Hello – and thanks for dropping in…

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Most days are adventures – I live on an island and I’m a recently retired teacher who loves to travel (pandemics permitting!) so the material is fairly solidly in place each morning when I wake! It is true – I never know what the day will bring. My purpose in venturing into this digital space is to share words; I love words. The intention is to use this Writing On A Rock opportunity to harness the words and get them to do what I’ve wanted them to do for ages – work with me to produce a whole load of musings in the form of stories, poems, travelogues, rants and dreams, diaries and articles, thought bombs and conundrums, thunks and thinks – anything which lets words do their thing. And then there’s the occasional picture too.

I hope you’ll stick with me and drop in now and then to see what’s going on – it’d be great to have you along for the ride. If you like what you see here, please do visit my Back to the Future archive links on the left hand side. J.

Just Ted

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If he is being honest, the chair in which he is sitting has never really been all that comfortable. He hasn’t actually complained out loud, ever, about the lump in the lumbar support (what would’ve been the point?) but he’s recently wanted to give it a good, hard punch. A good kicking, even. Just to let it know he really has had enough now, and that the end of his tether has been reached. Finally, and unequivocally.

The end of one’s tether – an interesting concept, he muses to himself. It implies that he is fastened or anchored to a fixed point. Am I? he wonders. Am I somehow tied to a past that suggests I have no options today?

In the past, putting up with things had always just been his way: going with the flow, keeping the peace, que sera, sera, and all that. Like the time they went to Casa Mama’s on the High Street for their wedding anniversary and the waiter had insisted that the wine they’d ordered had been from the posh wine list, when he knew he’d ordered the house red; he’d smiled, a bit too embarrassed to make a scene, and paid the bill in full. Barbara had glared at him, her eyes somehow flashing contempt and disappointment at the same time. She’d always seemed on the brink of a fight with the world – her default response had been to bristle and quiver like a terrier waiting to bring down any genuinely unsuspecting wrong-doer.

Had she always been like that?

He is finding it increasingly hard to remember her as each day blends into another – her face seems to slip in and out of focus, like he’s looking at her under water. Murky water. Feeling the fluid edges swirl away, he tries hard to grip them in his memory, hold them steady, but the more he tries, the more shimmery they become. It reminds him of the fuzzy edges of the water lilies in that painting Barbara liked. Monet, was it? She’d bought a poster of it for their kitchen wall. He hadn’t liked it. But he didn’t say.

Today, he sits in his uncomfortable chair and allows his eyes to rest gently on the windowpane, unfocused, swirly. It’s raining again, and the oily streaks distort the garden beyond. He used to like April – fresh colours, new life, a shifting in the dark soul of the earth as it pushed itself up through damp layers of resistance to the pale light above. Such a beautiful strength, so easy to underestimate. This year, it’s different. April this year cannot be relied upon to bring a sense of life and living; this year it lurks in the recesses of the shrubbery, wraps itself in a sinuous threat around the grey bones of his ash tree, and whispers warnings about how things will never be the same again. Not now. Not for him.

When Barbara died, he thought he’d be ok. It’s been 16 weeks and 4 days now and, again if he’s being honest, he’s quite relieved that the nightmare of her last few weeks of decline at Sunnyside Residential are over. For eight months, without fail, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 2pm he’d gone to visit her – the trial of the number 34A bus winding through the miserable city to the other side of the industrial estate borne with fortitude and a sense of duty. Duty, not love; and he’s not really sure when one took over from the other. More blurriness around the edges of reality.

There was nothing sunny about Sunnyside Residential; it had been grey, sad, lonely, and – let’s face it – smelly. It had worried him that he’d finally got used to that lingering odour. On his last visit, he had left Barbara in her seat in the lounge, gazing emptily at the TV and pulling the wool thread from her shabby cardigan, and he had taken the 34A bus back toward home with a steely determination never to return. Never, ever would he step foot in such a place again. It was dehumanising, and wrong on so many levels that a human being should end their days in such oblivion.

It will not happen to me. It will not happen to me. It will not happen to me. He plays the refrain like a Beatles song over and over in his head, each and every day.

The greasy rain is slowing now and his eyes adjust their focus through the streaks to the gate beyond the unkempt lawn, once so manicured and pristine. Shifting his weight against the discomfort of the chair, he dabs again at his nose with the grey-once-was-white handkerchief and clears his throat. He’s doing that a lot these days – catching his breath in his throat where there’s a sort of thickness, a sense of choking every so often. Barbara would tell him to go and see old Johnson at the surgery up on Priory Street. “Get yourself seen to,” he can hear her say. Well there is no way on this earth he is going there. Look at what happened to Barbara! She was never away from the place, what with one ailment or another; she was rattling with all the pills that were prescribed for her, and did it do her any good? No. She still ended up in that hellhole of a Sunnyside.

It will not happen to me. It will not happen to me. It will not happen to me.

A movement at the gate catches his attention and he sits up, alert and wary. It’s the red wool scarf and matching gloves again. What now? He thought he’d made it clear the last time she came that he wasn’t interested in anything she was offering. She’d tried to come into the hallway and he’d had to be quite rude in the end, pushing the door shut and refusing to open it again when she rang the bell over and over. Go away. Leave me alone. I’m fine. People need to listen to him, take him seriously. He’s an easy-going type – a gentle giant Barbara used to call him – but… There is now a but…

Rising slowly from his chair, he coughs again and shakes his head to get rid of the fuzzy feeling that sits behind his nose. She’s seen him through the window and is waving energetically, just a bit too enthusiastically – like you would to a recalcitrant toddler who you were about to cajole into submission. He growls quietly. Red Scarf scurries up the path to his porch and forces the bell to ring with a cheeriness he didn’t know it possessed. He makes his way from the sitting room and down the hallway, firmly closing the door to the dining room as he passes, and watches Little Red Scarf and Gloves in silhouette through the mottled glass of the diamond pane in the upper half of the front door.

Maybe he could just not open the door at all, ignore her and whatever she wants this time. He is certainly within his rights. After all, look what happened to Mr Richard Walker at no.15 last November when he, without a thought for his own safety, opened his front door to two strangers who had then proceeded to tie him up, hit him over the head with his own walking stick, and rob him of the money he had put away in the little Toby jug in the hall cupboard. And he was 85, for heaven’s sake! He was taken away in an ambulance, and still hasn’t come back. And his little spaniel, Sadie, has had to go to the RSPCA kennels because there is no one to care for her. She must be feeling so confused on her own right now. He’d liked Sadie, and Mr Richard Walker; they’d pass his house every day and Mr Richard Walker had always raised a hand in greeting to him as he sat in his lumpy chair in the window; sat watching, and waiting. Now they are gone too; and their options have been removed, their independence compromised. He growls again, and coughs. He breathes. He opens the front door.

———————

The rain has finally stopped. April shadows lurk with menace at the edges of his vision as the day closes in, and he sits with his cup of tea (three sugars and semi-skimmed milk – the latter a nod to Barbara’s attempts to reduce his fat intake) waiting for the news on TV at six o’clock. It’ll be more doom and gloom; you can’t seem to get away from it these days. But at least the choice of what to watch is his – he’s in control, he has the options, he makes the decisions, and no one is going to take that away from him with their sneaking around. He knows what they’re up to as they try to catch him out, to remove him from his own home, lock him up in some twisted version of Sunnyside Residential. Well, it’s not happening. Not to him. Not now. Not ever.

They’d tried to “make arrangements” for old Mrs Quinn last month, her who used to live in the flat over the bookies in Briar Avenue. They’d said she “wasn’t capable of independent living”, just because the stairs were getting a bit much for her, and because she was keeping too many cats. When they came to fetch her – he remembers it was a Monday morning because that was the day the young man from Age Concern came to see him – she was dead. Having stacked up box after box of painkillers prescribed for her dodgy hip, she’d taken them all in one go with a bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey on the Saturday night.

Way to go, Mrs Quinn! He smiles his admiration. She’d made her own choices. And he approved of Jameson’s.

He stands up and opens the window just a little; it might be chilly, but he needs some fresh air in the stuffy sitting room. Little Red Scarf and Gloves is still here. She’d been ever so pushy at the front door. With her over-large briefcase, she’d wedged herself in and, short of chopping off her left hand at the wrist with a sharp slam of the door, he’d had to let her in. The business card she’d thrust at him, and which he has put in his trouser pocket for safe-keeping, tells him she is “Ms Amy Deacon – Department of Health and Social Care”. She’d looked a bit uncomfortable in his hallway, a bit less chipper and chirpy than she had on the doorstep, and she’d kept the scarf pulled up over her nose and mouth; said she had a cold, but her muffled words were quite clear to him as she rattled on about what was in his “long-term best interests” and how she could “ease the transition”.

There will be no transition, of that he is sure. Not for him anyway. She, of course, can transition away to her heart’s content.

She’s over there. On the sofa. Where Barbara always used to sit. Next to the little coffee table where their faded wedding picture in a chipped, grubby frame lies face down. Ms Amy Deacon in her red scarf and gloves has nothing whatsoever in common with Barbara – except for the fact that she’s also now dead. Well, it was her own fault, he reasons to himself; don’t carry such a heavy briefcase if you don’t want to be hit over the head with it!

So yes; she’s now dead. As is Ben, from Age Concern. And Nurse-Smyth-You-Must-Call-Me-Lucy from the health centre on Priory Street. And patronising Kyle who’d said he was from some bereavement charity that had just set up in the city to help support older people who had lost loved ones. Huh! They are all in the dining room. Also dead. In fact, they’d been dead a while now. He holds the handkerchief to his nose. Oh, and that cheeky little bugger of a paperboy who tried to nick his wallet off the hall table – he too is very much dead, in the shed.

These people thought they could get one over on him. But not him, not Ted – he’s too smart for them all. No one’s taking away his options, thank you very much. He is very much staying safely put, behind his unkempt lawn and greasy window. Watching, and waiting.

It will not happen to him. It will not happen to him. It will not happen to him. He smiles. And dabs at his nose with his handkerchief again.

Boy on a Train

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He didn’t see a murder, or a secret kiss. There was no melodrama, disaster. It was just a journey where he saw himself looking back at himself from the rain-teared window of Carriage C Seat 12A Reserved. His seat. Booked online with the final dregs of a childhood bank account three days ago, the single ticket now in front of him on the table – a ticket with no return.

The boy in the window, the boy like him but not like him, stared at him knowingly. “What do you think you’re doing?” he sneered. “This’ll never work. You’re useless – this is just a joke, mate.”

“Don’t call me ‘mate’ – and leave me alone,” he responded silently. The boy in the window held his gaze with gold-flecked dirty blue eyes. The glass between them tracked rivulets of converging raindrops, pushed almost horizontal by the force of the speeding train. The slash of raindrops seemed to give Window Boy a silver scar across his lips. Hope that hurt, he thought; hope it made you cry.

Forcing his thoughts away from the sneering attention of that boy, he imagined what it must be like in the driver’s seat up ahead at the end of the long snaky carriages. It would be cool to see the tracks laid out so smoothly, so perfectly parallel, no complications, nothing in the way. Just think of the bullet-like power that could cut through banks of heavy air, force it to move out of your way, that could thrust itself into stillness and silence to create a beautiful mayhem of leaves, debris, dust – all swirling and dancing out of control until it had to settle again behind this magnificent force.

He realised he’d been holding his breath. The woman across the aisle glanced at him; looked away. He wondered if he’d made a noise (he sometimes did but didn’t know how to stop them when they just seemed to come from nowhere), and then he slowly released the air from his lungs, heart beating in rhythm to the pulse of the train on the tracks beneath him.

Window Boy rolled his eyes, his thin cold lips turning up in another sneer. “You know you’re mad, don’t you? Everybody else does. That’s why they give you the tablets. The ones, by the way, you haven’t taken today…”.

No, no, no – don’t listen to him. You can do this. Ignore him.

His hand brushed the fabric of the seat next to him and he flinched, screwed up his eyes, bit into his lower lip. Scratchy material made him anxious, but he was determined to follow through with his plan and a blue striped train seat was not going to undo him. Not this time. Secretly, he turned to see if Window Boy was laughing at him again and realised that it had stopped raining. Parachute clouds were clearing ahead of a pale winter sun and Window Boy was gone, or at least faded to an indistinguishable water-colour of his former hard-edged self.

He allowed himself a hesitant smile. The woman across the aisle picked it up and returned it. “I’m going to see my dad,” he said. She nodded. He looked again at his ticket on the table. Single.

So, have only gone and done it…

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It saddens me to see how limited my Blogging output has had to be over the past few months.

But I’m a full time teacher running a busy English department, so maybe it’s understandable and I should cut myself some slack.

However (drum roll, please!!!!), I have just handed in my notice and will be taking early retirement from all things classroom in 14 weeks. How utterly exciting is that?

I am so looking forward to getting back to my fledgling writing and being able to commit to ideas, projects, updates and downdates.

Thank you to everyone who hasn’t “unfollowed” me due to lack of regular output. Much appreciated. 🙂

 

Long-listed by ReflexFiction :-)

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Really happy to see my flash fiction story published by ReflexFiction – click to read

@reflexfiction

Or read it here…

Actress

“I was there that day. I was there.”

Chitter-chatter stops; eyes fix on me. Glasses suspend between frozen mouths and litter-strewn table. I scan the scene for inspiration. His Malbec. “There was blood everywhere—it was overwhelming. I didn’t know who to help first.” Her Chardonnay. “A woman in a pale dress was lying on the floor, eyes leaking tears. I bent to talk to her, but she didn’t answer.” The bass beat from the speaker. “Footsteps pounded—thudded—it was terrifying; it went on and on. What to do? Run? Help? What would you have done? Be honest.”

Captive audience; all mine. One leans towards me—gentle fingers on shaking shoulder. Another takes my hand—warm, safe in his soft concern. I breathe. Blondie looks at me in awe; her designer lenses. “What frightened me most was the glass—exploding from windows, raining down onto innocence, icy splinters across the street. I felt it crunch as I walked, powdering into a thin, crystal carpet. Awful. Awful.”

Drop of the head, slight shudder. Get her a drink. Anyone got a tissue? Rain patters against the window. “People everywhere were crying, some silently screaming—it was like the world had stopped and everyone was weeping because there was nothing else for them. I cried too. This guy paused—he wanted to help, but his eyes were unfocused, confused; he ran off.” Blondie tries to ask a question, but I fix her with a stare—she clamps her puffy red lips together and breaks eye contact. This is my stage; butt out, Blondie.

Across the street, a garish illuminated shop sign winks at me. “When the emergency services arrived, it was chaos—flashing lights, uniforms trying to make sense of it. I gave them as much information as I could; they were very grateful.”

Delicate sniff. “Sorry, it’s so painful to talk about. Please, can we change the subject?”

Of course, of course. Hush now. Have another drink. Sit by me. You want to stay at my flat tonight? You don’t want to be alone; you’re so upset. I nod. Smile weakly. “Thanks.”

That day? No. I wasn’t there.

Silent applause.

Thinking about Hawks

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My recommendation from the bookshelves which line my long hallway is the Day 4 offering of 30 Books in 30 Days, and it is the exquisitely written “A Kestrel for a Knave” by Barry Hines.

Many of my Writing On A Rock followers are not from the U.K. so this title might be unfamiliar. But it is indeed a Must Read.

Billy Casper’s bleak future seems inevitable. Dismissed as hopeless at school and neglected by the remnants of his family, in weeks he will be joining his brutish brother, Jud, down the mines. However, his affinity for the natural world offers a sliver of hope; he raises a wild kestrel, which he names Kes, and her quiet strength and independence strikes a chord with the troubled teenager. Adapted into a critically acclaimed film by Ken Loach, A Kestrel for a Knave remains a cornerstone of British fiction. ‘A slim book about a no-hoper and a hawk’ was Hines’s own description of the novel, yet its slightness belies its great emotional power – when Billy flees his demeaning existence at school and ventures into the wild, he comes alive.

If you’re looking for something that might have passed you by, or you’ve not read this since you were at school, now’s the time to give yourself a real treat. Step gently into Billy’s world and go with the flow – it will ask you to invest emotions in a “knave” and to see the world through the eyes of someone much misunderstood. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when I read it for the first time – and the second, and the third…

30 Books in 30 Days…

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Three days in and three fantastic books from my stuffed shelves have now been recommended – Anatomy of a Soldier, The Night Circus and The Book Thief. There are 27 more to follow – with some surprising twists and turns in an unpredictable set of recommendations. Hope you’re following on Twitter @WritingOnARock. If so, maybe you’ll be kind enough to retweet. Enjoy your day. 

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