Thursday, 25 December 2014

Four Bretons, a Truffle Pig, and a Howling Baby

Once upon a time, four Bretons travelled to Land's End to pay their respects to a new born infant, but when they arrived the mother had just died and the father had flung himself across her lifeless body, racked with grief. His heaving sobs were crushing the baby that the mother still held to her breast so that he was howling in protest. A vet stood to one side with downcast eyes, shaking his head and murmuring his regrets.
This was not the nativity scene they had anticipated after three months of weary travel, but nevertheless they immediately threw themselves into the fray. Philippe pulled the grieving father off the mother's body, while Christophe wrestled the screaming baby from her stiffening arms. Jacques attempted to use his prized truffle pig to round up and pen the mooing cows and squawking chickens, but all this noise proved too much for Louis so he escorted the mumbling vet from the old barn. Outside in more relative calm, he asked Mr McNulty what had happened.
Mr McNulty shuffled his feet and said falteringly, “I'm retained by the farm. I never meant to cause no harm. She just gave up on me...She'd been ill you see...I did what I could...” Louis saw he was in shock and let him be, and walked sorrowfully back to the barn.
By nightfall, all was a little quieter. The vet had reported to the coroner and the farm-hands to the owner; the mother's body had been covered and the weeping father, before being led away to stay in a neighbour's cottage, had asked the Bretons, his distant cousins, who'd he'd never slapped eyes on until that day, to raise his son.
There was nothing more to be done, but to console the howling baby.
Neither one had ever had the sole charge of a baby, but had been told long ago that this boy would come and be their Saviour. He would restore the family's name. Their mother's last hopes had dwindled with Jacques, the youngest of the four, as he too, like his older brothers grew to prefer land to sea. And proud as they were to be Bretons, they had all relocated to Provence or Normandy to make their living in the cornfields. There was nothing they liked better than a hard day's labour ploughing corn or finding a path with their wooden staffs through its pale golden ears on moonlit nights.
These four found treasure on the land as their forefathers did in the ocean, but nevertheless it was a blow to have tradition swept aside. Each had faithfully prayed like they did for rain or sun that a heir would come and after a few hard years their prayers had been rewarded. A series of dreams foretelling his birth had led the brothers on this pilgrimage. And what a merry band they had made traipsing the land with Jacques' truffle pig leading the way; crossing the English Channel by ferry and then on foot from Weymouth. They'd foraged along the coastal paths, slept on beaches or in long grass, and washed themselves in the sea, but were ill-prepared to now take care of a baby.
The baby, baptised Nathaniel with bottled seawater, still refused to rest his lungs. He was a bundle of anger: his face permanently screwed up, his cheeks a flaming red. That night, nothing that either of the Bretons tried stopped his howling cries, so that when dawn broke feeling very stressed and sleep-deprived they decided it would be best to take their leave and head for home, to the home of their forefathers.
The return journey was again a bit of a trek, but when they were close to the roar of the ocean Nathaniel was silenced, and once they landed in Brittany he was a different baby altogether. The four Bretons handed over their charge to their delighted mother, and do you know despite that shaky start, that howling baby did indeed fulfil his prophecy and grow up to be a true son of the sea.

*Picture credit: A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star by Samuel Palmer.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Pregnant Wife

A professor's pregnant wife was sucked into the TV on Wednesday night whilst she was cooking supper: boil-in-the-bag-cod in a white parsley sauce with green beans and new potatoes.
The husband of that pregnant wife read his own story in black and white, the black words swimming before his spectacled eyes on the white paper. How had it got into the local rag? How was the female reporter able to be so precise about their meal for that evening?
Did it matter? Yes, he decided it did.
He'd been careful not to tell anyone about that Wednesday night, not even his parents or closest colleagues. The fact that somebody knew what went on in his kitchen irked him more than his pregnant wife disappearing on him. He hadn't even realised she was gone until he heard tapping coming from inside the TV screen. And there she was, her swollen figure smiling and waving at him. She'd blown him a kiss and then waddled off down the residential, tree-lined avenue.
Where are you going?” He'd shouted, knocking frantically on the outside of the domed screen.
She'd kept on walking and in his panicked attempts to find an opening into the television he'd inadvertently pulled the plug. The picture had flickered, then instantly died, and when he got it back on all he got was the credits to Eastenders. The other channels were showing their programmes as scheduled according to the Radio Times.
He'd always felt she'd had a weird bond with that pre-colour television. She'd refused when they'd moved into a three-bedroomed house to get rid of it. She'd said she liked viewing life in different shades of whites, greys and blacks. It took her back to her childhood when she'd often imagined what it would be like to live in a world without colour. She said you could guess from the ashen shades what colours people were wearing or the tone of their hair or flesh. It was fun like choosing crayons to colour in a picture.
He should have disposed of it, said he'd broken it and it couldn't be repaired. In hindsight, that's what he should have done. He should have recognised the pregnant signs of her heightened interest over the last six months. They did say the surge of hormones scrambled a woman's brain, and that much by now was obvious.
The newspaper article went on...
According to our source, the wife has not tried to contact her husband since she walked away, however doctors are concerned that as this is her first pregnancy she may suffer complications. They advise her, wherever she is, to seek shelter and medical attention as soon as possible.
At the time of going to print, the professor remains silent on the subject of his missing wife and unborn son.
Now he was really incensed. Where had they got this stuff from?! What source? He'd wring the neck of whoever it was if he ever found out who was spying on him. They'd made him out to be some kind of cold, uncaring monster, although he supposed some professors of physics did give that impression, but he hadn't thought until now that he was one of them.
Did they seriously think she'd upped and left him? He didn't believe that, she'd come back to him when she was ready. And if she didn't? Well he didn't own her. He wasn't a person who made grand romantic gestures, he was rational, but she knew that when she married him.
Was the situation he found himself in really so unusual? Surely not enough to warrant this intrusion. Why was it people in today's age still failed to grasp the principles of quantum physics? Anything that seemed strange could be explained with these mechanics.
He put aside the paper and switched on the telly, and as if to prove his point the monochrome picture rearranged its pixels into a close-up shot of his wife contentedly cradling her belly.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A Pack of Smokin' Camels

He took a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket. I assumed they were exactly that, a brand of cigarette that I hadn't seen for a very long time.
I took a sip of my soya latte, and continued to aimlessly chat, anticipating his offer of a cigarette and my refusal, but it never came. He appeared to be having some kind of trouble with the pack. He shook and prodded it, held it to his ear, looked into it with a bulging eye and even whispered sweet nothings into its cardboard depths, until finally he lost patience and gave it a firm bang on the table.
This did its job and dislodged a tangled heap of tiny camels into the overflowing ashtray. Each grunted as they struggled to rise to their feet in the glass pit filled with its discarded cigarette tips and smouldering ashes, and when all were able they began their ascent up and over the craggy glass lip until they stood nose to tail in front of their demanding master. All five took a military-style stance: head held high, back poker straight and feet stamped firmly as their master rolled through what I presumed were their names: Pistachio, Date, Chickpea, Apricot and Sesame. I half expected each one to lift a hoof and salute me.
Despite being unbelievably tiny, they were perfectly formed, remaining me of the toy I fought to find before my cousins in the cereal packet. The three males had bigger feet and the females long, curly eyelashes. In short, they were as desirable as Fabergé eggs, and somehow knew it.
The blue-faced Arab sitting across from me was sweating, “If I win, you become my seventh wife,” he said in a perfectly calm tone which was very much at odds with his appearance.
I shook my head, “You'll lose,” I said, “and when you do, you must once and for all stop pestering me.” He seemed relieved that I'd agreed so easily to his wager.
In truth, I didn't really know him, but he had been trying to persuade me to marry him since we'd met twenty years ago in Tunisia. I was a teenager and he was the resort's bingo caller. He wasn't a very attractive man and was a bit of a wanderer, which was why his wives never seemed to last very long, but he had some charm and his blue face, an unfortunate accident with permanent dye, had become a sort of homing beacon. He often showed up just when I needed him; waltzed into my life no matter where I was and sat across from me as he did now.
At first it had been the normal wooing, beginning with the promise of one hundred average-sized camels; then bribery, my parents guaranteed a comfortable home for the rest of their lives; then came trickery, nearly fooling me into standing in for the delayed bride at what he told me was a rehearsal wedding, but this was a whole new, desperate level. His proposals had never travelled this road before, and I confess it was exciting. I could be gambling my life, as I knew it, far away.
He rummaged in the briefcase he'd brought with him and placed the bottom half of a black edged rectangular box on the table, poured in a bag of fine sand and smoothed it over with a minuscule rake, using this to also create five lanes in the knuckle-deep sand. He drew the start and finishing line with a stumpy, index finger.
The tiny camels quivered with adrenalin as he fastened the even tinier cloth-doll jockeys to their humps, the detail in every single one was incredible with their shiny black boots, pristine white breeches, and silk quilted jackets and hard hats in racing colours. Each camel when equipped with their jockey took up their position behind the starting line in the sand pit.
I'm feeling generous,” he said throwing tumble stones between his moist palms, “if three of the five cross the finishing line in the order you pick, then I won't bother you again.”
I was about to declare my winning order of camels when a harassed woman appeared and slapped the Arab's blue face hard, then popped Apricot in her mouth and chewed slowly with a broad evil grin.
And that is how I came to be his seventh wife.

Picture credit: The Great Camel Race by Rick Nilson. To view more of Rick's work, visit http://obxfineart.blogspot.co.uk/

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Pit

Did you think I didn't understand your darkest moods?
That's what I felt like saying but didn't. The words stuck in the back of my throat like a too large and sharp piece of crisp; lodged there for a time before finally being pushed down to reside in a deep, dark pit. The words thought, but never typed or spoken until now.
Why now?
Because those words rise as if to taut me, make me feel sick, and now I must get them down before I slap them down, raise my hand to them as if I held a whip. I must release them from the pit.
Confrontation. Discussion. Have my say. Hear my voice. Converse with another. I hate all of those forms. Hate is a strong word, detest is an improvement – less aggressive, less forceful – but no, the written form has always served me better.
The words I want to say never come out the right way to the people that matter; sometimes they don't come out at all. Unspoken, they linger and encircle my person, until they're in their thousands, swimming around me like goldfish or tadpoles, so that I have to spew them out onto a plain page. But even the plain page sometimes resists me...the sentences in my head express themselves differently or find themselves trampled by a surge of more persistent words that won't patiently wait their turn. I go on a detour, explore a new avenue, a different route, and find that by the end of it I'm not wholly satisfied with the outcome. It doesn't say what I so bluntly wanted to say. What I wanted to blurt out.
Say the right words. Has she said it? NOW!
No, I can't.
Do you not think that I too have been there, in that deep, dark pit?
That black hollow gobbles up my words and steals a fragile part of my soul. It's not a place you can share, but I tell you I have been there. Banished.
Do you think I don't know that nobody is perfect? Imperfection makes a person complete. Black and white. Light and dark. Two halves to every heart.
Are those words right or wrong? Why do they have to be one or the other?
Words, words, words....
Some people think, some people talk, some people write what they think or think before they talk. Some people don't care what they say; they clumsily lay barbed wire over the opening of the pit anyway. It's their human right to have their say and inflict stigmata on a less hardier person.
Censor. Evaluate. Zip it!
But even two can lose that thread of communication. What once appeared strong suddenly snaps with no prior warning. Both are forced into a personalised pit through unforeseeable actions; both hurting for different reasons. What once was cannot be retrieved, it has been lost, possibly forever, but...the thread still dangles...
Unsaid words hang in that dark, empty space, and clamour for attention. Let me out! Listen!
They rattle the metal bars or pierce delicate skin; throw stones or sometimes old bones from the past. They yell like banshees or whisper like cunning ghosts. You'll feel better if you let me out just the once, just the once and then I'll be silenced.
Is it true? I don't know. My pit remains closed to trespassers. It's mine and mine alone. The pressure builds and erupts, or takes me all the way down to meet it.
Just because I speak to it and not of it, don't presume I don't know the doubting dark.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Little White Cat who went to Tea at London Zoo

Bianca, a much loved and pampered cat, stretched herself out on the chaise longue like a netball goal shooter. Her two front paws extended overhead, lazy claws making tiny stabs at the empty air.
Where's my beautiful Bianca?” called her lady owner coming through from the dressing room as she put on a pair of pearl earrings, “There you are, darling. Found you. Have you had a good nap?” Bianca's green eyes sleepily blinked back as if in answer.
Of course you have. Let's get you ready shall we?” And before Bianca could give her usual consent, she'd picked her up and ceremonially carried her to the dressing table with its oval mirror.
How precious you are!” Her lady said as she stroked Bianca's purring head and studied their reflections in the glass, “Don't we make a gorgeous pair?” She laughed, “The very fairest of the fair.”
And that much was true: they were both exceedingly fair. The lady had platinum blonde sweeping hair, which today was swept off her face and swung in a loose pony-tail, and which combined with her smooth marble-like skin accentuated her ice-blue eyes; cradled by her Bianca's plush fur was whiter than the first falling of snow and her green eyes glittered like emeralds.
She was so relieved her lady owner hadn't thought to call her Snowflake or Snowball. Bianca was much more original, and it was a blessing that being so white she wasn't stone-deaf, although sometimes her lady seemed to misread her miaows. Mistaking one which meant 'give me fish' for 'let me out'.
Bianca purred as her lady brushed her soft fur and fastened her expensive diamanté choker and clipped the matching lead to it. All ladies should walk to show off their figure, her lady believed, but Bianca saw that the lady had packed her 'cat companion' travelling cushion in her Gucci handbag, so they must be going somewhere by chauffeured car.
Outside, a black Mercedes with dark tinted windows was waiting. On seeing them descend the stairs, the chauffeur popped open the back passenger door and made sure both were comfortably seated. 
You're... a VIC – a Very Important Cat,” was what Bianca heard above the gentle rumble of the engine. Of course I am, Bianca thought, and assumed she was being taken to meet the Queen. Her Majesty had obviously heard of her excellent breeding.
But instead the Mercedes took them to London Zoo. Bianca's whiskers bristled with indignation. Here! Her lady can't be serious! But her lady produced a gold-leafed invite and was ushered though, passed the queues with Bianca digging her sharp claws into her shoulder. “Act important!” Her lady hissed.
Bianca plaintively miaowed and leapt to the ground and walked alongside her lady, very perturbed, but with some vestige of dignity. The official stopped outside the zoo's latest star attraction: a rare Bengal white tiger named Raj, who had recently finished a tour with two famous magicians.
Her lady bent down, “Go with the nice keeper,” and handed over the leash.
Bianca by now had realised her misapprehension...she was about to meet a VIC. She gulped nervously, was she to be the tiger's dinner? All the same, she sauntered into the glass enclosure as if this was her first and last 'red carpet' moment.
Raj, who languidly sat on a throne in a sapphire smoking jacket with a jewelled crown perched on his head was evidently amused. Their eyes met, as if they were part of a screenplay, across the fragrant plant-filled room, very aware that lots of interested eyes were upon them.
She lowered her head and allowed herself to be placed in the diminutive garden chair alongside the monstrous throne, where to her surprise Raj, as he smoked cigars, fed her smoked salmon on buttered brown bread.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Slippery Italian

In Greenwich Village, in the Italian section, there was an antique-style shop cum Italian coffee house where nothing was what it seemed.
The owner, whom we shall call Vincenzo, was a petite, eccentric Italian chap. Everything about him was exceedingly neat from his diminutive stature to his small hands and feet. In fact, he looked as if all his parts had been assembled on a factory line, even down to the shiny hair on his perfect shaped head, which was the colour and texture of spun sugar and which some said must be surely dyed. The standard black waiter-style suit he wore always looked freshly pressed and the shirt beneath spotless, and so naturally you assume that my description will end with a pair of sturdy black, polished loafers, but no, for if you care to glance down you'll see his shoes are open-backed and made of Italian flat bread.
And while the bread shoes were the last visual clue to his flamboyant nature, they were by no means the first, for there are two I'd purposely not previously mentioned. If I had remarked upon these first it would have decided his character, and quite rightly so, but nevertheless it's best not to judge a person's cover.
The two items I earlier omitted were a rather large dark moustache and a gold-plated monocle. Vincenzo was fascinated with the English, styling his facial hair like that of an old-fashioned pilot and his eye wear on a country lord. Without these, you would have guessed he had Italian blood, but with the groomed 'tache, and the one bespectacled eye it was hidden, and only his Mafia-American accent was a dead giveaway.
For a lean man his charm could be both brutish and disarming so that men and women were equally putty in his long-fingered, elegant hands. He played with them as he did with his papa's recipe for ciabatta. Slapping the soft, wet dough on the work surface and kneading it vigorously before tenderly shaping it.
The inside of his shop was a fashionable mess; the left side housing distressed to Art Deco and kitsch items, while in the right there was a wipe-clean counter with bar stools, from behind which Vincenzo served doll-sized cups of espresso. The front of that right bay was reserved for alfresco dining: the outdoors brought indoors for two lucky diners. For friends, lovers, proposals and intimate occasions. The inside of the bay window was festooned with twinkly lights entwined with grass-green garlands over a rose-pink cushioned window seat, and then a little further back, but squarely in the centre, stood a round wrought iron glass-topped table with two handsome chairs. 
In the daylight, these decorations looked tacky, but by night the setting seemed almost magical. People would stop and stare at the two diners in the window like they were a façade or a staged picture postcard, and Vincenzo's service, being Italian, was of course impeccable. He switched easily from a chef's hat to a linen cloth draped over his arm and quite mesmerised couples with his ambidextrous skills.
One memorable moonlit night, which went down in the village's ledger of history, he re-enacted a scene from a beloved Disney animation with two professionally trained look-a-likes. The crowd outside gathered under a canopy of stars; the children lined in front of the adults pressing their faces into the glass as Lady and Tramp took their places at the reserved indoor garden table and Vincenzo danced around in his flat bread carpet slippers. Of course, the pair shared a steaming bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, inevitably finding they ate from the same yellow strand until their wet noses met in the middle to the ill-sounding strains of Vincenzo's violin.
The adults wiped their moist eyes at this unfolding love story, while the children rapt tapped on the window and demanded gelato to seal this bewitching night.
Vincenzo, the son and grandson of bakers knew, as do all Italians, how to use ambiance with good food to slip into people's emotions.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Weeping Lady Willow

Lady Willow pitiably sobbed at everything from the rooster crowing in the morning to the guard dog's barks at night. Her eyes and nose leaked between the hours of dawn and midnight, although the servant that slept at the foot of her bed said that even deep in sleep she cried, and that her tears and snot ruined the silk sheets and pillows. Nothing they tired, such as soothing words or sudden slaps could bring her to her senses.
A snivelling toad!”, her rivals said, while the Emperor only saw a weeping beauty. Some days she was a trickling fountain, others a gushing waterfall. Her face and eyes were never completely dry, so that she sparkled like a rare precious gem, which for a time made her the Emperor's favourite. For him, she glistened like morning dew or shimmered like a lake. None of his other wives or concubines could match her unique splendidness, not even the fine-looking Empress.
The Emperor, who was prone to whims, indulged in Lady Willow's propensity to weep. Her tear-stained cheeks fascinated him and so he sought out her other weaknesses. She was encouraged to whine, to clamber on his knees for comfort, and to throw herself at his imperial feet and beg him not to leave: “Please, Your Majesty, stay longer!”
He sent numerous gifts to make watery pearls gush from her eyes: song birds in gold cages, dragonfly hair pins, armfuls of chrysanthemums and peonies, and beautiful patterned robes. He ordered her to accompany him to operas, temples and gardens, all of which were intended to start a pool then a flood. And she didn't disappoint: she cried bucketfuls and the Emperor was delighted.
When he tired of her reaction to happiness, he experimented with his moods and tried frightening her: he made impossible demands and shouted at her, his chief eunuch and his ministers. She cowered and trembled like a leaf in an unforgiving icy wind in his presence and the silent weeping turned into vocal sobs, but still she would cling to him as a child does to a disapproving parent. She would have done anything to please him if he requested it, but her behaviour was reward enough.
In-between gulps, sniffs, and sobs Lady Willow waited for him, the Emperor, her husband, her love, her tormentor, but those waits got longer and longer from hours to days at a time. Without knowing why she'd slipped out of favour. The Emperor, bored with his latest plaything had moved on to torment some other female creature.
Lady Willow, with constant overflowing eyes, pined for his attention. Her reasons to wail somehow seemed justified when he'd courted it and now her whole being bowed from the loss. All her features appeared to suddenly droop as if life had been taken from her: she hunched and kept her thin twig-like arms wrapped round her disappearing body. Her eyes sank into empty, dark wells and her tears turned black, as black as squid ink, and left unsightly trails; a permanent mark of her tortured soul and blackening heart.
Her youth was spent before she was ready so that she felt trapped in a perpetual state of misery. She wept with one pure emotion, that of sadness, instead of how she used to weep up and down the emotional spectrum. Gone too was her magnificent dress for she would now only allow herself to be dressed in coarse sackcloth as if grief-stricken. She forever mourned for the girl she once was before the Emperor had cruelly hastened her age and her weeping.

*Inspired by Anchee Min's Empress Orchid

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Pea Shooter

Pea was an excellent shot with a bow and arrow. He'd just released a plastic arrow with a suckered tip, with window putty on it to make it stick, into Mrs Glenville's bottom. It stuck to her right floral-cottoned cheek, which had been a rather large and easy target, and quivered as it settled in its new resting place. Mrs Glenville swung round and swatted her backside with a wet shirt she was about to peg on the washing line, until she realised that whatever it was was attached to her person. She gingerly felt around and pulled the little blighter from her dress with a loud sucking pop, mildly threatening as she did so, “Pea, just you wait 'til I clap my eyes on you!”
Pea, in an attempt to suppress his convulses hunkered down behind the upper window ledge and waited for his shakes of laughter to subside.
Mrs Glenville, his foster mother, was a good sport and was known as GT to all 'her boys', after her favourite tipple, but she was getting on and her rearing methods were frowned upon for they were as unusual as her boys, so Pea, soon to be 10, was her last foundling. And he'd proved a rather exuberant handful ever since he'd arrived as a wide-eyed terry-towelled bundle. GT was a pro though and used to boys' capers. She was no sergeant major, but she knew just how to cajole growing boys.
But Pea, from the chubby and terrible age of three, had been more of a challenge, despite fooling everyone by looking like a angel. Nubs of wings had appeared a month after his third birthday – the bony protrusions had torn two small holes in the back of every single one of his t-shirts, so that it had become easier and more cost effective to let him run around bare-chested like one of Peter Pan's lost boys – and had in the space of two months developed into fluffy brownish-grey wings, before slowly darkening to a deep brown-red. They were however a useless appendage, as demonstrated by Pea flinging himself from the tops of trees and out of open windows, or running as fast as he could along a strip of flat land hoping for take-off. And at this early stage, they moulted profusely so that GT even considered starting a trade in old-fashioned ink and quills.
The wings were troublesome, but rather less than Pea's sudden obsession for missiles, where anything round or pointed was seen as a launch-able weapon, and people's large thighs or ample backsides were the perfect target. GT attempted to restrain his interest by training him like you would a guard dog: by showing him how to blow dried peas through a tube, which he quickly excelled at and which made him demand harder challenges for the same reward like a puppy brought to heel or taught to sit and fetch.
GT had unwittingly tapped into this thirst for crude hand-held weaponry so that before long Pea had also mastered the slingshot and moved on to toy bows and arrows. He'd practised on lines of baked bean cans and paper targets; he'd successfully fired countless harmless arrows into the rumps of people, so that GT had had to erect a warning sign for the postman and other visitors. The point had now come where the student was more than ready to overtake the teacher, and GT was ready to over-indulge her winged, tousled-haired foster son. She would be his irresponsible champion, his subordinate.
On his tenth birthday, GT presented Pea with a handsome bow and leather sheath containing twenty-four golden arrows: twelve with a sharp point and twelve with a blunt tip of lead, whose pointed or blunt tip, the salesman had said, could unleash desire or aversion. GT, at seventy, had decided Pea would make an excellent mischief-making Cupid if only she could persuade him to aim for people's hearts and not other body parts! Oh, what plots the two of them could set in motion!

*Inspired by Daphne du Maurier's Rule Britannia

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Dancing Eyes

Trembling, Grace Eye took up her opening stance and waited for the heavy burgundy velvet curtains to lift.
She always got like this when she had to start an act and had to hold a near-impossible position. Her belly flip-flopped as she desperately tried to maintain her peculiar, twisted ballet-like curtsey centre-stage. Her head was anchored to her left, chin dropped to her chest, and her legs were criss-crossed with one foot on bent tip-toe a step behind the other; both knees were splayed and her arms held out the corners of her can-can-style ruffled black skirt in a Cheshire cat smile. The coloured nets peeped from underneath and looked like sweet-stained teeth after too many lollipops. Her partner and elder sister, Angela Eye, who was dressed similarly, but in a mottled brown and without the hoop of scratchy, rustling rainbow-coloured petticoats, watched from the wings.
Grace was always the male: the one who preened and puffed up in a riot of colour in a bid to impress a duller potential mate. Sometimes she tired of giving chase across the hall, gym floor, school stage, or wherever they played and would have liked to have played the hen, but Angela flatly refused to be the primping, more self-assured male. The hen had more appeal because although she appeared docile, she was actually in charge, and that's how it was with them.
Angela took the bookings, organised everything and controlled the purse strings, which meant Grace extended her stage role into hen-pecked husband: she did as she was told by her elder sister. And now, thanks to Angela, here they were at the Polka Dot Theatre, on the last leg of their educational tour.
The music struck up, and as the curtains pushed back, the spotlight hit her. Grace twitched her foot to a subtle point, sweeping the floor in a backwards-forwards motion in time to the beat, and began to swish her layers of skirt as the music built. She moved her neck and head in a jutting motion and proudly thrust her chest out as she strutted with pointed feet across the floor. The music turned gentler so that Angela could enter and begin her elegant solo. She pecked the ground here, scratched the ground there, and deliberately shown disinterest. Grace watched from the cover of stage props, poking her head out from behind MDF rocks and foliage, shaking her midnight-blue sheathed shoulders and swaying the plume on her head. This part always made the children laugh because of her absurd behaviour, and there were stifled giggles as she made flirting 'notice me' gestures and advanced towards her elder sister, the hen.
Angela cocked her head and with her natural beady eyes studied her younger sister in the guise of mate. She wasn't being precise enough with the positioning of her arms or feet; she'd have to have a firm word with her after, but for now the performance must continue. She retreated, then was pulled towards her pursuer, now in the final stages of the mating ritual.
Grace's face was flushed from countless pirouettes around her cornered sister, which to the attentive audience had made her seem like a spinning top of hungry flames. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, then began to slow as she regained a steadier pace; one last twirl and then a flourishing forward bend to pin Angela down. Got her now! And that boys and girls is how some male birds woo a female mate.
A quick double bow to the chorus of claps, followed by a short question and answer, and then thankfully the teachers would take over. At this point Angela and Grace would look at each other with a mixture of triumph and horror plastered on their expressions. Here they were, the Eye sisters, a rousing, educational success, whose performances were applauded only as dancing birds!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Turbulent Seas, Safe Passage

On my list of things to do before I die is stay in a light-keeper’s cottage. I don't know exactly why that immense, single eye belonging to a lighthouse draws me. Its blinding light reassuringly roaming throughout the night, lighting a pathway from land over sea. An luminous beam in the oily black guiding lost ships on a roiling sea.
That one beacon of light is said to be visible for 20-30 nautical miles, which means even a pinpoint of winking yellow saved many a sailor's life or led to certain death if that point of light was instead a wrecker's lantern. An unimpeded gleam brought ships too close to the shore, smashing them into the edges of cliffs. Then the wreckers, amidst the groans and dying wails, could claim their bounty.
Some of my ancestors, it is said, were involved in smuggling; triumphant with the spoils from crafty deals and possibly led astray ships. Relatives, I imagine, who were blessed with the-gift-of-the-gab and an unquenchable thirst for rum. The thrill of getting their hands on contraband charged through their dilated veins, but one had the misfortune of this blood forming a visible red wine stain. He wasn't wounded by a dagger or a pistol shot, but became discoloured through presumingly spilling the blood of others, and marked men then were punished accordingly: hung at the magistrate's pleasure.
The great-great-aunt, whom discovered this, felt herself to be tainted and so immediately halted her previous intrepid dig into that murky past. Those criminal skeletons, if indeed they did exist, should remain unspoken of, not let out again to roam the Dorset coastline. And nobody else has ever dare verify if there's any truth behind this myth; it's just continued to be handed down through the generations.
Was the hanged innocent? Was it a miscarriage of justice? Innocent, but still proved guilty. Innocent of manslaughter or murder possibly, but definitely not of smuggling. That branch of my family were, (and still are), born charmers, entertainers, and salesmen, and I very much doubt they would have wanted to miss out on the intrigue, the skulduggery in those heady times of coastal thieving.
And actually I kind of like it. For me, now years ahead, this history has been romanticised; its sinister and shameful hint has softened and made it positively desirable, like the thought of being kidnapped by a highwayman or tied to a ship's mast by pirates. If you travel your ancestors' roads backwards, eventually it becomes mere fantasy, until the consequences of their actions possess dream-like qualities. It's hard to put myself in their real world without injecting my own illusions: rugged landscapes, stormy seas, and untrodden hamlets; moonless nights, moist air, the clip-clop of hoofs and loaded wagons. I imagine voices whispering plans and breaking out in peals of drunken laughter.
The lighthouse then, for me more appropriately, symbolises a watchtower: a beacon of parenting, abetting men on land and sea. A majestic tower metering out its own unusual form of justice, like a parent who sees too late the blind spots, the obstacles, the pitfalls in their offspring, since they chose instead to cut themselves off from the mainland or left the tower completely unmanned. They can't right or understand the wrongs of their children, but that presiding sweeping beam, that throwaway ray of light is somehow atoning. It unsettles those on dry land, but for all those adrift on turbulent seas illuminates a safe passage.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Snapshot

There's a painting on my bedroom wall, which I can often be found staring at, because although it's not of a place I've been to, it reminds me of a view I stood before in 2008. I have no photographs of that poignant place or that vulnerable time. Now I think back, I may have destroyed them....Deleted some, if not most, of them; critical of my photographic efforts, (or obvious lack of them), to capture my present scenery.
The irony is I'm a photographer's daughter. My father is a master of documenting history and those otherwise forgettable moments, (he never goes anywhere without a camera or a dog, or both), whereas I prefer to keep my images preserved in memory. Bottled tadpoles, swimming in gin and lined up in rows on musty shelves. The camera has always been an extension of him, but it pulls me away from experiencing the here and now; catapults my self-awareness back, even if I'm not in the shot, and more so if I have to take it.
In those instances when I want to remember, when I want to make a memorable mental picture, I use my sensory receptors like a butterfly net to catch it and screw it tight in a jam jar. Imprisoned, it, at first, flutters horribly, beating its wings against the glassed walls, until exhausted it sinks to the floor and settles, so that by the time it's doused in watered-down gin, it's quite tranquil.
Images, unlike butterflies, captured and contained in this way don't die or drown. They regress to a chrysalis and await their developing moment: their repeated re-release, where they project their flickering shadows around the brain's chambers and generate, in their person, reminiscence or nostalgia. Their repetitive finger puppet shows fills in the interludes, the fragments of inactive time.
This form of recall, for me, can often be overwhelming; saturated in a sensation that no photograph can return me to. I can walk the inside of a house from memory, smell and taste food, transport myself instantly to that beach or garden. There doesn't have to be a trigger, it's just there.
The camera, on the other hand, has not always been kind to this photographer's daughter, and neither sometimes has the photographer. “Stand there!...Smile!...Turn this way!...One more!...Move over!” Stiffened poses, forced smiles...until a very human, hunched and grimacing splodge, particularly during those awkward teenage years, imprints itself in front of a glorious background. But despite my own botched attempts to be in or take a picture, I do see the artistry in photography. I marvel at what that precious eye in a single blink can capture. What must it feel like to possess that! I curse my short-sight; blame it for my blurred focus and grainy vision.
No, I do not possess that kind of skill, despite my admiration. Words are my pictures, yet often it's pictures that inspire them. Go figure! And yes, memories, as with photographs, can be deceiving. There's a touch of fabrication. Memories can be made idyllic and photos can be airbrushed. Yet when I stand before the Shore with Red House, the floodgates open, even though I know it's of the artist's summer house in Aasgaardstrand, Norway, and not of Sausalito in California, that's where it takes me.
I'm standing on the harbour side-walk looking towards the jetty; in front of me the sea meets sky and my feet meet pastel-tinted rock formations. The late afternoon's colouring is still relatively light and warm. I dawdle, taking time on my own, away from my other day-coach-trippers, and consider how this setting is too perfect. The hillside combines so neatly with the shoreline, while the air is refreshing, and yet placid. A single, white, lone female records a potent memory of this picturesque San Francisco Bay Area city.
But what does this prove? That my memory is both infallible and very guilty of association.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Amitie

In the early hours of the morn, four skiffs had run aground together. Become stranded on the shore like a pilot whale or a pod of dolphins, where they would be noticed by joggers and dog walkers, who thought it possible that these skiffs too were seeking human intervention, whereas the local fishermen paid them next to no attention.
The coastguard was bemused, but stayed relaxed. In a statement he gave to the local news, he said there was no reason to raise a rescue mission, since they were in such good condition that he believed their sailors would, in time, come back. Members of the public however had united and wanted to drag them further inland to protect them from the wind and the eventual high tide. This notion the coastguard said was preposterous and even the RNLI agreed, but it's often impossible to dissuade well-meaning humans if they're convinced action should be taken and quickly. The stranded skiffs to them were no different from a disoriented whale, except that in their case a reverse course of action was called for: instead of being helped back into the sea, they should be removed farther from it.
Much to the coastguard's dismay, a team of volunteers borrowed ropes, winches and tarpaulin sheets with which to somehow drag and pull the four skiffs to safety. The public not involved stood around, took photographs and tweeted these until they caught the eye of the world's media, and seconds later BBC, Sky and ITN news crews arrived on scene.
The plight of the skiffs escalated into a huge operation similar to the scale of a search and rescue and involved most, if not all, of the emergency services. Overhead, helicopters maintained a circling vigil, whilst on the ground TV reporters kept up a constant stream of melodramatic live bulletins. The crowd too had swelled from a handful to hundreds like a tablespoon of soaked linseeds, most of whom were recording the unfolding scenes on their mobile phones and uploading these to Facebook or YouTube. Some even fought to see how quickly they could claim their five minutes of fame. Other less competitive and boisterous bystanders hopefully lingered in the background and pulled distraught faces at the cameras as they panned round.
The skiffs didn't seem in the least bit distressed by all this commotion and laid placidly, letting the current low tide give them a repetitive goodbye kiss. Goodbye, Hello, Goodbye, Hello again, like a lover who can't walk away to start his day or finish his night. Tabloid and local journalists were in their element, blessed finally with the opportunity to weave a strange tale dosed heavily with their own poetic licence. This was their lucky break to have their creative side recognised – they weren't just a talented hack! In their heads, they waxed lyrical about the absent sailors, presumed leisure boaters or fishermen, and the missing triangular sails and how the bare rigs now curved towards the horizon as single horns, surely pointing out the direction they would again set sail in. A media frenzy of more fevered speculations would certainly follow in their story's wake...
All those there had been drawn by that pervading human instinct to bear witness to disaster. The instinct to be there. The desire to know. Like a scene out of a J G Ballard or Daphne du Maurier novel, it had a heady scent of intrigue and plenty of overzealous people. The four skiffs were hostages, extras to the side show, surrounded by the raised voices of authoritative figures, who in turn were spurned by public jeers. Nothing would ever be decided here. They would be no affirmative action, no acquittal. By tomorrow, their sudden and mysterious appearance would be forgot, and the assumptive explanations of which used as fish and chip paper.
The skiffs would remain forever as they arrived, abandoned on the shore, yet tethered by wild rumours of revenge and sour friendship.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Empress, Knight, Viking

On my way to work today, I saw a Roman empress, a sword-less knight, and a helmeted Viking. To say I was amused would understate the fact; I was that, a wry smile on my face as I passed them, but I was more perplexed as to why all of a sudden these three figures had appeared in 21st century suburbia. I walk this same route every Thursday and have never seen such a sight before.
The empress was lounging against a metal railing watching the cars speed by. I still can't decide whether her look was one of languish or of boredom. I imagine she might have been thinking, 'Not like the chariots in my day.' But perhaps she was daydreaming or simply waiting for her posse of hand-maidens to turn up... She didn't seem in the least bit concerned about being in a strange place, or that her white shift was picking up dirt from the painted yellow railing. I continued on my way leaving her in that struck pose with the sun glinting off the gold braid running though her coiled brown hair.
I crossed over the road at the lights and almost banged into a sword-less knight. He was horse-less too, but was bouncing along the path as if there were a great steed beneath him. A young smiling knight with a dried mud-splashed face and no weaponry, clad in a light chain-mail, which also covered his head, and long tan boots. The crest of his company emblazoned on his chest. He looked excited, as if he was on a lone jaunt somewhere, and not wishing to hold him up or exchange pleasantries I swiftly stepped aside, and then turned around to watch his two feet gallop off into the distance.
Startled by these two random events, I picked up my purposeful walk along the wide, winding footpath, dividing my gaze between the trees on my right and the steep drop down to the meandering, bubbling brook on my left. The horizon straight ahead for the time being seemed clear. I'd just passed the stump of a huge felled oak when I saw a helmeted Viking striding towards me, loosely swinging a battle axe in this right hand. I attempted to copy his fearless, brutish gait and charged forward to meet him, although I'm not entirely sure I was convincing. He certainly displayed no visible signs of being as perturbed by my long-limbed appearance... As we drew closer, I noticed he had the steely eyes of a seasoned warrior, which were fixed on a spot far beyond me. His concentrated focus creased his brow and made his battle axe swing in a choppier rhythm. He merely glanced at me and returned his full energy to tracking his true enemy who was obviously some weary miles ahead.
Despite this snub, the Viking left the strongest impression, so much so that I was tempted to give up the idea of going to work, to turn about and follow him. Perhaps it was his confident, manly strides or the hint of violence, although I think the axe was actually plastic, or because his horned helmet was scarily attractive. Helmeted Norse men were considered to be rich bronze gods and I can well believe that. He had infused the fresh morning air with courage, strength and power and I ravenously breathed this in as I walked in its lingering trail.
Upon reaching work I realised no other passers-by had seemed as bemused as I was. Why was that? Was this, after all, a regular occurrence?
I told my weird, time-warped story to a trusted colleague as if I was playing a car game where you have to repeat a shopping list of fantastical people and then add your own. She brushed my words off with a nonchalant shrug said, “Is that all? Well, that's unusual as it's Thursday, but on Tuesdays, you see all sorts.”  

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Skull Maiden

In Glenborrodale Castle, there once hung a doctored picture. It adorned a wall of the dining room, where it was beheld by many pairs of admiring eyes, yet still withheld its secret. A slender fair-skinned young woman in a heavy crimson brocaded dress gazed softly into a crystal ball. Her focus entirely taken by what she saw, her countenance devoid of emotion. Was she pleased, relieved, shaken? Were the tidings fortunate or sorrowful?
Those who looked upon her posed these questions and more. She appeared innocent, but could you be sure? Was her work witchcraft or a gift? With her head bent and eyes cast down, she betrayed no clue as to what she was seeing, let alone thinking or feeling. Was she witnessing scenes of humble life or incoming death? Her apparent calmness always affected guests in the dining room so that each would speculate, as they consumed, their future happiness or doom.
Whoever sat on their own before the picture addressed her in a pitiful whine or whisper: Tell me my fate... My destiny...
All minds, at times, have a burning curiosity to know the unknown; to stake a small claim on their prosperous future or to divert the course of predicted tragedy. Unfortunately, in this instance, the widely-held assumptions were incorrect. She did not know destiny. She could not see into their future. The crystal ball, after all, was not her primary apparatus, it was secondary. The real tool of her trade was deemed too horrible, too sinister... If someone had pulled back the dark blue curtain or looked more closely the truth would have been seen, but it wouldn't be discovered until much later when the painting was cleaned.
When the skull once more emerged from behind the curtain, many human minds had been rummaged in and a vast number of lives meddled with. Mind pictures had been read, recorded, restored or stolen; the originals or copies now the rightful property of the Skull Maiden.
Whatever you might have heard, she existed. She came from a long line and their methods were before their time like Leonardo da Vinci. The Skull Maiden pictured, it's said, was the most beautiful, but also the most dispassionate. Her warm eyes left you cold for her focus was so clear, so unwavering, and nothing could disturb her cool exterior. To be in her presence, as I understand it, was chilling.
But you don't get that sense from either the no skull or with skull picture. The skull is a relic of all the maidens' endeavours combined to delve into as many minds as possible in their allotted time. To alter people's past and present memories, to change how they might create those in the future. To understand the mind and build a foundation, then a bricked wall from historical memory. To partake in a form of sorcery with spiritual and scientific connotations. The left versus the right brain. It was one big game. A study where consent was not sought, which would now be considered unethical. 
Memory, as each Skull Maiden learnt, is not infallible. It waxes and wanes, nobody's memories, even of the same event, are the same. The crystal ball traced the readable ones and the laying of hands on the skull's temples unlocked them. The skull would glow as the maiden's fingertips probed and pulled ancient or newly-made memories from its person. All would be opened, their contents logged and a copy archived in a translucent brick. After which, some were wiped, some restored, and others modified, before being returned to the person. There was no protocol. It depended on the whim of the Skull Maiden.
An individual's mind picture may change, yet it always retains some essence of its story. The Skull Maiden however loses the intellect, that capacity to divulge her own. She is all memory – she remembers so much, she forgets what's hers to own.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Virgin Bride

The parish priest gave a short address and then the final blessing, “Guard this place and this house and the souls of those who dwell there.” He made a sign of the cross in the air and sprinkled holy water on the virgin.
The virgin this year looked a little worn and pale with her delicate, blonde colouring, but still resplendent. Everyone knew the service was drawing to a close as the eldest woman rose to bathe the virgin's feet. The congregation fidgeted and audibly sighed as the smell of cakes and pies wafted in from the adjacent room. Their ears tuned to the rehearsal of the band so that rows of legs bounced with uncontrolled jigging.
The whole of the house blazed with candles, electric lighting, and mantelpiece fires. The congregation were rosy-cheeked and sweating; some men were mopping their brows with their striped handkerchiefs, while the women took to fanning themselves with the printed order of service sheet. The virgin bride was starting to look bored and other members of the congregation were beginning to fidget more and more.
Finally, the cleansing of the virgin's feet was complete and the signal was given for all to rise. The priest, the deacon and the sub-deacon led the bare-foot bride down the centre aisle, the eldest woman followed with the bride's pearly slippers and the rest of the red-faced congregation filed behind.
The priest positioned the anointed virgin bride at the door into the Great Hall, the eldest woman bearing the slippers beside her. The deacon and sub-deacon in their flowing surplices stood like sentries either side. The priest mumbled a few words in Latin and swept down a long corridor to a cramped vestry to conduct confession; a room which once had in fact been part of the kitchen and had a disused serving hatch. The hatch on the other side now gave onto the drawing room with cosy armchairs and a glowing fire. The priest reached through and helped himself to the ruby-filled decanter and a wine glass. It was going to be a long night...
Meanwhile, the virgin bride was rapidly shaking hands and accepting kisses of congratulations. When she came to the end of the line, the eldest woman helped her put her newly-washed feet back into her slippers, whereupon she paraded herself around the ballroom on the arm of a non-existent groom and performed a rather balletic first dance. All the while, her blue eyes were trained on a single spot: the roasted suckling pig, which unfortunately with her many leaps and turns made her feel sick, so that her finishing pose was a dramatically clutched stomach.
The wedding feast was in full swing; some of the assembly were moving out of time with the band to their own rhythm, but most were stuffing food into their gaping mouths. The virgin bride was forbidden to partake, apart from a slice of cake which she had yet to cut, because at present she was still being claimed by numerous dance partners who twirled her exhaustively about the sprung floor.
The last partner on her dance card twirled her to the ivory tower. She cut herself a generous wedge, revealing the Victoria sponge, and stretched her small mouth around it. The raspberry jam oozed like blood and left a sticky mess on the front of her brilliant white wedding dress. Then, still chomping she was unmercifully grabbed and dragged out of the house and down a rocky pathway towards the shore. The crowd unleashed her on the edge and retreated to a safe distance, clamping their hands over their ears to drown out the eerie whistles of the wind and the wails of the sea. In the moonlight, the trembling virgin bride prepared to be whisked into the crashing tide, married as she now was to the darkest depths beneath.
*Inspired by the vision of Edvard Munch and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A Horse With No Name

When I was a boy, an old native Indian gave me a horse's head. A tiny silver charm, that fitted neatly into my palm, and was inscribed with these words on the back: Horse... Give Me Power.
It's long gone now; it disappeared many years ago on the first part of the journey. The sun burnt a hole in my trouser pocket, just wide enough for two of my fingers to wiggle through, and so I imagine the horse's head dropped onto the sand, or bounced off a hill or a rock. Although lost to me now, I've never forgotten the rough feel of it. By touch alone you could make out the horse's head: short jagged points were its mane, a slight bump was its forehead, a round tip was its nose and mouth, a strong curve its powerful neck, and a protruding lump the turquoise stone set in its throat. It was about the size of a standard fifty-pence piece, only thinner.
I thought it was girlish, but I held on to it anyway; I never shown it to anyone, not even my younger sisters. I carried it in my trouser pocket and began to hang about the Indian. He kept a tin shack as a native American shop on a piece of London wasteland, which now I think back was strange in itself, but as a kid you accept these things. He was ancient with braided silver hair and leathery skin - his cheeks were as creased as a parched desert - and he dressed casually in a shell suit with a pair of worn moccasins. He said to call him King, but I've no idea if this was his name or not, and his shop was a mishmash of feather headdresses, toy bows and arrows, dream-catchers and animal skins. He never seemed to have much custom being kinda off the beaten tourist track.
The barren land in front of his shack was like a parking lot. He owned a gold Ford Cortina, a pale orange Avenger and a white imported Mustang, although none of them were taxed or roadworthy. We'd lean against their hoods or sit on the narrow strip of asphalt, he in a hide-upholstered armchair and me on a wooden stool, and pow-wow about all sorts of things from weird dreams we'd had to lessons of survival. I learned a lot in those years, including how to drink and smoke.
Then one day I turned up as randomly as ever and King, and mostly everything about him, had disappeared. His tin shack stood empty and all his cars were gone. I thought perhaps he'd got ill, or died or finally been moved on by the council. I sat in his abandoned armchair, smoking a little weed and knocking back the cans of Foster's I'd brought him. I fumbled the horse's head and must have fallen asleep in my inebriated state as the sun was going down. A hot breath disturbed my comatose. At first I thought it was just a sultry breeze, but then there came another short puff with a snort. I cautiously opened my eyes and found to my surprise a pair of cavernous nostrils flaring at me. In fright, I jumped onto the seat of the armchair to be eye level with 'IT'.
The 'IT' was a dappled grey stallion with a thick platinum blonde mane and tail, and which seemed to me taller than your average equine breed. The horse positioned  itself sideways on and impatiently stamped its front right hoof, Get on! Get on! I hoisted myself against its side and swung my leg over its bare back. I squeezed my thighs and we took off, with me clinging perilously to its strong neck.
The land shimmered ahead as you imagine it would in a desert heat wave. In this dream-like place, it was blisteringly hot and the horse kicked up dust from the ground, but the air was a cornucopia of sound. Birds chirped and insects buzzed all around. I lost track of time as if my body was alive, but had gone underground. Perhaps it was an just for an hour or for days... I threw myself off when the desert turned to sea and let the horse run free. I blacked out as the ocean licked my face, only to find myself slumped, back in the now vacant parking lot, over a rocking horse that resembled my anonymous steed.
*Inspired by song of same title written by Dewey Bunnell and originally recorded by America

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Woman At The Window

That woman was skulking at the window again!” the smugglers grumbled as they unloaded their cargo from the wagons.
The landlord's niece thinks we don't see her, but we do.” Said Harry the pedlar with an evil chuckle. He swung his lantern up so that she again withdrew sharply into the black damp room with its peeling wallpaper.
*
Jamaica Inn. Joss and Jem Merlyn. Aunt Patience. Mary and charlatan parson Francis Davey. Smugglers, wreckers and horse thieves...
Maria pulled herself out from her daydream, letting go of the scene she'd just created. She'd inserted herself as if she was in the novel: drawn to the goings-on outside her window and had conjured up Du Maurier's dark, fugitive world of moonlight, clopping hoofs, low voices and drizzle. Imagined herself in Mary's place, but without her boyish senses: she had been seen!
How was it that the scenes Du Maurier painted were more real than those in front of her? She was not Mary, she was not in Cornwall, and she was not in the nineteenth century!
She reluctantly dragged her full consciousness back to the view that could be seen from her hotel window: the bay of a Spanish seaside town, but as she did she spoke aloud the words of Francis Davey, “Yes, I am a freak in nature and a freak in time. I do not belong here, and I was born with a grudge against the age, and a grudge against mankind.”
Maria too felt that same grudge, like the stab of a knife in her side; she was a freak like Davey which meant that peace was still hard to find in the twentieth century. The opposite to Davey, she was not an albino so unlike him had no halo of white hair. She was squat, with skin as brown as a nut and coal-black curls, and she wore white with vertical stripes instead of Davey's sombre black. She disliked people seeing her up close, but didn't mind if they stared at her back. Her darker skin, she felt, was unsightly and her face resembled that of a pug's: eyes too close together and nose squashed flat, and so when she ventured outside she hid behind a white scarf.
The staff at the hotel were used to her peculiar sense of herself and eccentric nature since she'd been holidaying here since she'd been struck with a childhood fever. A fever which had left her lungs scarred, and which for the sake of her health meant abandoning England for six months every year. A life sentence of quietude where only novels were allowed to excite her, so that now even being abroad with people whose skin was as gypsy-looking as hers was not enough. She craved old-fashioned adventure: desolate landscapes, tossing seas, and unruly characters who intrigued and never reacted quite how you expected them to. Reality however only gave her peacefulness: blue rippled waters, a light refreshing breeze and a lone dingy. Calm and order. A sense of nothingness. Monotony and boredom.
Maria, as always under doctor's orders, tried to desperately hold on to this restorative scene, but like a caught fish it slipped from her grasp. The daylight faded, the wind blew harder and the lone dingy with the barely-filled sail became a galleon heading for the rocks. She could clearly see the wreckers waiting on the shore to launch themselves into the stormy seas and retrieve the floating goods: rolls of silk, cases of oranges, brandy and tobacco.
Her pose at the open window said she thought she should move, but was compelled to stay with her private picture. She was drunk and giddy, like the landlord of Jamaica Inn, on Daphne Du Maurier's words.
*Inspired by Salavador Dali and Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn

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.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Sky Dove

How do you not let thoughts of the past – or fears of the future – direct the course of your life? Can you look back and move forward?
I'm not sure it's possible...I've never been able to; I've had to choose. Past or future? Past or future? My mind whirring like the barely functioning VCR I've held onto, which when asked to contemplate my past and future gets slower and slower until it hits pause of its own accord and refuses to play any longer. I have to divide my time; close one door before walking through the other, or stand out in the corridor waiting for the master of my head to decide. Like a wayward pupil I brood and act resentful. Which world will the Head send me to: the already-lived or the unknown?
Whichever one, it will become my present. A moment lived or re-lived, suspended, until it too falls into a bank of memories. Some memories linger like bear hugs and kisses; others rapidly fade like promises that shouldn't have been made or have been broken.
How do you let the past go and make new lasting memories? Memories that in time will come to mean just as much as your old and often revisited early past? Only the Sky Dove knows as the collector and keeper of these answers.
The Sky Dove, as anybody who has witnessed his spectacle will know, is no ordinary bird. He resembles a dove of dinosaur proportions, and his body seems far from solid being filled with blue sky and wispy clouds. In flight, his wings are gigantic, which in daylight would cast shadows over vast patches of land or stretches of open sea, but this is a rare sight for he mainly travels at night in a sky full of stars and over a dark sea. And every starry night he hovers in a spot where the sea touches the sky; uses his large body as a clasp to join the dark depths of the sea to the unquantifiable twinkling lights in the sky.
At that time of night it's peaceful. The tide is calm, lapping gently against weathered rocks, and the midnight-blue sky is clear except for the light of steadfast stars. The rhythmic waves drawing out new-born stars who are too young to shine and so sparkle; their winks reflected back as the waves splash to reach them.
The Sky Dove unloads his cargo: his latest consignment of future fears and unwanted memories. Those that are light fall into the night and those that are dark sink to the ocean's floor. His body emptied is pearly white and slightly shimmers; a faint glow emanating from his feathers, which when his wings beat again in low flight send a rippling sheen across the sea's black surface. His passage keeping time with the tide and the approaching dawn.
The starlight fades now the day's death-like shadows and the debris of past times have been removed, successfully disposed of. The sun begins to rise and the Sky Dove gets swallowed, enveloped by rays of piercing light. It showers down on him and cleanses him as invisible to human eyes he rests.
In repose, his body soon returns to its former blue sky and white cloud mass; refills with people's discarded past hurts, future fears and worn-out memories, and when the daylight dies and he's fit to burst, he again takes to the skies and frees the universe of its cast-off reveries.

*Inspired by Rene Magritte and by the prose of Tan Twan Eng