February Fiction.

By the time this post is published I will have deserted the gloomy shores of the UK to enjoy some respite from the wintery weather and the wintery political climate in the sunny Caribbean. While the West Indies is a fine and inspirational place for writing my budget does not stretch to the huge sums needed for internet use. Hence the next 2 posts are a BRAND NEW short story, which begins today and concludes with Part 2, next Sunday…

 

Lewis’s Basement Herbs

Part 1

The first time was spooky. From the top of the last flight down the steps an eerie glow radiated from a line around the metal door and a soft hum throbbed from whatever was inside. Lewis had been both intrigued and nervous as he edged down the last few concrete treads and stood listening, riveted to the soft line of light.
He knew nobody lived down here in the basement because the numbers on the ground floor flats began upstairs where the lift stopped. He’d been subjected to repeated warnings from his mother not to come downstairs to the basement; warnings that whetted his curiosity, seducing him down into the bowels of the block even as she was glancing at the clock in their cramped kitchenette and preparing to summon him to supper.
He wasn’t supposed to wander off, although he was allowed to venture down to the lobby floor and outside to the bleak, graffitied playground as long as there were no teenagers there to intimidate or indoctrinate him. But the play area held few pleasures for Lewis, who was an introverted, solitary child, small for his nine years and not easily able to make new friends. The dark basement with its narrow shaft of light, its smooth concrete walls and gentle hum had a womb-like comfort that soothed him after the rigours of a tumultuous school day and kept him from his mother’s irritable nagging over chores and homework. He began regular descents to what he considered to be his own, private retreat, sometimes bringing his tiny games console or a notebook and pen and after a few visits he’d managed to sneak a small cushion out of the flat to make the concrete step where he sat more comfortable.
One late afternoon he was ensconced on his cushion and engaged in drawing a monster in his notebook when he heard some quick, light footsteps approaching the basement door above him. He closed the notebook, pocketed the pencil and, taking his cushion crept around the corner of the steps into the dark alcove behind them where he crouched, making himself as small as possible while the mouse-like steps pattered down.
A short, slight figure, silhouetted in the shaft of light stood at the metal door fiddling with its padlock, which Lewis already knew to have a combination like the ones on the bikes in the racks at school. The door sighed opened with a rasp, flooding the small space at the base of the steps with white light. Holding his breath, Lewis edged back tight into the shadow but caught a momentary glimpse of the interior before the door was pulled to; what appeared to be a still, silent row of slender, dark structures, their base a glinting, reflective surface like the Christmas decorations in the city centre. He could hear the person inside bustling about and see her-he was sure the figure was female-flitting backwards and forwards across the narrow gap in the doorway. Supposing she was busy on some task, he crept from his corner and across the passageway towards the metal door, where the combination lock lay open. He looked at the barrel of the lock. There was enough light to see the numbers along the shaft opening: 6628.
By the time the girl came out of the room he was back behind the steps, having written the number in his notebook. He watched as she clicked the lock together before pattering back up the stairs and opening the basement door, leaving him once again alone in his den.
Lewis was thrilled. He felt like a detective looking into a mysterious incident, except that no crime was being committed. He was determined to investigate the basement room further but would have to try tomorrow as his grumbling tummy told him his tea must be ready by now. He gauged that the woman would be clear of the ground floor and went up the steps to the lift.
As he exited the basement door a voice assailed him.
“Whoa! What you at, fella?”
Lewis flattened himself against the door as the tall, rangy figure of Desi loomed up against him. Desi was a member of the notorious Bunja gang whose antics terrorised the inhabitants of the block and who Lewis’s mother had instructed him to avoid. Now he was trapped, his mouth dry, his throat constricted as though strangled, unable to utter so much as a squeak. But Desi persisted.
“What you doin’ down there, eh?” The tall youth jerked his head at the closed door behind Lewis and stepped forward so that he squashed the smaller boy, his tobacco breath hot and nauseous.
Lewis made a frantic effort to think of a reason for being in the basement. A lost cat? But tenants were not allowed pets. An errand for his mother? But he couldn’t think of anything. A game? But there were no other kids around. He held his breath.
Across the lobby a voice echoed. “Eh Desi! Time to go! C’mon!”
Desi gave the boy a hard shove against the door before turning and loping off to join his companion and Lewis slumped forward, exhaling with closed eyes as the two Bunja gang members disappeared out of the building.

Next day was Saturday and he was obliged to help out with going to the launderette, tidying his bedroom and accompanying his mother to the shops and back, carrying his share of bags. After tea and washing up he asked if he might go out to play, as it was still light and after some hesitation his mother agreed, although she stipulated that he must be in again by seven thirty.
He was careful to look around before opening the basement door. This time he’d brought a tiny torch he kept in his bedroom. He was breathless as he swivelled the numbers on the barrel into position and breathed out as the barrel unclipped, freeing the padlock, allowing him to grasp the handle and push gently, whereupon he was bathed in the white light of the compact room and stepped in, mouth agape.
The structures in rows were dark green, spiky plants, all the same, their bases encased in silver foil like his mother used for lining the roasting tin. There were bright, white lights directed at the rows and the entire room was warm and damp like the launderette on a busy morning. But the smell was not at all like the launderette. It was fragrant and herb-like. Lewis walked up and down the rows for a few minutes then he realised. Of course! This must be a herb garden. They had one at school in a raised bed outside in the playground; only this one was indoors and this one had only one type of herb, not the mixture they’d grown at school.
He sat down on a box in the corner, enjoying the warmth and the cosy, aromatic atmosphere and forgetting how long he’d been there. At last he remembered he should not stay too long in case the girl came back so stood to leave. He stepped away from the cardboard box he’d been sitting on and looked at it. It was not sealed. He pulled up the flap and peered inside. It was full of small plastic bags containing what looked like tea leaves. He knew about tea leaves because his mother was fussy and refused to buy tea bags, preferring to spoon tea into a pot. After a moment’s hesitation he pocketed one bag, replaced the flap and crept from the room, giving the door a gentle push and locking the combination. He hoped the girl wouldn’t notice that the numbers, when he swivelled them around were different but he guessed she wouldn’t look too closely as long as it was locked.
It was later than he realised. As he ran to the lift he glanced at his watch. It was seven fifty. The lift, when it sank into place contained one person: his mother, coming to look for him.
Lewis was grounded for the next three days. His mother gave him chores and stood over him while he learned spellings and times tables. He was sent to tidy his room each day after school and was denied TV. Seeking to sweeten her up a little, on the third day Lewis offered to make his mum a cup of tea while she watched Coronation Street, a proposal that led to a narrowing of her eyes in suspicion but an acceptance. He filled the kettle and took down the tea caddy. When he glanced into their narrow living-room he could see that she was engrossed in the programme so he withdrew the plastic bag of dried herbs from his pocket and mixed them in with the tea leaves in the caddy, augmenting the amount by about one third. His mother was always moaning about aches and pains. They had learned at school that people used herbs to treat illnesses. Maybe the herbs would help. He took her a cup of tea and sat down next to her while she sipped it and watched her programme…

Check in next Sunday to find out how the ‘herbs’ affected Lewis’s mother and what happened next…

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January Travels

We woke to a crisp, frosty, sparkly morning by Loch Ness, thankful that we’d been warm and were able to continue. We followed the lakeside along to the end [Dorres] and then on to the outskirts of Inverness, before turning to The Cairngorms where we were treated to a full day’s travel of wintery scenes; snow covered hills and roads lined with Christmassy, snow-laden conifers.

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I remembered being given a slender cookery booklet from the Festival Theatre, Pitlochry many, many years ago- a publication that has been lost but that contained recipes for whisky-laden concoctions [none of which I attempted]. We stopped at Pitlochry, a modest one-street town, attractive in a modest way although more yielding to tourists in days gone by, perhaps.

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At last we came to Fishcross.

At the risk of insulting the residents of Fishcross I feel obliged to say it is remarkable only in its unbecoming appearance-in other words, Fishcross is not a town that you would visit for its stunning architecture or historic value, rather there are row upon row of beige, pebble-dashed terraces punctuated by a Spar supermarket and a cat rescue shelter. Hm…

Nevertheless Fishcross is host, not only to a perfectly acceptable camp site but the site has a great restaurant, frequented by local residents, the poor souls.

But Fishcross is an ideal place to stay for a visit to Stirling, a fine and elegant city which has a stonking great castle on a hill top. So the following day, which dawned damp, dank and misty we caught the local bus there [passing the Wallace Monument en route] and ascended the steep cobbled street up to Stirling Castle.

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This is a proper classic castle, such as we used to draw in history lessons at school, for some obscure reason which now escapes me-

The castle has been restored to within millimetres of its long, historical life-even to the extent of its tapestries, which took years to construct and have their own exhibition.

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Outside was no less fascinating, although the view from the battlements was mist-shrouded and atmospheric.

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There was so much to see at Stirling Castle that little time remained before the bus returning to Fishcross but we managed a whistle-stop tour taking in the bagpipe shop, the kilt shop and Darnley’s house [Darnley was a husband of Mary, Queen of Scots]. Then it was back to the delights of Fishcross, taking care to watch out for the cat rescue centre, since this was our cue to exit the bus.

It was time to head south again, striking out firstly to the Lake District, an area that becomes overstuffed with tourists in summer but is undeniably beautiful.

At our lunch stop at Lockerbie services I weakened on my way out of the building and bought scrumptious, mountainous scones and we were entertained by the many cars arriving with dogs and owners to use the surrounding parkland for walkies.

Then we were at Keswick and this was the reward:

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Next January’s trip may well be to the Lake District!

 

The Ups and Downs of the Highlands

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We moved on, north from Glasgow towards the Highlands and the lochs [lakes], driving through suburbs crammed with beautiful sandstone mansions; first to Loch Lomond, Bannoch and Bannoch Castle. We are limited, at this time of year to sites that are open, yet many are-and all boasting five-star provision.

The castle [pictured above] is picturesque enough in its setting but all that visitors can see of the interior is a torn lace curtain.

Since Glasgow I’d been mentioning to Husband that a faint, high-pitched whine drifted intermittently through our vehicle, a comment that he dismissed in his customary airy fashion.

Loch Lomond, immortalised in song, surrounded by hills and adorned with small leisure craft and a steamer is of course beautiful, although Balloch village is nondescript, apart from some droll touches:
p1060647Having spent the night in Balloch’s excellent site we moved on and towards Loch Ness while I puzzled over the fizzing, crackling sound that appeared to come from the passenger side air vent.

There was little in the way of grocery stores but a plethora of farm shops indicated that my lust for pies might be about to be satisfied and it was. After our visit I concluded that if we lived in the vicinity of such a shop we’d be a] bankrupt in a very short space of time and b] obese.

Back in the van with the spoils the fizzing noise began to be accompanied by a burning rubber aroma, which even dismissive Husband admitted smelling. There were no indicator lights on the dashboard but we halted while Husband peered into the engine. Nothing amiss. We continued, as did the fizzing and the smell. There was a short stop to see ‘The Falls of Falloch’:

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Then we stopped to consume ‘Scotch’ pies here:

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At last we came along the Caledonian Canal side and to the shores of Loch Ness, check-in, plug-in and Horrors! 

The leisure battery under the passenger seat was too hot to touch! This was certainly where the smell had originated. No more plug-in as everything needed to be switched off; no lights, no water, no cooker, no heat-no heat? The temperature was -6C and a light dusting of snow. From Reception I got the number of a motorhome specialist in Inverness. We prepared to vacate and trek up to a hotel in the village. Then the mobile repair fellow messaged to say he’d be with us at 6.00pm.

There was an anxious wait, but he arrived, managed to isolate the offending battery, leaving us with 2 that continued to function and informing us that the stench was of noxious boiling sulphuric acid and very, very dangerous. Lovely. We’d been breathing it in all day. Ho hum…

Thanks to the cheerful, able mobile repair fellow we could plug in, get warm and be lit, waking next morning cosy and snug and to this view:

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January Odyssey 1

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January in the UK is my least favourite month. Gloomy, often cold and wet and with the remnants of Christmas and New Year celebrations clinging like grey cobwebs, it seems to go on too long.
In an unaccustomed surge of January optimism, we’ve heaved ourselves out of the post-Christmas languor to pack up the van, load it with our warmest and most weather-resistant gear and head northwards towards Scotland, a trip we’ve been meaning to do for a few years and only now decided to tackle.
The van, having languished unused for a couple of winter months needed a little de-moulding in its nether regions, otherwise it felt purposeful to be loading up and re-acquainting ourselves with our little holiday-home-on-wheels. There are enough sites open to enable us to travel up [first to Gloucester relatives, giving us a head start] and get around once we arrive. The weather was set to be manageable and Husband assured me that at the first sign of snow we would return, since I was somewhat nervous about getting ‘snowed in’ and unable to return in time for the next [contrasting] excursion in February.
Motorways have conveyed us here and while there were works being carried out almost everywhere the journey was incident-free. Our first, uneventful day took us to ‘Whittingham Club’, a site near Preston and not too far from Blackpool and a perfectly acceptable overnight stop. I assume this is an ex ‘working men’s club’ as it has a club house with a bar, large screen TV, snooker tables and darts plus a bowling green outside. The site facilities are an add-on but serviceable.
Next day we covered the remaining miles to Glasgow by early afternoon, arriving at the holiday park in time for a quick excursion into the city; two stops on a small train from the nearby station.

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Glasgow is just as a city should be; elegant, decadent, grand and squalid. It is busy and vibrant, the architecture both beautiful and innovative, with ugly inserts. The honey and rose sandstone buildings dominate and there is no shortage of galleries, museums and historic sights-too many in fact to see in a single visit. There are areas of development as well as hideous, high rise blocks. The shopping streets are packed with all the usual stores, from up-market fashion to restaurant chains. There is a vast a number of theatres and concert venues as well as lively clubs and pubs.

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Next day we returned in full daylight to take in the award-winning transport museum, the modern art museum, the Necropolis, [a steep hill crowded with mausoleums, obelisks and fancy gravestones] and the cathedral [sadly closed]. From the summit of the Necropolis the tower blocks of outer Glasgow can be seen as well as the grey ribbon of the Clyde. We had no time to tour the art museum, People’s Palace or botanic gardens.
Next day we drove north west towards Lock Lomond, out through suburbs of impressive Georgian sandstone terraces and while I felt it must be a pleasant place to live, I also realised we’d given the more depressed areas such as Paisley a wide berth. It feels good to travel to the outer reaches of the UK and understand that all life does not revolve around the London and the south.

Missing Persons

In an idle moment, whilst Offspring 2 was visiting last week we delved into the small archive of family photos I managed to salvage from my parents belongings before Sibling 1 ditched the entire caboodle into a refuse bin.

This did not happen recently, you understand. My father shuffled from the mortal coil nearly 10 years ago; but it is only now that Offspring has indicated an interest in constructing some kind of family tree and has enlisted my help in annotation. The help is limited, since my knowledge of our ancestral roots is woefully lacking.

My mother had 3 siblings and my father 6. I am able to detail my mother’s sister and 2 brothers plus their offspring [my cousins]. On my father’s side, where he had 3 sisters and 3 brothers I can name my uncles and aunts but am flummoxed by all but the nearest in age cousins. As my father was the youngest of 7, the age difference between he and his oldest brother was so great that he and his nephew [my cousin] were almost the same age, prompting my grandfather to call my father [at around age 4] ‘Uncle’.

I never knew my paternal grandparents, who had a smallholding on a modest farm plot in a Wiltshire village on the edge of The New Forest. But I know that my grandfather, Harry was a ‘character’ who took the produce to market in Salisbury twice a week on a cart pulled by a horse called Ginger. Harry, [according to my father] was inclined to squander some of the proceeds of his market stall in the local hostelry before he returned and was regularly brought back to the farm [much the worse for wear] by Ginger, who knew the way.

But I love the photographs; small, grainy monochrome snapshots of smiling subjects who seem always to be having fun, always to be in the sunshine or always enjoying a day at the beach, a picnic, a dog-walk. Often they are smoking a cigarette and appear to be sharing a private joke and I long to know what it is. These are their ‘selfies’, the difference between them and the social media equivalents being that they were not shared instantly with all and sundry and were left for us, the curious descendants to unravel their mysteries.

I wish, now that I had plundered my father’s memories before he departed. There are a few pencil annotations in my mother’s elegant, sloping hand on the back of a few, often with question marks, indicating that she, too was mystified by the photographs.

Yes, we could pay to discover our ancestry, but it’s not a route I want to travel down. Offspring, perhaps may do so in the future. But I have employed some of the characters in a story, published on this blog in 2015, an extract of which can be read here: ‘Caught’

 

Graceless Ageing

At the beginning of a New Year I’m taking stock. I’ve documented my feelings about ‘resolutions’ before but there is never any harm in reining in consumption after the monumental over-indulgence of Christmas. A new year is also a time to do a little stock-taking on the health front and to consider any goals and plans as winter dwindles.

For those of us in older age, this article: ‘Age Against the Machine’ 

provides an excellent checklist for anyone wondering how to cope with ageing.

But it does pre-suppose that you have no health issues and are financially secure. I agree with almost all the suggestions for coping with older life except that for me, continuing work would have been the death of me.

Offspring 2, who’s been staying for a few days over the festive period asks me if I’d ever want to live with either of my progeny in [even] later life. I tell her an emphatic no, although this conviction comes from the standpoint of happiness and [relatively] good health. At this moment I am independent, not alone and [arguably] still of some use as childcare etc. I tell her I want them to remember me with a degree of fondness and not with the irritation that can arise from continuing close contact with one who has become forgetful, pathetic and dependent. It must be left to professionals in an efficient, non-smelly care home where physical and mental abuse is out of the question.

Until then I have my own, personal checklist of ways to live out retirement, which goes like this:

  • VALUE IT. You’ve worked hard and long. The job may have been stressful [it was]. Value this wonderful freedom by carrying through on long-held ambitions and desires wherever possible. Don’t fritter away the time wondering what to do and waste it by not following through on ideas.
  • Keep as healthy as possible without stressing about it. For me it means undertaking such exercise as I enjoy [dance exercise and walking] as well as eating sensible, home-cooked, vegetable-laden meals. Keeping the brain exercised is also important. I like to read and write.
  • Plan long/medium/short term activities that can be looked forward to; a holiday, a meal with friends or the next dance class at the gym.
  • Be interested in world events and prepared to learn. Learning is great at any age.
  • Try ‘out of comfort zone’ things sometimes. Eat something new and different [within healthy limits]. Go somewhere new. Listen to some new music. Read a book you wouldn’t normally choose [my book club helps with this].
  • Take in some culture. For me it’s theatre, film and music [although not together!]. While we live outside of London we are not too impoverished here. I like to take advantage of our local, volunteer-run theatre when possible and consider that we are lucky to have it [as well as a wonderful library!].
  • Let it Be. I wrote an entire post about leaving behind negative ‘friendships’ and giving up pointless contacts. I keep up with those who put the same amount of effort in as I do and forget the rest.

There is a lot more-using public transport [again we are fortunate to have bus passes and we make great use of them], cycling, travel, groups, gardening, wildlife. I could go on-but of course I don’t have time…

 

 

2018. Farewell or Good Riddance?

2018 is drawing to an end. Here in the UK I would imagine that most would say it hasn’t been their finest year. Personal lives differ, of course but unless you’ve spent the year locked in an underground bunker without access to media you’d have to have formed some kind of opinion about our squidgy little country’s disarray; about the mountainous mess it finds itself in.

There were a few pockets of hope here and there. A large manufacturer of crisps [that’s ‘chips’ to US friends] is offering to recycle its discarded packets. That is if you are prepared to get into your car and travel to your nearest crisp packet recycling point, which may be some miles away. So far I haven’t noticed fewer crumpled crisp packets amongst the litter on the streets or in the countryside, but hey-it’s a start.

What else? In India homosexuality is no longer a crime, which is positive-although no doubt discrimination will continue for some time in less enlightened communities.

The EU has banned insecticides that are harmful to bees, which is great-except that we, of course, that idiotic little scrap of a marginal country that is the UK has opted to get divorced from the most progressive collective the world has ever seen. Presumably UK bees can continue to be poisoned to death with abandon then…

A fair number of people [around the world] have begun to eat less red meat in response to the impact beef and lamb farming has on the planet. Here at Chez Nous, Husband and I are making our own attempt at less meat consumption, trying not to consume it more than half the time. This, however is made more tricky by my conversion to dairy-free produce, making cheese-based meals a no-no. A ‘Free-From’ cheese sauce mix was deemed an unmitigated failure. A visit to Pizza Express to try a vegan pizza, however yielded a not-half-bad result. You win some…..etc. The Australians, apparently are the greatest meat consumers, followed by Americans, so maybe we British are not all bad…

Women began to stand up against abusive behaviour [Hooray!], renewable energy became the most economical, a few species of animal returned from the brink of extinction.

Am I alone in thinking this is not the most impressive list of positives? If I were to begin on the gargantuan wave towards populism, the evil, cynical assassinations, the oppressive cruelty that still exists, the gung-ho waste of resources and widening gap between obscenely rich and desperate poor that persist there would be little worth celebrating.

So here comes a new year. You have to hope, because there’s not a lot else to do. And so I wish you, readers the happiest and most optimistic of New Years. And see you in 2019!