Fiction Month: The Courtyard Pest

             A new, two-part  story  begins today. Nancy has moved to be near her daughter but has left her old life behind. How will she adjust? A neighbour is offering support; or is he?

The Courtyard Pest

                  Nancy wakes again. The grey glow of an autumn dawn is seeping between the curtains. This room is still new, shadows in strange places. She pushes the quilt back, eases pale legs over the bedside then pads across the carpet to the en-suite, shaking her head at the incongruity of it. An ‘en-suite’! Imagine!

On the way back she pauses by the window to peer out at her tiny patch of yard, bare except for the wooden bench, a flat-warming gift from Sarah. “What will you do with this courtyard?” her daughter had asked her as they sat on it, only three days ago. Nancy shrugged. “Not sure yet. A few pots. A bird feeder.”

Sarah laughed. “You and your birds!”

But they were company; bird company was easier to come by in a strange town than the human sort.

There is a movement, a flicker in the passageway outside the yard gate, caught in the corner of her eye as she stares. But it is nothing; a moving branch across the faint light. She sighs. It is still only six. She must try to get back to sleep. The days are already too long to fill.

She is washing up her breakfast bowl when the doorbell rings, a shrill unaccustomed sound above the murmur of the radio news programme. A silhouette fills the door’s frosted glass as she fumbles with the key. “Won’t be a minute!” she calls and at last the door yields, revealing Jeffery, from number five. He leans down towards her, eyes protuberant in his florid complexion. “Is the door a bit stiff? I can fix it, if you like.”

She knows her smile is weak. “It’s just new, that’s all; new to me.”

Clad in a beige waistcoat with pockets, he is grasping a canvas shopping bag. “I’m off down the road. Can I get anything for you? Hexton’s bread is marvellous. Shall I get you a loaf? And I’m going to D0-IT-ALL for a few bits this afternoon if you need anything”.

It is only eight. Early, Nancy thinks, to be setting off for the shops. What time does he get up, this neighbour? She has a sense that he must have been waiting until it was an acceptable time to call on her. She shakes her head. “It’s kind of you but I’m going out myself later.”

“Like a lift?” He breaks in. Too fast. She maintains the narrow opening, lifting her chin. “I shall walk. I like to walk. It does me good.”

He takes a step back and she lets out a breath.

“OK. By the way-watch out for rats, won’t you? Some have been seen in the alley at the back. They’re probably from the social housing in the close. Vermin, that’s what they are.” Nancy nods, unsure whether he means the rats or the residents of the housing association development opposite their flats.

He turns with a wave and withdraws, swinging the canvas shopping bag as he plods around the corner.

Later, as she drifts along the unfamiliar High Street Nancy wonders if she should have asked Jeffery to fetch her some compost for her courtyard pots. Has she been a little hard on him? He is only being neighbourly. She did ask Sarah if Danny might be able to take her to the garden centre but they are so busy all the time.

It had been Sarah’s idea for her to move here, to be nearer the family. Nancy was reluctant at first, then attracted by the notion that she might be of some help now that Sarah and Danny were both working full time. She’d thought she might be able to collect the boys from school, help with homework, even make some meals when the parents had to work late. But Sarah pointed out that the boys had little need of childcare and either went to clubs and after school activities or messed about with their friends.

Nancy stops to study a display in the window of ‘Chic Shack’, a small shop selling household items, many of which appear to have been made from driftwood, or been painted and subsequently had patches worn off. She snorts. These are things that wouldn’t have got into a jumble sale in her day.

Since she moved to be near Sarah she’s had no more contact with her and the boys than she did when she was seventy eight miles away. At least then they’d talked on the phone every evening.

Later, when she’s finished clearing up her supper things and is settled in front of the TV the phone rings.

“Will you be in tomorrow evening, Mum? Danny can drop your compost off then. He’ll pick it up on the way home from work”.

Nancy had been looking forward to a morning at the garden centre and had been going to suggest she treat them all to lunch. “It’s very kind, when he’s so busy.”

“It’s nothing. How are you settling in? How are the neighbours?”

“Oh-the couple in the flat above are very nice. They say Good Morning”. She hesitates. Jaqui and David are polite but self-contained and disinterested.

“Anyone else?”

“There’s Jeffery.”

“Is that the man with the wild, grey hair and the county accent?” Sarah met Jeffery when Nancy was moving in. He’d been on the forecourt sweeping up and had introduced himself, shaking their hands and offering assistance. “Has he been a nuisance?”

“No. He’s friendly enough. I’ll see you later.”

“Not me, I’m afraid Mum. Just Danny. I’ve got to collect Lewis from football training.”

Danny arrives with the compost, leaving the engine running while he heaves the bags into the small yard outside her living room and waving a cheerful goodbye as he drives off. Nancy surveys the three bags stacked against the fence. At least she’ll have something to be getting on with tomorrow. She can’t get to the garden centre for spring bulbs but the ‘Supercuts’ shop had some mixed bags on offer outside in a basket. She is about to close the curtains when a face appears above the fence, prompting her to cry out in alarm, hand over her mouth. An arm waves at her. She opens the patio door. Jeffery.

“You’ve got your compost then? Want a hand with the planters tomorrow? I can bring a trowel.”

She sighs. “Alright. Just not too early.”

Nancy’s sleep is restless. In her dreams giant rats stream over the gate, flooding her tiny yard, squeaking at her, hectoring, chastising, although she can’t catch the words. She wakes many times, hears scraping sounds, feels disorientated and sleeps on to an unaccustomed eight o’clock.

She is on the phone when the doorbell rings, chatting to Meg. When she’d heard her friend’s voice she’d visualised her unruly hair and bright lipstick and felt tears pricking her eyes. ‘Yes’ she tells Meg, ‘the move was fine. The flat is perfect. Just what I wanted.’ She doesn’t say it was what Sarah wanted.

“And how have you been, dear? Any more falls?”

Nancy shakes her head then realises Meg can’t see. “No. And I don’t need to use the stick Sarah got me. I’m as steady on my feet as I’ve ever been. I’m not sleeping well, but I suppose it’s just the newness of the place.”

There is a pause.

“We all miss you here, Nancy. ‘The Nettlehide Players’ isn’t the same without you.” The tears are threatening again. “We should arrange a meet up. Shall we? A weekend, even! There’s always the coach-why don’t you come to me? Or I’ll come down if you’ve room. What do you say?”

“I’d like that.”  The bell is ringing. “I have to go, Meg. We’ll arrange it.”

Jeffery is wearing overalls and brandishing a trowel. “I’m not quite ready” she tells him. “You’d better come in. Would you like a cup of coffee?” He takes up all the space in her miniature kitchen, scrutinising the tiny room, unabashed.

“You don’t have much…” he sweeps the trowel around at the walls “…stuff, do you? My place is an Aladdin’s Cave! You must come round.” She brushes past him to get to the kettle before reaching into a cupboard for a small jar of Nescafe. “Could I have tea? I’m not a fan of instant. I grind my own beans. Costa Rican. A friend gets them for me. Have you tried Costa Rican? It’s marvellous!” She replaces the jar and pulls out tea bags. “I’ve got a spare tea pot at mine. Do you want it?” he asks, watching her. She takes the two mugs of tea outside and places them on the wooden seat.

“Where are you having the pots?” Jeffery gestures at the tall, terracotta planters which are dotted about on the paving slabs in what Nancy considers a satisfying, random arrangement. She stares at him.

“They’re staying where they are.” Nancy’s chin lifts a little then she stoops to take the bags of bulbs from under the bench. He shrugs. “I prefer a bit of symmetry myself.”

When Nancy can take no more advice about which bulbs to put where she goes in to make more tea. They sit on the bench to drink it.

“So, Nancy, what did your husband used to do?”

She frowns at the paving slabs by her feet, taking a sip of the tea. “I’m sorry?”

“Your husband. What was his line of work?-if you don’t mind me asking. I was a financial adviser myself. Got it all up here still.” He places a finger on his unruly hair. “If you need any help with investments, that kind of thing, you have only to ask!”

She is silent for a moment, placing the mug on her lap between her hands.

“I’ve never been married”.

“Oh I’m so sorry!” he blurts, drops of tea splashing on to his overalls.  “I’ve been married three times. Had five children. Not that I see much of them of course. They’re spread far and wide. One in Singapore, one in America. I expect they’d contact me if they were in trouble. No news is good news, as they say.”

Nancy stands up and holds out her hand for his cup. “Thanks for helping. I’ll have to leave it there for now, though. I have an appointment after lunch and will need to clear up and get changed.”

 

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About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

The Horrors of Rentrer d’Ecole

My school friend, Paula Booth and I were much taken with everything French. My parents took us camping in the Vendee-a long strip of beach-laden coast devoted almost entirely to camp sites and all things holiday. These days very little has altered there from those sixties summers. Paula and I were earnest students of the French language, revelling in all opportunities to practise the discipline. Opportunities came thick and fast due to my parents’ knowledge of the language being confined to what could be written on the back of un timbre sur un carte postale.

We loved the department stores, spending hours wandering around ‘Monoprix’ or ‘Au Printemps’ searching for small gifts to take home and lusting after the clothes. Back then French clothing was expensive.

But even then one element of the shopping experience was tantamount to torture for us; there would always be large banners plastered over every window bearing the words: ‘Rentrer d’Ecole’. Horrors! No sooner had we escaped into our own summer adventure than we’d be dragged back to reality by this sinister reminder.

Becoming a teacher did little to assuage the ‘back to school’ syndrome. You’d flog your way through the last, painful weeks of the summer term buoyed only by the prospect of the long break. You would manage the last days, despatch the little charges to their disgruntled mamas, pack up everything, recycle the ‘best teacher’ mugs and the scented candles then set off in a haze of exhaustion and euphoria-only to drive past a plethora of shop signs bearing the hated exhortation to purchase the Autumn term’s necessities.

[This is the point that elicits, from those in non-education related occupations a deluge of remarks about ‘easy life’ where the teaching community is concerned. ‘9-3’, ‘part-time job’, ‘nothing but holidays’-yes, yes. My one answer to all of those is ‘why aren’t you doing it, then?’]

And while the ‘taking them out of school’ debate rages on Husband and I are finally able to take advantage of the off-season benefits that others enjoy after careers of being stuck with peak season prices. I’m not launching into a diatribe this time about why children shouldn’t miss school, but it always seemed to me that it was the parents who wanted the Spanish beach or the Disney park. Frankly-most kids like nothing better than messing around in a rocky stream in wellie boots or riding round a camp site in a pack of bikes. Most parents of young children would agree that to be a success, adult and child holidays have to be centred on the children.

So if you want a holiday like you had pre-children your options are a] leave them behind with a doting relation or b] wait until they are grown up.

Since Husband and I are in our dotage we fall into the latter category. Not only can we holiday when we please but also where. Hooray! We are off to Europe!

 

 

 

Boomers’ Bloomers [again]

Baby boomer:    a person born during a baby boom, especially the one in the US or UK between approximately 1945 and 1965: Ageing baby boomers are creating a greater need for healthcare. baby-boomer. adjective [before noun] › The baby-boomer generation is now hitting retirement age.18 May 2016

We ‘boomers’ are in trouble again. Not content with having had free university education, ‘good’ pensions, having the gall to buy properties and now living long enough to be using up all the healthcare budget we have transgressed further. The offence? We have failed to teach our progeny horticultural skills. There! How appalling! We should have been outside in the garden with our new-borns teaching them the difference between bindweed and broccoli instead of idly dandling them on our knees. We should have set our toddlers to weeding, hoeing and tying in the runner beans rather than reading them stories and letting them splash around in paddling pools.

Having been born and raised in the countryside I did actually learn a great deal about gardening at an early age; though not grand or modernised the properties we inhabited were always surrounded by large pieces of garden which my father tended with gusto-perhaps because he came from a family of market gardeners. The fruit and vegetables he grew were more than a supplement to our diet; together with the hens we kept they almost were our diet. Yet we were not coerced into digging and weeding and were left to our own devices, excavating our own plot behind the shed to find buried treasure and taking stray worms down to the hens’ enclosure or trawling the small stream with jam jars on strings. I do remember being interrogated as to why I’d pulled up a cabbage and explaining that it was to see if it was growing, a reply not received with indulgent approval-nevertheless it had been growing.

But I knew about gardening. I knew that you could graft one type of apple tree on to another, that potatoes needed to be earthed up, that you could make compost from garden and vegetable waste. I knew the names of things-vegetables, fruits, flowers and weeds. I also knew the names of trees and wild flowers. At school, with no danger of a ‘national curriculum’ we went on nature walks-a long crocodile of hand-holding pairs strolling the lanes and scrutinising the banks and hedgerows so that we knew which tree conkers grew on [not a conker tree!] and bringing back specimens for the ‘nature table’. I grew up able to identify common birds from plumage and song and to know a number of wild flowers, plants and trees.

Just as a garden itself cannot be made instantly you can’t ‘teach’ gardening. The skills and knowledge develop over time with trial and error and a little research now and again. The best gardens evolve-like the twenty year old patch I’ve grappled with and am about to leave. How will the next garden grow? I look forward to finding out…

 

 

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. Unmanned on a Wednesday-part 1

It’s Fiction Month on Anecdotage. This is the third year I’ve celebrated National Novel Writing Month by posting up a month of stories. Here’s part one of the first story- ‘Unmanned on a Wednesday’- a tale of two women, a launderette and a shirt known to both of them.

Muriel stood outside on the pavement and examined the information on display, mouthing the words: opening hours, the management accepts no responsibility…

Shielding her eyes against reflection, she peered into the gloom, scanning for signs of life, hoping for an efficient counter assistant to relieve her of her bulky bundle; someone who was familiar with the machines and the vagaries of washing one’s dirty linen in public. Inside she could make out a figure, bending to pull open a circular door.

She inhaled, grasped the handle of the bag with one hand and pushed the door with the other, hearing its incongruous jangle as she dragged the holdall in through the entrance to the launderette.

The figure straightened, turned to acknowledge her presence with a smiling ‘Hello’ then continued to feed clothing into the open mouth of the washer, flicking items or turning them inside out.

Muriel looked around. The atmosphere was oppressive with the stifling damp of detergent fumes and hummed with churning dryers and the whirring of front loaders as they went into intermittent, furious spins. She approached an idle machine warily as if it were a stray dog and studied the instructions. It needed some pound coins. She dug into her bag for her purse.

A voice hailed her from the row of chairs opposite.

“There’s a coin dispenser if you need change. It’s on the wall by the service counter.” It was a lilting, youthful voice, the words coloured with a tint of accent.

Muriel turned to face the voice, the young woman having sat down, a dog eared magazine unopened on her lap.

“A coin dispenser?” she replied, “Oh, I see-for pounds to go in the slot. Sorry! You must think I’m an idiot! I’m not used to these places. I thought there would be someone here, to take the laundry and deal with it.”

In the ensuing pause she became aware that she’d spewed out her inadequacy like an over indulgence of champagne.

The seated woman smiled again. She had an elegant, restful face; a long nose above a wide mouth accustomed to laughter.

“It’s unmanned on a Wednesday and in the evenings,” she informed the older woman. “Don’t worry. It’s quite easy when you get the hang of it, as it were.” She grinned, extracting an inadvertent smile from Muriel, who negotiated the change machine, returned to the machine and stuffed as much of the contents of the bag as she could into its gaping aperture.

“They don’t like being overloaded,” cautioned her companion. “It might be better to split the load between two machines.”

Once the two appliances were humming in harmonious tandem Muriel sat down next to her mentor and the two watched the revolving drums in a shared trance.

“You must be a regular at this,” she ventured. “You seem to be an expert.”

The young woman shrugged.  “I’ve no washing machine in my tiny flat. I don’t mind it; in fact I enjoy coming. I get to read the trashy magazines I wouldn’t buy or admit to enjoying.”

“Except for tonight!”

She laughed; a light, infectious laugh.

“Oh no, I didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying some company for a change! I come from a large family back in Ireland so talking is what I’m used to. But what brings you here? Has your home machine broken down?”

Muriel sighed. “The new one can’t be delivered until next week. I may have to visit a second time before it comes. You might have to suffer my company again.”

“I’d like that! What’s your name?”

“Muriel.”

“I’m Niamh.” She put a slender hand out to shake.

They watched the circulating fabrics in silence. Muriel thought it curious how an item would present itself at the front in the spotlight for a few seconds then withdraw to make way for a different article’s display. One of the dryers ground to a halt, prompting Niamh to stand, pull the door open and inspect the progress of its contents. Muriel continued to watch the revolving laundry behind the doors, her attention drawn to an item, the colours of which seemed familiar. Perhaps she had an identical tablecloth or bed linen; a coincidence. The piece of laundry came and went, teasing her in its intermittent exhibition.

Having reinvigorated the dryer with more coins, Niamh returned to sit.

“I see you’re married,” she said. “Do you have children?”

Muriel flushed. Accustomed to her own company or the stilted, polite society of her husband’s associates and their wives she was unused to striking up spontaneous conversations with strangers on subjects of a personal matter. Not for her the inconsequential chatter of the supermarket queue or the doctor’s waiting room. Her groceries were delivered, her healthcare private. But she was both flattered and warmed by this beautiful young woman’s attention and besides, she’d brought nothing to do or to read, not having considered she would have to undertake the task of washing the laundry herself.

She nodded. “I do, though they’ve flown the nest. The youngest is at university.”

“So you’ve more time to spend with your husband now, is that it?”

The older woman raised her eyebrows. “You would think so, but no. My husband spends more time at work since the children grew up and left; late evenings and overnight to different cities, for training sessions, he says. So I’m on my own most of the time.”

“This is a night out for you then!”

Infected by her familiarity, Muriel felt emboldened.

“You are not married yourself?”

She hesitated. “No. I am kind of seeing someone though.”

“Kind of?”

Check in next week for Part 2-the conclusion

Fledglings, Families and Feelings

Parenthood is an expensive, glorious, heart-breaking, exhausting, rewarding, demoralising, satisfying and confusing state. There is the fever of anticipation [whether planned or not], the anxiety, the draining tiredness, the anxiety, the frustrations, the pleasures and the…yes…anxiety. And then just when you think you have safely despatched your duty, done your best, got them to fledge, downsized, bought the yacht, booked the world tour, had a lie-in,the inevitable happens-they return!

There is no model for this in nature-although I believe female elephants stay in their families [the boys must go and fend for themselves and prepare for fighting and finding mates]. Baby birds do not return to their nests when they are unable to find worms for themselves, young lions must go out and seek their own gazelle to slaughter and sheep may safely graze unaided once weaned.

The returning, grown-up offspring is a double edged sword. You can no longer gripe about never hearing from them or seeing them. On the other hand you must reclaim the room they once slept in, played and made a mess of, which may now be a beautiful guest room, study, motorbike disassembly workshop, dressing room or pottery studio [or simply a repository for all the items you have no idea what to do with]. You may no longer choose to loll around on the sofa with a bowl of cornflakes and watch ‘Eastenders’ rather than making dinner. You cannot slouch about upstairs ‘au natural’ as the unedifying sight of your [=my] ageing physique is likely to be frightening, and/or sick-making at the very least.

If you are lucky enough to possess multiple rooms with TVs you can avoid conflicts over programmes, although you still can expect scoffing over your choices and disbelief over your ignorance on the subject of films/actors/music from any time from the last twenty years [or more].

There will also be stashes of the kind of snacks you had sought to avoid since children no longer shared your house. You open the fridge and the shelves are stacked with chocolate. The cupboards house multi-packs of Cheesy What-nots or Monster Crunch.

Over time you adapt. You squidge up. You make room on the sofa, in the wardrobe and at the table. You increase your grocery shopping, attempt to avoid the chocolate and try to remember who is the current Dr Who. You begin to appreciate the benefits of having an on-site computer technician who can reclaim lost documents, eradicate malevolent, lurking viruses and show you for the hundredth time how to play your music, not to mention the opportunities to gossip about other members of the family and take girly shopping trips with intermittent coffee and cake.

One day, though it is ended. That’s it. You’ve removed the stabiliser wheels and let go of the saddle.  The room is cleared, cleaned of belongings and fluff; reverted into its original ‘guest room’ status. Bare, clean and sad.