Hydra stark

Bats, cats and kittens and smoke in lines of sullen purple. They cross the sun setting sky. It’s getting darker now and the bounce of the waves and the noise of the wind are slowly quietening. The bats keep the mosquitos at bay and the cats hang around, less afraid and keener to settle. The kittens sing their mewling harmonies, the Fledermouse choir in full squeal and squeak. And Fledermouse’s little body is catching up with his enormous ears, and they appear diminished. Together, bats, cats and kittens and we watch the carbon creased sea at dusk and see it soft and buttery at dawn. In between, it’s fine crosshatching shifts and twists the stream and stirs the shadowed blues, indigos and blacks. Turquoised and bleached white under a sea taxi’s urgent churn.

The last two days have been days of low cloud and mist, the torpid air sliding steaming hot beneath it. It’s a concoction of rain, for rain. Rain on the water, water in the air. The sky lies heavy, overcast, lethargic and lazy. Damp and soft the air resting on indolent bodies draped on the rocks by an idling sea. We step carefully along the rocks, some nimble, some slow, careful and cautious not to fall. Even someone Paul said is agile as a bank safe makes it to the water. Big splash. We swim crazy far or float toes up or stare down into the deep, snorkelled and goggled to watch the many fish.

Above water the wind is shouty and jazzed, keen. On the shore we see the waves shatter and fray and we hear the sea’s many voices, cacaphonous as they slap at the rocks in some secret dance or unrecognised ritual. Wave shaped whispers or sudden splashy shouts on a rising wind. No sign yet of the goose feathers floating on rising crests. But they are coming soon as the air begins to chill and the winds grow resolute. The summer is drawing to its close and the sea’s changing shapes tells us this. It is time to go.

Hydra static

We’re on the island of Hydra once again. We never go anywhere else when we come to Greece and yet each time our experience of this tiny island is different. This time it’s just us, no family, no friends, no one else joining us, no one to see off at the ferry. And this time learning Greek and to practise motoring about the island in a powerboat. We’ve got the licenses, so now’s the time to put the training into action. Not sure how it will go. Bump bump on the waves a given, but hopefully not bump bump splash. Man over board!

What else is new? Nothing and all of it. We’ve spotted a new buzz of beehives grazing the stipled hillside. They sit halfway up with slender terraces holding them in place in case they have cause to slide. In the early mornings across the amber dawns we hear an excessively keen cock crowing. He reminds us that we want to stay asleep a little longer. And once we manage to blur out his crows there is the tap tap tapping of a building project just below our studio. The project is a grey stone house with a tidy pair of Roman arches and a soon to be completed pitched roof. The workers tap in regular rhythms, each nail whacker managing different numbers of strikes with his hammer. They speak in broken English across several languages, but besides English we only recognise Albanian and Greek.

Throughout the day we are treated to the whine and squeaks of a lonely dog and its token toy. The Huskey dog has pointy ears that touch at their peaks and white rimmed eyes. The eyes and the tilted head implore us to entertain her every time we peer into the pen to check she’s got water. Her conversation, at first annoying, is repetitive enough to be somehow reassuring. We hear her above the wind and through the stillness of the air, the heat and the cool of nighttime.

And the sea. Under strong winds its glorious bounce and embrace were sometimes too tight. Now that the wind has dropped the sea’s languid rise and fall seduces, tempting us ever further from shore, to ever further depths. We swim along the shore searching for an octopus and her garden, or out to the safety buoys. Beyond the buoys the sea taxis surge rapid and reckless between the port and the many bays along the island’s eastern coast. They go beyond occasionally, following pleasure cruisers and rented yachts that rely on motor power instead of the wind. Perhaps these sailors are afraid of losing control of direction and speed. Next stop Cyprus?

We climb hundreds of steps and more steps every day to reach our little cubby hole set high above the sea. Our window frames our view of the sea and the roof of the dog’s house and through the window pass the echoes of the sea taxi engines and random voices in the night. They float along on the shh shh shh of a susurrous Saronic sea. It sounds softly slow, sensuous in the night. And we are together.

Once And Only Upon a Time

Life began on a sunny day at an open air concert in a west London park. She was there with her best friend and it was the first time they’d been allowed to go to London on their own. They had taken the train up from Kent, clutching bags with squash and sweets, spam sandwiches, cheap eye pencils, lipsticks, small mirrors. Such traumas, checking make-up and hair without the other passengers noticing. The journey was long and slow, steam powered and loud. A flurry of hurried squeaks and whispers, and tangled groans beneath hunched and restless shoulders. Flashes of colour passing by, the warmth of the sun on the windows, noise and smoke. And being serious and grown-up in their carriage, not looking up and staring when the compartment door slammed shut and strangers with their curious scents sat down.

Not yet fifteen they were still, barely, the sort of girls who hadn’t yet forgotten that being a grown-up looked like a lot of trouble, like something best avoided. They had no need to hurry yet, no need yet for passion or anger, nor resentment, argument. They didn’t yet hate their mums or dads, nor yet seek conflict. Still just young enough to hold instead the threads of childhood, they knew not yet furies, nor nameless fears, or anger. Soon enough they would take this turn but not now, not today.

Arriving at Victoria station all grime and black specked, shuffling their way out of the train and stopping midspill on the platform, staring amazed, unaware of an unwritten story. Young and pretty and bewildered, floating on an ocean of hurried strangers. A young man turned and stared and the two didn’t notice him look away embarrassed for his thoughts and their youth. The girls saw him working through the crowd, narrow shoulders in a black leather jacket and darkish hair too dirty to be black or brown. He was in his early twenties and he disappeared.

The pair went slowly forwards, floating out of the station with the crowd. They had written details of what to do next. If they got too anxious for the tube the instructions said to wait under the clock for Evelyn’s dad coming up on the next train. Jostled in the crowd the paper clutched in a white gloved hand that was already grubby, no way would they wait. A sea of shapes and colours, unnavigable as they were moved along anxious, excited with frequent glances at the note. They found the District Line.

The tube monstrous big and openjawed and begging, as they hurried down the wooden escalator and scrambled into a carriage with the smoke and loud like the train, and hot and grimey. Watching as the darkness slides by, sudden halts and unravelling strangers’ tales, the chaotic mess of colours, shapes, alien forms and gazing into other peoples’ pictures. A world unfolding around them and it could never look like this again. The spell of the first time of seeing, first awareness of life passing along on the other side of a window. Strangers stinking and rumpled, the men watchful, the women with their eyes away. Shunted about for six stops, getting out and then following the hand drawn map to the little park. It took only half an hour from when the train arrived at Victoria for them to reach their stop at Parsons Green, triumphant, timeless and surprised to be there at all.

The concert was some sort of charity benefit for an aging musician friend of a friend of Ella’s dad. When he’d asked her if they’d like to go, Ella couldn’t believe he was serious. Up to London almost alone? It hadn’t much mattered what charity it was, the details were ragged remnants, crumpled and buried.

By the time the girls were going through the park gates, the first couple of acts had already been and gone. The crowd was buzzy, up for a good time, drinking and smoking, some dancing. The girls moved nervous, blushing by turns, weaving to get close to the stage, giggling when their bottoms were pinched and never seeing who did it. It wasn’t much of a stage because it wasn’t much of a gig. Meagre trappings with just a few banners, and tents with warm beer and cheese and ham rolls. A small London park and a small tribute concert to someone mostly long forgotten. Evelyn’s dad’s friend was already smiling out from the stage, watching as the girls inched their way forward. He was drumming to some slow jazz, musing on their prettiness, their youth and sweetness, wondering how he got to be so old.

The girls hadn’t even noticed there was jazz playing. They had had no idea about the music, pulling faces and rolling their eyes when it started up. But a steady beat, everyone bopping along, jigjiggily, cheerily, gentle afternoon contentment warming through the crowd. Mostly the people seemed to Evelyn and Ella to be ancient, but there were some teenagers there. Not many, and mostly girls just enough older than them to be in another, far more vigorous league. The song bumped along, and all around them even the teenagers were having a good time. The song ended and a young man ambled on stage. He glanced reluctant at the crowd, waving, smiling, leaning into the microphone to sing.

Years later the young man was famous, an international star, renowned, respected, rich, unreachable, but that day his fame glimmered only slightly. That day he looked everywhere else but at the audience, at the ground, at his feet, off to the side of the stage, everywhere else. But there was a sense of voice, of look that together would have much more to say. It shone from him. Like the girls the young man was on the edge of what comes next.

Ella didn’t remember whose son it was and nor did Evelyn, but they both remembered him for the rest of their lives. An edgy sharp memory tangled up with how the squashy warm sandwiches tasted and the sound and rhythm of the train, the roll and rumble of a dirty tube carriage. He sang a lazy, drawly song, dragging out the notes from phrase to phrase, idling along never out of touch, bar to bar. He was why so many young people were there. A bright young thing, a soon to be rising star, still playing with his dad’s friends, still waiting to pounce on a world he would own.

He asked for requests from the audience. Bold and brave Ella blurted out her’s in a sudden rush of brash unexpected excitement. She always remembered the moment and how Evelyn had taken up the shout more clearly and loudly. He refused unless she agreed to come up on stage and ask out loud into the microphone. She blushed and said no, but never forgot the echo of the repeated request, not just his but of the band all teasing, tempting her reluctant, growing courage. When she made her way towards the stage, her heart was pounding, knees shaking and suddenly willing to talk a strange man. To hear him teasing, laughing, flirtatious, in front of all those people she was suddenly willing. Such wicked delight, such power. Evelyn turned and faced the crowd and saw her dad waving at the back. Bold and loud “please sing Seven Golden Daffodils” and he smiled, heard the murmurs of approval from the band and cleared his throat, watching as she walked to the edge of the stage, climbed down and disappeared.

And much, much later he was much, much older, dying on some distant shore, career and seven marriages long since gone. Memories of countless children, grandchildren, and a life that was altogether too complicated, he still remembered that day, that moment. He remembered her long pale blonde hair, her grey eyes, the sullen scowl that turned suddenly into light. And he remembered the wondrous beauty of her youth, her luminous unguarded smile and the polite thanks. He could still see her relief, the wave of sudden trust and confidence as she thanked him for bringing her this moment in this wonderful day. She had turned and walked away, burning hot amidst shouting applause and raucous cheers, he smiling as she went and wondering how old she was. Too young he knew, and yet. She was gone before he could find her, but he too never forgot that day, that moment.

And for all the boys and men she would meet, for all the friends and lovers she would have and for all the worlds she was to pass through that he would not share, he knew they would all happen and they would all be to him as theft. Smiling as she went, he saw passing this theft he could not counter, could not prevent or undo. A moment history stole away, a moment fragile, glittering, shimmering forever on the edge of his powerless, endless sight. She stayed there always on the edge of his reality, waiting not for him, watching not for him, toying forever with only the promise of her own world. That theft and its memory remained with him always and could never be forgiven. The theft of promise untold, of love unknown.


When Audrey met Angus

People milling around the slightly stuffy private room of a high-end London restaurant, working hard to look earnest and purposeful. Audrey stood alone, slightly removed and observing rather than joining in. She was wondering what she could possible have to say to these middle-aged old fogeys. Something about the nursery, about working in the rag trade or penning articles for fashion mags that would get completely rewritten. As long as the money came in. But none of that would be meaningful to these bookish London types.

Audrey was too young to be in this gathering. She was there as a favour, bullied into attending the launch by her cousin who had penned the book. “I need warm bodies, I need youth, excitement. Please do say you’ll come, I really do need you. And it’s just this once. Come on, say you will” David was imploring, batting his eyes and sweeping one hand through impossibly shiney hair. An untipped cigarette clamped between his stained fingers, he stared at Audrey holding his wild lashes upright. The cigarette was carefully positioned between first and second fingers at the third knuckle, nestling close to his palm like a weapon. They were in her flat and David had been babysitting for his goddaughter, sound asleep in the next room. “Please do say yes, please.” David was almost begging now.

Given the circumstances, Audrey really had no choice unless she wanted to say goodbye to the babysitting. Smiling at her foppish cousin she had agreed, and now there she was bored, slightly irritated and overhearing pretentious bookish conversations. A cliquéy bunch of well-worn people were diligently name-dropping. Many were smokers and all, rather like David, looked pale and slightly unwell. It was 1983, and within a few years many of the men in the group, David included, would be over. But those sorry years were yet to come.

The venue was annoying Audrey as much as the name-dropping, but she conceded that the space suited the people around her. An excess of gold leafed curlicues on very tall Corinthian columns adorned with more layers of curly bits than was strictly necessary. The walls were a slightly too bright blue, yellowing in far corners, ancient tar and nicotine layered amber and grubby onto hard white details. Enormous glass vases full of blowsy bright flowers hinted funereal. Swagged floral hangings with deep pelmets and curtains held back with yet more swaggery gave this posh venue an certain air. The intention was exclusivity and elegance, but there was also something Audrey couldn’t quite place. She had a feeling that overpriced Americans would like it. She watched smoke curls meander towards the ceiling. Like the clothes, so the décor she noted. Vulgarity. Excessively padded shoulders and draped jackets in loud patterns echoed the pelmets and swags. Heads of permed curls on random men and women wrote curving lines, their shapes mimicing the gawdy flowers. She stayed in her corner  excluded but unaccosted.

Sipping at the unidentifiable pink punch someone had handed her, Audrey decided that this whole thing really wasn’t for her. The publisher was already warming up with the microphone and Audrey didn’t much like the look of her. Audrey moved towards her cousin to make her excuses and duck out before the presentations began.

David was in the midst of a small group most of whom were staring at him with intense concentration. After all, he is the author, and all due deference must be shown. That he wasn’t Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie really didn’t matter to them. This young man with his pale skin and long eyelashes is an author, and might someday become a somebody author. They listened as he explained the book (long), his writing journey (rapid) and his intentions for his readers (no need to read it, just buy it). David in full swing was amusing although his listeners were too intent to notice. All but one.

Audrey noticed a fellow who was not playing the game. He was red faced and aiming an unfortunate array of badly cared for teeth at the smokey ceiling. His head was thrown back and his mouth about as wide open as it would go. He was totally abandoned, his unrestrained guffaw a sharp loud Hah!. He was a young man dressed as an old one, a young man already a little worn and tired with broken blood vessels in his nose and a wicked twinkle in his extremely bright blue eyes. So that’s what cornflower blue eyes look like, thought Audrey. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five always had friends with cornflower blue eyes and now she knew what Enid had been on about. And she could not help but stare.

Audrey smiled unawares at the man’s unfettered delight at what David was saying. “Well you see Angus was one of my best options for the case studies, since he’s never put a foot wrong in business. At least as far as I can see.” A deferential giggle, fingertips over lips, engaging dimples as David smiled naughty and conspiratorial at his friend. Angus got himself under control and dabbed at his eyes with a very crumpled paisley handkerchief. The rest of the men and women nodded, murmuring a range of inaudible and probably meaningless sentences. Property tycoon. Entrepreneur. Money. They were loving it. Angus bemused, noticed an elegant woman on the edge of the circle.

Audrey, still smiling, found herself caught in a wash of cornflower blue. The mumbling and name-dropping faded and she saw only this man with his loud trousers and silk waistcoat, his patterned brogues and that ridiculous handkerchief. Angus stood very still smiling back at her, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. He was patting the back of his head, an unconscious gesture of hesitation that she would very soon come to find endearing. The thick irongrey mane reached just a little too far down his neck, trimmed to sit a bit below the line of his collar. The shape of his receding hairline with its longish peak and deep valleys added symetry and strength to the face. Audrey saw that this man could never be quite what he seemed. He’s somehow quite attractive she noted and sipped some more at the pink stuff. She guessed his age to be about ten years older than her, but calculated that the fags and booze and what sounded like a lot of excitement in his life may have aged him. In this Audrey was spot on.

She turned to a nearby table, one of several sporting ashtrays, mixed nuts and copies of David’s book. There were little cardboard signs too, telling people that David would be happy to autograph purchased copies. His publisher, one of the larger commercial imprints had high hopes for Journeys into the Undergrowth of Commerce and How to Cut Through to the Heart of Success. The editor had told David that adding “How to” to a title was likely to increase sales in the book’s target market. It was also her idea that David should include case studies of known success stories, particularly in property, “because everyone’s got a chance to make it in property”. David’s close friend Angus was the obvious choice having had some spectacular successes at a surprisingly young age. And they knew one another so well. 

By the time Angus got to Magdalen, he was already investing in dull but reliably lucrative businesses: a garage here, an off-license there, and soon he had enough leverage available to move on to flats and commercial developments. His aptitude and intuition were indeed uncanny and money begat more money and more money begat more options. There was no need to fictionalise the case study content for David, but it had seemed better than the inconvenient scrutiny too much attention might attract. David and Angus had been friends since Magdalen. They shared an affinity for cautious omission when it came to factual inclusiveness. Subsequent training in law at Stanford had brought them closer though not more intimate. They shared the belief that any sense of being in any way accountable to anyone, should be buried very deep. The conviction never weakened.

But Audrey was aware of none of this. She saw only her extremely vain cousin in Cripps loafers and a linen suit crumpled just-so and a loud jolly man in bright red corduroys and a floral waistcoat squeezing just a little too tightly over his belly. The strain was only slightly less extreme with his head thrown back to laugh she mused. When the creator of the perfect case study for a business self-help title became aware of her smile, he had beamed back. Tipping his head slightly to one side, he raised his glass and Audrey couldn’t shut down her smile although she tried. As Angus sidled towards her, a sense of kinship and empathy that started with a loud laugh at a not very funny joke embraced her, and she found herself drifting not unwillingly into another’s orbit. She knew only that those ridiculous clothes, the laughter, the shrewdness she could see glittering behind the eyes, were hers alone, whatever else may also be true.

Midnight, Memory and the Greyhounds

Thank you to the motorway people who closed the M25 the other night at around midnight at Heathrow Airport. In both directions. Under a Blood Moon, which was lovely but of no help. Grubby yellow signs pointed occasionally to an alternative route for diverted motorists. Not at all diverting. After we were mostly almost in Maidenhead, we decided to turn back and try to get on to the M25 motorway via the M4. This is a lovely road that takes you straight into London instead of Maidenhead. The M4’s charm is only enhanced by the reductions of four lanes to one, and more of the helpful Diverted Traffic signs. Their reappearance was familiar but not particularly useful. You have to be pretty eagle eyed to spot the signs lurking in the bushes, but we soon understood it’s just part of the game. The signs don’t really point you in any handy direction nor are they diverting. They are nonspecific, so could be for all sorts of other long-way-round routes. You could very easily end up back in Maidenhead without realising it. Another even more exciting level in the game.

In the end we stuck with the M4 and decided to give up trying to get onto the M25 at all. It was by this time very late and scope for serious error huge; the spectre of Maidenhead loomed large. Whatever Maidenhead’s charms, the prospect of ending up there instead of at home was enough to keep us focused as we trundled along, heading southeast as the blood moon rose and slowly yellowed behind unseen clouds.

As we approached Chiswick I remembered that I learned to drive on the smokey streets of south London. Surely finding our way on the South Circular Road, aka the A205 was a matter of finding the correct patches of memory and piecing them together. The A205 runs from east London, somewhere around Beckton all the way to the Chiswick Flyover which is where the M4 peters out. If you head west from the Woolwich Ferry you pass through Clapham Common and Wandsworth, Putney and Barnes, and eventually you get to Kew Bridge. Yay! Thank you little grey cells, not so decrepit after all. Must be all that fish oil. We crossed the bridge under the paling half moon and over the Thames, sliding lazy and velvety towards the estuary.

In Gothenburg visiting our children and grandchildren we had been watching back to back episodes of Ted Lasso and his eventually successful Greyhounds, a ficticious football team, AFC Richmond. It was ironic that we found ourselves trawling the streets of Richmond, following its meandering one-way system bereft of useful signs but lined with small shops in irregular shapes and sizes. I had either forgotten that there was a one-way system or it is a new thing. We passed the Rose Theatre where I saw Equus for the first time and Teddington Lock where the fish slapping scene in a 1971 Monty Python episode was filmed. The night was still, warm and the road super slow, thanks to 20 mph speed restrictions and humps in the road. Being so tired it was easy to feel relaxed, especially as there was virtually no traffic. Memory once awake flooded my mind with pictures of so many excursions in and around southwest London, its suburbs and endless Surrey countryside. Our route, flawless we later discovered when we looked at the map, took us past Epsom and skirted the Downs where I used to ride out for various racehorse trainers. Memories of the people I knew and the people I had forgotten about seeped across the images of old places and added new dimensions to the stories sliding around in my sleepy brain.

Someone recently told me that I don’t think like an old person, which might be true. But I can definitely remember like an old person, and being an old person there is a massive stock of stories locked up in all those dozing grey cells. Decades worth. It just took a closed motorway and a desperate desire to get home to have a reason to wake up those old patterns. And I have been thinking about them ever since and wondering where I will find the next story, sunk deep in the past but jumping unexpectedly into the here and now. Now is all that matters, but it sits between then and what’s to come. That’s what makes it so very exciting.


Fourth of July

“I don’t want to argue with you again”. Her mother sitting at the dressing table fiddling with false eyelashes that were really too large for her face, both in length and width. “It’s just a barbeque, just down there in the clubhouse. It’s all been redone and it’s all the people you know” her daughter whined. “Used to know. Used to know honey, before, and now I don’t know them. We don’t hang with those people anymore.” A false eyelash on the tip of an impeccable fingernail. When she’d made her pick at Forever Nailed they had explained that this shape of dip nails is called stiletto. Stiletto. It’s how something far off in her memory felt, something sharp and painful; almost lost. In a distant part of her booze-riddled recollections, the something was keen and deadly but like the eyelashes, sticky and false. The eyelashes may be a mistake, she pondered. But she had read that today’s European women wear falsh lashes. Ever on trend, it was worth a try to look cool, young and hip. The stiletto nails weren’t helping but finally there they were, false eyelashes mostly in place. A distraction from the wrinkles.

Standing behind watching her mom as she fiddled with the rest of her makeup, Jessica flipped her hair and sighed deep, breathy and long. “Mom you know it’s ok, why are you being such a bitch about this?” Pencil sharp the lipline almost wavering, she answers low “used to know honey, used to know. It means I don’t trust them, don’t want to see them again. Especially with so many strangers hanging out in the complex for the Fourth. I just don’t trust those people to not be weird with us. You need to come with me to Chris and Elaine’s and enjoy the fireworks from the city. It’s better there than the view from the shore.”

Fourteen years old and calling her Mom a bitch. And getting away with it, duly noted for future reference. Fourteen years old and spoilt and selfish and shaping up to be quite the piece of work. She flounced out and missed the swig her Mom takes in between touching up the eyelashes and reapplying lip liner. It steadies her hand she tells herself.

Dibbling at her ’phone Jessica is seething. “Bitch” she hisses, a rehearsal of sorts so’s she’s ready for the next time. Checking out her Instagram stats isn’t helping and she’s bored with the dumb TikTok videos. In a brief moment of sense, she ponders that there’s only so many pratfalls and bottox gone-wrongs that she can be bothered to watch. Instead she checks out Twitch but the gaming stuff is too boring. Her mind slips back to the 4th of July barbecue down by the pool later today. All the people she knows in this dump will be there. It’s the old ones her mom is so bothered about but Jessica doesn’t know why. What it was that happened here when she was staying with dad in Laguna.

Sprawled on her bed, ’phone in hand she’s chewing her lip, defiant and unrepentent. She’s got nothing in common with Chris and Elaine. They’re her mom’s friends. Realtors, and Jessica is convinced they’re only interested in her mom’s money. To be fair there’s a lot of it and her mom’s drinking is turning her into a great target for sleazeballs like Chris and Elaine. The conversations always start with how much some dude made when Chris and Elaine helped flip a unit or property. And they go on all the time at her mom about the condo’s value. They so miss the point. And though they fuss over mom, they ignore Jessica or offer her junk snacks in the way of people with no kids. They’ve no clue that kids are the same as them. Kids haven’t done as much, but they can be just as dangerous. At least Jessica can. She remembers the patronising tone, the way creepy Chris watches her and how they both want her to just stay in front of the tv while they get her mom even more drunk. As if. They usually stay over with them because mom can’t drive if she’s blind drink. In the mornings though mom always wants to get home, get back to the shore and out of the city. Back to her space.

Jessica didn’t do Tinder very often but she figured there might be something interesting. A few swipes and it was clear that it was mostly dweeby creeps flicking right. Saddos. But whoa, here was something, a boy with curly black hair and a weird smile. Hard looking eyes and he was her age. And here, here in the same complex. And at the pool going crazy like her. His profile looked ok. Santa Monica High School. Swimmer. Samohi honours. And he’s already swiped right. Why not. Swipe right. And there it is, a match.

The eyelashes sort of in place, her mom came out of the bedroom, slightly too made up and in distress. Jessica noted crooked eyelashes, overly smudged red lips and vodka magic. Then she saw that her mother had tears in her eyes. She shows Jessica the phone message: Have to bail. Covid. Bummer. Next time. “I called. They’re cancelling. Elaine’s tested positive for Covid so they’re staying home, so we’re staying home too I guess.” As she turned away, Jessica didn’t really get that it was such a big deal, but she reached out to her mother and held her tight. “Mom that’s ok. It’s cool. We can just, you know, hang out here,” adding “Mom are you listening, we’ll hang out here, we’ll just hang out at the pool. It’ll be cool.” Jessica heard her mom’s answer: “I guess so. We can just keep out of their way. We can take the food we were going to take to Chris and Elaine.” The vodka was definitely doing its job. Her mom sniffed and picked a stray eyelash from her daughter’s hair. “I guess I don’t need these by the pool.” “No mom, you don’t”.

Jessica watched her mother bump into the couch as she headed back to her room. A few minutes later she came back minus the eyelashes and with her streaked face tidied up. They went down in the elevator together holding salads and snacks, Jessica picturing the young boy and her mother picturing the older men and women she wanted to avoid. She sniffed and squared her shoulders. She gave the fortified marguerita mix she was carrying a reassuring shake and they headed over to the pool complex.

It was already busy with a gaggle of heavy, red-faced men playing chef on the dozen barbeques. Lighter fluid, smoke and testosterone. The barbeques are a permanent feature of this secure clubhouse and pool area. They sit safe behind high walls and a security guard or two who follow tight rules for cross-checked passes and id’s. Jessica and her Mom are part of an ooze of money and ego, where fear hides in the spaces where neither fits. Money’s stink mingles uncomfortably with the stink of burning meat and slow drying tanning oils. Jessica’s mom has on massive sunglasses and turns her head from side to side slow and cool to check out the space. She’s looking for a little clique of people, the ones she dreads seeing and, glancing across the pool along the rows of sunbeds, she sees none of them and sighs in relief. Someone offers her a glass of wine and she smiles, “actually a glass is all I need,” as she gives the bottle in her hand another little shake. Care to join me?” “Sure,” a tall grey haired man in a cowboy hat replies. “I’m a functioning alcoholic, I’ll bet we have lots to talk about.” And she’s off.

Later amidst the stench of expired fireworks and carbonising fat, her mother was nowhere to be seen. Jessica had found Miguel by the jacuzzi and spent most of the afternoon there, either in the bubbles or just nearby. They’d walked over to the barbeque and agreed that they were both vegans, even though neither was. The talk about Samohi had been ok, sort of, but the line on his parents’ cars, their other place in Pacific Palisades and some new dog they’d bought only went so far. Jessica was more than bored now, so much so that she was worrying about her mom.

Miguel in tow still on about his dog, she found the sunbed where they’d left their red, white and blue wraps and their red, white and blue towels. Only one wrap. She saw the empty marguerita mix bottle on its side underneath the lounger, but no sign of her mom or of the weirdos she had been so keen to avoid. “Whaddya wanna do?” Jessica turned and Miguel hastily added “you know, your mom. Do you want to go find her? She was with that guy in the hat, talking ya know and drinking. My dad’s over there. D’ya wanna ask him?” Jessica had already heard enough about Mr Bigshot Perez and his import export business and had no interest in talking to him. “No, it’s fine, I wanna go look for her.”

Moving from the pool area to the basement of the garage where they could hear raised voices, the sound of wretching interrupted whatever argument was going on. A slightly high pitched male voice was cursing. Jessica just knew that the short fat man ahead of her was one of the men her mom had wanted to avoid. As he leant against a purple Rolls Royce Ghost, Jessica sees that he has a livid red mark on the side of his face and that he’s definitely not happy. She got it. Barrel bellied and irritated he’s looking about for someone to take over, someone he doesn’t know and who definitely doesn’t know his wife or his friends.

He saw the youngsters approaching, a cute girl anxious, a boy on the fading edge of adolescence, reluctant. Miguel also noted the red mark and the scowl. Slightly uneasy he caught hold of Jessica’s arm as they saw vomit from a woman in a red, white and blue wrap splash up against the purple. “Aw, c’mon now, not the car” whined fatso. He tried to reach for her, to move her closer to the structure’s wall and its opening onto the bushes. She shoved him away, swayed a little and picked at remnants of semidigested cornchips lingering in the lime green sequins of her halterneck top. There was vomit in her hair too which had partially fallen from its topknot. The man is trying to engage her, his voice wheedling, “Jessica, Jessica isn’t it?” he says, his breath beery and his face sweaty. Miguel backs off and Jessica alarmed, wipes at her face and catches her breath. She holds her ground and stares him out. With a disdainful glance at the drooling wreck leaning against his almost immaculate car, he curtly says “Ok. You want it like that. Take care of your mother. And get my car cleaned up” before waddling back to the party, cursing under his breath.

Miguel followed him as Jessica tried to get her mom fully upright. “Bastard” she hissed through an acid laced cough. And Jessica asked “Mom what happened, how does that asshole know my name. I’ve never met the guy.” “I guess I talked about you a lot back then.” Her mother by now upright and leaning against the car, shook her head and took the towel Miguel had brought for mopping up. She handed the towel back to the boy who wiped the car down, awkward and focused on his task. He draped the grubby towel over the patch of vomit and mumbled a goodbye as he backed away. “Mom, what’s all this about? Who was that guy?” The two of them still and alone in the basement of the garage breathing the stench of vomit and engines. Her mom now sober and very pale stepped away from the car and the mess. She linked her arm into her daughter’s, wincing and feeling anew the intensity of the slap she’d given fatso. “Not this time” she remembered saying. Turning to Jessica, suddenly prim she said, “I told you, we don’t hang with them anymore. I told you we can’t trust them. And I told him, times have changed. Happy Fourth of July honey.”

19th Wedding Anniversary

This is how it started. On that day nineteen years ago I jumped out of bed frantic talking, talking, talking all the way out of the house and along the track to the feed store. “I’m late already. I’m already late. I don’t believe this. What happened to early? It’s already after six and I’m already late. Where’s the sun? Why’s it still so dark? Oh, shit look at the sky, look at the bloody sky. And it’s really raining. It’s raining on our wedding day.

And I’m taking too long doing this, why are all the feed bins empty now, why didn’t I think of this yesterday when they were already nearly empty. And why is it raining so very hard?”

Scuttling along in too-big clogs, falling off their wooden edges unbalanced on the uneven ground and carrying the manger I kept up a persistent muttery mumble, trying to calm matters down and to ignore the rain: “It’s fine, it’s not that late, I can still get showered and have my hair in curlers in plenty of time for my hair to dry by eleven” and scurrying up to the gate she hooked the manger onto it, and gave the Grey Horse a sudden and unexpected pat. Much alarm and headshaking, and a suspicion that she really was quite as mad as he had always believed, the Grey Horse stood back from his breakfast. I sighed, “oh don’t be so silly” before reaching out once again but this time much more slowly, to gently pat the Grey Horse his good morning. Kissing his chaff dusted nose I said: “enjoy your breakfast”.

Back indoors the peace and calm one might expect so early on a Saturday morning was completely absent. Instead there were a dozen or so Swedish relations, long lost friends and teenagers, munching their various ways noisily through a host of breakfast stuff: teas, juices, coffee and the rest. The scene of formless mess only added to the surreal and thunderstruck sense of the day. I couldn’t imagine how the day had suddenly turned into chaos so very soon. Tea at least was already made, so grabbing a mug I hurried upstairs to the shower, barely noticed.

At least the shower was hot. The battle for the hairdryer was about to commence between Hannah and Matilda, both of whom had already showered while I was getting drenched in the rain. When I got out of the shower, only mildly less hysterical, the plan had been to put my hair in curlers and to set the hairdryer on them. I had had in mind a cascade of blondish reddish curls. “We’re nearly finishing Mummy. We won’t be long. Your hair dries quicker than ours”. Gorgeous girls 13 and 14 years old, bubbling over with youth, beauty and innocence still, and in a moment so precious still ours, still our lovely little girls.

So OK. OK. I gave give up on the idea of leisurely drying and cascading glory and concentrated on the dressing bit of the morning. Suddenly everything, even the simplest part of getting ready seemed too complicated to manage. No room. No space, just a blind, fearful panic, wondering where Paul was and whether it was all as mad for him, tangled up with the business of breakfast and all those visiting Swedes. Unlikely somehow and I imagined him serene and slightly excited on the outside, cool, calm and in control and probably quite oblivious to the raging skies beyond the kitchen windows.

Outside the weather was worsening with each passing moment. Lights on indoors in July in the morning? Whatever was happening. The thunder rolled, the girls kept squeaking and fidgeting and I sat down in the corner still in my dressing gown and wondered what to do next. Fortunately someone else was there to egg me gently on to the day’s next steps. I was not alone and true to the traditions of brides and maids of honour, Joanne serene, calm and moving slowly into the room gave me a sudden and loving hug. “It’s the day! Today’s the day. Are you alright? Have you had anything to eat? There’s still toast and tea. Paul’s taking care of the rabble downstairs. All you’ve got to do is have your tea and relax and get dressed. Isn’t it fantastic!” I held her hand tightly and said in  a tiny voice: “Why’s it raining? What’s with the thunder? What’s happening?” And Joanne laughing “all of nature’s getting up and getting ready, so come on, what are you doing?” And with a brusque and bossy “Get your mother another cup of tea and a biscuit”, Joanne pushed the morning machine into gear, sat me down and started getting to work on my hair.

It’s been 19 years and they’re all hovering around my head still. The joys, the less-than joys, the amazing experience of seeing our children grow into such wonderful people. Thank you to everyone who made that day so memorable and thank you to Paul, Hannah, Morgan and Matilda for giving me such a fabulous, joyful and loving family.



She watched him silent as sipped his coffee, wondering how it started. With a pulse growing louder? With an idea of passion suddenly occurring in his head or heart? Not in his heart. The heart was surely irrelevant for this. Was it an idea of something lost or yearned for? A recurring image or focus of desire? And as she watched she saw him shift in his chair and thought of a steady heartbeat rising; she thought of more, much more.

She could picture him alone somewhere away from this busy café with its noise and coffee stink. He was somewhere else reading on a sofa, or waking up in his bed, lying on a beach all alone perhaps. Tall and lean against a faded towel hearing percussive waves, feeling the sun’s heat fade as the beach emptied of people and the sand began to chill.

As the waiter moved to take away the empties, she stared up and away at a different face, murmuring thank you. This face was also handsome in a harried, distracted sort of a way. Urgent, disinterested. She pictured a different mouth widening, a different head thrown back, a different sculpted throat stretched and exposed. She felt herself blushing and pretended to fiddle with her purse. Two images now and she thought she might want to see more in the private picture in her head, to know more. She saw the waiter move towards him as he rose from his seat to pay his bill.

From across the room she watched as he tapped his card. He didn’t notice the waiter and he didn’t notice that she was there. And then the waiter was moving fast and on to the next thing. In slow motion she was getting up to leave and neither man had seen that she was there, had seen her blush or the pictures in her head.

Later lying in her immaculate room on crisp clean sheets she had put on the bed that morning, she lay very still. Soft and cool perfection. Eyes closed she pictured the scene again, elaborating the image, drawing herself slow and deliberately onwards. The story that had begun in the café, the man sipping his coffee, the casual waiter, together they were moving her on deeper into an intense and unknown territory that was her own. Her eyes soon began to widen then close and open again gazing wild, open mouthed and breathing hard, then calming. The cracked and pockmarked ceiling the only witness to her trespass.


Brenda is not a vengeful woman. Nor is Audrey particularly, but Fiona has other ideas. “How many years have you been married to this tosser?” She spat, chopping an onion into miniscule pieces. Under the force of her blade they shot far into distant corners. Brenda looked at Fiona and wide eyed she mumbled “twenty years I think”. “And how long has he been knocking you about like this? You have to do something. We have to do something.” Tears. “Always. I’m not crying. It’s the onions,” Brenda said. “And there was always a reason. It was my fault. It got worse after the accident. He was … he …” Brenda hesitated. “It made him angry, that I could see him … er… um … that he was slouching on the job, as it were. Not that we’d been that way for years. He’d always taken care of it himself, and now he couldn’t. And I knew, I could see. That’s when I started sleeping in the other room. To get away from him. So that he could try on his own. See if it got better. Safer.” Brenda paused, hiding in her mug of tea as she pretended to sip and mumbled. “And anyway it was never so much as to break a bone or knock me out”. Brenda glanced a shy smile in Audrey’s direction.

Fiona heard all this in horror, knife suspended above the mascerated onions. The oil was burning in the pan, and as she scraped the bits into the oil they jumped and spat, and Audrey followed their irretrievable trajectories. “Fiona, it’s none of our business. It’s past and Brenda wants to put it behind her, don’t you Brenda?” she said. Brenda was hearing her own words echoing. They belonged to another world, a prison she was escaping. But she said feebly, “I don’t know. I just don’t know. It isn’t but things are different now. It’s too late for getting my own back. What’s the point?” “Well” Fiona said tossing mushrooms into the pan, setting too with her knife on some fresh rosemary, minced in moments and soon simmering with the mushrooms and a splash of manky pinot grigio. “Well what?” said Brenda watching the steam rise to fill the space with amazing aromas. Steam was tickling at the skylights. Exasperated, Fiona said,“What are you going to do? How are we going to get this arsehole?”

Brenda had never really thought of punishment per se. She hadn’t really thought of calling him an arsehole either. She’d never had an agenda. Maybe that was the problem from the start, she was just supine. Supine but a little sly because Brenda had been content to clean the toilet with his toothbrush and face flannel. She routinely squashed dead flies and laxative pills into his gravy. She’d quite enjoyed rubbing white pepper into his pants and wiping cut fresh chillis into the armpits of his teeshirts and socks. And urine in the steam iron when he wanted his sheets pressed, that was good. Even putting a dead battery in the remote had been a pleasure, although she knew she’d cop it.

Brenda hadn’t really thought beyond those small pleasures, but she was beginning to realise they were pretty unimaginative, at least from Fiona’s perspective. Fiona’s idea of vengeance was mammoth by comparison. Brenda didn’t know about what happened in Furnace Creek, or that whatever happened to Luke might just be a dress rehearsal. “We need a plan.” Fiona declared. “I’m coming with you when you go back. We can’t let him get off that easily”. Abandoning thoughts of how Mrs Snipcock would retrieve all those onion bits Audrey finally engaged. “What would punishing Luke gain? Fiona, this is really none of your business and besides, he’s been found out. He’s going to lose everything, and Brenda is divorcing him.” This last was news to Brenda, but thinking about it, it did seem like a good idea. “Isn’t that enough?” Audrey finished. Brenda stared at Audrey and then at the floor, picking at her nails suppressing the shock. Waiting.

Fiona stirred her pasta sauce thoughtfully, dropping in grated parmesan bit by bit and watching the sauce slowly thicken. “No. There should be more. He should know what it feels like to be in so much pain.” Brenda smiled and on solid ground could say with confidence, “Fiona, pain only matters to you and me, it doesn’t matter at all to a man like Luke, quite the opposite. It appeals to his sense of macho, especially with the slouching on the job problem.” Fiona gave her sauce a spiteful poke: “ok, ok but wouldn’t it be lovely to see the man really need a wheelchair?”


Goosegrey memories

Under goosegrey LA skies again. June gloom they call it and when I lived here it was mostly a Santa Barbara thing. But now the gloom has dribbled its way south and it is colder here than it is at home. Change. Change in the climate, change in the shape of my memories, change in the weather on the west coast. Change in my memories most likely a biggish factor. Memories and imagination are wonderful cohorts. They both have a devious streak, but they are not the same.

Imagination is an endlessly fertile world of colours, make believe and what ifs. Memory should be more like a repository of what happened when and where and with whom. Memory may be monochrome, but the how of it plays into the picture too, and that is where imagination weasles its way in to create false realities that exist only in your head and in no one else’s.

Memory is why I am here. Talking about the past, talking about what brought us to the here and now, different narratives compared and contrasted. Narratives that gain their own independent voices as we talk and talk under the sad old skies. These are the skies that shadowed Hollywood’s golden age, and the orange groves felled to concrete and big movie company lots. Pondering Marilyn and the tragedies of lost icons, lost friends, pondering all the people briefly met, the wrap parties, the launches, wannabees that turned into stars. And the bands, the music. Whisky A Go Go, Madame Wong’s, McCabe’s. All those places and the sounds echoing across the 405 all the way to PCH and driving home to Malibu half cut, smug that this is LA all straight lines and no corners. Would never have risked it in London where the difference between red and green tended to be academic, but you paid attention all the same.

The hot summer air when the Santa Ana winds are blowing. The chill and damp of the coast at night and the sounds of the highway. And of the sea, always there, always moving on and shaping more memories, memories of strangers, memories of shining people and of the dross that is most of us. Memories that are the font of imagination, whether they are yours or mine or those of writers long since gone whose voices we can yet hear. This is why the work matters so much more than the authors. The work speaks to us and only us. It speaks to the embers of memory and imagination and those embers spark in endless, infinite flames. A refuge, where memory and imagination lead us to places of magic and marvel. These goosegrey skies still shine on the magic and the marvel of long told stories and on the stories we’ve yet to tell.