Category Archives: Stories

A Child is Born – a Christmas story

A child is born.

A child is born in snow and squalor in a makeshift tent in Arsal in the Bekaa Valley. The tent is constructed from plastic sheeting and splintered wooden pallets. The floor is made of flattened cardboard boxes laid over a morass of black, squelching mud and raw sewage. As the mother labours, the door-flap is torn open by the wind and gusts of needle-sharp sleet barrel around the tent, snatching away her moans. Oblivious, she grips the midwife’s hand and pushes with all her might. The lamp goes out; as the father fumbles for his lighter, the baby’s first wail is heard above the buffeting of the gale. A son. Al hamdu lillah!

A child is born in the Holy Land. A land of rare beauty, the hillsides are fragrant with thyme; in summer apricots, almonds and olives bend the branches of the trees down to the ground. They say the earth here was made fertile by the blood spilt by succeeding generations of invaders and insurgents. This is where history began, where faith and dreams collide with cold, hard facts on the ground. A promise was made here, but to whom?

The child’s father is Samir. This is not his native land; he was born in Aleppo across the border in Syria. Until the war came, life was good for Samir. Talkative, good-natured, clever with his hands, he had high hopes of taking over the car repair shop on the corner, when his Uncle Faruq finally hung up his spanners for good. The repair shop no longer exists, and neither does Uncle Faruq. Also numbered among the dead are Samir’s father, Ziad, and his brother, Rifat. Another brother is somewhere with the rebels; his sister, Fatmeh, is alone in Turkey with three children under six and no husband.

This time last year, the family was still together and Samir was celebrating his wedding. Childhood sweethearts, he’d known Zohra from when they first started at school. She lived in an apartment across the street and they used to walk home together, dawdling in the park or hanging around Ali’s cake shop in the hope of cadging some chewing gum or a sweet, sticky mouthful of homemade baklawa. Now only Samir’s mother is left among the ruins of Aleppo.

A child is born into a world of strife. Be that as it may, for now at least, the baby has no allegiance save to himself. From time to time, Zohra pours out her grief and anguish. “Those animals! If they were here now, I’d gouge out their eyes and tear the limbs from their bodies! May they never have a second’s peace! May they die writhing in unbearable agony! May their children fall ill with horrible diseases and perish before their eyes!” Samir feels for her in her impotence and rage. His people have long endured prejudice and disadvantage, but for all that, he’s no soldier. He’s listened to the hot-heads calling for blood and vengeance and holy war, but in truth, he has no desire to swap one tyranny for another. He has no desire to wage war on his neighbours. All he wants is a quiet life. All he wants is to look after Zohra and the baby.

A child is born into a cold and timeless universe. A tiny scrap of humanity, he is helpless and wholly destructible, just one of thousands of children in this camp alone. Not even his birth is unique in this godforsaken place on this bitter December night. Many kids are still wearing sandals. Most lack winter hats and coats. None is at school. They make the best of it as children do, fashioning a football from string and a discarded piece of sack-cloth. On his way to the distribution tent, Samir pauses to join in the game and for a moment is himself a child again, jubilant as the ball sails over the keeper’s head and lands between the pebbles that stand in for goalposts. He marvels at the resilience of these kids, at their unconquerable capacity for joy.

The aid agencies are stretched to breaking point; the scale of human need is beyond all calculation. They do their best, dispensing rice and dried pulses, jerry-cans of water and cooking oil. It’s not enough, never enough: each day brings a further flood of mouths to feed, new injuries to treat, dozens more to clothe and care for. In richer, luckier places than this, appeals go out – spare a thought, give a little, make a difference – but the world is weary of conflicts too complex to comprehend and someone else’s crisis is always more pressing or more photogenic. There will always be those that have, and those that have not; it’s part of the natural order of things like the turning of the tides or the phases of the moon. There is nothing to be done.

A child is born into a community. The neighbours gather round and word soon spreads. A woman from along the way drops in with a packet of Pampers. Another has dried milk. A man from two tents down turns up with a bail of straw and big grin. “Let me see him, the little one.” Zohra opens the baby’s blanket a little and a shrill cry breaks loose. The neighbour nods in approval, “He’s a strong one. I can tell.” Together, he and Samir stuff the straw into a pillowcase and squeeze it into the bottom of a cardboard box. “Now he’ll have somewhere to lay his head.” Samir thanks the neighbours. All the next day, the battered kettle boils and endless cups of tea are drunk. To Zohra’s relief, the baby sucks eagerly at her breast. The neighbour’s right; he’s a strong one. He knows what to do.

A child is born into love. As Zohra’s son gazes up at her, her heart swells with an emotion more powerful than any she’s felt before. She knows without question she’d give her life for this heedless, mewling bundle of flesh and pencil-thin bones. For all the hardship of her pregnancy and their current life, she cannot regret the baby’s arrival, not even for one second. She takes Samir’s hand and squeezes it. As he gazes at his wife and son in the wavering gaslight, he realises he’s never seen anything more beautiful or intense than Zohra’s face in that moment.

“We must choose a name,” she says.

“Let him be Ziad like his grandfather.”

“No, he should have a name that belongs to him alone. Don’t let him carry our sorrows for the rest of his life.”

“So what should we call him?”

“Let him be Kamal, because he’s perfect in every way.”

A child is born and with him, the hope of the world to come.

A child is born.

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All Grown Up

Today, the daughter of some very dear friends of mine turns 18. Thinking back to the day of her birth, it seems barely possible to believe she’s now an adult. That hot July day back in 1996 feels like it was a couple of years ago at the most. But then again, I look at my own kids, with another school year all but under their belts, and I realise they aren’t so very far from that landmark either.

Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, has been a gargantuan project. Filmed over the course of some 12 years, it tells the story of an ordinary boy, Mason Evans, as he grows from the age of six to adulthood. Nothing really huge happens. The family moves to Texas, Mason’s mum goes back to college then finds work as a lecturer. She remarries and divorces twice and we see Mason experience the variable geometry of modern family life as step-dads and step brothers and sisters come and go. The constants remain his mum, his sister and above all his dad, Mason Sr, played by Ethan Hawke, who although no longer living with the rest of the family, is a constant loving presence in Mason’s life.

Boyhood - film posterInstead of a story in the traditional sense, the film presents an incredibly intimate portrait of contemporary American life unfolding in real time. It’s fascinating to see Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, change over time, not just physically, but in his understanding of the world, his preoccupations, and growing emotional maturity until he reaches the point when he’s ready to step out into the world alone.

Initial experiments with girls lead to first real love, and first real heart-break. A fractious relationship with his sister grows into friendship. A clash with a teacher forces a new attitude to school and leads ultimately to success and a possible future career as a photographer.

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

The whole thing is edited seamlessly so that, as in life, the viewer barely notices the passing of time; the characters gradually change and age, grow, gain weight, turn grey and yet are essentially the same. For all its ups and downs, Mason’s family is loving and strong. At the end of the film, we are left with a moving portrait of an overwhelmingly decent young man, both completely unique and utterly ordinary, as he stands on the threshold of adulthood.

What’s ordinary reality for Mason, is the stuff of fantasy for the kids in The Golden Dream (La Jaula de Oro), Diego Quemada-Diez’s film about impoverished Guatemalan youngsters trying to make their way to the US. For the three protagonists, the US is an idealised land of the imagination where they cannot help but grow rich and happy.

La Jaula de Oro poster

Canny, adaptable and single-minded in their determination to reach their destination, they are nevertheless no match for the cynical adults that prey on them, exploiting them to harvest sugar cane or smuggle drugs and stealing even their shoes. One of the kids is a girl, but despite efforts to pass as boy, she’s hauled off by gangsters with the suggestion she’ll be forced into prostitution. When the remaining pair finally make it to the US, one is promptly shot dead by vigilantes and the other ends up working for peanuts in a stinking meat-processing factory. All the hopes and dreams of the three kids, all their energy and imagination are crushed with absolute ruthlessness. 

Where Boyhood leaves the audience with a feeling of optimism, The Golden Dream has the opposite effect.  Seeing both films in the same week I couldn’t help but be struck by the vast disparity in the lives and opportunities available to children whose destinies are decided by which side of a border they happen to be born on.

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The Day Trip

Brighton Pier

The invitation came more by chance than anything else. Max was angling to borrow Adam’s trainers for the umpteenth time, when Josh put his head around the door.
“We’re going to Brighton tomorrow. You want to come?”
“Mebbe,” said Max. “Who else is coming?”
“Dylan, Isabel, Ellie.”
Adam listened intently, hardly daring to meet Josh’s eye. Then, as if Josh had actually heard the question blaring unspoken in his mind, “You can come too if you like.”
“Yeah, OK,” he said as nonchalantly as he could manage.
At home, his mother was less than delighted. “I don’t know, Adam. You’re still only fourteen. How are you going to get there?”
“Tube to Victoria, then the train to Brighton. I won’t do anything stupid, I swear.”
“What time will you be back?”
“Six. Seven at the latest. Max says there’s loads of trains.”
“I was rather hoping the two of us could go shopping tomorrow. We could have tea at Hattie’s Cake Place afterwards, with scones and clotted cream and that lovely plum jam they have.”
“Please, mum.” Adam could hear the edge of desperation in his voice. He noticed his mother turn away.
“I suppose you’re far too grown-up these days to be seen out with your mother.”
“It’s not that. We can go shopping on Sunday instead if you like.”
A pause and a sigh. “You say Dylan’s going? I suppose I could give Jan a call, see what she thinks.” Relief flooded over Adam.
“Thanks, mum!”
The next day, he was up at seven. First he put on his Nike T-shirt and jeans. Then he tried the Arsenal shirt his uncle had given him for Christmas. Surveying himself in the mirror, it occurred to him the Arsenal shirt might lead to a discussion about football and that he might be forced to admit that, despite repeated requests, he’d never been to a single game. Better to stick to the Nike shirt, but with chinos, he decided, not jeans. Using the pointed end of a toy space rocket, he prised the bottom off his piggy-bank and tipped his life savings onto his bed. It added up to a grand total of twenty-seven pounds and fifty-nine pence. Adam scooped his treasure trove into his pocket and went downstairs.
In the kitchen, his mother was wrapping sandwiches in tin foil. “I’ve done you two ham, and one cheese. That should keep you going.”
“I don’t need all that stuff. Honestly.”
“I’m not having you stuffing yourself on junk food all day. I’ve put the sunscreen in your bag, and three bottles of water.”
“Mum…”
“Is your phone fully charged?”
“Yes! And I don’t need sunscreen either.”
“Yes you do. Don’t forget it isn’t too late for me to change my mind!”
“OK, OK.”
During breakfast, Adam tried his best to convince his mother he didn’t need a lift to the station, but she was having none of it. As they drew up, he was relieved to see Max being dropped off too.
“You don’t have to wait.”
“All right, I get the hint! Hey, aren’t you going to give your old Ma a kiss good-bye?”
Adam gave his mother a hurried peck on the cheek and hopped out of the car before she could do or say anything further. “See you tonight!”
At Victoria, it turned out Max was right; there were plenty of trains to Brighton. While the others were buying their tickets, Adam took advantage of the opportunity to dump his mother’s picnic in a greasy, overflowing bin next to a takeaway coffee kiosk. He turned round to find Ellie watching him, a mocking half-smile on her face. He blushed, unable to could think of anything to say.
On the train, he found himself sitting next to the window with the five others squashed in around him. A steady flow of banter batted back and forth, mostly concerning games scores, football matches and a boy called Finn who’d been sent out of Maths for farting.
“So what’s the plan?” said Dylan as the train pulled out of East Croydon.
“Dunno. Just hang out I s’pose. Mebbe go down the pier.”
“How much money you got?”
“Tenner. You?”
Dylan just shrugged.
“I’ve got twenty-seven quid.” It had tumbled out of Adam’s mouth before he’d had time to think. Now the other kids were staring at him.
“Fuck me,” said Josh. “In that case you can get the beers in!”
“Vodka!” said Max. “Let’s get a bottle of vodka!”
The girls sniggered, but their eyes were bright with excitement. “You wouldn’t dare!”
Adam fell silent and chewed a fingernail as the other kids started debating excitedly about how they might dupe a shopkeeper into selling them vodka. At Christmas, his mum had let him have a sip of champagne, but he’d never so much as tasted anything stronger.
“You should do it,” said Josh, turning to Adam. “You’re the tallest.”
“Yeah, and you’re the one with the money.”
Now all eyes were on Adam. Ellie’s gaze fastened on his, the same half-smile playing on her lips. Adam thought he detected a glimmer of scorn.
“Yeah, all right.”
The first two shops they tried were non-starters; brightly lit, with the spirits kept on shelves behind the till. Adam was loitering by a shelf stacked with sweets and bars of chocolate in the second one when he realised the others had come in behind him. Dylan picked up a four-pack of Heineken from the fridge. Within a second, a security guard was tapping his shoulder and pointing out a sign explaining that no alcohol would be sold without appropriate ID. The kids tumbled out onto the pavement, screeching with laughter. A few paces down the street, Max opened his jacket to reveal a bottle of coke.
“That’s no good.”
“It’ll go with the vodka, you numpty.”
“You’ve got a nerve, with the security bloke standing right there and everything.”
“Piece of cake.”
“No-one’s gonna sell us vodka,” said Ellie plaintively. “The only way to get it is to nick it.” Again all eyes turned to Adam.
“Come on Adam. You said you’d get it.”
“Yeah, you promised.”
They chose a place down an alley not far from the seafront – dark, run-down with an elderly Pakistani man alone at the till. “I’ll go in first. See if I can distract him,” said Josh. Adam’s mouth went dry. He could feel sweat gathering on his upper lip. The next second, his phone bleeped. “Let me know when you arrive. Love you. Mum xx.” Adam quickly slipped the phone back in his pocket. He could hardly bear to think of his mother waiting in trusting ignorance at home.
Through the window, Adam could see Josh pointing up at an oversized birthday card on a top shelf at the back of the shop. He watched as the proprietor pulled out a small step ladder and put his foot on the first step.
“C’mon, fam. It’s now or never,” Max urged at his elbow.
Adam took a deep breath and stepped inside the shop. Over the door, a brass bell gave a merry tinkle.
Adam could see rows of whiskey, rum and brandy on the shelf by the till. He looked up and down for vodka but there didn’t appear to be a single bottle. The shopkeeper was handing the card to Josh, who cast a quick ‘do it now’ glance in Adam’s direction. He wiped his palms on his trousers and then quickly grabbed a bottle of Bacardi and charged out of the shop as fast as his legs would carry him. A second later, Josh crashed out onto the street, making the doorbell tinkle alarmingly. Shrieking and cackling, the kids took off in the direction of the seafront, oblivious to the outraged yells of the shop-keeper retreating behind them. As soon as they were out of reach of the shop, they slowed to a dawdle, and the lads took turns to clap Adam on the back.
“Hey, man. That was epic.” To Adam’s surprise, there was genuine admiration in their voices. Even so, his heart was still racing. With a fresh thrill of anxiety, it belatedly occurred to him the shop might have been equipped with CCTV. He cursed himself for not having thought about it until now.
“Put it in here.” Ellie rewarded Adam with a quick smile of complicity, as she held her bag open. “Don’t want the feds getting nosy, know what I mean.” Adam handed it over with more relief than he’d have liked to admit to.
Down on the beach, the kids settled down with their backs to a decaying breakwater and gorged themselves on slices of cold, greasy pizza from a stall near the bandstand.
“So lemme see it,” said Josh.
Ellie opened her bag and handed him the Barcardi. He unscrewed the cap, took a gulp and swallowed with a theatrical gasp of satisfaction. Next it was Max’s turn. He took a sip, pulled a face and spat it out. “You should have got vodka.”
“Yeah right. Like you’d know the difference.”
Then Ellie grabbed the bottle and gulped a couple of inches straight down.
“Hey, leave some for the rest of us, you pisshead!” Josh passed the bottle to Adam. “Get that down you, bro.”
Adam wiped the lip of the bottle and put it gingerly to his mouth. He took a small sip. The rum tasted sour and produced a hot, burning sensation at the back of his throat. “Go on! Put some proper hair on your chest.” The girls smirked. Adam could see Ellie whispering to Isabel from behind her hand. He took a second, larger swig. This time, he could feel the rum burning all the way down to his stomach. For a second, he thought he might throw it straight back up. He became aware of his phone buzzing; his mother again. Shutting off the call, Adam put the phone on mute and stuffed it back in his pocket.
He was beginning to feel a bit dazed. To his left, Max had somehow got Dylan in an arm-lock and was pummelling the smaller boy’s torso, his face alight with violent intent. At the same time, in an ungainly ballet of lunges and stumbles, Dylan was trying to push Max off balance by catching his foot and jerking it out from under him. Sprawling on the beach nearby, the girls giggled uncontrollably. Adam noticed a smear of ketchup staining Ellie’s carefully applied make-up. All of a sudden, Max crashed to the ground in a crunch of pebbles, landing full square in the middle of a pizza. Dylan gave a hoot of triumph. “Yesss! I won!”
“Shit, now look what you’ve done!” said Max, wiping tomato puree off his jeans. He aimed an indignant kick at Dylan’s knee, but Dylan, always nimble, dodged smartly to one side and Max once again found himself scrabbling on the ground. Everyone else exploded with laughter.
“It’s not funny, bloody hell!”
Adam was still wiping tears from his eyes when Isabel gave a sudden shriek of panic. Unnoticed by all, a seagull had landed a foot away and was gobbling down discarded pizza crusts; several others were circling overhead.
“Get them away! Get them away from me!”
Isabel gave way to hysterical sobbing. Adam was surprised at how large the gulls were close up. Without pausing to think, he picked up the empty Bacardi bottle and pitched it at the feasting birds with all his might. It landed right in their midst, fracturing into a mass of glittering shards and causing the birds to lumber squawking into the air.
“Goal!” yelled Dylan, and was overcome with a fresh wave of hilarity. Adam leapt to his feet and chased after the gulls, all the while screaming like a demented dervish and flapping his arms as if he might very well pursue them into the air.
“You all right?” he said, turning to Isabel.
“Yes, thanks,” she replied and gave him a look of unexpected gratitude. Adam smiled. He could sense Ellie watching him.
“C’mon. Let’s go to the pier.”
“Yeah. Good idea.”
Adam was surprised at how much the rides cost. He’d hoped to have a little money left over to take home, but even after pooling all their resources, they’d only be able to afford go on one or two at the most.
“Let’s go on the Booster.”
“No Crazy Mouse, Crazy Mouse!” Under normal circumstances, Adam would have avoided the roller coaster at all costs. The prospect of being shuttled at vertiginous speed up and down and upside-down along the length of the ride and out over the sea, filled him with dread. Feigning enthusiasm, he joined the queue behind Josh, while secretly marvelling that Isabel could be terrified of gulls, but perfectly sanguine about going on Crazy Mouse.
Before he knew it, an attendant was strapping him in and checking the bolts on his carriage. Adam wondered if it wasn’t too late to change his mind. Initially, the rum had made him feel unsteady and not fully in control of himself; now, combined with the sun overhead, it was beginning to make his head pound and an unpleasant acrid aftertaste filled his mouth. He hoped to God he wouldn’t be sick. Just as this thought occurred to him, Ellie vomited copiously, in the carriage in front.
“Out! Out of there this second!” said the attendant, unlocking the car, his face blazing with fury.
“But I’ve paid and everything,” Ellie protested half-heartedly.
“Bloody kids – look at this filthy, disgusting mess!”
Adam leapt at his chance. “Hey. I’ll wait with you if you like.”
“Oh. OK. That’s really nice of you.” Adam signalled to the attendant to let him off the ride. For a second, he considered asking for a refund, but the man’s thunderous expression made him think better of it. In his pocket he still had a few tokens left.
Adam and Ellie sat down on a bench a little further along the pier. A cool breeze blew in from the sea, making him feel slightly less nauseous. Distant shrieks from the roller coaster reached them intermittently as the carriages barrelled along the winding track. Ellie sat hunched over, her long, dark hair flopping over her thin cheeks. Beneath the veneer of make-up, Adam could see the pallor of her skin and the blue veins running along the base of her throat. Surreptitiously, he crept his arm along the back of the bench behind her and let his hand rest ever so gently on her shoulder.
“You feeling all right now?”
“Yeah. Could you get me a bottle of water or something?”
“Sure.” Adam got up. He remembered they’d passed a bank of drinks machines on the way in. He fished for his last couple of pounds in the bottom of his pocket, slotted them into the machine and bent down to withdraw a bottle of Evian.
“Here.” Ellie unscrewed the bottle and drank avidly.
“You want some?” Adam took the bottle and swallowed a few mouthfuls of icy water. A little further up the pier, he could see some younger boys and their dads whirling around on the dodgems.   Hearing their delighted shrieks, he filled with an overwhelming desire to join them and race around the arena in one of the little electric cars, swerving this way and than and not minding who he bumped into.   His mum had never let him go on the dodgems and as for his dad, Adam never even met him.   Paying no heed to the voice in his head telling him he was far too old to want to go on such a childish ride, he decided it was now or perhaps never.    “You wanna go on the dodgems?” he asked Ellie. “I’ve still got a few tokens.”
“Nah, you’re all right. You can go if you want.”
“You sure you don’t mind?”
Ellie shrugged. “Why should I?”
“I won’t be long. It’s just I’ve never tried it before.”
Adam approached the booth and handed over the last of his tokens. Two minutes later, he was trying to fold his legs into a blue buggy with a large number six painted in black on its bonnet. “Don’t forget you have to wait for the ride to end before you get out, OK.”
“OK.” He pressed the accelerator. The little car jerked into action, then shot off across the arena at top speed. Adam ran into the wall several times before getting the hang of the steering wheel. He tried to catch Ellie’s eye and gave her what he hoped was a jaunty wave. He was beginning to get control now and managing to make complete circuits of the arena without coming to grief. All at once, he noticed Josh, Dylan, Max and Isabel strolling towards Ellie, laughing and chattering nineteen to the dozen. They must have finished on roller coaster.
Adam watched helplessly as Ellie linked her arm with Isabel’s and all five of his friends sauntered off in the direction of the exit. He tried to yell above the sound of the music blaring out from loudspeakers hanging from the canopy over the arena, but either they didn’t hear, or couldn’t be bothered to turn around. Adam tried to angle the car so he could keep the others in view, but it was impossible. Two other vehicles crashed into him in short succession, and by the time he had regained control, Isabel, Ellie and the others had disappeared from sight.
It took what seemed like an age for the dodgems to come to a halt. Adam clambered out of his car as quickly as he could. He took off along the pier, searching with growing desperation behind stalls and kiosks, in the saloon and everywhere else he could think of. He decided to call Dylan. He felt in his pocket for his phone. Nothing. His heart sinking, Adam realised it must have fallen out pocket somewhere between the beach and the pier. He tried to suppress a rising tide of panic.
After a moment of deliberation, he set off at a trot along the seafront in the forlorn hope that he might stumble across the others by chance. Surely they hadn’t just forgotten about him? Or had they? It occurred to him that the whole outing was just an elaborate trick to catch him out. He tried to quash this thought as soon as it arose but it lingered stubbornly in the back of his mind. A clock on the façade of an ornate, seafront hotel read half past five. He couldn’t believe how fast the afternoon had slipped away. With a lump in his throat he realised his mum would soon be expecting him home.
On reaching the bandstand, Adam slowed to a halt and tried to decide if he redouble his efforts to find the others, or cut his losses and try to get home on his own. With a heavy heart, he turned away from the beach and starting making his way towards where he was certain the centre of town should be. He walked along several streets, turning first right and then left. There was no sign of the station. As he went on, the streets began to have a run-down, delapidated air; each house had multiple doorbells in a strip by the door. Adam realised he had no choice but to ask for directions.
The first person he came across was a steely-faced young woman pushing a buggy with a grubby toddler squirming and grizzling within the straps. In response to Adam’s timid ‘Excuse me’ she scowled darkly and pushed past him without uttering a word. As he watched her departing back, hot tears pricked at the back of his eyes. He sat down on the wall of someone’s garden.
Suddenly a group of men turned the corner and began heading down the street. One had a fierce looking cross-bred terrier on a lead and was having difficulty controlling it. The others appeared to be embroiled in some sort of argument. Adam got to his feet and cleared his throat. He was on the point of raising his hand when the dog snarled menacingly and made a lunge for him. Adam cowered against the wall. The man with the dog gave a vicious jerk of the lead. “Don’t look at my dog, you fucking eejit.”
Adam was still trembling as they turned the corner and disappeared from sight. In despair, he sank down onto the pavement and allowed himself to sob like a child.

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White Irises

“It’s time to come inside,” Becky tells me. “I’d be amazed if you can still see past the end of your nose.”
“I just want to get these dahlias in.”
“Oh Ruth,” she says, “you’ll stop at nothing when it comes to that garden. You’re garden mad, you are!”
I’m expecting great things this year – narcissi and tulips first, and now lupins, aquilegia and crowning it all, my glorious white irises. I’ve worked so hard, turning the soil, digging in bone-meal and compost. Jam-jar lids full of sweet beer keep the slugs at bay. Some people squash them, or use those little toxic pellets, but somehow I can never quite bring myself to dispatch the little pests to the great herbaceous border in the sky. “You’re too soft-hearted,” says Becky, “that’s your trouble.”

White Irises
It’s peaceful here in my garden but not silent. A robin’s singing its little heart out over in the apple tree, and every so often, the breeze lifts the leaves of the ash tree behind the back gate, making them tremble and shiver. The distant traffic on the motorway provides an unceasing low background rumble.
I lean on my fork and let the sweet smell of choisya and damp earth fill my nostrils. Even though it’s almost dark, I can barely tear myself away. My own little square of paradise.
Inside, Becky grumbles about muddy boots and newly mopped floors as she pours me a glass of red wine. “The police were round again,” she says.
“Really? I didn’t hear the doorbell.”
“They still haven’t found him.”
Jason Polley is who she means. He’s been missing for weeks now. No great loss, if you ask me. In fact, if you want my honest opinion, our little community is very much improved by the absence of Jason Polley. Not that I said so to the young sergeant who came knocking a few weeks back. I told him I wouldn’t be surprised if Jason had legged it, how Jason was always on about what an effing backwater this place is, how he couldn’t wait to kick the dust off his designer trainers and be on his way.
“Knew him well, did you?”
“Not really.”
After that, I shut up. I knew Jason Polley as well as anyone could ever want to. He’d been a thorn in our sides right from the day he and his family moved in.
What you have to understand is we’re a bit old-fashioned here in Ferndale Close, a bit old-school. We look out for each other, you see. Ted at number five, the Whittingdales across at number two and us down at the end here at number nine. Whatever they may have thought about Becky and me, none of them ever said a word. They were too decent for that. Instead, they took us at face value: two genteel, middle-aged ladies who’d chosen to share a house.
After old Mrs Ince passed away, number six stood empty for months. Becky said it had gone to her nephew, but we never ever saw him. Then one day, the Polleys were moving in. Local Authority, the Whittingdales said.
You could tell at once they weren’t our kind of people. Aggressive, noisy, foul-mouthed. Ted asked them a dozen times to turn down their racket, but all he got for his trouble was an earful of abuse. Soon the garden was overgrown and filling up with rubbish – a rotting mattress, wheel-less bikes, an ancient, rusting washing machine. The place was beginning to stick out like a sore thumb.
I never worked out exactly how many kids they had, but Jason was the eldest. He was a big lad, puffy and pale and unhealthy-looking. Small black eyes always sliding this way and that. “On the look-out for trouble, that one,” Becky said.
It started with a ball kicked over the fence slap bang into the middle of my rose bed. Next thing we know, Jason’s trampling all over the garden, plonking his great clumsy feet here, there and everywhere without so much as a thought for the flowers and shrubs I’d spent years propagating and tending so lovingly. “Is this what you’re looking for?” says Becky, the ball in her hands.
“Gimme it here,” he says, snatching it back.
“Just be careful of the plants!” I throw in with stupid, unthinking optimism.
“Screw the effing plants.” And as an afterthought, “Stuck up bitches.”
After that, there was no peace. Every day something foul came over the fence, every sort of filth you can imagine. And that wasn’t all. He peed in the pond. He smeared dog dirt all over the patio. He set fire to the shed.
Becky said we should go to the police.
“They won’t lift a finger,” I reply. “In fact, they’ll only make things worse.”
Then one day, we come home to find him knocking the heads off all my beautiful irises. Paralyzed, I stand in the window, wracked with useless sobs as he wreaks his havoc. Becky, God bless her, she doesn’t hesitate. Out she goes to give him what for, but he just laughs and calls her names.
Then suddenly, he’s telling her all she needs is a good, proper seeing to. And the next thing I know, he’s grabbing her by the arm and dragging her down. Kicking her and pulling at her blouse. Opening his fly and pushing his hands up her skirt.
At that moment, something inside me snaps. A minute later, I don’t know how, I find myself standing over him, the garden spade clenched in my trembling hands as blood fountains out of his skull. I watch in horror as his eyes cloud over and grow dull. With his last breaths gurgling in his throat he mutters, “fucking dykes…”
Slowly, Becky sits up. “Have you…?”
“I think so.”
That night, after we finish in the garden, we both sit up a long time. Becky pours big tumblers full of whiskey. “Drink it,” she says and kisses my cheeks and eyes. “It’ll be all right.”
“Yes,” I say, swallowing the whiskey in a single gulp, “everything’s OK now.”

 

 

 

 

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The Audition

The stilettos are a mistake. When she was dressing at six thirty that morning, she’d nearly opted for trainers, but trainers would have spoiled the look. Rock chick glamour. That’s what she’d been aiming for, and for glamour, you need heels.

She checks her watch. Nearly eleven. Her feet are killing her. For a moment she considers taking the shoes off, but the surface of the car park is potholed and gritty and she can’t afford to ladder her tights.

All around her there are others, waiting in a vast labyrinth of aluminium railings, restless as a forest in autumn. A ceaseless symphony of voices – some laughing, some shrieking, some singing – fills her ears and gives substance to the paralysing toxin of doubt that keeps seeping into her thoughts. Still, she’s here now.

“Come by yourself, did you?” She turns to face a tall, skinny girl with scarlet hair and a column of Chinese characters tattooed down one shoulder.   She nods.

“Me too.”    The girl cracks her gum before adding, “my mum would kill me if she knew I was here.”

She smiles and says nothing; she knows the feeling.

By one-fifteen she’s eaten her crisps and shared a choc-chip muffin with the tattooed girl. Every so often, she takes little sips from the inch of water at the bottom of her bottle, wishing she’d bought the bigger one instead.

Tar-like, the queue oozes towards the door.  Just ahead of her, two boys are flinging curses at each other, faces thrust forward, hands curling into fists.  In the row behind, a little girl has fallen over and scraped her knee. The mother kneels, dabs at the blood, insists another half an hour and they’ll be in, but the child just keeps sobbing and tugging at the woman’s sleeve.

“Is it really worth it?”  she wonders.   Perhaps it’s time to call a halt and go home.    “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,”  she reminds herself. What does she have to go home to anyway?

Overhead, clouds clot and spit out stinging needles of rain. She shivers and pulls the little jacket she’s brought close around her shoulders. The last shreds of glamour dissolve and drip from loose strands of her ruined beehive.

At ten to five she makes it inside. An official-looking girl, not much older than she is, takes her name, gives her a number and nods her towards the waiting area. Another hour, they reckon. Even then it’ll only be the producers. At least she can go to the loo. Perhaps refill the water bottle too. She’d kill for a cup of tea.

In the main hall, contestants are settling in for the long haul. Some have hogged entire rows of seats and are pretending to grab some shut-eye. Others are camped on the floor amid a sea of discarded shoes and sweet wrappers. There’s a smell of stale soda and socks and on every face the same look of dogged determination. Each is tending to their own nub of hope.

She slots her last pound into a vending machine by the door, bends to extract a Twix then picks her way through a puzzle of legs to an empty seat by the window. Outside, the sun has shrugged off its mantle of cloud and set fire to the windows of executive flats on the far side of the river. She notices a few disconsolate johnny-come-latelies still loitering between the railings. With a yawn, she watches idly as a gull tracks the current downstream to the estuary.

At half seven, she gives in and calls home. She listens as her mum’s anger yields to sarcasm, then concern. It’s okay though; she feels better now. From somewhere in the guts of the building the subterranean thud of a bass guitar starts up. Around her the roar of voices subsides to a murmur, low and lilting as a lullaby. She almost nods off.

Suddenly, too soon, they’re calling out her number.  First off, they ask for the disc.  Her mind goes blank. What disc? The backing music of course. Her fingers flutter through her bag, as she fights the firestorm raging through her tattered confidence. Where the fuck is it? Idiot! She’s put it in the pocket to keep it safe.

“No need to apologise,” the producer sighs. “Let’s just get on with it, shall we?”   Why had she ever thought she could do this?

Next thing, she’s stumbling onto the stage and peering through a veil of light into the black maw of the auditorium. One judge is absent. Another has swung round to confer with a bearded man with a clipboard and headset. The third is hunched over the desk, jabbing brisk observations onto a notepad. She’s a little shocked, seeing them in the flesh; real human beings not merely a mirage conjured from pixels and a thousand pages of newsprint.

The head judge looks up, gives her the go ahead.   The opening bars, as if she’s never heard them before. Dry mouth, damp palms. She starts tremulously, a tad flat on the high C.  A pause.  She steels herself, draws breath, hits the top note.  Faultless.  She’s flying now, a skylark streaking towards the stratosphere, adrenalin – irrepressible, joyous – flaring through every muscle, every vein.  It’s where she’s always wanted to be.  The judges are listening now, sitting back in their seats, eyes wide, giving their full attention.

On the train heading north, her journey is just beginning.   A scatter of fellow passengers are propped up in corners or dozing over the evening rag.  She’s been up forever, but sleep is out of the question.  She remembers the countless nights alone with the Ipod. She remembers the posh kids, and the clever ones, and the told-you-so teachers who looked down and never saw.   She smiles to herself.   She’s on her way.

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