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Untold Damage

A flash fiction/short story

She had the first appointment. They arrived at the same time.

The new room was a top floor, end-of-corridor, corner room.
He unlocked the door and stepped aside for her. ‘Sorry about the hike to get here. And the smell. Sodding cuts…’

She shrugged. She liked it. She liked corners. She liked having no one above her. And in the chair she chose to sit in by the windows, facing the door, there was no one to the left and no one to the right, no one behind her.

Through one window, the morning sun jutted into the room at a low, harsh angle, shooting blindingly sharp skinny triangles of light onto the desk and wall. She turned and looked through the other window. West? she thought, noticing straight shadows, stretching away from the office blocks, throwing the streets and smaller buildings into darkness. It was grey there now but tonight it would be flooded with evening sunlight, the sunset would fill the room with soft colour, and no one would see it.

In the aluminium window frame she saw a distorted reflection moving up and down, and coinciding with the sound of a jacket being removed and hung on the back of a chair.

She wondered, did she look strong and independent turning away from him like that – as if looking out on the world? Even though she was really watching him.
He liked to be called Paul. But she avoided names. In her head he was The Therapist. As he moved back and forth, opening and closing drawers, and switching on a laptop, a bright reflection flitted across the window frame.

He was wearing a white shirt.

She wanted to say, mysteriously, ‘I see a man wearing a white shirt,’ as if looking into a crystal ball, and then turn around and laugh with him. But instead she said nothing, and watched the window frame.

They weren’t here to have fun – she learned that months ago. When she’d made jokes in the past he looked patiently at her, waiting to continue. No, they were here to “get to the truth” the “real” her. She mustn’t deviate from the task, the questions, the going over old ground. So she’d chosen early morning appointments to get them out of the way. She didn’t even have breakfast. It was like waiting in a long, long dinner queue: something to be endured patiently whilst holding one’s instincts in, politely and unnaturally.

This wasn’t the real her. And yet she had to keep coming, keep pretending, as some sort of evidence that she was functioning properly. Her teeth tapped together inside her mouth and her toes tapped up and down within her boots.

The white reflection enlarged and the triangle of sunlight in her peripheral vision disappeared.

He was TOO CLOSE.

She pushed a hand to her mouth and breathed juddery breaths through her nose.
Don’t panic. You’re in control.

‘Helen…’

Oh God… He’d never spoken her name like THAT before.
‘What, what?!’ She span around, and pressed her back into the chair putting her hands up in front. Ready.

He stood looking down at her. ‘We need to talk.’

A rush of terrifying possibilities played in her head:

‘You’re madder than I thought. You need locking up.’

‘This isn’t really a new therapy room. I’m a rapist and I’ve brought you here to have sex with you.’

‘You know when you lost your memory? Well you murdered someone and the police are waiting outside the door.’

‘Maggy…’ he continued.

‘ “Maggy”?’ she shouted. ‘Who the hell’s Maggy?’

He sat down, at last.
‘A colleague. She’s agreed to counsel you. I think we have a problem – a wall – here – with me being a man. You’re not telling me much… You’re… Well I think you’d be less… Nervous… Worried… I don’t know. You might find talking to a woman… Easier? Perhaps.’

She said nothing.

‘She said she’d be here in a minute and then we could all have a chat. If that’s okay, of course…? Do you…? Well. Would it be a good idea, do you think?’

She looked at her feet; invisible toes tapping. ‘Whatever. I’m not sure what difference it would make.’

‘Really?’

‘Memory loss is memory loss.’

‘But…Your… Fear. Do you think you’re uncomfortable around men?’

‘Well, I…’

There was a knock at the door and a woman entered. They talked. In front of her. She was merely required to nod where appropriate.
He told the woman everything about the head injury, the memory loss, the escape from hospital, the fear of being touched.

‘Do you want to remember what happened, Helen? Or do you feel safer not knowing?’ asked the new therapist.

Ah. The old sprouts or cabbage question… She shrugged honestly.

*

Mummy and Daddy were shouting as if she wasn’t there again, while she sat in the corner shaking her head and biting her nails. It was always about how naughty she was to run away. Why did they say that? That wasn’t how it happened. She would close her eyes and think of funny things to make her smile.

*

‘Well. That’s it. Thank you.’ The female therapist approached, grinning, grabbing her hand to shake it. ‘I’ll see you…’
Helen snatched back her hand, ‘Don’t touch me!’ she yelled, punching the therapist in the stomach. She stood up, slapped her hard across the face. ‘Don’t you ever, ever touch me!’
She ran from the room, wailing. As she slammed the door behind her, she saw the keys were still in the lock. She turned them and leaned against the door, breathing heavily.

‘Well that went well,’ she heard the woman laugh. It was a deep, natural laugh. ‘But Jeez, Paul, didn’t you ever stop to think that this touching stuff goes back further than the memory loss?’

Feeling tears build, Helen unlocked the door and stared at her.

‘Do you like jokes?’ she asked.

Maggie nodded.

‘Just don’t touch me again. I never could shake hands.’

As Happy As…

A short story

Zizi was dabbing perfume below her nostrils, before entering the cottage, when she saw Bill peering curiously through the glass in the front door. As she let herself in, ammonia burned her throat and eyes.
‘Where is she, Bill?’ Zizi asked, blinking and swallowing.
Bill grunted and waddled away, his fat backside lurching left and right, and his breathing laboured.
‘Rude pig,’ she snapped, pulling her feet up and away from the newspaper sheets that were sticking and tearing as she walked into the kitchen.
‘Mum?! It’s me.’

Bill sighed and settled himself in his favourite place in front of the hot stove, watching Zizi struggle, with exaggerated steps, across the cluttered floor. She filled the kettle and removed a bucket of poultry food from the table. Then she grimaced into stained cups and tilted up an empty washing-up liquid bottle, repeatedly squeezing it in vain.

‘Ziziphus Jujuba! My darling! My little fruit of love! How delightful!’ Cynthia appeared from the garden, ducks and chickens at her heels, and with a bunch of sweet peas in one hand, threw her arms wide and hooted at her daughter in a sing-song voice as if she was clucking over a baby.
Zizi dipped her head and endured her mother’s cooing and petting. A noise resembling a faulty car exhaust escaped from Bill as he turned his head away in apparent disgust and closed his eyes.
‘Oh, Bill. It’s my baby – my little baby! Don’t be jealous.’
‘Mother. It stinks. It really stinks. THEY stink…’ She clapped the birds out of the house, ‘…and HE stinks.’ Zizi stared at Bill. ‘I know you love him in your own little way but…’
‘I love him in EVERY way. My darling little Billy. How could she say such things.’ Cynthia looked lovingly over at the rumbling mass.
‘ “Ev-ery way”? Ugh. Next you’ll be telling me you sleep with him!’
‘Don’t be silly. He’d never get up onto the bed!’ Cynthia laughed. ‘Anyway. Bill knows I sleep with Rose from the Post Office.’
‘It’s not funny, mother.’
‘I know it’s not. Her husband threatened to shove one of my chickens up my rear if word ever got out.’
Cynthia shuffled slowly to the sink with the sweet peas and tried to lift a vase from the cupboard below. She winced and Zizi heard a sharp intake of breath.
‘What’s wrong, Mum?’ Zizi took the flowers and bossily pointed her mother into a chair. Cynthia groaned gently as the weight shifted.
‘Oh, it’s just my hips. Happens to us all eventually.’
‘You shouldn’t be running around after that stupid pig all day. And the chickens. And geese. And ducks. And heavens knows whatever else you’ve acquired since last time I was here.’
‘They’re my grandchildren substitute.’ Cynthia laughed a little too loudly and cocked her head provokingly.
‘That’s a bit below the belt. Anyway – you’re terrible with children. You can’t even name them properly – or take into consideration the terrible bullying consequences.’ Zizi plonked the flowers on the table and turned back to make tea.
‘Oh, come on,’ Cynthia protested, ‘unusual names are all the rage.’
These days, yes, but not Latin tree names – in the seventies mother, when everyone else at school was called Kevin, Maria and Deborah.’ She stirred the drinks then set them down on the table and pulled out a seat for herself. ‘At least they smell nice.’ She nodded at the sweet peas, then opened her bag and took out some sheets of paper. Placing them in front of her mother, she began her rehearsed speech.
Cynthia felt tired and let the first few sentences wash over her as she continued watching her favourite old pig resting on the floor but she soon realised what Zizi was getting at and looked down at the papers. ‘A terraced bungalow?’ she interrupted. ‘How boring. How samey. How… Horizontal. Move? I’ve no intention of ever moving.’
‘Not even for my sake?’ Zizi pleaded. ‘I worry about you all the time. Wondering if you’ve had a fall or caught a nasty disease. You must know that this isn’t hygienic?’ She gestured around her. ‘It’s not clean. It’s not safe. Sometimes I wonder if… If you’re coping.’
‘Of course I’m coping. It’s just that one’s priorities about appearances change as one gets older. And you don’t need to worry about me. I’ve got Rose.’

David’s valiant attempts at an amorous connection later that night were in vain as Zizi lay on her back trying to blink away vision after vision of her mother’s stinking, cluttered house, the dangerously unhygienic kitchen, the pig’s huge hairy black backside lurching left, right, left, right, left right rhythmically. Although David still carried the familiar faint smell of hospital, she had not lost the smell from her mother’s cottage and – feeling as if she was in two places at once – struggled to ignore how her husband’s heaving sounding like Bill the pig’s laboured waddle. Then her imagination gave her images of her mother falling on the kitchen floor, of the poultry taking over the kitchen, of animal waste filling the house up and up and up and…

…And the phone rang.
‘Bill’s having a heart attack. Can David come?’
‘He’s a doctor, mother, not a vet.’
‘Yes but I owe the vet money and he won’t come again. Farmer Gavinski offered to put a bullet in his head – Bill, not the vet – but I need more time. There are things I need to say to him first. Please, Ziziphus, please.’

As they entered the cottage the sun was rising and the chill of the night had dulled the stench of animal waste. They could see Cynthia on a chair by the kitchen door, bent over in front of the stove and heard her mumbling softly.

But she wasn’t alone. A man was sat at the kitchen table, drinking from a mug and a woman was filling and cleaning something at the sink. The dawn surrounded the woman with hazy pink and her thick, curly grey, bobbed hair bounced at her shoulders. Her soft pink cashmere cardigan sleeves were rolled up to reveal well-tanned arms and beneath the ties of her apron strings, Zizzy could make out a small waist and well-rounded hips and buttocks inside a thin, pink, flower-print skirt.
She’d never looked at her mother’s friend that way before.
Rose turned and smiled softly. ‘He’s going,’ she whispered. ‘The vet’s sedated him.’
The vet raised one hand silently to identify himself.
‘Did you pay?’ was all Zizi could think to say.
Rose nodded. ‘I sent for him. I wish she’d told me sooner.’

The kitchen still smelled of pig and poultry, and from the piles of paper on the floor, it was clear there’d been some parting ablutions from Bill, but the stronger smell of disinfectant was taking over and Rose had obviously brought her own cleaning products, and was quickly making the place brighter. As she moved closer to Zizi and David to offer them tea, Zizi could smell the gentle scent of pink Camay soap.

Zizi backed into the hall and beckoned to Rose as David went into the kitchen to sit with the vet.
‘Will she leave now? Can I get her to move now? Nearer to us? She can’t look after herself anymore. I need to keep an eye on her.’
Zizi watched Rose’s puzzled eyes narrow then widen again as if in realisation. The vet appeared in the doorway and indicated it was all over. He thanked Rose for the tea and left.
‘But she doesn’t want you to keep an eye on her,’ Rose whispered. ‘Or worry about her. She’s a very independent woman – she has her own way of doing things and she loves it here.’

Rose walked back into the kitchen, removed one rubber glove to stroke Cynthia’s hair and then set to work filling a black bin liner with soiled newspapers.
Zizi drew a chair up close to her mother and held her hand, patting it, with nothing to say.
‘I’m happy here, Zizi. Happy as I can be,’ her mother whispered, not looking up.

Bill lay still, his head on Cynthia’s feet, and under his back legs, Zizi could just make out the estate agent’s property details that she’d brought round earlier, streaked with brown.
If she didn’t know better she’d have said Bill was grinning.



N.B.
Ziziphus jujuba is a chinese date tree (and why not)

Definitely Not Dabbling

I was thinking, this morning (it has be known to happen!), about the importance of my writing to me, and the still, as yet, undefined portion of my life I give to it.

Selfishly, I looked forward to September all summer and the less complicated period of time I have (in theory) between 9am and 2pm, Mondays to Thursdays. It is still unpredictable and disrupted but, in general, I should have a nice chunk of creative time on 4 school-day mornings.

Because of this feeling of freedom and relative safety from distraction on school days, most of my ideas happen just after the children have gone to school and college, and most of my best flow and speediest word tapping-out happens between 10am and 1pm on a weekday in term-time.
But in times of stress or a head filled with other responsibilities or when there’s a chance I may be disturbed, this creative time and flow is well and truly stoppered.

I felt an urge to write about this problem and the time-management skills needed to do something that – if it doesn’t involve payment or other people – surely must be viewed as entirely self-indulgent…?
When I hear the term ‘hobby writer’ it insults me and I hope that no one sees me that way. But, if I’m not making enough time for writing, not being paid for it, what else can I be?
Then, within the same few minutes as having these thoughts, I heard the sentence, ‘…he dabbled in the arts,’ on Radio 4.

‘Rachel dabbled in writing’? Yuck.

I absolutely do not want to be a dabbler-writer. I dabble in cookery. I dabble in photography on Blipfoto And I dabble in gardening.
How do I make sure I am not perceived as only dabbling in writing – a ‘superficial’ or ‘casual’ writer; one who merely paddles in the shallows?
How do I spend time concentrating on perfecting my art when I don’t have the status of publication or payment and be allowed to take myself seriously?
I can’t phone my children for a chat in school hours, and I don’t interrupt anyone else’s paid employment because that time is officially defined. And yet, what I want to do – what I think should be my work – is so tenuous in its status that it can be interrupted at any time by anyone and almost any thing.

All I can do, I have told myself this morning, is make up my mind to give myself control, give myself tasks, deadlines, allotted times, say ‘no’ to other things because I have work to finish (or even start!).
It’s difficult. Really difficult.
To get out of this mindset of appearing to merely dabble, I have to prove myself. To prove myself I have to do something that earns no money, pays no bills, washes no dishes and cooks no meals, answers no phones and is good for no one else but me until I have completed something. And when I have completed it, it still may be good for no one but me!

What a curse to have the writing bug and a need to be taken seriously; to feel I have bricks and grand plans and yet no guarantee that I will build anything worthwhile, and if I am right – or selfish – to take the time to construct something.

What’s Your Cup Size?


Mine is a short, wide, china cup, bought from the well-known supermarket that rhymes with ‘pains-worries.’ The cup is as wide as the top of a classic old-fashioned teacup but nice and broad all the way down instead of being cup-shaped. So perhaps it’s a mug…? It’s the perfect width for a teabag to move around in freely and also a good shape and size for a frothy coffee. China also seems to be perfect for herbal tea. This cup/mug is pale blue with swirly flower patterns. I’m a big fan of swirls, curls, twists and spiral shapes. It is also nice and light. I’m not fond of big chunky mugs. I seem to prefer a thin rim to drink from. The lovely wide handle is hand-huggable and I also like the fact that it is not too delicate or feminine. I do use other cups/mugs but this is my favourite. It suits me.

The diminishing acceptance for difference in our society is my biggy bugbear. I think about, write about, and discuss it a lot. I am reminded of it every day when I listen to news and discussion on the radio, watch TV, hear what my children have been doing at school…etc, etc… and I wonder what sort of future we are mapping out where everyone is put into boxes and made to fit, made to follow a certain route and made to suffocate their own individuality. I think if we worked on accepting difference more easily, loosening what we consider “normal” and “successful” and made childhood and schooling more varied and free then we would create naturally accepting and tolerant adults. I could go on and on and on for days and travel down many different avenues discussing this.

I think that if we could be easier with ourselves and stop trying to fit or all be the same then we could shorten the time we spent navel-gazing and get on with just being us. Limited goals, routes, criteria, set standards of achievement within life and education cannot possibly incorporate everyone who is genuinely useful in our society, and I wish we could get away from this feeling of one route to success.

I’m rather concerned about an emphasis on financial productiveness, labelling some school subjects as more worthwhile or important than others, and less support for arts and creativity coming from our current government, and suggestions in the media that some options are ‘soft’ or less valuable. People that have come away from school, with less so-called ‘academic’ subjects under their belt, are not broken, they do not need fixing. It’s about who they are.
Bright people within arts, media, literature, constructive jobs, catering, horticulture, farming, design, (feel free to add your own), make all those areas well-run, successful, and worthwhile to all.
In my opinion, it is an important aspect of human evolution that we all feel we have different skills, talents, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses and even habits. We don’t all need to be brilliant at maths, we don’t all need to play a musical instrument, we don’t all need to know how to raise and kill a chicken, we don’t all need to know how to design a building, plough a field, make a table, sew curtains, hold our breath for three minutes, gut a fish, chair a meeting, rescue people from a fire in an office block, teach science, split an atom, design an uplifting environment within a children’s hospital, write a book, (feel free to add your own). What we need is encouragement to go our own way so that there are people successfully doing all of those things.

I went the one-size-fits-all way in the eighties, and saw how many people it didn’t fit – including me. I was told what was considered academic and what not, what would make me look more successful and less successful. That route lead me straight to a job in a pub for three years. (Not that there’s anything wrong with people who work in pubs – I just stopped doing all the things that made me me in those years)

By the time I’d dusted myself down and started again I was thirty. By the time I was comfortable about who I am I was… errr…. Well, I’m getting there at 2 days away from forty-two.

The reason I am getting there is because I followed new routes, explored, experimented, experienced new ideas. I found out that it’s not a disaster – in fact it’s okay and very cool – to want to write, to want to learn, to want to be a quiet person.

Imagine if we were all competitive chicken-killing mathematicians with a fixation on financial success…

While I’m at it, I may as well mention again how worried I am about the Open University’s planned extortionate fee increases. I would be lost if I had to start my self-discovery now.

I think the government is getting education all wrong.

Support difference, you mugs!

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