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

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.