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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Celeb Spotting-there’s an Art to it-

During the late years of the seventies I lived in Putney, South London. Some parts of the area, even then were considered fashionable and therefore beginning to be pricey, although not the parts I inhabited which were firstly a room on a shared ‘maisonette’ and secondly a two-roomed ‘flat’. The former of these two homes was acceptable, if shabby; but policed by a zealous, basement-dwelling landlady whose unwavering eye focused on our comings and goings [we were four girls]. The second would not, under any circumstances have passed the scrutiny of a housing officer nowadays and is best left to be described in a future post.

I loved living in Putney for a number of reasons. There were wonderful pubs, plenty of green spaces; I was within walking distance of my place of work [a special needs school] and it was an easy hop into central London. But these advantages also made it a magnet for what would these days be called ‘celebs’, so that regular sightings of well-known actors or presenters were commonplace, provided you paid attention.

Those who live in the capital find it difficult to see why anyone lives anywhere else or indeed how anyone copes with living elsewhere, but as the seventies receded I did leave London for the South West of England, which proved satisfactory enough place for me to remain-and here I still am, forty or so years later.

Here though, celeb-spotting is an art acquired only with practice, but one that we have honed to the point of expertise. For the 18 years we’ve frequented the hostelries in and around the coastal town that is our place of residence we’ve seen dozens of famous personas-far more than I ever did in Putney. How has this been achieved?

At just one of our locals we have seen-on a fairly regular basis-the following: Richard E Grant [actor], Ricky-from-Eastenders [whose name escapes me], Ian McShane [actor] and Charles Hawtry [actor-deceased].

No-we haven’t seen these actors. But since we began to frequent the pub we have grown used to identifying other regulars by their more famous dopplegangers. As a result the names have stuck.

Now while this method of identification has worked for years and enables us to discuss said punters with ease it is not without its difficulties. One of the pseudo ‘celebs’ has subsequently become a friend. Adjusting to his actual name took time and we were often in grave danger of blurting out his ‘stage’ name. We had to overcome the problem by using a type of hybrid name [which coincidentally happened to be the name of a historic footballer] until his real name became glued on to him. There is no question of revealing the history of his stage name since it is unlikely that he would be flattered.

Since we began pseudo-celeb watching, Richard E Grant has had a baby and Ian McShane visits less frequently. Ricky-from-Eastenders, however continues to be a regular. I must confess to a certain reluctance to know their actual handles and so, for the foreseeable future I’ll be avoiding any possible introductions.

The Great Land Grab

                That waterside properties have become so popular is surprising, when you take all the floods into account. You would think people would be seeking homes on top of mountains by now.

                I don’t know when, exactly, a home with a view over water became an object of desire but when we bought our sea front house seventeen years ago its proximity to the sea was not mentioned in the advert at all. I first spotted a black and white picture of part of it in the local property rag, a blurred shot of the front door and surrounding brickwork, looking like a house on an [admittedly well kept] council estate. It was not until we made a trip to view the exterior that we realised only a road and a zig-zag cliff path separated it from the beach.

                Since then we have seen a gradual but accelerating rebuilding of the properties along our road, every family home that is demolished being replaced by an apartment block, the plans endorsed by a council eager to meet the government’s targets for new homes, as well as satisfy the clamorous desire for living by some water. There is nothing wrong with apartments. In most heavily populated parts of the world they have become the solution to housing. Almost everyone living in Hong Kong has a lovely view of Victoria Harbour, albeit sandwiched in a flat somewhere within a forty story plus block.

                The UK is not short of homes. There are many empty houses. They are in places like Stoke on Trent, where last August there were 5,000 empty ones. Terraced hovels can be bought for £1 provided certain conditions are met, but don’t get romantic ideas of stupendous views or chocolate box cottages because you have to renovate them, live there for five years and find some kind of employment in order to get a door on to the street and maybe a back yard. I’d have settled for that for a first home, though.

                So as more of us want to squeeze into any, tiny gap by a river, lake, harbour or beach, less of us want to take up residence in a dilapidated back-to-back terrace in a rundown northern industrial zone.

                There are rumours that here, along the seafront, the last remaining pub-hotels are due to be demolished, presumably to make way for still more apartment blocks; the revenue from such developments more than any publican, hotelier or hotel chain could make in their wildest dreams. Two more, nearby hostelries have been developed into flats in the last two years and another is ‘pending’. What’s next, as the availability of land in desirable areas becomes less? My vote goes to football pitches, and then to churches and churchyards, followed closely by betting shops, snooker halls, MacDonalds, Little Chefs and Pizza Huts…unless you feel differently?