did you hear me?” he said touching her on the wrist. “I’ve got this debt that needs repaying but I’ve got nothing left.”
“Right,” she said. Her stomach groaned with hunger but she pushed the greasy chicken box away. She had money but he probably knew that. How else could she afford to travel, to constantly be jumping on and off planes? The constant movement soothed her anxiety, brought some relief from that gnawing sense of fracture within. When they’d first met, Willem had said she was lucky to have such freedom. She’d liked him saying that but it wasn’t really freedom. The truth was if she stayed in one place too long she was afraid the cracks might start to appear and then she would begin to break into too many pieces. There’d be no way back from that.
The cash till beeped and jolted her out of her thoughts. She glanced about and saw the restaurant was now empty of lunchtime diners, the tables cleared, the strip lighting flickering overhead. She turned back to face Willem.
“I don’t know what will happen to me if I don’t repay it.” His mess of dark hair fell over his eyes so she couldn’t read the expression on his face.
“Well, how much do you owe?” Her voice sounded brisk, business-like.
He smiled. “You know I love you.”
She clenched her teeth. There had been too many men over the years, too many casual romances. She knew she’d been fickle, played with men’s affections but she’d never really wanted love. Well, that would require staying in one place wouldn’t it? It would mean putting down roots, intimacy. She shuddered. The air conditioning whirred through the filters. She’d seen what love could do. It had crippled her mother and broken her soul.
A bus rattled past outside. Martha pulled her bag off the floor and took out her purse. She couldn’t love this man she’d flown across the world to see again. Didn’t want to. Kindness was all she had to offer. She might lose her money, lose her faith but to lose her heart, then she’d be in real trouble. The only way to be free again would be to move on, let him go.
“Come on,” she said. “There’s a bank across the road.”
He raked his hand through his hair. His blue eyes stared at her intently.
“You’ll help me?” She heard a note of disbelief in his voice.
She nodded silently.
The creases round his eyes softened, “Once I pay off this debt we could go travelling together, get away just the two of us,” he said. She saw his gratitude etched deeply across his face.
“I don’t think travelling is the answer,” she said standing up. She didn’t tell him that staying in Sydney with him wasn’t the answer either.
She crossed towards the open door but stopped as a child raced past outside. For a second she watched the child in her purple sunhat chasing the pigeons off the pavement and remembered herself at that age laughing freely at everything and nothing. How happy she’d been! In that moment she saw the truth of her present situation. All the travel and holiday romances meant nothing. She was lost not living. She was simply avoiding herself and needed to change. Now as she stepped out into the full glare of sunshine she hoped to fall in love, not with this man she hardly knew, but with life again.
I asked Angela if there was anything else on the TV besides her damn soaps. She threw me the control, instead of putting her reply into words, because after twenty years of marriage it seemed that we only spoke to each other when it was absolutely necessary. She left the room for the toilet or the kitchen: I don’t think she said.
I fumbled the remote and it fell between the cushions of the sofa. I slid my hand down the side of the material and brought it back out, along with twelve pence in change and a takeaway menu from a Chinese that had been shut down by the environmental health authorities last year. I went back in for further investigation and my fingers touched upon something else. When I pulled my hand back out I saw it was a condom wrapper.
Caitlin, our fourteen-year-old daughter, had been seeing a boy named Joshua for a few months, and it was no secret to either of them or my wife, that I was against the relationship. If you could even call it a relationship. Angela was a little more liberal towards the whole thing. Joshua had been around a few times to study, but we never let Caitlin close her bedroom door when he was. As far as I knew – as far as she had told us – they had only kissed once with their tongues (which she didn’t enjoy), so surely she couldn’t have –
But I didn’t want to think about that.
I shouldn’t have been surprised though: sex didn’t have anything to do with love anymore. Kids these days didn’t respect the act, or fear it the way my generation did. They treated virginity like a poison that had to excise from their bodies. But Caitlin was different. We had brought her up well. She came with us to church every Sunday, prayed by her bedside every night, and she never cursed or took the Lord’s name in vain.
But perhaps I was being naive.
I put the condom wrapper on the coffee table and stared at it. It looked like it had been ripped open roughly. I winced. I wondered if she had put it on for him.
I shook my head and the image evaporated.
At least she was being safe. She knew about the risk of disease, and perhaps the greater risk of pregnancy. So in one respect, my unfortunate discovery proved she wasn’t being completely irresponsible. But on our sofa? I shifted uncomfortably. I didn’t know when she would have had that opportunity: as far as I knew, they had never been together in the house alone.
Angela returned from wherever she had been and handed me a cup of coffee. I thanked her and she squeezed in beside me on the sofa. I slurped the frothy heat from the coffee and waited for her to notice the evidence on the table.
“Where’d you find that?” she asked, almost immediately.
And there it was.
It was, of course, a valid question. But there was something in that moment immediately before she asked; something in the way she caught her breath as she sat down next to me, and seemed to be afraid to let it go; something about how she almost spilled the coffee as she set it down on the table, and how she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking after she had; something in the blush that descended upon her face, and the way her gaze darted this way and that; something about the way the question fell from her mouth seemingly against her will.
There was something in that moment that told me she already knew the answer.
Vincent van Gogh had been out walking his imaginary dog. He found it helpful to have imaginary pets. And it was the dog too who first sniffed the thing. It stopped mid-step at the gate and gave a loud yelp. Van Gogh found the dog’s behaviour quite baffling. This had been an obedient dog, unlike other imaginary stuff. When he tried to induce it inside, it resisted.
Something was really off. He opened the gate and passed. Behind, the dog whined, its yelps a premonition. He stood thinking, dreading. Then went up to meet the thing in the atelier.
The light had faded out the window a while back. The lamps were not lit yet. He rested on the door-step, adjusting his eyes to the dimness of the workshop. All around the room canvases of half-finished paintings, colours, brushes, palette knives, were scattered on the floor and on the chairs. He peered into the dusk of the room, his eyes blind after having been outside in the colours and light. He searched the window seats, the folds of the curtains; crouched down to look under the chairs and tables. The thing was directly in front of him, crouching, just off the threshold. He was disquieted for a moment when he saw it. He was expecting something that lurked.
The thing was a thick mound teeming with a swarm of eyes, bulging, crowded one over the other and staring at him hostilely. The eyes blinked constantly; first closing slowly, then all opening one by one in a pattern.
The whole movement was like a shimmering of the beehive. Hairy spiders crawled up Van Gogh’s spine. First instinct was to run for the door, which he resisted. Even face to face with the abhorrent thing, he accepted that the flight was impossible, now, after having seen it. Its visual imprints would be caged in his memory, forever.
He mulled over if he should call neighbours and friends to help him get rid of it, but decided against it. Can things like these be shown outside? He thought of his critics. No, let it not be seen by anyone, he came to the conclusion after thinking it over. He knew what was required of him, his own responsibility. He needed to throw it out of the house. But he was loath to go near it, and touch. It could not be swept off, nor raked out, and while shovelling it; might slip and slide onto his feet. The last image made him break out into cold sweats. He fetched a blanket from the bedroom and flung it across the thing. Then skipping into the room he started stacking
furniture and paintings on the loose ends of the quilt. The thing lay roofed in, impassive and unmoved.
The next morning, he was roused up by a steady, low scraping noise. In an instant, he was out of the bed and on the stairs to the workshop. The bundle of eyes, for that is what he called it now, had wriggled out from under the blanket. He stood with the doorknob in his hand, listening to it move inside. He did not want to look at it in the daylight, desiring his conscience to be deceived; to let it remain an illusion of nights. All the same, it was there, squirming against his labour of love - his masterpieces.
He came outside, rather breathless. The sun was up and the air was luminous with the smells and colours of the morning. The bright greenery of the foliage glowed in the gentle light. The scent of the fresh barley hit him and his nostrils flared up keenly. He breathed deep into his lungs, his cells lapping up the oxygen, hungrily. All his being shivered in response to the stirrings of life.
All this beauty was like a pain — a delicious anguish, that quickened his steps, filled his heart with dreams. His soul was awash with rapture which would metamorphose into the longing to create. A single eagle, its wings chipped by age and weather, swooped down out of sight. He walked on.
Then it rose, triumphant, a field mouse clutched in its talons. His heart contracted. He had never had any stomach for the cruel necessities of nature. But it was in his make-up. It made him what he was.
Then he stopped. Along the road, a bank of purple flowers with big yellow hearts nodded their heads in the light wind, proud and aloof, and yet strangely fleshy and miserly of life. A reluctance, like a sudden coldness, came over him. He thought of the bundle of eyes writhing through his things, its loose, puckered skin folding over the eyes in slow sickening waves. He realized abruptly what a multitude the thing was.
Peasants trooped to the fields. It was going to be a windy day, one in which breeze sprang up in the tops of the trees and one felt heady with all the motions. He liked days like this. Liked to be blown about with the elements. But still the thing walked over his canvases, like on a grave. He felt inadequate and inept to the existence. Quite overwhelmed; his dampened spirit refused to rise again.
He turned homewards, rueful of the day. He knew what was to be done.
Every few minutes he would adjust his ill-fitted suit, a stretch of the sleeve, tug on the trousers. It almost didn’t seem worth killing that man over. He always knew he was meant to do God’s work. It wasn’t his destiny to be kept under lock and key in the ‘loony house’. If he wasn’t willing to get his hands a little dirty in God’s work, how would he get accepted? So he did what he had to do - broke out of that crazy place where they kept feeding him those pills and started looking for the Devil.
Then he spotted her. She was a redhead, with her blasphemous skirt that was almost threads and a loose shirt that openly mocked Revelation 17:5. He would start with her.
As she crossed the lawn, he could see a party in progress. It was as if God was sitting at his shoulder, pointing him in the right direction. She had led him to the lair crawling with the sinners. Behind every flash of skin and each drag of their funny cigarettes, he could see the face of the Devil. They had tried to ‘fix’ him up at the centre, but they didn’t realise it was not he who was broken. It was the world that needed fixing.
He entered the house, passing through the throng of people. Each touch sent a thousand snakes crawling over his skin. The air was thick with their collective stench, but it only made him more resolute. He could just keep her in sight amongst the constantly bobbing shoulders and heads. Her voice crackled in Devil’s symphony as she freely embraced the bodies in her way. They were so consumed by their debauchery that they paid absolutely no attention to the middle-aged man in the ill-fitted suit. They will soon enough, he knew. But first, he needed to find the redhead in this crowd. As he clawed his way, his eyes fell on a carving knife in the table. It was as if this place wanted blood spilt. He slid the knife under his jacket and set in pursuit of the redhead.
“Hey! Can someone grab another case from the basement?” Someone shouted.
“A case of beer coming right up!” Replied the redhead. That voice would never stop haunting him.
He spotted the door to the basement on his right and snuck towards it. A flight of stairs led into the basement. He descended and crouched underneath the stairs, where he would wait for the unsuspecting redhead.
This was as good a vantage point as any for what he had in mind. About a minute later, he heard footsteps at the top of the stairs. The sound descended down the stairs with the accompanying body. He heard a button being pressed and a patch of light appeared next to the foot of the stairs. This was his redemption, his final payment.
He could almost smell her revolting perfume now. As he gripped the knife for the final lunge, another voice called out from the top of the stairs.
“… and also prep the basement for the ritual. I guess we’ll have to make do with that suit guy today!”
I didn’t tell a lie but I didn’t tell the truth either. I just didn’t tell.
I was four years old. I’m seventy-four now but I can recall every detail of that day. I have an excellent memory which seems to be a blessing these days. Years ago it would have been just that your granny had gone a bit loopy. Now there’s a whole industry of memory tests, scans, and medication. Spare me!
The few photos I have of my childhood show a cute and angelic looking child. Here I’m sitting on a swing, all curly blond hair and winning smile, a veritable Shirley Temple. I was doted on by my parents until, that is, she came along. Then everything changed. People would stop mother in the street, bend over the pram and coo at her. They would turn to me and say
‘Can I take your baby sister?’
‘Yes’ I would reply without a moment’s hesitation.
‘She doesn’t mean that’ mother would say apologetically. ‘You love her, don’t you Ruth?’
Cue for me to hang my head and stay silent.
The day that ‘it’ happened she would have been only a few months old. Mother had called to see an elderly couple to whom we were vaguely related. I’d spent an uncomfortable hour, sitting on a scratchy horsehair sofa that had made the backs of my legs red and itchy. Trousers had yet to become an accepted form of dress for girls. My mother had chatted on and on, and I was hungry. At last we set off for home, but then she decided to call at the corner shop. I wanted to go into the shop. I might get some sweets, a stick of liquorice, or a chocolate mouse. Failing that, as the shop was filled with factory workers from the local mill getting food for their lunch break, I might get patted on the head, or chucked under the chin, and my mother told what a pretty child I was. One in the eye for that ‘pudding in the pram’ out there.
Fate decreed otherwise though. The pudding started to cry and my mother insisted I stand outside.
‘Just keep jiggling the pram handle and hopefully she’ll go off to sleep.’
I was mortified. She’d won again, the pudding. I stood jiggling as mother watched from inside the shop and nodded encouragingly. The more I jiggled the more furious I got. I started to kick out at the pram wheel. Mother could only see the top half of me, so I kept on smiling and kicking, until I swapped from the wheel to the brake. I knew full well what would happen, but I was full of devilment. Sure enough, after several hefty kicks of the brake, the pram took flight. It started to roll along the pavement, and as the road was on a slight incline it gathered speed, ran off the curb, veered into the road, and hit the tram lines, tipping over onto its side. I must have run after it, for the next minute mother and several workmen charged out of the shop, and into the road to retrieve the pram and child. The pram was a wartime Utility pram and built like a Sherman tank. In those days there was little traffic, except for the trams, delivery vans and horse drawn milk floats. My sister, tucked snugly inside the pram, was therefore, none the worse for wear.
Mother, however, was distraught. We were escorted back to the shop where mother was seated and given a strong, sweet, cup of tea.
‘I couldn’t have put the brake on properly’ she kept saying, over and over.
‘It’s all my fault. She could have been killed and it would have been my fault.’
Standing at the side of her chair, looking down on the now sleeping baby on her knee and then at my tearful mother, I said not a word. Nobody asked me what had happened, so I never told a lie. They came to the conclusion that if the brake had been applied lightly, the jiggling of the pram handle would probably have been enough to cause it to give. The matter was laid to rest, along with the truth.
That incident taught me a useful lesson in life, however. From then on I found that a sweet, angelic face can be a great advantage.. People always believe the best of you. It saw me through many close calls. I never needed to tell a lie, nor did I need to tell the truth. I just didn’t tell. You could literally get away with murder, and I should know, because eventually I did.
It was on one of my post lock-down walks that I first met Reg. It was a lovely day and I fancied a quiet sit down but the only seat available was on a bench next to an old man. It was awkward at first, two strangers seeking solitude but obliged to engage out of politeness. I didn’t stay long but enjoyed our chat. I’ve been back every day since, and Reg is always sitting there in the same spot. Now we’re like old friends and chat for ages.
Reg is old school, ‘of a certain generation’ as my old man would have said. The ‘politically correct’ police would have a field day with him. But whilst some of the things he says make me cringe, he also makes me laugh and I haven’t done a lot of that lately. Nobody has.
I’m later to the park today, not that it matters – I’m pretty sure Reg spends most of his day sat there. He just says he’s waiting though he never says what for.
To my surprise, however, today he’s not there, somebody else is. I glance around but there’s no sign of him. I amble towards the bench – our bench – and see an old lady sat in his spot. She turns at the sound of my approach and smiles.
“Hi,” I reply. I’ve stopped and am inexplicably staring at her. It’s starting to get awkward. I hope she hasn’t got one of those personal alarms or she’s likely to use it.
“Would you like to sit down?”
“Out enjoying the sun?”
“Yes. And waiting.” That vague response works for Reg, so perhaps it will work for me and she’ll leave it at that.
“For your wife?” she asks glancing around.
Nope, didn’t work. Further explanation is required. I try to calculate how rude it would be for me to get up and walk away.
“I’ll have a long wait if I am – she ran off with my best friend. She even took the dog.”
Bet she wishes she never asked now.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her smile is warm and genuine, and I instantly regret my abrasive tone.
“It’s alright, I’m getting over it. I miss my dog though.”
“Sounds like you’re better off without her. Your wife, not your dog.”
“Maybe. What about you, I haven’t seen you here before – leastways not in the two weeks I’ve been coming?”
“Oh, I used to come here all the time with my husband. I’ve been poorly these last couple of weeks, so haven’t been out.”
“Oh dear, that’s not good,” I reply, hoping she doesn’t notice me surreptitiously inching away from her. I don’t do illness, especially not after the virus.
“Don’t worry, dear, I’m over it now and it was nothing contagious.”
She noticed. “Sorry! Old habits.”
She smiles, probably out of pity.
“It’s so peaceful here, I thought I’d come and talk to my Reggie. That’s my husband – he passed away three weeks ago. We came here every day. This was our bench. Being somewhere he loved brings me comfort.”
My head is spinning. Reggie? Surely, she can’t mean Reg? He looked pretty alive to me. “I’m sorry for your loss.” My words sound hollow.
Surely this is just a coincidence – but where is Reg?
She suddenly gets to her feet and smiles at a family walking down the path towards us. Probably her relatives. I turn to ask her, but she’s vanished. Literally. How is that possible for a lady aged somewhere north of eighty?
I glance at the bench and notice a shiny, brass plaque screwed into the backrest. I have never seen it before as Reg always sat there blocking it. Before I can read it, I realise that the family are standing next to me. The middle-aged couple feign smiles as the two teenaged children stare sullen faced in my direction.
In an afternoon of awkwardness, this reigns supreme. I notice the woman is clutching a bunch of lilies and surmise the plaque is in remembrance of somebody they loved, and they’ve come to lay the flowers.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m intruding. I’ll go,” I say, hoping to beat a hasty retreat.
“No, please stay, you’re not intruding at all. They’d be pleased something they cherished was getting used,” says the woman laying the flowers beneath the plaque.
“My parents. They loved it here. This was their bench.” She nods her head towards the plaque inviting me to read it. Trying to ignore what Stacy gets up to after school, according to the graffiti to the right of the plaque, I read:
‘In loving memory of my husband Reginald “Reggie” Palmer. Until we’re together again’.
“We had that plaque added after my father died a few weeks ago. Now we’re have to have one made for Mum.”
“Both your parents have passed away within a few weeks of each other?” I ask incredulously.
“Yes. My father died three weeks ago, and my mother was taken ill about a week after that. She passed away yesterday. We wanted to come somewhere today where we knew they’d been happy together. The doctors aren’t sure what she died of yet, but I am – it was a broken heart, pure and simple. At least now they’re together again.”
“I don’t suppose you have a photograph of them, do you?”
If it is an inappropriate request, they don’t seem offended. The woman fumbles around in her handbag before pulling out a much-cherished photograph and handing it to me.
My breath catches in my throat as I study the image. It is probably a few years old but there is no mistaking the couple smiling back at me – it is Reg and the old lady.
Fighting down the lump in my throat I hand the photo back and once again offer my sympathies. Then, without saying another word, I turn and head for home.
I guess Reg’s wait is over.
Leaning my bike against an old wooden seat, I removed my helmet and gauntlets and stared up at the inn sign.
The Rest Awhile
I would, but not for long. The tank was almost empty, and I still had ten miles to go. I must not be late. My attendance was essential. I had been trying for months to find a replacement and this day was to be my last chance.
Tucking my helmet under my arm I pushed against the ancient door. It groaned but reluctantly gave way. I bent my head and entered.
“Hello,” I called to the gloomy bar.
The barmaid glanced up.
“Hello,” she said, then tossing back her hair returned to her reading.
Not a very promising start I thought but needs must. I strode across the worn carpet towards her.
“Is there fuel to be obtained here?”
She lifted her head and raised her eyebrows.
“Not here, sir. This is an inn.” She grinned and pointed towards the beer pumps.
“Well I’ll have a half of that then perhaps you can direct me to where I may find fuel for my steed.” I gave my helmet a quick tap.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, her alluring presence seemed out of place. She smiled in a most disconcerting way. I found myself quite inexplicably discomforted.
Her full red lips parted to display the tip of a pink tongue that slipped along her even white teeth. Pulling at the beer pump she bent her head to watch the creamy foam frothing into the glass. She stole a quick look up through long dark lashes and my breathing took a break. Placing the overflowing glass onto the bar she withdrew her hand from the cold vessel leaving a film of mist on her fingers. Licking them dry she met my eyes with a sultry look.
I took a quick glance at her reading material.
The Taming of The Shrew. A play script and not just any script!
I took a welcome draught of the cool beer.
“Is there a garage in this village, preferably one that sells petrol?”
“Oh yes, sir,” she said, pursing her full lips in an exaggerated pout. “And it does sell petrol. Sometimes.”
“Sometimes? Well, can you direct me to this garage where I may purchase some petrol?”
“Indeed I can, sir.” She inclined her head. A dark twirling curl threatened to escape from the comb holding the unruly mass at her crown.
“Good,” I said, draining my glass. “Direct me then, dear lady.”
“Around the corner, sir,” she said. “Not a hundred yards.” Her laughter now was barely contained.
I nodded my thanks and prepared to leave. My leathers creaked in furious reluctance.
“But it’s closed,” she murmured.
I turned back slowly. The leathers seemed pleased.
“When will it be open?”
Wearing an infuriating playful smile, she leaned an elbow on the bar and tucked a hand under her chin.
“Depends,” she gurgled.
“On what, may I ask?”
Despite my hurry, I was truly beginning to enjoy this.
“On my Dad.”
I took a deep breath. Calm yourself I advised my lurching heart. This girl is toying with you. She is captivating, clever, and oh so confident. I was thrilled to think that I may at last have discovered the one!
“I’m tired, hungry and I need to be somewhere else, apart from this enchanting place, very soon. Much as I am enjoying your company, I fear I must postpone this little game, madam.”
“Dad’s gone to get a spare part for a car he’s repairing. No-one else to man the pumps I’m afraid. He’ll be back soon. Won’t you have something to eat while you wait?”
She pointed to the menu beside her.
I sighed. Placing my helmet on the bar I threw up my hands. “Ok, I suppose you’re the chef as well?”
“Course not. That’s my mum.” She chuckled and pointed to the Ploughman’s Lunch on the menu. I nodded. She drew a deep breath, turned her head and gave a piercing shout.
“ONE PLOUGHMANS PLEASE MUM.” The glasses above the bar trembled.
A cheery face appeared around the kitchen door.
“You annoying our customers again Kate?”
“Kate?” I mimed; eyebrows raised. She inclined her head.
“What do you do when you’re not annoying customers, Kate?” I asked.
“I’m an actor. Learning my lines for an audition this afternoon,” she raised the play scrip and waved it at me. I almost choked.
“At The Grand Theatre, four o’ clock?” I roared.
“Aye, sir.” Her dark smouldering eyes narrowed. She glared at me now, hands on hips and tossed her head. “How…”
Gathering up my helmet I drew it back in a flourish, not quite as elegant as a plumed hat but it would have to do. I gave a deep bow, quite difficult in riding leathers, but I think I accomplished a suitably elegant pose.
“Director and Petrucio at your service madam.”
She turned a deep shade of pink and gasped.
“Worry not, dear Kate, attend the audition.” I cried.” I cannot wait to see your performance. It is sure to be quite, quite scorching!”
Her ringing, sizzling laughter had me gasping for breath.
Following lunch, I was directed to the garage. We parted having arranged to meet at the theatre for a read through of The Taming of The Shrew. I was relishing working with this electrifying lady.
We had only four weeks of rehearsals before we began our tour of Italy.
Could she do it? Of course she could; with my able assistance.
I admit I was rather looking forward to telling my present leading lady, my wretched, dreary wife, that I had at last found a permanent replacement for her.
Jubilant, replenished and refuelled I continued on my merry way.
Someone, or something, was stealing Jopson’s apple-blossom.
Three small apple trees in pots stood on his front path. A supermarket bargain. It was their first year for blossom and every bud, as it burst into colour, was carefully counted. Four for Lady Sudeley, three for New Beth’s Pool and two for Pitmaston Pineapple. He’d fallen for the names. But each night, for three consecutive nights, a blossom had disappeared from Lady S.
Enough was enough.
So Jopson went to the library and took out a book on fruit trees.
Chapter 7: Diseases & Pests. But it wasn’t canker, or scab or mildew. So, a thief. And what a list of scoundrels: badgers, foxes, rats, mice, squirrels and deer. Imagine: a deer in Dullage!
There was nothing for it – he’d have to stay up and keep watch. Like Morse. Just thinking about it made Jopson’s heart beat faster. He prepared sandwiches and a flask of coffee. Watched the clock.
Jopson stared out through a crack in the bedroom curtains. ‘Ow,’ he whispered after pinching his cheek. Staying awake was harder than he’d thought.
At half past midnight, his gate clicked open.
He couldn’t believe it. Not his neighbour Dr Fitch who never left out any bird food, and lit a smoky bonfire whenever Old Mrs Rodway hung out her washing. Jopson had half-suspected Fitch. But it wasn’t Fitch, it was Old Rodway – Dragon Breath, wearing her dressing-gown and slippers. She plucked the remaining flowers from Lady Sudeley, put them in a paper bag and shuffled off. Jopson went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. Stared at the ceiling, wondering what to do.
In the morning, Jopson knocked on Old Rodway’s door. Stood back when she opened it. She still wore her dressing-gown.
He followed her into the lounge. Ornaments and trinkets stood on every surface. He sat on the edge of the sofa and Dragon Breath slumped into the armchair. From her pocket she produced the blossom. ‘You might want to loosen your tie.’ She divided the flowers into two and handed half to Jopson. ‘Close your eyes and chew slowly.’
Jopson sat back and did as he was told.
He found himself staring at the cuckoo clock on the mantelpiece. A car-boot knick-knack, the sort of thing he might buy. It was in the style of a Swiss chalet with the clock above a thermometer and the weather pendulum at the bottom. On the right stood a man in a top hat holding an umbrella, and on the left a woman in a summer blouse.
A white blouse with bright red daisies. Her pleated skirt was a golden yellow and shimmered, like a field of wheat. The daisies on the blouse became cherries. Jopson could taste them. One of the cherries had eyes and a mouth. ‘He’s eating us,’ said the cherry. One by one the cherries began to disappear.
Jopson glanced at the weatherman in his top hat and tails, and white leggings. He tucked his shirt in and doffed his hat at the woman in the blouse. ‘Afternoon, Lady Sudeley.’ The umbrella became a cigar, a big fat blue cigar. Jopson had never smoked a cigar, never smoked anything, except Fitch’s bonfire. It felt fantastic. He stopped smoking, bit off the end and ate it. He’d seen it done in films. Tasted like fig rolls but without the rolls.
The hands on the cuckoo clock showed eleven hours had passed. Jopson was starving.
In the kitchen, Old Rodway fried up. Two eggs each. Jopson never ate two eggs, even on his birthday.
‘How did you know about apple-blossom?’
‘I read it on the world wide web. Meant to help my–’ She pointed at her mouth. ‘The blossom has to be picked at night.’
The next night they met up and picked blossom from New Beth’s Pool.
Jopson sat on Rodway’s sofa. He’d taken off his tie.
Nothing happened for a while, and he glanced across at her. Her eyes were closed, and soon he followed suit.
Jopson climbed down from the cuckoo clock and waited for Rodway. In his tails, he felt like a tiny James Bond. He was only six inches tall. Wearing a cherry blouse, six-inch Rodway whispered their mission.
Next-door, they clambered through Fitch’s cat-flap. Jopson climbed the cupboards and urinated in the kettle. But just as they were getting started, Rodway heard a noise. She jammed a paper-clip in a socket, and they scurried away, giggling like teenagers.
A shaft of sunlight woke him. In the armchair Rodway was snoring.
The third night they tried blossom from Pitmaston Pineapple.
Again, Jopson found himself staring at the cuckoo clock. His old friends with the blouse of cherries and the figgy cigar. He waited, but he couldn’t taste cherries or figs. Umbrella man stripped off his tails and stood in his underwear. Cherry blouse took off her cherry blouse to reveal a lacy white bra. Jopson didn’t know where to look.
The weather people stepped down from the pendulum onto the mantelpiece. They held hands. They counted down from five and Jopson found himself counting with them.
‘3 – 2 – 1.’
The two of them jumped off the mantelpiece, cherry blouse’s skirt billowing up like the Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
They landed on the rug in front of the fireplace and continued to undress. Jopson covered his eyes with his hand. Then let the fingers splay apart.
Watched them couple like dogs.
The cuckoo clock showed three hours had passed. Old Rodway was sitting next to him on the sofa. They were holding hands. He disentangled his fingers and frowned. She smelt delicious. Intoxicating. Like . . . The Spicy Girls. He looked down at his lap. Trousers poking up.
‘The blossom of this tree is different.’
‘You can say that again,’ said his neighbour.
Jopson wondered about her first name. ‘The blossom of this tree is different.’ He leant over and kissed her.
There is a peacock on the wing of the plane.
Riley can see from where she is sat, where the scratchy material of the airplane seat rubs against her back, that there is a peacock perched on the wing of the plane. She can see a lot of things around the plane, none of which are very interesting – her mother sitting rigid in the chair next to her, fingers prying absentmindedly on the rim of a can of crisps. It makes a dull noise. A few rows behind, there is a baby crying, an alarm clock that she cannot reach to turn off. A stranger to her, the person in the aisle seat sniffs at regular intervals and wipes his sweaty nose with a grimy looking tissue. Chattering, mumbling, screaming baby, itchy fabric of her chair; Riley counts the things she sees and hears and smells and feels. She makes a tally in her head of all the senses violated, a list to tick at an offending noise in her head. Like a computer, she calculates how long it will be until these annoyances add up to the equation – the one where she overloads her systems and shuts down completely.
So she distracts herself with the peacock outside the window.
It peers from a distance at her, its beady eyes looking like ripe berries in its bush of sleek feather-leaves. Its beak is a grey hook hanging off its startling blue head; feathers on stilts poke from its cranium. It occurs to Riley that they should be swaying in the wind – they are motionless, save for when the bird cocks its head and they jostle like palm trees. Tail fanning out behind it, she can see even through the muggy glass of the window how the feathers make eyes that stare right back at her, and her computer-brain comes to the conclusion that they could trick a predator easily; they almost look real through the porthole. They, as well, are frozen. The ice-bite of the wind out there doesn’t move them, the peacock stands proud and still.
In only a few seconds, her CPU brings several search results to the front of her thoughts. There should not be a peacock out there. It’s impossible. That is a logical error in the world’s code – a peacock could not have gotten onto the wing, and it certainly could not stay on the wing at the speeds they were flying at. But triumphantly it stands out there, challenging her with its existence of green and blue.
Then, it trots forward. Leaning its head towards the window, the Bird and the Riley gaze at each other. Maybe it is trying to say something, but she cannot understand, it does not speak her binary.
It begins tapping its beak on the window.
Why has no one else noticed? Riley thinks. She turns to her mother, calling to her, but there is no reply. Her mother’s eyes are like marbles in her head, her fingers clockwork pistons as she thumbs over the still unopened can. The peacock is still pecking; Riley reassures herself that this glass is designed for airplanes, a bird’s beak can’t even put a crack in it. As that command gets delivered through her system, the window splinters slightly.
Gripping the arms of her seat, Riley runs through her irritation list. The baby is still crying – it sounds like a recording now, playing on loop, not a child of flesh and blood. It sounds like its vocal chords are made of tape and its body is a chassis. The peacock slams its beak against the portal to the outside; she strains in her seat. When she calls out to her mother, her voice sounds like treacle, thick and heavy and muffled.
Tap, tap, tap on the glass. She realises with alarm that she cannot recognise her mother. She knows the noise – the scraping on the can – but her face does not pull up any search results in Riley’s browser-brain. There is a crack running perpendicular to her arm on the seat; Riley begs her mother to see it, to see the bird, yet she is beginning to believe that she has turned invisible.
With the baby still screeching in its metallic voice, the crack in the window spreads like butter across the glass and finally it opens. The mother-who-is-not-her-mother stares ahead with pinball eyes, the stranger in the aisle seat sniffs into his hanky.
Riley crawls out of the window. The glass bites her knees, the sharps glinting like crystals in the sun. The peacock waits for her outside, its personal fan fluttering with anticipation. When she reaches it, it spreads its wings – its masses of tarpaulin and glue – and flies away. Riley’s CPU has expired.
With squinting eyes she looks around, standing on the wing of the plane with no breeze and no chill. The sky is an ocean of white froth and deep, deep blue. She looks down, looks where there should be land below – or sea, twinkling in the midday sun.
There’s just more sky. Out on the wing of the plane, Riley looks out on an endless sky. She can’t hear the baby anymore.
Callie stared at an empty street through a rickety screen door. It hung by one remaining hinge, on its last breath, just like the town of Gallia. In a week, Callie will finally turn eighteen and will never have to come to this godforsaken place again. Eighteen was a magical number for a child of a bitter divorce. At eighteen, she could decide who she wanted to have in her life and who to shut out. Forever.
Callie pushed her perfectly styled silky chestnut hair back and turned around. Her dad looked up from lacing his shoes.
“Are you going to change before we go out?”
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing? Callie retorted.
“Your jeans are so ripped, I’m afraid they’ll fall off you at the parking lot. And your top. Does it have to be so cropped?”
“We’re not going to a church. And you can’t tell me what to wear. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Who cares?”
Every conversation turned into an argument.
They got into the car, and Daniel Morrison drove to Sonny’s Grill. Callie looked sideways at her dad, at his thinning brown hair, and at his old fashioned polo shirt stretched over his protruding abdomen. She did not hate him; it was just so difficult to talk to him lately.
Sonny’s Family Grill was the only sit-down restaurant in Gallia. Callie slid into one of its tattered laminate booths and stared at the unchanging menu under plexiglass. A waitress came over, but Callie was not ready to order. She had been a vegetarian for the last two years, and places like this rarely had anything she could eat. Daniel asked for more time.
“Callie, why do you want to go to Columbus Community State? You could go to any elite university.”
“Like you did, Dad? Where did that get you? Unemployed and on welfare?”
“I’m not on welfare. I earned my unemployment benefits.” Daniel’s face darkened.
“It’s supposed to be temporary. All the other hospital exec’s at Gallia Community lost their jobs as well when the hospital closed. But they all moved on. You’re still here. And unemployed. So much for your elite degree.”
“The others jumped the ship when it started sinking. They did not want to be tainted by failure. That’s not me.”
“No, you’d rather lose your career and family.”
“Callie, I’d never choose to lose my family. I didn’t want the divorce.”
“But you still think you’re qualified to give advice.”
“Callie, the way you’re going... I just don’t want to see you wind up a loser like…”
Callie shot up and rushed out of the restaurant. Daniel stared at his hands as if they had pushed her. He waited, hoping she would return. Daniel was proud of his daughter. She was only seventeen but was determined and smart. When Callie started anything: piano lessons, karate classes, her own cooking website, she always practiced till she got to the top. He wanted the best for his girl but could not find a way to tell her that he was on her side. Always was. Always will be. The waitress stopped by two more times. At last, it became too awkward to sit alone. Daniel stood up and left.
Callie sat in the car, brooding. Not a word was spoken on the drive. Daniel was fuming but decided to avoid another argument. They got home, and Callie stormed into her room.
The next morning she found a note on the kitchen counter next to her favorite fresh berry parfait. She regretted her meanness and wanted to apologize. But Daniel was not home. Callie stared at the note and read his plea: “Callie, I’m sorry about yesterday. Please meet me at our dock. I know you plan never to see me again, and in a week, you’ll never have to. Let’s not end things this way. Love, Dad.”
“Our dock.” Callie forgot about the dock in the ravine. Years ago, her dad had gotten busy with his job, and they had stopped coming to feed the ducklings. She pushed the broken screen door and looked across the street at a tree filled ravine. It had been their favorite place. Callie walked across the street toward it. She dreaded her meeting with the man at the bottom, but she knew she had to atone for her behavior.
Her father sat at the end of the decaying dock. He aged since his lay-off and divorce. Despite what she had told him, Callie needed him to be in her life. They clashed because of their similarities, not differences. Both clang to beliefs and people long after they should. Like him, her eventual realization at her errors made her feel betrayed. She also realized how many times over the years, there had been no one in the world, whose opinion she valued more than his.
“What happened to all the trees?” Callie asked to get Daniel’s attention.
“Most of them had died from an Emerald ash borer infestation.”
“We had that in Columbus as well. Mom had to hire someone to cut down six ash trees from our backyard.”
“Gallia doesn’t have the funds to take out the dead trees. They’re left to rot.”
Daniel looked at the daughter who had grown up faster than he thought possible.
“Do you remember the rafts of ducklings we used to feed here? You wanted to keep them as pets.”
Daniel did not want to talk about ducks. He wanted to tell Callie that he was not ready for her to fly away. He never would. But the words he had rehearsed stuck in his throat. Callie too could not apologize.
They talked about the ducks and trees.
“I wanted to say...what time is your mother coming?”
“Dad… in an hour.”
“Oh, then we'd better head back and pack.”
Daniel slowly stood up. Taking the last glance at the creek, the father and daughter walked home in silence.
Friday afternoon, two thirty. Work complete, kettle boiled, my paperback waits for me on a rumpled mass of mustard-yellow fleece. I slide myself onto the window seat, slipping my bare feet under the contours of soft fabric, holding the coffee cup aloft. With my free hand I scoop the novel up like a pet kitten then nudge my thumb against the bookmark until the heavy covers heave open, exposing the text. Two hours cocooned in my fantasy world before the house becomes heady with noise once more. Two hours all of my own. Two hours of bliss. But not today.
My eyes slip over the words, breathing in their meaning, my lips pursed to the edge of the mug. I take a sip - mechanical, rehearsed - until my sight becomes distracted, my body jolts in response, drops of scalding liquid dribble down my chin. Thankfully, the cup itself does not spill, but my book tumbles from my hold and down to my lap then onto the floor too far from my grasp. I feel a flurry of panic. Everything is coming undone. I have been shaken, disturbed. I look outside.
Something is creeping. A dark blob against an otherwise green perfection, row upon row of rectangles divided by low oak fencing. The occasional flower bed, wooden bench, sprinkler system or pond add a little interest but from up here it could be a sports pitch or a farmer’s field. Yet there is the miniature mass again, moving. I slip on my glasses. I am not mistaken.
Crawling nimbly across the lawn of what I presume to be number thirty-four is Old Norm, beloved pet of the elderly Mr Henry Dunhelm.
An immense shell flanked by four stumpy legs ending in tiny claws, a shrivelled triangle for a tail, and a golf-ball-sized head as wrinkled as his owner’s with the same gummy grin and beady brown eyes. The tortoise has escaped again and is making his way across the garden in a bid for freedom.
I adjust my lenses, my book and beverage hastily forgotten in favour of this far more interesting distraction; a live break-out.
There is no sign of Mr Dunhelm and Old Norm is making fierce progress through the recently trimmed greenery. He has bypassed the border and is heading towards the stump of an aged and fruitless apple tree which shades a rugged bush, a compost bin, and the pond. I watch the branches reflected in the water's surface, suddenly realising the awful truth. My eyes are rooted to the scene as if on stalks, yet the act of observation makes me feel somehow implicated - an eye-witness to this poor creature’s plight. What else can be done? Should I run to help? Call someone - the police? An animal charity? Should I search online? How to rescue a suicidal tortoise. It seems hopeless. Helpless. Instead, I clasp my palms together and pray.
Old Norm ambles head-on towards the pond and gracelessly forward-rolls into the shallow depths without a sound. A miniature tide circulates, dampening the border of tiny pebbles, retreating back to cover the body. His stocky legs writhe around, his shell and head entirely submerged. It does not take long before he is still. Something dull happens in my chest, my heart and hope emptying as the little life ebbs away. I pray again, this time for a quick end to his suffering.
My muted incantations are wasted or perhaps answered; there is Mr Dunhelm. He is wearing a striped dressing gown and slippers, his hair a few wild wisps across an otherwise bald scalp. He shuffles at the same pace as his companion, finally falling to his knees by the pond as he scoops out the lifeless body. Without pause, he leans down towards the motionless mound and prises apart the animal’s jaws, descending his own pursed lips to meet them. His cheeks bellow with breath, blowing into Old Norm’s stiffened head, damp and crusted with dirt. I blink away my disbelief.
A few moments later, Mr Dunhelm rights the now wriggling creature, tucks him under one arm, and marches back to the house as if nothing has occurred. His expression is one of mild amusement, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. They will probably have a cup of tea and a leaf of lettuce together, watch television then have a long nap. All will be well. Instead, it is I who feels stricken. I have just witnessed my neighbour giving his pet tortoise mouth to mouth resuscitation.
I do the only thing I can think of. I abandon my afternoon of tranquility and return to my desk. I retrieve a sheaf of yellowed writing paper and my fine nibbed pen. Dear Mr Dunhelm, I begin, trying to steady the tremor of my hand, at approximately two forty on the afternoon of Tuesday 19th July, I saw what can only be described as a near miss. May I take this opportunity to urge you to take better care of your pet. I fear that a repeat of the incident might lead to an untimely demise for your companion, and I cannot bear witness to such an eventuality. Regards, a concerned neighbour.
I shuffle on shoes with the intention to deliver the envelope post haste, yet once again I am distracted. I peer outside; there he is. The reanimated body of Old Norm. A striped band runs around his shell, held aloft by a tottering Mr Dunhelm. His unsecured dressing gown tumbles in the breeze as he clings on to the belt across his gently straining pet. He turns this way and that, enjoying the warm air circulating through the fabric. I pray again, only this time for whoever invented flannel pyjamas. I crumple the letter into a ball, kick off my shoes, and nestle back down with my book.
As the eastern sky turned red, Dr. Jenn Carson got up from her bed. She stood by the living room window, tall and quiet, gazing at the wild flowers through the open window. The rays of the winter sun caught the zigzagging wings of orioles and woodpeckers that created patterns across the sky in the sleepy tribal hamlet of Sylee, India. She looked at the blue-green hills that dominated the hilly topography, for miles around.
The thought of the pandemic crossed her mind that devastated the tiny village over the past few months. The news of people disregarding government guidelines shocked her. Only a few health workers worked with dogged persistence to combat the pandemic.
Cycling through the sal, siris and simul trees she reached the chipped building of the health sub-centre that morning and said to the nurse-
“Any new coronavirus case, sister?”
The pagan only nodded in affirmation.
Dr. Carson washed her hands for some time with soap even her hands were not visibly dirty. She entered the isolation ward wearing a face mask. With just one toilet for the patients who needed urgent care, the smell of their excretion mixed with hotness due to power failures made life a living hell there. She kept essential medical services running though with much difficulty.
Abandoned by her husband a tribal woman lay with sad eyes, an unclear figure cloaked under a blanket. She smiled at Dr. Carson, her eyes glinting with hope. The doctor realised that the patient was feeling stressed during the crisis. She decided to talk to her patient. “How many weeks pregnant are you,” asked Dr. Carson in a calming tone maintaining a safe distance. The woman answered in a faint voice, “Nearly 16 weeks.” The sick woman started to cough. The sounds of her laboured breathing broke the silence of the ward. The old wall clock struck the hour making a sound once. “Can you tell me about your family?” asked the doctor. “I have three kids at home and a husband who is a heavy drinker,” replied the debilitated woman with great difficulty. Tears trickled down her cheeks. “Didn’t you stay at home?” asked Dr. Carson. “I can’t even see my children. I don’t know where I‘ve caught it from, but I’m very ill,” said the ailing woman. “Don’t be scared,” said the physician, “as depression is not an advantage.” The queasy woman only nodded. The doctor never took off her mask.
After some time, Dr. Carson came out of her room and gazed absently at the far distance. The blazing sun casted ripples of gold everywhere. After a while, she entered her room. The sun began to play hide-and-seek from behind the clouds. In the profound silence, a lone dove cooed.
The shrill cries of some wild birds broke the silence. Suddenly, rain poured down from the murky skies and soaked the foliage. A fresh smell arose from the sodden earth. The sharp rain began to ease off at last. A sudden flash of sunshine appeared but there was no rainbow. Dr. Carson peered through the window at the crisp and clear sunshine.
Dr. Carson opted for a light lunch at her desk that overlooked the forest from her room. She planned a mountain bike ride on her new Hero 24T on the weekend. She thought of her motherland where she started biking young- even before her feet reached the ground. The rural nurse suddenly appeared running. “The sick woman is having more difficulty in breathing, doctor,” she cried out in fear. Dr. Carson turned around, startled, at the sound of the nurse’s voice. She rushed to the isolation ward. The shortness of breath gradually decreased in intensity in her patient. “The function of her lungs have become normal,” she muttered to herself and uttered a sigh of relief.
The sun set slowly, turning the sky into a shade of tangerine. The condition of the sick woman worsened at nightfall. Dr. Carson decided to travel ten kilometres to the nearest hospital through the dark and desolate forest road, as the ambulance driver did not report for work. “Keep a tight hold on the bicycle seat,” the physician said to the nauseous woman. Green lights flashed from the luminescent organs of lovesick fireflies in the wilderness.
The lights rippled and danced, vanished and reappeared again. Lots of strange noises made them feel slightly nervous. Dr. Carson continued along the desolate road for some time.
A gust of hot wind swept through the foliage. Massive flames lit up the night sky while shrill cries of frightened animals broke the nocturnal ambience.
The two women got trapped by the raging and unpredictable bushfire. “What the heck?” Dr. Carson said in a low voice. “It is hell!” cried out the anxious woman. “Oh my god, what is coming towards us?” whispered the doctor as she tried to evacuate the place. “It doesn’t look like that the fire is weakening,” the bilious woman answered in a feeble voice. She began to cough violently. The strong winds only managed to spread flames and embers. Suddenly, Dr. Carson took a very sharp turn onto a dirt road pocked with holes. The old bicycle jumped on the rough and loose surface of the narrow track but never broke down. The battered wheels and the narrow handlebars held firmly as Dr. Carson cycled out of the forest until she reached the town hospital.
As the ward boys carried the sick woman on a stretcher, Dr. Carson mentally prepared to lodge a fire report with the town Brigade.
It’s been a few years since we laid our bets, and I’m still confident that Ranga’s about to owe me money. Too bad Ranga is dead.
Don’t worry; I’m not too broken up about it. A lot people are dead these days. The heat took out the first round, back in my grandparents’ day, and just when humanity was adapting, they got hit by the freeze. My dad died in the freeze. That was a long time ago. Centuries.
It wasn’t only the planet trying to kill us off back then. We’ve always been best at killing ourselves. Wars, biological weapons, regular old sadness--I can’t remember which plague took which of my friends anymore, or in what order.
In a few minutes, it’s not going to matter anyway.
I sometimes wonder if the human race would have bothered trying to save itself had we known how useless it would all be in the end. We jumped from one dying planet to the next on an endless quest for a new home. All the while we fought to keep ourselves not only alive but young, not only young but beautiful. We slathered our skins with chemicals and solutions, blood and bone. When science failed, we embraced ancient rituals. We consumed the hearts of our enemies on far-off stars and bathed in the blood of virgin planets.
We’re the cockroaches of the universe. Drop a bomb on us, and we scatter and spread.
Cockroaches. I don’t think I’ve seen one in decades. They might be extinct, too, for all I know. I guess humans are better survivors after all. Or, we used to be.
Now the whole universe is set to collapse, and I guess we deserve it. The human race has never been great about considering the needs of other species. It’s no surprise that other advanced societies got real tired of our selfishness as we expanded forever outward. Like our ancestors on Earth, we stole and killed our way forward, claiming territory along the way, never once considering that there might be others out in the void--stronger, smarter, more organized--who would take issue with that.
If there was a trial, I never got wind of it, but the sentence was handed down regardless. We’re convicted murderers now, the whole human race, labeled as a threat to neighboring galaxies. With a weight of evidence against us, whole stars exploded in our wake, we’ve been condemned to death.
It doesn’t shock me that someone thinks we’re worth killing. It’s not the first time they’ve tried. But I do wonder how much better off the universe would be without us, when it seems there’s plenty of others out there willing to kill their way to the top.
The only thing that surprises me is the fact that I’m facing down the end alone.
When the sentence was announced, I had a party invite sent out within minutes. Come see the end of the world with me! Seems no one else thought it was a laughing matter, if any of them even got the note. Maybe they have someone else they’d rather spend their last moments with.
No skin off my teeth. I brought enough ales for a dozen people to this god-forsaken bit of space debris, and I’ll happily drink them all myself. I crack open my fourth. I can’t feel the container through my thick glove, but my brain still tells me it’s cold because that’s what my synapses expect. The human brain does wild things in the vacuum of space, especially after three strong ales. The amber liquid is bitter on my tongue and not cold at all anymore, but I’m not drinking for flavor.
I settle down on my favorite crag, prop my feet on a piece of blackened stone, and wonder which destroyed planet this particular spit of rock came from. No one keeps track anymore. Even the Homeworlders, that cult that has tracked every fragment of Old Earth for centuries, have given up their records and campaigning since news came of our impending destruction.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what rock you’re sitting on when you explode. Or implode. I’m not actually sure which.
Still, I can’t find fault with the view out here. Stretched out all around me, stars and planets swirl into galaxies, fading into the distance to points I can barely see, hundreds of lightyears from my perch. Debris floats by like flotsam on a river, sucked in by the gravity of a battered old moon that no longer has a planet to trail after. People have always talked about “the blackness of space”, but when you’re in it, you can see it was never black at all. It’s blue and white, purple with flashes of orange and maroon. Nothing is ever as flat as it seems from a distance. Nothing.
Past the pinprick stars reflecting toward us from other galaxies, something flashes. It’s coming.
Aside from the ale, I brought another important party supply along for this ride. I nudge the old radio next to my boot, and it crackles to life, blaring familiar words, “-clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and I think to myself…”
I sigh, content. Turning, I raise my ale in toast to where Ranga might be sitting, were he still around. “What do you think, man?” I prompt the ghost. “Is it going to be a bang, or a whimper?”
Whimper, he whispers on the solar winds, and I lean back on my rock, sipping my ale with a little smile as that brilliant ray of destruction streaks closer.
“You’re going to owe me so much money.” I chuckle, because there’s nothing else left to do. The light washes over me, and the universe collapses around my laughter.
‘Gardeners Club every Wednesday, free to join!’ the note on the billboard read. Interesting, I thought. As I moved here only a few weeks ago, I wanted to become acquainted with the other inhabitants of the apartment complex. Time to take part.
As I entered the community garden, I saw what looked like a herd of pink elephants grazing. At my arrival, they all stood upright. They turned out to be my fellow residents, busy attacking the defenseless little plants. There were only women present, and they were all nude…
I wanted to flee, but one participant had already spotted me.
Shit, my next-door neighbour!
She came towards me with sturdy steps, her breasts flopped cheerfully as if they were happy to see me.
“Hi, nice to see a man joining us. It’s World Naked Gardening Day, so if you would like to undress, please go to the shed over there. See you in a minute.’
I left the shed a few minutes later, stark naked, hiding my private parts with the cutting scissors that I had brought with me.
“I notice that you brought your own ‘material’?” My neighbour glanced downward.
The quotation marks around the word material were clearly audible.
“But that isn’t necessary, love. We share our ’tools’. Everybody can ’grab’ what he wants. No private ’parts’ here, haha.” Quotation marks again.
I shuffled as discreetly as possible to the nearest flowerbed and spotted a wild plant that seemed in desperate need of pruning.
“No, no,” a fellow women gardener cried out. “That one has to stay, it's there to scare away the pests.”
“Which pests?” I asked, while persisting in my squatted position.
“The Limacus flavus,” she said, smiling.
“The what?” I asked.
She cast a glance at the cutting scissors and said: “The nude slug.”
Goldilocks was a builder renowned for her excellent work in the construction of houses. She knew how to make houses of straw, houses of wood, and houses of brick. She was also adept at interior decorating and could always find just the right decor for any house, whether constructed of straw or wood or bricks of various shapes, sizes, and colors.
A confident young woman, Goldilocks initially preferred her real name of Gertrude Stingleforth, but her blonde hair had given her a nickname from which she could not escape. In the end she decided she liked the way GOLDILOCKS looked on a golden business card, all in capital letters, followed by Design, Construction, and Interior Decorating for All Types of People with her contact information at the bottom.
One day Goldilocks was trudging through the forest near her office, looking for possible clients. Suddenly she saw a clearing, and in the clearing she spied three little pigs, each attempting to build a house. One was working with straw, a second with wood, and a third was laboriously piling brick upon brick.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," said Goldilocks. "Allow me to present my business card." Each little pig stopped what he was doing, wiped his hands on his apron, and accepted a card.
"Can you help us?" asked the pig who was laboring with piles of straw.
"Well, yes, but in this northern climate a straw house just isn't quite the thing. And the Big Bad Wolf could knock it down in a second or two."
"What about my house? I do so like wood," said the second little pig.
"Well," said Goldilocks, "it's a bit harder to blow down than a house made of straw. However, just like a house made of straw, a house made of wood could burn up, if the Big Bad Wolf or a streak of lightning decided to set fire to it. I could certainly help each of you if you desire a straw house or a wood house, but there's a better option."
"And that would be?" asked the little pig who was working with bricks and mortar.
"Mr. Pig, you are attempting to build the best sort of house, a brick house." Goldilocks squinted as she looked at the bricklaying the pig had so far completed. "However, I think you need my help."
Before long, the brick house, under Goldilocks' supervision, was completed.
The wood from the wooden house was used for the interior of the brick house, and the straw made quite adequate stuffing for the pigs' mattresses.
Having worked with the three little pigs for some months and having found them quite congenial and even helpful during construction and the interior decorating process, Goldilocks decided to hire them as consultants. She was tired of being a one-woman operation.
One day Goldilocks decided to wander deeper into the woods and asked the three little pigs if they would like to come along.
"Oh yes," they all oinked at once, put on their hats, and followed Goldilocks deeper into the woods.
"Boy, this place is dark and remote," said one little pig. "Right," said the other two. And then, all of a sudden they saw a clearing and a quaint, rather large brick house with three chimneys.
"I wonder who lives here," said Goldilocks as she knocked on the front door.
When no one answered, she knocked again, then turned the doorknob.
"Let's look inside," said Goldilocks, who was adventurous as well as confident. The three little pigs were somewhat less confident.
"My, what a lovely house, but it needs a bit of work. I see there are three bedrooms, a nice big kitchen, a sunroom, a substantial dining room, a game room in the basement. But we can make it better."
The pigs were tired after trundling through the woods and one by one disappeared into the bedrooms to take a nap. Goldilocks settled in the sunroom, sketching plans to improve the decor of the house, whose inhabitants were completely unknown to her. As she thought and observed, however, she decided that the house might be the home of some bears. She found that idea intriguing and added to her house plans containers of honey placed in strategic locations.
Then she heard the sound of feet, or paws. It was a thunderous sound. Soon she heard someone shout, "There's a pig in my bed!"
Then another bear shouted, "There's a pig in my bed too!'
And a third bear, with a tinier voice squeaked, "There's a pig in my bed as well!"
Goldilocks decided she had to intervene before any bears were interested in having pork chops for dinner.
"Hello. May I help you?" she asked cheerily.
The largest bear scratched his head. "May you help us? This is our house! Who are you, and why are three little pigs sleeping in our beds?"
"Because they were tired."
"That's no answer! This is our house, and we don't want any trespassers."
"Please, calm down, Mr. Bear. Let me show you what I have been doing. I'm Goldilocks, noted builder, designer, and interior decorator. Here, please take one of my business cards."
The giant bear took the card in his paw. "So?"
"I have been drawing up plans for your lovely home, so that we can make it even more lovely."
"I and the three little pigs that are currently sleeping in your beds. Aren't they cute?"
"Bears are cuter."
Goldilocks laughed. "Please, take a look at the plans I have drawn up for the remodeling of your home. Note the addition of containers of honey in every room, in handy places."
"Honey, you say?"
"Yes. I thought honey would be an added attraction, especially if you were entertaining."
"A great idea! Why didn't I think of that?"
Goldilocks smiled at the big bear. "Because I'm the expert house builder and interior decorator. And how about a nice shed behind the house? It would give the three little pigs something to do."
‘D’you know what I’m going to tell you,’ declared my father, sweeping the window for the umpteenth time with a folded-up newspaper, ‘if you were to hold up a single pane of glass no bigger than that hand there inside of Windsor Park, do you know what it is? There’d be one bloody fly would go banging its head again it all day long, so there would…’
Mother was less than impressed. His exertions had already overturned one geranium pot. ‘Can’t you leave it find its own way out, Seamus?’
‘If it would, believe me, I’d be delighted to.’ He caught me smirking at my twin sister, Dee. We’d have been seven that summer; the summer they burned Bombay St. Da thought about it, then fired Dee a sneaky wink. ‘Did you ever see a more obstinately stupid animal than a fly?’
‘Aye,’ muttered Mother. ‘I married one, so I did.’ She’d been going through the clothes myself and Dee had packed, tossing some out onto the sofa, folding others in in their place. Jack was watching it all silently from the doorway. He wasn’t going with myself and Dee to stay with the Hamiltons. Jack was going down to Dublin, to stay with Da’s relatives. He was old enough to go on his own. The night before while Ma and Da were shouting downstairs he’d shown us the ticket for the train, to coax Dee out from under the pillow.
‘Would you not squash it and be done with it?’ The more agitated my mother grew, the more East Belfast her accent became; Da’s pantomimes were always pure Liberties.
‘And leave a smudge on the new pane of glass, is it? For the life of me I can’t see why you bothered your Barney having it replaced…’ Another lunge; another geranium teetered. He made a grab for the plant, but his fingers were clumsy and it was their attempt to right the pot that sent it over the edge. It bounced once, overturned, and spewed muck over the carpet.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake, Seamus!’
‘What?’ He frowned. ‘Tsst. Sorry about your precious carpet!’
‘You might help me with these, instead of chasing that blooming fly all around the house.’ A-rind the hice, her vowels were that sharp by now.
‘Alright. Alright.’ Kneeling up, he lifted the pot, tested the crack with his thumb. ‘As you wish. a ghrá mo chroí.’ He set the geranium upright on the floor and began to flick the crumbs of soil onto one huge palm, and from there back under the leaves. We could all see he was making twice the mess he was clearing. Jack was taking it all in from the door. He’d packed his own suitcase the night before.
‘Ach leave it! I’ll do it!’ snapped Mother. Her words made Father redouble the speed of his efforts. ‘It’s alright, it’s done now.’ It wasn’t half-done, so Jack disappeared and came back with the dustpan. Dee had gone over to the sofa. Leafing through the mound of discards, she pulled out her favourite dungarees.
The fly snarled through the air in an S-bend, then set to butting the central windowpane again and again, ignoring the open one to the side. ‘Christ,’ whispered our Da, still on his knees, ‘if there’s one animal I can’t abide, it’s a fly in the house.’
‘I’m taking these with me Ma,’ said Dee. Like bunting, she’d trailed the dungarees from the clothes pile as far as her suitcase, and was seeing where they could fit. Her case had about twice the amount of stuff mine had.
‘You are not taking those with you. What would Auntie Rose think?’
Upon the mention of Auntie Rose, Da knelt suddenly up, eyes indignant. He was on the point of saying something else choice about the Hamiltons and their Protestant notions. ‘Hey Da,’ interrupted Jack, ‘how come they don’t do themselves brain-damage, with all their head-banging?’ Father peered at Jack, as though surprised to find him squatting there in front of him with the dustpan. ‘What? Who has brain-damage?’
‘The fly!’ Da looked briefly at him, and had turned back towards Mother, about to let fly about the Hamiltons. But Jack pressed on. ‘Would you listen to the bollox…’
Now, we’d never been allowed to use bad language in the house. Never. Myself and Dee stared at one another. Mother froze. Then Da’s hand shot out and caught Jack square in the mouth. He yelped. Hands to his face he looked at Ma. She tugged the dungarees from Dee’s hands and said, in a calm voice, ‘I want no more nonsense out of you young lady. Finish your packing, the pair of you. It’s not a blooming helicopter we have.’
It was years later that I came to understand that scene. It was years later I realised why they wouldn’t let us stay on in that street any longer; why Jack had said what he had said.
‘I've got compassion fatigue,’ announces Steph, plumping down on the bench next to Vera.
‘Sounds serious,’ deadpans Vera. ‘You could get signed off work with that.’
‘Well, I'll be off work soon anyway,’ says Steph, running her hands over her stomach.
‘Mmm. And what's brought on this terrible condition?’
Vera smothers a laugh. Steph shoots a look at her. She often suspects her mother-in-law of mocking her.
‘No, dear. I meant your compassion fatigue.’
Steph launches into a meandering complaint about the multitudes who make unreasonable demands upon her - girls in the office, neighbours, strangers in the street it seems - all drawn towards and depending upon the saintliness of Steph.
‘...and you know me, nothing’s too much trouble. I'd give anyone the shirt off my back – ‘
Vera smiles in reply. Today is a good day. She can sit upright, she’s warm, and surrounded by the scent of jasmine. Her son rootles around in the garage while his pregnant wife sits here alongside her on the wrought iron bench, glowing with life - with two lives. The child Steph carries will take the family forwards, into the future. Vera has made peace with the idea of the future. Her son will be there. Her grandchild will be there. Her garden will keep growing even when she cannot tend it.
Today is the longest day - the day that doesn't want to end, and never does quite end. There will still be threads of cobalt and violet in the sky at midnight. Vera plans to stay up late. She doesn't want to miss anything. The youngsters will have gone home by then, carrying the bowls of food and parcels of clothes she’s pressed upon them. She'll have given Steph her old sapphire ring, and it will be too small for Steph's swollen finger, but never mind. They won't understand her generosity - not yet.
Vera feels the sun against her eyelids. Even the birds have fallen quiet in the heat. Only Steph is audible, although Vera isn't really listening. She's never much liked her peaches-and-cream daughter-in-law. Peaches have stone hearts. But, after all, the peach stone begats the peach tree...
Vera's gaze moves over a ragged lawn. Blackbirds fossick among bark chips in the flowerbeds, and a few precious bees circle the roses. White hydrangea blooms will glow when Vera limps around her garden at midnight.
‘...and what about you?’
‘Me?’ Vera is surprised to be asked a question. Steph's normally incurious blue eyes rest upon her.
‘Have you thought about downsizing? I mean, this place – the size of it. Must be hard to maintain.’
Vera has the distinct impression that Steph is calculating the property's square footage. The young family live twenty miles away in a three bed semi which Steph has filled with mirrors and crushed velvet couches.
‘I won’t be leaving for a while,’ says Vera.
'Seems wrong somehow,’ sighs Steph, as though changing the subject. ‘That some people have so much, whereas others...’
‘I know,’ says Vera. ‘Some people have youth, and health, and love.’ She pats the younger woman's hand. ‘The trick is to enjoy your time in the garden. Because it only lasts a moment.’
“My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and chopping wood.”
Ben was a fifteen-year-old Navajo whose troubles in school led him to be in my group on the Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. He sat in the back of the room with his head on his desk—he was not sleeping, he was listening, as I soon discovered.
I was telling a story—a story I made up from the title of a self-help book I found at a thrift store— Chop Wood, Carry Water by Rex Weyler.
The story follows:
A man owned a great farm, and he had two sons. One day he called the sons into his room and told them he was going to die. The younger son cried and moaned and hung on to his father. The older son stood silent for a moment then spoke.
“I have work to do,” he said and left the room.
Over the next year, the younger son did not leave his father’s side. He prodded his father to go riding and fishing with him.
“I will miss you Father. I want to spend time with you before you leave me.”
One day they were fishing. The younger son saw the older son carrying water from the well to the house.
“Put the water down. Come join us. Father will not be with us long and we will miss him.”
The older son smiled, nodded, and continued carrying the water to the house.
The younger son noticed his father’s fishing tackle. He had seen his father use that special fishing rod since he was a young boy.
“That is a beautiful fly rod and reel you have, Father.”
“It belonged to my father and his father as well,” said his father.
Another day, in the late fall, the younger son and his father were riding in the forest when they saw the older son hauling wood on the trail to the house.
“Set the wood aside and join us. We will miss our father when he is gone. Come ride horses with us,” said the younger son.
The older son smiled, nodded, and continued hauling the wood to the house.
The younger son noticed the father’s saddle.
“That is a beautiful saddle, Father,” said the younger son.
“It belonged to my father and his father as well,” said his father.
A year passed and one evening the father called the two sons into his room again.
“I am going to die tonight,” said the father.
“I have had so much enjoyment with you this year, Father, please don’t die,” said the younger son.
The older son stood silent.
The father took the younger son by the hand and said.
“You are a good son. You have spent your whole year with me fishing and riding. For you I leave my fishing gear and my saddle.”
The father then sat up and looked at the older son.
“When it was cold in the winter you chopped wood to keep us warm. When it was hot and dry in the summer, you carried water from the well so we would not be thirsty. For you I leave the farm, and the land, and my fortune.”
I stood silent in front of the room for a moment.
“What does that story mean?” I said to the group. I had no preconceived notion. I had just made the story up. There was a long silence.
Ben raised his head.
“It means when you can’t do what you want to do, you do what you have to do,” he said.
His words stuck with me and I was not able to shake them. I had heard the phrase “Chop wood, carry water.” before and seen writings on it for years in spiritual circles I had engaged in.
To me it meant life can be simply lived. We can do without everything we think we must possess—things, position, ideas, people.
Ben gave me a new meaning. He helped me understand how to live in difficult and often hopeless situations—how to overcome adversity. “When you can’t do what you want to do, you do what you have to do.”
In this trying time of disease, hunger, massive fires on the west coast, storms rushing in from the Gulf one after the other—and a political system that appears to be overrun by fascism in our free and open Democracy—we feel powerless.
We want to change what is happening, so we write and rant and try to convince those around us, but nothing changes. People are entrenched in their beliefs right now, it is their security blanket.
This author is a created character, whose purpose was to help this writer resolve decades of guilt and regret. He is helping, but now I am—and we are—faced with this new world. Nothing is safe, nothing secure, tomorrow is not filled with hope, but fear. We are struggling to find our way.
As for me, I am doing what I have to do. I am gathering my resources, ridding myself of encumbrances, possessions I don’t need. I am taking care of those dearest to me. I am reaching out to family, pulling them in, securing those ties. I am looking at local needs—my neighbor, my community—there is pain and loss here, hunger and homelessness. I am removing my critical spirit and replacing it with the spirit of compassion, even for those who are blind or asleep to what is happening.
I can’t do what I want to do, live the normal life anymore—feeling safe and secure in this world, but I can live without the oppression of fear. I can live this day with hope that this too shall pass. This is all I can do.
Susan was very curious about the romantic relationships of some of her friends. After all, they couldn’t all be perfect! So, she decided to have a “hen party” and invite five of her closest friends, all of whom were in such relationships.
There was Jane, very proudly married to a cardiologist, who spent many hours in the evening out of their home, reading EKG’s; Mary, whose partner, Theresa, traveled for business; Linda, with four small children, always too exhausted to even spend an evening on the town with her husband, or have sex; Peggy, all aglow in her third marriage; and Liz, about to be wed after a six year engagement.
The only thing these women had in common (other than having perfect relationships with perfect partners) was that they were all in their late 50’s and every one of them gloriously happy in the connection they had with their significant others.
The women all knew each other, but were not “friends”, per se. The one common denominator was Susan, who was a good friend to each of them individually, but none would be termed an intimate, “best” friend, who revealed to her their innermost secrets. Thus, Susan was really curious about what made their relationships tick, as she couldn’t seem to make even one work!
After a few glasses of wine, the women appeared to relax and pair off with one another, settling down on the very comfortable chairs and couch, speaking low, often laughing and, after a while, one or two seemingly on the verge of tears. Susan served coffee and tea (decaf, of course) and delicious cake at about midnight.
After many goodbyes (some with a little uneasiness about seeing each other again and others actually spawning new friendships), Susan’s guests left. She cleaned up the dishes, put away the coffee, cake and tea and vacuumed the living-room. Then, with a glass of wine in hand, soft music playing, Susan settled down on the very comfortable couch to listen to the tapes unwittingly made by her friends, on recorders, which had been placed under each plush pillow.
Thank you for choosing the Human Condition™. At BioCloud Industries we understand you have a wide range of potential entertainment systems available to you and we appreciate your custom.
You have selected ‘beginner.’ Is this correct?
A wise choice if this is your first time experimenting. Please note gameplay is adaptive, meaning difficulty will increase the more proficient you become.
Let me give you a moment to orientate yourself. Enjoy your physical form, especially your legs and your teeth. You’ll understand later. I should also warn you the experience is utterly immersive: as time passes memories of your current life will fade leaving only a nagging sense of some indefinable creative power. Your fellow gamers call this religion. Or spiritualism. Or sometimes just “being really baked.”
Yes, those are your genitals. No, you won’t go blind. You’ll enjoy them later, everyone else seems to, one of the big hits amongst seasoned veterans. Someone got promoted for that before they realised users became consumed with insecurity rather than just enjoying them. Not big enough. Not sufficiently aesthetically pleasing. The wrong shape. Too late once you’re up the ladder sipping that corporate champagne. Someone else can take the fall for implementation failures.
Can you leave those alone and pay attention to me? One hint: our leader board is filled with people who choose their own criteria for victory rather than someone else’s. If winning’s important to you.
So, the middle of the tutorial. Childhood is the first stage, which is mostly fun. There’ll be plenty of crying, and other fluids too, but the scars shouldn’t run deep unless you’re very unfortunate. There’re a number of bugs we’re looking to fix. But you know that. You replied to the ad.
Then comes adolescence. Still got those genitals? Good. More insecurity, more fluids. First heartbreak is pretty rough, more crying I’m afraid, but lots of fun stuff to go with it. And the energy. You won’t realise it at the time but feeling energetic, healthy and excited by things is about as good as it gets later and that’s the default setting for 16-30. It’s great knowing with absolute certainty that you’re right about everything too. Some people manage to hold on to that one to the very end of the game.
Anyway, next you grow up and it’s all about choice. Choose a career, relationship, or none, or multiples of each (careful) and get into the rhythm of the thing. Choose to get fitter or fatter, smarter or stupider, happier or more lachrymose. There are big choices and little ones, and all the while you lose energy, but you mind about things a lot less, which is a relief in itself. Most of the time you’re sort of numb and on autopilot. It’s weirdly pleasant.
What do you mean, ‘is this a popular game?’ I’m going to ignore that. The best is yet to come, anyway. Old age is the last level. When you get there, you’re allowed to be rude to everyone. That’s right. Everyone. And people treat you with respect whether you deserve it or not, and you’re allowed to stay in your dressing gown all day and drink gin. I designed that bit. I’m not one to brag, but given corporate’s bloody restrictions I worked miracles.
There are loads of bugs, obviously. We’ve tried our best to patch them; universal healthcare, technology to predict natural disasters, warmer temperatures, but they’re not taking in many places. Besides, most of the bugs seem to be caused by other gamers rather than the mainframe. Just write down anything you have feedback on.
I’ll leave you to figure out the rest of the controls. Try to have fun without hurting anyone else otherwise the marshals will remove you. Hm? Oh, it’s not pleasant, put it that way. Remember, behind each avatar is a living being.
Any questions? What would I do? Try to win the very first round – sort of a fastest finger first deal – that’s coming next. If you don’t it’ll be a short game and you have to go through the tutorial all over again.
Ok, so I’m only a minor celebrity in the TV world, but when the call came from my agent asking if I would like to go on Strictly Come Dancing, without thinking, I said yes. I had never danced in my life. I was sure that standing waving my hands and bobbing up and down while music blared did not count as dance in the proper sense of the word.
Our first day of rehearsals dawned, I arrived early in my usual state of anxiety. Thinking. “What have I done? Here I am sitting in the rehearsal room, it is huge with mirrors all around and it is freezing and I am shivering. Is it cold? Or fear? Or both?”
My professional dance partner/trainer opened the door with a smile. To me, it looked more like a wolfish grin. He entered and walked towards me with the grace of a panther. I watched, mesmerised as he came towards me, feeling rather like a rabbit in the headlights. I knew I should have said no months ago when Libby, my agent, phoned, but I had this vision of me dancing in a long, floaty, glittering outfit, wearing those impossibly high heels in the arms of a dark, handsome man spinning me around the ballroom floor.
Well, I had the dark, handsome man right there, but whether I’d be spinning was anyone's business.
This is what happened.
His hand was outstretched. “Hi Belinda, so pleased to meet you. I’m Christoforos, but please call me Chris, it’s easier not such a mouthful.”
I beamed at him, thinking, ‘Great, I’m going to have this Greek god teach me how to move my two left feet in a dance!’
He rubbed his hands together. “We better get going. It’s so cold in here and the only way we will warm up is to dance.”
I nodded my head, yes to anything, to be here is an experience in itself.
He continued. “This week, we’re doing the Jive. It’s fast, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it quite easy.”
I looked at him dubiously. I wanted to please this dancing god who had deigned to leave Mount Olympus and stoop low enough to teach me. So all I did was meekly nod my head. “You’re in for a tough time. I’m useless at dancing.”
Those white teeth flashed, not in a growl but a beatific smile. “Nonsense, everyone who comes on the show has a non-dance background, you will find your dance feet quickly, I promise you.”
Soon we were jumping up and down and yes, he twirled me around. I was happy about the lack of heating in the room since it took no time before I was pouring sweat. We rehearsed for hours. I thought my body would object to this hectic work, but suddenly I found my second wind.
Chris smiled. “Yes, that’s better. You’re getting the feeling for the movement. Tomorrow we’ll concentrate on the technique.”
The week went on with long hours of practice interspersed with trips to the dressmakers’ rooms in the basement. That was like visiting Aladdin’s Cave. There were garments in all stages of construction, some so close to finishing I could fill in the missing bits and get the idea, but some just looked like strangely shaped bits of cloth.
On Friday, we went along to the main stage to have a run-through of our dance in the space we would compete in the next day.
I could not believe it, but my Greek god had choreographed a routine, taught me, left-footed me, to dance. The costumes fitted perfectly. We stood on the floor, ready to perform. The blood was pounding in my ears, then I realised it was our music, my body took over and we DANCED!
Afterward, the judges talked to us. Then we went upstairs. I was in a dream state, as all the others greeted us. Soon after, the scores were in. Then I knew I’d learn how bad I was. But no, there was cheering. We had scored a healthy 33!
My first dance proved I was wrong. I could dance. Now I wanted to stay in the competition as long as possible, provided Chris could perform his magic. Yes, I got to do an American Smooth with a lovely floaty dress in hold with my personal Greek god and I loved it.
We only reached the semi-finals, but I can ballroom dance. That is something I thought would never happen. Now all I have to do is adjust to ordinary guys, not a Greek god dancing with me. Whatever happens from now on, I know I am a reasonably good dancer. I proved it to myself. So much for all those fears at the start of this journey. They were all unfounded.
It was a spring day that I first remember seeing those paper-thin aircraft more bicycle with wings and struts, than a plane. I could hear the birds in the trees on the road leading to the battle and then the buzzing of the flying machines as they fluttered overhead.
I had been assigned to collect those who fell in the trenches or who lay sprawled out, a tangled mess, in the wasteland. I was not assigned to the sky although I longed to be - to fly up closer to all that was familiar; to guide from a spinning wreck the soul in my charge, was a longing that I couldn’t explain.
Perhaps because it was quieter up there. The planes sometimes fired at each other but mostly they mapped the terrain below. I heard a soldier say one morning. “The Saints are on reconnaissance again.” The Saints. I wondered who they were that particular day when the guns had stilled and all those who cried out were not yet ready for my services.
One of my confreres told me it was difficult to reach a man’s soul in a tangled wreck. I didn’t understand why, but he explained it was because of the meeting of two elements - earth and sky. Easier to lead a soul from one or the other. Even from a burning plane gyrating in the clouds. But I was grounded with dying soldiers. Germans, British and Australians I am guessing now. In those days I didn’t know the difference.
Thirty-one years later and almost as long in exile, I yearn to be in the sky again. Just one soul to be saved is all that I want. Otherwise why am I here driving a cab around in Sydney? It is a question I ask constantly. And then it happens just before sunset on a glorious spring day. I am driving towards Ultimo when I notice the sky is filled with smoke the length of a whole city block.
I manage to park my cab nearby, grab a blanket from the back seat and run to the source of the smoke. And there they are. Five women trapped on the third and fourth floors of a distinctive brick building on Broadway. Two are huddled near the top of the fire brigade’s ladder and will be rescued soon. Somehow they have managed to climb out of the window and are sitting on a small parapet, leaning against each other. I scan the rest of the building. There are two other women nearby. One still behind glass looking out, obviously not ready to clamber through the window. The other woman has managed to open hers and is leaning towards the firemen.
But it is the fifth woman I am worried about. She is on the floor above and on the opposite side of the building to where the ladder has been placed. I watch the fireman reach the two women closest to the ladder. They are helped down by several other firefighters. In minutes the other two will be rescued. Crowds push against me as we all stand together, looking up. I move away from them to stand directly below the woman on her own.
From this distance I can’t see the fear on her face but I know she is alarmed. The smoke is getting worse and with something heavy she smashes the window into empty space. As she climbs out onto the ledge I catch a glimpse of orange.
It is the sun catching the windows of the building I think and move a few steps closer. I glance at the firefighters but they are still leading the last of the four women down the ladder. And then I feel the knowledge flood me. She is not going to wait. As she jumps she is falling light. I’m sure that for a moment my feet did leave the ground as my body flew up to meet hers, throwing the blanket around her to break her fall.
A fireman rushes over and then, as I slowly unwrap the blanket, I notice that her white dress has been burnt and she is half cinders and the rest bleeding skin. An ambulance officer crouches by her side and checks her pulse.
“She’s still alive,” he yells and another man brings a stretcher. “We’ll take her to St Vincent’s.”
I stand up and know immediately that an angel is by my side.
There is a terrible pause.
“Why did you interfere? I came to guide her.” he says.
“I wanted to help.”
“You have saved her body but not her soul.”
“You have simply delayed the inevitable and caused more suffering.”
I am appalled. “I didn’t know that the fire had reached her. Only that she was going to jump.”
“And now she won’t have the heart to live.”
And neither did I for months afterwards.
Issues 4 & 5
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