hollie hughes

I am a Children's Author based in Essex, England. This is a blog about my life and work but, more often than not, about anything and everything else that occurs to me! I sometimes publish short stories, flash fiction and poetry for adults here too . . .

THE SWIMMING TIGER

First it was just a rumour, a whispered murmuring amongst the adult townsfolk.

‘Keep your children in after dark,’ they said, ‘there’s a tiger been coming down from the mountains.’

Soon enough though, the rumours turned to sightings – and the hushed murmurs began to turn to something more like a frightened kind of determination.

‘We need to do something,’ they said.  ‘After all, tigers are known to hunt humans.’

Sonam was not frightened – he was curious.  He knew that tigers lived in the forested foothills at the base of the mountains (and some were thought to live even in the highest peaks, where no humans would ever go) but he had never seen one for himself.  Once, when he’d been out collecting fire wood in the forest, he’d caught a flash of fur in the distance he was sure was a tiger – but later wondered if it was just his mind and imagination playing tricks on him.

So it wasn’t too long before Sonam decided to keep watch and see for himself.  He waited until his parents and Jamyang were fast asleep, and snoring softly in their beds, and then he slowly crept outside and climbed carefully up to the roof of the house.  Sonam did not see the tiger that first night, but dozed gently under the stars and dreamt of proud and fearsome mountain beasts prowling through the dark and silent streets in the dead of night.  At first light, Sonam returned to his bed long before the rest of the family began to stir.  Undeterred by lack of success on that first night, his resolve to glimpse the tiger was only strengthened – the prize of catching sight of him even more worth the waiting for in the end.

On the second night, Sonam heard a quiet growl and a slow padding of feet into the distance as he awoke at dawn, and he knew it would not be long now before the tiger revealed himself.

Sure enough, on the third night his patience was to be rewarded.  Sonam felt the tiger before he saw him – a slight shiver ran through his body, the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood up to attention and he knew then that the tiger was near.  He was right because, just as Sonam pulled himself up into a crouched position to get a better view, the magnificent tiger emerged – nose to the air and whiskers raised to the moonlight – as he slowly padded out from the alleyway across the street.

Sonam did not have time to even think of the consequences as he quickly and silently climbed down from the roof and began to follow the tiger.  The tiger prowled on through the dark streets, all the while sniffing at the air and seeming to search for something in the shadows.

‘What can he be looking for?’ Sonam wondered. ‘It can’t be humans he’s searching for, or he would surely catch scent of me.’

On padded the tiger – past the school and the temple, past the playground and the newly built swimming pool – on and on he stalked until he had all but completed a full circuit of the town.  Eventually he uttered a long, low growl – which sounded more like a sigh to Sonam than anything else – and slowly padded back towards the alleyway and the forest.  The young boy cautiously followed behind him at a distance, and once again made his way back to bed before the rest of his family awoke.

The next day Sonam was even more curious than ever – now it was not enough that he had seen the tiger for himself, now he felt he must discover the tiger’s secret and what it was he was searching for.  That night he once again crept to the roof of the house, but did not follow the tiger around the town this time.  As soon as the tiger emerged from the alleyway and began his lonely route, Sonam climbed quickly down from the roof and ran quietly to the other end of the alleyway – where he hid himself in the undergrowth and waited for the tiger to return.

It seemed like an eternity had passed before he eventually heard the sound of the tiger’s feet padding slowly back down the alleyway, and again that strange sigh of a growl under the tiger’s breath.  Heart in mouth, Sonam followed the tiger back towards the mountains – keeping his distance for now, but knowing he would have to get close if he were not to lose him once he got back within the thick trees and tightly packed vegetation of the forest.

Once inside the forest, Sonam kept close – hoping that the tiger’s own rustling as he moved fast and strong through the undergrowth would drown out any sounds that he, Sonam, might make.  Suddenly the tiger stopped dead, bent his head to the ground – and, once again, uttered that strange sound that was more like a sigh than a growl.  Behind the tiger, Sonam froze – he knew that any move now would surely alert the tiger to his presence, but he also knew that the tiger must be able to hear the thump, thump, thump of his rapidly beating heart by now if he stood still where he was.

Slowly the tiger lifted and turned his head but, when his yellow eyes flashed towards the frightened boy, it was sadness they were filled with – not anger.  Sonam looked beyond the tiger now, and saw for the first time the dip in the forest floor, the dip that would once more be filled with water when the rains came – but, for now, was dry and empty.  Finally then, Sonam understood.

Sonam ran all the way back to town, without stopping to catch his breath even once.  He knew you should never run from a tiger, but he also knew the tiger would not chase him – for it was not humans this tiger was hunting.  As Sonam came to the end of the alleyway, he realised abruptly that the entire town was not only awake but in chaos – and it did not take long to find out that he himself was the cause.

‘Sonam! Sonam!’ the townsfolk called.  ‘Where are you Sonam?’

Sonam knew that he would now be in terrible trouble with his father, but he also knew what he had to do next.  Quickly he climbed to the top of the old statue in the centre of the square, and called the townsfolk to attention.

Silently and disbelievingly the townsfolk listened to Sonam’s story – and to what he now asked of them to do.  When he had finished, there was outcry.

‘Have you lost your mind?’ they cried. ‘You want us to do what?’

And then angrily: ‘We say you lead us to the tiger right now, and let us shoot him.  That will solve the problem once and for all!’

Eventually, when the angry shouts finally gave way to more stifled mutterings, a lone voice quietly spoke out from the back of the crowd:

‘Maybe we should just give the boy’s idea a chance.  After all, what have we got to lose?  We can all stay safely locked in our houses tonight just as we have been doing, and then tomorrow we shall see if he is right.’

The lone voice was that of Sonam’s father.  Sonam breathed a sigh of relief – he knew he would still have much explaining to do later, but he also knew that the townsfolk would listen to his father and might just agree to give his plan a try.

So it was that, on the fifth night, Sonam once more waited on the roof of the house for the tiger.  This time though, he did not wait alone – his father was there waiting for the tiger also.  Once more the tiger came, and the two of them carefully climbed down from the roof and crept after him as he padded through the town.

Just as before the tiger padded past the school and the temple and the playground but, this time, when the tiger came to the doorway of the swimming pool he stopped, raised his whiskers to the moonlight – and sniffed the air.  This time something was different – this night, the gate to the swimming pool had been left unlocked and open.

The tiger padded cautiously through the open doorway towards the pool itself, and Sonam and his father crept closely behind.  At the water’s edge, the tiger slowly lowered his head to the water and sniffed. Almost at once, with an earth shattering roar, the mighty tiger threw back his head, sprung up onto his hind legs, leapt into the air – and dived down into the pool with such strength and grace that Sonam and his father wondered if they would ever see anything so amazingly magnificent again.

Awestruck, they sat silently and watched as the tiger swam up and down in the light of the moon – gliding sleekly through the water, with no more than the occasional top level ripple, as he switched between cruising the surface and diving deep into the furthest reaches of the pool.

Eventually, in a moment that seemed to stand still forever, the tiger emerged from the pool.  Water dripping from his sleek fur, he shook himself dry.  He turned then towards the boy and his father hiding in the shadows, as if he knew they had been there all along, and it seemed to Sonam now that the tiger’s yellow eyes were no longer filled with sadness – but with gratitude.

That was not the only thing though – as the tiger slowly padded out through the doorway to make his way back to the forest once more, Sonam could have sworn that the low growl the tiger uttered under his breath this time was almost certainly not a growl at all but was, in fact, a purr.

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SPACE WATER

The pockmarked earth is burnt red and blistered; sucked dry and scarred by the parched air.  It is a landscape that seems alien to me – extra-terrestrial in a way in which Spain and Portugal on our annual two weeks away have never been.  Thank god for air con. I force myself to keep staring straight ahead; I am determined not to look at John, who is hunched close over the steering wheel beside me.

‘Look out for signs, will you?’ he snaps irritably.

‘I’d be surprised if it’s signposted,’ I counter.  ‘There haven’t been any signs since Goldfield.’

‘Well look out for some kind of caravan park then.’

‘I think they call them trailer parks over here.’

He snorts at this, but does not talk to me again – so I have that to be grateful for at least.

I catch sight of it then, the trailer park – about a mile ahead on the left.  I do not point it out to John though; surely he will notice.

As we start to draw level with the trailers and cabins, John screeches into a dirt track that’s invisible to us – almost right up until the point at which we are upon it.

‘Christ, I nearly missed it!’ he snaps.  ‘I told you to look out for it.’

I do not rise to the bait.  I do not want to arrive at his brother’s trailer in the midst of a domestic.  I can foresee Charlie’s slightly bemused – and ever so slightly amused – expression, even just contemplating the thought of it.  I know there will be a hint of ill-disguised sympathy there as well, and that I will be able to bear that least of all.

The little reception hut is empty.  There is a bell on the desk, and we press it expectantly – though we cannot see any doorway other than the one through which we have just entered.

‘Do you have a pitch number?’ I ask John hesitantly.

‘Oh yes,’ his response is sarcastic.  ‘Because I visit him all the time, don’t I?’

‘I just meant – you know – for correspondence?’

He shakes his head, and bangs his hand down hard on the bell once more.  Decades of long neglected dust rise – and fall – in response to this sudden expression of anxiety.  I realise then that John is nervous too.

I open my mouth as if to speak, but then close it again as the door creaks open.

The man is huge – he is probably the fattest man I have ever seen.  He does not have a greedy face though; he has a kindly face.  I imagine that he is fat because he is as generous to himself as he is to others.

‘Hey!’ his tone is welcoming, as he addresses John.  ‘You must be Charlie’s brother – he said you were coming.’  He extends his hand to John – who seems momentarily confused, but then redeems himself just before it is too late by reciprocating.

The man turns to me.  ‘And you must be John’s beautiful wife – very pleased to meet you.’  Having first had time to compose myself, I am quicker than John to offer him my own hand.

‘We didn’t know where to go – for Charlie,’ I explain.

‘Oh, I’ll show you.  He’s gone for a hike – didn’t know what time you’d get here.  But he said to go on in and make yourselves at home.’

There are some old camp chairs outside Charlie’s trailer, and John positions them right up against the side wall, in the full exposure of the afternoon sun.  It feels like a long hot death, by radiation firing squad, to me – and I am struggling to breathe; suffocating in the heat.

‘I’m going inside for a bit,’ I say – more to myself than to John.  ‘It’s too hot for me.’

‘What’s the point in coming, if you’re going to spend the whole time moaning about the bloody weather?’ he complains – but he follows me inside the trailer anyway.

‘It’s just like him,’ he grumbles.  ‘Just like Charlie to leave it all unlocked like this.’

‘He did know we were coming . . .’ my voice trails off.

There is a small table and chairs to one side of the little kitchenette, so I position myself there.  It feels somehow more appropriate than slumping down on the sofa bed by the TV.

It seems to me that John and I are like giants in this trailer, we are too big for it; we don’t fit.  We bend awkwardly round its tight corners and enclosed spaces, just as we bend awkwardly and edge round one another.

‘Oh, this is ridiculous!’ John is losing whatever patience he had left.  ‘I’m going to look for him.’

I half-heartedly try to reason with him; I tell him that he will get lost, that his chances of coming across Charlie in that huge expanse of heat are a million to one.  But he says that he is not prepared to waste any more of the day just sitting around here waiting for his brother to take it upon himself to come back.

Now that he has gone, I feel relieved – lighter and freer somehow.  A ligthter, freeer somehonw.s the door slams shut, even as its echoes reverberate through me; I have a sense of anxiety discharging.  I look around and begin to take in the trailer properly for the first time.  Charlie has not made much effort to make it homely – it is functional, utilitarian.  The only ‘extras’ are those preinstalled by the manufacturers to sell a lifestyle.  I do not think that the lifestyle Charlie has bought is the one that the manufacturers had in mind.  He is looking after the trailer though; it is well maintained and clean.

I am tempted to look through his things; I wonder what memories he stores in the little nooks and crannies of this impermanent existence.  I stand, and then twist above myself to see what is in the cupboard over my head.  It seems empty at first, but then I can feel a small piece of bony material nudged into one corner; it is the unmistakable shape of a bra.  I pull it out of the cupboard to get a better look.  I does not look cheap and nasty, like I have imagined the women Charlie must occasionally bring back here to be – it looks expensive, like something Elaine might wear.  I cannot resist the allure of its scent.  I raise it to my face and breathe in – tentative at first, but then inhaling deeply: Chanel No. 5.

‘It’s what Marilyn Monroe wore.’  I can hear Elaine’s voice filtered through the years, still smooth though, still poised.  I know that Charlie loved her; that she loved him.  I wonder what went wrong for them.  If I’d had to put money on which of us would go the distance, surely Charlie and Elaine would have got better odds than John and I.  Probably they still would.

The bra has made me feel self-conscious now and, deterred from any further snooping – at least for the time being – I hastily shove it back into its cubby hole, back for Charlie to continue forgetting about.  I cannot help but wonder if he ever takes it out and examines it though – not as I have done today, but with something more like sentimentality as his motivation.  I momentarily try to conjure an image of Charlie emotionally crippled; wrestling with a sense of nostalgic regret – but it is not an easy fit.  It is more like something I would do than something Charlie would do.

I do not want to think about this anymore, so I cross quickly to the little kitchenette area and fill the kettle with water, though god only knows who would drink tea in this heat.  I hear the door handle turn behind me, but keep staring straight ahead out of the window in front of me.  I am not ready to turn and face Charlie yet.  I don’t know how I know that it is Charlie and not John; it is probably something to do with the racing in my chest and the rushing hum thudding just behind my ears.

Charlie comes up behind me, places his fingertips on either side of my waist, just at the top of my hip bones.  His touch is slight, I can barely feel it.  For a moment I think that I will be unable to stop myself from leaning back against him.

‘Will you spend the night with me Liz, if I come home for Christmas this year?’

I cannot stop the sharp little involuntary inhalation of breath in time, and Charlie chuckles.  He lifts my hair, and lightly brushes the nape of my neck with a kiss.  His chuckle has broken the spell already though, and I find that I am able to turn to face him after all.  I do not need to twist out of his arms; he relinquishes his hold on me effortlessly.  This is how everything always is with Charlie; effortless.  I do not have time to appraise the passing of time on his face before I respond – that will come later.

‘Lizzie . . . it’s been too long . . . ‘

‘Twenty-three years.’

‘Is it?  Is it really that long?’

I nod.  ‘John has gone to look for you.’  I think that this is probably obvious to him, but I am taking a pre-emptive strike against any gaps in conversation before they occur.  I want to keep this light.

This time, Charlie nods.  ‘I know,’ he says.  He says it with a smile, so I don’t push it.

The kettle is steaming and, as we turn to it in unison, it clicks off.

‘Not making tea, are you Liz?’

‘No – no, I don’t think so.’

We both laugh then, any tension diffused.

‘Let’s see what’s in the fridge,’ he opens the door.  ‘Coke?  OJ?’

‘What’s that in the bottle?’ I say.  It looks like spring water.

‘Oh that,’ Charlie takes the bottle from the fridge, slowly tips it upside down and then upright again.  ‘That’s space water.’

‘From the missions?  You’ve kept it all this time?’

He shrugs, and takes down two wine glasses from a cupboard above the cooker.  ‘I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.’

I eye the bottle – somewhat apprehensively now.  ‘Should we wait for John?’

‘No, I think this is it,’ Charlie smiles.  ‘Shall we step outside?  It’s cooling a little now.’

I follow him outside, and we sit on the chairs John positioned earlier.

‘Sorry Liz, would you prefer to sit in the shade?’

‘No, it’s fine.’  I like it that he remembers I don’t like the sun, but still I want him to see that I have changed.  I am not the person I used to be.

He opens the bottle, and pours us each a glass.  I don’t know why, but I expect it to fizz – of course, it doesn’t.  Charlie hands me my drink, and I realise that I am suddenly thirsty.  I take a large gulp; it tastes slightly bitter – like vitamins.  I down nearly the whole glass – it’s been at least four hours since I last had a drink.

Charlie sips his.  ‘Still tastes like shit,’ he smiles.

‘What was it like?’ I ask him.  I have wanted to ask him for years.

He shakes his head.  ‘Most of the time, not as exciting as I thought it would be.  The rest of the time, just like you’d expect; like nothing on earth.’

‘Did you ever think about home while . . . you know, while you were ‘up there’, looking down on us?’

‘Did I think about you Liz, you mean?’  He doesn’t wait for my answer.  ‘Yes,’ he says.  ‘All the time.’

I can feel the space water gurgling inside my stomach, I am sure it has started to fizz now.

At last Charlie comes to it. ‘Was she in a lot of pain Liz?’

‘No, not in the end.’

‘I should have been there.’

‘I think . . . I think maybe she thought you were.’  As I say it, I realise it may even be true – certainly it could have been true.  ‘She said ‘my boys’ . . . she definitely said ‘boys’ – you know, in the plural.’

He nods, not entirely convinced, but he doesn’t pursue it further.  He still trusts my judgement, I think – and I feel a stab of guilt when I recall John’s characteristic bitterness on her passing, though on whose account I cannot say.

I had been driving back from the hospital, John shielding his grief with anger in the car beside me.

‘I can’t believe she asked for him,’ he’d suddenly blurted.  ‘After all these years – did you hear her?  Over twenty years since he left, and still she looked for him – ‘my boy?’ she said, didn’t she? – looked straight past me, only looking for him, wasn’t she?’

Charlie is waiting.

‘I feel a bit funny,’ I slur; my lips slow to form the words.

He is at once attentive.  ‘I knew I should have got you in the shade. Are you ok?’

‘Just a little faint . . .’ and it is true.  My fingertips are numb and tingling.  Sweat is cooling on my forehead.  I can feel myself teetering on the edge of control now, in a moment I know that I will be slipping down from the camp chair onto the hot dust below – and all semblance of dignity will be lost.

‘Come on Lizzie, let’s get you inside.  .  .’ he lifts me up, and leads my weight back inside the trailer – through the open plan living space and the partition doors at the back – into the bedroom.

Charlie’s bed is unmade but I do not care, the scent of Charlie on the unwashed sheets is strangely comforting to me; like home.  And then the sense of home turns at once to a sense of homesickness; a feeling of displacement.  I am vaguely aware of Charlie leaving, and then returning again.  He presses something cold against my cheek.

‘Coke,’ he explains.  ‘Try it, maybe you need a sugar fix.’

I sit up, accept the open can he is proffering and take a sip – then another one.  I lie back down, but he is right – the sugar is working its magic.

Charlie is stroking my hair, and cheek now; his hand slightly rough and smelling of sun.  I smile into his palm, and murmur that I’m feeling a little better.

‘How are the kids?’ I say.

‘They’re doing good Liz, real good – both high fliers now, in marketing – you know?’

I notice for the first time the slight American accent Charlie has picked up; I wonder if he’s aware of it.

‘And Elaine?’ I ask.  ‘Do you ever see her?’

‘She’s remarried – has been for . . . what? . . . at least ten years now.  She comes to see me here sometimes.  Says it helps to clear her head, escape from reality for a bit.’

‘Seems a strange way to clear your head though, Charlie – with your ex-husband.’  I realise I sound like a bitch, but I don’t care; I can’t stop thinking about that bra.

‘I wasn’t the best husband in the world Liz – back then.’   It is an explanation of sorts; though I don’t really understand of what.

I experience his words with something like a kind of excluded jealousy.  I sit up to face him; forcing eye contact; suddenly brazen in my desperation to recapture an earlier – now lost, it seems – connection.  Charlie doesn’t flinch or laugh; he just looks straight back at me.  The only other people I have ever stared at this intently before have been the children.  I have never been this intimate with John.  Charlie lifts his hands and cups my face; it is like something from one of those films, only it is happening to me – in real life.  I did not think this was something that would ever happen to me.  For a moment, I think that he will kiss me and that it will be awkward – and also slightly ridiculous – but he does not, so there is no embarrassment there.  We continue staring like this, and I do not see the face of my husband’s brother or a fifty-something ex-astronaut in front of me – I see the face of the kindest man I have ever known.  It does not surprise me then that John chooses this exact moment to crash his way back into Charlie’s trailer.

‘In here John,’ Charlie calls.  He does not let go of me though – I suppose he must have nothing to hide.  I, on the other hand, most certainly do have something to hide – but I do not fear John’s reaction.

‘Liz wasn’t feeling too good,’ Charlie offers, by way of explanation.

‘Never could take the heat,’ John is carrying the half empty space water bottle.  ‘Christ it is hot though – is this yours?’

Charlie shrugs.  ‘Sure John, help yourself.  It’s good to see you.’

John nods, and takes a large swig from the bottle.  ‘God, that’s awful,’ he says – but he finishes it anyway.  Charlie and I exchange a glance.  Muggy and oppressive, the air in the trailer is thick with an adulterous charge.  Charlie – reluctantly it seems to me – gets up and crosses to John.  It is an awkward hug that John breaks first.

‘Give us a shout if you need anything, won’t you Liz?’  There is a remnant of concern in Charlie’s voice, but still he places a hand on John’s shoulder and steers him away and out of the bedroom anyway.

Once they are gone I lie back down, curling up into a foetal position – and allow myself to reabsorb the scent of Charlie.  I hug what has just happened into me, cradling the gurgling space water in my tummy.  This is a better secret than sex I think, better than if we’d fucked.

Later John will tell me what he and Charlie discussed outside, what they have agreed about the house and the ashes and the assets.  Of course Charlie will relinquish his share to John, just as he has always done.  He will give all he has in his power to give to John, just as he has given all he has in his power to give to me.  It is his way.

LACQUERED SHELL

In spite of everything we have ever read or been told to the contrary, we always think we will get some warning of the things that will ultimately destroy us – ‘fair’ warning.  The concept of justice is so interwoven within our collective consciousness that we feel it is our right to be given some kind of heads up on impending doom – the tight little lump in the right breast, the occasional breathlessness on the stairs, the furtiveness of our husband as he checks his phone – the universe owes us that much at least.  Even the greatest natural disasters we encounter often come with at least a small dose of prediction.  We do not see that our search for pattern and symmetry is nothing more or less than a human construct – we find it because we look for it, because we are predisposed to discover it.  In truth, just like the universe itself, we are each of us gradually descending into a state of chaotic entropy – it is only after complete annihilation that any certainty might finally be found within consistency.

I have been privileged in my life, I know that.  I was born on a Monday and, true to form, have been blessed with a fair face.  People often think that those of us who happen to be beautiful are also bound to be self-centred and egotistical.  The reality is though that we don’t need to be.  People are kinder to us because of our beauty and, because of this, it is easier for us to be kind in return.  We go about our business expecting people to be accommodating towards us and, because we expect them to be, they are.  In childhood we are given preference over our peers, but our peers do not resent us for it – it simply reinforces their belief in their own inferiority, and increases still further their desire for us to like and approve of them.

As a child, adults spoke to me about what I might like to be when I grew up, of course – certainly my parents would have supported any career choices I might have made.  Nobody would have told me I couldn’t be an actress or a model or an artist if that was what I wanted to be.  But I always understood that any career I might choose would be strictly optional – I would, after all, be bound to find myself married to a suitably attractive, wealthy and intelligent man of my choosing within a few years of finishing uni anyway.  This was the future that was foreseen for me, and I saw no reason to question it.  It was a relief to me, if I’m honest.  What girl wouldn’t want the fairy tale, if she could have it?  Surely careers were just something you only did until you had children anyway – why invest time and effort in something that was only ever going to be temporary?

A nursing degree was the obvious choice for a nice, kind, girl such as me.  Predictably, it was this that led me to Justin.  Or, more accurately, led Justin to me.  And aren’t all young attractive junior doctors looking for a girl like me anyway?  They certainly aren’t looking for a slightly plump girl with bad teeth, and acne – that’s for sure.  Within three years we were married and, within another three, our family was completed with two almost perfect children – Hannah and Joseph.  All thoughts of nursing were now quickly abandoned, and I was happy to play the part of doctor’s wife and full time mother.  I did not – unlike so many other women I have known – ‘let myself go’ at this point.  I am a firm believer in the mantra that one must first look after oneself before one can even begin to look after others.

Hannah is seventeen, and Joseph fourteen, now.  In all those years, I did not go more than three days without a gym visit.  I have followed a strict routine of full highlights plus cut-and-blow-dry every six weeks, and a weekly visit to the day spa has allowed for a synchronised programme of manicures/pedicures, facials, waxing and full body exfoliating scrubs.  Just like so many of my contemporaries, I have had a boob job (uplift only, you understand), and periodically visit my cosmetic consultant for Botox and collagen fillers.  I have a housekeeper/cleaner contracted for mornings only and, whilst she is there, I usually concentrate on catching up with my shopping and errands.  Justin has never shown much interest in my purchases, so I have been free to spend his salary as I see fit.

When the children were younger, I used to volunteer a little time listening to other children read in the school.  I saw no reason to continue with this pattern once they were both established in secondary school though – since I only ever really did it because Hannah begged me to come in; ‘just like the other mummies do, mummy.’  I did not get any sense of achievement from this; there was no warm inner glow for me to be gained from this small amount of work.  I saw it purely and simply as just another function of my role of mother, of the persona I was creating around myself.  I have not experienced any urge to take on any other kind of work now that the children are older either.  I have not found that I have any more time on my hands than when they were younger – if anything, I find that I have less.  Looking good is no longer as easy as it once was, and I am mindful that these are dangerous years for Justin and myself.  Temptation is forever in his path, and there will be no shortage of much younger women perfectly happy to take my place given the option to do so.  I am not naïve enough to believe that he won’t have succumbed to the occasional opportunity by now either, and am even prepared to forgive the odd indiscretion – although I would much rather not know about it in the first place.  Whilst I can allow Justin the odd alternative to the marital bed, what I can’t ever allow him to consider is an alternative to our marriage itself.  It is my responsibility to ensure that there is no equal to me in terms of a viable candidate for his wife – it is a responsibility which I have always taken very seriously indeed.

So I had everything I ever wanted in life: a beautiful home, an attentive husband, two adoring children.  I have a body, face and wardrobe to be proud of still.  I could have been forgiven for thinking that, short of sudden tragedy or catastrophic illness, the future would pretty much take care of itself.  Which is precisely why – when sudden tragedy and catastrophic illness did strike – it caught me completely off my guard.

It was Christmas day last year.  One minute I was absolutely fine, my usual self – the next, my world was falling out from under me.  Fortunately I suppose, given the severity of the symptoms, we did not have to wait too long for a diagnosis.  It was touch and go at one point – the children have told me since that they thought they had lost me, prepared to say their goodbyes even.  Justin has not spoken about his own feelings at all.  He has been there for me, of course – but we have not discussed the illness even once.  I have not pushed him, and I have been fearful of pushing myself to think about the future any more than necessary anyway.  My consultant has said now that he believes we have turned a corner in my treatment, that I may even soon be well enough to think about going home – at least for a short time.  He says my recovery has surpassed all expectations, and I am grateful for this – but I am not at all sure about going home yet, if ever.  Justin as a full time carer has never been on either of our agendas, and we both know that a full time carer is exactly what he will be.  I think the fact that he is a doctor himself only makes it worse – he will have no hope, you see – he will understand the prognosis exactly.  I may get better for a while, but then I will get ill again.  Each episode will be worse than the last, and the recovery time in between will be shorter lived.  Eventually there will come a time when I just won’t ever get better again.  I hope to be able to say my goodbyes properly to the children before it gets to that stage, but Justin will have to be there right up until the bitter end.  I am not sure there has ever been enough of a marriage between us to withstand that.

It was Christmas day last year, and we were all seated in the living room.  Hannah and Joseph were handing out the presents.

‘This one’s for you from me, Mum,’ Hannah had said, handing me an ostentatiously wrapped box.  ‘I hope you like it – I thought it was ‘you’ as soon as I saw it.’

‘I’m sure I will, darling,’ I’d purred, as I’d begun to prise off the ribbons, ‘you know what I like better than I know myself sometimes.’

The gift itself was innocent enough – a cover for my latest model iPhone.  It was lovely really – a Kath Kidston design, all retro London and understated ‘shabby chic’.  The words on the packaging though were what crashed headlong into my consciousness and detonated my soul.  Just two perfectly innocuous words and my world would never be the same again . . . ‘lacquered shell.’

COMING HOME

The words of the jet plane song are running through my head on a continuous loop.  I repeat them to myself like a mantra.  I am never at my best on a plane, especially during take-off.  I wonder how the children are getting on, and realise they’ll be in Portugal by now – heading towards the luxury villa with their overly indulgent grandparents (aka – my mum and dad).  And here I am, heading off in the opposite direction to Kefalonia – an Island I have not visited in ten years.

‘It’ll do you good, hon,’ Mum had said.  ‘Have some fun, swim, eat – get some sleep.  Take your mind off everything for a bit.’

‘I don’t want to take my mind off everything,’ I’d argued.  ‘I want to get on with things, get back to normal – just me and the kids.’

She’d played her trump card then.  ‘The kids need a break,’ she’d said, with a slightly steelier edge to her voice.  ‘They’ve been affected by all of this too, you know.’

And, of course, they had.  How could they not be affected, at the ages of 7 and 9, by their parents divorcing?  I’d made it easy for him – their git of a father.  Ridiculously easy, in fact.   I suppose he had been honest with me – at least I have that to thank him for.  He didn’t carry on behind my back.

‘The truth is Lou,’ he’d said, ‘I’m in love with her – what else can I do?’

And what else could I do then – except to let him go?  So, for the last year, I’ve been biting my tongue and getting on with things ‘for the sake of the children.’

I decide to attempt sleep, and try to pretend to myself that I’m not actually on a plane at all. This trip had seemed like a good idea when I’d booked it, but now I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s looking a bit too much like a backwards step for me.  Last time I’d visited Kefalonia I’d been due to get married imminently – it had been an extended hen weekend really.  One final girly holiday with Jude before married life, kids and responsibility set in.  Colin hadn’t minded – he’d been skiing for his stag anyway, so couldn’t very well complain.

An extended hen weekend was what it was supposed to have been – the reality of it though had turned out to be somewhat different.  Jude had hooked up with Dave the first night there.  I’d tagged along with them and his loud rugby mates for the next two nights but gave up on the third – opting instead for a quiet meal on my own in the small friendly looking taverna just across the road from our apartment.  The waiter had been English, and had looked quietly impressed when he’d seen that I’d been on my own.  When I’d paid the bill, he’d asked if he could buy me a drink in his break.

‘I’m getting married,’ I’d blurted, ‘I’m here on a kind of hen holiday.’

‘That’s ok,’ he’d smiled.  ‘I’m here on a kind of ‘retreat’ – you’re safe with me, I promise.’

I’d felt like a complete idiot then of course.  As if he would be interested in me anyway.  He was just being kind, that was all.

‘It’s fine,’ I’d said.  ‘I’m really ok, you don’t have to . . .’

‘Please?’ he’d countered.  ‘You can tell me all about the wild hen holiday you’re having.’

‘Ok then,’ I’d quipped.  ‘You can tell me all about the monastic retreat you’re having.’

As we’d sat sipping our chilled robola twenty minutes later, I’d had a chance to get a better look at him.  I’d been admiring him from a distance all night, but he was even better up close.  Jamie was working in the taverna for the summer.  Sandy haired and green-eyed, he looked like he shouldn’t really fit in there at all – but he had such a self-assured friendliness about him, that he seemed popular with holiday makers and locals alike.  He had a way of making you feel perfectly at ease and excited, at the same time.  Like he was about to take you on the ride of your life, but you were in safe hands for the journey.

As it turned out, we didn’t talk much about either my hen holiday or his ‘retreat’.  My reason for being there was self-explanatory – and he said he was there to ‘escape’.  He said it in inverted commas, like it was a cliché.  Andreas, his boss, let him off early and we went for a walk on the beach. Afterwards, I’d questioned my sanity.  What was I doing taking a walk on a foreign beach at midnight with a complete stranger?  But Jamie was the perfect gent – anyone could see that.  If he had been a stick of rock, he would have had ‘Quintessential English Gentleman’ running through his core like a stamp.

After that, we’d spent practically every spare minute together.  Fortunately, Jude was so wrapped up in Dave that she barely even noticed.  I just said I was happy to read and swim, and make plans for the wedding – and Jude was happy enough to believe me, because it got her off the hook and stopped her feeling guilty.

Did I fall for Jamie?  Only like a five tonne weight dropping from a bridge.  How could any reasonably sane girl not fall for him?  Being a reasonably sane girl though, I convinced myself that it was just an illusion.  In later years, I would look back to that last morning in the airport and wonder if I hadn’t got it all wrong after all.  At the time my feelings had seemed so ‘unreal’, so magnified, I couldn’t trust them. Jamie had run in at the last minute – Jude’s mouth had hit the floor.

‘You must be Jude,’ he’d said, flatly.  ‘Do you think I could just have five minutes with Louise alone please?’

She’d been too shocked to argue – even though we were in danger of missing our flight – she’d just nodded and sloped off towards the coffee kiosk in a state of bemused bewilderment.

As for me, I hadn’t known it was possible for my heart to beat so fast.

‘I know you’re going home, Louise,’ he’d said, his voice sounding strangely parched.  ‘I know you’re getting married next week and I want you to be happy, I honestly do.  But I will never forgive myself if I let you leave without doing this first.’

And then he had very gently kissed me.  I did not play it cool at all – in fact, I’d kissed him back like my life depended on it.

I will not say that I wish I had been braver and stayed, because then I would never have met my two amazing children.  Now that things have turned out the way they have though, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if I had stayed.  My judgement has never been the best but, at the age of thirty-six – and with the benefit of a further ten years of hindsight behind me – I am feeling more than a little sick at the thought that, far from the holiday romance I’d always tried to convince myself that Jamie was, he was actually as close as I’m ever likely to get to ‘the real thing’. . .

The transfer to the apartment is straightforward enough, and I arrive just after nightfall.  The first thing I do is throw open the shutters to the balcony and step outside.  I can hear crickets, and catch the sweet sticky floral scent of the evening – I think that I would instantly know where in the world I was, even if I’d been teleported here in my sleep.

After showering and changing, I allow myself a quick glance in the mirror before I leave the apartment.  The med must be agreeing with me already.  I still look like me, but there is a spark of eye and glow of cheek about me that definitely wasn’t evident back home yesterday.

I retrace my steps to the taverna as if it was yesterday.  I know it’s ridiculous, that Andreas has probably sold it by now anyway – it may have even been knocked down – but I cannot resist the pull.  This is the reason I have returned.  Somewhere squashed deep down inside of me, I have known I would do this all along – ever since Colin had said he was leaving.

The taverna is still there, I duck down under the vines and step into the enclosed courtyard garden.  And there he is – Andreas – sitting at a table on his own, sipping robola as if nothing had ever changed at all.  I didn’t think he would remember me, but he recognises me instantly.

‘Louise!  Beautiful Louise!’ he cries out, as he rushes to crush me in an all-encompassing hug.  ‘I knew you’d come back,’ he is smiling and shaking his head at the same time.  ‘Poor Jamie . . . but I always knew you would – someday.’

‘Andreas!  I thought you might have retired . . .’

I’m not ready to talk about Jamie yet.  Of course I want to hear about him, about what he did next – after Kefalonia – but I think I will embarrass myself and cry if Andreas gets into that right away.  I am feeling tired and raw after the journey; the memory of Jamie and my younger self is so close I could almost touch it.

‘Retired?’ Andreas is answering my question, and I force myself to refocus.  ‘Retired?  Well yes, I suppose you could say I’ve retired . . .  I’ve sold it you see but . . . well, let’s just say I like to keep the new owner on his toes.  Louise, you look thirsty – you need a drink.  Come in and see what the old place is looking like now . . .’

Inside, as I scan the taverna, I think at first that my memory must be playing tricks on me – because it looks very much to me like Jamie himself is standing there, after all these years, behind the bar.  My breath catches in my throat, and I freeze to the spot.

Andreas is smiling, his eyes twinkling.  ‘I told you I’d sold the old place, didn’t I?’

At that exact moment, Jamie looks up – and I know that he has seen me because the blood drains from his face and he looks as if he might pass out.

‘Oh god,’ I panic.  ‘He’s going to be embarrassed, I’m going to be embarrassed – what on earth was I thinking?  He’ll think I’m a complete idiot – or worse, a stalker or something.’

But then he is grinning, and jumping the bar, and standing in front of me before I even have a chance to get my breath again.

‘You’re here,’ I state the obvious.  ‘I can’t believe you’re still here . . .’

‘I like it here.’  He takes my hands and holds my gaze, and it’s like we’re back at the airport all over again – only this time it’s happy.

‘Anyway,’ he shrugs, ‘there was always a chance you might come back one day, so I had to stay – just in case . . . ‘

He kisses me then, just the lightest of kisses – and we are both crying and laughing at the same time – and it feels like . . . well, it feels like coming home.

DIRTY SNOW

I can’t keep from picking at it.  I have managed to prise off almost all of the flecks, but a few tiny particles of grit remain.  I can feel the freshly applied acrylics bending under the pressure, but I know that I will be unable to stop myself until I have got it clean.

‘Leave it Claire.’  He is trying to keep it light, but I can hear the anxiety quivering beneath the words; somewhere behind his ribs.

I ignore him, and continue to pick away at two thousand pounds’ worth of material – and the two tiny grains of dirt.

‘Claire.’  He takes my hand, capturing it between both of his.  I try to pull away, but he has anticipated this and grips me tightly – it is almost painful, it is certainly uncomfortable.

In front of us, the driver’s head twitches just ever so slightly.  He doesn’t turn around to face us, but I know that he will be unable to resist it soon if this carries on for much longer.

‘Dad,’ I say.  ‘You’re hurting me – stop it.’

‘Are you going to leave it?’

‘What am I?  Five?’

‘Sometimes Claire . . . Are you going to leave it?’

‘Yes, alright.’ I wrench my hand away.

I am cross now, and I feel like a five year old as well as sounding like one.  I make a show of rubbing at my hand.

‘It’s going to bruise.’  The dramatisation is obvious but, just as with the dirt, I cannot stop myself.  ‘I don’t know what David will make of it.’

This time, the driver does turn around – he cannot stop himself either.  I glower at him, and he quickly focuses his attention back to the road.  Dad shakes his head and turns away from me to look out the window.  I can sense his embarrassment – I can feel it all around us, like a bubble I could poke my finger at from the inside out.  Whether he is embarrassed by his own behaviour or mine, I cannot tell.  I turn my attention back to the dress and, this time, he doesn’t try to stop me.

It has not stopped raining all week.  This morning though, almost exactly one hour before the car had been due to arrive, the sun had finally decided to put in an appearance.  Mum had been ecstatic.

‘Look Claire!’ she’d called over to me, flinging the net curtains up into the air so that I could see out the window myself from the other side of the room.  ‘The sun has come out just for you and David, especially for you and David – it’s a lucky sign, it must be.’

It doesn’t feel like a lucky sign at the moment – I am starting to feel very hot through the glass windows and the bodice of this damn dress is making me itch like crazy.  David will not have to wait too long to get me out of it later.  I suspect that this will make him happy, since I am not usually that eager to get out of my clothes in his presence – or in anyone’s presence for that matter.  In any event, the sun finally putting in an appearance could not (in one hour) dry up a whole weeks’ worth of rain.  It could do nothing to stop my dress getting splashed as I’d tiptoed my way to the car either – even with three similarly teetering bridesmaids to help me, holding the silk confection up and around me like some kind of ceremonial tent.  A real lucky sign would have been if it had all dried up in time, I think.  No rain at all in the week before an otherwise perfectly orchestrated July wedding might have at least qualified as an absence of unlucky signs.

‘Fuck it!’  One perfectly manicured acrylic nail pings off, bouncing against the window and then back into the car again.

‘Claire!  For goodness sake – you need to just calm down a bit.’

‘It’s ruined.’

‘It’s not ruined, no one will know – they won’t even notice.’

I will know.  It’s ruined.  It’s like . . . it’s like dirty snow.’

‘It’s not Claire, it’s not like that at all,’ he pauses, ‘you don’t have to go through with it, you know.’

‘I don’t want to not go through with it – I just want it to be perfect, that’s all.’

‘Nothing’s perfect, Claire.’

‘Wedding days are, Dad.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting that – isn’t that what every girl wants on her wedding day?’

‘Have you told David?’

‘Have I told him what?’

‘You know what.’

‘It’s none of your business.’

‘It is if you still haven’t got over it – he has a right to know.’

‘He has no such right – it’s my right to keep it to myself if I want to.’

‘It’s not fair on him Claire.’

‘What?  Because I’m ‘damaged goods’?  Is that it?’

He shakes his head.  ‘No, that’s not it.’

He will apologise again now.  I can feel it coming, rising up in him again.

‘I blame myself, you know.  If I had been there that day – you know, like usual.  I thought you should have had counselling at the time, but your mother . . . well, she thought it was best to keep things as normal as possible . . .  Back then I thought she was right, I agreed with her, but now . . . now I think we were wrong.’

‘This isn’t about you, don’t make this about you.  I’m not telling David, and that’s the end of it – it’s my decision, not yours.’

Have I told David?  Of course I haven’t.  I have often formulated the monologue in my mind though, as if I might one day tell him – or as if I one day might have done, had I not now left it too late.

‘I was twelve, on my way home from school.  I always got home late on a Thursday; it was art club after school.  Dad would normally meet me from the bus, and we’d stop at the shop on the way home for cola cubes and sherbet lemons.  That Thursday though, he’d had a late call to make – so I’d set off for home from the bus stop on my own.  It was early February – the snow, so beautiful two days before, was now frozen hard on the ground.  It was only just dark, the exhaust smoked ice glinted brown and black in the headlamps.  It happened quickly; the whole thing must have only taken ten minutes at most.  He pulled me from the pavement almost as soon as I stepped off the bus, dragged me sideways into the alleyway next to the shops.  Of course I fought him.  They say that it’s better to fight – you increase your chances of survival by fighting.  I didn’t know that then though, I fought because it is my nature to fight.  First he pushed me against the wall, then to the ground.  I screamed and bit and kicked, until he pushed snow into my mouth to shut me up.

‘Daddy’s not coming now, is he?’ he’d said.  ‘Daddy’s not coming for you now.’

There was no time to cry – it happened too quickly for that.  Afterwards, I sucked everything back inside myself to contain it.  I picked up my bag and my books, and made my way home.  I stopped to get Dad’s sherbet lemons on the way.’

That is how I have practised it in my mind.  That is how I would tell it if I was going to.  But no, I haven’t told David.  I have told him about snow though.  I am not sure if he understands or not – not really.  He says it is ‘sweet’; one of the things he loves about me.  At the moment he is still happy to indulge me.  Though I suspect he may not be quite so indulgent in ten or twenty years’ time.

I love snow – when it’s fresh.  As soon as someone or something has got there before me, it’s ruined.  Sometimes, if there’s a rumour of snow, I will wait up all night just to be the first to set out in it the next morning.  Once it goes dirty, I retreat indoors for the duration.  I hate the way people pile up great big mountains of it either side of their driveways.   They can take weeks to melt sometimes.  It’s just inconsiderate; it’s like they have no idea at all that there are people like me out there.

I met David in November.  Three weeks later, the first early snow of winter that year took the entire nation by surprise.  I had woken early, wanting to drive back to my own flat to get ready properly for work.  The night before, I had forgotten the 9 a.m. meeting that would necessitate a suit.

When I saw the snow, I freaked.  It wasn’t that I was stuck at David’s flat the other side of town, it wasn’t the fact that I was never going to get home and then back out again in time for work now, the fact that the journey would take so long I might as well not bother – it was missing the start of the snow that did it.

At first I struggled to get my breath, but then the pain in my chest started – like a pile of bricks crushing in on me.  David called an ambulance; it took two hours for them to get to us.  By the time they did, we realised I probably wasn’t having a heart attack – but they took me to hospital anyway.  Most likely they thought they owed us that much, since we had waited so long.  It was a junior doctor that had explained it to us in the end, once they’d run all the tests and checks and ECGs on the flow charts.

‘Have you ever experienced a panic attack before?’ she’d asked me, casual once she was confident I was no longer her problem and would be out of her hair by tea time.

Afterwards, David had been confused – shocked even.

‘What could have triggered it though, Claire?  You’re happy with your life, aren’t you?’

‘It’s the snow,’ I’d said, ‘I thought it would get dirty, and I’d be stuck.’

I’d tried to explain, and he’d tried to understand – and we’d laughed about it together, in an early hazy cuddle of acceptance.  He has waited up with me for snow every time since then – it is how I measure his love for me.  I already know that this will also become a measure of the departure of his love in the future – I can see it as grounds for divorce even now, on the day of our wedding.

We are nearly at the church; the driver has slowed right down.  I sense he is probably waiting for us to reach some kind of a resolution before he delivers us, intact, to what should be the best day of my life.

‘I have told him about snow,’ I say, almost as much to the poor driver as to my poor dad.

He wraps his arms around me then, my father – as I knew he would.  Of course I fight; it is my nature to fight.  But then he is sobbing into my hair.

‘Claire . . . Claire – oh Claire, I’m so sorry, so very sorry . . .’

No one should have to hear their father cry.

‘It’s ok,’ I want to say, ‘you’re here now.’  I am choking on the words though; they won’t come.

And then something happens.  I stop fighting.  I realise he is here to rescue me after all, this man – if I will let him.

‘You see?’ I tell that bastard in my mind.  ‘He did come, didn’t he?’

It is then that I slump forward, collapsing in to my father’s chest.  For the first time in twenty years, I am crying.  The tears are ripping; wrenching themselves away from me – tearing my psyche apart.  I am open; turned outside in by my own vulnerability.  The poison has to come out, you see – in the end – for the wound to heal properly.  Maybe now, finally, I can live with the scar.

A HOUSE

A house is only bricks and mortar after all

but, through the ages,

stories knead and seep into its nooks and crannies and cracks on the walls.

 

A house is only bricks and mortar after all

but, sit with stillness in a silently empty home,

and gradually it will yield to you its creaking sigh of all that has passed before.

2020 VISION

In the car, the heater pumps out over the sound of the radio – cocooning us in a blurry, moving shell of warmth.  We cannot hear the content of the presenters’ voices, but still it is comforting to know that we are not the only ones awake in the world.  I negotiate the sleeping streets on auto pilot.  Every so often the dark is punctuated by a square or porthole of light in one or other of the houses – tiny fragments of domesticity solidifying our journey, beginning to build up a texture of morning.

I sneak him a sideways glance – he is tracing the squeaky outline of a robot through the condensation on the window.

‘You always ask me to wake you up, and then you moan when I do.’

‘I know, but I’m fine once I’m in the car – especially since you let me sleep in my clothes,’ he smiles.

I nod – he does only put up a token resistance these days.  It used to be harder for me too – to pull him from his sleep so cruelly.  It’s getting easier for both of us now.

At the pool his group sit on the side, staring into the middle distance like zombies – waiting for the coach to pick up her register and take them round.  It is only once they hit the water that they seem to come to life again, like dormant sea monkeys rehydrated in a tank.  I sip my metallic service station coffee, and watch them swim – up and down, up and down, up and down – it’s hypnotic.  As they tumble and turn at the end of each length though, something is tumbling out of me also – words.

I retrieve the battered old journal from my handbag.  The leather has worn softly; it feels comforting – warming to my touch.  I might be writing a shopping list – or maybe, at a push, notes for a day job – words building to sentences, sentences forming paragraphs, paragraphs almost writing themselves in this precious time.  Page after page of scribbled spidery notes – a shaky conduit of reflection channelling out into the world from my subconscious mind; unfiltered perception attempting to find form.  Soon I will need a new journal.  Maybe I will get one for Christmas – nestled like a secret amongst the tissue wrapped chocolate and perfume, and scarves.

On the way home, the sunrise burns red across the entire sky.

‘Wow, Mum – look at the clouds!’

‘Wow,’ I echo, ‘it’s almost worth getting up just for this.’

I pull over.

‘Can I bring my camera tomorrow?’

‘If you like – I might bring mine too.’

‘I might get moved up to gold soon.’

‘I know you will.’

He will probably never win a Paralympic medal, and I will probably never win the Booker.  Just for this moment though, caught in the eye of this amazing sunrise, almost anything seems possible.

SCHOOL RUN

Fat mums, thin mums, funky mums, gym mums

Dumpy mums, frumpy mums, all night on the gin mums

 

Nutty mums, slutty mums, mums on pills

Mums all alone, with too many bills

 

Mums who work, mums who shop

Mums who shirk, and mums who trot

 

Mums with horses, mums on courses

Mums on the run who pool resources

 

Mums who hide, mums who chat

Pushy mums who chow the fat

 

Mums with diaries, mums with dates

Mums with too fine lines to skate

 

Mums with lovers, mums with nannies

Mums who clean in nooks and crannies

 

Mums with money and immaculate houses

Mums as broke as poor church mouses

 

Mums in minis, mums in Saabs

Mums in jeeps and jaguars

 

Mums in wellies and 4 by 4’s

Sporty number mums with only two doors

 

Mums in rust buckets from the breaker’s

Mums in bangers, and old boneshakers

 

Mums from every walk of life –

Chippy’s, Sparky’s, banker’s wives

 

Token lone dads in jeans and joggers

Pre-office dads, and odd dad odd jobbers

 

Happy mums, sad mums, come together

To get to school, whatever the weather

 

Stressing, running, rushing, fighting –

get to school, fast as lightning

 

Bell is ringing, get in line

Kisses, cuddles, say goodbye –

 

Playground empties with a collective ‘sigh’ . . .

HOW THE SEAL COAT GOT IT’S NAME

The wind bites into our faces as we walk, grating and scraping at our ears and noses.  It is New Year’s Day, and the long path down to the beach is over populated by those desperate to get the next twelve months off to a good start; to begin as they mean to go on, with something clean and clear and wholesome.  We are the first grouping to spot something in the water though, as we make our way through the early sand drifts onto the beach.

‘Look, look!  What’s that?’ we ask the children, excited urgency in our voices

‘Is it a seal?  Yes, I think it’s a seal.’

We approach cautiously.  ‘Is it ok?’ we ask ‘Do they usually come this far into the shore?’

Joshua is the first to reach the broken line of tide, stopping – only ever so slightly hesitantly – a metre or so away.  The seal catches sight of the boy in front of him, almost tilting its head to one side as it regards him with its wet brown, slickly questioning, eyes.  It seems to register something straight away then, as if it understands something about our boy – makes up its mind about him, as I have seen so many other wild creatures do before this.

The seal moves more quickly than I would have thought, with a kind of slippery agility.  Having decided on its course, it is determined.  It pulses out of the line of tide, onto the wet sand, and comes to rest at Joshua’s feet – looking up at him expectantly.

‘Look – it likes Josh’ one of the other children says.

Joshua crouches down against the wet sand, and then drops to his knees.  Slowly, assuredly, he makes eye contact.  He is not afraid – he is at his best in these strange interactions.  Usually he is a slightly timid child – cautious, guarded – but he is not like this within these wild encounters.  Wild creatures are able to connect with him in a way that domesticated pets are not able to – and he with them.  I think – not for the first time – that this is probably because domesticated pets are socialised into a level of self-consciousness that wild animals simply do not comprehend or, at my most fanciful, perhaps even refuse to comprehend.  The seal sees something in Joshua that people and pets cannot see, and Joshua in turn is able to be something to the seal that he is not otherwise able to be.

Instinctively, Joshua reaches out his hand to the seal and the seal pushes closer towards him, breathing into his palm.

By now, a crowd is beginning to form around us.

‘It must be hurt,’ people are saying.  ‘It must be lost, must have got separated from the others – don’t touch it – perhaps we should do something?’

Joshua does not see the need to ‘do’ anything; he is content just to be.  The seal though becomes aware then, of the attention it is receiving, and begins to retreat back to the line of the tide and the sea – perhaps even to its own parents I think.

In a move that is at once charged with both reluctance and resignation, Joshua pushes up onto his feet and begins to walk away – to follow the line of the tide further along the beach.  But the seal is still watching him from the foam and, once Joshua is clear of the crowd, it again breaks out of the water and comes to rest at his feet.  This strange boy-seal dance continues for another two, maybe three, times.

‘It must be his coat,’ I observe.  ‘It thinks he’s another seal.’

Joshua is wearing a grey and charcoal puffer jacket, shaded with a skull and cross bone print.  From a distance, it looks like shiny grey camouflage.  In truth, it is similar to the seal’s own coat – but not that similar.  I wonder why it is that I need to rationalise the seal’s behaviour in this way, and I wonder also exactly who it is I am rationalising its behaviour to – the other children, the crowd, Joshua himself perhaps?

Sometime before this – or maybe sometime after, I am unsure now – I went to one of those mediumship stage shows.  Of all the things the medium said that night, one thing stuck in my mind.  She said that sometimes a robin would follow and come close to a human being and that, when this happened, it was a sign that the robin wasn’t actually a robin at all but was in fact the physical manifestation of a departed loved one.  Just like the seal, robins too are drawn towards Joshua as if pulled by some invisible thread.  There is a robin that sits on a branch of a bush just outside of our french doors at home.  Joshua will sit quietly on an old deck chair out there and, after a while, the robin will hop down from its branch and onto the top of his hand.  Joshua has not yet known bereavement in his short life, but he has come close to death.  Maybe that was when he first met the spirits that take the form of the robins that follow him now.  When he was very little he spoke of a playful ‘ghost boy’, and lights that visited his room in the night.  He would leave toys out on the landing in a neat line for the ghost boy to find and play with.  We did not ever encourage this slightly strange behaviour, but then we did not do anything to discourage it either.  The lights in his room at night, on the other hand, were more disturbing for him – and, consequently, for us as well.  It was as if the operations he had undergone (one at two months old, one at three years) had opened up a window for him into another world that the rest of us could not even begin to inhabit.  Maybe that window is actually something more like a two-way mirror.

Back on the beach, the seal is finally on the move and away out to sea again.  We continue along the shore line, towards the massive sand banks and dunes further along the beach.  The children are buoyant, and we feel as if our little family unit has been handpicked by nature today in some way.  Other parents watch us with a slightly envious, and guarded, curiosity – maybe they think we have done something to attract the seal in some way, tempted it with some kind of fish bait perhaps.

The distance from the shore to the line of the tide is much wider as we progress along the beach, and it is only when we draw level with the sand banks and dunes that we see there are literally dozens of seals all basking on the wet sand further out at the edge of the sea.  We feel slightly foolish now – and embarrassed – that we were so awestruck at our encounter with the single solitary seal, and we watch with interest the attempts of others to approach the large groups of seals.  They sneak and slope, and try to blend their way into the dunes.  The seals allow them to draw close, but then quickly slide away back into the water again the moment they are within touching distance.  We do not see anything even remotely resembling the encounter Joshua has just experienced.  We wonder aloud if Joshua’s seal is amongst this larger group of seals.  If it is, it is not about to make a habit of its earlier advances.

‘You were right Mum,’ say the children, on the way back.  ‘It was his coat – it must have been.’

I smile in response.  ‘Maybe,’ I say – but I don’t really believe it.

Somewhere deep in my singing soul I know there is something more wondrous to it than that, something far more wondrous about my boy than that.  The seal was not duped by a skull and cross bone camouflage coat – that seal was more knowing than that.

Even so though, that was how the seal coat got its name.

THE FIRST TIME I SAW AN ANGEL

The angel stood at the foot of the bed, quietly watching the course of my illness unfold.  Smugly presiding over the rotten, festering, cancer – observing me like some kind of half detached-half curious scientist.

Whimpering and screaming in turn, I begged and pleaded – for salvation, rescue, mercy, anything.  My body convulsed and contorting; the poisonous torrent of chemo boiling and blustering through my blood like some kind of righteously outraged crusading invader.  Again.  And again.  And again.

I clawed at the angel, puked at its feet, sobbed and shuddered, hissed and spat.  For all the while, the angel looked on.

In the end, when all hate was spent, I almost began to love it – or want it even.  Certainly I began to look for it.

But I could not die; that angel scared the shit out of me.  That was the first time I saw an angel.