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.

 

Sandwiched

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. 

Something more than blue

There is a man who lived near us, out in the wilds of Cumbria. Our flat over the bookshop has huge windows looking out across hillsides peppered with ragged sheep. The skies are mostly low but when they are not, a soar of blue leaps across the landscape shining brilliant, endless. All around the immense greens clamour loud under the silence of huge skies. Jessica was the first to see him, and then we both saw him many times. She saw on the hillside, random flashes of a wrong, misplaced colour, the muddied artificial blue of a jacketed figure, prone and usually at dusk. She saw it that first time, looking out through the window as she washed up, peering squint eyed through greying light. “Look, isn’t that Ken? It looks like his coat. No one has a coat that awful shade of blue.” I looked to confirm, “Yes. Certainly looks like him. Must be pissed again.” And we turned away to get on with our evening. Not long after, Ken’s slight form was on the ground vomitting and freezing. But we didn’t see that part. By the time we went to bed we hadn’t thought about it anymore. In the morning the weekday routine kicked in and we had no cause to look out of the window at the hillside lost under a blanket of heavy rain.

He used to live above the pub in the next village, with his mum and dad, then with just his dad whose mourning was endless. Ken didn’t care. The mourning got on Ken’s nerves, like the nagging to go to work, get a job, blah blah. Whatever job Ken took, they eventually fired him. Plasterer. Postman. Cellarman. Son. All gone. He took to roaming the local villages, waiting for his dole money, drinking it down, almost in one.

Sometimes people would express concern about poor Ken, traipsing along the lanes and falling down into ditches. They’d say stuff to his dad, ask what Ken was doing roaming about at all hours. Frightening the sheep, shouting at children, collapsing dead drunk. The children would stare wide-eyed at the prone figure, spittle dripping off the edge of the curb. His fingernails were black and ragged, and there were often strange wounds in livid blue and red on the ashen face. His dad would reply that it was nothing to do with him. He had a place to stay, a bed. What more did they want?

Ken came home from time to time, to sleep, to wash a little. To eat whatever was going in the fridge. His dad wasn’t much on cooking since his wife had died. But he worked as a gardener so he had plenty of potatoes and carrots and beetroot stored over winter. He’d get a bit of mince from the butcher to make mince and mash, with baked beans on the side. Ken’s dad said not much and spent his evenings playing snooker in the pub and pretending his wife was reading and waiting for him to come back home to bed. He was an old man now and his son a creature he blanked, had always blanked for his stupidity, for some past and long forgotten sin. Poor Ken was not like his two sisters, who were smart and ambitious. Poor Ken did not have their brains. As all three of them shifted into middle age, it was clear that Ken’s close set blue eyes and thin little lips would never address anything more than the pint in front of him and the unfairness of it all. He took solace in spreading spiteful rumours about his many enemies. His dad. The young man in the post-office who did not want to meet up for a drink. The unruly kids who laughed at him. Their parents. He told grand tales about a girlfriend he had in the south. About a hotel they owned together in Sevenoaks, and about their two houses in Hastings rented out to celebrities.

When they are indoors together Ken and his dad sit in adjacent armchairs staring at the television. But Ken is mostly watching his dad and his dad is studiously ignoring him and his asinine observations about the game or the news. Ken coughs from time to time and shifts in his seat to remind his dad that he is there. But for his Dad he is not. After a while in his spite he takes to hiding his dad’s cue chalk and moving his dead mother’s things. For his dad, it’s as if she is still there.

And then Ken leaves more and more and stays less and less. When he is at large in the village he launches angry tirades at the neighbours about where they’ve placed their bins and parked their cars. He does his best to have a go at the customers in the pub. But the landlady is quick with her hands and cuffs him about his small grey haired head when she catches sight of his skinny form approaching people. Those out walking see Ken in the woods. Appearing suddenly ahead of them on the path they see the bright blue jacket veer off and disappear when he sees them coming. Horse riders and cyclists tell similar stories about his uncanny arrivings and departings. Ken’s always where you least expect him. The flash of blue against the fading summer greens and the browns of autum. And the blue’s getting grubbier and less blue. Sometimes he’s spotted in Ambleside and even Kendall, miles from home, dead drunk, asleep on a bench or verge, even in the rain. His dad never bothers nor his sisters. They figure it’s up him how he lives his life. It’s up to other people if they want to pick him up from the side of the road to bring his freezing drunken body home. It’s up the them if they want to bother with a sick-soaked blue coat and discarded shoes.

And then from our flat window we saw again the blue against the green. Jessica said: “There’s Ken again. It’s bitter out.” We saw ragged crows arcing across the chilled sky, and we saw the cold stillness wrapping itself tighter and tighter around Ken’s lifeless form.

A Dangerous Moment for Antoine

Antoine clicked on his bulging in-box and let out a heavy sigh. There they were, another horde of emails he would have to answer. It was exhausting being a technical manager and his job was beginning to get to him. It just took up so much of his day. Once he had tippy-toed his way around the puddles and pavement cracks from his building to the tram stop, the ride into the office took him fully half an hour. And then once at his place of work he had to take the lift to the twentyfirst floor. The dizzying ascent made him quite weak, even when he indulged in the distraction of staring at other peoples’ shoes. All told his journey to work was about forty minutes, and then at five o’clock on the dot, he had to do it all again in reverse. In reverse! And in between 09:30 and five he had to be there at his desk answering idiots and fools, explaining the obvious. It was endless and his lunchbreak was a joke. Sitting in his favourite café he barely had enough time to recover from the quease-inducing lift ride from his office floor to the pavement, before he had to repeat it to get back to his desk in time. The tedium of it was all becoming just too much. His nerves were shot and his carefully manicured fingernails at risk of splitting. It was so much easier during Covid when he could stay in bed with Charmaine to do his work. But now very often it was hard not to weep. He needed more coffee to even think about tackling the emails.

Antoine was conveniently placed near the office coffee station. His coffee breaks were not so much breaks as a caffeine continuum. In readiness for the next shot he organised the inbox messages into alphabetical order. Then he noted how many there were yet to answer in neat Roman numerals on his notepad. Antoine then rose carefully turning his head from side to side to note who was appreciating the view, and took several mincing steps towards his salvation. He moved with slow deliberation, gently pulling his trousers up and his sweater down.

Back at his desk, Antoine steeled himself and avoided looking at the little clock on the computer screen. Instead he gave himself a shake, brushed an imaginary stray hair from his brow and reminded himself that he is a professional. Narrow shoulders squared he adjusted his mouse and keyboard into positions of perfect alignment. He forced his work into sharp focus, at the very forefront of his mind.

Momentarily distracted by nothing in particular, Antoine pursed his generous lips and sipped his slowly chilling coffee. Staring at the list of emails and the number of unopened ones, Antoine compared what was left with his list of descending Roman numerals. He was working hard and pondering whether it might be wise to go for a short walk around the office, much as his colleagues were doing. Short perambulations are a good way to clear the mind and avoid excess work stress, he considered. And he could see what other people were doing, overhear conversations that are none of his business, Zoom bomb and so on. It would take care of those few untidy minutes before the big hand stretched up to reach the very top of the clock and Antoine could fully enjoy the moment. Or should he simply stay put, finish his coffee and open the next message in the list.

Leaning forwards to avoid the noise of laughter coming from the vicinity of the coffee machine he noted that this message was from yesterday evening. It had arrived after Antoine had left for the day, at a time when his work day was done. He felt the familiar and well-honed annoyance at these people. Why can’t they just respect professional working hours and send their emails in a timely manner? Don’t they have homes and loved ones to go to. Don’t they have lives? He wasn’t entirely comfortable with this cliché but he understood that people liked to say it, so he said it too. But Antoine had no loved ones, not after that incident in the early 2000s. Ever since he had lived alone with a series of cats. The latest is Charmaine, a long haired and profoundly overweight Persian too lazy to do much more than purr and drape herself on Antoine’s lap. Besides Charmaine, Antoine did have the gym and his very many friends on social media, most of whom he knew rather too much about. He was close to people from all over the world, people who loved his precise and slightly opaque witticisms. People who recognised Antoine’s greatness, enthused endlessly and sincerely about his posts, and even told him they loved him from time to time. At least that’s what their emojis said, possibly.

Antoine sniffed, slightly irritated that his reply to this message could not be within his target response time parameters. It wasn’t his fault of course, because the email had been sent out of hours. Technically the mail was sent when it was possibly still a working day in Portugal, but that wasn’t the point. In Geneva the day was over when that message arrived, and the sender should have thought about that. It really was too poor. All this agonising over time and responses was exhausting and his cold coffee now finished, Antoine’s attention was turning to lunch.

But he’s a professional so he knuckles down and stares at the computer screen some more. His hand hovered over the mouse and as his delicate fingers clicked on send, a dreadful bang and the hiss and clang of an awful explosion enveloped him. Sudden, vicious, terrifying, an assault reverberating in his dainty ears, throwing muscles into spasm and his body into inadvertent convulsions and unfamiliar shapes. Within nanoseconds Antoine was crouched quivering in horror under his desk, seeing the castors on his swivel chair spinning in an entirely unexpected orbit.

This is what it sounds like. This is it, his terrified brain screams. This is the end of my life, I can see flashing images, I can see darkness, I can see strange and unidentifiable colours cascading before my eyes in endless strobing arrays. Shaking, Antoine crumpled and shaking has tears streaming from his tightly shut eyes, strands of snot trailing his face. One fist is clenched and rammed between his perfect teeth and the other hand holds it in place.

A few moments passed before Antoine became aware of a curious and unexpected silence rising around him. Shouldn’t there be noise he wondered, slightly loosening his vicelike hold on his fist and removing it from his drooling mouth. Shouldn’t there be alarms and screaming and sirens he wondered. Am I deaf? Am I dead? Where am 

I? Was this what happened when you die? Does it all just seem to continue, except that you’re dead? And then with relief he noted a tingling sensation as the blood returned to his hand. And then he could hear murmuring voices and screams, and they were not screams of terror, but of laughter. How could that be? If he had not survived, was he in some sort of office hell? Was hell a place where the carpets and the furniture were the same, but there was no coffee or views of the river and where people mocked you?

 “Antoine, are you alright” he heard a familiar voice, and cautiously opening his squeezed tight eyes he saw before him a shiney black shoe and an elegantly bent knee. And Antoine’s response breathless and high pitched, “Davide, is that you? Where am I?”. Davide reached under the desk and linked a sympathetic hand around his co-worker’s rigid upper arm. “It’s OK, you’re fine, let’s get you out of there.” As he stood up, unsteady and awkward, Antoine saw that on his desk was still a neat array of pens, notepad, dirty coffee cup. His keyboard and mouse, and his favourite flowery mousepad were still in perfect alignment. How can this be? As he turned away from his desk, Davide helping him to his seat, he saw that he and Davide were not alone. There were several of his colleagues, all peering at him with expressions of amusement, disbelief and inquisitive fascination.

“Davide, what happened?” Antoine said his voice broken with relief at still being alive. “Where did that awful bomb come from? Who is hurt? How many are dead?” Davide replied that there was no bomb and that no on was hurt or dead. “Are you OK now? Can we get you anything?” “A coffee would be nice, if you don’t mind” Antoine sniffed pathetically. Davide smiled an indulgent smile. “Sorry Antoine, it was the coffee machine that blew up. There is no coffee until it gets fixed.” Antoine felt the blush rising hot and sudden from his neck to his hairline. Wiping his wet face with a proffered tissue, he turned his back on the audience. Antoine ignored their sniggers and shifted in his chair to face his screen, where he saw that there were eleven new emails to answer. He sniffed a resentful sniff into his soggy tissue, before sighing and slowly reaching for his mouse.

More short stories here:

Shopping List

She stood facing the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand. Looking at her blocking the sink James said, jocular, friendly, avoiding any risk of confrontation, “why are you wearing your dressing gown?” Their teeth brushing and nightly routines in general were pretty relaxed. “Oh” she said nonchalant waving a vague hand, “I’m just feeling the cold a bit”. A germ in his head scowling, a silent voice venomous, “You’re always bloody cold”, but instead a momentary silence. He turns away saying kindly, “shall I put the heat up a bit … it’s already at 25”. A mannered, polite “no need, I’ll be fine” as she turned her head to the side, a wintery and glittered smile fixed on her face.  “You probably got a chill. You were quite late back”. He didn’t notice the smile set harder, the slow tensing and of the shoulders, nor their slight rising as the arms followed. Nor did he notice a sharp quick stripe, bright red, white and blue. The toothpaste tube clutched suddenly tight was quickly spewing, running headlong, a telltale path that jumped across the sink and skipped around the running water. A signature of deceit. “No, no” she said, her voice in a vice. “I’m fine”. And hurriedly splashing water and spitting noisily to keep blocking him, afraid of her blush and to quickly wash away that accusing scrawl.  Under the duvet, still in her dressing gown as James simmers, angry. Their faux warmth fast becoming a habit, the insincere becomes the normal yet still he wants to reach out. He says good-night proffering a hopeful peck on the cheek, but it barely makes it passed her rigid shoulder. He heard the deliberate and measured snore. He heard the darkness grow. In the morning James was gone early. And she still in the dressing gown lay idle and smug in bed, not thinking of James in the traffic and the early morning. She remembered yesterday, reliving snatched hours and noting that another man’s beard had left bristle marks on her inner thigh. The fingerprints on her upper arms, were sliding to pale buttered yellow as she lay remembering. Warm, unvanquished, spiteful. Such malice she felt as she lay there, revelling in her deception and James’ oafish stupidity. The ’phone jangled her back to the now. Oafish James was ringing from the car. She doesn’t answer. She knows he’s wanting to remind her, again, that he’ll collect her on the way to the airport. She knows. Her daughter is coming to Sussex on a fleeting visit from Dubai. She ponders that it would be far more entertaining if the visit wasn’t fleeting, because James cannot stand Nina. It is sport for Nina to tease her stepfather. Nina enjoys being impolite, saying outrageous things and watching as James works with eyes raised staring at the middle distance and breathing slowly, to control his temper. Her mother will look on, a slight smirk on her face, eyes hard and impenetrable. The sport had been even funnier when she was younger and when her mother was still impressed with James and defended his bluster, his bouts of petty temper, his passion. All that now gone. For all these years he had tried so hard to be an dedicated stepfather. But Nina could tell he never really meant it, and she had throughout her teens watch his efforts slowly fall into a fake habit that she could provoke at will. Heading home in the car the conversation was falling away. She marvels at how long Nina and James can drag out a conversation about immigration queues and baggage. James’s ample stomach brushes the steering wheel and it’s enough to remind him that he is hungry. “What do you say we stop off for a bite?” They mumble and hesitate, and she’s vaguely annoyed for no real reason. “Come on, it’s getting close to dinner time anyhow,” and so they agree. Yes. “We’ve no food in in any case” she says, now good natured with Nina there and the prospect of wine, momentarily happy. “I ran out of time when I was in town yesterday”, the hint of a blush started to rise and she turned away. Looking out of the window as they creep through the traffic, her eyes flickered to focus on each passing stranger in case it might be someone she knows. They eventually leave behind commuters’ traffic and stop at a pub. It’s all beams and early evening emptiness, the light showing up the dust and leftover rings on the tables. It’s one of those country places newly taken over, with an anxious publican looking for a quieter life. A shock of grey hair gelled ruthlessly flat and a small diamond in one earlobe, single, celibate and building up a local clientele, people who share his love of single malts and appreciate the patience he brings to the job. But he’s not sure if he can settle to this quieter life, so he frets and chews at the skin around his thumbnails. His staff this evening is a bored young woman waiting for better things. She’s halfway through her A levels and unaware that the better things too are waiting. They want to be found and will not be served up on demand. She hands James the menu offhand and careless, and forgets to tell them that the specials are on the board. “Looks promising”, James says almost drooling as he ambles to the bar. He’s conscious of his stepdaughter’s censorius eye. The barely concealed sneer that says “too much pie and mash, a few too many pints and pasties.” That malevolent germ creeps back. “She’s too keen on the gym for her own good”, it says. When he returns from the bar, white wine spritzers in hand, they are whispering, heads bowed. Nina is laughing, and looks away as he reaches the table. A sudden rumbling, nameless anger. 

The food arrives, they eat, they drink, they speak in lazy superficialities and clichés until they’ve run out. She says, “what should we do about food for the weekend?” Awoken and relieved, they can pretend to share a focus. “Shall we stop on the way and do a shop. We’ll pass a couple of supermarkets. I think the village shop will be shut by the time we get back.” Wine rosey, she’s beaming at them. “Excellent idea” he nearly bellows, relieved and clutching at some sort of normal, something he understands, something that involves the three of them, something that doesn’t leave him on the outside. Their list expands at speed and they consider the ordinary and the exotic of eatables from endless gushing possibilities, impossibilities, probabilities. They have excited ideas for menus that would feed ten people for a week. The list grows as they have another spritzer or two and he does his best to keep that germ caged and tells himself he isn’t just another waiter, driver, the man who’ll pay the bill, carry in the shopping. “Read it through, and let’s work out the details”. Details? So she hands him her list and says, “you read”. They get to the end. Is there anything else, he says. Yes says she. Put toothpaste on the list.

Alternatives to ashes to ashes 

When a loved one pops their clogs and gets cremated it is generally assumed that someone will want to keep the ashes. They might take pride of place on the TV stand, or get lovingly stowed at the back of the airing cupboard, safe in a protected refuge. They might even be stuffed into a teddy bear and so remain close at hand through long and lonely nights.

But what do we do with the ashes we really don’t want to keep? Perhaps they are the remains of some detested Aunt or a wealthy relative who left their vast treasure to a cats’ home. Maybe the ashes were deliberately willed to someone much hated by the deceased. If any of this resonates, here are some ideas for what to do with those surplus assets.

Cat litter trays are always in need of a refresh and the dead one’s ashes could be just the ticket. If you’re going this route, it’s probably best to introduce the ashes a little at a time to avoid having too much soiled clinker tracked across the floor. 

Cooking is always a good option for dispersal since so many dishes benefit from a little bit of bulking up. Ideas for where to use the ashes are many, but baking them into a cake is a reasonable start. You could also use them to thicken milkshakes, especially the slimming variety, or to add that tad of extra crunch to a chocolate mousse. When you’re short of flour, bread dough and pastry can benefit from the additional padding.  

Other options might be to use unwanted ashes to make filler go further when repairing cracks and holes. Or you could just sprinkle them on the floor when you want to practise your soft-shoe shuffle steps. Be sure to wear shoes though, as those bone fragments can make for nasty splinters. If you do get a splinter, use the ashes as a poultice on the wound. And mixed with the right ingredients they make an excellent face-mask.

Unwanted ashes can do wonders outside the home too. The not-so-loved one can be recycled as soil nutrients, although you might prefer not to put them in the vegetable patch. The unloved ashes can help absorb oil leaks in the garage and be used as grit to help make safe those icy winter surfaces. Unwanted ashes are a great way to add heft to concrete and to put on the floor of a stable or henhouse as an absorbant.

These options are just the start, so don’t fret if you’re left holding an unwanted urn or a dusty cardboard box. There are plenty of practical possibilities that leave your conscience clear and your life ash-free.

H: a love story

H. Parallel lines and a slender fragile bridge. H is for horror, H is for harmony. H is for hurt. H is for hospital. H is for horror. H is for horror. World a silent seamless chaos, mnemonic fragments, shards of faces, of friends, family, pets, idle hours, dreams and desires, silent noise. And all is elsewhere. All gone. H is for hospital. H is for horror. H. Sudden awareness of the space around you, closing in and getting smaller and sometimes shadowed, sometimes curving, a bilious incomprehensible distortion. H. H is for how. You see nothing, no sounds, no stink of surroundings. H is for haze.

You know you’re there. Surrounded. Unfamiliar wirey webs, pathways; strange routes, strange destinations. H is for hope. Slowly something comes. There are lamps glowing, flicking off-on, silent sentinels standing guard. Blue. You lie still and baffled, motionless and wondering what happened. H is not for blue. Where was all that awful noise, and why this silence, except for H again. Do you hear or remember H? And then the walls and machines and the blue distort and slide away coming back into view in different guises, miasma. H is for help.

You know your name, “of course you know your name a voice in your head whispers” but you cannot remember it. You know where you live, how you live, the picture’s vague but you must know. H is for home. You know that you love and that you are loved, but you don’t know how or why or who. H is for hate deep in there somewhere, somewhere far away. H again. H for help. H again. H is for hospital. H.

You need sleep, you need to rest your unreliable eyes, stop them feeding you with the false data and lies flying fast and frightening into your disrupted liquid mind. Your eyes droop away from the blue, your ears full of ringing and muffled humming. Something H hovers in the glittering dark behind your eyelids in the depths of a distant buzzing in your ears, getting louder. H. Is there more, can there be more? Strange shapes and a resolving rhythm of sound is coming through the dark. A shapeless swell. H is for helpless.

He holds her hand watching an empty gaze unseeing, unwavering, bright eyed, vacant, then the eyes flicker closed again. He hears the machines and sees their comforting lights. Outside greys and noisy jackdaws on the flat puddled roof. It’s warm in here so he takes off his coat and sits closer to her, knees tight against the edges of the bed blue jacket across them. He feels latent tension in her hand and then it fades. He knows she’s there though she doesn’t see or feel him. He tries again like they said. Talk to her. Let her know you are there. Keep talking to her. “Helen. Helen are you there?” “Hi.” Soft so soft. Squeeze. Softer still, “Hello honey, hello honey girl”. “Helen my honey love.” “Are you there? Please wake up. Please don’t leave me alone.” H is for her. H is for here.