Never Alone

Todays post is a free-verse poem for which I gained second place in my writers group, Hibiscus Coast Writers, competition. Kudos to my son Josh who advised me on structure.

Never Alone

I am never alone, never without The Voice in my head.

Like rustling reeds on the river-bank, whispering

A sinister stream of contemptuous gibberish –

I know you, I am you.

You yearn to float yet you’re snagged in debris,

Tangled in weeds, boulders in your head,

Coated in moss, gathering no traction,

Going nowhere.

Cast adrift in a river of doubt, on currents of confusion, I despair

Of this susurrus in my ear. Drowning

Beneath the flotsam of condemnation, I struggle to stay afloat,

The under-tow forever dragging me deeper.

Out! Damn voice.

Out, I say.

Out!

I am never alone, never without The Voice in my head.

Like a scurrilous scorpion piercing my ear,

A taunter, a raver, a thought enslaver,

Berating, belittling –

You and me, same species we be.

You’re a fraud, a faker, not a move-maker.

You’re naive to believe thatyou can achieve

Greatness. Noxiously naive and woefully

Weak with no sting in your tail,

You are doomed to fail.

Release me from these pinching pincher’s,

I wail. Leave me alone, I moan,

Grant me peace from your ominous drone.

The sniping never stops.

Out! Damn voice.

Out, I say.

Out!

I am never alone, never without The Voice in my head.

Like a cumbersome Python, hissing in my ear

This slow-moving predator squeezes

My soul, suffocates my sanity,

Odiously hissing –

You and I, both shed our scaly skins,

Exposing our vulnerability, unveiling our degraded selves within.

Legless, we slither and slide, writhe and coil.

Camouflaged by undergrowth,

Spitting self-serving vindictive wrath,

Treacherous belief.

Wrestling in pain against the puncturing

Brutal fangs, my ribs are crushed,

Constricting my breathing, no blood reaching my brain,

Into darkness, I faint, awaiting death.

The venom never stops.

Out! Damn voice.

Out, I say.

Out!

Sizzling Hot Date

Just for fun!

Sizzling Hot Date

Magnificently manicured nails.

Perfectly pedicured toes.

Legs waxed.

Hair coiffured.

Smokey, alluring eye-shadow.

Mascaraed lashes.

Blushed, accentuated cheekbones.

Ruby-red lipstick.

A sensual perfume, liberally sprayed.

Black, lacy push-up bra, hooked.

No panties, not tonight!

Slinky, silky gown, zipped-up.

Elegant drop-pearl necklace, clasped.

Killer stilettos.

Mirror twirl.

Perfection personified.

The woman gyrates her hips to Peggy Lee’s melodious tones.

You give me fever, fever all through the night.

Champaign bubbles tickle her nose.

Reclining on the chaise lounge, she flicks to the first page of E L James’ latest red-hot novel, ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ and…

…her sizzling date begins.

Transformation

(This story I wrote for a club competition. The brief for the competition was either romance, science fiction or historical or a combination of two or more. I aimed for all three. Was I successful? You be the judge. I gained third place.)

Transformation.

‘What if you couldn’t return, and you were stranded into that time forever? What then?’

‘This machine is full-proof, guaranteed to be safe,’ Hayden said, stripping off his paint-splattered overalls.

‘This hypothetical machine?’

‘Yeah, imagine the possibilities.’

‘I struggle to live the life I have been given without travelling to another era.’ Laura stretched out on the couch, pulling the soft throw over her body. The late afternoon winter sun seeping through the windows offered no warmth.

‘But, Honey, if you could, wouldn’t you want to change what happened to you?’ Hayden, perched at the end of the couch, persisted. His sharp blue eyes, reflected by the light, glistened.

‘Always the dreamer,’ Laura, tucking a strand of her greying, auburn hair behind her ear, smiled weakly.

‘I’m guessing you’ve had one of your bad days?’ Hayden, cradling her feet, gently massaged them.

‘The pain is bearable, but the new drug leaves me feeling lethargic. I’ve wandered around in circles all day, achieving nothing.’

‘The doctor said to expect this, didn’t he? Don’t lose hope, Love,’ Hayden murmured, increasing pressure to her slender foot.

‘My life is like a pendulum swinging back and forth between pain and relief, energy and weariness, the axis constantly in motion, obeying gravity and forming distorted circles. I have no control,’ her eyes watered.

‘Why a pendulum?’

‘I’ve always held a fascination for pendulums. My dad owned a drawing pendulum. We spent hours creating random mandalas. I loved that pendulum,’ Laura smiled.

‘What happened to it?’

Laura shrugged.

‘I’ve done nothing all day. Now the gallery is badgering me for a theme for the summer exhibition. My mind is completely blank. I haven’t started supper…’

‘What, no supper again, woman?’ Hayden tickled the soles of her feet.

‘Stop! Please, that’s sheer torture!’ Laura giggled. ‘I got out some lamb chops, and there’s still that salad from last night.’

‘I’ll take that as my cue. Mash or fries?’ Hayden rose from the couch.

‘Oh, your lovely, creamy mash, for sure.’

Laura’s wiry husband kissed her forehead and moved to the adjoining kitchen.

Over supper, Hayden paused as he cut into his lamb chop. ‘What time would you choose, Laura?’

‘Are you still on about time travel?’

‘Yeah, imagine if it was possible, but you could only choose one time period or historical event, what would your choice be?’

‘Oh, Hayden, I don’t know, and I care even less. Could I please enjoy my meal, which is simply splendid, by the way, thank you, without any more of your fantasy talk.’

‘Fantasy talk? Consider this. Once, the notion of men orbiting space would have been labelled Fantasy,’ Hayden’s eyes gleamed. ‘Come on, Laura, humour me.’

‘Okay. Space travel doesn’t interest me, so not that. Maybe a really courageous act by a person that led to monumental change. Like the black American woman who instigated the civil rights movement simply by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, in the fifties.’

‘Rosa Parks.’

‘Yes. To witness Rosa Parks’ brave act and the reaction of the other people on the bus that day, would be awe-inspiring.’

‘And would you be sitting or standing on the bus?’

‘Oh, standing, I imagine. I’d want to see it all.’

Hayden nodded.

‘And your choice?’ Laura asked, resigned to humouring Hayden.

‘Ah, now that’s tricky,’ Hayden poured himself another beer. ‘I’d choose between being aboard Vostok 1 with Yuri Gagarin in 1961, or being present at a V-J day celebration in 1945 like in that iconic photo of the sailor kissing the nurse. Maybe witnessing the death of King Harold in 1066 during the battle of Hastings. I’ve often wondered if an arrow through his eye, really caused his death.’

‘You’re weird, Hayden. You do know that, don’t you?’ Laura laughed.

‘Observing the great Leonardo painting the ceiling of the Cistern Chapel, now that would be breath-taking,’ Hayden threw his arms wide. ‘So much.’

‘Would some everyday, mundane situation be allowed?’

‘Sure.’

Laura gulped the final drops of wine in her glass.

‘I’d like to return to April 9th, 1968.’

‘Huh?’

‘The day before the Wahine sank, the day before my father died.’

‘He drowned, right?’

‘No, he perished from pneumonia, on Eastbourne Beach.’ Hayden clasped Laura’s hand. ‘My dad had swapped shifts on that day with another seaman as a favour. If I could go back in time, I’d choose April 9th, 1968, pretend to be ill, and beg my dad to stay home.’

‘How old were you?’

‘Nine. We celebrated Rory’s eleventh birthday with a picnic at the park the day before that fateful ferry crossing with no inkling of what would befall us. Dad brought us all ice creams from the kiosk – double scoops with chocolate sauce and sprinkles. When I took my first lick, my ice cream fell off the cone, and my brothers laughed and jeered. I burst into tears, and dad gave me his ice cream. My dad was my knight in shining armour. Corny, I know, but that’s how I remember him,’ Laura smiled.

‘You put your feet up, have another wine, and I’ll clear these dishes.’

‘Leave the dishes, Hayden. I fancy an early night, snuggled close to my forever knight in shining armour.’

‘You saucy wench, you.’

‘What prompted this talk of yours about time travel?’ beneath the duvet, Laura rested her head on her husband’s shoulder.

‘I’ve been clearing out old-man Poulson’s place today, for it to be sold.’

‘The elderly recluse who lived in that tumble-down cottage on the hill?’

‘Yep. I had loads of stuff to get rid of.’

‘Like what?’

‘I took a couple of grandfather armchairs, an old radio and a chest of drawers, to Ben Hollows, the furniture restorer.’

‘Aha.’

‘Three Ute loads went straight to the recycling centre, and I dropped ten boxes of books off at the charity shop.’

‘I don’t get how clearing Mr Poulson’s house has caused this fascination with time travel.’

‘By the end of the day, I felt pretty disgruntled. I’m not a removal man or a junk pedlar, though, Ben Hollows was ecstatic with my offerings. He’s promised me a beer or two at the pub. No, I’m a painter.’

‘And a mighty fine one too,’ Laura caressed Hayden’s chest.

‘Anyway, I peeked inside his work-shop, as I passed by. It’s like a mad scientist’s cavern,’

‘How so?’

‘There are wires of various colours and thicknesses looping everywhere. On a bench running the length of the building, Bunsen burners, a gyroscope, at least three microscopes and a radio telescope. Also, an intriguing, oval-shaped box with two dials on the front.’ Hayden grinned.

‘Ah, and the intriguing object is a time machine, and you twiddled the dials, and zoom-zap-bang landed with a thud in New York Square, 1945, your lips plastered to the lips of an unknown nurse. And that’s your explanation for the lipstick on your shirt collar, huh, mister!’

‘Honestly, I’m convinced it’s a time machine.’

Laura sighed. ‘Imagine being Mr Poulson, living alone, dying alone. Did he have any family?’

‘According to Connie at the Four Square, who knows everyone’s business, he has offspring, though they didn’t show for the funeral. It’s them that’s wanting the place sold.’

‘Perhaps we should have made an effort, you know, got to know him.’

‘Hah, I met him once. He was outside his place hacking at a tree with an axe. I stopped to offer help.’

‘And?’

‘He yelled at me, slashed the axe in the air and told me to bugger off. Sour old sod.’

Rolling on his side, his arm around Laura’s torso, Hayden faced his wife. In the dim glow of the bedside light, registering the solemn look on Hayden’s face, Laura stiffened.

‘What is it?’

‘If travel through time is possible, then presumably one could travel to the future as well as to the past.’

‘Oh, now that’s in the realms of creepiness. You’re talking about seeing into the future and I, for one, wouldn’t want to know.’

‘No? Imagine, if you could foresee something bad happening to a loved one, and you have a chance to stop it. Think about it, Laura, you said yourself you’d want to stop your dad from sailing on that fateful day. Surely, this is no different.’

‘But you’d be meddling, you’d be altering history, admittedly history yet unwritten.’ Laura struggled.

‘Precisely, unwritten and if it hasn’t happened, then it’s not history, and you’d be protecting a loved one.’

‘If it was done from a purely altruistic perspective, that would be okay,’ Laura paused. ‘But greedy people would do it for their own monetary gains and egotistical people for their own glory. That’s the danger,’ Laura tugged the hairs on Hayden’s bare chest.

‘Okay, but what if you, Laura Davis, travelled to the future, say, fifty years, and a cure for your condition was available. You’d want that chance, wouldn’t you?’

Laura bolted upright and flung back the duvet. ‘That’s a monstrous thing to say, Hayden, and cruel and totally insensitive.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Do you imagine I want this illness eating away at my insides, sucking the life out of me? That I enjoy the constant needle-pricks and waiting for test results, and popping endless pills and trying different treatments? That I want to inhabit this broken body, that I wear my condition like a cloak of martyrdom?’

‘Whoa, whoa, Laura, no, not at all. You’ve taken it the wrong way. It kills me to watch you suffering.’ Hayden clasped his shaking wife from behind. She brusquely shook him off.

‘I can’t live on dreams, Hayden. Fact, my father died when I was nine. Fact, this condition will continue to worsen and eventually, I may die from it. Hypothesising on voyaging through time will not change those facts.’

Laura rolled away from her husband. Neither Hayden nor Laura had a restful sleep, and in the morning, both avoided mention of the row.

Hayden cleared the work-shop at old man Poulson’s place, taking the majority of the items to the recycling centre. The radio telescope, he gave to Ben Hollows. That evening, he presented the gyroscope to Laura.

‘A peace offering,’ he kissed her gently on the lips. ‘Forgiven?’

‘Forgiven. It’s a beautiful object, isn’t it?’ Laura placed it on a wooden stool beside the French doors.

Secretly, he stashed the intriguing oval box in his own shed, next to Laura’s studio.

The next day, a tantalising smell of lamb roast greeted Hayden as he entered the house.

‘Hmm, something smells great,’ he encircled Laura in his paint-splattered arms. ‘I’m guessing you’ve had a better day.’

‘A brilliant day, an absolutely magical day. Not only have I cooked supper, a rarity, but I have a theme for my installation. Take a look at these.’ Laura thrust her sketch-pad at her husband. He glanced at the sketches, a puzzled frown etched his forehead.

‘They’re sketches of gyroscopes?’

‘Exactly! This morning I caught a glint of light bouncing off the gyroscope. And boom! It hit me, I found my theme. I’ll create an analogy of my life. Circles within circles, all connected, and controlled by the axis. Do you want to know the best part?’

‘Aha.’

‘I’ll make a pendulum, like the one my dad had, a working, drawing pendulum. It fits cos pendulums and gyroscopes are both controlled by gravity. And visitors to the exhibition can have a crack at creating their own work of art. What do you think?’

‘Sounds amazing, Love. Inspirational.’ Hayden fetched a beer from the fridge.

‘Do you mean that? You’re not just humouring me?’

‘No, I really mean it and looking at you, it’s like seeing a complete transformation. I feel like I have my wife back, my adorable, quirky Laura.’

‘But, don’t you see, you caused it by giving me the gyroscope, the best medicine I could wish for.’

Returning home, Hayden noticed the lights on in Laura’s studio. He entered the studio,‘You still at it?’

Laura raised her head. ‘Oh goodness, you’re home already? What time is it?’

‘Gone six.’

‘I’ve been so engrossed, I haven’t stopped all day. Want to take a look?’ Laura spread her arms.

Hayden stepped closer to the work-bench. His fingers traced the inter-twinning shapes within the five gyroscopes.

He turned to Laura. ‘It’s brilliant, Laura! I can see your concept. These four with broken, twisted and buckled loops and the final one; perfect circles.’

Laura grinned. ‘Yep, now I only have to figure-out the pendulum. This project is the best medicine, I feel so energised.’

‘Promise me, you won’t wear yourself out, Love. There’s still time ‘till the exhibition.’

Night after night, Hayden disappeared to his shed.

‘What are you doing out there?’

‘It’s a secret, a surprise for your birthday.’

‘Please don’t become a grumpy, reclusive mad scientist like Old Man Poulson.’

‘No chance,’ Hayden laughed.

Hayden painstakingly deciphered the sheets of crumpled scribblings attached to the back of the box. He often referred to his old physics textbook from his university days. The box became his obsession, taking it apart, adjusting cogs, tightening chains, rearranging wires, and liberally oiling the mechanisms. Once back together, Hayden twirled the dials, made further adjustments, and felt gratified when one of the dials clicked or clunked. Confident he was nearly finished, he persevered.

As he tinkered, Hayden recalled the care-free summer of 1980, the year he’d dropped out of university, much to the dismay of his parents. 1980, the summer he’d met Laura while fruit picking in the Hawkes Bay. Most pickers lived in the cabin’s provided and cooked in the communal kitchen. Hayden remained aloof, eating and sleeping in his converted Volkswagen van, the long-board strapped to the roof.

During the long, hot, strenuous days, the relaxed camaraderie between the pickers helped to pass the time, helped to gradually thaw Hayden.

‘Hayden, join us for supper tonight. We’re cooking a huge stir-fry, just throwing in whatever anyone has,’ Laura, the petite, lively brunette, clutched his elbow on leaving the packing shed.

Hayden’s friendship with Laura grew, and at the end of the season, she happily drove off with him in his van.

For the following three years, Hayden and Laura lived in the van, surfing the East Coast beaches and finding short-term employment on their travels. Every summer, they’d return to the Hawkes Bay to pick fruit. In the third season, Laura caught a virus. Unable to shake the infection, she was plagued with bouts of fatigue, agonising migraines, and severe muscle and joint aches. After numerous doctor visits and tests, Laura finally got the diagnosis.

As Laura peeked through the window of Hayden’s shed, the oval box on the bench caught her eye.

Curious, she stepped inside and approached the contraption. The top dial, labelled date, had numbers around the edge while the second dial, marked location, had letters. Each dial had a shiny red button in the middle.

‘Too simple, this couldn’t possibly work,’ she smiled to herself.

Her fingers twiddled with the date dial. 1-9-6-8. The dial clicked and clunked with each turn. Laura pressed the red button.

‘You shouldn’t be doing this,’ her inner voice warned as her hand moved to the location dial.

Her hand shook as her fingers spelt-out the location.

‘Step away from the machine, before it’s too late.’ the voice warned.

‘Press the red button, go on, I dare you,’ a new, strident voice taunted.

As she pressed the red button, the box emitted a low hum and vibrated. Laura clasped the object tightly.

On hearing Hayden’s Ute in the driveway, Laura rushed from the house and flung herself at her husband as he opened the vehicle door. ‘My genius husband!’ she threw her arms around his neck.

‘What?’

‘The machine, your secret, it works. How could I have ever doubted the possibility of time travel and to think my genius husband…’

‘You’ve been into my shed?’ Hayden untangled himself from her hold, held her at arm’s length, and looked at her sternly. ‘You’ve tampered with the machine?’

‘Sorry. I couldn’t resist.’

Hayden stomped inside. Laura followed. ‘You had no right to touch it, Laura.’

‘No, it works. I fiddled with the dials and transported back to that day, the day of the picnic. Oh, Hayden, I saw my dad goofing around with my brothers and me, playing hide-and-seek, kicking the football, swinging on branches doing an impersonation of a gorilla. Mum under the tree reading. My nine-year-old self in my best dress with the wide sailor collar and the ice cream splattered on the ground and the picnic lunch…’

‘What do you mean, you saw your nine-year-old self?’

‘I observed this happy family scene, as a sixty-one-year-old woman, from under an elm tree, unable to move. When I tried to approach, an invisible shield prevented me.’

Hayden flopped onto the couch, scratched his head. ‘Bother! I thought I’d cracked it. The machine is flawed.’

‘No, it’s not flawed, it’s …’ Laura stammered.

‘The machine will transport you to your desired place and time, only to observe, not participate. You can’t influence what happens, like, you couldn’t be nine-year-old you and talk to your dad. I’ll need to make further adjustments.’

‘I disagree. The machine is perfect.’

‘How so?’

‘If a traveller could travel to the past and influence what happened, that would cause a domino effect, change history. Imagine the fall-out, the chaos.’

Hayden nodded.

‘Better still, when journeying to the future, travellers can only observe. They cannot be advantaged egotistically or monetarily. An advantage, not a fault.’

‘I wanted the machine to be perfect.’

‘You have invented the perfect machine.’

‘Correction, old man Poulson invented the machine, I just tinkered.’

‘And your tinkering has produced a perfect machine. I got to observe that special day at the park, see my funny, loving dad.’

Laura, eyes shining bright, smiled at her husband, ‘My life is harmonious, and I am at peace. My circle is complete.’

Bear In A Window

A story written following the level four lockdown, relevant to the current climate.

Bear In the Window

Every day I sit perched in my window looking out on the once busy street. Our house is across the road from a block of shops – a fish-and-chip shop, a bakery, an upholstery shop, a liquor store, an Indian restaurant, a physiotherapist, a pharmacy and a dairy. My window is in one of the two front bedrooms, Henry’s bedroom though he has long since left and he won’t be coming back, not ever.

The dairy and the pharmacy are the only two stores open these days. A few people frequent the pharmacy, but the dairy attracts more people. People line up, leaving a space between each of them. As one person leaves the store, another enters the store. Odd, really. Why don’t they all go into the store at the same time? Something is different, something has changed.

Bizarrely, Doris, Henry’s mum, had perched me on the window sill. For years, I’ve sat gathering dust, on the top bookshelf alongside Henry’s silver trophies. On one side, my shoulder nudged the most oversized cup, Junior National Champion for tennis. My other paw rests on his final cross-country cup, won in his last year at school – the remainder of the shelf over-flows with Henry’s sporting cups and medals. While I felt proud to sit amongst all this silver-ware, I’m not complaining being perched on the window sill. I quite like it here. I get to see so much more.

Children walking with one or other or both of their parents, pause as they pass, and point at me. Why aren’t these parents at work and the children at school, I wonder? Something has changed. Every morning, Doris dresses me differently. Yesterday, I wore a cowboy hat with a red bandanna across my face. The day before, she dressed me in a striped scarf and earmuffs. I’ve been a sailor, a clown (I didn’t like the red plastic nose, it pinched a bit), a policeman, and a fireman. One day, I wore a Superman cape, and on another day, Doris kitted me out in an All Black jersey with the silver fern and placed Henry’s rugby ball between my paws. That was my proudest day. I’ve not received this amount of attention since Henry was a little one.

I’ve become a bit shabby over the years, chunks of missing fur, my left eye is hanging on by a single thread affecting my focus, and by the end of the day, I droop. My hearing remains one-hundred per cent, and now with less street noise, sounds that before were muffled by the traffic, are strident. Now, few vehicles use the road. The rubbish truck still rumbles by on collection day. A police car passes by most days and the other day, an ambulance, it’s siren blaring, zoomed past. I hear the chirruping of bird song, the dissonant quarrelling of cats in the night, and the crunch of loose stones under peoples feet as they saunter by. Children’s excited exclamations punctuate the air as they spy me, perched in the window. Snatches of conversation between the people, lining up outside the dairy, waft in the still air.

‘How are you coping?’

‘Are you alone in your bubble?’

‘Just keeping busy is a challenge. I’ve tidied the garage, fixed the back-fence and given the garden a weed. I guess I ought to tackle the mess under the stairs next.’

‘Still, we’re doing better than other places in the world. Imagine living in Italy or Spain, and now America is taking a real blow.’

‘Hah, our economy will be shattered after this.’

‘Those poor people stuck on that cruise ship off Chile.’

And, ‘Stay safe, stay well,’ I hear this a lot.

Ugh, today Doris has dressed me as a fairy. A frilly, pink tutu, and a pair of plastic wings. She giggles as she props a wand under one paw. ‘There now, Harold. Disperse your magic,’ she says, giving me a final squeeze.

Little curly-haired Charlie and his mum come by every day. I can hear the boy’s shrilled voice before I see him. On the first few days, Charlie and his mum sung that song, ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’, loudly. He chatters a lot, does Charlie, always asking his mum something.

‘What do you think he’ll be dressed as today, Mum?’

‘Ah, we’ll have to wait and see.’

Daily, they stand behind the fence looking into the window, commenting on my attire. I raise a paw in a wave. I’m not sure I want Charlie and his mum, or anyone else for that matter, to see me today dressed as a fairy. How could Doris do this to me? So humiliating!

Charlie particularly loved the day I wore the black jersey with the silver fern.

‘Look, mum, he’s an All Black today. I want to be an All Black when I’m big.’ He air-kicked a ball right across the street.

I remember Henry wanting to be an All Black, too, when he was a little one. As a child, Henry loved kicking the football around the yard with his dad. Toby, the Labrador, would bound around excitedly, barking hoarsely. Scooping the ball into his arms, Henry ran the length of the backyard, dodging Toby and his father. Under the washing line, Henry dived to the ground and yelled, ‘Henry scores again!’ Watching from the sideline, I’d clap. His father would collapse on the ground beside him, laughing and tickling his son.

I bet Charlie won’t want to be a fairy when he’s big.

Toby, Henry and his dad Joe, often strolled to the beach. As a young one, Henry built sand-castles only to be trampled by Toby.

‘Oh, Toby, ‘ he’d yell, ‘You’ve smashed my castle,’ and the pair would roll around in the sand, Joe watching on, laughing.

With me tucked under his arm, the trio would trek to the far end of the beach and explore the rock-pools. One time, Henry, engrossed with the scurrying crabs, and star-fish sat me on a rock. His dad called, time to go home and I got left behind. Night crept on, I began to shiver. I’d never felt so alone. Those annoying crabs nibbled at my paws and poked their claws into my ears. I tried to bat them away but to no effect. A flash of light splashed across the rocks.

‘Here you are,’ Joe swooped me into his arms, giving my round belly a rub. ‘Henry’s missed you. He can’t go to sleep without you there.’ I felt so grateful to Joe that day. I dreaded the thought of becoming crab fodder.

When Henry was older, Joe taught the boy to surf. Toby rode the board with the boy. They’d spend hours riding the waves.

Charlie reminded me of Henry when he was little. Always talking, always wanting to know why.

‘Can we please go to the playground today, Mum,’ Charlie asks.

‘No, not today, dear.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s the new rules, Charlie. No-one is allowed for fear the bug will spread.’

‘Well, that’s just stupid. Bugs live on the ground in the dirt and leaves or in the trees. And my teacher says bugs are good, that bugs don’t harm us, that we need bugs.’

‘This is a different bug, Charlie. This is a bug that makes people sick.’

‘Then can Sam come to play? Can you ask his mum.’

‘No, Sam’s not allowed to come over.’

‘Why? Is he sick?’

‘No, he’s not sick.’

‘Then how do you know he can’t come? Have you asked his mum?’

‘Everyone has to stay in their own bubble, stay in their own homes.’

‘I don’t get it, a house isn’t a bubble.’

‘Oh, Charlie. I’ve explained all this, and it won’t be forever.’

Endless questions, just like Henry, used to ask his mother. Like the time Doris went to the hospital.

‘Will the baby be a boy, mum? I hope it’s a boy and not a girl. Girls are boring. I want a brother, not a sister.’

Doris laughed and rubbed her round stomach. ‘We’ll have to wait and see, and if the baby is a girl, I’m sure you’ll love her as much as your dad and I will.’

‘C’mon, love, we’ve got to go,’ said Joe. ‘Now you be good for Alice, Henry.’ Alice, the girl from next door, spent the night with Henry and me.

On leaving Henry’s room, Joe, his beefy arm around his wife’s shoulder whispered in her ear, ‘It’ll be fine love, this time it’ll be fine. You’ve carried this one to full-term.’

Doris returned from the hospital the next day without either a sister or brother for Henry.

‘But where’s the baby?’ Henry demanded, clutching me. ‘Did you forget to bring it home?’

Doris, her face blotched with tears, shook her head. Stumbling from Henry’s room, she entered her own bedroom, lay on her bed and wept.

‘The baby died, Henry. Your little sister died.’ Joe held his son tight. I felt a bit squished between the two of them, and I felt the heaving of Joe’s chest.

‘But why did she die? Baby’s aren’t meant to die. Is it ‘cos I said I didn’t want a sister? I didn’t mean it.’

‘No, that’s not the reason.’ Joe straightened, swept his hand across his face, and holding his son at arm’s length, told him, ‘You have to be a brave boy, Henry. A very courageous boy. Your mum is really sad, and right now, she needs all the love you can give her. Can you do that?’ Henry nodded.

That night, with me in his arms, Henry crept into his parent’s room. He peered into the bassinet at the end of their bed and pulled back the blanket. No baby.

Returning to his own bed, Henry, his tears soaking my fur, fell asleep.

This house, once full of noise – Henry’s incessant questions, Joe’s barking laugh and Doris’s whistling – remained silent. The bassinet disappeared.

After the loss of his sister, Henry and his dad, Joe, a builder by trade, spent hours together. One summer, they built a tree hut in the old oak tree in the corner of the garden. A wooden ladder, attached to the broad trunk of the oak tree, led to the lower-platform. Joe attached battens for the walls of the hut, leaving an opening for the door and a shutter-window on the other side. Sheets of left-over tin from the new back fence formed the roof. A rope ladder dangled beside the door leading to a higher, narrower platform.

Over time, the tree-hut became a pirate ship, sailing rolling seas, and rocket-ship zooming through space. Then a secret lookout, for brave knights battling evil enemies. I, as a trusty companion, accompanied Henry on his many adventures.

Though, that was many years ago. The tree-hut, long forgotten, like myself, has become ravished by age and neglect. By the time Henry started High School, time and adventures spent in the tree hut, ceased altogether.

I hear a familiar clack-clack sound, the sound of Mrs Robson approaching. She walks past in the centre of the path at a steady pace, her white stick tapping the pavement. Although Mrs Robson never looks in my direction as she passes, I always wave to her.

Stooped Mr Simms, with his wispy candy-floss white hair, shuffles at a snail’s pace to the shops crosses the street and returns to his little shack on the hill.

I hear the distinctive clunking of a skateboard on the empty road. A lad barrels past, his knees slightly bent, twisting the board from side to side. An assortment of runners, some sprinting, others plodding, regularly pass, some wearing bright, tight tee’s and shorts, others in baggy track pants and loose tee’s. Mothers and fathers pushing push-chairs, often with a dog on a lead, trundle past. Whole family groups on bikes peddle past. An elderly couple, the man supporting his frail wife as she leans heavily on his arm, stumbles along. And if I twist side-ways, I can see the edge of the park. People walking dogs, kids kicking soccer balls, and young ones throwing frisbees. Every day in the late afternoon, a man with a golf club practices his swing, smashing those little, white balls in all directions. Why doesn’t he go to a golf club, I wonder?

Sitting in my window, I hear and see more birds. Balancing on the electricity wires, in pairs or in groups, spaced along the lines. The larger birds wobble precariously while the little ones hop about, chirping. Tui’s harmonise their distinctive tune from the gum tree in the corner of the yard. Seagulls swoop to the empty rubbish bins in front of the shops across the street, only to slink away disappointed moments later for there are no food scraps to be had. Pickings are slim on the pavement, too.

Yes, something is different, something has changed.

Sitting here in my window is kinda like watching a never-ending movie. Every day, I see the same folk. But on some days, I see someone or something different. Two days ago, a human-sized pink bunny hopped by, carrying a basket full of brightly coloured foiled eggs. The rabbit paused in front of my window, gave me a wink and, taking an egg from her basket, popped it in the letter-box. Doris was thrilled when she found it later in the day. She stood there holding the egg and scratching her head looking up and down the street. If she’d asked me, I could have told her about the bunny.

Doris. Alone now. Alone except for me.

Toby died first. Over time, the bounce in the old dog, diminished. He slept stretched out in the sun on the front porch for most of the day. When someone passed by the gate, he seldom raised his weary head for a hoarse growl. He’d stir wearily when he heard Henry fill his bowl with dog biscuits and drag his old body to the kitchen. Then one day, he didn’t move. Toby died peacefully in his sleep.

The family held a small funeral for the aged canine. Although Henry no longer spent much time with me, I attended. The ceremony was a sombre occasion. Henry spoke a few words about how Toby had been a faithful companion and Doris, in a weedy voice, sang a short hymn, ‘Morning has broken’. I wiped a lone tear from Henry’s cheek with my paw.

I hear Doris now in the kitchen, whistling that same hymn. In my opinion, Doris is a much better whistler than a singer. She can imitate the whistle of the Tui bird, perfectly. Usually, she whistles cheerful tunes, upbeat and joyful melodies.

The weather turned sour today. Sporadic rain and a nasty wind have kept most folk indoors, including Charlie and his mum. Admittedly, I didn’t want him to see me in this fairy get-up, but I missed him all the same. No runners or cyclists have passed by. No Mrs Robson, either. Frail old Mr Simms toddles by most days, but not today. The person who smashes golf balls around the park hasn’t appeared today, either. It’s been a long, dreary day sat hunched and shivering in this ridiculous fairy costume, perched in the corner of my window.

Henry completed his building apprenticeship, under the instruction of his father. The logo on Joe’s truck had always been ‘Hunt and Son, Builders’. From building houses to extensions to kitchen or bathroom renovations, Joe, an established and respected builder in the small community, never lacked for work. Joe and Henry and the two older, unskilled labourers Joe employed, were always in demand. Henry, an affable lad, learnt quickly and the father-son bond, strengthened. Strengthened until Henry, at twenty-two years of age, fractured the relationship. It happened one Sunday over lunch.

Joe bit into the crunchy Yorkshire pudding and chewed slowly as he looked at his son sitting opposite. ‘What did you say, lad? Did I hear you right? You’re leaving?’

‘I’ve learnt all I can with you, dad. On a big construction site, I’d learn more, I’d learn different skills. My mate Stu works for one of the big firms and says that his bosses are crying out for qualified builders.’

‘Hah, I’m sure they are. That’s how those money-hungry, city types operate, luring green-horns like yourself. They promise high pay and wonderful prospects, but you’d be nothing more than a hammer-monkey.’

‘Yeah, maybe for starters but… .’

‘No buts. And how many of those outfits have gone bust in recent times?’ Joe, waggling his fork in Henry’s direction, continued. ‘Ask yourself why. I’ll tell you why: it’s ‘cos they win the contracts with slim profit margins and tight time constraints. To save money, they use cheap materials and shoddy work practices. They ignore safety codes, putting the workers at risk and when they go bust, it’s the workers who are screwed, not the bosses.’

‘They’re not all like that. Stu says his firm is solid.’

‘Yeah, right, ‘till something goes wrong, like losing bonuses for not completing by the deadline.’

‘It’s not just the job. Clara’s also moving to the city to a new job. We plan to move in together.’

‘Oh, this gets better and better. Clara, the little flossy you’ve barely known for five minutes click’s her fingers, and off you trot. You’re not thinking straight, lad. You’re not thinking with your head, you’re thinking with your dick!’ Joe glared at his son.

‘Enough. I’ll not have that sort of talk at my table,’ Doris thumped the table.

‘Then you talk some sense into the boy,’ Joe retorted, pushing his chair back.

Standing, leaning over the table, Joe continued. ‘Think about what you’re throwing away. Think about what it says on the truck: Hunt and Son. Does that mean nothing to you? If you carry out this haired-brained scheme, then be assured there’ll be no ‘son,’ son.’

The dessert, lemon meringue pie was left untouched.

Doris did talk to Henry. Henry remained adamant in his decision.

Doris talked to Joe. She pleaded with Joe.

‘Give him six months, a year even. Let him try city life. Please, Joe, don’t close the door on him. He’s your son.’

Joe remained adamant in his resolve.

At the end of the month, Henry left for the city. Joe painted a black cross through the word son on the truck.

Periodically, over the following months, Henry phoned his mother. When he and Clara became engaged, Doris invited them both to a Sunday lunch. Joe agreed to be present.

Though he’d never admit it, Joe missed having his son by his side.

Sunday arrived. Doris cooked a roast lamb with all the trimmings: mint sauce, crunchy Yorkshire pudding and smooth gravy with lemon meringue pie for dessert.

‘I have to pop out,’ Joe, standing in the kitchen door muttered just before twelve.

‘Joe, you promised.’

‘There’s something I need to do. Don’t hold lunch for me.’

‘Please, Joe, don’t do this. Stay, talk to your son.’

Joe didn’t return for his lunch.

‘Never mind, mum. At least you tried,’ Henry hugged his mother and left with Clara.

Doris was not to know that, that would be the last time she saw her son.

‘Morning, Harold. How did you sleep?’ Doris bustles into Henry’s room and scoops me from my ledge.

‘Harrumph,’ I grunt in reply.

With thoughts of Henry and Joe’s ruptured relationship swirling in my head, I’ve had a night of disturbed sleep. I nearly toppled from my perch in the eerily quiet, early morning.

‘You look a tad weary, Harold. Bad sleep? Never mind, you and I, Howard, have been through worse than this, haven’t we?’ she smiles.

I can’t tell Doris I’ve been thinking about Joe and Henry’s rift, her heart would be broken all over again.

‘The current situation is not that bad and won’t continue forever,’ she jabs a finger into my rotund belly. ‘It is bear-able, get it, Howard, bear-able?’ and chuckles.

I glare at her with my seeing eye.

‘Oh, don’t be so stuffy, Howard. In times like these, we need some humour.’

‘Now, let’s get these silly wings off you. That’ll cheer you up. Today, you are going to be the great fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.’

On my head, she places a hat with ear-muffs and ties it under my chin. The hat is fur-lined and cosy. Lovely, as today looks like it will be another chilly one.

‘Sherlock always carried a magnifying glass with him as he hunted for clues,’ she says tucking this instrument under my right paw. ‘Be sure to look out for Mr Simms. I haven’t seen him in a few days, and I’m concerned,’ Doris returns me to my perch and whistling, leaves the room.

Holding the glass to my best eye, I peer towards the shops across the road. A notice has appeared on the door of the bakery: ‘We re-open on the 28th April for contactless transactions.’ A phone number is scrawled below and a menu. The fish and chip takeaway next door has a similar notice.

What does contactless mean? Contactless, self-isolate, social distancing, bubble-buddy’s, expressions I’ve never encountered before, before this baffling what-ever-is-happening-situation, happened. I’m confused and a little worried, but, hey, I’m a sleuth, right? I should be able to figure it out.

I hope Charlie comes today. I missed seeing him yesterday and Mr Simms if only to put Doris’s mind at rest.

‘Who is he today, mum?’ Ah, there’s Charlie now. He and his mum are peering up at my window.

‘Sherlock Holmes, a fictional detective from way before your time, or mine. See his magnifying glass? He always carried a magnifying glass when investigating crime scenes.’

‘What does he use that for?’

‘For finding clues. ‘Elementary, my dear Watson,’ ’Charlie’s mum laughed.

‘Hah?’

Doris approaches the fence. ‘Good morning, Rose, morning Charlie. I see you like Howard’s attire today.’

‘You bet. Mum says he’s a detective today. I love it that he’s something different every day.’

Doris laughed.

‘It’s fun to see what he’ll be wearing and who he is. Kinda like a surprise.’

‘What has been your favourite, Charlie?’

‘Definitely, the All Black, He looked really cool. I want to be an All Black one day.’

‘And I’m sure you could be,’ Doris smiled.

‘Howard’s our favourite bear, isn’t he Charlie?’ Rose says.

Charlie nodded. ‘Oh, yes. He looks like my bear Hugo. His fur is the same colour, and they both have the same smile.’

‘Is your Hugo in a window or, some other place? I’ve seen some on letter-boxes, in trees, hanging from the verandah, all sorts of places.’

Charlie scuffed the ground with his shoe, shrugged his shoulders. ‘Nah, I don’t have Hugo any more.’

‘Oh? Why not?’

‘I left him at the top of the slide at the playground the last time I stayed with dad.’

‘And he was no longer there when you went back for him?’

‘Nah, we didn’t go back. My dad wouldn’t go back. Said he was just a silly bear and that I should be more careful,’ Charlie sniffled.

‘We’ll get another one after all this is over, Charlie. I promise,’ his mother said.

Charlie hung his head. ‘It won’t be Hugo, though, will it.’

‘How about you and your mum come back tomorrow. I’ll have a surprise for you,’ Doris winked at Rose. Charlie nods, and a wide grin spread across his face.

He sure is a cute kid, that Charlie.

This dreary day has dragged on. Just like yesterday, there have been fewer runners and cyclists and no Mr Simms. Although using my glass, I’ve observed action at the bakery and takeaway joint. The owners come and go, unload cartons from their vehicles and busy themselves inside their shops. From the bakery, delicious smells waft in the air.

In the past, both Henry and Joe frequented the bakery. Henry, in particular, loved the pies while Joe was more of a cream-bun guy. That day when the two policemen came to the front door, walked into the house and sat at the table in the kitchen through the wall from me, I knew. Sitting on my shelf with Henry’s trophies, the policeman’s subdued voice through the wall, then Doris’ loud shrieking and Joe’s strangled gasps, I knew.

A freak accident, they called it.

‘It was no damn freak accident,’ Joe roared. ‘Bloody carelessness. Those arseholes and their shoddy practices are what killed our son.’ Later, sitting on Henry’s bed, with Doris at his side, he sobbed into his hands.

‘If only I’d stayed that Sunday and talked to the boy, this would never have happened. I dearly wish you’d insisted that I stay that day, Doris.’

Doris often came into Henry’s room, polished his numerous trophies until they gleamed and then, she’d cradle me in her arms, rock back and forward on the bed and weep.

Over the following months, Joe visibly shrunk. His shoulders hunched over, his feet shuffled, his hands shook, his fingers became twisted and gnarled. But saddest of all was the blank, agonised gaze in his eyes.

When Doris went shopping, Joe came into Henry’s room. He’d shake his head, and groan over and over, ‘I’m sorry, son. I let you down.’

One day, he stopped building altogether.

‘What’s the point,’ he said to Doris. ‘What’s the point of anything, any more?’

Joe died less than a year after his son.

A heart attack, the doctors said.

A broken heart, Doris said.

I turn my head at the sound of the door opening. ‘I see there’s a bit of activity over at the shops, Howard,’ Doris says.

‘How’s the sleuthing going, Howard or should I call you Sherlock?’ Doris titters. ‘No sign of Mr Simms, I gather.’ I shake my head.

‘Hmm, I’m worried. I think I’ll go and check on the old guy.’

Doris leaves, and a moment later, I hear the click of the gate. She’s gone a long time: an ambulance, sirens blaring dashes up the street.

As the skies grow darker and night approaches, Doris returns. She plucks me from my window perch and proceeds to pat my fur. ‘Poor old chap was sprawled out on the kitchen floor, barely conscious. He didn’t look too good. I rang for the ambulance, and the medics assured me he’ll be fine. If only I’d gone yesterday.’

I nod, thankful that Doris followed her intuition. Doris buries her head in my fur and sniffs loudly.

‘Oh, you do pong a bit, Howard.’

Charming!

‘Never mind, I’ll give you a make-over in the morning before Charlie, and his mum come,’ she says before returning me to my perch. ‘Sleep well, Howard. Tomorrows a big day.’

Give me a make-over? A big day? Forever talking in riddles, is Doris. I tell you, the woman is losing it.

Knowing Mr Simms would be okay thanks to Doris, I’ve had a restful sleep. I feel rejuvenated. I shiver at the thought of Doris not going to the old guy’s place and finding him when she did, of Mr Simms lying there for days, alone. She’s a kind, thoughtful woman, is Doris.

And seeing Charlie yesterday has gladdened my heart.

Doris bustles into the bedroom and swoops me from my ledge. Hurriedly, she undresses me, and I’m excited to see who I’ll be today. But rather than dress me, she scurries out to the laundry, and before I can protest, she’s thrown me into the washing machine with a bunch of towels.

Being drenched in lukewarm water, my eyes irritated by washing powder and furiously spun around and around, is a most unpleasant experience. But the indignity of being pegged upside down on the washing-line? ‘Un-bear-able, get it, Doris?’ I mutter, she doesn’t get it. Whistling, she turns from the line and goes in-doors.

Fortunately, there is a strong wind, and I dry quickly.

I sigh with relief when Doris releases the pegs from my paws. She cuddles me close, and whispers, ‘There that wasn’t so bad, was it? As good as new or nearly.’

Next, she brushes my fur firmly, pinches my ears, straightening them and squeezes my nose. ‘Now for a bit of eye surgery.’

Ah, I don’t like the sound of that!

The needle is a bit prickly, but Doris is very gentle. When she finishes, I blink, and yes, I do believe my sight in my weak eye has improved. Doris dresses me. Black shirt with a silver fern, snug shorts and the rugby ball between my paws. Doris props me against the milk jug, on the table.

I hear the latch on the front gate, the crunch-crunch of footsteps on the metal pathway, followed by a soft knock on the door.

‘Doris?’

‘Rose, Charlie,’ Doris throws open the door. ‘As promised, I have a surprise for you, Charlie.’

Doris scoops me off the table. ‘There’s someone here I want you to meet. Charlie, meet Howard. Howard, say hello to Charlie.’

Charlie holds me, pats my fur and looks at me closely. ‘He is just like Hugo, see, mum, his smile, and even his paws are the same.’

‘Howard,’ Doris says, ‘How would you like a new home, and a new boy to cuddle?’

Like a pair of saucers, Charlie’s eyes widen and glisten, ‘You mean me? You’re giving me Howard?’

Doris smiles, ‘Yes, you two are a perfect match.’

‘But who does Howard really belong to and won’t they mind?’ Charlie holds me tight.

‘Howard belonged to a young lad, who, like you constantly asked questions. I know he’d want you to have Howard and that you’ll love Howard just as much as he did.’

‘Are you sure, Doris?’ Rose asks.

‘I’m sure.’

Dance of the Dawn

Dance of the Dawn.

Oh, Dawn, how you enlighten!

As Father Night fades to inky shades

Of plum-purple and oily-blues,

You don your colours of subtle hues.

Arousing my senses, exciting my heart,

Tickling my soul, unveiling your art.

Your benevolent smile, shimmery bright,

Your fingers of light farewell the night.

Oh, Dawn, how you surprise!

As you wake from your slumber,

Your feathery eyelids flitter-flutter,

Cleansing your lenses, clearing the clutter.

You fasten your dancing shoes

And pirouette in your frilly tutu,

Twirling and swirling with simple grace

Cocooning all in a warm embrace.

Oh, Dawn, how you inspire!

As you stride with calm confidence.

Gifting freedom and fortitude,

Desires and hopes to be renewed.

‘Do not squander or leave to fate.

Take charge, make it happen,’ you dictate.

‘Cherish loved ones, nurture romance.’

As into the day, you wildly dance.