Pandora’s Box

She was walking the streets, not knowing where to go.   Leaving had been inevitable, but Pamela did not go to bed thinking “tomorrow’s the day”.  Her decision and action were sudden, as hurried as the packing of her case. 

She strode steadily along the redbrick terraces of Macklington, the security of her home on Warmsley Street fading with every echoing step.  Unsure of her immediate future, nevertheless she reached the first corner without a second thought, or even a notion to look back.  She turned it; not going but gone.

Mother would make a show of looking for her, for a week or two.  She would tell the neighbours how she is worried: “I know she’s 24 but Pammy’s, you know, different.  She’ll say “I’m only glad Father’s not here to see it.  He did worry so”.  The truth is that Mother would not manage without the lifelong anxiety of Pamela to distract her.  In time the relief that she no longer has to worry will be replaced by brittle silence, of having nothing much to say and having no-one to say it to.

The worry began when she was barely eight: an argument about a child’s ticket in the cinema.  “She’s never eight,” the manager had said, “Look at the size of her!  Fifteen if she’s a day.”  Pamela was extraordinarily tall, even then, but her humiliated parents were escorted out to the foyer and obliged to pay the extra.  From that day they paid adult prices for everything.  Avoiding embarrassment about Pamela became a way of life. 

When she started secondary school the novelty of being different was a distinct advantage for Pamela.  Other children wanted to be her friend and she was first to be picked for sports, especially netball at which she naturally excelled.  Girl friends came home for tea, Pamela was invited to birthday parties, and the other parents spoke to them in the shops.  But as she and her contemporaries arrived at the threshold of womanhood she found herself the target of name calling.  “Lanky”, “Stilts”, and “Beanpole” were the kinder epithets.  Being so different brought a loneliness  she learned to bear, but it also added grit to the oyster of her character.

By the time she really was 15 Pamela was 6’7” and her growth showed no sign of slowing.  Mother took her to the doctor but she had no disease he could treat.  All her limbs and features were correctly proportioned, and in fact she was rather pretty.  There was just a lot of her.  Had her height been causing Pamela psychological trouble, he said, he might have prescribed hormone therapy but she seemed as well adjusted as any teenager is.  When they returned home her parents sat quietly in the kitchen, nursing teacups, crestfallen.  She realised then that they were disappointed for themselves, not for her.

Then when she was 18, and nudging 7’0”, Pamela left school.  Pottlemore’s Circus came to Macklington, as they did every June, and against her parents’ reservations Pamela took a job with them, touring nearby towns.  She mucked out the animal stalls, sold tickets and hot-dogs, generally helped the performers, and watched them from the ringside.  In Pottlemore’s she found another family, one where differentness and non-conformity was celebrated, embraced and valued.  She also made money, friends, and discovered an unsuspected talent: she had a rare gift for ventriloquism.  The summer ended and the circus moved on.  For the rest of that year Pamela filled shelves in her local supermarket.  Sometimes she relieved boredom by juggling with fruit, or entertaining the customers by throwing her voice into their purchases.  Every Witsun afterwards, though, she hung up her blue tabard and waited at the corner of the recreation ground.  When the first of Pottlemore’s wagons pulled in off the by-pass she blossomed again.

In the April of the fourth year Cyril Pottlemore himself called at Warmsley Street.  He stood on the black lacquered and polished step, wearing his trademark yellow checked suit and red bowler hat.  He had a proposition.  Of course, at 21, Pamela needed no permission but Mr Pottlemore was ‘old school’ and wanted to reassure her parents that his offer was on the level or, as he put it, “all bright and tiddly-push like”.  The gist was that the previous winter he had been touring somewhere called the Cont-e-nont, looking for new acts and had found Anton Dubcek, a 2’10” midget.  Anton had been part of a clown troupe, but had lost a leg in a human cannonball accident.  With Pamela now 7’6”, and still rising, he’d had the idea of teaming them up in a unique ventriloquism act.  Pamela would be the ‘vent’ and Anton would be the dummy.

“Anton might look like a little kid, ‘specially next to you, but he’s older than you’d think and dead keen to try something new.  I thought, only if you’re agreeable like, when we’re ready to get going you could join us at Easter and work up the act with Anton.  Of course, for stage purposes only you understand, we’d need to give you another name, something more dramatic.  I thought Pandora.  What do you say?” 

She said yes, but fate struck first.  Easter was early that year and a late chill had left the training ground slippery.  Anton, unsteady on his crutches, had slipped on one of the rides and crushed his other leg.  Generous Pottlemore, had kept him on: “Pottlemore looks after his own,” he’d said “there’ll always be something for you here.”  But by the time Pamela joined them Anton was being pushed around the site in a wheelbarrow, broken in heart as well as body, facing a life of being lifted onto the stool behind the cash desk on show days, or staring bleakly out of the caravan window when they were closed.  Now, with Pamela’s arrival, Pottlemore was to change all that. 

To the old showman Anton’s disability just made him even more unique, and there was no malice or heartlessness about it.  Of course he saw opportunity for himself, but it was an also an opportunity for Anton to earn his keep, no favours asked or given, and a chance to be a performer again for as long as his health allowed.

He laid out his vision: Anton speaking from within Pandora’s star-studded box and then, without his proper false legs on, being taken out to perch, floppy limbed on her lap.  To all appearances he would be a traditional ventriloquist’s dummy and, with heavy makeup and clever lighting, nobody would be able to tell he was not a painted wooden doll. He said that with Anton’s clown’s training and comic timing, Pamela’s flowering talent as a ventriloquist, and their extraordinary size difference, they would be a sensation.  Within a fortnight Pandora was carrying Anton around the ring, him holding vented conversations with mesmerized children, or singing with the orchestra. “The Amazing Pandora and Anton” were indeed sensational and, by the time the circus arrived in Macklington again, the show was selling out every night.

Such was their success that Pamela stayed until the end of the season and the act continued to develop.  First disguising him with the help of a mask, and later a pair of papier maché mittens, Pandora began to walk among the ringside seats, actually handing Anton to patrons to hold while she threw her voice from him.  Their performance, like the magic that deceives even close up, was electrifying.  By the end of the season they, and Pottlemore, were excitedly discussing taking the act  still further.  With a full upper body wooden cast for Anton, he would be a manikin to Pandora’s puppeteer and, at the climax of the act, she would take a pair of theatrical golden shears, cut the strings and set Anton free to dance.  There was even talk of a TV appearance.

It had been a long season and rather than spend the winter on a travellers’ site, Pamela returned to Warmsley Street and took the exhausted Anton with her.  But when they arrived Pamela discovered her father was seriously ill; “Pneumo something or other” her mother said “coal dust, his lungs are gone, poor bugger”.  After tea she made up a camp bed for Anton in the parlour.  “I hope that’s all right, I mean you’re not, you know, you and him, you’re not, well, not………together like.”

Pamela did not laugh at her mother’s inability to speak the words, or the thought itself, though well she might have.  By any measure, not least of stature, it was a preposterous notion, and yet these past months of enforced closeness, of sharing triumph and pain with Anton, had produced a bond as close as that of love, if not love itself.  They needed each other to be whole.

The winter passed with Pamela and Anton planning the coming season but the pall cast by her father’s decline began to suck the life out of them too.  They managed to laugh a few times, and even to raise a smile on her mother’s tired face, but in January her father died.  After the funeral the three of them sat, listening to the sound of the mantel clock ticking, and after a week of that Pamela knew she would have to leave soon or suffocate. 

It was Anton who decided it.  Pamela woke cold in the chilled air, her pink and green candlewick bedspread sliding from her bed.  She leaned over to drag it back and saw, to her shock, that it hadn’t fallen but had been pulled: by Anton.  He was cold too.  Very.  For some reason he had dragged himself up from the parlour, the stairs finally proving too much for his damaged and overtaxed body.

That was the moment.  Pamela dressed, took her case from the top of the wardrobe and threw in her clothes.  It was Pamela that kissed Anton gently on the forehead, folded him neatly and placed him on top of her stage costume, but it was Pandora who snapped the locks and carried the case quietly downstairs before stepping out into the dawn.  So she walked, not knowing where to go.  But she knew what to do.  She knew where Pottlemore’s would be at Easter, and by then she would have found a discreet taxidermist.

“Snakes and Ladders” – a fictional story of predatory behaviour

‘Snakes and Ladders’

 “What goes around comes around”.  It’s a common enough aphorism, but God knows there is precious little evidence for a perfect karmic system of justice.  It has served me well enough though, helping me suck up the slights of life in the belief that the perpetrator, the cause of my angst, would one day ‘get’ his, or hers.  Taking the high ground, I used to call it.  It kept me out of a few confrontations but when it failed, bloodied and bruised, whether literally or metaphorically, I took comfort from belief in a future of righteous redress.  Until, that is, I met Nadine.

Nadine must have been born manipulative because even at 19, when we first met, she was already the finished article.  She had all the physical and intellectual assets one could want in a woman, except one: she had no scruples. She could make you feel you were in the wrong, and even apologise for getting in her way, as she put the boot in.  Fortunately for me our paths only crossed tangentially, but from time to time we had mutual friends and colleagues.  I heard from them about the damage she did but never that she’d been called to account.

I first came across her at a flat warming.  Three first year student friends of mine, Niki, Simon and Ella, were sharing a sunny first floor in Clapham.  Nadine came along to the party with a mutual friend of theirs.  Niki and Simon were a loose item, rather more loose to Simon than Niki it transpired when Nadine made a blatant play for him.  She was taller, more athletic, and cleverer than Niki and it didn’t take her long to ease the heartbroken girl out of the flat and take over her room.  Shortly after that she dumped Simon over some fabricated dalliance between him and Ella and, in three months from start to finish, she had the flat to herself.

By these and similar methods she clawed, inveigled or dissected, her way to an underserved first class degree (leaving her tutor’s marriage in tatters in the process) and then an MBA.  By the time she was ready for the snakes and ladders of business she’d ‘hopscotched’ her way across London from flat to maisonette to house, and along the way had accumulated a rather nice Alpha Romeo Spyder, a time share in Gleneagles, a pony (stabled) and more jewellery than could be decently worn in polite company.

The infuriating thing was that Nadine didn’t need to be this way; she was actually über competent, at everything.  She never climbed over someone into a qualification, a job, or a bed that she didn’t then occupy with more success and ease than the rightful incumbent.   Her reasoning seemed to be that there was no point in wasting everyone’s time, especially hers, proving that she was better at, or more deserving of, something someone else already had.  She just took it, used it, and then abandoned it when the next opportunity came her way, leaving someone else to pick up the pieces.

We were 5 years out of university before I saw her again.  I was with my, then, girlfriend Elaine at the British Film Institute; a season of Balkan avant-garde movies.  When the lights came up, there she was in the seat in front.  I tapped her on the shoulder.  We walked out to the foyer together, she chatting superficially in the way you do when you’re struggling to remember the name of someone you’ve met out of context.  She introduced us to her companion Boris, an under-something in the Croatian embassy, before we went our separate ways.  Later I heard she had a flat in Korcula and Boris had been demoted and transferred to a consulate in Bolivia.

We met a couple more times, just passing through the same airport departure lounge, or a reception somewhere, but the next occasion after that was different.  I was diligently, if tediously, working my way up the ladder in a private bank.  I even had a chic office on a favoured 35th floor corner in Canary Wharf.  Well, to be more accurate, it was my boss Dave that had the corner office, I was next door.  Anyway, one hot May I was sitting with my door open, for the illusion of cooler air, and looked up to see Nadine standing there, being introduced by Dave as his new P.A.  She was casually dressed in a tailored silk blouse and slacks, but every inch the powerful corporate animal.  There was just the merest flicker of recognition from her before she turned away and I knew right then that, whichever way the dice fell, poor Dave was about to land on a succession of squares with snake heads and slide right off the game board.

In a way Nadine counted me as a friend, well at least not an enemy, because I’d never had anything she wanted, nor stood between her and her next objective.  Nevertheless it was prudent self-preservation that stopped me from trying to warn Dave.  Instead I watched her, in the way a fascinated child watches a python in the zoo, as she undulated her way into position for her next live meal.

Her first coil was simple and subtle: a presentation to a new client went unaccountably wrong.  A brochure was bound with some pages upside down, a name tag was misspelled, some annual account figures didn’t quite add up.  The outsourced printers took most of the blame, but the CEO noticed the beads of sweat break out on Dave’s upper lip, and the adroit way that Nadine gathered up the loose ball and ran with it.  She knew exactly what to say, and how to say it in such a way as to leave the unmistakable impression of a man out of his depth being rescued by a loyal and undervalued assistant.

The second coil wound on quickly afterwards, at a Wimbledon-week garden party for some minor-royal Saudi client.  Of course there was no alcohol on offer with the post- match strawberries, but ever-attentive Nadine saw to it that, as he networked the clients, Dave’s glass of fruit punch was always topped up, but with a little hidden extra.  When he was found face down in the shrubbery Nadine was tending him wearing a Royal teal-blue hijab she had secreted in her handbag.  The contrast between her chaste modesty and her disarrayed drunken boss ensured that control of the account passed to her, and she was being tipped to head up the Dammam office the following year.

The only time she came even close to being exposed was when Ranjit, the night security guard, found her going through Dave’s desk and laptop.  She was copying and deleting files, leaving a trail of incompetence for her coup de grâce.  Ranjit was no match for Nadine and easily fell victim to her blushing embarrassment; he was “paid in kind”, then blackmailed, for his silence.  And so it went on; little by little the life, and job, was squeezed out of Dave.

About 6 months later I happened to be sharing the lift with Nadine, by then my boss, when it shuddered to a stop between floors.  Ordinarily being trapped in a lift with a more-than attractive predatory female would be the stuff of many a male fantasy, but the barely nascent thought was stifled by the realisation that, at last, what had gone around was about to come around in spades: Nadine was obviously very scared, and she began to unravel.  This time it was her doing the sweating, her with a look of non-comprehension on her face, and her out of control as she crumpled into a corner hugging her knees and gabbling.  It wasn’t hard to get her to talk about herself at any time so it only took gentle prompting, purely as a way of calming her nerves you understand, to get her to review her successful career and catalogue her victories and victims.  By the time we got to the juicy details of poor Dave’s fall she was standing again, head back in full flow, assured and confident as ever.

After about an hour power to the lift was restored, and downward travel resumed.  Nadine checked herself over in the mirrored wall of the lift car, adjusted her neck line, smoothed down her skirt, and flicked her hair before turning and thanking me for helping her keep calm. At the 8th floor, where she was going to a wine and canapés ‘do’ for future vice-presidents, she gave me a peck on the cheek, at the same time digging her finger nails ever-so gently into my hand to tell me, as if I needed telling, that she intended her ‘performance’ to be our little secret.

Me?  I was on my way home to Elaine, but I got out of the lift as well.  I thought that walking the last few floors would give me time to think, about what I should do and how it might play out, and I was right.  By the time I had reached the lobby, I knew.  I ran the last flights to the basement security office and Ranjit, and the recording from the in-lift CCTV camera.  Despite the emergency lighting in the stranded lift, the dim images were perfectly usable, and the sound crystal clear.

Don’t you just love ‘YouTube’?

 

© Andrew Gold 2015

Days of Beige

D’Arcy and Sybil approach the promenade café, as they do once a week, for a late breakfast.
They are dressed in their Saturday clothes. D’Arcy is wearing needlepoint corduroy trousers and a safari jacket. Both are beige, and baggy on his thin frame. A narrow-striped shirt, paisley cravat, and suede shoes complete his ensemble. Light on his feet for an octogenarian, D’Arcy springs to the door with a flourish. He pulls it open for Sybil and salutes smartly. Smiling coyly she pulls at his arm and says what she always does.  “Oh D’Arcy, behave.”
Mr Singh, the café owner, comes round his counter wiping his hands on the teacloth which always hangs from his shoulder and greets them.
“Good morning Mr D’Arcy. How are you today? Mrs D’Arcy. You look lovely as always. Is that a new dress? Very beautiful.”
He knows it is not a new dress. It is the same pale blue dress she wore last week, and the week before, the one she got at Sue Ryder in the High Street at Easter. Her black patent court shoes match the small bag hanging on a chain, loosely, from her shoulder.
Mr Singh ushers them to their table, the one by the window, the one with the white plastic ‘Reserved’ sign which he deftly removes.
“Your table”, he says, as he flicks the seats with his cloth. “I trust this is satisfactory?” He knows it is satisfactory. It is always the only table vacant at 11 on a summer Saturday morning in his busy establishment. He enjoys the game they play. He is their Majordomo, they are his valued guests in a grand hotel dining room somewhere.
D’Arcy pulls a chair back for Sybil to sit and Mr Singh does the same for him.
“And what can I get for you today, something special perhaps?” He knows the answer.
“I think we’ll have two of your toasted teacakes, some thin cut marmalade and a pot of your finest Darjeeling tea, if you please Mr Singh”.
As D’Arcy and Sybil settle into contemplation of the week past, Mr Singh turns towards the kitchen. He is stopped in his tracks by the café door being wrenched open and two more customers come in. It is Shane and Trisha. He thinks “Oh God, not today, please” but feels his skin go tight around his jaw as he must say something else, with a smile. “I’m sorry, but we are full just now, perhaps you can come back later, yes?”
Trisha half turns to leave but Shane points and moves towards the two empty seats at D’Arcy and Sybil’s table.
“Nah, this’ll do, won’t it Trish. We don’t mind sharin’, even with wrinklies.” He laughs.
Mr Singh and D’Arcy look at each other. Mr Singh’s eyes plead and say he doesn’t want any trouble. D’Arcy raises a hand to acknowledge his plight and his eyes say they don’t mind sharing.
Shane and Trish sit, placing their mobile ‘phones on the table. Not waiting to be asked Shane orders. “Two mugs of tea, and two bacon and egg rolls, Gunga Din, and make it quick: people to see, places to go.” Mr Singh returns to his kitchen and Shane mocks the gentility of the old couple opposite.
“I say Trish, the tone of this gaff has gone down a bit lately ain’t it. What’s that pong? Old people always whiff a bit, don’t they?” Sybil is wearing her priceless Jean Patou scent, the one from the tiny black bottle she keeps on her dressing table, the one she got in Paris at the end of the war. Trish giggles, but looks at Sybil’s kindly calm face and feels a wriggle somewhere inside. She is uncomfortable but the goading is cut short when the orders come. Her ‘phone pings. She picks it up, looks at the screen, snorts “s’only Chantelle” and puts it down again.
Sybil and D’Arcy unwrap their butter patties delicately, carefully scraping each paper clean before folding them precisely. They quarter their teacakes, and cut them again into neat triangles. The treat lasts longer that way. They are used to making things last.
Shane and Trish grab at their rolls, but then look and grin at each other. In grotesque parody of the gentility across the table, they cut their rolls into pieces. Then, mouth open, they noisily chew a quarter at a time, the runny egg dribbling down their chins and over their fingers.
D’Arcy and Sybil continue to talk quietly about the week gone and the day to come.
“It turned out nice after all, didn’t it D’Arce? I thought the rain was in for the day, but it turned out nice.”
“Yes. Nice. I thought it might, something about the clouds looked, you know…promising.”
“Yes. Promising. You’re usually right about the weather, aren’t you? We could walk down to the bowling club later, if your legs are alright, D’Arce.”
“Yes, good idea. Is your teacake nice?” Mine’s lovely, I think they’re always good in here.”
Shane’s ‘phone pings. He picks it up, looks at it, guffaws “Facebook” then resumes his goading.
“I say Patricia, if you’re up to it, we could go dahn the skate park. By the way, these rolls are quite superb ain’t they? The egg works with the crispy bacon so well, don’t it? Oi! Gunga Din, my compliments to the chef.” Then he turns to D’arcy.
“What do you think D’Arce old chap. ‘Ere, ‘ave a try.”
And with that he lifts his plate and slides a half-eaten part of his roll onto D’Arcy’s teacake. Egg oozes into marmalade.
D’Arcy stares at his plate, and then at Shane. Trish feels the wriggle again, but smirks. D’Arcy looks back at his plate and then at Sybil. “Oh dear,” she says “that’s not nice is it. Not called for at all”.
“No, not called for Sybil. Perhaps we should go, we don’t want to cause any trouble?”
Shane, sensing his advantage, presses on.
“What about Sybil ‘ere, she looks like she could do with a bit of protein. ‘Ere you go luv.”
And he scrapes part of Trish’s roll onto Sybil’s plate.
D’Arcy and Sybil look at each other again, resigned, and Sybil picks up her bag and makes to leave but Shane in, mock regret, implores them to stay.
“Oh, don’t go. I’m sorry. Let me get you another. Oi, Gunga Din, Mr and Mrs D’Arce ‘ere ‘ave ‘ad an accident. Another two teacakes if you please.”
Sybil sits again, her hand still on her bag, and looks again at her husband.
“It’s no use D’Arce. We’ll have to do something.”
“I suppose so, Sybil.”
Shane feigns alarm “Oooh, careful Trish. We’ve got ‘em all annoyed now, they might….”
But, before Shane can finish his sentence, D’Arcy and Sybil each pick up a fork and pin his denim jacket cuffs to the table. Trish’s scream chokes as Sybil wraps the chain of her handbag round her neck and pulls her, face first, into the remains of her egg roll. While Sybil holds Trish down, D’Arcy reaches for Shane’s mobile phone and places it in the centre of the table in front of the immobilized youth.
Looking directly into Shane’s eyes, he brings the heel of his hand down on the handle of a knife which spins into the air. In one flowing movement he catches it again and drives the buttery blade through the ‘phone’s screen. Applause breaks out in the café.
D’Arcy and Sybil wipe their hands on Shane’s hair and walk to the door.
“Well Sybil, to be honest I wasn’t sure we could still do that, were you?”
Oh yes, D’Arce. I know we’re getting on a bit but S.O.E training was very good. Those were the days. So, bowling then?”

Rabbi Burns

A tale for Burns Night.
I was Glasgow-January cold, head-down at my ‘Hungry and Homeless’ pitch outside the station; knees under my chin, complete with polystyrene cup, obligatory sad-eyed mongrel at my feet, and a fresh pack of cigarettes in my army surplus satchel. The dog looked up, so I looked up too. “Any spare change, pal?” I said, but the outstretched hand was empty.

“I’m Bob Burns,” the owner of the hand said, “my friends call me the Rabbi”.

I shook the hand. Looking at his clothes, and hearing the Ulster edge in his voice, I thought, “Rabbi is it? More like another dosser”, but instead I said “I don’t do synagogue, and you don’t sound, or look, Jewish – so…..”. I hoped he’d take the hint and go away, but instead he sat on the blanket. The dog raised an eyebrow and half-looked at him, but dropped her head again when he stroked it, and went back to sleep.

“I’ve heard that before”, he said, “the not-looking-Jewish bit anyway…, apart from wearing this.” He fingered a silver Star of David around his neck, hanging on the same chain as a small crucifix, a miniature Buddha, a couple of Chinese-looking symbols and a Hindu Mandala. He went on, “I think it’s the red hair that foxes people. Me Ma was from Larne, and me Da was from Poland. He was a refugee, and Jewish, in that order too – a refugee in his mind all his life, poor man. Of course, technically, that makes me not Jewish at all – since it passes through the mother’s line – so that makes me…”

“A Protestant,” I interrupted, with more than a touch of sectarian sarcasm, and pointing to the laden chain, “but it looks like that’s the only team you’re not playing for; you hedging your bets?”

He smiled. “Aye, Mebee. I like to think of meself as more of an ‘Ecumenical Non-Conformist’,” but while I was mesmerised by the mock-importance of that, he said, “Can I ponce a fag off you?” Something in his grin was disarming, even irresistible: I gave in. “Here, have one of these,” I said, offering not the end of my roll-up, which I kept for the image, but one of my precious Silk Cut, “but do you mind not sitting here with it – the punters are put off if we’re mob handed, you’ll queer my…”, but I didn’t get to finish; the authority of his touch on my sleeve shut me up.

“I was wondering, if you’ve got nowhere to go later, would you come across to the shelter, under the railway arches over there?” His head pointed, with a nod and a flick, to a side street. “We’re doing soup, and some poetry”. And with that he rose, like a snake uncoiling to a charmer’s pipe, and, just as hypnotically, swayed off through the evening rush-hour crowd. He called back over his shoulder, “and tea,” and then, “thanks for the fag,” and finally a fading “see you later.”
I can’t say now, any more than I could then, why near that midnight I was standing under the railway arches, the dog even more nervous than me, looking for a non-Jewish, poetry-reading, Irish Rabbi called Burns. I felt the dog’s string go eager-taut in my hand as she, again, saw him first, this time coming out of an open doorway in a wall. He fussed her: “Hello Gypsy lass, good girl, Good girl,” and then turned to me, his hand on my shoulder. “You made it then – that’s grand. Come on in, we’ve a fire going, the soup’s on – we’ll start the poetry in half an hour or so”. I didn’t remember having told him the dog’s name, but let it pass, and followed him, and the warm air, into the cellar. The smell of damp plaster and brick dust mixed with that of defeat from those sitting hunched on boxes and chairs around the walls, and the kettle of sweet broth on the brazier.

I was the youngest there by a mile. Some seemed so old that they were beyond old: poverty, cold and hopelessness does that, especially the hopelessness: I’d seen it on the streets every day.

We sat. Hunted, weary, and even a little wary, each gripping soup and broken bread in fingerless gloved hands: refugees all, from the world outside. In the dim paraffin-lamp light, and through the steam rising from my cup, I watched the Rabbi. He was a sort-of beachcomber of souls, and we were the flotsam thrown up on his personal shore. He moved around the walls, speaking quietly, refilling cups and offering something to each in turn….offering – I couldn’t hear the words; for all the world it could have been a benediction, absolution even, except for him being a Rabbi of course, but he was offering something – more than soup and bread – I could see it in their faces.

“Well, Ally,” he said, as he got round to me, “let’s get the poetry going before we all fall asleep.” He held out a folded piece of paper, “Here, you can start”. I didn’t remember having told him my name either, but didn’t dwell on it at the time, and so I read. The rest of the night passed well enough, all reading something, and in the morning we left, dispersing our strange fellowship in the early fog.

It was a couple of months later when I did think about it: when I went back to tell him how I’d had a change in my luck, how I had a place to stay now, and a job: crappy, but a job. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t feel hopeless any more, that I had even thought, just once or twice, of going to synagogue again. I was going to ask him how he had known….but…., but I couldn’t find the opening in the wall under the arch, never mind the cellar.
A old man, sweeping the road there, said I must be mistaken: his breathing and words punctuated by his rasping brush strokes. “There hasn’t been a cellar here since the war…………….a raid on the railway yards…………..direct hit……………….a lot of people killed in there…………………….mostly refugees off a train…………….filled in the cellar when the viaduct was rebuilt.” Then I thought about it.

I still had the piece of paper he gave me, and I read it again then, as I do now…
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
and his handwritten footnote,
We’re all the same before God, Ally, any religion or none!
was signed, of course,
Rabbi Burns.
©Andrew Gold 2014
1147 words

It was big….

The writing group was asked to write 500 words beginning with “It was big…”

It was big…

“It was big”. That’s it? That’s all he’s said?”

“Yes. From the moment we found him, that’s all: it was big.”

“And he was just sitting there on the beach?”

“Just above the high water line, and more curled up, cowering like.”

“Any idea who he is?”

“Nope, no I.D. at all. He was wearing yellow oilskins though, well what was left of them. There’ve been no Maydays tonight, but he must have come from a wreck. I’ve alerted the team for a search from first light, if anything else has come ashore they’ll find it.”

Coastguard Sector Officer Barnard stood in his dripping grey waterproofs and stared beyond the rain spattered window, the only sounds the hiss of the radio that wove with the shrieking storm outside. After a while, he turned back to his Station Officer.

“You seem to have everything covered but keep a visual watch going, and listen out on Channel 16. I’ll go and see him; which hospital did he go to?”

“The Cottage, but apart from shock he was uninjured so they discharged him to the Mission; that’s where he is now.”

The Fishermen’s Mission was in a narrow lane off the harbour. Barnard parked on the quay, by the bucking sheltering boats, and ran to its door splashing through puddles of diesel-sheened rainwater, the acrid scent of smoked fish in his nostrils. The Mission’s canteen smelled too: of stewed tea, baked beans, and stale chips. Barnard found him there, alone amongst the otherwise ordered tables, at the centre of a widening whirlpool of furniture: a human maelstrom thrashing and pushing away everything around him.

Barnard grabbed an overturned chair and sat, but immediately found himself fighting the man for control of the table between them.
Eventually, whatever the man was grappling with relented and his clawing hands moved instead to encircle a half-spilled mug of tea and rum. Draining it in one swallow the man stared silently into its empty depths, searching. Then he suddenly slammed the mug down, his wild red-rimmed eyes looking directly into Barnard’s and said, almost pleading, “It was big. Big”.

Barnard spoke quietly, reaching out a hand to reassure him. “You’re safe now. Safe, do you understand?”

But the man recoiled, seeing something other than compassion in Barnard’s still glistening wet arm. He howled. “Safe? Safe? It was BIG!”, and then overwhelmed he fell forward, wrestling again with his table demon.

By morning the man was re-admitted to hospital, deranged beyond comfort of reason, religion or rum. A boat was reported missing, but the searchers found nothing.

A few days later, further up the coast, a trawler snagged its nets on something that towed it backwards for 5 miles. They thought it was a submarine, but the navy said that none were in the area.

Later still, a dead Sperm whale washed up. Not of itself unusual, but its stomach contents were: lengths of thick tentacle, a huge gelatinous eye, and a beak festooned with shredded yellow oilskin.

Andrew Gold©
05 September 2014

 

 

“Memento Memo”

The writing group was challenged to write, in ten minutes, a story linking two or more previously unseen objects from a tray placed in front of them.  The objects I can recall were a small silver picture frame with a photo of a baby, a pen, a Swiss Army penknife, a flower, a notebook, a sealed envelope, a British Legion enamel lapel badge, a paper clip, a pair of small scissors and, of course, the tray itself.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Cecille looked at the small envelope laying on the hall tray with emotion somewhere between fear and excitement, but definitely emotion  After all, she had been anticipating such an envelope for 43 years.  She picked it up cautiously, surprised that it didn’t weigh more given the probable import of its contents.  She turned it end-over-end through her fingers, studying the writing, and then walked slowly to her drawing room where she sat at her secretaire.

Her late husband’s penknife, the one he brought back as a retirement keepsake from his office in Berne, seemed like the appropriate tool to open the letter; the violence of a finger or thumb ripping through the flap wouldn’t do.  Carefully she inserted the blade, slit open the envelope and prized open the pouch. Inside was a small piece of folded lavender coloured note paper.  Cecille drew it out and, as she opened the fold, a small photograph fell to the floor which she bent stiffly to retrieve.  It was faded, but clearly of a small child holding a doll.  The writing on the paper was also small; neat and tentative.

“Dear Cecille,” it said, “If you recognise this picture, or even the doll, I think I may be your daughter.  If I am, and you would like to meet me, please write back.”

Cecille’s eyes filled.  She stretched across to a small vase of flowers, cut a bloom with her desk scissors, and put it into one of her own envelopes.  Then she took her pen and a piece of paper and began to write.

“Wheelie Bin Collection Day”

For 11 July the writing group was asked to write 500 words, or fewer, about Wheelie-bin Collection Day.

“Wheelie-bin Collection Day”

 “Shh.  Shh, be still.

There, that’s better.  Didn’t help to struggle, did it?  Nice and tidy.  See,  practice makes perfect.

I didn’t mean the first one.  I was sleeping rough under a flyover in London; some tosser came at me with a knife over a can of ‘Special Brew’.  Must’ve thought I’d be easy, being small like.  Ridiculous thing to die for really, only a mouthful left in it.  It wasn’t much of a scrap, two tours in Afghan saw to that; training kicked in, like his head.   There was this row of big bins, so I thought “why not?”  ‘Course I didn’t hang about afterwards.  I was three weeks and a hundred miles away when he was found.  No I.D, I’d made sure of that.  Nobody missed him, so the police didn’t try too hard.  To be honest I got a buzz out of recycling the man-trash he was and getting away with it.

Now, where’s that plastic sheet?  Ah, here we are.

Then there was Marcia.  I found her crying in a park; she was having trouble with her boyfriend, beating her up and that.  She wanted him out of her basement flat, and I wanted somewhere off the street for the winter: seemed like a fair trade.  She got him well drunk, and took a bit of a bashing doing it, but after he passed out I put a plastic bag over his head and fixed it on with this Duck tape.

Good and tight.

There was a skip two streets down, roof extension just started, so we heaved him in there under some old carpet.  You know what it’s like with skips; sat for a month with other people filling it up, then someone set fire to it.  ‘Course, she had to go too when I left in the spring; couldn’t risk her grassing me up.  She went under the floor boards.  Bare earth, so easy dig even for me, but a bit tricky ‘cause the joists were close together and she wasn’t exactly a size 12, if you get me.  It’s an Asda now.  They didn’t find her so I think she’s still there; maybe under cold meats, eh?

Last bit now.

I still had my passport, and a few quid from Marcia, so I bought a flight here.  Did a bit of bar work round the iron ore mines.  It was OK for a while.  ‘Course it was illegal, no work visa, and very blokey, but they liked having a pretty face around.  Good money, mind, but too dirty and hot for me, even after Afghan.  And the flies! Jesus! Like flying raisins, bloody millions of ‘em!  How did you cope?   That’s why I came into Perth.  Found you and your lovely clean bathroom.  It’s a bit more anonymous in a city too, lots of transients, and more wheelie bins.

There, all done.

It’s a good job you had air con isn’t it?  Silly me, I forgot to ask when your collection day is.”

Andrew Gold©

11 July 2014

500 words

 

PS After I had written the first draft of this story I discovered that disposing of bodies, victims of murder usually, in this  way is not at all uncommon!

  •  1991 – Transgender killer dumps former lover in bin – funds foreign travel on stolen cards
  • December 1994 – Glasgow man thrown from a window and dumped in a wheelie bin.
  • March 2006 – Manchester 11 year old killed by 15 year old – dumped in wheelie bin in park.
  • October 2008 – Edinburgh man kills father – body found in bin 7 weeks later.
  • June 2009 –  Couple murder man’s girlfriend – body in wheelie bin for 3 weeks.
  • June 2011 –  Woman murders on/off lover – helped by friend to dump in a wheelie bin.
  • March 2012 – Man killed in Wigan – dumped in wheelie bin.
  • November 2012 – Southampton man murdered and dumped in wheelie bin.  Killers arrested trying to move body to a skip.
  • March 2013 – Cambridgeshire serial killer dumps first of 3 victims in wheelie bin.
  • March 2014 – Man killed in south London – dumped in wheelie bin and bin set on fire.
  • July 2014 – Man killed in Northern Ireland – body found in wheelie bin.
  •  Several cases in Australia, including a lesbian ‘triangle’.

 

 

“It was the best of times”

The writing group task for this week was to write 500 words including, or inspired by, the Dickens opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.  I took the instruction fairly loosely, choosing to write 500 words of dialogue, as follows:

It was the best of times…

Pass me the make-up remover, will you.  God, look at me, I’m a wreck: mascara everywhere.  I look like Morticia Addams.”

“Here.  I know you’re upset now, but it was the best of times, wasn’t it?”

“Hah!  For you, maybe; it was the worst of times for me.”

“That’s not fair, we had great times.”

You had great times with your fans and record deals.  I was barely hanging on, picking up the crumbs when you could be bothered to look my way, but you didn’t notice.” 

“What about that weekend in New York then?  That was a blast for both of us, I know you had a good time there.”

“Yes, a good time, pretending to be Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan up the Empire State.  The rest of that weekend I spent in the hotel suite watching TV while you did, well, whatever it was you did.  Even the bellboy took pity on me and tried it on.  Cheeky young sod.  You know, I worked it out: an hour and a half out of 48 for us.  Our ships never even got a chance to pass in the night, I was tied up in dry dock while you roamed the wild main.  Pass the moisturiser.”   

“I had no idea you were feeling that way.  You’re right.  I’m sorry.  Sorry’s a bit lame isn’t it, but I am sorry.  I suppose it’s too late to say that, anyway.”

“I think we’re way, way past sorry.  We’re in self-harming territory here.  Why do you think I got tangled up with Ricky, it’s not as if he’s really my type.  All spray tan and white teeth.  There, that’s more presentable, the mirror’s all yours.”

“Thanks.  Well, why did you?”

“It wasn’t sex, if that’s what you think.  Well, not all of it.  And it wasn’t to make you jealous, you couldn’t be made jealous because you didn’t care enough.  He just showed me some affection, that’s all; some comfort when I needed it.  You were off on another one of your promo tours, I was stuck here looking after the house and the dog.  If it hadn’t been him then it would’ve been someone else, eventually.  We were already not we any more.”

 “I was going to choose a new sofa for us today.  I tweeted about it.  You should see how many re-tweets there were.  I s’pose I’ll have to tweet about the split too now, before the press come doorstepping; they seem to hear about this sort of stuff before it’s happened.

“How can you do that?  Isn’t ‘OK’ magazine enough?  Most of our life is public property already, why tweet about this?”

“So what do you want to do, move out?  Are you moving in with him?”

“No, that’s finished.   Never started really.  I’ll pack some stuff tomorrow and move in with my mum until I can get set up with another flat.  She’ll be happy having a man about the place again, even if he is gay. 

Andrew Gold©

500 words

29 May 2014

 

“The Sound of the Siren Split the Silence”

The following two 500 word stories were responses to writing group homework set against the above title.

Siren Sound # 1

 “I’m asleep when it starts, I think.

WAH WAH WAH.

I’m awake now, but confused like.  I can’t remember what room I’m in, even what house.

WAH WAH WAH.

My eyes won’t focus but there’s light shining round the edges of the blinds and I see the clock.  It’s half-past three. I’ve been waiting for it to happen, dreading it.  I try to shake my wife awake, but she’s been sleeping badly so she’s had a couple of drinks; she’s snoring.  I can’t rouse her.

WAH WAH WAH.

I try to put my slippers on but get them on the wrong feet and I fall against the chest of drawers, banging my head. I swear and that wakes my wife.

She says “What’s that siren?” Is it a fire?”

I’m really angry.  I think I say “It’s the baby, that’s what it is. I can’t take much more of this”, something like that anyway.  Maybe I just think it.  I have to get up for work in three hours but she’s sleeping through everything.  She mumbles “What baby, I haven’t got a baby”, then rolls over and snores again.

The next thing I know I’m standing over the cot holding the baby really tight and she’s not crying any more, so I put her down again and go back to bed.

Then the alarm goes off and I get up, put the kettle on and go into the bathroom, like I usually do.  Then my wife gets up and looks in on the baby.  She calls down that there’s something wrong with her and to ‘phone for the doctor.

Then I’m in the police station, and they’re saying what about the bruises and that I killed our baby.  That’s it.  But I didn’t do it did I?”

“No, you didn’t.  It’s not unusual to have such dreams, especially with a baby that’s crying a lot.  It’s just frustration.  How long has this been going on?”

“Well, let’s see.  She was very colicky as a small baby, and a difficult feeder, up three or four times a night we were.  Then there was the teething, what a nightmare that was, and then the terrible twos; I suppose nearly three years, so far.”

“That amount of sleep loss would stress anyone, but don’t worry they are just dreams: you won’t kill your baby, but you do need more rest.  I’ll give you a prescription for something to help you sleep; perhaps I should see your wife too.”

WAH WAH WAH.

I was already awake.  I couldn’t get back to sleep.  I was annoyed, it wasn’t my turn, see, but my husband had taken a pill so he didn’t wake up.  I was at my wits end, so tired, so tired, and the neighbours were complaining too.  I only put my hand on her mouth, to shut her up a bit, you know, it was just a short while, to quieten her down.  Oh God. I didn’t mean it.

 

496 Words

Andrew Gold ©

06 May 2014

Siren Sound #2

Kevin and Georghe are sitting in the dark, at the foot of the rectory garden wall.  The tinkling of the van’s engine cooling down clicked off the minutes while they wait to be sure it is all clear.  Then the van’s back door creaks on a rusted hinge, sounding like the massive oak door to the sacristy adjacent, and they unload.

“Right, we’re in.  Hold the ladder, will yer Gheorghe?”

“I holding ladder already”.

“Not there, you Bulgarian berk, hold the bottom while I climb up.”

“I not Bulgarian. I told you Romanian, RO-MAY-NIAN”

“Okay, Romanian, Bulgarian, whatever, but shut up and let me get on the ladder, will yers.”

“You not very nice mans, Kevin.  I thought Irishes very nice mans.  You not nice”.

“Alright, I’m not nice, but this isn’t a popularity contest.  Now pass me up the crowbar.”

“What is crowbar?”

The crowbar, the long bit of metal with a bent end”

“Can let go of ladder?”

“What for?”

“Crowbar in bag.  Bag in van”.

“Holy Mary, mother of Jaysus. Why didn’t yer bring it over the wall with yer?”

“You not say bring bag, you say bring ladder.”

“Never mind, you Balkan eejit, I’ll get it meeself”

“Infaci au!”

“SSHHHHH.  What now?”

“You stand on my fingres”

“Well, move yer feckin fingers out of the way”.

“I can’t”.

Why not?

“You still on my hand”.

“I’ll kill him.  There, is that better?”

Tank you, yes.  Can let go of ladder now.”

There is a muffled exclamation, a thud and a resigned sigh.

“Why you fall in bush, make lot of noise? You say I not make noise.”

“Well, here’s the thing, I think you may have let go of the ladder a touch too soon.  Help me up, and mind them prickles. Oh Jaysus  Oh, look at the state of me.  Now wait here, an’ be quiet.  Don’t be touchin’ anything alright?  I’ll go over and get the bag.”

Still muttering about being landed with a linguistically, as well as criminally, challenged accomplice, Kevin re-joins Gheorghe at the foot of the ladder.

“Right.  We’ll start again.  Now, hold the ladder, an’ when I get to the top pass me up the bag. Okay?  Have yer got that?

“I take crowbar out of bag first?”

“Oh help me God!  Why did we ever let them in the feckin EU?  No, Georghe.  Leave the feckin crowbar in the feckin bag and pass it all up at the same time.  Eejit.”

But, his bulk once more perched at the top, face buried in ivy, Kevin makes another discovery.

“Shit”

“What matter, Kevin”

“It’s the wrong window.  This one has shutters.”

But, before they can regroup, the sound of a siren splits the silence.

“Oh jayz.  Watch out I’m comin’ down.  Hold the ladder steady for us, Gheorghe.  Gheorghe?  Are ye there Gheorghe?”   But it isn’t Georghe at the bottom.

 

“Good evening, sir, can I hold the ladder for you.”

 

 

Andrew Gold©

13 May 2014

497 words

 

 

Riding the Buses #1 & #2

It seems strange after a few years of being, first, in a group based at Eden Court Theatre (Inverness) and then a founder member of what is now, rather grandly, called  The Highland Literary Salon (HLS) to be moving on.  That should not be taken to infer anything other than support and respect for the HLS, and I still receive their splendid newsletter every month.  More power to their collective  elbows.  The thing is that I have moved to a new part of the country and I’ve finally been obliged to join a new writing group.   My first meeting, attended by only two other men in an otherwise female and, it has to be said, “older” group, had been set a task to write up to 500 words on the topic “Riding the Buses”.  I wrote two – here they are.

Riding the Buses (#1)

It had been a year already; a year of avoiding spaces where Danny had been.  A year in which Maureen still half-expected to tidy up things he’d lost interest in or plain forgotten about: a year of making allowances for a presence no longer there; a year of an absence tangible as a presence. 

Most of all he was absent from the No 52, one of the buses they took to the start of their country walks which, despite his inexorable terminal decline, he enjoyed with enthusiasm. Almost to the end he had insisted on dragging himself to the top deck, and right to the front, from where he could see the world as if he owned it, clinging to the possibility he could, would, still do anything he chose.  A denial, of course.  In that last winter she had even had to wipe the condensation from the window, so that the breath from his open, dribbling, mouth did not obscure the view.  Some other passengers, who did not see his innocence and childlike pleasure in the journey, were repelled.  She even heard them say, in hushed tones calculated to be overheard, “they oughtn’t allow them on buses in that condition”. They did not have a Danny in their lives.

Alone she still walked, mostly to please her doctor, but his loss had made travelling by bus almost unbearable.  For a long time Maureen had shunned buses completely, often arranging lifts with friends, even if it meant walking somewhere she disliked, or taking shorter routes, but when that was impossible she chose walks served only by single-deckers.  Then she would sit at the back, and in a window seat, though even that felt odd as if it were really his by right.  But slowly, almost imperceptibly, this new view of the world, less lofty, less detached, brought her back; she saw the view herself, not obstructed by Danny’s matted black hair and head pressed against the glass.

Over the following months Maureen was able to look on others walking together, with less pain and more fondness until, one summers day, stepping off the bus she suddenly knew she was ready to move on: perhaps not a big dog like Danny, when fit he was almost too much for her.  Perhaps a spaniel?  Yes, a spaniel.  Then she would ride the top deck again.

Andrew Gold©

March 2014

393 words

 

Riding the Buses (#2)

 

It wasn’t an entirely routine accident, but Superintendent Nelson still didn’t bother to look up; “You’re the detective, Fry, so detect. But hurry up, we need the road re-opened for the school run, and take young Nixon with you.” 

Sergeant John Fry stood in the half-dawn, unwrapped a toffee and sucked.  He stared at the road, the bridge, the dark stain under the arch, and thought “detect what?  This is for traffic division, or uniform, not C.I.D.”

But the young body had suffered a massive head injury, yet there was no sign of an accident: no skid marks, no broken glass or plastic, no oil or water, no soil from under the crumpled wing of a car – nothing.  All the damage was above the waist; if he’d been hit by a car he would have had leg injuries but even the trainers had been unmarked.

“Well, Nixon, it appears it’s not one for traffic after all.  The ‘super’ said “Detect”, so let’s detect.  Tell me how a kid gets killed at 4 in the morning on a quiet suburban road, leaving no trace, and nobody hears anything?  There must have been a helluva bang.”

“I don’t know guv. Could he have jumped off the bridge, do you think?”

“Suicide? Why? Poor kid was clean, well dressed, obviously cared for, money in his pocket.  He was wearing school uniform, apart from the trainers – his proper school shoes were in a back pack with books and a sandwich; it’s as if he was running to school, but 4 hours early.  Anyhow, he was at St. Joseph’s, a catholic, so not likely a suicide.”

“Pushed?”

“What, from a railway bridge, by who?”  

“OK, thrown from a train, then?”

“Maybe.  I don’t really see that, though: he’d have to have gone clean over the parapet and come down head first.  You can check the times of trains later, but start on the blue tape and re-open the road. Oh, and see if you can find his phone; you’re all glued to ‘phones these days but we didn’t find one on him.  I’m going up on the bridge.”

By the parapet, with the smell of diesel drifting in the cold wind, Fry unwrapped another toffee and looked down at the street, his foot unconsciously probing at trackside rubbish.  The first house lights were coming on, other families were getting up, other kids packing their school lunches. What was he doing here?  Judging by his address, it wasn’t even on the route to his school, so why here?  His toe moved something solid. “Well, someone’s been up here, several someone’s by the looks, and recently”.  Amongst the pile of crisp packets, juice bottles and cans he found a mobile ‘phone, still on. It was the boy’s and it had been recording video: happy, mischievous, conspiratorial ‘selfies’, normal teen stuff – except the last one.  Presumably taken by his friends, it was of a boy surfing the roof of the first bus of the day.

Andrew Gold ©

500 Words

29 March 2014