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Archive for February, 2012

Sleeping beauty

Sleeping Beauty, her mum calls her. It’s never ‘Jody’ nowadays, it’s always Beauty, or, with the full force of irony, Sleeping Beauty.

“You comin’ down for your breakfast or you stayin’ up in that room of yours ’til kingdom come?”

The soundtrack’s the same every morning: Mum shrieking from the kitchen, Dad slamming the front door, the rest of the family, desperate and cross-legged, barging into each other on the landing and banging on the bathroom door. “For God’s sake! You comin’ out. I’m bustin’ to go.”

Jody lies still while the chaos swirls around her. She’ll take a few more minutes of delicious warmth under the duvet in her own private world. She wants to put off the shock of a new day and the breaking of the thread that holds her to the night’s precious dreams. Her life’s dreams.

She hears a light tapping sound. Someone’s at the window. She isn’t shocked. This is what she’s been expecting, after all.

Drawing back the curtains she sees the face she knows so well. They smile at each other. She feels her heart lurch and start to thump – but she knew it would.

The window is open. She’s been expecting him. She’s been expecting him for weeks, months. Now, at last, he’s here. She listens as he opens his perfect mouth, smiles his perfect smile, and utters the words she has always known he would say: “Come, my love. Come with me. I’m taking you away from all this. You are to be my bride. My true love. My princess.”

Now that it’s really happening, the dream is really coming true, Jody is unsure what to do next. She’d never thought beyond this moment of pure magic. “Hang on a mo,” she says. “I’ll just brush me hair and put on a bit of lippy.”

She closes the curtain so he won’t see her in this private moment and bounces off her bed, fizzing with excitement. As she looks in the mirror and lifts her hairbrush she suddenly notices how different she looks. “I’m grown-up now!” she thinks. “This is what true love does. I’m not little Jody any more. Now I’m going to find out who I really am. Maybe Mum’s right, maybe I really am Sleeping Beauty. What a laugh!”

Just then, Mum’s voice breaks into her thoughts and echoes up from the hall. “Come on Beauty, get up will yer. The window cleaner’s here and you don’t want ’im lookin’ in your window, do yer?”

Jody puts her head in her hands and lets out a sob. Soon she’s wailing good and proper.

“Bloody dreams!” she yells into the dull pink cocoon of her bedroom. She stands up, and through her tears she sees the posters of her heartthrob, the love of her 12-year-old life, Prince Harry. It’s your bloody fault,” she shouts. “You started all this. You  . . . you . . . prick!”

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I’m merely a bit-part player in this whole scene. I’m big, though – and certainly a whole lot bigger than the little guy who’s the focus of all the attention.

There’s no chance anyone could fail to catch sight of me when they reach the head of the queue. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle go their feet. I can hear them as they come closer, like a human tide lapping up the yard, constantly flowing, bubbling under the surface with a quiet excitement.

When they reach they stable door, they fall silent. Move along, move along, I hear the bossy senior shepherd hiss at the slower ones.

The ever-moving lines of humanity pass in front of us, pausing just long enough to pay their respects. Some bow their heads, some clasp their hands in supplication, others merely nod in awe and scuttle out the other side and into the dark night.

The little guy, the one they’ve all come to see, sometimes cries and it makes us all jump. Shush that noise, his dad snaps. He can’t help it, he’s hungry again, his mum says, all defensive. She looks so pretty in a blue dress the same colour as her eyes, and she shoots her old man a look.

The chap who runs this place, the innkeeper I guess, came in just now and had a word with her and her husband. I heard him call her Mary. That’s a nice name. She’s lovely, far too pretty for that miserable Joseph. I’d love to get closer but I’m stuck here at the back.

Tall ones at the back, little ones at front, middle-sized ones in between – that’s what the long-haired artist shouted at us when we were all trying to get ourselves into the best positions for his picture.

So here I am stuck at the back with my mates. Best place for you three monsters, one of those idiotic lambs bleated in our direction before it snuggled down at Mary’s feet. Was I jealous? Was I heck. But when you’re nothing more than a humpy old beast with moth-eaten fur, knobbly knees and breath that would stop a herd of stampeding oxen, no-one want you at close quarters.

On the plus side I have got great eyelashes, but the breath is always a problem. Maybe I could get something for it.

What’s that? Oh, it’s Melchior. Got to get this ship back into the desert, he says. He shoves me around in a tight circle and leads me outside before I have a chance to say goodbye to any of the new friends I’ve made.

I bend down so Melchior can climb astride me. I heave myself up, the other two join us and off we go, duty done, gifts delivered, homage paid.

My head is filled with images that I’m sure will never leave me. It’s been a weird kind of day. I can’t believe anything like this will ever happen again, but you never know.

 

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Middle-aged woman, primping and preening in front of a mirror. Fizzing with enthusiasm, flighty and full of vitality.

 

Hey, I look good. There’s no denying it. In fact I look damn good. From back here, it could be Amanda Holden in the mirror. Well, more like her than Joan Rivers, anyway!

Bless my lovely surgeon. What a saint. This has definitely taken at least 10 years off me. Dr De Zooter said it would. Now the swelling’s gone down I can smile again and there isn’t even the tiniest wrinkle.

Mission accomplished: lose weight, get a facelift. Here I am, the new me. Hard to remember what a disgusting frump I used to be, but it was only a year ago. A real sight for sore eyes, although Jerry never said so. In fact he never said anything about how I looked. Bless him. Love is blind, they say.

But honestly, who wants to be fat and fifty? And have absolutely damn all to show for being on God’s earth for all those flaming years.

Well, damn all except Robert, but as sons go he isn’t that rewarding. I blame the little bitch he’s living with. Cow of the first order she is, keeping him under her thumb. She could do with losing a good stone or two as well, – and I bet she’ll get wrinkles too, with all that smoking and sun-worshipping. Oh Robert, my boy, my little man. I wonder if you’ll see sense one day.

Not that I blame him for not marrying her, mind you, not with the high standards we’ve set him. He couldn’t hope to have a marriage like ours, like me and Jerry. Mr Gorgeous. Still my handsome prince after however-the-hell-many years. Ooh, 28.

Twenty-eight glorious years, and now Jerry’s got himself a whole new wife. Me! The slimline, youthful Pat. Except I’m not Pat any more. I’m Trish from now on. New look, new name. Love it!

Oooh, I can’t resist it. I need to take another peep in the mirror. Hello Trish! Trish. Oooh, I do love it. It sounds young and vital and up for adventure. Hello you lissom lovely, you truly delicious Trish-us!

Some people, some people like Robert’s bitchy little minx, might say I was a bit extravagant going to South Africa for the operation but, well, you only live once, Jerry and I are agreed on that, and it killed lots of birds with one stone. Jerry’s been able to go on his cricket tour and I was able to see Mum and get my face done.

Mum’s face when she picked me up at the airport! I hadn’t told her I’d been dieting like crazy, counting calories and keeping an exercise diary for 13-and-a-half months. “Oh my God! Are you sure you’re not too thin, Pat?” she said. Me? Too thin? Love it! I told her, “You can never be too thin, Mum. Or too rich, but that’s next on my agenda.”

I’ve turned counting calories into an art form. I don’t know if Jerry really believed me when I told him I know how many calories there are in just about everything on any supermarket shelf. There’s the steak I’ve got him for his dinner tonight. Steak and chips, I’ll do for him – his favourite, cooked by his new-look little wifey-wife. 525 calories – 600 if he wants fried onions as well – 618 counting the mustard.

I’ve forgotten what steak and chips tastes like . . . I won’t be eating, of course. Not me. I don’t do meals like that. Nothing after 6pm, no carbs on days with an ‘S’ in them, no fizzy drinks, no . . . oh, I’m getting carried away.

Now then, let’s see what Jerry’s written here. Why can’t he ever find a clean piece of paper to write his notes? Always a folded-up scrap, or the back of an envelope or something. I expect he’s giving me my instructions. “Meet me off 7.10 train, love. Can’t wait to see you.” Something like that. Love it! Always straight to the point, my Jerry.

Now then, what’s this?

 

She unfolds a note and reads, slowly:

 

“Hi Pat. I hope you’ve got back safely and you are pleased with how your surgery went.

“I’m taking the coward’s way out writing this. I know we’ll need to talk together, but for now I just need to tell you that I won’t be coming home. I know this will be a shock, and I’m sorry for that.

“I was never going on a cricket tour, I went to Mauritius with Emma. You know Emma, the one who looked after the twins next door and you always called her Miss Wobble-bottom. I know she’s young (25 in fact), but we love each other and cannot be apart.

’Bye for now, Jerry (now calling myself Jez, by the way).”

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Missing me

The window is smeared with condensation and the fetid air of the café. Steve bunches up his sleeve and wipes clear a spy-hole. He focuses on a 50-metre sweep of the bus station forecourt so he’s certain to see her, if she comes.

Not letting his gaze drop, he clasps his mug of coffee and stares out into the concrete greyness. Today could be the day. Three Wednesday mornings have been spent here so far, and this is the fourth. No reward yet for his patience, but still he sits, transfixed, nervously sipping, hoping.

 

The café smells so bad it turns his stomach – “rank” is the word he used the first time he described it to Dax, his flatmate, who works out in a boxing club knows about smells. Every time he comes here it is the stench that shocks him as it splats him between the eyes. Fried burgers, sausages, chips, stale oil and malt vinegar are in the mix, along with strong Odour of Damp Customer and even stronger Odour of Nikos, who runs the place. He’s out the back at the moment, snatching a quick fag and airing his armpits in the mid-morning breeze.

Don’t they ever change the cooking oil in this place, Steve wonders, tugging his sleeve up again to the glass to make his spy-hole rounder and clearer.

I’ll be happy with one sighting, he thinks. Just one would be good, to be going on with, anyway.

There’s a kerfuffle by the door. Steve turns to see a couple of girls with huge rucksacks pushing their way in, bumping against tables and chairs and sending a display stand of ‘What’s On in Maundersleigh’ toppling to the floor.

They erupt in embarrassed shrieks, hands up to mouths, cheeks flushed, as they offload their burdens on to chairs that skitter and scrape across the tiles.

Steve turns back to the window. Bugger, he thinks, she could’ve gone by while I wasn’t looking. What if I’ve missed her? Oh, sod it. Oh God, how stupid.

He pushes his face against the damp glass to peer as far as he can in both directions. Nothing. But there might have been. This isn’t the way he planned it, he was only ever going to look at her from a distance, but now he’s rushing out of the café because he has to be sure that she didn’t walk by when he was so stupidly, needlessly, distracted by those silly girls.

Fool, bloody fool, he rants at himself, walking fast one way and then the other, nails digging into his palms, eyes swivelling on madman’s gimbals.

But there’s nothing, no one in sight other than a man with a lumi-jacket and a shoulder bag jumping on to a bus. There is no one who could be her. Satisfied, though half-disappointed, Steve goes back into the café, sits down again by the window, uses his other, dry, sleeve to clear the glass, and carries on his vigil. No distractions now. Concentrate. Just think of her. Her.

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Found verse

We use only the finest ingredients which is why we use no artificial colours or flavours.

 

They used only the finest ingredients

As did I,

No artificial colours or flavours

In the manufacturing process

Of your life

So when I place it

In your hands

Please do not waste it

Or in any way abuse it

But keep it pure

Like these Lemon Mint Swiss Herb Drops

 

January 2012

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Hi Rosie

 

I bet that’s surprised you for a start, calling you Rosie. Well, let me tell you, since you must be reeling with the shock of it, that this is the name you’ll become known by. I know it’s not that extraordinary since it is your given name, but you finally get to shake off your nickname, the one everyone has used since you were a toddler, once you reach your twenties. Before then, though, in two years’ time, you’ll be leaving school, so you can turn your back on those irritating teachers who call you by your sister’s name.

All of this name stuff is part of the journey you’ll be taking to discover who you really are. I tell you that even though I know that now you’ve just turned 16 you are confident you have all the answers to life’s great imponderables: who you are, what you’re at, where you’re going, all that sort of thing.

May I tell you, and do read this even if you are tempted to set fire to it with one of the matches you’ve hoarded to light an illicit Peter Stuyvesant fag (pause to cough and splutter, eh? Yes, I know all your secrets!), you truly don’t have all the answers. Not yet. But searching for them is going to be interesting and enlightening. You’ll take a few wrong turns and tear off down some frustrating cul-de-sacs, but your journey is going to be fantastic, believe me.

Now look, little wannabe rock-chick, diary-writer, head-in-the-clouds lover of poetry, horses, newspapers, any kind of sport, the French language, MM who goes on your bus (yup, I’ve read your diary!), William Wordsworth, Robert Redford, Baudelaire, The Yardbirds, Toulouse-Lautrec, Edward Thomas and chocolate fudge, don’t stop reading now. I have got a message for you, believe it or not. No, I’m not going to use this letter to detail how your life pans out in the coming years, save to say that I think you’re going to love it. You’ll have to work damn hard, though, seize opportunities and hold your friends very dear. At various stages, they will be as important to you as Mum and Dad are now. The bedrocks of your life, in fact.

Yeah, yeah, yeah (see, I remember The Beatles!) I know you feel like ignoring Mum and Dad most of the time. If only the doors would slam in the damp old house you’d slam them. So you shout insults instead. That’s really charming. Have you ever thought how Mum and Dad feel, being called names by a curtain-haired, grumpy little pipsqueak like you?

So here’s my message at last: cherish Mum and Dad. Try and understand them. They’re really not old-fashioned and completely out of touch and lacking in understanding, so do stop shouting that at them. It’s boring. They are human beings with feelings that can be hurt, and they truly care for you and love you.

So be done with the ructions. Do get to know them and love them back, a lot. One day, far too soon, you’ll be out walking and your head will fill with memories of Dad but you can’t project an image of him clearly into your mind and your eyes fill up and go misty. It’ll be 17 years after his death and you will wish so hard that you could hear his voice, hold his hand maybe, soak up some of his huge wisdom and his fabulous wit, but above all just be with him so you can say thank you, thanks for everything, you were and still are a wonderful dad and I adore you to bits. I’m telling you, the missing of him never stops hurting.

Then there’s Mum – indomitable little Mum, your taxi driver, dressmaker, laundry maid, cook and all-round good sport and ace giggler. Well, the giggling stops one day when she’s diagnosed with something horrible. At the same time she starts to lose her memory so she doesn’t remember her children. It’s awful. Now it’s so bad it’s like losing her a hundred times every day.

You’ve got my message now, haven’t you? Good. I know I can trust you to make a good job of life. Take it from one who knows, it’s worth the effort.

 

Love from

You

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A dialogue

The first line is taken from Roddy Doyle’s Oh Play That Thing (2004) a follow-up to A Star Called Henry

 

May I ask a question? What is the extent of the service you provide?

 

“As much or as little as you require, Ms Griffin. We can carry out the full search procedure, which will hopefully result in finding your missing relative, or we can just give you a few guidelines and point you in the right direction for you to do the work yourself. Either way, we can assure you of our discretion and professionalism.” A confident smile spread across the woman’s face as she leant back and waited for Angie to make her choice.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

Angie put her file of papers on to the edge of the woman’s desk and dabbed a balled-up tissue across her perspiring forehead. It was so hot in this oppressive little office, but nowadays, now she was officially middle-aged and rampantly menopausal, she could rarely tell if was her surroundings or her out-of-control hormones that gave this feeling of claustrophobia and imminent meltdown.

Suppressing the urge to leap up and throw open the windows, she forced her attention back to the woman at the desk. Julia Fernandez, private investigator, the nameplate had said on her door. Angie paused a moment longer, composed herself, and delivered her answer. “I’d like you just to point me in the right direction, please. I want to be the one who finds her, through my own efforts, but as you can imagine I have no idea where to start.”

Julia smiled again, acknowledging Angie’s decision. “That’s fine,” she said. “Then you can always come back to us at any time if you need a little more help. I also happen to think you will find the procedure interesting.”

She smiled a broad smile this time: “And let’s hope it’s rewarding too. Now, I need you to tell me as much as you can about the person you want to find, and forgive me if I interrupt from time to time with questions that will help me add some detail. Take your time. I can guess this may not be easy for you.” She leant forward in encouragement, while Angie made another nervous dab at her hot cheeks.

Looking straight at Julia, Angie took a deep breath and spoke, quietly at first and then with increasing confidence.

She’d imagined this moment so many times, speaking those words she thought she’d never have the courage to say. Sometimes she’d pictured herself blubbing unstoppable tears, too, but not this time, now it was happening for real.

Angie heard her voice explain: “I want to find my daughter. I haven’t seen her since a fortnight after she was born. She was taken away . . . no, I had to give her away. I couldn’t keep her. I was 17. She’d be 38 now, 39 in two-and-a- half months’ time.”

Julia raised a finger as a signal to interrupt. “Sorry, but I do need to know if there was a father. Did you have any contact with your baby’s father, or perhaps you were married?”

“No, not married. Definitely not married,” Angie almost laughed at the thought. “He was nothing special. We never even liked each other much, but we went out a few times. He disappeared like a rat up a drain as soon as he knew I was pregnant. I had to leave school.”

“What about your family?”

“Good question. They were ashamed, appalled, the predictable response at first. Then my mum packed me off to Somerset, pushing the problem onto her sister. I stayed with my aunt and uncle in their cottage. There was a swing in the garden. I spent days just swinging to and fro, watching spring turn into summer and then into autumn. I suppose it could have been idyllic, but to be honest I was terrified. What was happening to me was so life-changing, yet I wasn’t much more than a child myself.”

“Did you want the baby?”

“I never had a choice. I never thought of getting rid of it, if that’s what you mean, but I was very scared. I couldn’t see my future. Before I left school I’d always thought I would become a teacher, but then everything turned to dust. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the baby, I loved to feel her kicking and moving about so strongly inside me. Oh God, I loved her to bits, she was mine, my very own, but loving her so much didn’t stop me being worried about what would become of us.”

“Before you gave birth, did anyone talk to you about giving up your baby for adoption?”

“No. No, no one talked to me about anything. My mum arranged it without breathing a word about it to me. It’s hard to believe your own flesh and blood can do something so cruel, don’t you think, Julia? You don’t mind if I call you Julia?

“Of course I don’t mind. Do tell me what you called your baby.”

  “I’d only been able to think of boys’ names – John and David and sensible things like that – so when she turned out to be a little girl I just picked on the first name that came into my head. That’s how I called her Jasmine. No reason, really.”

“But that’s such a pretty name.”

“I know, and it suited her. She was a beautiful baby, no wrinkles, the bluest eyes, and hair so silky, with the beginnings of curls. I was sure she’d grow up to have curly hair like me.

“But I never knew, because after two weeks in the mother and baby home she was taken away from me. They told me it was the best thing for both of us. I screamed my heart out for four days and nights. I wanted to die. I have never ever got over that loss. You know, the desolation has never left me.”

“And now you feel the time is right to try and discover how Jasmine’s life has turned out?”

Angie felt her heart jolt when Julia spoke Jasmine’s name. It made her daughter seem real and no longer the figure of fantasy that had been inside her head for all these years. “Yes,” she said. “I need to know she’s all right. Even though she’s had to live so long without me. You see, Julia, I don’t have a lot of time. I was told yesterday by my consultant that I have a terminal illness . . .”

Angie’s voice trailed off and she reached into her bag for another tissue.

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