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 stasis

The sea is back to being full of serious boogywoogy. Under winds intent on taking us all some place else, we strive to stay in place. No change. The crashing music of the breezes and currents. The waves’ white topped feathers run in too many directions for rhythm. Indigo and agitation contrasts with the bone white and milk of the sea a few days ago. On one of those days we powerboated across the blue churned waves to small coves for swimming and around empty islands for peering into caves, timid to get too close and risk the rocks. The excitement of it, unceasing adrenalin all day long, left us hung over and swaying. In the evening after our long climb up the many slopes, steps and ragged paths, I had to hold onto the kitchen counter to keep my balance. The lilt and drift was still there in the morning after wild water dreams and exhaustion only slightly less taut.

Hydra is known for its many cats and a programme of neutering keeps the numbers in the port down. But here in Kamini there appears to be no such plan and we have frequent and regular visits from a small family: mother (not much more than a kitten herself), aunty (we reckon) and four tiny elastic kittens. They arrive whenever there’s a whisper of food scents, plaintive voices and tiny little pink mouths opening to show off white teeth like needles, lining their little pink jaws. One, Fledermouse (yes, mouse not maus), has ears larger than his mother’s and a coat of hillside shades, except the hillsides are the greys and drear of a cold climated place rather than the ambers and terracottas of this island. They’re all in similar garb, some stripey like tabbies and some grey and black blends, and all with spotty tummies and striped stockings on their dainty legs. The kittens steal food from each others’ mouths and their mother washes them violently to compensate for rejecting them when they try to feed. Sometimes they play fight, sometimes she brings them a mouse to share. They play writhing twisting games and fall to rest without realising it. Like us.

From atop the final steps we watch the sunsets, always so sudden here. There is no lingering, just a solid martial descent below scar strewn clouds towards shimmering distance. The sea melts into coppers and aubergine stripes soft and dragging. They melt across the sky slowly expanding into night. The sea we still hear now hushes to the land, bringing us all slowly to sleep.

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.

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.



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?”


The Bees in the Chimney

It began with a curious low level hum, like distant aircraft. It soon grew into a riot of sonic chaos. Bees were everywhere, flying randomly above the garden, uncertain of where they should be going, lost amongst the branches of trees and in the long silky grass. She watches them noting the irony of all this unhinged bewilderment. Another slow tear. Newly home from the wake in the pub and trying to rest. And hearing this buzz floating over the echo of her daughter’s sobstrewn words honouring her father, thanking her mother, waving goodbye as she drove away back to her own world, her own normal. Later, on a wet pillow her mother’s hearing unfamiliar notes to some distant song and sees small bee shadows moving across the walls.

Lying there in the dusty light Penny was numb, exhausted from the last few weeks of disease and death. She was caught in a tight mangle of sorrow and loss, of admin and organisation’s dictats. Penny sniffed and watched the bees, confused and lost and bouncing crazily in the warm spring air. She got up to go downstairs and put the kettle on. Passing a mirror she saw her ravaged face and stringy old neck with the gold necklace he had given her laying still and calm against the black of her dress. Hearing the humming start to subside a little she smiled and looked out at the hovering ladies also dressed in black and gold. It occurred to Penny that she should have been anxious about so many swirling bees. But there was too little left inside to muster fear of these fellow travellers.

The noise was shifting a semitone or so and looking out of the window Penny could see that the density of bees flying about seemed to be lessening. Warm spring sunshine dappled through the surrounding trees and the air felt thick and heavy with bees and with the quick falling pressure heralding an impending storm. They seemed benign these bees, more muddled than dangerous. She went outside to sit where she and Roger used to sit and plan what they’d do with the garden, what sort of dog they’d get. And then how long the disease would give them, how long before it would kill him. And then what songs to sing at the service and where to have the wake. Shifting in her chair and dabbing at yet more tears, Penny could see that the bees appeared to be developing some sense of direction. No longer were their flight patterns random and untidy. They looked like they had somewhere to go. She sipped her tea and watched shrill blackbirds dashing home to their loved ones and wiped away another slow tear, chilling her cheek and marking a fresh stanza of sorrow.

Penny sipped her tea as she wandered to the end of the lawn, wondering where the bees were headed and how they knew where to go. It was getting chilly so she slung out her dregs and stood pondering how to start the process of whatever should happen next. Brushing teeth and an early night; emptying out the final drawers and cupboards; or deciding where Roger’s ashes should go? Perhaps they should just go here, somewhere in the garden. Or be tossed into the small stream in the woods where they had planned to walk the dog, the dog that was now a fiction. Was that too anonymous, too perfunctory? And the tears caress her sad chilled face to dry and fade with the light. The buzzing had stopped and there were no bees here at the end of the garden, turning back she wondered once again about the where and how. Gazing at the house, Penny saw at last the where. High on her roof she could see a dark clump and bees moving slowly down into the chimney.

The next morning Penny awoke early to their sound and the sight of bees bouncing past her bedroom window, dainty and elegant, floating on the wisps of morning light. Like her they were wearing the same clothes as yesterday, gold and black. But unlike Penny they were not tearstained and dishevelled, with the dregs of a bottle of red wine slowly evaporating on the bedside table. She sat up straighter and reached for her ’phone and opened the browser.

She was surprised the beekeeper was up so early and that he took her call, instead of letting it go straight to voicemail. “You’re sure you have seen the cluster” Mr Westerham was saying. “Yes. They’re in the chimney and I’m pretty sure they’re planning to stay. There are more going in than coming out.” The conversation was surreal not least because it was so very early in the morning and because Penny had nothing she had to do today. It was a welcome contrast to all the other conversations she had been having for so many weeks. This person knew nothing about Penny, Roger, nothing at all about their lives and Roger’s illness and ending. The conversation about bees was the start of a fresh reality, instead of the grinding endlessness of an excess of it. The conversation about bees was twisting her mind into an unfamiliar shape, away from sadness and loss towards the mysterious ways of honeybees.

At the other end of the telephone Max Westerham noted the woman’s tone, its matter of factness and its calm. More often people ringing him to come and deal with a swarm were worked up and did their best to hide it. He’d never met Penny Graham but Max was sure he would like her. Something in that low steady voice, the near nonchalance as she described the scene for him. As she explained about the unwanted bees setting up home in her chimney, he did not know that most of her tone was shaped by events of the previous few weeks and days. It conveyed not so much calm as exhaustion. And she’d shown some presence of mind, lighting a fire. He liked that too. “It might work” he said as he considered the likelihood of the bees swarming once again to a less hostile space. Possible? Probable? Precedented? That was always Max’s determinant for any decision. “Are you still there?” Penny said.

Momentarily confused Penny twisted a strand of honeysuckle stem, a straggler pulled from the vase on her kitchen table. She was still twisting it later as she watched him shading his eyes, watching the bees milling about at the top of the chimney. In silence they stood each waiting for the bees to take their next collective step, he intent on guaging what the bees intended, she in fascination, warm in the newness.

Since Roger’s illness and rapid decline, Penny had not engaged with anyone who was not in some way related to disease, hospice and death. Even her neighbours could talk of nothing but the measuring of Roger’s progress towards his final breath. Would it come in hours, days, weeks, surely not months they know. And roundeyed, softly sympathetic smiles and downward glances would mark the end of this day’s enquiries. Awkward and embarrassed they all turn away from the garden fence. Penny would pace her way across the grass. With measured leaden steps she walked back to Roger, bundled up in his chair, eyes shut, drooling slightly, waiting. And she waited with him.

This swarmcatcher man spoke only of the bees and of their plans, so although he too was waiting he appeared not to be. Penny twisted some more of her twig enjoying the novelty of standing there with someone who didn’t know about the illness, the death and the terrible journey she and Roger had shared to reach an end. The beekeeper was smiling up into the light as the morning sun danced shadows on the wispy smoke rising from the chimney. “Do you think you could bank up that fire a little more?” As he looked down at Penny she was aware that this man was far taller than she had for some reason expected. His head silouetted against the light meant that all Penny could see of his face was a white bright smile. “Oh yes of course. I get it. More smoke less reason to stay?” she said. “Quite” he replied his eyes returning to the chimney. As she moved away she was aware of a sense of confusion and relieved that that was the end of the conversation.

Beside the fireplace there was still a lot of wood stacked and ready for the winter fires. It had been there for several months because Roger had been too frail to enjoy the secret places lost in the slow burning embers and the smoke made him cough. Two tankloads of oil had kept Roger warm throughout the winter so the logs remained, dusty and cobwebby, also waiting for their end. Now Penny loaded up the fire with logs and dried tinder to make as much smoke as she could, glancing out of the window from time to time to see what the beekeeper was doing. Between glances he disappeared. Penny stuck to her task. She moved mechanically, focused and precise, habitual after so many slow weeks of routine dedication and patience. For a moment she stayed still, staring at the blazing colours deep in the fire. No blacks or golds, discrete and individual but a full spectrum of shades dancing momentarily and fading into another new colour. Bright and alive and ever changing.

“Are you there?” she heard a tentative voice venturing to interrupt her reverie. Jumping up she tripped on a stray log and found herself on her knees at his feet as he entered the extremely warm and smokey room. Looking up Penny saw that he held a large box which he struggled to support with one hand and a knee, as he reached down to help her up. This gymnastic effort she noted, as she kicked away the stray log. Breathless in the smoke, flushed and sweaty Penny helped him regain his balance. “They’re clustering I think so we’ll need a ladder and a large sheet if you’ve got one spare”. Bemused Penny disappeared to find a sheet while he went back outside with his box, having explained neither what it was or why he was bringing it into the house.

Their balance he appreciated. The ease and elegant outstretch of hands. It didn’t take much he mused but this was an unexpected thought coming into his mind; he was so very accustomed to women, to seduction. But this wasn’t the same. This woman who says she lives alone now, brought something freighted and unsayable to her tone when he’d asked. “We’ve … I’ve only been here a few months. Everything changes so fast, unexpectedly”. He had thought she was talking about the bees. She returned. “Here’s a king sized fitted sheet. Will that do? It’s got elasticated corners. What do you plan to do with it?” “We’ll use it to catch the bees,” he answered “We? We, did you say?”

Back outside it was clear that the smoke was working. Gradually the bees were accumulating in a new clump on the fence, protecting their queen and awaiting instructions from scout bees, already out searching for new premises. Penny had made some tea and they sat in her two garden chairs in the centre of the lawn and in the middle of the bee mayhem swirling above their heads. She took Roger’s chair and watched as Mr Westerham fiddled with the angle of the back of hers, his cup of tea placed carefully on the box at his side.

“What happens next?” “We wait until the swarm has settled into a clump and then we go in.” Penny took a sip of tea and squirmed a little in Roger’s chair. “And what does that involve?” Penny was watching as Max Westerham stood up and shook out her king sized sheet. “We gather the cluster in this box, using the sheet to catch any stray bees, especially the queen. Then we tip all the bees into the hive. We hope and pray that the queen is in the clump and that she stays in the hive. And then we wait until dusk by when all of the bees should have gone into the hive. I can wait with you or I can come back later. Or we just leave them to it.” “Mr Westerham I hope you don’t mind, but I would be happier if you stayed to keep an eye on them please, just in case something goes wrong.” He smiled over at her, eyes steady, and she looked away towards the growing clump of bees to hide the tear that came unbidden. It was the way he’d adjusted the seat back, or that he could reach for his own cup of tea. Peculiar details. And the conversation so unexpected, curiously novel.

His little lecture had begun: “You see the process is very logical and predictable to some extent. For whatever reason the bees decide to swarm. They send out scouts to find a new home for their queen and the bees that will go with her. In this case it was your chimney, and now that you’ve driven them out, they need to find somewhere else. In between them gathering for the journey and the scouts coming back with news, we must get them into the new hive. The queen will be at the heart of the cluster safe, warm and protected. The scent of her will encourage the others to come home. Then we wait for all the bees that might be out scouting or foraging to return and we can close the hive. This box is a nuc hive with frames ready for them. Then we relocate the bees to somewhere more suitable and hope that she’ll start to lay and that the colony will thrive.” He spoke with surprising ease and authority, with no gaps for interruptions or comments. Penny stared and listened, enthralled at the sound of this rich voice and its subject matter.

“How do you know so much about bees?” There followed another sonorous little speech in which he explained that it began as a hobby when he started the process of retiring from the bench. “KC, you see. I’m retired. Still a bit of a workaholic, but mostly with the bees. I’ve got just the four hives. No wife. No children. Read a lot, walk a lot and I still take on the occasional brief”. He turned, beaming, watching for a familiar reaction. It’s a terrible habit he pondered. He noted the tired face and emptied eyes, and felt ashamed. Penny saw the broad smile, heard the voice, then turned towards the bees and made a decision. “If this works, could you leave the hive with me?”

Max sat very still for a moment and then slowly zipped up his beesuit and adjusted his headgear. “Perhaps. Let’s see how it goes.” Then quite suddenly he was on his feet, shaking out the sheet and looking up at the sky. “I think we’re ready. No need for the ladder”. Penny tried to smile as she replied “I’m really not sure about this being a two man job.” But Max was already moving towards the fence where the bees were spread in an untidy sprawl. Watching this man, moving with such confidence, such self-assurance, so fit and strong, Penny could also see Roger’s short frame and loving smile, turning back to laugh. The two images were superimposed and uncertain, quivering in the late afternoon light. Her tears made diamond sparkles across a pair of curiously interwoven scenes and she stayed still. Max was watching the bees. “As you like.” And he strode bold and purposeful across the untidy grass and captured the swarm.

Within moments the sheetful of bees was being shaken down into the nuc hive. “Well, that was pretty undramatic” Penny said as she approached the beekeeper and his hive. “Now we just wait for all the bees to find their way home.” “I had no idea it would be so simple” Penny said before adding “I generally have a glass of something about this time. Would you care to join me?” Max looked over his shoulder at his crumpled companion still in her black and gold outfit and briefly wondered why she was so formally dressed. But only briefly. “A glass of something about this time would be most welcome. Thank you.” Then he added, “We can drink to fellow travellers.”


Last weekend began with sandwiches in the waiting room of the National Express bus station at Gatwick South terminal. We were supposed to have had the picnic on the bus on our way up to London. But sandwiches always call so loudly when they are packed away with a beer or two, we couldn’t resist. Then of course after some hours trundling along in the snazzy double decker bus, by the time we got to town we were both famished. One went off to check into the hotel and the other got ready for the meeting, tummy rumbling. Then in the meeting another sandwich moment. A waft of cheese and cucumber on multigrain bread floating across the room prompting untold yearning for at least a bite.

But bite was there none so the only choice was to be patient and rumbly until the meeting was over and we were in position on the terrace. Bundled up in blankets, I could finally order my own food from the National Liberal Club’s wonderful new kitchens. Another sandwich, this time a falafel and spinach burger with chips on the side. It was a joy and rapidly scoffed down. It was so obviously yummy that one of our party couldn’t resist ordering a burger of his own, this time of the carnivore class. Finally full and rumble-free I was able to relax, snuggle down in the blankets, slurp the red wine and take pleasure in what was turning out to be a lovely evening. Plenty of wine, good company and conversation.

It wasn’t long before the conversations were following a bit of a theme, namely how long the second burger was taking to arrive. And then the asides turned into queries with the wait staff, handsome young men with gorgeous smiles and deferential apologies. But no burgers. Queries were repeated inside where we retreated as it was getting too cold to sit on the terrace. Poor burger man had had no food, but he was slowly recovering from the chill and being very brave as plateful after plateful of other peoples’ dinners passed us by. The barstaff gave him a free glass of red. We asked again before concluding that the burger order had been lost in some sort of NLC kitchen black hole and was unlikely ever to appear. Burger man bore all this with good cheer, but a slightly pallid look started to come on. Blood sugars were falling and the charms of a decent red fading fast. The sandwichless situation was becoming critical. And then a burger hoed into view, steaming, tantalising, nestling beside a reassuringly large heap of chips. Burger man salivating, burger man bright eyed and expectant, only for all the excitement to collapse as the waiter passed us by and beetled off to some other far less desperate diner.

Pointing out the worrying condition of burger man to the uber waitstaffer, brought forth a promise that if said sandwich ever did arrive, there would be no charge. And by the way here is a bottle of red wine on us. Good cheer all round and a slight improvement in burger man’s condition. There was nothing for it but to wait and trust the increasingly tense assurances that the burger’s arrival was imminent. After a fully two hour delay the beef burger, shy and embarrassed on the plate, hiding in its bun and with a tub of chips alongside to keep it company, fulfilled the promise. We cheered. We took pictures. We drank the bottle of red and cheered again. It was a marvellous evening.

The next day was a sandwich free zone, but there was another food drama. Having shelled out substantial readies for a posh lunch, we had high hopes for our planned excursion to the East India Club. With an aromatic lamb curry the carnivores were all set, but the vegetarians were in for a truly dire culinary experience. Dire is perhaps a bit mean but I cannot think of a better description of a faux Thai curry made up mostly of peas in a runny gravy with no flavour. Yes there were lots of peas swimming about, but peas are peas and they are far from worthy contenders when it comes to posh lunches. The poppadoms were generously large and explosive, literally shattering in the hand. (Terrible mess on floor hastily kicked under buffet table, hoping no one noticed but of course they did.) After a quick march in four inch heels across town we made it to Victoria Coach station to catch the bus home with minutes to spare. A minute’s as good as an hour, I’ve always found. No one checked tickets amidst the trainstrike mayhem and eventually we made it back to Gatwick, the car, home and the horses who whinnied at us to hurry along and bring them their belated suppers.

And the day after that we were at a Christening followed by the classic English brown spread consisting of little brown sausages, little brown sandwich triangles, little brown muffins, brown fritters and white cake. The cake added fetching contrast to the buffet which was altogether delicious. We took home the leftover sandwiches and it took us until Tuesday to finish them. Last Friday to Tuesday began and ended with sandwiches, with a puddle of peas in the middle. It’s been exhausting.

The Granny Hack

We’re both so old now, my friend and I. Wizened, enfeebled muscles, dodgy knees and hips, unreliable ears, eyes. And we forget so much, mostly that we’re old. We wear old frayed clothes, filthy with ancient mudstains and dog drool. Our boots are scuffed and cracked and our gloves have holes in them. Our high viz is so faded and stained that it’s probably not very high viz anymore. But our helmets are pristine. That’s not just because you should replace your hat if it gets cracked, but because we are conscious of the need for dependable protection. After all these years, we should take care of our heads outside and in. That’s what the horses are about.

We amble along on the Granny hack and we talk entirely about horses. We talk about how well the horses we are riding are going. We talk about their movements and gait, about their states of mind, about their anxieties and tempers. If they feel the ground a little, we have extended discourses on summers long gone and try to avoid stoney paths. We talk of how in 1976 horseracing in England was cancelled because the racecourses were too hard for horses to gallop safely on. We talk about the horses we have ridden as children, teenagers, bold young professionals, wives, mothers, and now grandmothers. We recollect long gone narrow escapes involving bulls, bad weather and how fast the light fades when you’re still far from home. We talk about prizes, past glories, loss. After more than twenty years of riding out together on average twice a week, we never run out of things to say. Surely by now we must have told all the tales, shared all the fears and memories. Surely by now we must have covered most of each others lives, all those small details somehow wedged in, nearly lost in horse and family conversations. Two women constantly chatting for all those hours over twenty plus years must surely have run out of things to say. But no, there is always more.

We talk entirely about horses and only sometimes in the spaces in between are there shared intimacies, sorrows, hopes and all that other stuff that women are supposed to talk about. We are agreed that we do not like to talk about the things women are supposed to talk about. It’s part of a matrix of unwritten and unspoken rules. We do not talk about our sex lives or what our men are like in bed. We do not talk about anything that is none of anyone else’s business.

Perhaps this is why the Granny hacks are so important. The Granny hacks are a shared space of like-minded, unconventional women, still young girls in their heads and for their horses. And despite our silly name for them, the Granny hacks are not so Granny-ish. Yes we creak along at first but once warmed up, our knees functioning, we are almost as bold as we once were. Almost. At least we talk about what things once were like. We remember. We face the traffic, we go fast (sometimes), we risk actions that might lead to bucking and similar misdemeanours (sometimes), we follow unfamiliar paths (sometimes). But mostly we talk. And mostly we talk entirely about horses. In this shared space, the horses and the hacking out put all the other spaces into a gentler and kinder perspective. It is a precious thing, the Granny hack.