Okay

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Okay

So, I felt sorry for the squirrel, I admit that. But I didn’t bring him into the house. Nor did I open the door and let him in. Honest. Maybe it was the cat. She’s been watching him all day. Yes, that’s it. It was the cat. She saw him out there in the cold, felt sorry for him, slipped open the screen door and let him in. I could believe that. But no, I don’t know how those nutshells got there. Of course it wasn’t me. You know I’m allergic to nuts and no, that wasn’t me sneezing. It must have been the cat. Or the squirrel. Have you looked for him? I bet she’s round here somewhere. Why are you always blaming me for everything?

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Evidence? I don’t call that evidence? What are you accusing me of anyway? And no, I didn’t leave that tiny crust of bread in the nut pile. Must have been the squirrel. You know I like bread. Squirrels don’t like bread. I bet she left it there. Or the cat. What do you mean: it couldn’t have been the cat? How do you know she didn’t jump up on the counter and eat all those nuts? You’re just guessing and you want me to look bad. She does jump up on things, I’ve seen her do it. She’s always good when you’re around.  She’s not so good when I’m here on my own. That’s why I call her Vomit. I know she doesn’t throw up on your chair, but she throws up on mine. I bet she organized all this, just so I would get the blame.

What do you mean, you’ve left it up to the jury? What jury? You’re no taking me to court for this. Are you? Seriously? I can’t believe you’d find a jury willing to convict me on the suspicion that it might have been me, not on the sort of circumstantial evidence you’re presenting in those photos. And no, I’m not doing lie-detectors or DNA. The jury’s out there now? I don’t believe you. You can’t bring a jury home, to this house, to convict me of the crime of eating your pistachios. Can you? What do you mean: look out of the window? Oh no! You can’t be serious.

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Sleepless in Island View

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Sleepless in Island View

I thought nothing could be worse than my current financial situation, until I saw the government shut down in the States and realized how little some very special people earned per month. It’s hard to believe that a hard-hearted government deprived them of even that basic amount for five weeks. I still can’t understand the callous remarks and harsh words of the billionaires who determined that scenario of horror and scandal. “I can’t see why they are using food banks.” “For those on furlough, it’s just one big vacation with pay at the end of it.” “They don’t have to worry, they’ll get their money back.”

My own financial situation is very different. I am on a fixed retirement income that is much, much less than what I used to earn, but sufficient to keep me alive and well. No, I cannot afford Caribbean Cruises. Nor can I have long term winter stays in sunny climes, Mexico or Arizona, or some sultry-sunny palm-tree graced island set among golden sands in a ring of sapphire sea. Summer vacations are out and I haven’t taken a plane for five years or a summer vacation for four. More, as the stock exchange wobbles, my savings decrease. As my savings grow less, the price of food rises higher and our heating bills soar. As the cost of living rises higher, I have more difficulty making my income stretch to the end of each month. Inflation doesn’t help: prices go up, but my income stays the same or steadily diminishes. There is no way, short of winning the lottery, that I can replenish it. And yet still I am blessed, for I have reasonable health, food on the table, and enough (according to my financial adviser) to survive for a little while yet.

Sometimes I wake at night and cannot get back to sleep. Shadows visit me and bad dreams stretch just out of reach of my fingers. So many things might go wrong. So much is out of my control. So many people, friends, relations, colleagues, acquaintances are hurting in so many ways. I work with friends who are suffering with cancer. I stand by friends who are going through the pangs of divorce and separation. I witness the suffering of the survivor in long term marriages when one of the partners fails. These things gnaw away at the central roots of my being. What if …? I say and the shadows gather closer, chattering like sparrows and cawing like rooks and ravens.

Fear: so easy to sow, so hard to put the seeds back into the bag, especially when they have rooted.

I am lucky. I sleep with two Teddy Bears. One, the small one, bears the name of Ted. The other is called Hairy Fred. Ted is an old battered bear. He traveled with me when I used to travel and is a well-bred voyager. Hairy Fred is a more recent acquisition. A lady made him from an old fur coat and yes, he is very hairy. Ted wears a flashlight in his one ear and a clothes peg in the other. Don’t ask: don’t tell. When the night grows dark and a waning gibbous moon sweeps stars from the sky, these two teddies bring warmth and comfort. Beside my bed, Paddington Bear stands on guard. He can stay there. I am not having him in bed with his yellow Wellingtons and his Duffle coat. Besides which he is a rather hard teddy and not a soft one. Blueberry, Rose, and Pierre Bear sit on the cabinet. waiting their turn. When it gets cold and the north wind howls like a wanton wolf, one of them will get the invite and then we’ll have the perfect Three Bear or Four Bear or Five Bear Night. Until then, I may continue sleepless, in Island View.

Even tho it was Xmas

 

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Even though it was Christmas

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 a free anti-biotic that would free his body from the pneumonia that was free to leave when it’s 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 felt free to leave 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 dots on the wall “one, two, three…” and “seventy five thousand, one hundred and forty three,” 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 seven-oh-three, and strikes the third dot at seven fifty-three … and goes round the wall thirty-three dots to the minute; and leaves that third dot from the right at a quarter past three …” 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 when I went there to visit him 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.

Neither was I. Even though it was Christmas.

Even though it was Christmas
Voice Recording

 

 

This story is dedicated to all who spend time alone this Christmas, be they street people, homeless, or merely forgotten and neglected. Please consider sharing this story. And if you know someone who is alone at this time of the year, please phone them or visit them.

 

Cricket

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Cricket

            Street cricket. Played on ancient, cracked tarmac. The wicket: three sticks whitewashed on to the high stone wall of the cul-de-sac where my grandmother lived. It backed onto the wall that cut us off from the railway yards that led into High Street Station. That wall was the boundary, as were the neighbor’s front yards. Six and out if you hooked the cricket ball and hit it behind the wicket and over the railway wall. And you had to retrieve that ball. Lost ball stopped play and play stopped until you went across the bombed buildings at square leg, for a right-handed batsman, climbed the railway wall at its lowest spot, looked down at the rail yards forty feet below, and shouted until someone emerged from a workman’s hut to find the ball and threw it back.

            No worker … no ball … no game. Then you had to run out of your street, down the main road, up the hill for two streets, beg permission at the locked railyard iron gates: “Please, mister, can I get my ball?” Then run all the way back to where the waiting cricketers hung over your own street wall, by those bombed buildings, shouting and cheering. Search for the ball among shiny rails, shunting rails, rusty rails, dandelions, thistles, and nettles. Avoid the occasional shunting engine, with the driver leaning out of the cab and screaming warnings as the steam hisses out from the engine, brakes squeal, and wheels slowly clack on crossing tracks. Find the ball. Try unsuccessfully to throw it back over the wall. Try again. No good. Wall too high. Carry ball back to iron gates. Thank gateman politely so you can come back next time. Return ball to game. Game continues, rain or shine. Unless it’s real rain. The pissing down type. If so, run for nearest house and shelter by fire in kitchen.

            Other rules. Six and out over the railway wall. Two runs and fetch the ball yourself if you hit it into the bomb buildings at square leg, next to that railway wall. No fielders there. Too many loose bricks and too much scattered debris. Fragile walls still wobble or crumble warning you of cellars that might open up. Low walls that might collapse. You score four and out if you hit the ball into neighbor’s front yard. Some neighbors are nice and don’t mind. But watch out for the old witch whose fenced off garden is guarded by a gate.  If you hit her window, even with a tennis ball, she’ll be out quick as a flash, and steal your ball or stick a knitting needle in it, old spoil-sport. Otherwise, it’s single batsmen. You run your runs and walk back from singles. One hand one bounce, and tip and run once you’ve scored twenty. Much more difficult to stay in and everyone gets a chance to bat. One hand off the wall if you don’t clear it for a six and out. Dog stops play if your fox terrier gets the ball and runs around in circles, chasing its tail, with the ball getting soggy in his mouth. Damned dog. Damn difficult to catch. Lost ball stops match if dog runs back into the house and gives the ball you stole in secret back to your gran who was saving it for tennis.

            Cricket, in those days, was civilization. It had survived the bombing raids that missed the railway yards and bombed the bomb buildings. It had survived the machine-gun fire from the fighter-bombers that had strafed the street leaving bullet-holes, still unrepaired, in walls and shattering now-mended windows. It gave us a sense of rule and law, for the rules were strict and nobody broke them and stealing runs, touch and go, in tip and run was a skill and never a crime.

            Cricket: a small, bright window on the back-street where I lived, a window filled with happiness and light, even when it’s over the wall and six and out, or the dog runs away with the tennis ball, or the ball vanishes down a mysterious rabbit-hole in the bomb buildings and slides down to someone’s ruined cellar.

            Game’s over. The real Test Match is on, England versus Australia, though we live in Wales. The one primitive, tiny black-and-white tv screen in the street lights up with flickering figures and we sit around on the floor watching real men playing the real game on a sunny field in another world, the world, the world of black and white that many of us, us backstreet children from a ruined neighborhood, will never be allowed to know or see.

Show Don’t Tell

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A barber shop quartet, four of them, singing in unison, spring birds at a feeder, early morning sparrows at a jug of milk, abandoned by the milkman on the doorstep.

Except they were none of that. How could they be? They were four brothers, torn apart at birth. They never knew each other, never sang together, never embraced each other, never held each other in their arms. How could they have done so? The first one was stillborn. The second one survived for a while, but struggled to live, succumbed, and drifted away. The third one lived, marked for life by the scars on his forehead where they dragged him from the womb. The fourth one stopped struggling in the seventh month, but the mother carried him to term, even though she knew he was dead.

She carried them, blessed them, gave them all names, and buried three of them. They were her babies and she never got over their loss. Oh, she survived physically, but mentally she was destroyed.

The priests wanted to know what sins she had committed for God to be so angry with her that He destroyed the fruit of her womb. She had no answer. Some refused to bless her. Others ignored her completely. A few used her sorrows to drag the survivor into the tangled web of the church. “He has been spared. He will be one of us,” they said, and rejoiced at the potential strengthening of their celibate ranks.

Three of her children were ever before her. But the fourth lodged like an albatross on her shoulders and hung like a crucifix round her neck. She could never see him clearly. How could she? He was rarely before her eyes, never in the range of her sight. She tried to mold him like putty, but like water or sand, he slipped through her fingers.

Her husband hated him. Was he the father? It’s a wise man knows his father, or his son. Yet they looked alike. But no, they never thought alike, or walked alike. Nor moved in the same circles.

The father, a gambler, had borrowed a large sum of money and placed it with a bookie, betting that this third son would never live and that his death would make his father’s fortune, if the child was indeed a product of the seed his father deposited in his wife’s child bank.

The father lost his bet. The son lived. The father hated him every day of his life.  A rich man he would have been, if … if only … and the scars of that lost bet raged ragged on his face as the father cursed the doctor who had pulled his  son, if he was his son, alive and struggling from the womb.

If he was his son … a strong man, magnificently muscled , it was not his fault, never his fault, it was the fault of that worthless woman, the woman who had carried his seed, if it was his seed, the woman who carried his other three sons, and never brought them alive into this world …

The ostrich sees danger, and buries his head in the sand. The son sees danger and learns to run. The wife sees danger and  learns to suffer, to be beaten, to be abused, to be the victim because yes, she is filled with guilt, and how could it be otherwise, when the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak, so weak that it cannot give birth and eventually takes to the black holes of victimization, of alcoholism, and eventually of oblivion.

And the son learned to hide, to make himself invisible, never to be there, never to accept responsibility, never to sit at the desk when the buck was about to stop anywhere nearby, never to be blamed … never to turn down the solace to be found in the darkest depths of those same bottles that finally destroyed the woman he loved, who was also his mother.

Instructor’s Comments:

Rewrite.
Next time, show don’t tell.
Minimally acceptable.

D

 

 

 

SNAFU 2

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SNAFU 2

            I drive to the hospital through falling snow. No wheel-chair parking when I get there. Damn. Not a walking-stick person hobbling towards a car in a wheel-chair space and nobody sitting in a car, exercising the engine, reverse lights glowing. That means  a normal parking spot. Unless I drive round again and take a second look. I do just that. SFA. Nothing doing. The usual SNAFU.

            I drive to the normal person’s lot, stop at the gate, lower the window, stick my arm out, but I can’t reach the button that will give me a ticket and raise the barrier. Behind me, the impatient parkers are a nose away from my rear bumper. Nothing doing. Arms too short. I open the door. Seat belt holds me back. Someone toots. I undo the seat belt. Lean out. Push button. Take ticket. Ticket falls onto ground. The gate opens. I get out of car. Slip on ice. Fall to knees. Cling on to car door with one hand. Grab for ticket with other. More people toot. I give them a one finger salute. Fall back into car. Finally drive through gate.

“Round and round and round I goes.
Where will I park? No one knows.”

            Vast car park. Not a parking spot in sight. On the third circuit, someone un-parks right in front of me. I drive straight in to the vacated spot. Too fast. Car skids on ice. Oh no! Close, but no contact. Thank God. I’ve now got a spot about 100 metres from the hospital entrance. 100 metres. I used to run that distance in 10.07 seconds. With snow underfoot, even with my stick, I’ll be lucky to walk it in under five minutes. Drat. I am already late for my appointment.

            I hobble to the foot of the steps and arrive there just as two large women, faces covered and dressed in voluminous head to foot robes start to walk down. They are arm in arm and enormous. One has a hand on the right-hand rail, the other a hand on the left. Together they take up the whole stairway. I wait for them to descend the twelve steps. They start to descend, then stop three steps from the bottom and engage in animated conversation. “He also serves who only stands and waits.” And waits. And waits. When they finish talking, they descend the final steps and the one on the right swings her arm and shoulder, nearly knocking me down. I lurch forward, grab the hand-rail to save myself from falling, and move slowly upwards. I hold the rail in my left hand, my stick in my right, and climb one step at a time, always the right leg first. Heart thumps in chest. Arteries surge. My head pounds. 12-11-10 … 3-2-1 …zero. I am at the top. I’ve made it.

            I start to cross the road. Half-ton hell bent to park in now vacant wheel-chair spot nearly runs me over. I recoil. Start to fall. Get a grip with my stick. Lurch a little. And salute the driver. He doesn’t even turn his head. Bastard. Balance regained, I get to the hospital door. Young boy holds it open for me. “Thank you,” I say. “You’re welcome, grandpa,” he smiles. I hobble down the hall. Punch a simpler machine to get my number. Wayne Gretzky. Number 99. My luck has changed. The board shows #98. I am next.

            Humorless, the lady who calls my number. Bad-tempered. Cold her little cabin. “Hello, bonjour,” she says and I reply in French. Grim glance. Speaks to me in English. Goes through the gears. “Have you fasted?” “No.” “Why not?” “They didn’t tell me to.” It’s here on the computer,” she stabs the screen with an angry digit. “It wasn’t on my piece of paper.” She checks the paper, sniffs, and tut-tuts. “You should have fasted.” My middle finger itches. “Can you pee in a bottle?” “I can try.” “Try hard.” “Wouldn’t it be better if I tried soft?” I get vicious, filthy look. “None of that or I’ll call the supervisor.” I read out loud the notice on her desk: Do not place samples on counter. “What do you think I am?” I ask. “A travelling salesman?” “Eh? What’s that?” “Nothing,” I mutter. She rumbles round, produces the usual plastic bottle and a see-through bag. “We need a sample. You know how to take a urine test?” “Of course I do, I studied all last night, didn’t I?” She grunts. I grunt back. I pick up my papers and my little gifts. And off I go to perform pee-pee.

            The stalls are empty. I walk right into one. Hang stick on door. Free hands. Open bottle. Strain. Nothing. Man comes in whistling and washes hands. Running water. Miraculous. Pee-pee flows. Bottle overflows and I soak hands and fly. Shit. Well at least I don’t have to perform that trick. Yet. No plastic potty and accouterments this time round. I grab stick. Move to the washbasin. Wash hands. Go to door. Press the automatic door button. The door doesn’t open. I pull again, harder. Nothing. I hang my stick and my bottle on the automatic door button and pull the door with both hands …

“Doors marked ‘Pull’ reduce the speed,
of those who ‘Push’ before they read.”

            The man on the other side of the door stops pulling and pushes hard, very hard, just as I pull, hard, very hard. Door flies open. I topple over backwards, hit my head on the floor, and see multiple stars. I have just enough time to wish I’d brought my plastic potty before my world turns smelly, then black.

On The Outside Looking In

 

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Billy was walking home on his own. As usual. The church party was awful. As usual. Lots of trumped up noise and artificial gaiety.

The priest had made the boys sit in a circle on the floor, legs crossed. Then he put a bar of chocolate in the middle of the circle. He walked around the group and whispered the name of an animal secretly, he loved secrets, to each one.  Then he explained the game to them.

“I cannot remember what animal name I bequeathed to each boy,” he said, staring at them, his eyes golden, like a fierce eagle’s, beneath bushy black eye-brows. “I will say the name of an animal until one of you, whoever it happens to be, hears his own secret animal name. When you hear that secret name, you must grab the chocolate bar before anyone else can get it. Understood?”

The boys all nodded and the mums and dads who had brought them to the party smiled in anticipation.

“Are you ready?” He watched the boys as they nodded and shouted “Alligator!”

Nobody moved.

“Elephant!” The boys shuffled forward, like inch worms, hands twitching, fingers flexing and grasping.

“Tiger!” A sigh from the boys, some of whom were already licking their lips.

“Lion!” One boy moved, but the priest shooed him away. “Sit down. I didn’t give the name lion to anyone.”

“M-m-mouse!” The boys heaved, a sea-wave about to crest and break.

“I do love this game,” said the priest to the parents. “And so do the boys, don’t you boys?”

“Yes father …”

“Monkey!” All the boys moved as one. Some crawled, some dived, some leaped to their feet and ran. A surging heap of boys writhed on the floor as the chocolate bar was torn apart and the long awaited fights ensued.

All the boys moved, except one. Billy just sat there.

“I said ‘Monkey’, Billy,” the priest frowned at the boy.

Billy nodded.

“When I say ‘Monkey’, you join in with the other boys and fight for the chocolate bar.”

Billy nodded again.

“Go now and have some fun. Join in the game.”

Billy shook his head.

“Why not, Billy?”

“It’s a stupid game. I won’t play it. I want to go home.” Billy stood up and walked out of the church. He turned at the door and saw the priest glaring at him while a mound of boys continued to scrummage on the floor.

As Billy walked, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a Merry Christmas, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets. Billy turned up the collar of his coat and, bowing his head, stuffed his hands into his pockets. He turned the corner onto the last street before his own and stopped.

A house. With a window lit up in the gathering dark. He drew closer, pressed his nose against the window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, Billy’s heart warmed up. Then he thought of his own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. A snowflake settled on Billy’s heart and refused to melt.

When he got home, the house stood cold and empty. His parents were at work and the fire had gone out. Nothing was ready for Christmas. Billy sat at the table, took out his colouring book and began to draw the cartoon you see at the top of this page.

When his mother came home, he showed her his drawing.

“Very nice,” she said, barely glancing at it.

“But mum, you haven’t really looked.”

Billy’s mother stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats and the candles, the decorations and the presents. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside in the snow,  peering in through the window.