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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Parents-All you need is Love

Facebook has a lot to answer for. Worst at this time of year, there is a deluge of those brief [or lengthy] homilies paying tribute to loved ones, alive or deceased, although more often deceased. I’m not knocking this. If such tributes help the bereaved to feel better that is fine by me. You have to assume that folks posting up these ready-made eulogies had/have close relationships with their parent/offspring/best friend and now they miss them. Fair enough.

I can’t help feeling curious, however about the composers of these tracts. Are they paid to write them? Or do they sit at their computers thinking up heart-tugging sayings and finding photographs of misty sunsets to accompany their writings out of the goodness of their hearts? Are they, perhaps cast-offs from greetings card manufacturers who’ve gone out of business now that paper is turning to digital?

Anyway, it is good to find that parent/child relationships are strong enough for such offerings to be utilised on a regular basis. Myself, as an adult I had an uneasy relationship with my parents, whose disapproval of some of my lifestyle choices eclipsed the affections they held when I was younger. This was sad but had the beneficial effect of teaching me a strong lesson regarding my own offspring, whose choices, whatever I may think, are their own.

Last week America had its own taste of terrorism when a couple who’d become radicalised went on a shooting spree, gunning down fourteen innocent workers at a disability centre in San Bernardino. Sadly these incidents no longer surprise or even shock us in the way that ‘9/11’ did. They have become all too common, all too frequent. The attack was, of course devastating and horrific for the injured and the bereaved, as well as those who had the unenviable task of dealing with it all.

But amongst the horrifying, stupid destruction of life, one overwhelming, distressing issue stood out for me. They idiotic, foolish perpetrators of this horror were not only a married couple, they also had a tiny, helpless six-month-old baby daughter. Film of their apartment shows the interior filled with baby items; toys, soft animals, a cot, tins of baby milk. They did not mistreat the infant. She was not abandoned. She was well cared for. She must have been loved. They took her to family members and left her in their care. Then they gathered their arsenal of weapons and went off to kill as many fellow humans as they could before getting themselves executed.

Someone has to care for and bring up their child. One day she will want to know who her parents were. She will want to know how they died and why; the truth. This is her legacy. This is what her mother left her, the fact that she so loathed her fellow human beings she wanted to kill them. This was a human mother without even as much instinctive love for her baby as a wild animal, and this is what I find the hardest to understand or accept.

Fiction Month 2014

It is November. Welcome to Fiction Month on Anecdotage. This week’s post features Part 1 of ‘The Woman from the Baker’s’, a short story from my portfolio. Any critique or comments will be most gratefully received, although it is my hope that readers will follow through to the denouement!
Margaret from the Baker’s
I was even later than usual last night. I take my time getting home, dawdling, unlike setting out in the mornings, when I rush off like a rat up a drainpipe, to use one of dad’s expressions. It’s not that I’m ever late. It’s that my workplace, well, that’s my favourite place in the world. I can never wait to get there. I love everything about it, from the warm, homely smell of the fresh baked bread, to the cackling laughter of my two workmates, Pam and Vi; from the noisy bustle and jangling shop bell to the colourful rows of regimented doughnuts and cherry Bakewells standing to attention in sugary limbo until bagged and ready for action.
Like I said, I was a bit late and as soon as I stepped into the porch I could tell he was rattled, as normally he calls out to me.
“Is that you Margaret?” he will say, which is daft for a start, because who else is it going to be?
If the BBC news at six begins in my absence my dad has no one to share his disgust and outrage with, no one to acquiesce to his views, nod in conformity and admire the wisdom of his analysis. I put on my cheeriest smile before opening the living room door.
“Alright, Dad?” I asked him, realising, of course, that he wouldn’t be. He was scowling at the TV set, a bitter cloud of resentment hanging around his Parker Knoll armchair.
“Why are you so late?” he growled, still fixed on the screen.
“We were short of a few things, so I stopped off at Palmers. I’m getting your tea now. A bit of fish do you tonight?”
Ducking into the kitchen before hearing the inevitable moan I grabbed an apron and began peeling potatoes. I couldn’t explain to Dad what had delayed my homecoming, because he’d be bewildered that the allure of the travel agent’s window could be more powerful than the contents of the six o’clock news, especially when accompanied by his own, insightful comments. Those advertised destinations stir me with their exotic promise; their glamorous names resonate in my mind: Goa, Madeira, Indonesia, Bali, Madagascar. Whilst there is no question that I will ever journey beyond the boundaries of this country I am at heart a traveller, voyaging wherever a travel guide, a brochure, my armchair or my dreams transport me.
An urgent ring of the telephone jerked me from my reverie, so that I dropped the peeler into the saucepan to answer it.
“Hello Margaret. How are you? Is Dad there?”
As usual I noted the lack of pause between enquiry into my wellbeing and the unnecessary query as to Dad’s whereabouts. I took the phone through, mouthing ‘Frank’ as I passed it to him. From the kitchen where I’d resumed supper duties I could hear my father pontificating on the failings of this government and the dreadful consequences of not reintroducing National Service. When I returned to retrieve the handset I was surprised to learn that my brother was still on the line, wishing to speak to me, an occurrence likely to contribute further to Dad’s displeasure.
“Yes Frank. What’s up?”

To be continued…