For our young

This post is specifically about young people in their last few years of schooling, year 11 and below. My background is in secondary teaching and also mentoring, as well as mental health advocacy – and my boys are 7, 14 and 16. (As you see, I write, too.) These are just thoughts on the past few weeks. Below them a piece that I felt to be relevant. It was written by a fourteen year old. She’s on the ball, incisive, literate, driven by moral purpose and a clear eye. How wonderful is that?

 

First of all, as study leave began for the year 11s early last month, I wrote…

gcse

So, for our local lot, study leave begins tomorrow; for some of them, their last ever class tomorrow before they leave that school. Some folks sail through school; some sink. Some have very few opportunities (look at some of the recent work by MP for Tottenham, David Lammy on that, for example), and for some, school, getting a meal and someone to focus on you, is the best part of the day. Some struggle in a good place because of problems with mental and/or physical health, some young people lack confidence, are recovering from something or have an acute sense they don’t fit in, and this can be eviscerating for them. There will be young people who have not established a friendship group and it really bothers them; young people who will feel really upset and disempowered if a well-meaning member of staff says in a briefing or assembly for year 11, that ‘this is the best summer of your life!’ What does that say to the young person who isn’t going to the prom (and I mean, not through informed choice, but because it scares them or they feel they don’t know how to mix, say)who isn’t invited to parties and maybe to a lot more people who ingest, ‘It’s all death and taxes after this’?

prom

I think about all this a lot. I wonder if, in our attempts to prompt excitement at ages and stages, we in fact create anxiety around what should be very natural transitions. I also think we must, as teachers and parents, accept that normal and healthy is HUGE and the failure therein is generally in the lack of imagination from adult caregivers. 

This time of year can be really hard for parents, for families, for our young. Allow me to be bossy and say that if you are a parent, you ought to put any competitive talk away right now and maybe, in August, share your offspring’s glowing GCSE results privately (I know some will dislike my saying that!) rather than on social media. Encourage your offspring to do the same. I do not mean don’t be proud; I don’t mean don’t halloo or go to the ball: I mean, be mindful.

In homes and schools and settings, know that some young people choose to be alone; that does not mean they are lonely, nor that they will never manage good and abiding friendships – this will come; they are so young still. I think we should offer a challenge if an assessment of someone and their ability are predicated on how much the student says in class; it isn’t the only index of engagement and, also, it can be horrifying to some students to pipe up in front of their peers. And some people never socialise widely, don’t like to be in a group or, say as introverts, need quiet time after an event and being busy (this includes me).

So far, in parenting, we’ve had extensive school refusal, CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) and many talks from a secondary school about how opportunities were closing down (meant well; meant to be firm guidance) and I cried myself to sleep many times over that. Some young people need more time. To suggest – and I swear I am not joking when I tell you I heard this, myself, in KS1 – that their way is entirely mapped is ludicrous and limiting, for them and for you as their parent or carer. A school refuser or young person who is only partially in school or who has been withdrawn for whatever reason will need more time, but have faith in that. And I wanted to say that any parents reading this who are feeling tender because, in a year group or with schooling, it just hasn’t gone as you hoped, then know that you did the best you could and never mind what anyone else says, including me. I would list any number of real-life examples of waiting, time, growing into confidence and self acceptance, but that would be to break a confidence. So just hugs, yes? I love doing my writing, but working with young people for 20 (gulp!) years has been the joy of my life.

And finally…a student wrote something for me. not for homework, but to get something off their chest. They are in year 8 and I am writing this with parental and student consent. Here’s why we have to be careful what we say BUT ALSO why we should take huge comfort and pride in this country’s young. ‘This is absolutely how I feel’ they said: ‘And we are going to have to change things, right?’

Teach me, said I.

Society.

Where do I start?

You will be judged on what you wear, which genre of music you like, how you act and what you look like. On top of that, who you choose to hang around with, and are friends with, which shows you like, how popular you are, and any personal trait. You will be made fun of for being who you are.

So don’t tell me that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, because in society these days, it isn’t. No-one will even try to give you a chance to see if you are beautiful on the inside, if you’re not beautiful on the outside.

Take the Kardashians, for example: their whole lives and careers depend on what they look like. They are the perfect example of what society wants us to look like, in fact! So, are they what we like to call ‘perfect’? Is perfection having big butts and books, a tiny waist, a perfectly symmetrical face? The Kardashians, along with many other social media influencers lead us to believe that we cannot achieve beauty without surgery or extreme measures. They promote things like hunger-suppressing lolly pops, waist trainers, or spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on surgery and improvements every year. But if you look closely, you will see their fan base is mainly young kids, teenagers and people in their early twenties – and I think that this is who kids are growing up with as their so-called role models.

lolly

You open any magazine, Go on.  There are pictures of ridiculously skinny models with perfect skin and hair; girls look at them and think I want to look like them…why can’t I look like them?

We get told not to eat things because we don’t want to get fat. Then when we don’t eat, we get called other names. It is as if we can never win because for years society has been telling women to be beautiful as if beauty were the most important thing in the world. You wonder why girls and women get depressed!

But here’s the thing. We blame society, yet we ARE society. We say how society needs to change, but it’s down to us to make that happen. Above all, we need to stop trying to be like everyone else around us. We are unique, we are individuals – and we need to embrace who we are for,

‘No-one ever made a difference by being like everybody else’ (P.T.Barnum.)

hope

And finally, an embarrassing twitter thread on when your young teach you.

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Depending on dinner

Here is something I wrote for submission to a journal, and which was not subsequently accepted. It’s about horror; in the everyday: at mealtimes, in fact. If you’ve read my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have seen that I was sometimes terrified by food as a child. Because of the spirit in which it was cooked and the hands which served it. Sometimes that food was plain terrifying – as in my paternal grandmother’s pickles in the pantry. She disliked most people, had very big hands and once burned all my father’s books; parents think kids don’t notice or overhear, but they do: I was scared of the big hands and the eyeball pickled eggs because I knew those hands were book burning tools. At home, the most beautiful cakes; but the hands that made them were brutal as well as pretty.

Don’t think I’m frightened of food. I’m not. I cook a great deal and for lots of people; I might eat out. But then sometimes up comes a thought – eros, thanatos, trifle, we’ll call it. And yes, it’s scary.

Have a look at this strange little piece and tell me what you think about its content.

cherry

Depending on Dinner

‘What an awful thing life is, isn’t it? It’s like soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface. You have to eat it nonetheless.’

Gustave Flaubert

Boy-child went out for dinner with Mother; a bonding exercise. Childhoods don’t come around every day, though gluttony does and he thought of that like a disease; like something his family couldn’t help. Shovelling it in; nibbling and tasting. He remembered his parents holding mangoes up to the light, comparing the (what was it?) Dussehri mango with the Sindhri. Are they ripe, just so. Oh darling, let me cut you off a sliver.

Ugh. She fed it to him, that amber worm.

Oh. Perfect.

The boy had been repelled as he heard them snaffling and laughing like reptiles in the undergrowth for bugs. Or city foxes tearing at the bins and triumphant over a carcass.

Imperfect. Disgusting.

Now he read to her. Flaubert. Darling, listen. Large platters of cream, that trembled at the slightest jarring of the table. Oh yes, oh yes. Do you remember our wedding feast, my own Madame Bovary. He heard them making that reptile or city fox noise again, though it sounded this time as though they were on the floor.

So.

His parents were disgusting. They were good people. But they were disgusting. So were his grandparents. All gluttons, Shovelling it in. Salivating and all gross in their delight.

Now here he was, out with Mother on a gustatory bonding exercise. It was said to be a cosy little place. Novel, Thai Tapas they called it. Which meant small portions of Thai food. Novel. But  the boy was not excited to go in. He was scared, too. He’d not tried Thai food and thought tapas sounded Spanish and, he recalled now, all his experience of Spanish food was an omelette heavy with vegetables and a slice of manchego cheese that his turophile grandmother had made him try with olives. Now, the hybrid seemed mysterious, if not just a touch menacing. Menacing began to overtake mysterious and the boy quaked.

But still, brave boy, a glimmer of courage in there, too. Thank you Mother.

But what could there be to lose? Memories, now vaunting, were uncomfortable.

            At Grandmother’s house, as the affineur had swept forward bearing an old wooden board with little bits on it, he’d worried. That was because Grandmother expected him to try and he didn’t always want to; he didn’t want to disappoint her. The olives he’d liked; the cheese tasted of saddle and the hair of beasts in heat. He shuddered at this memory. Now how, he wondered, have they combined such things with Thai food? Thai food, Mother had explained, was sweet and sour and you couldn’t taste the anchovies in the fish sauce, but you did get whacked by a deep savoury flavour. And there was a smack of chillies. It was a flavour which could quickly become addictive. On, she went, as mothers do, about the aniseed taste of Thai basil and the lovely lemony smack you got too. And the boy’s anxiety began, surely and slowly, to increase. With it, a sense that he was becoming a man, or something, big and old too soon. His childhood slipping from him with smacks of rude taste.

Hot beasts in heat.

Crumbly white cheese.

Some sort of omelette.

Things lemony that whacked you and things that could be addictive

Aniseed. Wasn’t that like liquorice?

Another horrid memory. He felt ill, poor boy, but who to tell? His father had been cooking steak, waiting on his mother. He had a book open and read as he fried. The boy could smell the tang of black peppercorns and he knew the blood would be seeping soon onto the plates. Darling. Barthes on steak. Do you remember Mythologies from university? Rare steak is said to be saignant (when it calls the arterial flow from the animal’s throat. Oh yes, I remember. You read it over a steak dinner then. Steak tartare. My first time. I was a tartare virgin and you’d showed me the way. Oh. The clash of the pan had subsided. Yes my love. The germinating states of matter…a magic spell he says. The blood mash and the glair of eggs.

They were on the floor again. Thrashing. Beasts in heat.

He tried to think of bland foods. A boiled egg, Porridge and a banana. Plain toast.

Thai Tapas. The boy was trembling, but he was compelled to plod on.

Mash. Glair. Sweet. Sour. A sauce made of old fish but they’d disguised the fish because you could always taste fish and surely that was not trustworthy? It was a deception. What else was in there that added flavour, but which you couldn’t clearly identify? His other (slightly kinder) grandmother spoke sometimes about her love of offal, which disgusted him. Wobbly things; glands; greasy things. Hearts with the ends of tubes still visible; things you weed through. Stuff that boiled and fried and fugged up your kitchen with animal stench. Was it all chopped up, or milked and puréed and added to the Thai Tapas? Tripe like a wet blanket you could do nothing but die screaming in.

They tried squid.

Little prawn toasts.

Wriggling, once alive things.

I feel ill. There is something seriously wrong with me and no-one will come.

Things like ammonites. No more fossil collecting. Now that is disgusting too.

This restaurant. Very expensive for tiny things no bigger than the smallest paper bag of pocket money sweets you could imbibe for seventy pence, but costing six pounds and more, He felt he had to eat. The squid: texture of shoe. The prawn toast: where it hadn’t crackled in the frying, there was bread mush, looking like his baby sister’s fat toe skins after bath: mushy baby toes. He wanted to cry out. Boiled skin; flayed stuff. Jesus lashed. Mary crying. How? Why? And no-one will come.

Now he remembered the nightimes. Sometimes I am afraid to close my eyes at night for fear of falling. I shall fall and fall and not get up and it must be like dying or not dying and everyone thinking you had but you could not say. If I swallow, I can die. And I will fall. I’ve seen the pipes and the tubes of a human body and they are not well organised and choking could happen to anybody because nobody always knows what to do. A madness, a laughing illness could happen to you, however brave or clever or so well that you defeated a big illness. But he must not show his mother. And what if all this got back to Grandmother? She would be disappointed and trace it back to the wooden board when she had swept in, Maître Fromager, and make me tell her I did not like the manchego cheese.

He thought again of bloody steak, mango slivers, rolling parents. Laughing, oblivious, quoting.. And on and on. And when the pad thai came, again in tapas portions, he ate a mouthful and went rigid, aghast also at the thought he might expectorate six pounds eighty’s worth of noodles. Time was money and money was time, his dad said.

I need to go home.

Why? Don’t be ridiculous. Also people are looking.

I am going to choke.

You’ll be fine.

What if I die?

Of course you won’t die.

Why not? People definitely die of choking or it wouldn’t be on the telly.

Well…

So you can’t say it never happens.

Listen darling you must stop being so odd and understand that food is one of the great pleasures of life. A normal thing. What on earth has made you so uptight? You’re really not like anyone else in the family. I just don’t understand.

And he was also thinking, Take me back, I want to stay a child. Please let me. And, I hate you. You don’t see it, rolling on the floor and frying and slavering and your horrid mango slivers like a yellow corpse slip up to the light. I hate you. You don’t, you cannot understand me and you won’t try.

            More food came.

            And what is in here? In the Spanish-Thai muddle? All the things they might have mixed in or used to flavour it. Spanish omelette and heart and that nasty cheese that’s like beasts in heat and melting straw and rotting things and you said there were anchovies in it and things that tasted of lemon, but you didn’t say they were lemon. I can’t trust any of it.

And the boy ran.

Mother caught him, as mothers do. Admonishing, saying she simply could not see what the problem was. It wasn’t as though he was ill. Sighed and paid the bill, apologising to the manager. Over forty pounds for tiny things and indistinguishables and babies’ bath toes and bits of organ and weird cheese. And the memory of his grandmother looking disappointed in that way she had. He wasn’t like her friend’s grandson who would try anything and like it, too. Dear, dear. Boys today and I blame the mothers and if she had been my daughter I would have taught her how to raise a braver son.

And on and on. Crying into the storm all the journey home. Frightened to sleep for a death crevasse, all littered with manchego and nasty odoriferous hauntings, which opened beneath his feet with each falling to sleep jump. Rigid then until overcome, at four a.m. and too tired, too immutable with fright, to go to school the next day. And still scrambled egg arrived. This will make you strong. Like hell it will, viscous nasty thing made by the hands of beasts in heat.

Keep it quiet. Keep the house battened down. It’s hard to explain, this multi-layered suffering. If you took a food metaphor to deconstruct it—and you may know that planked or slated deconstructed food is all the rage just now—you could envision it like a trifle. On the bottom, there’s the sponge and that’s feeling guilty about being born and being a burden to your mother; the sherry soaked into the sponge is the shame drenched on you by (worst) grandmother because you’re not brave, not a trier, not pleasing or (alongside it) masculine enough like other grandsons. Then you’ve fruit. The fruit, first of all, depends on your poshness. Posh folk add kiwi fruit; the chavs, tinned strawberries—that’s what he’d heard them say about other people’s parents—no matter, though, the metaphor works either way: the pieces of fruit are the odds and ends of bad dreams and chunks of scorn and the lumber of certain failures, past and to come. The custard: cannot get out from the fruit: it’s viscous, like aortic blood in a bloody steak, or the gloop they drain out from the corpses before they flush; it’s death, being trapped. Ah, the cream, now what is that? It’s claustrophobia. You’re in a classroom, with the popular kids, and they’re pelting you on the back of your neck with the contents of their pencil cases and you don’t turn round. You’re told this won’t last forever, but you’re not sure because you were also reassured that choking wouldn’t happen and it did to that man on the telly and you know your mum was bullied in school and she still hates the school run with your primary age brother because of the cool girls she isn’t. So the cream. Gloop. Look, a swamp. It’s going to get you. Or is it quicksand, or the worst sort of snow or pus and infection and it’s seeping into you and you’re boy in bits but no-one knows. And there, in bed at night, or in the classroom being pelted on the back of the neck with fine-liners and protractors and somebody’s foul tooth-marked mouth-guard, that’s all there is.

Trifle kills. So do Thai Tapas. And Grandma, affineur, with her hateful tidbits. And when you fall to sleep, there’s the crevasse. And that’s what loss is. Going mad. Disease. Eventually disease will make you ill. And then there’s stuff you’re clawing at; can’t catch. Abhorrent  taste in your mouth all the while.

The boy sat sat rigid all night, for two nights: didn’t go to school. The doctor was called, but the boy wasn’t an emergency just yet. He gagged on egg and full fat carbonated and little tiny bites and even milky things that Mother was taught to get into him, somehow. And on the third day, overcome again by the tiredness, he slept and slept all day and half the night and when, at last he woke, he sipped with a straw and would never thereafter eat anything. Though he drank and gagged, but drank because he had to. No good toast, or pizza or roast or pasta things. Just fluid, with his straw, under control and bland, so no beasts on heat and that was that. And he wasn’t a child any more, though he looked like one.

His parents weren’t letting up on their own feasts.

Darling, look. Let’s make a salad. Do you remember Dido in The Aeneid? Yes, how could I forget? You were the one who read it to me, lulled me to sleep. She spoke about the lettuce and the long huge-bellied gourd. They were laughing as they crushed the foul garlic in the pestle and mortar, wrenching parsley from the ground and foul red onions. Laughing.

And on. And on. Slurp. Sip. What is wrong with him? Wrong until he was taller man-boy, then old man, being pumped and drained, too late to chew or bite; all gone. Anyway, childhood gone; all swallowed up by the fear-thing. The fear-thing you see out of the corner of your eye. That you try not to see. So you have a bun; a consoling cup of tea; a chat. And you hope it all, life—like this tale, really—is a metaphor for something greater, then discover it isn’t.

Yes, there were cups of tea, he could manage tea, but still he went toes up. Ill, mad, eyes not seeing and no-one came. He wasn’t dry for lack of fluid but his gums were violet and teeth pretty for lack of use; deep gorges around his lips for sucking life through straws.

At the wake, the glacé cherries winked from the top of the trifle, adorning the cream, custard, fruit and sherry-soaked sponge; a late addition for festivity’s sake. It wasn’t a kind wink. For cherries are little ruby fucker-devils; you could suffocate in a sponge; if the gin-poor had had more money, they’d have been expunged by sherry; custard and cream: get your foot wrong, and slurp, like a swamp and you’re under.

That poor boy.

Oh well, we tried, said his even older mother to his even older father. But he was nothing like us, was he? In the end, it was like a disease in our family, so I had to turn away, for my own preservation. Your own sweet preservation, darling. I must say—and I’m quoting Kierkegaard though obviously you’d know that—that it’s a shame how some men’s lusts are dull and sluggish, their passions sleepy. Oh I know, my love. That was him.

Now parcel up the rest of the food. You and I will have a midnight feast.

On mentoring…

ON MENTORING
IT IS POSSIBLE YOU MAY NEED A HANKIE. I am writing quite specifically about one of my three boys; he’s thirteen.

I want to tell you about something which happened a couple of days ago to my middle boy. He likes to make things. Anyway, he’s started making an infinity table in his Man Shed. Here, above, is a photo of what an infinity table is; cool, innit? This is not his, but similar to the one he’s making, with colour change and fade from LED lights.

Anyway, I took him to see the very jolly men who run a glass cutting and fitting shop in a nearby town and they were awesome. I’d already talked to the lad about how there was brilliance and skill everywhere; links to make; you know how I go on about communities, too. Anyway. They talked and joked with him; did not talk down to him; chatted over the project; rang a friend up and got him to price the coloured film lad will need as glass overlay so the table has depth. They were warm and kind and funny.

They mostly ignored me, save for the occasional knowing wink. Spot on.

Then they cut the glass (which he enjoyed seeing) and lad told them this was not a school project; he just liked making things. And didn’t like school. They asked him to bring the finished item back to show them and, if he wanted, to stick business cards (‘Easy to make, lad’) up there in the shop – or maybe photos and they can say, ‘Yes we know someone who makes those.’ They then suggested a making price and selling price and reassured lad that this was business, pure and simple. ‘This is what you do, son. That’s how it all starts.’ I could tell he was listening, rapt, because it’s all very well mum rabbiting on about things, but our young don’t need to hear it from their primary carers (though that helps); they need to see things in action and have conversations with others in their communities. And sometimes their aspirations are killed off. It’s true. We have to so careful.

Lad hesitated about the notion of taking in a table to show them. They saw, ‘No, only if you want to, but you keep in touch and tell us how you get on.’

‘But my first table might not be any good’ says lad.

‘Of course it won’t be, son. That’s BECAUSE it’s your first one.’

They wouldn’t charge for the glass either. So I’m taking them cake and treats and a card, BECAUSE my boy LIT UP. He totally LIT UP. Because of the encouragement and because it was cool and kind of exciting. This is mentoring and it is priceless. It’s also everywhere and I do believe that. And it need not be extended, but perhaps a few meaningful encounters in which someone feels valued and that there are possibilities which they can extend with just a bit of guidance.

Now, lad is dyslexic. Yeah, lots of people are. But it makes school that bit harder; boring and tiring. What is more, I have listened to several conversations  – and I will leave the provenance unstated but should emphasise that I am not only focused on what is said in school but also in families – about how those are bright must go to university. This is what ‘doing well’ means. My hackles go up with that. As they do when my lad has been lectured about he can overcome his dyslexia and ‘go to a good university.’  I winced, too, when his older brother, my eldest boy, was recently told that there were only two jobs he’d be able to do with his A level choices. Yeah, right: like the world is not plural and various and with all kinds of jobs that exist even if you lack the vision or knowledge to imagine them. Yes, it’s tough, but get out there, talk to people. I will write more on this theme another day! I absolutely believe that going to university is not the only mark of brilliance; going to university may not a clever businessman make. Going to university does not necessarily endow you with the kindness and compassion that might transform the lives of others. I went to two – yeah, Oxbridge and Russel Group – but I don’t figure that this gives me intellectual dominion over someone else or that I am cleverer than they are: lots of thick people go to Oxford and Cambridge. AND OVER MY DEAD BODY will I hear a young person measure their worth against whether they go to university or not or be told (as I heard lad getting told) that ‘he will find his own place’ before another young person was turned to and praised for their cleverness.

What a narrow way to think or to imagine intelligence.

Then, what intelligence to lead my child forward with clear sight and kindness; with compassion.

So anyway, I was thinking that if your offspring is bored or demoralised by school, look within it – and to support staff as well as teaching staff – and look beyond it in your communities for mentoring, for people who inspire and listen to your child and who are not limited in their view of the world; who do not give advice which depresses the child or young person based on that.

We had THE BEST example of mentoring that afternoon. Mentoring is about kindness, about listening and also about being flexible – and smart – in your view of the world and in how you regard the views, aspirations and ideas of children and young people. And (my background is in teaching and a portfolio of volunteer posts as well as writing) they will teach you things too.

 

As I said, my boy LIT UP, we got back to the car and he said, ‘Oh mum. Why are you crying?’ ‘I’m not.’ ‘So ARE.’

Here: this is the project before the infinity table. A home-made tubulum (plumbing bits and salvaged wood), played with my flip flops. Something cheery for you!

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Five, twelve, fourteen. The day after the brexit vote

FIVE, TWELVE, FOURTEEN

June 24th 2016. The day after the Brexit vote.

Here is how it went.

I had my first texts very early and a phone call from a friend in tears. I’d thought, as she, that the vote would be close but the other way round. The previous day, we’d looked, together, at the ‘Vote Leave’ balloons strewn about in the centre of our small town and thought, ‘Ha’— but still I was restive and feeling depressed; the atmosphere did not feel good. In the week before the vote, I had felt miserable and angry that many people in my own extended family were posting union jacks on Facebook with a ‘Remain’ shout. I was furious that people, some of whom I knew pretty well, did not appear to understand where some of the funding for new building had come from in the places where they lived.

What have they ever done for us?’ I heard someone say in Merthyr; in Newport, ‘It isn’t fair that these immigrants come over and are immediately given a council house!’ and I began to argue but was told I was soft and it was alright for me. I am not having a pop at Wales here; it’s where my people are from and I speak of it only because this is where I was in the pre-Brexit week; I rounded off this week in an idyllic valley in the Black Mountains and heard talk of how it was too crowded shortly before I walked a mile and half up the valley to the next house to deliver a get well card. On the way I saw only a dead badger. And then in a local town, I heard the word ‘darkie’. It is not that these sentiments are not thought or exchanged, just that it made me tremble to hear such things expressed more openly and with such vigour. When I got home I was so rattled by some of the papers’ coverage that, topping up with petrol just down the road from home, I turned the offenders round. It was not my place to be a censor, but I couldn’t help it, with all that inflammatory talk.

Yes, that Pre-Brexit week was a tough one. You remember the bus? The Bus. The Bus that Couldn’t Do Maths? I hated that bus. Where is it now and what do you suppose it says? ‘It’s what THEY WANT you to think! But seven is NOT a prime number!’

I had listened, as The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths chugged on, to people talking about British sovereignty and purity which enraged me with its confident stupidity. ‘I hate it when you can’t hear any bloody English being spoken!’ said one. That was in Asda. WHAT IS MORE it was Asda in West Wiltshire, which is not exactly heavingly multi cultural. I was very close to doing the thing called Having a Go. I was minded to be right in there with words on celebrating the polyglot, the verbal texture, the joy, the fun, the life; to speak about howthe same person was also talking about preserving the English language—the English we speak was not suddenly born—Pop! Huzzah! It is English! It is a pretty, pure thing for local people only!—and added to with cultural reference and dialect; that it was, instead and like us, a series of graftings: Anglo Saxon words, Latin, Norman French; you know. I was about to go for it with other words: with jamborees and bungalows and pyjamas and…you get the picture. But I didn’t. I was too upset. And also, I did understand the importance of the vote for people. Because many of those people felt disenfranchised and that their voices were not heard by those in power, by a perceived ruling elite. It was only the other day that MP Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of how one problem in government was that there weren’t enough Etonians. Meanwhile, a house nearby had pages of statistics pasted on its windows: the costs of the EU. This fellow had also helpfully pasted up statistics on immigration with lists of dubious figures on their cost. Like teaching them to speak a language that everybody understood, say. We racked up loads in costs for language courses and teaching them English customs and gifting them five bed council houses because Johnny Foreigner has loads of children.

But back to Brexit the morning after.

The early texts. Miserable. I’m moving away from this wretched place. I’m moving to America (almost funny in retrospect; should add that I am married to an American); I am buying an island as far away as possible. There was one two plane rides away from Fiji for twelve grand apparently. I’ve searched it up.

The school run.

I have three boys, then five, twelve and fourteen. Smallest too small to grasp; Twelve thought the whole thing was just appalling (although one of his friends said the result was good because it meant we kept the pound) and Fourteen, I think, thought it was just typical of these grown ups to be not particularly watchful about something and then grouse. Or wail, in my case.

I left the house to take Five to school and two minutes down the road there was a triumphant woman assailing me. “It’s Independence Day!”

‘What does that funny lady mean?’ said Five. I tried to explain and he said, ‘But France is very nice and especially the train you put your car on.’

‘We got our country back!’ she hollered. Alarmingly similar in wording to Donald Trump’s comments in Scotland later that day, when congratulating them on voting for Brexit…

The rest of the run (I was snivelling by now) was full of moribund parents and I knew it was going to be a long day. It wasn’t even the voters I was cross with. It was, after all, their right to vote and, as I said above, I was entirely mindful of how opinions may have born of feeling eclipsed by a bossy elite. Maybe by bossy Oxbridgey Guardian readers like me, although I like to point out that I am actually very common and come from Welsh farming and mining stock for absolutely forever. Where the fact I have written novels is always going to be eclipsed by the size of Dai’s barbecue and the fact he is now a connoisseur of meat as well as a fan of Cameron, who GOT THE COUNTRY BACK ON ITS FEET. I did point out—that,you know, I’d hardly been head girl at Roedean; I was a bunker offer and swore with a passion—a couple of times in those early hours and days; for example, when someone called me a bad loser and said it was alright for me in my poncey house. I said, ‘I bought that as a semi derelict and washed up in the bath for four years and I am common. Yes, a right Chav. Yeah, okay I read all the time but…’ and I thought, ‘What nonsense am I even saying?’ and stopped in mid flight. My co-combatant smirked at me and, yes, I was a bad loser. I had conversations and made comments I should not have; that were divisive and snarky. I’m worrying I’m doing it now. Also, you saw my comments, above, about novels and the size of your barbecue. I realise that I am sliding more towards an exegesis of a dysfunctional family, but to tell you the truth, the familial schisms and the lies and the crazy rattling stuff that have gone on for decades, well now, they were melding that morning with Brexit ranting and Farage’s frog face and Boris’s snuffle-waffle-heffalump sounds. It was awful to feel so at odds with people who had been there a whole life, love them as I did, as I do. A beloved auntie just told me about how Theresa May is just what the country needs; my father in law is a Trump voter. God: WHAT A YEAR. How has that ‘renewal’ thing been going for you? Maybe TM will be out by the time this has published; I’d bet more on Trump, but I digress.

Around me, it felthad been feeling for a whilelike one great collective breakdown, that squalid summer. I wasn’t sure if I was actually okay. If anything was. Yet, I felt that I should not be smug about why I thought the vote was wrong. I had a secure home and had enough to keep me, us, safe and warm and it is plain as day that this is not the case for many, too many in our country. In some places and for some people, this will have inspired their choice of vote. You can’t go round jeering at others’ opinions when you have not walked in their shoes or heard of what was in their hearts. But I had read and thought a great deal and could not see any pressing reason to pursue Brexit. And as I said, it was those whom I felt had played fast and loose with facts and sums and hugely emotive topics that I was mad at. Well, and the Jingo woman on the school run.

And the fucking Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths.

24th June. Why did it have to be sports day? I felt it would be too sad to watch 421 primary age pupils while wondering how a decision we had made would impact on them. Fortunately, I didn’t see the Independence Day hullabaloo lady again, or I really would have done some very sweary public things, but when we were lining up, just after lunch, oh—people were miserable. Disconsolately dishing out squash for the kids and finding out where their eight year old was currently racing. All that week (I teach at secondary level) I went on to listen to angry teenagers, just not quite old enough to vote, bemoan the idiocy of what happened as more information and non-information came out; as Farage dismissed his endorsement of the facts on The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths. It wasn’t that anyone was saying the EU had covered itself in glory, but mostly we were just confused, sad and, sometimes, a bit frightenedmostly, in my experience, because we witnessed a sense of empowerment from those holding views we found repellent: on the them and the us; the them you can’t trust; who take from us. I do realise I am simplifying, but I think that sense of witnessing loathing and suspicion and long held resentments coming to the fore was terrifying for people not used to dealing with it regularly. I should add that it is all very well for me to say; white; moreorless middle class enclave. Now I had to learn just a little of the kind of resilience that others are compelled to build every day.

Others. Yes. But us. We. Society is, should be, a we. Not us and (tick) other. Shouldn’t it be so? There I go again, worrying about semantic fields. But the words you use are important.

On Facebook ranting and hand wringing went on, as you’d expect. I blocked Independence Day lady. I should have known. She’d previously been posting that egregious thing about how we should be giving our funds to injured servicemen rather than the immigrants. That was a feature of those weeks. A sort of relegation to the back row of any sort of maths that made sense. If we don’t give the Polish bloke who runs the deli and works 100 hours a week a leg up, lazy sponger that he is, we will have funds for our lads. It’s The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths, isn’t it? End our involvement in the EU and it is perfectly clear: straight swap with NHS funds and let’s get to Granny’s hip op and an end to the postcode lottery on, say, Tamoxifen. Anyway, the person with the sums was also joking about how she was playing ‘Spot the Brit’ while in the supermarket and titillating herself with the hilarity of someone asking the ‘foreign couple’ in front if they wanted help with packing their bags. HAHAHA I THOUGHT WE’D ALREADY TOLD THEM TO DO THIS.

Me: block. Pull plug. I cannot look. Oh look, though: she’s a good person because she’s put up another poster about hospices. Julie Burchill once wrote that shallow people cry very easily. Like at Bambi when mother deer gets it. I’ve found that racists do too and that they often like puppies and sick kids and doing their bit. I’ve always thought this is a bit like the Krays: they were ON IT when old ladies had their bags snatched or someone was mean to a defenceless kitten—and they probably contributed handsomely to the whist drivebut they still ran the firm and I wouldn’t have trusted them with my bread knife. There it is: I sound like a smug Guardian reader, I bet.

But back to sports day. Five smiled and waved and then up came the big cry. It was because I was thinking about what we might have taken from these children in terms of friendships made and bonds created; in terms of possibilities for living and studying and understanding. And I felt a dark and clawing sense of enclosure; of things drawing in around me. So I went into the toilets (I had to crouch down, obviously, because these things are built for small people) and I did the ugly cry, up from my toes. I probably wasn’t the only one.

It has been a strange year, summer 2016 to 2017, oh yes. My greatest cheer has come from the emboldening and charity of the young people I work with. The tears we have shared, even. I do believe we are seeing a generation becoming more alive to change and possibility and to the merits of political activism. And as I am fond of saying, it’s the parents you have to worry about. So thank you, thank you so much to all of you. But I worry about the young people and the children, of course. Mine; yours. I do not believe, as so many doand they are broadcasting it on social media that the world is now a terrible place; I don’t believe that. Or rather I believe that it has always been full of terrible things, but that I am optimistic, believe in the kindness of strangers and, to quote J. B. Priestly, that we ‘are one body’.

But we didn’t live in Merrie England until the spring of last year. Or at any time in the past. Speaking to some and listening to many, you’d think that’s what we were after. A return to a golden age; an Arcadia. Perhaps many Elizabethans may have had a whale of a time on all those junkets and national holidays; in gadding about round the maypole and sucking up mead in the days before twitter trolls and pesky plurality, but I’d argue it didn’t compensate for wars, poverty, pestilence and losing lots of your children. Perhaps The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths needed a twin: The Bus That Made Up History. Well, something like that.

I do feel that, at this point in time, we, even we who perceive ourselves to be the original inhabitants of Albion (I am sorry; that was definitely a bit snarky of me), are tempest tossed and I hope, for all our children, that wedo you know, I am struggling with the word ‘we’ here; fretting that it is ethnocentric—are beginning to take stock and that, with clear thinking, proper information untainted by angry cant or prejudice born of sadness in these ‘alternate (sic) reality’ and ‘post truth’ times, with kindness and imagination we can make it to dry land. Off this rough journey out. You know, for the children.

For Five, Twelve, Fourteen.

Or should I say now, Six, Thirteen, Fifteen.

Beta Mummy’s Guide to Life

edison

Right then. Unexpectedly I am pitching a non fiction book while I work on my literary things (that is, while I write book four and wait on book three – the order of which could change in ten minutes); anyway…it’s about parenting and it’s a bit different…

It’s a big hug

It’s rude and irreverent

It’s a takedown for any snarky competitive parenting or mummy groups that have gone cold and evil

It’s all sorts. I am not an expert* but I offer you…

Beta Mummy’s Guide to Life

This is a book that takes you from getting pregnant to hoping they don’t get someone up the duff when they’re sixteen. It’s a book that focuses on letting go of things, too and of paying attention to the ridiculous pressures that parenting can put you under – and I speak of perceived external pressures. Financial and emotional.

AND I SHOULD LIKE YOUR HELP. CONTRIBUTE THROUGH THE COMMENTS SECTION ONLY. And I want rude, funny and out there and anonymous and anyone who has a right go at the woman she thought was giving her a funny look on the school run, will be deleted. I want this book to be cheeky, but cheerful; life-enhancing and joyous.I will publish the comments to the page, but you can ask me not to – although bear in mind I might want to include them in the book, all distinguishing features edited.

I want your very worst anecdotes on parenting at whatever stage.Your funniest material, but if you can, point out what you took from it; what you’d want to pass on to others. So get ready.  ANECDOTES NOT ESSAYS, MY LOVELIES.

Here’s roughly what’s in the book to give you a guide.

Pregnancy. Also Fertility problems

Miscarriage

Afterwards

You

Babies

Difficult feelings ands postnatal depression

Toddlers

Groups

School runs

THEMUMMIES

Whatsapp groups

You’re in, you’re out

Sadness

Prejudice

Sex, lust and rediscovering the erotic

Facts of life

Gender, sexuality and gender identity

Faith and belief

School problems

Finding a mentor – for you or your offspring

Grandparents and extended family

Building a family when you’ve not got one

Community

School refusal

Social media: them

Social media: you

Parties – oh please

Christmas and other festivities

What to do when you can’t cope

Cake wankers and slut muffins

Secondary school

Autonomy

Does it matter? Miscellaneous. This is a sort of ‘fuck it’ chapter.

Conclusion and a big and mighty hug to send you on your way

Disclaimer. All similarity to anyone living, dead or pontificating in a playground right now is pretty much accidental.Warning. Contains frank descriptions of sex, difficulty and rather a lot of swearing, imaginative as it might be.

*Oh yeah. I said I’m not an expert. But I got you this.

Three kids, including a mighty age gap between two and three

One hideous birth; two that were screamy but fine

Eleven miscarriages and rather horrible invasive testing (I found it so – but I’m mighty thankful now)

I had postnatal depression very badly. It took a lot, that. I also have a complex history of mental health problems – OCD, depression, generalised anxiety and I’ve even managed a couple of dissociative episodes on the school run. Which was nice.

School refusal, swot-pants and dyslexia.

Secondary English teacher and one to one tutor

Mental health champion, service user, young people’s mental health advocate and former pastoral tutor, Head of Year 7, transition co-ordinator, GCSE examiner, and PSHE teacher.

Rather a lot of bereavement experience. I was orphaned by 19, lads. I was also a carer in my teens, though not all the time.

I’ve seen and experienced a lot of things that no child or adolescent should – but you can look at my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, for that.

Loving you, I really do,

Beta Mummy. xxxxx

mom-is-in-timeout-funny-quotes

 

 

 

A Tale Of Tripe (for Elizabeth David)

(Contains a swear word. There might be more than one.)  This is something I wrote for a food something a while ago. I had rather forgotten about it. But I am taking a little time to clear up old pieces as I wait on my second novel (novella, really) and finish my third.

So.

Elizabeth David. My favourite food writer ever. That’s her in the picture and here is something for her. If you have read my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have met some pretty scary food at Paternal Grandmother’s House at The Hill. Tripe, slapping and boiling; pickles in a dark store cupboard that frightened me with its eyeball pickled eggs. This was a house of morbid fascinations; of desolate proportions: they talked about terrible deaths over tea, I felt I knew so much more that I should about ways to die, horribly and publicly; on the wall there was a picture of Jesus and underneath that one of kittens: in the damp hallway outside, a terrifying dead great aunt with nasty rat teeth glared from a picture on the wall. But ah yes: the food. It was hearty, but I have not revisited it. Not quite. I feel compelled to gussy up its ingredients so it isn’t so redolent of…well, of horrible deaths. In came Elizabeth David with a blast of sunshine and a tray of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Obviously, this story and partial account of my formative years is not just about the food and not purely literal.

My grandfather taught all his cats – who were called mostly after Old Testament folk – to wipe their feet on the way in. It is true. I have no idea why he did this. My grandmother seemed to loathe everyone beyond The Hill (oh whoops – the book says it’s a work of fiction; well, some of it is, then…) and was good with a gun and at arm wrestling. She had big knuckles and terrifying elbows. I imagined that she killed people she didn’t like. She was full of curses and liked to frighten small kids by telling them that Jesus was looking at them with his beady eye. And not just from the wall.

The days, I will eat tripe, but only in a hot spiced Chinese dish, or with chorizo as a friend from Buenos Aires showed me how to do. Or in ‘E.D.’s’ recipe, below. it is actually rather lovely.

Anyway, my paternal grandmother was the inspiration for this story. Tripe, yes: but a fresh start. New day; new life; new love; new recipe.

They were as strange as all fuck, weren’t they – at The Hill?

A TALE OF TRIPE

Waking in the violet early morning, bathed in sweat and troubled by a night both eerie and vivid, Catherine searched her thoughts: ‘What must I have been dreaming about?’

It didn’t take long, of course: it was the tripe – that and the matriarchs who washed it, handled it with such vigour and presented it with an expectant, nasty gleam in their eyes. Such sweet, creative fiends: mother and grandmother. In Mother’s case, just dressing the tripe would have exhausted her for the day; sent her desperate to the fainting couch. In grandmother’s case, such dressing was simply a prompt to her killing another cow with the large-knuckled hands that terrified the grandchild so much.

Catherine winced: ‘Grandmother and her man hands; downy arms – all wicked with a rolling pin and guarding the old stove with a vicious possessiveness’, thus,

Let no man come near my domain: I will slaughter them – smother them under the blanket of the beautiful tripe.’

That was it. That was the most disquieting image in the nightmare: Grandmother like Moloch waiting for a sacrifice over the fire; Mother’s eyes dancing approval.

Yes yes yes! Feed it to her! Now, now, now!’

I’m so ashamed. I want a normal family and not to feel like this – waking, tripe-terrified.’

Mother and Grandmother were dead, but they found that no excuse. So they visited Catherine regularly, sleeves rolled up, ready to cook.

To rid herself of the present dreamscape, there was nothing for it: go downstairs and find a better image. Tea in a favourite mug was a good start, but Catherine found that her thoughts were leaping from vivid hue – the reddest of pickled cabbage – to dull, cloudy jars in which might have been preserved the innards of an unwanted relative. In grandmother’s pantry there was a hecatomb of conserves; the fruits of the season, incongruously presented in a chamber of horrors. There were pots of umber sludge, eyeball pickled eggs in heavily sedimented jars: damp flagstones underfoot; a smell of sour, crawling mould. There were aprons hanging up, the prettiness of their floral decoration gone to hell in this place of condiments, good housekeeping and no hope. This was a room revisited on other troubled nights for Catherine; she could not let its scents and shapes leave her head and the argot of this poky grey room whispered, ‘Grandmother knows – just as we all know – and she and Mother will come for you.’

Here was a place of extinction – of annihilation, the meaning of such things terrifying in a dream but still only faintly, inchoately understood.

This must be the worst combination: to know that someone is coming for you, but not to understand why, when or how. Or really what that has to do with pickles. Or tripe!’

Ah: the tripe – huge winding sheets of it. It smelled like death. When Catherine’s nights were not punctuated by morbid pickles, siren-calling her to embrace their victim in death, she had nightmares of being cosseted in its velvet crushing embrace. The silky surface was puckered and hollowed. Somewhere else and in some other time, it might have been pretty; like a creamy-white mosaic you would want to touch. But in the nights, and when grandmother or mother served it up as punishment so triumphantly, the tripe blinked at her and writhed in its nasty pool of white sauce, encircled by effulgent lumps of onion. On its surface – its face or was it its back? – were sucker pads like those on the arms of an octopus or some kind of strange sea plant that would caress and then swallow you whole, whispering of a lifetime of sin to you – just to compound the unpleasantness of this particular way to go.

Matriarchs hovering, the tripe came billowing clouds of vapour; it was cooked in a milky broth, all one at first, before you realised the unpleasantness of the discrete parts and sucky stomach-feet turned your (own) stomach. Between the two women, the silent challenge between mother and grandmother, it was a point of honour to make sure that the flour was never properly cooked off; thus, it lurked congealed in tiny mounds – but you didn’t see it in the unmapped viscosity of the sauce. Didn’t see the horrid little tumescence until you began to ingest it. Powder scattered in your mouth when the lump dissected. In a way, this was the worst horror:

And the dust in my mouth as I sat between Scylla and Charibdys. Oh, a fine supper.’

Catherine had always blamed herself for the meals – for why they fed her so. For the spiteful sheets of tripe, served up like victory in chintz.

My childhood looked so tidy from the outside; mother and grandmother were pillars of the community: first for cake in the village show; outstanding for a lemon curd; doyennes of the church flower rota. They prayed hard at the altar, shark eyes squeezed shut. I always thought it was me – it had to be me.’

Send her out to the pantry, in the semi darkness. Those eggs will frighten her a treat – make her more obedient. The mould on her hands! Ha!’

Mother – that’s the way to do it.’

But say these homes must have been full of spite, hurt and venom to make mother and grandmother cook like that? Say it was THEM and I didn’t deserve the tripe? Say it was wrong to shut me in there when I gagged on the tripe and onions and spat out the floury lumps without meaning to and they put me in the pantry like Jane Eyre in the Red Room?’

Catherine was not usually so bold: what was happening now that was different?

Something was coming from the bookshelf.

A small, dry but nonetheless beguiling voice: ‘Come here and open me up, Catherine.’

Now, Catherine was used to having a litter of imaginary friends. When your strange landlocked, emptied-out family surrounds you; when your nearest and dearest seem to close in on you with, “Bad, bad, bad – everyone knows about you” then don’t you need to tell someone? You can’t tell real people because no-one else seems to have a family as peculiar as yours.

And how would I ever explain cooking as a way of throttling or suffocating an unwanted child?’

In the bad dreams, Catherine tended to see her relatives, mother and grandmother predominant, amassed, like the preserves, in a hecatomb. They tumbled out curses at her at home; aligned in neat rows and pretty as pie when out in the cold world which welcomed their jam making, their manners and determined smiles. Who would believe Catherine about Mother and Grandmother? And how would she explain the chamber of soused horrors or the tripe? But here came a friend now; you might know her. To Catherine, she was ED; to the outside world, Elizabeth David.

ED wasn’t the warmest sort, but her books smelled of spice and sunshine; of lemons and emerald parsley. Catherine took French Provincial Cooking from her shelf; it was from this that ED had been speaking to her. Catherine adored ED and all her books; could tell you about the “pale rose pinks of the langoustines” which their author enjoyed, with a fresh and sparkling appetite, alongside a bottle of Muscadet by the Seine. ED relished good butter, radishes with their leaves left on as God had made them; saw the poetry and potency of a flat plate of Arles sausage and black olives.

And the colour, ED: look at the colour of the things you ate and knew how to make! See the lovely creams and greys of shrimp; sunset-glow carrots. For you, even the dark things – the winkles and the cork stuck with pins; things that were muted or pebbly – those things became beautiful. Beautiful – flanking the colour; like a gentle relief. I want to eat like that and I’d like to live like that. Embracing the darkness, yet knowing of its loving, numinous companion.’

ED, not one for a hug, and not particularly fond of metaphor, said, Well, do you have a sharp knife, a hot grill and a will of your own? I’m assuming you have a mandoline, some good bowls – and I will not share my kitchen with a garlic press: I must be firm about that.’

Of course not; I know your feelings on garlic presses. I’m not sure I have a mandoline, I do have plenty of bowls, but some of them are chipped.’ Catherine began to cry.

ED prodded her firmly in the back, coughed demonstratively and said, ‘Chipped is fine, as long as we have at least a few white-lined brown dishes.’

Why do we need these dishes – why must they be as you describe?’

Silence. A sigh. Then:

Fresh contrast. Now, it’s time you stopped thinking about tripe. We are going shopping.’

ED: I am dog tired.’

That is no excuse. Not when we are going to compose hors-d’oeuvres.’

Hurrying to dress, Catherine sighed disappointedly at the drawn face and sad clothes; shuddered at the lingering dreams. Still, ED at least knew about the tripe, so they wouldn’t be cooking that. They would grace a table with red tomatoes, yellow mayonnaise, sea salt and olive oil; a beautiful salad of grated carrot. And could it be celeriac that ED meant for the mandoline – all cut into the thinnest strips and highly seasoned with mustard, plenty of vinegar and a voluptuous thick mayonnaise?

Out they went, Catherine chatting silently to ED and now lighter of foot on their way to the wonderful market. But two shadowy figures watched her, curses dribbling from their lips with the last lappings of morning tea and vulgar gulps of toast with ochre marmalade. And inside Catherine’s house, gently, timorously now, was a faint smell of the sea, a distant grating of nutmeg and a fresh twist of black pepper.

Sacrilege. I smell no wash day smell! I hear no slap of tripe against the pot!’ cursed grey Grandmother and Mother.

Afloat, through thought, in Catherine’s house now was the peaceful aroma of potage bonne femme: of cream, chervil, softly cooked potatoes and leeks, bathed in sweet butter. The shadowy figures cursed more, spitting unkind crumbs.

Pain grillé aux anchois? Salade au chapon? Get the little bitch. Boil up the tripe, Mother. And bring out the ammunition from the pantry.’

Catherine and ED, silently communing over their purchases, bought a mandoline and the requisite dishes, great bunches of green things for the salade de saison, dimpled lemons, celery, celeriac, lumpy tomatoes – things that promised succour. And life.

But on returning to the house, dull wafts of tripe waited for her, as the shadowy figures took their joyful and vindictive hold of the kitchen. Garish red cabbage with a sweet, cloying smell sat with the cruel eggs on the worktop. Amuse-bouches of the sort you serve if you hate your guests; starters gussied up a little with hard bread, sea-foam milky tea and a cucumber cut into behemoth chunks. And the boiling tripe hissed milky sap.

No matter’ said ED, walking briskly right through the shadowy figures, rolling up her sleeves and assembling a work station next to the eyeball eggs.

The eggs leered as ED tasked Catherine with slicing the celeriac on the mandoline, concocting a highly seasoned dressing for its matchstick strips; Arles sausage was laid out on a large flat white plate, its fat coin slices overlapping; in the centre, a carefully built mound of black olives. Both glistened and invited. The tripe spat on, onions twisting and squirming round it, as ED and Catherine cut tomatoes and sprinkled them with gently snipped chervil – the dressing to be added “absolutely” said ED “only when the diner wants to eat.” Catherine could feel on her pulse the metallic, penny-tasting lure of a proper, fine misshapen tomato. They grated carrots almost, “Almost I said!” to a purée, seasoning them carefully; made a wobbling heap of mayonnaise with fresh eggs and olive oil from the first pressing. There was bread with a shiny, crackling crust, butter and some best quality anchovies.

It is no shame to leave them in their tins if they are high class brands’, barked ED. Catherine hurried to place back those she had already decanted.

The table of hors d’oeuvres, for a twelve o’ clock lunch, was almost set. Almost. ED revealed a surprise. Out from a white plastic bag, secreted in the depths of ED’s basket, came a single slithering sheet of tripe. ‘For you.’

Tears pricked Catherine’s eyes. ‘No, not you too – please not you Elizabeth. Don’t make me cook it!’

From the room and the world all around came the laughter; the delighted grey shapes of mother and grandmother.

Boil up the tripe, there’s a good girl! Choke choke choke on the nuggets of flour!’

So ED was one with them, then.

It had to be me, didn’t it? I deserved what I got: a lock up in the pantry; a stifling sheet of tripe and the unlovely curlicues of onions; gallons of white sauce and curses.’

The spectres grinned; the jarred eggs hummed, if ever a jarred egg could.

Now do be quiet. Our lunch à deux first, then I shall teach you something new. You will have to boil the tripe briefly, but then you will grill it to a sizzling crispness, with a coating of egg and breadcrumbs and serve it with a sauce tartare. A revelation, I think, It is called tablier de sapeur – or fireman’s apron.’

I can’t.’

You will.’

Lunch. The fierce, seductive rasp of the anchovy, crunch of good bread and the delicacy of finely cut celeriac, There were draughts of wine; ED passed knife and salad servers through the spectres of matriarchs: it was a celebration. Then lost sleep came and took her pupil. On waking, ED had gone, but Catherine obligingly boiled the slice of tripe, cutting it with a certain passion into a neater rectangle. She basted it with egg, coated it with crumbs and grilled it until it was golden and the edges had caught on the flame. She ate the robust little apron with the sauce tartare that ED must have made for her, left with an uncommonly sweet note nearby:

See off the spectres; try something new – tablier de sapeur: adieu; adieu.’

Hmmm. She almost liked the fireman’s apron.

It’s not my favourite thing, but then neither is it the stuff of nightmares, thrust back to the sound of laughter into the dark pantry. Ha! “Grill to a sizzling crispness” ED had said. A dynamic phrase; a confident one.’

Catherine threw wide the curtains, welcomed in the vestiges of the day and scattered the grey tripe boilers and pickle hoarders into pieces.

Try something new. Mother; Grandmother. Keep being dead now. Adieu; adieu!’

That night, Catherine dreamed only of the next chapters in her life: ‘Soups and Eggs, cheese dishes and hot hors-d’oeuvre.

SHORT STORIES FOR YOU. CURIOUS LITTLE THINGS

I write some strange things. Here are a few short stories; the first adapted from the draft of my second book, The Life of Almost

Note to text: the poems at beginning and end are original and by this author; other texts quoted are not copyright restricted. There are layout anomalies throughout where I have cut and pasted from file; go gentle on me as I couldn’t manage to correct them on wordpress!

DRESSING THE DEAD DEARS

‘Girl, get the grave bag from by the back door!’

‘I’m doing it now, in a minute!’

‘But have you got there the water in the milk bottle,

the scrubber and the cloth and the scissors,

they’re rusty but will do to trim?’

‘Yes, yes, I see them now.’

‘But have you got them, have you? We mustn’t forget

and mustn’t leave the bag at home and mustn’t take it

to the graves half-full: is it done now, is it all and are you sure?

The westerlies and the tongues of salt are cruel to our dead and all their stones.’

‘Yes, I am sure.’

The bag was bundled and the car was roared and the dead were glad

of a well-kept stone and the brambles trimmed and no-one cursed,

like they did, all did, in life, and the door was keyed and the grave bag full

and sat just as it should, and the life was endless not altered,

even in this loud new world.

Evans the Bodies loved his Dead Dears. He had established a thriving business in the low white farm buildings out the back of a farm on the coast road. In the past, this had been owned by a rather careless and drunken farmer with an insecure barn so that, from time, those who arrived for Evans’s attentionsilently, so silentlymight have met with a stray heifer crossing the yard or traversed cow pats, so hardly the most respectful of endings, or beginnings, as Evans saw it, since he was fonder of the dead than the living and saw things backwards through his better eye. Nowadays, though, the yard was gravelled, the whitewash immaculate, the cows tidily restrained and a new farmer in residence. This man was laughed at by the locals as a hobby farmer. A man with an antique shop in Tenby who got people in to do the hard work and exhibited his cheese to great applause, although he had not really made it himself and even his dairy herd looked askance, it was said on the coast road, because your dairy cow knew an amateur when it saw one and mocked in its cow-grunt while you flaunted your wares in front of the Aga.

So there, in his low white buildings, worked Evans. And I went to work with him when I was almost grown; I was a poor schoolboy, or I suppose that was what I inhabited in that time, so they jostled me out on an apprenticeship as soon as they could. Technically, I should have been eighteen to be allowed to handle the dead, but we hid from the rules, I looked big and talked confidently (of course!) and bluffed expertly and then Evansat least to begin with—kept me away from the worst, most gruesome cases. He needn’t have done, for I saw no fear in temporal things and the sad features of a face rearranged; I saw them as the anagram of thereafter and the very interest of now. But as I was saying, I worked with him, learned from the master and saw how he attended carefully to his craft. He had it all planned meticulously and liked to recite the rules of his job to himself and declaim thus to the world, should it be listening. Now, I tell you, the best of the words were not really for me, but for the woman he had loved his whole life and whose own life and voice had been taken by the abruptly dead of her own.

Thus with him worked Muffled Mfanwy.

She went muffled after Philip Llewhellin, her husband, hanged himself in the shed and then her son, Lewis the Younger, remember? With gun over shuffle-board, not tidy-like. You must have heard! Always, Evans was in love with this soundless sad lady and together they worked with the corpses, a delicate ballet, with tubes and brushes and buckets and pipes and the love of the dead that is known best to those sad with the living, or those born, or otherwise, with their feet half in the next world. He had dressed and buried her husband and son and allowed himself only to breathe, ‘You should not have’. And he had placed, under the hands of her brother in law, the schoolmaster, found in a mound of violets though not dead of his own hand, a tiny bunch of the blooms with a sprig of rosemary: love, faithfulness and remembrance. And I watched, apprentice, Evans and Mfanwy in the twilight shadows. Always I was there.

Learning, ah learning. And seeing. And I felt, I think, new things and they had poetry.

Because he was a lonely dragon, he, even with his Dead Dears and she was sad and her voice was stilled and I wanted to give her flight and for her to sing and cast off her own dead. And then there was the very intimacy of it: he had washed and nursed her lost son and sent him lovingly to his resting place; he had done the same for her lost husband and even though the woman he loved was married to that man and that man had made her suffer and his son had made her suffer, he nursed them and prepared them in death and felt their deep sadness, though he did allow himself to whisper, ‘You should not have’ again to both men. And when Llewhellin the schoolmaster was found in his mound of violets, he took care to place his poetry book under the hands and, within it, though no-one knew, yes he had also pressed some violets from the mound because of how much their musky sweetness had been adored. Evans was a man who noticed such things.

Now, because Evans the Bodies so loved his muffled company, he would narrate what he was doing, like, perhaps, a child before it learns that it does not have to describe itself in the third or fourth person. Thus,

‘Now Mfanwy, as you know the first step in the embalming process of our Dead Dears is a surgical one, in which bodily fluids are removed with our special pipes and tubes and are then replaced with formaldehyde-based chemical solutions. The second step, mind Mfanwy and as you know, Mfanwy, is cosmetic, in which the body is prepared for viewing by styling the Dead Dears’ hair, applying some make-up, and setting the facial features so they don’t frighten their loved ones, all ghastly like. Whatever end they had, Mfanwy, we must make them look well and tidy. Mrs Morgan of the tractor accident will take a bit of work, mind, so you’ll have to be cunning with the make up and the brush, a bit of padding and a dress that they bought in the posh shop in Newcastle Emlyn.’

Between them, Evans and Mfanwy, they lifted the dead man onto the table and Evans began gently sloshing from his vat of disinfectant and washed the body of Jones from Begelly. Such hadn’t been a good man; he was a mean old man, but he was unwanted solitary and hurt by the world and Evans knew this and when he washed it was like a baptism. As he went, he signed the cross when he remembered and felt he should, but sometimes he went round and round like doodling spiralsor sometimes shooting stars; sometimes a maze.

‘There we are now, Myfanwy. Rub Mr Jones’s feet. Ah now, look at the skill you do that with. I will massage and manipulatehe’s a stiff one, this Dead Dear and his muscles are hard with the rigor, so we’ll have to loosen him or he’ll look like a board and won’t be well for the funeral and he’ll startle the congregation. I had one once that sat up and there was a time, man! Now, the neighbours say we should shave him but I think he suits a bit of beard, don’t you think, Myfanwy? A new look for the old boy. There we are, isn’t it? He’s more relaxed already. I do think it’s the way you do their feet, Myfanwy. It is your rare gift, Myfanwy.’

It was a strange courtship. Over the corpses and the bottles of formaldehyde and the tubes and pipes and the no-smell and the lowing of the dairy herd somewhere not so far away. And Evans loved the dead and he loved poor sad Muffled Myfanwy and he thought she might feel the same way, but it had not been so long since the hanging in the shed and the shuffle-board shooting in the back of the pub.

‘And next we set the facial features. He does look like a grumpy bastard Myfanwy but we must think well of the Dead Dears. Now, we have closed the eyes; what a marvel that skin glue is and he was a stubborn one, Jones of Begelly, so we used the flesh-coloured eye caps, all oval, see? They sit on the eye and secure the eyelid in place and then a body can’t argue with us. See how tidy that is? I closed his mouth and now you begin sewing his jaw shut. He’ll be quieter, then. That’s it. Come closer. Be firm with Jones. Take the suture string through the lower jaw below the gums, don’t be timid as you go up and through the gums of the top front teeth. There you are Myfanwy, press hard with the needle; you can’t hurt Jones now, although maybe some would say he deserved it, so poke it in hard and keep going. That’s it. Lovely work. You learn so well, Myfanwy. A model student. Now there you are see, up into the right or left nostril and….no not down—across, like this.’

As Evans the Bodies took the needle to show her, they brushed arms and both felt a shiver and the warm smell of hope and happiness beyond the disinfectant, and then it was gone. Myfanwy looked away. He passed the needle into her hand.

Rapture. Oh, I saw it.

‘That’s it, across through the septum and into the other nostril and then back down into the mouth. Don’t by shy. Push the needle like you mean it Myfanwy. There is such strength in your hands.’

Had he gone too far? He thought (I saw his heart) that perhaps the compliment was too heavy for circumstance. Did the dead man mind? It was at this point that Evans the Bodies realised that he had, on this instance, failed to perform the death-checks. Jones seemed to have been stiff and then to have loosened up nicely at Myfanwy’s loving touch, but maybe that was because he was stiff with hatred in life and was never touched so gently. No, he must be good. He’d submitted to the needle, so no need to palpate in the carotid artery. Evans knew that, in these modern times, people awakening on the preparation table was thought to be the province of the horror film, but he also knew that once Grim Peter from the old lighthouse had sat up to prevent his relieved relatives from celebrating that he was dead, how strong was his desire to catch them at it, hurl curses and deprive them of the fortune they knew he kept under the gargantuan pots of whitewash. There had barely been time for them to take the bunting down at the wake. But no, it was well. He didn’t need to palpate or double check for cloudy corneas. And besides, Jones was always cloudy, always livid, barely alive in some ways. Thus calmed, Evans looked at Myfanwy and considered her unspeaking beauty:

‘Then the two ends of suture string must be tied together. Do you have them there, girl? Tie it neatly now and once you are sure you are secure with the jaw and he won’t be dribbling, mould the mouth as you want it, now.’

Myfanwy nodded and tried to squeeze Jones’s mouth into an enigmatic smile and Evans the Bodies shifted the giant silver tank for the embalming and began, visualising the draining arteries as he went, sliucing blood from the body through the veins and replacing it with his embalming solution via the arteries.

‘That is a thing of strange beauty. Formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, and water, and I like it to contain a few dyes because we don’t want our Dead Dears looking like alabaster. We want them to look like they’ve been on holiday, Myfanwy, even if I do sometimes have to pad them out a bit, like Dewi after he was hit with the spade that time or I’ll later be showing you how to do with Mrs Morgan of the tractor accident.’

Myfanwy nodded. Drip, drip, drip, gurgle. Magenta, to clear and clean.

‘Now begin your magic, Myfanwy.’

Myfanwy was now holding a bag in front of her. Very now, she applied moisturising lotion to the face, lips, and hands, then powdered Jones on his face, neck, and hands in order to make him look less dead than dead and cover up his scorn-blown blemishes, discolourations and the seer marks of illness that he had hidden, even from himself. She gently applied powder to his body: ‘For secreted oils, Myfanwy, but we won’t go so far as to polish up his nails like we did for the Widow Williams, what with her liking the glitz and the men. And just brush his hair. Oh look Myfanwy. He makes a much better dead man that a live.’

Myfanwy gesticulated. What did she mean. Ahhe saw. Jones was wearing a toupée.

‘Just stick it back on, my apprentice. I have some blu-tack for such events. There we are. Press it down on his head. And now, Myfanwy, is there is anything else of which we should take note, is it? Sometimes I don’t know who is the student here and who is the apprentice. I mean to say’—again, had he gone too far?—’that you have a gift for the Dead Dears; it is lovely to see. But, as I was saying, has he come with a list? Does he want a cross or a special book? Is there any jewellery for the deceased?’

Again, Myfanwy gesticulated. A bag in the corner of the room, by the silver vats of blood and lymph and life force and the plastic containers of phenol and formaldehyde. ‘Ah you thought of that, too. His belt with a tarnished silver buckle and the legend of his grandfather, Timothy the Nasty of Little Havenoh the stories there are to telland photos of his cattle and his birdshe went to all the shows—and a picture of his chainsaws and a book. The Bible, of course? People like their Dead Dears to have The Bible even if they’ve been whores or accountants, Myfanwy.’ Evans the Bodies looked again. ‘That I wasn’t expecting: The Compleat Angler by Izaac Walton. It says “1653”. How little we know. Did he want to be a gentleman fisherman? I didn’t even know if he could read. Look you. “THE COMPLETE ANGLER OR, THE CONTEMPLATIVE MAN’S RECREATION.” ‘

Now, Evans the Bodies knew that the Dead Dears released surprises. In life, we could not always tell if a man read; if he recited poetry every night or chapters from The Mabinogion to his nasty cat. An examined, deep and cultured life was not always revealed to the outside world, perhaps if the owner of those things felt they were more brilliant kept separate and apart; or he was ashamed because his family laughed at literature and effete, delicate things—thought them unmanly or unworthy; something for a stumbling, decadent Englishman, when here, now, should only be the simple words of command and desire; of shopping and betting: of curse and television. But Evans had seen more: old texts about the Dead Dears’ hobbies: once, from a budgie fancier and potboy, Jim the Fish, he found a burgundy leather copy of The Natural History of Cage Birds. THEIR MANAGEMENT, HABITS, FOODS, DISEASES, TREATMENT, BREEDING, AND
THE METHODS OF CATCHING THEM
by J.M. Bechstein, M.D. Of Walterhausen in Saxony. 1812 was given as the first printing and, below an exquisite plate of a golden oriole, he was lost in time as he learned about ornamental cages and diseases called The Pip, The Rheum, costiveness and The Bloody Flux; for the consumptive cage bird, the suggested remedy was the juice of a turnip. Evans had wanted to read to the end of the book and understand its beauty and barbarism, but the Dead Dears should not wait and no-one wanted to see Jim the Fish, because he had been bought from and dealt withhad the best crabs this side of the Neyland Bridgebut he had been unloved, so burial would not be halted and he would be laid to rest, this secret bird scholar, the intimacy of which was only known to Evans. And to me, apprentice, of course, who saw everything and thought I might visit the man who wrote the book to see how he cradled the oriole before he wrest it from his world. I said I was an apprentice, but this is not my first apprenticeship, time or place. Why, no. Do you guess?

Now, Evans the Bodies flicked gently through the new old book and stopped, arrested at a single page containing a poem; he thought it must be a poem because it was smaller and narrower than the continuous writing. Things that were truncated were not description or stories, were they? He read it aloud, stumbling, to Myfanwy, all the while held in time, like Jones on the slab under the turning pages, for reasons he did not yet comprehend:

‘But I will lay aside my discourse of rivers, and tell you some things of the monsters, or fish, call them what you will, that they breed and feed in them. Pliny the philosopher says, in the third chapter of his ninth book, that in the Indian Sea, the fish called Balaena or Whirlpool, is so long and broad, as to take up more in length and breadth than two acres of ground; and, of other fish, of two hundred cubits long; and that in the river Ganges, there be Eels of thirty feet long. He says there, that these monsters appear in that sea, only when the tempestuous winds oppose the torrents of water falling from the rocks into it, and so turning what lay at the bottom to be seen on the water’s top. And he says, that the people of Cadara, an island near this place, make the timber for their houses of those fish bones. He there tells us, that there are sometimes a thousand of these great Eels found wrapt or interwoven together He tells us there, that it appears that dolphins love musick, and will come when called for, by some men or boys that know, and use to feed them; and that they can swim as swift as an arrow can be shot out of a bow; and much of this is spoken concerning the dolphin, and other fish, as may be found also in the learned Dr. Casaubon’s Discourse of Credulity and Incredulity, printed by him about the year 1670.

I know, we Islanders are averse to the belief of these wonders; but there be so many strange creatures to be now seen, many collected by John Tradescant, and others added by my friend Elias Ashmole, Esq., who now keeps them carefully and methodically at his house near to Lambeth, near London, as may get some belief of some of the other wonders I mentioned. I will tell you some of the wonders that you may now see, and not till then believe, unless you think fit.

You may there see the Hog-fish, the Dog-fish, the Dolphin, the Cony-fish, the Parrot-fish, the Shark, the Poison-fish, Sword-fish, and not only other incredible fish, but you may there see the Salamander, several sorts of Barnacles, of Solan-Geese, the Bird of Paradise, such sorts of Snakes, and such Birds’-nests, and of so various forms, and so wonderfully made, as may beget wonder and amusement in any beholder; and so many hundred of other rarities in that collection, as will make the other wonders I spake of, the less incredible; for, you may note, that the waters are Nature’s store-house, in which she locks up her wonders.

But, Sir, lest this discourse may seem tedious, I shall give it a sweet conclusion out of that holy poet, Mr. George Herbert his divine “Contemplation on God’s Providence”.

‘Lord! who hath praise enough, nay, who hath any?
None can express thy works, but he that knows them;
And none can know thy works, they are so many,
And so complete, but only he that owes them.

We all acknowledge both thy power and love
To be exact, transcendant, and divine;
Who cost so strangely and so sweetly move,
Whilst all things have their end, yet none but thine.

Wherefore, most sacred Spirit! I here present,
For me, and all my fellows, praise to thee;
And just it is, that I should pay the rent,
Because the benefit accrues to me.”’

‘Oh Myfanwy, who would have thought it? Oh Myfanwy, what else is there to learn? Jones. Nasty, cruel-tempered Jones as an artful angler with his old book, a secret gentleman and this poet. And did he know the Lordexact, transcendent and divine? The discourse of rivers! How beautiful that is! The dolphins so loving musick and swimming fast as an arrow! Tempests, islands and wonders! And what is there to teach you? What book should I or could I write for you, Myfanwy. What of Jones’s life-end, now in the coffin, the casket as some call it, which contains the body if it’s going to be buried or entombed or as a means of burying cremated bits and it’s a respectful and attractive way to transport the body before the burial or cremation but don’t you know that, my beautiful silent woman, because you know everything? Do I tell you now that we learn how coffin materials are a matter of style for how can there be a material that can preserve a body forever and no material that will give you a better journey to the life hereafter? Oh Myfanwy, my love, coffins are also available in alternative materials, such as bamboo, willow, woven banana leaf, and pressed cardboard, among other materials and things they call alternative materials and green things. Green, my love, my only! But there is not much call for them in these parts. Oh but we can provide a half or full, which refers to whether the lid comes in two pieces or one piece and that in the case of a viewing, like with Jones, because his family want to know he’s truly gone. So that they can drink and celebrate and go out on the boats and cheer, there will be a visitation and there must be full because all of him will be on display for his beloveds to gloat on the Dead Dear.’

Evans the Bodies and Muffled Myfanwy hefted Jones from the embalming table to the coffin, now waiting on the trolley next to it.

‘Shift him with me, Myfanwy. I know you are strong. Do not be shy that you have the strength of ten men and ten of your husband and son who left you so alone! And him in his shed like that, above all those fine garden tools. And him in the back room of the pub on the shuffle-board like this and being found by Llinois as he was and she only just a woman and what did she know of heartbreak or gunshot? I’m sorry Myfanwy’she was crying now‘but I can keep it in no longer. I want to sing of what I feel and the Dead Dears I know. And I will teach you, like the only poem I know, about the pretty liners Myfanwy, the fabric lining the inside of the coffin which is all in my cataloguelook see; I have it herewhich is sold to us puncture-resistant and leak-proof, and is made from satin, or velvet and ohhow I favour the natural materials and start from the prick and static of the polyester and the electricity, Myfanwy, ohelectricity indeed.’

Evans the Bodies moved a step closer to Myfanwy.

‘And there are commemorative panels, which are embroidered on the interiors of the coffin lid because some like it, and a special thing called internal lift hardware, which tilts the inside of the coffin up so that in a full or open, the body may be viewed at an angle. I am the only man in this part of Pembrokeshire to have such a thing. Myfanwy, oh Myfanwy, there is a thing in my catalogue called a memory tube, not because the dead remember, and not as if the atoms of the dirt and clay need to remember, but if we, silly living world, forget and if something should happen to the Dead Dears—should the coffin be dislodged from its space in a mausoleum or crypt, or unearthed from the ground, in apocalypse or great strife or a new housing development for people from away like that one on the Milford Road, then the identity of the Dead Dears can be easily known and we do not have to exhume them. Exhume. Ex-hume. Ex-haleExquisiteoh you smell of the sweetest summer meadow my beautiful Myfanwy!’

And Evans the bodies fell at her feet and worshipped at her knees and Jones lay silent and sewn up in his best suit. And then I, apprentice and yet not so came forward from the twilight shadows at the edge of the room and I said,

‘Speak again, Myfanwy. Philip and Lewis the Younger Llewhellin want you to be free now. Speak Myfanwy! Cry and let go, for here is love in this strange death-barren place.’

And the stop was loosed from Myfanwy’s throat and she said, “Yes, Evans the Bodies and thank you and can you take me to chapel afterwards?’ And she kissed him and was altered.

Ynghanol ein bywyd, yr ydym yn angau,’ she said, as she wept.

‘Yes, Myfanwy: in the midst of life we are in death and here with the Dead Dears it is fair to say that we are in love.’

And there was another book that had only been seen by its owner, or nearly so. Because I saw all. In this place; in this time. But oh, for all time and you and I will meet again, but I can make you no promises it will be a sweet meeting. I was saying: Evans the Bodies wrote poems in this book. Often for the Dead Dears who had no-one and whose lives must, he thought, be recorded for posterity. So the timid lady from the post office, who had customers and bread but no friends and a mother who would have tossed her out with the peelings for the pigs, became a cowslip in a warm meadow and drank deep of the sun and was happy; so a coarse and crooked man, who lived in the last house before St Brides Bay and whose children hated him but sang like larks for his money, was limned as a quiet man, skimming stones on the beach and smiling into the auroras of a coastal morning when no-one knew. But Evans the Bodies was a watcher for the sad and lonely. He was a dresser of bodies, to be sure, but he also had a talent for the sad soul and the lonely.

And he had always loved Myfanwy; when she was someone else’s, as she laboured for and lost her child, when both times he bought her milk-white lilies and she said, ‘Evans, there’s a soft man you are’ and he cried with his back to her, as he did when she lost her husband. He put poems in the book for her. Imagined he was taking eternal pictures of her, watching her written into the world all around and, as he watched the frosty lines on the windows in his cold parlour and saw the feathers and curlicues of winter, he scratched her monogram and, again, he cried, and imagined himself at a window as the beautiful ship Myfanwy his Love sailed away and thus he wrote what I have below. I had seen it of course, but he did not know. I had learned it by heart and whispered it into the Pembrokeshire night, whose kind tendrils carried it to her and caressed her, then softly laid waste to her sadness and silence and made her think clearly about Evans the Bodies, who loved her and always had, just so. And he would not ever leave her, for when their very mass of atoms dissembled and went off to abide in rock pools and grains of sand, he was sure that theirs would still mingle, up there in the headland graves.

Myfanwy, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.

Then as you were again: middle roomdirect front light. I was specific.

MyfanwyI was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.

Myfanwy, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and sailed away, sassy girl.

I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.

I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as

the evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost

for you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence

spoke truth to usthat you could stay. The frost had crept along the span

to show you how this foolish clot had mouthed the most that could be said.

And then I spokeand ruined all. A foolish joke: my love; my word

Myfanwy, stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.

I tried to draw another length to keep you here: pellucid worlds for us to share,

yet how I knew what I had done. You did not care for crystal casts,

the shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan

was lost for you in my chapped handsand so I scratched and tried to show

some better words to keep you here—to stall you with this simple moss-grown fool,

Why, no. Don’t go, Myfanwy—stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.

Myfanwy, yours, Evans, who loved you so since I first clapped eyes on you, girl, that cold night when they set off the fireworks from the castle for the Christmas lights. But I will wait a lifetime and set out fireworks when you are mine and then only.’

And thus, my work, apprentice and quiet master, was done and the Dead Dears were at rest and all was well. For death is not always cruel, don’t you see?

THE FAMISHED HOUSES

ONE

(Few layout problems when shifting from Word here; apologies.)

The old house, in the sleepy French village, is tall and dusty looking. Once, it must have been vibrant, but now, bindweed curls around it and ivy reclaims the windows and the stone of the house. It must be hard for the quiet inhabitants to see out. Sometimes, there is post for the house and the post boy makes a swift passage towards the door because the house alarms him. There is a housekeeper, an old crone who will not give you the time of day and, curiously, a gardener—though he never tends to the front gardens, so fallen into disrepair they must be. The villagers wonder whether there are beautiful and well tended gardens to the rear of the house. For what else could lie there?
It is said that a lady lives at the house, some say two sisters, and that they never need company. But that this is a house of shadowy presences; a place where melancholy hangs thick in the air. And at night, sometimes, in summer when the top windows of the house are opened,one hears music, from a curious assortment of instruments: flute, cello, but also mandolin and dulcimer. And an inhabitant of the village making his way home could be stopped in his tracks because the music is so extraordinarily beautiful. But even so it sends a shiver up the spine which is not so pleasant.
But today is different. People do not come and go readily in this village, but a new person has come, from the city, and he wants to enquire about the tall, great house. He knows the finest, oh the very best architects and decorators in Paris and see this is a house to benefit from his good taste and gilded fingers. He raps confidently at the door and it is answered. The rumour held true. Two women come to the door, so similar facially it is immediately clear that they are sisters. They are not beautiful, but they are arresting: striking and sensual women, with poise and grace and exquisite manners. They seem pleased to see him and he is surprised to entertain this peculiar thought for a moment: it is as if they knew he were coming.
Over tea and dainty little cakes, he explains to them what it is he is looking for. They are clearly amused by something but do not elaborate. And to his delight, they indicate quite clearly that, indeed, they were thinking of it, of perhaps finding somewhere smaller because the great house is too much to manage and they realise parts of it are in a poor state of repair. They tell him that they will be in touch, that they have a solicitor in Paris who attends to matters of estate and finance for them—and so the visitor takes his leave.
So he waits and, sure enough, within weeks he hears from them again. A sum is agreed and the solicitors are instructed. Within two months, he is in the house, removing dust and grime and revealing the lovely house under the crumbling plaster and neglect. He has a lady in Paris and she becomes his wife. So taken with the house is he that he decides to move from Paris; it is a fair trip but he thinks he can make the journey once or twice a week to conduct his business. And during these times, his new wife is left lonely at home. The dream becomes more to his liking than to hers and, eventually, resentment begins to settle in the house.
And so they come to her. The two sisters who are still there for, of course, they did not move out—just retreated into the deeper recesses of darkness until they saw a purpose. The housekeeper and gardener are there, too. They will never leave because the house is alive: it is a living breathing organism and they, hungry for blood and for dim, mysterious life, are part of its darkness. The house may be trimmed and tidied and made pretty but, underneath, it will not change. And so the young wife is taken to be with them. And when her husband, upstart from Paris, comes back, he will not find her. Eventually the house and its inhabitants will claim him too. Except that his will not be a quiet taking— or the sin of presuming to buy what forever belonged for ever to somebody else. Something that was never for sale. And all those who live in the wings of the house and in the fine rear garden will play their music, jangle the gold of our upstart, do what cruel things they must to survive and laugh. You could hear them if you went to this village on a summer night when the music is played. But keep your pride in check.

TWO

It is a strange place; a cold street, in which the temperature seems to drop as you round the corner. You feel the breeze cut into you; sometimes you think you must have imagined it, but no: there it is again. A street that looks the same as the last but inescapably, dangerously and, unfortunately, irresistibly different.
The young man, lean and callow, has been called upon to work for the shadowy residents of this street. There, every day, post is delivered, collected from doormats, papers from drives and houses and gardens maintained in apparently pristine condition. And yet, we see no-one, telling ourselves only that the street’s inhabitants must keep shifts or, more exotically, rather bohemian hours. 
So, the young man is called to the fifth house on the street, a tall house, as all the others, with imposing gables and a tall, tall chimney stack. He rings the bell and a lady answers, ivory and willowy, with intense blue eyes. She sees him start just a little, as one does when confronted by such intense beauty. ‘Won’t you come in? So much to do.’
Inside, it is a world away from the modern suburban street, all billowing drapes, vast cabinets of dainty phials and bottles, Venetian mirrors and candelabra. And little cups; so many little cups on narrow shelves. With fluted saucers, Japanese and Chinese designs, lacquer-work. His eye is drawn everywhere all at once and she senses this. ‘Yes: I am quite a collector, as you see.’
Well, I’m wondering, Miss; is it Miss? (it is)—which jobs you need doing.’
Ah, yes, But first, won’t you have some tea? Come through.’
The kitchen is through the long narrow hallway with its unusual intricate pattern of hexagonal tiles. The room has a surprisingly vast azure ceiling, upon which are painted many tiny gold stars. He would have thought it exquisite, had it not already begun to make him dizzy just looking at it for a short while.
She boils water in an old fashioned urn (strange, he thought: why no kettle?); rather too much for tea for two. She makes tea in a lovely, highly polished silver tea pot -again it seems disproportionately large of scale.
‘I
need more shelves, Long thin shelves for my display. I am such a magpie, as you saw. And shallow cabinets for the walls. Like you could see in an old fashioned apothecary. But not so deep and, you know, with drawers. Can you picture what I mean?’
Yes, for the first. That shouldn’t be hard but her second request  would be more difficult. But, as he drinks his tea, he feels he wants to please her, so he agrees to start the job the next day. Although really, his other commitments tell him he should wait. It is something about this lady—and she amuses him too, he thinks as he drinks the tea from more of her little cups.
Next day, he begins and, in a day, the narrow shelves are cut and fitted for the rather bare little ante room off the kitchen. ‘This will be my dining room,’ she says, “You are decorating it for me.’
He drinks more of her tea, even eats some dainty little sandwiches she makes him, and begins work on the cabinets. The work seems to flow from him; oddly, some of his best work to date. Invisible joints and beautifully conceived design. He has surprised himself. But then, standing back from the room, as it begins to come to life with its first fittings, he feels suddenly tired and this she sees.
Come and sit down. In the kitchen.’
She looks more beautiful than ever today,’ he thinks.’Yes, I had better.’
He sits, closes his eyes for a moment to rest. He feels worse. Looking up at the ceiling — at the fine golden stars — he becomes dizzier and dizzier.  And then he sees and remembers no more.
The shadowy inhabitants of the rest of the houses in the street come through interconnecting doorsthey are corporeal, after alland they feast and they drink him dry from the little fluted cups as they sit under the stars. And what they cannot digest, they grind for their medicines and make up and potions and this they place in the shallow apothecaries’ drawers. And thus they retreat to their own homes and the lady with the lovely blue eyes is alone. Until, that is, she crosses her hall to the next visitor, floating across the fine encaustic tiles, which show not hexagons, but pentagons—no pentangles-and say, in the Latin inscription which our carpenter did not know how to read, ‘Caveat venus et stella.’ And if you, too, cannot read this, then you must find out. Just in case.

This last one is about losing a parent as a kid. I don’t think you ever get over it. I had no relationship as an adult, then, with either of my parents. In a way, I have invented who they were. I’m kind of…Asa in  this story. It is ragged and in draft form; the beginning is particularly trite, but see what you think. This is not a piece I will revisit, but it has meaning for me. The text is shot through with lines from Keats, from The Tempest and from Andrew Marvells’s ‘Bermudas’ and ‘The Garden’.

Asa and the Margins of the Known World

Asa: an earnest child, worried about many things; he adored and was ever watchful of his mother; in later and calmer times, he would recall feeling paralysed by anxiety about her during the day. But he never told of this, dissipating it instead by gathering small gifts for her when others were not looking: a fir cone or a curious small piece of ribbon which someone had dropped. It is amazing what a child can find amongst the roots of a holly bush or a monkey puzzle tree: what treasure. The gleam in his eye when he found something for her was his and his alone. The gleam was there, too as he dreamed his special dreams – of chasing tigers through the Sundarbans; of a lady with green almond eyes who cast spells as she rubbed your feet with mustard oil. Closer to home, he knew of the magic song called by a farmer to his cows so that, at night, they could fly. Of the school lollipop lady whose lollipop, when turned this way, showed you the parallel world to yours – the one you see out of the corner of your eye. Don’t you know it is there, even as the tired, myopic adult that you are?

Just on a short walk home from school, Asa could feel the shifting sand and mud as he tracked the dense, halophytic coast: he loved the name – Sundarbans – with its satisfying polysyllabic heft – and he felt all at once the mysterious substance, mutability and danger of its landscape; its tidal swell and tangle of mangrove. But then, the boy could hear the whispers of the giant banyan in the botanical gardens in Calcutta or reflect that Fern Hill lived both in an imagined seam of Wales and in our real world as a halt on a narrow and lazily meandering railway line in Southern India: it was a train stop in Pondicherry. You can look it up, of course. Neither is more true than the other. The boy found fantasy no less satisfying or believable than our tidy quotidian life. For him, fact and fiction merged with a satisfying gorgeousness that, to the unobservant adult, was perplexing indeed.

Asa was handsome and athletic, but appeared otherwise disengaged from school; the sort of boy who appears tired, with glazed eyes. Sometimes his mother wept for him because in her heart she heard and felt his difference. His eye did not gleam like a cat in class. His teachers, in striving to mould him this way and that, expressed much concern about the boy. To one he was “worryingly tired”: to another “A strange boy; a quirky boy.” Did he rest well? Did he test for anaemia? Wasn’t she worried? And why didn’t he read what they gave him to read? She was an intelligent parent; she must understand how a child cannot thrive without his varied diet of books.

But at home, Asa did not merely read, he fed on books and followed lines on maps to places whose names sated his tongue. Descriptions of trees, extraordinary things, feasts, islands, magicians, love at first sight, noble savages, cloven pines, the censer old, a beaded rosary, frosted breath and lustrous salvers. Of course, Asa did not always fully understand what he read, but sensed its importance and atmosphere inchoately, if not completely. And afterwards, he held the words in his hands and in his pockets – sometimes with the treasures of which I spoke at the beginning of this story. And he also kept a small notebook in which he would write down lines he had found particularly transporting; the notebook had wide margins which he peopled with faces and musical notes and trees with swaying arms. The book was often accompanied by a miniature book or two: tiny leafed texts he made which were filled with ideas, rules and structures for his real and imaginary worlds. He found that time and time again he returned to two elderly texts which sat side by side on his parents’ bookshelves: one was a copy of ‘The Tempest’ and the other ‘The Poetical Works of John Keats’.

In the wood near his garden, he would go to his wishing tree. A beech tree with a trunk that felt kind. “I wish” he would say “that I could fly. That people did not argue. That my mother never got tired.” And his mother thought she would like a tree too – so she could shout to it “The boy does read – but he does not read your books. He is, sweetly, stubbornly, an extraordinary child. He is a storyteller and weaver of dreams. May I say you could stuff that in your pipe and smoke it? Ha!”

Asa’s grandfather silently understood him. On Sundays afternoons, they would tend the walled garden by his house, look after the chickens and sometimes, when they made a bonfire, grandfather would make fire toast on the flames. It was, the boy thought, the most delicious thing ever – all blackened at the edges and disapproved of by his grandmother. And he knew that, later, when his grandparents dozed, he could take his notebook and write in it, inscribing little worlds in the margins around a poem or a short story. One of his own or something copied from his grandparents’ fusty old books. At home, too, he would lose himself in the endless afternoons, letting the jellies and fruits on the table laden by Porphyro arrest his senses and come dripping from his tongue; feeling, with Caliban, that he cried to dream again as he etched the dimensions of his fine island in the margins of his book. Marvellous sweet music. I have it. Check. Noises. Check. And then, as he read of Antonio’s wonderment at the isle, the boy added the mythical one tree of Arabia, where was set the throne of the phoenix. He had read somewhere that its nest was redolent of spices and made of burnished wood. There, now, came the strange shapes bringing in a banquet. And a unicorn: all check. And while he was not so good at drawing a unicorn, and was unsure what the one tree which held the phoenix throne might look like, yet when he had finished, he fancied the former had a glint in his eye and the latter a supine trunk, bedecked with a velvet bark. And that the phoenix smiled, if a phoenix could.

At home, Asa went on with creating his world. In hidden corners of his room,
were the miniature books. One was of rules for the room – “No smoking; no stealing: you have to share your sweets in this room” – and another, more complex, of the myriad rules for an imaginary world. Or maybe for two or three worlds. “In this world, there are kind unicorns and lots of bright colours everywhere. There are soft things to sit on and, if you know the words to write and read, everything is edible and delicious. Mothers are not tired and everyone is pleased and happy. There are always music, soft lights and a way through the maze. There are angels who are very kind. And also there are feasts of “syrups tinct with cinnamon” and “jellies soother than the creamy curd.” Asa imagined that a feast which glowed like that must be magnificent to eat indeed. And you ate it as the amethyst and rose bloom fell, by what must be the grace of moonshine through the casement, upon your hand and arm. The room behind you was dark, treacherously so. But for the feast, the darkness would be kind.

No-one but Asa saw the rules; he suspected the other boys would not understand. Nine year old boys do not, after all, generally climb a tree, raise a bonfire and then sit down to an afternoon reading Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ or listen hungrily to Caliban’s “riches ready to drop upon me.” At night, sometimes, the boy dug his nails into his hands with the thought of his difference and of the way in which his strange little books, the busy margins and the fusty volumes were his best friends. But he did not cry out or even think he should ask why this made him feel so sad. Instead, he tried to think of the unicorn or his grandfather’s hens, lines of vegetables, the old warm red brick of the walled garden, the lilting voice of the farmer down the lane calling to his cows (did that call hide magic?) or maybe the taste of fire toast and the prayer which pierces so. And the possibility of hope and friendship in a book or the curious and deeply furrowed face of an ancient man. A face which you had drawn, within a fine bower of leaves, in the margin of your notebook. Then, you felt comforted and less alone. The old face lived alongside the vertical line around which you had drawn ivy – and it smiled up at you. Or so you thought as you suddenly came across it.

Mum was tired. Asa thought she was beautiful but he could also see the purpling under her eyes. It was Advent – to Asa the season of lights and candles and darkness flickering with small flames. He added to the rules of the imaginary world: “There, they will look after my mother” and the rules of the room “You cannot come in if you are happy because it will make you unhappy” and then, “Candles are banned in this room and near this room because candles make us think of God and God did not stop my mother being ill.” He hoped for charms like Prospero’s and wings like Ariel; for Caliban’s rebellion and sometimes, when angry, even to drown his book. For how did

it ever help? Surely it provided little solace now, however pretty its words or how pleasing the details of the faces in its margins? For knowledge of illness and of an ending coming – maybe coming; how could he know? – made the boy separate. His eyes had never been bluer. He was tall and fast and lithe. Still didn’t really care that much about what they taught him in school, so caught up was he in the things that interested him most, worried him most and terrified him most. And so, at the end of the day, he determined that he should apply his wits to the task. He must take to his room and his pen to keep building a world, with its rules and special constructs; he must keep company with a notebook in which the margins helped to give shape to such a world and transcribe what, without ink and graphite, could pass us by.

Downstairs, at night, he could hear his mother’s breathing coming more heavily. And while his blue eyes shone at their best for her the next morning, he thought she had never looked prettier and wondered if other boys thought their mothers so lovely. As he straightened a pillow for her, she began to tell him a story: it came in breathless snatches sometimes, but it held him firm. It was a traveller’s tale – of her own invention, he thought. She began with the delivery from peril at sea of our hero and his friends, as they bested a watery maze and rounded the shore of a new world, where they saw azure on white and the rich, bountiful fruits hanging like golden lamps in a green night. For now, the story was left unfinished – but her son tasted the orient fruit all day and on that winter’s night, peripheral vision tempted him with fleeting glances of that most numinous citrus grove, glowing in his darkness.

It was a Wednesday when it happened. She’d been sleeping when he left for school, although maybe she had murmured to him in his sleep. Perhaps another shred of story? In later years he liked to think so. She didn’t wake. His teacher took him out to the Headmaster’s office and there was his grandfather to stand by his side. Asa couldn’t cry but just kept thinking of the rules of his room and whether, if you thought really hard, you could will things to happen or not to happen. If you thought magically, the magic could begin. If you could, through some enchantment, make events converge upon you and steer them somehow upon a different path. If you could call up golden lamps in a green night and steer your way through a maze.

So Asa steeled himself. How could it hurt? He felt entirely alone without the scratch of the pen and the sure, soft touch of the turning page. He began to write; to doodle, hatch and scrawl. On the silent walk home from school that day he planned it all. That really hard thought would bring a world he created to life. And from this world, a creation of his could extend a cordial hand to his mother (cordial was not his word of course; it is mine, as I favour its fine, old fashioned temper), wake her and bring her back safe and rested and with her breathing even and the dark circles gone from under her eyes. And the worlds in the margins: if he filled them with extraordinary words and lands and the finest lines a boy could muster; if he could write that “she is immortal, but by immortal providence she is mine” and somehow elicit a response to set his darkness echoing, over and over – how would that be?

The silence continued in the house. He felt her but knew she was not there; he could still smell the lily of the valley cologne with which she used to dab her pulse points when she was tired or distracted or wanted to feel (he thought) more beautiful. Yet there was, he felt, an unsettling but fascinating blending of his sleeping and his waking hours. Like subtleties of the isle, he told himself. In his room he found a notebook he had yet to write in and he began. First, the margin. He tried once more to draw a unicorn; a kindly looking sea monster; a tree with strong arms: he made Caliban with a happy face and saw the joy of the sprite released to the elements, all clad in silver filigree and with gossamer wings like a dragonfly. Today his fingers worked quickly; there was an ease he did not think he had felt before. Resting for a moment, Asa screwed up his eyes and imagined that the creatures swayed and smiled and leaned towards him. Did they? No: it could never be. So he began to write – thought of his rules again. And he wrote this:

“I have changed the rules of my room a bit because now they are the rules of the world outside my room too. If you are here (or there) and you are speaking to me, you need to be happy and to believe in magic. Or maybe you need to believe in God. I don’t believe in him yet, but I am trying to. You also have to draw things with content eyes and strong hands because then you can help me to lift up my mother and make her strong and well wherever she is. And I need to hear the end of the story she only began.”And his pen dropped from his hand and the boy slept. He slept until the next day, when his grandfather came to wake him. “Never seen a boy sleep so long, old son” said his grandfather, winking at him. Asa was still in a half sleep, feeling the warm sand of the isle between his toes and the thousand twangling sounds in his ears.

And so, by day, it went on; be as expected at school, cope with the gentle concern of a teacher, climb a tree and kick a ball. But tell no-one of the notebook just yet. Then home to scribble and draw and doodle in the book, less so the page than its now intricately filled margin. This time, wise old owls who knew the secrets of all men, a kindly old lady who knew the truth in your heart and would wrap it up and never tell but, knowing it, would help you on your way wherever or whatever that way might be. And an imposing face – something like the face of God as the boy imagined it, blowing the clouds here and there and casting shafts of sunlight on to the Earth. Again – was there a little movement in the margin? Again, the boy screwed up his eyes hard and unscrewed them; he looked out of the very corner of his eye to see if he could see that parallel world to our own of which I told you at the beginning of this story.

“Put down the book now, old son” said his grandfather on the day of the church service. So many little candles flickering and sometimes guttering: out of darkness and waiting we will come to the light. Outside, he screwed up his eyes again and thought hard. Hard enough to make things happen, if a person ever could. Thought through funeral tea and tears and a bedtime in which his grandfather choked back sobs as they went about their evening routine. And then later, when he was alone, Asa continued to draw. The ivory pages were empty apart from a neatly underlined date and his name on each page but the margins were a thing to celebrate: that were becoming ever more detailed; fluent; confident. Before he fell asleep that night, with the book across his chest, the boy had drawn another unicorn, whose expression was definitely quizzical; knowing and laughing. And there was a mountain whose sides and shades showed the measure of their memories and a stream whose clear voice rang out with no sound. And the softness and the kindness of these things held Asa through a night of dreams which might have haunted, but instead of which cared for him and carried him through to another day. One in which he would be stronger and ever finer at drawing and a little more aware of the magic that does, indeed, lie within. Within the scope of our ink as we write and draw and within our minds, as we read.

Thus it was that, a few days later, Asa looked through his old rules, housed in the miniature books. He banished those which spoke of sadness – and any tiny page which seemed hopeful he placed inside the notebook whose margins became fuller and finer with each day. The tree with long arms and a wise face; the lady, the ancient man in his fine bower of leaves, a wise owl or two, the unicorns, sea monsters, streams and mountains all woven into one never-ending story. It is a story which you only break for a taste of delicious fire toast or to read so that the words fill your mouth while they usher forth a sense of something extraordinary glimpsed, but not yet understood.

I know this curious tale to be true because Asa is an extraordinary child. And also because I am his mother. So I hold his hand while he writes and fills those beautiful margins and together, telling stories, we walk through the green night, lit safely by golden lamps.