February Fiction 2

 

In Part 2 of ‘Lewis’s Basement Herbs’, Lewis’s mother’s mood becomes relaxed until the two receive an unexpected, early morning visit which is less than welcome…

 

Lewis’s Basement Herbs

Part 2

He waited for her to tell him to go to his room, to remind him of the ‘no TV’ sanction or to say it was bedtime, but she began to watch the next programme, a sport games show, not her usual choice. He noticed that she was smiling, another unusual event and once or twice she sniggered in an uncharacteristic way. At the end of the programme she turned to him and asked him to fetch a bag of crisps from the kitchen, which he did; one for her and another for himself. She tore into the crisps then requested the biscuit tin, helping herself to at least four, an unprecedented action. She sighed, wrapped her arms around him and kissed him, telling him what a good boy he was. Lewis grinned. The herbs must be making her feel better.
During the course of the next week Lewis sneaked a few more bags from the herb garden box and stashed them in his bedroom. When the tea caddy ran low, he topped it up with the herbal mixture. Life became more relaxed as he bathed in his mother’s benevolence and her tranquil good humour.
It was still dark on a school morning ten days later when Lewis was woken by strong light through his thin curtains, the sound of vehicles down in the road and heavy footsteps running into the building. He looked out of his window to see several police vehicles, their lights blazing and a number of police officers scurrying around, some of whom were accompanied by dogs sniffing the ground and wagging their tails. Soon the sound of their feet was echoing in the corridors and along the narrow balconies of the block and he could hear shouts and the banging of doors. He pulled a hoodie over his pyjamas and went out to the living room just as his mother appeared from her bedroom, wrapped in a voluminous towelling robe. It was five o’clock.
His mother was beginning to speak when their door was hammered by a loud knock and a voice calling, “Police. Open up please!”.
Lewis and his mother exchanged puzzled looks before she went to the door and opened it. A policeman, bulky in a yellow vest, with items hung about his waist and holding a leash attached to a laughing, wagging spaniel stepped into their small living room, filling it.
“I’m sorry to get you up but we have to search each flat I’m afraid.” He looked around. “It won’t take long and we’ll try to leave things as they are.”
Lewis thought he’d like to pat the dog, which looked friendly, but the policeman’s brusque manner was discouraging. The boy’s mother drew herself up into a statuesque stance, arms folded across her stout chest and scowled. “Officer! We are a law-abiding household. You won’t find any drugs in this flat!”
The policeman nodded. “I’m sure you’re right, Madam. But it’s procedure and as I say we’ll be out of here in a minute or two.”
The dog was whining and pulling, tail whipping to and fro like clockwork. They were in the tiny kitchenette in three strides, the woman and the boy following to lean in the doorway while the dog yapped and stood up with paws on the worktop, excitement vibrating through every hair of his curly coat. The officer turned to the woman. “Dog seems to be interested in your containers, Madam.”
Lewis’s Mum frowned at the policeman and pushed her arms higher over her bosom. “I don’t have anything except food in there-sugar, sweeteners, coffee and tea. That is all.”
The Officer withdrew a pair of gloves from his pocket. He took a caddy from the shelf, opened it and looked inside while the dog jumped beside him, barking, whining and wagging. The officer took another tin down, peered in and replaced it. He went for the third. Lewis heard his mother grunt in disapproval then the dog went wild, leaping up at the tin and barking in a frenzy. The lid was removed and the policeman shook it before sniffing the contents. He turned to the woman, tilting the caddy towards her.
“I’ll be taking this tin, Madam. And I’ll have to ask you to accompany me to the station. You might want to get dressed first. I’ll wait out here.” Now that the thrill was over the spaniel lay down on the floor, head between its paws.
Lewis’s mother’s mouth hung open as she stared at the officer. She tried to speak but no words came out. She frowned at Lewis as if begging him to help. After a moment she gathered her wits. “And what about my little boy? I can’t just leave him here you know. He’s only nine years old.”
Lewis licked his lips. He felt hot. He glanced at the policeman then at his mother, then back at the policeman. He cleared his throat, prompting them both to look at him. “Wha…what is in the caddy?” he stammered. The policeman waved the tin at him. “I believe this caddy contains an illegal substance, young man. Do you know anything about it?”
Lewis felt his face grow hot as he studied the laminate flooring. He mumbled, “Herbs-it’s just herbs.”
They were both staring at him now. He could feel their eyes on him, turning him to stone where he stood riveted to a fake knot in the plastic floorboard. “I put some herbs in the tea caddy” he managed to whisper, risking a sideways peek at his mother, who was gawping at him as if he was an alien. The policeman strode back into the living room and spoke into his radio.

Lewis led them down the steps to the basement room. Behind him he could hear the dog wheezing as he strained at the leash, enthusiasm rekindled at the prospect of more discoveries. As the boy reached the bottom of the steps and stood before the door with its frame of light, he felt a sense of loss at this, his own private retreat exposed to others’ eyes. He bent to swivel the numbers and pulled the lock open. The policeman, dog panting at his side, touched his arm. “Alright son, I’ll take it from here” and he reached in front of Lewis to pull the door open then he and the dog went in.
Lewis’s mother fixed him with what he had come to think of as the death-stare. “What” she hissed, “have you done?”

The new house still seems vast. Lewis’s new, bigger bedroom looks out over their small patch of garden and sometimes he just stands at his window smiling. Today he can see his mother sitting out on the patio and he thinks he’ll go down and offer to make her a cup of tea because this always makes her hoot with laughter. Nowadays she calls him her ‘lucky star’ for getting them this new home, away from dangerous gangs and threats, away from graffiti and basement drug manufacture. Once Lewis had convinced the police of his innocence, he and his mother had needed to be whisked away from the flats to avoid reprisals.
He wanders downstairs and outside to the tiny garden, his favourite part of the new house. His mother has sat down again so he perches next to her. “Mum” he says, bestowing on her his most guileless smile, “I’d really like to grow something in our garden, like we do at school. There’s a space at the end by the shed. I know what to do. I can grow some herbs. Please will you let me try? Please?”

I hope you enjoyed reading this 2-parter. Comments, whether you liked the story or not are much appreciated. Normal blogging will resume next Sunday. Thanks for visiting!

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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…

Fiction Month Week 3-New Short Story Begins Today!

Caught

Trap! Paralyse! Consume! An unwitting moth flutters in an innocent, random pattern only to be ensnared, caught in a mesh of elastic threads, thrashing wildly but doomed as the predator pounces to inject the body with piercing jaws, stilling the spasms, rolling it with rapid efficiency into a food parcel; to be consumed later.

Here in my father’s back yard, in the still warm air of a September evening, I am glad of a distraction from my task. I light a cigarette and inhale, watching the curling twist of smoke wind upwards. Excitement over, the rotund spider withdraws to the shadows, out of sight until aroused by the next tweak.

Back inside I gaze around at the devastation I’ve wrought and think it’s enough for today. Amidst the piles of books, sets of musical scores, files of correspondence and personal papers in my father’s study there is a box containing old photographs and it is these I’ve been perusing, losing a sense of time both literally and figuratively as I delve back into his life; a jumble of grey-brown, faded and dog-eared images chronicling events and scenes, depicting some characters I remember and many I do not.

I realise I am hungry but have no wish to eat here, alone amongst the detritus. I will walk down through the village to the pub. Before leaving I slip a photo into my pocket, a picture of Imberton Village Dance Band on stage. In the twilight, the quiet of the somnolent village street is punctuated only by the last, retiring song of a blackbird as he defends his province and by the distant, mechanical hum of a lawnmower.

To stroll along this street is to walk in my childhood steps, the way I went to school; down along the hot tarmac, treading on the raised tar bubbles that erupted like sticky larva under the sun’s  hot rays. Here in the gateway by the open field my brother and I paused to see who could pee the furthest as our exuberant, steaming fountains arced over the gate. On past St Mary’s where we languished, imprisoned at Sunday school, the time hanging heavy until we could loosen our collars and race back home to lunch, through the ivy clad churchyard, whose deceased inhabitants now play host to a newly interred inmate.

It is growing dark by the time I am level with the gravel track that slopes up towards Abbott’s, where a lone street lamp casts enough light for me to make out vestiges of the faded imprint on the side of the building; ‘Abbotts Grocery’. I pause for a moment, remembering. The old red brickwork had been painted yellow, the words in red and green, though now all that is visible is a faint square of flaking cream with a few pinkish lines. Old Ma Abbott, who’d seemed ancient to my seven year old self, must be long gone by now. But what of June? To my naive, infant scrutiny she had appeared grown up, although she couldn’t have been much more than sixteen when we plagued the shop in our crude, heedless bids for amusement. She would greet us, soft voiced, smiling with wide spaced, guileless eyes like a baby fawn’s as she tipped Rhubarb and Custards from a jar into a paper bag or ladled out ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder. I’d peer at her upswept, beehive hairdo and the way her wide skirt fanned out like daisy petals, buoyed up by layers of stiff petticoats as she climbed the step to replace the jar.

I’d been the youngest, tolerated but not acknowledged, the tagger-along, more spectator than participant as we roamed the village in search of diversion. We built dens, made bows and arrows or rudimentary, wooden guns, climbed the hay bales in Worts’ barn, fished in the stream, spoke in hushed whispers about the mysterious Bryant sisters, whose nocturnal activities had provoked speculative gossip from our parents. We played endless games of Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, when my involvement was accepted if I agreed to be the Indian, or the ‘baddie’ and submitted to the inevitable tying to a post to be danced around and jeered at or executed by bow and arrow or firing squad.

A few heads turn as I enter the pub, one or two nodding and murmuring in uneasy recognition. I am known to them nowadays only by association with my father. They are caught in the uncomfortable circumstances that accompany a meeting with the newly bereaved. I order my meal and take my pint to a lone, corner table, allowing them to continue their conversations unburdened by the obligation of sympathy.

While I wait I withdraw the photo and place it on the table. The band members are on a wooden stage flanked by velvet curtains in what looks like the village hall. My father is seated on a stool at an upright piano, to the right of the picture so that his face is only visible in profile, mouth open, his head tilted down, intent on his fingers as they depress the keys; one foot underneath pushing down on a pedal. To the left of the stage his brother Dib sits leaning forward to strum his banjo, a bowler hat perched at a jaunty angle, staring a broad grin into the camera despite the cigarette jutting from the corner of his lips. I guess that the slim, smiling woman in the centre at the microphone, dressed in a neat, dark frock with a lace collar is Doris Lampard. Behind them, less distinct are a guitarist and a drummer.

I am aware of someone standing at my elbow; a stooped, portly, elderly figure leaning on a stick, sharing my view, peering with rheumy eyes at the picture. I recognise him as Arnold Goodridge, one of my father’s friends, although I’m unsure of the connection. Perhaps he’d been a fellow parish council member, or they went to cricket matches together.

“That would have been a Saturday nighter,” he says, gesturing at the photo. “There’s your Dad, on the old Joanna, and your Uncle Dib up front. He was a lad, that Dib!”

The bloodshot eyes are lit with interest as he leans forwards to peer closer. I pull out a chair, inviting him to sit and he accepts my offer of a pint. He squints at the aged image, pinching it by the narrow, white border as he holds it up to the light.

“I know that Doris used to sing,” I tell him, “but who are the other two- the guitarist and the drummer?”

I wait while he examines the scene, his breathing rapid and wheezy, the sound my father’s piano accordion made when he was warming it up. He takes so long to answer his pint arrives and he lifts it to take a long draught before he speaks.

“That there,” he prods the guitarist in the picture with a thick, stubby finger, “is old Ernie Brabrook. He used to have the butchers, up on the Copseway. That’s up the road behind your Dad’s place. And that fellow behind the drums is Dick; Dick Abbott that had the grocers shop. You’ll remember that from when you was a nipper.”

I nod.

“I do remember. Walking past it tonight made me think of when we used to go up there for sweets. I’m afraid we went in more for the thrill than to buy anything. We were terrified of Mrs Abbott so we dared each other to enter.”

The old man smiles his understanding.

“Oh ah! She was a hard woman, Mae Abbott. Bitter, with a wasp sting for a tongue. Weren’t no one missed a tongue lashing from Mae at some point. ‘Course Dick got it the worst. He spent as much time as he could out of her way; he had his grocer’s round in the daytime, doing deliveries, then he’d be out with the band as often as you like, four or five nights a week sometimes. He played in the darts team, too.”

“So Mae didn’t go along to see the band? I suppose if Dick was on stage she’d have no partner for dancing.”

“Mae? No! She weren’t one for dancing. Back when they was first married she had June to look after. She only ever went out on a Sunday, to church, as I recall.”

“June must have been born quite soon after they were married, then.”

He scratches his head, frowning at his glass.

“Things was different then.”

For now the old man has completed his narrative. He drains his pint and hauls himself to his feet as my meal is delivered to the table with enquiries as to whether I’d like any sauces and another drink.

Arnold is shrugging his coat on, turning to leave then he stops to voice a thought.

“I might have one or two of them photos at home, the band and that. I’ll have a look and bring them round, if you’re interested.”

I am. I thank him.

“Arnold, before you go, can you tell me anything about June? Does she still live in the village?”

He grips the chair back as he faces me, his knuckles white, his breath whistling.

“I’d have thought your Dad would have told you. She passed away. Must have been twenty years ago; not that long after Dick, but before Mae. It were a sad business.”

The spiders have retired for the night when I go out to take a last cigarette in the cool air of the yard. This small space, illuminated by a shaft of light from the doorway is cluttered with accumulated rubbish and scruffy with weeds, neglected and unloved, another task to be undertaken before I leave. My father had been devoted to his small garden, growing gaudy dahlias and rows of fat onions, trimming the hedge and tending the pond, now relapsed into a murky, stagnant pool, clogged with choking blanket weed. When my mother died he’d withdrawn to the house, leaving his beloved plants to fend for themselves, as if the garden itself had been responsible for her death. Grief affects people in strange ways, driving them to relinquish lifetime habits and adopt new ones. I think how little I knew him in the later years, my visits short and peremptory and executed from a sense of duty.

I make my way to bed in the tiny, inhospitable guest bedroom, crawling between slippery sheets topped with unaccustomed, heavy layers of blankets and an eiderdown; the bedding a relic from when we were boys, although never in this cramped bungalow designed for retirement. The elderly bed springs creak and protest as I fidget, sleepless with memory. June Abbott; she’d have been in her sixties now. What had happened to her?