Hair of the Dog

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Hair of the Dog

I awoke to the dog’s tongue licking my hand. When I moved, he jumped off the bed, ran to the door, turned and barked. The hall clock chimed six times, early for me to get up, but I did because I needed a pee. The dog followed me into the bathroom, whimpering. Street noises seemed louder than usual. The dog started barking again and a voice called out from the hall below.
“Anyone home?”
The dog clattered down the stairs woofing wildly. Still in my pajamas, I looked over the balustrade to see the milkman standing below.
“Hello,” he said. “The door was open and I just dropped in to see if everything was all right. Where’s your mother?”
“In bed, asleep,” I dug with my index finger at the sleepy crackling gathered in the corner of my eye.
“Not if I know her,” the milkman said. “She’s run off again and taken a bottle with her. You’d better get dressed.”
I scowled at the milkman, went back upstairs, and looked in my mother’s bedroom. Her red flannel nightie lay in a heap on the floor by the unmade bed, with its rumpled sheets and pillows all higgledy-piggledy. The bed felt cold beneath my fingertips and the clothes she had worn the day before had gone.
“I’ll get dressed,” I shouted. “I’ll just be a moment.”
“Sure,” the reply floated up the staircase.
“You’re right,” I said to the milkman as I met him at the bottom of the stairs. “She’s gone.” The first rays of sunshine touched the stained-glass windows above the door, and fragmented colors danced with dust motes, turning the milkman’s white uniform into a harlequin suit of lights.
“Not the first time she’s gone AWOL,” the milkman winked at me.  “She’s got quite the reputation round here. You’d better go out and find her. I bet she’s in the park with the others. That’s where she goes when the mood takes her. I see her sometimes when I’m in the milk float. I’d take the dog, if I were you. He’ll find her. He usually does.”
The dog whimpered as we got to the end of the drive. I checked my watch: 6:30 AM. The early sun slowly sliced through the morning’s damp creating rainbows in the mist. I shivered.  The milkman waggled his fingers in a silent good-bye and his electric milk float hummed then lurched out into the street with a clinking of bottles.

I stood at the roundabout at the corner and didn’t know which way to go.
“Find mum,” I said and patted the dog’s head. He wagged his tail, put his nose down, turned right, and set off down the main road towards the city center.
Shadows danced on the lower ironwork of the locked park gates. A child’s swing creaked gently in the breeze. The dog sniffed at the gates, lifted his leg on them, gave them a generous squirt, then put down his nose and tugged at the leash.
I followed the dog as he went past the gates and pulled me towards a hole in the hedge, just large enough to squeeze through. The dog whined with excitement and pawed at the gap. I followed pushing aside the bushes.
The dog whined again and tugged me towards a sort of mound that lay on the nearest park bench. Newspapers offered scant warmth to the body that they covered. A hand hung down and the dog licked it frantically. I touched that hand and the dog’s lick joined us in an unholy matrimony. Beside the sleeping figure on the bench, an inch or two of what appeared to be whisky huddled at the bottom of a forty-ounce bottle. Other empty bottles lay on the wet grass, like spent cartridges, some of them pointing at the woman’s head.
Shuffling feet had worn down the grass where the woman lay. I saw traces of blood on bandages and empty syringes. Some needles had been wiped on the pair of torn pink panties that peeped out of the grass.
The dog continued licking at the woman’s hand then stopped, pointed his nose at the sky and let out a single, piercing howl.
I shook my mother’s shoulder.
“Mum, Mum,” I called, but she didn’t move. She was locked in a land where I dared not follow her. I took out my cell phone and called the police.

They arrived with a park attendant who opened the gates and let their car in. They took one look at my mum and called for an ambulance. When it got there, the ambulance men examined my mum, said she was alive, put her on a stretcher, and carried her to the ambulance. I told them I wanted to accompany my mum to the hospital.
“Not with that dog, you don’t,” the driver replied. He got in, started the engine, turned on the siren, and pulled away.

I took the dog home, called for a taxi, and it took me to the hospital. When I got to the room in which they had caged her, she was unconscious. She never woke up.
I buried what was left of my mum ten days later, after the autopsy.

 

Free

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Free
Flash Fiction

            I am as free as my father was free. He was free to walk on his walker, as far as he could go down the street. Free to walk in the wind and the rain. Free to sit on his neighbor’s wall when his legs and back got tired. Free to sit there, although it was raining, until he had recovered his strength and energy. Free to get soaked so badly that he caught a cold. And the cold was free to turn into bronchitis and the bronchitis was free to turn into pneumonia and the pneumonia was free to perform its assassin’s work as it tried to kill him. But my father was still free and strong enough to call the doctor and the doctor was free enough to call at the house and visit my father and write him a prescription for an anti-biotic that would free his body from the pneumonia that was free to leave when its time was up and it felt ready to go. Pneumonia, the old man’s friend, they used to call it, sitting there, in my father’s lungs, muttering away to him, day after day, louder at night, and my father slowly getting stronger and the pneumonia growing weaker until one day it left and freed my father from his immediate ills. Then my father was free to get up or to stay in bed. Being a free man, he chose to stay in bed all day and to listen to the radio and to read a book and when he got bored with reading he just lay there and counted the lines on the wall “one, two, three…” and “one hundred and seventy five” he told me one day when I was free to visit him, “though I have lost count once or twice and have had to start again from the very beginning. And the sun gets up at 7:03, and strikes the third line at 7:53 … and goes around the wall 33 lines a minute; and leaves that third line from the right at a 3:15 …” And there he stayed, day after day. But he was free. And sometimes the home help came and sometimes she didn’t, for she too was as free as the birds in the garden. And sometimes she remembered to buy him some food and sometimes she didn’t. And she was free to come and go, free to remember or forget. And my father was free to mumble or complain or grumble, though he rarely did. And he was free to eat, so long as there was food in the house. But I went there I often saw that the cupboard was bare and my father had neither milk, nor eggs, nor bread nor cereal, nor tea nor butter. And all those people, those acquaintances, those friends, they too were as free as the sea-gulls in the sky. But to find the time to set my father free from the hunger and thirst he seemed predestined to freely suffer, they were never free enough for that, not even at Christmas.
Neither was I.

Friday is Fish …

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Friday is Fish

There was nobody at the fish stall. I stood and waited. Then another customer, a young lady, arrived. We stood and talked together.
“Is nobody serving?” she asked.
“Nope,” I said. “Ain’t seen nobody.”
“Maybe we should ask?”
“Ask away. Won’t do any good.”
“Excuse me, young man …” a store assistant rushed past, paying no attention. I stood there playing my invisible violin.
“Excuse me, miss, is anyone …” same result, store assistant vanished into the distance.
“What’s that, over there?” I pointed. The young girl turned to look, and as she did, I placed finger and thumb between my lips and let out a shrill, piercing whistle. The young lady turned to look at me, half smiling, half shocked.
“Was that you?” I asked her and she started to laugh.
Within seconds three store assistants, two men and a woman, came over at a canter.
“You two go,” the woman assistant said. “I can look after this.” She put on a pair of plastic gloves.
“Do you have any halibut cut?” I asked her. “Or do you have to slice the big one?” I pointed to the huge halibut that lay stone cold dead, trying to hide in the ice cubes. The assistant ignored me and turned to the young lady.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“He’s first,” the young lady pointed at me and the assistant scowled as I repeated my question.
“There is some on the fish counter waiting to be cut. How much do you want?”
“About half a pound,” I answered. “Please.”
“About this thick?” She gestured with forefinger and thumb.
“Looks good.”
She walked behind the fish counter, picked up a knife and started to hack. It looked as though nothing was happening.
“This knife is dull,” she announced. “Excuse me I’ll just be a moment. I’ll go get another one,” she hurried off in the direction of the meat counter.
“A dull knife?” the young lady raised her right eyebrow and lowered her left one.
“Can’t say I’ve ever met an intelligent knife,” I smiled back.
The assistant came back a minute later brandishing an even larger knife. She again attacked the halibut, once more with no visible effect. She muttered something and rushed off again, returning with a large hammer. She held the knife in one hand and started banging downwards on the back of the blade with the hammer that she held in the other.
“Are you actually going to eat that?” The young lady looked worried.
“Not the bits she’s hitting with a hammer,” I said.
“I’m off. They must have some frozen fish somewhere. I’ll go find it.”
Five minutes, the assistant held up a halibut steak, bone in.
“I’ll take it,” I said. “Thank you so much. I’m sorry to have put you to all that trouble.”

When I arrived home my beloved met me at the door.
“Okay,” she said. “What happened?”
“I’ve brought you a lovely bit of halibut,” I said.
“That’s great. Now come in, dear and tell me all about it.”
So I did.

Bristol Temple Meads

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Bristol Temple Meads

Bristol Temple Meads

“Temple Meads, Temple Meads.”
Passengers on the platform shuffle
rearrange themselves to get closer
to opening carriage doors. Steam
hisses out from the engine in great
white and grey clouds. He gets out
asks a porter, “Is this Bristol Central?”
“No, son. This is Temple Meads.”
The young boy gets back on the train.

Next stop, Bath. “Is this Bristol?”
“No, son. This is Bath not Bristol.
You should have got off at the last stop.
You’ve over-run your ticket mate.
There’s a fine for that and you’ll have
to buy a new one to get back to Bristol.”

“But I asked them if it was Bristol Central
and they told me it wasn’t.” “Playing silly
buggers they was, son. Bristol Temple
Meads is Bristol Central, well, sort of.
And you’ll have to change platforms.
Go to the ticket office, over there, tell them
what happened, and maybe, just maybe,
they’ll let you take the next train for free.”

Commentary: Funny place, Bristol Temple Meads. I heard lots of funny things, all told in a West Country accent, or fluent Bristolese, while I was passing through there. Loved confusing passengers, they did, but more about that later. As for accents, well, the West Country accent and the Bristol accent are very different, but neither go well into prose, “coz, thee’ll never git a gurt big ‘ead like thine in a tiny l’il ‘at like this.” Thank you, the Wurzels. And as for reading and writing accents, click here.

Bristol Temple Meads
[Prose]

“Temple Meads, Temple Meads.”
The train slows, comes to a halt with a hissing of steam and a shuddering of brakes. Passengers waiting on the platform shuffle towards the edge of the platform, re-arranging themselves to get closer to opening carriage doors.

A young boy, not yet a teenager, gets out carrying his grand-father’s overlarge suitcase in his hand.
“Is this Bristol Central?” he asks a porter.
“No, son. This is Bristol Temple Meads.”
The young boy gets back on the train along with the other Bristol passengers who are travelling to Bath.

When he gets there, the young boy gets out of the train and again approaches a porter. “Is this Bristol?”
“No, son. This is Bath not Bristol. If you wanted to go to Bristol, you should have got off at the last stop.”
“But I asked if it was Bristol Central, and the porter told me it wasn’t. So I got back on the train.”
“Playing silly buggers he was, son. They’re like that in Bristle. Bristol Temple Meads is Bristol Central, well, sort of. He should have told you that.”
“What can I do now?”
“Well, you’ve over-run your ticket, mate. You’ll have to pay extra for coming on to Bath. And you’ll need a ticket to get back to Bristol. But it’s Temple Meads, mind. Don’t let them fool you again.”
“I won’t.”
“And you’ll have to change platforms. Tell you what, just go to the ticket office, over there, tell them what happened, just like you told me, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll take pity on you and let you take the next train for free.”

A question: Is the piece better in poetry or prose? Each version serves a different purpose, but I think the narrative rules. I’ll welcome any opinions you care to share.

 

A Three Year Old Girl

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A Three-Year Old Girl
McAdam Railway Station #3

“I often see her, walking around,
standing in a doorway,
looking into a room.

She’s very curious
but never says a word.
Doesn’t ask questions.

She’s not scary at all,
like some of the others.

There are rooms here
where people won’t go
if they’re alone.

But they mean no harm,
these broken ghosts.

They’re lost, nowhere
else to go, I guess.
Just missed the last train”

Comment: Another story from Elsie, who says she often sees this young child in one room or another. The station is indeed filled with many memories and you can feel warm and cold presences throughout the building. Some rooms are filled with foreboding, while others are warm and comforting. Many old buildings have these qualities as do the old iron age walled camps scattered around the south of England. Maiden Castle and Badbury Rings spring to mind, as do Westbury White Horse, Corfe Castle and parts of Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. Do I believe in ghosts? I echo the words of my mentor and fellow-countryman, Dylan Thomas: “I’d be a fool if I didn’t.”

Revision

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Revision
“We are not writers, we are re-writers.” I do not remember who said this, but it is extremely well said. We write, yes. But then we rewrite, sometimes obsessively, again and again. But how does that rewriting process take shape? Why do we rewrite? How do we rewrite? And what do we do when we re-write? These are all vital questions.

Mechanical revisions and rewrites
This, for me, is the search for typos, punctuation errors, mis-spellings, grammar corrections, that sort of thing. Yes, we can rely on a (reliable?) editor and a not so reliable spell-check, but the editor usually costs money. Or we can learn to do it ourselves, which is what I recommend very strongly.

Grammatical revisions and expression checks
These are usually a little more difficult to deal with. Do the verb tenses check out? Are subject and verb clearly delineated? Does the wording make sense, not just to us, but to the outside reader? A second pair of eyes is always useful at this point. Also, a sense of distance from the text is useful. Leave it a day (or two) and come back to it later when he creative rush has fled the system.

Structural revisions 1
Whenever we do a structural revision, it is essential to check that the revision ties in with the rest of the piece and that we maintain consistency throughout. A simple example: I decide, on page 77 of my novel, to change my main character’s name from Suzie to Winnie. Clearly, her name has to be consistent, both backwards (1-77) and forwards (77 onwards). While this is obvious, other changes, taste, color of hair, color of eyes, height, weight, tv program preference, may not be so easy to check and double-check. But it must be done.

Structural Revisions 2
This is where we must pay attention to the vision in the re-vision. We must ask the question, what does the poem / story / chapter / text want to say? What is it actually about? Often, in the flush of creation, we write words (actions, thoughts, emotions) on the page and they flow like water from a fountain. It’s a wonderful feeling. Later, during the re-vision process, we must ask ourselves, again, deep down, what do these words mean, what are they trying to say? This is actually a slightly different question from what am “I” trying to say?
The speaking / writing voice may want to say something, but the words (and characters and actions) themselves may want to say something else. Now we are faced with a dilemma: do we write what we want to say or do we follow the intricate word-path growing from what we have written? As a beginning writer, I did the former. As a more mature (and I hope, a slightly better writer) I now do the latter.
The result is often a piece that is radically different from it’s starting point. When you listen to what the story / poem / text / characters etc are telling you and when you follow words and characters, then structure changes, paragraphs switch places, thoughts move around, expressions change. We are no longer forcing words into our meanings, we let the meanings grow out of the words. This is particularly important in short story telling and the writing of poetry. It is vitally important to the novel where any inconsistency must have a relevance to the development of action, plot and character. It is also a totally different approach to the meaning of re-vision.

Summary
I realize many writers may have difficulty accepting these points. Those trained originally in the academic world, in particular, will respond negatively to the idea of the words ‘not being forced into the correct academic shape by the quasi-omnipotent academic mind’ aka Constable Thesis Editor. However, the more creative a writer is, the more that writer will respond to the creativity that lies within both the creator and the creation that has appeared on the page and, as writers, we must never lose sight of that creative act, for it is one of the most truly wonderful things that we can do.

Doing This for Mom

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Doing This For Mom

“I have to go pee,” Cindy got off the long-distance bus when it pulled into the lay-by on the way to Heathrow Airport airport, broke away from her mother and her grandfather, and ran to the washroom.

“What’s up with her, Tiggy?”

“I don’t know, dad. She just wants to go pee, I guess.”

“You shouldn’t let her go in there alone. Go in with her. Go on. But wait, look what I’ve got for you,” he pulled a wad of fifty pound bills out of his pocket, licked his thumb, and slowly counted them. “Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Here: one thousand pound. Cash.”

“That’s wonderful dad. You’re very generous, but I can’t take our money. Put it back in your pocket.”

“I know things aren’t going that well for you, now you’re on your own. Take the money.” He waved the cash at Tiggy, but she pushed his hand away.

“No dad. I can’t take your money. You need it more than we do. We’ll survive.”

“Not on your own, you won’t. Not without help. Here, take it.”

“Listen, dad: I’ve seen how you are living. Hand to mouth. Why don’t you sell the car? You know you can’t drive anymore. You’ll save on the insurance. Sell now, while it’s still working. Throw in a thousand pound sterling and you can have taxis galore for the next couple of years. You can shop when you want. You won’t have to rely on unreliable friends …” Tiggy watched a tear squeeze out of her father’s left eye and slide down his cheek. “Don’t cry, dad. You know I’m right.”

“I’m not crying,” he wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. “Some dust blew into my eye. Look, there’s Cindy. Take the money for Cindy. Please. And tell her to sit beside me on the bus.”

“I’ll ask her if she wants to sit beside you,” Tiggy hesitated. “But I won’t tell her. You can’t buy her affection with money, dad. It takes more than cash to rebuild a broken family. I thought you knew that.”

“Hold this,” Tiggy’s dad thrust the money at her. “I’ve got to go to the washroom. I don’t want to go in there carrying this,” leaning heavily on his stick, he limped towards Cindy as she emerged from the rest area, but she skipped quickly away and out of his reach

“Cindy,” Tiggy grasped her daughter’s arm. “When we get back on the bus, will you sit by your grandfather?”

“No,” Cindy’s face was grey, set in stone. Her nose was a hawk’s beak, fierce in her rejection.

“Why not?” Tiggy asked.

“Grampy doesn’t love me, he hates me,” Cindy ground her teeth. “He never wants me back in the house again. He told me so. That day he banged on my bedroom door. He hates me. And I hate him too,” Cindy’s chest heaved and her breath came faster. “He was always trying to open the bathroom door when I was in the shower, and he peeped at me through the keyhole …” Cindy gulped. “He was always rattling the bedroom door and trying to get in.”

“But Cindy, why did you never tell me about this?”

“I was frightened. He threatened to beat me. Then he said he’d give me money if I was good. Is that the money?” Cindy looked down at the dollars in Tiggys’ hand. “I don’t want it.  Give it back to him. Or throw it away.”

Tiggy strode towards her father hen he returned. “It’s blood money,” she said. “Cindy’s told me everything. You’re just laundering your soul.”

The driver tooted his horn and the passengers returned to the bus. Cindy got on first and took her seat by the window. Tiggy followed her and sat beside her. Tiggy’s father, hesitated, hauled himself in, then slumped by the window in the seat on the other side of the aisle. They all gazed out of their respective windows as the bus pulled away.

About half an hour later, Tiggy needed the washroom. She picked up her purse and headed to the back of the bus. As soon as she left, her father got up and lurched into the seat next to Cindy.

“Cindy,” he tapped her on the shoulder.

“Leave me alone,” she stared out of the widow.

“Cindy, you must listen to me. Cindy, your mother’s ill. She needs an operation.”

Cindy sat, a silent stone. Then: “An operation? How do you know?

“She told me.”

“She didn’t tell me.”

“She thought you were too young to know. Families don’t tell everything, you know. Look, take this money. Not for you, for her. Keep it a secret. Give it to her when you’re on the plane. It’ll help pay the fees. Take it now. While she’s gone. I won’t offer again.”

“You hurt me, grandpa.”

“You hurt me too.”

“You were always watching me.”

“I wanted to see you. I’ve only seen you twice in ten years. What did you expect me to do.”

“Be nice.”

“I did my best.”

“It wasn’t very good.”

“It’s the medicine. I get moods.”

“Is that what will happen to mom?”

“It might. But money for the operation will put everything right. Here,” he put the money in Cindy’s lap. “Sorry.”

“You should have said so before.”

“Can we be friends?”

“No. Now go.”

“Look after your mom,” The old man struggled to his feet and stumbled back to his seat.

When Tiggy returned from the washroom, she looked for her daughter and saw her on the other side of the aisle, next to her grandfather. They were both sitting upright, very stiff, not touching, staring straight ahead into the distance. Tears shone in Cindy’s eyes and a wad of bright new fifty-pound notes bills stuck out of the pocket of her jeans. Tiggy saw her daughter’s jaws clench and un-clench but she didn’t  hear the half-swallowed, mumbled words.

“I’m only doing this for mom.”

Commentary: An old story revived and revised. Let me know if you like it.