inspired by the Thom Gunn poem “The Hug”
It is your birthday. This morning when I woke, I wanted it to be a special day; a day to remember for good reasons and some kindness. You are not working as it is a Saturday. Last year you had to work and the mood was lost, there was no event.
These are the middling years. We are both in our forties and so these are the years that drift on the life tide; not being of great satisfaction or meaning. We are at the mercy of the vagaries of our various professions. There is always a hierarchy, whatever rungs we climb there is another one above us on Jacob’s ladder.
Your face is turned away from me. I have your back. There is a red spotty bump that looks like it is developing a head. It is on that piece of shoulder that in a lamb we call a blade but, in a human… is it called a blade too? Or a scapula? Or is that somewhere else? This is part of your body only I see, no one else. There are odd hairs in little bunches. You who spends so much time in plucking and tweaking and shaving and creaming, will never know of these little natural fuzzy -wuzzy that will always escape your attentions.
We rowed last night, the usual things we row about. We started off low, a mumble - grumble about who’s done the most of what. Then we bickered about something your mother had done or my father had not done. We are loathe to criticise them or support them. It is that undercurrent that we are of them or are becoming them that adds fuel. Turning the pilot light of discontent to the hot flare of the wok burner.
You opened a bottle of red. A good one that I had been saving for your birthday, but forgot to put away somewhere it wouldn’t be seen. You didn’t read the label. Wine labels mean nothing to you, you have never read them. I have never once seen you read them. You poured a great huge glass, more than a fair share and you gulped it like it was lager on a hot day and you were thirsty. No letting it warm, letting it breathe, no swirling it in the glass, no letting the air flush through it. You pig.
I handmade us fish pie and was going to put it in the oven and you said we had already eaten fish pie that week and we weren’t going to eat it two nights in a row. I couldn’t think if that was right. I couldn’t remember the meal order through the week. Who was in charge at the beginning, on Monday? Which week is which?
Then we argued over weekend plans. I was left smarting about your dismissal of mum’s expectations for Sunday, and could only think we will be disappointing her again. She will sigh and say next time, but when will that be? I can’t say and can’t make another promise only to break It.
You chopped all the expensive vegetables I had bought for your birthday supper; the shiitake mushrooms, the samphire. I reach for the scotch bonnet, rescuing it for another meal, rescuing us from inedibility. You’re chopping and throwing into the furious furnace of your cooking is indiscriminate. Prawns and chicken. Noodles, rice and egg.
We ate. The whole meal felt wrong. A student style thrown together hotch -potch not the beautifully balanced adult meal I had envisaged. And what now? We have eaten it and it is all gone. I did not want to shop today. I had other plans for us. Those ingredients are gone. Irreplaceable. What then? A carry out curry like every other Saturday night. Nice yes, but not as special. Not what I had planned.
Half way through the meal your phone rang. You sloshed more wine into your glass and headed out into the garden. I could see you at the faraway bench, behind the tree. That’s where you stash your secret pack of twenty. In all these years you have never noted that from this window I can see you! Or do you know and not care? I watched your crossed legs, the left leg rhythmically waving in fast march time. You laughed. I could see but not hear. You lit up a cigarette and drew on it as if you don’t really like it. Mouth puffs, little gasps, screwed up eyes. A waste of a good smoke. When I smoked, before it became virtually illegal, I pulled it in up my nose like a dragon. As I spoke it continued in a soft stream punctuating every word. I had built my technique from old movies. Watching them in a warm fug at my Gran’s, curtains drawn. Snuggled under tartan blankets, biscuits dipped in sugary tea. I learned the lady’s names and who they were married to. I liked the way the movie stars expressed themselves with a cigarette. Elegant, slender, sophisticated and catty. They even stubbed out with panache. You smoke like an amateur.
I must have dozed off there, the clock has moved on. You’re still lying on the same side. I scrunch in closer. Tuck my chin down, press my lips against your skin. You smell of something, warmed scent, the remnant of oil you rub in. I lay my right arm along yours, echo it in ballet pose. My chest presses against yours, I have to hold it in that moulded form, not quite relaxed. My pelvis meets the curve of you, not sexual but pleasant all the same. I place one knee in the cupped hollow of yours. The other leg I stretch out adjusting till the top of my foot rests in your instep. I hear your heart beat. If I say that to you it creeps you out so I will keep that to myself.
Once we were half the age we are now. We were twenty-two. This security deletes the intervening time.
As Ronald showed me around his croft house, I noticed he had a habit of apologising for everything. At first it seemed he was being considerate. ‘Sorry about the low beam...sorry the door handle turns the opposite way.’ Then it became irritating, ‘Sorry…sorry…sorry’ Then he ramped his apologies up a bit and included unnecessary touching. He took to guiding me by the elbow, then the effrontery of it, a warm hand in the small of my back. Too close for comfort. Entering the conservatory there was a step up followed by a steeper step down. I stumbled. He held me, his hands on my waist, pressing fingers, lingering far too long. The exclamation ‘Lucky I caught you!’ too loaded with meaning.
I moved rapidly across the room as far from him as I could, shuddering involuntarily. I was distracted by the lovely view of the croft. I could imagine myself on a summers evening, doors open, bringing in home-grown vegetables. I wanted to buy this property; the creepy present owner was an irrelevance. I turned to tell Ronald my intentions and was startled to find him not where I had left him, but standing close, within my personal zone. I stepped back, kicked his cat at my feet. Ronald flinched.
It was my turn to apologise. I crouched down beside the little fellow. ‘Poor puss’ I said, then realising it was a little dog. ‘Poor doggie’. I reached out my hand. Something felt very odd. The fur was real, the body underneath though was still. Glass eyes. A toy? No, I realised grimly this was an example of taxidermy.
I looked to Ronald for an explanation. ‘What…I mean who is this?’ I realised as I spoke his expression had soured and so changed my enquiry.
‘Sorry, this is Polo…he was always a minty little chap, weren’t you Polo?’
Was ‘minty’ a description for a dog? Ronald obviously thought so?
‘He likes you Chrissie, he’s happy you came to see his house, he misses Doreen you see. Always liked the ladies.’ Ronald sat down on a wicker footstool, it creaked with his weight. He was staring intently at the little dog.
I addressed Polo. ‘Sorry I bumped you. Hope you are alright.’
‘Oh, he’s fine you know, happy with any sort of attention. He’s a good watch dog, barks day and night, always alert.’
Polo, mute in death, lay with his head resting on outstretched paws.
‘Not so much now though!’ I said, hoping to lighten the mood with humour.
Ronald shook his head. ‘On the contrary, he still barks. That’s his job, watching over the house. Sorry, he’s part of the deal. Unfortunately, it puts people off.’
I absorbed this new information, calculating what this would mean. “No brainer” as they say. Lovely house for me and peace of mind for barking -mad Ronald.
On taking ownership of the house, my first action was to bury the dog. On his headstone is
POLO. A MINTY LITTLE CHAP.
Round the Table
It is Christmas time at Camelot. Arthur and Guinevere have guests, Arthur’s sister Morgana and her husband Lancelot. The feast has finished, the family linger at the Round Table.
Arthur: What game shall we play, Scrabble, Rummikub or that new one?
Morgana: What’s that?
Guinevere: Like scrabble but no board.
Arthur: What about that new game, the farm one, where you have crops and animals and you see who’s got the most at the end?
Guinevere: We don’t have it.
Arthur: You know that one, there’s an adult version and a children’s one.
Guinevere: We don’t have it, Percival has, we played it at Percival’s castle.
Arthur: You know the one, it’s really good.
Guinevere: I said we don’t have it.
Lancelot: Does anyone want the Christmas pudding, because we didn’t eat it earlier but now, I was thinking does anyone want it? What game are we going to play, Monopoly?
Morgana: No too long and everyone falls out, Cluedo is better, its shorter and nobody gets hurt.
Guinevere: What sort of Monopoly do you play?
Morgana: Brutal kind, everybody angry, tears and snotters.
Arthur: I like chess.
Guinevere: Two people, there’s four of us.
Guinevere: You can’t count Granny Igraine, she’s already asleep, all that “I don’t drink…” but she’s had sherry and Baileys then a medicinal brandy, she’s conked out!
Arthur: Poor old Mummy, I think that awful Disney play the troubadours put on exhausted her.
Arthur: No, she’s asleep leave her alone.
Morgana: Up was the awful Disney thing, it’s called Up.
Arthur: Is it? What a stupid name for a play, you could forget that very easily, it was far too emotional for her, she got more upset than the children.
Morgana: The children?
Guinevere: No, they weren’t bothered, they’d seen it before, many times, no sooner have the players performed it than they have to perform it again, literally ad nauseum.
Lancelot: What about the Christmas pudding, did you say you had started it?
Guinevere: No, I’ve not started it, I was just going to warm a slice.
Lancelot: Can you do that?
Guinevere: Yes, you can warm it, it tastes fine, you don’t need to boil it or steam it or whatever, you can just warm it at the fire.
Arthur: Well, what about a game?
Lancelot: We can do both, we can eat Christmas pudding and play a game.
Arthur: The bits will get sticky.
Lancelot: What about that game we played at Percival’s, the one with the fields and the animals and the stooks of corn and all that, it was a nice game and nobody fell out, Agricola or something.
Guinevere: We’ve already had this conversation, that was at Percival’s.
Lancelot: Well, what about that then?
Guinevere: It was at Percival’s, it was his game; we didn’t bring it; it was his game, in his castle.
Lancelot: Oh, all right then, don’t go on, I was only asking.
Morgana: What about coffee? We haven’t had coffee.
Guinevere: Too late for coffee, we’ll be up half the night, we’d be better with tea.
Morgana: Does it matter if we’re up half the night? We are on progression.
Lancelot: Can I have tea and or coffee and Christmas pudding, if it’s not too much trouble?
Guinevere: The servants can do both. They can make tea and coffee and Christmas pudding. They know how to do all of them; it is possible you know!
Arthur: What about the game?
Lancelot: We can play a game and drink a cup of tea and have a slice of…
Morgana: There’s a game we were all playing at the St Swithens day market and it was pieces of parchment stuck to your head and you were somebody and people had to guess who you were.
Guinevere: No, you had to guess who you were.
Arthur: How would that work?
Morgana: You’d all been drinking so you didn’t know who you were.
Guinevere: It’s a game played in Ale Houses; it doesn’t really translate to family.
Morgana: Yes, it does, it doesn’t have to be rude.
Guinevere: Well, okay, but I think the rules might be a bit out there, for some people.
Arthur: What rules?
Guinevere: Oh, never mind.
Arthur: Is it taking your clothes off or something, we’re not complete dinosaurs you know, it was spin-the-bottle in my day!
Guinevere: For goodness’ sake, we don’t want to hear that.
Lancelot: Ha ha.
Arthur: Ha ha.
Morgana: What are you laughing at?
Lancelot: Just remembered something.
Guinevere: Well, you can’t be both remembering the same thing.
Arthur: Ha ha aren’t we just.
Lancelot: Ha ha are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Arthur: Yes, I think so.
Guinevere: Oh stop! This is creeping me out. Go and drink your whatever and eat your Christmas pudding and leave your weirdo past-times carryon.
Lancelot: Ha ha
Morgana: That’s evening tide. The troubadours are about to perform this year’s Bond play.
Guinevere: Same old nonsense every year, they can start without us.
Morgana: Mummy likes it if we all watch it at the same time.
Arthur: What about the game?
Morgana: We’ve run out of time, too long arguing about it!
For Remembrance Sunday
‘Tommy…come through for your tea now.’ Mum’s voice was an annoyance. He was at an exciting bit in the story, one more line, one more paragraph.
Rudely Mum grabbed the Biggles-Secret Agent from him and slammed it shut. ‘I’ll lose my place!’ Tommy said.
Mum shook her head. ‘Your tea is getting cold, I’ve shouted you three times…’ Mum went on and on, something about reading affecting your eyesight and getting outside for fresh air.
Precious chance of that these days. It was dark by four o’clock, they were just home from school at that time. No street lamps lit to play by and running around with torches considered a waste of resources. Best he could hope for was a meet up at the Boys Brigade hall twice a week, the boys calling in for one another on the way.
After tea Tommy sat curled up in Dad’s chair beside the fire. Mum let him keep Dads cardigan there so he could wrap it round him covering his bare knees. The wool smelled of tobacco and there were a couple of mint imperials still in the pocket.
Mum tuned the radio to some play she wanted to listen to while she knitted. Tommy found his place in the book and was back in the plane with Biggles in minutes.
‘We’ve put a special seat in behind the pilot. It’s just the perfect size for a plucky schoolboy like yourself.’ Biggles passed him a pair of binoculars. ‘These have been specially adapted by the Boffins at HQ to see in the dark, some sort of sonar technology. Can you use them Tommy?’
‘Yes Sir, we learnt how to use binoculars at BB’s’ Tommy was chuffed to have paid attention to the ARP Warden.
Ranging over the sky, Tommy looked round 360 degrees. He remembered to close in at dense cloud formations. Fritz used that for cover. A glint of metal. A silhouette of wing tip.
‘Bandit at one o’clock, Sir.’
Biggles swung into action. The air ripped with machine fire. Cordite choked the oxygen. Biggles clipped the enemy’s wing, then shot off his undercarriage, Fritz would barely limp home.
‘That’s one out of action! Well spotted.’ Biggles veered round flying low over the ground. He made a pass over Tommy’s school circled the church spire so the weather vane spun. The plane landed softly in a little clearing in the woods behind Tommy’s house.
Captain Bigglesworth shook his hand. ‘Your Father will be very proud of you Tommy. I will inform him of your assistance upon my return. Without dedicated ground crew like him these birds would not be able to fly.’
Tommy watched Biggles climb up into the plane. He didn’t once look back. He soared into the air, curved round to make another pass and dipped his wings.
He thought he heard the words.
‘Same time tomorrow.’
“By the fifteenth month of the drought, the lake no longer held any secrets.”
Bettina took a bite from the peach. It still had a leaf on it and it was the bobbing of this leaf and its proximity to Bettina’s few teeth that fascinated Kenzie. Surely, she would notice the leaf before she ate it, would it do her any harm it was just vegetation?
“Fifteen months of drought! That was your global warming before it had even been invented!”
Kenzie had joined Bettina on her porch out of pity for the old lady's loneliness. Her reward was to be the audience for 'one of Bettina’s stories'. Kenzie appreciated she was trapped and rearranged herself on the swing seat to suit her long legs, tucking her cell phone under a cushion, out of visual. She minded now why she usually had a ready excuse and a friendly wave.
“People were just hanging around watching it dry out to mud and green sludge. I don’t know where the fish went to, nobody could tell you that, 'twas a miracle they all was saved.”
Kenzie knew about the run-off, the drainage pipe that would have taken any lake life away, but as Bettina would know about it too there was no point in saying anything. It would stay a miracle.
“There were all sorts there, all sorts of mechanical machinery and floating craft.”
The peach leaf came close to the teeth then escaped; peach juice highlighted the stray hairs on the old lady's chin then was wiped away with the back of a hand.
“Cars and boats.”
Kenzie couldn’t help herself stating the obvious, this story was taking too long and held no real information. Bettina paused, she looked at the peach, spotted the leaf and tried unsuccessfully to pick it off. Then took another bite.
“It was hard to tell what they were, all broke up by the power of the water.”
A whispered 'excuse me' followed a burp.
“So did folks go out on the lake bed to see what was there?”
“They did and they didn't, they try to walk on it, but it was a pie crust, they walk on it and go through... through to the goo.”
The two women smiled at each other.
“Right in, got stuck, worse than slipping under ice, an' if you moved you squirmed in deeper. The stink was worse than shit, pardon me for saying.”
“You said there was secrets exposed. What sort of secrets?”
“All kinds, anything anyone wants rid of they take up to the lake.”
“Trash they can't be bothered taking to the dump...though why it's easier to haul it out to the lake, I don't know!”
Bettina shook her head.
“There's trash and there's trash. There’s all kinds of hopes and disappointments in there. All kinds.”
Kenzie let her mind roam, but she must have ultimately looked puzzled to Bettina, for the old lady added.
Kenzie tried to look like she understood, the old women was sharing something profound, a womanly initiation, but Kenzie couldn't quite grasp it. She broke her gaze with Bettina and leaned back on the swing, looking at the painted wood ceiling of the porch. Cream and roses, feminine chintz and green tracery entangled with symbols, some recognisable from the dollar bill. After a full minute she came back to planet earth and looked questioningly at Bettina.
The old lady shook her head, it was perhaps a story for another day.
“They were all waiting for the bus to show up. Bill Ostler, he drove it in there back in the day, said he was 'tired of being at everyone’s beck and call' and just droved it in, so it's been said, but nobody saw him do it.”
Kenzie digested this; it was still unclear what had happened.
“Did he go in with the bus?”
“That's the thing about secrets, it ain’t a secret any more if you tell someone.”
She said this with such satisfaction that Kenzie laughed. Bettina looked offended and turned her attention back to the peach. A leafless stone, she threw it with an accuracy that had it hit the porch then skip a couple of times like a skimming stone on water.
“We all us went up and waited. It was as good as waiting on the rain there as anywhere. The bus top came up quick, but the windows took longer.”
Bettina in her best theatrical tone declared the next line with a pantomime thigh slap.
“Bill was in the bus; he was sitting in the driver’s seat.”
Kenzie was thrown by this.
“He was in the bus ...that’s really horrible! How did you know it was him?”
Bettina pondered; she clasped her hands cracking her fingers.
“He had his cap on.”
“On his head? On his skull? Isn’t he just bones by now?”
Bettina gave a heartless laugh.
“Not him, no no … Ha Ha, he was always a big fellow, and I can tell you on good authority he ain’t no bag of bones! Why he tried to get the engine to turn over but it wouldn’t go, reckon all the gas must have floated away.”
Kenzie puzzled over this, only one conclusion.
“He's alive? Oh yes, I see. well, done, you're good, you'd be good at Urban Myth stuff.”
Bettina nodded. She reached down to her cotton bag and pulled out two more peaches. She offered Kenzie one. The two women sat in companionable silence, gazing out over the heat crackling meadow. Crows cawed in the maples. There was a long pause while they watched a pale fox with something limp in its mouth moving from shade to shade. Then she delivered her best line
“He's goanna have to pay the county a tidy sum of money in compensation for that bus”