Harry Styles and the Gaping Well of Ignorance-

On the way up the road to watch the film, ‘Dunkirk’ we bumped into a friend and neighbour. We couldn’t stop to chat, we told him, as we’d got tickets to the film. ‘Look out for Harry Styles’ he advised us as we walked on. Harry Styles? ‘I wouldn’t know Harry Styles if he jumped put and bit me on the bottom’ I called back over my shoulder. And it is true, I wouldn’t. Oh I’ve heard his name-I’d have even hazarded a guess that he’d been in a boy-band. Further than that I’d have no more clue than about who’d first split the atom. Besides-I did not choose to see ‘Dunkirk’ because of who was starring in it.

We watched the film in our local, somewhat low-tech, volunteer-run, theatre, where they just about stop short of serving teas in the interval. While the adverts were on [and what Husband likes to show his age by calling ‘Pathe news’] there was a commotion in the row in front of us caused by not one, but two couples sitting in the wrong seats, the turmoil ensuing when the legitimate seat-holders arrived. The second couple further entertained us by producing their tickets and discovering they had seats for the following Friday. What a humiliating exit!

                The film was marred for me by inattention to detail where Dunkirk seafront was concerned. I’m fairly sure those sixties-style apartment blocks did not exist when the troops were being evacuated from the beaches. But I was grateful we were spared the sort of gory exposure of body parts that ‘Saving Private Ryan’ had in abundance. About half way through the action Husband nudged me to hiss ‘that is Harry Styles’, though I was little the wiser for this, the character and the actor unremarkable and undistinguishable from the other young men in the movie. I was able to identify wonderful Mark Rylance, even though I’d no idea he was in the film. Towards the end, [and I’m sure it isn’t a spoiler to tell you], when two of the survivors were on the train home getting feted as heroes I whispered to Husband that you could tell they were back in Blighty because the sun was shining, prompting him to snort loudly in the hushed auditorium.

Now we are in the South of France and the enigmatic Harry Styles has reared his bland, barely identifiable head once more, having been in a video on a screen in a bar in Frontignan. ‘Look’ said Husband, ‘It’s Harry Styles’. Harry was flying in the sky somewhere, singing. Husband seems to be au fe about contemporary culture, whilst when I try to conjure up a list of those I would recognise I can come up with no more than four or five. ‘I think I’d recognise Justin Bieber’, I say-but wasn’t there another Justin a while ago? With a name like Timberland [a boot manufacturer].

In the end it’s no use attempting to keep up, because Harry, Justin and all the rest will have been superseded in no time by the next wave of ‘stars’. What is an old granny to do? Ignore it!

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What’s in a Name?

Giving someone a name is a weighty responsibility. Parents-to-be could do worse than wile away the months of waiting by pondering which names will give their new arrival the best start in life. They should take care. It may be tempting to follow trends or get carried away with the idea of using the name of your favourite footballer, actor or rap artist; the allure of an invented name may be strong, or perhaps the use of an iconic place, weather condition or season. Research however suggests that names carry a heavy influence in the lottery of life’s successes and failures. Want your child to attend a prestigious university? Name your son James or Simon, your daughter, Eleanor.

A fiction writer building up a character can convey a great deal in the selection of their name. Gender, age, social class and nationality can all be carried in this one word. Hilda, Ivy, Albert or Fred? You know which generation they are from. Gillian, Susan, Peter or Colin? You know these too, although of course some names ‘come back’ into fashion [‘Alfie’ and ‘Stanley’ are two of these].

Teachers who become parents have a more difficult task in naming their offspring. The pool of possibilities will be shallower, since most names will carry connotations. The classrooms of my past are littered with negative memories of ‘Jasons’, ‘Waynes’, ‘Sharons’ and ‘Traceys’. For some mysterious reason, as soon as I went public with my firstborn’s name, proud of having selected something neither outlandish nor too ubiquitous, there was an explosion of the name-the hospital nursery bursting at the seams with them so that my son was destined always to share his name with thousands across his peer group.

Teachers are also used to bearing witness to parents’ inabilities in the field of spelling. Many children begin school [and life] saddled with an eccentric and misspelt name. Parents-bear in mind that your child’s teacher will have to begin the school year by compiling numerous class lists for a wide variety of purposes. If you furnish your little one with a long, hyphenated and complicated moniker this is going to be both time consuming and aggravating for their teacher, especially coupled with double-barrelled surnames, which consistently fail to fit into any sort of grid.

I loved the recent story of the research ship that was the subject of an on line competition to find a name. One wag’s suggestion of ‘Boaty McBoatface’, though not meant to be taken seriously became a clear favourite and attracted more than 18,000 votes, an endorsement that serves to show the British sense of humour is alive and kicking, even if the instigators of the competition are intending to overrule the choice.

 

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?

Fiction Month 2015. Unmanned on a Wednesday. Part 2

Strangers Muriel and Niamh are bonding in the launderette-and Muriel finds they have more in common than an article of clothing…

[Part 1 of this story can be found in the previous post]

She gazed into the gyrating turmoil of clothes. “It’s complicated.”

“You mean he’s married.”

Muriel stared at the circulating washing. She realised now what the familiar item was. She was sure it was a shirt; one that her husband used to wear, but hadn’t for some time. She could remember where he’d bought it, when they’d been on holiday in Italy. It was an expensive, designer shirt; flamboyant, the colours an unusual mix of purple, red and cream, the design vivid and abstract like a Picasso painting.

A machine to the right of them jolted into an angry whirl as it prepared for its rinse cycle. Muriel continued to gaze into the enigmatic circle where the mingling colours jostled for prominence.

“I’m not shocked,” she said, once the raging machine had settled for a quiet, resentful simmer, “but it makes me sad. I’m guessing he’s an older man? I’d say you were too good for him, too young and lovely to waste your life on him.” She hauled her eyes away from the washer, from which a trickling sound issued.

Niamh drew out a tissue from her sleeve and blew her nose. “I don’t know why I’m opening up to you like this. I’ve not told anyone else. You must be easier to talk to than most people. I would never be able to confide in my mother like I’m confessing to you. Can we chat again next time you come? We could go for a coffee or something.”

Muriel was silent, contemplating the revolving drum. It turned this way and that as if undecided. The younger woman stood abruptly and began pulling articles from the dryer, which had churned to a grumbling halt. The Italian shirt tumbled out into a pale blue, plastic basket, pock marked with cigarette burns. She had her back to Muriel, speaking harshly into the cavernous cylinder.

“I’ve been too personal, haven’t I? I’m always like this with people; not reserved enough, nattering like we’ve known each other for years. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry. Say something. Please.”

She turned around. She had the shirt in her hand. Muriel nodded at it. “I see you don’t send his washing home for his wife to do.”

Niamh held the hot garment against her cheek as if the spirit of her lover was bound within its vibrant folds. “I love to do things for him,” she said. “I pretend I’m married to him. I spend hours finding new recipes to cook for him. I like to open the wardrobe and see some of his clothes hanging next to mine. That way I’ve got some small part of him when he’s not with me.” Facing the dryer as she closed the door, she missed the fleeting look of weary scorn that passed over Muriel’s face. A stab of cruelty thrust out, threatening to pierce the friendly bubble of shared confidences.

“He won’t leave his wife, you know. They never do.”

“He is going to leave. He’s waiting for the right time to tell her. He’s sensitive to her needs. I love that about him.”

She was folding garments now and placing them into a rectangular laundry bag. There was a brisk manner to the way she was pushing the clothes into the bag, as if she could press her conviction into the still warm fabrics.

“I wonder if he knows what her needs are.”

“She’s been occupied looking after the children all these years and now they’re growing up and leaving-like yours are. He has to wait for her to find a new direction in her life; something to fill the void her children have left. You must know how that feels. How have you coped with the extra time on your hands?”

Muriel smiled an enigmatic, knowing smirk. “Oh I like to travel. I’m always planning the next holiday and preparing for it. I like comfortable hotels in beautiful locations with wonderful, scenic views. I enjoy eating in expensive restaurants, shopping in exclusive stores and finding exquisite, original art works.”

She paused to observe the effect her words were having.

Niamh stared, transfixed as she listened then nodded, grinning, her creamy skin pink with enthusiasm. “My man is well travelled. He’s going to take me on exotic trips once he’s free.”

She lifted the strap of her leather satchel over her head and gripped the handle of the chequered bag. She looked at Muriel.

“Shall I see you at the same time next week?”

“It’s possible.”

“Go on, you know you want to! I can give you an update on progress. I’m seeing him tomorrow night. He might have told her by then! Bye for now!”

She pulled open the door and stepped out, leaving the bell jangling. Muriel watched as she crossed the road, negotiating the passing traffic, tossing her head to rid the glossy, dark fringe from her eyes. Then she disappeared round a corner. Although the two machines had stopped, Muriel continued to sit in the silent laundrette. Outside the light was beginning to fade and glare from the headlights of passing vehicles cast intermittent flashes into the scruffy room.

It would soon be time to start packing, she thought, wondering what she would need this time.

She was jerked from her thoughts by the strident ring of her phone.

“Ah, I’ve got you. Where are you, Mu? I got home hours ago!”

“I had to come to one of those laundry places. The new washer won’t be delivered until next week.”

“Good God, Mu! Don’t these places collect and deliver or something?”

His voice crackled. “Anyway, never mind that now. I’ve found us some flights to Geneva. Thought we’d do the Swiss lakes. Fancy it? The flights are on Friday morning. I’ve just got a meeting tomorrow night to tie up some loose ends then I’ll be free.”

Muriel stood, pocketing the phone, savouring the anticipation. Last time they’d stayed at the Grand Hotel Kempinski on the lake. Their room had overlooked the Jet d’eau fountain. She would have to contact an ironing service in the morning, one that could do a rush job. She could spend tomorrow evening researching excursions and places to eat.

She crammed her laundry items into the holdall in an unceremonious bunch, stuffing recalcitrant clothes down into the corners, heedless of the creases that would form as they dried. When the zip gaped in an obstinate refusal to close over the bulging, newly laundered items she capitulated and grasped the handles, leaving it open in her haste to be away. She pulled the door, hearing its accompanying clank for the last time as she tugged the bag through to the outside. Trudging past the window she glanced back in at the stark, Spartan room, the plastic chairs and the worn lino and exhaled a profound, heartfelt sigh of relief.