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

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.