THE PARTY

 

21 THE PARTY

It really was a miserable party, it really was.

Young Hilary Stoppard and his pretentious young set contemplated the splenetic corners of art’s responsibilities within a splintered decaying cosmos.

Under an ageing Soviet philosopher’s smoke exhalation they gathered in an umbilical circle to soak in each of his puritanical philosophisings:

‘Believe in the rhythmic order of your heartbeat and trust no creation younger than your least favourite aunt or neighbourhood spinster.’

Hilary’s girlfriend, Bunti, corrected her spine with a long natural breath and a complex re-interpretation of Alexander technique. Sigmund, who suffers from total-allergy syndrome, adjusted the valve feeding oxygen into his astronaut suit and wondered if air was in itself a poison more potent than Velcro.

The deflated clown behind the punishing philosopher wore a look of utter defeat, his soul carrying the angst of the world in its tiny blue sac.

Hilary Stoppard looked out into the everywhere and imagined himself more than himself but less than an atom.

It really was a miserable party, it really was.

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GO WILD IN THE COUNTRY

GO WILD IN THE COUNTRY

As Nadine walks slowly towards the entrance to the Villa, she ties her dressing gown tight around her waist and slides the palms of her hands down from her thighs as if she’s rubbing away something. Renzo sits casually on the brow of the hill smoking a cigarette, not caring if anyone sees him, the sleeves of his grey porter’s jacket rolled up his arms, the collar up around his neck as if he’s an extra in Grease. When he exhales it looks like he’s whistling. As Nadine comes up the entrance stairs she sees me and gives me the finger.

Since qualifying, I’ve been running writing sessions for the Villa’s younger patients. Nadine is a disruptive influence when she bothers to turn up, her snaking moods, sometimes enchanting, but more often sullen, brooding something within. Today she’s the first to arrive, and, after shedding her anger outside the nurses’ office – what are you fucking looking at? I can talk to the porters if I want to, and I can fuck them if I want to! – she seems different, the hormonal blush of anger on her neck already fading into blotchy pink and white, calmer, ready to be open . . . opened.

‘I saw you looking, Tom.’

‘Renzo is not a good guy.’

Nadine pretends to be surprised and then stares at me, holding her gaze a little too long, then suddenly laughs.

‘I like his cock, Tom, I don’t like him.’

‘Okay, Nadine, I get it.’

She mimics what I say with a heavy, breathy accent: ‘Okay, Nadine, I get it’. ‘Do you get it, Tom?’ she adds lightly in her own voice.

‘You could express your thoughts on the page.’

She stifles a laugh and tries the same trick, mimicking what I say, but her eyes soften a little when repeating the phrase ‘thoughts on the page’ as if it were suggesting something quaint, safe to dive into.

‘I still have the poem you wrote when you came the first time.’

‘Poor you.’

‘It was honest.’

‘It was bollocks.’

‘You said the marks on your wrists were the “blade’s curse”, your “flesh tattoos”, I remember those phrases.’

‘Poetry bollocks, Tom, I said it so you’d like me.’

‘I like the words, Nadine.’

‘Not me? Or these?’

She pulls up the sleeves on her dressing gown and stretches out her arms, palms up to the ceiling. The cuts look surprisingly deep and purpling, and a few are fresh, red and angry, jagged at the edges like wild bite marks.

She steps closer. ‘You can touch them if you want.’

‘Do the nurses know?’

‘Tom, it’s okay.’

The surfaces of the old cuts feel hard and knobbly like reptile skin but the new cuts are too real.

‘You know they can get infected?’

‘So?’

‘Well, you’d get sick.’

‘Duh, Tom! I’m already sick.’ She smiles. ‘You can press harder, you won’t hurt me, nothing really hurts me.’

Nadine would never show the nurses her cuts, and I would never tell them. Elaine, their leader, likes to sit on the table in the staffroom and address the other nurses as if she were giving a sermon. In their tank tops, cheesecloth shirts and pale blue jeans, they look like the Manson family, a joke I would share if everyone weren’t part of the cult.

I first talked to Elaine at the social club at the end of my first week at work. She came up to me as I chose a song on the jukebox: Bow Wow Wow’s ‘Go Wild in the Country’.

‘It’s Tom, isn’t it? I love the singer, so cute. What’s her name?’

‘Annabella.’

‘I’ve been observing you at work so I thought you’d know her name. She’s really pretty, don’t you think?’

‘She’s got a great voice.’

‘Good tits too though, eh, Tom? But she’s only fourteen. Makes me feel a little uneasy, that Manet painting on the cover of the single with her in the nude, it’s not right, is it?’

‘No, I suppose it isn’t.’

‘I’m joking, Tom, she’s beautiful. Why shouldn’t she be naked?’

She watches me closely, waiting for a response.

‘But if I weren’t joking, I’d be saying she shouldn’t be naked on the cover of a single that sad little men are going to take into their bedrooms to fondle and drool over. But am I joking or not joking?’

‘I don’t know.’

One of the gang called Steve came over: ‘Are you playing with the mind of our new member of staff, Lane?’

‘I’m not playing with your mind am I, Tom? I’m too old to be playing with Tom’s mind. I think he’d prefer younger girls to play with . . . his mind. Wouldn’t you, Tom?’

‘Come on, Lane, that’s enough.’ And then Steve looked at me with a sympathetic smile. ‘Sorry, old chap, Lane makes her mind up pretty quickly about people. If I was you I’d lie low.’

I started to walk away.

‘Heh, Largactyl boy, keep moving because I’ve got you in my sights,’ Elaine said and shaped her hand like a pistol, one eye cocked like Travis Bickle, and pretended to shoot.

When I started at the Villa, Nadine was thick with a boy called Gavin. During workshops I’d often find myself looking out into the grounds. One afternoon I saw them walking hand in hand towards the sheep fields on the asylum farm. One of the patients said they were going to pick magic mushrooms.

When they came back later they were laughing like coyotes, running up and down the paths in purposeful patterns as if creating a topographic maze together, one only seen by them or by an imaginary bird hovering overhead.

A nurse ambled out and talked to them, shared a toke on a cigarette and brought them inside.

One night Gavin walked out of the Villa without telling anyone. He went home to see his mother who hadn’t been answering his letters. His mother was a paranoid schizophrenic and didn’t let him in the house because she was scared what he might do. Gavin smashed the lounge window and then hung himself from the rope swing under the tree at the bottom of their garden.

When Nadine was told, she said nothing for weeks. She was taken to the main hospital for special treatment. Six ECT sessions were prescribed and when she returned, she’d chopped her hair, smudged raven’s lipstick on her lips like a charred clown and talked slowly and deeply as if she were underwater. She came silently into a writing session and wrote on the wall:

The angel boy that flew down to peck out my eyes made me see.

I dream of him still and he touches me, holds me,

Smiles as he tightens his grip on my heart, carries it into the sky, and then lets go.’

 

Lola, my girlfriend, likes to call Nadine ‘Crazy Cat’.

Funny that, because cats have taken over the intimacy of our relationship: bromide in our tea. We stare at the television in dead-eyed awe, empty mugs collecting in front of us on the table; Roger, the tabby on my lap, Tabatha, the mottled sphinx, purring into Lola’s thigh. The cats speak for us or rather we speak through them. My voice is a bass growl for Roger: ‘Daddy would like to watch The Professionals now.’

‘Tell Daddy to earn some more money and buy a video recorder. Otherwise he’ll have to wait for All Creatures Great and Small to finish.’ I have grown to hate Lola’s soft velvet kitten tone for Tabatha: rejection with a cartoon Aristocats girly voice when the voice, like its message, should be spiky and cold.

When I slide my hand across the sofa I have to go under Tabatha’s purring belly to reach Lola’s skirt. As I attempt a lift I feel a claw and hear Lola’s Tabatha voice: ‘When Daddy stops behaving like The Son Of Sam he may have a kiss. Until then he can relieve himself in the bathroom.’

When I stand up, Roger rolls casually onto the floor and lies on his back waiting for his tummy to be stroked. I fall on him as if enacting the rug scene in Sons and Lovers; Roger is Oliver Reed.

 

After I finish the workshop I find Renzo and Nadine sitting on the steps by the Villa entrance. She has a huge red love bite on her neck, and Renzo gives me a wink.

‘Did you just wink at me, Renzo?’

‘Yeah, and I can give you a kiss too if you want.’ He squeezes his lips grotesquely together for an imaginary snog and Nadine laughs.

‘You’re an animal!’

He growls and Nadine tilts her head back and howls.

‘And you’re a pussy boy’

‘Why don’t you leave her alone?’

‘So you can have your taste, pussy boy?’

Nadine laughs at this.

‘Fuck off, Renzo!’

‘Pussy words! I fuck, you fuck off!’

Elaine throws open the entrance door. ‘No, you can both fuck off. Nadine, leave your little fan club and get inside, now!’

I’m left with Renzo at the top of the steps. He squeezes out two cigarettes from the top pocket of his porter’s jacket, lights both, and then offers me one.

‘Women are cunts,’ he says and spits his gum over my shoulder.

In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro shoots the pimp, Harvey Keitel, in the belly. I take his cigarette, inhale, and block him out and fantasize about how I can save her and save myself.

I find a bench at the back of the Villa. It’s mid October and the grass has been full of damp and dew for weeks but there hasn’t been a frost yet. A mist hangs over the sheep fields at the edge of the asylum grounds. I was told earlier by Jonny, one of the porters who looks a little too much like Jim Davidson, that today is perfect for picking mushrooms. He told me to what to look for: a small white pointed dome with a kink half way down a tall spindly stalk. He told how to dry and prepare them and warned me not to eat too many the first time.

Nadine appears from around the building and joins me ‘You were right about the wop,’ she says. ‘He’s fucking another nutcase now.’

‘He’ll get his comeuppance.’

‘I doubt it, Tom. That sort get to rule the world, don’t they? But you’re not like that, are you?’

‘Not normally.’

‘Fancy a stroll?’ she says.

We walk out towards the sheep fields. When we get there we find that the sheep have been moved from the farthest field.

‘Perfect!’ she says. ‘I’m going to get out of it. Will you keep watch?’

‘I’m not one of the patients, Nadine.’

‘Are you sure about that, Tom?’

‘Anyway, I’m partial to a magic mushroom now and then.’

‘Fuck off, you’re way too straight.’

‘It’s the silent ones you should look out for, Nadine.’

‘If you say so. Here, be useful for once and take my hand.’

I help her over the stile into the empty field, and we start picking.

‘You need to wipe them clean to get off any sheep shit. Then eat a few at a time,’ she says.

I have maybe forty in my hand and eat them in front of her.

‘You stupid bastard, that’s way too many in one go.’

I eat another handful − they taste rank, putrid − and then sit on the grass and watch her get her measure. She is careful, artful, bent over so she can examine them as she picks, rejecting some and discarding them back onto the ground, keeping the good ones and dropping them onto the curled hem of her skirt. She wipes away the dirt and eats a few at a time, sipping from a bottle of water between each mouthful. As I watch her my nausea starts, takes me in a tidal wash so that I suddenly tip forward, my gut twisting, falling hard and wrenching tufts of grass out from the earth with my hands and my teeth. I lie there for what seems like ages and fight to let the poison out.

My stomach quietens for a moment. Looking up, it is as if the earth is lying on its side, the asylum tipped up like a drowning Titanic, the clouds disappearing into the earth. Nadine looks at me from an angle and smiles and it’s the smile of the ancients in the here and now, at once wizened and wise but also pixotic and mischievous. I am crying and when I rub my eyes, dirty salty rainwater spits up and dribbles into my mouth. The nausea is overwhelming again and I want to be sick but can’t. I want Mum. Nadine is by my hot head, a curious monkey girl flicking ticks from my hair and rubbing my head. But her hand is cool porcelain; a shop dummy girl in a Victorian dress shop and I start laughing, the Victorian asylum, her Victorian doll like face, a Victorian clockwork monkey beating a drum, Keith Moon gurning on snare, the pale moon a cymbal, the ley lines that travel beneath me and through the grounds and out onto the Downs, a secret swirling snake . . . wild, go wild in the country . . .

‘Where snakes in the grass are free?’ Nadine asks.

Her face changes, cheekbones heightening and sharpening, and she’s Annabella, her voice like the cooling breeze tingling my skin. I want to shit and it makes sense to do it here on the earth, shit to shit, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, my brain hot wiring connections as a greater awareness keeps promising to emerge. I try to take my trousers off but my fingers are weak and I can’t unclasp the belt. And then I feel her arms around me like warm insulating wings. I want her to hold me like this forever but things never stay still for a single moment.

‘Tom, don’t do that. Just relax and let it happen but promise you’ll keep your clothes on.’

She drops a handful of mushrooms and I swear I can see them pop like golden sherbet in her mouth.

‘You look like you need company,’ she says.

That sounds exciting but somehow worrying too. I feel an overwhelming panic taking me over and I want to shit again. I go inside, burrowing. I see Lola and our cats mouthing along to an advert on the television, Cats would buy Whiskas, and I feel a blanket, my jacket over my head. It’s the saddest feeling I’ve ever had and I start crying again. It seems like I’m crying for ages. When I take the jacket off my head it’s raining and Nadine is dancing like a maniac at the top of a slope.

‘Stop moaning about your girlfriend and your cats, just leave them!’ she shouts.

I didn’t know I’d been talking.

‘We don’t make love anymore,’ I say.

‘Well, you shouldn’t be fucking your cats anyway, it’s illegal!’

‘Lola isn’t a cat!’

And suddenly we’re both laughing. Nadine stands tall on a burial mound braying like a donkey, her huge toothy mouth turned up to the sky. I’m chattering and guffawing like monkeys and I can’t stop.

Nadine runs over, still laughing I think, and taps me with a knuckle on my forehead.

‘You’re making my brain hurt, Tom, stop talking about her.’

‘Do you miss Gavin?’ I ask and I see her face change, a landslide after an earthquake so all the features melt and drop, her mouth softening and caving in, water running down her cheeks and across her lips.

‘You fucking bastard, Tom! You’re trying to do my head in.’

I try and grab her but touch her breasts by mistake.

She screams in my face and pulls off her top and throws her bra onto the ground.

‘Just like all the other fuckers, Tom! Come on, cop a feel, that’s what you want, isn’t it?’

She pulls my hands towards her breasts and I struggle to stop them touching. They’re scarred red, small slash marks, yellow burns across the breasts and over her nipples.

‘Come on!’ she screams.

‘Nadine, stop, please.’

I am trying to climb out, sober up . . . rescue.

I grab her in a bear hug and start making reassuring animal noises, it’s what comes naturally,‘grrr grr’ slowly becoming ‘there there’. After a while she stops struggling, stops crying. I repeat the ‘there there’ mantra, squeezing tighter and tighter until she jabs me in the ribs.

‘For fuck’s sake, Tom, I’d rather you touch my tits than suffocate me.’

I let go and she puts her top back on.

‘Come on then,’ she says taking my hand, ‘I’m soaking and it’s not working here. Let’s go back and find somewhere dry to sit and ride it out.’

‘Not inside, I like it out here,’ I say. ‘There’s something about being outside, the earth.’

‘Oh, I can tell you like the earth, you kept trying to cultivate it with your shit.’

‘I didn’t, did I?’

‘You did so.’ And she points to a crap, shaped like a giant mushroom dome, a few feet away.

‘Clever, that one,’ she says and we start laughing again, and we keep on laughing until we find a bench under a large oak tree in a quiet part of the hospital grounds to shelter from the rain. There we sit together barely speaking, my brain slowing, settling, but still flickering connections, wondering if hers are making the same ones but somehow knowing she wants to have her thoughts to herself and not hear mine, watching the leaves dance and spin before settling on the grass, the giant October sun dropping below the hills, the sky grey and blackening, the stars, the stars . . . and when I wake up Nadine is gone.

**********

Go Wild in the Country originally appeared on 3:AM and is in  Best British Short Stories 2015 published by Salt

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CREAM CRACKERS

CREAM CRACKERS

Mum always said I was simple but vain: a lethal cocktail in her book. Granddad said I was ‘as smug us a bug in a rug’; whatever that meant. But I’ve always had this notion that I could be a hero, something, someone to look up to, a pinnacle –‘

‘An icon, lad,’ Mum said. ‘They call this an icon.’

‘Not on a plinth to stare up at, but a fully fledged blood and guts hero.’

‘An icon!’

‘So how do I do it?’

‘Do it?’ Mum said. ‘You’re crackers, lad. Just stop with all the dirty talk, your brain is made up of crumbs: crackers plain and simple, that’s what you are.’

Jacob’s Cream my brother used to call me. Only he meant it in a sly, saucy Old Testament way.

‘You’ll end up with a permanent spot on Looney Tunes like your brother if you don’t shut down the hero talk!’ Mum warned.

My bother had shut it down. He’d followed the words of an angry bishop who said radical Muslims were damaging status quo. Devoted to Saint Francis (Rossi,) my brother tried to crucify our neighbour, Mister Khan’s cat. Cat would have none of it and backed him up in an alleyway and clawed at his face.

I visited him by his new bed in his new room. ‘Cover my foot in coal dust and hand me a bandana,’ Granddad used to say to us when we were small. We had no idea what he meant but it always made us laugh. I tried the line again but my brother didn’t even smile. ‘Still spitting crumbs, Jacob?’ he asked, rubbing the scratches on his cheeks.

When it was clear he wasn’t returning, I tried to shut down the hero impulses for good but the hero words just kept coming.

Many years later, Mrs Vance, who lived next door, got her self in a spot of bother.

‘I’ve got myself in a spot of bother, Thomas (“that’s my name. Please, remember it!”).’

Sidney Groat was a moneylender, old school. Kneecap Sid some called him: one tap on each knee with a hammer for each day you were late with a payment. Mrs Vance was four days late, plastic hips, plastic kneecaps and all. ‘Call me the bionic woman,’ she used to say whilst pulling out her dentures, and then holding them above her head to make chopping shapes in the clouds.

‘Could you help an old woman in distress, Thomas?’ she asked.

‘I’ll sort it, whatever it is!’ I said.

I lay in wait for his next visit. Tap he went on Mrs Vance’s door, which I was sure she felt as a threat deep in her (knee) bones.

I burst out of a bush with my nephew’s Spiderman mask on. ‘Step back, Mister Groat or you’ll be spinning in my web and eating worms for dinner,’ (another of Granddad’s phrases).

‘Who, the fuck are you?’

‘Jacob Cream,’ I said.

He laughed, and this gave me my chance.

I took out my carrier bag (‘5p, daylight bloody robbery!’ Mum would have said if she were still alive), and pulled it over his head and tied. His arms waved; his face made moving shadows inside the bag, an angry wide mouth. He fell onto his knees after a while.

Mrs Vance stepped out. ‘ What have you gone and done? I only meant you to warn him off!’

Hard this hero stuff, hard to know where to draw the line. I didn’t fancy ending up sitting on a hospital bench next to my brother making hedgehogs from pinecones so I ran.

Mrs Vance helped Mister Groat up and they looked down the street to see if they could spot me. Mrs Vance should have got out her dentures: I was high up in the trees beside the clouds.

**********

I’m up here now. If you look carefully you can see fine crumbs falling from the sky when I speak. And if you’re in trouble, I’ll stop talking and come down and help you. Like most heroes I’m a better listener than talker anyway, ‘a transistor radio with knobs on but no batteries left inside’ as Granddad used to say.

Cream Crackers for Gorse .

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MESSAGE TO YOU

MESSAGE TO YOU

Message 704

I think it’s imagining your hands that keeps me listening: fingers fair and tapered, palms smooth and dry, your sure confident grip sensitive yet subtly sensual. Your voice is a more obvious hook; it’s an adulterous voice, full of mischief and bass, a delicious deep tone that offsets your slightly high-pitched laugh when you let yourself go. You like to let yourself go and the people in the studio seem to like it too. Georgina – I know there is nothing between you by the way – treats you indulgently with a niece’s cool ribbing, moderating nicely her obvious professional respect for you.

It’s time for bed now, Neil. Please think of me in your dreams for I will surely be dreaming of you. If we were telepaths we could share our thoughts too. I send you my thoughts all the time by the way, but as you’re a sceptic I’m assuming you don’t receive them: I heard you giggling when the Winchester Vicar talked about a frantic ghost in his vestry; that was a bit naughty and if you were here now I would lightly spank you.

I like to imagine your shiver as you react to the ‘s’ word but I’m not a violent person. Let’s just say if you were here I’d give you a very good talking to.

Goodnight my love, Rita xxx.

Message 729

That was a marvellous programme today. I laughed when you said that you thought George Formby was ‘almost certainly from Formby’ even though you know and I know that he was absolutely certainly born in Wigan. That tickled the man from the George Formby Appreciation Society and when you said, ‘ta ta then’ instead of goodbye it sounded like you were saying ‘Rita, when?’ I’ve played it again and again and the more I play it the more I know you are saying it, ‘Rita, when?’, I mean. I’ve tried a similar thing with your name. I was making T, he who bears no name, a wholemeal sandwich for tea and as I presented it I said it’s a wholemeal sandwich with ham. I said ‘wholemeal’ like ‘Hold me Neil’, ‘Hold me Neil’, again and again until eventually he asked me what was wrong.

 

Message 733

I missed you today. Have you gone and got a cold again? That would be the second of the year. I saw on Mail Online that you and her were out at an opening last night. She might have looked after you better and saved you the embarrassment of being photographed in that awful purple tie and a silly grin I have never seen before, and care not to see again, spread across your lips.

You mentioned her buying that tie seven months ago in a witty (witty on your part) exchange with the gormless weather girl, Katcha. Then you said ‘thank heavens for small mercies; she might have bought me five ties.’ Georgina, ever the mock Head Girl, told you off for being unappreciative but you had a point. ‘Humour’ as my mother used to say ‘can’t hide the truth, dig deeper and it will surely reveal the truth.’ The truth as you and I know is that purple has never been your colour and never will be your colour. I have sought to normalise the situation by parcelling you up two ties, both Savile Row, both silk, and both navy blue. Please do not return them. All l I ask is you rid yourself of the offending tie, along with the pink flowered misjudgement you wore at the Chelsea Flower Show. No need to tell her, I will wager she won’t even notice they’re gone. I’ll be looking out for you and for them, and I’m already flying close to the moon imagining them resting so close to your beating heart.

Get well soon my love, not too many hot toddies, think lemon, rest and dream, my heart is racing, racing its way to you, xxxxx.

Message 735

So, not a cold after all. Gout is painful but surely presents not enough of a reason to be off work? Sorry, I’m worried about you but I’m also a little cross that you’ve succumbed to a preventable condition through excess. I don’t blame you, I don’t play the blaming game, but I have to say that someone who swore on oath ‘in sickness and in health to love and to cherish’, to take care of you in plain language, is just not up to her job.

You must know you will need to cut back on the drinking, and, to weather the gastric irritation caused by strong anti-inflammatories, you will need to stick to alkaline foods. I am making you some leek and potato soup laden with double cream and will deliver it later today. I will ring on the bell seven times. If you are not well enough to come down to collect it (I know she will be at her precious work), I will leave it on your doorstep. It’s cold and your beautiful tiled steps will be slippery and freezing so please wear your moccasin slippers when you eventually make it down.

I will be there and will only speak if you want me to. I will be wearing my blue Hermes coat. You’ll know it because when you did a live recording in Bracknell’s shopping centre five years ago, I asked you for an autograph and you said it was ‘very lovely’. You looked straight at me and not at the coat so I think we both knew what you meant. I won’t be wearing so very much underneath, and if you ask me in I will gently heat up the soup for you; but if you prefer I’ll keep the coat on. I’m bringing the Schubert CD you love, but returned, in case you’d like us to talk less and relax more, and some Perry Como just in case you’d like me to have a peek upstairs. I’ll bring two films, Doctor Zhivago and Groundhog Day, both favourites of yours I know, and will leave the choice to you. I’ve also bought a large pack of Nurofen Extra in case your foot throbs. Talking of which, I realise of course that you may not be able to wear slippers as it might be too painful. I will bring a pair of T’s slate-grey flip-flops if you don’t mind wearing plastic. Don’t be embarrassed by the look: your natural elegance can carry it off . . . if not walk it off. Sorry, just my little joke my love, to hopefully ease your pain.

I can’t wait, I really can’t. Till then I send healing thoughts out to you, xxxxxxx.

Message 736

I was so disappointed you didn’t answer the door at some point in the day. She came back at midnight as per usual, and after much inspection and poking around in the bag (I had removed the Como and the Zhivago by then) dragged it in. I’m sure the soup was never even served and I know you’ve decided it’s best to keep your counsel, to play safe, but a little drop of politeness, a simple thank you now and then wouldn’t hurt you or anyone. Quite the contrary, it would be lapped up and placed in a saucer on the mantelpiece and served up for eternity. No, it’s not good enough, gout or no gout, you really should show some appreciation now and then. I will not be taken advantage of.

Well, enough of that, it’s still been lovely having you back in my room. I recorded today’s programme and have played it three times to make up for the three days you’ve been away. T came back from work during the last recording and pulled one of those ‘pity me’ long-suffering faces that make him look like a bloodhound. Then he closed the door and left us to it. I could tell your poor feet were pinching from time to time because your voice went a little high sometimes, and you weren’t making as many of your jokes or laughing at them as much when you did. It was so unkind of Georgina to say the only other person apart from you that she knew with gout was WC Fields. What about Winston Churchill or Reginald Bosanquet? She really is a bitch at times, isn’t she? Don’t answer, you have a professional relationship to keep up, I’m just being naughty.

Well, it’s only seven but I’m exhausted and am off to bed with a good book. I’ve been continuously reading John Steinbeck after you said you liked him the other day. Naturally, I like him too. I am particularly struck by his thoughts on narcissism: ‘for the most part people are not curious except about themselves.’ That certainly doesn’t describe me, I couldn’t care less about myself, my only interest and care is for you. There I’ve said it, I can’t be plainer than that. It’s up to you now. Where do you stand from the point of view of curiosity? Are you hearing my words or do you shut things down and reach out for the off button? Well, I’m reaching out with my heart for you and all you have to do is open up a little . . . come close and listen, but I won’t wait for ever, you can’t rely on that, that wouldn’t be fair!

 

Message 737

It must be an omen; a spectacularly good one at that. I came into town on the coach, 7-3-7, and then in a taxi via Broadcasting House en route to my doctor’s in Weymouth Street. And there you were . . .wearing one of my ties! I’m sorry I screamed out of the window. That was wrong but I felt delirious, like I was still that teenager screaming at The Beatles in the front row of the Palladium in 1963. I admit I once loved Paul but I can also tell you that I can’t bear his stupid plasticine face now!

I saw your sweet gracious smile before you ran in, and may I be immodest for once and shout to the heavens: ‘the tie really suited you!’

A tie maketh the man’, my mother used to say, and that tie maketh you, maketh you even more perfect than you already are!

There was no need to see the doctor after that. The tie was a sign. It’s over. I’ll be mature, it’s not about winners I know; there are no winners in this kind of thing. I can wait; I know you owe her something. Be kind if you need to. I’ll try with T but I think he won’t hang on for long; he prides himself on being chivalrous about this kind of thing and would always make way for a better man. Well, maybe he should have the house as compensation as I know you won’t be able to commute from Oxfordshire. When she’s moved out I’d be happy to move . . . look at me, I’m running way with myself when I said I’d wait. I can wait. I will wait. Just don’t keep me waiting too long!

REPLY 1

Rita,

Thank you so much for your kind gifts.

I liked the ties and the soup, and your coat is still lovely!

Neil

 

*****

Message to You is in Hearing Voices, Litro Anthology of New Fiction

http://www.litro.co.uk/2015/07/hearing-voices-the-litro-anthology-of-new-fiction/

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JAZZ ROCK

Jazz Rock

JAZZ ROCK

The cry of a trumpet: ‘I beseech you to go JAZZ’, it says and the spiky tail rocker transforms into a giant, pubic fuzz ball.

‘You is scrambling my brain in pussy weed, my horny friend,’ says the rocker.

The jazzster keeps blowing those difficult notes and the shaggy rocker rolls off, all hairy biker and tumble thatch.

‘Look at her go,’ croons the trumpet, suddenly sad and slow. ‘She’s got a bearded mass and a furry ass!’

‘Not she, I’m he,’ says the rocking fur ball, spitting hairs. ‘Just stop the jazz!’

And the horn is done.

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CLOWNING AROUND

Clowning Aound

Coco was more than usually annoyed; he was downright angry: ‘which of you freaks called me a clown?’ he barked.

It was Bum Face Martin but he was never going to own up, so the swans confessed instead.

‘I knew it,’ said Coco. ‘Never trust a bird that’s named after matches.’

Bum Face Martin sniggered and whispered ‘clown’ but Coco didn’t seem to hear, he was busy banging on about swans: ‘evil critters with long beaks and stupid feet!’

Bum Face Martin wondered about saying ‘just like clowns’ but he thought better of it, there was no way of knowing how Coco would react when he was in this kind of mood.

After enduring a tirade of insults the swans flew off and Coco turned to Bum Face Martin and said: ‘I knew it was you, Bum Face, but I just don’t like swans!’

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STORYTELLER

STORYTELLER

When the first bomb went off we thought it was masonry falling from a building site. The second blast smashed windows in our lab and a few of my colleagues were cut by flying glass. I checked they were okay, and when I was satisfied the wounds were superficial, I took my medicine bag and went outside to investigate. It was carnage. An elderly man was lying by the side of the road with half his face missing.

Which side?

The right side I think.

I checked for a pulse on his neck, and started pumping his chest.

I was embarrassed when the papers – The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail – called me a heroine. ‘A brave and beautiful Aussie medic was first on the scene’ added some jerk on The Sun. Yeah, right. Next they’ll want me to pose in a white bikini with a stethoscope dangling between my breasts.

At the time I was interviewed on a live broadcast for Sky News. I tried not to cry, and told the reporter exactly what I saw. I mentioned the dark-skinned man running away from the bombed bus.

An old school friend from Sydney saw me on satellite TV and emailed:

‘Just like you, Katie – you’re always where it’s at – really proud of you, girl. I’ve mailed all our schoolmates to look out for you. Take care and write us all about it, it’s been too long. Suzie xxx.’

I remember going to watch INXS. I got Michael Huchence’s autograph and Suzie was really jealous.

‘Did he say anything to you, Katie?’ she asked like a melon.

‘Yeah, he took my phone number and everything.’

‘Bet he don’t ring you, though.’

‘Suzie, I don’t care if he does or don’t; it’s not the point.’

She looked puzzled for a moment, and then said, ‘yeah, right.’

The Mail on Sunday came looking for me a week later to do an in depth interview. Too many questions and I didn’t like them digging into my past. I stopped the interview half way through, even though they offered me lots of money. They had wanted a picture of me looking haunted standing by a London bus.

‘Could you wear your white coat?’

‘I’m not a doctor.’

‘But you treated all those people and saved that man’s life.’

‘I used to be a doctor; I’m a medical lab researcher now.’

‘What are you researching?’

Later, they tried to ask me about my family.

‘Any other medics in your family?’

‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

The journalist changed tack. I noticed the steel sharpen in his eyes; like a snake eyeing its prey.

‘How close were you to the Arab bomber?’ he asked.

I didn’t reply.

‘This close?’ he said, gesturing to the photographer who was standing about fifty yards away. ‘Or this close?’ he said pointing to himself, a spit away from my face.

‘I need to get back to work now.’

‘Yes, but couldn’t you stay and answer a few more questions?’

‘I have to get back’, I replied.

‘Important work, I understand,’ he said.

I’d recognised him from the beginning, now he was just confirming it for all to see: ‘Talk with the devil,’ my father used to say, ‘and you’ll grow a spiky tail and start speaking in tongues.’

When I was small, no matter how hard I tried – and I did try – my school reports were never enough to satisfy my father. When I was kept back for detention after failing my biology test paper for the second time, dad was waiting at the front door. He led me into his study and told me to place my hands palms up on his desk.

With each smack of the ruler, he told me that I wasn’t to disappoint him anymore; I was to be his ‘clever Katherine’.

So, that’s what I became. It wasn’t too hard to change the marks in my reports; the trick was to keep him and mum away from meeting my teachers on open day. The first time was pure luck. My appendix ruptured and I was rushed to hospital, which brought them close so I could keep an eye on them. The second time, I fell off my bicycle and into the path of our neighbour’s car. I wasn’t really badly hurt; just enough to keep them indoors. Then they had Anthony, their ‘miracle’ son – ‘we weren’t planning for one, he just arrived; how happy we are though’ – their immaculate misconception. But Anthony’s arrival proved useful, serving to drain their energy and interest away from me.

Miraculously my marks suddenly improved without me having to change them. I was top in English – ‘Katie is a consummate storyteller. She’s a great literary mimic, too,’ wrote Mrs Christophers, our English teacher. But I was also excelling in the sciences – biology in particular – inspired by days lying in a hospital bed like a sickly child in Neighbours. Cue rhapsodic Soap music and a close up of my pale face filling the screen: hair in bunches, a gasp of breath, and a whispered ‘I love you world’ before I shut my eyes for good.

I tried to recreate this scene with Clarissa and Pig, but they kept telling me I was overdoing it.

‘Drama queen, or what,’ they shrieked.

‘Duh, that’s the point, fellow thesps,’ I replied.

When Princess Diana came to open the new wing in the hospital where I worked, I was part of the meeting committee. She slipped her hand over mine to greet me. She looked slim and sleek like a swan; I thought of the dying one in Swan Lake, feet pirouetting together on point, up and down like a needle on a knitting machine. I foresaw everything then: the doomed romance, the car speeding in the tunnel, the calling out for a doctor amongst the flames.

‘Dear, oh dear, where’s a doctor when you need one?’ is what my boyfriend, Steve, said at the time of the crash. We were lying in bed watching the events unfold on the television. ‘Mind you, seeing as you two were so close, maybe you’ll be invited to the funeral. You could represent the medical profession,’ he added sarcastically, reaching over to the bedside table to put out his cigarette.

‘I knew it, I knew it would happen,’ I said.

‘Of course you did, Nostradamus,’ he replied.

‘What is wrong with you?’ I pleaded.

He just got out of bed, put on his clothes, packed his case, and walked out of the room. I was watching her body silently arrive in the white ambulance at the hospital entrance when he closed the front door.

‘Hope you get lung cancer, Steve,’ I thought.

I did write and tell Suzie and the gang about meeting Diana I think, but I didn’t write for a long time after she died. I was mourning I guess. Not for a friend, I wouldn’t presume to have been that, but for a beautiful icon. It was soon after her death that I took up my research post near where the bombs would go off.  The authorities were impressed by my medical qualifications and references; and so they should have been, I paid enough for them. Sick joke, I know, but what’s a girl to do? And I was a very clever girl – father would have been proud – I mean I was better, more efficient, maintained better clinical practice than most of the qualified slobs around me. I was respected, given consistent praise, and soon gained promotion. But I had to be careful: one night I went to a pub with my lab colleagues, and there, a year since he walked out, was Steve in the corner with his porter mates from the hospital.  Steve didn’t see me, and I made my excuse – ‘I have a sudden, powerful migraine’ – and left.

‘You get lot of headaches,’ my line manager told me later. ‘You need to de-stress, take things easier.’

‘Thank you, I’m fine,’ I said.

‘Is there anything worrying you; anything you’d like to talk about?’ she asked.

‘Not with you, you cow,’ I thought.

‘Things okay at home?’ she persisted.

‘Really fine,’ I said.

‘How’s your boyfriend? We’ve never met him: a surgeon in Wales isn’t he?’

I tried to picture useless Steve in green theatre garb. Tried to imagine his London pub drawl becoming intelligent, mouth contorting, and slightly welsh – if there is such a thing – but it was no good.

‘He died last year,’ I said.

‘Oh my God, Katie, you poor thing. How . . .’

‘How did he die? He fell out of a tree on an assault course. He was a Colonel in the Territorial Army.’

‘A Colonel?’

‘Yes, he was very brave. He was due to spend time in Iraq.’

‘I didn’t now the Territorials served out there’.

Time to rein it in, but time also for one more explanation:     ‘In Emergencies, the highest ranks, those with specialist expertise.’

‘Well, he was a Colonel and a surgeon, so he must have been invaluable. What a loss. I mean what a loss for you  . . . and for them.’

I hoped she wasn’t going to add ‘what a loss for the country’. She didn’t, but my head was bursting with all the effort of keeping her at bay. I wanted to bayonet her, to shut her up, but she let me off with a sad, slightly quizzical smile, and a ‘you will come and see me if you need anything, won’t you?’

I retrieved the bayonet from her head and exited the room.

Soon after that I had three weeks off with a suspected brain tumour. Didn’t want any visitors in hospital, but received some lovely cards at home. Margaret, the cow, arranged a bouquet of flowers from everyone in the lab. When I returned to work I wore a scarf on my head and sunglasses over my eyes.

My colleague, Bernard, who has shingles, said I looked like Greta Garbo. Soon everyone, including me, forgot all about the tumour.

Immediately after the bomb went off, the injured were taken either to hospital or a local hotel for assessment. I helped in the hotel where I could. Sometimes it was enough to sit and hold someone’s hand or make them a cup of tea. Occasionally I found a quiet moment to prescribe a painkiller or a tranquilliser. I’ll admit I broke one or two pills into their tea before they asked but only to stop the shaking and crying. I didn’t tell anyone; the ordinary public don’t understand the notion that, though principles are important, protocol is open to interpretation in extraordinary times – and a bomb going off certainly qualifies as one of those times.

The day after I cut short my interview with the Mail on Sunday, the same reptile reporter followed me to my flat.

‘Let’s get a few things straight. According to your previous statements, you were working in the laboratory when the bomb went off. You then nursed some of your injured colleagues.’

‘I assessed them for the severity of their injuries, yes.’

‘I’m sorry, you assessed them for the severity of their injuries, and yet still had time to run the five hundred yards from your workplace, in time to make it into the square to see the bomber running away from the smouldering bus?’

‘I never said smouldering; I never said that.’

‘Also, a few people attending the injured at the hotel have reported you acting in an inappropriate way.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Are you qualified to prescribe medicines, Miss Holt?’

‘Are you qualified to speak to me like that?’

‘Because I’ve been looking into things, and there is no record of a Miss Holt gaining doctor’s, let alone medical research qualifications.’

‘You’re giving me a headache’

‘Come on Katie, we’ve tracked down your mother in Romney and she’s told us all about you.’

‘My parents are dead; my father was a retired Salvation Army surgeon and my mother was his nurse.’

‘Steven Forbes, your ex-partner, has been very forthcoming, too.’

‘His cancer wasn’t terminal then?’

When the journalist interrogated me, I was mesmerised and stung by the energy of his gaze. I had the same feeling at school assembly when our headmistress, or the Witch as we christened her, stared into our masses to seek out a guilty talker who’d broken the one minute silent prayer; I came over all dizzy and felt the heat of guilt send blood flushing into my cheeks and neck, even though I hadn’t uttered a syllable.

‘Tell-tale flaming roses of the anti-Christ,’ my father, who was actually a retired parson, called them.

Sometimes I held up my arm as the other girls sniggered, to confess that it was me who had spoken.

‘Katie, put your frigging hand down,’ urged Suzie.

‘Not you again, Miss Holt,’ bellowed the Witch.

Always confessing but not to a tacky journalist; he doesn’t know everything – I was brought up in Australia, for instance. Shame about Anthony though: he was stolen by a dingo near Ayers Rock. You probably read about it in the papers. It’s what tipped mum over the edge; that and being married to dad and having me as a child.

One of my favourite things since the papers started printing lies and calling me ‘the tragic Miss Mitty’ has been to read the cheap glossy mags – they’re not so concerned with creating news or destroying peoples’ lives, and their lies are more harmless. I mean they spread lies and rumours that might accidentally turn out to be true; and we all know it’s a game, but who cares? Is Robbie Williams gay? Talented? Don’t care either way. I like filling in the Celebrity Q&A’s for myself. They have them in the quality Sunday magazines, too.

Car? A Renault Clio for Woman’s Realm, a bright red 4×4 Jeep for Heat, and a Mercedes with a ‘kiss and tell’ chauffeur for the Sunday Times.

Favourite food?  Spaghetti with clams and chilli tomato sauce (my grandparents are from Naples where the recipe originates).

Favourite Area in London?  The River Thames. All of it, darling.

Favourite restaurant?  Has to be the Ivy; the table by the rear window.

There is no rear window at the Ivy. That snake-journalist again, creeping doubts into my head and making it swell.

Sex in public? Only when I leave the curtains open.

There will be bars, not curtains, where you’re going.

Shut up, please, or play the game and ask a proper question.

Why do you tell all these lies?

Okay, wrong question – ask me another like that and I’ll silence you for good – I’ll tell you what you want if you leave me alone.

I’m so tired. I draw my curtains to lie low from the siege. A pill (or two) for the pain, his voice is quietened, and my head is in orbit.

Sleep is heaven but times and places there are confused. The first person I meet is my father. He’s only part-time holy army and is still in his bloody surgeon’s clothes.

‘Don’t, you’ll spoil my dress.’

‘You never did like affection.’

‘And you never gave it when I wanted you to.’

‘Katherine, we weren’t living in a soap opera. You were just too difficult. When I sat you on my lap in the car and pointed out things, you’d never repeat back what I told you like other children did. If I pointed out a bridge, you’d call it a river.’

‘But there was a river, and it went under the bridge.’

‘Too much water has passed under the bridge, you’re right.’

‘That’s not what I meant, Dad.’

But he’s gone; typical. He was wrong about not being in a soap opera though: he’s as stupid and banal up here as he was in life.

I want to wake up and have someone soothing to ask me a question: someone like Martin Bashir (before he became a snake) when he interviewed Diana.

‘What is your favourite colour, Katie?’

‘Easy one: blue.’

‘What did you want to be when you were a child?’

‘To be a doctor and save lives.’

‘Did you achieve your ambition?’

‘Can I change my previous answer before I reply?’

‘You can do anything you like’

‘Thank you for that. My teacher thought I was a good storyteller; and before you ask the question again, I think did okay.’

In the morning, the reporter and his photographer are still waiting outside my flat. I use the fire escape at the back of the flats and take a route through Regent’s Park.

I take the park exit near Camden and buy a ticket for the over ground train. When I find the hospital and the ward, a nurse tells me he’s in the garden. I see an elderly man with a huge white bandage across one half of his face – the right side – sitting on a bench under a large tree, smoking a cigarette.  He looks up, one eye blinking at me.

‘My wonderful Katie,’ he says.

I stare at his face.

‘It’s you, of course it is: you saved my life,’ he says patting the space on the bench next to him.

‘I was never a doctor,’ I reply, accepting his invitation to sit down.

‘You saved my life, that’s what matters’ he says, squeezing my hand in his. ‘Can I do anything for you? I’d like to be able to repay you in some way.’

‘Can I tell you something?’ I ask.

‘Let me buy you a coffee in the canteen, and you can tell me anything you like,’ he replies.

 

*

 

*Storyteller was shortlisted in the final four stories of the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Short Story Competition

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