A Life of Christmases

The nature of Christmas changes as you go through life but the Christmases of your first memories stick with you into your dotage.
I can still remember the fever of excitement of going to bed on Christmas Eve having left one of my father’s woolly socks at the end of the bed and of waking with the heavy, crackly weight of a stuffed sock on my feet. I remember how mercilessly I was teased by my brothers because I’d christened my new doll ‘Dereline’. Derelict Dereline became their chant for the next few weeks until they tired of my wails.
Then there was the year that my longed-for book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was there, an oblong wedge along the ribbed sock, above the toe which contained a satsuma and a sixpence wrapped in newspaper as well as a walnut.
There were always family gatherings, when more gifts were bestowed [Fuzzy Felt was a new innovation in toy technology then] and we’d be coerced into writing a list in preparation for thank -you letters.
Once we were teenagers the obligation to spend the day with our parents jostled with the desire to be with our friends, others’ homes often seeming to be more fun, more welcoming or more riotous than our own. We no longer wanted to sit around watching the Queen’s speech or playing pencil and paper games with my parents, preferring the anarchic hilarity of drinking games in darkened rooms and puerile jokes and tricks.
Later, as a student I’d often need to work over the Christmas period, a requirement that would set me free from family obligations. Later still marriage and parenthood provided new difficulties as the emotional tugs of two sets of parents clashed.
Parenthood allows you to relive your own childhood festivities for a time as you work to create the magic you experienced yourself. You stay up late wrapping up small gifts and tiptoeing into bedrooms to leave a stocking or a sack. You remember to eat the mince pie, down the sherry and bite into the carrot that was all left as an offering before falling into your own bed for what will be a ludicrously short sleep. You are rudely woken in the small hours by electrified tots jumping all over you…
Having assumed you will never get enough sleep again the tots morph into teenagers, rarely making an appearance before midday and no longer excited by Christmas stockings. They resume their solitary commune with screens and games while you jostle the pans to make a gargantuan dinner they may or may not want. It is clear that mince pies and Christmas puddings will die a death, as subsequent generations reject traditional fare for chocolate concoctions and ice cream.
Then they are gone. They make their own lives [you hope] and in what seems like a blink, have their own children. Your role as a grandparent is an attempt at non-judgmental support. You provide when requested. You step back when not.
In an extraordinary twist and for the first time in twenty-one years, this year we are not playing host on the day. We’ll be celebrating with a late start, brunch, a good walk and dinner in a local hostelry. Magic!

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The Muddle that is Memory

As I grow older I realise more that memory is a capricious servant and not to be relied on. It unnerves me, this haphazard facility, as it would anyone who has more years behind them than in front. We joke about senility. ‘He makes new friends every day’ we say about close relatives suffering from Alzeimers. But it is a state to be feared as we age, even though research turns up new developments in treatment all the time.

We have travelled down the west coast of France more times than I can either count or care to admit-certainly, during the last twenty five years or so far more times than to London. And yet it takes re-visiting to stir my memories. I am as unable to grasp the gist of a place from Husband’s descriptions as I am able to recall what I went upstairs to get when I’m at home. ‘You must remember’ he says, ‘there was an Irish couple’ [there are many Irish couples] or-‘there was a small bar by the entrance’ [true of so many places].

We visit old haunts, reluctant this time to be intrepid adventurers, having done enough pioneering on the house move front this year.

We find a site, new to us. We cycle out along the salt marsh, a wide, flat expanse of watery fields criss-crossed by irrigation channels. Grey eels undulate along in the water, darting from one clump of weed to another. It all looks eerily familiar then we approach an oyster farm and there, there is the little sea-food shack and bar where I took Husband’s photo on our anniversary-memorable in that his chin rests on his hand and his expression as he peers over the top of his beer is nothing short of grumpy.

We did remember Pornic and eventually the site we’d stayed in. We’d walked there last time and caught the train back. I had a sudden recognition; a path over a deep, rocky cove peopled with dozens of naked men-many in couples. Such sights are not unusual on French beaches. I’ve long since adopted a ‘seen one, seen ‘em all’ strategy for them.

We travel further south to another small, seaside town I’m sure we’ve visited before. The large town square bordered by the post office and the town hall seems familiar, as do the narrow streets lined with bars, ice cream parlours, ‘churros’ counters and stalls selling bracelets, hats and keepsakes. Here in September there is a throng of tourists-many our age or older-wending their way along and pausing to browse the proffered nick-knacks as they chew on sugary, doughnutty churros or tuck into mountainous ice cream cones.

So the memories are there-not readily available as a neat, annotated and dated time-line but in a jumbled, half-buried pile in the cobwebby cupboard of my brain. When one is prompted to surface it is a pleasure. The offspring jest, as I myself would have done when stories are repeated or exaggerated, but this will happen to them, too at some unspecified future date.

Fiction Month 4-The Exchange [part 1]

The Exchange

            I am first. I am always first; always too early. I don’t mind. Getting here before the others gives me an opportunity to peruse the cakes and pastries at my leisure without the pressure of pretending disinterest. By the time they turn up I’ll have chosen; even, perhaps have consumed something. I’m leaning in favour of the ‘special’, a slice of Christmas cake, a rich, aromatic slab speckled with fruit and topped with a glistening, tooth tingling band of white icing and a dark green fondant holly leaf.

On the other hand, if I buy it now I may not have finished devouring it by the time one, or both of them appear, which would present an unseemly image. I should wait. I exert a seldom utilised self control, and having made a mental note of my preferred option I go straight to a table-the only remaining table, which is next to the toilets.

There are diners who are perfectly at home eating alone, able to consume an entire meal in solitude without appearing uncomfortable. They pull out a phone or a tablet with what seems like an endless deluge of emails, texts or photos, or they have some absorbing task to complete. I could take out my phone, but then I’d have to feign interest in the one text I’ve received today, from ‘Store 21’, alerting me to their ten percent off day, a snippet of information I have already viewed and which is unlikely to sustain my interest for the unspecified period I must wait. I fall, instead to studying the menu and have read it all through twice and memorised it before I spot Beverley weaving her way through the tables towards me.

While her sunglasses are incongruous on a winter’s day in the gloom of this dark corner of the café by the lavatories, she is dressed in her customary way, in flowing layers and expensive fabrics. She is a tall, statuesque woman and can get away with this look in a way that the shorter and dumpier of us cannot.

I rise to greet her and we embrace gingerly, like wary politicians before she discards her tweed cape and sinks down on to the seat. She is forcing a wan smile, which may indicate tiredness or something more sinister. When she tells me that Ava will be late I can only smile. Ava is late in the same way that I am early-by default. Not wanting to share too much before she arrives we talk of the weather, the traffic, how busy the shops are. I know my eyes are straying towards the menu as my stomach growls in an impatient demand for the cake, although Beverley is occupied in checking her phone to see if Ava has called again.

Then she is coming in, bumping tables and customers with assorted bags, turning this way and that as she scans the café for us. For a few moments I observe Ava, taking in her discomfort, her small, breathless panic as she stares over the heads of the assembled diners until at last I relent and offer a wave.

She bustles up, all puffing and blustering excuses. ‘What a busy life I lead’, she seems to say, though the bulging bags of her purchases tell a different tale. She is so sorry to have kept us waiting and only wants a black coffee. She places a solicitous, manicured hand on Beverley’s arm and inquires if she’s alright because she looks tired. I volunteer to order, more a ploy to ensure the capture of the Christmas cake than a magnanimous gesture, returning to the table to find them already engaged in showing each other photos on their phones. In the competition of life’s successes Beverley has scored the giant prize of acquiring a grandchild.

They turn to me-a diplomatic nod of interest in my unglamorous existence. Has George retired yet? Is Jacob working now? Still living at home? Such a shame.

The order arrives; black coffee for Ava, cappuccino for Beverley, hot chocolate and the cake for me. There is a slight pause as we all regard the cake, before I lever off the first, sweet, rich forkful.

Ava is asking Beverley how Rob’s business is going now, since he had to reorganise and lay off staff. Bev removes her sunglasses and rubs her eyes, bloodshot and dark ringed. The business is ‘ticking over’. They’ve begun looking for a smaller property in a less expensive area, seeking to down-size, to release capital. She speaks to Ava, avoiding my gaze. I am allowing a chip of hard, sugary icing to melt on my tongue, recalling how I visited for coffee one morning and found her in the kitchen, working her way through the contents of a vodka bottle with a determination that had eclipsed her memory the invitation. The failure of the business is not the sole reason for needing to release capital.

She straightens, takes a sip of the creamy cappuccino. In an abrupt change of subject she questions Ava about Matthew. Does Ava have any recent pictures? Ava reddens as she fumbles with her phone, then hands it across the table. Bev studies the photo of Matthew for what seems like a screen bite as Ava glances at me, eyes wide in her frightened face. Matthew is only two, an ‘afterthought’ as Ava describes him. Holding out the phone, Beverley frowns at the tiny sparrow of a woman opposite her and declares she cannot see anything of Steven in Matthew and I’m thinking, no, because there is nothing of Steven in Matthew-a fact that Ava confessed to me prior to his birth when faced with the dilemma of whether to tell her husband he was not the father. I lick my finger to sweep the remaining crumbs from the plate, wondering how three years can have passed since Ava blurted the tale of her sordid affair out to me in a moment of tearful desperation. What should she do? Should she tell Rob he could be the father of her baby? I’d advised her to leave well alone-after all he might not be the father. Who would know? She was frantic, sobbing. The child might resemble her friend’s husband; and of course, now he is older, he does.

To be continued-Part 2, the conclusion in next week’s post…

Fiction Month 4. Caught [part 2]

Status

                 Caught [part 2]

                  Next morning a stiff breeze has sprung up as I stroll up to the village store on the Copseway to buy a newspaper and a pint of milk. On the way I search for the old butcher’s shop that was Ernie Brabrook’s, but almost all the buildings that housed businesses have been converted to dwellings, either having been demolished and rebuilt or their big front windows bricked in and I no longer recall the exact location of Ernie’s place. All I remember is standing inside while my father waited for his order to be prepared, the sawdust floor dusty beneath my feet and the cold, raw carcasses dangling, white on their metal hooks, an odour of chill sweetness and the resonant thwack of the butcher’s cleaver as he prepared chops or steaks.

The store assistant is solicitous. My father will be missed by the community, she says, and how am I getting on with clearing up the house? Feeling heartened by her concern I ask if she knows anything about Imberton Dance Band and the various members. She nods as she packs my purchases into a bag.

“My parents used to go dancing every Saturday. A girl called Mavis used to come and babysit us.”

I take the photo from my pocket and place it on to the counter. She looks closely before shaking her head.

“I can see that’s your Dad, in his young days, and that was his brother. But I don’t know the others I’m afraid. I’d have been too young, I suppose.”

When I mention Dick Abbott a look of recognition springs to her face.

“I was in the same class as June at school. We were a fair bit older than you and your brother I think, so we’d have left to go to the secondary by the time you two were in the juniors’ class. She was sweet, but she was a bit soft, if you know what I mean; not the brightest, but always kind and smiling. It was awful, what happened to her.”

“I heard she died. What was it, illness?”

She purses her lips, looking grave.

“No, nothing like that; she drowned in the brook that runs along the bottom of the field behind the house. ‘Accidental death’ they said it was, although no one knew how she came to be there. She was in her night clothes when they found her; all a long time ago now.”

I take a diversion back to the bungalow, down an old, overgrown footpath that leads to the narrow rivulet behind what was Abbott’s shop, with a dwelling at the rear. We’d dangled jam jars on strings into the stream to catch tiny stickleback, bearing them home triumphantly then being made to return them by our stern parents. The brook is no longer the rushing torrent of my memory, rather a thin trickle, banks overgrown with tall, bushy nettles. I wonder how she could have drowned, here in the shallows where the water is inches deep and the gravel of the stream bed ruffles the flow. Further up the sloping field the back of the house is just visible, changed now; refurbished. A new wire fence provides a barrier before the brook, where none was before. Perhaps she sleepwalked down to the stream and fell, found herself tangled in the undergrowth or mired in some mud. I’ve an image now of her night clad body lying cold in the water under the moonlight, her dark hair loose and mingling with the eddying current, but surely she’d have called for help?

My father’s modest house, the pride and joy of his later life seems diminished now that his furniture and effects are packed up to be distributed or disposed of. The rooms are strewn with cartons of bric-a-brac, books or bin bags full of clothing ready to be taken to charity shops. The walls bear the ghostly shapes of the pictures and mirrors that hung against them. His upright piano awaits collection. This is all that remains of his life. We humans spend a lifetime accumulating objects only to leave them all behind us for another to discard.

I make tea in the ancient ceramic teapot my parents always used. It is lined with a crust of brown stain but to succumb to dunking tea bags into cups feels a betrayal here in their kitchen. While I’m waiting for the tea to brew I ring my wife to tell her I’m almost done with the clearance and I’ll be returning home tomorrow.

I’m about to pour the tea when I catch sight of Arnold Goodridge unlatching the front gate and labouring up the path towards the front door and I think he must have smelt the tea to have timed his arrival like this. He settles into the worn settee with the ease of one who has sat there, in that same spot on many occasions, leaning his walking stick against the arm and placing a bulging manila envelope on the seat beside him. He glances around the room at the bare walls and loaded cartons as he sips the tea, nodding in sage acknowledgement, his chest still heaving with the exertion of his walk.

“Going up for sale, is it?”

“I’m afraid it is, Arnold. The family is too far flung to keep it. I’m hoping to drop the keys with the agent tomorrow, on my way home.”

He puts his cup and saucer on the coffee table and opens the envelope to pass me a few photos. I move to sit next him while he describes each scene. There are more pictures of the band, of course, but also snaps depicting charabanc outings to the seaside, village fetes and family parties, many showing my parents and their friends, the most striking aspect their smiles as they face the camera. It would be easy to assume that their lives were one long holiday on which the sun never failed to shine.

I pore over one shot of the beach, where my parents and another couple, all dressed in their Sunday best, are installed in deck chairs on the sand behind a number of children of varying ages playing with buckets and spades. Amongst the offspring is a young girl of about eleven, with soft, dark eyes, clad in a typically substantial swimming costume of the era, her arm around a sturdy child who I recognise as my brother. He is looking into her face with an adoring smile.

“There’s June,” Arnold offers. “She always did love the littl’uns. She’d have made a good mum if she’d had the chance.”

“Arnold, how did it happen? How come she drowned in the brook? There’s so little water. And why was she wearing night clothes?”

He gazes at the photo as he begins to talk.

“It was like I said. When Dick started stepping out with Mae they was only young, so it weren’t really serious, if you see what I mean. Then she fell pregnant with June and it was all Hell let loose. In them days it was like the end of the world. It weren’t long before that a young couple had drowned themselves in the lake from the shame of it and the fear of being found out. There weren’t any choice for them. Dick had to marry her quick, so when the baby came they could just say it was a bit early, like.

They lived with Mae’s parents to start with. It must have been hard for Dick. He was always a bit of a one for partying, had an eye for the girls. He could of taken his pick of ‘em, too if he’d wanted. But he was stuck with Mae then, and didn’t he know it! She never forgive him for landing her with a baby so young and I don’t think she ever thought he was good enough for her neither.”

“But she must have loved the baby when she came along. June was so pretty and so sweet!”

“She were. She were a cracker! But she were never the brightest, if you get my meaning. She weren’t going to get to college or anything like that.”

“Is that why she ended up helping in the shop when she left school?”

He nodded.

“Mae hated the shop, like everything else. She thought it was beneath her to work behind a counter; didn’t think she should work at all. ‘Course the shop folded in the sixties and Dick retired then. It had never made much money. Customers preferred the stores up on the Copseway and you could see why. Mae drove them all off, with her spiteful tongue and her nasty ways.”

“So what did June do, when the shop closed down?”

“She took up hairdressing, somewhere down Hardwick way I believe it was. Of course she favoured her Dad for looks, so she weren’t short of a few admirers. I think she did do a bit of courting, while her Dad was still alive but nothing serious. Then Dick passed away, a bit sudden. After his funeral no one hardly saw Mae. She stayed indoors, kept herself to herself, and June stayed looking after her. There weren’t no more gentlemen callers because Mae wasn’t having it. She were too scared June would up and get married and leave her. Thing was, with Dick gone she only had her daughter and they used to say in the village that were when June changed, stopped smiling, like. Some said it were because of losing her Dad, but I reckon there were more to it than that. That bitter old witch made her life Hell, that’s the sum of it. She tormented her and bullied her until her life weren’t worth living. And June, she were caught, like in a trap. She’d nowhere to go and couldn’t leave her mother. It got so she couldn’t stand no more. So she took the only way out she could. There were more to the stream in them days, but most folks don’t need a lot of water if they’re determined to drown their selves. You know the rest.”

He puts the photo on the coffee table before looking up. When he catches my expression he puts his hand on my arm, his face softening.

“I shouldn’t of probably told you all that, what with your Dad and all. Not exactly a cheerful story, is it? But you got to remember it were all a long time ago.”

“No, I’m glad you did. And I’ve enjoyed looking at the photos and hearing all the other stories.”

On his way out Arnold stops on the path to button up his jacket.

“Know what I reckon?” There is a mischievous gleam in his eye as he adjusts the stick in his grip. I shake my head.

“Them lot in the band, they’ve been up there waiting for your Dad to join them. Now he’s got there they’ll be making heaven jump to the beat with all their tunes!”

Though I don’t share his conviction, the image is so pleasing I have to smile as I thank him again.

 

I wake to an overcast sky, feeling moved to make haste with loading my car and starting on the long drive home. There is little of any monetary value amongst the house contents and nothing of use or ornament to us, the next generation, for whom tastes have changed. I have wrapped and packed the few items my brother and I decided upon as keepsakes; one or two first editions, leather bound, a hand painted tea set, a couple of prints and the box of photographs, which I have volunteered to sort and annotate. Everything else will be removed by a clearance company, leaving the empty shell of the house ready for viewing by prospective buyers. Once I have locked up and pulled the front door shut behind me I know I will not be returning. I pocket the house keys in readiness for the estate agent.

Before leaving the village I pull into the lay by outside the churchyard. I want to spend a few minutes alone by my parents’ grave, an action I doubt my busy life will allow in future. The new plot, freshly piled with earth stands out like a brown scar among the neat, green mounds surrounding it. Soon the simple headstone will bear the addition of my father’s name informing the reader he is ‘reunited at last’ with my mother. There are, as he requested, no bouquets wilting on the soil, donations having been made, instead, to the hospice that cared for my mother. He’d been pragmatic to the last, made all his wishes clear; his only desire to be laid to rest here in the rustic setting of the village churchyard next to his deceased wife.

I have no faith in an afterlife. I believe that our allotted span above the earth is what we get. I know that my parents are not here, under the soil in this country graveyard, nor do they exist anywhere except, for a short passage of time, in my memory. But the shady, green space with its gentle hummocks, vases of chrysanthemums and trailing ivy is a peaceful spot for contemplation and remembrance. I wind my way through the graves, stopping here and there to read a name and a date where they are visible, not obliterated by algae and age. As I round the corner by the low stone wall I halt as my attention is caught by a simple, marble, upright slab with the inscription, ‘June Elisabeth Abbott, 1945-1978, ‘Resting where no shadows fall’.

I perch nearby on a neighbouring slab. Her plot is overgrown, a joyous carpet of daisies and dusky pink autumn crocuses. A light mist of drizzle has begun to drift down, lifting a rich, earthy aroma from the vegetation. Somewhere close by a robin begins to trill a jaunty song. Then, at last I feel the tears well up and course down my face in hot, salty tracks until I drop my face into my hands and I’m howling, there in the secluded churchyard with the ghosts of my past for company.

After a while, when the tears have drained away I stand and brush the moss from my clothing before walking back through the grassy mounds and ancient stones to the gate. In the car I pick up my phone and call my wife. She asks if I’m alright. I tell her I’ve missed them all; that I love them and I’m ready to come home now. I start the car. When I get home I want to hold them, my wife and children; catch them in my heart and never let them go.

 

 

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?

I’ve Seen the Future-Now What Was it Again?

I was standing in the middle of our garage. I am normally competent at looking for items but this time I was at a loss. During my autumn 2014 incarceration [which is documented in a previous post] a number of objects have made mysterious moves to different locations. My beloved kitchen steps, purchased by myself as a tailor-made solution to being vertically challenged had undergone a change for a different set. Husband’s initial response to an enquiry as to the whereabouts of said steps was that ‘These are better’, but a pursuit of the subject revealed that my own, preferred steps had found their way into the camper van and been replaced by these, unsuitable, usurper steps. Hmph!

To continue, I had a small hand brush in my hand and was searching for something. What was it? I could not say. I knew what it looked like. I also knew that I would need to ask Husband, who has undertaken some item location changes, where it was. But this presented a problem. How could I ask him? Because, reader, I could not think of the word for it. Horrors! I stood. I thought. The word was there, within my clutches but just out of reach, taunting me. It was no good. I would have to succumb to the humiliating act of describing the object I was seeking.

Husband was outside on the patio. We’d been removing the tiny, Brussel-sprout shaped Christmas tree that has survived its third festive period inside the house and whilst being removed to its outside home had dumped large quantities of soil en route-hence the search for the ‘thing’.

I waved the brush at him as an opening gambit.

‘Where’s the…thing?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. What are you looking for?’ This was my question. What was I looking for?

‘The thing. You know.’

‘I don’t know. What do you want?’

I sighed. I would have to describe it. ‘The sweeping-into thingy. It goes with the brush.’

He straightened. ‘The dustpan.’

Dustpan. The word streamed into my brain like a flood. Of course. How could I not have known it? Dustpan. I was horrified. The words ‘senile dementia’ flashed in alarm where ‘dustpan’ should have been.

Words constantly flee from my mind like this, provoking a combination of pity, laughter and derision from those who share my home. I also repeat myself, a trait which elicits frustration. Both of these habits are symptoms of dementia.

One of my hit reads of 2014 was Emma Healey’s brilliant ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, narrated by a very elderly woman, Maud, who suffers from senile dementia. The book is both tragic and comic and I alternated between laughter and near tears while reading it. The long suffering carers who make daily visits to Maud’s home are unerringly kind. If a long, slow plunge into senility is to be my fate I do hope those whose misfortune it is to care for me are as humane as they are!

I’ve had a few-but then again-too few to mention-

                Regret is an interesting emotion. As you get older you might be forgiven for having accumulated a net full of regrets that you’ve trawled along behind you all your life. But then the net would get heavier and more onerous to haul in with time. Better to release the captive disappointments somehow and allow them to drift away.

                Of course some regrets are entirely trivial, and the wrong decision can be rectified in a short time. Ill-advised haircuts, that last glass of wine, holidays with family members, vitriolic emails-the repercussions of all of these do not last for long. Last week I regretted my lack of speed in capturing a pine marten crossing the road with a limp stoat dangling from his jaws! More serious decisions like career choices, partners, buying a home can be a source of regret for ever.

                Twenty years ago I made a momentous [for me], life changing decision that had a profound and lasting effect. At the time someone very close warned me I would regret this decision the whole of my life, and yet I have always considered this one choice to be the very best decision I ever made. Sometimes you just have to take a leap into the unknown, take a gamble-and then accept the consequences, whatever.

                Amongst the circulating emails and Facebook spam that floods on to our screens there is often a set of images of historic products-items you might have used as a child. There is a fleeting, misty nostalgia to these pictures, prompting you to say, ‘Whatever happened to ‘Spangles’, or ‘Do you remember ‘Loxene’ shampoo?’-but we don’t seriously want to turn back the clock. ‘Loxene’ shampoo was little better than washing up liquid, and if ‘Spangles’ still tasted good they’d still be on sale-as Mars bars are today.

                I don’t doubt that some aspects of life were better fifty years ago, like children playing outside, not getting obese, less cars on the road etc. But who would want to go back to that time? There were no machines to do all the dirty work. My mother had a ‘copper’ that she boiled the washing in and then put it all through a mangle! I don’t think we had a fridge for some years. There was a cold slab in the pantry and a ‘meat safe’ like a cage to keep flies off.

                So I believe it’s ok to wallow in a touch of nostalgia now and again, but better on the whole to look forwards, live life to the most full you can and do the ‘carpe diem’ thing. Then one day, [if I should live long enough to be immobile or even more demented than I am already] I shall be able to look at photos and dwell on memories with nostalgia but without regret-that is if I am able to recognise anyone or anything by then!