Enjoy this night

 

Lizzie Barker scrubbed the shirt hard against the washboard until her elbows ached. She looked down at her hands, scaly and sore from many hours spent in hot water. A loose lock fell from her auburn hair and she brushed it clumsily behind her ear. Once again, her thoughts turned to Nathaniel. There had been no recent news from the front. No letters full of cheerful, empty words, darkness hidden between the lines. She wondered what he was doing at that moment; prayed he was safe.

Lizzie had taken on Squire Middleton’s laundry to bring in a few shillings. It kept her and the babe going. She glanced across to the basket sitting a short distance from her in the long grass. The small, red head and tiny hands clasped together on the blanket in contented sleep. Such a beautiful, happy little girl. Almost eight months old and Nat had never yet seen her.

Lizzie rose from bending over her washtub and stretched; her muscles drawn tight over her shoulder blades. She wiped her hands on her apron and massaged her taut neck. It was a perfect spring morning. A sweet-scented breeze lifted the hair from her face. Daffodils bobbed joyous heads in her small garden. Across the lane, banks of primroses shone in the warm sunshine. Lambs skipped and hopped in the fields; their mothers’ admonishing cries filling the valley.

Lizzie lifted the shirt, twisted it to wring out the water and placed it in a basket with the others. She carried the basket over to the mangle. She enjoyed this part of wash day. Something seemed to relax in her as she fed the cloth through the runners and turned the handle to squeeze out the remaining water. She was glad for the powerful machine. Without it, she could never wring out the clothes so surely. On a day like today, they would be dry in no time.

Nat was a strong, powerful man. A good-looker, with his nut-brown skin and fair curls. Her friends had been jealous when he chose her at the annual country dance. The best labourer on the farm. Everyone joked that he never tired. Certainly, he did the work of two men. When he told her he was joining up, Lizzie had been afraid they would lose the cottage but Squire Middleton said he would let them keep it for Nat’s return.

“We need more soldiers to get this war finished,” Nat said.

“We need farmers and food too.” Lizzie replied, biting her lip in anxiety.

“I’ll be home soon, Lizzie.”  He laughed, putting his arm around her narrow waist. “Don’t worry so.”

She joined the other women watching husbands and sons march off to war. The young men of the village, laughing and waving; proud to serve their country. As she crunched home through the snow, Lizzie felt an empty sadness. She saw nothing to be proud about.

Lizzie stretched up to peg the shirts on the line. They rippled in the breeze. She breathed in the fresh, clean smell. A soft mewling came from the basket in the grass. The babe was stirring; hungry for a feed. She picked up the basket and carried it inside.

 

Lizzie sat under the candlelight with her darning. The babe had been bathed and settled in her cradle. The cottage was still. The bright, warm day had turned into a clear, chilly night and she was glad of the glowing range. She sighed; her eyes were growing tired in the dim light. Soon she would take the rickety stairs to their tiny bedroom. Although exhausted, she prolonged the moment. She hated going to bed alone. It felt cold and empty without Nat. When she closed her eyes, the dark and quiet seemed to gather inwards, pressing her down as if to suffocate her.

A knock at the door made Lizzie start and drop the stocking she held. It was late for a visitor. She picked up the candle and went to the door.

“Who’s there?” she called. In reply, there came another, more urgent rap.

Lizzie slid back the bolt and opened the door a slit. She peered into the darkness. A large, black figure stood in the shadows cast by a pale moon. She lifted her candle higher, better to see, and gasped in surprise.

“Nat?”

“I’m home Lizzie.” Nat’s voice returned across the darkness; thin and fragile like gauze.

“Oh, my love. Come in.” Lizzie opened the door wide.

Nat stumbled into the cottage. He looked smaller standing at the fireplace; shrunken, diminished. His eyes dark; full of exhaustion and pain. His face pale as milk.

“You must be tired and hungry.” Lizzie took his arm, made him sit in the armchair, “I’ll get you food, something to drink.”

She fussed at the kitchen table, slicing bread, cutting a hunk of cheese. She put the kettle on the range and stoked the coals. Nat sat in silence, staring at nothing. He was in the room but distant; somewhere a long way from the cottage.

As Nat ate his bread and cheese, Lizzie examined him; his sunken face, his dusty cropped hair, his dirty khaki uniform, his bony hands that shook. He wanted very little food or drink.

“You’re not hungry. I expect your appetite will come back with good, country air.” she said, “How long are you home for?”

“I’m here now,” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.”

From the cradle in the corner, there was a muffled moan. Nat turned noticing the baby for the first time.

“Our daughter, Nat.” Lizzie explained.

“Daughter…” Nat repeated.

“Yes, our beautiful little girl. Did you not get my letters? You left me with child.”

“With child…” Nat whispered, his eyes filled with tears.

Lizzie smiled. “Do you want to meet her?”

He nodded. Lizzie brought the babe to him and settled her into his arms. He held her tenderly, awkwardly, as if frightened he might break her. Wet lines streaked his hollow cheeks and tears dripped on to the baby’s blanket.

“You’ll make her all wet.” Lizzie wiped Nat’s face with her palms. “It’s all right, my love.”

“An angel.” he said.

“I haven’t named her, Nat. I was waiting for you to come home. What should we call her?”

“An angel…” he said again.

“Angel. Yes, that’s perfect.” Lizzie agreed, “Our very own Angel.” She put the sleeping baby back in her cradle. Nat watched her.

“Do you have to go back, Nat?” Lizzie asked, “When will this awful war be over?”

She sat at his feet and put her head on his knee.

“I’m here now, Lizzie.” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.” He stroked her thick hair.

“You’re filthy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll boil more water. Give you a wash down.”

Nat sat gazing into the unknown while Lizzie got water, filled the kettle and set it to boil. ‘Where are you, my love?’ Lizzie thought, ‘What is it you see?’ She poured hot water into a large bowl. She gathered a wash cloth, towel and Nat’s nightgown.

“Let me help you with your clothes,” she touched his arm and he flinched like a terrified child, “I’m here, my love, don’t be afraid, I’ll look after you.”

She undressed Nat. A slow, arduous process. His limbs were heavy and stiff. He made little effort on his own but followed her instructions like an automaton. She bathed his wasted body. She caressed his bruised, sore-ridden skin. Burning tears threatened in her eyes but she forced them back. This stranger was her husband. Her strong, handsome, lively Nat was gone.

“Oh, my love, what have they done to you?”

When she had dried him, she pulled his old nightgown over his head and led him up the narrow stairs to bed.

“I love you, Nat.” Lizzie held him close under the blankets, as if to prevent him from ever leaving again, “I wish you could stay forever.”

Nat only repeated the same words in his tired, thin voice, “I’m here now. Let’s enjoy this night.” She kissed him gently.

 

The next morning, Lizzie woke to early pale sunlight trickling through the flowery curtains. She turned to embrace Nat but the bed was empty. His place cold. Perhaps he is feeling better this morning, she thought. He was an early riser and liked to bring her a cup of tea. She listened but the cottage was quiet. Quickly, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Angel still slept peacefully in the corner.

Lizzie slipped her feet into clogs and wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She opened the back door to the garden. Nat often enjoyed early morning walks. He may have needed air to clear his head; make him feel better. She looked up and down the deserted lane. She scanned the misty fields and distant hillsides. Angel began to cry. Lizzie ran inside. It was time for her morning feed. She settled in the armchair cradling Angel to her breast. Nat could not have gone far. He would not have left without saying goodbye. Soon he would be home, hungry from his walk, and she would make them a hearty breakfast.

Angel suckled happily until she was full. Lizzie propped her in the basket.

“You are a good girl, my Angel,” she said, “Dada will be home in a minute and you will see what a handsome man he is. Last night, you were too sleepy to say hello but, this morning, your Dada will be so proud of you.”

There was a brisk knock at the door.

“Nat?” Lizzie called, “Just come in, my love. You don’t need to go knocking.”

Another tap, louder and more insistent. Lizzie went to open the door. Mr Jackson, the old postman stood on the step. His face drawn and anxious.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Barker.” He handed her a small, brown envelope.

Lizzie took the telegram with shaking hands.

Happily ever after

“Mummy.” Emily’s voice was urgent as I bent to switch off the bedside lamp, “Please leave the light on. I’m scared of the fairies.”

“The fairies?” I sat back down on the bed, “You don’t need to be frightened of fairies. They’re sweet little creatures that grant you wishes and leave a pound coin under your pillow when you lose a tooth.”

“Not these fairies.” Emily opened her eyes wide in fear and gripped me round the shoulders, pulling me close.

“They live in the walls…” she whispered close to my ear. Hot tears trickled down my neck.

“Oh, darling.” I kissed her damp cheek, “Have you been having bad dreams?”

“It’s not dreams, Mummy. I hear them scratching and laughing behind the headboard. They hate me. They say I’m ugly. They want to…kill…me.” The last words disintegrated into violent blubbing.

I scooped her into my arms, breathed in her clean just-bathed skin, “It’s all right, my love. Mummy’s got you. I think you can hear the mice. It’s an old house and there are loads about.”

“Mice don’t talk, Mummy.” she spluttered.

“The light can stay on, darling, and I’ll lie with you until you’re asleep.”

We snuggled under the covers and I put my arm around Emily, held her tight, felt the shock-waves of her sobs through my jumper. With my free hand, I stroked her soft hair, golden in the lamplight.

“Sing me the lamb one, Mummy.” she said, when her crying finally subsided.

By the time I finished my rendition of The Skye Boat song, Emily was asleep, her little body exhausted. I stayed where I was, not wanting to disturb her. It worried me to see her so afraid. I wondered if she was being bullied at school. It had been a tough move for her, dragging her away from her Grandparents and friends, from the bright modern nursery class, to this remote old place in the middle of nowhere, with its austere grey primary school. The house was full of groans and creaks in the night. Many times, I had heard scuttling behind the skirting while I lay in bed. I told Phil we needed to get some traps. “And you a vegetarian,” he had laughed.

With great care, I extricated myself from the warm, sleeping bundle and crept out into the hall and downstairs.

“That took a long while. Everything OK?” Phil looked up from his book, concerned lines across his dark eyebrows.

“Emily was terrified tonight. She said there are fairies living in the walls. They hate her and want to kill her.” I sat down on the sofa, next to him.

He put his book down and cuddled me close. It was reassuring to feel his warmth seep into my skin and the weight of his arm across my shoulders.

“Just dreams, I expect,” he said. “Fairies are pretty bloody scary though, if you ask me. It’s all the fairy tales you read her. Those Brothers Grimm were a right pair of miserable bastards.”

“Thanks for that. I told her it’s probably the mice.”

“I know, I know. I haven’t got on with getting the traps yet. I’ll sort it tomorrow, I promise.” Phil kissed me on the forehead, “Don’t worry. Kids do get scared, you know. It’s part of growing up.”

“But what if it’s school?” I said, “She might be being bullied and this is her way of telling us. It’s been a big change.”

“For all of us.” Phil smiled, “Don’t go jumping to conclusions, Jess. Give it some time. See how things go.”

“I suppose…” I sighed, “I just want Emily to be happy here.”

“That’s what we both want. Look, I’ll pour us a glass of wine and we’ll settle down in front of that sloppy film you’ve been trying to persuade me to watch.”

 

The next morning, we went for a lovely family walk along the river in the crisp autumn sunshine. Emily kicked up mounds of brilliant jewelled leaves, filling her wellies until they overflowed and she collapsed in a giggling heap. I pulled them off her and snuck up behind Phil, emptying them over his head. Emily burst into raucous laughter as he chased me down the path.

Walking back towards her, Phil took my hand and whispered, “She seems fine today.”

On the way home, we stopped at the farm store to buy mouse traps.

“Will they hurt the mice, Daddy?” Emily asked as we returned to the car.

“Well, my lovely, I’m afraid they will kill the mice but it will be quick, so it won’t hurt them at all.” Phil reassured her, “We can’t have mice running around the house scaring my little girl, can we?”

“It’s not…” Emily began but Phil lifted her up over his shoulders and the rest was lost in hysterical screeches.

Back home, we set traps all over the house. Emily helped cut cubes of cheese.

“The mice will go after the cheese, won’t they Mummy, and the trap will come down…snap.” She clapped her hands. “Daddy says it won’t hurt the mice.”

“No, it will be fast.” I agreed, surprised at her apparent change of heart.

“Do fairies like cheese, Mummy?” she asked, a hopeful expression on her pretty, round face.

“I’m not sure. I expect they might.”

She clenched her fists, “I hope so.”

“Let’s take Daddy the cheese, then.” I said, passing Emily the bowl.

 

Over the next few days, every piece of cheese disappeared but not one mouse was found dead. We refilled the traps, all the cheese went, still no mouse got caught. Every night, I lay listening to scrabbling behind the walls. The mice seemed to be taunting us. Phil joked we must have the most well-fed rodents in the country. Emily became more restless in bed, waking up three or four times a night; wet with sweat and shaking in fear. Her light had to stay on; the bedroom door open. She grew pale and ill-looking; her eyes ringed with dark circles. Even Phil failed to bring a smile to her thin, sad lips.

“The fairies don’t like cheese, Mummy…” she whispered at bedtime on the third night, “They are angry about the traps.”

I slept with her that night, holding her until her breath relaxed and slowed. Then the scampering and scuttling began; movement right behind my head. I tensed, trying to work out where the mice were coming from and going to. They seemed to be running up and down the walls, crossing the ceiling, then returning back behind the headboard. I banged the wall with my fist and the noise stopped.  Emily stirred beside me.

“Sssh, it’s all right.” I soothed.

 

I started awake. My heart beat against my rib cage, so loud I worried it might wake Emily. Something had woken me. I listened hard. In the black stillness, I thought I heard sniggering.

“Don’t be stupid, Jess.” I said, rubbing my eyes, “Wake up, you’re dreaming.”

“It’s the fairies.” Emily grasped my hand.

We lay together as the scurrying began again.

“Try to sleep, Emily.” I said, “It’s only the mice. Tomorrow, I’m getting a cat. That will fix them.”

 

After dropping Emily at school, I set off on the thirty-mile trek, down a series of narrow winding lanes, to the nearest animal sanctuary. During breakfast, I had completed a frantic google search and found the perfect place. Emily cheered up as I showed her photos of the fluffy felines in need of forever homes.

“I like that one, Mummy,” she said, pointing to a large ginger tom. “He looks brave.”

“He does look a big, strong cat, doesn’t he?” I agreed. “Well, I can’t promise he’ll be the one we get but I’ll do my best.”

It was good to leave Emily at school looking bright and happy.

I spent an hour chatting to the sanctuary owner about our needs and examining the different cats on show. It was a difficult decision choosing which puss to take away. I felt guilty thinking about the ones left behind, who would still be without a loving family. Finally, I settled on a pretty black and white female with a silky coat, pale green eyes and thick, lush tail. She had an intelligent face and attacked her toy mouse with agility and gusto. I thought Emily would enjoy stroking and brushing her. She would be a lovely pet as well as a rodent murderer.

Emily was thrilled with the cat when she got home.

“What’s her name?” she asked as the cat rubbed against her legs.

“I thought that could be your job.” I said.

“Princess.” Emily bent down and ran her hand along the cat’s back. “You like that, don’t you? You are a beautiful Princess.”

“Oh,” said Phil, “I thought we’d call her Killer.”

Emily laughed for the first time in days.

 

Within a week, Princess got down to work, leaving several bloody parcels on the kitchen floor for us to find at breakfast time.

“Good cat.” Emily cuddled Princess before going to school.

She had slept peacefully the last few nights with Princess at her feet. The walls had gone quiet. The mice were retreating; escaping from the sharp claws of our clever new pet.

 

On Sunday, we decided to celebrate our success with a long, late lunch at the local pub, an hour’s stroll through the woods. Emily kissed Princess and settled her in the cat basket near the kitchen Rayburn.

“I love you.” she whispered.

Phil and I smiled at each other, relieved to get our happy, little girl back.

“Come on, monkey.” Phil said picking Emily up, “You can ride on my back some of the way, if you like.”

“Yes.” Emily squealed. “And can I have chips and ice-cream at the pub?”

“What, both together? You’ll be sick.” Phil joked.

 

After a relaxing meal, we headed home, taking the long walk slowly, our tummies full and legs sleepy with all the food we had enjoyed. The sun was sinking behind fluffy, grey clouds as we reached the house. In the gloomy light, it looked forlorn and unfriendly.

“I think we’ll need a fire tonight.” Phil shivered, “It’s getting chilly.”

Inside, the rooms felt icy and musty. Our high spirits dampened.

“Princess!” Emily called, “Where is she, Mummy? She’s not in her bed.”

“Give her a chance, I expect she’s hunting mice upstairs.” I said.

Emily took the stairs two at a time calling for her cat as she went. Phil began to make the fire and I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. A piercing scream sent us both racing to find Emily. She was kneeling on her bedroom floor, violent sobs wracking her small body. In her arms she held something limp, like a furry rag doll. It took me a moment to realize it was Princess.

“Emily, let me see, darling,” I knelt beside her.

She clung to the cat, her face buried in the dark hair.

“Emily…” I put my arms around her, “Let me see Princess.”

“They killed her…” the words burst from her trembling lips.

I took the cat and placed her gently on the floor in front of my knees. She was frigid; her unseeing eyes glazed wide open. She must have been dead for a few hours.

“I’m so sorry, my love.” I cuddled Emily, pulled her onto my lap.

Phil bent down and picked up Princess.

“Daddy will take her and wrap her in a blanket. Tomorrow, we can bury her in the garden. OK Emily?”

Emily nodded and began to sob again.

I held her for a long time, rocking her back and forth on her bedroom floor, until she cried herself to sleep. Then I placed her carefully in her bed and covered her with the duvet.

Downstairs, Phil was in the kitchen. He had covered Princess in a blanket and put her in the cat bed.

“This is a nightmare…” I said, “I can’t believe it. She loved that cat. What are we going to do, Phil?”

“We could get another cat…I don’t know.” Phil shrugged his shoulders.

“Why did she have to go and die? She seemed so fit and healthy.”

Phil sighed, “I don’t know how to tell you this…it’s the oddest thing.”

“What is?” I did not like the look on his face.

“I checked her over, just now, to see if I could find out what killed her. I noticed her mouth, it was gaping…so I looked closer and…” he hesitated.

“And what? Tell me, Phil.”

“I could see something stuck in there, in her mouth. I put my finger in a bit to see what it was. Her whole mouth was gummed up…I could tell her throat was stuffed full too. It was horrible.”

“Stuffed full of what?” I asked, an uneasy feeling rose in my stomach.

“Cheese, Jess. Cubes of moulding cheese.” He shook his head.

“Cheese? The cheese we cut up and put in the traps?” A finger of fear ran along my spine, “But how can that be possible?”

“I suppose Princess found the place where the mice store their food. Perhaps they collected it up for the winter. She must have been too greedy, she ate it all and choked on it.”

“Do mice do that…store food?” The pulse in my temples throbbed.

“Well, they must do, Jess, because that’s how Princess died.”

“But it seems so implausible. Emily said the fairies were angry. They hated the traps and the cheese. She said they killed Princess. The fairies…”

“And that’s a far more plausible explanation, of course. For Christ’s sake Jess, talk sense. Emily was upset, that’s all.”

“I don’t know how she’ll get over this.” I said.

“Kids do get over things but we don’t mention the cheese.” Phil gave me a warning stare.

“What do you think I am?” I said, “We’ll explain Princess had an illness the sanctuary didn’t know about.”

 

Phil booked the morning off work and we buried Princess under Emily’s favourite rosebush. The one with the sweet-scented, blush-pink flowers she had enjoyed picking in the summer when we first moved in. That seemed an age ago, when Emily was a different child. Now she was pale and silent. Not a word had passed her lips since the previous evening. She communicated with barely perceptible nods and shakes of the head. She refused to eat breakfast. After the burial, she sat on the sofa, staring at the wall with blank eyes.

“Emily needs some time away from here.” I told Phil that evening when he returned from work.

“What about school?”

“She’s in no state for school, Phil. She’s miserable. She won’t speak or eat. If we don’t do something she’ll be a very ill little girl. I’m frightened, Phil. I think she should go and stay with my mum. Have a holiday.”

“Maybe.” Phil said.

“She misses her Grandma. It will do her good.” I insisted, “I’m driving her there tomorrow.”

“Well, thanks a lot for arranging it all without me.” Phil stormed out of the room.

That night, I lay beside Emily while she slept, listening to the scratching in the walls, louder and more insistent now Princess was gone. I prayed Emily would be all right.

 

When I got back from my mum’s, Phil was making dinner.

“You OK?” he asked sheepishly.

“Yeah, bit tired. The motorway was jam-packed. Five hours in slow traffic’s not much fun…”

“Poor love.” He pulled me close, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s just…well, Emily’s my daughter too. I do care about her.”

“I know.”

“How was she when you left?”

“Still quiet but I think she was relieved to be away.” I shrugged, “Phil, do you think we made a mistake coming here?”

“No, I don’t. This is our dream. A lovely old house in the country. Peace and quiet. Home-grown veg and a few chickens. It’s bliss.”

“I’m not so sure. If Emily’s going to be unhappy…”

“It’ll be fine. Everything will settle. We’ve gone through a rough patch, that’s all.”

I chewed my lip, “I’m thinking perhaps we should sell up, move away.”

“Sell up? Jesus Jess, because we have a mouse problem and our cat died? Bit extreme, don’t you think?” Phil kissed me on the top of my head, “Anyway, I’ve thought of a solution. While you were away today, I booked a pest control man. He’s busy until next week but he reckons he’ll soon finish the buggers. Now, sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Dinner’s nearly ready. Try to relax, love. We’ll sort this, I promise.”

 

The blankets grew heavy on my restless legs. Blood gushed in my ears. A pinprick of pain pulsed behind my eyes. I looked at the bedside clock; quarter past one. Phil snuffled deep in sleep beside me. The room seemed unusually quiet, no scuffling came from inside the walls. I got out of bed and edged my way through the darkness to the door. On the landing, the moon shone a guiding beam of light. I made my way to the bathroom for a paracetamol and glass of water.

On the return journey, I stopped at Emily’s room. A faint scrambling came from behind the door. I opened it and switched on the light, scanning the floor for evidence of mice. In the sudden glare, the room looked unreal and exposed. I went and sat on Emily’s bed, smoothed her pillows, bent down and breathed in her smell. Around me, the scratching started up again.

I stood up and put my ear to the cool wall. It sounded like an army of mice on patrol in there. I tapped my fingers and the noise stopped for a moment, then carried on as before. Above my hand, I noticed a dark, bulging patch. I prodded it and my finger nail sank into soft, damp plaster. I pushed deeper, causing a large piece to flake off. I picked away at the indentation until a small hole formed. It was too high for me to examine easily, so I searched for something to stand on. My eye found the toy box standing at the bottom of Emily’s bed. It was heavy but, little by little, I pushed and pulled it into position. Standing on the box, I put my eye to the hole. It was too dark and tiny to see anything. I set to work picking at the plaster. I needed to see what was making all the noise; to know what was upsetting Emily.

It took some time to make a decent-sized opening. When it was about the size of my fist, I stopped and put my ear to the gap. The walls had fallen silent. Emily kept a torch in her bedside drawer. I went to collect it. Shining the beam into the hole, I peered in. I could see a space between two layers of stonework. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. A stale, clinging smell filled my nostrils. I waited noiselessly for the mice to appear. I waited for a long time, fingers and toes turning numb. Eventually, I heard a faint scuffling and murmuring, to my sleep-deprived brain like distant voices speaking a strange, foreign language. The scratching and shuffling grew nearer, the whispering sound got louder. Furious, guttural voices, cursing and mocking, gathering at some point in the wall then moving on towards the gap where I waited. A shadow began to form at the edge of the torchlight, stretching and growing on the stony surface. A clawed shape, elongated out, gnarled and bony, like fingers reaching from the darkness. I sensed hatred, a malevolent force, directed at me. My heart tightened and blood throbbed under my ribs.

“Jess, what the fuck are you doing?”

The torch fell with a clatter and banged my knee as I stumbled in shock. Phil grabbed my arm to steady me.

“You scared me. I didn’t realize you were there.”

“Your hands…they’re bleeding. It’s all over the wall…” Phil lifted me down from the toy box.

I looked at my fingers, the skin red and raw, the nails ragged and bloody, “I didn’t feel it.”

“What the hell were doing? You’ve made a big hole…”

“I was looking for the mice, Phil. I heard them…but it sounded like talking.”

“Christ Almighty Jess, let me get you cleaned up. I think you must have had a nightmare, or something. Maybe you were sleep walking.”

A sudden swimming in my brain caused me to totter against Phil, “I don’t know…perhaps it was a dream.”

“Let’s get you back to bed.” Phil took my arm and led me out of Emily’s room.

 

The next morning, I slept late. When I woke, my head was heavy, like it was squashed into an enormous helmet. My fingertips were sore and bruised. I looked at them in disbelief; what had I been thinking last night? Phil had gone to work but a note was posted on the fridge: ‘Take it easy today. I’ll ring at lunchtime. Love you.’ I didn’t feel hungry so I made a pot of tea and rang to check on Emily. It was good to hear she was eating breakfast and chatting to mum’s dogs.

After the phone call, I went up to Emily’s room to survey the mess. The hole was bigger than I remembered; the size of my head, smeared with dry, rust-coloured blood. I picked up the torch from where I had dropped it, stood on the toy box and examined the opening. The fetid smell reached my nostrils again. Somewhere in the depths, I heard a scraping and chattering. The mice never seemed to rest, roll on next week and the exterminator’s visit.

 

When Phil came home, I was sitting at my sewing machine, busy at work in Emily’s bedroom.

“What are you up to in here?” he asked, “Did you not hear the phone when I rang earlier? I thought I told you to take it easy today.”

“I’m fine.” I said, “I’m feeling much better.”

“Thank goodness. I won’t pretend that I haven’t been worried.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” I smiled, “The fairies say everything will be all right now.”

“The fairies? What are you going on about, Jess? Don’t mess about, I’m not in the mood.” Phil came to take a closer look at my sewing.

“I’ve seen them today, Phil. Emily was right. They were very angry with us for moving here, disturbing them, setting traps and bringing in a cat.  They thought we wanted to harm them. But I can make everything better. They are naked Phil, and cold. They need clothes and I am making them. Then they will be warm for the winter. Then they will be happy and they will let us live here in peace.”

“Jess, please, stop this. You’re scaring me. I think you are ill, love. You’ve been under a lot of stress, worried about Emily and stuff…”

“No, Phil. I’m not ill. I understand now, don’t you see? The fairies have explained everything. I have to do this so we can live happily ever after.”

“Jess, come with me. Let’s go downstairs. Sort this out. I can call the doctor, get you help.”

“Please don’t say things like that, Phil. You are making the fairies angry again. I think you better leave.” I stood up and pointed to the door.

Phil stayed where he was, “Jess…”

“Go now, Phil.”

“Christ Jess.” He ran his hands through his hair.

“Go.”

He left. I shut and locked the door behind him. There was a lot of sewing to do. I worked through the night, cutting and stitching, adding buttons and ribbons. Suit after suit, until I had enough for an army of fairies. By midnight, I was finished. I laid the outfits in neat rows on the floor, then collapsed on Emily’s bed exhausted.

 

After Jess slammed and locked the door on me, I paced the house, wringing my hands, uncertain what to do. I picked up the phone to ring the doctor but put it back in its cradle. I didn’t want her to be sectioned or carried off to some loony bin. As soon as I put the phone down, I lifted it again thinking I would ring her mum but decided she had enough on her plate looking after Emily for us. All the while I could hear the snip of scissors and the whir of the sewing machine. It went on hour, after hour, after hour. Eventually, I sat at the top of the stairs in anxious vigil, watching the door, gnawing at my finger nails, listening and waiting. Waiting for the morning. Hoping Jess would somehow be better by then. Hoping things wouldn’t seem so awful in the light of day.

Pale autumn sunshine woke me, slumped over the top step, aching and stiff. My watch showed seven o’clock. The house was quiet. Jess must have gone to sleep, thank God. I tried the bedroom door but it was still locked. I didn’t want to wake her, she needed rest. In films, whenever a character needs access to a locked room, they do a trick where they push the key out of the lock onto a piece of paper and slide it under the door so they can retrieve the key. I went to find some paper.

In the end, I broke the door down in fear and frustration. It was too quiet in that room. The sewing machine and materials were packed tidily away. There was no sign of the miniature clothes. Jess lay on the bed. Her eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Her mouth drawn up in an uncanny grin.

“Jess love, are you OK?” I touched her hand and recoiled in terror. I fell to my knees; my stomach clenched convulsively and I retched. She was frozen, rigid, lifeless. My Jess, dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I took a deep breath and looked at her beautiful face, “What have they done to you?”

Across her eyelids and over her lips, pinning her features into gruesome shape, were rows of tiny, neat stitches. I put my head in my hands and screamed.

In the walls, a scratching, scrabbling sound began.

Goodbye old friend

Goodbye old friend and thank you for the loyalty and love. Even at the end, your wagging tail brought relief as your eyes closed for the last time. Happy to please; you never complained, never made a fuss. Settled for a stick thrown, a quick cuddle, an opportunistic walk. Accepted your lot, put up with our human chaos. There is an empty space where you used to sleep. There is an empty space in our hearts. We are grateful for the sixteen years you gave us. For the fun, the energy, the purpose you brought us.

Rest in peace, Samwise.

Like strangers do

This quirky piece of flash fiction is loosely based on a true story.

 

“Well, you know what men are like.” Mum turned to me, broad smile on her wrinkled face.

After half an hour of silence, the remark made me slurp my tea. Somewhat bemused, I scratched at my greying beard, “Do I?”

She nodded knowingly, “Yes, of course you do. They have needs…”

“Mum.” I put my cup down, picked up a newspaper from the shiny coffee table, flicked through it trying to think of a response.

“Take my Tom…” she giggled, eyes twinkling with mischief.

“What…Dad?” I squeaked in surprise.

“My Tom, I said.” Mum’s eyebrows knitted in exasperation, “He has needs…”

“I really don’t think…” I breathed deeply, taking the smell of wax polish into my lungs.

She leaned towards me conspiratorially, “He always likes me to tie his hands together. You know, when we’re in bed.”

The walls of the communal lounge crowded inwards. The chatter of other residents and their visitors hushed. My neck flushed with heat.

“What are you saying, Mum? You’re not talking about Dad, are you?” I saw my father sitting at the kitchen table, balding and plump, working on The Times crossword puzzle, “He’s not here anymore, is he? You must be confused.”

“I’m fed up of people telling me I’m confused. I know what I’m talking about.” Mum shouted, “Who are you to say I don’t?”

She pushed her cup of tea away, milky brown liquid slopping onto the saucer and perfectly vacuumed floral carpet. Embarrassed, I looked down, noticed the pale band of skin on my newly naked ring finger.

“It’s all right, Mum. Don’t get upset.” I reached across to pat her veined hand but she withdrew it in disgust.

“Don’t touch me…” she spat, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s strangers touching me.”

“I know, Mum.”

I sipped at my cold tea. Perhaps I should shave this beard off, I thought, it might make me look younger.

 

 

Chick mother II

Walking down the street in my local town, happy in the company of my daughter just returned from university for the summer, we spotted a baby crow precariously hopping about on the edge of the pavement. Our hearts jumped into our throats as it skittered into the path of an oncoming builder’s van. Helpless at the side of the road, we watched it miraculously dodge vehicle after vehicle. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, we saw a lorry run over the wobbly creature.

“That’s it.” I said sadly, only to see it emerge unharmed the other side.

We tried hopelessly to cross the road to rescue the bird but the normally quiet street had an unexpected rush of traffic. Finally, a car hit the little thing and catapulted it back onto the pavement. My daughter rushed forward and scooped it up. She held it gently in her hands where it looked about, dazed and confused, but seemingly unhurt.

“We can’t leave it here.” she said.

For a few seconds, we stood uncertain where to go, passers-by looking at us as if we were mad. Then, I had a brainwave.

“We’ll take it to the churchyard, it’s only around the corner, perhaps its parents will find it there.”

My daughter looked doubtful.

“It’ll be safe there,” I said, “It’s quiet and there are lots of bushes to hide in.”

We made our way to the churchyard; the baby crow apparently happy in my daughter’s grasp. In a shady corner of the cemetery, close to a protective hedge, we deposited the little bird. It sat on the grass, still a bit dazed. Crows cawed noisily in the trees above and flapped from rooftop to chimney pot.

“Maybe that’s its parents.” I said.

“Mmmm, maybe…” my daughter replied.

There were chores to do in town, so with a backward glance and a quiet good luck, we left the baby crow.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the cemetery. Our chores completed, we had both looked at each other and said, “Do you think we better check it’s all right?”

The baby crow squatted on the grass, a few hops away from where we’d placed it, pathetic and vulnerable.

My daughter looked at me pleadingly, “It’s going to die, Mum. It’s too young to look after itself, probably fell out of the nest. We have to take it home.”

“It might manage…” I said, unconvinced, “They advise you to leave baby birds.”

“Mum, we’ve already moved it because it got hit by a car. Now we have to look after it.”

I sighed. I had known the moment we rescued the bird that it would end up coming home with us.

“You stay here and hold it while I pop in the pet shop to see if they have a spare box.”

The lady in the pet shop was very kind, finding me an empty dog biscuit box and filling it with straw for the crow to sit on.

When I returned, my daughter was sitting on a bench, with the crow quite comfortable in one hand, expertly thumbing through internet information with the other. She had found out what to feed baby crows and how to care for them.

“They tame very easily and are pretty much impossible to release into the wild once rescued.” she added.

“Great.” I said. I didn’t really want to add a pet crow to our menagerie.

The baby bird flapped anxiously when we put it in the box but settled once the lid was firmly closed. I drove the car round to the churchyard so that we didn’t bump the box too much. We went to collect my son from his piano lesson.

“We rescued a baby crow. It got hit by a car. It’s OK, just dazed…” my daughter told him excitedly when he climbed into the back of the car, “It’s in a box in the boot. We’re taking it home.”

“Great!” my son said. Crows are one of his favourite birds.

All the way home, my daughter and son provided crow facts.

“Ring your father and tell him to get the spare chicken coop ready in the barn for our new visitor.” I said.

My husband had made the coop comfortable, so we transferred the baby crow straight into its new home as soon as we got back. It sat on the floor, purple-black feathers a bit crumpled and piercing blue eyes surveying us with interest. We gave it some water and left it to calm down and settle in. Birds are highly sensitive and can die easily from stress.

A couple of hours later, I took the crow its first meal – tinned dog food. I had brought up a baby bird once before, so I knew that a good way to feed it was to use a cocktail stick. The crow snapped its beak hungrily at the smelly meat and was soon gobbling it up. After its meal, it helped itself to water from the pot we had given it and gave itself a good preen. This little crow was a fledgling, far more developed than little Chickpea had been, but still not quite ready to manage alone. It stretched and beat it wings to exercise them and hopped about clumsily. It jumped onto its perch and wobbled there for a while. I estimated it would need another week or two to learn how to use those wings properly and fly.

The next two weeks involved regular feeding of dog food, grains and peas. There was also exercise time; the baby crow learning to hop from my arm up to the top of the coop. A few times, I took the crow into the paddock to encourage it to fly, hoping it would join the cackling crow family that roosted amongst the trees, but it gripped my arm tightly refusing to leave me or climbing onto my shoulder. I wanted to be able to successfully release the crow back into the wild but it looked more and more like the bird was becoming tame. It called for me whenever it heard me outside the barn and when I came in, it fluffed up hoping for a scratch.

The crow was growing bigger and stronger. It no longer wobbled and could fly with confidence from perch to perch. Its feathers were beautiful and sleek. Its eyes still a piercing blue. We had decided it was a jackdaw because of the eye colour and size. Although all adolescent crows have blue eyes, our crow would keep this colour. Jackdaws have pale blue eyes; bright eyes to frighten off competitors.

My dilemma was how we were going to continue to look after this lovely bird. It was able to feed itself happily from a dish and would catch live insects it found on its travels around the barn. However, it wouldn’t leave me or fly away. My nephew came to the rescue. An avid bird lover and keeper of many different species in large cages and aviaries, he agreed to take the young crow.

We were sad to see it go after two weeks under our care and attention but we knew we had found the ideal solution. We would be able to visit whenever we liked and the crow would be able to live amongst other birds in a more natural environment.

One week later, I am happy to say that the crow is settled and enjoying its new home. It roosts every night on a perch with its bird buddies. I feel privileged to have had another close encounter with a wild animal but I hope I’m not needed as a chick mother again any time soon.

Chick mother II

Somehow, I managed to lose this post from my page after putting it up earlier today, which means I’ve also lost comments from my readers. Sorry about that – I’m still not an expert at blogging – but here it is again!

 

Walking down the street in my local town, happy in the company of my daughter just returned from university for the summer, we spotted a baby crow precariously hopping about on the edge of the pavement. Our hearts jumped into our throats as it skittered into the path of an oncoming builder’s van. Helpless at the side of the road, we watched it miraculously dodge vehicle after vehicle. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, we saw a lorry run over the wobbly creature.

“That’s it.” I said sadly, only to see it emerge unharmed the other side.

We tried hopelessly to cross the road to rescue the bird but the normally quiet street had an unexpected rush of traffic. Finally, a car hit the little thing and catapulted it back onto the pavement. My daughter rushed forward and scooped it up. She held it gently in her hands where it looked about, dazed and confused, but seemingly unhurt.

“We can’t leave it here.” she said.

For a few seconds, we stood uncertain where to go, passers-by looking at us as if we were mad. Then, I had a brainwave.

“We’ll take it to the churchyard, it’s only around the corner, perhaps its parents will find it there.”

My daughter looked doubtful.

“It’ll be safe,” I said, “It’s quiet and there are lots of bushes to hide in.”

We made our way to the churchyard; the baby crow apparently happy in my daughter’s grasp. In a shady corner of the cemetery, close to a protective hedge, we deposited the little bird. It sat on the grass, still a bit dazed. Crows cawed noisily in the trees above and flapped from rooftop to chimney pot.

“Maybe that’s its parents.” I said.

“Mmmm, maybe…” my daughter replied.

There were chores to do in town, so with a backward glance and a quiet good luck, we left the baby crow.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the cemetery. Our chores completed, we had both looked at each other and said, “Do you think we better check it’s all right?”

The baby crow squatted on the grass, a few hops away from where we’d placed it, pathetic and vulnerable.

My daughter looked at me pleadingly, “It’s going to die, Mum. It’s too young to look after itself, probably fell out of the nest. We have to take it home.”

“It might manage…” I said, unconvinced, “They advise you to leave baby birds.”

“Mum, we’ve already moved it because it got hit by a car. Now we have to look after it.”

I sighed. I had known the moment we rescued the bird that it would end up coming home with us.

“You stay here and hold it while I pop in the pet shop to see if they have a spare box.”

The lady in the pet shop was very kind, finding me an empty dog biscuit box and filling it with straw for the crow to sit on.

When I returned, my daughter was sitting on a bench, with the crow quite comfortable in one hand, expertly thumbing through internet information with the other. She had found out what to feed baby crows and how to care for them.

“They tame very easily and are pretty much impossible to release into the wild once rescued.” she added.

“Great…” I said. I didn’t really want to add a pet crow to our menagerie.

The baby bird flapped anxiously when we put it in the box but settled once the lid was firmly closed. I drove the car round to the churchyard so that we didn’t bump the box too much. We went to collect my son from his piano lesson.

“We rescued a baby crow. It got hit by a car. It’s OK, just dazed…” my daughter told him excitedly when he climbed into the back of the car, “It’s in a box in the boot. We’re taking it home.”

“Great!” my son said. Crows are one of his favourite birds.

All the way home, my daughter and son provided crow facts.

“Ring your father and tell him to get the spare chicken coop ready in the barn for our new visitor.” I said.

My husband had made the coop comfortable, so we transferred the baby crow straight into its new home as soon as we got back. It sat on the floor, purple-black feathers a bit crumpled and piercing blue eyes surveying us with interest. We gave it some water and left it to calm down and settle in. Birds are highly sensitive and can die easily from stress.

A couple of hours later, I took the crow its first meal – tinned dog food. I had brought up a baby bird once before, so I knew that a good way to feed it was to use a cocktail stick. The crow snapped its beak hungrily at the smelly meat and was soon gobbling it up. After its meal, it helped itself to water from the pot we had given it and gave itself a good preen. This little crow was a fledgling, far more developed than Chickpea had been, but still not quite ready to manage alone. It stretched and beat its wings to exercise them and hopped about clumsily. It jumped onto its perch and wobbled there for a while. I estimated it would need another week or two to learn how to use those wings properly and fly.

The next two weeks involved regular feeding of dog food, grains and peas. There was also exercise time; the baby crow learning to hop from my arm up to the top of the coop. A few times, I took the crow into the paddock to encourage it to fly, hoping it would join the cackling crow family that roosted amongst the trees, but it gripped my arm tightly refusing to leave me or climbed onto my shoulder. I wanted to be able to successfully release the crow back into the wild but it looked more and more like the bird was becoming tame. It called for me whenever it heard me outside the barn and when I came in, it fluffed up hoping for a scratch.

The crow was growing bigger and stronger. It no longer wobbled and could fly with confidence from perch to perch. Its feathers were beautiful and sleek. Its eyes still a piercing blue. We had decided it was a jackdaw because of the eye colour and size. Although all adolescent crows have blue eyes, our crow would keep this colour. Jackdaws have pale blue eyes; bright eyes to frighten off competitors.

My dilemma was how we were going to continue to look after this lovely bird. It was able to feed itself happily from a dish and would catch live insects it found on its travels around the barn. However, it wouldn’t leave me or fly away. My nephew came to the rescue. An avid bird lover and keeper of many different species in large cages and aviaries, he agreed to take the young crow.

We were sad to see it go after two weeks under our care and attention but we knew we had found the ideal solution. We would be able to visit whenever we liked and the crow would be able to live amongst other birds in a more natural environment.

One week later, I am happy to say that the crow is settled and enjoying its new home. It roosts every night on a perch with its bird buddies. I feel privileged to have had another close encounter with a wild animal but I hope I’m not needed as a chick mother again any time soon.

Twenty-four hours from Tumble

His hands slide around my waist…

Don’t. Don’t think about it…concentrate on driving. Hands gripping steering wheel, foot on accelerator, wipers cutting through rain thick like treacle down glass.

His skin smells bitter-sweet in my hair, on my body; cologne and sweat…

Rhys will notice. Shower soon as I’m home. Pizza night. Half an hour with a gin and tonic selecting toppings…another half hour deciding which film to watch.

His voice whispers in my ear, lips touching lobe, tingle reaching to toes…

Think about mundane stuff. Rubbish needs putting out. Is it black bag week? Rotten job in this weather. Do it before my shower…bound to get drips down back of my neck…bloody trees. Still waiting for Rhys to get his chainsaw out.

P1010328

It’s hammering down…curtain of rain hiding the road…What’s he playing at? Idiot! Showing off in his fancy car. Overtaking in this…must have a death wish. Rhys will be worrying. Long drive in a downpour. Not used to me being away…coping alone. Hope he managed to feed himself. Did I remind him to defrost his lasagne? Must have…gave him a list as long as his arm.

‘You’re beautiful…don’t go home yet.’

Don’t want to go home. To face Rhys with this knowledge festering away inside me like a wound…What’s going on? Bright lights a few cars behind me. Pulling over…let it come past. Flashing, piercing blue…that noise goes right through me…pounding behind my eyes. Giving me a headache. Guilt that is. Deserve a headache…gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing migraine.

Wonder what poor bugger needs an ambulance? Maybe that guy in the sports car…that nightmare junction up ahead. There’ll be a hold up if it’s an accident. Must get in the shower before Rhys gets home. Put my clothes on a hot wash. Get rid of this stink.

Rhys was so pleased for me. Getting my place on the conference…posh hotel in Cardiff…encouraged me to go. Something I’d always wanted to do. This is your time, he said, all those years looking after me and Eleri. You go for it. One trip, one flattering remark and my head turns. From faithful wife to push-over fling in the time it took to down two bottles of wine. Nasty crossroad’s just coming up now…no ambulance, no hold up. Not far to go…I’ll be in good time.

Rhys will know. Never could hide a thing from him. Can read you like a book, he says. He saw through me when I pretended some fool had backed into the car while I did the weekly shop. How can I hide an enormous betrayal like this? It’ll be a cancer eating me away.

His kisses burn on my neck…

Heart’s escaping through my throat. Only a couple of miles to go…Think I’m going to be sick. Find a lay-by. Got to park up. Get out of this car…need air…Breathe. Like when I was giving birth. Deep breaths in, count to ten, slowly breathe out. I’m shaking…knees turned to liquid.

Eleri was such a sweet baby. Round and cuddly. I just watched her…sleeping…couldn’t take my eyes off her. She’s the best thing I’ve ever done. So proud of her…getting her place at Oxford. Never imagined she’d grow up to be a mathematician. Rhys’s influence. I’m all airy-fairy natural therapies and herbal remedies. Old hippy, he calls me. Don’t half miss her…her easy conversation and funny ways. It’s like I’ve had an arm cut off…no longer complete. Lost my purpose, I suppose. This was the beginning of my new life; career as an alternative practitioner. What a joke…me helping others find peace amongst the chaos of their lives…can’t even keep my own life in order.

His eyes take a last, longing look…

Stop. Just stop…Haven’t felt longed for in ages…not desired or wanted. I’ve felt comfortable and safe. Nothing wrong with that. We’re happy. Our silver wedding last summer. Barbeque and drinks in the garden. Friends and family, presents and laughter. Lovely day amongst the pretty flower borders. Spent years nurturing those.

Rhys made me promise, we’d never keep secrets. Father was a serial adulterer…watched it destroy his Mam. We agreed we’d always be honest. Well, if we felt the need for an affair, something was seriously wrong with our marriage. Except, it wasn’t…isn’t. We’re doing fine. So, why spend the night with a stranger? Why derail our marriage, send my cosy existence hurtling down some unknown path? Risk everything for a moment of…what…passion or madness? Stupid fool.

He smiles; lopsided like some cad in a Victorian melodrama…

I can’t act as if everything’s normal. As if nothing’s happened. Won’t be able to live happily with a lie between us. I’ll have to tell him. Before he realizes for himself. God…oh, God…just this corner and I’m home. Skull’s squeezing my brain…I’m going to pass out. I can’t do this…This will be the end. Rhys will never forgive me. I’ll turn around…drive away…keep going and never come back.

What’s this now? People in the road…gathered round…the ambulance is here. Not poor Mrs Thomas again, I hope. Another stroke would be the end of her. No…not her…I think…no, it can’t be…the ambulance…it’s outside our house…

Death by chocolate

Some time ago, I wrote this odd little story for a competition in a local free paper. We had to include three random words: dream, chocolate and glasses. The competition was cancelled, so I thought I’d share it here:

 

Two glasses sat smeared and grimy on the coffee table; dregs of cheap red wine congealing. Greasy entrails of foil tubs spilt over the chipped woodwork. Stale aromas of spice mingled with cigarette smoke. An alcoholic fug filled the room. Weak sunlight struggled to reach dusty corners. A low moan rumbled from the tatty sofa.

‘Oh…’ a deep voice rasped,’…my head…’

A shadowy hump rose slowly from its resting place.

‘What a night…think we overdid it…’ the hump said staggering across the floor transforming into a man.

The man stared into a smudgy mirror. He rubbed his stubbly cheeks vigorously.

‘Ugh…’ he said to his dishevelled reflection.

He looked around the unkempt room.

‘Sandy!’ he called gruffly. No reply. Where was his wife?

The man picked his way gingerly out of the lounge, through the cluttered hallway and into the musty, dark bedroom. Sandy liked a lay-in on Saturdays. Her only chance for one. The rumpled bed was empty. He sat heavily on the lumpy mattress. Was Sandy there last night? It wasn’t her late shift at the factory. Yes, he remembered her coming home from her cleaning job at the hospital. She’d found him asleep in the kitchen. He’d woken with a start when she banged her bag down on the table. She’d glared with contempt at the sink full of oily dishes, the grubby work surfaces and basket of dirty laundry sitting shamefully by the washing machine. All as she had left them.

‘I see you’ve been busy,’ she’d said; voice quiet and hard.

He hadn’t been shopping or prepared the evening meal either. Since being made redundant two years ago, a dull laziness had seeped into his bones. Lethargy he could not shift.

‘Sorry love…’ he’d simpered, ‘We can go to the supermarket now…get some bottles…a takeaway…treat for you…’

Sandy had driven them to the supermarket. She’d tutted as he put two extra wine bottles in the trolley. They had picked up a Chinese then come back to the flat in bitter silence. The rest of the evening was blurred.

The man rubbed his hands over his distended stomach. His skin taut, firm and tender to the touch. They – well he – had overdone it last night. He let out a bilious belch which left a bitter sweet tang at the back of his throat. Chocolate; rich and dark. The sensation relit a memory. Something odd. A dream. Last night…

He was sitting on the sofa with Sandy. She was quiet; still angry with him. The air simmered with rage. He turned to speak to her, to apologize. He couldn’t bear the atmosphere any longer. Sandy sat immobile. Glossy, brilliantly tempered. A perfect impression made from delicious, luscious chocolate. He touched her gently. She felt cool and smooth. He breathed in the exotic, sweet smell. His mouth watered, taste buds tingling. He put out his tongue and licked her statuesque face. She tasted good. A high quality chocolate from a posh shop. He wondered if he could risk a nibble. A small bite. Of her ear. He couldn’t resist. The flavour was divine. He began to gobble greedily. Gorging himself on the chocolate. It melted and dripped from his lips. Soon he had devoured his wife with big, hungry mouthfuls. He felt a sickly burn in his throat. His stomach felt swollen and sore. He slept.

The man looked down at his enormous belly.

‘Oh my God…’ he moaned, panic fluttering in his chest, ’I can’t have…it’s not possible…’

He rose from the bed and stumbled into the hall. Frantically, he began to search the house. Pushing, smashing and renting furniture, ornaments and clothing as he went. He shouted and wailed for his wife, his voice tense and hoarse. He tore at his hair in desperation. Silence surrounded him. Fear filling his lungs so he could hardly breath, he surveyed the wreckage of his home. He collapsed on a kitchen chair and swept the table free of clutter in frustration. Putting his head in his hands, he sobbed convulsively.

‘No…What have I done?’ he wept.

Underneath the table, hidden amongst the carnage, sat a pristine square of paper. On it, in neat script, was written:

Dear Rob,

I can’t stand living like this any longer. I want something better and I’ve gone to find it. I’m sorry.

Goodbye,

Sandra

 

 

 

‘Tis better to have loved…

“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H, spoke from the heart about the loss of his friend and the grief he felt.

On Boxing Day, we had a car accident in a surprise snowfall. My husband lost control, despite driving at a sensible speed for the inclement weather, and the car skidded. As we danced a graceful pirouette, a full 360 degrees across to the opposite side of the country lane, time seemed to elongate. I watched in horror, completely powerless; thoughts of dread that my son or daughter might be injured or killed filled my mind. “It’s all right…Hold on everyone!” I said aimlessly. I braced myself against the seat as the car returned to the correct side of the road and landed with a gentle bump against a fence post. When we stopped, the relief that everyone had escaped without harm was immense. Walking the three miles home through freezing sleet, feet slopping and slipping on the wet snow, I felt protective of my two children and husband. I led the way, torch in hand, fussing about our insufficient coats and footwear. I needed to regain some sense of control. It felt as if I had nearly lost everything that mattered to me, everything that I loved, and that shook me far more than the accident.

When I was a child, I had a recurring nightmare. I stood watching as my parents and brother descended an escalator straight into a sheet of plate glass. Every time I had this dream, I would awake crying and shaking, believing that it had happened. I was alone; I had lost everything. Since having my children, I regularly experience anxious dreams. A multitude of horrible images where they have been maimed or killed in all number of horrific incidents. When they were babies, I would imagine falling down the stairs with them in my arms. These nightmares leave me feeling drained and afraid. There is nothing I can do. I have opened myself up to this vulnerability; I have no control over what may (or may not) happen to my children. I love them and this involves the risk of getting hurt.

A few days ago, my lovely old dog had a funny turn. My husband and I returned home from searching for a replacement car and he ran excitedly to greet us, then collapsed trembling and letting out a long stream of urine over the carpet.  As we bent down to help him, he looked up at us with confused, frightened eyes and we both burst into tears. We thought it was the end for him. He is nearly sixteen; his weak heart makes him pant continuously and he stands on shaky legs, often falling over. Miraculously, it was not the end and he recovered, carrying on much the same as before. I realize this cannot continue forever, of course. Every day, week, month spent with him is a bonus.  Soon, we will have to face the heartache of losing him. We made the decision to get a dog; to let him become part of our family. We allowed ourselves to love him and must suffer the pain that is to come.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why choose to have partners and children and bring pets into our homes? Why do we allow ourselves to love when we know it will mean pain and loss at some point? Would it be better to protect ourselves from this pain; to avoid love?

Quite simply, to love is to live. Life is about having relationships with others; to make connections. I have had many moments of fun and laughter with my dog. My children have enriched my life and made it more worthwhile. If we do not allow ourselves to love through the fear of being hurt, then we do not truly live our lives. Having relationships and loving others helps us to grow and learn. It gives us meaning and purpose. There will be times when it brings us pain and loss, but living a life alone and afraid would be unbearable. Life is difficult, we must share it with others – family, friends, neighbours, pets.

I have found somebody who explains it more eloquently than I am able:

“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.
Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”    Henri J M Nouwen

A little Christmas magic

Claire never forgave me for spoiling Christmas. When she got to eleven years old and still believed in Santa Claus, I told her the truth.

“You said it was wrong to tell a lie…but you’ve been lying all this time!”

“It’s part of making Christmas magical…” I tried to explain.

“You’re just a liar!”

She ran up to her room, slamming the door, making the light fittings rattle. I sat, shaken and bereft, thinking I was a terrible mother.

Christmas was never the same after that. Claire never looked forward to it with the excitement and wonder of before. She never put the tinsel fairy on the tree or licked the paper strips for the bright chains to hang around the ceilings. She never joined in with carol singing or stirring the pudding. If I suggested a trip to see Santa’s Grotto at the local shopping centre, she would storm off in tears of frustrated rage. Christmas became a low-key event with little preparation or fuss. The presents under the tree seemed pointless and shallow. The magic had gone.

I waited for the time when Claire had children of her own. I hoped that with grandchildren things would be different.

“Don’t think I’ll lie to my kids like you did to me.” Claire said when this thought popped out of my mouth the day she told me she was expecting.

“Well you know, Christmas isn’t the same for children without Santa.”

Claire tutted and the conversation ended. In my heart though, I hoped she would soften once the baby was old enough to understand about Christmas.

 

It was Christmas Eve. I bubbled with excitement because Claire and her family were coming to stay. I couldn’t wait to see little George. When Claire explained they were moving to the Scottish Highlands, I was upset at the thought of rarely seeing my grandson. It had been over a year since I had visited them in their new home. He had grown into a happy, curious four-year-old. This was our first Christmas together so I had made enormous effort. I didn’t care whether George believed in Santa Claus or not, I wanted it to be special.

The doorbell rang just as I took the final batch of mince pies from the oven. The house filled with their sweet, spicy scent.

“Merry Christmas!” I said as I opened the door.

“Grandma, Merry Christmas!” George replied; his voice musical with its Scottish lilt.

“Hi, Mum.” Claire looked flustered from the journey. She held out a bag of presents, as if it contained something distasteful. “Dan’s got the luggage.”

We settled down to a pot of tea and mince pies in front of the fire. George looked around, admiring the decorations. He stood by the Christmas tree; the twinkling lights cast patterns on his smooth cheeks.

“It’s pretty, Grandma. Mummy doesn’t decorate our house.” George shrugged his shoulders in disappointment.

“You know what I’ve told you, George. Christmas is an old-fashioned tradition. Not everyone celebrates it. We don’t.” Claire said patiently.

“But we are this year, aren’t we Grandma?” George hopped up and down in excitement.

 

That evening, after a warming meal of squash soup and crusty home-made bread, George helped me put the presents under the tree. He jumped with joy and satisfaction as he carefully placed each gift.

“This one’s important, Grandma…” he said putting it at the front, “It’s for you.”

“Oh, thank you George. I look forward to opening that tomorrow.”

I passed him another present, “Where shall we put this one?”

“Who’s it for?” George asked, his brow furrowing in concentration.

“Oh…I don’t know. The label’s fallen off.” I said.

“That one must be from Santa Claus, then. I’ll put it next to yours ‘cos it’s special.”

“From Santa Claus?” I said.

“Yes, he never puts a label on.” George stated, in a matter-of-fact manner.

“So, you believe in Santa Clause then?” I asked, a slight flutter in my stomach.

George looked towards the kitchen, where Claire and Dan chattered happily as they did the washing up. “Yes, I do…but don’t tell Mummy. It’s a secret. She doesn’t believe in Santa Clause, you know.”

I gave George a hug.

“You’re a good little helper.” I smiled.

The magic had returned.

 

 

I hope you have enjoyed my Christmas stories. Thank you to everyone who has read my blog this year. Have a very, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!