Saturday, 6 November 2010

Tea with Cleo and Henry

Richard was out on a house call leaving Claire sitting up in bed reading her book before settling down to sleep. But though she was following the words across the page she wasn’t seeing them, her mind was elsewhere, at Cleo’s house and the extraordinary hour she’d spent there that afternoon. She’d wanted to tell Richard all about it but he’d come in after a long busy day but almost as he’d finished his dinner he’d gone straight back out on an emergency call. The life of a local GP and that of his family was anything but regular!
So Claire was left with all her thoughts jangling around in her mind leaving no space for reading, all she could think about was ………………..

‘Ouch!’ Claire whirled round, her hand went straight to her bum where she had just felt as she’d been pinched. But there was no-one behind her. Cleo was coming through the door carrying a tray with of tea and biscuits which she proceeded to try and put down on the coffee table that was covered with papers, books, pens etc. ‘did I just hear you say ouch?’ she said. As Claire nodded while making space on the table Cleo carried on, ‘I guess you’ve just met Henry, don’t worry, he’s harmless, just a little mischievous when I have visitors. Henry, behave yourself or you’ll frighten Claire away. She’s a friend and you must be nice to her’. Turning back to Claire she said, ‘help yourself to sugar and biscuits’, as if nothing was at all odd!
‘Thank you. Er, who’s Henry and er, where is he? I can’t see anyone, haven’t seen anyone.’ Claire helped herself to a cup of rather strong looking tea adding a spoonful of sugar to help with the taste, she didn’t normally drink tea or take sugar in her drinks but if offered tea and especially strong tea it was more palatable with a little sugar.
‘Oh you won’t see him, Henry’s a ghost, he lives here in the metre cupboard,’ Cleo said pointing to a little cupboard low down on the wall to the side of the fireplace.
Claire’s eyes followed the pointing finger. A ghost, a ghost named Henry who pinched bottoms. Mmmm.
‘Er, how long,’ she cleared her throat, ‘how long has er, have you er………….,’
‘how long have I lived with Henry? Is that what you’re asking? Most of my life. I was born here and Henrys’ been here ever since I can remember. I was an only child so Henry was my playmate when I was growing up.’
This was becoming more surreal by the minute. A ghost called Henry who pinched bottoms, lived in the metre cupboard and had been a lifelong friend. She began to wonder at Cleo’s mental state!
‘Can you see him? What does he look like?’
‘Oh no, I’ve never seen him’.
‘well how do you know when he’s, when he’s er, in the room with you?’ Claire was having great difficulty asking any questions and indeed felt a little nosey doing so but she was strangely fascinated by what was happening. Nothing felt real.
‘I can smell him’, replied Cleo. ‘he’s not too fond of soap and water, I have told him about it, that he’s got BO’, Cleo whispered the last bit as if it would embarrass Henry to have everyone knowing.
A ghost called Henry who pinches bottoms, lives in the metre cupboard and smells because he never washes! Claire could feel the giggle deep down inside getting stronger that was now in danger of bursting out throwing her good manners to the wind. This was too much, Cleo was winding her up, playing a practical joke and she was very good at it. Her face was as open and honest as ever, she was quite relaxed which was more than Claire was.
She’d felt from the start that Cleo was a ‘bit of a character’, all those beads and bangles, the kaftans and scarves, a colourful character who had brought a breath of fresh air to Claire’s life since the day she had walked into the village hall to join the art group.
That first session had been spent firstly drawing circles freehand to loosen them up and to see that it was impossible and not necessary anyway to draw a perfect circle. They had then progressed to apples. Claire had started looking at apples differently since that day, not one was perfectly round, they were all sorts of shapes on a roundish base and she noticed the colours too. She’d always looked at apples as either red or green but now she saw other colours too as well as the blemishes, the shadows, the dip in the top and the stalk. Over the weeks of that first couple of months she’d started looking at everything differently, noticing colours, trees, flowers, buildings in a way she’d never noticed them before and she’d lived in the town all her life.
‘He’s been a very good friend to me has Henry and great fun to be with. He’s made you smile, and a proper smile too, the first I’ve seen since we met’.
Claire must have looked puzzled at that because Cleo went on to say
‘true, you smile but never with your eyes, until now. Henry might be rather a naughty boy but he brought a smile to your eyes.

Sitting in bed with the unread book on her lap Claire mulled over Cleo’s words. It was true she realised. Since Bentley had died she’d lived in a bit of a bubble of grief. Since she’d started the art group and met Cleo she’d gradually stopped thinking of Bentley every hour of the day, in fact she hadn’t thought of him for a few days now and when she did the pain in the pit of her stomach was not there now. She could think of him without feeling teary. And yes, she could again smile and do it with her eyes.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Rowan trees

Gethin turned on the main light to check his appearance in the wardrobe mirror before leaving for work. The late afternoon sun would have come streaming through his window if he hadn’t fitted blackout blinds. He would replace them with the net curtains his mother preferred once his memories of sniper attacks on the Forward Operating Base went away. She would open the blinds and the window once he had left the house, and would then close them again when she went to bed, well before he returned.
He had been meticulous over his appearance in the Army, and had carried this over to his civilian life. For him it was a mark of both professionalism and respect. The Army had taken a rough lad from a mining valley and made a soldier of him, but had not prepared him for the return to civilian life. Before he joined up, he had been a trainee motor mechanic. Now he was a qualified driver of heavily armoured, mine-resistant, wheeled patrol vehicles. After an exciting and dangerous four years in Afghanistan as part of a tight and highly motivated fighting group, the thought of returning to his old job left him cold. He moved back in with his mother and started looking for work.
It had not been going well, and he seemed to be just drifting when an adviser at the Job Centre came up with a new idea – what about a job as a Nightclub Door Supervisor, a ‘Bouncer’? He had the physical presence needed, and had plenty of experience of defusing confrontations in the Army, but more to the point it paid comfortably more than his Jobseeker’s Allowance, and would give him time during his daylight hours to explore other possibilities. All he needed, said the adviser, was a Security Industry Authority certificate. Four days of study and two exams, and there would be no problem finding a job. She was right: he was successful at his first interview and started work that evening.
He had chosen his new ‘uniform’ with care. Black trousers and polo neck sweater, both designer fashion but he had carefully removed the labels. Dr Marten’s executive leather safety shoes with steel inner toecaps that would withstand stiletto heels and deliver a kick if needed. A smart black overcoat for chilly nights. And under his polo neck sweater, the gold chain which Lizzie had given him before he left for Afghanistan - under the sweater because otherwise it could give an assailant something to grab if it were to come to a scuffle. Lizzie. She had a new boyfriend now. Gethin had not been one for writing letters or long phone calls, and they had drifted apart while he was away. He still had the chain, though. While he was away on service, he had left it with his grandmother for safekeeping, and now he wore it every day. It reminded him of their happy days together before he grew up and became a man. Happy days would come again with another partner, maybe marriage and kids, but he was in no hurry.
Tomorrow, he planned a day out. He would drive north into the hills and take a run in the forest. In the heat and dust, he had often dreamed of doing this again, though before his Army training it would have been a stroll rather than a run. He felt the energy coiled up inside him and needed to let it release. His job was stressful though it didn’t get on top of him. Sometimes he had to hold himself in when he had to bar drunken cocky youngsters at the door, but it was a lot easier than driving an armoured vehicle under fire watching out for signs of remotely-controlled mines in the road. So far, he had not needed to use force in the new job – his height, physique and spiky short black hair were enough to earn him respect before it came to that.
His shift over, he walked back to his mother’s house and let himself in quietly. He had a shower and shave – he never left the house unshaven – and changed into his off-road running gear and a tracksuit. He laid the gold chain back in its leather case and put it away in a drawer. Breakfast was microwaved porridge with fruit and yoghurt; he put a thermos of coffee and a bottle of water into a backpack and was ready to go.
The car had been his father’s, and Gethin had kept it in showroom condition for him. Since his father’s death, his mother had kept it in their garage even though she couldn’t drive. Gethin was determined that she should learn, if only to visit his grandma up in the valley he was now heading towards. Twenty minutes door-to-door in a car. Two hours or more by public transport. He thought of the families he had seen in the Afghan countryside, three generations, maybe more, all living apparently happily together. That was how it had been when his grandma was a child on the family farm before spoil tips from the mine covered it. Now the mine had closed, exhausted, and the spoil tips were disguised with trees and grass, but the farm had gone forever except in Grandma’s memory. He would call in and see her after his run and maybe get invited to an early lunch. He had some carefully selected pictures from Afghanistan to show her. Families sitting together outside their houses, wild and domestic animals and birds, irrigated green fields surrounded by dry land and scrub, his fellow soldiers and their armoured vehicles, the little patch of salad vegetables they kept alive with wastewater from the cookhouse. There was no need to show her the ‘horror of war’ pictures. She knew all about that from his grandfather’s stories of the First World War and his father’s from the Second. He would have his stories to tell too, but not yet.
As he drove past the sleeping houses, he wondered whether soldiering was in the family’s genes. Would his son, assuming he had one, choose to be a soldier too? Perish the thought! His father and grandfather had both volunteered, but would have been conscripted anyway if they hadn’t done so. He had chosen to join up to get away from a boring job and learn a trade. He had left school with no qualifications and the recruiting posters made the Army seem the obvious solution. Now he would like his children to have more choice; if they really wanted to join the forces then they should get the right qualifications to enter Officer Training at the start. He laughed at himself - here he was making plans for his children, and he hadn’t met their mother yet.
The road began to rise along the valley, and there were soon trees on either side. Trees always brought him peace. Trees and a mountain stream brought bliss. Today, he was going to follow a track he hadn’t used before, because according to the map it crossed a stream near a ruined building. A good place to bring his thoughts together.
He pulled off the road into the Forestry Commission car park. There was a recent scar along one edge of the parking area; someone had driven up the track from the road at high speed and failed to control the car in time to avoid hitting the bank. The car had gone, but a sapling little more than a metre high lay on top of the bank, battered and with most of its roots out of the soil. Gethin grew angry. He had seen armoured vehicles driven across ditches and crops when there was no need, mindlessly damaging the farmers' land, and he knew what had happened to the local farms under the mine waste tips. He realised that his reaction was out of proportion. After all, it was just one sapling of hundreds in the area, but somehow it mattered. What had happened to it shouldn’t have happened – it was the result of human stupidity and lack of care for the world around us, but at least he could put this bit right.
He found a plastic carrier bag blown into a bush and carefully eased the tree into it, with as much soil around the roots as possible. He could see from the now wilting leaves that it was a Rowan Tree, and he had vague memories of his grandma laughing that they used to have a Rowan Tree in the old farmyard but it hadn’t helped when the mine owner wanted to dump spoil on their land. He placed the tree in its bag in his backpack and started his run, not yet knowing what he was going to do with it. He had more of a jog than a run but eventually he reached the ruin by the stream. It had been a cottage with two outhouses, and the outline of a garden or vegetable patch was still visible. Now it was surrounded by the Sitka Spruce of the Forestry Plantation and   felt unreal.
Gethin decided that this was where his Rowan tree should live – the creamy white flowers would bring light in the spring, and the red berries would feed the birds in the autumn and winter. The soil in the garden patch was still good, and with a broken tree branch he scooped out a hole in a corner where it should get sun for at least part of the day.  With the sapling in position, he looked for a way to bring water to it from the stream. The carrier bag was useless – too many holes – but he did have his water bottle, and with several trips to the stream he was happy that ‘his’ sapling would have a chance of survival. He scattered small flat pebbles from the stream over the surface of the soil; they would let the rain through and delay drying out by protecting the soil from the sun. He washed his hands in the stream, sat on a rock in the sun and enjoyed his coffee.
His grandma was delighted to see him as always, and wanted all his news as she prepared them caws pobi, Welsh Rarebit, for lunch.
Why did you used to say that the Rowan at the farm didn’t save the farm from the waste tips, Nan?
‘Well, in the old days it was supposed to be magic, bringing good fairies and protecting the family from bad ones. Let me show you something.
She went across the room and opened a linen chest, which Gethin remembered from childhood. She felt around under the clothes and brought out a stick of polished wood about a metre long.
‘This was my grandma’s wand, and she told me it was made of Rowan. She never told me what she used it for nor where she got it, but she did say that anyone who planted a Rowan would get good luck from the fairies.
‘I could use some of that. No sense of direction at the moment.’
‘Ah, you should have stuck with Lizzie. Nice girl, that.’
‘But she has another bloke now.’
‘You should stay in touch better. He didn’t last a month that one, and they do say she misses her soldier boy still.’
‘Nan, I don’t believe in fairies, I don’t believe in magic, I think the Rowan is just a beautiful tree, but when I go back home tonight I’m thinking of calling Lizzie and she’s got every right to bite my head off.’
‘Well, maybe I should see if I can cast a spell or two before you do that. Now shall we have some fruit loaf before you go?’
Gethin drove away, confused and excited. Had he really made that decision at last?
His grandma picked up the phone and dialled.
‘Hello, Lizzie dear, it’s me. You may get a call tonight...’

Sunday, 3 October 2010

An Honorary Swan

Oh no, the back tyre’s flat, drat. It’s such a nice day, the sun’s shining, the smell of autumn is in the air, a perfect day for a cycle ride along by the river making the most of the opportunity before the dismal damp days to come and I have a puncture. Grrr, I flapped my arms in despair and frustration and ……………and my feet leave the ground! I need to see a shrink, I’m having delusions, I’m sure I’m floating, nay flying, that’s my house down there, my garden, my car and that’s……..and……….and ………wow!!

Effortlessly floating around now I can look down on the whole neighbourhood, is that a removal van outside number seventeen, come to think of it I haven’t seen Trevor for some time, have we lost another of the residents who was here when we moved in? Like the others has he quietly gone and no-one has noticed?

The starlings on the aerial fly off squawking alarmed at the sight of a large spectacled featherless creature that’s just a bit too close for comfort but the magpie on the neighbouring roof shouts a warning, he stands firm, he’s not scared.

At the end of the road I fly over the steep bank alongside the railway line, that’s where a glacier came to a stop in the last ice age – or so I’ve been told by one of the allotment gardeners who lectures in geology. (I like to keep good company). Several gardeners are out making the most of the warm dry day to get on with the autumn tidy-up and the autumn planting. There’s my plot, wow, how different it looks from up here! On the whole, mmm, pretty good, certainly much better than when I took it on, but lets face it, it couldn’t have looked much worse! I must get on with my autumn chores but not today, there’s somewhere I have to be that’s as much a passion as my gardening.

The sun is hot on my back but as I glide along the current of air cools me; I close my eyes and fill my lungs with the cool clear air, how wonderful and free this feels, the air glides over me as smooth and as luxurious as the most elegant, the sofest of silk dresses. I can float, glide, swoop and soar, roll over, loop the loop, weeee, look, no strings! This is the most fantastic thing ever.

I dive down out of the way of the air ambulance letting it noisily pass over me on it’s urgent way. Lower down now my heart thudding from the fright I glide along following the course of the river as it winds its way through the trees and thunders over the weir with it’s new improved salmon run. I pause in my journey to watch the salmon attempting to jump this enormous wall of water to fulfil their destiny. What a marvel they are, never giving up. A stately heron stands on a rock on the lookout for an unwary fish, he’s still as the rock he stands on except for his eyes, alert and focused, he doesn’t miss a thing. A fisherman casts his line into the fast-flowing water competing with the heron in his clumsy human way.

Approaching the new footbridge I’m no longer alone, a pair of beautiful white swans have joined me. One either side of me we fly along in perfect unison performing an aerial ballet. This is so much fun, up up up we soar, down we dive, it the right, to the left, glide awhile, I’m an honorary swan. But as we fly over the castle I signal farewell to my regal friends, the end of my journey is in sight and I head for that other feature of our skyline, the Friary Tower block.

We’re back in our old room on the fourth floor, ‘we’re home’ I say to everyone as I enter the room and head for the seat closest to where I always used to sit. Funny, so do the others, we’re more or less sat in the same old places!

‘The exercise today is one we’ve all done before, the journey into class’. Oh no I groan inwardly, I always find this exercise a challenging one. As ever I can’t actually remember my journey in and it won’t matter how long I sit here with my eyes closed. I never notice anything as I’m travelling.

And as if to confirm my lack of observation I fail to notice the pure white feather on the floor beside me.

(writing on a character over the summer)

he felt a familiar surge of irritation flaring up but then paused and for the first time allowed himself to realise what had caused it. She was not perfect he suddenly realised and he had been expecting perfection. He sat soberly reflecting on his thoughts. Yet again he had put her up there on the pedestal of supposed perfection and then she had slipped off as always happened. He knew all too well that he himself was not perfect but had the realisation that if she was not perfect either then maybe just maybe he did not have to feel so lowly and inferior and downright guilty for letting her down. Maybe they were not so very different from each other after all ? He sat back in his armchair and a smile developed slowly as he felt the immense relief of the burden he had been carrying for years. He began to think of how they could both be and realised they could both be as snappy with each other and both had moods of chattyness or quietness. He felt himself begin to relax. In fact he thought she could be quite selfish in the relationship and quite demanding. If they had been spending a lot of time together he felt drained and less of his whole self and he realised that to his amazement he was actually quite easy going and amenable. he often went along with her plans because it seemed fair enough and he wanted to please her and have her happy. he rarely demanded they did a certain thing or tried to persuade her to do things he wanted for himself. It was a new wonderful feeling and he felt the beginnings of being set free from guilt and self dislike. Maybe just maybe he was kinder and less selfish in the relationship than he had feared and this new thought gave him a feeling of release and genuine pleasure. One thing he began to feel strongly about was to gradually chage the perceived dynamics as she sometimes referred to his irritability or snappiness as if it was a thing he alone was guilty of but thinking in the honest way he was allowing himself he realised this was decidedly lopsided and unfair. Since she had stopped work she had been much more over sensitive and likely to have her own way of retroting sharply to him and it was something he had begun to do less so the supposed truth between them that he was the only one ever to be unreasonable should not stand unchallenged any more. Maybe he need feel less over apologetic so much of the time. It occurred to him for the very first time ever that not only could he be hard to have a relationship with but that so could she. maybe it was not abnormal that he could feel so drained by their time together? Maybe it was not it was not just him being funny that way? Maybe she actually was hard to have a relationship with simply because everyone can be and close human relationships can be hard work. What if everyone enjoys a break from each other now and then and it was not a failing of his that he felt as every other human felt ? These questions flooded his mind rapidly as he allowed himself to see things from a new angle. He sat quietly for a while and in some way wanted to share his new truth with someone but did not know anyone that well so sat some more in hopeful contemplation. He realised he had expected perfection from himself and had been trying to be the perfect partner to her which he now realised was totally impossible. But too maybe he could work on expecting less perfection from other people then he would not feel let down or upset or irritated ? Maybe all in all he could relax ? He began then to feel some new freedom opening up in front of him and some of the guilt and shame he had been carrying for years of not being somehow ''good enough'' for her or for any of his friendships began to ease slightly. He thought back to his parents when they had been alive - he almost laughed at the obvious cliche but he had somehow never felt ''good enough'' for them either not ever. He had been in fear of them hating him and abandoning him for their dislike and his failure to please them enough. He felt sad in someways now but also some sense of hope arising that if he had made these realisations maybe he could begin to change his patterns of thinking and relating to people and some of his behaviour ? He sat deep in thought for ages as he contemplated possible changes ahead. He realised how much he had been comparing himself to others. he used to feel he was less critical and sharp in tongue than his mother but much nastier potentially than his wife but maybe now he could be himself and view himself not only as reasonably ok but as acceptable ?

Thursday, 13 May 2010


waters edge
imagining the scene
flat warm sand
water slightly warmed by the sun
shallow slow steady waves
quiet trickle as the wave subsides
calming down
head emptied
consumed by the scene
movement back and forth

empty your mind
replay the pictures
smile - calming down - relieved

leaving the beach i always turned to encapsulate the scene and store it away for restless nights or sad days

hear the peaceful lapping of the waves
stilling the internal choas
breathe quietly