The Jacob / Rachel Foundation

Rosalind moved carefree and exuberant on this sunny June 5th morning in Houston. She didn’t mind the heat and humidity for she intended to spend a cool day, with friends, at her local community swimming pool. What made everything better was that it was her fourteenth birthday, and the first day of school summer holidays. She was dressed for the day in a wrap over a matching new turquoise swimming suit, a birthday gift from her mother. The modest one-piece swim-suit fit perfectly and accentuated her form as well, if not better, than a bikini could have done. She rode her bicycle to the pool and when she got there she surveyed the area. She took in the shading patterns of the surrounding trees; the brilliant blue water; the lanes cordoned off for lap swimmers; and the life-guard seated high on his perch. She evaluated options. The lifeguard interested her immensely; he was young, obviously athletic, and, she thought, intensely good-looking. His presence added interest to the day. She knew that he had to be at least eighteen but instinctively she took him to be someone whom she, and her friends, would like to meet. She selected a spot which was partially shaded by a huge oak tree while commanding a good view of the lifeguard. She wanted to make sure that he saw her so she went to the lap lanes and dove in. For a split second the cool of the water bit her skin, then she swam with ease enjoying the luxury of freely slicing through water in this park-like setting. Soon her friends arrived and she climbed out of the water to greet them. Her swimming suit shone, wet in the hot sun and she could sense, without looking, that the lifeguard was watching.

Her senses were right for the lifeguard, Justin, had noticed Rosalind and was watching. At this early hour there were only a few children swimming affording him the luxury of being able take long scans of the activities away from the sparkling water. As he watched, their age differential didn’t factor into his conscious, all he saw was a beautiful girl. He watched her talking to her friends. He heard their ‘happy birthday’ exchanges. Over the shouts of children he could also hear crickets humming and beyond the faint roar of traffic but none of these sounds interested him, for his attention was focused on Rosalind’s party. He could see that she was the soul of the group and sensed her captivating vivacity. When they swam he watched them enjoying playing ball in the water together. Later he saw her settle down to read in the shade of an umbrella, while her friends lay motionless, sunbathing on deck chairs.

To Justin this girl, in a turquoise swimming-suit, exuded everything which he saw as good in a woman; beauty, spirit, joy, and the ability to quietly sit and read. When he blew his whistle for the obligatory ten minute out-of-the-water break; he didn’t join the other lifeguards from the adjacent pool, instead, he climbed down and approached her. His skin shone with a healthy glow acquired from sitting outside surveying the pool. His muscles rippled as only those of a fit eighteen-year old athletic young man can do. He looked good and knew it.

He crouched beside her. “May I join you?” he asked as he gazed at her with an affectionate glow apparent even in the intense tropical Houston sunlight. She looked up from her book. Her dark glasses hid her eyes but the rest of her face gave him a half hesitant sweet smile. She was surprised by his attention even though this had been the focus of all her activities that morning. She responded with a slight nod and he immediately pulled up the adjacent lounge chair.

He spoke again, “You look engrossed; it must be a good book. What are you reading?”

Middlemarch,” She held it up so that he could see the cover.

“George Elliot!’

You’ve read it?”

“Yep, it’s quite a long tome with several interwoven plots!”

Rosalind gave Justin an encouraging smile, ‘Well, since you have read it, tell me does the story turn out Okay; – all those dysfunctional relationships?”

“Sort of,….” Justin was about to go on, but she smiled and held up her hand.

“I shouldn’t have asked so don’t tell me. It might spoil the tension of the story. I have already deduced that there is some kind of happiness in store for Dorothea – after all, Elliot gave a happy ending to Silas Marner didn’t she?”

Justin nodded thinking to himself ‘This girl is amazing, she shares my love of literature.’ He waited, while he savored the moment, the innocent, beautiful girl before him, the sun beating down on his back; its warmth equaled by the warmth coming from the inside. “I’m Justin, what’s your name?”

Things were moving faster than she had dared to hope: she stretched out her hand. “Pleased to meet you; mine’s Rosalind.” Both their fingers tingled when their hands met; they smiled happily and laughed to relieve tension.

By now the rest of Rosalind’s group had noticed Justin’s presence and gradually began to drift up to join them. No-one wished to be left out of the fun. They exchanged introductions and disclosed that it was Rosalind’s birthday. Midst giggles and laughter they filled the rest of the water-break with gossip. When Justin majestically returned to his post, and blew his whistle both his and Rosalind’s hearts were pounding faster than normal. Instinctively they recognized a strong attraction. Rosalind tried to read and ignore Justin but every now and again she stole a glance in his direction, and, if he wasn’t looking toward her, she stared unabashed until he turned and met her gaze. Then they both averted their eyes even though they both knew that the other was stealing glances and found the thought invigorating.

From then on Justin spent all his breaks at Rosalind’s side, and she planned her visits to the pool to coincide with his shifts. He discovered that she lived, with her parents, in the modest housing on the north side of the park and she, that he lived with his mother in the low-rent apartments to the south. One day in early August he invited her to go to a movie with him, naturally she agreed to the date.

Justin called at her house to pick her up and was met by her mother; a talkative woman with blond hair and features similar to an older version of her daughter; except where Rosalind’s features were soft and loving; her mother’s face was hard and worn. They stood and surveyed each other. Rosalind’s mother inquired about Justin’s family, and gradually became decidedly less friendly. Justin recognized her displeasure to be horror at his origins and financial status, or lack thereof. She deftly parlayed her snobbism and disapproval into comments about Rosalind’s age and the fact that she considered Justin, at eighteen, with an optimistic interest in gaming and computers and no college prospects, as a poor match for her daughter. Both parents had plans for Rosalind and they most assuredly did not include a liaison with an older apartment-lad whose only prospect was a computer game.

The date went off as expected with Justin gentle and responsive. Rosalind gave every indication that she wanted to be kissed. Justin held her in his arms and obliged. When they blended into each other they both knew that something lasting and special had taken place. They wanted the date to last forever but Justin managed to deliver her home before midnight. At her door they were met by her father, who told Rosalind to go to her room, and Justin, that no more dates were in order. Justin attempted reason but her father wouldn’t discuss options and soon dismissed Justin by closing the door in his face.

In the days before electronic media Rosalind’s parents might have been able to instantly curtail the young couple’s contact with each other, but they both had cell phones and I-pads, and so communications went on with increased intensity. In addition they managed frequent meetings at the pool. By the end of the summer they were committed. Justin told Rosalind about his computer game and his dream of starting a business based on computer games. He spoke of the time when he expected to be affluent enough to be able to get married, a time, which he confidently predicted, to be when Rosalind was old enough to do so. Up until then Rosalind’s parents had always dictated her future; but now she luxuriated in Justin’s plans. She found them exciting, convincing, stimulating, and good enough to be written into a novel.

At the end of the summer, her mother discovered that Rosalind and Justin were meeting at the pool and communicating electronically. She talked to her husband and made her ultimatum, “This young man is far too old for you. You are only fourteen. Your father and I insist that you immediately cease all communication, and don’t think that you can go behind our backs. If you try we will permanently ground you.”

Rosalind thought the ultimatum to be unreasonable and cruel. She was tempted to argue with her parents that fourteen is not too young for love and a mutual attraction with a man only four years her senior. She even considered pointing out that Priscilla Presley was fourteen when she and Elvis first met. She could remind them that it took several years until Priscilla was old enough to get married. However, she didn’t bring up her objections for she could see from her mother’s face that decision was inflexibly made. Instead, she humbly begged for, and was given, twenty-four hours to ‘wrap things up.’ She shot off an e-mail to Justin asking him what to do. He responded that, at present, she needed her parents more than she needed him and that they should oblige by ceasing communications until she was old enough to legally make her own decisions. He told her that it was best for he intended to move to Austin where he could better market his game. He suggested that his move would make their temporary separation easier. Rosalind didn’t like Justin’s response. She cried all night. She wanted Justin now. She knew that she loved him, but she was realistic; and he had not offered an alternative. At times she even told herself that his response was a brush-off and that he obviously wanted to break-up with her. Facing this sad thought, she calmed down. At dawn she capitulated.

The next six months passed quickly with Rosalind focused on her school work. Her dedicated studies didn’t help her to forget. Every time she opened a book she thought of Justin. Every time that she went out she sought his image. Sometimes she would see a shadow or a profile which she thought might be his and her heart would beat faster while she rushed to investigate. Once she had spent an hour trailing a young man in the Gallaria because, when she first saw him skating on the ice she was convinced that he looked like Justin. Every few days she searched the Internet for his name hoping to find something, anything, but nothing came up. It was as though he had vanished from the earth. The following February she received an anonymous Valentine’s card with forget-me-nots on the cover. Inside was handwritten:

One who cares

On the back, in very small print was a note:

Handmade especially for you.
The Jacob / Rachel Foundation.

Rosalind’s spirits rose for she knew that the card came from Justin and reconfirmed his love. She fondly read and re-read it. Then she took down her copy of Middlemarch, and slipped the card into the back of its voluminous pages. Her mother, who routinely inspected all Rosalind’s mail also saw the card and deduced that it came from one of Rosalind’s classmates, probably Tim whom she considered eminently desirable. The following year a second card arrived. Again the front image was forget-me-nots. The message inside read:

One who waits

Rosalind hid the second card in her book while her mother wondered what Tim could be waiting for. She gently began to point out Tim’s credentials and assets to Rosalind. The next year, Rosalind’s high school junior year, two cards arrived. Her mother way-laid them while Rosalind was at school. She opened them, one was clearly from Tim who signed his name. The other read:

One who cares and waits

Rosalind’s mother deduced that One who cares and waits came from Justin. She told herself that it had been sent in disobedience to her explicit instructions and took this as ample excuse for her to withhold it. She watched Rosalind read Tim’s card and obvious disappointment at there not being another card. Rosalind’s reaction confirmed her mother’s suspicions. She decided to attack head-on,

“What are you moping about?”

“Wasn’t there another card?”

“Nothing else.”

“But I thought…”

“What did you think?”

“That there might be another card?”

“You mean one from that loser Justin?”

“Well yes, from Justin. But he is not a loser.”

“Since you didn’t get a card from him I’ll overlook the fact that you agreed to no communications.” Her mother put her arms around Rosalind, “Come on dear, did you really expect to get a card from that game-designer-loser, Justin? Be realistic he is four years your senior and off in the business world. He has probably got a real girl-friend by now.”

“But Mom, I am real. Why don’t you see me as real? And, Mom we were, no, are, in love,” sobbed Rosalind, “he said that he would wait. He said that we should both wait.”

“Pooh, that sounds like a man. Typical man wants you to do all the waiting while they have a good time.”

“I, I don’t think so.” Rosalind stammered miserably, “Perhaps the card got lost…”

“Come on, be real, Rosalind, he has obviously forgotten you. It is a subtle message to you to move on.”

“Move on?”

“Yep, start dating. What about that neat boy Tim?”

Rosalind was sad and disappointed and decided to take her mother’s advice that ‘life has to go on. She began to date Tim. His family were relatively well off and her parents, especially her mother, liked his prospects. They encouraged the relationship. By the end of Rosalind’s senior year she and Tim had settled into an easy relationship. That was also the year that Rosalind’s father lost his job and they had to give up their home. They moved into an apartment. Rosalind’s mother was devastated by the move and so Rosalind did not tell her that the apartment was the one which had been Justin’s home the summer of her fourteenth birthday. Rosalind found comfort in the place for she felt that it connected her to Justin. Sometimes when she lay on her bed with her eyes closed she could almost feel his presence. She continued to date Tim because it pleased her mother and stopped her incessant nagging. When Valentine’s Day rolled around her mother again made sure that she hid the next valentine’s card from Austin. It read:

One who watches and waits

At the end of their senior year both Rosalind and Tim were offered places in several University programs. Tim suggested that they should go to the same place so that they could be together. Rosalind was not so sure but she didn’t nix the idea. Now that she thought that she had lost Justin her emotions were numb. She filled in multiple applications for financial aid along with her college applications. She and her parents knew that they needed to find some way for her to afford to go without her having to take out a debilitating student loan. Then, one day in May, both she and Tim received letters from The Jacob / Rachel Foundation. Neither could recall having applied to such a foundation but both rationalized that there had been so many applications that it could have happened. The Foundation offered a full scholarship to Rosalind for The University of Texas in Austin and to Tim for him to study Architecture at Texas A & M. The families were thrilled by the generosity of the scholarships although Tim expressed dismay that they would have to be separated. Rosalind’s mother shared Tim’s disappointment although she reminded them both that Austin and College Station aren’t too far apart and they would both be home in Houston for vacations. Rosalind remained ambivalent.

That summer Rosalind took a position as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool. It began with weekends in May and, after her eighteen birthday, promised to go full time until she left for university. During the May weekend sessions she donned her swim-suit, always a turquoise one-piece, and mounted her post nostalgically making sure that she was assigned to the pool where she and Justin had met. She sat in a new lifeguard platform with a large umbrella. It was in the same location that Justin’s had been four years ago. She nurtured a sense of connection as she sat in, what she still considered, to be his perch. Now she was the eighteen-year-old surveying the activities; the eighteen-year-old who lived in the apartments, perhaps even the eighteen-year-old on whom the parents of the fourteen-year-old boys would frown. She didn’t dwell on this last fact; she concentrated on her job and luxuriated in memory of the summer of her fourteenth birthday. Sometimes she studied the adolescent fourteen-year-old boys watching them swagger and show off jumping off the diving board. Some of them had adult bodies but they all retained their youthful demeanor.

‘What,’ she wondered, ‘what did Justin see in me? I understand why he has forgotten. I was so young. I do wonder why he had to hurt me so much. But no,’ she always concluded, ‘no, he gave me a memory, a precious memory to carry with me throughout my life, the memory of a perfect man. Love is always good even when it is in vain. I cherish our love and shall always do so.’

By June the school holidays were in full swing and one hot June day, her birthday and the anniversary of the day that she and Justin had met she noticed an athletic young man dive into the water and swim laps. He swam like an Olympian slicing through the water and making smooth flip-turns at the end of each lap. Her job was to watch the young swimmers not the lap swimmers and so she missed seeing him get out of the water. When she next looked he was lying on a lounge chair reading. Rosalind did a double take, viewed from where she was sitting he looked very like her memory of Justin. She calmed herself with the thought that, over the years, especially at the beginning, she had often imagined seeing him, only to be disappointed when she got a full look at close quarters. However, when she blew her whistle for the obligatory break from the water she climbed down and walked toward him. He seemed to be engrossed in his book. She stopped beside him letting the sun cast her shadow over his body. By now she was almost speechless with emotion. She didn’t know how to address this person who so resembled her love of four years ago.

Her voice quivering she managed to say, “Excuse me, do I know you?”

He looked up, removed his dark glasses, and smiled merrily, now there was no doubt. He said, “Of course you know me Rosalind. Here, sit down and let’s talk.”

“So, what are you reading?”

Middlemarch, did you have to ask? You even know why I read it today.”

“Yes, of course. So you came back?

“I told you that I’d come back. Didn’t you believe? Surely you received my Valentine’s cards?”

“I received One who cares, and One who waits but after that nothing. I assumed that you had stopped caring and waiting. Besides that is when Dad lost his job and we had to move into an apartment. I even wondered whether it was because of the move.”

“So you didn’t get One who cares and waits, and One who watches and waits?”

“No.”

“That’s odd. I bet your mother intervened. I know that she disapproves; but Rosalind, now that I’ve made my million don’t you think that she might accept me?”

© September 2014, Jane Stansfeld

 

Paranoia – a short story

They were driving to a concert in central Austin and took Ben White over to to avoid the Mopac route which promised to be congested by an event on Sixth Street. It was good to think that their city was so vibrant with multiple events occurring simultaneously; even though this fact made route planning a challenge. As they approached the Ben White – I 35 interchange Susan breathed deeply and tried to relax. The flyover always worried her, but this time she tried to focus on the sunlight and the brilliance of the sky. Her tactic seemed to be working as they drove up the ramp, but then she sensed movement reminding her that they were going too fast. She clenched her fists and closed her eyes willing the experience to cease as quickly as possible. That was when her husband exclaimed,

“Susan, the view, look at the magnificent view of Down-town Austin; and over there you can see St Ed’s, it looks like a cathedral!” Susan’s husband’s comment about the resemblance to a cathedral was made based on his knowledge that Susan loved cathedrals and knew that she would look. She opened her eyes and attempted to look at, and savor, the view. Her gaze couldn’t take in the distance, for it emphasized their elevation, instead all she could take in was the foreground with tell-tale black skid marks on the crash barriers on the sides of the fly-over.

“Too fast! You are driving too fast.” Her voice was loud, filled with panic. She didn’t tell him about the skid marks although she speculated how they had been made and whether anyone, driving too fast, as they were, could have lost control and driven over. She wondered what conditions made this happen. Was it safe when conditions were dry like today and only hazardous when it was wet or icy? She even hazarded a guess that they could have been made by some irresponsible dare-devil teenager driving the crash barrier for fun. Some fun, she thought, but then, skate boarders perform equally amazing feats just for fun.

Her husband didn’t seem to have slowed down, so Susan spoke again, “Please slow down, you ARE driving too fast.”

“People are behind me. We are going the speed limit, Can’t slow down.” He reached over and patted her knee in reassurance.

“NO!” she exclaimed, “Please keep your hands on the steering wheel.”

She shut her eyes again. When she did so she saw a May 11 1976 image of the Houston Southwest Freeway –Loop 610 intersection over which a vehicle hauling 7,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia had lost control, careened off the exit ramp and plunged fifteen feet down onto the Southwest Freeway, spilling its contents and creating a toxic cloud of gas. Seven died as a direct result of the crash; most, it is true, died from the toxic fumes.

Susan wondered, as she did every time she was on a flyover, what it would be like if the car flew over the flimsy-looking crash barrier. She knew that it is said that, in those few seconds, a person’s whole life flashes before their eyes. Of course, she told herself, this is merely speculation and cannot be verified as the dead don’t come back to life. Might it not be equally feasible that persons pray or think of the havoc that they leave behind? The thought that those few seconds could be calm, filled only with one’s last living thoughts intrigued her. As always her questioning tempted her to wonder if it would be so bad for it to happen for then she would know. Perhaps, she thought, this is why I am even able to tolerate driving, or being driven, over a flyover.

They were now merging into the heavy I-35 traffic. Susan relaxed and waited for their route to take them over Town Lake after which they would get a stellar view of the State Capital building with its distinctive pink granite dome. The view corridors may be a hassle for developers and their designers but for the public they offer intriguing vistas of the building which gives Austin its first raison d’être. The telephone rang and Susan gulped in fear as her husband squirmed to take his mobile phone out of his pocket. At least it hadn’t rung while they were on the Ben White, I-35, interchange! At last he had it in his hands and appeared to be about to answer it as the car began to swerve.

“Give it to me.” She commanded. “It is too dangerous for you to attempt to drive and talk on the phone.” He obliged and she listened to a computer confirming her husband’s upcoming dental appointment. “Just the dentist reminding you of your appointment on Monday,” she told her him.

When they arrived at their destination they parked on the third floor of the parking structure. A wasp flew out from among the concrete beams and buzzed them. Susan was unperturbed but her husband blanched and dodged the insect. Several more flew toward him; he flailed his arms and ran. People getting out of an adjacent car looked quizzically at Susan. She explained, “He is allergic to their stings. Every time that he gets stung his reaction seems to be worse. He is trying to avoid getting a seriously swollen arm.”

The concert was soothing, beautiful; Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Funereal, maybe, but Susan loved Mozart’s music and always enjoyed his melody. This time she was so engrossed in the moment that her thoughts didn’t wander as they often did during concerts. This one was integrated into a ‘real” mass and an invitation to remember the dead. It was moving and a true Requiem mass.

Even though it was getting dark after the concert they planned to drive north to make a quick visit to their daughter to return some music books. Those grand-daughters always seemed to manage to forget something when they came for their piano lessons. Afterwards they would take Mopac south completing a round trip of the City. Susan liked the elegance of their travel plans and was pleased to think that at least their homeward bound trip only included one high narrow, one-car flyover of the type which scared her.

As they approached it, the flyover between I-35 and 290 Susan concentrated on her breathing, and willed her husband to drive slowly. Surely that won’t be too challenging, she thought, as traffic is light and he knows that I prefer to take flyovers leisurely. Indeed as they went up he seemed to be taking the ramp gently. Everything was fine. Susan even opened her eyes; that’s when she saw the danger. It wasn’t outside the car but a wasp inside. She gently raised her arm to shield her husband. Her movement drew his attention. When he saw the wasp he forgot everything except his fear of being stung. He swung his arms in the air and must have pressed his foot on the accelerator as the car sped into the crash barrier. The impact, causing them to become almost vertical, got his attention and he attempted to brake. Susan didn’t scream she was uncannily calm as she thought to herself that they were now making skid marks on the crash barrier. Her husband might have been able to gain control again had not the wasp taken this moment to sting him.

The car shot over the crash barrier. Even now Susan didn’t scream all she could think about was how happy she was to be dying knowing what one’s last thoughts are as one flies through space toward inevitable annihilation.

© November 2014, Jane Stansfeld.

Some Ant – a poem

In the 1952 award winning children’s story “Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White Charlotte, the spider, writes “SOME PIG” in her web to save her friend Wilbur from the slaughterhouse. This poem imagines the activities of one of Charlotte’s great to the nth power grand-daughters. It uses urban metaphors of man-made objects to describe natural elements

Charlotte’s nth great grand-daughter,
Descends on skyscraper-steel strong thread,
To survey her dew-diamond billboard.
It reads “SOME ANT”.
She elevates back up to her house and waits.
Below, an escalator of ants swarm,
Up and down the knurled bark of her tree.
Flowers open their shuttered-stores of nectar.
A butterfly, dolled-up in seductive garb,
Stops to sample their Starbuck’s choice.
Close behind, a multitude of bees,
Each with briefcase sac to fill.
Charlotte turns to hear the helicopter-
Whir of wings as a blue-bottle flies
Straight into her waiting banner.
She smiles as she sits before her door,
And watches her dinner struggle.
Below, the ant garbage-cleaners of the forest
Busy in and out of secret brown earth,
Wait for her rejected morsels.

© October 2014, Jane Stansfeld

MOUNT BONNELL – a poem

Mount Bonnell is located in Covert Park in Austin Texas. It is a spectacular place with steep cliffs overlooking Lake Austin and commands great views of the city. History has it that several early Texans committed suicide here to avoid their enemies. It has been a popular tourist spot since the 1850s and is a well-used proposal venue. Recently a visitor accidentally fell off the rim to his death.

Third time to visit Covert Park.
Ring pocketed, hands held, they race,
Climbing Mount Bonnell, clean, stark,
Scented trees, stone steps, a lover’s place.

This, where Antoinette did leap,
Her beloved dead by Indian bands.
Here, Golden Nell and Beau eternal sleep
Jumped off, evading torturing hands.

To west, Austin’s winking downtown,
To east, setting sun behind wild hills.
Both wave to this place of renown,
This park of discordant joys and ills.

Below, lake and lawns, manicured,
An arc of silver water laps in love,
Houses rich and well secured,
Inviting those, gazing, from above.

Children scamper, tempting the rim,
Lovers loiter, enjoying the way,
Old folks amble, eyes dim,
All savor the magic of the day.

Anxious, he drops to bended knee
And asks “Will you marry me?” 

© October, 2014, Jane Stansfeld

Haggis – a short story

“Here Haggy, Haggy. Here Haggy, Haggy.”

The discordant words aroused me from a deep sleep. As I eased into wakefulness I told myself that I understood ‘here Kitty, Kitty; here Kitty, Kitty,’ but ‘here Haggy, Haggy; here Haggy, Haggy,’ wasn’t sonorous and had no ring to it. The voices making the call were youthful and, as I listened, I realized that it was the sweet voices of my grand-daughters. For a few more minutes I lay listening and wondering whether the ‘Haggy’ was Rubeus Hagrid the half-giant friend of Harry Potter’s, and the words, part of a game played between my two grand-daughters. This didn’t entirely make sense for who, in their right mind, would give a giant a diminutive name such as ‘Haggy?’

I glanced at my battery operated alarm clock and saw that it was eight-thirty. The girls had probably breakfasted, with their parents, on a Scottish specialty of porridge and were now outside playing. I am normally an early riser, but this morning I lay trying to sleep off the effects of a restless night, in which I had spent several hours on the front porch enjoying the rain and catching glimpses of the full moon. The beauty of the scene had brought Alfred Noye’s epic poem ‘Highway man’ to mind. The words echoed in my mind. I had called it up on my I-pad and read the self-illuminated screen aloud; casting the lyrics into the wild wind-driven rain:

‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.’

I don’t remember dressing but soon I was fully clad, in new Shetland cable-knit sweater, resplendent white with its beautiful knitted pattern, and blue jeans, ready to go outside. When I opened the door I paused, struck by the beauty of the scene before me. The Scottish highlands are always grand but today the storm had left Loch Ness shrouded in a light mist. The air was clean and fresh and the light had a magical quality, the mystical clarity that you get with dawn in the aftermath of a storm. I took a sip of hot coffee, I don’t recall but I must have stopped in the kitchen to get a mug full. I could sense the warm liquid slipping down my throat and luxuriated in the warmth which spread out over my whole body. I couldn’t see my grand-daughters and everything was uncannily quiet; not even an errant ‘Here Haggy, Haggy,’ to alert me where they were.

We were doing a mini self-guided tour of the Scottish highlands and had taken this tiny croft on Lock Ness for a two-day stay to cater to the girl’s fantasy that they might spot the Lock Ness monster or Nessie. So far Nessie had not obliged and I didn’t think that the mist this morning would help; you couldn’t even see the water.

The previous night, before the storm, we had listened to the wind howling and sat and talked about Nessie at length. The sense of isolation given by the noise of the wind and the smallness of our quarters tipped us into imagining mystics and strange beasties including Nessie. One thing had led to another and we had speculated about the veracity of the claim, by some Scots, that the Haggis is a small, almost extinct, highland creature. We had looked at images on line. Most pictures showed a small, pig-faced animal with long tufts of hair in the vicinity of the ears. My reaction was skeptic, although I did think about the first reports, from Australia, of the Duck-billed platypus. The English of 1798 thought that the description of; an egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal with venomous hind foot spur; to be pure fantasy. Rumor has it that when the first pelt was shipped back to England they had experts examine it to detect the place where the various parts had been sewn together! To our discerning eyes the on-line images of the haggis were as weird as the duck-billed platypus must have been to the English at the end of the eighteenth century. By the way the jury is out on the plural of haggis, most suggest haggis is the same in singular and plural; as in one sheep, two sheep; one haggis, two haggis; although I like one haggis, two haggi; or maybe two haggises. On line, most assert that you should never need to consider the plural of haggis as one is enough! As I sipped my coffee I now wondered whether, ‘here Haggy, Haggy’ had been inspired by our discussion of the previous night.

By now the haze over the waters was beginning to burn off and there was every indication that we were in for a glorious, if unusual, sunny day in the highlands. My youngest grand-daughter came running up from the direction of the lake emerging like a spirit from the mist. When she saw me she waved and exclaimed in excitement: “Grammy, come quick the haggis is getting away.”

I put my mug down and ran toward her. “A haggis, are you sure?” I patted my jean pocket but my mobile phone was not there. For a brief moment I considered going back for it but my grand-daughter was moving fast and I didn’t want to lose her. I hoped that there would be time for photographs later. At the bottom of the garden, almost on the shore of the loch, the vapor parted and I saw the ‘haggis’ and my oldest grand-daughter, beyond them I could now see the waters of Loch Ness. My grand-daughter held out her hand in which she held a carrot, “Here Haggy, Haggy.” The creature was about the size of a small cat and had a long neck, small head, proportionately short legs, and a long tail. When I got closer I saw that it had a very short fur coat. For all intents and purposes it looked, with the exception of the otter-like fur, like a model of a diplodocus; the sort of model that they sell in museum gift shops.

“Where did you find him?” I asked.

“We think that it is a ‘she,” corrected both girls. “And her name is Haggis, Haggy for short.” I watched as they petted the creature. It mewed in, what I took to be appreciation, and then, suddenly raised its head and gave a shrill squeal. They were both crouched down beside their Haggy and so they didn’t see, what I, and it, saw rising out of the mist. At first it was, what appeared to be, a head on along neck, some twelve to fifteen feet long. As it got closer and become more distinct I realized, with wonder, that it looked like a very large version of our Haggy, a museum-quality, moving, live diplodocus. The form loomed ever larger as it approached.

“Run, girls, run, NOW,” I yelled, “Leave Haggy, her mama is coming and she looks angry. It’s the monster, the Lock Ness monster.”

They both turned and then began to run toward the residence. I was behind. I ran. My feet felt like lead, they were tangled in something, like a blanket, which curtailed movement. I ran as best I could but the creature caught up with me and touched me. It shook my whole body. I panicked and flailed my arms. “No Haggy, no.” I yelled.

Words broke through to me, “Grammy, wake-up, wake-up, you’re talking in your sleep.” I opened my eyes to see both my grand-daughters standing by my bed, shaking me, and talking in unison. They held out a mewing animal toward me, “Grammy, may we keep her? See the lovely kitten which we found on the porch.”

© September, 2014. Jane Stansfeld

L’Atelier – a short story

Most of our courses were regimented. At the Sorbonne, a large class of silent foreigners was instructed by a big, garlic-smelling, Madame for whom there was only one culture in the world, and only one country for which she had any regard – La France. Her most lively and endearing moments were when she talked about Proust and the “le petit Madeleine”. Her love of Proust and her dedication to his writing made her seem youthful and even beautiful as she lit up describing that little morsel of cake placed on a spoon and dipped in a cup of tea. Otherwise her love of country was so ardent that it made her seem like a vast indoctrinated mass of flesh. No-one was ever invited to compare their culture to hers, and no-one offered because she looked so unapproachable and forceful. I got the feeling that had she lived during the French revolution she would have been one of the stocking-knitters who sat under the guillotine.

My drawing classes at the Lycee Des Beaux Arts were in the Beaux Arts tradition. In this case the class consisted of a cross section of people from Versailles who sat in silence for an uninterrupted three hours, drawing still items, a bust of Voltaire, a vase, it made no difference – you drew in silence. I had never experienced a silent art class or had to devote so much time to drawing one object, so at first the class was a strain. Eventually I found it to be therapeutic rather in the manner of Yoga. Sculpture classes were slightly more animated for clay demands some movement and we sculpted human forms from memory. But even here classes were held in silence – I deduced that each of us was supposed to be so engrossed in our art that normal conversation was impossible.

The painting which I did in a class in an artist’s atelier was a completely different matter. My first session was in early January when there was snow on the ground. Mademoiselle gave me some sketchy directions how to get there and had written the address down on a scrap of paper. It was snowing gently when I set off so that I had some difficulty finding the right street. When I found it I was surprised that the address marked on my piece of paper led under an old fashioned archway into an ancient courtyard. The buildings rose high on three sides with their gaunt stones and shuttered windows contrasting with the snow lined roof eaves and ground. On the side opposite the archway there was a low building which might have been a stable at one time. There was a stone mounting stand outside it. I stood for some time in this ancient courtyard which bore no signs of having changed in several hundred years. It gave me the impression that I had travelled back in time in a Time Machine.

My directions ended here and so I studied the buildings in an attempt to see some modern life – perhaps someone to give me directions or an indication that I was in the right place. The only light came from a broken window into the stable like building. It gave a warm glow through a paper patch over the cracked portion. I went to the door (a green one as usual) and listened. I could hear happy voices inside. This could not be my class. I gazed around at the other bleak buildings which carried no indication of life. I steeled my nerves and knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again, and again there was no response. I was getting desperate and frightened. Then I paused and pulled myself together. Perhaps the hubbub inside prevented anyone from hearing my knocking. I turned the latch and entered.

At first I was almost knocked over by the smell of turpentine and oil and the heavy fumes from a smoking coke fire. Then, as my eyes became accustomed to the haze of smoke I took in the scene before me. It was a high vaulted room, quite probably, as I had guessed a converted stable. Towards the middle was a dais made out of old wooden boxes and draped with a miscellaneous collection of fabrics. On it lounged a heavily made up nude woman. Her dark skin glowed in the gloom. In the far corner from the door was a free-standing pot-bellied coke stove with a chimney rising out of it straight up to the roof. It stood on three legs. Its front door was open so that the glow or hot cinders could be seen inside. Between these two main objects in the room every available space was filled with clutter and debris; stools, easels, people painting, stands of paints, palettes, paint-brushes, bottles of turpentine, clothing and a bowl of rotting fruit.

A young girl wearing a voluminous smock came up to me and gently drew me into the room. She shut the door quickly behind me, explaining as she did so that draughts upset the model. She led me through the obstacles in the room to meet ‘Le Patron”. I was immediately captivated by this unique personage. He stood no more than five feet and supported himself on crutches with which he managed to manipulate himself about the room without disturbing any of the clutter. He greeted me as “mon petit choux” and gave me a friendly kiss before roaring to the room that everyone should take a rest now while room was made for “la petite anglaise” .Room was made and soon I was painting with borrowed canvas, paints and smock.

We worshiped the ‘Patron’. We tried to mother him to prevent him from getting tired; standing, as he did, for hours on his crutches or on one leg as he deftly demonstrated with his free had how to paint a leg or an arm. Once the “Patron” had been near, a flat ordinary painting suddenly took on a stunning new life. We nearly always painted nudes, some black, some white, some olive, and one with bright red hair which was so bright that she seemed to be red all over. The easiest ones to paint were the black ones for their glossy skins shone in the dim light while white skins looked mushy. The models all loved the ‘Patron” and laughed and joked with him as they changed, then they would snatch kisses from him when they left to go home.

I spoke more in my “atelier” sessions than I spoke during the rest of the week and enjoyed them as an antidote to my solitary walks across Versailles and the silent sessions at the Lycee. I never told Mademoiselle, or any of the other girls about what we did, for the whole experience was like stepping through a door into a different world so full of extraordinary things that I had a sneaking suspicion that it might disintegrate. If I had tried to create a world of make-believe for myself I could not have done better. Probably the only make-believe was, although we pretended otherwise, that it soon became very obvious that I was no earthly good at painting and my daubs were the worst in the entire ‘Atelier” I was wasting my time painting but kept at it because I realized that the therapeutic value of these sessions far surpassed their educational impact.

© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, September

Raccoon Amour – a short story

Betty told us about her raccoon visitation when we were standing on a back patio wood deck sipping wine and sharing trivia. The occasion was a beautiful balmy early November evening in Austin, Texas. It was warm enough for us to be outside without coats. We were baptizing our friend’s new deck which was still under construction. The wood was fresh scented and un-weathered and a proposed guardrail was not yet constructed. We sipped our wine and were careful to avoid getting too close to the edge, some three feet above the ground below. We looked out over our friend’s back yard while he explained that his treasured, (city ordinance protected), large oak and pecan trees prevented grass from growing. He told us that he intended some shade-tolerant xeriscape planting to beautify it and bring it to the standard established by his new outdoor patio.

As I looked out, I mentioned that I was reminded of the previous morning when I looked down from our patio to our lawn-less back yard and had seen two large raccoons beside our fish pond. They might have been fishing or drinking, or perhaps, dousing their food. Dousing is a strange habit, mostly observed in raccoons in captivity, when they wet their hand-like paws to increase their tactile sensitivity. Naturalists speculate that this is so that they can examine their food better. It is this habit which accounts for the raccoon’s name in many languages. It is waschbär in German, and orsetto lavatore in Italian, both literally meaning wash bear. In a like manner it is raton laveur in French and ratäo-lavadeiro in Portuguese, both literally meaning wash rat. Our English name is derived from a Powhtan Indian term ahrah-koon-em which means (the) one who rubs, scrubs, and scratches with its hands. My two were doing something with those same hand-like paws. They looked up at me with their black and white faces before, very slowly, moving off into the adjacent green belt. I remarked how nonchalant they looked and commented on their size and attitude of ownership.

My comments brought Betty to her story. She also lives adjacent to a greenbelt. When she moved into her two story house she had the door between the house and garage fitted with a cat door so that her large female cat could pass in and out at will. Betty kept the cat’s food, water and litter in the garage. She further indulged her feline by making sure that the overhead garage door was never completely closed. It was always left with a six inch gap between it and the drive so that the cat could commune with the outside as she pleased. The arrangement seemed perfect until Betty noticed that the cat was making more mess and was eating more. Betty was not overly concerned as the remainder of the cat’s routine remained unchanged. She was as loving as usual and, at night, still visited Betty’s bedroom where she would curl up on Betty’s bed and sleep next to her.

One night Betty was drifting off to sleep when a large animal jumped onto the bed. Betty knew that her cat was large and sleepily thought that it was her. Then, in her half-asleep state, she thought that she could distinctly feel two bodies on the bed, the sensation woke her up. She looked down and, to her surprise, saw her cat and another animal sleeping on her bed. The other animal sported a bushy striped tail. She reached out to touch it. Her movement woke both creatures and the visitor turned his face towards Betty. She recognized his dark patched eyes surrounded by a white ring, the white around the snout and the dark stripe down the middle of his face. It was the unmistakable face of a raccoon. Both Betty and raccoon reacted with surprise and the raccoon jumped off the bed, fled out through the bedroom door, down the stairs, out through the cat door, into the garage, and out to the beyond.

As Betty narrated this curious tale I couldn’t help thinking about the Warner Brothers amorous Parisian skunk Pepé Le Pew who fell in love with a cat named Penelope Pussycat. I recalled the scene when some paint fell on her back giving her a skunk-like stripe down the length of her body. I remembered his jumps and sweet Anglo French accented comments such as, “It is love at first sight, is it not, no?”. I wondered whether Betty’s tale was also a story of mistaken love. Or was this raccoon merely being companionable and moving in with the cat with whom he had been sharing the garage for some time?

Betty thought that the visit was just a strange event until one morning, a month or so later, she arose to meet the raccoon standing in the middle of her bedroom. She advanced towards the creature. She must have been obscuring his line to the door as, instead of taking this path of escape, he turned and somehow managed to climb up the window coverings and to position himself in the corner of the room. He sat high up under the ceiling where the curtain rods of two adjacent windows came together. Betty remained calm and made sure that the bedroom door was open. She also opened the windows and then, unconcerned, went into her bathroom and took a shower.

When she came out she fully expected to find that the raccoon had gone but he was still there. He looked down, with his masked face, and chattered at her. She went and got a broom and tried to coax him to leave. This was of no avail. Betty knew that raccoons carry rabies and so did not want to come close enough to be bitten. She decided to call her neighborhood security department.

Two uniformed guards arrived and took a look at the poor animal still clinging onto his perch. They also attempted to coax him to leave by prodding with Betty’s broom but they knew better than to get within biting distance. They told Betty that this was not their expertise and suggested that this was a job for Ernie.

They called Ernie who soon arrived. Ernie came equipped a net with a remotely operated clamp and positioned himself to capture the raccoon. As soon as Ernie began his approach the raccoon must have recognized defeat for he leapt down from his perch and shot between their legs, out through the bedroom door, down the stairs, out through the cat door, into the garage, and out to the beyond.

When the humans left in the room had recovered from their astonishment they also went out of the bedroom and down stairs. They stood in the hall near the cat door into the garage unwinding and talking to each other. They needed a few minutes of discourse to bring their world back to the norms to which they were accustomed. As they were shaking hands and beginning to break up they were further taken by surprise. Betty’s cat selected this moment emulate the raccoon and to streak through their legs. As she went she gave a wild wail. She quickly went out through the cat door, into the garage, and out to the beyond.

Copyright © Jane Stansfeld, September 2014