Through the Fire

A Lady sat by a fireside in a warm and pleasant room.

The Lady was young, she was innocent of face and fair.

In the corner stood a harp, a mirror, a loom.

Deep and deeper into the heart of the glowing fire

She gazed seeing images flickering there

While she considered her hearts desire.

Her imagination set free, she wandered.

She saw pathways and forests and caves,

Fortunes won, lost and squandered,

Extravagant creatures with wings,

Battles, books and jewels and dark open graves,

Crowns and horses and rings.

Her heart beat fast and filled with desire

For all that she wanted from life.

She longed for adventure and never to tire,

Yearned for love and wealth and fame.

In a heartbeat, she forgot herself

And reached her hand into the flame.

She had passed through the fire,

Into the cave she had seen, encrusted with gems.

Diamonds, emeralds and rubies hung from the roof

Entwined and supported by golden stems,

She plucked them like fruit and hid them deep in her skirt..

She turned then toward the cave entrance,

When a sound she heard made her quickly alert.

She heard the song of a distant bird,

The like of which she had not heard before.

Having no plans or well-laid intentions

She decided to find the source of the song.

She stepped barefoot from the cave onto the mossy floor

Of a vast forest filled with the scent of flowers.

Looking about her she felt she didn’t walk long

But as the light fell she realised

She had been walking for hours and hours.

She saw a giant oak, gnarled, misshapen and ancient

In a clearing surrounded by lofty trees

And high in its leaves, on a far off branch, she saw the bird.

The bird continued to sing as if it intended to please.

The bird was unexceptional and grey of plumage

But its eye was very bright and in its beak it held a jewel.

She greeted the bird by instinct, feeling sure that it could speak

and then asked the question that burned in her heart

”Pray tell Sir Bird, what is that jewel you hold in your beak?”

The bird placed the stone beneath his feet

” Lady pray tell, what would you like it to be?”

She considered this question a while

Realising there was magic afoot

She answered, with what she hoped was an alluring smile,

”The Stone of Immortality”

”And why would you want such a thing?” said the Bird

”Surely this is what we all want” she replied.

The Bird cocked his head

”I can think of many things a girl such as you could want,

Happiness, peace, the joys of the bridal bed,

Knowledge, understanding, children, wealth…..?’’

”Yes I do want those things’ she said,

”But forever, in eternal good health!”

”You will have all else forever also” warned the Bird

”Grief, sorrow, loneliness, you may sometimes hunger or fear,

cruel words and dark thoughts are also a part of this dish.

Immortality is not a bed of roses, my dear.”

With that, he pushed the stone off the branch

To land at her feet. ”Pick it up, or not, as you wish.”

Without hesitation, the Lady stooped down and took it.

At first it dazzled and burned in her hand,

But finding herself in its possession she bid the Bird farewell

And set out smiling to further explore the land.

She gained fortune and fame

For she had long to develop her natural talents

And many came to revere her name.

She achieved every challenge to which she aspired.

Her fairness of face never changing

She found love and was much admired,

She fulfilled every one of her dreams.

But she also saw that with all these blessings

Immortality is not the gift it seems

And the Birds warning had been correct.

She saw all her loved ones pass on without her

And with this sorrow came the endless time to reflect

Upon her loss of all she had treasured most.

She watched her friends over aeons,

Numerous they were, a vast host,

One by one, in repeating pattern, pass away.

While she remained lovely and vibrant with health

They all seemed to go as if in a day.

She saw her lovers beauty and strength fade,

Her children grew old before her eyes.

She kept her fame, her knowledge, her wealth

But these are worth nothing when all we love dies.

Feeling tired, abandoned, alone, forlorn

She returned to the Forest, to seek the Bird.

She arrived at the clearing in the soft light of dawn.

The Bird sat as before high up in the Ancient Tree.

He no longer looked grey, unworthy of a glance.

This time she saw that he was a Dove.

The bird moved on his branch in a circular dance,

And then gently bowed to her. ”What is your desire?”

”I want to be mortal” she said ”and return through the fire

And accept my true fate, whatever is to become of me”

”I see” said the Dove, ”then I must ask you one question,

What is the greatest treasure anyone can possess?”

Without hesitation, the Lady answered, Love.”

”You have learned the greatest lesson my child”

The Bird bowed again, ”Now return through the fire,

Use this understanding well, for short and fleeting

Is your time in this world. Go now and find Love,

But most of all remember to nurture and live it.’’

”This will be the greatest gift you take from our meeting;

Love is not for the taking. Remember to give it.”

Shattered Light

She is screaming out in the street again, a crying toddler in her arms. He has tried walking away several times, but he keeps going back to answer her accusations. The kid is crying. They go out of sight towards their house. I hear bin lids crashing and broken glass. Those two look a match for each other.

 Worried about the child more than anything, I call the police. An impersonal voice takes details. I explain what I have seen. I say a toddler is at risk. I give all the details twice.

 I say, ‘They have gone out of sight now, while we have been talking. Gone back to their house.’

 ‘You have an address?’

 ‘No, I don’t. I’m not sure which house is theirs. There are three or four houses in a row. It could be any of them. The back gates are all obscured by trees. So no, I don’t know.’

 ‘We can do nothing then. Call us again if they come back outside.’

 She hangs up on me before I can protest.

Nothing more happens. Not that day. Soon the lamps are on and the street is quiet. I watch the lights flashing and blinking and changing colours on a Christmas tree in a window across the street. I don’t really have room for one in my place.

The next day, I go downstairs and outside. The broken glass turns out to be a smashed light globe on the edge of the communal garden for our block of flats.

 ‘I saw that little shit deliberately hit it as he walked by,’ Eva says. She shrugs as if to say it’s normal. ‘Now the landlords probably won’t replace it for months, like everything else around here.’

 ‘I was worried about the toddler,’ I say, trying to refocus the conversation onto my main concern.

 Eva looks at me as if I am from another planet and says, ‘Yeh, well that one will grow up to be a shit too.’

 I open my mouth to answer and think ‘What’s the point.’  I know she is a racist. Her Carer is from Jamaica. Eva is nice enough to her face. But that’s not what I have heard her saying to neighbours, calling her a monkey.

 You can’t convert total idiots. Especially the ones over eighty. She isn’t my generation. She won’t change now. No point even worrying about her opinions. Not everyone over eighty is a fool, thank god. My mother wasn’t.

I don’t want to go to a party

I don’t want to go to that party or any other party ever again. I have never liked parties. Now I like them even less. Everyone laughing and playing as if the world is the same as it was, as it was before but it’s not.  How can they play at a party? Don’t they know or care that we’re all going to die. Everything dies. My dog died; my cat died. I cried. It was sad but the world was still normal. Now my grandad died, and it’s changed. Christmas is not going to be the same. They said Father Christmas isn’t real. Nothing is the same. It’s all nothing. The world feels like it’s wrapped in an old damp sock that I can’t take away from my mouth. They told me not to cry so I don’t. They said I will make it harder for everyone else if I cry. I wouldn’t cry now anyway. I am stuck inside a bubble. The world used to be light even when it was cloudy. My grandad and I played a game with the clouds, seeing shapes and making up stories. We saw a dragon swallow itself in the wind, one little puff at a time.

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.