The end is just the start

February 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

On mornings like this it’s a struggle to get out of the door: the warmth of the duvet, the extra hour’s sleep he could borrow from the night. His wife soft and pliant before she dons her armour.

He’s not given himself chance to give in, though. It’s the only way.

His sleepy legs are carrying him down the field and the steam of his breath hangs in the crisp air. The ground is dusted with a cold hard sugar-frost. He is the only thing moving through this scene.

He wouldn’t have seen it if he didn’t have to stop at the field bottom to lift the twine noose and move the rusting gate aside. The heron is, despite its size, barely visible in the beck, that flash of orange at its beak punctuating plumage as grey as the morning. It might perhaps pivot on those great hinged legs as it darts and forages for food, but mostly it will stand and it will wait, one leg tucked away for later, one leg planted firm amongst the rocks and silt.

The silence is fractured by a car on the bridge above, but a moment later it’s gone and all that’s left is a splash as the heron, wings spreading, lifts itself from the water and pulls up into the sky.

Always alone. Always rooting in these slow wet places, almost out of sight.

When he gets back to the house, an hour and seven miles later, the children will be up and his wife will be pulling the first load of washing out of the machine. The heron will be long gone, off to another quiet creek where it will wait, steadfast, for its next chance.


The melancholy fishmonger

February 10, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s been a long day.

The two little girls playing up at his counter whilst their dad looks for parmesan – well, it’s the last thing the fishmonger needs.

People asking for this, asking for that, can you fillet it, can you bone it, can you skin it, was it sustainably sourced, did any dolphins suffer? Are they Indonesian prawns or Singaporean prawns?

How the chuff should he know?

Bloody celebrity chefs giving people ideas, that’s what it is. Gordon this and Jamie that. One week they all want sea bass, the next week hake. He’s three beautiful trout been sat on that ice most of the afternoon and nobody’s given them a second glance. It’s all about what’s fashionable, see?

He’s been in fishmongering forever. There’s a skill there and there’s not many still have it. It takes time. Time and effort. Bloody supermarket thinks they can put some trainee on with him, some young oaf handling the mackerel like it’s cans of soup or packets of biscuits. No sensitivity. No respect.

The two girls are giggling and pointing at the trout, and it’s more than he can bear when one of them puts her hand over the counter to prod the glistening skin with an outstretched finger.

In a weary voice he says, “Please don’t touch the fish.” As if he were a zookeeper, warning people away from lions.

And the little girl begins to shriek. Seems the trout has a tiny trickle of blood emerging from an eye.

The father leads the girls away as the fishmonger rearranges his trout. Truth be told, he’d rather nobody bought them. They don’t bloody deserve them. Bloody customers.

Some days he feels like weeping too.

A man and a child and a woman

February 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

They are perfectly framed in the window: an adult and a child walking across the top of a snow-covered field. What, an hour ago, was a white view bisected by the ungiving black of the wall, is now dark grey, the sky matching the land.

If they were to look down they might see a yellow square of light in the dark building at the bottom of the field; at that distance they’d be unlikely to spot the figure framed in that square. They’d be too busy thinking about how the snow is coming down heavier now, that they’d best be getting back before it gets dark. The snow creaking like floorboards underfoot, the man urging the child on with promises of treats for dinner – or perhaps the child stumbling through the snow that an hour ago seemed so inviting, the blank sheet on which the afternoon’s story could be written, but which is now too insistent. A sibling, say, who doesn’t know when to stop. A nagging doubt.

The woman in the kitchen might be thinking her own thoughts about the scene, about how patterns must begin in order to repeat themselves. She might think about her own father, wondering where he might be, or she might try to imagine that walk, that adult, that child, herself in that snowy field with the lights of home in sight.

Perhaps she would shrug these thoughts aside as one dismisses an ill-judged arm on one’s shoulder. She might wrap herself up in the evening, remind herself that the path’s still to be swept free of snow, that she’s some meat to set stewing.

If she glanced up again she’d see the figures at the window’s right hand side. A moment later they’ll be hidden from view.

Strangers in the night

February 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

You probably wouldn’t have given him a second glance at the bus stop – and why should you? Just another old man, anonymous in his beige coat, his gnarled hand clutching his bus pass.

You’d think, perhaps, that he’d no distinguishing features, that all these old men waiting at bus stops up and down the country look just the same – a flat cap here, a heavier jacket there. It’s easier to glance than to look, after all.

The bus now pulling up is steamy with the cold of the November evening; from inside, every streetlight looks like a burning torch.

And now see this man, perched on an aisle seat at the top of the stairs, where the foggy windows half-mask a fug of illicit cigarette smoke. Hear him as he adjusts his cap and begins to sing, softly at first. Watch people exchanging glances, wondering if he’s drunk or perhaps one of those lost souls holed up in the halfway houses round the park. But he’s singing on, undeterred, a rich baritone that rolls over the other passengers, coating their damp hair and chilled faces with a thick velvet, the sort that sees them sink almost imperceptibly back into their filthy seats. For once this journey is to be enjoyed rather than endured.

The chatter has quietened right down, and even passengers boarding at each bus stop fall silent as they walk into the smooth weight of his voice, as if under a spell.

From the outside, it’s another of those battered old buses clanking and rattling its way down the road.

Inside, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Perry Como – for one night only, all the greats are here.

Just strangers in the night, exchanging glances.

Dry dock

January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

They say it took ten men to get it up there, into that field halfway up the hill that overlooks the town and the lake – well, ten men, a lorry and a land rover in the end. God knows why he wanted it in the field. Beautiful boat like that? You’d want it where you could use it, down on the lake, wind pushing at the sails. Not stuck up there.

He’s an odd sort, mind, the owner. More money than sense, some say, and others, well. You can bump into him in the pub and he’ll be telling you about this grand plan and that madcap scheme. Aye, he’s tried the lot of them. Folk say he’s a Rolls stashed away in one of his outbuildings, not moved since the day he drove it in there twenty years ago. Thing’ll be seized now, and no use to anyone.

Doesn’t seem bothered. Always on with his next big idea, dropping the last one as if it were red hot.

So now there’s this boat – a yacht, if you were to use the right term – and it must have been in the field for five years now, not moving an inch. Sheep grazing at the keel, or cows pushing at the wooden frame that holds it in place. The prow still facing the lake like a dog pointing, as if it knows.

You’ve to wonder where it might have been, a boat like that. Whether it sailed the southern oceans, crossed the atlantic in record time, perhaps shrugged a skipper off into the depths, never to be seen again.

You won’t know; he’ll likely as not have forgotten, moved on to something else, his boat left landlocked up in this field.

A pair of white boots

January 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

There are no streetlights on this stretch, and the clouds are smothering the starlight, so if you were coming up the road from the roundabout, the first thing you’d see would be the car tucked over to the side, its hazards on.

The light of passing cars picks out her boots against the darkness, dazzling white patent leather with a heel and a pointed toe. They’re no sort of boots to be wearing out here, along the bypass, not with that drop down to the ditch.

She won’t be told, though. She won’t get back in that car – she’d rather walk all the way back home, doesn’t matter how far. She’ll sleep in a hedge before she’ll get back in.

He thinks he’s so smart, there in his big flashy car. Brought it round earlier to try to impress her, and she made her dad go out and coo over it whilst she got ready. Idiot drove too fast all the way into town too, like he was some sort of rally driver. She kept having to scream at him to slow down or that there was a corner, he was that busy faffing with the stereo.

It’s not even his car anyway. It’s his brother’s and she knows he’s away at the moment. There’ll be hell to pay when he gets back, but she won’t be there to see it. Tonight’s the last of it.

She doesn’t care that she’s no money in her purse, or that her skirt barely covers her bum on such a cold night. She strides on, every step purposeful on the roadside gravel, and with him crawling along so close behind her she feels like one of those men back in the olden days, the ones who walked before spluttering cars, waving big red danger signs.

More than a woman

January 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

The first days were the hardest.

She’d plan her outfit, right down to the fingernails – Max Factor dusky rose, took her ages to get that right. Deliberated for hours over what to wear. She didn’t want to make the classic mistakes, look like she was trying too hard in a business suit or a tarty dress. You see them around. They’ve always forgotten something – a scarf to hide the adam’s apple, or something – anything – to tone down those giveaway hands.

…and then, as time goes on, you find you could care less. It’s a brave person will say anything to your face, she knows, so she rides out the snickers, the silences, the looks. Shrugs it off those broad shoulders.

Today is not a good day. She’d felt her skirt rip as she got into the car, and whilst now, standing in line to pay for her petrol, she can’t see herself, she’d doubtless not thank you if she could: that cheap supermarket blouse stretched too tight across those shoulders and rucked up at the waist, and that skirt whose zip has split so far her cream lace knickers are on show.

All it would take is one person, just one of them, to tap her on the shoulder and have a quiet word. Nobody does, though. Not a single bloody one of them.

All just stood there gawping.

Go on, get a good eyeful, why don’t you?

She doesn’t hurry back to her car.