Continuum- [part 2]

The story concludes with Part 2 today, as Maz learns that you cannot move on with your life and expect the old order to stay the same…

There is a roar and as I stretch to see over the heads in front I spot Jacob Rimmer, the band’s vocalist and frontman running on to the stage. He takes the mike from its stand and bounces to the front. ‘Hello Wilchester!’ he calls and is met with a deafening din from the hoards below. I’m grinning with the infection of the thrill as the remainder of them run on to take their places. ‘Are you ready for Continuum?’ he hectors and the response is an ear-splitting bellow.

At this moment Dylan reappears, pushing through, head and shoulders above most of them. He’s cradling three polystyrene boxes like babies in his arms and my relief is about more than chips. He hands us a box each as the first, pulsing drum beats herald the first number, prompting us to grin at each other like idiots then we’re nodding, stamping and hollering along with everyone else in between hot, greasy mouthfuls. I love this. I love the shared adulation, the belonging, the elation of knowing all the songs and joining in companionable singalong. It is all at an end too soon, even with two encores.

As the crowd begins to thin I realise I’d forgotten about Shona but she’s still there, behind us, looking kind of droopy, as if she won a holiday and it was to Skegness. Dylan reaches out and grasps her round the neck, pulling her to him in a clinch. ‘What did you think of THAT then, Shona-lona?’ he bawls, ignoring the woodenness of her response and the tears that are making their way down wet channels on her face.

‘Where’s Mickey?’ Shona hiccups, slumping against Dylan, who has a way of pulling in his chin and frowning when he’s flummoxed, which makes me laugh. Releasing her from the bear hug he shakes his shaggy head. ‘Haven’t seen him.’

‘We’ll give him twenty minutes then we’ll need to get the train,’ I tell them, ignoring the girl’s stricken expression. ‘You can wait, Shona if you want but I’m not missing the train home because of him.’

We’re picking up the chip boxes and collecting our belongings when he reappears, loping towards us, an inane grin hovering around his lips. As he reaches us he folds his gangly frame down on to the ground and motions us to do the same. He stretches out his long legs and leans back on his hands, revealing a ribbon of smooth, tanned stomach in the gap of his between his T-shirt and jeans. His head rolls back and he sighs. ‘Man…’ he slurs, ‘man…. Shona has knelt on the grass beside him but Dylan and I stare down, rucksacks on our backs and still holding the chip boxes.

Mickey’s unfocused eyes fix on Shona. ‘That was some fantastic shit, man’ and as she kisses him he rolls backwards on to the grass pulling her to him. She’s smiling like she won the lottery.

‘Come on, let’s go’ I say to Dylan. He gestures towards Mickey, who is uttering senseless chuckles where he lies with Shona draped over him like an exotic quilt.

‘We can’t leave him like this, Maz.’

‘He’s got Shona to look after him. I don’t want to miss the train!’

Dylan hands me his chip box, stoops and grabs Mickey by an elbow, dragging him up, shouting, ‘What did you take, Mick?’ He’s a big guy, Dylan, as tall as Mickey but with a beefy frame. He puts an arm around Mickey’s waist. Shona’s hanging off the other side as if she’s welded to him.

We make slow progress towards the station, surrounded by thousands of homeward bound fans which makes me wonder if we’ll even get on a train let alone get home but Dylan manages to drag Mickey all the way to the station, up the stairs, on to the platform and at last on to the train where we sink down in a heap by the exit doors.

 

 

It’s nearly Christmas. From my seat on the coach I’m gazing out at the drab towns as it travels southwards. I’m wondering if my choice of St Andrews was a deliberate ploy to get as much distance as possible between my home town and uni. This is my first visit home since I left in September and I’m hoping to help the time to slip away by catching up with friends but my messages and texts to Dylan have not been answered so I suppose he’s been as caught up in university life as I have. I don’t call my parents as often as I should, although the few times I’ve spoken to Mum she’s had no news of any of them-Dylan, Mickey or Shona. The Continuum gig seems a lifetime ago now.

I’ve left it late to do any Christmas shopping so I struggle up on my first morning at home and walk down into town, where the familiar streets look smaller to me and a little tired; some of the High Street businesses have disappeared or been replaced by charity shops but at least it’s warmer here than in Scotland.

I’m browsing in the fair trade shop when I think I see Shona. I say ‘think’ because to begin with it’s just the back of her, the signature white hair hanging down like a waterfall but when she turns I get a shock. Her shape has transformed and she has the substantial swell of pregnancy. Before I’ve time to move she’s spotted me and she’s making her way around the display to reach me.

‘Maz! It’s great to see you!’ As she leans forward to air-kiss me I’ve an uncomfortable sense of the proximity of her bump, as yet unmentioned. ‘You’re looking,’ I hesitate ‘-well’. She steps back and circles her protruding stomach with her forearms, her eyes dancing with excitement.

‘I’m having a baby in March.’

‘Congratulations’, I murmur, ‘Is it…?’

She breaks in. ‘It’s Mickey’s.’

I’m nodding but I can’t look her in the eye. ‘And are you and Mickey…?’

She laughs. ‘No, Maz I’m not with Mickey any more. But my baby will have a dad. We’re living with my Mum at the moment but we’re going to get a flat as soon as we’ve got enough money for a deposit.’

I’m struggling to understand. This is Mickey’s baby but he won’t be the father.

‘You met someone when you were pregnant?’ She shakes her head, chuckling.

‘No-no one new. I’m with Dylan, Maz. He wants to take on me and the baby, too. He doesn’t care that it’s Mickey’s. He got a job at the DIY store and they might be making him a department manager. You must come round and say hello!’

 

 

Back home in my bedroom I put on my headphones and listen to ‘Every Life’, my favourite Continuum album. Sitting on the edge of my bed, listening to Jacob Rimmer screaming out the lyrics the tears stream down my face. Dylan. Big hearted Dylan. No wonder he didn’t reply to my messages and texts. All this term I’d thought he was at uni and he never even started. I’ve lost him and with him my old life, my home life, my formative life.

Christmas comes and goes. I go through the motions with my family, the traditional, familiar routines a soothing background to the mourning I feel. Much as I love my family I realise I’m looking forward to getting back to St Andrews now, to throwing myself into the new term.

At last I’m on the coach, pulling northwards, the January skies leaden and a fitting backdrop for the grey cities we pass and the dreary mood I need to leave behind. I listen to music, read a course book and at some point I sleep. It is late when we pull into the bus station. I stand to pull my rucksack from the rack, shuffle down the aisle to the front and down the steps into Scotland. There is a fine drizzle falling so I lift my face and let the soft mist bathe it, tasting the wet smoky air and I’m smiling. Soon I’ll be back in halls. There’ll be news, gossip, coffee, doors open, laughter, music blaring. This is my new life and I love it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Behind Him [part 2]

Part 1 of this story can be found in last week’s post…

Behind Him [Part 2]

                She stares unblinking at the man opposite her. It is her husband’s press secretary, immaculate in his dark suit. Why hasn’t he sent a woman?

He smiles. “I guess all this has been pretty hard for you, right? It would be tricky for someone with a political or legal background but-“

“Mister Spicer, if you mean I am an uneducated bimbo and of no consequence you can come out and say it. Everyone else has.”

He leans forward, smile undiminished. “Melania, your husband needs you there. He needs you to take up your role as first lady. You won’t need to do much except attend functions, support charities and stuff. There’s a team to help you. They’ll tell you what to say and what to do. You’d only need to turn up and look nice. It’s just for show.”

Just for show. She looks down at her manicured nails. “Mr Spicer I have a job. It is to look after my son. He is only ten years old.”

When she looks up the secretary’s smile has left his eyes. “I believe your parents are quite involved in caring for your son, Mrs Trump-am I correct?”

She feels hot now, here in this office with its automatic climate control and leans down to take a tissue from her bag, nodding as she dabs at beads of sweat on her brow.

“And they’ve been given an apartment right here, I think, just so as they can look after your son? That was pretty generous of your husband, right? And of course their continued life here in the States will be subject to immigration rules.”

As Melania stares at her lap she feels the tight stricture of the net she has placed around herself tauten, breathing in shallow gulps to steady herself before raising her head and nodding at him.

“We’re prepared to be reasonable, Mrs Trump. We can give you some time to organise things here. Let’s say you’ll move in when your son’s school year finishes this summer. How does that sound?”

She thinks of life here without her parents, without Papa. At least when she moves out of the Towers they’ll still be in the country.

“Yes Mr Spicer. I’ll move in the summer.

 

“But this is where you should be, Mela, by your husband’s side! Of course you should be at The White House. It’s what I’ve always said, haven’t I Papa?”

Her father says nothing but can see the desolation in her face.

 

A few months later she begins her schedule, attending a gala as first lady, standing by his side on the stage again. The wearing of the couture outfit suggested by her team, the immaculate hair and make-up cannot disguise the dead look in her eyes or the stiff pose she adopts. Whatever her husband has been saying has come to an end with the applause of the crowd and as he turns to beckon her she takes her obedient step towards his side to raise her hand. He moves closer, half turning. “Smile,” he hisses. “Come on. Remember who you are!”

And of course, she does.

 

 

A Topical Story

           This week’s post is Part 1 of a story in which the principal character is one you will recognise from media coverage. Foisted into the public eye, perhaps more than she has been comfortable with I began to imagine how she feels and if, maybe, she has regrets about the life she has chosen for herself…

               Behind Him

                It is like the sea, she thinks, a tidal surge with flashes of light. In reality the flashes are cameras and the surge is people. She puts her hand to the high collar of her coat and swallows, composing her expression, breathing in long, steady breaths like she has been told. There is a roar, startling her and she realises she’s lost concentration for a moment then she remembers and raises her hand in a wave, stretching her lips in a smile-not too wide. She doesn’t want to appear stupid.

Standing behind, she can only see the back of his head and his arms as he spreads them, the finger and thumb of each hand pressed together to make the point. There is another roar from the crowd.

He starts to turn his head and she feels her heart jump and her throat constrict as his hand strays out towards her; but she takes it, dipping her chin as she steps forward into the limelight.

“Smile now.” The instruction hisses from the corner of his mouth and she parts her lips a little to show the perfect, white teeth she has maintained for so long. Another wave of camera flashes later and she is able to follow him down off the stage, stepping with careful tread in the shoes she’s deliberated over and managing to keep her head up.

She trails along through the cheering crowd, nodding, maintaining the smile, her cheeks aching just a little.

“You looked so beautiful!” Mama had said last night. “The white jumpsuit so elegant! You did so well. We are proud, your father and I. The first lady! Living in that white house!”

Papa has not said much about her marriage since he asked her if she was happy the night before the wedding all those years ago. He’s been more reticent than her mother on the subject of how well she’d done to bag herself a multi-millionaire business man, asking only if it was truly what she wanted. He seems content enough now to have the New York apartment but is tight-lipped on the subject of politics, offering only one remark to her.

“Remember who you are, Mela. You are an immigrant like your mother and me. Success and happiness are not always the same thing.”

Alone in the spacious bedroom she watches herself on the news, her manicured brows creasing at the sight of her own figure bent awkwardly to the microphone in a hasty bid to summon up some supportive words, stumbling, parroting, ‘Make America great’, looking like the stick puppet that everyone believes her to be. More footage shows their ‘victory dance’ as she is clutched in a stiff embrace and his engagement is, as always, with the crowd and the flashing cameras as he gestures to them during every slow turn.

She thinks of William, her only real achievement, a ‘mini-me’ his father calls him and she wills it not to be so, thinking of her disdainful adult stepchildren, whose cliquey conversations and  spiteful remarks she’s learned to ignore. She wishes her son could grow up like Papa having a strong sense of justice tempered with compassion. He is not ‘Barron’ to her; can never be. She bites her lip as the news images roll on, the pictures plastering a cover on to the reality.

 

“No, I am not going to The White House. I’ll be staying here in the Towers with my son and my parents. It’s important for him to stay away from the media and to continue his studies. You can tell this to my husband. My son comes first. Politics is nothing to do with me; that’s his job.

 

To be continued. [Part 2 of this story follows in next Sunday’s post…]

Fiction Month. ‘The Courtyard Pest’ [Part 2]

               Nancy has heard enough from Jeffery and takes an escape route. Will she be able to integrate into her new community and can it offer her any of the comfort and friendship she misses?  Part 1 of this story can be found in last Sunday’s’s post on ‘Anecdotage’

The Courtyard Pest

Part 2

               Having had to demonstrate her intention by leaving the flat, she wanders along the High Street and turns down the lane leading to the library. There may be a noticeboard showing local events, groups and activities or at least someone who could point her in the right direction. The building is new with lots of internal glass. She spots a small, neat, grey woman like herself wearing a navy raincoat and realises it is herself, reflected in a rotating door.

The vast space is decorated in garish lime greens and scarlets. At a circular desk she has to wait as one librarian is attending to a young woman with a foreign accent and another is talking on the phone.

At last she is directed across to an area designated ‘local information’ where there are brochures, wall maps and a noticeboard advertising special interest groups and activities. She reads each flyer. There is a cycling club, meeting each Sunday morning at seven, a ‘knit and natter’ group in a church hall on Monday afternoons, there is the WI, the University of the Third Age and Psychic evenings. On a low table is a file labelled ‘cultural events’ and she bends to begin flipping through but is interrupted by a commotion around the reception desk.

Nancy straightens to peer around a bookcase and sees a figure in a beige waistcoat gesticulating at the librarian, who is responding by adopting a decidedly non-library tone and pointing in the direction of the exit doors.

“Mr Marsh, as I’ve said before we cannot stock every periodical and the library is run according to local authority guidelines. Now I’m sorry but unless and until you are able to follow our code of conduct I am going to have to ask you to leave the building and you may be barred from entering the premises in future.”

Her neighbour doesn’t spot her as he is escorted out of the exit doors. She sits down to look through the file of cultural societies, noting one or two phone numbers down then waits ten minutes before she leaves to avoid bumping into him.

She has walked twenty five yards before a dizzy spell threatens to topple her and she stops by a bus stop, clutching the side of the shelter until it has passed, then perching on the narrow plastic bench inside. A bus pulls up, disgorging several passengers; the driver leaning forward to see if she’s getting on. She shakes her head and takes a few deep breaths as the doors wheeze closed.

 

Back in the flat she feels jittery and unsettled. Perhaps getting on with her unpacking will help. But when she leans down from her bed to get a box out from underneath the dizziness descends like a fog and she sits back up, closes her eyes and sinks on to the pillows. A deluge of jumbled images gushes in to a background of piercing squeaks which rise to a crescendo, at which point her eyes fly open and she is aware of the door bell ringing with an insistent, lengthy clang.

“I didn’t know if you were in.” There is an element of reproach in his frown. “I thought I’d better let you know I’ve put some rat poison down in the alley. In case you go out that way. Let me know if you see anything, won’t you?”

It takes Nancy a moment to gather her thoughts. “Yes. Thank you. I will”.

He clears his throat. “Can I interest you in an early evening glass of wine? Over at my place?”

She pulls the edges of her cardigan together, aware that she is dishevelled from sleep. “Just a small one” he continues and she can think of no excuse to refuse. She keeps him at the door while she slips her shoes on and fetches her bag and keys. “All secure?” he asks, as she locks the door.

His flat is as different from hers as an identical design could be, the surfaces crammed with objects, odd-shaped stones, pieces of wood, metal parts of things; the walls clad in pictures, photos, mirrors and hangings. It feels claustrophobic, as if the entire space is closing in on her. She murmurs ‘thanks’ as he hands her a glass, watching as she takes a cautious sip. “Know your wines?” he asks, “Where do you think that one’s from?”

Tempted to say ‘Tesco’ she perches on the edge of a sagging sofa covered in piles of magazines and shakes her head. He grins, holding his glass up to an imaginary light. “Algeria! You wouldn’t know, would you? A friend brought it back from a trip for me. I love the stuff.” He places his glass on the edge of a shelf, snatches up an object from the coffee table and offers it to her. “What do think this is? Any ideas?” She turns the small, circular, metallic item in her hand. It has an opening with a serrated edge like tiny, sharp teeth

“A nut-cracker?”

He chuckles. “It’s a pepper grinder. African. I bet you’ve never seen one like that before!”

She clears her throat. “I must go, Jeffery. I have some calls to make. Thank you for the wine.”

“You haven’t finished it!”

“No. It’s very nice. But I’m not much of a drinker. It goes straight to my head I’m afraid”. She picks up her bag. He continues to stand, tilting the glass up to drain it then twirling the stem as he watches her.

Back in her flat Nancy makes some tea and takes it into the sitting room. She finds the numbers she wrote down in the library. As she picks up the phone she is distracted by a sound. She sits still and concentrates. There! A scraping, grinding sound, like a pot sliding along on the slabs of the courtyard. Jeffery told her if the rats got into the yard they might dig up the bulbs. She goes to the patio door and pulls a curtain back, peering along the shaft of light that’s been cast. But there is nothing other than the pots standing motionless in their places.     A rat, however large would not be strong enough to move a large, terracotta pot full of earth. The sound must have come from something in the alley; someone trundling something along there, perhaps. She picks up the phone again.

It is two twenty three when she wakes, having fallen asleep thinking about her telephone conversation with Rebecca Fripp, of the local amateur dramatic society. Rebecca’s response to Nancy’s enquiry had been Luke-warm, as if she’d be doing her a favour by allowing her to attend a rehearsal. But they always needed ‘front-of-house’ help, she’d said, even though Nancy’d explained about her experience in set design. Once she is awake, she is unable to drift off again and thinks that perhaps she should get up and make tea. She stretches out her hand to the light and there! There is the sound: scrape. Outside the windows.

She freezes, stomach churning, her skin prickly; but forces her feet to the floor; tiptoes through to the kitchen. She takes her time in the half light, pulling open a cupboard door to withdraw a heavy pan with a long handle. She breathes in long, slow pulls like an automaton. She returns to the living room, pan held to her side in one hand and uses a finger to create a slit of light in the long curtains.

A wind has got up, stirring the trees over the alleyway and chasing leaves around the small yard; but there is also a dark, rounded shape moving around the pots. Nancy grips the pan handle and uses her other hand to inch the patio door open. The swishing breeze is louder as she steps outside, flattening her nightie against her legs. She searches for the shape then spots it-moving from behind one pot to another. In two paces she is there. She pulls her arm back straight like a forehand smash and swings hard at the shape. Crunch! The contact is sickening, jarring her arm as she stumbles. The shape topples and she drops her weapon. She takes a step forward to look but the foot gives way, sliding and she falls to her knees in the wetness, confused. There has been no rain so why is there a puddle? Reaching out she feels fur, wetly sticky; then she is swaying, sinking as the fog descends.

 

She is dressed and in the chair when Sarah arrives. “Ready, Mum?”

Got your tablets and everything?”

Nancy nods. She stares at her daughter, eyes wide. She swallows. “Sarah-I can’t, I don’t…”

“Shh-Mum it’s ok. You don’t have to go back to the flat. Danny and I have packed all of your stuff. You can take a case with you today and the rest will follow.”

“How…how is he?”

“He’s doing alright, Mum. He’s a tough old boy. His skull has a small fracture but it will heal. He doesn’t blame you. He’s an idiot to have been there in the middle of the night! ‘Checking the rat bate’, apparently.

A solitary tear rolls down her mother’s face. “I’ve caused so much harm. I’m so sorry”

Sarah takes her hand. “No, Mum. I’m the one who should be sorry. I should never have nagged you to come. Now we must go or we’ll be late.”

Nancy stands and accepts her daughter’s supporting arm. In the car she sinks back, closing her eyes to picture Meg’s sparkly eyes and the way specks of scarlet lipstick are visible on her teeth when she grins. “You don’t have to downsize, dear” her friend had told her, sitting by the hospital bed. “Just come back and live at my place. We can look after each other, can’t we? And you can come back to The Nettlehide Players, where you belong.”

Nancy had nodded, feeling relief course through her like a transfusion. Of course. It was all anyone wanted or needed. To belong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

The Crackling Feast [Part 2]

As Alex’s repugnance at the hog roast grows, her sister Chrissie’s appetite for the savoury treat increases. Chrissie and Simon seem to have developed a relationship. What have they been up to? And where has Jacintha gone?

The Crackling Feast concludes today. Part one is in the previous post.

 

Their father had been unusual in leaving express instructions that he didn’t want a funeral. He’d wanted this; a celebration, party, get together-call it what you like. He’d left it to Jacintha to issue invitations so she’d been surprised to have received the card-an elaborate, hand-painted creation on Jacintha’s own, customised, recycled paper. The woman had not been immune to the sisters’ antipathy, since they’d been at best Luke-warm when they’d greeted her at their infrequent meetings with their father. She must have realised she was the reason their visits had dwindled to annually, duty stops while en route somewhere. ‘Just a cup of tea, don’t want to put you to any trouble’. Jacintha would produce some herbal infusion picked from the hedgerows and proffer something inedible like nettle scones with tofu. It occurs to Alex now that these efforts may have been attempts to buy their approval, though in her own unorthodox way. Their father never commented on their lack of warmth towards his new wife, nor did he complain at the sporadic nature of their visits. Perhaps he felt it was the price he’d paid for her, for Jacintha; to lose the affections of his daughters.

Chrissie and Simon have settled at a table with their plates of hog roast. Chrissie appears to have overcome her repugnance and is tucking into a pork roll with gusto in between slugs of wine and peals of laughter at whatever Simon Patterson is saying. She glances at Alex then says something to him before getting up and approaching her, stumbling a little on her spindly heels. She sits down and drapes an arm around her younger sister, close enough for Alex to smell her hot, grease and wine laden breath.

“You should get something to eat, Alex. It’s really very good.”

“In a minute.” Alex stares at her lap. She and Chrissie have grown apart, their mother having been the glue that cemented their closeness as sisters. Now they rarely see each other and on the occasions when they do they’ve only had the one same conversation, one shared dislike of Jacintha. After a few minutes she allows Christina to pull her up and tow her to the table where Simon still sits and accept the glass of wine her gets for her. The plate she is handed is loaded with a pork roll, cole-slaw, apple sauce and a heap of greasy crackling, brown scored skin with a few blackened hairs still clinging. She nibbles at the roll and salad.

“So you’ve left the family at home then, Alex?” Simon Patterson is making an attempt at small talk. She shrugs. “It didn’t seem fair to drag them up here.”

Chrissie makes a face. “I’d have got to see my nephews! You’ve deprived me of the pleasure!” Alex looks sideways at her sister, who has never been shy about expressing her dislike of children.

The solicitor continues “She is quite a character though, Jacintha-a strange choice for your father to have made, don’t you think? All those odd tattoos in Greek letters and the dreadlocks?”

Alex puts her plastic fork down. “I suppose she made him feel younger-and I expect he got lonely. You must know where she is now though, don’t you? You must have been acting for them both-for Jacintha and our father?”

Chrissie is watching them, her small, white teeth nibbling on a piece of pork scratching. There are faint vestiges of blue ink near her fingers, indicating that this must be from the etched area of pig. Alex feels her stomach lurch as she recalls Jacintha’s ample, decorated thighs. Simon laughs. “All will be revealed” he tells her as the distant ringing of a spoon against a glass signals silence among the revellers.

The vicar asks for their indulgence, rising from his seat, paper in hand. He has a message for all of them, from Jacintha:

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all having a wonderful afternoon in the sunshine enjoying the good company, the delicious food and wine and the memories.

Edgar and I were only together for a short time before he was cruelly taken but for me it was the happiest time of my whole life…

Alex glances at her sister, who raises her eyes to heaven.

I ask you to understand that I am not able to be with you today to celebrate Edgar’s life as it is too soon for me to face people who knew us as a couple. In order to grieve I am leaving for pastures new and will be settling in Corfu where I am setting up a studio in order that my emotions can find an outlet in my work.

So it’s ‘Goodbye’. Bless you all and enjoy the remainder of the party.

In Edgar’s memory

Jacintha.

There is a pause before the guests begin to murmur again. Chrissie is still clutching the spear of pig skin marked in blue ink. Alex sees her peer at it, then across at Simon Patterson who returns her look with an almost imperceptible wink.

 

So Long Leonard!

So Long Marianne

We did love our Leonard Cohen! We’d sit around singing along to ‘Hey That’s No Way to say Goodbye’, or ‘Suzanne’, instead of sweating over essays or reading the next chapter of ‘Ethics and Education’.

“Why does she give him milk and oranges?” I’d always say. “It’s a horrible combination.”

We knew all the harmonies, even recording our own versions of the songs on her battered reel-to-reel tape recorder then shrieking with laughter at hearing ourselves on the playback.

When we went out we’d communicate in code, using pre-arranged phrases for unwanted attention from members of the opposite sex. At the never missed Thursday night discos we leapt around to the Rolling Stones or The Faces until a slow number prompted one of the lads to ask us to dance; then we revolved as couples, coming into contact with each orbit, when she’d make faces at me and whisper. “Double Gristle!” she’d hiss, meaning ‘Get me out of this’.

We lavished too much of our meagre grants on cheap wine from plastic barrels in the Union bar, resulting in puerile practical joking such as crawling back to our rooms on hands and knees or writing notices for all the doors we passed; the inevitable outcome of over indulgence being our failure to attend any of the following day’s lectures. We had endless discussions analysing budding or fading relationships, boys we liked, boys we wanted to be rid of, whether we had, whether we hadn’t, wishing, regretting.

When, in the second year I was forced out into a depressing bed-sit with a repressive landlady I missed her so much I spent regular nights propped up at the end of her bed eating cheese and pickles, envying her for having the foresight to claim ill health and keep her room at the halls of residence.

Once it was clear I’d have to undertake some work if I was to gain a qualification that would lead to employment I began to knuckle down, completing mediocre essays, attending lacklustre lectures, keeping appointments with disapproving tutors and applying myself to placements. As the lucky recipient of a modest income from some shares, Marianne did not feel the pressure to strive for academic success and continued to maintain a hectic social life, made all the more pleasurable by the acquisition of a small car. She continued to live in her tiny room, spend her days shopping in ‘Chelsea Girl’ or ‘Top Shop’, date hapless men and leave a string of lovelorn boyfriends in her wake. Her health issues, a useful weapon in the defence against obligation or duty, morphed slowly into hypochondria and each time we met she regaled me with some new symptoms she’d noticed, or tests or treatment she’d been undergoing, difficulties that prevented her from completing the course.

With no other option than to join the grown up world, at the end of the three years I became a career woman with a flat and a boyfriend I’d picked up along the way. I still met up with Marianne, though less often. She’d found another tiny room, a bedsit in a shared house that eked out the modest income she still had. She spent her days attending hospital appointments, researching alternative therapies and taking courses in obscure, esoteric fields. Our lives began to diverge. I was promoted to a new and better job, split with the boyfriend, moved to a different, leafier part of town. She took a course as a ‘holistic’ healer and did freelance astrology readings in between courses of treatment for various ailments. She moved to a small flat, subsisting on benefits to augment her income, inconsistent now that the shares had crashed.

In another ten years I’d married, moved away to the coast, taken a career break and had two children. We corresponded, letters documenting lives that seemed to be led on separate planets. I was mired in the minutiae of domestic triviality; she was taking to the stage in her debut as an exotic dancer whilst continuing in her quest to find the perfect man, though available men were becoming scarcer and more selective.

I resumed my career, became single again and sought to rekindle friendships that had foundered in the wake of my marriage. When I began a long distance relationship with a London man I contacted her and arranged to visit her at her Streatham flat during one of my metropolis weekends.

 

I got to her road. I stood on the pavement opposite her house and gazed up at her window; but I didn’t cross over, didn’t ring the bell. I turned back and made the long trek back to Hampstead. She rang me, later.

“Where were you?” she said.

“I rang the bell and no one answered” I lied. She was angry. I felt tearful. There would never be another chance.

I continued to send letters and cards for a couple more years with no response. I look at the photos she sent me of herself posing in a leopard print bikini against a background of tropical plants on a night club stage and I wonder what she is doing now, but the clock is set firm in the present; no going back. Here’s to you, Marianne. So Long!