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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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…]

Not the Lover that Rhymes with Cover…

I’ve begun to notice interesting developments on social media recently. Some conversation threads have started to engage and pull in Facebook contacts from different spheres.

Take, for instance a news snippet concerning Lover. Lover [correctly pronounced Low-ver and rhyming with Dover] is a tiny satellite hamlet and part of a much smaller village called Redlynch, in the county of Wiltshire, England. For many years Lover post office has cashed in on its oft mis-pronounced name whenever Valentine’s Day became a distant speck on the horizon of February. Would-be beaux, belles and partners have made a habit of flocking to this backwater to post their cards and declarations of love in order to have ‘Lover’ stamped upon the outside of their envelopes.

In 1957, at the age of four I began school life in Lover, walking down through the village with my mother on the very first day only and after that having to accompany my brothers. There was no soft, part-time option, no lollipop person to see us across roads [there was no traffic either], no inside toilets-[a bucket under a wooden seat in a building across the playground sufficed], only two classes-infants and juniors-and thirty seven or so children altogether. We played all together in the playground [schoolyard], did country dancing to the accompaniment of a wind-up record player and played rounders on the field at the back which was shared by a farmer’s dairy herd. Anyone succeeding in attaining a rounder would have to run the gauntlet of cow deposits as well as fielders.

I loved my infant teacher, Miss Hunter with a devotion matched only by my fear of the head-teacher and junior class teacher, Mrs Reardon. Miss Hunter taught us fractions by bringing in a beautiful Battenburg cake that demonstrated halves and quarters. Mrs Reardon violated my fragile confidence by shaming me in front of the class for my ignorance in the mysteries of tracing. Miss Hunter took us for nature walks, holding hands with our partners in a long, snaking crocodile as we learned the names of trees and wild flowers. Mrs Reardon applied soap to the mouth of a small, swearing boy so that he ran around the playground crying and frothing at the lips.

I was in the junior class for a short period, probably no more than a year and yet I spent a good deal of it sitting by an older girl to help her with her grey, English workbook-mortifying for her and tedious for me. Distractions were provided by newts inserted into inkwells [we had to dip our pens into them, never managing to write without the inevitable blot] or someone’s misdemeanour prompting a few whacks across their palms. I laboured over sums involving pounds, shillings and pence or stones, pounds and ounces or yards, feet and inches.

At age seven my family moved to a different part of the country for my father to take up a promotion. There I attended another two-class primary school in a rural area-this time almost remote enough to be another country-but that is altogether another story…

A Very Happy Christmas to all Anecdotage Followers and Visitors-

Since Anecdotage is on Christmas Day this year I’m posting a seasonal story on the blog. While it is a story for children it is also a parable of our times. The birds in our own garden seem to have definite characters, making them ideal fodder for fiction…

Goodwill to All Birds

                  Rowena Robinson was huddled on the spindly branches of the lilac tree. Her feathers were puffed up like a seeding dandelion while Roy, on the branch above her was filling the garden with a selection of his latest songs.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering with that rubbish!” Rowena nagged. “Nobody is taking any notice. It won’t get us any nearer to the peanuts; not with that rabble hogging the bird feeders.”

She jerked her beak at the bird table across the lawn. The Starling family, all seven of them, were feasting there, tearing into the peanuts and the suet as if it was their last meal on earth. Shreds of food rained down upon the grass. Rowena shook her head. “Their manners are terrible! Look at the mess they make! No wonder their chicks are so badly behaved, with the bad example they set. And why do they have so many children? Three or four is enough for any bird, surely?”

Roy hopped down to join his wife. Cold and hunger was making her bad tempered.

“They are hungry too, my love. Perhaps we should call them the Starvling family! And if they drop scraps on to the grass it’s easier for some of the smaller birds like Jenny to pick it up. Wrens prefer the ground for feeding after all. Stevie and his chicks will be done in a minute then we will get a turn at those nuts. We’ll need some supper. It’ll be dark soon.”

Sure enough a light came on in the house, illuminating the garden and prompting the Starlings to rise up like a cloud and swoop away over the fence. As the Robinsons prepared to fly over to the bird table a door slid open on the patio and the giant figure of a girl chick stepped out. Rowena turned back with a squawk of alarm as her husband landed on the stones next to the girl’s feet. He bowed several times in front of the enormous figure, who stood still and murmured to him in her strange tongue. In her hand she held a bag and now she shook it over the stones, peppering the ground with delicious seeds, nuts and mealworms.

Roy called to Rowena, “Come on over, dear. There’s enough food here to feed a flock!” But she shrank back into the tree, trembling.

“Roy! Get out of there! It isn’t safe.”

He hopped over and looked up at her. “Dear, the people won’t hurt us. They like us. They are the ones who put all this food out. We must show them we like them too. When we gather around them and sing they keep feeding us.”

He coaxed her from the tree, leading her on to the stone slabs to where the girl, Millie was standing.

Later, feeling well-fed in their cosy roost as they prepared for sleep, Roy was explaining about the family in the house. “That one you saw, the one who served us the meal; that was a hen-chick. They call it a girl in human language. I don’t think she lives in the house but she visits quite often”

“Girl” Rowena murmured.

“Then there’s an old hen. She lives there all the time. They call it a woman.”

Rowena yawned. “How do you know she’s old?”

“Well her feathers are all white and straggly. Of course, the poor things only have feathers on their heads and they can’t even fly.” He turned to his wife but she was asleep.

The next morning, after a quick preen and a beak wipe they peered out to see Mark and Mandy Magpie strutting around as if they owned the place and making their usual racket. The other birds hung around at a distance listening to what sounded like pistol volleys. Rowena sighed.

“Not much chance of breakfast any time soon, then.”

“No-but they are the only ones who can keep Squirrel at bay, so they have their uses! What do you think that is?” Roy indicated a bedraggled, grey mound of feathers on the slabs by the door. Rowena stared, aghast. “Oh Roy! Do you think that dreadful cat’s been here again?” She shuddered, remembering the last time the fearful beast had terrorised the inhabitants of the garden.

“I’m going to take a closer look.”

“Roy you can’t! It isn’t safe with the Magpies there!”

But he’d already taken off. He flew over to the patio and perched on a window ledge above the feathers, ignored by Mark and Mandy who were squabbling and squawking over a fat ball they both wanted. Rowena saw Roy bend towards the feathers as he chirped at it then was astonished to see the feathers move! A bedraggled head appeared and peered up at her husband.

Just then the door opened and Millie stepped out. Mark and Mandy screeched and rose up grumbling to retire to the nearest tree but Roy stayed where he was, watching. When the girl-chick spotted the heap of feathers and got down to look at it Rowena gasped, for the heap of feathers did not get up and fly away or even try to move. The girl-chick went back inside the house and Roy glided back to his wife.

“It’s a pigeon, Row. His name is Preston. I know pigeons aren’t very clever and they’re a bit common but he’s in a bad way. I think his wing is injured. He says a car hit him. Look-the girl-chick is coming back out.”

Millie returned. In one hand she held the peanut bag they all knew so well, in the other a saucer of water. She knelt by the pigeon and placed the water and some peanuts next to him. Then withdrew to the other end of the patio. Preston raised his head to stare over at Roy.

“It’s alright” chirped the robin. “The girl-chick won’t hurt you. She helps us all.”

“Shush, Roy! You know we don’t talk to pigeons! They come in here from miles away and take all our food and water!”

Roy cocked his head to one side. “My love, we are lucky to be very well looked after here in this garden. Does it really matter where this poor bird is from or who he is? He may not be like us but he is a bird all the same. There is enough to go around, whoever needs it, isn’t there?”

“I suppose so. But he won’t stand much of a chance if he stays there anyway. Fox will get him.”

She was right, thought Roy.

The next morning Preston wasn’t there and in his place was a box. Millie stepped outside and poured some nuts into it. “Is it some new kind of bird feeder?” Rowena asked and Roy went to look. “He’s in the box, Row! Preston is in there!”

“Don’t be daft, Roy. Have you been eating those rotten apples again?”

“It’s true-go and see for yourself.”

She took off and made a cautious circuit over the patio, peering down at the box before returning to their branch. “He seems a bit better today-more perky and he’s tidied himself up a bit.”

Two days later they woke to see Preston standing on the slabs tucking into a saucer of peanuts. Roy called to him. “How’s it going? You’re looking much better.”

The grey wood pigeon took a few wobbly steps towards the edge of the slabs. “Since the girl-chick gave me food and a safe place to sleep my wing is starting to feel less painful. I might try a few exercises after breakfast.”

“Take care, friend,” warned Roy, “The Magpies can be very rough and we sometimes get Fox here in the garden, too!”

They watched as Preston hopped around the garden, flexing his wings and wincing then propelling himself half a metre into the air in a series of leaps whilst flapping. At last he flopped on to the slabs for a rest.

“He’s persistent. I’ll give him that.” Rowena glanced sideways at her husband.

Preston got stronger every day until one morning they woke to see him flying around the garden and making experimental landings on branches and the grass. He stopped on the ground flower bed below them and squinted up with one beady eye.

“I’m off this morning. I’ll say Cheerio. Might be back some time. Thanks for all your help.”

Roy flicked his tail. “Take care friend. You know where we are.”

Preston bowed deeply before making an ungainly ascent, circling once and then heading west. They watched in silence until he became a tiny speck. The patio door slid open and Millie stepped out, looking about her and into the box, which was empty. She called something into the house behind her and a short, old hen-person came out to stand by her.

Roy took off, calling to Rowena. “Come on!”

“What are you?…” Rowena spluttered but flew to join him on the patio next to the two humans. “Sing, my love. Sing with all your heart!”

The Robinsons perched together on the edge of the bird bath, serenading the hen and girl-chick as they stood smiling outside the door. Millie clapped her hands. “That was so beautiful. Thank you. I expect you’re hungry after all that singing!”

She sprinkled a liberal helping of peanuts on to the slabs in front of them.

“There-you see?” Roy nodded at his wife. “We are so lucky. We live in the best garden in the world.”

Fiction Month: Renaissance.

      Fiction month concludes today with an extra story-dedicated to anyone who, like myself was a child of the fifties when television was in its infancy and children’s programmes reflected the times. This was an era that pre-dated political correctness, colour TV, children’s presenters and all that ensued and for all its crude presentation held a kind of naive innocence. One of my own childhood favourites was ‘The Woodentops’ which first aired in 1955. To view a sample, visit youtube.

Renaissance

                She stirs. Her eyelids part in a narrow slit although it is still dark. What has woken her? She shudders and feels a sharp intrusive dig on her left side, wedged as she is between two others.  There it is again; a blow to her ribs. Her eyelids widen as she gasps, feeling around with her right hand for the offending weapon. An elbow.

‘Jenny!’

She stiffens. ‘Get off me! What are you doing?’ Her small, high voice is thick and slurred from under-use.

‘There’s someone out there. I can hear sounds-steps. Listen.’

Jenny groans. ‘Leave me alone, Will. I’m asleep.’

‘You’re not asleep. You are talking to me.’

She lifts her head as far as the space will allow. In the oppressive darkness of their space there are rhythmic snores amid the sighing breaths and snuffles of sleep as well as an occasional whimpering yap from the dog as he dreams of biscuits and buried bones.

‘There!’

She feels her brother’s hissing breath as the sound of steps approaching and receding invades her consciousness. In the gloom she knows he is listening too just as she knows everything he is thinking. After a moment a thin strip of light appears below them along the floor. She takes in a sharp breath and needs to cough but stifles it, reaching instead for her twin’s hand. There is an abrupt rattle as the door knob is twisted which prompts rousing from the others and whimpering from the baby, who threatens to howl.

‘Did you hear the voices?’ Jenny can feel Will trembling. The dog is stirring, a low growl heralding what could become a tirade of barking.

‘Don’t panic. I’ve got him.’ It is their father who has wrapped a restraining hand around the dog’s muzzle.

They are all awake now and straining to hear. The footsteps have disappeared but the light remains. Jenny frowns, trying to think how long they’ve been here and what prompted them to have been banished to this dark, musty cell. She can remember someone saying they should be kept as she was brought in but none of them knew what they did to be banished and hidden away like pariahs. If the footsteps return they might find out. She allows herself to hope.

She tries to stretch her limbs but in doing so elicits an outraged ‘Oy! Watch yourself!’’ from Sam who is squeezed next to her other side.

Mrs Scrubitt’s voice is tremulous as she utters, voicing all their thoughts into the half- light. “What are they going to do with us? They might be having a clear-out, like. Will they be…doing away with us, do you think?’

Jenny trembles. Sam’s mum is right. They could be cast into a bin somewhere or thrown on to a bonfire. Mummy intervenes. ‘There’s no use in worrying what’ll happen. What will be, will be. Whatever they do we’ll be all together, like always.’

They are startled into silence then as the footsteps return, more this time. There are voices at the door and they hear a key in the lock. The door opens, deluging their small closet with blinding light, forcing them to wince and squint at the unaccustomed brightness.

Jenny swallows and lifts her chin as they prepare to face whatever fate awaits them. A large face looms into hers and she shrinks back into a space she does not have. There are two of them scrutinising, exclaiming.

‘Take care! They’re very old, you know-nearly seventy years!’ The voice booms like a fog-horn in the little cupboard until Jenny’s ears feel like exploding balloons.

‘They’re in good shape though!’ The second voice is softer. After a moment a warm, scooping hand envelops her and she is off the shelf, travelling outside the safety of the cubby-hole and along a bright, white corridor. She closes her eyes as the glare prompts tears to stream down her face. Then she is in a large room, comforted to be sitting on a surface she recognises as wood and mummy and baby are placed next to her.

The two giants discuss them. ‘Of course, if we’re going to remake it there will need to be changes. The show was made before political correctness was thought of.’

The other one chuckles. ‘Yes of course. We can’t have a Mrs Scrubitt and we’ll need to address the nuclear family issue. Plus the fact that they are all white, fully-abled and middle class.’

Jenny glances across at Mrs Scrubitt whose face has become an unnerving, chalky white and whose mouth is open in a silent cry.

‘I’m not so sure that they were middle class. He is a farmer.’

‘Yes but Mum doesn’t go out to work and they can afford to employ servants.’

‘OK. Well maybe we can use Mrs Scrubitt as extended family and Mum can be a farm worker, too? And how about giving one of the twins a disability? I don’t know about Sam Scrubitt though. There may not be a role for him.’

Jenny and Will exchange a stricken look as Mrs Scrubitt claps a terrified hand over her mouth.

 

Four months later they are on set. Jenny has become adept at the sign language she must use to communicate with her twin, they have all learned to call Mrs Scrubitt ‘Grandma’, Mum has had a new wardrobe consisting of overalls, has got the hang of the power tools she must use and they’ve all adjusted to their new, ebony colour as well as remembering to call Sam, who’s been given some exuberant dreadlocks, ‘Denzil’.

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.”