Restrained – a drabble

restrained

I watched my knuckles turn white as I gripped the arm of my chair.

Feeling tense and unhappy, I decided that this time would be different. I’d make my feelings known instead of just suffering in silence as usual.

He was a nice enough guy and everything — don’t get me wrong. We’d talked earlier and got a rapport going.

But afterwards, I was as disappointed and unsatisfied as ever. This time I would strike a blow for womankind…

“How’s that?” he asked, “are you happy?”

“Perfect thanks,” I lied, and gave a generous tip as I left the hair salon.

 

Hiding places, hidden spaces

hut

Didn’t we all love making hiding places or dens when we were children?

I graduated from a blanket draped over a couple of chairs when I was a toddler, to a shed-come-clubhouse in a neighbour’s garden at seven, to a tepee-like construction in some nearby woods by the time I was ten.

I’ve always been fascinated by creating little secret hideaways.

There’s something magical and exclusive about hiding away — but it didn’t always have to be alone. It was often most fun when a couple of friends joined in and we all brought food and drinks begged or pilfered from home. Strawberry jam sandwiches, apples and bottles of flat, unfizzy lemonade took on a special charm when shared illicitly, far from the grown-ups’ eyes.

Children’s literature is scattered with such hideouts — some of my favourites were Stig’s den in the dump, The Five Find-Outers’ clubhouse and Jennings’ Little Hut.

I remember adoring a TV programme in the 1970s called The Double Deckers, where the local kids hung out in — you guessed it — an old red London double-decker bus, in an unused junkyard.

And then I discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s The Three Investigators and I was in heaven. These guys were the epitome of cool! Jupiter Jones’ aunt and uncle owned a salvage business, if I remember rightly, and the three boy investigators had a secret den hidden deep under the scrap and bric-a-brac. Wow!

Anyway, you get the picture. I’m sure you had your favourites, too, both from books and television programmes and from your own childhood. You may not have thought about them for years. Did you have secret passwords to gain access? Can you recapture the excitement you felt?

And now, even though I’m (supposedly) grown up, with grown up kids, I still can’t resist a bit of a hideaway.

When we moved home a couple of summers ago, we needed to have a new central heating system installed, and we waved goodbye to a huge old Mexicana boiler housed in a cupboard in the dining room.

My husband thought we’d turn it into a linen cupboard.

But I had a much better idea.

After a bit of cajoling, he agreed to build me a Book Nook, and it’s one of my favourite spots to sit and read now. All my favourite books migrated from my bookshelves to the specially built shelves in the Book Nook, and I had so much fun choosing cushions and running fairy-lights around the shelves.

It’s now a favourite spot for young visitors to sit and share a picture book (when I let them…) and I hope it starts them on their own road to a love of hideaways.

And although we have two empty bedrooms in our house, only occupied occasionally by student sons, and both of these rooms have desks and computers where I could sit and write to my heart’s content, guess where I end up?

In a newly painted shed at the bottom of the garden, complete with comfortable armchair and writing desk.

I guess I still can’t resist hiding myself away and waiting for the magic to happen.

Despair

sad girl

Awake at 4am, scrolling idly through Facebook, I find a nightmare post from my friend Kitty.

She longs to return to five years old, be safe and loved, and get life right this time. But since she can’t, she’s done with everything, will haunt anyone who dares call her selfish, and we should all pursue what makes us happy.

No reactions, no comments — only me awake.

I dress, drive round, hammer on her door. No answer. I call the police and ambulance.

Kitty’s in hospital now, barely alive.

If she survives, it’s my responsibility — will she forgive me?

1974

monk

1974

Polly woke to the sound of tent pegs being hammered into the ground. She lay still for a moment and then excitement rose in her chest. She flew out of bed and down the stairs in her pyjamas, to find Mum standing cradling a mug of tea in the kitchen.

Dad’s back,” Mum said.

Polly whooped with delight and shot straight past Mum, out of the kitchen door and into their back garden.

Glad someone’s happy,” muttered Mum.

Polly raced across the lawn – there was Dad, just finished putting up a small tent at the bottom of the garden. Polly launched herself at him and he picked her up and swung her round,

My little chickpea! How I’ve missed you,”Dad hugged her tight.

Are you back from Tibet to stay, Daddy?”

Well, I’m back for now,” he said, depositing her gently on the grass. “And I have a friend I want you to meet.”

Polly’s eyes widened as a bald-headed man in orange coloured robes emerged from the tent.

Are you from Tibet?” she asked. “Are you a monk? Daddy went to Tibet to become a Buddhist monk.”

The bald-headed man smiled,

Not quite Tibet, but I am a monk. I’m from Hemel Hempstead.”

Dad scratched his head and Polly thought he looked like she did when she was caught doing something naughty.

I didn’t get quite as far as Tibet, chickpea,” he explained. “I met Ajahn Bhikkhu at the Sangha in Hertfordshire. And he has agreed to be my spiritual teacher.”

Do you know the Eightfold Path?” Polly asked Ajahn Bhikkhu. “Right understanding, right speech-”

Polly, Polly, stop!” said Dad. “You know Mum doesn’t like it when you do that.”

And I know the Four Noble Truths,” Polly continued to Ajahn Bhikkhu. “Daddy taught them to me. Suffering exists and-”

Polly!” yelled Mum, appearing at the kitchen door. “Get yourself in this house at once and eat your breakfast. You’ve got school today.”

Better go, chickpea,” Dad said, pulling a face. “You don’t want to make Mum cross.”

Ajahn Bhikkum watched the little exchange quietly, a smile on his face, as Polly groaned and slunk back up the garden path into the house.

Oh Mummy!” she complained. “I was talking to Daddy and the monk about the Four Noble Truths.”

Not another word,” said Mum, setting a bowl of breakfast cereal down on the table in front of her daughter. “What on earth the neighbours are making of this, I don’t know. Your father disappears for two months in the camper van and then comes back with a Buddhist monk in tow. And now pitching a tent for him next to the greenhouse! It’s so embarrassing.”

Well then, can’t he stay in the house, Mummy?” said Polly.

Certainly not! Goodness knows who he is or where he’s been.”

He’s Ajahn Bhikkhum and he’s from Hemel Hempstead,” said Polly.

Mum choked on her tea,

That’s typical of your father. Says he’s off to Tibet and gets as far as Hertfordshire!”

Polly jumped up from the table and threw her arms around her mother’s waist.

Oh please, Mummy, please let me have the day off school today? It’s Friday anyway, nearly the weekend, and I haven’t seen Daddy for ages. Isabel Cartwright was allowed to stay off when her dog had puppies and I think this is much more important.”

No way, Polly. School is the best place for you today, while I try to get this nonsense sorted out. And don’t you say a word about this to anyone.”

Polly sighed, took her seat and started ladling Rice Krispies into her mouth. Grown-ups were so unreasonable. Couldn’t Mummy see this was the most exciting thing that had happened since Johnny Davison’s Dad was arrested for shoplifting? Not mention it at school? – she was clearly crazy.

`* * *

With Polly safely dispatched to school, Josie decided it was time to tackle her prodigal husband about the whole Buddhist monk situation. This was certainly turning out to be one of the more surreal Friday mornings of her life. She waited until they had finished meditating – at least, she supposed that’s what they were doing, sitting cross-legged on the grass with their eyes closed – and then made her way down the garden to them.

“Right,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm, “I want to know exactly what is going on here.”

“Josie, I’d like to introduce you to Anjahn Bhikkhum. He is a Buddhist monk and my spiritual teacher,” said Dave.

Josie paused, determined to remain polite,

“Good morning, Anjahn.How odd to meet you next to my greenhouse. I’ve never met a Buddhist monk before, so I hope what I’m going to say won’t cause you any offence. But I have to tell my husband that I’m absolutely bloody furious with him,” she took a deep breath.

“Now, Dave” she continued. “Would you please tell me what the hell you think you’re playing at? You sneak away in the dead of night, leaving just a note to say you’re off to Tibet to find spiritual enlightenment. Which may involve becoming a Buddhist monk. Did you forget you were married, with a child? How do you suppose I felt, reading that, and explaining it to Polly? Not to mention our families, our friends, the neighbours, and your boss – oh, you’re fired by the way. But I have managed to continue paying the mortgage while you were gone. Did you think about any of this? Or do you just not care?” her voice rose, “Do tell me. I’d really like to know.”

“Please calm down, Josie-” started Dave.

“And do NOT tell me to calm down! When, in the history of the world, has telling someone to calm down ever actually calmed them down? How dare you!”

Dave reddened and Anjahn Bhikkhum spoke,

“Is it true, David? That you left without discussing your plans with your wife? You told me you had the backing of your family.” He looked steadily at Dave, who bowed his head and muttered,

“Well, I didn’t want a scene.”

“Ha!” said Josie, “Didn’t want a scene? As opposed to what…coming back now with a Buddhist monk? That was going to be just fine and dandy, was it? You’re a coward, Dave!”

There was silence as all three of them considered Dave’s deception. Anjahn Bhikkhum spoke again,

“David, you cannot hope to find truth and peace within yourself while practising deceit and suffering. I would not have made you my disciple and come here with you had I known your wife was not in agreement with your quest.”

“Well, I’m sure that’s exactly why he didn’t tell you,” snapped Josie. “Wasn’t it,, Dave? Do enlighten us?”

Dave shook his head,

“I just needed to find myself. Modern life is meaningless. I want something more, something deeper. And I’m sorry that I’ve been less than truthful. But I thought you knew that I was unhappy. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” he looked at his wife. “I do love you . And Polly. But I just can’t keep living like this – work, a mortgage, the pub, television every night. I hoped you would understand.”

Josie clenched her fists and stared up at the sky, willing herself to speak calmly and hold back the tears,

“I might have understood, if you’d talked to me properly. You can’t just run away from things, Dave. You left me to cope with everything – and it’s not fair.”

She scrambled to her feet and stalked back up the garden path.

“I’m sorry,” Dave called after her.

There was no reply.

“I really am,” he said to Ajahn Bhikkhum. “What should I do? Help me.”

Anjahn Bhikkhum sighed,

“We have a lot of work to do.”

* * *

Josie stirred her tea and thought about the conversation in the garden. He was hopeless! Absolutely infuriating! She should have seen the warning signs when he started teaching Polly the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, let alone when he’d talked to her about the Five Moral Precepts.

Don’t start blaming yourself and making excuses for him, she thought crossly, taking a gulp of supposedly calming camomile tea. How was she to know that he was really unhappy? She’d thought the nine to five humdrum was just getting to him – didn’t everyone feel that way? Everyone in Milton Keynes, anyway? Didn’t they all feel unfulfilled, herself included? When he’d started taking an interest in Eastern philosophies – well, to be honest, she’d found it quite endearing. Dave had never been a macho man, into cars and football, or betting on the horses. That gentle nature was one of the things she’d loved about him when they met – it made him stand out from the crowd. He was a thoughtful and kind person.

She sighed.

But really? To run off in the night to become a Buddhist monk? Was she really so unapproachable that he couldn’t at least talk to her first?

A tear splashed into her tea, followed by another.

What a mess.

* * *

Anjahn Bhikkum and Dave talked and meditated for hours. At first Dave asked repeatedly,

“What should I do?”

and Ajahn Bhikkhum replied,

“Meditate and be calm. I cannot tell you what action you should take. You know that Buddhism is about self-enlightenment. You will find the right answer.”

“I know, I know,” said Dave.

Silence.

Then,

“But what do you think I should do?”

Anjahn smiled,

“David. Breathe. Go deep within yourself. Be still. You will find your own pathway.”

Dave tried to clear his mind but he just kept seeing Josie’s tearful face and Polly’s delight at seeing him again.

“I’m a fool,” he said.

“You are human,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum. “But you are learning.”

The two men were silent.

* * *
Saturday dawned bright and sunny and Polly bounced into her mother’s bedroom, pulling open the curtains,

“Mummy, look, the weather is lovely – how lucky!”

Josie fumbled for the clock by her bed,

“What? What time is is?” her mouth was dry and she saw it was just after eight am.”And why lucky?”

“Our BBQ of course!” said Polly, “Silly Mummy!”

Josie sat bolt upright and gasped. No! She had indeed, in an act of “life-must-go-on-even-though-my-husband-has-walked-out-on-me” defiance, invited around fifty people to a BBQ in her garden that afternoon. She had completely forgotten, with Dave and his orange-clad monk turning up out of the blue.

“Oh, Polly! why didn’t you remind me last night? It’s too late to cancel it now!.”

“I forgot,” said Polly airily, as only an eight year old can. “And besides, you know about it, Mummy – you arranged it.”

Josie groaned, envisaging a garden crowded with friends, family and neighbours, and a Buddhist monk. And before that, a mad dash around the supermarket to buy meat and booze.

“You’d better go wake Daddy up and tell him I need his help,” she told Polly. “He’s sleeping in the spare room.”

* * *

Dave left Ajahn Bhikkhum to meditate on his own by the greenhouse while he helped Josie and Polly prepare for the afternoon’s event. Truth be told, after his initial annoyance, he quite enjoyed the morning with his wife and daughter as it passed in a blur of shopping and tidying the garden.

Maybe he’d missed domesticity a tiny bit after all? he thought.

By 2pm when their guests started to arrive, everything was ready.

“Great teamwork,” he smiled at Josie and Polly, and his heart jumped as he looked at them and realised how much he loved them both. Could he really abandon all of this?

The afternoon was soon in full swing.

Dave declined to cook meat on the barbecue, because of his new-found vegetarianism, so Josie’s father and brother were busy with burgers, sausages, and the like.

Dave also declined to get everyone a drink, having given up alcohol too, so Josie ran about making sure everyone had beer or wine. It was a seemingly never-ending task.

And while the guests had been surprised to see Dave as they arrived, they were even more surprised to see Ajahn Bhikkhum, cross-legged on the grass in the entrance to his tent. Questions flew at Dave about where he’d been, why he wasn’t eating meat or drinking beer, and whether he was really going to be a Buddhist monk. And Josie’s mother, unimpressed by his lack of hosting, collared an embarrassed Dave about exactly where he thought Josie and Polly fitted into his new Buddhist lifestyle.

Unsatisfied with his evasive answers, and full of wine-fuelled Dutch courage, Josie’s mother made her way tipsily to Ajahn Bhikkhum and plonked herself down on the grass next to him.

“Good afternoon, Father,” she hiccoughed. “No offence intended, but if you are a religious man, surely you can’t agree with Dave abandoning his wife? Would he have to get divorced to become a monk? That can’t be right.” She fixed Ajahn Bhikkhum with a hard stare.

“Please, call me Bhante,” said Ajahn Bhikkhu. He paused to think, and then said, “Buddhism is concerned with the spiritual. Marriage and divorce are secular matters. I cannot speak on them.”

“Well, that’s very convenient, isn’t it?” said Josie’s mother. “But can’t you help Dave to see sense, get them back together?”

“I cannot act as a conduit between a man and a woman,” said Ajahn Bhikkhum gently. “My philosophy forbids it. David and Josie must find their own paths.”

Josie’s mother snorted with disgust and scrambled to her feet,

“Well, much use you’ve been. Give me an old-fashioned vicar any day.”

She weaved her way back up the garden, and Ajahn Bhikkhum bowed his head in thought. He was interrupted a little while later by a plate of sausages and chicken legs being pushed under his nose.

“Here, Father,” said the man, who was a neighbour, “You must be starving. Get your chops round these.”

Ajahn Bhikkhum tried not to recoil at the meat being waved in front of him,

“Thank you, but I do not eat between noon and sunrise.”

“What, never? That’s ridiculous,” said the man, laughing.

“It is my custom,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum mildly.

“But surely, all this lovely meat…” the man continued to wave it at him.

“I do not eat meat, thank you,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum. “Please, do not trouble yourself about me. I am fine.”

“Suit yourself,” said the man. “Just trying to be friendly.”

He had only just gone when yet another guest appeared, holding out a glass of wine,

“I couldn’t imagine you drinking beer, but I thought you might like some wine – you know, like communion wine,” the woman said, smiling.

“Thank you, but no,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum

“Ah, go on,” she urged. “One won’t do any harm. I won’t tell!”

“Again, no thank you. I do not drink intoxicating liquids,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum.

The woman shrugged and left. Anjahn Bhikkhum decided it would be better if he retreated into his tent and spent the rest of the afternoon in quiet meditation.

The day wore on, more alcohol flowed, and as the afternoon became evening, the guests became more vocal and more obnoxious. Dave hovered anxiously near the tent, trying to keep the curious away from his spiritual teacher.

Then one of Josie’s particularly inebriated colleagues staggered down the garden towards the tent, shouting,

“Oi, monk. Monk! Come out of there!”

When there was no response, the man continued,

“Oi, monk-ee, monk-ee – ha ha, monkey! Come on out! What do you wear under that dress? Is it like a Scotsman with his kilt?”

There was much laughter from the sozzled crowd on the lawn, and two or three more took up the call,

“Oi, monk-ee! Monk-ee! Come on out!”

Dave looked anguished and started towards Josie’s colleague with his arms outstretched in appeal,

“Please, Bob, have some respect. Anjahn Bhikkhum is my spiritual teacher.”

This was met with a chorus of laughter and catcalls, and Bob, obviously playing to his audience now, was about to say something else when a voice cut through the noise,

“Stop it, at once. That’s enough. Have you no decency?”, everyone turned to see the normally mild Josie, red in the face and angrier than anyone could ever recall seeing her. Polly was by her side, holding her mother’s hand, with tears sliding down her cheeks.

“It’s time everyone was going. That’s right. All of you. Would you please go? – now!”

There was a stunned silence, and then some muttering and quite a bit of swearing. But the assembled guests, encouraged by the more decent human beings among them, began to disperse – some with apologies to Josie and Polly and Dave for the general behaviour.

“It’s just the alcohol talking,” said one man, as if this made everything okay.

Josie stood in silence until the last person had disappeared around the front of the house, and then went to Dave.

“I’m so, so sorry that they behaved like that. I wouldn’t have put your friend through that for all the world, if I’d known.”

“I know,” said Dave, taking his wife in his arms. “It’s not your fault.”

“I never realised how small-minded some of our friends are,” Josie continued, shaking her head.

Dave was silent.

“Is this what you’ve seen in them? Is this what’s been bothering you,” she asked.

He sighed, “Partly. I suppose…I suppose I just think our way of life is..shallow. I just needed to find something…more. Something meaningful.”

There was a pause. Polly had wandered over to the table and was helping herself to the leftover food.

“But do you still love me?” asked Josie, looking Dave straight in the eyes.

“Of course I do. You and Polly are my world. But I was stifled, suffocated. And I thought you were happy here, living like this.”

“I thought I was, too,” Josie answered. “But I missed you so much. And today…well…it’s made me realise that I might need more than this too.”

On cue Anjahn Bhikkhum appeared from the tent and walked to the middle of the lawn, clearing empty cans and beer bottles out of the way with his feet as he went,

“Josie, David…please…come sit with me,” he asked.

They followed, and sat down on the grass with him. He regarded them steadily.

“Please understand, I cannot tell you what you should do,” he said. “But if you will allow it, I would like to tell you what I know and what I have observed.”

Josie nodded,

“Go on, please.”

“First, if you become a Buddhist monk, David, you will have to sever ties with your wife, and treat her, at most, as a sister.”

Dave bowed his head and squeezed Josie’s hand.

“And second, David, I can see that you love your wife. And that separation from her and from Polly would cause all of you pain.”

Dave and Josie nodded.

“That is something that only you can decide. But there are some things I want to tell you, that may help you. A Buddhist is someone who Goes for Refuge – to the Buddha, to the Dharma and to the Sangha. A Buddhist is someone who accepts Buddha as their spiritual guide, who does their utmost to understand and practise Buddha’s teachings, and who looks for inspiration or guidance on these teachings to those followers of Buddha who are more spiritually advanced than themselves.”

Ajahn Bhikkhu paused to let this sink in.

“Going for Refuge does not mean running away. Or seeking escape from the realities of life through pseudo-spiritual fantasies,” he regarded Dave calmly. “Going for Refuge means accepting that permanence and pure bliss and beauty are not to be found in mundane existence.”

He looked around the garden, and Dave and Josie followed his gaze, and saw the lawn strewn with empty bottles, and the plates with huge quantities of uneaten meat.

“And Going for Refuge means realising that one must transition to a transcendental Nirvanic realm.”

Josie shifted uncomfortably – this talk of Nirvanic calm was very odd.

“What I am trying to explain,” Anjahn Bhikkhum continued, “is that commitment is primary, and lifestyle – that is, whether you choose to live as a monk or a nun, or as a layman or laywoman – is secondary. It is not that lifestyle is unimportant. But it is less important than the commitment of Going for Refuge – that is the central defining act of a Buddhist life.”

He paused, and then went on,

“And Going for Refuge is not done in isolation. It is done in the company of others also going for Refuge, in a wider spiritual community”

There was silence for some minutes. Josie looked at Dave. Then Dave said,

“So you are telling me that I can be a good Buddhist without becoming a Buddhist monk And that I do not have to do this alone.”

Ajahn Bhikkhum closed his eyes and smiled,

“I am saying that there are different paths to enlightenment, and that only you can determine which is the right path for you.”

There was silence again, broken only by Polly wandering over with a burger in one hand and a bottle of coke in another,

“I feel sick, Mummy,” she said.

Josie pulled Polly down onto the grass next to them and put her arm round the little girl.

“I think we need to do some talking, ” said Dave.

“Talking is long overdue, Dave” said Josie. “Ajahn Bhikkhum, I think I’ve had a moment of epiphany today. I’ve realised that we can choose our own paths in life – that we don’t have to continue in the groove we’re in, just because that’s where life has accidentally led us. I don’t know that I’ll ever become a Buddhist, but I do know that I want to open my mind and experience some different things.”

Ajahn Bhikkhum smiled. Dave hugged her in delight.

“And would you…could you…possibly think about us leaving Milton Keynes and travelling around?”, asked Dave, holding his breath, eyebrows raised.

“You still want to go to Tibet in that campervan, don’t you?” asked Josie, smiling.

“Well, maybe further than Hemel Hempstead this time,” agreed Dave. “But avoiding the pseudo-spiritual hippie trail,” he assured Anjahn Bhikkhum, who merely shrugged and smiled.

“Hmm. Let me think. Working in an office in Milton Keynes, or travelling with my husband and daughter…?” Josie laughed. “I think we both know the answer to that.”

“Do you feel like an adventure, chickpea?” Dave asked Polly, who was now lying flat on her back looking up at the stars.

“Will I get some time off school?” Polly asked.

“Yes!” her parents answered, in unison.

“Then let’s go” said Polly.

* * *

2017

The road between Shalu and Nartang, which follows the ancient trade route between two great Buddhist monasteries, passes through a handful of villages as well as dry, deserted canyons. There is something spiritual about making the trek along this road and being mindful of the caravans loaded with scriptures and treasures that once travelled it. Guides can be hired locally – people who know the area well, and who have a spiritual understanding of their surroundings. One of the best guides, somewhat surprisingly, is an eccentric middle-aged English woman named Polly, who has lived in Tibet for more than forty years. Over the course of a two to three day trek under her guidance, she will tell you the story of  how her wonderful parents brought her there. And about how they are still living out their days together in happiness, seeking enlightenment.

* * * * *

 

Wishful thinking

 

wishful thinking1

It started out quite innocently, as these things often do. I thought I was lucky; life seemed to smile on me in small ways. Then I realised there was a pattern and that freaked me out a little. And now – well, let me explain.

When I was eight years old I was the second smartest girl in the class. Maria Hernandez always managed to do that little bit better than me. Her mother was a GP and her father was a top oncologist. For the record, my mother was a shop assistant and my father was a coal miner. Not that I’m saying my inferior intelligence was their fault. But still. I discovered a couple of years ago that Maria Hernandez went on to become one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons. I’m a teacher. As I said, there was no way I was ever going to outsmart Maria. How I envied her. How I wished she didn’t go to my school. And then one morning she came in and told us she was leaving; her father had got a new job at the other end of the country. She left two weeks later. Suddenly I was the smartest girl in the class. My eight year old self was delighted.

Fast forward five years to High School. I was one of the cleverest kids in our year. Three or four of us battled it out for top place in every subject and I was right up there with the best of them. But when the exam results came in, this one boy, Frederick Bosomworth, always managed to win the First in Year prize, leaving me in second place. How I envied him. How I resented it when I heard one of our classmates say,

“Yeah, Judith’s smart. But we all know Fred’s smarter.”

I knew it was true. And I wished he would disappear, just like Maria Hernandez had. And then one day, he did. Just like Maria’s family, Fred’s family moved away. And I became First in Year. I felt so lucky.

It was different at university. I knew from the outset that there were lots of students smarter than me. I’d gone from being a big fish in a little pond to being a just another little fish. But we were all doing different assignments with different tutors, so it didn’t bother me too much. There was a whiny girl I didn’t like in my first year and she dropped out, and in my third year a real loud-mouth boy dropped dead while playing football. Turned out he had a hitherto undiagnosed genetic heart condition. But I wasn’t the only one who was glad about that. So university was pretty quiet and I didn’t really have to give much thought to any tiresome competition.

It was really once I’d been working for a few years, at three different schools, that I started to notice a pattern emerging. I would start a new job, settle in and like my new colleagues and pupils well enough. But you know how it is in life – there’s always that one person that you look at and think,

“It would be much better if they weren’t here.”

I found that, within three months tops, they would leave. Or sometimes die. Which of course was regrettable and a little freaky. But not my fault. I eventually confided a little of this to my colleague, Sue, who asked,

“You mean, you just have to wish someone would leave, and they go?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “It’s even vaguer than that. I just realise I’d be happier if they weren’t here…and one way or another, they…disappear.”

“You’re not bumping them off are you, Judith?” she laughed nervously.

“Ha ha! Of course not!” I said. “I guess I’m just lucky.”

“Lucky or disturbingly psychic,” Sue said, looking at me a little oddly.

Sue and I got on well – we both taught English, and we socialised outside of work together too. But then Sue started dating a lovely guy called Richard, and although I liked him a lot, it did alter things. He wasn’t particularly good-looking or rich, but he treated Sue really well. I watched them one night when a group of us were in the pub and I could see they were so happy together. I couldn’t help wishing he was my boyfriend – I was so tired of being on my own.

I swear that was all. I didn’t wish Sue away. And I definitely didn’t wish her any ill. But three days later Sue was killed outright in a car crash.

Richard was devastated. So was I, of course. He became a bit of a recluse, but I persevered in trying to help him through it and about six months after Sue’s death we started going out with each other. I didn’t tell him about this strange power I seemed to have. What could be gained by telling him that I might have caused Sue’s death? Or any of the other stuff I’ve told you about? He wouldn’t have believed me; he’d have thought I was crazy, or a monster.

Five years have passed since then. Richard and I are married with two lovely children. And I think the loss of Sue was worth it. I’ve come to terms with it. Apart from the unexpected disappearance of a midwife after the traumatic birth of my second baby, life has been pretty normal. I’ve had plenty of time to think about this gift of mine and it’s raised some interesting moral and ethical dilemmas. If you can bring about someone’s disappearance or death just by thinking of it, without having to take any physical steps to make it happen, are your hands still clean? Is it okay to wish it? I pondered this for a while.

And I came to the conclusion that the world needs me. I think I can use this gift for good. I asked myself who posed the biggest threat to civilisation at present. Who caused the Doomsday Clock to be moved forward, so that it was set at only two and a half minutes to global catastrophe? I turned my attention to President Donald J Trump, and – just to be bipartisan and unbiased – Dictator Kim Jong-un. Wouldn’t it be better and safer for mankind if these two guys didn’t exist? And if I could make this happen just by wishing it, would I really be guilty of any wrongdoing?

So I sat down and thought very hard about it. I simply thought how much better it would be if neither of them was around anymore. I didn’t exactly wish for them to die. And what happened? Well, as the world knows, Donald J Trump was found face down in his swimming pool, and Kim Jong-un was found face down in his morning bowl of congee. Within twenty four hours of me thinking about it. And I felt fine about it. Both were accidents and no-one had to assassinate them for the greater good.

The only downside was that I decided to tell Richard I was responsible for the deaths of the President and the Dictator. I wanted to be honest with him and I was curious to see his reaction. Annoyingly, he laughed at me. Then, when he saw I was serious, he explained calmly and logically, in that boring Richard way, that the laws of nature and the universe don’t work like that. That nobody can make things happen just by thinking about them. That I’m deluding myself if I think I’ve got that power. That frankly, he thinks I’m still suffering from post-natal depression.

So then I told him about all the others. Including Sue.

Big mistake.

He went white. Then he was sick.

He didn’t speak to me for three days.

And for the last week he’s alternated between yelling at me and telling me I need to see a psychiatrist. That I’m deluded, or evil, or both.

To be frank, he’s really starting to annoy me. And upset the children.

I’m kind of wishing he wasn’t here anymore.

 

Street Sentinels

 

streetsentinel

…so here we stand  arms upstretched come day or night or rain or snow or sun. unnoticed, us, full of beauty and life coursing through but on you go past us without glancing upwards. guarding night and day arms up to heavens unchanging and strong we do not yield to rain or wind except the fiercest storms when crack and splinter dark bark rent apart and unseen flesh and sap exposed. leaves and twigs on branch and furrowed scaly bark rough protection yet protection none when you come with axe or saw, though all my being strains to live I am powerless and cannot run but only stand and scream. all through night in dark and starry skies my arms still upstretched untiring against the moon while on you sleep uncaring and unknowing, unaware of strength and beauty and peace and wisdom outside your house and on your street and in your garden. your mind on petty everyday affairs your job your boss your sex life your new car your holidays and not a thought for oxygen and lungs and our breathing life for you our planet with green growth and shelter and food. but we breathe on through years decades centuries millennium outliving all mankind watching kings and queens and leaders presidents dictators generals armies rise and fall we live through all endure endure persist give life give breath heal each other. little you care of animals insects creatures so plants and trees still less, forests and jungles disappearing, breath choked out, gasping, wheezing un-lunged continents. my own part just to stand here on your corner, street corner, houses around cars passing by fumes choking but changing with seasons adding to your life if still unnoticed guarding street sentinel until you see me in the way and come to lop chop machete axe me down limbs severed butchered fall to ground and cleared away not even used as boat or chair or fuel just abandoned tipped landfilled lost and I scream and my brothers cry with me but still on we stand arms upstretched uncomplaining and changing yet unchanging wishing you well and saving you and unthanked we breathe on ..

Laurie had just sat down at her desk with a coffee and turned on the pc when she heard the truck pull up in the street outside her house. She looked up automatically and through the window saw two guys jumping out of the cab. Then she read the writing on the side of the truck,

Greenwood’s Tree Surgeons

She watched them lift a chainsaw each out of the back of the truck and advance on the two alder trees on the corner.

Stay calm, she instructed herself. They’re probably here to do a bit of maintenance work. But she abandoned her desk and coffee and hurried out down the driveway to speak to them.

“Good morning guys, what’s happening?” she said, smiling. “And can I make you both a cup of tea?”

The younger man glanced to his boss, who answered,

“Thank you kindly. Don’t mind if we do. But then it’ll be best if you keep clear, as we’re here to cut these trees down.”

Laurie gulped,

“Cut them down? Not just prune them?”

The man repeated,

“Cut them down. Council’s orders.”

Laurie felt herself go hot and cold all over and realised this called for reinforcements. She took off up the drive and back into the house, shouting back over her shoulder to lull them into a false sense of security,

“I’ll be right back with your teas…and some biscuits…”

She grabbed her mobile and called Bernadette, local busybody and head of the street’s elderly Neighbourhood Watch,

“Bernie, did you know anything about the council cutting down the alder trees outside my house?

……………………

“No, me neither. Well, there’s a couple of guys here now with their chainsaws.”

……………………

“Yes, yes, great idea. Bring as many as you can, and definitely Henry. I think I can stall them for ten minutes with tea. But hurry!”

Laurie rang off and set about making the promised drinks, dashing back to check through the window every couple of minutes that the men hadn’t started work. Fortunately, like most workmen employed by the council, they seemed happy enough to have a tea break before getting anything done.

Twenty minutes later the two workmen, whom Laurie had discovered were called Bob and Pete, were munching their way through a plate of chocolate digestives and swilling back industrial size mugs of tea. Laurie had heard from Bob about Bob’s wife and Pete’s pregnant girlfriend, Bob’s now grown-up children, said children’s ground-breaking university educations, (with a quick detour round his own uneducated parents’ hard life), his musically talented grandkids, his planned holiday in Tenerife, his vegetable allotment  and his general outlook on the Tory government. Pete meanwhile gazed up at the trees and munched away. No doubt thinking about his imminent fatherhood, thought Laurie.

Just as Bob took his last gulp of tea and set down his mug on the pavement, Laurie saw a small but bristling crowd turn into the end of the street. Bob followed her glance,

“Hey up,” he said. “What’s all this then?”

Laurie was relieved to see Bernadette at the helm, flanked by Henry and his wife Jean, with Susan, Beryl, James and a couple of others she didn’t know bringing up the rear. Laurie could almost see their metaphorical pitchforks being brandished in the air, and she was not alone.

“Quick, lad, back in the cab,” Bob told Pete, and then shook his head at Laurie as he climbed back in behind the wheel, “I thought you were being overly friendly. Stalling tactics was it? Typical.”

Laurie reddened but said in her defence,

“I always offer workmen a drink. We just don’t want you to cut our trees down.”

The two men were safely back in their truck by the time a breathless Bernadette and her posse reached them.

“Well done Laurie,” she slapped Laurie on the back. “So lucky you spotted them.”

There was a general murmur of assent and Henry, a retired solicitor, advanced on the truck’s cab and gestured to Bob that he should wind his window down. Bob hesitated and then valour overtook discretion and he complied.

“Good morning gentlemen,” Henry was politeness personified.”Will you tell me what you’re here for this morning, please?”

Bob reached inside his coat and Laurie wondered for a mad moment if he was going to pull out a weapon, but then, no…this was rural Thorpshire after all…he produced a folded bit of paper which he handed to Henry.

Henry studied it,

“What’s it say, what’s it say?” said Jean at his elbow.

Henry paused theatrically, adjusting his spectacles, then read from the letter,

“To Whom It May Concern. By order of Mablethorpe County Council, these trees are to be felled. On the advice of council arboreal experts…blah blah blah…inherent risk involved with retaining trees of this size in such close proximity to properties.

There have been a number of complaints recently…blah blah blah…. falling debris, damage to the carriageway, footpath and vehicles.

The trees are likely to become bigger and require more regular maintenance. They also have the potential to cause damage to property …blah blah blah….which is a significant likelihood due to the lack of adjacent screening to protect them from wind and the elements.

We believe the best option for the long-term maintenance of the area is to remove the two trees and re-plant with a more appropriate species for the area, ideally one with a smaller ultimate height.”

Henry folded the letter, slipped his specs back in their case and waited for a reaction.

There was a collective gasp from the neighbourhood watch brigade.

Beryl started crying,

“But these trees have been here nearly fifty years – they were planted when the estate was built.”

“How could anyone want to cut them down?” asked Susan. “They’re beautiful – and they have as much right to be here as we do.”

“A smaller ultimate height?” snorted Bernadette. “A shrub more like. Not on my watch!”

Returning the letter to Bob, Henry told him,

“There should, by law, have been a consultation period with residents.”

“Look, I don’t know anything about that, mate,” Bob said. “I’m just here to do a job.”

“Well, I’m afraid you won’t be cutting these trees down today,” said Henry, and with that he turned away from the truck and led his band over to the alder trees, where the residents joined hands and formed a circle around them. A couple of women started to sing,

“We shall not, we shall not be moved”

And although Laurie was one hundred percent behind the cause, she decided that this was a good time to go make another round of teas for everyone – including Bob and Pete, of course. Pete had his feet up on the dashboard now and was reading a newspaper, and Laurie was sure she overheard Bob on his mobile telling his council boss about a group of violent vigilantes preventing them from working.

The neighbourhood watch/vigilante party were just getting into their stride when Bob jumped out of his cab and addressed them,

“You win folks. Well, for today at least. We’ve been told to get off to our next job.”

A small cheer went up.

“I wouldn’t get too excited though. Mr Bryant at the council says he’ll be writing to residents and the work will be rescheduled within the next few weeks.”

“Not if we’ve got anything to do with it!” said Bernie, and Laurie could see her formulating plans for residents’ meetings, flyers, petitions on the high street, a sit in…Bernie would be in her element.

“Thanks for the teas, love,” Bob handed her their mugs back. “Sorry if I was a bit harsh earlier. We get a lot of abuse in this job. Nice old crowd you’ve got here, though. See you again soon, no doubt.”

Laurie thanked him and collected all the mugs in. She had a feeling she was going to be very busy over the next few weeks.

She looked over at the trees and smiled. They didn’t know how loved they were or what a narrow escape they’d had.

Oblivious.

…so here we stand arms upstretched come day or night or rain or snow or sun. noticed, us, full of beauty and life coursing through and on you go past us looking upwards. guarding night and day arms up to heavens unchanging and strong we do not yield to rain or wind except the fiercest storms when crack and splinter dark bark rent apart and unseen flesh and sap exposed. leaves and twigs on branch and furrowed scaly bark rough protection yet protection none when they come with axe or saw, though all my being strains to live I am powerless and cannot run but only stand and scream. and here you come caring and aware knowing our strength and beauty and peace and wisdom outside your house and on your street and in your garden. your mind on oxygen and lungs and our breathing life for you our planet with green growth and shelter and food. we breathe on through years decades centuries millennium outliving all mankind watching kings and queens and leaders presidents dictators generals armies rise and fall we live through all endure endure persist give life give breath heal each other. you care for animals insects creatures and plants and trees, forests and jungles lunged continents. my own part just to stand here on your corner, street corner, houses around cars passing by fumes choking but changing with seasons adding to your life noticed now guarding street sentinel until they see me in the way and come to lop chop machete axe me down limbs to sever butcher fall to ground and clear away and I scream and my brothers cry with me and you come save us help us brothers so still we stand arms upstretched uncomplaining and changing yet unchanging wishing you well and saving you and saving us we endure persist breathe with thanks breathe on...

A True Story

flying

Have you ever told somebody something and have them flat out not believe you? Isn’t it one of the most aggravating feelings in the world?

I remembered something the other day, and because it was such a cool and amazing thing, I had to interrupt the conversation I was having before I forgot about it.

I could tell right away the people I was talking to thought either:

a) I was joking
b) I was making it up
c) I’d been dreaming
or
d) I was crazy

It’s pretty bloody aggravating that, at age 47, I’m still failing to take the good advice of 17 year old Holden Caulfield, who said

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything.”

He’s completely right.

Because the worst part was, as I watched them not believing me, I started struggling to believe it myself.

Except I know it happened.

But even so my feelings changed from,

“I really did.”
to
“I’m sure I did.”
to
“Did I?”
to
“I can’t, can I?”

Hmm. Crushing disappointment.

I was now doubting the most exciting thing that had happened to me in…oh…decades…or possibly ever (pretty much).

And yet when I’d remembered it and told them, I’d been absolutely sure it had happened — I could still feel the sensation inside me.

You’re probably not going to believe me either, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

I can fly.

And because it really happened to me, I don’t even feel it’s such an amazing sentence to come out with — although on another level I recognise it sounds incredible. But, you see, it happened.

Yes. I can fly. Or rather, I flew. (I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again.)

It started with a slight bobbing motion. I was just in the kitchen at home having a clean up. I felt a little lightheaded, a tad floaty — like when you’ve taken migraine tablets and drank Red Bull at the same time. And then I was floating a little. Just a foot or two off the ground. And then right up to the ceiling. I noticed that the tops of the cupboards were thick with dust (well, who has time to dust the tops of cupboards?) I was pretty surprised, as you can imagine. And yet at the same time I had a feeling of inevitability about the whole thing. Like…of course…why have I never done this before?

So I tried a couple of small experimental swoops.

Wow.

And then I had a good fly around the kitchen, right up to the skylight.

Fantastic.

So then I decided to open the skylight and have a float outside. (The kitchen was feeling somewhat constricting.)

It was surprisingly cold outside and I dropped down a few feet so that I was just hovering over my back garden. I certainly didn’t want the neighbours to come out and spoil my fun.

Killjoys.

I got some excellent swooping movements in and the whole thing felt great, and as natural as walking — just more fun. Why had I waited so long?

After a while I decided I’d swoop along to the end of the street — to hell with the neighbours — and then I flew around over the woods that border our housing estate. It was wonderful — fresh air whooshing past me, trees below me — I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was worried at first in case anyone saw me, but I don’t think they did — people tend to keep their eyes fixed on the ground or just on what’s in front of them, in my experience.

It was fantastic fun, but after almost an hour I was pretty exhausted, so I turned and headed for home. I let myself back in through the skylight and landed in the kitchen safely. When I checked in the mirror, my hair was like a bird’s nest and my cheeks had a healthy glow. I’d been meaning to take up some exercise for years, and I reckoned this could be it — I certainly looked young and invigorated.

I was tired out though, so I decided to hell with the rest of the housework, I’d go lie down and have a nap to recover.

And I guess I just forgot about it. When I woke up, I had no memory of it.

That is, until just the other day, when I was sitting with my adult sons, and it came back to me in a rush, and I had to tell them.

But now, because they don’t believe me — and let’s face it, who can blame them? — I’m even beginning to doubt it myself.

Oh Holden, I should have listened to you.

 

A cheat for fiction writers: help with creating three dimensional characters

I want to tell you about a great website I’ve found called https://www.16personalities.com/ that’s really useful when you’re creating characters in your writing.

Although the purpose of the site is to test yourself and discover more about your personality and how to develop, the nice folk who have created it give a full breakdown of each personality type, including their:

strengths and weaknesses
romantic relationships
friendships
parenthood
career paths, and
workplace habits.

This means that you have details available to you about all of these different “characters”, no matter what your own result is.

Which, when you think about it, is really useful for us writers!

We can use the information and examples given to make sure our characters act in accordance with their personality in different situations. It’s invaluable in helping us make them credible and three dimensional. As authors, we may sometimes be out of comfort zone creating characters who are diametrically opposed to ourselves, but the last thing we want is for every character we create to be a cardboard copy of ourselves, or each other. And if you want to write believable baddies — how they act, what motivates them, what their weakness are — this site can really help.

I’m an introverted and intuitive personality type — INFP-T (and I think a lot of writers are INFP or INFJ personality types), so it’s been really useful in helping me to create an extrovert, logical and organised character (ESTJ type) in the novel I’m working on.

Most of us have heard of the Myers Briggs personality type indicator. The 16 Personalities site uses the acronym format introduced by Myers-Briggs but redefines several Jungian traits as well as introducing an additional one, bringing their test closer to the dimensions of the Big Five Personality traits. And instead of incorporating cognitive functions such as Extraverted Thinking or Introverted Sensing, they have chosen five personality aspects: Mind (how we interact with our surroundings), Energy (how we see the world and process information), Nature (how we make decisions and cope with emotions), Tactics (our approach to work, planning and decision-making), and Identity (how confident we are in our abilities and decisions).

I know, I know — this all sounds horribly complicated. Head over to https://www.16personalities.com and let the experts show you how it works, complete with lovely graphics!

If you’re still here and want a few more technical details, they divide their personalities into the familiar 16 acronym types, categorised by role (which shows goals, interests and preferred activities) and strategy (our preferred ways of doing things and achieving goals). There are four main categories — Analysts, Diplomats, Sentinels and Explorers — and each of these is subdivided into four types. For example, as an INFP-T I am categorised as a Diplomat and then as a Mediator. Here are the types by group:

Analysts
Architect INTJ (-A,-T), Logician INTP (-A,-T), Commander ENTJ (-A,-T), Debater ENTP (-A,-T)

Diplomats
Advocate INFJ (-A,-T), Mediator INFP (-A,-T), Protagonist ENFJ (-A,-T), Campaigner ENFP (-A,-T)

Sentinels
Logistician ISTJ (-A,-T), Defender ISFJ (-A,-T), Executive ESTJ (-A,-T),
Consul ESFJ (-A,-T)

Explorers
Virtuoso ISTP (-A,-T), Adventurer ISFP (-A,-T), Entrepreneur ESTP (-A,-T), Entertainer ESFP (-A,-T)

It makes for fascinating reading. But enough from me — go take a look. I hope you enjoy it and find it as useful as I have done!

https://www.16personalities.com/

Endings

My room is small. One shelf of books, one painting on the wall. They wouldn’t let me bring more – “no space” they said. Everything was sold or given away.

So here I sit each day, trying to see beyond my possessions that aren’t here, looking across to the window.

From my chair I can see the branches of the tree outside. Today the sky is white, the naked winter branches stark against it like jagged cracks in ice. It’s prettier in autumn when the leaves turn red and gold, and sometimes I’ll see a squirrel, but more often just birds. Autumn was always my favourite time of year. But my days of kicking through leaves in the woods are gone forever. Just like Alfred – long, long gone. We used to have such fun together – he always could make me laugh.

I miss him.

The winter he died was bleak. A bitter, unkind December. Too cruel for old bones. I was afraid to go outside in the snow and ice for fear of slipping and breaking something. How unusually prescient of me. And how sad at your love’s funeral, to be preoccupied by concern for yourself. Alfred would have understood though. He always got me.

And this is not such a bad place, for an old folks’ home.

But who’d have thought I’d end up here?

Alfred would weep to see me sitting alone, hour after hour – hands too arthritic to hold a pen or type, eyes too old and weak to read. At least I have my audio books to listen to – I went almost insane with boredom that day last week when they took my hearing aids to be repaired. And yet sometimes deafness can be a blessing! Like when they take me down into the television lounge to sit with all the half-dead who are half-watching those half-witted game shows. I just turn off my hearing aids and shut my eyes and soon I’m back with Alfred in the house by the lake we rent every summer.

I write, he paints, and every weekend brings fresh visitors, escaping from the city. They come bearing gifts of flowers and wine and treats from the deli that are impossible to get out in the sticks. These are the days of wine and roses that every artist dreams of – and we have them, Alfred and I. We have our art, and we have our friends, and most of all we have each other. We’re young and happy – love and friendship and the warmth of the sun envelop me…and then they wake me with a shake, and I’m back in this ancient body, and it’s time for tea.

No visitors here. Not for me.

No children, we decided. Our work and each other consumed us.

But now I’m reaping what we failed to sow. Most of our crowd are dead and buried – surviving to ninety eight has given me ghosts for friends. I always thought I’d live fast and die young, “go out in a blaze of glory”. Our friends were mostly tortured artists – they killed themselves, drank themselves into oblivion, or wrapped their cars round trees in drugged up accidents. “Tragic” the papers said and wrote some nonsense about the 27 Club. Some lived on, of course, like us – then got cancer, suffered strokes, had heart attacks. My heart broke when I lost Alfred, dead in his sleep at seventy five. I thought it was a terrible way to go – no chance to evaluate his life, no chance to say goodbye. Now I think he was the lucky one. I’ve been too long without him.

How much longer will I sit here, in this chair, looking out of this window? I struggle to remember how long I’ve been here…I broke my hip at ninety two…or was it ninety three?…it must be five years if it’s a day. And inside me there’s still the girl who never could sit still – I always ran and danced and loved and laughed. No more.

But still – this is not such a bad place, for an old folks’ home.

 

Impressions from a northern beach walk

 

1.

Foam-flecked, wind-swept,

White waves surging in.

Grey sky. Grey sea.

Cold wind assaulting ears.

 

Furrowed sand, wave-shaped.

Jumping dogs – tennis balls,

Seaweed wigs, paw prints.

Owner calls.

 

Broken sea birds:

Adult. Cormorant?

Upright. En garde. Shallow surf.

Snapping dogs.

Sharp teeth.

Flapping wings. Brutal beak.

No match.

“Fair game. Nature’s way.”

 

Stand back. Watch:

Desperate terror.

Heartburst. Death.

 

Then baby shore lark.

Fearless soft.  Green fluff,

Still cotton ball.

Lift away, leave sheltered.

Survive or die.

 

Walk on. God-like.

Nature behind.

Stuffy cafe. Sandwich. Hot tea.

Normality.

Then home.