Changing a String
Nicola Branson (Writing Stories for Children, Sept 2018)
“I think that it’s about time for you to learn how to change a string”, Caradog announced, looking at the forlorn instrument, string dangling where it had pinged and snapped in two.
Caradog was about six foot two inches, scary at first sight. Mam called him Caratacus Maximus and swore that he had been a Roman General in a former life. Mari’s mind drifted back to their first meeting; she must have been at least six inches shorter. He was imperious, intimidating to her ten-year old self.
For her first lesson strict instructions were given that Mari was to arrive five minutes before the scheduled start, no earlier or later. She was to lay her violin on the teal velvet ottoman. The instrument should be stored at room temperature, “like a good Bordeaux” and stowed safely inside its case when not in use. Some cases even had thermometers built into them. Caradog recounted several examples of costly violins smashed on marble church floors and bows which had caught fire when swiped by a lighted candle during vespers. One had even been jammed in a car door.
It was obvious that the padded velveteen case was the safest place. First, however, the bow hair required rosin. The best rosins came in cakes and were round, made from natural materials and formulated to a fine grain. They should not be stored above 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees centigrade or they would melt. Rosin was to be applied by rubbing the rosin cake along the full length of the bow hair using six to eight strokes.
Caradog had tutted when he saw her bow left in its tightened state in the case. This should never happen. The bow should always be loosened at the end of playing and for storage. The bow was tightened by using the bow frog; however, too tight and the hairs would be pulled out. Just right and the stick of the bow would curve towards the hair. She was to purchase and attach a shoulder rest to ensure that she held the instrument at the correct angle and height. This should be fastened and adjusted before the start of each lesson. At the end of the lesson a soft cloth was to be used to remove rosin residue from the instrument. The cloth could then be used to protect the strings whilst in the case.
Occasionally lighter fluid might be used to clean the strings. Caradog demonstrated this at her first lesson proving the huge difference this could make to strings (like hers) which had been left uncleaned for months, perhaps years. However, it would be wise to stay clear of naked flames until such time as the fluid had evaporated!
Indeed, there had been an audible difference in sound. The cleaned strings gave a sound of purity, a voice which rang out to Mari.
Mari concentrated hard to make sure that she didn’t miss anything: she wouldn’t want Caradog to lose patience with her and sack her. He had sacked other pupils who didn’t practice or parents who made too many demands for their offspring to move through the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music exams at breakneck speed in line with their perceived high achieving pedigree.
Mari looked around the room with instruments piled high against the walls and sheet music stacked alphabetically. She wanted to stay.
Her violin was purple; a gift from her godmother who had used it to busk in Ireland.
“It only has one thing going for it” she’d said.
Mari was eager to hear.
“You’ll be able to hear it from the violin 3 section; so, you’d better not make any mistakes”
No mistakes – the violin was loud and coarse but Mari was going to practice. Mari knew that she had to work harder than others. She would occasionally miss a few seconds, and once one of the crueller girls had mimicked her, but usually she could hide it. She would work harder than ever for Caradog. He would never notice and she wouldn’t let him sack her.
Here they were five years later and she was going to learn how to change a string. She had watched Caradog do this in the past and knew that one day she would be asked, supervised, to do this herself. Her time had come.
Only grade 8 students got to change strings. Grade 8 students played at concerts.
Mari felt an absence, her mind lost a few seconds: she needed to concentrate, she wanted to learn.
“No, Mari only one string at a time, didn’t you hear me? Or the whole bridge will collapse”
Okay, another vital detail missed – she didn’t want to be dizzy, purposefully dizzy, it wasn’t fair.
He demonstrated how she should hold the instrument with the top facing her, and loosen the peg by turning it towards her; then gently pull the string off the peg by hand and remove the ball end from the tailpiece.
Next, she needed to rub the tip of the pencil in the empty string grooves of the bridge and nut.
Hands shaking, she rubbed the mark and, taking the new string, placed the ball end into the fine-tuner, whilst inserting the other end into the small string hole at the midpoint of the peg.
She got the nod and even the hint of a smile playing on the military moustache.
“Let’s tune it now.”
Mari nodded. Using the tuner to hear the correct note she turned the peg away whilst lightly plucking the string; bringing it up to the correct pitch, she used the fine tuner to make the small corrections to ease it into perfection.
She checked the bridge to see that it hadn’t moved in the process.
Caradog picked up his own violin.
She had practiced every day for the last three months and together they played the notes that she knew so well; then she felt her brain drifting, and knew that she had stopped playing.
Her absence was epilepsy.
Caradog stopped too. He sighed.
Mari looked down defeated. It didn’t matter if she could change strings or not. She had messed the whole thing up. She was never going to be any good, nobody would want to employ an epileptic solo violinist. People didn’t pay to see seizures on stage. I mean, that would be embarrassing wouldn’t it? And we couldn’t have that.
Mari looked up. Caradog was muttering.
Mari could feel hot tears of anger brimming behind her eyes. But she wasn’t going to cry. She had worked so hard, tried so desperately to prove to him that she was good enough: he should give her a chance. If he was actually like this perhaps he wasn’t worth her respect.
She turned to leave. Caradog wasn’t even looking at her, but rummaging amongst his precious shelves. He looked up as she opened the door.
“Where on earth are you going?”
“I know I wasn’t great…”
“What are you talking about?”
“I lost it”
“Lost what? What are you talking about?” Even he was starting to get impatient with her now. It took all Mari’s ingrained upbringing not to tell him where to shove it. Instead she just looked up, eyes brimming.
“My playing is rubbish, I’m rubbish”
Caradog stepped down from his stool and stooped down to meet her eyeline, a big Roman General bowing to her.
“My dear, I am definitely not talking about your playing” He gestured towards the violin hanging from her hand. “Rubbish, utter rubbish, pass it to me”
Mari almost giggled with relief
“Oh right, did I mess up changing the strings?”
“No. Mari, it wouldn’t matter what strings you put on this box; it would never sound anything other than rubbish frankly”
Mari looked at him busying himself amongst the shelves
“It will never be good enough for communing with your God, and that is what you can do my dear, with this.”
Caradog produced the most beautiful piece of maple that Mari had ever seen. A glorious deep amber in colour, polished grain running along the body with a delightful deep hue to the scroll.
“Well let’s see, shall we?” He signalled for them to start in time. And together they played until the sounds rang through her body and she and the instrument became one.
She didn’t notice that Caradog had stopped until she looked up.
“From me to you”
With the gentlest tones his bass could produce, he still spoke with intent.
“This is yours and no one, no one, will care if you take dramatic pauses. Not when you move them to a higher plane.”
The yellowish to amber in colour, translucent, hard, brittle resin left after distilling the oil of turpentine from the oleoresin of the pine: used chiefly in making varnishes, printing inks and for rubbing on the bows of such stringed instruments as the violin.
The end part of a stringed musical instrument’s bow that encloses the mechanism responsible for tightening and holding the bow hair ribbon.
A device that supports the strings on a stringed musical instrument and transmits the vibration of those strings to another structural component of the instrument – typically a soundboard, such as the top of a violin – which transfers the sound to the surrounding air.
A wooden piece used to hold a string in the pegbox of a stringed instrument. It is used to tighten or loosen a string.
Childhood Absence epilepsy
This usually starts at between 4-10 years of age. Children have absence seizures. These are one of several kinds of generalised seizures. They are characterised by a brief loss and return of consciousness. Most children grow out of this form of epilepsy but some go on to develop other forms of epilepsy with tonic-clonic seizures, these are the seizures most commonly associated with epilepsy. They are another form of generalised seizure and affect the whole brain with a full loss of consciousness and convulsions, which may involve violent twitching.
There is confusion and total amnesia upon waking. Slowly the patient becomes aware of their surroundings and may vomit or burst into tears from the experienced mental trauma
Wendy Barkess (Jan 2016 Writing Short Stories)
Dot looked at her watch. 9 o’clock. She wiped her hands on the apron from Paris, smearing flour on the Eiffel Tower. A warm sweet smell filled the kitchen, as she bent to peer through the oven door to check. 9.15. It was very quiet upstairs. She frowned. Rosie should be up by now. Better pop in and see. Or maybe not.
Opening the kitchen door, she tiptoed into the hall, grateful for the thick pile runner she’d finally got from the catalogue. In the old days her slippers would clatter on the lino and there’d be hell to pay.
‘Snooping again mum?’ Rosie would say, her face red and eyes glaring. ‘Haven’t you got a life of your own?’
It had been hard.
Today would be different though, surely it would.
Dot tapped on Rosie’s door, held her breath.
‘Yes?’ called a sleepy voice.
‘Half past nine dear, don’t forget your train’s at one, and you’ve a lot of packing to do yet.’
‘OK Mum, take it easy. I’ll be down soon.’
Dot put crockery through the hatch and laid the table for breakfast. 2 cereal bowls, blue and white china, one chipped. Willow pattern. The other four had met their end in one of Rosie’s rages. Two of the matching tea plates remained too, though one had a thin crack from side to side. Hang on in there, tea plate, thought Dot.
She had better plates, but these were bought for the Coronation. Happy memories. What was left of them.
Rosie opened the dining room door, still in her dressing gown, the red woollen one with pink kittens on the pockets, feet muffled in furry slippers, hair uncombed.
Dot glanced at the photo on the dresser. Rosie at twelve, long dark hair, huge smile.
‘No need for all this, mum’ said Rosie, looking at the table. I’m not going to starve.’
She was 18 now. Four years since she’d lived at home. Four years of making a life without her. Dot had been terrified that day she’d picked up the phone to call social Services. She’d tried the police but they weren’t interested. ‘But my daughter’s at risk’ she’d yelled, tasting salt tears as she wiped blood from the cut above her eye.
Marielle had summed up the situation immediately when she called next morning.
‘You are a good mother’ she said, stroking Dot’s forearm. ‘You try but she will not listen. She is in danger. You also are in danger. You wish to protect your daughter.’
She was repeating the exact words Dot had just told her, writing them down. Dot recognised this from within her bubble of pain and despair.
‘You have done your best’ continued Marielle in a soothing monotone, ‘but you can not do more.’
She looked up at Dot, raising her beautiful eyebrows. Dot, in her old housecoat, pale as death, looked on and waited.
‘No’ she breathed, ‘I cannot do more.’
Those four years without Rosie had passed very slowly. Dot had been allowed ‘access’ but Rosie refused. There was nothing she could do. She was ‘kept informed’. At sixteen, Rosie had left foster care and moved into a hostel. Occasionally she phoned, asking for money. Then, one magical morning, she appeared on the doorstep. Dot, in curlers, expected the postman. She stepped back, unable to speak, as Rosie walked in, carrying a suitcase. In the narrow hallway, they jostled their way to the kitchen. Rosie put down the suitcase, opened her arms and they fell into an awkward embrace.
‘I’m sorry Mum’ whispered Rosie.
‘No, no’ Dot mumbled into her shoulder. ‘No sorries, dearest girl, you’ve come home, that’s what matters.’
But a small voice whispered in her ear Be careful, you don’t know what she wants.
It had been a difficult week. Dot continued to go to work, uneasy. Her daughter was a virtual stranger, with access to all her private things. The terrible imaginings of the past four years, of Rosie dead in a ditch, hooked up to wires in a hospital bed, bleeding and calling her name in some godforsaken hovel, lying beneath some grunting punter, all gave way to lesser fears. She pictured her daughter rifling through her bank details, ransacking the house in search of drink and drugs, opening the door to thugs and thieves, selling off anything of value – not that there was much – or, worst of all, reading her mother’s diaries, a sardonic dismissive smirk on her face as she slammed the door behind her, never to return.
‘So, Rosie’ she smiled over the bacon and eggs, ‘You’re all ready for Aberdeen?’
Not for the first time, she wished she hadn’t opened her mouth. The look on Rosie’s face, at the same time indignant and pitying, filled her with fear.
Rosie sighed, put down her knife and fork.
‘Look, mum, let’s give it a rest, shall we? I just want to get on with it by myself. No talking, no interrogation, no pretending. It’s going to be hard enough without all that.’
She saw the tears in her mother’s eyes.
‘There is one thing you can do for me.’
Dot nodded, not trusting her voice.
‘Will you brush my hair?’
In the sitting room, still in her dressing gown, Rosie sat on the old velvet covered pouffe in front of the fireplace. The curtains were drawn, the TV on with the sound turned down, Dot positioned on the studio couch behind her daughter’s back.
Leaning forward, she gathered Rosie’s long dark tangles in her hands and gently pulled apart the knots. Rosie winced. As Dot lifted the hair it exposed the nape of Rosie’s neck. She remembered how she had loved to kiss that achingly innocent place when Rosie was a baby. Her fingers lingered on the fine hairs that still grew there. Picking up the hairbrush, she began to stroke it carefully over the resistant hair. Rosie had washed it the night before and left it uncombed. The brush snagged as she drew it several times over the surface of the hair, freeing the top layer. Dot was nervous, her hands shaky. As a child, Rosie had loved this, begging her to ‘do my hair’. It had been a pleasure to them both. She peeped over Rosie’s shoulder. Her eyes were closed, her face relaxed, leaning back into her mother’s knees.
The sound of the brush with its nylon bristles was familiar, comforting, like waves on a distant shore. She drew it slowly in an unhurried sweep down from the crown of Rosie’s head to the level of her shoulder blades, marvelling at the strength and shine of the hair.
Into a rhythm now, her mind went back to happier times, Rosie chattering about her friends, what she was going to have for packed lunch, could she have a puppy, a satchel like Mary’s for school. At each stroke, Rosie’s head was pulled back towards her, then released forward again, the movement hypnotic and reassuring, as her mother’s hands repeatedly gathered escaping tendrils into the fold, gradually brushing out the tangles. Rosie’s ears. Those little ears, so childlike still, so perfect. The lobes were holed and ringed, but the ears still those of her little girl.
Idly, unthinking, her fingers stroked the delicate hairs on Rosie’s temples, tucking them neatly behind those little ears.
‘Don’t fiddle, mum, just brush.’
The newscaster’s voice on the little black and white TV screen mumbled away faintly; the clock ticked gently on the mantelpiece, as Dot bent silently to her task.
The hair was sleek and flowing now, a glossy black sheen. Dot was conscious that a bystander would see in this mother-daughter scene a tableau of total harmony, but she felt the undercurrent, caught in a web of memories: Rosie in bunches, in pigtails with gingham ribbons, in a pony tail. The holiday in France with Uncle Frank, Rosie doing cartwheels and handstands……..
‘Mum, look at the time!’
Rosie whirled round on the pouffe, hairbrush clattering to the tiles of the hearth. She jumped up and ran for the stairs. ‘Hurry up! I’m going to be late!’
Back home in the new silence, Dot was grateful for the mess. It was proof she hadn’t been dreaming. Her daughter’s bedroom was strewn with ringed coffee cups, saucers with ground-out cigarette ends, bits of scrunched up paper. The bed was unmade. Dot picked up the pillow and inhaled the scent of her daughter. She’d leave the room like this for a few days, she decided.
On the dressing table she found a sealed brown envelope with ‘Mum’ written on it in ink. She sat on the bed holding it, for some time. She didn’t want to know what was inside. Confession, apology, accusation? She’d bet on the latter. She had no illusions.
Eventually she slid out the one sheet of lined paper, torn from a notebook, and read the scrawled address. Aberdeen University Halls of Residence. Underneath, another line of writing:
Mum, you can write to me here. If you want. Can’t promise I’ll write back. Love, Rosie.
Lying on the narrow bed, Dot let the tears come at last, repeating over and over those precious words. Love, Rosie.
Kath Giblin (Sept 2014 Writing Short Stories)
The third floor bedsit was located in a Georgian building, whose former splendour could still be glimpsed in high rectangular windows and decadently embellished cornices, though the worn and chipped mouldings more closely reflected the dented lives of its current occupants.
All life teemed here, including the flotsam and jetsam of marital strife, mental illness and the economic downturn; it was a holding pen for the disillusioned and the dispossessed.
And this was where Séan Teagan had found himself beached: washed ashore at last after the stormy end of his marriage.
The first thing you noticed when you entered his room was its size. The proportions were suited to the room’s original use when it formed one of a pair of domestic bedrooms and space for a single bed and wardrobe was all that was needed. Two such rooms had been knocked together to form a bedsit which allowed the occupant the added luxury of a table, an easy chair and basic cooking facilities.
Séan stood in front of the small window looking out over the rooftops set against London’s skyline. The contrail of a jet glowed luminous pink in the summer’s evening light as it glided through whispers of white clouds turning slowly to charcoal; the dying embers of the day glowed briefly in the West.
It put him in mind of summers long ago in the West of Ireland when as a boy he would help to bring in the hay. He thought of the stories and poems recited at evening in the houses where neighbours gathered, each bringing their own particular form of entertainment: song, story, verse or fiddle. The sound of laughter and the clinking of glasses drifted back down the years to him.
Outside the traffic roared along the busy high road and the city throbbed to its own incessant beat. But alone here at the window, distant but distinct memories returned to him: standing in the meadow, watching his grandfather’s powerful hands gripping the two handled scythe. He could see him swinging the blade underneath the standing hay, cutting it close to the ground; the crop falling in swatches. Himself and his brothers: shaking out the hay with pitchforks, showers of green yellow strands raining down on sun-hardened skin and clinging to black curls. He saw them helping with the gathering-in. Pitchfork and rake, heaving and twirling, building the hay-cock, six-foot high.
How was it that the memories of yesteryear were so profound and detailed and yet he struggled sometimes to remember the simplest of things from his present life?
Thoughts of home flooded in. He could see himself now standing on the strand for that last look across the wide ocean, the white waters churning and dashing against the stern rocks, competing with the tumult in his chest and stomach; excitement and fear mingling together. He remembered the hungry look in his mother’s eyes as she sat watching him eat his last breakfast at home: drinking him in, saying nothing, just watching as each forkful rose and fell, her gaze burning this last impression on to the back of her mind like an old photograph. He was the last of her four sons to leave: her four white swans, each in turn crossing the wide water to make his way to the building sites of England, promises of work in plenty, a full stomach and freedom from prying eyes, carrying them away from her.
He turned and looked at the photograph beside the single bed on the far side of the room. A white-haired woman with large gentle eyes, smiled benignly at the photographer, as she leaned on a walking frame in the porch of an old house. Three ivory elephants stood above the lintel, a present from his brother years before.
Back in the present, his gaze returned now to the solicitor’s letter that lay flat on the table. His aunt Sissy had never married. There was talk of a sweetheart long ago and broken promises, though she always seemed perfectly cheerful to him. Having no husband or sons, it had fallen on him and his brothers to help her out with jobs around the place. He made sure to visit her on his infrequent visits home and she had sometimes written to him in a long spidery hand. She was well past ninety when her independent spirit finally gave in to the demands of a frail body and she had died, leaving the house and a few acres of land to him. Why he had been singled out, he didn’t know.
Sissy had been a practical woman and decoration was kept to a minimum in her cottage. A sturdy table sat in front of the window, covered over with a dark green oilcloth and surrounded by six high backed chairs. The only easy chair in the room was pulled up to an electric fire which was placed in front of the opening where the old range used to blaze. He’d heard that a number of houses were returning to turf now with the escalating cost of oil and electricity. According to the solicitor’s letter, along with the house and the bit of land went the turbary rights to the patch of bog where years before he had helped to bring in the turf.
Above the fireplace a mirror cast the dim reflection of the sacred heart of Jesus on the opposite wall. A blue and white plastic container, filled with holy water from the shrine at Knock and shaped like a statue of Our Lady, sat meekly on the plinth below the mirror. Beside the door the oak press squatted darkly.
It seemed at first glance like nothing had changed since he had stood in this room as a boy. The old Bakelite radio set had been replaced by a small TV, but there were few other signs that time had not stood still. A battered fridge sat incongruously in the corner of the room, so that she didn’t have to carry on storing meat and dairy in the press and an electric cooker stood in the small lean-to kitchen beside the door which led off to the yard and outhouses.
He shuddered and not just from the cold. So many memories locked into this place. The voices of the past swarmed around him.
What to do with it, now that was the problem. They were practically giving property away over here since the recession. A pitiful state the country was in, he thought to himself with debts piled up and haemorrhaging its youth once again. The wheel had come full circle since he had left to find work. It was harder in some ways for this generation who had grown up in the good times of the Celtic Tiger. They were well educated and had high expectations and now almost half of them faced the dole or emigration.
He’d always meant to come back but one thing led to another and it was never the right time. It would have been different if he’d had someone to come back to. At that thought the face of a woman, a girl really, appeared in his mind’s eye. She was laughing, teasing him about something and a rush of happiness, tinged with regret, surged unbidden in his chest. ‘Fool’, he thought to himself, that’s ancient history. God knows, he’d been through enough women since her. Some great girls too but none of them had quite matched up. Perhaps even his ex-wife, if he was honest. Maybe that had been the problem from the start. Strange how after all these years it still hurt that she hadn’t even bothered to answer his letters. And then he’d heard that she was married in England and that was that. He wondered now how her life had turned out.
He looked around him. It wasn’t too bad considering no-one had lived here for the past months that Sissy had spent in the hospital. It was certainly in need of a good clean and the wallpaper was peeling in places. Perhaps he’d strip it down and redecorate, though from what the estate agent had said it was unlikely to add much to the price. Going for a song these old cottages were, he told him.
He’d booked into a B&B in the town, being unsure of the state of the old house or perhaps reluctant to sleep there alone with the ghosts of the past. He didn’t know the landlady. She termed herself a ‘blow-in’ from Dublin, though she and the husband had been living in the town for some twenty years.
He took another quick look around the old place but the light was starting to die and he suddenly realised how tired he was from the journey, and hungry. He decided to leave sorting the place out until the morning. A pint was what was needed now and some food. He left the cottage by the front door, thinking to himself how they had never used this entrance. Family and visitors alike had always come to the back door, which was locked only at night. Not like his place in London, where the door was decked out like Fort Knox, with double-locks and chains and a spy-hole.
The path to the gate was thick with weeds and tangled brambles lay on either side, edging towards the window, where once roses had grown. Another job for me, he thought heading towards his car, parked against the hedge opposite. It was so quiet here. Only the distinctive kerrx-kerrx cry of the corncrakes in the hay field opposite punctuated the silence, heralding the drawing down of the day.
With a last look at the old place he got into the car and headed off down the lane. It was a wonder to him as he drove back through the town how many pubs had shut down. First the smoking ban, then the tightening up of the laws on drink-driving had brought about a decline in punters and now the recession had hammered the final nail into the coffin of the Irish pub.
At last he found a pub that was open and serving food. He parked up and went in. The place was quiet. A couple of old fellas were propped up at the bar and a middle-aged couple were sat at a table in the corner quietly eating. The woman looked vaguely familiar. She was smartly dressed, around the mid-fifties, same age as him, with curly auburn hair, turned grey at the roots
“Evening”, he greeted the barman.
“How are ya?” came the reply. “What’ll it be?”
“A pint of Guinness please and I’d like to order some food.”
“No problem, help yourself to a menu. I’ll bring the pint over to you if you want to find a seat”.
He glanced at the menu and his eyes widened at the exorbitant prices for basic pub grub. He ordered a steak and then glancing around, decided to sit by the window, which offered a view of the hundreds of tiny islands dotted around the bay.
Gazing out of the window, he slowly supped his pint. Was there any such beautiful place as this in late summer? He watched as wisps of tangerine clouds provided the prelude to a breath-taking display from the setting sun, starting its slow decline in the West. Glowing threads of golden light streaked across the sky, gathered together in sonorous layers of blazing orange, red and indigo, then melted from sight.
He hadn’t heard the man approaching and it was only when he started to talk that he looked around at him.
“Séan Teagan? It is, isn’t it? I’d know that face anywhere. How the hell are you?”
On hearing the name, the woman in the corner looked quickly over at them. She stared briefly at him and then looked away, but not before he recognised her. It was the eyes: they were the very same blue and green, flecked with gold as her sister’s, though hers were sharp where Máire’s had seemed to dance in tune to her ready laughter.
“How are you Bernie?”
“Grand. Grand. Sorry to hear about Sissy. She was a great lady altogether. And how are things with you? I suppose you’re back to sort the old place out”.
“Yes. Join me for a pint?”
When he next looked over the woman and man had gone. Their food had been eaten and he’d drained his glass but he noticed that hers was hardly touched. He had the distinct impression that someone was not particularly happy to see him.
He slept badly that night. Images from the past teemed through his restless mind. He thought of his daughter; she was grown up now and leading her own life. Relations were distant between them; unsurprising really as he’d spent so much of her childhood following the work wherever it led him, from contract to contract, city to city. And what was it all for? Now in his mid-fifties, the work had dried up. He had some savings and his share of the house after the divorce but little else to show for a lifetime of ceaseless graft.
And as he lay there in the stillness listening to the sounds of the night, his mind kept returning to a girl with red hair and the palest, softest skin. He remembered her nervousness and his own timidity as they kissed in the field on the cliff-top, overlooking the dashing waters. He had carefully laid his jacket on the grass for her and as they lay close, not talking of his leaving the following morning, they could hear in the distance the occasional tolling of a bell: a slow mournful sound, warning passing ships off the rocks. Afterwards, they walked home along the beach in silence, their hands entwined.
He was already awake when dawn’s light flooded the morning sky. He made a cup of tea and looked out towards the looming cliffs and the sea below.
He wasn’t the only walker on the beach that morning. In the distance he could make out the shape of a woman walking towards him.
As she approached he prepared to greet her with a friendly “Good morning” but then she lifted her eyes to his and he recognised them straight away. Though her face bore the lines and creases of a woman in her early fifties, the years had been kind to her.
He spoke first. “Máire? My God I can’t believe it. After all these years. It is you, isn’t it?”
She assented and smiled at him a little shyly. “How are you Séan?”
“Great. I mean it’s great to see you. How many years is it? Thirty?”
“Don’t! You’re making me feel old. You look just the same.”
He grinned and reached up to the top of his head. “Bit less hair”.
She laughed, pointed to her own auburn highlights and said, “Not sure how much of this is me these days either”.
They stood for a moment in silence with a growing sense of awkwardness. Finally she said, “My sister said she saw you. I’m just over on a visit, staying with her”.
He gave her the reasons for his own visit and then they stood and briefly exchanged histories. He talked about his daughter and the recent break up and she told him how she had lost her husband suddenly to a stroke three years previously. He asked if she had any children.
She seemed to hesitate before drawing a phone out of her pocket. “This is Séan,” she said.
“Good name,” he laughed, as he studied the handsome man with dark curls.
She gave him a long silent look then and suddenly he knew. Why she’d never answered his letters. Why nobody seemed to know anything about her. Why her mother’s eyes had looked away from him and she had ignored his greeting and hurried on when he bumped into her on a visit home all those years ago.
“But I wrote to you. Why didn’t you tell me?”
She took a deep breath. “I must have already left for the nursing home in England by the time they came. My sister said that my mother burnt them. She wanted me to think you’d forgotten about me. My punishment I suppose and she wanted me to give him up for adoption.”
He stood there in rapt silence and his countenance must have borne something of his absolute bewilderment and confusion because at last she said.
“I’ll go. I just thought it was right that you should know”.
She gave him a long last look and then started to walk away. But then it started to sink in and he knew that he couldn’t let that happen again.
“Wait! Just walk with me along the beach for a while,” he said.
She hesitated and he felt the burden of history bearing down on them both.
Then she turned and smiled at him and the years fell away.
Heledd Bianchi (March 2014 Writing Short Stories)
They’re coming – must tidy, must hurry, must quickly. Right, kitchen done, floors done, bedrooms tidied. Aargh, dishes! Back I go. “Get out of the way Trixy,” screeched Audrey as she scuttled across the kitchen tiles. “Alright, alright, meaty balls coming” she vexed as she filled the dog bowl three quarters full. Trixy chomped greedily, polishing off her food in a jiffy. “You’re not having any more,” Audrey argued with the perky Jack Russell. “For goodness sake, you now too!” she piped at Chelsea and Mildred, the shorthaired white and tan guinea pigs. “Stop your squeaking”. The guinea pigs were so ravenous that they clung on with all fours to the gate of their cage in protest. “You had your pellets this morning and you’ll have your greens later. Now be patient. You’ll blow up one of these days, I’m telling you. Now stop your moithering.” I really hope little Max likes his veg now, she mulled. I can’t bear to see any waste. Oh well, if there’s any veg left, I’ll cook up some rissoles tomorrow. The kids can have some with chips. “Ah, yes the kids will love that,” she whispered reassuringly, feeling at ease now. On that note, Audrey quickly turned the carrots, peas and cabbage down low on the cooker for fear of boiling them to a pulp and draining them of all their vital vitamins. They’d be far tastier and crunchier in the rissoles too and that was how her children enjoyed them the most, with plenty of ketchup of course, the master in jazzing up all meals for her children’s palates.
As Audrey dashed through the passageway she caught a frightful reflection of herself in the mirror. “Aargh”, she gasped, having caught sight of her chocolate brown hair. It had coagulated into the form of a sea urchin. She hadn’t time to fettle with it since her bed head that morning and after the steam shower from the Sunday dinner cooking, it looked a right sorry state.
Audrey was so eager to please Aunt Betty and Uncle Jack as they had been very supportive to Audrey over the years, helping her out with her three children: Peter, aged nine, Jenny, aged seven and Paul, aged four. Aunt Betty and Uncle Jack made a big effort when the family visited them so Audrey felt they deserved the same treatment in return.
Audrey had felt quite isolated on many occasions, particularly when the children were very small and too young to have a conversation with. Andrew, Audrey’s husband, worked away a lot. She wasn’t sure what he did exactly. She knew that he had urgent business meetings to attend to and matters which required a great deal of overtime which entailed him sitting at the computer in the study until late evening, well past the children’s bedtime, at least. Audrey had questioned him on half a dozen occasions but was so bamboozled by his longwinded explanations that she came to the firm decision that she would never ask again. Was he deliberately confusing her to exhaust her questioning? Maybe. The children never asked. They weren’t interested as they saw very little of him and the time they did spend with him was so brief that all they wanted to do with him was play. He did enjoy kicking a ball about with them and playing hide-and-seek whilst out in the park on special occasions, but soon got tired as he was not used to physical activity. He had been in a sedentary job as long as she’d known him; over fourteen years now. His income was enough to contribute towards the household bills, their hobbies which included swimming for all, ballet and gymnastic classes for Jenny, football and cricket for Peter and play centre activity and rhyme time for Paul. More importantly, his income also paid for two holidays abroad each year, which was Audrey’s sanctuary from her domestic chores, which she had to admit had become rather mundane and monotonous. She was relieved that Paul would be starting school full time that September as she was now finding juggling home life and school activities quite a strain. She had become exhausted with the constant demands of school homework, school trips, extra-curricular activities and to top it all, the umpteen school and nursery concerts and services she had to attend, of which there seemed to be at least one per school term. She would now have a few more hours in the day to see to the chores in peace and perhaps slip a cheeky film in between: what bliss.
“Right, off I go,” Audrey muttered. “Better get these toilet bowls squeaky clean.” She half-wondered why she should bother as Uncle Jack would only trickle right down them again for certain. One of the pleasures of Andrew being away was that Audrey only had to clean the toilet bowls once a week: although Peter and Jack trickled a little, they didn’t leave such a pungent stench as Andrew. Must have been a sign of all that fine red wine he drank in the evenings.
Audrey decided she’d better clean the toilets anyway as Aunt Betty didn’t miss a drip. Once she finished scrubbing them so clean that she could lick them, she rushed to her bedroom to fetch her toiletry bag which contained the essentials of moisturising cream, hair brush, mascara and small tin of Vaseline for her cracked lips. Beginning to detangle the sea urchin on her head, she shrieked as she spotted the anxiety rash returning on her neck. She quickly reached into her bedside drawer for the bottle of rescue remedy. A few drops of that would help the rash subside for a while at least. She should have only administered a couple of drops to her tongue but on this occasion felt that six drops would hopefully do the trick.
“Yap, yap, yap” yapped Trixy from downstairs. She often yapped throughout the day, at passers-by, at the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, even at the sound of a crisp packet skimming across the floor. She was ever such a neurotic terrier! “Stop your yapping!” Audrey bellowed. “There’s nobody there.” She could never be quite sure of this however as the batteries in her door chime were always running flat and many a time she had missed someone calling through the dog yapping wolf.
“I’ll get it,” shouted Peter, to Audrey’s surprise, as he shot up from his Playstation and darted to the front door. Peter wasn’t usually so keen to answer the door. He must have had an ulterior motive: Uncle Jack and Aunt Betty, no doubt, had brought some cakes with them from their local Tesco in Port Talbot. Jenny, meanwhile, a bright-eyed, energetic young girl, was busily reading ‘Mr Tickle’ from the Mr Men series to her lively younger brother, Paul. She was very efficient at entertaining Paul while her Mam was busy: she had the patience of a saint.
“They’re here!” Peter hollered up the stairs, speedily returning to his Playstation. Peter, a cute, plump boy had lost interest in the past year in reading books and using his imagination to play creatively. He was going through a ‘can’t be bothered’ phase which Audrey hoped he would soon grow out of.
Audrey urgently dipped her finger into the tin of Vaseline and picked a pea-sized blob to apply to her dry, cracked lips, massaging them together to moisten them thoroughly. “Coming! Peter, pop the kettle on…be down now” Audrey hollered as she showered vanilla musk, her protective scent bubble, above her head, and sprang chirpily from her bedroom. “Helloooo, coming” she called again, in a far merrier tone this time. “Let me take your coats. You’re early. I was expecting you far later than this. I’ve just turned the veg off as I wasn’t sure when you’d be arriving and am sure you’d like a cuppa first?”
“Oh yes, one sugar, milk please” answered Uncle Jack, a sprightly, stick thin man, without any hesitance. “Will go nicely with the cream buns we just bought from Tesco.”
“Nothing for me – just goes straight through me. I’ll have one later” added Aunt Betty, a colourful and curvaceous woman, as she beamed across the living room to embrace the children. “Come here, come here, come and give your Aunt Betty a cwtch. I haven’t seen you in ages. Gosh you’ve grown”.
Jenny and Paul rushed into Aunt Betty’s arms, while Peter hesitantly got up from his comfy beanbag which had moulded into a perfect, tailored shape for his rear circumference.
“Where’s Andrew?” asked Aunt Betty, wearily.
“He’ll be home later,” replied Audrey. “I’ll plate up for him and he can warm it up later in the microwave”.
Audrey pushed and glided her head forwards in prone position as she sprung her feet away from the side of the pool wall for her next set of swim strokes; this time 50 lengths in front crawl. She focused only on her leg and arm co-ordination which was in a beat of six, with each leg executing three downbeats per arm cycle, creating a vast propulsion. She always opted for the Unilateral breathing technique; breathing to one side only. Her in-breath took place as her arm on her breathing side completed an upsweep while her opposite arm was at catch and beginning the downsweep. She did not allow any distractive thoughts of family life to cloud over her, whether it be a vital or a pointless thought. She was determined to remain disciplined for a minimum of forty lengths. She would then allow her mind to wander in the remaining ten lengths of the cool-down phase when she would slow down her leg and arm co-ordination to a two beat cycle with each leg executing one downbeat per arm cycle, just to keep her balance, without creating much propulsion.
It may be the opinion of many non-swimmers that the exercise of swimming up and down, down and up, repetitively, is excruciatingly monotonous, symptomatically resulting in the mind wandering somewhat, but Audrey thrived on it. It helped her focus and most definitely helped clear her mind once she’d finished. Audrey knew that she wasn’t travelling anywhere of interest and that the scenery was pretty dismal but that did not discourage her. On the contrary, It fuelled her focus. The repetitive sea of bobbing heads passing by and the view of the lifeguard sitting in his high chair looking bored senseless did not discourage her either. She was, however convinced that the lifeguard was counting her lengths which exacerbated her addiction, resulting in more lengths swum. One thing she was relieved about was that at least with her head and face submerged under water for most of the duration of her workout, she would not be subjected to the idle chit chat of the non-swimming adults stood against the pool walls. This was predominantly the reason why she opted out of sessions at the gym. She had battled religiously with both aerobics and the gym during her teens and twenties but got sick of the sight of her tomato face at the end of each gruelling, sweaty session. Not that she’d escaped that look by opting for swimming, but her fellow exercisers would only catch a very quick glimpse as she exited the pool and as she jogged out of the leisure centre to the car park. She felt little pressure from eyeballing in the changing room after her swim as all the other ladies were too busy drying and dressing themselves to notice.
Audrey had also felt she’d not got enough headspace training as part of a group, especially as the other ladies, all shapes and sizes, would gas and giggle during the warm-ups and cool-downs, or worse still, would groan with each stretch. She’d taken up running for a while as she felt that would give her the headspace she was yearning for, but as her stamina increased, so did the distance and her competitive streak struck her like a disease, urging her to keep going, to keep on training, regardless of aches and pains, pushing her body to the ultimate; but she pushed too far, damaging her lower back, resulting in a degenerative disc. So Audrey had decided in her forties that swimming was definitely a safer choice of workout; far less painful on her joints, a much calmer and quieter sport. Once her head was submerged in the water she was encapsulated by her Aqua bubble, with only the whirring sound of the water bubbling round her and the crashing sound of the water splashing with each arm stroke and leg kick.
Audrey’s mind had wandered to many exotic places on her Aqua Encounters, particularly during the breaststroke as this was the swim stroke where she had to concentrate least on technique. She had swum this stroke the most, particularly whilst pregnant. It was the least stressful stroke to her body and mind. She had imagined living in a grand mansion on a beautiful, tropical island with an outdoor and indoor swimming pool and several acres of equestrian land for her to keep a herd of horses, varying in temperament to suit each one of her children. She dreamt that Dennis enjoyed riding too. In reality, he had very little interest in horses. He enjoyed the odd game of darts at his local and that was eventful enough for him. He didn’t like the feeling of being out of control.
Audrey had carefully calculated her monthly household budget after paying all the bills so as to save for a nice gift for herself such as a new bottle of perfume or a new pair of shoes. Although her husband Dennis provided well for the family’s necessities, there was very little housekeeping left to spend on luxuries, so she had to be quite frugal. She concocted many ways to save a penny here, a penny there; on the phone bill, chatting a little less to her sister Betty. She also had a good eye for a bargain, opting quite often to have a good rummage in the charity shops, instead of the High Street stores. She would try to shop in the supermarket during off-peak times to save on the food budget too so that she could slowly, but very surely save enough money to treat herself to a little something. She didn’t dare ask Dennis for more money as she didn’t feel it was her place to. He was the breadwinner in the family; therefore he was in charge. However, saving a little here and there gave Audrey a feeling of financial independence, and when Dennis had asked her to work out the household budget she felt empowered. She had some control in the decision making which was a pleasant feeling; after all she wasn’t twp. She had to keep reminding herself that. Audrey was an educated woman. Prior to having children she had graduated with a first class honours degree in Psychology.
Audrey took to the accounting like a duck to water. She carefully calculated, making sure that she based the budget on a worst case scenario so that there would be a little left over for extras. She was determined to stay within the lines of a best case scenario. She quickly became a mistress of bargain shopping and penny saving in all areas, utility, clothes, food and toiletries.
The doorbell chimed again. This time, no dog yapped. Audrey shot up out of her armchair and shuffled across the brown-flecked carpet to the large bay window in her living room. She reached out her quivering left hand to hold on to the window sill and drew back the mauve curtains desperately trying to catch a glimpse of who had come to visit this time. She had just missed them. She couldn’t get to the window quick enough. The front door banged shut with a great thud. It rang deafeningly into her ear drums.
Audrey shuffled glumly back to her armchair. Once her eardrums had balanced out she could hear voices surrounding her. There was so much chatter. She lifted her head slowly as she could feel the presence of people approaching her.
“Up you get now Mrs Davies, you have visitors. Look who’s come to see you,” squeaked Lucy, one of the chirpy carers at the Blue Lagoon Care Home for Dementia Sufferers.
Audrey stood upright as she regained consciousness for the first time in a long time. In front of her stood her beautiful three children, all grown up and sophisticated and Andrew too; much slimmer than she remembered.
“Hello there my darling.” Andrew reached out his arms to embrace her.
“We’ve missed you Mam”. Jenny, Paul and Peter flung their arms in unison round her.
“Never mind, never mind,” Audrey whispered softly. “We’re all here now and that’s all that matters”.
Diana Bianchi (March 2014 Writing Short Stories)
It is a wet drizzly grey morning as I drive into the surgery car park to collect my repeat prescription. The chances are that when you reach a certain age – when you become an OAP or to use the more politically correct term – a Senior Citizen, your visits to the chemist for a repeat prescription become more frequent. Usually it is people who have a long term condition, be it a serious or not-so-serious one, who have repeat prescriptions. Mine is not serious thankfully. Just a common condition called underactive thyroid which usually affects women of a certain age. But a nuisance all the same? Apart from that and having a kidney removed, an operation on my spine after a gymnastics accident in my youth which has developed into arthritis at a later age, I am quite healthy really I assure myself, as I battle through the automatic doors of the dispensary which have decided to be awkward. After much pushing and leaping to one side or the other to try to get the mechanics working. Success at last. I enter.
If it is grey outside the contrast inside the dispensary is striking. It is sterile white and the strip lighting is so glaring it almost blinds you. It smells of illness and disinfectant. I approach the counter and am informed by a very young and very fresh-as-a-daisy looking girl in a white coat with a gold badge, the name Debbie stamped on it, who proceeds to address me as if I may be deaf or even senile.
“Take a seat dear” “It won’t be long”.
Another thing about being an oldie, as the young more often or not see us, is the assumption that we only understand if we are spoken to in a way which adults speak to children. This really grates on me and I am just about to say “Don’t you dearie me”, when I decide to let it go. Why waste my breath? I’ll save it instead for swimming my hundred lengths up and down the swimming pool later. I wish!! I nod and smile (as is expected of me ) But in my mind’s eye I am throttling the living daylights out of her.
I retreat to the only vacant chair in the room and scan the other occupants seated. There is a young mother holding a baby who is coughing and spluttering and looking very flushed. Poor dab. I can almost feel the pain and anguish expressed in the young mother’s face as she tries to comfort her offspring, and I am reminded of that time in my own life – thirty years ago or so by now – when I would have been experiencing the same thing as what this woman was now going through. The next person I scan is a forty-something, very smartly dressed, professional looking woman. She is engrossed in a magazine; too busy probably keeping up with what the Celebs are up to, to notice the distress of the younger mother. I think to myself, why do women read such crap, or am I being too judgmental in my opinions? Another negative trait of age, so I am told. “Must guard against that” I say to myself. After all I come from a background of feminism and sisterhood, Greenham Common and all that.
“Prescription for Mrs Jones “ screeches Debbie in a voice resembling a whistling kettle boiling on the stove. Mrs Jones – a woman of seventy-something – gets up from her seat and shuffles across the room with the aid of a zimmer frame. How come I missed her when I was scanning everybody else? How could I have missed her? I search my scrambled brain for an answer. Could it be because she was dressed from head to toe in the colour beige? Beige hat, beige coat, beige shoes and stockings. Even her face was beige but for the bright crimson lipstick which had been drawn clumsily and out of line on her lips. Beige, now that’s a colour, I remind myself, which is associated with age. It is a bland washed-out colour almost invisible. Maybe that’s why a lot of elderly people wear beige . Or perhaps. . . “Now stop it” I say to myself. “Stop making silly assumptions and put your mind elsewhere.” After all Mrs Jones, even with all that beige, was wearing a bright crimson lipstick. Perhaps in her youth she had been a fashion model for Vogue or a burlesque artist on the Moulin Rouge.
I scan the shelves stacked up with different potions and pills for all ills and I start reminiscing on my own past life. I suddenly remember the letter which I hastily put in my pocket that morning before rushing out of the house to do the school run. One of the many jobs I have taken on as a retired grandmother. But I am not moaning, After all I have all my family around me and not scattered on the other side of the world so I count my blessings.
The letter is from my childhood friend Evelyn. I open it.
Just a line to say that I was thinking of you and wondering how you all are. I have not seen you for years..
No, I think to myself and my mind is transported back to our youth. I can see us now. Evelyn and me, singing our hearts out on the bus after our school team had won yet another netball competition against a rival school. Evelyn was a vivacious beauty: dark hair, dark skin and a lovely laugh. A talented and gifted artist who won a scholarship to a prestigious art college in London. How vividly I remember waving her off on the train as we both squealed with laughter and promised each other that we would keep in touch. Reminding each other that the term was short and we would soon see each other again.
Evelyn had been at college for half a term before she was hospitalised for attempting to take her own life. A different Evelyn came home. The girl I waved off on the train was no more. I never got to know the full story of what had happened to her. It appeared that she had a boyfriend who had treated her very badly and “had done horrible things to her” as her father informed my parents, not discussing the matter further. So I was left wondering. I am still wondering.
Seven years ago I was treated after taking an overdose.
I am reminded about this every time she writes. This has often made me think that she may have made several attempts at suicide.
I am not well again. . . How time flies by. I will be 66 on March 11th Pisces. Joe (her brother) will be 63 on July 31st Leo and Auntie will be 93 on September 27th Virgo.
I often think of the old times. A lot of people we knew have died. Betty Evans (another member of our netball team) who married Joe Davies, died of cancer a few years back. William Davies, Margaret Evans, Tessa James. All gone. I am still seeing my psychiatrist. . .He has upped my dose. . .I am not well.
The list goes on. I have heard it all before. In every letter I have had from her for the past 49 years. The contents of the letter have always remained the same.
I am coming to the end of the letter when it does proclaim something new:
I went deaf a few weeks ago and had to have my ears syringed of wax. I hope to see you sometime.
PS Connie Williams passed away. (This is old news again.)
PPS And I went to see Cynthia Williams who is married to Peter Davies who wins prizes for his chickens. Do you know him?
“Yes I do” I say to myself.
Don’t you remember Evelyn, he is a relative of mine. . . Auntie Violet is in a home you know. (Auntie Violet is the only surviving relative of what was once a large family). I am looking forward to the Summer weather after all the floods. We must…………..
I look for the last page of the letter, but it is not there. The bit that always says “Thinking of you All my Love Evelyn.” Is not there. She has forgotten to put it in the envelope. Or has she? My mind clocks up all kinds of scenarios. Perhaps she is afraid to sign off. Maybe she thinks that this will be her last letter to me. Maybe it will be her last letter I think to myself. I begin to feel panicky. Is this what old age does to you? How much time have I got left? I want to do so many things before I finally pop my clogs.
I am stopped in my tracks by Debbie. “Mrs Buckingham? Mrs Buckingham? Are you alright my dear?”
I practically pole vault to the counter to collect my prescription.
“You do look a bit pale,” she says. “Take things easy now. You retired people have all the time in the world. So enjoy it whilst you can. See you in a month’s time Mrs Buckingham. Mind how you go. . .have a good day”
“Silly girl “I mutter to myself as I grab the prescription and make a quick exit.
I leave the car park and drive home. Once I am inside the house I prepare to tackle the daily repetitive chores. But I am stopped in my tracks as I hang my coat on the hallstand when I see in the mirror a beige-coloured face staring back at me. Without any further delay I decide that today will be different to every other day. Today everything else can wait. I have something far more important to attend to. I have been thinking about it since collecting my repeat prescription. My mind is now made up. I make myself a coffee and sit myself down at the computer. I know what I must do and I must do it now. Or else……
I find what I am looking for and press the appropriate button on the keyboard. There. Done. No turning back now.
I immediately phone my sister: “Hello Liz. It’s me,” as if she didn’t know. “You remember when we used to look at holiday brochures on Egypt when we were kids and promised ourselves that we would try and get to see those pyramids sometime?” My bewildered sister gets no chance to respond as I rattle on like a machine gun…. “Well. Pack your case my girl. Tickets are booked. We’re off. Oh and by the way, don’t bring anything beige to wear. . . but remember to bring lots of bright crimson lipstick.”