Ripple [Part 2]

Part One of ‘Ripple’ can be found in last week’s post [January 7th]. In this concluding episode Oliver is drawn to the canal he’s avoided for so long…

Ripple

            …His phone rings. Wrenching his eyes from the laptop he dives from the swivel chair and snaps the lid down on the device.
“Oliver Grantley” he croaks into his phone.
“Olly it’s only me, Mel! What’s with the formality?”
There is a pause. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I was working. The phone has broken my train of thought.” Oliver doesn’t want this. Doesn’t want his sister to know what he’s seen. She will think he’s lost it. Maybe he has lost it.
“I’m really sorry, Olly. It’s good that you’re working though. Are you sure you won’t change your mind and come round tonight?”
“I’m busy tonight, meeting a friend. We’re going for a drink.”
“Oh Olly! That’s great! Is it anyone we know? Male or female?”
Oliver stutters, frowning. “No. No one you know. It’s someone from work.”
“What’s her name then?”
Now all he wants is to tell his sister to get lost. “Paula. Her name’s Paula. Look, I have to go. I have a report to finish.”
“Alright Olly. But I want to know how it goes tonight. Call me back tomorrow!”
At last she hangs up. He tosses the phone on to the sofa, folds his arms and looks out at the city. After a moment he goes to the kitchen and swallows a couple more pills before going to his desk and glowering at the offending computer. He lunges forward, snatches it and stuffs it into his bag.
Outside the breeze has stiffened, whipping up eddies of litter and dust and tugging harder at his collar as he strides along. His deceased wife’s throaty laugh swirls around him in the wind. How many nights had he spent in the guest room after her claims of feeling ‘too exhausted for company’? How many times had he put his hand in his pocket to fund yet another ‘night out with a friend’? He could stand these deceits, and more if she’d shown him some affection instead of scornful jibes and mocking laughter.
He’s walked half a mile or so before he realises where he is; on the tow path. He stops, hitching the bag higher on his shoulder, takes a few steps to a bench and sits. The flowing canal is mesmerising, travelling along in it’s relentless passage to the harbour, carrying small islands of detritus-tangled sticks, discarded coffee cups and bits of polystyrene packaging or plastic bottles. He shivers. When they’d walked here last summer it had seemed romantic. He’d felt proud showing her the waterside. There had been swans bobbing on the water and a kingfisher darting amongst the willow trees that hung over the bank trailing leafy fronds, leaving ripples.
Today’s ripples are from the insistent, blustery wind. Beneath the surface there are dark, wavy shapes like hair; like black, glossy hair and the air is rank with an earthy smell of rotting vegetation. He leaves his bag on the bench and shuffles towards the canal side, drawn by the undulating contours below the water. He peers down. She’d asked him if there were fish he remembers and they’d leaned down to see. He’d put a restraining arm around her for protection. Weeks later he’d followed her, watching her swaying hips as she made her way down to the canal, hiding in the lush undergrowth while she lay on the bench with her lover, her skirt pushed up and her head thrown back as the other man drew his lips along her long, white throat.
Afterwards the man had left without a backward glance, striding away on the path, smoothing his hair and tucking his shirt in.
Under the wrinkly surface there are pale shapes, sometimes still, sometimes moving like soft, creamy limbs in the flow. This is where they’d found her. Oliver had been in the flat when they came to tell him how they’d pulled her from the canal, speaking in hushed voices, solicitous, offering counselling, offering to call someone. He shouldn’t be on his own, they’d said.
Later he’d had to go and identify her as she lay on a slab, her cold features bleached, her ivory skin blue-tinged; no trace of scorn remained on her pale lips, no remnant of guile under her dark eyelashes.
They’d traced the man from forensic traces along the path.
“He got what he deserved” Mel had said when Nerina’s lover was sentenced to life.            But Oliver knows better.
He is on the edge now, leaning forwards towards the shapes, drawn by them. She’d stood on the verge, her back to him as he’d emerged from his hiding place. He’d only meant to shock her, to make her see sense, to see how angry he was. She’d hit the water without much of a splash and the sounds were more like strangled squeaks than a scream, her slender arms flaying a little, making circles of ripples that radiated out from her head as it sank. A steady flow of bubbles rose to the surface, slowing after a couple of minutes then the brown, snaking canal had continued on as before.
A white hand flutters among the weed, beckoning. On the surface her face is appearing again, swaying in the ripples, mouth half open, smiling. A gust of wind rushes through the trees on the bank, roaring in his ears as he takes another step towards the undulating shape, where her arms are open to receive him.
In the bag on the bench Oliver’s laptop is wide awake, its blue screen oscillating as a gentle stream of bubbles rises from the bottom to the top in a never-ending stream.
 

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Ripple [Part 1]

While I am away and  doing internet cold turkey for a couple of weeks I’ve left you a brand new two-part story. Is Oliver delusional? Or is there really something sinister happening on his computer?

Ripple

             It is there again, rippling the surface; an outline surfacing and receding against the background. Oliver rubs his eyes and peers again at the blue screen. Now there is nothing under the desktop shortcuts. He makes a mental note to take the laptop into town.
He stretches, rises and walks to the tall wall of glass where he gazes out over the cityscape. It is an arresting view, even for one who lives such a large part of his life in front of a screen. The city stretches away, a pleasing mix of old and new dotted with ancient steepled churches and elegant, high rise skyscrapers and further away the sweep of the harbour with a variety of shipping docking and embarking day and night. Immediately below his block the silver snake of the canal winds its way around the parks and estates on its way out to port. But Oliver does not glance down, ever. He prefers to see further into the distance and away.
His phone buzzes, breaking into his thoughts.
“Are you ok?”
Melanie. She has assumed responsibility for his wellbeing despite his protests that he is fine.
“Yes. I’m alright. You don’t need to keep ringing.”
Mel laughs. “You’re such a charmer, Olly! I’m only looking out for you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Have you been out today? You should get out. It isn’t good to sit at home brooding.”
“I’m not brooding. I’m working. And I do have to go out because my laptop’s playing up. I may need to get a new one.”
His sister sighs. “Is that the only reason to go out? You could just walk! How about meeting for lunch somewhere? Or come here to eat this evening?”
Oliver shudders. He’d have to sit around the table with noisy, prattling kids, make small talk, Mel and Charlie tiptoeing around his feelings like bomb disposal experts.
He grabs a jacket, stuffs the errant laptop and lead into its bag, grabs his keys and steps out of the apartment to summon the lift. In the lobby he grunts a peremptory reply to the doorman’s greeting before exiting through the revolving glass door and down the steps to the street. Pulling his collar together tight against the blustery wind he turns left and left again rather than continuing along to Canal Street, which would be the shortest route into town. Oliver has not walked along the towpath for eight months and has no intention of going there again, ever.
Nerina haunts his thoughts as always, day and night. As he walks he tries to picture her but succeeds only in conjuring parts of his wife- her smooth, white throat as she laughed, the black curls that fell down her back, the velvet soft touch of her and her husky voice as she spoke in her accented English. How she’d mocked him, her sly, sideways look as she posed in front of their mirror before telling him she had to go out. The way she dressed, a sensuous smile as she pulled on a sheer stocking or applied glossy, red lipstick.
At the store counter he unpacks the laptop, explaining the issue with its screen. The assistant, Paula according to her badge, turns the screen to the side for him to show her the fault. But there is nothing; no vestige of the movement he’d been witnessing. Oliver frowns, feeling a heat rise to his face. Paula smiles an open, sympathetic grin.
“Don’t be embarrassed! It’s common for devices’ faults to disappear like magic as soon as customers step through the doors with them. It’s almost as if the threat of repair is enough to make them behave!” She laughs; a deep, throaty bellow that forces Oliver to stare up into her face. It is a broad, guileless face, not pretty but honest; a face accustomed to laughter. For a moment he feels his shoulders relaxing, feels the tension draining down towards his feet. He nods at Paula, stows the errant laptop in the bag and thanks her.
“Bring it back if it starts playing up again” she advises him, before turning to another customer.
Oliver feels lighter as he exits the store and heads for home. He’ll try and eat something then get on with the figures he is supposed to be producing for a company report.
In his kitchen he can think of nothing he wants to eat and opts instead for a couple of the prescription tablets, standing at the sink, pressing the tiny, white capsules from their foil wrapping and swilling them down with a mouthful of water.
At his desk he opens the laptop lid and switches on, waiting for his password prompt and taking the deep breaths he’s been coached to employ if he feels a sense of panic. As he taps in the password his palms grow damp and he wipes them on his jeans as he waits for everything to load. The desktop shortcuts appear, nothing else. He exhales and thinks of Paula’s kind, friendly face as he clicks on his work folder and scans the files for his current spreadsheet. The white screen underneath the figures is flat and stable. Oliver breathes, closing his eyes to relish the relief.
He begins to work, clicking on each cell, highlighting, deleting and replacing. Needing to refer to some previous notes he rifles through some papers in a cardboard folder beside the laptop. Sheet in hand he turns back to the screen. It is heart-stopping. Oliver feels his pulse thumping as he takes short, shallow breaths, the blood draining from his face. He stares. The outline has reappeared, more defined now, undulating but clear. It is a face; a face he knows; the pronounced cheek bones, almond-shaped eyes and full lips. Nerina. He starts as her eyes flash open, the paper dropping to the floor. Her sensual lips part in the shape of a word as the image floats on the screen. She smiles, continues to mouth the word.
Oliver has dreamed of hearing Nerina’s husky voice; has lain awake at night bathed in perspiration, longing for her but now he dreads to turn on the volume switch, fearful of listening, although he knows what it is she is saying. He should switch off. He should shut down, power off, pull the plug. He shudders, transfixed by her rippling features, strands of her curls drifting in a rectangular pool…

      Check in to Anecdotage next week for Part 2 of ‘Ripple’.

How do you Watch?

My maternal grandmother measured around four foot six inches in height and looked about the same distance in width. She was a complex character, at once merry and childlike but also prone to emotional outbursts. As a young child I adored her and loved nothing more than to snuggle up in her bed [once my austere, child-hating grandfather was up] listening to her nonsense rhymes and the funny stories that caused her to laugh with an infectious guffaw.

She ate an appalling diet of cream cakes, sweets and puddings, never moved unless she had to and lived to a ripe old age of ninety-eight.

She was also addicted to television, watching it for as many hours as it aired, which in those days was not twenty-four/seven but test card to close-down, when the screen would diminish into a tiny dot and disappear. She loved to sit on the sofa munching her way through a bag of sweets and watch whatever was on, distracted only by the sound of an approaching ice-cream van tinkling its jolly, summoning tune, at which she’d reach for her bag, withdraw a note and send one of us out to get a round in.

Spending time with my grandparents became trickier as I got older. The nonsense rhymes lost their appeal along with the long sessions of lolling on the sofa watching endless TV. One of her favourite programmes was ‘Peyton Place’, an American soap opera of the sixties which kick-started the careers of such actors as Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. We children were not allowed to touch the TV buttons, on pain of the wrath of my grandfather, who also considered that the court drama ‘Perry Mason’ was too ‘deep’ for us.

During stays longer than a couple of days I’d feel an urgent need to get out and away from the endless hours of television, although the soulless estate the claustrophobic bungalow occupied was not over-conducive to walking. I’d wander the identical streets and stare into the windows of the shops in a small row called ‘The Cut’. At last, in an area of wasteland near to the estate I discovered a diversion that would take me as near to heaven as a pony-mad child could be: a riding stables. Thereafter I spent all my pocket money riding and any other time cleaning tack, mucking out and volunteering my services.

Grandma would be astonished to see how many channels there are on TV now and even more amazed at the ways we can view; recorded, I-player, Netflix and the rest. But what astonishes me is that despite the plethora of footage of one sort or another, how little there is that is worth devoting any time to. Since we returned from travel we’ve watched a so-so detective serial, some historical drama and the news. We almost never watch anything on commercial channels except for the channel 4 news.

The future of TV is even more uncertain as the young turn away in favour of alternative screens, gaming and interactive viewing. So It’s unlikely I’ll follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, few as they were!

The Dark Screen of Ignorance

You have to chuckle at some journalist’s ideas of we older folks. They consider us to be bumbling techno-phobes who cannot fathom the mysteries of computer-thingies or cope with new-fangled technologies such as mobile phones. ‘Older people’ are often cited in articles or programmes about how portions of society are ‘missing out’ owing to their circumstances. Their bills are higher for not being on line; their inability to surf leaves them stuck with High Street offerings.

It is true, however that there are still substantial numbers of people who, whilst having some access to computers via libraries and so on continue to be stuck in a time warp where developing technology is concerned. I hope some members of my lovely writing group will forgive me when I say that communication has become tricky without the facility of email and that access to information, sharing of work and ideas has never been easier than it is in this age of the internet.

Take social networking. Since Facebook became, much to the annoyance of the young, mainstream, many of my peers adopted it, irritating the young to a point where they all left in disgust. Those who didn’t cited worries over security, concerns over boring content or fears that it is somehow irrelevant or not intellectually challenging enough as reasons. Of course all of these things are true to an extent, however facilities exist to eliminate them. You adjust the settings on security, you scroll past the boring or the mundane. A great deal of the sniping over social media, I feel is fear disguised as snobbery. Who wants to be caught looking at a friend’s holiday snaps? It might make you appear to be interested. Horrors!

Keeping up with developing technology is tricky. As soon as we grasped the fundamentals of email and Google there were Smartphones and apps to deal with. ‘Don’t you Skype?’ ‘Don’t you do Instagram?’ ‘Don’t you use Dropbox?’ The relentless inundation of innovation can leave you flailing with inadequacy; but rather than shrinking in horror at the idea of adopting new technological developments we need to try and apply our ageing brain cells to it.

Of course all this is very well when your children are on hand to assist. Once they have flown the coop though you may find yourself adrift as I did yesterday, making a nail-biting trip to PC World and steeling myself for the fifty pounds fee to repair my laptop, which stubbornly refused to illuminate its screen when unplugged. The cheerful assistant offered me a jaunty smile as he pressed a button on the keyboard, restoring light to the screen. Little wonder-he can dine out [if his PC World salary allows] on the tale of the geriatric ignoramus.

The Not Quite World Wide Web

New year, new phone. My twenty four month contract [with a well known supermarket which shall remain nameless] was due to expire. I’d never been entirely thrilled with the phone. Though larger than its predecessor it was still tiny. It was also slow enough for me to be able to hoover the entire house or read all of War and Peace while it loaded anything and possessed the memory capacity of an average flea [and certainly less than our garden pond fish, who remember they are ravenous a whole winter after they’ve been fed]; besides, its screen size was inadequate for someone of advancing years and less than perfect eyesight.

The expiry gave me a chance to review my technological needs. If I had one, single, overriding aspiration it was to acquire mobile internet-that which some call ‘a dongle’.

If you’ve followed Anecdotage throughout the three [yes, three!] years I’ve been churning it out you will know that on occasions I, along with Husband clamber into a home-on-wheels and set off to destinations afar. Access to internet has always been inconsistent. Sometimes there are extravagant claims that Wifi is free and available throughout a site and there is nothing of the sort. Other times we pay some ridiculous sum for the privilege of two hours access on one device only to find-it is not available. Or we can get internet if we stand on top of a picnic table outside the toilets as long as nobody else in the vicinity is hunched over their laptop. Often we are teased by intermittent flashes of connection only to have our hopes dashed before Google has so much as loaded the local tourist board website or I am halfway through one of the long distance Scrabble turns I’m in the habit of taking. We skirmish over who has priority over the one hour’s Wifi on one device. I stress about getting blog posts published [yes, yes, it is a load of rubbish-but still…].

Now I have it; mobile internet-a ‘dongle’ if you like. It is a little, dinky, white slab like a pebble with a black gash along the centre. That’s all. I have tried it at home and it works. Eureka! Now I just have to travel somewhere.

In a week or so we are off to the Caribbean. Last year I reached a new nadir in my mobile phone experiences when all the credit on the tiny, useless phone got sucked out of it within about twenty seconds as I foolishly attempted a Facebook ‘check-in’. The subsequent complications [when there was no credit to phone the bank regarding failed cash withdrawals] are too painful to relate. Barbados has some of the most expensive mobile charges in the world.

The bad news? The little dongley-thing will not work in the West Indies, due to there being no agreement with any of those islands. One thing I know: I will not be using my new [much improved] phone for anything once I am there!

Odious ads and Radio Balm

                I always consider we are lucky, here in the UK, to have a commercial free broadcaster. Yes, I know that the BBC has had to take some stick for transgressions lately, both current and historic, -but during periods of travel, when we have had to digest news alongside adverts, I’ve found the TV almost impossible to watch. You get one, aggressively hyper story, delivered in a full-on, excitable manner, followed by what seems like half an hour of fragrant persuasion on the subject of Durex condoms or haemorrhoid cream. The adverts are always much louder than the programme itself, which to me is a most annoying, cynical and patronising ruse.

                Though I seldom watch commercial channels, when I do I am able to appreciate the artistry, irony or wit of the entertaining advert. Many, such as the Cadbury’s Smash ads for instant mashed potato in the 70s, or the Guinness ads of the 90s belong to a kind of commercials ‘hall of fame’. Many, like the Meerkats ‘Simples’ begin by being entertaining and become increasingly tiresome as time goes by.

                One thing I find hard to understand is how advertising can possibly work. I cannot think of one single commodity that I’ve bought as a result of watching a TV commercial. I can see how children become ensnared by their wiles, but fully functioning adults should be able to resist, surely? Or are we all prey to some underlying, subconscious thread that works away when we are unaware or asleep?

                Then there are all the annoying, animated ads that dot the screen when we’re attempting to undertake a serious Scrabble move, share what we are cooking for dinner on FB, look at a news website, forward a funny email or put in a bid on Ebay. They are there, flickering and buzzing away off to the side or on top. Sometimes a little delicate scrolling can put them out of sight, or there is a chance to ‘hide’ them, but mostly they continue to blemish the screen. Heaven knows what any of them are for-I certainly don’t look and I don’t know anyone who does.

                Most of all I’m a fan of talk radio. I can get my regular dose of a ‘soap’, news updates, documentaries, comedy, comment and debate, magazine programmes, consumer programmes, quality plays and literature without any kind of interruption from anyone trying to sell me anything. And all of this can be delivered while I’m occupied, undertaking the sort of menial tasks that might otherwise be quite tedious, such as ironing, washing the floor or peeling potatoes. The visual image, I feel is overrated, just as books, for me are generally superior to their film versions. I expect it’s a generational thing, setting me, as usual, amongst the dinosaurs of the world!