I have lots of words but don't know the right order for them.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas Story

It’s Saturday morning, the fifth of January, and the doorbell has just rung.  I’m in no hurry to answer it –  I have an ineluctable sense that I know most of what’s coming – but I look out of the window anyway.  Sure enough, an enormous UPS lorry is parked in the road, and a team of men are unloading what looks like, although it can’t be, an even bigger packing case.  I open the door.

“Delivery for you, squire,” says the man.

“I know,” I reply submissively.


It had all started so promisingly.  “I’m going to send you lots of lovely presents when I’m away,” my True Love had said.  “More and more, every day, till I get back.”

“That will be wonderful, darling,” I said, meaning it.

And Christmas Day, sure enough, brought a delightful surprise.  A tree, with a bird in it.  How nice, I thought, stuck it on the patio, and carried on the festivities with my family guests.

Next day, Boxing Day, there was another delivery, this time of a pair of doves.  And another tree.  With a bird in it.  Ah, I thought, I’m starting an orchard.  But what’s with all the birds?  Ah well; she is an unusual girl, my True Love.

Over the next couple of  days, though, after I’d acquired two more pear trees, complete with partridges (as we’d worked out they were by a bit of googling), four more doves, six hens and four peculiar creatures that the label informed me were something called ‘colly birds’, I began to wonder if something might have gone slightly wrong.  But the arrival of five lovely gold rings (along with the by now accustomed avian life, and tree) soothed me a little.  Not even the addition of six geese, shedding eggs, by special delivery on Sunday threw me, although the garden was becoming a bit crowded by now.

Then the first batch of swans arrived.

I logged on the suppliers’ website.  “Howdy!” said the message on the help page.  “We’re having a teeny problem with our delivery systems at the moment.  Please try later.  Our best people are working to sort this out.”

When the milkmaids arrived next day and started trying to milk everything (I directed them to the colly birds), my guests decided it was time to leave.  They were wise – by yesterday evening, when I’d accumulated a population of twenty-four milkmaids, twenty-seven dancing girls, twenty lords, and a band of pipers, in addition to all the birds (though some of them had flown away, I think), it was getting a little close in here.  We did have a good party last night, though.


I look at the ominous packing case in the drive.  I know I’ll have to face it soon, but in a weak feint at procrastination I go and check the wine cupboard.  It’s nearly empty.  My True Love returns tomorrow, and she’s going to need a drink.  I have an idea.  Those thirty-five rings must be worth a bob or two down the scrap gold shop, and the wine warehouse is still open.  I beckon to some of the lords, and they come leaping over.

“Little job for you, sires,” I tell them.

Then I go out and crack open the massive packing case.  And the drummers start a-drumming.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

In The Dust

It’s the same every morning, hygiene then food, don’t bother to ask if I’m clean or hungry never mind anything else, not that it’d make any difference, she doesn’t listen whatever I say.  I’m just another thing to her.  I don’t live on the same planet.  I have to say, they do irritate me.  I mean, I know I’m just an old woman, probably lost most of her marbles, but I do still know a thing or two.  That one’s after me for definite.  I got up to turn the telly down, well it was too loud for me, even with the aid switched off, and they were all asleep anyway so they don’t care, but soon as I got up her with the claws was there grabbing the remote so I didn’t bother, but when I got back to my chair that one was hovering around and definitely had his eye on my slippers. 

Anyway, it was yesterday.  She comes in like she always does, trying to look like she cares, but this time it’s not the usual glass eye smile round the room, oh no, she’s after me. 

“Ruby!” she says.  “Ruby, we’ve got a lovely surprise for you.”  I suppose I have to do something, because it’s the first time anyone called me Ruby, aside from nurses and such, since Jack died, never mind twice.  So I smile.  “There’s an old friend of yours just come in here, and she wants to see you, isn’t that nice?”    I can’t make any sense of this, so I just smile again.  “It’s Miss Smith.”  Well, that narrows it down.  “Esme Smith!” 

Esme?  Oh my giddy aunt!  Her of the bus shelter in Kirkstall?  It can’t be.  And then the door opens and little Rosie, my favourite little darling, is leading someone in, well I say leading, more like being led.  I know her at once of course, hatchet face.  Skinny as a rake, still.  She makes a beeline for me then stops short.  Draws back and peers like she’s judging me.  “Ruby!” she says.  Well, I already knew that.  She leans over and pecks my cheek, just the left one.  She seems to have been granted a chair, which she sits on.  Took me weeks.  One reason I stay in the room a lot of the time. 

“They decided I had to come – ” She looks around, mostly at the ceiling and the floor, “ – here.  I was quite upset, because I can – well, except for the odd thing.  But when I learnt that my oldest friend …  I’m counting on you to show me the ropes.”  Voice like a hatchet too.  She actually sniffs.  “I can see I’m going to have to Look into Things.”  She says it in capitals.  Best just to smile again.  I don’t talk much these days, well, not much to say and no one to say it to.  But my memory’s still  good.   Those shoes.  When we both worked Saturdays, Freeman Hardy and Willis.  Mornings and afternoons, but we overlapped.  Same size, five, only the one pair left.  Red, they were.  They say something like to kill for on the telly now, don’t they?  Vic, his name was.  Or Sid.  Whoever got the red shoes got Vic. 

“I’ll show you the ropes, course I will, Esme,”  I make myself say.  “Lovely to see you.  We must catch up.”
She frowns, slowly.  Is it me, or does she smell, just a little bit?  They’ll sort that out.
“We were such friends.”  She leans in closer.  Definitely a slight whiff.  I try to catch Rosie’s eye, but she’s off propping up the slipper man.  “We must catch up.”
Rosie comes to the rescue.  “Cup of tea.  You two need a nice cup of tea.”

“I stay in the room,” I say.  “When they’ll let me.  This lot get up my tom thumb.  Leave the door open, though, rolling coins is fun.  You wait till you hear someone coming, cos the floor’s quite clacky in the corridor, then you roll a penny out.  Or probably a ten pee these days.  And you can look out of the window.  There were fireworks the other night.”
She does her frown, then her sniff.  “I don’t think so.  I intend to integrate.”
You’ll be lucky.  Come to think of it though, you were, weren’t you?  Lucky.  You certainly integrated with that Vic, or Sid, in the bus shelter after school.  Took me ages to get over it, and then by the time I’d got over it you’d moved on, at least that’s what I think, dropped him like a hot potato, like your sort does, and I had to settle for next in line.  And then of course there was the stuff about the hockey sticks, and the knickers.  I’ll never forget the shame in the showers. 

Little Rosie brings our tea.
“I put some biscuits on.”
Esme has noticed that, and switches on her big smile.  Oh, how I remember that.
“Thank you so much, my sweet.”
“I’ll be mother.”
We have our tea.  Well, we have to, don’t we?  She does her frown.
“We lost touch.  We – ”
“Have to catch up.”
“You married that – Jim, wasn’t it.”  I can smell her breath now.  “Anyway.  I never had any children.”  It’s a question, but she hastens past an answer.  “I was very successful though.  Radiotherapy.  Guys, in the end.  But I lived in Chiswick, and we used to go to this place.  Ruby In The Dust, isn’t that funny?” 
“Jack,” I say, though it’s hard to.  “Three.  You’ll meet Jake tomorrow or Wednesday, he comes every fortnight, regular as clockwork.  Other two, off and married, they phone when they remember.  But they’ll turn up too, if you wait long enough.”
Esme straightens up.  “I doubt very much that anybody will phone me, fortnightly or otherwise!”
She freezes her face and stares at the television.  If I pricked her she’d crumble into dust.  That one with the claws finds the remote and turns the volume up.  It’s gone quiet.

Today I let them get me up for breakfast and guess what, they sit me at a table with Esme.  I have porridge, which is something different.  Him of the slippers keeps glancing across.  Fat chance.
“You know,” Esme says, out of nowhere.  “I always regretted those shoes.”
“In the bus shelter?”   
“Yes.  Waste of energy.  I wasn’t that interested in boys.”
I think about this.  She’s looking at the floor and the ceiling again.
“Oh,” I say.  “What a shame.  What a waste.”
I reach out and draw a little mark in the dust on the table.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

How To Get There

Two men were walking along a forest path late on a midwinter afternoon, in search of a particular village, when they came to a division of the way into three separate directions without any indications.
‘Which way should we go?’ said the first man.

'There’s no sign of a sign to help us,’ said the second. They pondered for a while.  ‘I know, let’s spin a stick, and we’ll follow whichever road it points to.’

There being no better plan, they each went off into the forest to find a suitable stick to spin.

‘I’ve found one!’ cried the first man. ‘So have I!’ cried the second. They met up and compared the two sticks.
‘I found mine first,’ said the first man.

‘Maybe, but mine is straighter.’
‘Which shall we spin, then?’


‘No, I think mine actually.’

By now it was beginning to get quite dark. Suddenly they saw that a stranger, warmly clad and bearing a lantern, had joined them. 
'Can I be of assistance?’ he asked them kindly. The two men explained their predicament. 
The stranger thought for a while, toying with the two sticks as he pondered. At last, looking up, he smiled and said:

‘Yes. I come from the village you seek, and so can advise you with some certainty.’

‘Advise us, please,’ said the two men.
The stranger smiled again and raised one of the sticks like a wand.

‘This stick is surely the truer, and will spin beautifully.’

Thus saying he bade them a good evening and continued on his way.

[I blogged this story a few years ago, and its origin goes back much further.]

Thursday, 2 February 2012


I don’t go into the forest except to hunt.  It’s a rule of survival.  Not only the creatures but also the vegetation, it can snare you, drag you down, entwine you in hard flexible tendrils and devour you, at its own slow pace, rotting you until you become its compost food.  I have seen this done, even by vegetation I like to eat.  So I don’t go, except when I must.

But today, as it is getting light enough to see a little way into the trees, I hear a sound I never heard.  The forest is never silent, of course, and I cannot claim recognition of all its songs, but this is new.  I have to go and investigate.  I find a skin and put it on.  My spear is where it always is, two arm lengths inside the cave’s mouth.  I learnt that a long time ago – give yourself an advantage.  At the beginning, after I made my first spear, I left it propped right by the entrance, but then a snake taught me to be a bit more clever.  If the snake, or any creature, can reach the spear, I can’t.  You have to be more clever to ride the rules of survival.
Outside, I don’t hear the new sound any more.  I turn each way, as always, eyes and ears catching every direction.  I’ve learnt rules for survival – step three paces that way, stop, look, listen, step three the other way, look up, look down, repeat.  Look down is the easiest to forget; a snake (not that same one, I’d killed that!) once almost grabbed my ankle with its huge open jaws, would have swallowed me if I’d not been quick enough to fall over backwards.  That was a clever trick!  After that snakes became easier to deal with, I learnt their ways and even how to trick them into letting me follow them.  Sometimes they could lead me to good things without knowing.
When I catch creatures, using my spear or my snares, as I drag them back to the cave to eat, I sometimes notice that they are different.  I mean, they are the same but different to look at. I don’t know how to think this.  They are the same but different, two sorts of the same but different each from each.  I don’t understand this, and I don’t care, I just notice.  I think this as I hunt with my ears for the new sound.  Maybe this is just a different sort again, three sorts of one creature, but I don’t think so.  That sound I heard was too different.  Same creatures always make the same sound, more or less, even the different sorts of them.  This sound I heard was not like any other, too different.  This is a new creature.
I go forward some more.  That way, stop, other way, stop, up, down, repeat.  The sun is higher, so the trees have shorter shadows.  A little creature, I know it, I know its song.  It looks at me, frozen, wondering if I’m going to eat it.  No, though I am hungry.  I pick it up and have a look, it’s one of the other sort, not like me.  I wonder if it wonders which sort I am, I don’t think so but I can’t know for sure.  I haven’t thought enough about this.  What I think is: some go in, some go out.  I don’t know what this means, and I don’t care.  I still haven’t heard the sound of the new creature again.  I go forward some more.
Then I hear it.  It’s definitely a new sound, not like any other, and I can’t read it.  It could be a new kind of wolf or cat.  I get confused, and almost trip over a dead stripling tree.  New things are invading my head.  What is making me make up these labels, wolf, cat, read?  I don’t know if I’m hungry or not.
I know a sheltered glade up ahead, and I know this is where to go.  I hear the sound again as I run there, forgetting all the rules.  My new creature will be there, he will.  I stop.  What is this new label, he?  I start again.  I enter the glade, and as I do either the tops of the trees shift, although there’s no wind, or the sun comes out from behind a cloud, or both, and my creature twin is standing there.  He starts to make his sound, but I hush him.
I point at my mouth, hungry.  My creature twin does the same.  A snake drops its head from a tree.
“I know a good place.  You can have a chat.”

Friday, 20 January 2012


As always, he was early.  She’d seen his face on LovePals, of course, so he’d be recognisable, but experience – seventeen of them –  had told him that it was only fair to let her take in the rest of him, gasp, pretend to be looking for someone else, and scoot for the exit. 

She’d suggested this locale.  Bar, he supposed it would be called: halfway between a pub and a restaurant.  The waitress – Chinese, Malaysian? – was very professional, managing to overlook his obvious deformities within seconds.  After he’d explained that he wouldn’t be ordering until his companion arrived, she even managed to flirt with him a little.  He flirted back, but his heart was thumping too hard.  On the website, he’d written “I am not physically perfect.”  This was true.  His left leg was four inches shorter than his right, and he was – no better way to put it – a hunchback.  He had been born that way, in fact the doctors had recommended surgery (his mother told him later) when he was six; she had (she told him later still) declined.  “Simon,” she’d said, “God made his decision.”  Whether God had consulted her, or him, was never made clear.
He looked around.  The place was fairly empty, but he couldn’t spot anyone who might be Naomi.  He had a printout of her profile photo in his jacket pocket, but it wouldn’t do to pull it out and start making comparisons.  Anyway, not necessary: he would definitely recognise her.  Five foot seven, cropped dark hair, huge black eyes, a cheeky half-smile …  What the hell am I doing here? he thought.
The plate glass door opened, and there she was.  Something must have told her where he was, because she made immediate eye contact and walked straight over.  He had, as always, deliberately seated himself in such a way that the whole of him would be instantly and obviously noticeable, but she just sat down opposite him.
“Simon?”  He nodded.  “Am I late?”  She looked at her wristwatch, a quite expensive-looking one.  “No, I’m not.  In fact I’m three minutes early.”  She giggled.  Cobblers.”
This last word came out in quite a different voice from the previous ones.  Not exactly a shout; more of a coarse hiss, like someone who wanted to shout but had laryngitis or something.  Simon looked at her.  She wasn’t blushing, was she?  He didn’t want to stare.
“Sorry,” she said, in her normal voice.  “You’ll get used to that.  At least I’m working off List B today.  Anal!”
The waitress was hovering near the bar, glancing their way. 
“Um – Naomi?”  said Simon.  She nodded.  “Um – what would you like to drink?  If anything, of course.  I – ”
“Yes, of course.  Well … I do like alcohol, but it doesn’t like me.  I mean, it gets me going in directions I really shouldn’t, you know what I mean?”  No, I haven’t a clue, he thought.  “I’d better just have a cup of tea.”
Simon caught the waitress’s eye and she came over.
“Can we have tea for one, please, and, oh, a Becks for me.”
“Earl Grey or English Breakfast?”
She giggled again.  “It’s too late for breakfast, so –  Earl Grey, please.  Gallimaufry!”
He decided to ignore that.  The waitress didn’t seem to have noticed.  It was time to get on with it.  This was about the furthest he’d got so far.  He tried to remember the script LovePals sketched out for beginners.  Written by a bunch of teenagers who’d never been beyond a quick snog behind the bike sheds, he’d thought when he read it.
 “So, Naomi, what do you do?”
“ Well, I used to work in a call centre, but then obviously …”
“Have you not noticed?”  Have you not noticed?  “And you?  Dogdoo!”
“I’m on, oh God …  Disability?”
“Well, me too. Surprise surprise …”
Silence.  The drinks arrived.  The conversation struggled forwards as they sipped.
“So.  Hobbies?  Pastimes?  Music?  Books?” she said brightly.  Gosh, though, she was gorgeous.  He was beginning to regret this.  He wanted to tell her about his disability, and about his mother …
“I do read a lot …”
 “I love the Smiths … mmwah humding!”
“More a New Orleans man myself …”
“… and tango dancing … oops …”
“…  Funnily enough, I’m a Terrier …”
“A Terrier?”  She leant forward.  “You like animals?  I have a pet tarantula …Maracas!”
“No, the Territorial Army.  It’s a nickname.  I don’t actually yomp around the countryside toting guns, of course, but …”
“It’s a form of Tourette’s,” she said.  “I used to be pretty out of it, but I learnt some control techniques from an amazing therapist.  She taught me to sublimate – is that the word?  Sheet!  Like that.  And to keep my voice down.  People only generally notice in kind of, um, intimate situations.  Which is why – ”
“Which is why you don’t get into many of those?”
She stopped dead.  Her eyes went cold for a moment.
The waitress had been conducting a whispered conversation with the barman.  Now she came over.
“Are you ready to order?”
Simon avoided eye contact with Naomi.
“I don’t think we’ll be eating, actually.”
Dump!” said Naomi, rather loudly.  A few customers looked up.  The waitress scuttled away and consulted again with the barman, who hesitantly started across towards them.  A burly customer at the next table was getting to his feet.   The barman arrived.
“Is everything all right?”
Simon smiled his most charming smile, part of his armoury.
“Absolutely, thank you.”  He shot a warning glance at Naomi, but she was studying her nails.
“Except that I couldn’t help hearing – ”
“Oh, I’m sorry.  Nothing to do with this, er, location.  You just overheard the punchline of a not very funny joke.”  Oh God.  “I once told one rather loudly in a crowded restaurant which begins ‘That was the worst meal I’ve ever eaten’ – ”  Keep digging, Simon.  “And the punchline is – ”
“–  ‘and the portions were so small!’” shouted Naomi.
The barman backed away.  The burly customer had dropped back into his chair, but started to rise again.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it.  If you’re quite sure there’s nothing we can – ”
Naomi stood up.
Buggerwittery!” she screamed.
 “Actually,” said Simon, “if you could just bring us the bill?”
The barman looked around.
“There won’t be any charge on this occasion, sir,” he said.
Simon and Naomi headed for the plate glass doors.
“That’s very kind of them,” she said to him.  “But you must let me pay next time.  Cobblers!”
She giggled.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Death Speaks

The first time Death spoke out loud was just before Joey died.  They’d heard fire and were running, and Joey tripped over something and the sniper’s bullet hit his back instead of his leg.  He was going to be dead, the three of them knew straight off, but Jazz stopped, and without a word they picked him up and dragged him to some kind of cover.  He wasn’t conscious, wouldn’t ever be again, not proper; but Jazz looked at him, then at Mick and Darko.  It was crazy – there’d been no time to swap news before they set out, and then not much room for conversation, but they wanted Joey to know that his family were OK.  Mick had heard about the gas explosion in Reading which had destroyed a house two down from Joey’s: they wanted to tell him his family were OK, which was crazy because he hadn’t even heard about the explosion.  Jazz wasn’t thinking straight, and as he saw this, and saw the pointlessness, Death said: What’s The Deal?

Jazz said: For each minute he gets, you get a day off my life.  He didn’t say it out loud, but Mick and Darko heard him, he could tell, though they didn’t speak.  Death didn’t speak either.  Jazz and Death shook hands, and Joey opened his eyes.  Jazz nodded to him.  ‘Mick’s got news.’  Mick came in close.  ‘Joey, there was some stupid accident back home,’ he said.  ‘Near your place.  Something blew up, but the good news – ’  Jazz nodded again.  ‘ – the good news, your folks are OK.  They’re fine.  The house is OK too …’  Joey did a kind of smile.  ‘That’s great,’ he said.  ‘I feel better now.’  Then he died.


Jazz reckoned afterwards he’d struck a good deal, because three weeks later he caught his own bullet (in the leg, hah!) and was hospitalised for ages.  So Death’s extra day didn’t look to be quite as close as it had out there.  There was stress counselling, after which the considered opinion was, better off out of the front line.  There was nothing the counsellors could put their fingers on, just hints, perhaps, just clues in the eyes, the way he seemed to be inappropriately amused by what was meant to be an innocent question, or at least to seem to him like one – this guy might not be totally stable!  Jazz had read Catch-22, and knew it wasn’t that easy; but, having done the deal, he knew he had to distance himself from this ‘war’ stuff fast and far: his new friend would be watching all the time, every inch of the way, and mercy was not part of the contract, indeed had already been cashed in.  It was, actually, quite easy.  All he had to do was remember that, to the rest of the world, any guy who appears to believe that he has conversations with Death is probably not trustworthy with a gun.  And as that was nothing but the truth, no acting was required.  In July, he was flown back home. 
In October, he was invalided out.  It was easy enough to get down the pub, even with the gammy leg.  Mick was always there, Darko less often, but when he showed he’d close the joint.  Mick called it ‘craic’, Darko ‘liming’; Jazz thought of it, if at all, as ‘having a laugh’.  Keri wasn’t that keen, him being out most nights; but when he pointed out that he’d had three years’ worth, plus being crippled, she really didn’t have a leg to stand on.  She even laughed when he made that joke, and got more matey with Cally, Mick’s wife, and a few other girls from around the area.
One night they were supping up a bit fast, to squeeze in a last quick one before the ladies’ curfew.  It was getting a bit sentimental, as usual.  Mick said ‘I reckon old Joey might’ve been the lucky one.’  Darko grabbed him by the arm.  ‘You always say that, mate.  Every fucking time.’  Mick said ‘It’s true though, isn’t it?’  Jazz was just back with the round.  He made the usual joke: ‘Calm down, lads, it’s only a war.’  They all laughed, and Mick went off for a piss. 
The strange guy in the corner, who they’d been noticing since about half-nine, went out too.  Darko was about to follow when they heard shouts, then a scream.  Oh fuck, thought Jazz, and raced for the khazi.  The weird guy was away out the back, but Mick was stooped over the stainless steel, blood dripping in.  Death stepped in the way and said to Jazz: What’s the Deal?  Jazz replied: Five more minutes?  Death smiled and disappeared.  The ambulance made it in time to get Mick comfortable.


It was a good night out, boys and girls together.  Darko, who had to be called by his real name, Colin, had met Kayleigh by chance in Aldi of all places.  They got a bit of stick.  ‘Couldn’t you at least have met in Waitrose?’ Keri enquired with a straight face.  Kayleigh said something about needing to slum it to meet proper blokes.  They were in Lahore, which didn’t sell booze, so Jazz volunteered to nip round the corner shop and pick up some more beers.  ‘Better get a taxi back,’ he heard Darko shout on his way out.

As he was paying, his phone went.  It was Keri.  ‘Can you do Heimlich, cos Colin’s choking and nobody here seems to know – ’  He dropped the beers.  ‘On my way.’  He tried to give instructions as he ran, but he could hear Darko still choking, and he could tell that Keri was panicking and nobody had a clue; and as he was running he was thinking about Death, and how promises can be made and then broken, because you don’t think about there being two sides to a promise, you just make it because that’s the only way out, so you promise anything, and then time catches up, and then –
He started across the road against the lights.  Death met him halfway.  No Hurry, said Death.  Done Deal.  My turn now.  I call in my purchased day.  Jazz turned his head and saw the lorry.  Time caught up.  He stared Death in the eye.  You’ve forgotten something, he said.  It’s a leap year.  I get an extra day. 
He leapt.