Monday, April 30, 2007

"A Mother, A Grandma...And Now There's A 'Queen Mum' In Paperback..."

We're looking forward to October.
Kate Long's coming to our Festival, and so is...** ( see end of Post )
Kate Long has excellent reviews.
Here's a handfull:
The Guardian: " extremely enjoyable...funny, perceptive" ( Bad Mothers Handbook)
The Independent:" blunt good humour and style" ( Swallowing Grandma)
And The Times on Queen Mum :" Long is not afraid to take on darker issues".
This is true.
In her books, we see those intriguing patterns families make over generations, we look at the changing lives of women , we look at Class ( in our "classless" society..)
And we look too at the tragic death of a child.
Kate is also a very agreeable lady. She's already visited our Festival; she joined a Writers Panel (Adele Geras, Jane McNulty, Margaret Murphy) for a lively afternoon re writing.
And another occassion, Kate kindly had a fun session with my writing group; we laughed a lot and talked a lot and certainly, we learned a lot.
And so, good news, Kate returns in October to run a creative writing session as part of the Festival!
Please See:
**also coming to the Festival: Oliver James ( "Affluenza" ) Jenny Colgan, Rhabbi Lionel Blue and undoubtedly more......

Thursday, April 26, 2007

"There, As Promised..."

This book is superb**. This book is a pleasure.
This book provokes our thoughts.
This book contains life-affirming poetry.
And we could do with lavish dollops of that, couldn't we?

This book is an international collection of vibrant poetry for all to read.
And I think " all" means "all".

This little poem is "Happiness" by Stephen Dunn:

"A state you must dare not enter
with hopes of staying,
quicksand in the marshes, and all

the roads leading to a castle
that doesn't exist
But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above
the crocodiles, and its doors forever open"

I suppose life can be a fairytale even for grownups.
( If only for a while, for a glimpse...)
** "Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times" edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe)

"Creating A Sculpture": A ShortShort Story.

Win lives in a terrace by an alley.
It’s noisy; dogs, the couple opposite, that fat guy revving his Harley while his mates smoke joints in an Escort, roar their heads off to “ Black Sabbath”.
“ I see it all” Win tells her daughter in Deal “ Life in the raw”.
Today’s Easter Sunday; there are daffodils on her windowsill.

Win doesn’t give details.
Once, a guy slumped against her door and snuffed it.
Once, a druggie screamed under her window all night for someone who never came.
Once, she parted her curtains, saw two kids doing it against a wall; it was Saturday and late and the clubs had emptied and in the dark, caught in moonlight, the girl’s back had arched like a bow and the sight made Win breathless. She didn’t disapprove; the arched back was beautiful, like sculpture, and the boy had danced into the girl with some crazy animal rhythm, which Win, embarrassed, realised she half remembered.
She’d closed the curtains, turned back into the warmth. And sipping tea, she’d imagined Jim’s lips on hers, remembered his need of her, his urgency and she’d blushed as images crowded and Jim’s voice, here again, had coaxed and cajoled and most of all loved her.

He’d died months before in the hospital.
A nurse called Betty hugged her, said: “He’ll never leave” .
Win took his watch, Fishermen’s Friends, snaps of herself on a donkey.
And Betty was right: When Win licked candyfloss at the Fair, Jim was there, staring at the Big Wheel, ooohing as he’d always done.
And on Christmas Eve, Win carolled in the Cathedral; in the cloisters, Jim appeared and they’d wished strangers All The Best, watched midnight antics of youths at the Town Hall.

So Win, in white Easter cardigan, dozes in her chair.
She’s tired, she’s sleepy, the Harley’s revving, the dogs yelping but Jim’s here, suddenly he’s here, and he’s whispering, he’s coaxing, he’s urging and the dogs bark and the woman opposite shrieks and Win, breathless, arches her back like that bow in that beautiful sculpture.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"Wearing Orange With Jenny Joseph"***

This afternoon, I took tea in The Long Room at Eaton Hall. (OK, me and many other women.)
Eaton is the family seat of Gerald, Duke of Westminster.
We nibbled delicate sandwiches, tiny cakes, sipped tea.
We sat beneath priceless family paintings, beside marbled sculpture, at round tables with pristine linen cloths.
And believe me, after scrubbing the bathroom and unblocking the sink this morning, this WAS really some treat.
There was no sign of the Duke of Westminster though.
Or his gorgeously named wife, Natalia.
There was no sign of the Duchess in her leathers on her fabled motorbike or the Duke marching back from his battalion..
We HAD thought they'd slope in for a cuppa ( DO aristocrats "slope"?) or a fairy bun at least. And we thought they'd certainly want a look at US. But no.
THIS was rather disappointing. Most people had made an effort; there was a sprinkling of pearls, suits, handbags with expensive clasps, and several women had obviously had their hair done..

BUT I digress.
We were there as friends of The Samaritans who welcomed Jenny Joseph ( "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple") for an afternoon of her poems and conversation.
AND one disappointment: Joseph made absolutely NO mention of her beloved "Warning!" and strangely, nobody else dared mention it either. This WAS a shame; several women had added purple chiffon scarves to their outfits, violet pashminas, one wore purple leather boots, exactly like those I wore up Kings Rd in another life. There were, however, no red hats or folk scoffing sausages, but yes, there were definitely SOME nods to her Purple...***

But Jenny Joseph surprised.
Her poetry was sensitive, intelligent, various. Much was beautiful, far more provocative than we expected. It spoke to us in some ways of our existence; it went some way to explain it.
And I saw thoughtful pensive faces, I saw wry smiles between the teacups. I saw twinklings in the eyes of the women.
And there were nods of recognition at a phrase, a touch of comfort for a friend on her arm.
And one woman gently reached for her bag, jotted down words, another, older woman's thoughts ...
Joseph's latest collection is:" Extreme of Things" ( Bloodaxe 2006) a wonderful collection with the theme of the nature of our existence running through it. Some of her earlier poems are there, along with new ones.....
And they'll surprise you, and they MAY just delight you.
** That was me ( wearing orange)
*** See archives Wed Dec 6th ( if time/inclination)

Monday, April 23, 2007

"Friends, Re-united": A Shortshort Story.

It’s been a long time, as they say.
And in the distance, she’s fatter. She’s waddling towards me.
Fancy that, sexy Jackie, who once glided in lurex round Quaintways*, now actually waddling.

Clark’s shoes with Velcro? There are probably hairs on her chin. Thread veins on thighs. Her dress might even be crimplene.
I stand beside King Charles Tower, conscious of belly, bald patch, patting the back pocket of my M&S stretch jeans, where photos nestle beside video card (it’s beery) and glasses (they’re smeary).

Jackie waves. I’d never have known her but for the tulip in her hand.
We plumped for a tulip because they grew in the park that first time we snogged; just fourteen, she at the High, me at the Grammar. There were red tulips, yellow ones. We sat on a bench and looked at the Dee and she sang “ Wonderful wonderful Copenhagen” while I felt her breasts, until I stopped and pointed out that Copenhagen was Denmark and tulips usually meant Holland. She’d smelt of apples and Tizer and spearmint gum. Her breasts were soft like her Nan’s budgie, and when I touched her nipples, circling them with my finger so that they perked up like soldiers, she’d said: “ Heaven” and then she’d cried.

Her smile is wide.
“ Look at you, forty years on” she says and her voice is her mother’s and her eyes are her Nan’s and we face each other and hold hands and hers are small and cold and cluttered with rings.
She stands on tiptoe, offers her cheek to mine. It’s powdery yet damp and I remember maiden aunts sipping Bristol Cream at Christmas.
We link arms and “ Who’d have thought it? “ she says and we’re standing under Eastgate Clock and we’re watching the crowds of our city, its Smiths, its Boodle and Dunthorne.

“ The park?” Jackie’s eyes giggle. And I remember them ringed with kohl, how they glittered.
So we kiss on a bench and the kiss is sweet and the kiss is tender and Jackie says: “ Heaven” and then she cries.

* A long-gone Night Club

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"Happy Days Are Here Again..."

Oh Dear.
I hope I haven't depressed folk with my red-cheeked, red-hatted Picasso and all my talk of teeth, swollen faces, cancelled parties, the eating of rice puddings...
I'm feeling better. MUCH. In fact, I'm feeling pretty good this evening.
Thankyou for your comments and I hope everyone has a happy and healthy week.
PS: I watched Stephen Fry's new TV series "Kingdom"; he plays an East Anglian solicitor with a high-powered cast including Celia Imrie, Hermione Norris, and youthful Karl Davies as his articled clerk ( he's superb).
This 1st parter was all rather mild, pleasant, luke-warm; ideal Sunday evening viewing if you'd strenuously dug your garden all day ( I hadn't) OR scaled Mt Snowdon ( I hadn't) OR even ironed a month's worth of shirts ( I CERTAINLY hadn't)
BUT there was a wonderful line which I wanted to share:
Kingdom (alias Fry), with both his eyes and his voice enormous, said to Lyle ( alias Davies ): "YOU have mastered the art of "Yourselfness" ..."
I can think of 5 people ( straight off ) who have this quality in abundance.
They're lucky and brave and life-enhancing.
They are independent souls who brighten the world purely by Being Themselves.

Friday, April 20, 2007

"Not Quite Myself"

I'm not a pretty sight today. I'm not even NEARLY as pretty as Picasso's Woman in a Red Hat ( Art Print) see above..
BUT like the Woman in the said red hat , I have a red livid cheek, swollen face and my eyes appear to be placed at rather uglier ( I'm NOT particularly vain) angles than usual. ...
This week, I have had RCT; I have toothache "to boot" ( funny phrase that, and I CERTAINLY feel like booting out the cat(s) .....
And to "cap" it all, ( rather an unfortunate word, bearing in mind my problem) ...Radio 4 announced yesterday that those indulging in RCT, were Possibly At Risk of developing Mad Cow Disease at some later date..
At this minute, I'm supposed to be in a little Cornish village with my son, his beautiful partner and babe. Tomorrow, I'm supposed to be in Portscatho Village Hall ( Roseland, also Cornwall ) along with my husband, brother, sisterinlaw, dear friends....celebrating a special birthday to the music of The Bucket Boys ( who, it's said, once played with the wonderful Clapton)
Instead I'll be eating rice pudding and probably watching the choosing of Joseph.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Out Of The Blue.... Into The Blue "

This piece is the start of something begun ages ago.
I'd actually completed about 20,000 words, then I deleted most of them by accident while ( stupidly) fiddling about on my computer keyboard as I chattered on the phone... so 20,000 words vanished into the blue, just like that. Hence the 2nd bit of my title!

So, just to confuse, the story below ( which, as I've said, is actually the opening to something much longer ) is called:" Out Of The Blue" ...

"Convolvulus, that’s its name; Nan told me, years ago. And now its white trumpet flowers twine beneath us as we push through brambles out of the Jenner’s orchard into the field.

Some weedy orchard, the Jenner’s; six fruit trees, a few raspberry canes and that’s it. But everyone thinks it’s posh as it’s the only orchard around. We’re stuck in the middle of a town, you see. We’ve been scrumping, nicking Cox’s, their Golden Delicious.

Now we’re into the bareness of the field. I suppose it’s city scrub really, houses built round yards and back gardens ambling towards it, where deck chairs slump and other kids dads mow patches of grass, dig King Edward potatoes. Not my dad though. My dad’s an Italian film star, an England footy player; my dad’s a city stockbroker. My dad is strong and reliable and rich and funny. My dad is dark-haired and brown eyed and gorgeous and my dad comes only in dreams.

There are buttercups in the field, startled ones, purple clovers peeping between tall grasses, which redden our legs, tickle our noses. I’m the only girl as usual, with Johnny Rogers and Shane and Eddie Price and scrawny Joe O’Brien.
They're threshing brambles with make-believe swords, beheading nettles with bare brave hands, screaming for dock leaves, laughing man-like, together.
The boys shout, but I’m louder. I can be a fishwife. Garish soldier shouts streak like vapour trails into the sky. There's Shane and Johnny and Eddie in footy shirts and jogging pants, Joe in his big brother’s shorts. All their faces still with the soft traces of babyhood.

In the centre of the scrub, we squat on the ground.
My thighs are fleshy; they spread as I sit cross-legged. I trace this fleshiness, the softness, with a finger, the inside of my leg. It’s new, this fleshiness, it fascinates.
And we talk of the strangeness of the Jenner’s orchard in the midst of this scruffy part of our town, the pond in their garden, the lilies floating, and Johnny laughs about the stench, the sweetness of their roses.
I remember the grassy stubble of our own gardens; the yellowness of places seducing cats and Macdonald’s cartons and Eddie says his dad is setting up a baseball net in their yard. Johnny says his dad grows red-hot pokers. And Sean says his dad kips all day in a shed when he’s been on a Bender. I say nothing.

The lads have known me years. Infant school, Junior. They look at me. They know my thoughts. And I know their thoughts. “ Her dad comes only in dreams..”
And we sit like squaws round a fire, suck sweets, swig coke. Johnny boasts, Eddie snaps twigs, Shane cracks his fingers so they snap, make me shudder and wince. Joe lights a furtive fag.

And then he’s here, crossing the field. Chris Kelly, swaggering, strutting, striding towards us; older, Boy Band gorgeous. I hardly know him, but I see him on the bus and he stares. He really stares.
Now there are stirrings inside me, something nestling in my secret places. It’s like waiting for Christmas, the start of a holiday, but it’s suddenly grownup stuff.
Chris Kelly knows and I redden and he slinks towards me, eyes aglow.

The slap is hard. It's out of the blue.
His slap on my thigh is single, it stings, and it’s the cruellest of bumblebees, the most vicious of nettles.
Then he turns and slouches away and his hips roll and his hands jingle coins in his pocket. There’s silence and Johnny pales and Eddie picks his finger nails, the cuticles, the skin round his nails, till they bleed and Shane groans and they turn to me and their eyes are wide as caves…

“ I’ll get my Dad,” says Johnny. His voice is a hoarse whisper.
Sean slings an arm roughly round my shoulders. Eddie examines his knuckles as though his life depended on it. Johnny runs across the field screaming for his dad.
Mr Rogers bends to the soil in his garden and the skin of my thigh is a livid angry red.

And then I scream.
“ Nan!” I yell and Johnny looks at Eddie and Eddie winces and Joe drops his fag in the scrub and Sean croaks: “She’s gone, Jade, she’s gone, you went to the Crem…” and my thigh smarts and aches and my shoulders shake and I’m crying.
And over the field in Jenner’s orchard, beyond the wildness of convolvulus, I’m sure I hear Nan’s voice….


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Being Andy And Becoming Jane: 2 Films Recently Seen.

Perhaps these shoes (painted by Andy Warhol** ) once belonged to his beautiful muse Edie Sedgwick? We'll never know.
All I know is: I like the vibrancy of the colours, the mingled shapes, the unmistakable "feel" of an era.
They're images in the style of a time that was passing; New York, 27 years ago.... that's when the painting first appeared.

Last week I watched Guy Pearce and Sienna Miller in "Factory Girl", directed by George Hickenlooper; they play Andy and Edie, whose names sound like those of an ordinary couple from Rochdale . And I'd been looking forward to this film; both the era AND the Warhol/Sedgwick relationship fascinate me.
It's probably best to blame that fascination on Du Maurier's "Trilby", and her Svengali, who I discovered in a sunny garden in summer, '63.
OR perhaps blame Cathy and Heathcliff on the Yorkshire moors
OR Romeo and Juliet in Italy
OR even Tristram and Isolde ( I got the poster, but not the T shirt...)
OR you COULD blame the boredom of a labour ward in the 70's, before the arrival of my first son. Between contractions, I read a book I still have (" Nicholas and Alexandra" by Robert K Massie ) which the previous Prima Gravida had left. Inside it, was an article about Picasso and his muse, Dora Maar. From then on, I was hooked on Muses and fascinated by The Intense Relationship...

YES. The film was entertaining and colourful and I enjoyed the sets; Warhol's Factory, the sizzle of 60's New York and the music, particularly " Velvet Underground". Everything buzzed in all the right places, just as it should.
And Sienna Miller was pretty, a polished actress, who will have been applauded for her capable interpretation of a hedonistic young woman.

BUT the big star was Guy Pearce, first spotted by me and my children in "Neighbours", as we drank Smoothies and watched Kylie all those years ago.
And has Pearce Grown Up! ( I'm probably the only person in the world who doesn't know WHAT he's been doing since " Neighbours"...)
David Bowie was great as Warhol in Schnabel's " Basquiat" ( 1997) but Pearce's Warhol was superb; he was ice-cool, talented, white haired, pitted-skinned. He was often child-like, he was often the most lost of people. He played Warhol as an enigma, an icon and as such, Pearce was BRILLIANT.
THEN yesterday I saw " Becoming Jane", directed by Julian Jarrold.
This film is about Jane Austen's supposed love affair with Tom Lefroy. It paints pictures we've come to expect of a particular time in English history. It has lush countryside with massive oaks, shimmering lakes. It has ladies in empire dresses playing harpsichords in pastel-painted rooms. It has women in Jemima Puddleduck bonnets ( sorry, wrong film) shawls fetchingly draped around slender shoulders, it has women who shiver with repressed emotion as they cluster together with numerous sisters. And it has men in breeches, men in tights and men running stark naked into woodland ponds in broad daylight..
The film, too, has leering rustic faces, cobbled courtyards, ballrooms where sedate people dance and glance, it has unrequited love, sobs at night, pewter tankards, ample women and stage coaches, which rattle with people, luggage and horses, cantering to London at dawn.
It also has huge shabby houses with furniture we'd die for... and carpets ( faded and Turkish) and curtains ( damask and dusky and satin and silk)....
AND there's James McAvoy ( cheeky, irresistible) who plays Jane's lover, Lefoy. And Anne Hathaway is Jane ( dead ringer for Lizzie Bennett) perfectly cast with beguiling brown eyes, youthful elegance; this Jane exhudes intelligence, romance and ( I have to say it) 21st Century woman.
There's a supporting cast including Julie Walters (Mrs Austen ) Maggie Smith (dreadful wealthy neighbour ) and the late Ian Richardson, in what I imagine was his final film, superbly playing Lefoy's pompous disapproving uncle.
Ultimately, it's a light and pleasant film telling a sad love story; whether it's accurate isn't really its point. ( Its end actually disappointed, spluttering squib-like to the final credits...).
Its point is, I suppose, audience pleasure, Box Office success, The Rising of Stars...
BUT what would Austen make NOW of her "Becoming"?? What would she make of her love life stretched so "imaginatively" for all to see, of her desire to write exhibited, along with the turmoils within her family?
And what would Warhol make of the depiction of his Factory, his even crazier Edie?? Of his talented ludicrous life?
What'd they make of these fantasies,these glossy 21st Century views of their private, intimate selves?
Just imagine: Sitting together on a fluffy pink cloud, high as kites ( in celestial terms, of course) Andy and Jane, looking down together on films in 2007...two folk, different as chalk and cheese.
What in heaven are they thinking?
** Art Print "Shoes" Andy Warhol ( 1980)

Saturday, April 07, 2007

"Remembering Descants"

Women and their relationships....with lovers, husbands, friends, mothers, sons, daughters, siblings.
This story is about the mother/daughter relationship; these relationships vary so much, don't they, from person to person? And they're never static, even in a particular relationship, are they? I imagine THAT's both a pro AND a con...
** The painting shown here is Edvard Munch's " Mother and Daughter". He painted it in 1897 and it is exhibited at Nasjonalgalleriet in Oslo. This was an Art print.
My story is called “Remembering Descants”. It was shortlisted for the Bitch Lit Anthology which was produced in Manchester by Commonword Ltd.
( And my own mother, who WAS beautiful, was also far warmer..)

" “ Love me?” I whisper. My words float like the snowflakes outside.

I thought I’d be prepared, so yesterday I bought a black woollen dress from Oxfam. The price tag’s still on. It has a high neck, long sleeves and its hem settles around my calves. It’s sensible and prim; its plainness is its asset and my mother would approve: "It’s a canvas to adorn!" she’d cry, like a child with a brand new colouring book.

My mother’s hair is red against her pillow.Her skin is like alabaster and I’m murmuring old Leonard Cohen songs. They’re the haunting ones, about Suzanne and Marianne and I’m leaning on the windowsill. It’s snowing outside in the hospital car park and sky’s darkening and clouds lumber across it like porpoises. Then Dylan chips in and I’m suddenly not sleepy and I know for certain there’s no place I’m going to.
Snow drifts now, and sky turns grey as my hair. My mother wakes in her hospital bed. She would like my new dress.

My mother wears a satin nightdress. She’s always loved elegance, she's hated my sloppiness.
"Wonderful!” she’d laugh, when I swirled round in some dress she’d made me buy, and then my transformation would begin.
“Adornments! ” she’d cry. She couldn’t resist as she let rip with her own belongings....silvery necklace, copper choker, silky violet scarf around my throat. There was a brooch from Morocco, red leather gloves from Italy, often something emerald or orange. She’d clip huge earrings to my ears; she’d paint my mouth with her own scarlet lipstick.
And in the mirror, I’d see a doll I didn’t recognise and I’d wonder where I’d gone.

A Mini Cooper screeches into the hospital car park, blares music. A girl staggers out of the car. The sky shivers. This room is warm; it cocoons me. I run my fingers through my hair.
” Love me?” I say to my mother. It’s hard to ask. And she sighs, as I knew she would.

“ Give me some peace,” she says. I run my fingers through my hair. My mother’s hair was always red. “Flame coloured” she’d say as she brushed it out each night. I wished she’d brush out my hair; I wished this often. Not like a doll’s, but simply because she loved me.

Once my mother bought sweets while we waited for my cat to die. We sat by his basket and she giggled: “ It’s his turn to die. We get turns in everything. Don’t miss out on your turns. Grab your turn for love."
Then the cat died. And I cried.
“Love me!” I said to my mother. But she painted on lipstick, brushed out her flame coloured hair.

The girl in the car park wears a long white ball gown. She stands still and screams. The Mini Cooper swerves away through the gates of the hospital into the street. The girl screams again. A man in overalls carries a dustbin. He walks on through the gates into the street. A ginger cat grooms itself on the roof of a van.
My cat in his basket waited his turn. The girl stands in the car park. A nurse runs towards her. I hum more Dylan; turn back to my mother. The music in my head throbs and clouds heave themselves across the sky.

I’ve thought for years how this day would be; little girls do. When I was ten, my friends and I took turns to die. We played Death Beds, our favourite winter game, when central heating hadn’t spread to shivery unheated bedrooms.
We huddled together, Carol-Ann, Elizabeth and me, and we groaned and gasped and sighed under a salmon pink eiderdown. It smelt of stuffiness and teddies, peppermints and fizzy lemonade, pencil shavings and liquorice and forgotten overdue library books and as we snuggled, we took dying breaths and always we saw our mothers’ faces.

There are cards on the windowsill in this hospital room, a chocolate box on a chair. It’s almost Christmas and I look ridiculous. Tonight I was invited to a Fancy Dress Ball. I wear a ballerina’s tutu with top hat and tails. I’d just tried on my costume when the call came. And now my mother’s lying against pillows, her face as pale as frost.
A nurse called Maureen, in pristine uniform, smoothes my mother’s brow. Her efficiency emphasises my crazy clothes, the fact I couldn’t smooth my mother’s brow if I were last person on Earth. Maureen wears green mascara on gingery lashes. She has wide hips beneath her crisp dress.
The words "unfinished business” flash before my eyes like an illuminated cinema sign. They clog the dusky view of the city through the window; they screech their message above my mother’s locker where a jug of roses stands. She’s always liked roses. Men gave her roses; they often gave her roses. I tell her the roses smell sweet. She stirs beneath the blanket:"Hush, give me some peace.”
I loll in a chair. When she’s gone, I’ll be banished to the attic, left in a forest, hidden in caves. Wolves will guard me. I’ll be Heidi on her Alp, Mary in the Secret Garden. Elizabeth often said I had the eyes of an orphan.
My mother’s bed is high; its covers are tight. I remember the bed where library books lurked, the smell of liquorice. I see my mother’s younger face. I remember books I read, fears we had, Carol- Ann, Elizabeth and I. I remember the waiting of turns.

I’ve thought for years of this, because little girls do. She’ll stir in her bed, open her eyes so I’ll see their blueness. She’s waiting at the pearly gates. And I’ve waited my turn for her love.
We sang beneath the eiderdown. We chose delicate words for our mothers. Carol-Ann sang hymns, knew about descants. We tried to sing descants.

Outside, it’s dark and a street light flashes on. The girl in her ball gown has gone. There’s a strange patch on the ground where she stood; she must have been bleeding. My hands are cold. The bin man pees against a wall. The orange cat crawls beneath the van. Maureen has thick ankles in her dark stockings.
My mother sleeps and I doze. Maureen potters; she dampens a flannel, hangs my coat behind the door. Someone sobs in the corridor; another voice consoles. There are slow footsteps. A dish clatters to the floor; somewhere a man laughs loud. Maureen whispers in the corridor. A doctor stands in the doorway; his smile is wide, clown-like. My legs are cold in my tutu. He wears a pink waistcoat and his hair is black and unruly. His voice is loud; it turns cartwheels down the corridor as he walks away with Maureen. Somewhere a phone rings. The roses on the locker are yellow.
Carol-Ann, Elizabeth and I crushed rose petals in the garden. We soaked them in rainwater, made perfume for our mothers. The lawn was long and sunlit and my mother stretched in her deckchair beneath willows and Elizabeth said she was like a lady in a painting. My mother’s hair was red and the deckchair was blue and the garden was green. We stood with white roses in our hands and I stored this away forever.

I stare at a crucifix above the bed; Christ has hair as wild as the doctor’s. I eat processed cheese on thin buttered bread and a tiny lime green jelly that reminds me of birthday parties and balloons and the Farmer in his Den. The crucifix is thick with dust. The doctor had a cheerful face.
Maureen tucks a tartan rug round me, begs me sleep. Her gentle Irish voice laps over me and I slump in my chair and my tutu puffs round me like creamy meringue and I fade into sleep watching Maureen administer morphine. My mother’s hair is red on the cream pillow. The tartan rug is warm. I stare at the dust on the crucifix. There is the taste of peppermint in my mouth and in my mind, Carol-Ann, under a salmon pink eiderdown, is groaning.
I remember the roar of the Mini Cooper rushing back to the street, the girl in her white ball gown. I hear voices of people in the street. People often looked at my mother in the street. Men watched; women stared. And doors slam in the car park. Someone laughs.
“ Snow’s thick” says Maureen, writing notes on a chart “ Your mother is comfortable” And this room is warm, it cocoons, holds me tight. And Christ is there on His crucifix and my mother lies beneath Him.

People always stared at my mother. She walked with grace and I could never keep up. My legs were short; hers were long. Now, under the quilt, hers are slender; in the tutu, mine are stubby. Nothing changes. Maureen murmurs something; she squeezes my shoulder. No one has touched me for weeks.
I toss myself into a new position in the chair under the tartan rug; I’m remembering an eiderdown, the cuddliness of teddies. I hear the moans of Carol-Ann; I touch the fear inside Elizabeth.

I sleep but something’s aching and I’m running. I’m wanting my Mummy and I’m six years old and I’m running and I wear my blue tweed coat with velvet collar and the city is frosty and it’s bright as a Christmas card. I’m running along a city street trying to keep up, past railings giving glimpses of basement kitchens and cellars and families eating tea.
Ahead of me walks my mother holding hands with a man I have met only once. Her legs are long and strong and there are seams down her stockings and she moves with the grace of a racehorse and I wish I could have stilettos like hers that click and clatter on the pavement instead of black patent bar shoes and white socks that wrinkle and slither around my ankles.
The man has a laugh rich as chocolate and his fingers trail across my mothers back as she walks. Occasionally those fingers wander downwards and he cups her arse with them, runs them down to the hem of her skirt so that it rides up as he touches her thigh and I want to scream:"Don’t! She’s mine! Leave her alone!"
Her skirt is short for these times and it’s the colour of buttercups and I know she smells of apples and vanilla ice-cream and that perfume she bought in Paris. And then my mother turns, shouts back to me in her voice bright as lemons:” Keep up!” And I run like the wind, past all the basements and the black-painted railings and past all the houses in the city, as fast as I can and I long for her to sweep me in her arms and tell me I’m clever and fast and there’s no one like me.
But she’s distracted, she’s giggling and the man laughs his deep laugh, kisses her floating red hair so that his bristly face lies against her peachy soft cheeks and I totter behind them, clinging to the hem of the buttercup skirt, clinging to my mother with the tips of my fingers.
“ Give us some peace,” she laughs and her heels click and her skirt swishes and my mother’s laughter fills the whole of the city.

And waking, I toss away the tartan rug. I touch her cheeks with the tips of my fingers and the pale taffeta tutu crackles as I bend towards her and her eyes flicker and she sighs and Maureen leads me to my chair, soothes me with her lovely voice. And Carol-Ann is singing and her descant soars into my heart.

There’s a forest. It’s night. Trees have faces, leaves chatter. My feet slither amongst leaves and sky is vivid with stars. There’s a woman in front of me, she’s elderly, she’s smiling.
“I‘m here, ” she whispers and she cackles with laughter as the sky cracks and there’s thunder and I’m screaming into trees. When I turn, she’s gone and all that remains is a heap of clothes and in the centre, a skirt the colour of buttercups.

In the car park, a dog barks. There are angry voices, a child yells. Carol-Ann wants to play Deathbeds. Elizabeth swigs fizzy lemonade. The Farmer wants a Child. There are rose petals soaking in rainwater on a kitchen windowsill. But someone’s whispering.
“Not long now” Maureen says,” she’ll soon have her peace”
Maureen runs water into a bowl. In the corridor, a nurse trundles by with a trolley. It squeaks as she passes. Maureen is holding my hand. She squeezes it gently. I picture my new black Oxfam dress waiting in my wardrobe. I shall wear my mother’s copper choker. I wonder if that girl still wears her ball gown. Maureen smoothes my mother’s brow. I feel ridiculous in my tutu.
“Sleep for a while” Maureen turns to me “ I’ll wake you”
I remember the screams of the girl in the ball gown, the blood in the car park. The crucifix glitters, caught in light from the corridor. Elizabeth is sobbing at my bedside. My mother is sighing. When I was twelve, she laughed at my questions; she laughed at my blood, at my sheets, at my panic. She painted her nails the colour of sand.
Maureen touches my elbow. Her hair is as brown as Elizabeth’s. Maureen has freckles. She touches my hand. The lawn is sunlit; there’s the scent of roses. And Elizabeth says my mother is a lady in a painting.
“She’s gone” Maureen murmurs “ Your mother has peace” and then a man shouts again in the car park and the black-haired doctor passes by in the corridor humming a tune I don’t recognise and a chair is scraped across the floor of the room above. Somewhere, I hear the click of stilettos; the click of a nurse’s compact. And this room is warm; it holds me tight. I see the dust on the crucifix. I smell the roses on my mother’s locker. Her face is pale as frost.
“Love me?” I say, but of course there’s no answer and Maureen smoothes my brow, soothes me with her lovely voice.

My mother’s hair is red, her pillows are cream and I’m murmuring songs. And in the jingle-jangle morning, I shall have peace because I’ll be strong. And Carol-Ann will sing descants on a lawn filled with sunlight and I’ll brush out that flame-coloured hair.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"Mr Pratt Calling From Cardiff Zoo..."

I had a phone call first thing this morning.
The voice was manly and very Welsh but strangely familiar:
" Mr Pratt here, calling from Cardiff Zoo. Am I speaking with the lady of the house?"
Cardiff Zoo? IS there a Cardiff Zoo? I've no idea, but the excited Welsh voice continued:
" Madam! Begging your pardon, but you need to look in your garden..."
Hmm. My husband ( bright, and wider awake) grinned across the bedroom, waving today's paper, but I was already dragging back the curtains...
" See, Madam? There's a llama in your garden, under a willow tree. It escaped yesterday. I'm on my way...We'll be with you soon"
THEN it dawned; today's date. My son in Cornwall was upholding a simple family tradition.
In his childhood, it'd been me who spotted a donkey in our garden each year; this year, he'd added a little sophistication, a touch of the exotic.

I love family traditions, I love the whole blessed comforting rigmarole...