Penny’s Desk

Penny was trying to tidy her desk of the piles of stuff that had accumulated since she last did any work. She felt she couldn’t deal with the task at hand until the desk was clear. She looked at the withered poinsettia her mother had given her at Christmas. Like her mother, it had died. This made it hard to throw the plant away. It was the last gift her mother gave her and during the rushes back and forth to the hospital she had neglected it. She shut her eyes a moment and then, closing her mind to sentimentality she tossed it into the bin.

     Next, she looked at the business cards she had carried in her wallet for years when visiting clients. She certainly didn’t need them anymore, though she was proud of the corporate title she had once achieved. Into the bin they went.

     The Tarot pack was gathering thick dust, she wiped it over and put it in the drawer. That Tarot pack had been useful when she was made redundant. It had boosted her income. She had never charged for a tarot reading in her life before, but needs must when the devil drives. Those readings had paid for her groceries for several weeks. She hoped she wouldn’t need to do that again, but the future is always uncertain. She placed the silver locket on top of the pack and closed the drawer.

     She shifted a pile of books and papers and discovered a pack of red hair-dye. That must be well out of date. She gave up dying her hair as soon as she left her job. It was a relief to be able to stop using the dye and watch the grey roots grow longer after she didn’t have to look presentable to clients anymore. Penny was not interested in being presentable these days. Another one for the bin.

1967

Her Pakistani boyfriend

held her sticky, sugared hand

as they jumped down off the bus.

The pavements rose to greet her

in blazing summer heat,

There in Clifton Road,

where the buses stopped

by Mrs. Morton’s sweet shop,

her mother’s weekly treat.  

Liquorice and gumdrops,

and everything that’s sweet.

An echo of her childhood.

The one she’s quickly lost. 

It was then she saw the faces

staring from the windows,

staring in the street.

Disapproval, shock.

She raised her chin defiant,

sweat trickling down her neck.

Little English girl in a flowery summer frock.

He was ten years older.

She looked older than she was.

‘Reach out I’ll be there’ he said.

He was gone within six months.

It was then her face, at first just ghostly,

Turned a whiter shade of pale.

She went off to the coast

And she’s never coming back.

Syringa – the white princess.

EPSON DSC picture

The rare smell of syringa drags me back in time to the path that ran through our garden beside a slope. A large syringa tree stood there. As summer ended it dropped damp blossoms all over the path making it slippery. I think it dropped catkins at another time of year, but I may be wrong. My grandfather said the tree had to come down. It was my favourite tree. Like a tall and slender, pretty friend. I begged mercy. Repeatedly and at length. But no. Down it came leaving only a stump in the bed of earth. I was disgusted and shocked. That was the first time someone destroyed a thing I loved.

     My grandad said I could make my own little garden around the stump. We planted primulas and a lot of other little bright flowers. I didn’t love them. I neglected them. That’s how life generally goes.

No Change

I thought he would never change, and I was right. It’s not that easy. Oh, I don’t deny he probably wanted to, well, at times. People say it’s about making new habits and discarding old ones. I expect that’s true on one level. But some habits come from deep rooted places.

     I know that as a child he had, oh, what’s that condition called? Ah yes, meningitis and his father used to hit him round the head with a plastic hairbrush. These days the news is full of the consequences or early head injury, aren’t they? And then of course he moved to the city as a child and at heart you could see he was a country boy. He was so much more relaxed away from towns. He was good with children, cats, horses, and plants. If he had been that nice to me, I would have thought I was in heaven. Instead, I lived in hell.

     People say it’s typical of me that I make excuses for him. It’s not excuses, it’s reasons. Knowing the reasons doesn’t mean that I think what he does to me is acceptable. It’s not. The problem is I can’t get away. People say leave. So naive. I have stopped telling them about it now. They don’t understand the problem.

In the bowl at Templeton Cove.

I am not at home. I have come here for peace and quiet. I hear the river lapping against the shore, a regular rhythm that doesn’t disturb. Dusk is falling. I hear an owl hoot, plaintive and musical. A dog barks in the distance. The only other sound it the tapping of my type-writer keys. Coffee, strictly too late for drinking stands on the desk close at hand. The smell of the beans I ground earlier still hangs in the air and a scent of fir trees wafts through the window. The desk still smells of polish. I stop to think and run my hand over the surface of the desk feelings its grain. Its an old desk, slightly pitted and roughened by use. I run my finger along a small dip, a dimple. I wonder how that happened and when. On the desk is my camera, a lamp and a notebook and a small round bowl. The little bowl is nothing more than itself, yet it holds on hundred years of history and reflects the shape of this valley.

Childhood Books

My favourite stories when I was five were the Greek Myths my mother read to me. They were ‘as told to children.’ But I realise now that they all came straight from Ovid. I was obsessed with Mercury and was comforted when I found a statue of him in the courtyard when I went very unwillingly to school. He was my refuge from all the noise and confusion, and I sat at his feet at playtime. It was a prep school where, due to my background, I was not allowed to fit in.  The 1950’s hadn’t changed the world much. I was relieved when we moved to a village, and I went to an ordinary school.

     I read all of Monica Edwards and that caused me to cycle to visit every horse I could find within about ten miles. It also got me a job in a hunt stable at the age of ten, in exchange for free riding lessons. Monica Edwards gradually let the children grow up in her stories at about the same pace as me.

     The fields around the village were a great place for the play of imagination. That’s where C.S. Lewis came in. After I read the first book, aged about nine, I found so many doors into Narnia. I don’t think I identified with any of the children particularly. I was just myself in that world. I had my own adventures there.

     After that I read any book that landed in front of me, romances, crime, thrillers, James Bond, Austen, the Bronte’s, Dickens, Wilke Collins, J.B. Priestley and even Jung but no fantasy until at sixteen I found Lord of the Rings. I was regularly painting signs for a local bookshop, and I asked them to pay me in books instead of money. I read the whole fantasy shelf and discovered George MacDonald whose descriptions and strangeness I loved.

     I read a lot of poetry too. The Beat Generation were a new phenomenon. But I liked Wordsworth and Keats and Dylan Thomas more and the lines of a poem that have stuck in my head my whole life is from Wordsworth. I remembered seeing the world like that as a child.

‘There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.’

Dylan Thomas infected me with an almost sensual love of words and his poem ‘Fern Hill’ has the same vision of childhood.

Perhaps I am an escapist, but I don’t think so. It’s the clarity of the vision that attracts me.

My Nan

Coffee, toast and three paracetamols were my Nan’s medicinal solution to everything. Ah, no, tea. And it was always aspirin back then. If your throat was sore, she would bring out her special mixture of lemon and paregoric and a little tin of Zoobs. I am not even sure what paregoric is, but I know you aren’t allowed to buy it now. She didn’t give you much sympathy. No coddling. We were just told to go to bed and get on with it but later she would bring up beef broth. I have tried making beef broth over the years but it’s never anything like hers.

My Nan used to crochet blankets made up of little squares and she was quite the wizz with a sewing machine. The clothes she made were better than we got in the shops. She told me her first job was picking pins up off the floor for a dressmaker. She was about twelve. After that she moved on to wrapping parcels. She was always very proud of her ability to wrap a neat parcel with as little brown paper as possible. Granny’s parcel boasts were a bit of a family joke. So were her fairy cakes. My father once said he liked them, so he got them every time we went round.

My brother went to live with her for a while. He said he liked the cheese and tomato sandwich she put in his packed lunch, which was wrapped in a neat grease proof parcel of course. I am sure you can guess what happened. Yes, cheese and tomato sandwiches, every blessed day thereafter.

My Mum used to say my Nan was hard. I think she just had a dry, caustic sense of humour. My Gran was a realist. She made me laugh. The best reassurance she ever dished out was ‘cheer up ducks, it may never happen,’ and I have found that it rarely does, whether you want it to or not.

Coal Dust and Soap Powder

That smell reminds me of winter. In summer the washing was hung on the line, so it smelled of fresh air and sunshine but in winter it was hung over the clothes horse and stood by the fire to air. A coal scuttle stood close to the fire. Coal dust and soap powder, a strange combination, one I am unlikely to smell again but if I did, I would be straight back in that high ceilinged room with the big bay window and red and gold patterned carpet. The carpet was cut up later and put into two smaller rooms.