Sunday, August 29, 2010

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and
rightdoing.... there is a field.
I'll meet you there.

The 'Claudia S'

The dog was dead when he got to it. Poor bugger. What was he going to tell Phil? 'Bloody big boar got your dog. Sorry mate, I missed.' Argh shit! What a mess.
     It seemed to Brogan that his whole life was a mess at the moment. Janice had buggered off with the kids. Gone to her mother's in Te Puke. Said she needed a break. She'd had enough. Well, Christ, hadn't he? Was it his fault the mill was laying off? More shops boarded up every week, businesses moving out of town? What did she expect him to do?
     He knelt down and stroked the dog's muzzle. Fanned away the flies that were already gathering around the wounds and the eyes, seeking moisture. Pulled a tangled fern loose from its tail. He sighed. "Didn't plan for you to end up like this, mate."
     The tear in its belly was oozing blood, warm still, crimson against the yellow hair. Ferns and undergrowth lay flattened and bloodied. Cicadas stilled. Perhaps he could tell Phil it scarpered. Happened like that sometimes. Dogs get a whiff of something big. Get spooked. Known them turn up in town a couple of weeks later. Skinny. Feet bleeding. Brilliant that, the way they find their way out of the bush.
     Slowly Brogan stood up, eyes peeled. Listened intently. A cornered boar would go berserk, he knew, but given the chance they usually just ran off. Reassured, he pushed back his hat and relaxed. Wiped the sweat from his forehead. 'Can't even bury you, can I. Got no shovel. Can't leave you like this though,' he thought and turned to look back down the track. Overhead, a canopy of Totara and Mountain Beech shut out the sun. He remembered a fallen tree. Leaving his pack he dragged the dog by its back legs. It was awkward with his rifle but he daren't lose it, just in case the boar returned. It might be wounded. There was a slight hollow where the dead tree had uprooted. He positioned the dog in this and covered it with dry leaves and twigs. Made a mound. He felt there should be some sort of a marker. Around the fallen Beech nature had taken advantage of the gap in the canopy. Tree ferns had taken root. Lacey parasols reaching up towards the sunlight. Taking out his knife Brogan balanced on the rotting trunk and cut the lowest branches from a young Punga fern. Like starched counterpanes he draped them over the leafy grave. "I reckon that's the best I can do," he said, pulling his hat on firmly. "See ya, mate."
     With Janice away there was no need to rush home. He could kip down in the bush again. Maybe head down river, do a little fishing. Get back to the car tomorrow. He retrieved his pack and hoisted it onto his back. Nah, he thought, the dog's death had taken all the joy out of the trip. May as well cut his losses and head for home.

     Phil's line was engaged. He'd rehearsed his speech. 'Bloody dog scarpered,' he'd say. 'Freaked out. He'll turn up sooner or later. Man, you should've seen the pig. Tusks like a rhino.'
     He opened a six-pack and went out onto the back verandah. The screen door rattled behind him and a cat came from out of the darkness and rubbed against his legs. He bent to stroke it. "Want some tucker eh? Me too. Well there's no pork. Have to make do with Kitty-Kat." Then he remembered. "Aw shit! Forgot to get some."
     He sat for awhile listening to the crickets and thinking of the dog. And Janice. They'd been alright before he was laid off. He knew it was hard with the kids and all. Money was tight. Her job at the supermarket didn't pay much, but she was careful. Better than him. She juggled the bills. Always rushing about she was. Taking the kids to school then going off to work. Picking them up again. He helped her all he could. Reckoned he did as much as anyone.
     The sandflies drove him indoors. There was nothing in the fridge to eat. He switched on the TV for the news. If his Lotto ticket came up, they'd be fine. A siren wailed. The nine o'clock shift starting. Lucky bastards. Funny, he'd never thought of working at the mill as being 'lucky' before. Just something you did. God it was humid. He picked up a can of beer and went back outside.
     The front gate klinked. Three large dogs, Kelpie cross, bounded around the corner of the house. They were followed by a big Maori guy wearing shorts and a singlet. Tattooed dragon on one arm, Lorraine and a rose on the other. Pony tail. Carved, bone fish-hook around his neck. He led a geriatric Rottweiller on a short lead. "G'day, mate. Saw your light on. Knew you must be back. How'd it go then?"
Brogan spluttered through his beer, "Phil...! Come on in. Tried phoning you but the line was engaged."
     The dogs flitted about, tails wagging. Nose to ground, following zig-zag tracks in the dark. Peeing against bushes. Jumped up at Brogan, off on the trail again. The Rottweiller stood panting. Blind and hard of hearing. Happy just to be there. Anywhere.
     "Where's Blossom, mate? She work well for you?"
     "Yeah. Er, there's something I have to tell you, Phil. You see ..."
     "Bloody good dog Blossom. Reared her myself you know. She's never let me down. Can track a deer for days, no hassle."
     "Come indoors, mate. I'll get some more beers."
     They sat at the kitchen table. When it came to it, Brogan couldn't lie. Phil took it badly. By the sixth can tears flowed.
     "Shit, man," Phil's speech slurred. "You should've seen her when she was a pup. Never had a pup so bright and eager to learn. Took to hunting natural-like."
     Brogan passed him another beer. "Yep! Bloody good dog he was. I'm really cut up about this, mate."
     "She!" Phil thumped the table, dragged the back of his hand over his face and pulled open another can. "She was a bitch. Best little bitch I ever had."
     Brogan looked away, embarrassed. "Don't know how I can make this up to you mate. Just say, and I'll see you right."
     Phil took awhile to compose himself. Wiped his face on the bottom of his singlet. Sighed deeply. "Got anything to eat?"
     A couple of tins of baked beans and a tin of tomatoes. That's all Brogan could find. He put some bread in the toaster and bashed about in a drawer looking for the tin opener. Phil sat with his face in his hands. The old dog under the table stirred. A foul stench drifted upwards.
     "Jesus Christ!" Brogan wafted the door back and forth.
     Phil lifted his head. "What was it like, the pig?"
     "Bloody, big boar," Brogan explained. "The dog had it cornered. Didn't stand a chance. Up against rocks. It was quick though. Neck broke."
     Phil slumped again. One of the other dogs crept up. Flopped down against the chair, head resting on his master's broad, bare feet. Brogan stood at the sink. Studied the grease on the vinyl floor, the pattern obscured by stains and scuff marks. The toast popped up making him jump. He unwrapped a screwed up packet of butter and tried to spread cold lumps onto the toast. Beans bubbled furiously.

     The midnight siren wailed. Brogan swatted at a mosquito hovering over the bedside lamp. He could still smell the old dog though Phil had been gone awhile. Should have some fly spray somewhere, he thought, rummaging through the cupboard by the bed. Janice hated bugs. He could get her to do anything for him by threatening her with a spider. She went weak at the knees. He visualised her knees. She'd got good legs. He sat on the bed and thought about her legs. Then her shoulders and her breasts. He saw her funny crooked smile, shy like, then he started to come on all horny. God he missed her.
     She was right to get angry with him. He remembered the way she'd looked when he pulled up with the boat on the trailer. She was as excited as the two kids. 'It's cool Dad. Wow! Real cool!' He'd jumped out of the car and shown them the outboard and the artwork. 'Claudia S' with a woman in a red swimsuit like on the old American bombers. 'Who's is it Dad? Is it ours?' Their joy when he said he was captain and they could be first and second mate. Her face as the realization dawned on her. How she flew at him, lashing him with her tea towel. 'You stupid, fucking idiot!' she'd called him.
     He'd never had such a big wad of money. The pay-off covered it easily. A once in a lifetime chance to own something he'd always dreamed of. He didn't know it was going to be so difficult to get work. He thought he'd be in another job in weeks. Eighteen months now, it'd been. But it was a matter of principle. She couldn't speak to him like that.
     Boat had only been out once anyway. Couldn't afford the fuel. She'd nagged him to get rid of it. Wouldn't let the kids near it. Refused to have anything to do with it. She could be so bloody stubborn. But he had his rights too. Didn't he? The can of flyspray he was holding went off all over his bare feet. He reached for the phone.
     "Yes, babe. I know it's late ... but ... no, don't hang up." He pushed the cat off the bed and swapped the receiver to his other ear. "Honey ... I just wanted you to know ... I've done it ... What you wanted ... Yeh, yeh, I know I was wrong. I was bloody stupid ... You were right. It was a dumb thing to do."
     He caught sight of himself, grovelling, in the dressing table mirror and immediately felt embarrassed. He stood up, pulled on the leg of his shorts which had ridden up and was cutting him in two. Shook himself comfortable. "Well I didn't expect to be out of work this long. Thought I'd have something in a month at the most ... Who's that, your mum? Tell her I won't be long ... No, tell her, nothing's wrong."
     He paced around the end of the bed, sat down, composed himself. "Listen babe, something happened and, well, I owed Phil a favour ... Yeh, Phil with the dogs. He always wanted to come in with me on the boat. So ... I let him have it."
     He flopped backwards onto the bed, dragged himself up to the pillow. Waited for her reaction. It was a bit disappointing. She said she needed to think. He sensed she thought there was a catch.
     "Phil was dead keen. He's happy ... shit, he should be ... No, no regrets. Honest. Well, maybe just ... No, no babe. I just want you to come home." The cat had snuggled down on the bed again and pressed up beside his legs. He caressed its ears. "We've run out of Kitty-cat and Muffin misses the kids ... Yeh, I miss them too."
     Next morning Brogan was up with the birds. Quick shower. Shared some Corn Flakes with the cat. Picked up the clothes that were lying around and forced them into the washing machine. Poured in some blue liquid from the bottle with the missing label. Smelled soapy. Took the empties out to the bin and cleared away the dishes in the sink. Scooped up some dirty ash-trays and opened the windows.
     Out in the garden he fumbled with the keys till he found the one for the garage. He'd not been in the garage for weeks. Parked the car out in the drive since he bought the boat. Just going near it could spark off a row between them. She needn't know he'd retained an interest. Phil was a good mate. He'd be here after the banks opened.
     The padlock slipped off and he pulled on the heavy wooden door. After the bright sunlight it took awhile for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior. He held out his arm in front of him to reach for the boat. "What the ...?" He pulled on the other door to let in more light. "Holy shit!"
     The garage was empty. Nothing there but a grease mark on the concrete floor. Pinned to the dartboard on the wall was a note.

                                I got a good price for it.
                               Will be home when you've calmed down.

                               Love, Janice. XX

     The front gate klinked. Brogan had never seen Phil in regular clothes. A fucking tie, for God's sake. By the look on his face the tie had done the trick.
     Phil waved an envelope at Brogan. "Reckon we're in business, mate."
     Brogan dug his toes into the gravel drive. "That's great man. Look, better come indoors. Got some beers in the fridge ..."

© Christine Stanley
First published in Peninsular Magazine

Holy Tomatoes and a Dog Named Floyd

[A story inspired by a newspaper article about a religious message found in a tomato...]

"The muslims are flocking to Bradford," he says.
     She looks up from the ironing board. "You what?"
     He flattens the paper onto the kitchen table and stabs at a passage with his finger. "They've got this    tomato they reckon has a message from Allah."
     She slams the hissing iron onto the collar of his best shirt. "I'd settle for bloody Bradford if someone would run me there," she says. Steam billows upwards, the iron slams down again. He folds the paper to the crossword puzzle and gets up from his chair. "And don't you be so long in there," she calls after him as he leaves the room. "Tom and Nancy will be here in half an hour."
     Swish, swish, the iron goes from side to side. She's looking forward to Tom's birthday lunch but that doesn't make it alright. One swallow doesn't make a summer, she thinks. She can't remember when they last had a day out, let alone a holiday. Since Pat retired their lives seemed to have shrunk. To the point where even Bradford sounded tempting.
     I suppose what we're all looking for is a sign, she thinks. Something to confirm that we're on the right tracks. She turns the shirt over to do the back. Down the seam, up to the yoke. Just suppose, she muses, just suppose as I'm ironing this shirt, the face of Jesus was to materialize. Would I recognize him? Or would I think it was a dirty mark? A weird stain caused by the fabric conditioner reacting with the heat of the iron. She lifts the iron and peers at the shirt. Nothing. The pattern from the ironing board cover shows through a bit and she tries concentrating on this. Willing it into a recognizable shape. A figure, a word, a sign of some sort. Nothing. She turns the shirt over and looks at the instructions on the washing label. A symbol, that's what she needs. A symbol of hope. A sign that life might brighten up a bit. Nothing too dramatic. What might a symbol of hope look like? The best have probably been used up, she decides. A circle in a square, a triangle with a cross through it, a hand hovering over a wavy line. They all hold a message. How will she recognize hope? What will it's all going to be alright look like?

     The restaurant is packed. Tom and Nancy sit with their backs to the window. Pat and Marilyn face it. They can see out across the front drive and the car park. They order the set meal because it's such good value and a roast is a roast after all.
     Tom and Nancy have a camper van and go everywhere. Pat and Marilyn have a Vauxhall Vectra that hardly ever comes out of the garage. It's a sore point. Pat's excuse is his allotment and what would they do with the dog. Tom and Nancy haven't got a dog for that very reason. They're free spirits, they say. Pat likes roots. It's amazing we all get on so well, Marilyn says when she writes to her daughter in Australia, because really we're as different as chalk and cheese.
     "Why don't you make an effort and come with us next week," Tom says between courses. "There's room in the van and, go on, bring the dog as well." Nancy looks at him sideways. "I wouldn't have said that before," he adds, "but we're thinking of upgrading so the dog won't hurt, just this once."
     And that was how they found themselves on a campsite near Dunwich, with the north sea pounding away at the beach and the wind whipping through the sand dunes making any attempt to watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire impossible. A woman has just got to 16,000 and is stuck on One of these dogs is the title of a film starring Dustin Hoffman. Is it... A. Borzoi... B. Papillon... C. Groendahl... D. Shitzui? Marilyn is beside herself because Floyd is a Papillon so she knows the answer. Then the picture goes all zig zaggy for the umpteenth time so they give up and settle for an early night. Of course at that stage Marilyn hasn't found her sign and it's only when they are in their beds at the back end of the van, Tom and Nancy having the double bed at the front, that she thinks to ask Pat, "This tomato in Bradford, what did it actually say?"
     Next morning Pat takes Floyd out early to do his business. He comes back saying that there's nothing to be seen but dunes. Not a house in sight. The beach is deserted and goes for miles in each direction. He had to carry the dog most of the way because the wind was that strong. While they were having a fry up he told them he'd met a man who'd said there was a sunken city right opposite their campsite and that sometimes, after a storm, bits of houses and what not got washed ashore.
     Marilyn said, "Is that right?"
     Tom said, "I've heard of that."
     Nancy said, "Would you like more bacon Pat?"

     Marilyn's started reading cups. As of a week ago this is. So when everyone's finished their tea she insists they pass her their cup. Nancy only buys bags, less mess, so there's not much to see.
     Pat says, "I wish you'd drop this 'sign' business. There's nothing in it, you know."
     "Well if Allah can turn up in a tomato, there's no telling what you might find in a cup of tea," Marilyn argues. "At least tea is eastern... tomatoes grow anywhere."
     Nancy looks over her spectacles, all superior like. "And why," she asks, "would somebody eastern have a message for you?"
     "No, no, it doesn't have to be eastern. It's just that they're more, well, spiritual aren't they," says Marilyn.
     "How do you make that out then?" Nancy points a yellow, rubbery finger towards a drawer beside the sink. "There's a tea towel in there."
     "Well, it stands to reason doesn't it," Marilyn persists, "all the great religious leaders were from the east."
     "The Pope's not." That's quick for Nancy.
     "But he's not a leader is he. He's just a follower like the rest of us, but higher up," counters Marilyn.
     "Oh, so it has to be somebody dead, who died a long time ago. Somebody like Jesus, or Buddha, or the Dalai Lama," says Nancy.
     "No, not the Dalai Lama. He was in London last year. It was on the news. Walking around in streets and parks and things. He's not dead yet."
     "Well one of them is. This must be a new one."
     "It could be my mother, or Pat's Aunty Joyce," continues Marilyn. "Do you believe in spiritual guides?"
     "Oh Marilyn," says Nancy, attacking the frying pan with a Brillo pad.
     "Well Maureen Duffy never does anything without consulting her spiritual guide. He's a Red Indian."
     "They always are aren't they." Nancy runs more water. "I can never understand how they all manage to speak English. No, leave that. That's my prop."
     Marilyn puts back the mug and picks up a handful of cutlery. "He doesn't speak to her, he leaves messages and signs. She's learnt to interpret the signs. She trusts him."
     "That's just intuition. We've all got that," Nancy argues.
     "But she's got more because she's fine tuned it. Where do these cups live?"

     Tom has discovered there's a Monkey Sanctuary a few miles away and do the girls fancy going? Marilyn is thrilled but Nancy's not too keen. They go anyway and Nancy is quite surprised at how interesting she finds it.
     "Just goes to show," says Marilyn as they're dividing up the fish and chips later on.
     "Show what?" Nancy asks.
     "Oh never mind," says Marilyn.
     "Who wants my batter?" asks Tom.
     It's been a long day and Floyd had to stay in the van so Pat says he'll take him out before it goes dark. The others get out the Cluedo. Tom is just about to accuse Miss Scarlet of doing it in the study with the candlestick when they hear a scratching at the door and it dawns on them that Pat has been gone a long time and missed most of the game.
     "It's not locked," says Tom. "Why doesn't he open it?"
     "It's not locked," calls Marilyn.
     "I don't think it was the candlestick because I've got it down here on my pad," says Nancy. "I've seen it."
     Tom peers over her shoulder. "You're not supposed to tell," he says.
     The scratching continues and Marilyn slides out from behind the table to go to the door. "That's Floyd," she says, looking at her watch. "My God, look at the time!"

     The police are sympathetic and try to sound hopeful. They've got teams of men scouring the beach and the woodland that separates the campsite from the dunes. They tell Marilyn to ignore the rumours of alien lights seen in the sky. They get a lot of that along this strip of coast, they say, and it usually turns out to be aeroplanes. Usually, but perhaps not always, thinks Marilyn. She's already seen the front page of the local paper which says that UFO spotters were out in droves last night because a sighting had been expected. Predicted it says. There are several descriptions by eye witnesses who claim to have seen similar phenomena. Cigar shaped lights hovering, then swooping about. The RAF station confirm that they've had no night exercises for months. All their planes were grounded and accounted for. Sightings were experienced across the channel and UFO followers on both sides had been in touch with each other on this one, thanks to mobile phones. There's a photograph of a patch of grass in a clearing. What looks like scorched areas have appeared and someone's paced it out and found that they are equidistant from each other and form a pattern when viewed from above; though no one's actually viewed it from above as yet so they're just speculating.
     Marilyn finds it hard to believe that all this was going on while they were playing Cluedo, and her Pat a party to it. And Floyd. If the grass is burnt that might explain why Floyd's paws are so sore. The front pads are red raw and he cries to be picked up rather than walk on them. Marilyn's not mentioned this to anyone. She doesn't want reporters upsetting him. He's not stopped shaking since she let him into the van last night.
     Tom and Nancy are a tower of strength. The campsite manager's not sure whether the publicity is good or bad for business but he lets them stay on at half rates. Five miles away at the Frog and Rhubarb a clutch of elderly locals sup their ale and nod knowingly to each other. They've no time for outsiders. All them birdwatchers and what not tramping all over the place.
     Every day Marilyn paces up and down the beach near the campsite looking for signs in the sand. Looking out to sea. Listening for voices from the submerged streets of Dunwich. Every now and then between the crashing waves, she thinks she hears something. But it turns out to be a bird, or the squidgy sound of sodden seaweed as the water kisses the toe of her wellies, then retreats to join ranks for another surge. Every night she lies in bed with Floyd curled up beside her, wishing he could talk. She tries placing a hand on his head and closing her eyes to concentrate. Willing his twitchy dreams to enter her consciousness. She's read about this somewhere. But that was man to man.

     She's been to see the burnt grass in the woods. She's paced it out and tried to imagine the pattern. There's a picture of her in the paper on the Wednesday morning beside an artist's impression of a space craft. The UFO supporters treat her like a celebrity. The police just shake their heads. Marilyn doesn't know what to think.
     A week passes and there's no sign of Pat. Marilyn is distraught and blames herself for complaining about him never taking her anywhere. If they'd stayed at home he'd be out on his allotment now tending his brassicas. She's phoned Barbara in Brisbane who arrives at Heathrow tomorrow. The police have called off the search and the UFO supporters have another notch in their belts. Then, just as they are packing up the camper van to head home, two policemen knock on the door with a piece of evidence that throws a whole new light on the situation. They found it under some undergrowth on the camp side of the dunes. It's been lying around for a long time and is quite weathered and faded. But you can still make out faint lettering on the sodden wood. Some of the letters are missing but there's no doubt that it is a sign of some sort. And you don't have to be a champion at Scrabble to see that it's meant to say Beware Quicksand.

     Sitting on a log, gazing out at the vast expanse of blue that is the Pacific Ocean, Marilyn thinks of Pat and wonders what he would have made of Barbara’s wooden house in the Brisbane suburbs. She always thinks of him as she digs her feet dig into warm sand. His would have been cold. Cold, North Sea sand. She thinks of him when, with her finger, she traces the shape of the Southern Cross in the clear, antipodean, night sky. Where is the bugger? she thinks. Up or down?
     Every week she attends a seance and her guide comes through. He's not what she expected. Coalbright, he's called. Says he's a banker from Birmingham. Alabama that is. USA. Had his brains blown out in a robbery. 1864.
     Marilyn says, "Is that right?"
     Mr Coalbright says, "Yes ma'am."
     Marilyn says, "I'm looking for my husband."
     Mr Coalbright says, "Ma'am, there are as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand in the ocean. Does that mean anything to you?"
     Marilyn says, "Oooh."


Copyright: Christine Stanley
First published in Peninsular Magazine


Life is a river.... we all have to find a boat that floats.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I Don't do Weddings

[Short story inspired by a homeless lady I used to meet regularly on the streets of London. Behind every homeless person is a story... ]

 A smile is the most potent form of non-verbal communication. Did you know that? Well it is. I got that off the Oprah Winfrey Show. I get a lot of things off Oprah. They were discussing kids who don't fit in. Who don't learn to read body language and so they come out with inappropriate responses. Other kids just think they're weird. One of the things they don't do is smile. Or else they smile at the wrong time. I think I do that sometimes. You have to time a smile just right or else its meaning changes. Dixon's Electrical have moved now, on The Strand. They've turned it into a leather-goods shop. I miss Oprah.
This floor's nice. I've always liked black and white tiles. Marble. Very intricate pattern but cold on your feet. Look how it's worn. Years and years of processions of cold feet traipsing up and down. I'm glad I washed mine. They feel better for it. Nice altar. Not too fussy.
That man this morning had a nice smile. The commissionaire on the door at New Zealand House. I think he's Maori. Dark skinned anyway. He's got used to me now. His smile says 'Gidday! (he'll be a New Zealander) How's it going? Haven't seen you in a while.' And my smile says 'Good morning. I'm just popping in. Just going about my New Zealand business. Just catching up on news and things.' And then I walk past him down the steps to the Ladies.
You have to be confident. Let them think you know where you're going. But look casual. The rucksack helps. After all, this place is for ex-pats and people on holiday. You mustn't come too often. Just now and then. Or two days in a row and then a gap. The toilets are fabulous. Big mirrors, warm. There's never anyone there. I can have a strip down wash if I'm quick. Then I go to the reading room to read the papers. They're all New Zealand papers but it doesn't matter. Quite interesting really to see how other people live. You can tell from the adverts. The news items are amusing but there's a lot of racial tension too. Well, there is everywhere isn't there. Funny though, I never thought of New Zealand as having racial problems. To tell the truth I never thought of it much at all. It's so far away isn't it. But nice toilets.
God, what a draught! Ah, he's coming to tune up his organ. I hope they have some nice hymns. I like a good sing. My voice is not bad actually. Mrs...what was her name? That music teacher. Mrs Brocket... Pratchet... Pritchard! She used to say I could have gone in for musicals. Or opera with training. Of course I never did. I went to the GPO as a telephonist. A musical voice helps over the telephone though. It's the intonation.
They've not put out many prayer books. Three or four rows, that's all. I helped myself as I came in. I don't think they've noticed me yet. I like to stay at the back.
That's a beautiful window. Reminds me of the window in St Stephen's back home. Christ on the Road to Calvary. I remember fixing my eye on the third guard on the left, the one with the scroll, as I walked down the aisle with my father. Trevor turning to look at me, smiling. What did his smile say? Well obviously it was a lie wasn't it.
Oh, here we go. First arrivals, navy, no hat. You don't see many hats these days. And not many bother with black. These will be the office colleagues. Only one woman. Smart, discreet. Well paid job I'll bet. Behind them, what do you think? Family group I'd say. Not close though, or else they'd be at the front. She's been crying. He's not bothered. Kids first time. More family. Grandparents maybe? Yes, tearful. Hard when the young go before you. Oh, they're piling in now. That's a Jaeger coat. Saw it in the window last week on Regent Street. Now what do you reckon... is this crowd Abide with Me or Nimrod? 
I don't do weddings. People want to talk at weddings. At a funeral nobody speaks to you. Nobody asks who you are or what your connection was with the deceased. They're frightened to upset you, see. They just smile. And their smile says 'Shame isn't it. Sad. Did you know him well? I'll not intrude on your grief; don't please, intrude on mine. We're just here... for him. For her. For the family.'
One time I got taken back to the house for drinks and a bite to eat. Very nice it was. Quite a jolly crowd. Bearded types. Just bundled me into a car and stuffed my rucksack in beside me, no questions asked. A lot of young people. Turned out the deceased had been killed in a climbing accident in Wales. They took the view that he'd died doing what he enjoyed most and they drank a lot of beer to convince themselves of the fact. I got a lift back to the station with the grandparents. They thought I was a student from his university in Bangor.
"Mature," I pointed out.
"Marvellous," they said.
"Macabre," is how B.I. John put it. "Bloody macabre, that's what it is."
B.I. stands for Big Issue. That's what he does. Sells them outside Charing Cross station. Sometimes I cover for him while he goes for a pee. I can't explain to him how I first got into funerals. Something about the church and the atmosphere and the music. I do like the music. And nobody bothers you.
Another place I go to is the Crown Court, up in the public gallery. A lot of senior citizens go there. They take their sandwiches and a flask. And of course the National Gallery. You can spend hours in that place. I could take you directly to any painting you happen to name. Know it like the back of my hand. But funerals are different. I just happen upon funerals. It's never planned. Take this one... I don't usually find myself in Shepherd's Bush on a Thursday.

       "Yea though I walk in death's dark vale, yet will I fear no ill.
         Thy rod and staff they comfort me... "

Talk about a dark vale! It's certainly changed around here. I dozed off on the train and when I found myself in Shepherd's Bush I thought I'd pop up and have a look around, for old times sake. The theatre's still here but it's not BBC anymore. No screams of 'Crackerjack!' coming from inside. Somebody called Kathy Matea on the billboard. Country and Western singer.
I walked along the Uxbridge Road, what a mess, and turned down Melbourne Gardens to see if number sixtyfive was still there. It is. Still flats and bed-sits by the look of it. Amazing after all this time; what is it, thirty years? Very run down now. It never was a palace but old Mrs What's-her-name had some standards. And it was handy for Trevor's work and for the underground. Too bloody handy it turned out.
It felt strange standing in front of number sixtyfive. It's the first time I've been back. I could almost smell the kippers frying in Mr Turnbull's room. The staircase always reeked of it. I never understood how he was able to afford it. He didn't seem to have a job. I'd hold my breath from the first landing upwards. He was always frying. If it wasn't kippers it was black pudding.
And that woman in the next room to ours. Miss Jameson... Muriel Jameson. Always coming to borrow the hair-dryer. She lived in her rollers and dressing gown. She used to hover outside the toilet door on the landing, desperate to have a chat with anyone. She'd talk to you through the door so you didn't want to come out because you knew you'd never get away from her. But you couldn't stay in because of the lack of air and the light bulb was on a timer. The cistern rattled our wall when anyone went in during the night and pulled the chain. Fridays and Saturdays were the worst. We had to move the bed.
The bathroom was separate and you had to put a coin in the meter to get enough hot water for a bath. There was a geyser on the wall and I blew it up  once, well blew it off the wall, by putting the match to the wrong place. Mr Turnbull broke the lock to get in. I'd just got a towel around me and he pressed me to his kippery chest. Miss Jameson made me a cup of tea and lent me her dressing gown. It must have been one of the few times she wore something else and I can't remember what it was. We were three years at number sixtyfive. I thought we were happy there.

"Goodness and mercy all my life, shall surely follow me,
  and in God's house, for e-evermore, my dwelling place shall be."

My dwelling place. Where was my dwelling place after that? Not God's house that's for sure, despite the white gowns and smiling faces. Smiles that said 'It wasn't your fault dear.' Then they'd glance at each other knowingly. Sharing some unspoken doubt while they tightened my restraining straps. There was no angel at my table.
Uh-oh... what's happening? They're on the move. Oh, just the family filing past the coffin. They don't always do that. That was a nice speech the sister gave. She must have been very close to him. That'll be the wife in the Jaeger coat.
I always fancied a Jaeger camel-hair coat. Trevor said 'One day... ' and I believed him. He was very ambitious. When we moved into number sixtyfive he said it wouldn't be for long, he had plans. And he did. He wouldn't always be a GPO technician he said. He wanted a job with the BBC at the Television Centre and he used to hang around there a lot. Got people to take him up to the bar. He'd chat to anyone.
At the hospital they may have said it wasn't my fault, but what they really  meant was that I didn't actually kill him. He didn't have a mark on him. I loved him. But he shouldn't have made me do it. That was wrong of him. So wrong.
The doctor said there was no reason for me not to have the baby. No reason to terminate. No reasonable excuse for what Trevor wanted me to do. But the doctor didn't understand and so Trevor got these pills from someone at the TV Centre. A trainee floor manager he said. I remember that.
Mr Turnbull was frying kippers. Trevor had brought in a bottle of Schnapps a bloke had given him for a favour he'd done. I lit some joss sticks because of the kippers. A few rockets and bangers went off outside. It was the night before Bon Fire night and The Rolling Stones were belting out Hey, You, Get off My Cloud on the television when I started. The kipper smell was everywhere.
The doctor was suspicious. Miss Jameson called him because of the noise I was making. She could hear me through the wall she said, all night long. He said I had to rest up a bit afterwards and not to worry, there'd be more babies. But I knew there wouldn't be.
It was not long after I'd gone back to work that Trevor started seeing this girl from reception at the BBC. He said I was too bloody miserable, no fun anymore, didn't have his career at heart. I can see now what a spectacle we must have made as I dragged on his arm all the way to the tube station. His suitcase slowed him down and banged against his leg, and there was me dragging on the other arm and screaming at him not to go. He thought he'd got away from me when he bought a ticket and went through the barrier but I found him on the platform. It wasn't very busy. I must have looked pathetic pleading with him and clinging to his lapels. Then he pushed me away, hard like, and that was a shock. I started pummelling him with my fists and then I thumped him really hard on the chest and he stepped back... and that's when it happened. It wasn't a long drop and he missed the rails. But he hit his head on the corner of a concrete block, where the rail sits.
At the hospital they said I was still in shock from the baby and this on top just pushed me over the edge. The police were very kind actually. Of course there was an inquest but I was in hospital by then. I suppose going mad saved me from prison. It's a terrible thing guilt. And then, on top of it all, I had this aneurism. A bubble burst in my brain they said. Could happen to anyone. I had to learn to walk again. My social worker used to come and take me for outings but it was a long time before I could be persuaded to use the underground again. And I still feel bad holding babies.
Maria has a baby, down at the shelter, and sometimes she wants me to look after it. I do, but I feel strange. As if I've no right. She's nice, Maria. She's waiting for a flat. I told her she could have my room because I hardly ever use it but I think she was a bit worried about the others. Charles is okay but Monica and Carol are not very stable. That's why I prefer to be out. You should see the mess they get into with their medication. I've stopped taking mine. Stopped as soon as I got sent there. 'Sheltered accommodation' they call it. A 'halfway house'. Halfway to what? It's like telling someone they're half done...  half baked. Only half there. I keep out of everyone's way. Keep my nose clean. I like to be left alone. And I'm always on the move. Always going somewhere.
I practically live on the underground now. I know so many places to get into free, to get out of the weather. You'd be amazed. And you learn things. All the time you're learning. There's such a lot to take in. You just have to keep moving. When I'm moving the tremors are less. People think it's drink but it's not. They stare. When I stutter they're convinced it's drink. So I don't bother trying. I just move on. Just keep moving. Till the fog in my mind clears a bit. Sometimes it's like pulling back a net curtain. Funny... I don't stutter when I sing.

"Abide with me, fast falls the eventide... "

I thought so. I can usually tell. It's always the young ones. It's the football you see.

"The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide."

None of the other hymns have the same effect. Look at them pull themselves upright and throw out their chests.

"When other helpers fail and comforts flee... "

Yes, that's when she'll feel it. When everyone's gone home. When it's time to get on with things. Get back to normal. But what was normal will never be normal again. Normal will be something different. With more quiet corners and empty spaces. And it's the quiet corners you have to watch. That's where they wait for you. And they nag away at you telling you things you don't want to hear. Making you doubt.
You come upon them in odd places, not just in bed at night. You can be in a department store, wandering around, lots of people about and suddenly you'll find you're on your own, backed up in a corner and all the busy sounds of life are shut out and you're left just listening to this voice and to your heart beat. Until you realize that's what it is and then it's okay again. The empty spaces you get used to. Eventually they get filled up.
 Oh, they're starting to leave. Yes, see, they look at me but they just smile. I've shared a moment of grief with them and they're grateful. I'll just sit here for a bit and then I'll slip out.

"Come home, come ho-oo-me, ye who are weary come ho-oome.
  Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
  Calling, oh sinner come home."

I might move in with Maria when she gets her flat. She's asked me to. I could help her with the baby, she said, then she could look for work. Oh, my bum's numb. I wonder if it's still raining outside? I don't think Oprah's done stuttering.

Copyrite: Christine Stanley
First published in Peninsular Magazine

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Welcome to my Blog.

I'm new at this, so there will be hiccups, for sure. But stick with me and we'll see how we go.
On this blog I hope to upload extracts from some of my short stories, published and unpublished. And also extracts from my completed novel, 'Burying Me.' Let's see how we get along. Oh, by the way.... that's me in the photo.... the guidelines said to 'personalise' things. The pup is called Sparky.... but it could just as well be Daisy.... I puppy-walk for Guide Dogs so pups come and go on a regular basis. They keep me sane. But yes, they do distract from the writing. Peeing, pooing, feeding, walking.... don't get me going on that.