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

New shoes – a short story

Fred wanted new shoes and knew that the best time to approach his mother was about an hour after supper. He had to time things just right to catch that sweet-spot moment when she was starting to relax and let go of her busy day. If he waited too long to the time when she was becoming drowsy, she would be annoyed and unreceptive to anything other than the mundane. On this evening he laid his groundwork well helping with the dishes and purposefully padding around, shoeless. When they sat down before the television, she with some mending in her hands, he put his feet up on an ottoman, in the hope that she would comment and give him a lead into, what he felt to be, his pressing need.

He was disappointed, as she gave the impression of intense concentration while she sewed on buttons and watched a ‘House Hunters International’ episode. They both liked to dream about far off places and to see if they could guess which residence would be selected. At a commercial break he decided to take the plunge, coughed and said, “Ma, did you notice that I need new shoes?”

She looked up at his feet and smiled as if she saw through his intrigue. “No, dear, I didn’t, because you don’t.”

Fred disliked her response but now that he had broached the subject he had to continue “Ma, you must have forgotten. I’m in great need. Wouldn’t it be best if we bought them before school starts? If we buy them soon, like tomorrow, we would hit the before school tax holiday. It ends this weekend.” He smiled weakly, feeling proud of his practical suggestion. His mother didn’t smile; her face remained sad and wistful.

“No, dear, there are no funds for new shoes.”

Fred looked at this mother, this time he saw her, rather than merely knowing that she was there. She looked tired and grey; her face now tightened into a frown, her hair drawn back into an untidy pony tail. He noticed her clothes; a crumpled old shirt over black pants. Her feet were also shoeless. He turned and looked at her shoes, a pair of black pumps with worn heels where they had been scuffed while driving. Instinctively he knew that she was not lying about money, but he also recognized the refrain, which had been ongoing for the two years since his father died. Although he was almost eighteen and had an adult body, Fred still retained a child-like belief that his mother was omnipotent, and that, as a mother, she was required to fulfill all his desires and needs.

“Mother,” he groaned, “Mother, I gave you all my earnings from my summer lawn mowing. There has to be enough to get me some new shoes!

“You forget that the car needed repairs after that little accident which you had at the beginning of the summer. I could go on, Fred,” she sighed, “but you don’t want to hear about all our money troubles such as the rent-hike, or that it has been so hot this summer that the electricity bill was double what I expected. I do my best but there is absolutely nothing left for new shoes.”

Fred was hardly listening. “Mother, there has to be something hidden away somewhere,” he raised his voice, “because I need, not want, mother, need, new shoes. Tell you what I’ll show you,” With this comment Fred moved quickly; he went to his room.

When he got there he gathered his shoes off the floor of his closet. He was surprised to find that he had more of them than he thought, but he decided to lug them all down to his mother. There were his old sneakers with their bright blue tops and dirty laces smelling of sweat and better times; his dress up shoes, the ones which he wore to his father’s funeral – black and shiny and too tight; a pair of brown slip-on loafers very scuffed and worn. Last, there was a pair of sandals that she had bought him last year; they were caked with mud from the time that it rained on the spring picnic. He left his flip flops under the bed deciding that they didn’t count as shoes.

“Mom, here are my shoes.” he said as he laid them out on the coffee table. “Look at them, they are old and inappropriate for school in the Fall. You don’t want your only son to shame you in any of these do you?”

She looked up from her work and gave an almost inaudible sad groan. “What about your walking shoes?”

“Come on Ma they were nines – much too small. Don’t you remember when I had the bad toe a few months ago, and you told me to throw them away. Well I did!”

“So what size do you take now? I forget.”

The question pleased Fred; he saw it as a chink in her armor. ”Been ten since the year after Dad died.” ‘Now she is going to capitulate’ thought Fred, ‘I’m sure that she won’t spring for the boots which I want but I’ll have a try when we get to the store.’ He said, in his sweetest voice, “So we can go to the store tomorrow?”

“No dear, you didn’t hear me – there is no money. But I have an idea. First put your shoes away and then come to my room.” She rose and walked towards her room. As Fred followed he spoke,

“But Ma, I brought them all – that’s everything except the flip flops which I wore all summer at the pool when I was a life-guard.” He felt pleased with himself that he had covered this omission to his inventory.

“All right dear, I know. Just put them away and then come into my room.”

Fred obeyed, He felt slightly anxious. He wondered what she was up to as she generally didn’t invite him into her room. When he entered, he found her standing before her closet holding two pairs of men’s shoes, a black pair of lace-ups and a pair of cowboy boots. She held them out to him smiling gently as she spoke,

“Go on, try them on. They are tens. They were your father’s. I couldn’t throw them out they are so nice, so new. Now is the moment when you step into your father’s shoes.”

© August, 2014, Jane Stansfeld.

Push-ups – a short story

Katrina and her school-friends talked in awed voices about one armed push-ups. Their interest was spurred by the American action film GI Jane, released on August 22nd 1997. The movie stared Demi Moore as Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil and told the fictional story of O’Neil as the first woman to undergo the rigorous training as an equal to the male recruits in U.S. Navy Special Welfare Group (equivalent to the Navy SEALS). Along the way O’Neil faced sexism, and intense physical challenges on top of demeaning political conniving by U.S. Senator Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) who selected her for the experimental program. 

GI Jane was a box office success and grossed $11,094,241 its opening weekend, when it playing at a total of 1,945 theaters. Katrina, an incoming High School sophomore, saw it with her friends that opening weekend. They immediately identified with Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil. After all, they rationalized, wasn’t Mrs. Riley their drill team sergeant bit like the enigmatic Command Master Chief John James Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen)? They thought of their past year’s rigorous training sessions when Mrs. Riley had attempted to advance them from “girl” push-ups (push-ups from the knees) to “boy” push-ups (push-ups from the feet.) Some, including Katina, had painfully made the transition. But now they were agog with admiration as they watched Demi Moore perform multiple one armed “boy” push-ups, Extraordinary, they thought, and yet Demi, with whom they identified as being as female as themselves, seemed to perform the feat with ease. Katrina, a type ‘A’ high-performer, was especially fascinated. She thought that if Demi Moore could do it then she could also do it. When she shut her eyes she could see herself rising on one arm, and convinced  herself that all she needed was a little training.

Performance in real life proved much more difficult. Katina went into her bedroom and got down on her white Berber tuft carpet. She did a few “girl” push-ups to warm up then advanced to “boy” push-ups. All is well, she thought. She felt good and strong, so she tried on one arm. A disaster, she couldn’t even lift herself off the carpet. She felt as weak as a baby trying to sit up and gave an almost inaudible wail of anguish. She rested prostrate on the floor. She felt alone and disappointed. Her cat, Peanut, stalked up to her and nestled her nose into Katrina’s face. Katrina sneezed and then sat up to pet the cat. The cat crept into her lap and purred soothingly.

“If it is possible I will do it,” she whispered into Peanut’s ear, “I will, I will.” Then Peanut leapt off her lap onto her bed. Katrina took this show of feline agility as an affirmation that the cat agreed and understood.

Katrina was intrigued and first wanted to make sure that the push-ups weren’t a result of trick photography, to verify that it was a realistic goal for her to undertake. She invited her parents to go with her to see the film a second time. After this second viewing she walked out of the cinema convinced that the feat was real. Now she was convinced that it was within her grasp.

When she got home from the movies she retired to her bed-room again and stood on her head. The pose calmed her as it always had for standing on her head was not new to Katrina. She had learnt to do so when she was in Kindergarten. The summer before Kindergarten she had seen her Uncle do it and had imitated him practicing in secret until she had it mastered. First she would find a soft spot to use then she would kneel down and position her head with her hands on the ground on either side. Then she would slowly unfold her body into an upside down erect position. First her back and torso and then she would unfold her legs into their straight position feet skyward. The experience had shown her that she liked to stand on her head. She had spent so much time on her head in Kindergarten class that her teacher wrote a poignant note on her report card to the effect that in class she saw more of Katrina’s rear end than her face. This state of affairs might have been disturbing except that Katrina was also exceedingly smart and out-classed her classmates academically. Some even speculated that perhaps the upside-down pose gave more blood to the brain and accounted for her intelligence. Perhaps it did, for Katrina developed her plan of attack that day as she stood, alone on her head in her room.

The plan of attack was simple; push-ups, and then more push-ups. Katrina set herself a schedule five sets of ten (that’s 50) push-ups every morning before school, another five sets after she got home, from Drill Team practice, in the evening and a final five sets before bed. Initially the push-ups varied between “boy push-ups and the easier “girl push-ups but soon she was able to dispense with the easier variation. She was glad when Mrs. Riley called for push-ups in class because she could then get feedback on technique, “Back straight, butt tucked in, body like a board!”

All Fall Katrina maintained her regimen. Occasionally she attempted a one arm without success. By the time that her arms had buffed up so much that none of her shirts fitted she was becoming desperate. She needed outside help. One day, right after Thanksgiving, she managed to catch a private moment with Mrs. Riley.

“Mrs. Riley, what is the secret to one arm push-ups? You know the push-ups that Demi Moore did as GI Jane?” Mrs. Riley was happy to explain that once the arms and body was strong enough it was a question of balance. “You need to make a slight shift and twist of the body to place its center-of-gravity closer to or over the arm which is to act as support.” Katrina went home and tried and sure enough by the beginning of December she did her first one armed push-up

Katrina’s body sang in secret pleasure as she spent the rest of December perfecting her technique. When school restarted after the Christmas holiday she thought of herself as a one arm push-up pro as good as GI Jane. Katrina was accustomed to acing everything which she did, and so she didn’t brag or tell anyone of her new accomplishment – only she and Peanut shared the secret. But at their first Drill Team session of the New Year Mrs. Riley screamed at the team in frustration – everyone seemed lethargic after their Christmas recess.

“How are we ever going to look good on the football field?” She yelled, “Push-ups, I want twenty push-ups!”

The team groaned and got down on the floor. Some could only manage ignominious “girl” push-ups, some, along with Katrina, did “boy” push-ups. Katrina worked with ease. Anna-Marie on the floor next to her suddenly blurted out in a loud voice to be heard by all, her voice charged with derogatory bitter sarcasm,

“Go on Karina, do them on one arm!”

“OK,” came the happy response.

© Copyright, August 2914, Jane Stansfeld

The Exercise Bicycle – a short story

Fourteen months ago, when I went for my annual physical, the doctor’s office insisted, even though I have been a patient with them for years, that I fill out a new patient profile so that they could enter it into their new on-line electronic records system. I was annoyed that they had asked, since they already have all my medical records, and became quite irate as I filled out the same information multiple times. My anger turned to pain as I completed the page about the health of my parents and siblings. I came to a complete standstill when I wrote in ‘Stephen, brother, five, drowned.’ I was aroused from my moody reverie when a nurse emerged from a side door and called my name.

I suppose that the physical went as well as could be expected, although, looking back, I deem it to have been a total waste of time, as I came out with the instructions that I already knew, ‘Loose fifteen pounds and to start an exercise program.’ The doctor’s little pep talk, about life expectancy and so on, made, at least, a temporary impression on me. I thought about it overnight and, the next day, went to Craig’s list to look for a stationary exercise bicycle. As I had expected there were several to choose from. I selected the one whose seller was located closest to my house.

An elderly lady answered the door and quickly took me to her garage to see the bicycle. I mounted it and began to pedal. As I rode and tested the gears I looked around. The garage was a veritable workshop of bicycle parts and strange-looking machines. The old lady saw my questioning glance and spoke, “This workshop was my late husband’s. He liked to tinker. He always said that the one that you are sitting on was his masterpiece.”

After this comment I decided to pay her full asking-price and soon had the thing loaded into my station-wagon. As I pulled out of the drive she came bustling out carrying a helmet and goggles. “I almost forgot,” she said, “these go with the bicycle. There are some instructions about the electronics tucked inside the helmet.” When I got home I set the bicycle up in my spare bedroom and began my exercise routine. The helmet and so called ‘instructions’ were thrust into a corner of the room unused. After all who needs a helmet on a stationary bicycle? As for instructions, I handle these poorly at the best of times, and now I decided that I didn’t need to be told the obvious; how to plug-in the machine, how to mount it, or how to pedal.

At first things went well enough but after a couple of months my enthusiasm and dedication began to wane. Soon I was able to rationalize about the doctor’s instructions and, kindly told myself that I was not a hamster, and that I was wasting good intellectual time sitting on a stationary bicycle. Twenty minutes a day deteriorated into every other day and then twice a week. If anything I gained some more weight which always seems to happen when I attempt to lose. Then one day the tip of my flip-flop got caught in the pedals and I began to pedal backwards. Immediately the monitor between the handlebars changed color. ‘WARNING,’ it said, in bright red flashing letters, ‘FOR PROPER OPERATION IN THIS MODE, PLUG-IN AND WEAR THE HELMET AND GLASSES.’ The message sparked my curiosity and so I dismounted and took up the helmet.

The ‘instructions’ fell onto the floor and so I picked them up and, begrudgingly, began to read. They described an extraordinary operation which implied that if the helmet and goggles were worn and properly plugged into the machine then the reverse pedaling mode would take the rider back in time to any place which could be conjured up by his or her memory. It went on to describe the new monitor set-up. In the right-hand corner was a date which promised to give the time that the reverse pedaling had reached. Along the bottom were the new designations for the gears: Y, M, W, D, H, M, and S. These translated into: Years, Months, Weeks, Days, Hours, Minutes, and Seconds. In the center was an estimate of speed and time lapsed, both in “real-time’ and ‘memory-time.’

I was skeptical but, for some reason, I put on the helmet and glasses, mounted the bicycle and plugged in. I gently began to pedal backwards. I set the gears at ‘H,’ ‘Hours’ and happily watched the reverse counter in the upper right count down through the last thirty-six hours. Then I slowed it down to ‘M’ and finally ‘S’. At the ‘Seconds” setting I was still pedaling pretty fast but gradually I began to see myself sitting in the barber’s chair having the haircut that I’d had thirty-six hours earlier. It was fantastic! Over the next few weeks I perfected my timing and was able to go to any date that I wished. Here was my whole life in instant recall and perfect technicolor. I found that I could go back to times and dates that were no longer present in my consciousness but that the machine could find and then, in the ecstasy of recall, I remembered. I now had an entirely different approach to my exercise and fanatically looked forward to longer and longer periods on the bicycle. I lost weight and began to look like one of those ‘Tour de France” athletes.

The first time that I made it back fifty years to my childhood I was amazed at the clarity of my memories. It was a snowy January morning, my ninth birthday. The snow glistened white in the sun shine. It looked as though it were festooned with gems. I wondered if my nine-year-old self had noticed this beauty but there it was, so I assume that my subconscious must have recorded it. I watched myself and my younger two brothers playing in the snow; snowball fights and snowmen. The next time I went back I selected a few days later and enjoyed watching my brothers and I playing in the barn amongst the hay bales. We created an elaborate system of tunnels. They terminated in an inside chamber which we set up as our ‘den’. At one time I put my hand through a gap in the hay to the cat’s nest. Sitting on my bicycle I felt the tabby claw me. I yelled, and watched myself pull out a tiny kitten.

Another cold spring day I watched the siblings playing ‘travel’ in an abandoned car. It was cold outside but inside the car it was warm. The boys and I took turns sitting in the driver’s seat behind the steering wheel. Several days later I moved my voyeurism to summer and watched myself running bare-foot in the farmyard competing with a gaggle of geese their incessant honks to mingle with my war shouts, for I was an Indian with bow and arrow.

I always had fond memories of my youth, that is, up to the day of the accident. It was hard work going back fifty years but I was addicted and tried to do it at least every other day. At first I only selected dates which I knew would bring pleasure, always skirting around that black day when Stephen died even though I knew that I’d eventually have to go there. When, at last, I made it I was surprised that it was such a glorious early summer day. It had obviously been a wet spring and the crops were green and stock pond glimmered in the sun. Stephen was playing ball by himself while Mark and I kicked another ball back and forth. On the day of the accident I hadn’t realized that he had gone in to the stock pond following a ball, I’d assumed that he was practicing swimming as Mark and I had the previous summer. You walk in until it is too deep and then you dog-paddle to the shore. That’s how we learned to swim. That was the assumption that our parent’s made when his body was found. But, now, watching from my bicycle I saw him chasing a ball not wading.

I began to wonder whether there was any way that I could intervene. The ‘instructions’ which came tucked in the helmet were clear that the rider could not descend into his memory and that communication was impossible. The temptation to test the validity of this was overwhelming. I went back to the moment and tried calling to Stephen “No, Stevie, don’t go in the water,” but my voice was sucked into the air and, although he was quite close he obviously didn’t hear anything. I wondered whether a bell or a whistle giving a different audio might work but neither made any difference. I decided to see if I could insert something, like a life-saver, into my memory. At first I tried to do it mentally with no avail although I thought that I saw a shadow of one in my vision. Throwing one off the bicycle had no effect and when I returned to my room there it was lying on the floor.

I wondered if I could erase the memory and whether erasing the moment of the event from my memory would obliterate it from our lives. Try as I might I couldn’t come up with a way to selectively erase even the tiniest part of the memory. But then I came back to that shadow that I’d imagined or seen when I attempted to insert the life-saver. I began to experiment and found that if I concentrated very hard I could accomplish minor changes to the memory. Over the next month I painstakingly revisited the scene each time moving the trajectory of Stephen’s ball until one day I managed to prevent it from going into the stock pond sending it instead into the weeds on the perimeter. Now, obviously I didn’t actually see Stephen enter the water, and so it wasn’t part of my memory; for if I’d seen him I’d have saved him all those years ago. Thus I didn’t know if I had managed to change anything. I do recall that a few seconds later I had a most terrible headache and only just managed to return to the present before I was violently sick. When I removed the helmet it was smoking and I could see that the electronics were shot.

That evening Stephen came over to accompany me to the gym. Apparently we go every other day which accounts for our fitness. I wonder whether the episode of the exercise bicycle was my imagination although one odd thing did happen. When I returned for my next physical the nurse asked me to review my records on line to make sure that they had transcribed everything correctly. “What’s this?” I said” You have got this all wrong. My brother, Stephen, didn’t drown when he was five, he is very much alive. He and I go to the gym together every other day.”

©Copyright, Jane Stansfeld 8/14/14

The Return – a short story

Last week I wrote a story about a hitch-hiker in which the driver was a beautiful woman in a luxurious car and the hiker dirty and messy. I enjoyed the juxtaposition and so I kept the formula but attempted to turn the tables, with messy driver and more-or-less elegant rider; however, as I wrote, the story took on a life of its own.

After the bride and groom departed, the bride’s parents, her only family present, announced that they were also leaving but that they had mislaid their bag containing their Nikon camera, lenses and movie equipment. All responded to this revelation by speaking at once and scrambling around searching under tables and chairs. After a few minutes, when they had failed to find even a missing lens cap, the general consensus was that someone, maybe a member of the kitchen staff, must have made off with the bag. No-one used the word theft because the groom’s family and friends didn’t want to have their bride’s parents think poorly of them. They had pride, these East-End Londoners and most were reluctant to face the thought that someone had ripped off their rich American guests; visitors, who had traveled so far.

Mary, the only bridesmaid, had intended to catch a ride with the bride’s parents, but somehow the commotion, due to the lost bag, separated her from them, and they left without her. After their departure the party in that pub upper room, which had begun as a sober enough wedding reception, quickly degenerated into a noisy melee with free drinking, dancing and a good deal of smooching. Mary was as out-of-place as the Americans had been, and knew that she had to escape; so she went into the tiny women’s cloakroom, put on her coat and slipped down the dark stairs and opened the exterior door.

When she stepped outside onto the East End London street a cold blast of 1965 December night-air bit into her face and she realized that it had started to rain. For a moment the cold and wet caused her to pause to re-evaluate her options. She could hear the noise in the upstairs room and thought that it was getting louder. With no telephone available and no-one sober enough to give her a ride it offered little incentive to her to return. Indeed the noise confirmed her belief that the sooner she put it behind her the better. ‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘staying is worse than walking home in the rain and cold. I’ve made the right choice.’

She glanced up and down the empty wet street and started to walk. The red brick houses were unlit and the street lights barely illuminated the pavement. It looked dark, wet and Dickensian sinister. It was a daunting beginning of a long, seven-or-more mile hike, to her flat in Earl’s Court. She knew that, at this late hour past midnight, the tube had already closed and taxis few and far between. She had no umbrella or raincoat and her dyed pumps were unsuitable for walking. The improbability of it all crossed her mind. Who would have thought that she, a London University, art history student, from an upper middle class English Family, would be attending the wedding of, Cliff, an East-End London high-school drop-out whose family had never seen education beyond middle school?

She walked with a brisk tread, wondering if one could move fast enough to avoid some of the raindrops. As she turned this over in her mind she realized the stupidity of such an assumption even though the realization didn’t slow down her pace. Again she reviewed the improbability of her situation, for; of course her contact was Clara, the bride, not Cliff, the groom. But Clara’s background was as different from Cliff’s as Mary’s. Clara, a Californian girl, had met Mary the previous year at a one week Art history conference. During her visit to London she had also met Cliff when he bagged her groceries at a Sainsbury’s store. Upon her return to California she had taken up a brisk correspondence with Cliff, and, the next year, defying her PhD parents, returned to London to scope him out. Their courtship was quick, and now they were married.

The magnitude of her proposed trek had truly sunk in when Mary heard a car behind her and turned to see a beat-up old Ford. Her heart began to race; and she tried to walk faster without appearing to run. Her fear intensified when the car slowed down to match her pace. It was then that she was able to see the driver, quickly recognizing him as George, the best man, from the wedding party. He opened his window, and lent over, “Want a ride?”

Logic and experience warned her that she shouldn’t accept, but the cold and wet trumped caution and she said, “Yes, please.”

He hastily cleared papers, Coke cans and beer bottles off the passenger seat exposing dirty upholstery. She stepped in and he pulled off, a little too fast she thought. She already knew that she shouldn’t be there, the car smelt of beer, and rotten eggs. Mary deduced that it was his breath which carried the rotten egg odor and shuddered. The rain seemed to have intensified and now she watched his windshield wiper flicking back and forth scraping his windshield. The cone of light from his headlights cast eerie shadows on the buildings as they passed. Now he slowed down and drove as a man who knows that he has had too much drives in an attempt to avoid detection. She wondered how she was going to get out and decided that she might as well stay inside as long as possible.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m going to take you wherever you need to go.” Mary hadn’t expected such chivalry and attempted to re-evaluate his intentions.

“I live in Earl’s Court – that’ll be way out of your way. But, it’d be great if you dropped me off at a station or a large hotel; somewhere where I can get a cab.”

George put his hand on Mary’s knee, which confirmed her fears, but she lifted it off and gently placed it on the steering wheel. She spoke in a matter-of-fact tone while trying to disguise her fear, “George, don’t you need to concentrate on your driving?” He nodded and for several blocks concentrated on the road. Then he hiccupped and turned toward her and commented, “I was looking for you.”

‘You were looking for me?”

“Well yes, after the Americans left we needed to wrap things up and then I saw you sneaking off. Of course I knew that you would need a ride – perhaps more.” He wheezed a little. They passed Liverpool Street station and he didn’t stop. ‘He really is going to take me home,’ thought Mary. ‘So perhaps I should be polite, and make some conversation.’

“Known Cliff long?”

“Best friends, all our lives. I’ll miss him now that he is married and he’ll be going to America.”

“It was a nice wedding,” Mary lied “but I felt sorry for Clara’s parents they were so uncomfortable the whole time.”

“Yes, they didn’t seem too happy. It was their first time to London, wasn’t it?”

“I think so but, of course, the final straw was when her dad realized that someone had stolen his bag of cameras and stuff.”

“Yeah, all real fancy, but they can afford to replace it – rich Americans! Besides, I’ll bet you that it was well insured.”

“Perhaps, but that isn’t the point.”

“What ‘ya mean?”

“I mean that all the wedding photographs were in that bag. There is so much emotional record there –something that money can’t replace. There is something called sentimental value which far exceeds monetary worth. No insurance in the world can replace it.”

“That’s all right for you to say when you have always had everything that you need but for some real cash trumps sentiment!”

George turned and looked at Mary, his face a dead-pan gaze. She thought that he looked longing, almost needy, and was glad when he turned his eyes back to the road. They were coming up Moorgate and the wet streets were still deserted. She caught a glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral shrouded in rain. Its familiarity reminded her of her concern about how this ride was going to end. She tried to distract herself by taking up their discussion, anything to avoid getting too personal.

“Well, I wish that we could find out who did it. It’s a bit like a ‘Who done it mystery’, isn’t it?”

“Well it had to be someone in the wedding party.”

“What about the kitchen staff?”

“No, didn’t you notice, they left right when the cake was brought out? He filmed the cake cutting and was snapping away while we were eating it.”

“Yep, you are right.” George again gave Mary one of his dead-pan looks. When he turned back to the road he hastily swerved to avoid jay-walkers in the otherwise empty Strand.

“I also think that it couldn’t have been taken from the room as the bag he kept everything in was quite bulky. That just about rules out all the female guests; it’s not like you could slip that bag into your purse.”

“You are a regular little Sherlock Holmes aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not, I’m just being logical.

For a while they were both silent, the only sounds; the engine, the rain on the roof and the swish-swish of the windshield wipers. A stream of drips began to come in over Mary’s door. She tried to move away to avoid them without appearing to get closer to George. He noticed her movement and reached and touched her knee, again she put his hand back on the steering wheel.

“I’m just moving away from the leak. Why don’t you drop me off at one of the West End hotels? You have done so much already and I am very grateful. Really, you have done enough.”

“Sorry about the leak. It is an old car worth less than those fancy cameras, but much more useful. Don’t worry; I’m going to take you home, right to Earl’s Court.” He paused, “So, Miss Holmes, what do you think?”

“Think?”

“Think about the missing bag of cameras and stuff?”

“I think that it was removed from the men’s cloak-room perhaps hidden in someone’s coat.

‘You have got to be joking – right?”

“Actually, no I’m dead serious. Perhaps you saw something and can now put two and two together?”

“NO I saw nothing.” George’s voice was raised and his response so quick that it took Mary by surprise.

She waited while she thought about his reaction. They were heading towards Hyde Park corner with more traffic on the road and the rain had stopped. She decided that his response could only be explained by the fact that he did know something. It reminded her of Hamlet’s comment ‘The lady doth protest too much.’

“So you DO know something?’ She noticed his hands clench on the steering wheel, “Yes, you do don’t you?”

“NO.”

Again George’s rapid denial was too quick, too emphatic, and too glib. Mary felt sure that he knew something. “But it’s yes isn’t it? Who? It would be great if we could at least retrieve the film – just the precious irreplaceable images. Maybe you could talk to them tell them to anonymously return the film – the sentimental value, the irreplaceable images.”

“What do you know? Did you see something Mary?”

“No George but I’m sure that you did. Don’t you want to exonerate Cliff’s family? Don’t you want to help retrieve his record of his wedding day? After all you were best man and he, your best friend.”

“It’s not that important.”

“Maybe that’s what you think but you are not married. One day when you have children I’m sure that you will want to show them pictures from your wedding. And,” Mary was on a roll, “then there’ll be grandchildren to impress. The thief deprives Cliff’s future family of his heritage from a 1965 East End London wedding. It is important.”

George didn’t respond, he seemed wrapped up in his own thoughts. Now they passed Hyde Park, most of Knightsbridge and Holland Park and were driving down Earl’s Court Road.

“Where do I go?”

“It is just past the tube station. There, that building opposite WH Smith.”

George pulled up and Mary looked at him, he returned her gaze with his lugubrious dead-pan  look. Instead of leaning over and grabbing her, as she fully expected, he held out his hand. His voice quavered with emotion. “I’ve got to go, have things to do.”

Mary shook his hand and got out of the car. As she left she thanked him profusely, adding one final appeal, “George, you are a nice guy, If you are able help your best friend, Cliff. At least help him get some pictures to show future offspring.

Several weeks later after Clara and Cliff had settled down into married life they invited Mary over to see their wedding pictures.

“But weren’t your Dad’s cameras and film lost?”

“We thought so, but the black bag with everything in it miraculously turned up at the front desk of their hotel. Apparently a young man delivered it in the wee hours of Sunday morning. There was a note with their name and the words, ‘Pictures to show future offspring.’”

© Copyright, August 2014, Jane Stansfeld

The hitch-hiker – a short story

He threw his back-pack into the trunk and stepped into the front passenger seat of the car. The leather upholstery felt cool on his bare legs. As he reached and latched his seatbelt he watched his window noiselessly close, then he heard a distinct click as his door locked automatically. The cool interior felt wonderful after the 100 degree Texas torpor outside. He stretched his arms towards the two air vents blowing at him and directed cold air up his arms to his sweaty underarms. The interior smelt of perfume. He glanced at his driver; he deduced that it was her perfume. She looked cool in a pristine white and red polka dot dress with red belt. Her hair was drawn back into a loose pony tail, and her long fingers held the steering wheel with a delicate touch as though her elegant manicured nails might break if she held it too tightly.

They were already moving but the ride was so smooth and the car so quiet that he had the sensation of floating in space. The radio was gently murmuring ‘The Blue Danube” and he momentarily thought that if he closed his eyes he would be in the 2001 spaceship. They stopped abruptly at a traffic light and he looked down to see her bare feet on the pedals. Not unexpectedly her toe nails shone bright red immaculately matching her fingers. He saw her red platform heels abandoned under her legs. He thought that this might be a dangerous situation but said nothing. Soon they were moving again and he glanced out of the tinted windows, they made the sky appear a brilliant blue.

They entered the freeway and he began to relax, as he waited for her to start her questions. Rides always asked questions and he always had answers. Not necessarily the same answers, but something to reward them for their generosity in giving him a ride. He generally spoke off the top of his head, and enjoyed the rush that his fabrications gave him. Each episode thrilled him into musing that perhaps, one day, he’d be a great writer.

He smiled as he recalled the story which he had spun to his last ride. He had spoken convincingly, with tears, about his dying mother in Minneapolis and how he was penniless yet making every effort to get home in time to get her blessing and to tell her how much he loved her. His truck-driver, took in the tale with compassion. As they parted at the truck stop he pressed a twenty dollar bill into Brad’s hand. “Here’s a little something to buy flowers for your Mom.”

The ride before that he’d spoken about job opportunities in the North Dakota oil fields, and how he had a job waiting for him, if he could get there in the next four days. That one had almost back-fired as his driver hailed from Sioux Falls South Dakota and had relatives in Bismarck. Brad admitted to himself that he should have been alerted by the man’s accent and selected somewhere further off perhaps Ottawa, Canada.

Fifteen minutes passed and she still drove with the same calm precision. The music changed to Swan Lake. She didn’t speak she just drove. Brad began to worry – her silence was disconcerting. He admitted to himself that a ride from a single woman in such an expensive car was odd; but no questions was worse than odd, it was weird. Brad was physically comfortable now and tried to relax as he gradually came to the realization that he wanted to talk. “Oh why,” he thought, “why doesn’t she speak? –they always speak.” The gentle purr of the engine, the comfortable seat, the music, gradually lulled him and he became drowsy. Eventually he forgot about his surroundings and her silence and closed his eyes.

He slept fitfully as one does sitting up in a car and was dreaming about an event in his useless life when she awoke him by grabbing his hand. Brad flinched in fear even though her skin was soft, and her hand warm. She spoke, her voice tender and gentle, not the expected question but a statement.

“You have beautiful hands, long fingers, perfect nails with moons and they are clean. It seems incongruous as you badly need a shave, your hair is un-kept and you smell bad.” Brad nodded in acknowledgement to this statement. He looked down at his dirty cut-off jeans and his blue tee-shirt stained with parking lot dirt, He was a mess and now waited for her ensuing question, but she continued with instructions.

“We have made good time. I’m going to pull into a place, I know, where you can have a quick shave and shower. Then we can be on the road again.” Brad started. He assumed that she intended much more – so that was why she gave him a ride. He didn’t have time to analyze his feelings for she preempted him.

“No young man I shall not accompany you into the room. I am far too old for that kind of thing. It is totally out of the question.”

“Too old,” thought Brad, “but she looks as young as I am. I wonder if she has had a cosmetic job and Botox. She looks fabulous.”

Now she was pulling into the place and finalized her instructions. “I shall fill up with gas and buy food for you to eat while we drive. Your assignment is to clean up and to do it quickly. There are some clean clothes in the back seat. They will fit you. You shall put them on.”

Brad didn’t know why he followed her directions, but he obeyed just as he would his mother. Soon he was putting on the clean clothes – white pants, white shorts, white open necked shirt, and a pair of white flip flops. He looked at himself in the mirror over the sink as he combed his hair. His skin looked healthier, more tanned, than he remembered, his eyes bluer and his hair fairer. Altogether his body seemed to glow. “It must be the light.” He thought. “I should clean up more often.”

When he emerged she was standing next to the car waiting. In her platform shoes she stood slightly taller than him. He had deduced that she would be stunning in her red polka dot dress and red belt but he hadn’t taken in the fact that she had a perfect body. Old, she didn’t look a day over eighteen.

“Let’s get a move on Brad” she instructed as she walked over to the driver’s side; took off her shoes and got in. Brad eased into the passenger seat as he wondered how she knew his name. He knew that he hadn’t told her. Just as they pulled onto the feeder street her telephone rang.

“Yes,” she hesitated, “A mistake? I’ve taken the wrong one? OK, there is time, I’ll fix it.” She turned and smiled at Brad. Her warmth bewitched him and he barely noticed as they crossed over the freeway and merged into traffic again.

He ate his food in silence, marveling that she had managed to get him a hamburger with his favorite fixings. He noticed that she went hungry, but didn’t ask deducing that, perhaps, she had eaten while he was bathing.

He slept again. He woke as they drove into a truck stop. Surely this must be where his ride ended. But no, Brad sat up straighter, no, even though it was now late evening he recognized the place. This was the truck-stop of four hours ago; the place where he had hailed this ride. He looked at his driver. She turned to face him, her face glowing with a celestial glow. “God, she is beautiful” thought Brad. She spoke.

“I’m sorry, Brad, it was a mistake. It is not your time. You need to get out now. It is good-bye, your ride is over.” She touched him again and this time her touch was like an electric shock.

Sometime later Brad came to in an emergency room clinic. A female doctor in white scrubs with a red polka dot shirt underneath spoke to him.

“This afternoon, someone hit you in the truck parking lot. For a while it looked bad but then you rallied. We think that your only injury was a mild concussion. We’re now sure that you will be fine but will keep you overnight to be sure. Tomorrow you can go home.”

The next day Brad un-wrapped his belongings and dressed to leave the hospital. His clothes were new, pristine, detergent-commercial white, as though he had never been on the ground in a truck-stop parking lot.

© Copyright, August 2014, Jane Stansfeld