Fiction Month -Week 3

Here is Part 3, and the conclusion of ‘The Woman from the Baker’s’. Parts 1 & 2 can be found in the previous two posts.
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“I’ll do your supper, Dad, before I go and I’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need to hand. You can always phone me if there’s an emergency. I won’t be late back so I’ll be here for bedtime as usual.”
He turned away, seeming to sag and shrivel in the chair like a cushion with the stuffing pulled out.
“I’ll be going to bed now, Margaret, if you please.” That was all he said, but whilst I couldn’t escape the feeling of portent his silence carried I was filled with a bullish determination, so that I muttered ‘I AM going out’ repeatedly while I got his Horlicks and made his hot water bottle.

There was a skittish, party atmosphere in the shop next morning as the girls teased me about the evening to come, a flippant suggestion from Pam as to whether ‘Hot Rod’ might like to join us and a cross-examination from Vi over the intended outfit. The pleasure I normally derived from these exchanges, however was tempered by nagging anxiety, as my morning ministrations had been met by stony, grim faced silence from my father, prompting me to whisper ‘I’m STILL going out’ as I left the house.
Later, dashing homewards it was difficult to say whether my feverish nerves were due to the impending, unaccustomed jaunt or uneasiness about my father. Letting myself in I sensed a barely perceptible alteration in the atmosphere as if the air held an electrical charge, even though the television was burbling away as usual and Dad ensconced in front of it. I got no response to my ‘alright, Dad?’ or when I brought him the tray bearing his supper, upon which I’d lavished great care and attention.
“Right Dad, I’m going up to get ready now”, I said, but might as well have told it the TV screen. I went up and began attempting to squeeze myself into a black skirt I’d last worn about eighteen months ago and which had seemed a good idea for the quiz outing until I tried the recalcitrant zip. Gearing up for one last tug I was holding my breath and wrenching in my girth when I caught the sound of a thud from below. I let go of the zip and nipped out to the landing, skirt sagging round my hips. Beneath me at the foot of the stairs lay my father, prone, limbs flopping like a rag doll’s. I ran down. My heart beat with a strident pounding that throbbed in my chest and ears. Leaning down I noticed a liquid red line emerge from under his head and flow along following the join in the laminate floor. I straightened, stepped over him and into the kitchen. On the table the ‘Hercules Tours’ brochure remained, impassive, bearing a picture of the Taj under a blood red sky. I grabbed the phone and the kitchen towel, sat down on the hall floor. I lifted his head gently onto the towel, then my lap, observing the pale, waxy pallor of his skin, the shallow rasp of his breathing. I punched 999 into the phone, gave all the details.
“It’s alright Dad. There’s help coming” I said, as I smoothed the wisp of baby soft hair from his face. His eyelids, papery and almost translucent, trembled and his thin lips jerked to produce a word.
“Margaret?”
“Yes Dad. I’m here. You’re safe. Stay still now, till the ambulance comes.”
His voice quavered as a glint of wetness materialised in the corner of his eye.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Margaret.”
There was a distant sound of a siren now, as the ambulance approached. I looked away from him.
“I know Dad, I know.”

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Boxing Day-a daft party or a bun fight?

                When I was a child, spending my early years in the 50s, Boxing Days were passed with many of the traditional customs of the time. We’d visit relatives or have them visit us. We’d exchange gifts [the meaning of ‘Boxing’] and have tea. The visits would be to aunts, uncles and cousins and the gifts would be toys, games, puzzles or books. One of my favourite toys as a six year old was ‘Fuzzy Felt’, of which I had several sets. A set consisted of a felt board and a collection of felt characters and objects based around a theme. My preferred theme was the farmyard and I could occupy hours arranging the small figures and objects into different positions and scenarios. This, I think, was the beginning of story-telling for me. A cursory look on the web confirmed that Fuzzy Felt is still available, although now often termed ‘retro’. Invented in 1950, it was a ‘must have’ for children of the early 50s. My brothers favoured metal Meccano and occasionally allowed me to play with it, as with their train set, which occupied most of their bedroom floor.

                During the ensuing days we’d have to put in some time writing thank-you letters for all our gifts. My mother would have written a list of presents and donors, some of whom would have sent postal orders [also still available!] for an amount to be divided between the three of us. It could be tricky. One pound was not easily divisible into three, neither was ten shillings. We would receive 6 shillings and 8 pence from a pound or 3 shillings and 4 pence from ten shillings. It is not surprising that despite an innate deficiency in mathematical competency I was always able to remember what one pound, or ten shillings, divided by three was.

                It was a thrill to be allowed to stay up for a party, often held at our house. In those unsophisticated times it would consist of parlour games-in a circle or with pencils and paper. My father considered himself something of a wag and organised all of this including the ‘prizes’-items he’d fastened to the Christmas tree, including packets of indigestion tablets or a small tin of baked beans, all wrapped up.

                So what now, for Boxing Day? It seems vast numbers of people like to spend this next day of their holiday camping outside on a pavement in the cold and the howling gales waiting for a department store to open its doors, in order to join a galloping stampede into the interior and a fight to gain access to a designer handbag they cannot do without. I like a bargain as much as the next person but much as I wrack my brain I cannot think of a single object in a shop I’d wish to queue up all night in the cold for. Can you?

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 4]

It is 11.52pm when they pull in to the entrance to the lane leading to ‘The Orchard’.

“I’m going to have to leave the car here, sir. I don’t want to be going up there and not be able to maneuver or turn the rig round.”

“No problem! We can sort it out tomorrow. As I said, Rob will know what to do.”

Once the offending car has been detached from the truck the AA man is as eager for departure as Brian is for merriment. Brian pumps his hand, more in a desire for him to disappear than in gratitude, staying only briefly to wave as the truck rumbles away. Having stuffed his pajamas back into the overnight bag he sets off round the bend towards ‘The Orchard’.

It has stopped snowing. Against the inky sky there is the silhouette of a house, but as yet no sound or hint of light. He walks on to find a gate, more easily visible now that his eyes are accustomed to darkness, unlatches it and continues up a path to the front door. He stops to listen, straining to hear a hint of music or a voice, gazing at the windows for some chink of light, any sign of activity or, as a frisson of anxiety begins to insinuate itself, an indication of occupation. There is a small click. Brian is instantly illuminated by the security light, setting off a tirade of furious yapping from the bowels of the house. ‘Strange’, he muses ‘that they never mentioned owning a dog’. He procrastinates on the doorstep in a doldrum of indecision. It is clear even to him that there is no party taking place. The unnerving idea that this may be the wrong house fills him with dread, since he has waved off the kindly AA man to whom he’d exaggerated the description of his acquaintances as ‘almost family’. It is now twelve twenty one am and he is freezing.

Faced with the choice of once more donning his pajamas and towel and sleeping on the back seat of his car or rousing the inhabitants of this house, whoever they may be, Brian opts for throwing himself on the mercy of the householders even if they are strangers. At the sound of the doorbell the yapping acquires new vigor and he feels both anxious and relieved as an interior light is switched on and he hears a muffled voice. There is a momentary hiatus while locks and chain are undone then the door is opened a little to reveal part of a pajama-clad body topped by a pale, wary face. The face speaks.

“Yes?”

Brian feels weak with gratitude to some unformulated source that it is Rob who has answered the door, albeit not the party-animal Rob he’d envisioned; the ‘life-and-soul’ Rob of the pistes. Nevertheless this suspicious, guarded individual is recognizable as Rob.

“Hello Rob. Happy New Year!”

He proffers the half bottle of wine, affecting a merry grin in the hope that his teeth are not chattering too much. The distrustful figure in the doorway peers further out at him, blinking until recognition dawns.

“Oh it’s um..”

“Brian. From skiing! You know. Last February”

“Brian. Yes. Brian. From skiing.”

There is an interval during which Brian lowers the wine bottle to his side and Rob continues to stand in the small gap he has allowed between the door and the frame and contemplate the visitor. Somewhere in the background the yapping continues apace.

“What did you want Brian?”

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 3]

Thumping! Brian starts awake, wild eyed, dropping the wine bottle into his overnight bag, an intense, dazzling light in his face and an urgent thumping on the window. ‘Just a minute!’ he tries to shout, managing a feeble croak. He fumbles with frozen fingers to open the rear door which eventually opens with a gasping crack, having been yanked from the outside. A large, unearthly figure swathed in black is bending in to scrutinize him, playing a flashlight over the interior of the car. For a fleeting, delirious moment Brian believes he has expired; that this horrific apparition has materialized in the afterlife to exact retribution for his earthly sins.

“Good evening sir. Are you alright?”

Speechless, Brian feels an ignominious, hot welling of tears behind his eyes as he struggles to get a grip on his emotions at being found. Minutes later he is sitting in the police land rover clutching a hot cup of tea while the officer calls the AA number he has given him.

“Rescue vehicle is on its way sir,” the policeman tells him. The dashboard clock is showing 10.48pm. Flooded with a surge of optimism, Brian grasps that he has not missed the entire party, because it is a New Year’s celebration, and the nature of New Year’s parties is to extend up to, and indeed well beyond midnight. He pictures himself arriving at Rob and Shelley’s, hearing raucous laughter and the thudding beat of loud music, windows all lit and pulsating figures gyrating within. He will apologize for his lateness, explain his predicament, present the remnants of the wine, be hailed as a hero, exclaimed over, pressed with drinks and nibbles, surrounded by sympathetic, admiring women.

Whilst it takes longer than Brian has anticipated for the AA man to attach the defective car to the breakdown truck he calculates that he will still get to the party in plenty of time.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go home sir? You won’t be the only person not attending, I’m sure, then there’s the car. You’ll have that to deal with. How will you get it back?”

“No! These friends of mine, they’re almost family! They’ll be disappointed if I don’t turn up, and Rob’ll help with the car tomorrow. He knows loads about electrics.”

“How about calling them, though, sir? Just to be sure?”

“I doubt if they’d hear it!” Brian chuckles. “No, let’s just carry on and get there. It’ll be fine.”

They lapse into a silence burdened with the AA man’s skepticism.

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon [part 1]

Brian Meadon peers out into the darkness and is forced to admit a grudging fascination for the way the snowflakes are looming out of the sky and settling in an ominous and ever growing heap on his car’s windscreen. His initial feelings of hot anger and frustration with the car’s failings have ebbed away to be replaced with somewhat colder resignation. There is still just enough light outside to make out the writing on a road sign beyond his lay-by. ‘Stoodley Interchange’, it asserts, taunting Brian with confident superiority, even though accumulations of snow are creeping up its legs.

Settling back into his driving seat once more, Brian decides to give his phone another go. He is pleased with the way he’d remembered to charge up the battery, a task he’d frequently been accused of neglecting by his ex-wife. This small celebration of competence affords him a slight, smug smile until yet again ‘no signal’ appears on the screen in an impudent gesture almost as if it were conspiring with the road sign to gang up on him. At least the phone’s tiny screen casts a little light.

Brian shivers. He attempts to recall the advice being provided by experts on this morning’s Beeb’s news programme but it had been burbling away as a background to packing. If he’d not been carried away with optimistic anticipation of the evening revelries to come he might have paid more close attention to the weather warnings and in particular to dire predictions concerning road travel. What was one meant to do? Firstly, you should not travel at all unless your journey is absolutely vital. ‘Well’, thinks Brian, ‘It is vital to my wellbeing to have a bit of fun, so I’ve covered that one’. Secondly, you should ensure that loved ones know your whereabouts and your travel plans. Brian feels uneasy about this one, since although he has made Jackie, his ex aware that he has been invited to a ‘country house New Year festivity’ somewhere in Berkshire he had not been motivated so much by a need for self preservation, more a desire to demonstrate what a popular, well-connected and upwardly mobile fellow he has become since they split up. ‘Neither is she a loved one!’ he speaks aloud into the silent phone. He has not brought a shovel or a torch, but these would be of no assistance as the car is going nowhere, snow or not. A flask of coffee, however and a warm blanket, he has to admit, would have been very welcome by now.

Seasonal Tales

                It feels lucky to live in a country that has four seasons; or at least, for the majority of my life there has been a spring, summer, autumn and winter. I have also been lucky enough to have lived most of my life in places where the waxing and waning of the seasons could be clearly seen and experienced.

                One of my early memories of the tiny, village school I attended is the Halloween party we’d have. There would be a tin bath of apples in water for us to try ‘bobbing’ for and iced buns on strings we’d have to eat without using hands, games like ‘Blind Man’ Buff’ and ‘Squeak Piggy Squeak’. At the end of the day our headteacher, a stern, formidable woman, would read us an abridged version of the Scottish story of Tam O’Shanter, from an epic poem by Robert Burns, which tells of a drunken man who spies on partying witches on All Hallows’ Eve and is pursued by them. Even once I knew the ending it never failed to induce a delicious terror as Tam rode furiously towards the river to attempt to shake off the witches and his poor mare got her tail pulled off.

                Nowadays Halloween has been hijacked by the American custom of ‘trick or treat’, a pursuit we knew nothing of as children. The shops are packed with elaborate costumes ranging from pumpkin to Dracula, from devil to zombie. I have even spotted a first, newborn-sized all-in-one suit decorated with a skeleton and tried to imagine who might buy such a garment.

                We live on a street with few young families and rarely get mugged on our own doorstep for ‘treats’. I do, however take a dim view of the entire operation. It is not a British tradition. It is begging. If the tots are accompanied by their parents the parents should know better. If they are not, the parents should be prosecuted for neglect. This may seem a humbug attitude to those for whom a traditional, British experience of the seasons is unknown but I am unapologetic. The year’s milestones and celebrations should be simple, grass roots affairs, not monopolized by gift shops or inundated with marketing opportunities.

                Thankfully, although fireworks have become as ubiquitous as talent shows, our very own, English November 5th revelries are as yet little known in the wide world. A few years ago I happened to be returning by plane at night from a trip away and as the plane began to make its descent over London a rash of colourful explosions spread over the sky below us, prompting fellow passengers to exclaim in surprise. Of course they know nothing of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot and I’m sorry to say I felt a little smug, despite not having celebrated bonfire night for many years. At least this is one celebration we can still call our own!