A collection of short stories free for you.
Stardust is a new story written for an anthology with the theme of ‘time’.
Last night, I dreamt of a time beyond your fragile human memory, before the sarsens were wrenched from my being, and you thought you had me imprisoned behind this meagre wire. How little you understand, burying your heads beneath your featherless wings and huddling in nests pillaged from my body.
I was light, spreading and coalescing, pure energy, atoms, and molecules. I was everything and nothing, just as you are today, and freedom was a state of being, of existence, not a concept to be longed for and fought over.
But millennia followed millennia, followed millennia on a scale of time that would blow your feeble brains. My atoms and molecules collided, morphed, mutated, built long complex chains, and became something other than chemical and electrical reactions. Call it what you will, creation if you like, but worlds formed from the soup of my universe and became solid, tormented forms: nebulae, galaxies, stars, planets, and moons, giving birth to air, water, wind, and fire. And on some, a spark was ignited.
It grew slowly, transforming the bare bones of my skeleton into something so transiently beautiful I’d have cried, had I had the heart or the eyes to perform that simple and telling act. My bones fleshed with the bodies of tiny primitive lifeforms: bacteria, slime, not worth your notice, and over a billion of your years, they nourished their offspring and evolved. Ice followed fire, fire, ice, and fire –continents formed, shifted, and reformed. Seas rose and fell, and mountains pushed up as your sun burned. Life died and was reborn. Their deaths gave me life. My life gave you life.
Like you, as the spark brightened, I searched for something – sentience, a meaning – something to notice my grand existence, but it was more millennia before the microbes became plant forms and animals, before dinosaurs walked my paths and trees gripped my bones with their searching roots, before the first of your kind got up on two legs and looked upon me with anything approaching awe, worshiping my parts as their gods. And why not? Am I not everything and nothing to you as, I remind you, you are to me?
The difference is I can survive very well without you: exist, if not live. Think carefully as you drain my life blood with your hands around my throat, for my throat is your throat: my blood, your blood. But I digress: that’s your problem, not mine; this flourishing is but a passing phase and dust will return to dust.
Five of your millennia ago, barely a breath, not even a heartbeat of a shrew ago, these strong, upright limbs still slept beneath the thin soil of The Downs to the north, and these capstones were worn teeth upon the Preseli Hills to the west in the land you call Wales. They formed the very bones of your Earth.
But you’d discovered how to bring my fire to life and how to fashion tools from my diverse parts. I provided everything you needed. And I am everything you still need, as I am everything you are, for we are all made of stardust.
Stone-age men came to the Preselis first, with fire, wooden wedges, and stone hammers, bringing with them their small gods. They came to the barren hilltops and to the small valley beside the stream that babbles into the river you call The Gwaun. They came for my blue rock that sparkles in the sun when freshly broken, for it has magic in it, the magic of millennia. And they lit fires upon me, and drove wedges into my wounds, splitting and cracking my bones. And then they hewed and chiselled me into long blocks and rent me from my place of slumber, from my hills with their gorse and heather and soaring buzzards, and my valley with its dippers and wagtails and lichen-hung oaks.
Levered onto rollers, I was hauled in chunks to the frozen river and slid down to the sea. Huge flat rafts of oak carried me across the waves, south, west and then east. The cliffs, proud bastions against the wild power of my ocean, mourned my passing. Did my valley and my hills mourn my passing, too? Some of me will lie forever in the deeps of the Irish Sea where my rafts foundered. For the rest of my bluestones, the way was long and slow, and fraught with hazard by sea, estuary, and river. Land, when it came, proved no easier, and my moon had waxed and waned many times before my stones reached their present resting-place, the place you now call Stonehenge.
Camp was set up at Durrington, but a nano-blink of a star away. Pits were dug, and with ropes and levers and sweat, I was hauled upright until I stood, side by side myself, in a wide circle. Not then, the Stonehenge you know now with my great upright sarsens and my smaller bluestone capstones morticed and tenoned with skill by your masons. This was a simpler monument to stone-age gods, and yet, they recognised my magic and my power, and used it to imbue their gods with mystery and define their small, short, insignificant lives.
You walk before me, now: staring at me and pointing. You discuss me in tiny voices, dig at me with spades, and scrape at me with minute trowels, hoping to discover my secrets, to define and control me. I hear your laughter, and through you I feel: joy and pain, things my insentient self knew nothing of. I feel wind beneath feathers as I ride the thermals, water through gills in the deep oceans, and the grinding passage of earth through the gut of worms. And I know love. But love is the thief of freedom, and the trapped mind paces along its mental strands of insubstantial wire, as you pace now. Yet, you are my children, my eyes and ears and senses, and without you my existence will be impoverished.
You think you have me trapped, here on Salisbury Plain, but I dream my slow dream of a time before my bluestones sat atop my sarsens. I dream of my Pembrokeshire hills, and my small, wooded valley that runs down to the The Gwaun. I dream of moons and stars, of galaxies, and nebulae. I dream of molecules and atoms, of pure energy, and light spreading, fading, and dimming, ever expanding. I dream of the freedom of insentient space and, one day, when your kind are gone and long-forgotten and the part of me you call your sun has consumed this Earth, our atoms and molecules will leave the confines of this solar system and once more be stardust.
Ooh, Air Margrit is embarrassingly true and appears in the anthology You Are Not Alone in aid of Macmillan Cancer nurses.
Ooh, Air Margrit
‘We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Margaret…’ Dai Davies, lay-preacher at the cathedral, pillar of the community, stands beside the coffin in the crematoria chapel as if carved from the same Welsh oak: he rolls the Rs in Margaret and lilts in a melodic baritone about my mother, a woman he’s never met.
My mind rebels at the platitudes, for my relationship with her was ambiguous, difficult at times: there was never a closeness between us. I’m ashamed to say I felt relief when she died: relief tinged with familiar guilt. She died on her 87th birthday, and though I’d taken her present-hunting only days before, I hadn’t visited her on her special day.
The spectre of imminent mortality has drawn me to dredge through family history, recently, and I’d begun to understand Mum’s relationship with her own mother, Grandma’s relationship with her parents, and the impact they’d had on my relationship with Mum.
Northamptonshire born and bred, Grandma was a tailoress, nimble fingered whether sewing or knitting, and nimble tongued in the broad dialect peculiar to Kettering. If a garment needed taking in, it was ‘A bit over-fully.’ If she scrimped to make the most of a piece of cloth it was because, ‘I ets to goo accordin.’ And if she worked until the early hours to finish a suit, it was because the customer ‘Ets to ev it.’ Devotees of the Evening Telegraph cartoon Air Ada will know what I mean.
Anyway, Grandma was the oldest daughter and brought up seven siblings when her mother died young: her maternal grandmother having already been found dead in a stream at Yardley Hastings, her family home. Grandma’s father, Ebeneezer, Mum told me, was an alcoholic wife-beater who drank his wages on a Friday night unless Grandma met him at the works’ gate and begged enough cash to feed his family.
Ebeneezer was a coal-whipper, a labourer who worked in the goods yards unloading coal wagons onto carts, and after that, a stoker at the gas works in the days when coal produced town gas: hard, filthy, sweaty jobs that drove the stoutest men to drink. Mum said he was a horrible man, but maybe life made him that way. Although I never knew him, he is my first certain memory. I’d crawled into the middle bedroom, where an old man lay in bed. I remember that I stood up, and we stared at each other, but no words were exchanged between us. According to his death certificate, he died when I was 22 months old. Whatever the reasons for my great-grandfather’s drinking and violence, Grandma never learned to show love or affection, or to spark the gift in her daughter.
I wonder how Ebeneezer got on with Grandad, his son-in-law. I adored my Grandad: he’d fought in the cavalry in the Great War and a sepia photo of him in uniform, on his horse, took pride of place in the front room in Regent Street. I have his army fork and the two purple-topped Cowrie shells he brought home. He’d gone to war a shoe-last maker and came back from Palestine with a wanderlust that never left him. But he’d promised Grandma that, if he survived, they’d get married and he kept his promise, took a job in a shoe factory and moved in with Grandma and her father.
But he’d changed: the dream he’d come home to no longer existed. The love Grandma craved was never allowed to blossom, and instead withered into a mindset of mild disapproval and a sense of shame, of failure. Though they made the best of it, as many couples did between the wars, I can’t remember a word or look of affection between them. Mum too would repel any public show of affection Dad made towards her.
How history repeats itself. How the shock-wave of emotional repression and guilt ripples outwards to touch generation after generation. Grandma suffered from depression most of her life, understandable, now I realise the disappointments with which she contended. It was a disorder that haunted my mother’s mind and I see clearly now how she fostered in me the same feeling of responsibility for her unhappiness that her mother had fostered in her. Photographs taken between the wars show stiff figures, with sombre expressions, and served only to revive bad childhood memories for Mum. Maybe the next generation, or the next will live untrammelled by the after-effects of war, the violence of a coal-whipper and the depression of a young woman robbed of her childhood.
Dai Davies raises his voice, bringing me back to the service. ‘Margaret had an interesting life. She joined the WAF in 1939 and was stationed at RAF Holt in Norfolk, a county for which she retained an abiding affection. She drove the blood lorries…’ Light from the stained-glass window paints the pale oak red, blue and green and kisses Dai’s right hand. He’s getting into his stride now, even though the crematorium service isn’t a religious one.
Dad’s war service consisted of working as an electrician at Stewarts and Lloyds, the steel works at Corby. He and Mum had met through their respective brothers, who were close friends. Mum told me that when she took Dad home to meet her parents, Grandma’s disapproving comment was, ‘Ooh, air Margrit, couldn’t yu ev done better en that?’ True, Dad was small and wiry, balding, with a hook nose, a scar the length of his forehead, and was blind in one eye due to an altercation between a wooden trolley and a two-ton truck at the age of eight… but, well, Grandma spoke as she found. She died just before my first son was born. She and Dad never really got on.
After their marriage, Mum and Dad moved in with Grandma, Granddad and Ebeneezer, and lived there until I was a year old. Four generations in a three-bedroom terrace with only an outside lavvy and one cold tap in the kitchen. Is it any wonder they bottled their feelings and there were few outward displays of affection? Is it any wonder Mum became a target for Grandma’s discontent?
Dad died many years ago, on Christmas Day, only eighteen months after he and Mum followed my husband and me from Northamptonshire to Pembrokeshire. I’d escaped… briefly… from the uneasy cords that bound me to my mother. What is it they say, a woman is a daughter first, a mother second, and a wife third. It was a constant juggling act with those three clubs, hands constantly slippery with guilt.
Dad had prostate cancer and knew he had only days to live. ‘I know your mother can be difficult,’ he said. ‘It hasn’t always been easy, but I love her. Look after her for me.’
‘I will, Dad. I promise.’ I did my best… Did I, really? I put her in a home when she lost her sight and demanded more time and love than I could give her. I could have gone to see her on her birthday.
‘Margaret loved her garden, and nature. She bred Swallowtail butterflies which she released on Wicken Fen in Norfolk…’
My eyes are drawn again to the coffin. Soon the curtain will draw across in front of it and Mum will be gone forever, like her butterflies. The children, although doubtless bored, are behaving themselves remarkably well. There’s some shuffling of feet and rustling of paper, asthmatic breathing and the odd cough, but otherwise Dai holds his audience rapt.
Ken the Box, the undertaker recommended by the care home, sent Dai to speak to me after Mum’s death. He arranged the order of service at the crematorium, and for Mum’s ashes to be interred with Dad’s, in the windswept churchyard on the hill above Solva, overlooking the sea. He asked me about Mum’s life, what she was like, so he could say something about her at the funeral. We got chatting… Dai was a man with a twinkle in his eye and a wicked sense of humour. He laughed a deep belly-laugh as he related the tale of the man who’d insisted his parrot attended his funeral. Halfway through the service the parrot had piped up. ‘F*ck off. F*ck off.’
His irrepressible humour relaxed me: we got onto the subject of family history, and I told him I was researching mine. Black sheep that Grandma had kept firmly hidden leapt imaginary hurdles to freedom. A great-great-great aunt had been the ‘bad girl’ of Warkton village and was deported to Australia. A great-great-great uncle and his two cousins had been convicted of killing a gamekeeper in Yardley Chase and found themselves on the convict ship HMS Tortoise, bound for Hobart, Tasmania, in 1841.
And then there was Aunt Ellen, I went on, Grandma’s youngest sister, who’d run a tailor’s shop in Glasgow, lost her only son in the Second World War, and lived in a tenement in the Gorbels. As children, we took bets on what colour her hair would be when she visited. I can definitely remember blue, orange, red, green, and purple, and once a mixture. We kids loved her, but Grandma said she was a kleptomaniac and you couldn’t take her anywhere: she’d even come out of a restaurant with half the cutlery shoved up her sleeves.
Dai pauses for breath, head bowed respectfully, as Mark Knopfler plays guitar with wordless eloquence. I glance across at my older brother, who lost his partner not long ago, and my uncle, my father’s younger brother, who is in his 80s. My sons and their families are behind us, and behind them Mum’s brother’s children and their partners. Family, some I haven’t seen for years, have travelled from Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Kent, France, and Germany to be here to honour Mum’s life.
I catch my cousin Libby’s eye and she smiles comfortingly. I last saw her at her wedding almost twenty years before. It was a lovely service, held in a Catholic church in the woods somewhere near Trier. The English contingent was small compared to the groom’s side of the family, but we did our best to follow a ceremony that was entirely in German. We did sing one English hymn, somewhat feebly, and our minds eagerly latched onto the odd German word that sounded marginally English. It was all going fine until the priest said, ‘Jesus farted.’
At least, that’s what it sounded like to English ears. In front of me rows of shoulders heaved with suppressed mirth. I suspect those behind me heaved as well. Like the bride, I daren’t turn round to look: catching someone’s eye would have been disastrous. She, too, knew exactly what her family and friends were thinking.
Dai clears his throat and looks directly at me: I straighten my face as the wedding darkens into a funeral: white to black. The timbre of his voice commands our full attention. ‘Margaret came from a good family.’ His eyes move to the assembled mourners and he smiles benignly, embracing us all. ‘Of murderers, thieves and prostitutes.’
The silence behind me deepens until a vast pit opens and swallows all sound, all breath, all rustling paper, all shuffling feet. Time hangs suspended, and into that silence, as I will the floor to swallow me, my late grandmother voices her final disapproval, her final shame, though for once she targets the wrong sinner. ‘Ooh, air Margrit!’
Bags are packed, the furniture’s gone, and the house is empty. Silence echoes from the walls and drowns my plea. ‘Don’t go without me. Don’t leave me behind.’ The words cringe like a small whimper. Doors slam. The windows are high. I can’t see out. I’m crying now – a tearless wail more like a howl. ‘Please don’t leave me alone.’ Voices – I catch words but not meaning. ‘Cassie? Where are you? You coming?’ Cassie, that’s me. I leap at the door yelling. ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ The door opens and I leap into Mum’s arms, tail wagging fit to burst.
The Gremlin at My Side
It looks so innocuous, so innocent, this stealer of life. You wouldn’t think, to look at it, that this thin, black gremlin would hold sway over my life, nor that it would, with stealth and confusion, leach it away, yet it does. But this week, its ugly inner self was revealed. It gave me one of those blank black, looks and refused to speak. It turned deaf ears on my frustrated pleas of addiction and died. Did I miss it? At first, but then I spread my wings and lived – until it came back from the computer repair man.
Eternal Dark, Eternal Silence
Eyes tight closed, breath held, her fingers slid across her belly and hips, moved down her thighs, and brushed against something hard and unforgiving beneath her. She wasn’t in bed, then, her nightmare not a thing of dreams. The surface was too rough for metal – wood, perhaps. It smelt resinous, like pine. No light played through her eyelids, no sound to be heard but her own panicked breaths, no movement of air but that from her mouth. She clamped her lips together and forced down a scream. They wouldn’t have, would they?
She daren’t move for fear her dream was true, yet she had to know. Her left hand crept sideways and her heart lurched as a wooden wall stopped her movement mere inches away. She moved her other hand from her side and a whimper escaped her throat. Trembling fingers traced the walls of her small prison, and then its roof, and came to rest mere inches above her face. There was another wall behind her head and if she stretched her feet…
She opened her eyes then and screamed, though no-one would hear her. No one would ever hear her again.
The hat was a competition entry – the challenge was to write from the point of view of an inanimate object.
Wet sheep and Brylcream: not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was my lot in life. At that time, it was the fashion for the likes of me to cover hair that was short, greying and slicked back with grease. My head belonged to George, a shepherd, and when I wasn’t keeping the rain from him, or the sun out of his eyes, or on one occasion wiping down a new-born lamb, I was worn at a jaunty angle to impress the farm girls, or tipped back while he downed a well-earned pint in The Golden Fleece amid laughter and coarse jokes.
Lanolin from handling fleeces rimed my rim: muck, sweat and smoke infiltrated the weave of my cloth, and my silk lining, and gave me an individual aroma. She said I was a filthy, stinking old thing: she bought George a new cap for Christmas.
I hung abjectly on my hook but, come Boxing Day, George adjusted my grubby peak above his eyes, same as usual. Over the years, the angle became less jaunty, the hours spent on a peg in the back hall became longer, the attempts by her to throw me out more inventive and insistent. All the while new cap hung, hopefully pristine, at my side. There came a day when George didn’t come anymore. The house fell silent. A month passed: she took me down occasionally and breathed in the lanolin, and the sweat, smoke and grime. Each time, I feared the rag man but always she hung me carefully back on my peg.
‘You need a hat on, it’s raining.’ She cautioned.
‘I want Grandpa’s hat.’
She took down new cap and put it on the small boy’s head.
He ripped it off and threw it to the ground. ‘No, I want Grandpa’s hat.’
She smiled. The first smile I’d seen on her face in months. I was lifted down and placed carefully on the child’s head. I tried not to fall over his eyes but it wasn’t easy. I felt very insecure and wobbly. She lifted him to look in the hall mirror. They both wore the hugest grins.
New cap disappeared: taken to the jumble, I heard.
The next story was written for a competition where a well-known piece of writing had to be written into a story. This was my attempt.
Honestly, our father…
It’s not that he’s eccentric, so much as loopy. My older brother says Father can’t help it, coming as he does from a line of mad scientists on his mother’s side and witches on his father’s. Take his name, Tomos Horatio Ysgubor Kingdom. Tomos after his Welsh grandfather, who kept bees and lived in Nevern, a small village in Pembrokeshire. Horatio after Nelson, who won some famous battle, and Ysgubor after an island off the coast of West Wales his mother was looking at when he, her only child, was conceived. Kingdom was his own conceit (His father’s surname was King) and says much about his illusions of his position within the village.
Ysgubor is Welsh for bishop apparently, so along with Horatio and Tomos, it has imbued father with an heroic religious zeal for beekeeping in the ancestral home.
But I digress. Science and witchcraft are in his blood, so is it any wonder that he discovered a way to combine the two and use it to ‘improve’ his strain of bees. It was all a matter of economy, power to weight ratios, ergonomics and a dash of magic, he said. Did I mention his love of honey?
His bees weren’t producing enough, you see. The good people of Nevern relied upon him, and fellow beekeepers, what with the bee population in decline nationally, were scratching their heads for an answer. Father had this idea. If the bees could carry more nectar back to the hive – if say, he could combine a little genetic modification with a swift incantation and a swish of his wand- if, not to put too scientific a spin on it, he could create a hollow bee, then problem sorted.
It took him a while to get the spells right, and I shudder to recall some of the insects he created, and almost let loose in the world, but eventually he created the optimum honey-producing bee. He did admit that he’d had to explore every avenue of his magical art to succeed.
With typical fervour, he ached to spread the word, longed to get his fellow beekeepers to buy and breed his new wonder bee. He even set up in business with a jazzy name. ‘I need a sign,’ he cried. ‘A big sign. We’ll put it up on the A487. Something epic, with religious overtones, for God has surely guided my hand.’
Well, I thought I had the perfect thing, painted it up and knocked posts into the verge. It looked a treat but, for some reason, father wasn’t too impressed.
Honestly, our father…
WITCH ART IN NEVERN
HOLLOWED BEE THINE AIM?
T.H.Y. KINGDOM –
A story that is published in an anthology called Holes
Just Another Hole in the Wall
‘Maggie’s Journal.’ The girl has long blonde hair and a pretty smile. She opens the green faux-leather book at a page and reads. ‘Saturday April 26th: The blackthorn hangs heavy and snow-white with blossom. Primroses and wood anemones peep shyly from beneath the damp debris of autumn and, today, I saw the first orange-tip butterfly of the year. On the footpath above the valley, red admirals, peacocks and small tortoiseshells cavort with the lamb-jumping joy that only spring sunshine can evoke. Lacy ferns uncurl their tight fingers to reach for my passing hand. Today is a good day.’ She smiles. ‘See, Maggie? Today is a good day.’
In the questioning silence, the memory of my home above the valley fades and the walls close in around me: a faintly-disturbing green that is neither the fresh youth of spring nor the heavy maturity of summer. I frown. ‘The swallows are late. Last year they were here on April the first. Have you seen a swallow yet?’
‘The swallows left last week, Maggie. You remarked on them gathering on the wires outside the window.’
Did I? I feel foolish, annoyed with myself for forgetting summer is almost over. ‘What happened to spring?’
The girl laughs. ‘You are a one, Maggie.’ She looks at her watch. ‘Tea and a biscuit?’
My stomach rumbles. ‘Did I have lunch?’
‘Yes. Shepherd’s pie. Your favourite.’
‘The cabbage was overcooked. I hate overcooked cabbage… the smell hangs…’ I didn’t use to complain but, when my world shrank to these four walls and this one of many anonymous faces with varied conversational abilities, cabbage, the cooking to perfection of, becomes the centre-point of one’s day.
The girl puts the book down and I pick it up. Thoughts may migrate through my mind like the missing swallows, too fast for me to write them down anymore, but I can still read.
Sunday April 27th Saw a… bird… reddish chest… white flashes in its wings. Why can’t I remember what it’s called? Some days, my mind is like Swiss cheese… or a colander, or a dry-stone wall with all those little crevices and holes, where things lurk and hide and die unheard and forgotten, unless a worm or a nosey stoat brings them back up to the light of day.
What was it called, the bird? Not a bullfinch. A chaffinch! I raise my head higher at the small victory of remembering. Chaffinches are common here, but back when we lived in the old house, they were rare and it was house sparrows that were common. Simon used to feed the birds. I can see him now, throwing seed and breadcrumbs. I take a deep breath as if I can breathe in the memory, the smell of him, the warmth of him, the silky-soft hair on the back of his neck, and let it fill me and nurture my damaged mind. Odd how these memories are so strong. How it’s so much easier to lose oneself in the past, to relive the lost moments and make them real again.
The unnatural-green walls fade and I’m thirteen again. He’s walking up the steps from the girls’ playground towards the science block. He’s tall and dark: serious but good-looking. Mum says he looks like Cliff Richard. He looks back over his shoulder at me and smiles. I smile back, flick my sun-bleached pony-tail and my heart misses a beat. A week later he asks me out. Of course I say yes. One’s life changes forever on the toss of a coin, a left or a right, a yes or a no… a gamble. I never did know my left from my right, or know how to say no. I didn’t know this was the gamble of a lifetime.
The rattle of a tea-trolley and the walls are back. A badly-painted landscape hangs crookedly on the disturbing walls: I’d straighten it if my knees would let me. China cups and saucers. A large catering teapot. Plates of biscuits and ginger cake. Didn’t we have chocolate cake yesterday? Or was that the day before?
I nod and smile.
A cup slops tea onto the table beside me.
‘Biscuit or cake?’
My stomach grumbles again. ‘Did I have lunch?’
‘Yes, Maggie. Shepherds’ Pie, remember? You had two helpings.’
‘I’ll have the cake.’ The cake is a bit on the dry side, and the tea is too milky. The trolley moves on. The ginger cake is popular. Connie take two slices. I should have taken two while they were there to make up for missing lunch. Back to my journal. It’s better than staring at the crooked landscape.
Monday April 28th Chaffinch. Why couldn’t I think of that yesterday? I shall know next time, because I’ve written it down, now. I had to look up the names of the butterflies I saw on… Saturday to tell John.
Tuesday April 29th Saw an otter on the river bank. I daren’t tell John I got lost on my way home, or he won’t let me out by myself, again. He worries about me. He says I have a mind like a sieve. I followed the stream and lost my bearings: went the wrong way, that’s all. But I’ll carry my mobile with me in future, just in case.
Wednesday April 30th I think I’m going doolally. I know I shut the windows before I went shopping. I know I did.
Thursday May 1st I think it’s May 1st when the first thing you say in the morning isn’t ‘white rabbits’. My grandmother told me that when I was about five – ‘The first thing you should say on the first of the month is white rabbits, except on the first of May.’ Funny the things you never forget. I wonder what you are supposed to say, today?
Friday May 2nd Sue’s birthday. See, my memory isn’t so bad. Except I forgot to post her card. I’ll phone her when I get back from the doctor’s. Not looking forward to what he might say.
Saturday May 10th The doctor suspects I may have the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. I’m not entirely surprised: it’s why I started a journal about a year ago. It will remind me about my life, in case I forget. It’s a terrifying prospect, forgetting who you are. Still not sure I’m coming to terms with it. Dead-headed the daffodils. No frog spawn in the pond yet but I saw five young frogs. Must be last year’s. The polecat had the adults last autumn.
Sunday May 11th John and Millie have been talking. They think I don’t know what they’re saying. I know they’re worried about me… about the future. I told them to put me in a home and get on with their lives when I don’t know them anymore. Millie cried. John went out to his shed. This wretched disease is already ruining our lives. Note to self: John is my husband. Millie is my daughter. God, now the page is all wet. I hate this.
Who wrote this rubbish? John isn’t my husband. I’m married to Simon. I was nineteen and he was twenty-one. I’m so happy, so proud. We have two boys and a lovely home, a stone cottage with roses. Garth and… Garth and… blue eyes, like Simon… but blonde. Where did he get his blonde hair? What is his damn name? The scent of the roses fades to be replaced by the stench of overcooked cabbage, and I grieve the loss of my memory all over again. How can I forget the name of my own son? Why hasn’t Simon come to see me? I turn a page. My son will be here; Simon will be here, somewhere, along with the answers to all my questions. I wish I could rewind and replay…
Monday May 12th Glorious sunny day. We’ve bought a small canal boat and have moored it near Brecon. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long while and if we don’t do it now, it may be too late. The medication seems to help a bit. We may have a year or so… maybe more. If Penelope wassername and Timothy White can do it. Or was Timothy White a menswear shop back in Northampton in the sixties, and Scales… but not Penelope? Damn – another hole in the bloody wall for my life to disappear into.
The boat, yes. She’s a Wilderness Beaver, made in 1989, and we call her Afanc, which is Welsh for beaver. The planks of the staging reflect in her newly-polished sides. Ducklings are swimming past, all brown and yellow and fluffy dabbling their bills in the canal. I can see the reflections of alder trees leaning across the shimmering water, and hear the low putter of engines and the bleating of lambs, but I can’t picture Simon and the boys there. Prunella, wasn’t it? Scales? And East… or was it West? And I don’t have a daughter.
‘Nurse… nurse…’ Girls walk past but none of them pay attention to me. One of them must work here. ‘Nurse…’ A wet warmth spreads between my thighs and tears prick my eyes. Too late now for anything but the pitying smiles of the nurses, the wrinkled noses of the more sensitive visitors, and the humiliation of not being able to change my own pants. It’s the buttons and zips… my fingers don’t seem to know how to do them anymore. I do try… Maybe no-one will notice. I flip some pages. The one I stop at is fingered and creased, the writing blotched and smudged.
Sunday September 3rd The leaves are beginning to turn yellow and gold. Wasp-ripe plums hang from the trees in abundance. I shall make a plum pie, and bottle some like Gran used to. I used to love looking in her store cupboard and seeing all the jars of jam and bottles of apple, pear, plum, and greengage. I always feel slightly sad at the turning of the year. It’s like a loss of youth and an impending downward spiral into the anonymity of old age. I must write down the things that matter, about the people who matter, while I’m still able. Simon and the boys, Garth and Jake. I love them so much it hurts, but they’re gone now, and the pain is unbearable. Shock can cause the onset of this awful disease, apparently. Maybe it was the fire and losing them that did it. I must never forget my beautiful twins.
The fire… My heart breaks yet again. Why did I have to write this down? Why couldn’t I have let myself forget them? But Simon survived, even if he couldn’t save our sons. Not his fault. Where is Simon? Why doesn’t he come?
The blonde girl sniffs accusingly. ‘Have you had another accident?’
What’s she talking about?
‘Let’s get you a change of clothes, shall we?’
Now the humiliation of the hoist, strapped to something that looks like a trebuchet. Maybe they’ll wind the handle and twist the ropes tight, and catapult me through the window and out into the fresh, clean air away from all this. I’m lifted, swung round towards a wheelchair, lowered, and pushed along a corridor to my room – my cell. A nurse pulls and pushes at my trousers while I watch the face in the mirror. I smile and the ravaged face smiles back. Who is that woman, that shell of a human being? What good is she anymore? I’ve always been an advocate of voluntary euthanasia. Now would be a good time except I need to speak to Simon.
I’m washed and dressed, and wheeled back to the long room with the picture windows and offensive, not-the-right-green walls: back to my chair. To sit somewhere else would cause consternation amongst the other unfortunates. We’re creatures of habit, you see, and our own bit of familiar world is precious to us. I can’t remember the name of man on my left, who stares through the window all day every day and never speaks, or the woman to my right who repeats herself with mind-numbing regularity. She’s rabbiting on about her daughter, Judy’s, husband who’s big in electronics. The girl picks up my journal and places it in my lap, patting my arm as she does so as if I’m a dog. I almost expect her to say there’s a good girl – stay and throw me a biscuit.
I close my eyes and let the walls fade from my mind. The sound of rustling trees and the babble of the stream near my home fill my head, and I breathe in the warm smells of the earth. Simon is there. We’re at the old house. He’s there with Roxy Mitchell, from the TV program, Eastenders, and loads of children. How do they find the space for so many? I’m not going to let the bitch get away with stealing my man.
‘The children can stay…’ They’re innocents in this.
‘What about the baby,’ a small girl says.
‘He can stay.’ My voice is reassuring. ‘Your mum’s done nothing wrong.’
Ronnie Mitchell smiles, half in thanks and half an apology for her sister. ‘Simon’s upstairs with Roxy.’
I climb the stairs as if going up a ladder to the scaffold. Roxy backs away in the face of my anger. How can I compete with her long blonde curls? Simon turns to face me. He looks so lost.
My heart disintegrates, as it does every time I see him. ‘I love you more than anything in the world. I always have and I always will.’
Simon smiles gently. ‘Perhaps, not always.’
A prick of guilt: I could have shown him how much I loved him, and none of this would have happened. Too late for regret, now. ‘Yes, always, whatever you may think. I want you to be happy, Simon.’
He looks at Roxy with love-sick, buying her sugar mice and playing their song, eyes. ‘I am happy.’
Part of me wants to scream but I’m not. I can’t bear to cut the ties that bind me to him. ‘You’ll come back and see me sometimes.’
I move closer and rest my head against his chest, feeling the beat of his heart. I breathe him in, luxuriate in having his strong arms around me, a moment that has to last a lifetime. ‘And if it doesn’t work out – you’ll come home.’
It was all I’d wanted to say – all I wanted to hear. I can die happy, knowing he knows I still love him. That we didn’t part on acrimonious terms. I don’t ever want to move from his embrace.
A shrill voice destroys the moment. ‘My daughter, Judy’s, husband, George, is head of Elect-Euronics Inc in Brussels, you know.’
I open my eyes. The old house is gone, and Simon, Roxy, and all the children with it. I feel for a tissue to blow my nose. Why Roxy Mitchell of all people? Odd things, dreams. The feeling of loss lingers, an emptiness that is more than hunger. Hunger can be satisfied.
Supper is ham and salad with chips. Judy’s mother sits opposite me at a table for four. If she goes on about George, I may lump her one on the nose. We reach for the salt at the same time. Normally, I’d pull back and let her go first but this evening I’m feeling fractious. She has grey hair, dyed blonde, and her pink lipstick reminds me of Roxy. I close my fingers round the salt pot and grip it hard. I get a certain satisfaction from seeing the look of surprise on her face as she draws back her hand. I take my time over carefully applying more salt than I would usually need to places that I’ve never felt the need to add salt to before. Connie… her name’s Connie, is brimming with impatience. I suppose her salad’s getting cold?
Dessert is caramel cheesecake. I grab the last slice for seconds. Thingy opposite doesn’t seem pleased. Do I care? I think she’s messed herself… or is it me?
No, it’s her turn for the trebuchet. With luck and a fair wind she could make it all the way to the river.
‘You have a visitor.’ The girl with blond hair smiles as she wheels thingy away to her doom.
A man and a young woman sit beside me.
The man’s face crumples. I’ve said the wrong thing? ‘It’s John, Maggie.’ He waits, and his face rearranges itself, anxiously expectant, but I can’t get Simon’s name out of my head.
It’s as if my lips are pre-programmed. ‘Simon. My husband.’ Who’s John?
‘It’s Dad. You must remember, Mum.’
The girl’s eyes search mine, though what she’s looking for, what she’s finding there… ‘It’s Millie… your daughter. Please say you remember.’
‘I don’t have a daughter. I have twin sons.’
John rubs a hand across his forehead. The gesture is familiar, as is the face, vaguely. ‘Maggie, please try to remember.’
His face lights. ‘Yes, John. Your husband. This is our daughter, Millie.’
I reach out to touch Millie’s cheek. Soft like down. ‘You’re very pretty.’
Millie smiles. ‘They say I look like you, Mum. You do know me, don’t you?’
I smile and nod. It seems to appease them. I’ve no idea who they are. Who did they say they were? It’s gone, like the caramel cheesecake. Just another hole in the wall. I wish I could have another slice. ‘Where’s Simon? Is he bringing the twins?’
The man takes my hand in his. His face is wet. He raises my hand to his lips and kisses it. ‘Do you need anything, Maggie?’
He nods as if he understands, but how can he? ‘Simon can’t come, today. I’m here instead.’
The young woman is shaking her head. ‘I can’t do this, Dad. You have to tell her.’
‘I can’t.’ He lowers his voice but I’m senile, not deaf. ‘It’ll break her heart.’
Tell me what?
‘Simon left you, Mum. Years ago, after the fire. You met Dad and got married again after the divorce. You had me. Mum, you have to remember, please. We can’t keep doing this. Simon isn’t coming. Not ever.’
But he promised, didn’t he? The words are there on the tip of my tongue and I can’t stop them. ‘But he promised.’
The woman is angry now. ‘He divorced you. He doesn’t love you anymore.’
‘Millie, for God’s sake.’ Now the man is angry. ‘This isn’t your mum’s fault. She can’t help it. It’s this damn disease.’
The woman wipes away a tear. ‘I know. I’m sorry… it’s just… so damned hard.’
There’s something pulling at my heart. Something I need to know. I can’t bear the empty pain, the unfinished conversation. The things I should have said. ‘Where’s Simon? When’s he coming? There’s something I need to tell him. Something I didn’t say.’
The man squeezes my hand. ‘I’ll ask him to come, Maggie. I’ll see you at the weekend, as usual. Okay?’
As if I have a say in anything. Holding onto the salt pot was my one small achievement for the day. They leave. They didn’t stay long. I don’t get visitors. Who did they say they were?
I return to the journal. It’s someone’s life, but I’m not sure whose. It falls open at a page.
February 29th Our wedding anniversary. Simon laughs about only having to remember it once every four years. We’d have been married twenty years. The boys would have been eighteen this year. I wonder what they’d have been like. Handsome like Simon, I expect. They’d have girlfriends, maybe going to university, now, their lives ahead of them. I shouldn’t dwell on the past, but it’s hard not to. I thank God daily for John, and the gift of Millie. How would I have survived without them? Millie’s fourteen in a couple of weeks. She wants a pony. Takes after her mother.
I’d forgotten the pony. Sunset, a glorious chestnut. Sweet-natured thing. Was that John and Millie who just left? Why didn’t they stay longer? I expect they’re busy. Millie’s grown into a beautiful young woman. How old is she now? I try to count the years but they evade me.
‘My daughter, Judy’s, husband is head of department in a big electronics firm.’
‘My daughter, Millie, is studying genetic medicine at…’ The name of the university escapes me. Another thing to disappear into a hole in the wall along with Millie’s age. Why didn’t she and John stay longer? ‘Have we had supper?’
‘You should know.’ Her voice is sharp with resentment. ‘You ate the last slice of cheesecake.’
‘The one at supper.’ Her voices rises and rasps in my ear. ‘It was my slice.’
The salt pot wasn’t my only achievement then.
February crossed out March 18th The daffodils are glorious. My favourite flower, and yellow is my favourite colour. It’s cold though – looks like snow.
Why do they insist on playing old-time swing music when most of us were sixties’ rock chicks, and even the oldest amongst us would prefer Bill Haley and the Comets, and Rock Around the Clock?
Millie and John have gone to feed Sunset and check her rugs. She’s not a young pony and needs looking after. I must go and put dinner on. They’ll be hungry and perished when they get in. Note to self: John’s favourite meal is roast beef and Yorkshire pud. The recipe for the pud is in the Oxo Book of Meat Cookery. Bottom shelf, right-hand side. Millie likes Toad in the Hole. I’ve had that book since I was fifteen. It’s worn and well-thumbed, like me. Where have the years gone?
Gone, like the shards of my mind, into that hole in the bloody wall, along with Millie’s toad. I wonder what toad tastes like? Some days I realise what I’m losing, piece by painful piece… those aren’t the good days, like they tell me they are: the days when I remember who I am. The good days are when I don’t know what I’ve lost. When I’m happy to stare at the walls that are a particularly horrible shade of… that colour, and the wonky picture of… fields and things. ‘Did we have supper?’
‘George is a big cheese in a huge electronics firm… you know, computers and things. He’s very clever… Judy says…’
I shut her out. Is today Monday? Not that it matters, one day is much like another, except maybe at the weekend Simon will come.
Note to self: I mustn’t forget them, any of them. Simon, Garth and Luke may not be here anymore, but we were a family once and we were happy. Life doesn’t always play out as you expect. You have to grab each day and run with it, make it count. Not waste a second of it. Tomorrow may not come. John and Millie are my family, now. I always wanted a little girl, a sister for Luke and… Luke and… dammit, dammit, dammit. I’m losing them, aren’t I? But I wrote it down. I must have written it down. Garth… Phew! I have photos of them I must keep safe: the boys at the park. Simon and me on our wedding day. The twins’ christening. No, the photos were lost in the fire. I have to keep their faces in my head. I must. I must. Fair hair, blue eyes, cherubic smiles, and plump cheeks. His name’s Jake, not Luke. Jake and Garth. Oh God, please don’t let me forget them.
‘Is John coming today, Maggie?’ The girl with the blonde hair puts a cup on the little table at my side. I knew her name yesterday. She’s Polish. ‘And your daughter?’
I look up blankly. What’s she talking about? ‘Is it Monday?’
‘No, Maggie. It’s Saturday. John comes on Saturdays.’
‘Is Simon coming?’
She tilts her head to one side like a little bird. ‘Who’s Simon?’
‘He’s…’ I concentrate on his face. ‘He’s my husband and I have to tell him I love him while I still can.’ I should have told him years ago. I need him to know. I shouldn’t have let him run off with Roxy Mitchell.
‘I thought you were married to John.’
A man walks through the door. I know him, don’t I? A nurse looks my way and points in my direction. ‘Maggie?’
His voice sends shivers down my spine and makes my heart race. ‘It’s you. It is you. You came.’ I want to feel his arms around me, just once more before I die. ‘Simon… I…’
He raises his eyebrows. ‘John said you might not know me. He said you wanted to tell me something.’ He looks uncomfortable. ‘How are you?’
I pat the chair beside me. ‘It’s been so long. I wanted to tell you… I need to tell you…’
‘What, Maggie?’ His voice is gentle but his eyes seem distant. He doesn’t move to embrace me. ‘What’s so important?’
His coldness throws me. It isn’t how I imagined it would be. ‘I knew what it was. Wait… please wait. It’s important. So very important. I can rest easy then, once you know.’
He nods and smiles. ‘It’s all right. Take your time.’
‘I wanted to say… I needed to tell you…’ My mind has gone blank. I said it in the dream, but the dream has faded and gone. I look up, suddenly confused and anxious. ‘Who did you say you were?’
The short story ‘Ooh Air Margrit’ appears in the charity anthology ‘You’re Not Alone‘ published in aid of Macmillan Cancer Nurses.
http://mybook.to/SilenceoftheStones – mystery set in Wales
http://mybook.to/TouchingtheWire -historical, the women of Auschwitz
http://getbook.at/WhereHopeDares – post-apocalyptic adventure set in North Africa
http://mybook.to/OnDifferentShores (Book 1 of For Their Country’s Good) convict ships to Van Diemen’s Land
http://mybook.to/BeneathStrangeStars (Book 2)
http://mybook.to/OnCommonGround (Book 3)
http://mybook.to/FTCGboxset (all three books)
http://mybook.to/DandelionClock – a WW1 story
Coming 2019 Kindred and Affinity – historical romance.