Thursday, 28 August 2014

Lion's Tooth

The sleeping gypsy cured my mother's cancer. How do I know? Because she told me and I believed her.
Lesson one: Never for a moment doubt your mother.
Lesson Two: Don't belittle the feelings of those who walk with the shadow of death.
Of course, there was doubtfulness from relatives, friends and oncology, but for me her conviction was like a fairy tale. She spoke with so much clarity when she communicated this knowledge to me every night at eight o'clock on the dot when I sat with her. Her voice was faint, but the words she enunciated were crystal-clear and her eyes were glassy beads. I kept very still and quiet by the side of her bed transfixed by each new chapter. Sometimes, without realising, I held my breath until I had to wheeze as if someone or something had attempted to suffocate me, then my mother's head would turn with a look of concern and she'd say, “There, there, the spell's been broken.”
The doctors had either been tight-lipped about her diagnosis or vague and bumbling; it was nothing to worry about, just normal procedure. A little cut, a longer burn and an extensive course of tablets. She'd lose a little breast weight, gain a few tattoos and a scar. Hair loss, internal tissue damage and dead fingers were never mentioned. Yes, she went through all that; she had no choice in the matter, but knew that wasn't what gave her the courage to go on.
The night before a lumpectomy, scared, alone and lying flat in a strange hospital bed, she said she was visited by a huge lion. She was idly staring up at the ceiling panels when she felt a rough tongue lick the back of her hand. She thought she was dreaming, but the licking was accompanied by a contented purr, almost like a rumble of thunder, and then her fingers met thick matted fur. She slowly pulled herself up and to her right was a lion sat on his haunches; a male lion she said with a head as big as the one in Narnia who was hot and panting and obviously didn't belong in our temperate climate.
For thirty seconds they stared at each other without blinking, then the lion got to his feet and padded passed the deserted nurses' station before he stopped and looked back. She grabbed her silk dressing gown and hurried to catch up with him. As she walked behind, the glaringly white corridor warped into a dark, cave-like tunnel, which the lion somehow dimly lit for her with his swishing tail. She stumbled steadily after that amber light until the cave came out to sandy plain beneath a starry midnight sky. Her toes sank into the fine sand as the lion continued to lead her to who knows what or where. It was a journey that seemed strange and never-ending, and yet more real than when you're told you have cancer. And it was about, she said, to get even weirder.
The lion finally came to a stop when they came to a sleeping man who you could tell was one of life's wanderers, except this one looked as though he only roamed metaphysically. The lion sniffed and gently nudged him and when he failed to stir roared just like the MGM lion, before he gave up with a shrug of his shoulders and laid down to wash his giant paws and face. Maybe it was the lion's close presence or the sound of his enthusiastic licking which eventually roused the dark gyspy, Mother hypothesised, but whatever it was his eyelids still heavy with sleep began to hesitantly flicker, until his pupils fixed groggily on her.
He released his protective grip on his walking stick and turned on his side, motioning to the lion. The lion grumbled but obliged by opening his jaws wide and the now-awake gyspy pulled out a molar. Under the glare of the full moon, he washed the lion's tooth with water from a clay vessel, then made a small hole with a stone and chisel and threaded it on coloured string carefully stripped from his pillow. Wordlessly, as the rest of this task had been done, he handed it to her, gesturing for her to wear it around her throat or wrist.
As long as she is a bearer of a lion's tooth, the sleeping gypsy comes and strums Beatles medleys on his mandolin to make her stronger.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Goat Girl

Millie, what do you think?” Girl asked as she twirled in front of the mirror. “Does it become me?”
On the wooden hanger her new work uniform of short-sleeved shirt and navy blue trousers had looked smart, but hanging off her it just looked scruffy, as if she'd beaten it into submitting to her awkward frame and it was unwilling to be seen there.
Girl pouted a little at her reflection and pulled her tousled hair off her sun-kissed face into a low pony-tail. The elastic band snapped as she gave her hair a final tug and twanged across the stone floor.
Millie obediently trotted after it, picked one end of it up and delicately spat it in the nearby waste basket. This exercise was repeated often for Girl's thick, fizzy mane refused to be tamed despite the amount she spent on over-priced styling products.
Oh well,” Girl sighed, rolling her eyes, “Perhaps they'll let me wear a scarf or my herding hat.” She laughed as she pictured herself sitting behind a reception desk greeting patients in her felt black hat. No, she couldn't do that, it would be unprofessional. She wished she could wear scrubs like the dental nurses, but at least the blue clogs they'd provided her with were comfy.
Girl was the first and only daughter of the Johns farming clan to leave the acres of farm and get a job in the nearest village. Her five brothers were all fine, strapping lads who enjoyed working the land and each expected to inherit the lion's share and not just one-fifth of it. Girl, it was assumed would marry out, become a neighbouring farmer's wife, or be content to stay under the thumb of her father or all five brothers, but Girl had grander ideas.
She rented a tiny stone cottage and accepted the first job she was offered and abandoned the family farm. She left all her things, except the clothes she was in, and sped off with three dairy goats in her muddy second-hand land-rover.
At first, Girl served behind the counter in the village shop and then the bakery before she landed herself a junior receptionist job with the son of a dentist who'd lately taken on his father's practice. She was to be trained by a Mrs Harris. The problem was as much as she wanted a change from being a dairy maid you couldn't get rid of the goat from Girl. She had an inquisitive goat-look, she chewed her jaw when she thought, skipped when she walked, and earth instead of blood ran through her veins. Village people however took to her unusualness as well as the three goats that came with her: Gwyneth and Norah, the twin snow white, and the dark mischievous Millie.
Gwyneth and Norah preferred to cultivate the front garden, but Millie was house trained. She was a sort of housekeeper-cum-chaperone-cum-companion who despite her eighteen goat years still thought she was young. Millie did the shopping, the washing, and the cleaning and she led in front when they dropped Girl off and picked her up from work. The villagers' eyes were out on stalks the first time they witnessed this little procession, but this was soon absorbed into village life. And once Girl was settled in her new dental role with hat and all, Millie even covered the reception desk in her lunch hour whilst Gwyneth and Norah did playground duty at the local primary school.
Girl never went back to her father's farm, but she always had three goats about her, and as villages go she was the most talked of character so much so that many, many years later, a plaque on the stone cottage was mounted which said: Girl and Three Goats, a content quartet.

*Inspiration taken from Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Old Man Star

Old Man Star made it rain; made it rain paper air-planes and starfish. He'd never understood how he made these fall from the sky and the why, now he was elderly, barely mattered.
After the Second World War he'd been closely studied by scientists and head doctors; poked and prodded by men in white coats like a lab-bred rat. The Home he lived in allowed that. They'd taken him in after finding him, as a young boy, wandering London's bombed streets. He couldn't tell them his name, where he lived, or if he had family. There were fragments, but they were hazy, lodged in a part of his brain that he had limited access to.
Back then, cases like him were thought to be caused by the doodlebug bombs: low-flying bombs that quietly dropped out of the sky, but exploded loudly. Doctors said they upset the circuitry in his head, but he didn't know anything about that; all he knew was that he was different. The other Home kids fell down suddenly and fitted, whereas he, subconsciously, made intricate paper planes and brightly coloured starfish rain from the heavens.   
Unable to remember his own name, the nurses had named him David, which was better than being called Star Boy or Boy Spy. He grew up there for ten years surrounded by a mixture of awe and fear as they said he was able to enter a world that others couldn't. Was what he could do trickery or an inexplicable condition?
Doctors agreed it was undoubtedly a combination of the two, but David at sixteen believed he'd been chosen to show that not everything was always just so; miracles happen as does the perverse, the bizarre, the impossible. The world was full of random occurrences and he was one of them. War had torn up nature's rules and chosen to rewire him.
He could smell when it was about to happen like heavy rain hanging in the air or the fresh scent of spring. His pores soaking it up like a withered plant until a tingling sensation took over his hands, shot up his arms and exited forcefully from the crown of his head so that it threw his skull back to the sky. His arms pinned to his sides with the palms of both hands spread wide as his eyes rolled inwards.
Frozen in that twitching pose, pilot-less paper air-planes would then dive from the skies and release bombs of bright orange sea stars. As they dropped, some of these starfish would sag and lose one or two of their five arms, which would spin off and land with a splat somewhere on a tree-lined street. Passers-by found shelter whenever they could and peered in earnest at their heavens as the street they'd just been walking along became littered with flimsy fighter planes and strange star-shaped fish. The Second World War was over long ago, what was this?
Their reaction was always the same when this rain suddenly stopped. They glanced nervously about and then cautiously crept out from their hiding spots. Small boys excitedly picked up the paper planes and played war games; housewives inspected the starfish and collected them in buckets; shopkeepers cleaned their smeared windows, and people continued on to wherever they are going to or coming from.
David, when recovering from a trance, shook himself like a wet dog and gazed at his surroundings with a nonplussed and slightly amused expression. Had he caused that? And that? He was usually trapped in a monochrome world the next day and the day after; grainy images of the world floated around him and were gradually broken up by vivid flecks of colour.
But raining paper planes and sea stars used up precious energy making David old well before his appointed time. The years were brutally stripped away before he'd lived them until his eyes twinkled and his face glowed with a translucency. Nobody now wondered what he was: he was an old man, an old star.