The red barn and the mad sheep – a short story

The red barn was glad when the sheep arrived as they represented a new lease of life for her old timbers. When they appeared to go mad, as she knew that they would, she enjoyed the notoriety which accompanied their antics.

The barn had all the standard features of a barn of her era and area; in her happiness she stretched her hipped roof upward in an attempt to conceal a sagging section to the north which leaked onto the rotting wood on that façade. She was pleased that her good south side faced the dirt road in front of the abandoned farmyard; and hoped that the distance was great enough to disguise her peeling red paint. She regarded her west gable end as her face and the upper eaves projection to be her nose although it had been built to accommodate a pulley for lifting bales into the upper loft. Now, where she had once looked across fields to a shelter belt of trees she faced a new retirement house which her new owners, Katrina and Mark, had constructed. The presence of the sheep and the new vista helped her to ignore the town to her east which she knew crept toward her, annually decreasing the distance until, she knew that one day, it would swallow her up.

The barn had been lovingly constructed by the surrounding neighbors for the original homesteader and his family. They painted her red using whitewash pigmented with red oxides from the earth. She was content to be red so that she stood out in all weathers including great snowstorms. Her first function was to house a milk cow, a few chickens and Ben and Jeb, the work horse team. Ben the lead horse was spirited and had a mean streak which he displayed when he kicked his stall walls. Perhaps, the barn mused, this accounted for the structural problems to the north. Jeb, on the other hand was calm and gentle. Oh how the red barn loved Jeb. She enjoyed the seam which arose from his shanks when he came in from a day’s work. She moaned in pleasure in union to his whinnies as he ate, and felt thrills of ecstasy when he rubbed his huge flanks against her structure. On cold winter nights she attempted to make him the most comfortable and to direct draughts from entering his stall.

When the horses were replaced by a John Deere tractor the barn had little time to grieve for she was converted into a busy milking facility. Twice a day her interior hummed with activity as cows took up their stalls patiently eating while they waited their turns to be relieved on their heavy udders of milk. Cats nested in the hay loft and two small boys made dens among the hay bales.

But times change and men age; the boys grew up and one was killed in Vietnam while the other left the farm to take up a career in teaching physics at a remote University; so that when the farmer and his wife decided to retire they sold their farm. The new owners were ‘gentleman’ farmers who leased out their land and sold off the farmyard equipment and ancillary buildings. Only the barn, a well and the original homestead remained. Everything fell into disrepair while the town, relentlessly, crept closer and closer. One November evening the empty homestead burned down. No-one knew how the fire started although the town’s police suspected the carelessness of local youth who had been using it as a hideaway, a place to hang out, smoke and drink. The red barn now stood alone. She projected a sad image of abandonment and neglect.

When Katrina and Mark retired from farming they bought the vacant homestead together with 40 acres of surrounding farmland. Katrina had a new house built on the west side of the property as far away from the barn and charred house ruin as possible. Here she set up home and planted her spacious kitchen garden and flower beds. Mark fenced Katrina’s compound and subdivided the remaining property with fencing into what he considered useable units. These included the old farmyard with land up to the road, two back sections, one with an apple orchard, and a field which he planned to lease to a local farmer for raising crops.

Now Mark didn’t like mowing and so he decided to house a friend’s sheep on his land. The set-up was perfect, the sheep could corral in the barn at night, drink the well water, and during the day they could graze on one of the three fenced sections. The barn accepted her new function with pleasure, tinged with a sense of foreboding. Every morning Mark went there and escorted his charges to the section of land in which he wished them to graze. In the evening he corralled them back to the barn. Over the course of the summer the sheep did an excellent job of keeping down the weeds and giving the property an air of upkeep while Mark only had to mow the gardens in the immediate vicinity of their home. Everyone was happy, the red barn, the sheep, Mark and Katrina, and perhaps even the town still gently creeping toward them.

One October day Katrina wandered over to the red barn looking for a good angle to take a photograph. She noticed that, although most of the property looked well kept the area behind the barn was full of weeds and needed “attention”. She mentioned her concern to Mark and asked him to scythe and mow the area. Mark went to investigate and saw that a fallen tree had blocked the area off so that his sheep couldn’t gain access. The barn creaked a warning,

“Leave this area protected, it is danger and not merely from my north façade instability.”

Mark wasn’t in tune with barn language and so he removed some of the rotting wood and the following morning made sure that the sheep entered the area. By mid-day the sheep were frolicking like lambs. When Mark noticed he told Katrina. A passing famer also observed the strange antics and when he got to town he told his buddies in the coffee shop. Mark and Katrina sat on their front porch watching. Soon they were joined by a parade of people who had heard of the spectacle from friends through the coffee shop.

At first the sheep forgot their age and played like lambs, jumping and chasing each other with abandon, while  making more noise than usual. The gathered crowd cheered them on and a journalist from the local paper took pictures. As the afternoon wore on the sheep became increasingly lethargic and eventually they lay down and slept. The voyeurs dispersed each with their own theory. Mark anxiously checked the prostrate animals, they were breathing peacefully in their sleep. The event was too curious not to get a second opinion and so Mark called the vet who, was regretfully unable to come that evening but, promised a morning visit. With difficulty Mark managed to wake up the sheep sufficiently to enable him to guide them into the red barn. He even spoke to the barn,

“Now you take care of my sheep.” The barn rustled a reply, but Mark didn’t hear her voice.

The vet came the following morning, looked at each sheep individually and shook his head,

“Strangest thing, I’ve never seen anything like it. They seem healthy enough. I recommend a light diet and I think that they should be fine in a day or so.”

Mark took the vet’s advice and herded the sheep into one of the pastures which they had already grazed fairly low. After several days when they were completely back to normal. By now the townspeople had lost interest and no one passed casually by to have a look. Everything was so calm that Mark again let the sheep graze the land around the red barn. Again the barn warned,

“It’ll be trouble. Make sure the fence is secure, and don’t let them onto my north side.”

Mark didn’t hear the barn, and went about his business. Sure enough by noon the sheep were madly frolicking in the giddy abandon of lambs.  Mark asked Katrina,

“What do you think has got into their wooly heads?”

They called the vet. This time he arrived accompanied by his recently graduated son and a horde of inquisitive townspeople who stood in the road watching. The vet examined the sheep.

“If I didn’t know better I’d say they are high,” he said. “We need to search the property; they must have found an abandoned still or something.”

At this his son became agitated and jumped up and ran toward the north side of the barn. “I know, I know,” he shouted. “It’s behind the barn. I guess that it must have seeded when we were teens!” The barn nodded her “I told you so” although no one heard or understood.

Mark and the vet followed. When they arrived they saw that most of the weeds in the area had been eaten. Now they could smell a potent aroma. The vet’s son looked forlorn,

“Such a beautiful marijuana crop, and they’ve eaten off all the buds.”


Jane Stansfeld, November 8, 2015

Good design.

Recently ‘Urban  Home” invited the Texas female AIA fellows to meet with them to discuss architecture and to define “good design”. The link below will take you to their site. If you are interested follow the link and be sure to click on ‘download pdf’ to get the whole article with images.

My response to describe good design is as follows:

To paraphrase Sir Denys Lasdun, “Good design is when the client gets, not what he said that he wanted, but what he never even dreamt that he needed!” Good design is so much more than aesthetics. Of course it includes form, and response to the site, but function and economy are equally important. In addition, if a client knows exactly what he wants, then he doesn’t need an architect; he needs a good builder. Good design also includes a meticulous attention to the use of materials and details so that the construction awes at every level.

The Dream – a short story

At first Marian couldn’t pin-point when the reoccurring dream started. Her acknowledgement of its presence was so slow that it was hard for her to place when it had first come to her. As time went on she became increasing aware of its presence until she awoke every morning with its essence consuming her. This is when she realized that, in a bizarre way, she had fallen in love with her dream; or, more precisely, she had fallen for the man in her dream. It was the man who, accompanied by two white dogs, always walked beside her or away from her. Marian, who was over sixty, had lost her libidos; yet in her dream she burned with desire, and an intense longing to get to know him.

This consuming desire gave her resolve and, by careful concentration she was able to analyze when the dream had first come to her. It was spring, when she moved houses, about a year after her husband had died, and after the last of her two daughters got married and left home. One had gone to Sussex to take up a position with her husband’s firm in London the other had emigrated to join her Canadian husband in Ottawa. Marian even wondered whether, in some inexplicable way, the man in her dream symbolized her dead husband and the small white animals her daughters,

At this time Marian was alone in the north of England. To cope with her solitude, she had sold her large rambling out-of-town house and garden and bought a prestigious townhouse on South Street, in Durham City. It had a tiny back garden but no garage which suited Marian, as she no longer drove. What drew her to the house was its view. It had a ground-floor living room bow-window and second floor master bedroom window both facing east, to look across the, tree-shrouded, River Wear to the magnificent west end of Durham Cathedral. It was a picture post card view. Her analysis confirmed that her new address had triggered the onset of her dream.

The conundrum associated with the reoccurring dream was the man. He was clearly elderly with a slight limp and yet still had a good stride. He was clad in dapper clothing and was constantly accompanied by two white dogs. The strange thing about the dream, apart from its incessant reoccurrence, was that Marian never saw the man’s full face. In her dream she moved stealthily behind, or beside, him attempting to catch a glimpse of his face so that she could look into his eyes, hear his voice and study his smile. Sometimes she lifted lightly off the ground and flew over him but she awoke before she was able to gather enough speed to get in front of him. Because the dogs might be a clue to his existence Marian researched and found that the dogs were West Highland White Terriers or Westies. One day she took the train to Newcastle to visit a pet store to see a Westie up close. She petted a small female Westie puppy with affection but didn’t buy.

Although the man and his Westies were constant the rest of the dream continually changed. Marian watched him, clad in a navy blue jersey and matching pants, walk through green woods, the filtered sun-light dappling the ground, the woodsy smell of damp leaves permeating the air, the dogs scampering in and out of lush fern undergrowth. She heard a cuckoo calling its mocking call and doves cooing. She saw the dogs chase a red squirrel up a tree and watched the man stoop to examine a wood sorrel. In the spring she saw him walk the same wood, now wearing a brown corduroy jacket and khakis, the ground bathed in a brilliant carpet of bluebells, and the musty wood smell mingled with the distinctive scent of bluebells. In the morning she had awoken to smell the same sweet fragrance on her sheets.

Another time he walked along the sea shore, his shoes in his hand, his trousers rolled up to the knee, the sound of gulls overhead and the waves rolling upon the shore, and the dogs in and out of the water. On this occasion she managed to move to his side, her shoes in her hand. He picked up pieces of drift-wood and threw them for the dogs to retrieve. She was glad that at least they were able to run toward her, or more precisely toward him. She noticed their footprints in the damp sand, his with a slight emphasis to the right, the dogs’ prints a jumble and another pair of human footprints, smaller than his, imprinted beside his. When she woke up in the morning she was convinced that she had sand between her toes.

Yet another time she saw him walk a country lane, the ground muddy from recent rains, the hedge-rows bursting with birds and greenery, the dogs running hither and thither in and out of the ditches. Their white fur dirty up to their bellies. She never heard the man speak but on this occasion she heard him laugh at their dirt and saw him pause when they shook their coats in front of him.

“Yes,’ she thought, “I like this man!”

In the fall the trees along the banks of the river Wear lost their leaves and gave Marian a clear view of the path on the opposite banks. It ran parallel to her window with one branch climbing the steep side of the river valley leading to a passageway under the buildings and out to the close on the south side of the Cathedral. That second fall after her move she had taken to napping in front of her bow window as she gazed at the changing scene before her. One afternoon she awoke to see a man with a barely perceptible limp, walking up the path on the opposite bank toward the Cathedral. She thought that he looked like her man as his gait matched that of the man of her dream. The only inconsistency was that he had only one white Westie with him. As she wondered whether she was asleep or awake he disappeared under the buildings. She knew that he must have taken the passage leading to the south side of the cathedral. She continued to stare; soon to her amazement, he reappeared accompanied by a small figure clad in the purple uniform of a chorister. They walked down the path toward Prebends Bridge. This is when Marian deduced that this was not a dream as he walked across her field of vision rather than away from, or beside her.. Soon she lost sight of him as the path descended to the edge of the river. That night she didn’t dream but the next day she stationed herself before her window and watched him walk up the path with his dog, and back down again accompanied by both dog and boy. After Marian had established that this walk was a daily routine she decided that she would take the same route to effect an encounter.

Marian didn’t know where the man came from or went before or after the bridge, so she planned to place herself there at the time that he and the dog began their climb up the steep side of the river valley toward the Cathedral. She underestimated her speed and was breathing heavily when she arrived on the west side of the bridge to watch behind him and then, taken by a wave of embarrassment, she hid in the Charles II hollow oak.

This hulk of an oak tree stands close to the east side of the bridge. It is dead and black inside. It looks, for all intents and purposes, as though it was burned out after being hit by lightning. Local myth has it that this was the tree in which Charles II hid after his defeat at the battle of Boscobel. It is true that the tree is hollow and a good hiding place, but as the battle took place in the south of England and Durham is several hundred miles to the north; this means that geography doesn’t support the claim. The smell inside was rancid; it consisted of an overwhelming the odor of urine. Marian shook as she stood and tried not to breathe the putrid air. The Westie approached and barked at her. She waved him away and listened as the man called,

“Wally, heel, Wally heel.”

Marian quivered at the sound of his voice. It was authoritative, but to her ears it sounded pleasantly inviting. Wally returned to his master. Although Marian couldn’t decipher their conversation she realized that the man and boy were talking. When they were half way across the bridge she emerged from her hiding place and followed at a distance. After all she had followed him so often that this action felt familiar. She was careful to note that they walked up the path to Pimlico. She heard a car start and assumed that they drove away.

“So,” she thought, “he isn’t a neighbor. Pity!”

Marian didn’t like being a stalker but she confessed to herself that this is what she had become. The following day she opted for a different strategy and called the pet store in Newcastle. When they confirmed that they could locate a female West Highland Terrier for her she made arrangements to purchase the dog and have it delivered to her home. She named her Phoebe and began a rigorous routine of training walks mostly along the river banks. By now school was out for the Christmas holidays and she no longer saw him or his dog or the boy. In some respects she was thankful for this opportunity for her and Phoebe to bond and for her to become fit enough to walk the steep river valley paths with ease.

It snowed during the night before the first day of the spring term. It was a light snow but it was cold enough for the magical dusting of white to last all day. When Marian took Phoebe out for her morning walk she noticed that against the snow the white dog looked almost grey. In the afternoon she timed herself perfectly so that she and Phoebe walked up Pimlico at the moment that he arrived in his car. When he opened the car door his dog immediately ran to Phoebe.

The dogs sniffed each other and twirled in a circle of noses and wagged tails. Then they ran off together into the undergrowth of the river banks. Marian wished that humans could accept each other and become acquainted so easily.

“Good afternoon.” She almost stammered.

He turned and looked at her. His face was clean shaven, his eyes a deep blue, his cheeks a little ruddy from the cold, his smile gentle and reassuring,

“Good afternoon,” he replied, his voice gentle and sonorous, “lovely cold afternoon isn’t it?”

“Yes it is, perfect for a brisk walk!” Marian said this by way of explanation of her presence.

He nodded as though he already knew why she was there. He spoke as he locked his car, “I agree, and look the dogs seem to like one another. They are already exploring. Perhaps we should join them?”

They fell into step together and chatted as they walked. After they crossed Prebends Bridge he hesitated,

“I generally go up the steep slope to the left to pick up my chorister son. Where do you go from here?”

“I think that I’ll wait here,” she said “perhaps we could walk back together?”

“I’d like that.” he replied as he took off his glove and offered his hand. My name is Michael and my dog is Wally. We are pleased to meet you.”

Marian pulled off her mitten and shook his hand. It was warm and slightly callused. “I’m Marian and my dog is Phoebe, we are likewise pleased to meet you.” She hesitated and then added “Could Phoebe accompany you up the hill – she and Wally are having such a good time together?”

Marian waited beside the oak tree. She enjoyed watching them walk up the path. It was a familiar scene; a man and two dogs exactly as she had witnessed so many times in her favorite dream. Soon she saw them returning. Michael introduced his son. On the way back the boy entertained them with his narration of the first day of the spring term.

When they reached the cars she asked whether she could join him again on the morrow and was pleased by his happy acquiescence. The next day, when they met, he told her about his son. He said that after his first wife died he had been lonely and had remarried a much younger woman who was the mother of this chorister boy. He told her that they had divorced when the boy was six years old. He mused that youth and old age don’t blend well in marriage partners. He explained that every school day he picked up his son and took him home to give him his tea and to guide him through his homework, so that his mother could pick him up on her way home from work.

Time passed and the walks became a central aspect of Marian’s life. By the end of the spring term he asked her to accompany him to Newcastle for a concert. Over the Easter holidays they spent a different time together until one day, perhaps loosened by wine, she asked him about his other dog.

“What happened to your second dog?’ She asked.

“Second dog?” He paused and looked at her quizzically. He reached for her hand, “No there is only Wally. Why do you ask?”

Now she had to tell him about her recurring dream and how she had seen a man going on daily walks accompanied by two dogs. She described the beach walk in detail. He nodded as she spoke, and stroked her hand. When she paused he responded,

“I’m glad that you told me this for I have had similar dreams. In my dream I am always accompanied by two dogs and feel a presence beside me. I wondered whether the dream was a subconscious response to the fact that neither Wally nor I have female company. My most vivid dream was walking along the beach, as you describe. The oddest part was that morning Wally had sandy paws and I, sand between my toes.”

Pirates of Roatan- a short story

The island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras, is now considered part of Honduras even though it has a heritage of British rule which results in many islanders using English as a first language. Long ago, between 1550 and 1700, the island was virtually uninhabited except for a society of buccaneers who used its deep harbors as a base of operation for their piracy of English, Spanish, and French shipping who were transporting their own stolen treasures between the new world and their European home bases.

Today, in 2015, the pirates, who robbed at sea, are no more and the island is well populated. Its natural beauty consists of tropical vegetation, sandy beaches, warm seas and a coral reef second only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. These assets combine with a good harbor to attract cruise ships and tourists from around the globe. These visitors are willing targets for a transfer of wealth which, no doubt, exceeds the magnitude of the ill-gotten gains of the pirates of yore.

On a glorious early September afternoon I walk the soft sands of the West Beach. The sand is almost white and as fine as granular sugar. I stroll along the edge of the ocean where the water creates a good hard walk surface. The beach around me is a hive of activity ranging from visitors lounging in the sun on deckchairs ($10 a day rental) to others swimming in the waters and yet others, like myself, ambling along the shore admiring the sights. I notice that half the population on the beach are local ‘islanders’, as they like to be called. Some sell their wares; dark glasses, hats, jewelry, drinks and food. Others, mostly attractive well-toned young men, sport seductive smiles in their attempts to sell scuba dive trips, water taxis, reef rides, horseback rides and other attractions.

“Don’t let them catch your eye” urges my husband. But how can I not look these youths in the eye? I have been taught, since birth, to always face anyone who addresses me; and, facing them, well, when facing someone, especially a tanned youth, you look them in the eye.

A clean-looking young man accosts us, “Ride in a glass bottomed boat and see the coral reef?” I turn to my husband; after all this is a good idea, then we get to see the reef without having to scuba dive. The young man walks beside us. He quotes prices which, seem to me, to be increasing as my interest mounts.

“Yes let’s do it.” I say, hoping to pin down the cost.

Five minutes later we are escorted down a narrow wooden pier and helped on board the yellow glass-bottomed boat. We climb down into the hold where we sit on one side on a blue plastic bench. There is one on each side with a raised area between the two sides. A baby sleeps on the raised area, and sitting on the opposite side to us are his parents and older brother. Further inside are other tourists seated on the benches.

Within minutes we are off, floating over a field of sea grass waving gently in the current. In a surprisingly short time we are over coral and begin to see the associated fish. The first school is a         group of blue neon fish which resemble the neon blue tetra which I once had in a fresh-water fish tank. The small boy shouts,

“A barracuda. It’s a barracuda” His baby brother awakes. While his mother hushes the baby his father gently tells him that these are not barracuda. I’d like to know what a barracuda looks like but the chart of fish over my window doesn’t show one. Later, when we are back in our room I research on line, and find that they are long and thin and sport a lethal mouth of vicious-looking pointed teeth. I also note that they may be seen on some of the Roatan reefs.

We pass additional coral outcrops each with their own fish. Again the small boy calls out, “It’s a barracuda. A barracuda.” His father draws him into an embrace and says something to him. We cruise on.

A school of sandy-colored flat fish adopt us and swim beside us almost at the surface of the water. The boy wriggles out from his paternal embrace and points, “A barracuda! A barracuda!” We are now accustomed to his excitement and turn to smile at each other. Everyone enjoys his youthful enthusiasm.

Our movement is gentle and seems alien to the concept of a predator like a barracuda. As the refrain repeats itself I wonder whether the pirates of old could be considered the barracuda of their time, while today’s islanders, who service visitors and tourists, a form of modern pirating barracuda.

As we draw back to shore floating over white sand and willowing sea grass the boy gives one final cry “It’s a barracuda. Look, a barracuda.” I turn and look at a crab in the grasses below.

Later, after a long siesta, we return to an almost empty beach and take seats at a table in one of the shore restaurants. We sip creamy ice–cold Pina Coladas and watch the departure of today’s two cruise ships. Their decks glow with lights as they sail across the horizon of the setting sun. Peace reigns.

In the morning we rise with the sun. We walk along the shore expecting solitude. Instead, we witness the arrival of the first vendors – a group of coconut sellers. The men are bent over under their heavy sacks of coconuts. They set up in the middle of the beach with a small shade awning and take out a machete. Soon one of them deftly strikes away the outer husk at the tops of the coconuts to expose a place where a straw can be inserted to create a coconut drink. They will sell these to tourists later in the day. I marvel at the host of men who rake the sands to restore the beach to its pristine status. I remark, “So this is the secret of the clean sands!” My husband nods in accord.

The day passes in a mix of walks, painting and tourist activities and in the evening we return to the beach to watch the sunset. We are early. I select a group of lounge chairs and sit on one. My husband stands nervously beside me until I persuade him that he would look less awkward if he were sitting. After all the worst that could happen is that we be asked to move. He begins to relax with me and we comment on how far the sun appears to be from the horizon when we know that it will set at 6pm. That is when “Charlie” arrives.

Captain Charlie wears a strapless green dress. Her smile demands attention. She stands between me and the sun. I disregard my husband’s maxim of “Don’t make eye contact” and return her gaze.

“Massage. Body massage. Two for $35,” she says.

“No. No thank you.” I politely respond.

“Tomorrow?” she questions unabashed.

“We shall be gone tomorrow. No massage please. We are here to watch the sun set.” My words are useless and before I know it she kneels before me and takes off my shoes.

“I give you a free foot-massage” she says, and starts to rub my feet. The soft sand is not so soft when rubbed against the skin. The movement of her hands feels like sand-paper. She calls up two attractive young women and a bottle of oil, I assume coconut oil, appears. Soon another bottle, this time full of water appears. It is splashed over my legs and the massage is in earnest. Charlie reintroduces herself and I foolishly engage in conversation by asking how she says her name in Spanish. She tells me; it sounds like ‘Shirley.’ She motions to the two attractive young women to approach and introduces them.

“My daughters, this one is Celeste, she is twenty. This one is Carmen, she is twenty-three.” They squat down next to Charlie and she draws them toward her. Celeste is very dark skinned with braded kinkled back hair. Her teeth are brilliant white and her dress clings to her body like a skin. Carmen is much fairer with straight black hair flowing down her back. Her colorful dress is also skin-tight and short enough to expose her young legs. I look in disbelief.

Charlie explains “My daughters, after them no more. Different fathers. But see, they both look like me.” Again she pulls them in beside her and I have to admit they both do look somewhat like her. The foot massage starts to extend up my legs and I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable. A good looking young man emerges from behind the chairs. Charlie introduces him as her brother. Then another woman appears. Charlie introduces her as her sister. The sister starts to massage my arms and even approaches my neck where I really do need a massage. I am about to mention this fact when my husband stands up. He pulls out his wallet and gives Charlie a twenty dollar bill. She barely looks at it as she deftly tucks it into the top of her strapless dress.

I think that my husband had hoped that the money would purchase their retreat. In a place, where a domestic maid on the Honduran mainland earns $1 an hour, $20 is a lot of money. I know that he gives $20 because he had no smaller bills.

The money does not have the desired effect. It only wets their appetite and the two daughters begin an intense massage of my husband’s feet and legs progressing up his legs and into his shorts to a point where he becomes uncomfortable. Charlies, expert that she is, detects the trouble and orders him to take off his shirt and to roll over so that they may work on his back. He complies. My massage is evidently finished as now all I have is Charlie. She continues to kneel before me in the sand and to gently massage my feet. She babbles on about her daughters, her age, my age (grossly underestimated), and her family. She asks me about the value of my necklace. I truthfully tell her that I don’t know its value.

At this point my husband leaps to his feet, puts his shirt back on and gets out his wallet. A second $20 passes from his hand into Charlies’ upper dress.

“Thank you, that is all,” he pronounces.

This time Charlie rises and kisses my hand as she marshals her entourage a short distance away toward the water. They stand in a group and talk. Charlie is the center of their discussion. I watch with fascination as she takes out the contents of her dress and appears to share it with her family. The brother withdraws a wallet and gives her something in exchange for one of our bills. The two daughters and sister are given a share. Charlie comes back to us,

“Could you do another $5?” she pleads.

I explain that we have no more money, that my husband’s wallet is empty. This is the truth. Charlie accepts my statement and grabs my hand for another kiss before departing back to her family. They stand together a few more minutes and then disperse. I watch Charlie disappear down the beach before I return my gaze to the beauty of the sun-set. It is the reason that I sit here. When it slips below the horizon and the tell-tale residual pink leaves the sky we arise. We walk down the beach in search of another creamy, ice-cold Pina Colada.

Litter – a children’s story

Someone to whom I read this story suggested that it ought to be a children’s story, and so I rewrote it and added illustrations. It is set up to be on 5.5” by 8.5” paper with the appropriate illustrations facing the text. I couldn’t make this work on this blog and so the illustrations which ought to face the text follow it. I hope that this isn’t too confusing for bloggers. I invite my adult blog readers to offer suggestions on how to make it more attractive for a younger audience.


Madi and Josiah were going on caravan holiday at a beach in west Scotland. It was a long drive from home. When they arrived at the Cameron farm where they planned to camp they got out of their car. They were tired, stiff, and excited. Their father asked them and their mother to stay beside the car while he crossed the farmyard to greet Mr. Cameron.

They stood and stretched and gazed at the farmyard. Presently Madi saw a black and grey cat which lay in the entrance to the barn feeding a litter of kittens. She pointed the cat out to her mother and to Josiah. They watched and listened to the cat purring and the gentle sound of the kittens sucking.

Soon the men shook hands and their father returned to them. He looked happy and asked them to get back into the car. While they were getting in he spoke,

“Our camping spot is in a field up here on the left.

During the week we will have the beach to ourselves. There will be day-trippers on the weekend but they will park in the field on the right. We can get water, fresh eggs and milk from the farm. It is idyllic!”


How many kittens were in the litter?


When they were back in the car he turned and smiled at his wife, and then leaned back to face his children. “This place is heaven,” he beamed, “and, oh yes, Mr. Cameron is most particular about litter. We must be careful not to leave any. The cove is beautiful, and he wants to keep it unspoiled. He says that the weekend day-trippers are a problem and asks that we help pick up after them. I told him that we didn’t mind having a holiday chore!”

After the caravan was parked and unhitched from their car their father carefully leveled it. It stood on springy marine shore grass a few feet from the beach. Then he took Madi and Josiah down to the shore to play. They paddled in the water. It was icy cold. Their mother stayed behind to prepare supper.


Can you count the birds in the air?

After supper their father went outside and sat on the caravan steps. He breathed deeply and gazed at the view before him. It was close to sunset and the sun hung low in the sky as it approached the spot where it would dip into the waters of the horizon.

Madi, Josiah and their mother joined him. They sat on a blanket and ate Smarties as they watched the sun set. They breathed in clean salty air and savored the peace of nature and the happiness of their loving family.


Can you find the sun?


Three days later the day-trippers arrived. Mr. Cameron spent most of the day standing at the gate into his field parking lot collecting fees. Although he had placed a barrel for rubbish, when the last visitor left the beach was strewn with trash. It ranged from coke bottles, to sandwich wrappers, and newspapers. Madi and Josiah and their parents saw Mr. Cameron sitting on a large rock where a family of five had picnicked. They walked over to him and their father said,

“No problem, I volunteered; my children and I will pick up the litter.”

Mr. Cameron looked relieved and nodded a quick, “Thank you.” He turned to face Madi and Josiah. He said, “Look carefully, for sometimes money falls out of people’s pockets and you may find it in the sand. I consider finders to be keepers!” He gave them a conspiratorial wink and left the beach. They watched him walk up the road to his farm.

litter beach

Can you find the red bottle?


Madi and Josiah and their parents took bags and began their task. With all four at work it didn’t take long and soon they came to the big rock.

There, nestled under the worst irresponsible mess of abandoned bottles and bags was a new five pound note.  Five pounds was just enough money to be interesting but not so much that they might have worried about trying to return it. They decided to set it aside in case the family returned the next day and after that they recalled what Mr. Cameron had said,

“Finders are keepers.”

litter rock

Can you see the hidden money?


The following day there were more day-trippers and after they left, the whole family eagerly collected trash. Their father even walked half a mile across the bay to investigate a small white object nestled in the far rocks. He explained that he thought that it might be more money but when he got close he saw that it was a white flower.

The following weekend was the same. The family was so diligent that Mr. Cameron gave them a special accolade when they departed the next Monday.

He offered them one of the black kittens, from the cat’s litter as a reward for their collecting all the day-tripper’s litter. The children enjoyed petting it but their parents said that kitten was too young for their long drive home.



Did you spot the flower on the hill on page 9?

What would you name the kitten?


Two days after the family left Mr. Cameron entertained his neighbor, Mr. Morrison. He also had a coastal farm and also augmented his income by opening his beach to day-trippers and campers. As they stood looking over the beach before supper Mr. Morrison commented,

“Your beach is so clean. How do you do it?”

Mr. Cameron pointed to the big rock,

“Someone always picnics there and so I incentivize my campers.”

“You what?”

“I incentivize my campers! First I ask them to help to keep the beach pristine, and then, on the first day, I slip a fiver in the litter next to this rock. After they find that money nothing can stop them. It is the best investment ever!”


The beach is clean.

 What color is Mr. Cameron’s sweater?

Great-grandma’s Story – a short story

On Friday, June 13th 2012, Anna sat on a pillow on the floor in front of great-grandma Alma Hofer. She leaned back to rest gently against great-grandma’s shins. It was early afternoon on a hot Austin, Texas summer day, but the room was cool and dim with blinds pulled and air conditioning humming. Anna drew up her knees and relaxed. In her hands she clasped her favorite stuffed bunny; every so often she touched his silken ears to her lips. Quietly great-grandma began to give her a head massage. The massage was gentle, almost as though butterflies were wafting against her scalp. Great-grandma’s massages were always this way so soft that at first one doubted that it could be of any benefit, but as it continued one became lulled into a happy trance in which her touch gave exquisite pleasure. Anna relaxed and let the kind old fingers ease away her tensions and soothe her. She was glad to be old enough to be excused taking a nap like her younger sister, happy that her quiet time could be spent sitting here enjoying her great-grandma’s love.

“Tell me a story, grandma,” she asked. “Please, tell me a story about when you were a little girl.” Anna found it difficult to visualize her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as children but she still enjoyed their childhood stories. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine great-grandma as the young girl in her photograph album rather than the eighty-nine-year-old great-grandma against whose shins she leant. She touched the bunny’s ears to her lips again as she waited in anticipation for her great-grandma’s gentle voice.

“When I was a little girl of about eight, as you are now, I had five brothers and sisters. The last two were yet to be born to bring the count to nine. We lived on a farm in South Dakota. We did all the same things that you do. We prayed, ate, slept, grew, went to school, played with the other children, and did our chores. Life was never dull, for our world was changing as fast as yours changes.

“At home we spoke German, the language that our great-grandparents had brought with them from their origins in Europe, before their century in Russia. School was conducted in English. This was hard for some like your great grand-pa who, after his first week at school, said to his mother (in German)

‘They keep pointing me and saying ‘sit down please’. What does that mean?’

“We prayed every day morning and night and at meals with a special trip to church on Sundays. When I was little we went to church with a horse and buggy and we put the horse in a special barn at the church while we prayed. Until I was five we used to stay at church all day. The families took turns in providing the lunch which was always home baked Zwieback, jam and coffee.”

“What is Zweiback?” murmured Anna.

“Zweiback is sweetened bread enriched with eggs that is baked and then sliced and toasted until dry and crisp. It is like the Nabisco teething biscuits that your mother gave you when you were a baby. The jam was whatever we had; my favorite was, and still is, ground-cherry jam. We gathered the wild ground-cherries where they grew in hedgerows and along the edges of the fields. By the time that I was six years old we had modernized and had cars and so we stopped staying at church all day.

“You like to play, little Anna, and so did I. We played hide and seek like you do; it was especially fun in the horse barns at school and at church. We played ‘Stealing sticks’. In this game there were two sides each with ten sticks. You had to steal your opponent’s sticks without getting caught. If you were caught, you became a prisoner with the opposing team’s sticks and hoped that you would be rescued by your team. We played bat and ball, a game similar to softball. We played Pump, Pump Pull-away. This game began with one catcher, and runners running from one side of the playground to the other. When anyone got caught they also became catchers, until it was impossible for the remaining runners to get across the space without being caught. In the winter we played fox and goose. In this game we drew a circle in the snow with an inner circle as the safe place for the geese. We usually had two catchers or foxes.

“My older brother Paul was a big boy for eleven, so he and one of the siblings sometimes did the hay mowing. It was fun to sit up high on the hay mower and to guide the horses as they pulled the sharp sickle over the ground, leaving a trail of sweet smelling cut grass behind. We were always careful to keep out of the path of the sickle because we knew that it was heavy and sharp.  The blades could easily cut off a limb or the heavy machinery crush anyone in its path. One summer day Paul was mowing the top field with his sister when she noticed that one of the horse’s lines was caught on the horse’s bridle bit. The horses were very gentle but as you probably know, they don’t like surprises, especially surprises from the side. It is best to approach them from the front so that they can see you coming.

“Paul could see that the caught line was a problem and that it would hinder the horses when he turned, so when he got to the end of the line he asked his sister to get down and untangle it. She was comfortable up top and didn’t want to climb down and go around the horses. She looked at the tongue of the mower which went between the two horses. She knew that she was agile and proud of it. She was so agile that she sometimes showed off walking along a beam or the top of a wall with ease. She decided to walk down the tongue between the horses and to reach up and untangle the line. She was on the tongue before Paul realized what she was doing or could think about the danger. Once she was there he couldn’t say anything for fear of spooking the horses. If she were to fall and the horses moved, he knew that the mower would go over her and that the weight of the machine would crush her even if the sickle gear lever was raised.

“When she got to the tangled line she gave it a gentle pull and it came loose. She was about to edge her way back up the tongue when a bird flew overhead and squawked. One of the horses turned his head and saw the girl standing on the tongue. He panicked and began to move, which spooked the second horse, who also moved. In the next split second much happened: the girl fell between the horses into the path of the mower, and the horses took off pulling the mower behind them. Paul, still on top of the mower, hung on for dear life.

“Horses generally go for home, and this is what the frightened team did. They raced towards the barn, their hooves pounding the ground and leaving a cloud of dust behind them. The noise frightened them further, and they picked up speed. When they came to the farmyard they tried to run between two small buildings. Here, the sickle bar got caught and stopped them. The noise brought mother and father into the yard. Paul screamed,

‘My sister, my sister, the mower went over my sister.’

“Mother began to cry and ran up towards the hay field. Father and Paul followed her. They all knew in their hearts that there was little hope and dreaded the scene that awaited them. I sat up just as they arrived – for I was that little girl. I had bumped my head on the tongue when I fell but was otherwise unhurt.

“There was no easy explanation for the miracle of my escape. Mother speculated that a large stone next to where I fell had made the mower jerk into the air and thus miss me. She also said that I should take it as a lesson that showing off mars good judgment.”

Late Home – a short story

The sisters enjoyed their drive home. They thrived in each other’s company and had much to be happy about. As they exchanged dreams they agreed that prospects were good that New Year’s day. The party in Edinburg had been a success with a classic Scottish celebration. During their hundred-mile drive home they had plenty of time to make plans’ only regretting that they had started off late and would not be home until 3pm.

The red Volkswagen which they drove was their mother’s. She had lent it to them accompanied by the strict provision that they return it by 2 pm. They knew that they had promised, but didn’t consider an hour to be so critical; the worst, they reassured each other, would be one of her dramatic tongue-lashings. They expected that she would give them half an hour of berating. It would be half-an-hour in which she told them how irresponsible they were, how disappointed she was, et cetera, et cetera. They knew the routine and looked forward to the aftermath when they would apologize and kiss and make-up and their transgression would be forgiven and, more important, forgotten.

They were still giggling and happy when they parked the car in the garage next to their father’s Rover. They were a little surprised to see it parked there as he generally returned from his clinic later in the day. They accepted this break in his routine as a good sign, giving an additional boost to their joyous stance. They walked down the drive to their home with happy raised voices. Their father met them at the door, his normally calm face, which generally cracked a faint smile when he greeted them, was bathed in disappointment.

“How could you girls break your word?” he asked. “She had to leave your brother next door with neighbors and call me to come home. Then she had to walk to Dr. Shaw’s office. You know what a long hike up hill that is. How could you girls do that? How could you?”

“We didn’t know. It was only an hour,” hazarded the oldest, although, even as she spoke, her heart sank for she knew that her father was a stickler for honesty and for keeping one’s word. The younger knew that such an excuse wouldn’t appease him. She thought of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If framed on his wall and the maxim of honesty and perfect reliability which formed the foundation of his code.

“It doesn’t matter what you knew, you broke your word. You failed. This is not the behavior that I expect from my daughters.” His accusation carried sadness and disappointment tinged with anger. They shuffled uneasily from foot to foot, knowing how much his approval meant to them and how miserable they were, standing before him, having failed. They both wondered what they could say.

The elder volunteered, “Can we go and pick her up?”

But, just then the telephone rang. Their father answered it, “Durham 43068, Dr. Stevens speaking.” The sisters couldn’t hear the other end of the line, but, from his pallor they both sensed that something critical had happened. “I’ll leave at once,” he said. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

When he placed the telephone back on its cradle he sighed, “That was Dr. Shaw.” he said. His voice quivered; something his daughters had never witnessed before. From his face they both thought that he looked as though he was going to cry.

“What’s wrong? Is it Mom? Is she alright?” the elder asked.

Their father seemed to be taking his time in answering as the sisters watched the grandfather clock behind him ticking second by second. When he spoke, his voice was quiet with no anger in it, just an intense sadness.

“Dr. Shaw says that he suspects that it is an advanced colon cancer. Your poor mother, she had to walk to the appointment alone.” He paused and put his hand up to his face, shielding his eyes from their view. His voice rasped out, barely a whisper and yet full of intensity, “We all, and I do mean all, let her down, both you girls and me. I should have been with her.” Again he paused and now his voice was a little louder, almost a gentle wail, “She is my wife and she received this prognosis without me. I should have been with her.”

Taking their cue from him his daughters immediately wanted to cry; their mother had always seemed so full of life. What did this mean? How should they react to this change in the year’s prospects?

The following is advice, which no one gave the sisters. It is advanced to all those in similar circumstances:

“When you hear the news, act immediately. Don’t deny this event in trivia for it will change your life forever. Accept the inevitable, and take instant action. Quit your pressing education, career, and normal obligations; leave them behind and go home. In less than a year you can reassume your life with ease: right now your dying mother needs your love.”

“Sit beside her in the garden room among your father’s red fuchsia; enjoy the last whiff of her Fleurs De Rocaille. Talk to her about her beliefs, love her. Of course you love her, but does she know it? Did you show her instead of telling her? Show her when you cook her favorite foods. Let the house teem with the sweet aroma. Coax her to eat. Read with her, listen to her voice and ask her about her life. Immerse yourself in her precious last days. For this short interlude of time savor her life, by forgetting yours.”

© July 2015 Jane Stansfeld