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Posts Tagged ‘#fridayflash’

FrdayFlashBadge02Sammy took extra care over his appearance that Saturday. He persuaded Anna to iron his blue shirt, the one with a collar, and he borrowed Jim’s pair of nearly smart black leather shoes. He even pulled a comb through his hair before leaving his room.

‘Sammy, you can’t go out without a coat,’ Anna called after him as he shuffled down the corridor towards the front door.

He took no notice. His trench coat stank, and his saggy brown cardigan would spoil the effect he’d achieved. He looked at himself in the full length hall mirror with approval. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think the slightly scruffy 43-year-old man looking back was just like anyone else.

Suddenly Johnny appeared, his grey scrunched-up face sneering over Sammy’s left shoulder, eyes glittering. ‘You’ll never be normal, you won’t. Look at you, can’t even button your shirt up right.’

It was hard to ignore Johnny, but Sammy managed it. He hastily adjusted his shirt and opened the door.

‘I know where you’re going. You’re pathetic. They won’t want you.’ Johnny’s voice whined in Sammy’s ear like a mosquito following the scent of blood.

‘Shut up shut up shut up…’ Sammy muttered to himself over and over again as Jim’s shoes rattled over the gravel path outside The Oaks. The wind lifted the tails of his shirt and swirled around his torso, icy teeth biting at his chest and belly. Sammy didn’t notice, not really.

He turned left along Oak Lane, trying to pick his feet up when he walked, the way Anna had taught him. It felt like Johnny was following him, but he didn’t turn round to see. He was afraid he would stumble if he looked up.

As he walked through the alley between the newsagent and the launderette, he strained to hear the jingling of tambourines and the joyous sound of singing voices. Maybe they weren’t there this week? He hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night for worrying.

When he heard the music, relief filled his mind, leaving no room for concentrating on his feet. He tripped, put out a hand to save himself, and was horrified when he felt it sink into wool-covered flesh.

‘Get off me!’

Sammy backed away from the indignant old woman. She glared at him, then wrinkled her nose, pushed past him and stalked away.

Johnny sniggered. ‘See, you do smell. No-one wants Stinky Sammy.’

It took all his willpower not to cry, but he managed it by focusing on the singing.

‘They do want me,’ Sammy said. ‘They do.’

He started shuffling towards the shopping precinct again, all thoughts of lifting his feet up forgotten in his need to reach the source of the music.

‘Jesus loves me, Jesus loves you,
Come rejoice, accept His love.’

Sammy stopped at the end of the alley, and an enormous grin spread over his face. There they were. A circle of people. Men and women, dancing and singing and clapping, and children waving tambourines in the air. He jiggled across the block-paved pedestrian area towards them, trying to clap in time with the music. He knew the words to this one, he’d listened to it for many Saturdays, so he joined their circle and sang along as loudly as he could.

Johnny was laughing so much he could barely stand up. ‘Oh, Sammy, you’re such a dickhead.’

‘Piss off, Johnny. You’re the dickhead,’ Sammy yelled. He’d finally come to accept Jesus’s love, and he wasn’t going to let Johnny spoil it.

The people around him stopped singing. Oops, thought Sammy. Jesus probably didn’t like bad language.

‘I’m sorry. It’s just Johnny, he doesn’t love Jesus like I do. Can we sing again please?’ Sammy started to sing another of his favourites. A couple of the children joined in, but the adults continued to stare at him, and a man with a bright red pullover walked quickly away.

‘What’s wrong?’ said Sammy.

A warm hand clamped around his arm. ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong, sir, you’re disturbing these nice people,’ said a very large policeman.

Johnny chipped in, ‘That’s right, Sammy the dickhead’s disturbing the God-freaks.’

‘Shut up,’ Sammy shouted. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Policeman, but Johnny won’t shut up.’

The man in the red pullover said, ‘There’s no-one called Johnny here. He’s obviously one of those nutters from The Oaks. Can’t you take him back there?’

‘Nutter, nutter, Sammy’s a nutter,’ sang Johnny.

Sammy wasn’t quite sure what happened next. The man who’d called him a nutter somehow had red all over his face as well as his pullover, and Sammy was on the ground with the policeman on top of him, handcuffing his hands behind his back. Then he was being hauled past the shops, past crowds of people with cold eyes like Johnny’s.

‘Where are we going, Mr Policeman?’ he asked. ‘I’m looking for Jesus, I want to accept his love.’

The policeman jerked Sammy’s arms upwards. ‘I’ll show you Jesus’s love, you weirdo.’

‘Thank you, that’s very kind.’ said Sammy. He could hardly believe his luck. He’d thought the people singing would help him find Jesus, but he’d been wrong all along. He shuffled docilely through the car park and into the police station.

‘Is Jesus in here?’ he asked the policeman.

‘Can you keep a secret?’ said the policeman, grinning.

‘Of course I can.’

‘I’m Jesus.’ The policeman was laughing aloud now, obviously really happy that Sammy had finally found him.

‘Do you love me?’

‘Of course I do. Now go and sit in there.’

Sammy entered the cell and sat on the wooden bench. The door clanged shut, but not before Johnny slid in.

‘You don’t really believe he’s Jesus, do you?’

Sammy’s eyes were closed and his face was radiant. He couldn’t hear Johnny any more.

The policeman shook his head as he walked back towards the front desk, followed by Sammy’s quiet off-key singing.

‘Jesus found me, Jesus loves me,
Rejoicing, I accept His love.’

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Friday night was pizza night in our house, from when I started school until Mum went away. After school, Rachael and Lily and I had chores. We had to clean out the rabbits, weed the flowerbeds, and tidy our bedrooms. Meanwhile, Mum would make the pizzas.

She used three different toppings each week, and never the same one twice. This was exciting to begin with, while there were still palatable toppings to choose from. We even won a prize once, when Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant had a competition for the best new pizza. Who would have thought that cherries, jalapeno peppers and cashew nuts would taste so delicious in combination? We called it ‘Sarah’s Hot and Crunchy’ because the cashew nuts were my suggestion.

After a couple of years, Mum was really struggling for inspiration, and we began to dread Fridays. To make things worse, after a while she would only use foods that started with the same letter of the alphabet, a different letter each week chosen at random from a Scrabble bag. I think Dad must have taken out some of the letters after the first time she drew a Z. Zucchini, zabaglione and zinc tablets do not go together very well.

Most weeks, stress levels in our household rose steadily from breakfast time on Monday morning, when the letter was chosen, to the moment that the new pizza was presented to us on Friday evening. Then, if the combination wasn’t a success, Mum was miserable for the whole weekend. I think the worst time, before they took Mum away, was when she drew an L. Our bathroom was in use all of Friday night and Saturday, as lentils, liver and lime pickle didn’t agree with our digestive systems.

The final pizza night was different from all the others. R was the letter for the week, and Mum had been feverishly leafing through recipe books and dictionaries in search of ingredients since Monday. On Thursday evening we didn’t get a bed-time story, as Dad was too busy consoling Mum, who’d only managed to come up with one potential topping – rowan berries – and Dad had told her they were probably poisonous. At breakfast on Friday, Rachael asked if she could stay with her friend Charlotte overnight. She’d been doing that a lot lately, but never on a Friday before. Mum didn’t mind though.

After school, Lily weeded the flower beds and I cleaned out the rabbits. Then we crept through the kitchen, where Mum was sitting with her head in her hands. Our bedrooms were somehow more untidy than usual, so it took a while to straighten things out. I got into a fight with Lily because some of my books turned up in her bedroom. Dad came home from work and pulled us apart just as Mum was serving up.
The four of us sat around the table, staring at our slices of pizza. Mum was grinning widely.

‘Guess what it is this week!’ she said, and then she burst into laughter so loud I had to cling onto Dad’s arm. She started rocking backwards and forwards, and when she tilted her head and her hair fell back I noticed there was a smudge of red on the tip of her ear. Probably tomato sauce.

Lily said, ‘I don’t know. It looks like bits of meat.’

‘Well, just eat it. I’m not going to tell you what it is. You have to guess.’

Dad put on his brave face, the one he was wearing more and more that year. He cut a piece and lifted it to his mouth. We watched him chew as though strings tied our eyes to his lips. Then he smiled.

‘Actually, it’s not bad. I’ve no idea what it is though, it tastes like liver and kidney and maybe chicken drumsticks. Can’t be that, can it? Unless…’ He smiled again, and touched Mum’s hand. ‘You are clever. It’s different parts of the same animal, isn’t it? An animal whose name begins with R?’

‘That’s exactly right! Come on girls, eat up!’ Mum watched us as avidly as we’d watched Dad. It wasn’t bad at all. We finished every crumb, although none of us could guess what the animal was.

Then we had the best evening ever. Dad put on the DVD of ‘Finding Nero’, and we all snuggled up on the sofa together with a bowl of popcorn. Mum kept tickling me until I kicked Lily accidentally, then we had to pause the DVD while we all had a tickle fight and cleared up the popcorn, which ended up all over the floor.

Later that night, when the house was dark, I was having trouble sleeping. I guess I was hyped up after the wonderful time we’d had. I wondered what the mystery animal was, the one that had been sacrificed for our pizza night.

Suddenly, I had a horrible thought. I crept into Lily’s bedroom. She was still awake too, and her wide frightened eyes told me she had exactly the same thought.

We both spoke together, ‘Rachael’s name begins with R.’

And then I said, ‘That wasn’t tomato sauce on her ear.’

That was a very long night. Neither of us said any more. We curled up together in Lily’s bed and cried and cried until we fell asleep. I dreamed of Mum suffocating Rachael with a pillow, and then I thought I woke up and went downstairs, but I was still dreaming, and I saw Mum cutting Rachael’s liver out on the kitchen table.

Next morning Dad made pancakes for breakfast, which would normally have been great, except I thought I’d never be able to eat again. Lily’s face was as white as the lilies-of-the-valley she’d weeded around the day before.

The front door opened. Dad looked up.

‘Ah, Rachael, maybe you’ll eat some of these pancakes. These two don’t seem to be hungry.’

‘Thanks Dad, that’d be great. By the way, what happened to the rabbits?’

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I never understood why Chloe wanted to join the Girl Guides. She came home every Tuesday evening looking miserable, and she never went on any of the outings or brought friends home. She did, however, enjoy earning the badges. The first one she got was for needlework. I’ve always insisted she mended her own clothes, so she’s very neat and quick with a needle and thread. She put that skill to good use over the next year, sewing badge after badge onto her blue uniform. For cookery, she planned and catered a dinner party, and invited the Lord Mayor to join the Guide leader and the rest of her patrol. He came, as well, with his chain round his neck. She didn’t invite me. I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway, I had a flower-arranging class.

When she’d just turned twelve, the local fire brigade offered to help the girls get their firefighting badges. I’ve never seen her so excited. She said it was the last one she needed for some sort of award. She read all the books about fire that she could find, and wrote long lists of questions for the firemen who came every week to give talks and demonstrations. If her dad had been alive he would have encouraged her, but I’ve never really known how to deal with her odd behaviour.

One Tuesday I saw her going out after tea wearing jeans and t-shirt. I asked why she wasn’t wearing her uniform.

‘We’re going to the fire station today for the final test. I told you about it last week,’ she said.

Later that evening, as I was making my cocoa, I realised she should have been home at least an hour earlier. I initially assumed the tests had taken longer than expected, but by the time I put my empty mug on the draining board I was beginning to get annoyed with her. I didn’t mind her staying out, I generally let her please herself, but she should have let me know.

As if she’d heard my thoughts, the phone rang. It wasn’t Chloe’s voice at the other end of the line though.

‘Hello, Mrs Hunter?’

‘That’s right. Who is this, please?’

‘I’m Nurse Beckett, from the Children’s Ward at Northampton General Hospital. We’ve got your daughter Chloe here.’

For a split second my irritation intensified, then I’m not quite sure what happened. I heard the nurse say, ‘Mrs Hunter? Are you still there?’ as I put the phone down and went into the kitchen to wash up. I’d only just filled the bowl and pulled on my rubber gloves when the phone rang again, so I ignored it. I didn’t want to waste the hot water.

I’d nearly finished drying the pots when there was a loud hammering at the front door. I put the last plate away and went into the hall, unsure whether to answer the door at that time of night. I could see the end of a fingertip holding the letterbox open.

‘Mrs Hunter, are you all right?’ The voice was male, and too loud. ‘I’m PC Ledger. The hospital called the station and asked us to check up on you. Said you’d just had some bad news?’

What was wrong with me? I had a policeman kneeling at the front door, and Chloe was in hospital. And I’d just finished the washing up.

I opened the door. PC Ledger appeared to be about three years older than Chloe. He rose to his feet. ‘I’ve got a car out front, would you like me to take you up to the hospital?’

There are times in one’s life when one has to suffer indignities for the sake of one’s child. Climbing into a police car in full view of several pairs of eyes peeking from neighbouring windows was certainly one of those times. Thankfully the constable didn’t switch on the sirens or lights, or screech his tyres as we left.

He did drive very quickly though. It only took five minutes to get there. I apologised for troubling him as I got out of the car. He awkwardly reached out and touched my arm, and said, ‘I’m sure your daughter will be OK, Mrs Hunter.’ How did he know?

A porter pointed me in the direction of the Children’s Ward, and I was met at the double doors by a brisk woman who introduced herself as Nurse Beckett.

‘Chloe’s sleeping now. She’s had a nasty scare, but she’s going to be OK. We’re just keeping her in for observation.’

‘What happened? Is she badly hurt?’

‘Oh no, she just got very cold and shaken up, a few bruises, nothing worse than that. We had to warm her up a bit, that’s why we want to keep an eye on her.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ Couldn’t the woman get to the point?

‘I’m sorry, I thought you’d been told…’

‘Of course I haven’t, who would have told me?’

‘I’m sorry…’

‘Just tell me what happened, for pity’s sake.’

‘According to the Guide leader, some of the other girls dared her to climb on top of a fire engine, and then one of them nipped to the phone box and reported a huge fire. Chloe managed to wedge herself in and hang onto the ladder, but she was still thrown around, and the wind froze her stiff, the poor mite.’

I started walking down the ward. Nurse Beckett darted alongside me, tiptoeing like a nervous burglar. I couldn’t see Chloe, until the nurse took my elbow and steered me towards a bed I’d overlooked on first glance. Her tiny pale face, as white as the pillowcase it was resting on, was that of a girl half her age. At the same time, it was the face of her father lying motionless on the pier at Southend.

‘Tell her I’ll bring some clothes in the morning. No point staying if she’s asleep.’

I turned and walked away.

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Dad held one of my hands and Mum held the other. Every so often Dad would say, ‘One, two, three…’ and on three they would swing me high into the air. I thought they’d pull my arms off but I didn’t care, it was so funny to watch my feet flying up in front of my face. I was wearing my best shoes, they were brand new and if I looked closely I could see glimpses of Mum and Dad reflected in the red leather. One time I saw Dad grinning in one shoe and Mum frowning in the other. I laughed so much I scared a seagull away from a bag of chips, and Dad had to thump me on my back to make me breathe properly again.

Past the big building at the end of the pier, we found a row of men fishing. The railings around the edge had balls sticking up on top of the upright rails, and the fishermen were all spaced out, each one between two of the balls, like a row of shadows on the sky. I ran to see if any of them had caught anything. I love to see the fish wriggle on the ends of the lines, they look like they’re catching little bits of the sun.

I wasn’t tall enough to lean on the top railing, like my Mum and Dad, so I leaned on the bottom one. That was level with my tummy, so I could lean over and watch the fishing lines diving deep into the water. I couldn’t see much of them, I think maybe the sea was trying to hide them to help the fishermen catch the fish.

Suddenly, one of the rods dipped at the end, and its line started to swim away from the pier, trying to pull the fisherman into the sea. He was too strong though, he leaned backwards and heaved and heaved. The reel clicked as it span, his breath was loud through his nose, birds screeched and flew low over the water. All the other fishermen were shouting, ‘You’ve got a big one there,’ and, ‘Come on Jim, land her quick now.’ My feet wouldn’t keep still inside my red shoes, it was so exciting. Even Mum was pointing and laughing.

It took ages for the fisherman to win the battle. I thought the fish must be so big it might be able to catch the whole sun as it rose up on the end of the line. I leaned out as far as I could so I wouldn’t miss it. Then, just as it started to rise, twisting and turning, from the waves, I fell in.

The water was hard, and then it was all around me, and it was cold. It rushed into my nose and eyes and ears, and inside my dress and my shoes. I tried to scream and it filled my mouth as well, tasting like too much salt on my fish fingers. The sea was pulling at my dress, trying to take me down to the bottom where the lobsters live. I didn’t know how to stay afloat. My arms and legs were thrashing about, which helped a bit. My head came out into the air, and I breathed in and coughed and coughed before the water dragged me down again.

Then there was a big wave and a loud splash, and something caught hold of me and pulled me up. I didn’t understand to start with, but then I heard Dad’s voice saying, ‘Keep still now, Chloe, we’ll get you out of here.’ He wasn’t scared like I was, and after he’d said, ‘Keep still,’ a few times I understood. He pushed a big red and white ring over my head, which kept me on the surface.

‘You’ll be safe now,’ he said.

I looked at his big smiling face. His hair looked funny, stuck down to his head on one side and sticking up on the other, and he was wriggling his arms and legs to stay afloat. He was very white, and his smile wasn’t in his eyes.

I said. ‘Daddy, why are your lips going blue?’

‘Because it’s cold. Just hold on to that lifebelt, and look over there. The boat will come to pick us up, and you need to watch for it.’

I turned towards the shore. There were lots of people looking at us, so I waved, and they cheered. I couldn’t feel my hands and feet, and I was watching so hard for the boat my eyes hurt, so I closed them and just rocked in the waves. Then I heard an engine, and another one, and men shouting at me. They grabbed me and helped me climb onto one of the boats, and took me away from the pier. The other boat stayed to get Dad out of the water.

When I got off the boat, I had to go to an ambulance. A nice man in green clothes shone lights in my eyes and asked if I could breathe all right. He wrapped me in a blanket, even my feet, which were really cold because my shoes had come off and were at the bottom of the sea with the lobsters and the crabs.

The nice man took me outside to see Mum. He had his hand on my shoulder, helping me keep the blanket on. It was cold, even in the sunshine. Mum was standing still, with her back to me, watching someone lying on the ground being punched and kissed by some more men with green clothes.

One of the men came over and talked to my nice man, and his hand tightened on my shoulder so hard it hurt. I was scared all over again, so I pulled away and ran over to Mum.

‘Mum, what’s a heart attack?’

She didn’t answer.

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Yesterday I cleaned the kitchen sink fifteen times. Fifteen pairs of rubber gloves pushed fifteen dual-textured sponges over gleaming chrome surfaces.

The fifteenth time, I needed two blue pills before stripping the plastic sleeve from the gloves.

Can’t clean taps without water.

Can’t get water without touching taps.

Today, this paradox freezes me in place. Rubber gloves remain in their packages, an accusing pile on the draining board.

My husband arrives home, gives me a posy of golden flowers. He sees the unused gloves, says, ‘No cleaning today! Well done!’

The sink is filthy.

I am ashamed.

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The vampire sheep’s fleece is as black as tightly-curled nightmares. Its ears point to the corners of the shrouded sky, pricked to scoop up the rumbling thunder. Staring at you through translucent glowing eyes, it asks, ‘Will you feed me?’

The Vampire Sheep

The Vampire Sheep

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I didn’t believe it when Mum said she had a dog. When my brother and I were small, we pleaded for a pet of some sort. We had images of a faithful playful Labrador, a constant companion in our adventures, but hell, even a guinea pig would have done.

Mum wouldn’t even discuss it with us. So when she left that voicemail telling me all about the latest parish council meeting, and, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve got a dog,’ I didn’t know what to think. I texted my sister, who confirmed the story. Many questions back and forth elicited the information that it was brown, small, thin, female, had all its limbs, and was a rescue dog named Truffles.

I called Mum later in the week. ‘So is this dog going to help you with the sheep?’ She has a flock of sheep and a field. Apparently sheep don’t count as pets.

‘No, it’s not that sort of dog.’

‘When are you going to find time to take it for walks?’

‘It doesn’t need much exercise, just sits around by the fire.’

‘Are you going senile?’

She put the phone down. Fair enough, I guess.

A few months later she sent me a photo of Truffles. Her body is a squashed conical tube, her legs and tail are long and thin and they bend in strange places, she has a springy neck, droopy jowls, pop-out eyes, and ears like huge leaves sticking out to the sides of her long flat head. Oh, and she’s made of metal. Not a real dog.

Ha ha. Big joke.

* * *

This summer, like every summer, the kids and I have come to stay with Mum for a week. We love being here, in the country, away from noise and pollution and crowds. Mum’s written her usual list of jobs to be done – sawing logs, cutting hedges, pulling up thistles, fixing the field gate, collecting flints to fill a ditch. It’s a matter of honour that we cross everything off before we go home.

One job that’s always on the list is feeding the lambs. By this time of year they’re independent of their mothers, but they need supplements so they bulk up in time for the winter slaughter. The boys are a bit squeamish about the whole thing, but they’ll happily tuck into the delicious roast dinners that are the end product.

Part of the tradition is that we count the lambs every time we go up to feed them. This is mostly to keep the kids entertained. It’s quite difficult to keep track of twenty-three hyperactive bundles of wool. This year though, lambs are vanishing. The first evening we were here, we counted twenty-two. Mum was sure we’d missed one, but after several recounts she admitted we were right. We searched the field, but there was no sign of the missing lamb, alive or dead.

The third evening, there were twenty-one, and yesterday we only counted twenty. By this time we were all getting quite upset. Back at the cottage, the boys made lemon drizzle cake while Mum and I discussed the fate of the lambs. It’s unlikely to be human thieves. They wouldn’t steal one lamb at a time. Foxes, Mum reckons. Apparently they’ve become a real problem since the hunting ban. It could be badgers, but they’re untidy eaters and would leave a mess. A fox will pick the lamb up and take it elsewhere. One of her friends called, she thinks it’s farm dogs that have got a taste for warm flesh, but Mum doesn’t believe that.

* * *

This morning I woke early and came downstairs to find the back door slightly open. Burglars, was my first thought, but nothing seemed to be missing. Oh well. Maybe my eldest son sneaked out for a smoke last night and forgot to shut the door. I took my breakfast into the living room.

The boys had left the room in a mess. Cushions scattered on the floor, the TV on mute, half-empty glasses of milk on the floor. Why they can’t pick up after themselves is beyond me. It doesn’t take long. So I switched the TV off, put the cushions back on the sofa and took the dirty glasses out to the kitchen. When I returned, I noticed Truffles, the rusty iron pseudo-dog, was lying on its side.

As I was replacing it on its feet, I saw a tuft of white lambswool caught in the spring of its neck. And a dribble of dried blood down the side of its jaw.

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