2016? Sleep on it…

Christmas-yes it’s lovely, yes it’s festive. There is a warm, fuzzy glow everywhere-in the shops, in the pubs, in the cafes, along the streets and in the homes. We decorate, we shop, we cook. We send cards and receive them, exclaim over seldom contacted friends’ messages, speak to long-distance relatives. We deck the halls. We peel, chop and baste. We make table decorations, lay out crackers, pass things around, pour drinks, make toasts, watch the Queen/don’t watch the Queen,  play games, hand out gifts, open gifts, watch TV’s lack-lustre, festive offerings, crash out, wake, get up and begin again.

We eat too much, drink too much, feel bloated. In the mornings there is a swathe of last night’s glasses bearing dregs, demanding to be washed; and chocolate wrappers festooning the surfaces along with crumbs and pieces of nut shell. The dishwasher groans as you heave open its door, its bulging contents demanding to be dispersed.

I look forward to Christmas as much as the next person, preparing and anticipating but then when it comes all I really want is for it to be over. It belongs to children, this winter celebration with its pretence of magic and if you’ve access to a small child there is pleasure to be got from their enjoyment-otherwise there is a tendency towards anti-climax.

Nobody should wish their life away, especially when what remains is dwindling but 2016 needs to be behind us. It has been the year the world turned grim, forgetting any lessons history should have taught and returning instead to crude, emotions-led political decisions, territorial feuds and downright bestiality.

I’ve said before that I don’t do resolutions but planet earth needs to do some. There is an alarming deficiency of concern over climate change as we are about to be plunged back into over-reliance on fossil fuels. Genocide and brutality abound within and outside of conflict zones and how on earth is any of this to be tackled if we exacerbate hostility to foreigners and visitors by cutting ourselves off?

Though not a fan of cold weather I’m feeling introspective at this, the dormant part of the year. Yesterday the frost painted a stunning picture of a tree on our bedroom window, reminding me that there is still a lot to love about the world around us if we choose to preserve it. In winter nature reins in, hibernates, repairs and prepares. We should do the same, appreciate and cherish what matters the most. So I’m not going to feel guilty for spending time doing very little; for watching the garden birds or staring at a view or sitting quietly and thinking-because it’s just me doing what the season dictates and having a dormant spell until spring rushes in and stirs everything up!

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Happy New Year, Anecdotage readers-here’s to better things in 2017!

 

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Christmas is not for Life-it’s just for Christmas.

Christmas is almost upon us again, returning with almost indecent speed. With a couple of weeks to go I’ve begun to turn my attention towards gathering up some gifts and writing some cards.

As I stood at a till yesterday the cheerful sales assistant enquired as to whether this was the end of my Christmas shopping quest [we were waiting for the card issuer’s response]. It made me smile. “No!” I told him. “This is my first go.” His eyebrows shot up. “I did all of mine in September. I’ve followed my mum’s example. She always begins in January and does it all throughout the year.”   I explained that in September I would just be going off on holiday and still in summer mode but his behaviour is not unusual. What kind of lives do people lead, that their entire year from January is devoted to preparing for the one day that is Christmas?

Husband is at the other end of the extreme, proclaiming each year that he will begin on Christmas Eve and reminding me of the time-honoured male boast that ‘the garage will be open late the night before’.

Christmas, however is changing. It takes on elements of other cultures and evolves like other celebrations and festivals. In my childhood my mother made Christmas puddings months in advance to allow the flavours to develop and we undertook the magic ‘stir-up’ process of making a wish. I am sorry to say that I haven’t perpetuated this tradition due to the fact that none of our progeny can stand the sight or smell of Christmas pudding. The same applies to mince pies and Christmas cake. Having been brought up in a similar way, Husband and I are more partial to these treats than is good for us, so I’ll be purchasing a tiny, delicious pudding for us to share and some chocolatey, indulgent desert for the next generation. I will, however be making some mince pies because it is an activity and an outcome that I cannot resist.

As a child Christmases followed a routine-from the arrival of one or other maiden aunt to the strict recording of who’d given what [in preparation for the hated ‘thank-you’ letters]; from the division into three of the pound or ten shilling notes [a tricky business] given by aunts and uncles to the round of Boxing Day visits and evening party games. If we’d seen Santa Claus it would have been in a department store with a sparkly grotto.

We woke on the morning to feel the weight of a crackly, knobbly, woolly sock filled with the expected items [a tangerine, a sixpence] and some unexpected ones. I can still remember the excitement of finding a hardback copy of ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe’ next to my stocking, the gift I had longed for more than anything on earth.

Christmas is no less exciting for small people these days but I do wish it didn’t have to start cranking up in September!

 

Fiction Month 2016.

This week marks the start of Fiction Month on Anecdotage. In this first, dark story two very different daughters attend a celebration of their father’s life-only to find that his young widow is absent. But where on Earth can she be?

The Crackling Feast [Part 1]

                Who are all these people? Alex squints into the still bright glare of the late afternoon sun as she tries to identify someone-anyone amongst the chattering guests. She watches them standing around on the paths and the lawn, glasses in hand, appearing and disappearing in the intermittent billowing smoke. This disconnect must come from living at the opposite end of the country and having become an infrequent visitor.

“He knew a lot of folks, your dad. He was involved in everything, you know; amateur dramatics, music society, history society, Scouts, gardening club, church council…”

“I know.” She cuts him off. It is Reg, her father’s old scouting friend. He is bent and frail, the hand enclosing his supporting cane wrinkled and liver spotted. His voice has grown tremulous.

“He was generous with his time and his money. Look at all this! Even at the end he made sure that everyone he knew could have a get together and have a good time. But Jacintha’s not here. I find that odd, don’t you? Do you know why she chose not to attend?”

Alex turns from the photos she’s been inspecting, the visual archive of her father’s life. She’s in some of them, a grinning toddler wielding a beach bucket or sitting squarely with a large dog. There’s one of them all together; she and Christina, their mother and father, posed against a backdrop of the Houses of Parliament.

“No. I’ve no idea why she isn’t here, Reg. Have you asked the solicitor?”

The old man shakes his head, shuffling away towards the bar and muttering. “It’s not my place to pry.”

Now her sister is making her way across the grass, clutching her wine glass, wrinkling her nose as a drift of smoke engulfs her. “Darling!” she drawls, kissing Alex on the cheek. “Good God-was that us?” She bends towards the photo, a slender vision of elegance in pale green shot silk. “Whose idea was it to have this ghastly hog thing? It’ll make everyone’s clothes smell like a bloody bonfire, not to mention greasy drips all over everything. I can’t believe Jacintha allowed it; she being such a rampant vegan and all that other hippy stuff.”

“Jacintha’s not here.”

“No, she isn’t, is she? There might be a God after all.”

Alex raises a brow at her sister. “She made Dad happy, Chrissie and looked after him when his health failed. You surely didn’t begrudge him some happiness in his last years.”

Christina straightens and takes a sip of dry, white wine. “I don’t begrudge him getting a wife younger than us. I do begrudge her taking our inheritance. I don’t know about you, darling but I could just do with a few grand at the moment.”

Alex sighs. “Divorce is expensive, you know that better than most.”

Her sister’s impudent grin is accentuated by the jaunty hat perched on the salon-perfect highlighted hair. “It is an essential, darling, not a luxury. Have you met Simon yet?”

Alex frowns. She must mean Simon Patterson, their father’s solicitor. How is Chrissie already on first name terms? Feeling an urge to escape the sibling she cannot relate to she leaves her with the photographs and wanders out towards the source of the smoke, where a rectangular metal box like a coffin revolves over a nest of coals. Here, intense heat has not deterred a throng of spectators all fascinated by the revolving steel casket. Upon each revolution an oblong window reveals a glimpse into the interior, where the russet skin has already wrinkled and cracked in glistening rivulets of fat, a plump carcass sizzling and spitting on its long skewer. The watchers murmur together in a shared commentary of greedy anticipation and disgust. “Mmm-smells wonderful, doesn’t it?” “How long until it’s ready?” “Not sure if I fancy it now”.

Alex stares, fascinated as the window comes around. Whatever body part is visible has not burnt enough to obliterate a dark blue shape like a stamp.

She leaves them to their ghoulish observations and returns to the house; the home that they grew up in, now customised by Jacintha’s enormous paintings, batiks, weavings, appliqués, pots, sculptures and installations. She’d been nothing if not prolific in her output, filling every wall, alcove, shelf, nook and cranny with her creations, eradicating every vestige of their mother in a sustained and vigorous onslaught; elimination by pottery. Alex climbs the stairs.  From the landing window she can see the carvery taking place below on a trestle table which is also laden with bread rolls, paper plates, bowls of salad and plastic boxes of apple sauce

In their marital bedroom she opens the door to an immense old oak wardrobe in which the profusion of Jacintha’s hand-dyed flowing skirts, shawls and dresses is barely contained and wonders where her father kept his clothes? A musty scent emanates from the clothing-faded perfume overlaid with hints of her skin. She’d been into anything alternative and believed that a rigorous regime of personal hygiene destroyed the body’s natural oils. Alex can remember the shock she and Chrissie had experienced on meeting her, almost ten years ago now. They hadn’t been prepared for their father to begin a new relationship, still less with a pierced, tattooed, dreadlocked artist wearing rainbow harem pants.

She is startled by her sister’s voice calling upstairs and returns to the landing to look down.

“There she is! We were looking for you darling! Come down and meet Simon.”

Alex makes a slow descent to shake the hand of a tall, angular man standing by her sister. He is a man who is accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle, judging by the sweep of his grey hair and his casual but expensive clothes. A pale blue cotton sweater is slung around his shoulders and his feet are bare inside designer deck shoes. “I own a classy yacht” the clothes say and the deep, tanned skin is a clue to where he sails it.

“I’m delighted to meet you”, he tells her, his voice deep, rich and aristocratic. Chrissie is wearing an expression Alex has seen before on too many occasions, like a child with the run of a sweet shop. “Come on Alex. Let’s all go and get some food. We should sit down or we won’t get a table. The firm that supplies these hog roasts is something else, you know. All their carcasses bear a trade mark. I saw it come in on the truck, proudly displaying a shield in blue ink on its rear end.”

She follows the two of them outside and over to the counter, where a queue has formed for rolls stuffed with hot, greasy pork, crisp crackling and sweet apple sauce. Next to them in the line a woman is also explaining to her companion that each hog carcass is etched with a code in some kind of hieroglyphics detailing the heritage of the pig, its lineage and place of birth. “It seems almost indecent, doesn’t it?” she laughs. “As if we were eating someone we’ve been introduced to!” Her friend is chuckling and Alex feels a slight nausea at the idea of the greasy meat topped with crisp, bubbly crackling. Ahead of her she can see Chrissie and Simon sharing a joke or an intimacy, her head tilted up towards his, her lips parted in a smile. The familiarity of this scene makes her weary. She breaks free of the queue and walks down to the end of the lawn to sit on a bench in the shade.

Read Part 2 of ‘The Crackling Feast’, the conclusion, next Sunday- 

Celebrating a Long and Well Lived Life

There is no other life event that compares to a funeral. You expect weddings to be picture book pretty, baby-naming to be joyful, divorce to be bitter and embattled, but a funeral can be any or all of these things and more besides, depending on your relationship to the deceased.

Last week I went to my cousin, Gordon’s funeral. He’d reached the grand age of 92 and was the son of my eldest uncle. Like many families of the age, my father’s family was and is an enormous, village tribe consisting of so many branches I’ve lost track of who everyone is and how they are related to me. Being the youngest of seven my father was uncle to Gordon at an almost identical age, prompting my grandfather [who died before my birth] to use ‘Uncle’ as his nickname.

Gordon’s funeral was held at the church in the village of my birth, a tiny, country church in a beautiful, picturesque setting, bathed in the glow of the May sunshine. The small building was packed, as it was for my father’s funeral five years before. My brother and I were directed towards the front pews. Would we know anyone? We are from the family that ‘got away’-my father having left the village with us to take up employment in another part of the country, hence contact with the many aunts, uncles and cousins has been sporadic and increasingly rare.

We made our way up the aisle, aware that curious looks were pursuing us. The lack of familiarity was mutual. I stopped by the first pew with some space. The occupants turned their faces to me, the fleeting blankness eclipsed by impulsive wide grins of recognition. These are two of my best remembered cousins; my recollections of them ingrained as glamorous, fifties belles in stiff, circular skirts, heels and beehive hairdos. They stood to hug us as we all exclaimed our pleasure at meeting.

Of my grandfather’s four sons, my father was alone in pursuing a career away from greengrocery, and Gordon had continued the fruit and vegetable business his father [Edgar] ran. His coffin was born past us adorned with a riotous profusion of flowers, fruit and vegetables, including bright bunches of carrots, vibrant spears of broccoli and large, emerald cabbage leaves. What more life-affirming sight could there be than a mountain of freshly picked plants?

I have attended a variety of funerals during my life; some consisting of no more than six attendees, sad affairs that make you glad, at least that the deceased was not present to witness such a poor turnout. Gordon was a gentle, amenable man, affording to everyone he met the same smiling courtesy and kindness and nobody would have been more proud and delighted to have seen the crammed church, the smiles of recognition and the pleasure we all took in re-acquaintance.

Hymns sung and thoughts sent, we all gathered in the village community centre for tea, cake and recollection.

For those closest to Gordon it was of course an unutterably sad event but there must be an element of comfort to be gained from reflecting on what turned out to be a cheerful and celebratory occasion.

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 4]

It is 11.52pm when they pull in to the entrance to the lane leading to ‘The Orchard’.

“I’m going to have to leave the car here, sir. I don’t want to be going up there and not be able to maneuver or turn the rig round.”

“No problem! We can sort it out tomorrow. As I said, Rob will know what to do.”

Once the offending car has been detached from the truck the AA man is as eager for departure as Brian is for merriment. Brian pumps his hand, more in a desire for him to disappear than in gratitude, staying only briefly to wave as the truck rumbles away. Having stuffed his pajamas back into the overnight bag he sets off round the bend towards ‘The Orchard’.

It has stopped snowing. Against the inky sky there is the silhouette of a house, but as yet no sound or hint of light. He walks on to find a gate, more easily visible now that his eyes are accustomed to darkness, unlatches it and continues up a path to the front door. He stops to listen, straining to hear a hint of music or a voice, gazing at the windows for some chink of light, any sign of activity or, as a frisson of anxiety begins to insinuate itself, an indication of occupation. There is a small click. Brian is instantly illuminated by the security light, setting off a tirade of furious yapping from the bowels of the house. ‘Strange’, he muses ‘that they never mentioned owning a dog’. He procrastinates on the doorstep in a doldrum of indecision. It is clear even to him that there is no party taking place. The unnerving idea that this may be the wrong house fills him with dread, since he has waved off the kindly AA man to whom he’d exaggerated the description of his acquaintances as ‘almost family’. It is now twelve twenty one am and he is freezing.

Faced with the choice of once more donning his pajamas and towel and sleeping on the back seat of his car or rousing the inhabitants of this house, whoever they may be, Brian opts for throwing himself on the mercy of the householders even if they are strangers. At the sound of the doorbell the yapping acquires new vigor and he feels both anxious and relieved as an interior light is switched on and he hears a muffled voice. There is a momentary hiatus while locks and chain are undone then the door is opened a little to reveal part of a pajama-clad body topped by a pale, wary face. The face speaks.

“Yes?”

Brian feels weak with gratitude to some unformulated source that it is Rob who has answered the door, albeit not the party-animal Rob he’d envisioned; the ‘life-and-soul’ Rob of the pistes. Nevertheless this suspicious, guarded individual is recognizable as Rob.

“Hello Rob. Happy New Year!”

He proffers the half bottle of wine, affecting a merry grin in the hope that his teeth are not chattering too much. The distrustful figure in the doorway peers further out at him, blinking until recognition dawns.

“Oh it’s um..”

“Brian. From skiing! You know. Last February”

“Brian. Yes. Brian. From skiing.”

There is an interval during which Brian lowers the wine bottle to his side and Rob continues to stand in the small gap he has allowed between the door and the frame and contemplate the visitor. Somewhere in the background the yapping continues apace.

“What did you want Brian?”

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 3]

Thumping! Brian starts awake, wild eyed, dropping the wine bottle into his overnight bag, an intense, dazzling light in his face and an urgent thumping on the window. ‘Just a minute!’ he tries to shout, managing a feeble croak. He fumbles with frozen fingers to open the rear door which eventually opens with a gasping crack, having been yanked from the outside. A large, unearthly figure swathed in black is bending in to scrutinize him, playing a flashlight over the interior of the car. For a fleeting, delirious moment Brian believes he has expired; that this horrific apparition has materialized in the afterlife to exact retribution for his earthly sins.

“Good evening sir. Are you alright?”

Speechless, Brian feels an ignominious, hot welling of tears behind his eyes as he struggles to get a grip on his emotions at being found. Minutes later he is sitting in the police land rover clutching a hot cup of tea while the officer calls the AA number he has given him.

“Rescue vehicle is on its way sir,” the policeman tells him. The dashboard clock is showing 10.48pm. Flooded with a surge of optimism, Brian grasps that he has not missed the entire party, because it is a New Year’s celebration, and the nature of New Year’s parties is to extend up to, and indeed well beyond midnight. He pictures himself arriving at Rob and Shelley’s, hearing raucous laughter and the thudding beat of loud music, windows all lit and pulsating figures gyrating within. He will apologize for his lateness, explain his predicament, present the remnants of the wine, be hailed as a hero, exclaimed over, pressed with drinks and nibbles, surrounded by sympathetic, admiring women.

Whilst it takes longer than Brian has anticipated for the AA man to attach the defective car to the breakdown truck he calculates that he will still get to the party in plenty of time.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go home sir? You won’t be the only person not attending, I’m sure, then there’s the car. You’ll have that to deal with. How will you get it back?”

“No! These friends of mine, they’re almost family! They’ll be disappointed if I don’t turn up, and Rob’ll help with the car tomorrow. He knows loads about electrics.”

“How about calling them, though, sir? Just to be sure?”

“I doubt if they’d hear it!” Brian chuckles. “No, let’s just carry on and get there. It’ll be fine.”

They lapse into a silence burdened with the AA man’s skepticism.

Seasonal Tales

                It feels lucky to live in a country that has four seasons; or at least, for the majority of my life there has been a spring, summer, autumn and winter. I have also been lucky enough to have lived most of my life in places where the waxing and waning of the seasons could be clearly seen and experienced.

                One of my early memories of the tiny, village school I attended is the Halloween party we’d have. There would be a tin bath of apples in water for us to try ‘bobbing’ for and iced buns on strings we’d have to eat without using hands, games like ‘Blind Man’ Buff’ and ‘Squeak Piggy Squeak’. At the end of the day our headteacher, a stern, formidable woman, would read us an abridged version of the Scottish story of Tam O’Shanter, from an epic poem by Robert Burns, which tells of a drunken man who spies on partying witches on All Hallows’ Eve and is pursued by them. Even once I knew the ending it never failed to induce a delicious terror as Tam rode furiously towards the river to attempt to shake off the witches and his poor mare got her tail pulled off.

                Nowadays Halloween has been hijacked by the American custom of ‘trick or treat’, a pursuit we knew nothing of as children. The shops are packed with elaborate costumes ranging from pumpkin to Dracula, from devil to zombie. I have even spotted a first, newborn-sized all-in-one suit decorated with a skeleton and tried to imagine who might buy such a garment.

                We live on a street with few young families and rarely get mugged on our own doorstep for ‘treats’. I do, however take a dim view of the entire operation. It is not a British tradition. It is begging. If the tots are accompanied by their parents the parents should know better. If they are not, the parents should be prosecuted for neglect. This may seem a humbug attitude to those for whom a traditional, British experience of the seasons is unknown but I am unapologetic. The year’s milestones and celebrations should be simple, grass roots affairs, not monopolized by gift shops or inundated with marketing opportunities.

                Thankfully, although fireworks have become as ubiquitous as talent shows, our very own, English November 5th revelries are as yet little known in the wide world. A few years ago I happened to be returning by plane at night from a trip away and as the plane began to make its descent over London a rash of colourful explosions spread over the sky below us, prompting fellow passengers to exclaim in surprise. Of course they know nothing of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot and I’m sorry to say I felt a little smug, despite not having celebrated bonfire night for many years. At least this is one celebration we can still call our own!