Creative Writing Workshops London, hosted by Blackbird author Diane Chandler and Blackbird editor Stephanie Zia, held its second writing competition over the summer of 2021. Entry was open to anybody who had attended a workshop. The pot of £5.00 entry fees was split between the four winners.
We have pleasure in sharing the top 3 winning entries below, along with some of the other entries whose authors have given us permission to share.
All stories/novel/memoir extracts are the copyright of the individual authors and cannot be reproduced in whole or in part without their permission. Please address any queries to email@example.com. More info about CWWL creative writing workshops here.
An Aria for Wall Street
by Priscilla McCauley
Olivia's hand chilled against the door handle. She pulled hard until she heard a satisfying click.. The smooth latch of metal against metal switched her brain into crisis-management mode – categorising, compartmentalising, forgetting.
The last hour was filed in a box in the back of her mind. It couldn’t hurt her now. A plaque on the closed door marked the room as the Corporate Legal Library of Gordon & White LLP, a hundred-year-old law firm standing on the corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue. The reality was less dignified than the plaque implied: the room was small, windowless, dusty; and hidden behind a secretary’s desk on the 27th floor.
It was hardly used, this little room. Like most professionals in the summer of 2008, the firm’s attorneys and paralegals did their research online. Or sometimes in the firm’s main library, which was glass-encased and overlooked Grand Central Station.
Yet the existence of this room was whispered by second-year Associates to incoming first-years – it was the ideal place to nap while working all-nighters, head resting on a musky stack of legal textbooks. And, rumour had it, the room saw occasional use as a hook-up spot after firm holiday parties.
The room’s chief selling point for these uses was that it locked only from the inside. And no one had a key.
He had known this.
Olivia had told him — in an off-hand way, as part of the office tour — but he hadn’t taken her word for it. He had jiggled the handle before closing them both in.
Now he stood next to her, breathing down on her. She could smell his aftershave mingling, chemical and sweet, with the passionfruit martinis they had drunk at the bar across the street.
Olivia looked away; tilted her head towards the elevator banks.
“You won’t need a building pass to get out,” she murmured.
He ran a hand through his brown curls.
“I’ll call you,” he said. He sounded like he meant it.
Olivia turned in the other direction, towards her own office. The long hallway was quiet; other than the shuffling of his leather brogues against the carpet; other than the tick-tick of a clock above a secretary’s desk.
It was 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
The secretaries’ work stations, lining the righthand side of the hall, were frozen in the optimism of a Friday afternoon: disorganised stacks of paper; a row of high heels abandoned in favor of sneakers; colourful sticky notes with Monday-morning reminders glued to computer monitors.
The Associates’ offices, lining the lefthand side, were punctuated with fluorescent glows. Faces drained of energy emerged like pale full moons from behind hunched shoulders as Olivia passed.
Susan, the only female partner in the Corporate team, had said she wanted the Project Blue due diligence report in her inbox when she woke up. Susan hadn’t said what time she would wake up and Olivia hadn’t dared ask. She would finish the report tonight — a few more hours, then she would sleep it off.
Nicole, a Senior Associate, was walking past Olivia, towards the elevators. Her hugely pregnant belly appeared to expand and shrink with each shift of her weight from foot-to-foot, a firm counterbalance to her overstuffed backpack.
“Hey you,” Nicole said. “Sorry to see you here so late again.” She looked weather-beaten, exhausted. Her hand rested on her distended belly, not as protection but as apology.
“Yeah, you too,” Olivia said, managing a smile. “You straightened your hair. It looks nice.”
Nicole touched her head absently; her eyes drifted to the ceiling. “Larry said I had to ditch the braids if I was going to make partner,” she said.
Larry would know: he was the head of the Corporate team.
Olivia smiled empathetically. She was familiar with the daily pinpricks that leeched individuality until a young attorney fit the mould of successful partner.
“One day, you’ll get to make the rules,” Olivia said.
Nicole looked down and shifted the weight of her backpack. “Maybe,” she said. “Have a good night.”
Olivia walked into her office and closed the door. Her loose limbs melted into the mesh fabric of her office chair. Her officemate Mark wasn’t in. His old-school screensaver swirled electrically on his screen.
She clicked open her computer and sipped from a can of flat Red Bull.
Her favourite aria from her favourite opera – Madame Butterfly – was playing on her portable radio. She closed her eyes, letting the music transport her to a world beyond a cold office building on a weekend night; a world more like the sparkling city just outside her window: vast, infinite, and just beyond her grasp.
With two carefully-controlled breaths – in, out, in, out – she shut down her brain and rebooted it in lawyer mode.
The muscle memory she subconsciously engaged as she worked had been formed over years of cleaning houses, offices and school buildings with her mom: lift toilet seat, squirt, scrub, dunk, wring, splatter. Mental grime floating over soapy water.
Olivia reviewed a stack of contracts, updated a summary chart, revised the due diligence report, and sent a series of impersonal emails. The rhythmic tasks left no space for ruminating, processing, deciding whether to be angry, sad or nothing at all at the memory locked away in the Corporate Legal Library.
Hours passed. She flicked on the space heater under her desk, but it didn’t stop her teeth from chattering. She absently fingered the gold cross that hung from a delicate chain around her neck. A graduation gift from her mom.
Work was a meditative sacrament, clearing her head of noise.
And work came before all else. Not only for tonight but for as many nights, months and years as it took her to make partner. Then she would exhale.
At 4:30 a.m. her Blackberry buzzed. Karina, her best friend and roommate had texted: “Hey babe. Just got home. You missed a great party! Soooo drunk. See you for boozy brunch tomorrow.”
Olivia had lived with Karina since the first year of lawschool, and they both now worked at Gordon & White. Karina’s office was two floors down in the slightly more easy-going Employment Law team.
Reading Karina’s text diverted Olivia’s mental flow. Before she could control it, images seeped from beneath the closed door of the Corporate Legal Library, like the sewage that had crept from the creek behind her childhood home every time it rained.
The soprano’s vibrato took on an ominous tone.
And there was the memory: a thick crimson volume of Corbin on Contracts smacking rhythmically into her right cheek, its gold lettering coming in and out of focus. His thumbs digging into her hips. His musky smell.
Olivia swallowed and pushed the images away. This due diligence report had to be perfect. At 5:00 a.m. she finally emailed the report to Susan and began organising her desk. Pens went into the holder, post-it notes were organized by color and size, contracts carefully shuffled into piles.
As she examined her tidy desk before leaving, her eyes landed on a smudge half-way down a Confidentiality Agreement. A blood-red thumbprint was clearly imprinted on the second paragraph, right next to the recitals of “Whereas” and “Therefores”.
She pulled the smudge closer. But before she could inspect it, she already knew what she had done.
A rhythmic pulse in her thigh. A blood-red rose blooming through a tear in her black pantyhose. Her favourite Pilot fountain pen resting on the desk, its tip a mixture of ink and blood.
A black cab wound its way through Midtown, stopping and starting at deserted red lights. It had begun to drizzle; drops on the windshield blurred the city lights.
The sun hung heavy beneath the horizon, resisting the dawn.
Olivia stared out the window. The streets were relatively still so early on a Sunday morning. No commuters, no stores pulling open their metal shutters, no stalls selling hotdogs and kebabs.
A woman in uniform crossed the street in front of them. Her head was bowed and focused, like she was either walking towards work or away from it, her head filled with the stressors of her life. Passing her in the opposite direction were several young women in skirts and high heels, huddled under a single umbrella, laughing and tripping over each other. Olivia swallowed two Xanax and an Ambien dry. She had to be able to fall asleep as soon as she got home.
Halfway to Chelsea, the cab’s engine shuddered and fell silent. The cabbie turned the key again and again, cursing under his breath. Olivia barely noticed.
“Lady,” the driver said loudly, after Olivia hadn’t responded to his first two entreaties. “I said Im’a hafta call a tow truck. I should’a taken this piece’a shit to get fixed, but the boss — fuckin’ asshole that guy — won’t give me the time off the road.”
Olivia finally snapped into the problem: “A tow truck? Can you call me another cab?”
“Sure I could. But why wou’ja wanna stand here waitin’ at 5:30 am?” He jerked his thumb leftwards. “Subway’s right there. Two stops to Chelsea.”
Olivia silently grabbed her things and stepped out. The drizzle had turned to rain. The wind, too cold for mid-July, bit through her torn pantyhose, stinging the cut in her thigh.
Descending the stairs into the subway station, she left behind the glinting capitalist marvel of New York City and entered real life. A man slept at the bottom of the stairs, a brown paper bag clutched in his arm. A couple groped each other against a concrete pillar.
Olivia stood at the edge of the platform. Rain dripped slowly from the hem of her pencil skirt. The Xanax and Ambien began taking effect. Her muscles loosened in their joints, her thoughts softening and scattering hypnotically. She could no longer track or direct her train of thought.
A familiar euphoria followed; an inexplicable rush of hope. She brushed the rain from her suit; the one she had bought from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue with her first law firm pay check, a gift to her younger self — the girl who had flipped through the weekly catalogues in the houses her mom cleaned. Olivia had always skipped over the pictures of women in lingerie to stare at the women in suits, walking purposely down Manhattan streets, their outstretched arms hailing cabs to take them to boardroom tables where they would make emphatic points at rooms full of suited men. These women had options, they pushed themselves to their potential, they didn’t settle for what life offered them.
Just look at me, Olivia thought in a sort of rhythmic mantra. Leaving my job at one of the top law firms in the world after working late on a billion-dollar deal. I am successful; I am the woman I always dreamed of becoming.
Olivia was only twenty-five. Every option was still possible. Even plausible.
A train appeared in the distance. Its burning headlights swung wildly towards her, illuminating fast food wrappers and used condoms in an orange glow before plunging them again into darkness.
She stepped to the edge of the platform and looked down at the tracks.
Yes, every option was still possible. Even plausible.
Even this: a half-step off the platform. A half-step that would end everything — her slipping partnership ambitions, her mom’s dreams for her, the dusty filtering of fluorescent light in the Corporate Legal Library. She could sink into restful sleep. It could be a half-step like any other: easy, casual.
Olivia lifted a high-heel as if to do it.
Just then, the train’s headlights bounced off the shining red eyes of a well-fed rat that had been scavenging on the train tracks.
An eternity passed in a second. Olivia felt a strange kinship with the noxious creature – its constant drive for survival – claws scraping against its concrete dark burrow, into the city streets and back again – wasn’t really that different from her own.
With her thoughts momentarily distracted by the rat, the train pulled into the platform and the automatic doors creaked open.
Olivia took a half-step in.
© 2021 Priscilla McCauley
by Alison Targett
Thinking back, Brian believed that it was during breakfast one Sunday morning that all the trouble with his parents had really begun. “We’ve been up all night!” Brian’s father had almost shouted down the ‘phone to his son. His father’s voice was suddenly so loud, so full of excitement that Brian had had to move the receiver away from his ear. A mild pang of anxiety – Were his parents ill? Had his mother fallen again? – was dispelled by his father’s next sentence: “We were in Norway last night – dog sledding! Brilliant it was.”
Brian had put down his spoon for a moment and stopped chewing his Weetabix. “Oh really, Dad? See any polar bears?” Brian’s two young sons, sitting opposite him, looked up over their bowls at their father. Brian raised his eyebrows and shrugged at the same time. The boys giggled.
“Don’t be daft, son. We didn’t get as far as Svalbard – we were on the mainland,” said Brian’s father. “But the dogs were wonderful.”
“And the scenery was to die for!” he heard his mother add in the background. “Tonight, we’re off to Austria – hill climbing,” she added. “Tell him, Robert! Tell him. We always wanted to go there, didn’t we?”
Just as Brian was succumbing to the frightening idea that his parents really were showing the first signs of senility, his father explained. “It’s all on YouTube – it’s amazing. It’s called Slow TV. You can go anywhere, whenever you like, and you feel you’re actually there. It’s opened up a whole new world to us!”
Brian drew a deep breath as his mind went back to when he was growing up and TV watching was carefully monitored by his parents. Time in front of the telly was wasted time, he recalled. Likewise, telephones were not for chatting. They were for making arrangements. Times had changed. His parents were always on the ‘phone now.
Brian’s parents had gradually become more demanding of his time. And it was time that he felt he had so little of these days. His sons, his job, basically his own life, took time enough. He worked long hours and Clare, his wife, did too. On a weekend, he liked to be on the touchline watching his sons play football. He liked to get out with Clare once a week so they could spend a little time together after a busy week. Increasingly he was having to ‘nip’ over to his parents’ house to sort out some crisis – a lightbulb needed changing, his father needed help with some paperwork or could he just run down to the shops for them? They lived little more than an hour away, but a round trip took around half a day. He realised that quite quickly, roles were being reversed: he was becoming his parents’ parent – certainly where practical matters were concerned.
Robert and Marjorie, once regarded as outdoorsy, adventurous types by their neighbours, were increasingly hemmed in by the four walls of their home. They effectively now lived out their lives in the confines of a box. No splashing out their pension on package holidays or overwintering in the Canaries, no round-the-world cruises. Their lack of mobility made these kind of jaunts impossible, and they wouldn’t have been to their taste anyway – just idle pursuits they would have frowned on. “Who needs a holiday like that when we’re on holiday all the time these days?” he could hear them saying. Their holidays, the ones Brian remembered vividly, were all about stout walking boots, maps, hills, inclement weather and achieving something by the end of a day, even if that was trying to put up a bivouac in a howling gale on the side of Scafell Pike in the Lake District.
Rheumatoid arthritis had steadily robbed his mother of her ability to walk during the last five years and she now spent her days in a wheelchair. And without his lifelong walking partner at his side, Robert had also lost confidence on his feet and now walked with a stick.
Two months ago, Brian’s parents had finally agreed that a stairlift would be a good idea for the pair of them. Brian had taken a day off work to make sure that the installation went smoothly, that his parents didn’t feel stressed about the wallpaper getting marked, the paintwork scuffed. Above all, he wanted to be there to make sure his parents used the stairlift safely, that they sat on the seat properly and fastened themselves in before pressing the ‘up’ button.
They had been very reluctant to dip into their savings to pay for the stairlift. “There’s nothing wrong with shuffling your way up on your bottom,” his mother had said. “I can manage.” Until she couldn’t anymore and got stuck halfway up and Brian had to come over to help move her.
They then agreed to have an alarm tag around their necks ‘in case something happened’. One press on the buzzer and Brian would be summoned by some invisible team in a call centre. And if he missed the call, Ada, his parents’ nextdoor neighbour had agreed she could be contacted, even though Ada herself wasn’t much younger than Brian’s parents.
Ada, who didn’t have children of her own, had known Brian all his life, and more than half of hers. In fact, he knew her as Auntie Ada, in true 1970s tradition. She was not a relation, but like all their neighbours when he was growing up, it was deemed polite to give them a familial reference. “I’ve been reading about you in the Daily Mail,” she told Brian as the stairlift people unloaded the hefty machinery on to his parents’ driveway. Brian was taken aback for a moment. “Yes, you’re called the ‘Sandwich Generation’. Old parents, young children – you stuck in the middle, responsibilities whichever way you look.
“Well,” she added, reaching to grab hold of Brian’s arm, and looking up in to his face. “At least you’ve got me – and I’m only next door. I can’t pick your Mum and Dad up off the floor, mind.”
“Thanks, Auntie Ada,” he mumbled, not sounding at all like a man of 47 as he peered down at Ada’s shrunken figure.
So, things settled down in to a new and better pattern for a while. Brian could sleep more easily knowing that his Mum and Dad could now get upstairs safely, and if there were a problem, he was just a press on a panic button away.
Then his father said that he had been thinking about getting a mobile ‘phone. His grandsons seemed to get hours of enjoyment out of them, he’d noticed. And those iPads, how much were they?
Brian couldn’t believe it! A renewed zeal for life was emerging just when Brian feared his parents’ horizons were narrowing for good. And for a while he didn’t mind his parents ringing him on his mobile from their mobile all the time. “Isn’t technology wonderful?!” they trilled. His father switched his attention from daily crosswords to downloading apps. They had an email address – Rob&Marjorie@hotmail.com. They were now in touch with relatives in Australia thanks to Facebook, and they were apparently going on dog-sled rides in Norway, thanks to YouTube. Brian was concerned about what other apps his father might come across.
“We’re feeling very modern!” his mother would say. If Brian’s father ever got stuck, he just had to text his son, or even better, his grandsons.
Brian had more daily contact with his parents now than throughout his twenties, thirties and early forties.
So, when Ada rang him one Wednesday afternoon, he was concerned. “Hello Brian, Auntie Ada here. Sorry to bother you at work – but I’m glad I caught you. It’s your Mum and Dad, I can’t get through to them. I’ve been round banging on the door, ringing the bell. I’ve rung them and there’s no answer. No answer at all.”
Brian felt a little knot of worry tightening in his stomach. “Oh,” he managed and then: “Auntie Ada, why do you need to speak to them so urgently? Is there a problem?”
“Well, yes. In fact, there’s a very big problem. There’s a lorry blocking the cul-de-sac and the driver came knocking on my door just as I was putting a fruit loaf in the oven and he had some massive parcels for your Mum and Dad. I’ve told him umpteen times that he must be wrong, but he’s quite insistent….”
“Must be a mix-up,” said Brian. “Only I order things for them these days, as you know. Leave it with me. I’ll see if I can get through.”
Brian rang his father’s mobile – twice. Just as he was about to leave a message, his father’s voice boomed “What is it, Brian? Can’t it wait? We’re busy. Your Mum and I are in the bedroom…”
“Oh,” said Brian, almost bashfully. “I’m so sorry….sorry to interrupt….”
“We’re on our afternoon walk,” said his father. “We’re climbing Scafell Pike today. Do you remember doing that? And camping out on a blustery night?”
“Is that on YouTube as well?” asked Brian. “Oh no,” said his father. “We have an Ordnance Survey map pinned on the wall and we follow the path – we know it so well. We stop and take in the views, breathe in the fresh air. Then we look up each viewing point on the iPad for more information. It’s amazing what we’ve learned. We thought we knew everything there was to know about the Lakes.”
Brian could hear his mother in the background now. “Can you put that bloody thing down, Robert? It’s lunchtime now – cheese and chutney or ham and tomato?” Brian could hear the tin foil being peeled back from the sandwiches. “I’m going to sit on this rock for a while. Pass me the flask, Robert. I’ll get the soup poured.”
Brian smiled to himself. He had to hand it to his parents. They couldn’t get to the places they loved to visit anymore, but they knew so well every twist and turn of those paths that they could almost transport themselves there. His heart lifted. Maybe they weren’t as confined to the four walls as much as he thought.
“Can you feel it, Robert?!” his mother was saying now. “The wind rushing through your hair - it’s always windy on this bend – and the view. Just glorious, isn’t it?”
Brian heard his mother slurp on her soup and was about to hang up before he remembered the reason for the call. “Wait! Auntie Ada rang – she says there’s a lorry outside and a deliveryman says he’s got some large parcels for you. It must be a mistake, mustn’t it? I haven’t ordered anything….”
“Crikey, they’re early,” said his father. “I thought we’d be back in a tearoom in Keswick by the time they arrived. Thanks, son. I’ll go down now.”
And with that, the call ended. Brian stared at his ‘phone. There was only one thing for it – to go over there.
By the time he arrived at his parents’ house, there was no lorry in the cul-de-sac, but there was a gaggle of neighbours at the end of his parents’ driveway. The Autumn sun had dipped behind their house and it was already getting quite dark. There was a bright light in the driveway throwing the long shadows of the onlookers on to the tarmac in front of him. He could see Auntie Ada. And there was his mother sitting in her wheelchair in the porch, smiling.
Suddenly, there was a roar – a throaty, powerful sound from the driveway and he could see his father waving a hand in the air. “Brian! Brian! Come and look at this!”
As the neighbours parted, Brian saw his father sitting astride a motorbike. Its plum-coloured bodywork and chrome trim glinted in the light from the porch. But that wasn’t all. There was a matching sidecar, all kitted out for a wheelchair user. “It’s your Mother’s favourite colour!” shouted his father above the din of the engine. “We’re going on a trip.”
Brian struggled to find any words and just stared at the name on the side of what had to be the biggest motorbike he had ever seen: Harley Davidson. And for just a second he remembered the teenager pleading with his parents for a motorbike in this same driveway and the parents saying it was a silly idea and that they were dangerous.
“Crikey, Dad. How much has this cost you? And the insurance?” He was about to say something about the danger bit but then….Who was he to say? Who was he to judge? Was he really going to stop his parents living out their 80s on one of the most powerful machines known to man? In fact, the image of his mother perched in her customised sidecar, the wind smoothing the lined skin on her face, made him smile.
“You’re not thinking of taking the bivouac with you, are you?” said Brian.
“Oh no,” his father chuckled. “We’re going to book rooms along the way on Booking.com. We’ve got the app.
“And we’ll be writing everything up for the blog.”
© 2021 Alison Targett
Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid
by Ricky Cibardo
Mum flew first thing last Tuesday morning. She looked so happy with her freshly-applied makeup – expertly done while she’d laid back in gay abandon.
She’d talked relentlessly for the past few weeks about seeing Uncle Toby and Auntie Margaret. After all, it must have been seven years since they had last laid eyes on each other. My Nanny Edith would keep telling my mum that Toby and Margaret could wait a few more years yet, but seeing them again was just one of those things that kept her smiling.
Everyone knew that Mum was going. We just didn’t know exactly which day she planned to go. It was always going to be on her terms. She had been obsessed with the rules around the pandemic and would keep on checking the news to see if there had been any changes to how many people could be together in one place at any one time.
There was no way she would pick and choose who attended her own funeral.
You see, this was my mum’s final flight. Last Tuesday her suffering ended.
She had meticulously planned her resting day in the final weeks of her life. Pen in hand, furiously jotting down a guest list, organising a pop-up bar, checking which flowers were in bloom and sending several unanswered emails to Elton John’s record company insisting that Elton himself come along and sing yet another version of Candle in the Wind, incorporating Mum’s career as a chief baker at the local supermarket.
I happened upon the only three lines she had already written, within a small, pink, glittery box, when I was searching for the florist’s telephone number. I hoped it was Mum’s idea of a joke.
“Goodbye Rosa Smith
Though I never knew you at all
You had to taste the buns you made
Whilst those around you drooled.”
I smiled, knowing that Mum would have had fun writing that. Even more so as she would have known that I would be the person to find it. She had stuck yellow beads onto the lid of the box spelling my name out R.O.B.I.M. Well, I assume it was for me. She had clearly become carried away and the N had grown an extra bead.
I sifted through the rest of the paperwork also left in the box for me. There were some unpaid bills, my dad John’s next dental appointment jotted down on a small card with a reminder that this one was for a filling, the multitude of telephone numbers that I needed; a list of locations where we could scatter her ashes (she couldn’t decide); and an old, beige, 4-folded document which seemed to have been placed at the bottom of the box for a reason because everything else was in size order, smallest at the top.
I opened the document out carefully so as not to tear it. Right at the top of the page, either side of a very grandeur coat of arms, it read, Certificate of Birth.
Reading left to right I could see it was in fact my Birth Certificate that Mum hadn’t been able to find when I had asked her for it quite a few years back.
It said that I was born in roughly the same area that we live now – which wasn’t a surprise because Mum and Dad didn’t ever go anywhere too far away. Even our holidays were nearer to home than most of my work commutes.
I carried on scrolling: Robin Peter Henderson, Sex: Boy, Mother: Rosa Maria Morris Father: Derek James Henderson.
I read the words one by one again in complete confusion.
My first irrational thought was that my dad had changed his name at some point during his life, but, with grounded realisation, I quickly understood that this Birth Certificate had never been lost. Just held back from me for the last twenty-eight years.
That was NOT my dad’s name.
The expression “Neither the place nor the time” raced around my head in the following few days leading up the funeral every time my dad and I consoled each other. He had just lost the only woman that he had ever loved. My selfish need to understand whether he was my bloody dad never seemed to outweigh the burning desire to protect him from the pain of grief.
Mum had indeed held on to life long enough, passing away after restrictions were lifted, so that all of her friends and family could ‘see her off’ as she would say.
My mum was a wannabe cockney sparrow and would have anyone who had just met her believe that she had been brought up in the East End, working in a market selling fruit and veg with good ole Barbara Windsor named frequently as a distant relative. The truth was that she came from a middle-class family of accountants based out of Berkshire.
The church looked rather large. I took up my customary position right at the front as everyone else started filtering into the church. I wasn’t ready for today. I didn’t suppose I would ever be.
My emotions were all over the place. In the thirty seconds that it just took my mum’s work colleague, Keith, to trundle down the aisle, I loved him for coming, I became highly suspicious of his intentions and angered by his probable expectation that he was included in the will. My mum had seen a little of Keith outside of work one summer as they used to ballroom dance together for all of five, maybe six sessions. Yet listening to Keith regaling stories earlier in the courtyard, you’d believe that they were seasoned dance professionals.
“Sorry for your loss Robin,” Keith solemnly said as he bowed his head and fist bumped me. Now, I know that this pandemic has made everyone think twice about a handshake or a hug but somehow a fist bump to the son of the deceased seemed wrong in so many ways.
I decided to turn around and face the front. In a matter of minutes, after the order of service had started, I would need to read out my poem, written hastily that morning. This was making me more anxious than the thought of Mum going through the curtain, never to be seen again. I think it was yet another of my mum’s hilarious jokes – insisting that I write and read out a poem at her funeral.
She knew I wasn’t one for words or public speaking.
I felt my dad’s breath as he leant nearer to me.
“She was so proud of you son. You were always the shining star. Never forget how much your mum loved you.”
Dad wasn’t great at showing his emotions and that little speech did feel slightly rehearsed.
I gave Dad a knowing smile, trying to imagine the time when I would ask him whether he knew my birth dad, Derek, and why he and Mum had lied to me.
The service had already started and All Things Bright and Beautiful, my mum’s favourite hymn, had been sung before I had unattached myself from my daydream – or, should I say, nightmare.
“Now Robin, would like to say some words?” The vicar beckoned me up to the altar.
I heard a couple of stifled claps as I got up. The long months of being locked down had confused many of the congregation as to what the correct etiquette was now.
I cleared my throat and stood up straight as if I was about to deliver a Churchillian masterpiece. It couldn’t have been further away from that.
“To everyone here who has joined in this place
Forgive me today if my words do race
I will try to speak with some elation
To all who loved Mum in this congregation.
“Has he written a bloody limerick? My grandad attempted to whisper to my nan, Edith. He had become more and more cantankerous by the year but he seemed to make a few laugh as much as everyone else cringed.
“Carry on Robin.” The vicar tapped me lightly on the shoulder.
“You see Mum wouldn’t want so much woe
Instead, some smiles before she goes
To see her talented maker in the sky
But why so soon? I don’t know why
‘Cause she was so young, so it was hard for sure
To be told it had spread and there was no cure
And now she’s been taken from me and my dad
The very best woman the world ever had”
I didn’t cry while I read the poem. I cried straight after because I felt so bad that I didn’t cry while reading those words. Assuming what grief will do to you is more deadly than the grief itself.
The rest of the service was a blur. Watching my mum pass through the curtain as some
Michael Bublé song played on the vicar’s sound system was the cue to move slowly out of the church. I couldn’t help thinking how good the sound system was for a church and whether it was paid for with leftover money from the roof fund.
As we walked to the wake Mum had booked at The Red Lion, I decided that I would confront my dad when everyone had gone home. What was the point in letting this drag on? I was starting to feel a lot of resentment, if only for the lies through all of these years.
Part of me felt sorry for my dad. Why did Mum leave him to face the music on his own? She was the strong one, she would have helped me to understand.
The atmosphere changed as Dad and I arrived. The music was turned down and people started to look more solemn than they probably felt. After all, most had spent so long indoors in the last year or two that even the chance of having some drinks at a bar within a wake was somewhat of a party feel.
There were so many people who were sorry for my loss that if just one more person had said it to me then I may well have flipped. I don’t mean to seem so ungrateful but what I really wanted was time to adjust to not having a mum anymore and wondering if my sole surviving parent actually had something to do with my genes.
My dad sat down next to me. He could see that my fake smiles were getting narrower by the person, so saved me like all good dads should. We both looked down at the 60s style red seating as a puff of dust appeared when Dad’s derriere landed.
“How did you meet Mum?”
I just came out with it. I am not sure that I have ever actually heard this story.
“Was she as beautiful then as she always looked?”
He settled in.
“I was seeing your mother for quite a while; we had met while I was working at the local supermarket on the meat section. I suppose we were the ones having an affair – she was still seeing a guy named Derek. I always knew that she was still with Derek officially, but we just loved each other, and Rosa would tell me every time we said goodbye of a morning that she would end it with Derek.”
I stopped the sensation that would start tears rolling down my eyes. The name Derek had been on my mind since I saw the Birth Certificate and hearing my dad say his name out loud somehow made it real.
“How did they meet Dad?”
“He lived in the same road as your nan and grandad. I think he lost his parents when he was quite young which sent him off the rails for a while. It was your mum that tried to make him see sense and to not end up behind bars. Ultimately she struggled to leave him because she felt that it would undo all of the hard work they had put into getting Derek back on the straight and narrow.
“You should have insisted she left him, Dad.” I started to choke on my words a little. Maybe because I realised where this conversation was going.
“Derek caught Rosa and me in bed. We took less care with how and where we met so it was bound to happen.”
For any child, having to think that your parents had had sex more than just to conceive you was hard enough, but the story was starting to mould itself into an ending that I was fearful of, yet resigned to. They clearly didn’t conceive me.
“So why didn’t Derek and Mum end there and then Dad?”
My dad shuffled slightly in his chair. I had already probed too much, today of all days, but there was no turning back now.
“That’s what I thought would happen son.”
My dad put his head in his hands, almost with shame, with every word stripping a layer of manhood from his body and taking what little emotion was left from his being.
“You see, your mum jumped up out of bed and put her arms around Derek and begged for his forgiveness. Promised that it was a one off with me and it was Derek that she really loved.”
“But that was just lies, Dad, wasn’t it. She obviously chose you over him anyway.”
“I didn’t see your mum for three years after that night. In fact, I only bumped into her again at the supermarket’s reunion get-together in the June of 1996. She looked stunning. She later admitted that she’d hoped I’d be there and that’s why she made an effort. After all, it wasn’t easy getting ready with a toddler running about the place.”
“Yes, you son.”
“What happened to Derek?”
“Ran away to Spain with your mum’s sister, Carly.”
“Mum doesn’t have a sister called Carly?”
“Your mum disowned her after that, vowed never to speak her name or ever have anything to do with her. Not surprising that you have never heard of her, Robin.”
My dad gave me a glancing look as if to implore me not to ask any more questions.
“I must find her, maybe she could introduce me to Derek?”
“Why the hell do you want to speak to that bastard for? Anyway, they both died in a car accident in 2002. I know this because I was secretly sending money to Carly for years. Essentially, I was being blackmailed by her so that she and Derek would stay put in Spain and not travel back. I was scared that Derek would slither his way back into your mum’s affection. It would have killed her to dredge up old history again.”
“Well, cancer got her anyway, Dad.”
“Ah, sorry son, wrong turn of phrase, God rest her soul.”
I felt it was time. It seemed obvious for me to ask. The dates didn’t add up either, why was I toddling around when Derek was on the scene?
My dad would always be my dad. Would it really matter that he hadn’t conceived me?
I might just have left it. What was the point in asking? It would only have hurt him more.
Too late though.
“I suppose you are wondering why I didn’t know about you, Robin?”
“Well, I kind of worked it out, Dad.”
“Really? I’m assuming that you found the one document I’d hoped you would never have to see?”
“Yes Dad, Mum left it in my box.”
“So, after the reunion, your mum and I started dating. It was pure bliss. I took you on as my own and we made plans to live abroad. Of course, that never happened but we married anyhow and set up our lives as you know it today.”
I held Dad’s hand. This was getting harder for him.
“Why did she go son, why did she leave us so soon?”
He broke down. I had never seen him cry before. It was heartbreaking. I watched as he arched his back to get closer to me. His face awash with tears, blemished with pink blotches. He leant in even closer…
“We just wanted to believe that you were mine for all of those years since we’d met again at the reunion. We were happy with that scenario. After all, I brought you up with Mum, but she didn’t want to die with potential lies hanging over her.”
“So, you did a DNA test, Dad?”
“You are my son; you have always been my son. We did the DNA when your mum was diagnosed with cancer. She wanted that done and for everyone to know once and for all. The DNA proved without doubt that you are biologically mine. I guess Mum wanted us to have this conversation and get that Birth Certificate changed.”
My lip dropped and my dad hugged me tight. He let out a gentle, uneasy laugh and tapped me lightly on the nose.
“Just so we can agree Robin, you didn’t get your crap poem writing from me.”
© 2021 Ricky Cibardo
by Mike Joseph
A short story based on the relationship between Fredrich Nietzsche and Lou Salome - the love of his life
He was slow to recognize what had disrupted his thinking, where the disruptive force which stopped the flow of words into black ink onto his paper had come from. Now he knew. It was her eyes, how they had set upon him from across the coffee shop. Set upon him like he was the only one she saw in the crowded room.
She had turned and looked directly at him as he entered - seeming to read him in at one glance. His shoes, a little more worn than most, black trousers, his coat of undisguised age (though finely cut) and his too-large moustache, fashionable now only with men of his father’s age. With his black felt hat he appeared unashamedly an academic but old for his forty years.
When his sister arrived later she had immediately recognised this woman as a recently met acquaintance. She introduced them. Her name was Lou and they had talked formally - but even from this he had been moved by the depth of her, the force of her thinking, the energy in her words. No one else seemed to notice but he. And she saw that he noticed.
He met her again a few days later when they went for coffee and tea. She was a visiting student in Zurich, one of few women in the university and the only one studying to be an Alienist. She was here on a pleasure trip for a few days and was staying with her friend nearby. And although there was twenty years between them, he did not feel it....perhaps it was the otherness of women to him or that there simply was no measure in years between minds so equally matched.
When she returned to her studies in Zurich they wrote daily and after one or two formal letters, and at her polite urging, he dropped any pretense of formality and restraint. Thereafter any thought or whimsy, no matter how slight, would be set aloft to sail in the current between them. A spark of a thought carried across, and when received, instantly returned - sometimes with a new twist or turn of thought. He would often have to sit back and reflect for a while before rereading and he soon noticed any thought of her made his pulse race and his fingers tremble.
In early January; two months after they had first met he wrote: “I see by the volume of my words to you, I am filling you fuller with words than you I. And it feels to me like a fecundity, my words spilling hot and fast into the greatness of your soul where, considered, contemplated, consecrated they commune and conjoin with your unconscious and rise from that mist to be born new and so set aloft back to me, small angelic parcels of light that complete me” And then, in spite of his misgivings, he acted on heroic impulse and sent these words to her.
A few days later he received her reply. In the sense of that one thought she had responded as energetically as ever and even noted her pleasure at those lines.
Then the deep cold of winter brought on his headaches and nausea. Settled into bed with the best medicine he could prescribe himself he found huge comfort assembling the words he would put into his next letter to her.
At the end of January he lay still in a darkened room, the pressure in his forehead dulled by the fresh morphine in his veins. Outside the snow fell softly, thickly.
He knew it would be many more weeks until he could retreat again to his beloved mountains to write. But he was secretly delighted this prospect kept him close to her.
As the pain washed away he was freer to think and he saw that without exception, every one of the days he had lived until now had been flat, one dimensional. They were a sad greyness compared with the recent bright days she had brought.
This disturbing realization gave him pause. Perhaps, he thought, everything he had written in the past was the writing of the half-man he was, not a full man he now felt. From this new outlook - which he concluded could only have come about because of his sharing of thoughts with Lou - he saw his written words as those of an Untermensch – a minor man. It was not that they were wrong - they spoke of his quest as an Übermensch - it was more that now they seemed incomplete, immature or not considered in the broader perspective of what it really meant to be alive. Every way he turned this over he came to the same conclusion. He had gained a powerful insight through his communion with Lou, and the greatest surprise of this insight was its very existence.
He felt dislocated by this realisation. Once he was a man who felt complete in every way. Now he had felt unsure and disquieted by his unsureness. This disquiet spread further as he reconsidered slowly, carefully, each and every thought he had laid out, either in aphorism or treatise, in letter or from the lectern or in conversation.
He sharply focused the new light of understanding which he had so recently come to possess and in one moment his own words came back to him as a challenge:
“Why doesn't man see things?”
“Because he is standing in his own way concealing them.”
There were those things he had said that he knew he should not have. He saw there was a thorn buried somewhere inside the rose. The more closely he drew the rose to him, the deeper would prick the thorn. Only he had planted the thorn there himself and now it would come to pierce him.
How detestable, how tragic, how human. All too human.
He lay still for hours in the gloom of his study as the daylight seeping through the curtains softened. The light of his understanding faded as he drifted into a deep narcotic sleep.
In late February she came to visit and they met again at the same coffee- shop. She had with her a small package and was holding it with some reverence, like a gift. He thought back to the gift he had sent her for Christmas, the three volumes and his card carefully inscribed in red ink
“Dear Lou, please accept this small gift in consideration of my deepest and most profound happiness in the privilege of your friendship and the great satisfaction I draw from every moment we spend together”
Now he would have written so much more.
A curling mist arose from the coffee laid before them while he looked at her unblinking in delicious private rapture. She was as fresh, as lively and beautiful here as every moment he recalled.
“It is so very good to see you again Freddy” she said and reached to place a hand on his.
The contact electrified him but he could utter no words. He smiled instead.
She continued “I really enjoyed your books. They are so very great in ambition, though they also seem very sad” And her eyes turned down a little as though she was recalling a recent personal tragedy. “And well, this first one, the one about the birth of tragedy. Perhaps I started out feeling a little sad at the title, though it is wonderfully written.” She smiled.
He had often heard people remark upon his writing and felt that anything he said might corrupt the purity of her thoughts on it. So he remained silent, smiling.
She looked away for a moment, it was a little unsettling. “I believe there is much truth in what you say and I know you have spent much time thinking about the world in the past, the present and the possible future. And these thoughts have resulted in your developing a novel and profound view of the world. And our place in it to come.”
She paused to think about what to say next. “My reading of your works, as a woman, may be different to how you intended them to be read, as by a man. This however should be no matter as the ideas you have written of are universal in outlook and for all Mankind. But then, Freddy, how do I make sense of these particular things you have written of Womankind?”
His face, up to then enjoying the warm sun of her company, suddenly felt a chill and a dull ache in his soul jarred him sharply - he almost let out a cry.
She reached for the small package on the table and withdrew from it his most recent volume. She placed it on the table softly in front of him. It lay, evidence of his crime.
She looked down at the book and said nothing for a short moment. He looked at it, his eyes starting to burn and recalled with typographic clarity the words he had used, the sense he had expressed, the myriad ways he could see now how those words could turn treasonable on their owner.
“There are many unkind words you use in this book that illustrate for me a prejudice, not just against all Mankind, but very much against Womankind” She paused and looked right into his eyes. It was impossible to meet her gaze.
She continued “I do not stand against this solely because I am a woman. I stand against it first because it is a prejudice.”
Her brevity emphasised the completeness of his failing. She continued: “It is my deepest belief, as I believe it is yours, that we stand at the portals of an age and that it is therefore our duty now to consider deeply and widely how we will build a fairer, better world upon the ruins of the old.” She paused here and then continued, her gaze locked onto his failing eyes “And I ardently believe the last part of the old world we must sweep away before we begin this labour is none other than that very same prejudice you have so well expressed” another pause here “But it is a prejudice you have declared as being one of your core beliefs, one which you would seek to make a fundamental part of the new world…..” She finished that almost as a question, a ray of hope, but he knew it was a statement. Her eyes accused him.
The boundless river of ambition within him , that ambition for a brave new future spent with her, it froze solid - an icy cold core now deep in his soul. He stumbled inwardly from the cold shock of her words. The luxury of her company was gone. Suddenly he wished he was not here but instead far away on a desolate mountain with no one by his side.
Then he focused. He could see the hardening in her face now, though her eyes were still kind, the look was inscrutable. His mind went blank for a moment. Was she still a friend or now a foe?
“Words”, he said, scrambling desperately for something to deflect the ice in her stare “All words have a prejudice...”. He had run out of words now.
She smiled at him a moment, he felt a reprieve. “Of course Freddy, words have a prejudice and this is the burden of the writer, to choose and carefully weigh each one so.”
Then she laughed lightly, the suffocating gravity of the moment before instantly evaporated, she looked at him again. “I have had some time to think about this and I have determined that such a prejudice could not be in the heart of a man I would love.” Now he felt both joy and a chill, the road before him was opening, but where it led was unclear.
“So tell me, Freddy?” she continued, “Your words, these books, your ideals, all your years of thinking. All your thoughts, so carefully written here.” She laid a hand softly on the cover of the book between them and caressed it gently. "Should I presume them to be, as they appear to be, hued by prejudice, unworthy of my further consideration or, should I understand that you do not for a moment believe these things you write?”
Too late he had seen this coming and now realised there was no way out.
“You don’t really believe these words, do you Freddy?” she asked.
© 2021 Mike Joseph
by Fiongal Greenlaw
When I was young, and all the things in my life were new and confusing, I remember crying into my grandmother's arms. I don't recall the event that got me so upset, and it perhaps doesn't matter, but between my gulping sobs, I asked her, "Why does everything change all the time? Things swap about too much! I just don't understand it. Why can’t I get it to stay the same all the time?”
"Hush, hush, child," she soothed in her gravel-velvet tones whilst pulling me away from her chest and looking me in the eyes, "Come sit with me a while and let me tell you a story."
She wiped my tears with the cuff of her blouse, pulled me onto her lap and began:
Long, long ago, before the world as we know it today, made up of all its marvels, came to be, there lived only Father Timeand Mother Nature. And alone they satin thevastblankness. Until one day, weary of their solitude, they had a child—a girl. And, by the magic of these ancient times, she was exactly your age on the very day she was born.
She had long, black hair that she wore in a neat plait down her back. Her face, although perhaps not beautiful, was symmetric and held an unfussy charm. Her voice was quiet and reserved, and her china blue eyes emanated silent placation.
Father Time said to his child, "Daughter, your mother and I are very glad you have come into our lives. Before you came, everything was so empty. So I bestow upon you a gift: this universe. Make it your own; build, shape and craft anything your little heart desires."
"Thank you, Father," the girl replied, smiling softly – although a little daunted by the scale of her bequest. "I will do my very best to make you proud and create many beautiful things here."
"Oh, I've no doubt," he replied, kissing her on the crown of the head. Then he departed. The daughter looked about her at the limitless blanket of nothingness that stretched in every direction. Furrowing her brow and raising her finger to her lips, she began to assess all the possibilities of what she could do: the things she must make, form and fashion from her imagination.
After a long period of judicious deliberation, weighing up all sides, every possible opposing point, she finally knew what must be done:
First, she conjured a single thin piece of charcoal. Second, she magicked a large, tiger-coloured marble. Third, a few wooden beads, each with a hole in the middle. Fourth, one thousand reelsof black thread. Fifth, a mountain'sworth of silver sequins. Last, oneshiny silver coin.
She checked every item for any imperfections, taking them between her thumb and forefinger and rotating them this way and that. Pleased that each passed inspection, she said, "Yes, these shall do nicely."
To start, the girl took the stick of charcoal and drew tiny lines in the air. She placed each mark precisely next to the other, erasing any that were a speck shorter or longer than its neighbour, and did not stop until she'd filled the cosmos with endless dashes. Like this:
(My grandmother drawing little lines with her index finger into the palm of my hand. I giggled as she tickled me.)
Next, the girl took the orange glass sphere. Holding it at arm's length and squinting one eye, she waved the ball in front of her, trying to locate the perfect setting for it. Once she'd found its place, she pressed the glass orb with her thumb into the nothingness, which received it without resistance.
"There," she said. And there it sat, like this:
(Granny tracing the circle into my open hand.
"What is she making?" I asked, my eyes wide with wonderment.
"Be patient, my love, you will see," replied my grandmother, with her cat-like grin.)
Then, she took the gigantic pile of silver sequins and threaded them together one by one. And, oh! What a time it took. But she did not waver in her efforts. She sat and stitched and stitched without complaint until there was an immaculate, glittering net expanding around her, as far as her eyes could see. The girl fixed this too onto her universe.
"Almost there," the girl said, a giddying knot of excitement winding in her belly. But there was no time to get carried away with herself, for she had work to do.
Next, the girl took the beads out of her pocket, strung each onto a length of thread and suspended them in a row.
Lastly, she affixed the silver coin onto her vista.
The girl stood back and gazed upon her inventions with a luminous pride: "Everything is just as it should be and has gone exactly to plan."
The view brought her a deep peace. The stillness and simplicity demanded nothing more from her but stared back at her with an unblinking and unflinching eye.
Or at least it was at first…
As time passed, the peace she had felt muddied with a discomfort she could not place. Perhaps she'd overlooked something. Maybe there was an object out of place?
She checked and tested her creations. But no, her designs were perfect, and there was nothing to be changed.
The girl sighed, discouraged that she could not uncover the issue that might puncture the growing swell of ennui.
She tried conjuring new items with which to work. Yet inspiration had now abandoned her; her creations came out clumpy and impossible – a circle with a beginning and an end. A clock that always showed yesterday's time.
Therewasnothing moreto be madebecausewhatshe had already produced was flawless. So, the dreary fog of monotony continued to press itself on her. Deep-sigh-boredom turned into tedium; tedium turned into apathy; apathy turned into a drum-drum-drumming listlessness that possessed the girl's fingers.
Where once the things she'd crafted were the sparkling jewels of her inspiration manifest, now dull stones hung before her, with grey faces, unsmiling.
She rebuffed her parents' advice: Why not try something new? Maybe you could wash it away and start over again? It was no use. She'd toiled so hard and for so long that she was anxious about undoing all her hard work. Yet, boredom continued to tighten his long fingers around her heart.
Her parents, distressed as their only child blurred more and more behind the grubby haze of despair, came up with a plan: the birth of a new child. And, as was the magic of these ancient times, she was exactly the age of her sister on the day she was born.
Mother Nature took her secondborn aside and said, "Go to your sister, find out what ails her. Your father gave her the whole universe to do with whatever she pleased, and she made so many beautiful things. But instead of giving her joy, it seems to have only brought her strife."
The daughter nodded furiously at her mother’s words, "Oh, Mother, don't fret! Of course, I'll go and find her. I can't wait to meet her! Leave it with me."
And with that, the golden-haired girl bounded off to seek out her sister.
After some time, she saw the black-haired girl a little way off, sitting at the edge of the universe, with her legs, swinging back and forth, dangling over the side.
"You there!" cried the secondborn, waving her arms about wildly, before running over to where her sister sat. "Oh, what a pleasure it is meeting you! Silly me," she said, placing her hands over her face in feigned embarrassment, before putting them down again, displaying a glinting grin, "I haven't introduced myself properly, have I? I'm your sister!"
Even the most unobservant could tell how different the two sisters were. Whilst the firstborn sister was neat and refined, the secondborn looked as though she was darting off in several directions at once, even when she stood still. She had a shock of wiry, golden hair, like a ransacked jewellery box. Her eyes were gun-powder grey, filled with the threat of exploding into mischief at any given moment. And her facial features seemed at odds with one another, at wrong angles and spaced too close or too far apart. Nevertheless, she was undeniably beautiful.
"I can't wait for you to show me around. Our mother said you've made some beautiful things. How clever of you!" she said, her voice brimming over with a giddy gurgle.
Yet her sister seemed to barely register her words – she merely half-glanced in her direction, shrugged, and then placed her chin in her hands, staring out across at her creations.
The golden-haired girl, seemingly unaware of her sister's cheerlessness, sat down next to her, "Wow, look at this. These are just magnificent! You did this all by yourself? Where did you even know how to start? I wouldn't –" her word trailed. She leapt up and darted across the vastness, picking up the orange marble, her eyes wide with amazement: "What's this?"
"Do not touch that!" cried her sister, suddenly sitting upright.
"What’s it for?" the secondborn asked.
"Never you mind. Put it back! It took me ages to get it right."
Nevertheless, the secondborn ignored her sister's words and instead grabbed the silver coin, weighing it in her hand and peering into its shiny surface, "This stuff's incredible!"
"Stop it!" bellowed her sister. "You cannot just turn up here and start moving things about. What gives you the right?"
"I didn't mean no harm by it. Just excited, is all."
"I do not care! You are ruining everything. Put those things back and leave." But the secondborn did not, for she was too absorbed in the objects she held.
And then an impishness ignited in her eyes. "I wonder what would happen if –," and she struck the marble and coin together, hard.
"Whatareyou doing?"cried the firstborn, her pallid facenowblotched with curdled rage. The secondborn bashed the pieces together again. Whoosh. The marble caught ablaze, and, in her surprise, she dropped it. It fell and fell. Finally, landing into the nothingness, a ball of burning orange just hanging there. And this, my child, is how the Sun came to be.
And the coin? That tumbled from her hands also. And that landed back into the vastness once more. The previously perfectly polished piece was all now dented and scuffed. And this is how the Moon was created, with its craters and all!
The golden-haired girl, oblivious to the havoc she was causing, looked around her, her face alight with curiosity, and spotted the blinking web of sequins. She reached a hand to touch them.
"No!" the firstborn screamed. What ill-fortune had she deserved this meddling, insolent sibling? "How dare you? How dare you come here and mess this all up!"
She lunged forward, moving to snatch her sister's extending arm away from her beautiful creations. But she moved quicker than she meant and instead collided with her sister, causing the secondborn to fall backwards. The golden-haired girl tried to steady herself by grasping the net of sequins with one hand and pressing her other palm against the charcoal drawings wall. This caused the markings to smear into a black smudge, like this:
(My grandmother sweeping two lines with her index finger along the inside of my forearm)
And that was how the night was created.
As for the net of sequins: they snagged and puckered, like an old man's mouth, tangling and twisting into knots.
This, my dear boy, is how the stars were made, scattered about, like thrown dice—the strings connecting them, forming the many constellations, Orion, Leo, Ursa Major.
And as the sister fell, she landed into the row of beads, which swung widely from their pivots. And this, my child, is how the planets were created. And why they turn in their big circles, round and round.
A fit of retching anger pitched in the firstborn's stomach. She squeezed her eyes shut, shutting out the image that lay at her feet, her beautiful, perfect creations violated under the vicious hand of her sister. Her tears still fell (this, the seas); her feet stamped with broiled frustration (this, the thunder); her voice shrieked (this, the wind!) All her work. Her dreams. Her relentless efforts. Gone in a moment. A wretched sister, whom she'd never met, tearing down in seconds, what took her an era to cultivate.
She stood there. The only sound she could hear was the whooshing blood of her heart in her ears.
"Look!" her sister call out. But she shook her head, waving off the words. "Look!" she heard again.
"No. I can't bear to see the mess you've caused." "Listen to me. Look!"
Was this a jeering joke? Did she want her sister to bear witness to her thwarted efforts? "No. I don't want to.”
She opened her eyes a crack. Wiping her tears away with her hands, she could see the blurred outline of her sister, still on her back, pointing to something behind her: "Turn round and look."
And she did.
And this is what she saw: ger creations were not broken at all! Yes, they were twisted and shifted outof place. Butthey werealive. They danced and sparkled. Theyspun and winked. The vivid jewels of her imagination, which she believed could shine no brighter, now sung in prismatic delight that made her heart burst open.
Then she understood.
This is why, my child, when Sister Chaos comes into your life and seems to tear each good thing Sister Order has made, we must not resent her knock at our door. We must welcome her with open arms as a good friend; cheer her on as she wreaks mayhem and destruction in our homes, hearts and mind. Never make her feel as though she'd outstayed her welcome. But instead, wave her off, saying, "I can't wait for you to return," when she decides it's time to leave.
© 2021 Fiongal Greenlaw
The Glass Door, Psychosis.
by Astrid Wilson
From the medical notes of Dr L .Hauser, 08.09.1965
Ingrid was referred to me by the Student Health Centre at UCL. She is a post-graduate student in the Film Department at The Slade School.
Ingrid has a refugee background and spent her early childhood years in a refugee camp in Germany just after the end of World War 2.
She suffered a psychotic breakdown in March of this year and was hospitalised at the Royal Free Hospital. She was undergoing analysis at the Tavistock Centre at the time. This was an unhappy experience for her and it has since terminated. She has been granted an extra year at the Slade in order to finish her thesis.
She has made a good recovery from her breakdown and is continuing to make progress.
During our sessions it became apparent that Ingrid can find it hard to articulate or describe some of her experiences, especially those from her early years that cause her distress. She told me that it is often easier for her to express her experiences in writing than in speech. She also told me that she keeps a diary in which she has tried to analyse and understand her emotions and her experiences.
This struck me as an excellent method and I urged her to follow it. I also told her to try to recall and describe her earliest experiences. I told her that, when it came to describing specific experiences in very early childhood she should try to revert to a child’s point of view and to write as though from a child’s perspective.
She has followed my advice. I am pleased to say that she has trusted me enough to actually show me her diary and her writings. I am impressed by what she has written.
The following are extracts from her diary and her writings.
I am now seeing Dr H for therapy. I am happy about this. It’s so different from the Tavistock.
I see him in his flat in Maida Vale. The room he sees me in is a nice room. There is a plane tree outside the window. He has a number of ornamental objects on his desk. I sit in an armchair, sideways to him. Opposite me on the wall is a water colour of a country landscape- a winding river, trees, a sort of barn and hills in the distance.
He told me that he is Austrian and that he came here in the mid-thirties. So he is from Europe, like myself.
He says that he is not a Freudian although he has actually met Freud! Imagine! He thinks that analysis is too cumbersome as a process but he believes in the importance of uncovering what might be called ‘key’ experiences.
Felt better than I have for ages. Got up quite early for me. When I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth I heard Grandpa and Mummy yak yak yak in the kitchen. Probably talking about me. They think I do everything wrong. They don’t even approve of the Slade. They think artists are weird. They want me to go into teaching. What about me? And my thoughts?
Tom and Sally came to visit me. Big mistake! It led to one of those ‘your hippy student friends’ conversations when they had gone. Well, conversation is the wrong word. It was more the Mummy Tight-lipped look, just after they had left.
She did say -usual sarcasm - I’m surprised they found the time to visit you in the middle of the day. I thought you said that art students worked all day.
I didn’t deign to reply.
Dr H said that he likes the way I write! He said he would like it if I would try to write about some of my experiences in the camp for refugees. He said to try to think of experiences that had distressed me.
He has already explained that the absence of Father and Mother for a child my age when I was in the camp was significant. Well, I knew that anyway.
He said, if I could think of any occasions when I had been especially emotional or upset when I was a child, and especially when I was in the camp, to try to write about them. He said to try to regress to the age I was when it happened, even if it meant using baby language when I was writing.
I can think of a few times, and one in particular, when I felt really upset and I shall try to do what he says. I feel a bit embarrassed writing about situations when I was practically a baby. Baby situations are, well, a bit baby, but here goes!
Experience in the refugee camp when four and a half
It began like this.
I was four and a half. I was in a camp for refugees in Germany. My father was missing and my mother had gone to England to start a new life.
I lived alone in a room in this camp with my grandfather and my sister Tamara. Tamara was one and a half.
I don’t know how it started. Perhaps I was bored – I don’t remember. I didn’t know what to do. Tamara was hopeless. She didn’t play. She was grumpy. She had a teddy bear. He was called Max but she didn’t share him.
Then I saw this pair of scissors. I took it up and began to play with it. Open and shut, open and shut. Quite interesting.
Then I saw Grandpa’s newspaper. I cut it. Just a little cut. I liked it. I cut more bits. It felt quite good.
Then it was boring and I cut the table cloth. I cut some more bits and then it was boring.
Then I cut Tamara’s blanket. Only a little cut.
I was beginning to know that it was wrong, but it didn’t feel wrong. I couldn’t stop. It was like a different world where it didn’t matter.
It was like my friend Toomas’s toy car. Round and round on the table. Brrm, brrm, brrm. Round and round. Cut, cut, cut. Round and round.
So I kept on cutting.
Suddenly the door opened and it was Grandpa.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING? He shouted.
I didn’t say anything. I stopped cutting and I looked at the floor. I felt frightened. I felt frightened when he was angry.
Come and stand in front of me, he shouted. So I did.
Then he shouted, And don’t look away, look up at me. So I did.
Now you know what you have done, don’t you? He shouted next.
No, I said and it was true. I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. It was just a game.
I didn’t think, I said, I didn’t think at all. It was just a game.
Talking back, he shouted.
And then he said all the things that he always said. It was about good girls and bad girls and the things that happened to them. When good girls grew up they were happy and they got married and the bad girls went to prison.
Do you want to go to prison? He shouted.
No, I said.
Then he said about the punishment. I was not to get any sweets. Tamara would get sweets, lots of sweets, because she was a good girl. Did I understand? No sweets. And tomorrow when Toomas and his dog Pooky came to play I was not to be allowed.
You will not be allowed to play with Pooky, he shouted.
He knew that I loved Pooky. I loved Pooky and Pooky loved me.
I felt like crying then but I tried not to. It wasn’t fair. Pooky would miss me.
Pooky will miss me, I said.
Pooky will not miss you, he shouted.
I knew I was going to cry and then something happened. I looked at his mouth and it looked funny. His face looked funny, too.
So I began to laugh.
I laughed and laughed and laughed. And then I began to fall. Fall and fall. Then everything went black.
I changed after that. Adults were stupid, I thought, really stupid. They didn’t understand anything. But I had to live with them. I decided to always pretend to be good. I would smile a lot and say yes, yes. But away from them I would be real. I would be real in secret because adults were my enemies.
Went back to the Slade for the first time since I was ill. It was wonderful, just wonderful. Well, just normal. Nothing heavy, no funny looks. The professor took us to the staff dining room for buttered crumpets and tea as usual. The walls of the staff dining room are hung with oil paintings of college dignitaries. It’s a very peaceful room. We just talked, talked - well about nothing really. Just talking.
I feel a bit guilty now. Dr H says I am disrespectful, even cruel, towards Grandpa and especially Mummy. He says that I lead a very privileged life and I must remember that they are refugees and that they have lost everything. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.
He told me a little about his life. His parents perished in Auschwitz.
Dr H wants me to write about the analysis.
Well, that analysis was so nothing, really. I don’t know if I can write about it. How do you write about nothing?
Anyway, here goes!
An Experience of Psychoanalysis
I had the analysis for about fifteen months. It started at the Institute for Psychoanalysis in New Cavendish Street. I went every morning at ten, five mornings a week. After eight months it transferred to the Tavistock, which is in Swiss Cottage.
I can remember my first morning at the Institute quite clearly. It started with having to introduce myself to a receptionist sitting behind a thick glass screen.
I said what I thought was normal, what my name was and that I had come for my first session of psychoanalysis, but she stared at me as though I was talking incomprehensible nonsense. After firing some questions at me and looking suspicious when I answered, she said, go in there, there being- a waiting room, which I hadn’t noticed.
Some people were sitting in this room. They were all pale and depressed and anxious looking. Nobody looked up or smiled when I came in. They were completely silent. What on earth have I come into, I thought. Then it began to click. Until then, I hadn’t thought of myself as being ill. I had thought of analysis as being for normal people.
I hope I will never look like that, I thought. I must always try to dress well and to be cheerful.
From time to time the receptionist came to the door and called out a name in a portentous voice and they shot out like startled rabbits. Then it was my turn. My name was called out and I was told to go to Room 3 on the first floor.
I went upstairs, found the room and here was my second shock.
I had always thought that a psychoanalyst would be a kind, elderly doctor with silver hair. He would have a sympathetic expression on his face and he would speak in a low, deep voice. He would talk tactfully about one’s past and then, at the end of the analysis, he would say: Go! You have been healed!
Dr S was young looking, almost my own age. He was quite plump and he wore a tweed suit. He had an unsmoked pipe in his hand. He was sitting in a hospital arm chair, looking onto the couch.
He briefly explained ‘the procedure’. This was that I was to come in, go straight to the couch, lie down and then begin to ‘free associate,’ which meant talking about whatever came into my mind. From time to time, he would interrupt me and point out something significant.
But I must stress that I am not going to say very much, he said. That is not the way analysis works! In fact, I shall say very little.
Well! That was the understatement of all time!
At the beginning I found it quite easy to talk and I have to admit that he did interject the odd helpful comment. Then it became a bit burdensome. I found his silence very trying. I did make an effort. I talked away, but it seemed meaningless.
There were times when I felt quite emotional and I talked about things that I thought were important. I felt that he should have said something – but he didn’t.
It all began to feel a bit of a strain. I resented the silences. I also began to feel awkward, lying there completely flat on my back on a couch with him staring at me – if indeed he was staring. It didn’t seem quite natural. In the photo of Freud’s consulting room the couch is half raised, almost like you’re sitting.
But it was the silences that were the worst. I would speak for quite a long time and then stop. I expected him to say something, something to help me keep going, but he didn’t.
I began to really resent him. After a bit I thought, well, I too can be silent. So there were long periods when I didn’t say anything.
Then I started having sessions where I said nothing at all. I would come in, lie down, say nothing and then leave. Of course, he said nothing as usual.
Dr H says that that was quite wrong. He said that Freud, in a situation like that, would always say at the end of a silent session: ‘ I have been observing you very carefully’. Also, he would get up, open the door and say goodbye.
These silent sessions went on for a bit. Then I got really fed up. I stopped going. But that was a strain, too.
Then I had the breakdown. There’s a lot I don’t understand and I don’t want to talk about it.
After the breakdown I thought it would be best to stop the analysis. I didn’t really blame the analysis for the breakdown. It might have happened anyway. But I did feel that at the beginning of the analysis I had been a normal person and now, what with the breakdown, I had turned into a ‘mental patient’, ‘one of them’.
The tutors at the Slade were marvellous. They told me not to worry about anything. I could have a year or longer to finish my thesis. I could take time off, if I wanted to. I was to take things easy and not worry about anything.
My GP at the Student Health Centre was really kind, too. I went to see him from time to time. I always felt better after seeing him. The only thing was, he thought the analysis should continue. I resisted for a bit, but then I took his advice.
I had thought that, what with this breakdown, the analysis would be different. He would perhaps talk a bit more, try to understand the breakdown. Perhaps I might even be able to sit in a chair. But no. It was just the same.
I would go into the room, lie down and stare at the ceiling. And, as usual, he said nothing. I couldn’t believe that he was treating the breakdown as though nothing had happened, as though it had no meaning or relevance at all. We were just back to square one.
Then – thank you, thank you, God! - he suddenly told me that his training at the Tavistock was coming to an end. I hadn’t even realized that he was a trainee analyst! Anyway, his training was over, he was now qualified and he was going back to South Africa.
So, then it came to our last session. I debated for a long time whether I should go at all. What was the point? But part of me also thought, well, it might be different this time, there might be a sort of summing up, there might be something.
My last time at the Tavistock was like every other time. I got there and I pushed the door open – a modern, glass door. Near the door, as though guarding it, was another receptionist, just like at the Institute. She never greeted you, or smiled. This always surprised me. But then, why should she smile? I was ‘a patient’. Not just a patient, but ‘that kind of patient’.
In fact, when you entered the Tavistock a sort of invisible sign seemed to go up: ‘ This is where you belong’. Bulky men with strait jackets and police with handcuffs not so very far away.
I went up the stairs and into the room. There he was, the same as ever. No greeting, of course, silent as usual, unsmoked pipe in his hand. I lay down on the couch. I stared at the ceiling. I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to speak. He didn’t. This can’t be true, I thought. It’s the end of the analysis. Surely he will say something!
Then, suddenly, I knew what I had to do. I jumped up off the couch. I flung him a furious look and then I ran out of the room. I ran as quicky as I could, down the silent stairs, past Po-face, through the glass door of the Tavistock.
Oh, Swiss Cottage, how wonderful you are! Sunlight! Traffic! Life! I gulped in the fresh air. My heart was pounding. A surge of emotion went through me but I felt relaxed, too. I went into The Swiss Patisserie and I ordered a slice of Black Forest gateau and a coffee.
I was free! Free!
© 2021 Astrid Wilson
by Linda Bright
I decided to write my memoirs with my four grandchildren in mind - Joe, Ivy, Orla and Ben, whose ages range from 18 to 1. I hope that they (and you) find it interesting.
I was born in 1951, six years after the end of World War 2 and our generation has been dubbed the baby boomers following the large rise in the birth rate after the war. We have had much to be grateful for. We’ve enjoyed peace in Europe, free health care, free secondary and university education, mainly full employment and we have benefitted from the property boom since the 1970s.
My mother wrote her memoirs in her 80s and I enjoyed reading about her early life, her being evacuated during the Second World War and her marriage to Dad in 1945. I had heard very many stories from her over the years, but it is difficult to recall the detail unless it is written down. It’s also interesting to read about my grandparents, and great aunts and uncles, some of whom I only used to see occasionally when I was growing up. Later I was able to add to the family tree she had started.
I wish I had asked my grandparents more about their lives. My maternal grandfather, William Bird, fought in the First World War at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was wounded and was sent back to the UK to recover. He was 18 years old, the same age as my grandson Joe is now…
The Caravan Years
I was born on 9 October 1951 at Slough General Hospital. Home at the time was a caravan on Trenches Farm in Langley, Berkshire, for my parents Margaret (Peggy) and Ken Scott, my older brother Raymond and me. Mum and Dad had married in 1945 just before the end of the Second World War and my brother Raymond was born in 1948.
It’s a source of constant amazement to me that Mum & Dad managed to live in a very small caravan for eight years with two small children. I think I would have felt claustrophobic after two weeks. However, Mum wrote in her memoirs that she really liked the ‘freedom’ of caravan life after a disastrous experience with their neighbours in their first flat in Ealing. I was three years old when we left and so don't really remember it, apart from seeing the photographs. We don’t have interior photos of the van but apparently the table at one end folded down to make a double bed, there was a sink and a calor gas cooker but no running water, which had to be fetched by bucket from a tap across the field. I remember mum saying in winter they had to break the ice on the top. Such hardy souls!
Mum and Dad were always busy. Mum made most of our clothes, and we always looked well turned out in the photographs. My hair was tied up in rags overnight to make it curly. When I was given a doll as a present, Mum made the doll’s clothes and Dad made a toy wardrobe for them. Dad was working for the Civil Service in London so he had to dash across the fields to get the train each day. I think that he also had a part-time job with the post office at one point.
When I was born all four of my grandparents were still alive, living in London, and they and my aunts and uncles all used to visit us in Langley by train and we would visit them in London. Dad was the only child of Joseph & Helen Scott who lived in Chiswick. Mum’s parents were William and Edith Bird who lived in East Acton, and she was one of four siblings. She had an older brother, Kenneth, and two younger sisters, Evelyn and Mary. My uncle Ken later married Phyllis Tweedy and they had two daughters, Susan and Julie. Evelyn remained single, and Mary married Edward Grogan (always known as Ted) and they had a son Martyn and a daughter Elaine. We didn’t have a huge family but we were all close.
I was christened in 1952 at St Mary’s Church, Langley, Berks and I think Evelyn, Mary and Ted and were my godparents.
Moving to Beech Avenue, Acton Vale
When I was three we were allocated a first floor council flat in Beech Avenue in Acton Vale. My parents had been on the waiting list during the eight years they had lived in their caravan. I think my very first memory is from when we arrived at the new flat our cat, Sally, shot straight up the chimney! There were several streets on the estate, all named after trees, with a large central playground and I think there was a laundry. I think the flats were quite well maintained, but our upstairs neighbours were both horrible and noisy – once again Mum and Dad had terrible luck with neighbours!
I was enrolled at East Acton Infants School nearby. I’ve heard it was a nice school, but I don’t remember much about it apart from having afternoon naps on camp beds. The Headmistress wanted to move me up a year as I was doing very well (but then had to repeat the third year twice because I couldn’t transfer to primary school until I was seven).
My next school was John Perryn Primary School in East Acton, which has mixed reports in the accounts I’ve read from ex-pupils. Ray and I used to walk to school via the foot bridge over the Western Avenue & past our maternal grandparents’ house at 34 The Approach in East Acton. All the streets in the area were named after golfing terms as the whole estate had been built in the 1920s on the site of a former golf club. Our school was in Long Drive; other streets had names such as The Fairway, Brassie Avenue, etc.
Once I had started primary school Mum got a part time job. She had trained as a secretary but by then she preferred clerical/book-keeping work and she used to do the wages at a local employment agency. Therefore, in the school holidays Ray and I used to spend some time at Nanny and Grandad Bird’s house with our younger cousins, Martyn & Elaine. I’ve heard that the type of council house they lived in was designed with a large garden to encourage people to get fresh air and a healthy lifestyle. Apparently, Grandad used to grow a lot of fruit and vegetables. (I read that most of the people given a tenancy on this estate were ex-servicemen, like Grandad: ealingnewsextra.co.uk/history/council-homes/)
In summer we spent a lot of time in the garden which had a lovely flowering cherry tree and a swing, but I also remember watching children’s TV there. I think it was really put on for Elaine, who was the youngest, but we all watched it. There was very little children’s TV available then, apart from the lunchtime ‘Watch With Mother’ series. On Monday we watched Picture Book, Tuesday showed Andy Pandy, on Wednesday we had Bill and Ben, the Flower Pot Men, Thursday had Rag, Tag and Bobtail and on Friday it was The Wooden Tops.
I went to an open day before the old John Perryn building was demolished; there were photographic displays and I noticed a 'punishment book' from the 1970s which listed which children (all boys) had been caned and the reasons why. It sounds quite barbaric now. I do remember a teacher smacking me on the calf with a ruler because someone had copied from me and I wouldn't tell. I also remember teachers throwing board rubbers across the room at us.
My brother Ray was three and a half years older than me, so he would have gone on to secondary school not that long after I started there, and we probably only went to the same school for about six months. I don’t remember how I got to school after that, I wonder if I walked there on my own? Ray went on to Bromyard School, later renamed Faraday, in Bromyard Avenue, quite close to our flat in Acton Vale. It was a secondary modern school, which later became a comprehensive.
As Ray was older, we didn’t have very many interests in common but I do remember we both attended St Thomas’ Church, Bromyard Avenue, where Ray was an altar boy and I used to sing in the choir. I’m not sure why we started to go to church because Mum and Dad didn’t go. I had started to attend confirmation classes but stopped when we moved to Chiswick.
When he was older Ray used to play rugby for a local club, and he used to play the guitar, he even made a guitar in our shed. He was very keen on rock-climbing and mountaineering and he and his friends went on climbing holidays to Wales, Switzerland and Austria. He brought back presents for Mum and Dad such as a Swiss chalet musical box and a decorative cow-bell. The boys took me rock-climbing once and taught me how to abseil down a rock face. I went just once, I don’t think I wanted to repeat that experience.
Ray and I had the usual childhood illnesses, such as chicken pox. I had also suffered from bouts of tonsillitis, and I was a rather frequent visitor to the ENT Department at the local hospital. I think I was about 10 or 11 when I had my tonsils taken out. I had also been suffering with ear-ache for a long time and the following year I had to go back to hospital to have a mastoid operation on my right ear. The nurses recognised my nightdresses. Unfortunately, this operation left me deaf in the right ear, and I was told not to ever get my head under the water when swimming. I had been going swimming at Acton Baths quite regularly before this operation and had learnt to dive and started life-saving classes, but obviously had to stop.
Barbara Speake School of Dancing
According to Mum I used to fall over a lot (“that girl would trip over a matchstick!”) and I think she thought that dancing lessons might help with balance and posture, so when I was about six I started going to the Barbara Speake School of Dancing which was held in St Dunstan’s Church Hall in East Acton.
‘Miss Speake’, as we always called her, used to teach all the lessons herself. Our mums were allowed to sit around the side of the hall during lessons, which was helpful when it came to remembering routines. Miss Speake could be quite scary to us young ones! Each year she used to put on two big singing and dancing shows at Acton Town Hall. My big moment came when I had a lead part in a routine called ‘Shoe Shine Gal’ and I had to sing a solo at the beginning. I then walked diagonally backwards to the wings and the rest of the class was supposed to follow me onto the stage; however, the stage at Acton Town Hall was considerably larger than our rehearsal room which confused me and I ended up at the wrong place. I’m sure the rest of the group was quickly pushed on stage and probably no- one noticed. I do have the certificate for winning the category.
Our mothers were roped in to make the costumes for the shows, and this involved a lot of work. One time Mum had spent ages sewing sequins onto an outfit for me and then I was pulled out of the routine.
It was quite exciting for us when Miss Speake walked along the row of girls doing our barre exercises and she would let us know that we were ready to graduate to pointe shoes. These shoes had to be purchased from Annello & Davide and we used to put lambs’ wool into the end of the shoes to protect our toes. I was quite proud of being able to dance like a proper ballerina and I still have those shoes.
I studied ballet to Grade 5 (Commended), achieved the Gold Bar in tap dancing, and I also achieved Grade 5 in my Stage Branch Examination (which included Deportment & Rhythm and Modern Musical). We also used to go to Miss Speake’s house for ‘elocution’ training as we had to be able to speak clearly and enunciate well if we were going to audition for acting parts. This included learning and reciting poems.
I often used to see the singer Phil Collins at Barbara’s house, carrying his violin case. His mother, June, was a talent scout and she and Barbara opened a stage school in East Acton in 1963. Famous alumni include Jack Wild who played the the Artful Dodger in the film ‘Oliver!’, Naomi Campbell, Keith Chegwin, and Brian Conley. Kwame Kwei-Armah, now artistic director of the Young Vic, went there in the late 1970s and wrote that in his day it was a pathway for working-class families to get their children into ‘showbiz’, but that academically it was very poor (Daily Telegraph 21.4.2021). The school closed in 2020.
In March 1964, when I was 13, a group of students from our dancing school were sent as extras to the Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street. Along with others we became the audience of screaming teenagers when The Beatles performed a concert for the film A Hard Day’s Night. We spent all day there – I can’t remember if we got paid or not, but we were given a packed lunch and had a great day out. Apparently, the producers leased The Scala for a whole week because hordes of hysterical screaming girls who chased The Beatles meant that filming outside was almost impossible. (The word 'Beatlemania' was coined.)
I was a huge Beatles fan and belonged to the fan club, I still have the 45 rpm records that were sent out to their adoring fans. I went to see them in concert at least twice, once at Finsbury Park I think, and once at the Odeon Hammersmith. Dad very kindly drove me to the concerts and waited outside in the car for me or went to a café. I don’t think he wanted to come inside with all those screaming girls!
Moving to Kingscote Road in Chiswick
In 1963 we moved to 27 Kingscote Road in Chiswick. Dad’s mother, Helen, had sadly died a few years earlier, and it was decided that we would share the house with my Grandad, Joe Scott, who had the two front rooms upstairs. This meant that Ray and I could have separate bedrooms. Mum and Dad had the front room on the ground floor, my bedroom was next to that, then a separate kitchen and living room, and Ray had the back bedroom upstairs. The house still had an outside toilet which you had to enter from the garden. This took up valuable space in our living room at the back of the house, and Dad knocked this and the small larder down to give us more space.
This meant a slightly longer journey to my secondary school (two buses, or one bus and a long walk). I remember when I got home from school each day I would sit in the same place on the sofa in my outdoor shoes and do my homework on my lap while I watched TV. Later the carpet acquired two very bare patches where my shoes had been. I should have worn slippers, but I never liked them.
I had four cousins and I was always close to Martyn, who was a similar age and we enjoyed playing board games and putting on puppet shows. It was always fun staying with Martyn and his parents, Mary & Ted – they used to cook exotic food like Spaghetti Bolognese! They lived in East Acton and for a while also had a holiday flat in Bognor Regis (a favourite location in our family). Ted worked hard to build up his architectural business. They moved to a large house in Ealing and used to entertain a lot – and in later years we used to enjoy going to their New Year’s Eve parties.
We always had big family gatherings at Christmas. One year Mum & Dad had 20 people for lunch! It was a quite a squash but very jolly occasion. We only had a small kitchen, so dishing up 20 Christmas dinners would have been a challenge. I see from the photos that Ray’s girlfriend, Janet, was there. Uncle Ken and Aunt Phyllis also came with their daughters, Susan and Julie. Susan was the same age as my younger cousin, Elaine, and Julie was the youngest. Grandad Bird’s brother, Len, played the piano for us.
Great aunt Mabel came for lunch as well. I can remember occasionally going to stay with her at Weybridge in the school holidays. She was retired by then but for a long time she had run The Scotch Café and my aunt Evelyn lived there for 15 years to help her. Later Evelyn lived with and looked after for my grandparents but, after they died, she exchanged the council house in East Acton for a flat in Exeter. She lived in Exeter for the rest of her life and she used to work at the university but would often come up to London to stay with her family.
My grandmother, Edith, had another sister, Lucy, who went to Canada, but her son Ron returned to London and there are nice photographs of us all at their wedding reception. In fact, Edith had been one of five siblings. She had an older sister Emily who died in 1957, and their only brother, William Baxter, had been killed in World War 1 in 1916.
© 2021 Linda Bright
Sylvan’s Rocky Road to Dublin
by Jimmy Fallon
As soon as Sylvan got home, he filled his suitcase with jeans, tops and pants. Then he emptied the coffee tin filled with coins and tipped them into his bag. He needed a few more quid if he was going to do this. There was only one place to look, his little brother's safe. Donny had been dealing a while now and always stashed his cash in there. Sylvan hit 2367A and watched the light flash green as he twisted the dial. Copious scrunched up notes, jewels and gold lay before him. The treasure had been obtained gram by gram. Ketamine, cocaine and MDMA all exchanged with strangers. Late nights on street corners and back alleys. Meeting with addicts after nightclubs and in the toilets of scruffy pubs. Running at the sight of every blue light.
Sylvan lifted all his brother's hard work and stuffed it into his backpack. He saw it as karma for all the times Donny had run up on innocent feens down the town. His brother was violent and volatile. Fuck him, Sylvan thought. And fuck this place. It's held me captive for too long. Nobody is going to fix me and my family aren't going to change. I can only do this by myself.
Bags packed, he took his phone from his pocket and saw that it was 8.30 am. The post office opened at 9. He could collect his dole before he went. He decided to walk down Brefini terrace. He thought it would be the quickest and quietest route. Blinks lasted longer than usual as his body craved sleep. Still sloppy from the vodka, he stumbled along with the suitcase clipping his heels on every third step. Sylvan just hoped that he didn't meet anybody he knew. The last thing he needed now was a conversation.
This street was like a dog pound. Scraggy canines looked out through the metal gates and growled as Sylvan dragged the heavy case. He was sure that he saw a pup with a tattoo and smoking fag in one of the yards. He wondered if they had an underground fighting syndicate. With some of the injuries to these fellas, he wouldn't bet against it. Soiled and stinking babies nappies lay outside the door of number seven. Some were scattered on the street. A skip overflowed onto the road outside number three. All of this added to Sylvan's hatred of the place.
Do these people not know how to put things in the bin? How to clean up after themselves? He thought. That was rich coming from him, a man that hadn't cleaned his room in ten years. There were new species of insects copulating and populating in the hidden crevices of his old place. Spiders married maggots and flies danced with dust. He had been in his cocoon for too long, it was time to break through the walls.
Alone and twisted drunk, he looked to the sky in awe. It always seemed to wink back to say that everything would be OK. When he returned his attention to the earth, with its nasty reality of people, he felt a sense of unease. Are they going to harm me? To hurt me? To spit on me? Mock me? Laugh at me? Oh no, here comes one now, Sylvan thought. The man walked towards him like a zombie born in Chernobyl.
"Is that.....no!!" said Sylvan, unaware that he was talking to himself. "It's my older cousin, Squib.”
The pair had grown up together. Squib lived on St. Martins estate, just up the road. He was full of energy, charged with enthusiasm and made everybody laugh. Except for his sister - he made her cry. He constantly poked fun at her. His stupidity brought tears to her sensitive soul. Sylvan and Squib loved to watch wrestling together. Squib would pretend to be Hulk Hogan. He could never be hurt, no matter how hard you hit him. He would make up wrestling moves and practice them on the younger kids. Sylvan had admired him and loved him as did the rest of the family in those days. Later on, he would call to Sylvan's in search of a place to stay for the night. Sylvan remembered his sitting room stinking of stale piss and sweat as Squib slept on the settee. He had put the point of the needle into his veins to escape the pain of life. It ruined him. The poor fucker.
Sylvan watched his cousin as he approached. Squibs gaze stayed on the concrete street. He was mumbling to himself. Several thoughts raced through Sylvan's mind. Should I say hello? Stop for a chat? See how he is? Where is he living now? Jesus, I hope he is OK. Squib sounded like he was repeating a prayer. Whatever jibberish he was jabbering, Sylvan didn't want to stop and talk. He didn't want to listen to his conscience and check in with his broken family member, the junky. He had his own life to sort out. Sylvan walked past Squib without a word. It was a decision he instantly regretted but he didn't have time to dwell on it. Getting away from people like that was his only priority, especially after the commotion of the previous evening.
Thankfully for Sylvan, he didn't meet a sinner as he strolled down St. Aidan's terrace, Tullacmongan and the Half Acre Hill. No vicious dogs to insult him either. Only the delightful song of the nightingale kept him company. He was sure that the town would be quiet at this hour on a Monday morning. He simply wanted to get to the post office alone and avoid all action. Next up, past the fountain, was Mr Wong's restaurant and the Cruiscin Lan pub. It brought back memories of his many nights out, which followed a predictable pattern. Get steaming in the Cruiscin, fall in the door of Mr. Wongs, order some food and away up the hill back home. There would be no more of that.
Up ahead, he could see Mr Lyndon opening the shutters of his book and stationary shop ready for another day of trade. His instincts had been right about Kitty's bar. Police were outside trying to contain a couple of travellers who were scrapping and shouting. He would later learn that one of them had held the seventy-three-year-old owner up at knifepoint and stolen three grand from the till. He slipped past the incident unseen.
The council cleaners were out sweeping the streets. Sylvan saw a familiar face when he looked left onto Bridge Street. John Gorman had been with the council for 30 years. A great man, humble and always willing to serve. He volunteered at his local football club and used to coach Sylvan when he was ten years old. John was too far away to notice Sylvan cross at the top of the street. It would be difficult for Sylvan to talk to John and tell him where he was going and what he was doing. So he decided that once he collected his social welfare, he would not go to the bus station via Bridge Street. Sylvan's heart was in this town but he didn't want to admit it to himself yet. People like John helped to bring him up.
He made it to the post office without incident. There were only pensioners in there at this time. The queue was quite long.
"COUNTER NUMBER FOUR, PLEASE," said the electronic woman.
Sylvan hoped the robotic bitch would shut up. He stuck out his jaw and wrinkled his nose as people with wooden legs made their way to the counter at the speed of a leap year. He had no sympathy for anybody now. The coke, fags, vodka, sleeplessness and the headbutt from his friend left him in limbo.
"COUNTER NUMBER TWO, PLEASE."
Sylvan approached the desk while removing his social welfare card from his wallet. He handed it over to the clerk.
"Ah Slouch, what's the story?" said Kev, the captain of the football club. He was a good skin, always kind and he used to bring Sylvan up to training on a Friday evening.
"Ah Jaysus, Kev. I didn't realise you were working today. I had a few bevvies last night and I'm struggling to be fair." Sylvan managed a smile.
"Ha ha! Where were you drinking, out in the Orchard?"
"Nah, myself and Anthony just had a few in his gaf. Nothing wild." Sylvan didn’t feel like sharing his story.
"Not so bad. You going at it again today?" said Kev who knew what usually happened in this town - there was no such thing as one nights drinking.
"No, I'm not. I've had enough of the stuff, it's killing me."
"You got that right, lad. Been off it a while myself. It's a slippery slope."
"We've had a few good nights out over the years. But drinking is a young man's game." Sylvan wished he had believed his statement.
"You said it, chief. Here you go." Kev counted out the notes. "Fifty, one hundred, one fifty, one seventy, one-eighty, one eighty-eight."
"Thanks a million. It was good to see you again. You're one of the good ones," said Sylvan telling the truth with a tint of sadness.
"Where are you off to with that thing?" Kev looked across the bulletproof glass and down to Sylvan's suitcase.
"I'm collecting my budley here then I'm buying a one-way ticket to Dublin. I've got to get out of here. Actually, could you do me a favour?"
"Can you keep it on the DL? You're the only person I've told about this. I haven't told my family, friends or anyone else at the club."
"No problem at all, lad. Hold on a second, I've got something for you." Kev opened up the till. He handed Sylvan three crisp green notes. "Hopefully this will help you on your way."
Sylvan stood shellshocked at Kev's generosity. He could never comprehend why people were kind to him. He lived in filth, squalor and rage. He felt he didn't deserve it. Kindness was for other people, good people.
"Now go on, before I take it back," said Kev with a wink. "Get yourself sorted in Dublin and look after yourself. No more acting the fool, yeah?"
"Fair play to you, Kev. Thanks a million. You always had a good heart." Mentally, he made a note to pay him back, someday.
"See you down the road, brother.”
"COUNTER NUMBER TWO, PLEASE."
The suitcase was lighter as he dragged it out of the building. An elevated heart gives you the strength of a silverback. He took a left down Town Hall Street. Memories jumped back into his mind when he saw St. Felims boys school. It towered over the town. He remembered hiding in the woods to avoid class. He remembered how the teachers couldn't control the students. He remembered Mullen, Butsy, Cokey and Taco. They were wild kids that wouldn't allow information to pollute their brains.
"You will not teach me anything," Butsy had said to the teacher one day. In the same class, they got up on the table and started singing and dancing. The teacher hadn't a hope, so she went to the principal's office. As soon as she left the classroom, the boys grabbed their bags and legged it for home. The next day when they returned, they had to write one thousand lines each - I must not dance on the tables during class. They were also sentenced to two weeks evening detention. Another time at lunch, Mullen rang Childline, the service for abused and neglected children. He pretended that the teacher had hit him across the face with a metre stick. The police arrived at the school a couple of days later, to the dismay of the know-it-all teacher. The boys revelled in her tears.
Sure what hope did I have? thought Sylvan. I didn't listen. I didn't care. I didn't try. None of us did. Maybe I'll figure it out in Dublin.
The bus station was right next to the school. Sylvan checked the timetable. The number thirty arrived in twenty-five minutes. He approached the counter.
"A single to Dublin, please."
"Twenty-two euro, please," said the foreign lady.
"Here you go."
"You're welcome," she said with a smile.
At least the people here are friendly, let's hope it's the same in the capital thought Sylvan. He sat outside the station and reflected on his life in this town. The people he had met, places he had been, the women he had loved who never loved him back, the pubs, the shops, the rivers and lakes, his football club, his school, his family, his home. He was going to leave it all behind. And for what? Where was he going? He didn't know anybody in Dublin. He didn't have a job or a plan. What was he going to do? Fear diffused through his blood and turned it black. It was like a scientist diluting a red tincture with a pipette of darkness. Fear had been his closest companion in this life. But the greater fear involved staying here.
The thirty pulled in. It had made its trek from the hills of Donegal, way up in the northwest corner of Ireland. The driver allowed the passengers a fifteen-minute break to stretch their legs. This bus went through Dublin airport before it arrived in the city. Maybe I could jump off there, thought Sylvan. He had plenty of time to ponder on the road. He sat and watched other people. Their weird northern accents were a welcome change from what he usually heard. From the bits of information they revealed, Sylvan concocted stories about them, who they were, where they were going and predicted their futures. It kept him occupied until the driver arrived back from the station.
Sylvan stood at the back of the queue to buy himself some time. I've got nothing here, only memories, he thought. He put his suitcase into the belly of the bus. He watched with impatience as others took their place. He handed his ticket to the small fat driver who punched a hole in it and nodded his head. Off Sylvan went to take his seat.
© 2021 Jimmy Fallon
The Other Side of the Water
by Oksana Wenger
From his position on the sunlounger it seemed to Khaled that if he stretched out his arm just a tiny bit further, he’d be able to touch those indigo and alabaster mountains, even though they were on the other side of the water in Albania. There they were shimmering in the midday haze, tantalising him with their splendour. Closing his eyes he recalled a bygone interrail trip, when Albania had been dismissed as a ‘closed’ country. But the years had sailed by and things were different now, so they’d actually planned to go there for a daytrip. Shirley, his wife, had even annotated it onto her helpful holiday schedule, except that now, because of his thoughtless outburst, they probably wouldn’t be going after all.
He’d yanked the schedule from the fridge door and tossed it into the bin, shouting: ‘Why can’t we just relax on our holiday?’ What was happening to him? Had all his strivings turned him into a misanthrope? Shirley opened her mouth, unspeaking, her freckles melding together as they tended to do when she was disappointed.
‘We’re only sightseeing every three days. For an optometrist you’re not very observant!’ Gina, his youngest daughter, dispatched her customary accusation.
He should have explained about his exhaustion. Despite being born in a hot country Khaled hadn’t felt the sun’s ferocity for a long time. He’d felt it yesterday. On the first day of their long-awaited fortnights’ holiday, they’d got disorientated in Corfu Town and as they walked round and round in circles, his sandal strap was cutting into his heel like a meat slicer in a delicatessen. But now he’d ruined the mood and only the incessant chatter of the cicadas soothed the fragile silence.
Earlier that morning the other three sunloungers had been occupied by Shirley, Gina and his oldest daughter Freya. Glancing at them now made Khaled feel even more forlorn. On each of them lay a towel and a book by Frankie Applesum, Shirley’s favourite author. The villa’s intermittent wifi had enabled Shirley to finally persuade her daughters to read these books and for the previous few hours they’d been totally engrossed. Back home in Manchester, Khaled would often wake up to find Shirley reading one of these ‘brilliant novels’ by torchlight. Even after their most intimate moments he’d be excluded from the workings of her unfathomable mind. She always carried a novel in her bag and, although she said he was welcome to borrow them, their strange titles convinced him that they weren’t his sort of thing.
After reading in smiling silence, Shirley, Freya and Gina said they were popping down to the bakery to get some pies for lunch. They’d been gone for ages. He’d finished browsing his ‘Optometrist’ magazine and had even replied to some emails.
Feeling too unsettled to continue resting, Khaled rose from the sunlounger, strolled alongside the pool and into the kitchen where the coldness of the tiles was like a compress for his feet. He picked up the crumpled schedule and was staring at it when Shirley, Freya and Gina burst through the door, whispering, carrying a variety of paper bags. Once they’d devoured the feta pies they all seemed in a better mood and while slicing a watermelon, Shirley announced that the three of them had decided to continue with their plans; that Khaled didn’t have to join them, but that they’d still be going on their daytrip to Albania, scheduled for the day after tomorrow. By the time they’d finished eating, Khaled was looking forward to it like the rest of them, especially as it included a visit to an archaeological site.
On the morning of the trip, as they traipsed down the hill, a camembert moon still dabbed the inky sea. Khaled saw that the coach was half full of studenty types and a few young couples. Towards the back he saw a man and a woman, snoozing, probably about the same age as himself and Shirley. Before long they arrived at the harbour and were herded into a terracotta-coloured passport office which had the feel of a warehouse. Most of the tourists jostled their way to the front where the empty booths were, ignoring Freya’s and Gina’s sarcastic remarks about queuing.
‘Look, over there, Frankie Applesum! Just like her picture in the book!’ Khaled looked to where Freya was pointing and saw the older couple who had been on their coach. Frankie Applesum had a thick moustache, now a dated style he thought, sensing an air of arrogance about him. He was leaning over, listening intently to the lanky-haired, dumpy woman next to him, probably his wife. Her pallid glasses did not suit her face. All at once several uniformed men turned up and, not bothering to check anyone’s passport, waved them through.
Leading up to the boat was a ramp at the top of which stood a wiry, weather-beaten man. Beside him were a few young lads with the word ‘Crew’ on their t-shirts and Khaled overheard them saying ‘Yes Kapitan, No Kapitan’, in response to his orders.
‘Velcome to my vessel!’ Kapitan grinned, holding out his arms in a gesture of sleazy chivalry, pretending to help the women climb up the ramp. On the top deck, rows of flimsy plastic chairs dared the wind to waft them into the sea and Khaled was relieved that Shirley had wormed her way through the crowd and got four chairs together. As the ‘vessel’ set sail Freya and Gina guffawed at Kapitan’s mangled announcements. Khaled rested his head on Shirley’s shoulder and must have dozed off because when he opened his eyes they were nearly there. Looming large behind the mist were the mountains, murky grey with buttery striations and at their base huddled a few rows of rectangular cream-coloured buildings interspersed with the occasional minaret.
Once off the boat they piled straight onto the coach where some Turkish coffee was handed out in paper cups. Khaled began to feel energised and turned to Freya and Gina who gleefully informed him that they could now get a signal on their phones.
‘Welcome to Albania!’ said a chirpy voice. Standing next to the driver, holding a microphone, was a smiling, dark-haired woman. ‘My name is Leena. I’ll be looking after you today!’ Around the woman’s neck hung an oversized lanyard bearing her name in black letters. Khaled noticed that she had a slight squint, a condition for which he’d treated several of his patients.
‘Albania has a population of four million.’ Leena’s melodic voice continued in this vein, as the coach inched forwards, explaining about the flag, the language and the currency. Shirley nudged him, pointing out the stationary coaches in front of them and all the cars snaking along on other side. Sporadic palm trees lined the narrow road and in between them glistened swanky hotels and designer boutiques, many with wires protruding from their roofs. Cement-mixers were dotted about on street corners, as were groups of youths smoking. Leena declared that they would be at the archaeological site in fifteen minutes. But that was half an hour ago.
‘Albania is a quarter Christian, three quarters Muslim, but everybody is very tolerant and respectful.’ Sad staccato thoughts overwhelmed Khaled and he noticed Leena averting her eyes at his cynical scowl. He had no idea what she spoke about next.
They’d been on the sweltering coach for an hour. Eventually Leena stopped talking and frowned, holding her phone to her ear. Head Office were instructing her to turn back because of the congestion. Everyone groaned. Soon it was agreed that they’d walk the rest of the way. Leena said it wouldn’t take long, that they were to leave their bags on their seats and line up behind her. Then, in single file, they proceeded down an incline and once through the car park, they’d arrived.
White paint was peeling off the metal gates to the archaeological site and there were no signs identifying it, just a gaggle of disgruntled teenagers. Leena thrust some paperwork under the guards’ noses then they all followed her, away from the entrance where all was serenity and other-worldliness. Even the cicadas chirruped more softly here.
They assembled at a sandstone tower then were shepherded to the ampitheatre where they perched on massive stone steps while the erudite Leena fascinated them with an assortment of facts and figures. At the Roman baths some terrapins lazed on the slippery rocks then slid into the nearby pools to cool down. At the nearby basilica many of the ancient columns were still intact and Gina lay under one of the arches to get better photos of the mosaics.
By now the sun was furious but clusters of eucalyptus trees provided a welcome shade while the group listened to Leena enthusing about the Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine periods. She had put on a sunhat and was brandishing a placard with the name of their tour group on it. When Frankie Applesum’s wife asked her some questions, she seemed pleased, the answers rolling off her tongue as if it were her PhD thesis. Khaled couldn’t resist placing his hands on the ancient stones, adding his DNA to that of long-dead generations, imagining it being magnified and mingled by the sun.
At the base of some trees were several mossy boulders. Khaled sat on one and Gina joined him. This would be a good place to change the plaster on his foot. He was glad he’d put some spare ones in his pocket. A soft breeze drifted over, undulating the dappled golden sunlight with the greyness of the shade.
‘It’s lovely isn’t it dad?’ said Gina. ‘I’m just going over there to take some photos. Back in a sec!’ She sprinted down the flinty path before he could say anything. He sprinkled some water onto his foot before applying two clean plasters. The group had begun to drift away so he hoped Gina would hurry. He saw Shirley and Freya sipping some water. Near them were Frankie Applesum and his wife, both looking faintly ridiculous in their matching sunglasses.
Gina returned, breathless. ‘It’s awesome dad…there’s an old palace with frescoes … look!’ Gina wanted to be a photographer, a source of contention between himself and Shirley: He thought she should do something more lucrative. But now they were on holiday and he wanted his daughter to be happy. Gina’s photos were good, especially the ones from unconventional angles. Incredible to think that those frescoes had survived for all those years.
When he looked up their group had gone. He stood up but couldn’t even see Leena’s placard. He insisted to Gina that they hurry in the direction he’d last seen them heading. At first he tried to run but scraggy clumps of grass slowed him down. Behind him Gina was on her phone, unable to get a signal.
‘Chill out dad! They’ll be waiting for us by the gates.’
‘Remember we have to be back at the boat by seven o’clock.’
Rushing past the forum, the basilica and the baths, they encountered several different tour groups, none of them theirs. The gates were wide open but the only people beside them were two wizened women trying to sell faded roses. Everyone must have gone back to the coach. They rushed through the car park to where the coach should have been.
‘They could have waited!’ complained Gina.
‘They must be on their way to the boat.’ Khaled wished he could motivate his daughter and himself to walk more quickly towards the harbour. But despite the lateness of the afternoon the sun’s heat was unremitting. Startlingly it occurred to him that, not only did he have no water and no money, but he’d left their passports in his rucksack, which he hoped was still on the coach.
Suddenly he realised that Gina was no longer walking behind him. Despairingly he called out her name then pinched his arm. He told himself that she’d probably just gone to take some photos. To his side was a steep drop. Gina could be lying at the bottom of it, seriously injured. Feeling lightheaded he knew he’d have to climb down and look for her.
Hobbling towards him were three women, covered head-to-foot in grubby shawls. ‘You buy. Very nice!’ said one of them, pushing a business card into Khaled’s hand. They stood so close to him that their shawls wafted against him, as they stared into his eyes with a strange, knowing smile, revealing crooked teeth and unkempt hair. Khaled glared at them angrily, so thinking better of it, the women staggered away from him.
And then, as if in answer to a prayer, Gina reappeared. She’d been taking photos from one of the gentler paths behind them. Khaled was so relieved to see her that he didn’t chastise her but made her walk in front of him and for a while they plodded on in silence. Before long he realised they must be on the edge of town, as buildings began appearing. The first of these was a minimarket and standing outside it, Khaled was surprised to see Frankie Applesum, knocking back a bottle of water.
‘Hello,’ he said, as if greeting an old colleague. ‘You’re in our group aren’t you?’ What was he doing being friendly with strangers, especially with this man who seemed so conceited? But the conceited man was holding a whole case of plastic water bottles.
‘I’m Khaled. This is Gina. You’re Frankie aren’t you?’
‘No, I’m not, I’m Vince. Yeah, I saw you earlier.’ He smelled of cigarette smoke. Like most people who met Khaled for the first time, he seemed taken aback by the incongruity of his northern accent in contrast to his swarthy appearance.
‘Do you mind, Vince,’ begged Khaled ‘if I have a little sip of your water? And Gina?’
‘Here, have a couple of bottles.’ He jutted out his chin in the direction of the minimarket. ‘In there you can get a hundred of these for one euro!’ Khaled drank gratefully as Vince’s phone rang.
‘Yes, outside the minimarket,’ he bellowed.
‘It’s my wife,’ he said. `They’re wondering where we are.’
Before he’d finished speaking the coach juddered into view. Freya was knocking on the window. In the open doorway stood Leena, swinging slightly from the handrail, as if she were on one of the old buses.
`I’m glad we found you,’ she beamed, ‘I cannot lose any of my group.’
Shirley, he noted, was in deep conversation with Vince’s wife and didn’t look up when he approached her. She probably hadn’t even noticed his absence. Once they’d squeezed into their own seats she said,
‘Where’ve you been?’
‘We’ve been trying to find you. Looked everywhere. We had no water and no money. Then Gina disappeared. Then I was harassed by some Albanian gypsies.’
‘Albanian gypsies! Really!’ Initially Khaled sensed that she was mocking him, making light of his escapade, but then she put her hand on his and listened as he recounted what had happened, so that it felt like only minutes for them to get back to the harbour. Leena was standing between the coach and the boat, still smiling, shaking everyone’s hand. Khaled observed people giving her tips so pulled some euros from his rucksack and pushed them into her hand, muttering, ‘Thank You, very interesting.’
Without warning she reached over and gave him a peck on the cheek and, as her salty hair brushed his face, everything around him seemed to start swaying.
‘I’m so happy we didn’t lose you. You must come back one day.’
‘Yes, I will,’ Flustered, he held her gaze for a moment longer.
‘Quick, quick!’ yelled Kapitan, ushering everyone onto the boat. Once it began to move, the crew lads handed out takeaway boxes of aromatic chicken with potatoes and for a few minutes no-one spoke until Kapitan went around the deck, insisting that people finished their water so that he could pour ‘lemon liqueur’ into their paper cups.
Some Greek music strained from the speakers and people got up and started dancing, linked in a circle. ‘Come on!’ said Shirley. Dancing was not for him and he was about to decline but for some reason he got up and linked arms with Shirley, leaving his self-consciousness to wither on the rickety chair. On the other side of the circle were Vince and his wife. Beside him were the crew lads grinning with Freya and Gina. The music was increasing in speed, urging them all to get carried along with its rousing, rhythmical melody. Shirley could not help laughing and after a while neither could Khaled, unable to remember the last time he had laughed like this. Gradually the outline of Corfu’s honey-coloured buildings came into view, the music’s tempo decreased and people drifted back to their seats.
It was dark when they disembarked. As the coach got closer to their villa it began to empty out and soon only a handful of people were left. At their stop, he followed his wife and daughters, sluggishly making their way to the entrance. Before getting off, Shirley shook hands with Vince and his wife. Khaled glanced at them nonchalantly, wishing he could just get home.
Glimmering constellations dangled above them as they trudged up the hill and momentarily they stopped, entranced by the night sky. Although the mountains were a mere smudge, Khaled’s eyes were drawn to the unmistakeable twinkling of distant lights on the other side of the water.
Once inside the villa they plonked themselves on the squashy sofas, grumbling about their aching feet. Khaled grabbed one of Shirley’s books from a cushion, about to move it to the side so he could flop down.
‘What a brilliant day!’ said Gina.
‘We even met Frankie Applesum!’ Freya smiled.
‘No you didn’t! He told me his name was Vince,’ retorted Khaled.
‘Yes we did!’ affirmed Shirley. ‘I had a fascinating conversation with her and she even signed my book.’
© 2021 Oksana Wenger
Once Upon a Time
by Shruti Panwar
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a Princess, dainty and cheerful. The princess ruled a kingdom, not too big not too small. The kingdom was green and the harvest was bountiful. And though it wasn’t the biggest kingdom in the lands, it never suffered from any form of waste or ruin.
The Princess was kind and caring towards her subjects and worked hard to earn her way. Having lost her parents at a very young age, she had slowly and steadily built her estate. Understanding fully well the drudgery of misfortune, she had grown to be kindhearted, tolerant and sympathetic.
The Princess was wise and careful; and she understood the importance of establishing sound relationships with her surrounding kingdoms. Trade was rife and her neighbours content.
However, try as she must, the Princess forever held a chasm of loneliness in her heart. It was an emptiness, deep and firm. And as she grew older, so grew this evil deep in her bosom.
However the Princess’ tenacity knew no bounds; she needed a solution and she needed it now. Thus the courts beckoned the sages and philosophers from across the land, and along with them were summoned the magicians and the wizards.
The sages and the philosophers opened their testaments, reciting fables as old as the world moved around; while the magicians and wizards twirled their hats and wrought fires of salvation. And throughout this spectacle, a man, old yet young, frail yet strong, sat quietly in a corner not uttering a sound.
For weeks and weeks, this festival of wisdom and sorcery ran, with the Princess’ answers nowhere to be seen. But on the hundredth day, the Princess, tired and exasperated, called the festival to an abrupt end. The kingdom had stood still for those hundred days, and even though her despondency grew, her kingdom needed to be protected.
As she stood to take her leave, the old-young man, frail yet strong, suddenly spoke out aloud in a voice that reverberated around the hall.
‘Stop my young Princess!’, he beseeched the dismayed Princess. ‘I have answers that you seek, you needn’t look around’.
Curiosity overtook the princess, as she surveyed this man. Was he speaking the truth or was this some kind of tomfoolery? And had he had the answers all along, why hadn’t he spoken throughout?
Sensing her hesitation, the young-old man essayed her fears, calling all his compatriots to confirm his proficiency. All the wizards, sages, philosophers and wizards, nodded their heads in complete and absolute unison. ‘There is no doubt, Oh Princess so fine, he is the wisest in the lands and has brought us by his own hand”.
“Speak up then, oh man so sagacious so wise, what is the answer to my problem so deep, and so wide?” said the Princess.
The old- young man spread out his robe not blue not gold, and revealed two boxes shining bright but ragged and worn.
“I have two paths for you to follow, Oh Princess so kind. One is long and arduous, while the other deceivingly brief. One will bring your heart joy that can know no bounds, while the other will torment you incessantly, extending moments to eternity. Both will twist and turn, changing forms and confusing, yet the paths will inter-cross, and the solution will still be the one. The choice is yours, Oh Princess so fine, the decision after all is yours, not mine.”
Saying so, the old-young man opened the two boxes. From within one emerged an ancient scroll, blank save for a short concise phrase, while the second held a handsome Prince, so young, charming, delightful and so very fine.
A quiet voice in her head reminded the Princess of hasty decisions, but wasn’t the Prince the answer to all her indecision? All that she had lacked in her life so far was a man, who she could hold and wake up along her side, day and night. She had the kingdom, she had built it so well, she had the heart to look out for others and had cared without cease, and all that she had lacked was someone with whom she could share her yearning heart.
“I will have this man, as my groom to be. He shall fill in my emptiness and nurture my kingdom for all to see”. Proclaiming her decision, the Princess stepped forward to claim her long sought blissful existence.
“But oh my future queen so benevolent, you barely know this man, yet for a brief moment”, cried the Princess’ vazir. “Shan’t it be judicious to wait and watch, what this man has to offer and bring down the speed of this decision a tiny notch?”
As her court circle implored her to reconsider, the Princess’ mind reeled in agitation. After all, she was the Princess. Had she not built an empire so strong? It would be fair to say that the neighboring counties were growing much bigger, but had she not demonstrated enough foresight and prudence? Why must such advice stand in her way, when it was so clear to her what must be done?
Yet, kind at heart as the Princess was, she spoke up to allay their fears, “I understand your worry so great, so kind; but sadly I have made up my mind. I will marry this man, this fortnights’ noon, but I will also keep this scroll close to my heart in this golden locket of the shape of the moon.”
Asserting her decision, the Princess carefully folded the scroll and stored it away in the moon shaped locket, hanging around her neck.
The fortnight came and went and the Princess was ceremoniously wed. The wedding list extended to all the kingdoms across all the lands, and gathered all the Princess’ loyal subjects to celebrate this fortuitous occasion.
And for once the Princess seemed at ease. Her heart overflowed with joy and love, and the feeling of emptiness no longer found any ground. “This was in fact a decision so very right”, she thought to herself, “This wonderful man is my saviour, my knight”.
As time passed, the Princess poured out her heart to her wonderful Prince.
She spoke of her heartache and her loneliness- of how she missed the King and the Queen and yet blamed them for not being around to support her through her fledgling years. She discussed her kingdom and her fears, was she kind or was she too generous? Was she wise and well informed or weak and inexperienced? Was she hesitant and vulnerable or forceful and arrogant? Did she look the part or fooled the public? And after all, there was always the scrutiny of the other kingdoms. Was she doing enough or hardly? Why were the other kingdoms doing so well, while hers was always the laggard? Why were the traveling jesters singing praises of the other counties, yet she heard none about her own? Her questions and worries were manifold, and the answers were anxiously sought.
The young Prince heard her worries with a deep smile on his face. He nodded, he agreed, he sighed and he consoled. And at the end of every heartfelt repartee, the Prince held the Princess’ hand and pulled her close into a warm cuddle. He never said a word really, but his presence and smile filled the Princess’ heart.
Slowly and steadily the Prince began to be involved in the kingdom’s affairs. And nothing could make the Princess happier. The Prince was well accepted, welcomed by all, respectful of the subjects and extremely popular, especially with the young maids.
“Oh, what a perfect match I have sought”, sighed the Princess,” nothing can ever go wrong under his watch.”
With such deep trust and faith in her newfound Prince, the Princess began to relinquish control of her state to her husband. She had been working so hard for years at end, and she deserved this much-needed rest coming her way.
Time flew by, and the royal couple was blessed with a young baby girl. The Princess, affectionate and maternal, took on the task of motherhood with renewed
vigour, giving her all to the newborn babe. Meanwhile, the Prince dug his feet deep into the kingdom’s crevices. Little or no news of her people ever reached the Princess. Any snippets she caught were from the hurried and hushed voices of the chambermaids. Even those conversations would abruptly end, when they noticed the Princess approaching. So deep was her love for her husband so dear, the Princess would brush away whatever she heard as idle pillow talk.
The baby kept the Princess busy, and the kingdom kept the Prince away. He would return unusually late at night, having worked so hard during the day. Slowly and steadily, the night began to turn into day and the Prince stopped returning home at all.
Suspicion arose in the Princess’ heart. Were the whispers in the hall, the grapevine, the quite noise sensible? Was the prince really sleeping on somebody else’s cot? “Nay, never, not, not at all! How could this ever come to be? He is my husband, my caregiver, my lover, destined to fill my emptiness; an example for the whole kingdom to see!”
Yet, her doubts were not easily displaced. To console her aching heart, the Princess approached her husband and appealed miserably, “Oh my husband so tender, so fair, are these horrendous rumors true, no matter how rare?” Her eyes pleaded the Prince for denial so fierce, begging him to elevate the terrible unrest in her soul. How could it be, her mind screamed out loud, he was her everything, her mind and her soul.
The Prince smiled, his easy, disarming smile. “What fears you keep in your mind my darling, my wife? Why listen to such falsehood, such lies, driving through your heart like a knife! I’ve told you before, I’ve told you twice; I work very hard to serve your kingdom, which is dearer to you than your own life. Listen not to such banter night and day, all they do is try to create a wedge and make your heart sway. I give you my word on this very bright sunny morn, I will lay down my life sooner than watch this marriage, so merciless torn. You are so very tired oh my queen so bright, all you need is special care, and some potion to make you feel all right.”
Saying this, the Prince led the Princess away to the sickbay and instructed the kingdoms medicine man to take care of his wife.
Having heard his strong and hearty consolation, the Princess lay down her head and left her worries afar. He was right, she thought to herself, these were nothing but the envying eyes of all those who could have not what she called her own. These women, these chambermaids were all liars, stricken down by the green-eyed monster.
And so it came to pass that every time her heart waivered or faltered, the Prince would calm her down with his soothing words and lead her to the sagacious medicine man. Each visit to the medicine man, found her calm, tranquil and disconnected.
The lesser she saw of her husband, the more frequent and important her visits to the medicine man became.
There were noises of loss and ruin across her kingdom, of withered crops, pestilence, and sorrow in every home. While the traveling jesters sang hearty songs of the kingdoms nearby, her halls were now dark and full of shadows of fear and panic. Drunken on her medicine she thought,” Oh look at the web of lies they weave, all these jesters are nothing but thieves. They try to steal the true glory of my estate, by magnifying my enemies’ astoundingly brilliant fate. Trade has declined that is for sure, but wasn’t it these neighbors who disrespected my husband and showed him the door? Lies, lies, lies are all I hear; such defamation, such deceit my poor husband everyday has to bear.”
Hiding away from what seemed to be the truth, the Princess shunned away anybody who approached her for her guidance and for her help.
Words grew louder and spread like fire across the kingdom. It was true, it seemed, that their dear Princess had gone mad. The very man, whose arrival and accession they had all celebrated, had driven them slowly to their eventual ruin. Power, corruption, stealing is all that they saw in their new ruler, and there were often hushed talks of his illegitimate babes running around every corner of the kingdom. It was so clear, as clear as the sun, what this man was and what he had always sought. Yet, they all wondered why their Princess had suddenly gone blind, when there really wasn’t anything in her husband to applaud. The more they tried to help her see, the more she shunned her loyal subjects, enraged, infuriated and exasperated at the very sight of them all. There was only one answer to all this tragedy; their dear Princess had in fact lost her mind.
There was only but one way, and that lead to another kingdom far, far away. Dejected and forlorn the Princess’ subjects finally chose, they had no alternative but to move away to a foreign land. Little by little, one by one, they all packed their bags and walked away.
What happened to the conniving and crooked Prince, everyone wondered. There had been whispers of another woman, another Princess as fine as their own. On his adventures across the kingdoms all around, she had caught the Prince’s fancies in his very first glance. And now that he had all these lands to his disposal, he could have anybody’s hand as so he chose.
And then there were also whispers of their own Princess so fair, she was so far gone that she had locked herself in a tower, dark, tall and bare. They all shook their head when they spoke of these sad tidings, and how they wished their Princess had shown more forbearance and fortitude in her decisions. Of her loneliness and emptiness they had never quite known, but they were convinced that a solution far better could have been sought.
Time had stood still for the Princess, as had her life. There were remnants of days long past, but the dullness in her mind clouded it all. Her room was nothing but a tiny, confined cell, with a square window to spare. In the beginning she had kept track of the days as they passed by, but off late, that had ceased to hold significance as well. There was staleness to her state of being, riddled with inertia and an unremitting dryness to all things she once held dear. She moved very little, spending most of her time on her bed, sluggish and disinterested.
Fragments of her past flitted through her mind now and then; a daughter, a kingdom, and a husband once so dear? None of this mattered now; the hollowness that was once a flicker had engulfed her whole. And then there was always the potion. It had taken her a while to realize that the potion muddled her mind. Her body crippled as her thoughts flitted about, without a care in the world. But her husband, her Prince always consoled her through. And her trust was so complete, that all of what he had said had always been true.
And now there was this ceaseless existence, which flowed into a void. It turned and twisted, tormenting her soul, and yet the void continued to endure.
She could vaguely remember her last encounter with the young-old wise man. He visited her, before he too abandoned her kingdom once so magnificent.
He has stood in this very same room so bare, and held out a mirror for her to survey. What was it that he had wanted her to see? The memory was so vague, that it darted around, toying with her just out of her reach.
“…you see, my Princess so drained? Or does the shadow upon it seem like a ghoulish fiend? The mirror mirrors nothing except what one wishes to see; emptiness, vacancy, fouled trust, suspicious, or anything that you want it to be. You chose a road, easy but hard; and now you evade having to see all your cards. While you worried about events outside of your own bosom, you have flitted away everything you ever had, including a glorious kingdom. You worried and fretted over the jesters who danced and ran, without ever listening about the glory of your kingdom of which they freely sang. You saw what you wanted to see, oh my fallen queen to be, but within your own heart you never sought to make yourself truly and absolutely free.”
As the memory twitched and roiled, the Princess’ hand glazed over the open golden locket the shape of the moon. There lay the revelation so divine, simple one phrase that had never crossed her mind.
“What does not exist within cannot and will never be found without.”
© 2021 Shruti Panwar
By Puja Vijaykant
As a shy eight year old I understood little of the political mood of the country but I could read fear on the faces of my parents. Baba had seen things he wished he hadn’t, I heard him tell Ma. He was a changed man. We were a changed nation.
It was the summer of ‘85. Gusty westerly winds had swept through Delhi stoking the fires of communal animosities. Barely had the embers of the riots cooled than a new wave of explosions rocked the city. Humanity was long lost, now lives and livelihoods too were being burnt at the stake. When the elderly Sikh man, whom Baba worked for, was lynched in broad daylight it plunged the future of many families into darkness.
After nearly six months of painstakingly applying for jobs Baba had finally landed the role of R&D Manager at a tea estate close to Darjeeling. Kabir and I were not keen to move. It was the other end of the country and we didn’t speak the language. Moreover, we liked Delhi, we had friends here. If Ma was hesitant she hid it well. She wove stories of a beautiful land nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas with scenic views and colourful melodious birds. She spoke of new friendships and the many adventures that awaited us. Maybe that was what she hoped for considering she had never travelled there herself. We were not entirely convinced but had little choice in the matter. And within a couple of weeks we were packed and ready to leave. Reluctantly, we said good bye to our friends and neighbours and boarded a train to a new unfamiliar life.
I remember very little of the two and a half day long journey except it seemed never ending with many, many stops. We finally arrived in New Jalpaiguri hungry, exhausted and dirty. In comparison to Delhi, the station was small and sparsely populated. Outside a car waited to take us to the estate.
“Namaste Saab! Namaste Memsaab!” greeted our driver Bishnu da with folded hands. He was a simple looking man, older than Baba, dressed in unremarkable clothes and cheap sandals. “You must be tired” he said to Kabir and me in Hindi, with a kind smile. I hid behind Ma but Kabir nodded for both of us.
A young man in a black t-shirt and light blue jeans walked up to Baba and introduced himself as Pranab Lahiri. He managed exports for the estate and was there to welcome us. Under a veneer of friendliness there seemed to be an air of arrogance in his manner. Maybe it was the way he spoke to Bishnu da. Or perhaps the way he looked at Ma, his eyes moving slowly across her face despite her obvious discomfort. I disliked him instantly.
The six of us got into the car and began the second leg of our journey, a two hour long drive to Dooars. I sat on Ma’s lap looking out of the window as fields of varying shades of green whizzed by. In the far distance was a chain of grey blue hills partially covered by clouds. Vegetation grew unfettered, taking over any piece of unclaimed land. The air was clean but heavy with humidity. The insides of my elbows were constantly moist with sweat. I would wipe them with my sleeves but little beads of perspiration would form immediately. Occasionally, we saw a farmer herding his cattle, or a tribal woman dressed in a single piece of unstitched cloth walking by. An hour later the road turned narrow and bendy as we made our way into a hilly terrain. A turbulent Teesta river raged below, angry waves rising like the many arms of goddess Durga battling the evil forces of the world. Flanked by moss covered rocks on our left and a sheer drop on the right, we found ourselves inching forward at a snail’s pace. A landslide the previous day had left over half the road inaccessible. To make matters worse a stream had carved its way through it making the passage extremely slippery.
* Namaste Saab! Namaste Memsaab! = Hello Sir! Hello Madam!
* Hindi = Indian language spoken in Northern India; Durga = Hindu Goddess revered in Bengal
We were told this was common place. The region received more than double the average national rainfall which made it conducive to growing tea but also brought with it its share of challenges.
Bishnu da asked us all to get out of the car while he tried to negotiate his way through this treacherous stretch. I let out a little cry when the right wheels nearly veered off the road. Or maybe it was Ma clutching my hand, I forget which. Some excruciating minutes later amidst a cacophony of instructions, Bishnu da with some deft manoeuvring made his way across. We got back into the car and drove on, leaving behind a trail of vehicles to attempt the same moves over and over again.
By the time we reached the estate the sun had nearly set. We could just about see the silhouette of a few trees amongst dense shrubs. The car was moving uphill at a slow pace on an unpaved road. We passed a dimly lit level crossing that cut through the plantation dividing it into an upper and lower zone. There was no other sign of human activity.
Nearly at the top of the hill we turned left into a gate beyond which lay two similar looking houses. Pranab led us into the one numbered 4. Hardly a house, this was a barrack built from when the British controlled the estate, and the country, and probably had not been upgraded ever since. There were two long weary looking rooms. The first one housed a few cane chairs around a coarse rug, a modest dining table and a concrete slab by the wall which functioned as the kitchen. The other one had two double beds, a wardrobe and a study table. The bathroom was right at the end with a damp rotting door that opened to the backyard.
“This is a temporary arrangement…” said Pranab.
A few years ago, we were told, a herd of elephants had damaged part of the factory and some of the accommodation. These two houses were spared. The factory was rebuilt with better security but the managerial staff was relocated to a colony in Malbazaar, where we too would eventually move.
“…the house next door is unoccupied at the moment but you are not too far from town. It is quite safe here, no one will bother you, but it is best to keep the doors locked…” and so he went on with a set of instructions. “One last thing, especially for the children…” he paused to look at us and then continued in a sombre voice “if you come across a leopard in the bushes, do not disturb it.”
He saw our scared faces and winked at Ma. I disliked him even more.
The rest of the evening was a blur. It was too much to take in.
The next morning I woke up to find my arms covered in red, itchy mosquito bites. There had been a power outage at night and the fan had stopped working. I was so tired that I had slept through it all.
“Take a look at this” said Ma as she gathered the family in the verandah. I stepped out bare feet, rubbing sleep from my eyes. Wisps of misty clouds swirled around us, occasionally parting way to reveal a most breath-taking view. A velvety green carpet of neatly lined tea bushes rolled out on the slope below us. A red steam engine pulling a dozen carriages or so chugged gently through the estate letting out a periodic whistle and a puff of steam. We stood there, mesmerised. Perhaps Ma was right. Maybe some special adventures awaited us here.
The next few days were spent unpacking and settling down. Even though Baba’s office was around the corner we barely saw him during the day. Sometimes he would travel to Darjeeling, about three hours away, but he made it a point to come back by night. He would bring with him different varieties of teas – black, green, white and the musical sounding ‘oolong’. Ma would listen to him attentively, as he imparted his newly acquired knowledge of major flush vs minor, the impact of fermentation on the flavour, the right water temperature, steeping time, etc. She took it upon herself to master the art of brewing. For there was nothing, she said, that could not be resolved over a perfect cup of tea.
There was very little in terms of entertainment, no access to television and no other children to play with. Kabir and I were tired of each other and spent most of our day following Ma around. One of Baba’s colleagues suggested an art teacher who was willing to travel to the estate for lessons. I was excited. Kabir said he would rather be bored than sit through classes during his summer break. I was pleased not to be sharing space with him.
So on a Monday morning around 10 am the art teacher arrived at the door. Bagchi sir, as he referred to himself, was a young bespectacled man with heavily oiled hair neatly brushed to a side and an accent I could not follow. Dressed in a fitted checked shirt and flared trousers, he seemed to have stepped out of an old movie. Ma caught the amused look on Kabir’s face and signalled him to behave. She invited the art teacher in and offered him tea, which he politely accepted.
We started the session at the dining table but with Kabir struggling to keep a straight face at my complete failure to comprehend Bagchi sir’s instructions Ma moved us to the study in the bedroom. She made it a point to walk in every ten minutes under some pretext or the other, her bangles announcing her entry. I knew she wanted to make sure I was alright. The session progressed and an hour later I had something to show for it. The art teacher seemed pleased. He left promising to come back in two days.
“How was it?” Ma asked. “Ok” I shrugged my shoulders.
Kabir mimicked Bagchi sir and laughed at his own joke.
“I don’t understand him much, Ma. Do I have to do more lessons with him?”
“It was just the first session. You will learn to understand him soon” she encouraged.
And so we fell into a rhythm. Our mornings began in the verandah taking in the spectacular view. Ma played Lata Mangeshkar’s Meera bhajans in the background. She said it was good to start the day with a prayer on our lips. And oolong on hers! The next few hours were spent either sketching or writing detailed letters to friends back in Delhi. The three of us had lunch together followed by a game of scrabble or Ludo. And finally a siesta. In the evenings we waited for Baba’s return and once back, we occupied him with our stories. He listened patiently. There were after all few distractions.
A few weeks in we were invited to dinner at the managers’ colony in Malbazaar. Baba said it was important to make a good impression, it would help us find a house soon. Over the next two days Ma carefully selected our clothes and got them ready for wear. A white t-shirt and grey shorts for Kabir from his tenth birthday and a white top with a blue skirt for me from Diwali. Those were our best clothes. She brought out a few sarees for herself from a trunk. Dusting off the dry neem leaves she lovingly laid them out on the bed. I ran my fingers over the beautiful kanjeevarum silk admiringly. I could never get enough of the rich texture and colours.
“Ma, you have such beautiful clothes. Can I have them when I grow up?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. You can have all of them when you turn eighteen” Ma replied, as always.
She went on to choose a blue chiffon with a sleeveless low back blouse. Said it was better suited for the weather. She skilfully draped the saree around her slender figure and pinned the loose end ‘pallu’ to the blouse at the shoulder. Next she wore a string of creamy pearls around her neck, matched her earrings and bangles and hung her trademark silver key chain from her waist. A dash of lipstick, a round blue bindi and finally a whiff of the perfume Baba had bought her years ago.
I lay on the bed watching her, thinking she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. Suddenly the fear of losing her gripped me and I felt uneasy in my body. Ma noticed my face and asked “Are you ok, Maya?”
I hugged her tight and said “Promise me you will never die.”
* Lata Mangeshkar = Iconic Indian singer
* Meera bhajans = Devotional sings dedicated to Lord Krishna
* Diwali = Hindu festival of Lights
* Kanjeevarum silk = a type of traditional silk saree made in Kanchipuram in South India
Baba sent the car to bring us to town. He would meet us directly from work, he said. We took our seats at the back, Kabir by the left, me on the right and Ma squeezed in between.
Bishnu da drove out of the gate and joined the road that ran down the hill. Darkness was beginning to creep in on the estate. The birds had gone quiet and the air was filled with the eerie sound of crickets chirping. My eyes were following the fireflies in the bushes. How magical they looked!
Half way down we heard a commotion. A pick-up truck stood at the level crossing ahead. It was not uncommon for vehicles from adjoining estate to use this road. As we approached closer we saw the gates were open so the hold-up was not on account of a train. A small crowd had gathered by the tracks. A woman, most likely a tea estate worker, was pounding her fists on the door of the pick-up truck. She seemed agitated. Bishnu da spoke with a bystander to find out more.
“A drunk man walked into her hut and they got into a fight” he translated for Ma. “She …”
Before he could complete, the truck ahead moved on leaving the woman behind. She turned her sights on us and started walking towards our car repeating “rasta nahin milega”. Her saree was soiled with dirty brown stains down the front. She seemed frail but angry. Sensing trouble Bishnu da started the engine and asked us to roll up our windows. I managed to just in time, as the woman lurched towards us. And then we saw it from close… a khukuri embedded into her left breast. Ma gasped and immediately pulled Kabir and me close to herself. I was too shocked to stop looking.
“Let’s go! Please let’s go!” Ma pleaded with Bishnu da, panic in her voice, as the woman struck angrily at the window again. It is surprising how long a fraction of a moment can last. I remember her palms pressed against the pane, a solitary glass bangle on her bony wrist and those skinny brown arms. Her terror filled eyes met mine. She seemed to be fading away. Bishnu da accelerated the car and once again she was left standing by herself.
* rasta nahin milega = will not give way
* khukuri = machete
It took us a moment to process what had just happened.
“Is she going to die?” I asked Ma anxiously.
She looked pained.
“Why is no one helping her?” said Kabir.
Ma did not reply. She continued to stare into the distance.
The rest of the journey was spent in silence.
After what seemed like an eternity we reached Malbazaar. Bishnu da negotiated the car through a bustling marketplace, narrowly avoiding people shopping for groceries and other household essentials. A few twists and turns later we entered a gated colony. There were houses of varying sizes indicating one’s position in the organisation, and thereby in society. We wondered which one would be ours. The car drove on till the end of the road and pulled up in front of a bungalow with high walls situated at the end of a cul de sac.
Ma took a moment to compose herself and stepped out with us. Lively music and loud merry voices reached us from what seemed to be the garden. We rang the doorbell and waited. A few moments later a well-dressed woman greeted us. She seemed much older than Ma.
“You must be Aparna!” she said warmly. “And these must be Kabir and Maya. I am Mrs. Chatterjee. So glad to finally meet you. Come on in!”
We stepped into a spacious living room with life sized paintings, delicate crystal figurines and exquisitely carved furniture. Everything looked so expensive, especially in comparison to our modest accommodation.
The Chatterjees owned a number of tea estates across the region. They lived mostly in Darjeeling or abroad but visited the plantations every few months. And when they did, they threw indulgent parties.
“Have you settled in? Are you comfortable at the estate? Come, let me introduce you to the others outside. We have been lucky with the weather today...” she chatted Ma as she led us through the dining area and into a lawn of generous proportions.
A most charming setting lay in front of us. Enchanting little lights lit up the bushes and crimson paper lamps swung gently from tree branches, lending an ethereal glow to the evening. Louis Armstrong’s powerful raspy voice filled the air with cheerful optimism. Elegant ladies sat around lavishly decorated banquet styled tables chatting within themselves. The men, smartly dressed with silk scarves neatly tucked into their shirts, gathered by the bar with drinks in their hands. Butlers with deadpan faces moved between guests, carrying platters of freshly prepared delicacies and colourful fizzy drinks.
Mrs. Chatterjee found Ma a seat amongst the ladies. Next she offered to take us to the children’s room inside to watch a movie. Within minutes we were seated before a tv screen with at least ten other children of different ages and, again, a generous supply of food and drinks. It all seemed at odds with what we had just witnessed. I tried to distract myself but felt quite unsettled. As did Kabir. We exchanged glances, slipped out of the room and headed back to the garden. We rarely saw eye to eye but on this occasion we were united in our fear.
As it turned out we were not the only ones trying to make sense of the evening’s events.
Ma had just finished narrating the incident by the tracks.
“Aparna, you are new here so it may seem strange but these things happen at the estate. A worker must have tried to force himself and she must have resisted. You know how they all drink and fight. There are no morals, no family values, it’s a free for all. You must not worry yourself over this. Moreover, if she could walk then she probably wasn’t that hurt.” said Mrs. Ghosh.
“We must find you a place in this colony soon. The estate is desolate, not safe for a family. Let me speak with my husband. He looks into housing.” said Mrs. Misra.
“Yes, we must get you out before a drunk finds his way into your place” interrupted Pranab
unexpectedly. He gave Ma a half smile and I saw her body stiffen. She draped the loose end of the pallu over her shoulders to cover her bare arms. I leaned in to her and whispered “We want to be with you”. She nodded.
“Don’t scare her, Pranab” chided Mrs. Ghosh playfully. “She looks like she has seen a ghost”
“Aparna, never mind my nephew. He is always up to some mischief. He doesn’t mean it” joined in Mrs. Chatterjee. “Forget about what happened at the estate. We will look into it in the morning. Now I want you to try these reshmi kababs with the pudina chutney. You as well, Maya and Kabir” She handed out plates and served us a liberal helping.
Baba arrived with Mr. Chatterjee who took him straight to meet the other guests. Word travelled and soon he heard of the incident himself. He came by to speak with Ma and assured her he would find a solution. And during the course of the evening it was agreed that our family would move into the small vacant house in the colony till the right one could be assigned.
It was well past midnight when we left. Knowing it would be late Baba had relieved Bishnu da earlier in the evening. He took over the wheel and the four of us headed home. The estate was shrouded in darkness. We drove past the level crossing looking for any signs of what had previously happened there. There was no one around but we did see a white sheet stretched out by the tracks, over what looked like a body.
“We could have saved her! We should have saved her…” cried ma trying to muffle her sobs.
“It wasn’t your fault...” said Baba
“But wasn’t it our responsibility?” asked Kabir. “Don’t you always say that to us?”
* reshmi kabab = succulent chicken on skewers; pudina chutney = mint dipping sauce
We were to move in two days. Ma got busy packing once again. Baba decided to drive into town with Kabir to explore our new neighbourhood. I spent the morning curled up in bed, with a stomach ache. When I refused to get up for lunch Ma came to sit by my side.
“Are you ok, Maya?” she asked touching my forehead.
I burst into tears.
“Is it about last night?”
I nodded. Then added “I don’t want to do art lessons.”
“Why not?” she asked puzzled.
“I don’t like it when Bagchi sir touches me” I answered between sobs.
“What? What do you mean?”
“I don’t understand most of what he says. So he places his hand on my chest and repeats it slowly. I don’t like it. I don’t want him to hurt me… like that woman.”
There was a long pause. Ma held me close and promised she would take care of it.
Then she asked me to never repeat this to anyone ever again. Not Baba, not Kabir. That I must forget it ever happened.
And that was my first lesson in internalising shame.
© 2021 Puja Vijaykant