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A Grand Old Dame

A Grand Old Dame.

When the old man died, our bones trembled. The night he died, the wind howled menacingly, and the rain lashed relentlessly. Torrents of water surged through our exterior. The ceilings and floors puddled, and water dripped down the walls. The smell of the disturbed, dampened earth penetrated our soul. The storm on the promontory harassed and battered throughout the night, but this once stately house had with-stood many similar onslaughts and won. With our protector, the old man dead, we face a new fear – the fear brewed by bureaucrats.

We are battle weary. The scars cut deep in the brick foundations, and the gouges in our bruised weatherboards ache. The verandah posts lean and limp precariously. Will this be our final battle? Is the war lost?

Foundation worries that his rheumatic stricken knee joints will cease to have the strength to keep us upright, and we will collapse in a heap of rubble. Staircase bemoans his twisted spine, his contorted discs and sciatica troubling his hips. And I, Attic bearing the brunt of the storm’s temper – the brutal slaps and kicks and headbutting, lost a sheet of skin in its furry. The resident spiders weave tirelessly as if their flimsy silken threads can replace my lost skin and, thus, protect us against the elements. I don’t need a stethoscope to tell me we still have a pulse though the beat is weak.

Three town hall suits donned in protective helmets came nosing around the day after the storm, poking at our walls, picking at dry-rot in the window frames, scribbling on sheets of paper.

‘A safety hazard,’ said one, slapping a yellow sticker on the door.

‘Demolition,’ said another.

‘Development opportunity,’ said the third.

The girl from long ago arrived the following day and tore the sticker from the door. The girl, now a woman, flopped on my dampened floor. ‘Oh, what is to be done? Look at the state of this grand old lady. In the name of my grandfather, I simply won’t allow it.’ Our collective pulse quickened.

As a girl, the woman had filled our then sturdy walls with shrieks of laughter and merriment on her frequent visits. On one such visit, her quick action had saved us from a fire when an unattended lit gas ring caught a tea towel alight. Is she again, about to rescue us from the cruel clutches of death?

A crew of workmen came, peered beneath the floors, and shook their heads. They proceeded up the stairs, rattled the bannisters and shook their heads. They looked into the gloom of the Attic, looked at the sky through the gaping gap, and shook their heads.

‘What do you think?’ the woman asked.

‘No can do,’ said one.

‘Beyond repair,’ said another.

‘Best you hire a bulldozer,’ said the third.

The woman pleaded; she demanded. The workmen paused and tapped a calculator. The woman smiled and shook their hands.

The workmen returned today. Restoration has begun.

‘A grand old dame,’ said the woman.

Let the Music Return

Let the Music Return

Balancing on the tips of her toes, Flora tries to see the much-lauded painting, the star of the show. A crowd of people block Flora’s view. Flora steps left then right, and although the crush of people sways slightly, she is still unable to see the canvass. Then, bending her legs slightly and twisting her head, she glimpses bold geometric shapes. Flora views the picture between the crook of a man’s elbow and the bulge of a woman’s overly large shoulder bag. Titled Study in Shape, the painting was considerably smaller than Flora had envisioned. She feels cheated.

As some front-row viewers sidle off, Flora wriggles her lithe body to the front, inadvertently nudging the bulging handbag. The owner of the bag glowers at Flora and clutches the bag tightly to her ample breast. Mouthing an apology, Flora studies the woman’s profile. Immaculately coiffured hair, dangling diamond earrings, heavily mascaraed eyes and a distinctive moustache. Study in Moustache would be a fitting title for the woman’s portrait, Flora decides, smirking inwardly.

Studying the cubist style painting with the hefty price tag by the artist Harrison Colt, some people comment, others shake their heads and move away. Flora tries to make sense of the canvass. The yellow and green three-dimensional shapes tumbled together in the foreground slashed with thin red lines, could be buildings or upturned boats of a range of hills. If her Noel was here, Flora knew he’d make a witty remark. But Noel, her husband of nearly thirty years, isn’t here and never will be. She’ll never again hear his humorous comments or the soothing melody as he thrums his cello. Flora wipes the lone tear trickling down her cheek as she continues to stare at the picture. If only the title weren’t so vague.

When Flora’s friend Simone gave her the art show tickets for a birthday gift, Flora had said, ‘Oh, art isn’t really my thing, and modern art confuses me.’

‘The show will feature modern and traditional art by established and emerging artists. Honestly, it’ll be fun. There’s sure to be something that appeals to you.’

Simone knows about art. Her home is jam-packed with art from bold, confronting canvasses to intricate miniatures to serene, traditional landscapes. Her latest acquisition, a nude male torso moulded in bright orange resin, dominates the lobby and probably cost more than Flora’s humble little car.

As the date of the show had approached and Flora read the newspaper article championing the event, making particular reference to Harrison Colt, her enthusiasm grew. A day out in the city with her lively friend and a day to abandon her usual gumboots and dungarees for something more refined. Why not? It’s my birthday, Flora had told herself. Best of all, Simone had promised to drive – Flora hated city traffic. If nothing else, the garden-fresh lunch at her favourite plant barn would more than compensate.

But here she is in this crowded venue, alone. She’d driven here alone; is looking at art alone that she doesn’t understand and is destined to eat lunch alone at the plant barn; that is if she can find the plant barn.

Like a boulder heaved into a pond of water, Flora’s heart had sunk when Simone had rung and cancelled earlier that morning due to a sick grandchild. Her eyes had watered, and a foggy blackness had flooded her head. As she attempted to put on the fiddly silver earrings, Flora’s hand had shaken uncontrollably, and she abandoned the task. Her friend’s sincere apology did nothing to quell Flora’s dark thoughts towards the sick grandchild. Navigating the menacing city traffic caused the dark thoughts to return. Only this time, she directed them not at the ill grandchild, but the other road users.

On arriving at the venue, Flora had driven around the nearby streets several times before spying the perfect space to squeeze into. With her indicator on and looking over her shoulder, Flora had slowly reversed. As she turned the steering wheel to nudge into the gap, a shiny red sports car came zooming from the other direction and zapped into her space. Flora pounded her fists on the steering wheel and sprung out of her car. The sports car driver, cell phone, pressed to his ear, sauntered past with an air of nonchalance,

‘You stole my park!’

The man turned his head. ‘Yeah, whatever, lady.’

Flora drifts from the confusing canvass to the next booth. She glances at the miniature pictures – black and white etchings of human shapes with animal heads or tails or wings and quickly moves on. Stark photo studies of broken crockery, Flora doesn’t pause. Nude sketches in a sepia wash. Canvasses of landscapes in thickly applied oil paint in bright hues. Insipid watercolours of floral arrangements or a pair of gardening boots on a doorstep, or the view of rambling hills dotted with grazing cattle. The art becomes a blur. Trapped in the herd of shuffling people, Flora is unwillingly propelled along the line of booths. She fans herself with the cardboard program she’d been handed when she entered the venue, to little effect. She sips from her water bottle. Snippets of comments catch her ear:

‘Look at the price on that one, ridiculous.’

‘It may not appeal, but that artist is a rising star.’

‘Yeah? My four-year-old grandchild could do better.’

Flora has a mental image of cud-chewing cows aimlessly ambling the aisles of art, mooing the occasional comment as they plod along.

As canvasses are brought, they are swiftly replaced by another, and purchasers are whisked away by attendants to make their payment.

A vacant chair to the side of the aisle beckons. Flora weaves her way through the mass, removes her woollen coat and plops onto the chair. She reaches for her water bottle to find it is empty. Flora leans back on the chair and gazes at the ceiling, and her dark thoughts return. This time, her inner tirade is directed at art admirers bearing distinctive bovine features. Closing her eyes tightly, she tries to squeeze the visions away. The warmth of a summers day embraces her, a soothing melody plays, and an image of Noel seeps through the darkness. Startled, Flora opens her eyes, and through a gap in the crowd, she sees the picture.

Her eyes are drawn to the curvaceous cello leaning against a chair beside wide open doors in the foreground. The creased cushion on the chair suggests a person has recently vacated the seat, and beyond the doors, a wild garden with swathes of colour. In the garden, the form of a woman snipping dead flower heads replicates the curve of the cello. On the horizon, a sliver of evening sun settles on rolling hills.

Flora leaves the chair to study the picture up close. The colours mingle with a harmony, a peace that Flora hadn’t felt since the day the music had stopped. Flora beheaded the dead roses that day whilst her favourite Brahms sonata number one in E Minor wafted through the open window. The music stopped, a loud thud followed. She’d called out to Noel, but he hadn’t answered. Noel had left without saying goodbye. Tracing her finger along the wavy line of the cello, Flora ignored the tears dampening her cheeks,

‘Do you like this one?’ a voice spoke close to her shoulder. Flora turns and looks into crinkled aged eyes.

‘Oh, yes, very much so,’ Flora straightens and wipes her wet cheeks. ‘Sorry, it reminds me of something sad, something lost, but there is a sense of hope and harmony about it. I can’t properly explain, but this picture speaks to me. Do you like it?’

The woman laughed. ‘I’m the artist, Henrietta Carson. As you can see, many of my paintings feature gardens. My husband loved his garden, and when he died five years ago, painting became my therapy.’

‘And the cello?’

‘Oh, that’s another story.’

Flora peered at the picture. ‘I don’t see your signature.’

‘Can you see the ladybug?’ Flora nodded.

‘Oh, yes. How clever.’

‘I have a bug in all my paintings, and that’s where you’ll find my initials, H. C.’

Flora, deciding to buy the modestly priced painting, is escorted to the line where other purchasers wait to make their payment. There are five cashiers at the desk processing peoples payments. Other attendants take their purchases and efficiently wrap the paintings in bubble wrap and brown paper on a trestle table behind. Flora waits in the slow-moving line, admiring her artwork. She notices the red sports car driver in front of her, tapping his feet and muttering under his breath. Flora catches a glimpse of his painting, the same size as her own; it is the lauded cubist canvass, the show’s star.

‘For goodness sake, can’t you move any quicker?’ the man shouts. People turn their heads, look at the man and ignore him.

‘I’m sure they’re doing their best,’ Flora says to the man’s back.

The man turns and glares at Flora, ‘Is that so, lady? At an event like this, they should provide a VIP service for those of us who are paying real money, not pocket money.’ Looking at Flora’s painting, he snorts.

Side by side, Flora and the irate man arrive at the desk, and as they make their payments to the cashiers, their paintings are taken and wrapped by two attendants. An attendant turns with one of the wrapped paintings.

‘Thank you,’ Flora reaches out her arm.

The man, nudging her shoulder, looks scornfully at Flora and grabs the package. ‘Ha, nice try, lady.’

‘But, no, really, I think…’ Flora stammers to no effect.

The man turns to the attendant, ‘Now, this is to be couriered to this address.’ He thrusts a piece of paper with a scribbled address on it towards the young woman.

‘Oh, Sir, I’m sorry, it’s not our policy to courier paintings, the buyer… ‘

‘That’s outrageous! At the price I’ve paid, you’ll make an exception.’

‘How can I help, Sir?’ From behind the desk, an older woman with a fixed smile approaches.

‘This silly girl is refusing to courier my purchase.’

With moist eyes, the girl turns to the woman, ‘I tried to explain to the gentleman that… ’

The woman places a hand on the girl’s shoulder and whispers something to her. The girl smiles weakly and walks away.

‘I’m sure we can accommodate you, Sir. Please, follow me.’ The woman walks away briskly, followed by the man, clutching his purchase.

‘Entitled twit,’ someone in the line exclaims. Others nod or chuckle.

Flora leaves the venue, and deciding not to stop for lunch, drives home. She switches the car radio to the classical station and immerses herself in the soothing music. Dark, foggy thoughts about city traffic, sick grandchildren, or entitled twits do not flood her head. Memories of times spent in the garden, strolling the beach with Noel, winter nights chatting by the fire are serenaded by the calming classical music. Nearing her village, the Brahms sonata number one in E Minor plays on the radio. Tears stream down Flora’s face, tears of joy as she visualises her wrapped picture.

Flora rushes inside and hurriedly unwraps the painting. Discarding the brown paper and bubble wrap, the artwork is revealed. Flora holds the picture aloft. An agonised scream utters from somewhere deep in Flora’s throat.

‘No, no. This cannot be!’ The slashes of red lines intercepting the ugly green and yellow shapes stab and stab: like needles, they slash at Flora, striking her chest, her arms, her knees. She writhes on the floor, screeching like a wounded animal.

‘This cannot be, this cannot be.’

Exhausted and sobbing, the black thoughts directed this time at an entitled sports car driver return. She roughly rewraps the picture and shoves it on a shelf in the wardrobe in the spare bedroom, slamming the door closed.

Simone phones Flora early the following day. ‘How did it go? Did you see anything you liked?’ Her voice bubbles through the phone.

Flora glances at the closed wardrobe door. ‘No, I found nothing that appealed to me.’

Throughout the week, Flora avoids opening the wardrobe as if to do so would unleash another attack on her person.

Later in the week, in another house, in another place, a young woman excitedly unwraps the couriered parcel she’d been expecting. Her father had assured her she’d love it, that it hadn’t come cheaply, and yes, it was a Harrison Colt. Holding the frame at arm’s length, she scrutinises the canvass, a peaceful scene of a vibrant garden with a cello resting against a chair near an open door. A traditional watercolour. Her excitement plummets, her face scrunches in disappointment, certain the humble picture is not a Harrison Colt. The young woman, Clarissa, searches for a signature and finds the letters H.C. on a ladybug’s wings. As Clarissa studied the painting, her disappointment faded. The picture held a charm that sent her to a calm place, a place of peace. The swirls of colour felt magical and bold. Clarissa couldn’t explain it, even to herself.

‘Yes, Daddy, I love it. I truly do. It is different from what I expected, but the colours go well with my decor.’

‘Good. I don’t know much about art, but I figured only the best is good enough for my precious girl, and this artist is supposedly the best.’

‘I wish you could come to my house-warming party this weekend. The picture will be centre stage; my guests will be wowed when they find out I’ve got a Harrison Colt hanging on my wall.’

Throughout the week, Flora pondered about the apparition in the wardrobe. Aware of its outrageous value, she watched the news vigilantly and scoured the newspaper daily expecting to hear something, read something about its disappearance. Nothing.

I could keep it hidden in the wardrobe for years, then sometime in the future, capitalise on it, she thought. Maybe sell it at one of those prestigious auctions anonymously.

She worried about the ethicality of hiding the picture. Did hiding the painting make her a receiver of stolen goods, a thief, albeit by accident? She acquired the canvass by mistake, a mistake made by the obnoxious, entitled twit. The man who had taken her parking space, the man who had sneered at her humble picture and bullied the poor attendant. Why not make him suffer the loss of his precious purchase, at least for a while.

But Flora could not forget the picture she had chosen, nor could she erase the emotions the scene had aroused in her. She grieved for her loss and longed to see the canvass hanging on her wall; she yearned for the music to return.

‘Simone, I need your advice. I have something to show you.’ Flora hung up the phone and waited for her friend. A rumpled brown-papered parcel sat on the table.

A Shift in Perspective

A Shift in Perspective.

You are gone today. No farewell kiss or wave goodbye. Gone. No time to reminisce about the fun times or the tough times we shared. Flicking through the snapshots of my mind, I relive strolling hand in hand on the beach. Rufus, the affectionate King Spaniel you gave me when we first met, sprinting ahead, dashing into the waves, and barking at the sea-birds.

I miss Rufus dreadfully, my sole companion on those long days and nights you were away; where you went or what you were doing, you told me not to ask. The day you carried Rufus’ limp body into the house is forever embedded in my mind. An accident, you said. He pulled on his lead, you said and ran into an oncoming car.

You tolerated my abysmal cooking, my shoddy housekeeping, and my unkempt appearance. I tried harder. You showered me with tender care whenever I injured myself, a frequent occurrence. A blackened eye from an open cupboard door or a broken wrist from slipping on the grease-splattered floor I hadn’t cleaned properly. Clucks, you’d joke. You need to take better care of yourself, you’d say.

Living in this remote location was your preference. I endured it. It’s private, you said, away from nosey neighbours, we don’t need anyone else, you said.

At eight months gestation, our baby was stillborn, and you picked me up from my depths of despair. You held me tenderly, consoled me, cried with me. Told me it wasn’t my fault. Your grief was rawer than mine.

Yesterday, the first anniversary of the baby’s death, I burnt the toast. But rather than you getting mad, you held me close and prayed for the baby. When you left, fluttering my eyes coyly, I promised a surprise for when you returned.

The day after Rufus died, I noticed the dent and a scratch in the paint on the car’s bumper. I hit a wild pig, you said. I kept quiet.

I never disputed the narrative surrounding my injuries, the open cupboard doors, or splattered grease on the floor. I kept quiet and vowed to try harder.

A hefty kick to a pregnant woman’s womb will have a deadly effect on the innocent fetus within. I kept quiet, my spirit died.

Whenever you’ve a job to do, do it right, you said, plan every detail carefully, shift your perspective if need be. Do it right, you said, and you can’t fail. I listened.

When the doctor confirmed I was pregnant again, I followed your advice; I shifted my perspective. I organised the surprise to the minutest detail. A candle-lit dinner, a mulled wine – the usual ingredients with one extra additive – and my choice of weapon, hidden. And then there was me, dressed seductively. I could not risk failure.

Your surprise was a great success, but one question remains, one detail I hadn’t planned: what to do with your cadaver. If only I could ask you, but, alas, I cannot.

Storm in a Teacup

A storm erupts in the work place.

Storm in a Tea Cup

The storm started brewing as wisps of steam swirled from the boiling kettle. Agnes Appleton frantically searched her ratty tote bag for her Granny Smith apple.

‘My apple is gone! Thomas Day, you weasel, you stole my apple, just like yesterday and the day before.’ Her fierce eyes glared at the bearded man. ‘Let me smell your breath.’ Thomas took a hearty bite from his salami and pickle sandwich.

‘I wish it were me, you silly cow. It’d be pay-back for you dobbing me into the boss for my lateness this morning.’

‘How dare you suggest such a thing. What’s in your sandwich, Thomas?’

‘Salami and pickle.’ He wiped a dribble of yellowish pickle from his bristly beard.

Constance Proud poured the boiling water into the teapot. ‘You’ll feel better after a cuppa, Agnes.’

Agnes, ignoring the offered cup, leant across the table towards Thomas. ‘I knew it! You sly beggar, trying to disguise the smell of apple by munching on that disgusting sandwich.’

Young Jason Snell, slouching against the counter, shovelling reheated fried rice from a bowl, chuckled. ‘Sounds like a storm in a teacup to me, Agnes.’ He laughed some more. No one else did.

In a broiling rage, Agnes slumped into a chair and slurped her tea.

‘There now, drink up. You’ll feel better.’ Constance tried calming the tempest.

‘Yeah, drink your tea, Agnes, then our resident witch here, Constance, can read your tea leaves and tell you the fate of your precious apple.’

Agnes sprang to her feet, ready to attack the scrawny youth. ‘Are you mocking me, Jason? I know what you’re up to when you sneak out the back. You want the boss to hear about that, too?’

‘Ah, so it was you. I knew it!’ Like a clap of thunder, Thomas smacked his hand on the table with force, startling Constance. The cup in her hand dropped to the concrete floor and smashed.

‘Oh, Thomas, look what you’ve caused me to do. My mother gave me that cup; it was special.’ Like a cloud bursting, Constance wept inconsolably.

‘Don’t blame me. It was Agnes, bleating on about a bleeding apple.’ His ice-cold eyes glared at Agnes.

‘That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think, old boy? I mean, poor Agnes, she can’t be expected to know how far her apples will fall from her tree, now can she?’

‘Enough with these ridiculous idiom’s – a storm in a teacup, apples falling from trees. Next thing, you’ll have us all sitting on fences!’ Thomas scratched furiously at his wiry beard.

The door flung open. Clive Mackie, the big boss, strutted in. ‘What’s all the commotion? I can hear you right across the fore-court.’ No one spoke.

‘Thomas, a word. My office. And Jason, you’re next.’

Clive turned at the door and reached into his trouser pocket.

‘Found rolling around the floor at Reception. Health and safety, folk. We need to take more care.’

In his palm, he held a shiny Granny Smith apple.

Have a Nice Life.

Have a Nice Life

After I buried my mother, I embarked on a journey with no destination in mind other than to escape. I longed to flee the heartache of loss, the turmoil of my mothers’ life, the guilt of my inadequacies and my mothers.

Driving my camper-van in a remote location, I came upon a red phone box standing sentry above marbled watered lakes below. The absurdity of a phone box miles from anywhere compelled me to stop. I exited the van.

As I sat against the phone box, the quietude of the place embraced my weary body, my battered heart. Wrapped in a cocoon of tranquillity, I closed my eyes. My weariness drifted skywards to the marsh-mellow clouds. I sensed my mothers smiling face. She and I sat in silence; how long for, I cannot say.

My mother died too soon; she died too young. For days, she lay in that hospital bed with a myriad of tubes attached to her bruised veins, fighting for her life. A monitor steadily bleeped as if counting down the remaining seconds of her life. I prayed for her to wake, to recover – I longed for her suffering to end, pleaded she be released from her pain.

She met George, the worst and the last in a long line swindlers and no hopers, at the caravan park.

‘He makes me laugh,’ she’d told me.

‘They all do, in the beginning,’ I’d muttered under my breath.

Reduced to living in a caravan, my mother scratched a living from cleaning the parks’ ablution blocks and selling her knick-knacks made from shells and drift-wood at the market.

Before the caravan became her home, she flitted the dingy flat above the Chinese Takeaways in the middle of the night. Robbed of her car and meagre savings by the previous low-life, unable to pay rent or the bus fare to her job as a receptionist at the doctors’ surgery, she moved into the caravan and quit her job.

But it was the suave, smooth-talking Henry who sent my mother on her downward spiral of poor choices in the search for an ideal man. As a successful executive in a large company, my mother had secured a modest home for her and me. After Henry persuaded my mother to sign the house-deeds into his name to raise capital for his marvellous business venture, he hooked-up with his estranged wife, making my mother and me homeless.

I open my eyes to darkening clouds and hear the phone inside the box ringing. I enter, pick up the receiver and listen.

‘Don’t waste your life or squander your talents like I did. Please say good-bye to George for me.’ My mother chuckled. I left the phone dangling.

Climbing into the camper-van, I leant over the rolled-up carpet and opened the back doors. With a mighty kick, the rolled-up carpet bounced onto the ground.

I sprung out after it, knelt to my knees and shoved the carpet down the embankment. I heard the splash.

‘Bye, George, have a nice life.’