Crocodile Tears

SD 16

 

Crocodile Tears

         The crocodile lives in the wind-up gramophone. The gramophone lives in the top room of the house. The boy winds up the gramophone with a long brass handle, round and round, till the spring is tight. The tight spring frightens the crocodile and he sits quietly in his cage. But as the record goes round, the spring loosens up and the crocodile roars and demands to be freed. He’s the Jack that wants to jump out of the box. His long-term dream is to eat up the witch who looks out of the window and watches the boy as he plays in the yard.

         Last week the boy decided to dig. He picked up a spade and dug a deep hole that went all the way down to his cousin in Australia. The little dog laughed and joined in the fun, scraping with his front paws and throwing earth out between his back legs like happy dogs do. The witch in the window cackled with laughter and the rooks in the rookery rose up in a cloud and cawed in reply. Only the boy can see the witch and he only sees her when she sits in the window. But he knows she wanders through the house, and the air goes cold when she enters and exits the rooms, especially when she brushes past the boy and sweeps his skin with her long, black gown.

         When the boy gets tired of digging, he drives the spade into the ground and leaves it standing by the hole. When his father comes home after work, it’s dark and he doesn’t see the hole but he does see the spade. So he doesn’t fall in to the shaft of the coal-mine that goes all the way down to Australia. No free trip to the Antipodes for that lucky dad. He beats the boy for that, for digging that hole. Then he beats him again for lying: the hole doesn’t go to Australia. Australia is too far away and the angle is all wrong. The boy laughs when he sees that his dad doesn’t know where Australia is.

         “Ha-ha,” he laughs and his dad beats him again, this time for laughing.

         Sometimes at night the boy can hear rats running through his bedroom walls. They scuttle and scuffle as they hunt through the guttering. The crocodile growls from time to time in that upstairs room. The witch cackles with laughter. The boy puts his head under the blankets and cries himself to sleep. Sometimes he wishes the crocodile would come and eat up his dad. But he loves his dad like the dog loves his dad even though his dad beats both the boy and the dog. Sudden beatings, they are, beatings that arrive without warning: hail and thunder from a sunny summer sky.

         “Well, you’re not laughing now,” his father announces.     When the father beats the boy, the dog cowers beneath a chair. The boy hears the crocodile growl and smiles through the tears as he wipes salt water from his eyes.

         “Are you laughing at me? I’ll make you laugh on the other side of your face,” the father taunts the son and beats him again.

         The crocodile growls. The old witch cackles. The rooks in the rookery rise up in the air and the father’s hair stands up on end like it does when lightning lights up the sky, and thunder rolls its drums, and the sky rattles like an old farmer’s cart whose iron-rimmed wheels have not been greased. The veins stand out in his father’s cheeks as the old man raises his hand to the boy.

         The old man tells the same old jokes again and again. The boy must always remember to laugh at them as if he had never heard them before. If he doesn’t laugh, his father gets angry. Some of the jokes are good, and the boy likes the one about the Catholic who goes into the bar in Belfast and asks the barkeep if they serve Protestants. Or is it the one in which the Protestant goes into the bar and ask the barkeep if they serve Catholics … anyway … one night, the boy has a dream and it goes like this. The crocodile escapes from the gramophone. The witch hands the boy a leash and a collar and between them they restrain the crocodile.

         “Walkies?” says the boy.

         The crocodile nods his head and croc and boy walk down the street to the Kiddy’s Soda Fountain on the corner.  When the boy walks in with the croc, the waitress raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth.

         “Do you serve grownups in here?” the little boy asks her.

         “Of course we do,” says the waitress.

         “Good. I’ll have a glass of Dandelion & Burdock for myself and a grown-up for the crocodile. Please.”

         The witch says grace, the boy sips his Dandelion & Burdock, and they all shed crocodile tears as the boy’s pet crocodile chomps on the fast disappearing body of the boy’s dad.

Double Trouble

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Double Trouble

“I’ll need some ID,” the guy selling Fred a new cell phone said. “Something with a photo on. May I see your driving license?”

“Of course,” Fred pulled out his driver’s license.

The salesman took it, glanced at the picture, walked over to the computer, and started to type in numbers. Fred watched him as he nonchalantly punched the keys. Then Fred saw him stiffen and straighten up as he held the license up to the light, double-checked it, and frowned.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the salesman said, looking very sad. “This license has expired. It’s more than two years out of date.”

“You’re joking,” Fred said

“No sir,” the salesman replied. “This license expired two and a half years ago.”

He handed it back to Fred who also checked it with care. At first, the figures seemed blurred. Fred took out his glasses and put them on.

“You’re right,” Fred said. “It is out of date. I must have the new one in here somewhere.”

He started to rummage through all the plastic cards in his wallet. But there was no new driving license.

“I must have left it at home,” Fred muttered.
“They usually shred the old licenses,” the salesman smiled. “They never let you keep them. You must have forgotten to renew.”

Fred placed his hands on the cell-phone counter, looked down, and saw his face mirrored in the shiny plastic. He gazed into his own eyes and they looked back at him. Then his mind flashed back two and a half years.

He had just been through the biopsy, a messy, painful, and unnerving affair, and the results had come back positive.

The urologist demanded a new battery of tests: X-rays, bone scans, blood tests, MRI’s, examinations, more examinations, questionnaires, discussions about possible forms of treatment …

The different treatments were set out like food in a self-serve restaurant and, like the strange foreign foods that Fred liked to try without knowing exactly what they were, their names meant nothing to him.

Then there was the travel: out on the road between his little place in the country and the major cancer hospitals in the province with an examination here, and a consultation over there. All the medical staff he encountered were kind and helpful and the suggestions they offered were sound. The winter road conditions complicated matters, though, and twice he was forced to cancel appointments because of road conditions.

Then, a week or so after the MRI, the allergic reactions set in and, over a three week period he lost all the skin, first off his hands, and then off his feet. He watched the skin bubble, then he saw it go very dry, and then it just flaked off. He remembered getting out of the shower one morning, drying his feet, and staring down at the little pile of flaked-off skin that had come away with the towel.

A little later on, came the injections, the tablets, and that was before the start of radiation treatment …

Now, two and a half years later, Fred’s driving license, the one that should have been renewed on his birthday, had expired. He remembered that birthday well. He lay on his side in the hospital and the specialist drove that first needle into his buttock … what a birthday present. And now, two and a half years later, he had another special gift from that birthday, an expired driving license.

He thanked the cell-phone salesman, put his expired driving license back in his wallet, and said how sorry he was that he would be unable to purchase the cell-phone at this time.

Early the next morning, Fred went down to the Driving License Renewal Center to discover his fate.

The lady on the counter was most sympathetic. She listened to his story and told him not to worry.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It happens all the time. But I’m afraid you’ll need to take all the tests again, including the road test. That’s the law. I’ll need to see some documentation. A photo ID is preferable. Do you have your birth certificate or your passport with you?”

Fred nodded. He had checked online to see what he needed and had brought all the right documents. He handed the passport over.

The lady behind the counter took the passport, opened it, and looked up at Fred with a sad little smile.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “You are in double trouble. Your passport has expired as well.”

Double Trouble appears in my short story collection Bistro 2,
also available on Amazon.

Bad Hair Day

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Bad Hair Day

          It all started when I rolled over at 4:00 am and heard the grandfather clock in the hall strike three. I double checked my watch with the alarm clock. It was definitely four o’clock. The grandfather clock, older than me, had to be wrong.

         I sat up in bed and blinked. The light of the telephone flashed on and off. Someone had left me a message. The message machine was downstairs along with the grandfather clock. No way I thought I’m not going down there, not even to kill two birds with one stone. I rolled back the other way, stuck my head under the blankets, and tried to go back to sleep. I could sense the flashing light, even if I couldn’t see it and the Westminster Chimes played false notes, sometimes one too short, sometimes one too many. I counted them instead of sheep and couldn’t fall asleep.

         At six o’clock, with the room in darkness save for that ever-flashing light, I struggled out of bed. I had dumped my dirty clothes in the laundry basket and I needed everything clean and fresh. I hobbled to the chest of drawers and pulled out clean socks and pants. Then I went to the clothes closet and took a clean shirt off the hanger. My pants went on more easily than usual and my shirt just slipped over my head. I hauled up my jeans and placed my first sock on the sock machine. It felt a bit awkward, but went on with no real problem. The same with the second sock.

         I removed my pocket flashlight from Teddy’s ear where I keep it overnight and tucked it into my shirt pocket. It fell to the floor. I checked my chest … no pocket. I noticed a bulge on the right hand side where no pocket should be … pocket … but inside the shirt. I reached up to the buttons and they too were inside the shirt. To hell with it I thought I can’t be bothered to change. I slipped my Birkenstocks on and felt a lump under my left foot. The heel had slipped under the arch. My sock machine had failed me. I checked the right foot. I could see the heel all right: it was in the middle of my foot just above the toes.

         By now I needed the en suite bathroom so I hobbled across to it. No flashlight in my non-existent pocket, not wishing to turn on the bathroom lights, I fumbled for a moment or two and then for a lot longer. Why, oh why, was there no Y-front to my Y-front pants? Ours not to reason why … and then before I could control myself it all happened. Clean pants and all.

         So, I turned on the light and checked myself out. Socks upside down? I took them off. Clean pants on back to front and twisted and now slightly more than damp? I took my jeans off and my pants with them. Shirt on inside out? Off with it and anyway, it was wetter than it should be and I knew I hadn’t been sweating that much. I looked at the clothes in their little pile on the floor and I kicked them as hard as I could.

         Of course, I stumbled and only saved myself from being part of the statistics of bathroom accidents by lurching for, and grabbing, the towel rail. It came away from the wall, towel and all. Luckily, I grasped the window ledge and kept my balance so I didn’t fall.

         I got into the shower, washed myself down, climbed out again, toweled myself dry, and climbed back into bed. I stuck the flash light into Teddy’s ear and then I took it out again. In a fit of pique, I hurled Teddy at the still-flashing telephone. Bull’s Eye … or should that be Teddy Bear’s Eye? Anyway, the darn thing stopped flashing and I was able to go back to sleep for about an hour.

         When I woke up the second time, I dressed very carefully. Socks with the heel in the right place, check! Y-fronts with the Y where I need it, check! Shirt the right side out, check! Go downstairs and erase the overnight message, check! Light stopped flashing, check!

         I limped to the IMac and turned it on. Then I opened my documents … I open my documents … I ope … but the error message keeps flashing across the screen. I can’t open my documents because I need a new app. The current app is no longer functional on the new system the IT men installed just yesterday. I abandon the IMac and go to the PC. I open the documents with no problem at all. I start to work on a poem and ERROR … ERROR … ERROR … Norton needs to be uninstalled and re-installed . URGENT … ERROR … ERROR …

         I shut down the PC and walk into the kitchen. The floor is wet and slippery. I think for a moment that, with the willing suspension of disbelief, I am really walking on water? But no, I’m not. Sad reality strikes again: the cat has thrown up and I’m skating on a hairball.

“My gran pappy told me there’d be days like these: ain’t nothing shaking but the leaves on the trees.” Eddy Cochrane.

Bad Hair Day was first published in Bistro. This collection of short fiction was one of three finalists in the 2017 NB book awards (prose). It is available on Amazon.

Insomnia

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Insomnia

Mine was at its worst in Moncton in 2015. I was committed to eight weeks of radiation treatment, and after two weeks, I slept restlessly, if at all. Some of the other residents of the hospice were worse off than me. They got up at all hours of the night and paced the floors downstairs, nursing their wounds, both mental and physical, searching for the peace and the sleep that eluded them. I never went down to join them. My case was different. All cases are slightly different. In spite of this society’s attempts at social engineering, each of us is an individual and we deal with our own problems in our own way.

In my case, the need to pee during the night dominated my sleep. I would sleep in ninety minute cycles, then get up and visit the bathroom, then return to bed for another ninety minutes. Sometimes, I was lucky and the cycles went for two hours, or two and a half hours. I rarely got more than three hours sleep. Upon returning to bed, I would often just lie there, remembering, thinking, musing, hoping, waiting for sleep to come. Often my cycle would reject the sleep I needed, and I just lay there waiting until I was ready to pee again. These were not great times. Luckily I never fell asleep so deeply that I wet the bed. Some did, but I was one of the lucky ones and managed to keep my bedding clean.

During this time, I learned to divide the night into segments. I thought of the segment that ran from 10:00 pm to 3:00 am as an uphill climb with the initial joy of dropping off to sleep tempered by the knowledge that the urge to urinate would soon be upon me. The segment from 3 am to 4 am was the plateau at the top of the hill: I rarely slept during this period and would look frequently at my clock while the minutes ticked by. Sometimes I would turn on the light and just watch the second hand throbbing slowly round. It was like watching sand sift through an hour glass, or water sift through the fingers: uncontrollable, unstoppable, life just slipping away. I had plenty of time to think and much to think about. I relived my life during those eight weeks and a lot of it was unpleasant as I blamed myself for the situation I was in.

At 4 am, the universe shifted, and I was able to relax and slide downhill into the Land of Winking, Blinking, and Nod. With the urges of the earlier segments fading, I would often get two sound sleeps at this stage, one from 4 to 6 and the other from 6-8. If I was lucky, I would sleep from 4-7, or even 4-7:30 am. These were bonus nights and I awoke after a three hour sleep session to find myself greatly refreshed.

Three years after my treatment, many things have returned to normal However, those sleep patterns have not changed that much. I no longer feel the need to urinate at such regular intervals, but I still dip in and out of those same sleep cycles. They have become a part of my system. The easy part, tired, sleeping from bed-time to about 2:30-3:00. The lying awake, anywhere between 2:30 – 4:30, then the relaxing slip into dreamland, for the last part of the night.

The good thing is that my dreams have changed. I am no longer chased by the ghosts of times past who pace through my night, awake and asleep, to prove that my suffering is due to past moments of childhood iniquities discovered in soulful daily examinations  induced by a consciousness of minute sins demanded by the weekly confessional. Now, I dream of many things, of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings, and if the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings. This is much more fun: I find I can now control my dreams, re-think them, and re-write the endings. In my waking periods I do just this, and my dreams adapt and change and become more pleasant as I fall back into sleep. This has turned into a time of great creativity: but that is a tale for another day.

Friends

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Friends

Strange things, friends. What are they exactly? And how do we make them?  In fact, do we make friends, or do we just grow together, like gardens or trees? Birds of a feather, they say, but our feathered friends are flighty and the snow-birds leave in the hard times only to return when the sun comes back. Fair-weather friends, then, and I have known a lot of those.

I turned to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, but all I could find under FRIENDS was a series of articles on TV shows, every episode, every actor, every friendship, every situation, but no discussion of what friendship actually meant. FRIENDSHIP: I looked that word up and the results were much more satisfying. The article ranged from a definition: ‘a mutual attraction among people’ to a series of academic studies about friendship in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and older adults. As we age, so our notions of friendship change. In addition, as we move from place to place, job to job, so our circles of friendship grow old, renew themselves, and gradually fade away. One study shows that in adulthood we rarely have more than two good, true friends. Our acquaintances are many, but our friends are few. Old age brings a different set of equations to bear and loneliness and isolation with the consequent absence of friends, all bring their own problems, including sickness and ill-health.

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Here are some of my closest friends. Rosie is named after Rosie the Elephant in Bristol Zoo. Teddy is the Koala. Basil is the small one on the left with the pink ribbon. Chimney is the little one on the right with the orange skirt. Her name’s Chimney, but I call her Sweep. Don’t ask, I won’t tell. These friends summarize all the needs of friendship: they don’t beat me up, they listen when I talk, they don’t interrupt me, they nod silent agreement to my opinions, and they soak up my tears when I cry. They also keep me warm in bed at night. Well, Rosie and Teddy do anyway. These are not their real names, incidentally. Teddies, like cats, have secret names, and you cannot really call a teddy bear your friend until he or she has revealed that name to you. It may take years for that to happen. The speed or the slowness of the true name’s arrival has nothing to do with the success of the friendship.

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This is Princess Squiffy aka Vomit. She threw up beside my chair again yesterday and I am just not sure if that is a sign of friendship or not. At least she didn’t throw up in my chair, which is what she did last time my beloved was away visiting our daughter in Ottawa. So, how do your friends show their friendship? By sitting in silence and listening? By keeping you warm in bed at night? By throwing up in your chair? By presenting you with hairballs, so carefully formed and all gift-wrapped? I am not sure. I guess I’ll have to go back to Wikipedia and check it all out. In the meantime: here’s a picture of man’s best friend.

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I bet you weren’t expecting that!

Early Bird

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This is the first painting I ever did on canvas. Kingsbrae held their painting session for children in June 2017, and I joined in with the five and six year olds. It was such wonderful fun. They slapped the paint onto the canvas with unbounded joy. It was hard not to be joyful with them. Many of them expressed curiosity about my painting: “What is it?” then later “What are they saying to each other?” The conversation between bird and worm (or whatever it is) was of incredible importance to them. I thought of it as my “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet” moment. Now that’s confidence for you.

My strange accent, slowly developing as mid-Atlantic Welsh, with a touch of West Country English and a dab of Upper Canadian and a touch of New Brunswick also fascinated them. “Where are you from?” “Fredericton.” “No. Where are you really from?” “Island View, New Brunswick.” “No. Where were you from before that?” The questions continued until they had ascertained that indeed, I was not a Canadian, a real Canadian, even though I was in Toronto in 1967 to see the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup. 1967: that’s 51 years ago, and I still support the Maple Leafs and I still have my strange overseas accent. “You’re weird,” they told me. “I’ve been in Canada a lot longer than you,” I told them. “Where did you grow up?” They asked. I silenced them with my answer: “I don’t think I have yet.”

Happy paint-splashers, we dabbed on and on in alternating mirth and silence. Some left the table and walked away. Geoff collected our paintings and left them to dry. Later that day, we hung this painting on the wall in the KIRA dining room. It sat there for several days and nobody noticed it. Alas, a hawk-eyed young lady finally spotted it the first night she came over for dinner and “What is that?” she asked, pointing at my painting. Bold and italics combined cannot reproduce the scorn and disdain rolled up in the single word: that. I remember the butler in a country house in Somerset removing with a pair of tongs the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker from the weekend newspapers left on the doorstep. He, too, was very disdainful.

I also remember the tone of an Old Etonian, well he said he was an Old Etonian and had a rasping, high-pitched nasality that made him sound the part. This jolly goof fellow summed me up at a dinner party one night in Toronto when I first came to Canada: “Oh, you’re Welsh.” The grate of his voice was the scrape of a stick removing a dog turd from a shoe. “No,” I said. “Irish, actually.” I used my broadest Welsh accent. “My family is Irish Catholic not Capel Cymraig / Welsh Chapel. Moore is an Irish name. Llewellyn ad Jones are Welsh names. I am not called Llewellyn or Jones.”

And this reminds me of my father, standing in the elevator in a posh hotel in Bordeaux, when three Irishmen walked in. They scanned him for a moment, and then one said, in the broadest of Southern Irish brogues: “T’is the map of Ireland written all over your face.” “Yes,” says my father in his thick, Welsh accent, “I am Irish. But I was born in England.” And that brings me back to my painting. Is it the early bird that catches the worm or the late worm that gets caught by the bird? And which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Ah, the beauty of children. They accept, often without judgement and often without speculation and I love their readiness to befriend the growing child within the old man as he ages. They may not hold doctorates in philosophy, but by golly they are true philosophers in their finest moments. And then of course, they go to school to learn how to behave … and may the good Lord have mercy on them.

Surrealism

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Surrealism
KIRA Retreat Day 4

Only one of the Kingsbrae alpacas could understand and illustrate what we did today. This one showed us so many things. Luckily we smuggled him into the writing classes and the art classes and nobody was any the wiser. In fact he taught one class himself, and one participant served as translator, moving from Spanish to English with almost as much ease as he taught.

He began this morning with a reading that linked Symbolism to Surrealism to Magical Realism. It was a fascinating piece that nobody in the room, myself included, had ever heard before. So, we began with a concrete, literary example, then moved to a theoretical session. The alpaca began by explaining the difference between a lama, an alpaca, and a vicuña. This was extremely interesting, and something we hadn’t considered before. Luckily, these three creatures, two of them mythical (but which two?), do not have-isms attached to them and were therefore much easier to understand.

The lama began the theoretical session by offering some meditation exercises, very peace-giving.  Then he moved into the nitty-gritty of automatic writing. He followed this with some examples of how, rather than copying the automatic writing, we could select prime elements from it. This selection process allows the writer to mine the subconscious while avoiding some of the repetitious nature of the automated pen on the suppliant page.

In all cases, all participants read from their work and the sharing of subconscious inanities was a great way to break any ice that came with the overnight change in the weather.

After lunch, we had a second writing exercise that stretched into two exercises. These were courtesy of a second lama and entailed describing unknown and known objects. One of the participants was very uncooperative and instead of writing words drew pictures in his notebook. This drew comments of ‘Naughty, naughty,” from the lama and that student was given a time out on the golf cart driven round the lawn by the KIRA equivalent of Mad Max.

In our final session, the art lama appeared. He had carefully plucked all the flowers in Kingsbrae and then eaten them. However, in an incredible act of bravery, the ladies present stole some from his hoard and placed them in water cups. The participants then scattered random dots of paint upon a canvas and agreed that, seen from a distance and in the dark, they looked like flowers on a tarmac road under storm clouds on a thundery night when nothing could be seen.

By now, the lama who had been tied to the fishing weir, oh, I forgot to tell you about that, sorry, had been rescued when the Old Sow let the water out of the Passamaquoddy bath tub (aka low tide). Luckily no harm was done and a delicious, fossilized piece of Turkish Delight was shared by the participants all of whom agreed that nothing like this had ever happened to them before, and I believe them.

Mad Max took everyone for a ride on the Golf Cart and we all chased deer round the Kingsbrae Gardens while singing “I’ve been working on the chain gang” and “For it’s a jolly good yellow.”