The train flirtation

 Amelia loved King’s Cross station. Even in her present state of mind, when she approached the ticket gate at the train platform entrance, she paused and looked up at the giant vaulted roof with its wide double span. As always she marveled at the structure’s functional decorative ironwork and ancient glass roof, which bathed everything in daylight. Then she looked to the long side walls to admire the intricately detailed red-brick walls of the outer enclosure. They rose in Victorian majesty. 

When she brought her gaze back down Amelia noticed that her homeward, Durham-bound train was already standing at the platform. She saw passengers milling around searching for their assigned cars. This concerned her because she didn’t have a reserved seat. She walked briskly down the platform looking into each window as she passed.  Towards the front of the second/standard-class coaches, she found a few empty unassigned seats in groups of four separated by tables. She stowed her small suitcase in the luggage rack at the end of the coach and walked down the center to select a window seat facing the direction of travel. She would have preferred the relative privacy of a seat without a table even though there was always a risk that she might be hemmed in by an unwelcome fellow traveler, an obese person who would spread into her space or worse someone who talked incessantly or someone with bad body odor.  She placed her purse and cardigan on the seat beside her. She hoped that it might look as though the seat was taken. Then she opened her iPad and began to read in a futile attempt to block out her surroundings and also, perhaps, deter anyone from asking her to clear the seat next to her.

Amelia had just turned twenty-one and glowed with health. She wore an op-art navy blue and white dress. Its swirling skirt and tight waist accentuated her figure; while its color harmonized well with her sun-tan achieved during her vacation with friends in France.  Her hair was cropped short and streaked golden by the sun. Her nails were beautifully manicured and painted a vivid red. She, and her French friends had treated themselves to manicures and pedicures in Nice the day before she flew back to London. She should have been completely happy, but instead she felt sad, dejected and inadequate. When the train pulled out of the station, she put down her iPad and looked out the window. She congratulated herself for having no immediate fellow travelers in her foursome of seats, and indulged in a faint self-congratulatory smile. Then, as she watched the London suburbs whirr past her mood changed. She took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. When the train emerged from the second tunnel, her unhappy reverie was interrupted.

“Are these seats vacant? May I sit here?”

Amelia glanced at the speaker. She resented his intrusion on her private reverie but when she saw his bewitching smile, she could only answer,

“The seats are not taken, feel free!”

She pretended to read on, but surreptitiously watched him fold his jacket, take out a book and slide into the seat opposite hers. She liked what she saw, well built, slender hips, broad chest, and handsome face. He gave her a winning smile and seemed to fumble with his hands for a moment before he spoke, his voice lilted with friendly mockery,

“It’s nice to be watched by a beautiful woman!”

 “Well, I …” she stammered as she blushed.

“No excuses necessary; I’ve made you blush. We’d better meet.” He stretched his right hand.

 “Name’s Michael. Pleased to meet you! By the way you enchant when you blush!”

Amelia felt her whole face glow, and although the rising blood made her hot and embarrassed, it eclipsed her sad reverie. She wouldn’t normally have opened up to a strange man, however good-looking, but somehow this was different. She stretched out her hand,

“My name’s Amelia, how do you do, Michael?”  His hand was soft and warm, his grasp firm. She tembled as they shook hands. “That’s better,” he said, “now you should tell me why you are so sad! But, no, on second thoughts how about first having a cup of tea and some breakfast?”

“No, I ….”

“It’s OK. I insist, it’s on me. It’s not every day that I am with such a lovely woman! I’m sure that you haven’t eaten today and a cup of tea always cheers one up!

“Well maybe a cup of tea would be nice.”

“Sure it would; and we are right next to the buffet car.” Michael was already on his feet. He moved with ease down the coach. Amelia watched him go. She admired his figure and easy walk. When he returned he carried a tray loaded with scones and tea. Amelia marveled at so much food until he sat down and passed her a laden plate.

“Now let’s see you eat something.” His voice was solicitous and kind.

Amelia thanked Michael and ate, suddenly realizing how hungry she was. As they ate they talked about the weather, a favorite topic for all English persons. Then they talked about the recent Brixit vote and speculated on what its ultimate impact would be. While they talked, Amelia further assessed Michael, she estimated him to be somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-five, hair thick and brownish red and eyes. Oh his eyes, they were a perfect sky blue. Amelia’s family all had brown eyes, which meant that blue ones always mesmerized her, and Michael’s were intense. His open-necked shirt was exactly the same color which further accentuated their impact. When they had finished their food and conversation lagged Amelia rose.

“That hit the spot, thank you, Michael. Now I think that I’ll go to the toilet; wash my hands.”

His blue eyes sparkled and he leant forward and gave her an intense look, “Going to powder that cute little shiny nose,” he joked.

Amelia blushed again although up until he suggested it; she had not thought of powdering her nose.  She walked slowly up the coach conscious that he was watching her and sure that he liked what he saw. The toilet was small but had a tiny mirror and so Amelia took the time to redo her lip liner and lipstick and to add a little more liquid make-up to her nose, powder being a thing of the past for her. She brushed her hair and came out, feeling like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.  As she walked down the coach toward him she enjoyed his welcoming smile and returned his gaze with one of her own. When she reached their table he stood up and reached forward to assist her into her seat.

“Thank you,” she said “You are such a gentleman!”

“When an alluring young woman with a secret sorrow, captivating blush and freshly powdered nose approaches I couldn’t do otherwise!” When she was seated he leant across the table and took her hands in his. “Now tell me why you are so sad, perhaps I can help.”

Amelia didn’t think that he could help but the warmth of his hands and depth of his gaze inspired her into confidence. She told him how she had met Charles when she was in high school, how they had dated for several years, how they had maintained their friendship through college even though they were attending different universities.  Then she told how she had returned home to Durham at the beginning of the summer to see him with her best friend and how they had quarreled.

“So you still love him?”

“Yes, of course I still love him, but after the things I said it is all over!”

“You still love him and yet you talk to me. Might he not be equally jealous if he were to see us together?

“Yes, but….”

Michael paused letting several minutes pass and then he asked, “Didn’t your trip to Nice help?” Amelia told him that she had hoped that it would but it had had the opposite effect because she had always been the outsider “ as “l’anglaise”. She told him that, even though she spoke good French, she had a hard time following the subtleties of the group’s discourse. Over the month they had paired up leaving her alone. The experience gave her a sense of unworthiness and made her feel unattractively gauche. On  her return she had spent the previous night with a friend in a Baron’s Court flat only to be further depressed when the friend gave  her a key and left her alone while she went out to dinner  with  her new boyfriend . Michael told Amelia that she had allowed her break-up with Charles to cloud her judgement. He urged her to re-establish her self-esteem. His words comforted, but his presence and actions did more. She kept trying to get him to talk about himself but all she could get him to disclose was that he lived in Edinburgh and had been to London on a business trip.

After Amelia’s confession Michael guided their discussion to the books that they were reading and from thence to general topics. After York and then Darlington, getting closer and closer to Durham Amelia became increasingly excited and then she grabbed Michael’s hand,

“Michael, look” she pointed through the window, “there is Durham Cathedral – how I love that view”

Michael followed her instruction, “It is stunning, like the little lady who lives there! It’s a pity but I suppose that it’s time to get your bag.”

A few minutes later, the train slowed down and stopped at Durham station. Amelia was so excited at arriving in Durham that she momentarily didn’t think about having to say good bye to Michael or even to try to establish a way that they could meet again. Everything happened so fast Michael opened her door, she stepped out. Instead of her parents on the platform, she saw Charles. He was there to meet her, which could only mean one thing. A wave of joy pulsated through her body, but she didn’t run into his arms. She paused to look back at Michael. He waved to her from the window of the moving train. As he waved the mid-day sun silhouetted his head in a halo of light. Charles put his arm around her; she stood and let him hold her while she continued to watch the train disappear around a bend in the tracks.

Michael smiled when he saw Charles hug Amelia. Then he turned and pulled his wedding ring out of his pocket and slipped it on.

Innocent or guilty?

I’ve been in the UK the last three weeks and away from blogging, but not from thinking and observation. I’ve had a full three weeks of making memories and return anxious to write. However it always takes time so I’m now posting his little extract which I wrote before we left. It has no conclusion; instead I invite my readers to offer their own interpretation.

The year is 2000, a time when computer software had made large inroads into the preparation of business documents. The once busy personal secretary who was responsible for the typing of all letters, meeting notes, contracts, and other documents is now reduced to fielding telephone calls, filing, mailing, and scheduling. Many of the most sophisticated software programs associated with graphics are in their infancy. This explains how a 50+-year-old company president knows what he wants a document to look like but is unable to produce it without help.

Bella has a good eye for graphics, and at 21 has already mastered a graphics program. Hence she gravitates into the marketing department where she quickly assumes responsibility for the graphics developed therein. Bella also has a good eye for Bella. Not only is she young, she is very attractive, and has a perfect figure. She wears provocative clothing outside normally accepted business wear; skirts so short that some might mistake them for belts and tops so low cut that her seductive cleavage is well displayed. Early each day a description of her garb passes among the young bucks of the office. During the course of the morning each nonchalantly finds an excuse to pass by her office to verify what they have heard. Bella keeps her office dark,. She says that it is, “To afford better screen contrast.” But it has the effect of further enhancing her mystique.

One of the company president’s main responsibilities is to respond to RFPs (Requests for Proposals). Winning new work is integral to the success of the office and the president trust no one but himself  to undertake this important task. His lack of computer skills means that he relies on Bella for the graphics. He takes to sitting next to her in her darkened room beside her bare legs and chest so that he can direct her work on the computer. The young bucks parade by; many, no doubt, fervently wishing that they were able to occupy that chair next to Bella. The work on the RFP responses extends far into the night. The office staff leaves for home glancing in the direction of Bella’s office where she and her companion sit riveted to the computer monitor.

Occasionally the president’s wife drops in. She is a good looking woman who suffers from periodic bouts of dehydration due to lapses in her alcoholism.  She lets it be known that she owns the president and should anything happen she would take everything.  She warns that divorce would ruin him. Bella smiles behind her back for Bella does not appear to be motivated by money; from her demeanor all deduce that sex is her thing. The general office staff heed the wife’s warning and deduce that she, like them, wonders about what goes on after hours in that darkened office.

Rumors are always rampant in a large office. In this office their main focus is on Bella and her companion.  No one has ever seen anything apart from what is described above, all suspect more, no one is sure. Once Bella and the president had an argument and Bella was heard shouting obscenities as she, barefoot, raced out of the darkened office. He didn’t follow. She disappeared into the bathroom. She reemerged smelling strongly of perfume and went back to her usual spot. No one in the office witnessed a reconsolidation but all noticed that everything merely returned to “normal” and they worked late that evening.

The sulk syndrome

Recently, the AFP (American Family Physician) carried an article submitted by Dr. K.. The doctor’s full name is withheld at this time at Dr. K.’s request. The article reports findings gathered by Dr. K. over thirty years. If the doctor’s facts and analysis prove accurate, they may change medicine’s approach to many treatments and cures, particularly those in which the patient requires pain medication. Given the recent spate of celebrity deaths associated with painkillers this discovery should be heaped with accolades.

Dr. K.’s S.U.L.K. stands for Stiff Upper Lip as discovered by, himself, Dr. K. He reports it to be a condition most often associated with persons of English heritage, particularly those born and raised in England. The sulk is manifested by a paralyzed upper lip. The reader can experience a similar paralysis by placing a thumb firmly upon their upper lip; thereafter, it will be found that, any attempt to smile, frown, or experience emotion, associated with facial expression, is thwarted. As an aside, the irony that a person who is sulking has a like facial expression may, or may not, have been Dr. K.’s intent when he coined the acronym.

According to Dr. K.’s research results, persons with sulk syndrome report pain and discomfort on a reduced, completely different scale from the public at large. Where most patients might rank pain as a seven or eight on a scale of one to ten the sulk syndrome patient generally says, “I’m fine.” When pressed to use the pain schedule those with sulk report a two, or maximum three on the same scale.

In summary, Dr. K. finds that sulk syndrome persons tend to suffer less and recover faster from bacterial ailments and surgeries than their counterparts with normal upper lip function. He, therefore, postulates that the upper lip has a unique role in contributing to recovery and proposes that all patients experiencing chronic pain, undergoing surgery, taking courses of antibiotics or undergoing cancer treatment, first be given a facial Botox injection to induce sulk syndrome upper lip paralysis.

 

Rowan – a short story

In 2000, the fraternities at Belmont College voted Rowan their pledge of the year. At the time, everyone was pleased by the election, although many were surprised when Rowan failed to turn up to accept the award. This failure aroused the fraternity boys’ interest. Talk flowed freely as they looked about and tried to identify who this person was. They soon realized that, for most of them; Rowan was just a name. Many freely admitted that they had voted for “Rowan” because of the importance implied by this singular name. Some of them felt sure that they had heard the name at a frat gathering and even suspected that they may have met Rowan. Further investigation revealed that one group, the ill-defined bible-study fraternity, had placed the name on the ballot. Thereafter, the other fraternity boys determined that this group knew Rowan and that Rowan was a genuine person. Over time the surprising revelation quickly spread that Rowan was not a male fraternity pledge; in fact, Rowan was not even a student at Belmont College.

The pledged students could only have been more surprised if Rowan had attended the awards ceremony. Their masculine sensitivities would have been sorely taxed by her diminutive figure, in the form of an elderly woman with a full head of flowing red hair and clad in swirling clothing. The floral pattern of her skirt, matching blouse and flamboyant jewelry would have contrasted with their grubby casual tees and worn blue jeans as much as her age and sex contrasted with their youthful masculinity. It was best that they came to acknowledge the mystery of her election through a slow process of word of mouth and rumor so that the event painlessly passed into the mystique of their fraternity history.

Her election can be explained by the fact that three of the bible-study fraternity boys lived in her basement. She was lax in her rules and opened up her home to the group so that they held meetings in her living room while she, generously, served pizza and cookies. She explained her approach to her tenants with the words, “I love to surround myself with young men!” On their side, the boys put her name on the ballot because, for them, she represented the mainstay which held them together.

If the fraternity boys had got to know Rowan through narration of some of the events from her life, they would have realized that her election was a fortuitous endorsement of everything to which they espoused. Rowan’s entire life was full of drama, as she exuded joy and laced all she did with a touch of unconventionality. She was an artistic, fun-loving, free spirit; an adult who never lost the innocence of youth and the ability to make stupid mistakes and to recover from them with vigor. Unquestionably she was the perfect choice for the pledge of the year.

Thirty-five years before her nomination and election as Belmont College’s 2000 fraternity pledge of the year Rowan, herself, attended a small college. She was enrolled in a General Arts degree with the ostensibly normal goal of becoming a school teacher. As soon as she arrived on campus away from the confines of her family, she opened her eyes the world and embraced a hippie-like life of unconventionality. She became vegetarian, smoked pot and opted for a lifestyle which demonstrated to her fellow students, and herself, that she saw all men as equal.

When she met Eugene Blanc, a handsome young black scholar from Houston, Texas, it was inevitable that she fell in love. Eugene responded to her impulsive free spirit and returned her love with passion. Gradually, they settled into a routine in which they did everything together, even enjoying the stir that their presence made when they visited their families. Neither side’s kinfolk approved of their liaison. Both families, while protesting support for civil rights equality and racial integration, couldn’t accept that their family might be linked to a family of another ethnicity. After the 1967, Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in their ruling on Loving vs. Virginia, Rowan and Eugene saw an opportunity to advance their relationship. In 1969, they got married at a wedding chapel on the side of the Galveston freeway. Neither of their families was invited to, nor attended the event.

It would be good if this narrative could report that Rowan and Eugene lived happily ever after, but then, perhaps Rowan might not have made it to fraternity pledge of the year in 2000.  After graduation, they enjoyed a brief period of happiness working in positions in large oil-related corporations in Houston. They lived in a small rented apartment in Forster’s Pond just inside the Loop at the Galleria and attempted to dissolve into the cultural melee of the rapidly growing city. Unfortunately the prejudices of corporate American unsettled Eugene and he became increasingly irrational and disturbed. He took to the bottle, and one early Saturday morning drove headlong into a tree close to their apartment. He was killed instantly.

Rowan bounced back from the sadness of losing Eugene and moved to Austin. She accepted a position at IBM, bought a house and settled into a new life. She met the Ghanaian, Bastos, in the IBM cafeteria. He wooed her by showering her with attention in the form of conventional courtship paraphernalia such as flowers, chocolates and expensive dates. Although Rowan shunned traditional mores, she enjoyed Bastos’ attention. Within a few months, she invited him to move in with her. He was a perfect companion and continued his pursuit with his apparently undivided devotion.

After six months, Bastos told Rowan that he needed to return to Ghana and proposed she accompany him as his wife. Rowan suggested a trip to another Wedding Chapel, but Bastos was lovingly emphatic that they should be married by an Imam in true muslin tradition. Although he had not previously discussed his beliefs with Rowan, he now told her that his sincerest hope was that, over time, perhaps in Ghana, she would convert to Islam so that they could spend eternity together. Rowan found his suggestion flatteringly loving and told him that she also wished to be with him through eternity. In preparation for their life-changing move, Bastos persuaded Rowan to liquidate her assets and to sell off her possessions and to give him the proceeds; for, he told her, this would enable her to make a proper transition to Ghana as his wife. Rowan willingly complied.

Ghana proved to be an uncanny revelation for Rowan. When they arrived in Accra, Bastos changed; gone was the attentive suitor, now he was the autocratic businessman and head of a household. This was when Rowan discovered that she arrived in the role as one of four wives. She quickly tired of this life and expressed a desire to return home to the United States. Bastos had her money, and tiring of her emotional outbursts, was ready for her to leave. One fine day he escorted her to the American Embassy and left her to contact her family for money and to undertake the long process of returning to the USA.

After her return to the United States and the annulment of her marriage with Bastos, Rowan needed a clean start. She returned to her roots, bought a home near Belmont College, and accepted a position as a librarian in a local library. She wholeheartedly reunited with her relatives who were delighted to welcome her back into their midst. She settled into the place of her youth, and soon took up with an ex-boyfriend from her teens, a six-foot-six white guy named Phil. Now story has it that Phil was a part – time pimp; which may explain why Rowan had difficulty keeping him in line. One evening he drove off in her second car for a night out on the town. Rowan was fun-loving enough to resent his leaving her at home but, after two failed marriages, acknowledged that sometimes a man needs to go out with the boys.

When Phil failed to return by eleven Rowan was irate. She was so angry that she revved up her second car and roared into town looking for him. She drove past his two favorite bars. At both, she failed to see her car in the parking lot. Just as she was leaving the second lot, she saw one of Phil’s friends. She stopped and questioned the slightly intoxicated man and managed to discover that Phil was probably at Sandy’s house on Elm Street.

Rowan drove to Elm Street and spotted her car parked at the curb. She drove slowly past peering up at the adjacent house. Behind the curtains of one of the illuminated windows, she distinctly saw two figures locked in an embrace. She drove around the block and returned. The two figures were still there; by now, she was so filled with wrath that she accelerated and rammed her own car parked at the curb. There was a loud crunch of broken metal, and her car’s engine quit. In the ensuing silence, she screamed into the darkness,

“That serves him right. That’ll teach him. By the time that he finds a way home, I’ll have his possessions on the doorstep!”

She got out of her car, crossed the street, and walked up to a house with a light on. She rang the doorbell.

“Good evening,” she said, her eyes flashing with anger, her voice steely calm, “May I use your telephone? I need to report a hit-and-run!”

No fraternity boy could have done better. Belmont College was right to award Rowan their Pledge of the Year.

 

The Job Offer – a short story

Jennifer and her daughter sat on the coffee house terrace under a flowering crêpe myrtle tree. Jennifer was still trembling. Her daughter lent across the table and patted her hand, a gesture which Jennifer accepted as loving support. She smiled weakly, enjoying this moment of closeness, although she wasn’t yet ready for confidences. She looked out over the terrace hoping to see their waiter,

“I could use that cup of tea.”

“I’m sure they won’t be long.” Her daughter also scanned the terrace and soothingly continued, “Meanwhile, Mom, lean back, breathe deeply, and take in the sweet smell of crêpe myrtle blossom.”

Jennifer obeyed, and as she relaxed she heard the sounds of the city, the muffled whirr of traffic, the voices of other patrons talking to each other, and the intrusive sound of grackles squawking. These ordinary reminders of everyday life, combined with the presence of her daughter, calmed and reassured her.

By the time that their tea arrived, Jennifer had regained her self-control. She took the pot and poured. The tea was served unusually hot for America, and so they both added milk to cool it down. Instead of holding her cup by its handle, as was her norm, Jennifer cradled it in her hands as though the warmth could give her additional comfort. She sipped slowly enjoying the distinctive flavor of Rooibos with its earthy herbal aroma.

“I think that the interview went well. They are going to offer me a partnership.”

“That’s great Mom. So, why are you nervous and edgy? Didn’t you always aspire to become a principal somewhere?” She paused and stared at her mother and then continued, “But there’s something else isn’t there?”

Jennifer looked at her daughter and wondered how one so young could be so perceptive. She didn’t answer the question; instead, she evaded with additional information about the prospects.

“A partnership. Yes, you are right; I’ve always wanted to be a firm leader – it’s just marvelous! I wish that my father were still alive for this would have made him so proud!”

“So you should be elated Mom; but you’re not are you?”

A Grackle alighted on the back of a chair at an adjacent table. His feathers gleamed black/blue in the sunlight. He fanned his tail and looked at their table with his tiny eyes. Jennifer’s daughter clapped her hands, and he flew away. Jennifer took another sip of tea and dunked a cookie before continuing,

“The money is fantastic. If you include the expected annual profit distribution in conjunction with the salary, it will be double what I make now. That’s more than our family needs, but it would be nice.”

“So much money, they must think a lot of you Mom.”

“Yes, I think they do. Up until now, I have excelled at my job. I’ve always loved what I do and know that I am good at it. The problem is, they want me to go into operations, and I’m not sure that this is my forte. I might not be able to deliver what they want.”

“Oh come on Mom, aren’t you underestimating yourself?”

“Maybe…… If it were straightforward it might be okay, but I have a premonition that their corporate culture doesn’t align with mine. It seems to me that the upper management, of which I would be a part, is too remote from the rest of the staff. It’s as though the fantastic money is accomplished through shortchanging everyone else.”

“But Mom, won’t that be the challenge. Won’t that be how you will be able to help?”

“I’d like to think so, but I suspect otherwise. I’ll be the outside newcomer, thrust between a bunch of old boys who have been together for years and who love their perks and profits. In fact, they bring me in order to increase profits, and I doubt that they will see this as being accomplished by investing in higher salaries, new computers, and state-of the-art software.”

“If their corporate culture is manipulative, or you feel it to be unprofessional, then maybe you should turn down their offer.”

“Yes, I should.’ Jennifer gazed at the Grackle who had returned to the adjacent table; she sighed, “The other argument against taking the position is that it will require a weekly 200 mile commute and two residences until your father can join me. The distance apart is going to be hard. I keep wondering if the prestige and money justify it.”

Jennifer threw the Grackle a piece of cookie and watched it eat before continuing, “To put it bluntly,” she glanced around to make sure that no-one was within earshot, “if there was a devil, I’d say that he concocted this offer. It is sugarcoated in money. I know that it appeals to my greed and pride. Perhaps I am being asked to sell my soul.”

“If you feel like that Mom, DON’T DO IT!” Jennifer’s daughter clapped her hands again, and the Grackle flew off. She repeated, “Don’t do it Mom, trust your instincts!”

They finished their tea, hugged and parted. Jennifer’s daughter left to return to her classes at the University while Jennifer went to her car for her 200 mile drive home. She slipped in a Book on Tape into the player “The Picture of Dorian Grey” by Oscar Wilde. She listened to the narration and settled into an aura of peace as she watched the road peel away. At the end of the first chapter, the tape gave a hiccup and stopped. This had happened before, Jennifer knew that this time it had quit for good.

When she stopped for gas, a black raven flew down and sat on the gas pump. It cocked its head and eyed Jennifer. She spoke to it

“You can see that I need a new car,” she said, “I need that good pay in that new position to enable me to get one. It isn’t immoral for principals to take disproportionately high compensation out of a firm. Principals guide firms; they earn it. If I have to commute 200 miles a week, I’ll need a spiffy new car. That’s not greed that’s practicality! Is it prideful to want to succeed? No, it is a logical conclusion, a reward for hard work.”

The raven nodded its head in apparent agreement. When Jennifer reached home, she met her husband with a kiss and the words,

“They offered, and I’m going to accept.”

The devil laughed as he watched Jennifer head for several years of acute unhappiness.

 

  

The worm – a short story

Tina’s father had business at Durham University and took Tina and her mother with him. While he was engaged with the University Tina, and her mother went sightseeing. Tina’s mother bravely drove a rented car and soon became an expert at navigating on the left side of the road. One day, they visited Penshaw Monument[1] with its commanding location at the top of a hill. They scrambled up the monument’s steep stairs enjoy the view and afterward walked in the surrounding park.

It was unusually dry that summer; the ground was parched and even the weeds looked distressed. When Tina saw an odd-looking, desiccated, worm lying upon the ground, she deduced it to be dehydrated and almost dead. She had always been interested in fauna, and so she picked it up. When she looked at it carefully she realized that it had a distinctive head with eyes and mouth and nine tiny holes on each side of its head. She had never seen anything like this before, and so she slipped it into her bottle of distilled water. The water appeared to revive the worm, and it wiggled around in the bottle and looked at her. Later, when she and her mother ate their picnic lunch, Tina pushed a few crumbs from her sandwich into the bottle. The worm devoured the crumbs, and it seemed to Tina that it was thanking her, by the way, that it shook its head and waved its tail. Her mother watched in disbelief,

“Tina dear, please dispose of that disgusting wriggling thing.”

“But Mama,” Tina pleaded, “I feel a rapport with Wormy. I think that he communicates with me. Poor thing he is all alone. I think that we need to find out more about his genus.”

Tina’s mother looked at her daughter; she had picked up on the fact that Tina had already given her ‘Wormy’ sex by referring to him, as ‘he’ rather than ‘it’. Later, back at their Bed and Breakfast, Tina found nothing similar to the worm on the Internet. She learnt a great deal about worms, eels, salamanders and lampreys. She read worms don’t have eyes, and now knew that her ‘Wormy’ was not a worm. The next day at lunch at a pub in Durham City a kindly gentleman, hugging a frothy pint of beer, laughed at Tina’s worm and suggested that it might be a descendent of the Lambton worm. He launched into a quick summary of this piece of folklore.

One Sunday morning young John Lampton, son of the local Earl of Lambton, skipped church and went fishing in the River Wear. On his way, an old personage warned that nothing good would come to him for his truancy. The only thing he snared was a slimy worm, which was so disgusted him that, on his way home, he threw it down a local well. Time went on, and John Lambton matured and left County Durham to join a crusade. He was gone seven years. When he returned he found his father’s estate in ruins. The entire countryside was being terrorized by an enormous worm which ate livestock, milked cows and even took the occasional child. John was deduced that this worm was the worm that he had thrown down the well. Many had unsuccessfully tried to kill it, for it appeared to have magical powers and could reconstruct itself when cut into pieces. John took counsel and commissioned armor with outward pointing knives. He met the Dragon in the River Wear. It attacked him by wrapping its body around him like a boa constrictor. The tighter it squeezed; the deeper the knives severed its body. As it was cut up, each piece was washed away by the river current before it could reconnect. The worm was dead. John had been warned that, after he dispatched the worm, he must kill the first living creature that greeted him. He had instructed his father that this should be his dog; unfortunately, his father was so excited that he forgot to release the dog and ran to hug his son. John did not kill his father, resulting in a curse that succeeding generations of Lamptons would not die in their beds.

Of course, everyone agreed that the tale of the Lambton worm was just a tale. They ordered more beer and joked to reinforce their collective belief in a carefully nurtured local legend. Tina was as convinced as everyone and was not about to kill her Wormy. She did entertain a modicum of fear tinged with foreboding meaning, and knew that she was not going to release it into a well or any other body of water in County Durham.

Tina decided to give Wormy a better name, because she knew that ‘Wormy’ was both inaccurate and conveyed the wrong connotation. As they walked back to their B and B from the pub, she hit upon calling him ‘LW’. ‘L’ as a reminder of Penshaw and the Lambton lands where he was found and ‘W’ for worm as a reminder that this is what everyone originally assumed him to be. When it was time to return home in Austin Texas Tina wrapped LW in wet towels and a Ziploc bag and carried him in her suitcase. When she got home, she placed him in her tropical fish tank.

LW appeared to like the fish tank. Every day when Tina fed the fish, he came up to the surface and ate with them. The fish took their food with apparent indifference. LW ate his while looking directly into Tina’s eyes. She was sure that he was communicating with her. She watched him grow bigger, and wondered how large he was going to get. By December, LW was several inches long and began to eat the other fish. He started with the tetra and progressed to the larger fish finishing off with the algae eater. Tina tried giving more food fish food, but this did not appear to stem his appetite. Tina’s mother told her that the LW had to go. By now, Tina was convinced that she and LW could communicate and that when he winked at her; he was telling her that he needed a larger body of water.

Tina’s father suggested that they release LW into Tina’s grandparents’ decorative backyard fishpond. He would be fed when the fish were fed, and Tina could see him when she visited them. Tina discovered that if she stood at the edge of the pond and rubbed two rounded stones together, periodically tapping them, LW would come and lift his head out of the water and greet her. Tina took to placing her hand near him when he rose above the surface of the water, and he would put his head in her palm and rub against her skin. She understood this to be his expression of love. As time passed LW grew bigger. When he was a couple of feet long he slowly devoured the Koi in the pond, then he took to making nocturnal excursions from the water to consume frogs and any local domestic cats who came by. The neighborhood assumed that the cats were being attacked by coyotes, until they realized that the coyotes were also gone. Again LW communicated as he wiggled his head back and forth against her hand. He told her that he needed a larger body of water.

For several days, Tin worried about LW’s need for more space, and then she hit on a solution. She told him to leave the pond in the dead of night and to make his way across the Greenbelt behind her grand-parent’s house to a small stream. He was to follow the stream until it came to a much larger neighborhood lake. She told him to keep himself hidden at all times; explaining that if anyone saw him, they were bound to do him harm. She reassured him with the promise that she would meet him at the lake in three days.

When Tina arrived at the lake, it looked as it always looked, and she thought that she must have lost her friend. She followed the path around to a place where she was hidden from view by the other park users. She took out her stones and rubbed them together and tapped them. Immediately she saw a ripple in the water moving towards her. It was LW. He lifted his head out of the water and extended his red tongue to wrap it gently around her legs. She giggled, and lent down scratched the back of his head. Again, time passed, and as it did LW continued to grow. At first, no one noticed that the duck and geese population of the pond was decreasing. By the time that they, and all the fish and turtles had disappeared, LW was over twelve feet long and beginning to have trouble remaining concealed.

A string of emails flowed around the Travis Country neighborhood. Each offered a speculation on why the pond wildlife was disappearing. In response to their concerns, the neighborhood park committee called in an environmental expert to test the water. To everyone’s relief, the expert reported that the water was well within the normal range. The report advised that the depopulation must have another explanation and recommended that a close watch be given to the pond so that the true explanation could be uncovered.

Tina communicated their findings to LW. She told him that she feared for his safety, especially as he was obliged to go on nocturnal foraging trips. They both agreed on the need for a larger body of water. Tina told LW to leave the lake and to follow the stream that connected it to the Barton Creek Greenbelt, and from thence to follow Barton Creek to where it fed into Town Lake. Tina herself was about to enroll in the University of Texas to study biology and vowed to take an apartment on the south side of Town Lake close to the new South-side boardwalk so that she, and LW could commune daily.

A week later when the pink light of dawn was caressing the waters of the lake and illuminating the bridges against still dark waters Tina walked along the south bank. Then when no-one was around, she slipped underneath one of the support piers of the boardwalk. She squatted beside the waters and rubbed her stones together periodically tapping them. After a few minutes, LW appeared. He arose from the water and placed his head in her lap. She stroked his scaly skin and scratched his neck.

LW told Tina that it had taken him several days to travel down Barton Creek. The problem was that Barton Creek periodically went underground rushing through deep limestone caves too tight for LW to navigate. This had meant that he had had to follow the dry surface Creek bed with its limestone boulders. During the day, he hid among the lush foliage of the Creek’s ravine only able to take brief naps due to the large number of bicyclists and people walking along the Creek banks. He went on to tell her that he liked the Lake; it teamed with fish, and he was optimistic for this to be his final home.

Again, time passed and LW grew relentlessly.  He gradually ate all the fish, ducks, swans, herons and turtles (he told Tina back he didn’t like turtles much). He began taking foraging trips away from the lake. They both knew that it was time for another move. This time the only waters Tina could think of was the Gulf of Mexico. She explained to LW that if he slipped over the Town Lake dam he could follow the Colorado River all the way to the coast. She warned him that seawater is saline, and brought a sample from her university lab for him to taste. He told her that he was sure that he could survive in salt water. He confessed to her that he had begun to feel an urge to return to his place of birth.

By now, LW was over fifty feet long. He put his head on Tina’s lap and listened to her as she gave her instructions,

“The route down the Colorado River will be long and exhausting.  The river winds its way across the plane to the ocean; it has frequent turns and switch-backs, but if you persist, I assure you that it eventually empties into the ocean.’

LW wiggled with excitement and assured Tina that he would be patient.

“Now LW, you know that you will have to travel by night. I warn you that if you are spotted, we shall never see each other again. Indeed, I dread thinking what might happen. Either you will be killed outright and your body hauled off for scientific research, or you will be stunned and kept in a cage or small tank while you are being gawked at, prodded, and studied.”

LW flailed about, waving his tail in the water to indicate his understanding, and a light-hearted  mood.

“No LW, listen to me; this is not a laughing matter. You must always be discreet and unseen. When you get to the ocean, that’s when the water becomes salty. You will be confronted by a barrier island. Follow the island to the south and you will find an opening to the vast ocean beyond.”

Tina sighed and looked out over the calm waters of Town Lake. She scratched LW’s head and stroked his scales placing her finger gently on each of his nine holes on either side of his head. LW rolled his eyes in an indication of extreme pleasure.

“OK, once you are in the ocean; you will be free. Eat and go where you please. You may find companions in the ocean deeps. However, if you do decide to return to the coast near where I found you; and I assure you it’s a very long way; I’ll be there. I shall be there for three or four days on either side of next year’s summer solstice. Now listen carefully. The River Wear empties into the cold North Sea at a place called Sunderland. There are two breakwaters around the mouth of the river. North of the North Breakwater is a sandy beach. The beach is bracketed on the North by a cliff of rocks and to the south by the Breakwater. I shall wait on the beach.”

That morning Tina and LW remained together longer than usual while each wondered whether they would ever see each other again. When the pounding of joggers on the boardwalk overhead began to intrude upon their communion, Tina rose and looked at him with tears in her eyes,

“Good-bye, have a good Journey. I hope to see you next June; if not, I shall always treasure my memory of you. You’re the best. ”

******

The following June 19 Tina sat at dawn, as promised, on the County Durham beach. She rubbed her stones together and tapped them as hard as she could. A cold wind blew across the sands, and she shivered. All morning she waited but nothing arose out of the pounding surf. The following day she took a red balloon and rug with her. She wrapped herself in the rug, tied the balloon to her wrist and persistently rubbed and tapped her stones. When the beach began to fill up with other people, she left. It rained on June 21; Tina wrapped herself in a red Macintosh and sat upon the beach rubbing and tapping her stones. This time her persistence was rewarded, and she saw LW drifting towards the shore shrouded in a mantel of seaweed. She waded into the water and touched him. They both felt a thrill of reconnection. It didn’t take long for Tina to realize that LW was not himself. He told her that the saltwater was killing him. Tina cried. LW swirled his tail gently around her and reassured her that he was content. She came to understand that he was hermaphrodite and had produced a sack of eggs. He carried them in his mouth and opened that cavity and using his red tongue, gently pushed the sack into Tina’s hands.

“What do you want me to do with your eggs? I can’t take them back to Austin. It would be their death.’

LW waved his tail and then Tina understood. LW had an innate dream of deep clear waters somewhere to the North of the landmass on which they now stood. It was a place where his eggs could hatch and grow without human intervention. At first, Tina could not think where such a place should be, but as she stood there shivering in the cold water, she remembered the stories of the Loch Ness monster and knew where LW’s eggs had to go.

[1] The Penshaw Monument in County Durham is a half-sized size scale replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens.  It is a folly built in 1844 in memory of John Lambton. It was given to the British nation in 1939.

 

The Brothers – a short story

Mother lives in a small wood-frame house in one of the older neighborhoods of East Austin. My brother, Goeff, and I grew up there. I remember it as a place where people watch out for each other, and gather in the street to discuss the looming specter of gentrification. When we were young, we played in the street, and our neighbors sat on their front porches in the cool of the evening and waved to those passing by. Even now, 40 years later, the neighborhood still retains some of its friendliness. Mother says that was why she will never leave.

Mother looks healthy for her age even though she walks with a slight limp. Each time I visit I notice small indicators that her age is catching up with her. A minor blood clot blinded her in one eye; her poor hands are crippled by arthritis, and she is deaf enough to need a hearing aid. Of course, she doesn’t have a hearing aid which often makes communications difficult. I don’t think that she is lonely because she has her white cat Fluffy. Personally, I don’t like cats, and I hate Fluffy. I can never recall a time when Mother didn’t have Fluffy, or one of her predecessors, perched on her lap taking a place where I wished to be.

Apparently Mother’s neighbor, Alice who lives across the street, is the first to notice that something was amiss. The house is dark; newspapers pile up on the drive, and mail begins to overflow the mailbox. When I go there she meets me and tells me her story.  She has clearly already repeated it many times. To my surprise, she doesn’t ask me in but chooses to tell me her, oft repeated story, as we stand on her porch. She is agitated and closes her eyes from time to time as if she is attempting to relive her adventure.

“I approached Molly’s front door cautiously. I paused, to admire her geraniums and lantana blooming profusely on either side of her stoop. I rang the doorbell and getting no reply; I knocked. Still no reply; I called,

‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’

I turned the door knob; the door wasn’t locked. I entered, and shouted,

‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’

“I was getting anxious, but continued my search. Fluffy, your Ma’s cat, rubbed herself against my jeans, I could see white cat hair being deposited on them. The house had an ominous eerie feeling. It smelt vacant; I kept shouting,

‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’

I didn’t wish to intrude but when I saw no one in the neat and tidy kitchen where a half drunk cup of tea stood on the table, I become more concerned and passed quickly to the master bedroom, still calling as I went,

‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’”

At this point, in her narration Alice pauses, dabs her eyes and looks at me. I nod to reassure her that I wish her to finish her story. She sighs and continues,

“I saw her lying curled up on the bed. Of course, when I entered the house, I suspected something like this. I’ve seen death before, it has an odor, or presence, which emanates and pervades the air long before the, once live, body starts to decompose. Even with this ominous tell-tail warning, I wasn’t sure. I stepped up to the bed and touched her outstretched hand.  It was cold. For a few moments, the universe seemed to stand still. Fluffy jumped onto the  bed and started to mewl. That was the end for me; I grabbed Fluffy in my arms and left as quickly as possible. Of course, I called 911 and then your brother, Goeff.”

It pains me that she called Goeff rather than me; after all, I am local and Goeff isn’t. I may be the younger son, but surely proximity counts for something. I am angry and hurt on top of the sadness at Mother’s death. I want to shake Alice. I ask,

“Why didn’t you call me; I’m local after all?”

“Simple, you never gave me your contact information; Geoff did.”

I dislike her response. It is another example of how Geoff always does the right thing. I wonder how he manages. Alice offers to take in Fluffy and I agree. I secretly hope that she will be a nuisance and keep Alice on her side of the street. I retreat to Mother’s house and turn on the television; I need time to face what has happened.

********

It is amazing how quickly Goeff arrives fresh from the airport. He is pulsating with energy. He turns off the television, clears up my mess in the kitchen and opens beers for us both. We sit at the kitchen table and discuss what to do next. Soon we begin a systematic dismantling of their Mother’s possessions.

We rummage through Mother’s papers and find her Will. No surprise here except Goeff is the executor not me. Actually, I am hurt, not surprised – goody-goody Goeff, always the preferred one. It turns out that there is little estate. Mother’s house which we estimate is worth $400,000 has a $300,000 reverse mortgage against it. We uncover $100,000 in investments. We discuss what to do. I tell Geoff that I want the house. I tell him it’s for sentimental reasons and because my present apartment is so awful. He nods as though he understands but I know that he doesn’t. After all I suspect that he has all the money he needs while I am up to my ears in credit card debt and need some easy cash. Goeff must suspect my financial straits because he says that he understands about the house but says that the math just doesn’t work. I know that he is right. So, when he suggests that I take the $100,000 cash, I agree. He says that he will pay off the mortgage and either keep the house or sell it to recoup his $100,000.  I hate it but agree. What else can I do with my credit rating?

We sort through Mother’s things agreeing as we go which things each of us will keep and which things we will dispose of by; garage sale, charity, or estate sale. I smart when we get to the photograph albums. There are three covering Goeff’s first year of life while my whole childhood is stuffed into one album in which most of the photographs are loose.

The kitchen and garage take forever but when they are cleared, we think that we have finished until Goeff suggests that we check the attic. It is a cramped space. We know that Mother didn’t like climbing the access ladder; and so, we assume it to be empty. It is almost so except for an old suitcase of our Father’s, a portfolio of etchings which he collected years ago and a box of his clothes. The suitcase is tattered and goes to charity, the clothes moth eaten with the elastic rotted by the heat; we trash them. We sit at the kitchen table and look at the etchings. They are black, or sepia, and white on scrappy pieces of paper. We recall how much Father loved these images of old buildings, of animals and of ancient people in old-fashioned clothing. I don’t want to keep any of them,

“Throw them out.”

“No,” says Goeff as he fondles the ancient paper, “Father was no fool, if he liked them so much they may be too good to toss. If it is okay with you, I’ll take them back with me. You never know they might be worth something.” I acquiesce. I marvel at Goeff’s persistence.

********

My birthday rolls around on April 1st and I find a letter in my mail box. The return address on the envelope is Goeff’s. I hold it up to the light and deduce that it is a birthday card. That Geoff always sends a birthday card every year, but as I am still seething with anger and jealousy, I place the envelope on my kitchen counter among my other papers. Perhaps I’ll open it one day but now my birthday makes me feel too dejected to do so.

I drive over to Mother’s place and park outside. The vacant house looks forlorn, the grass in the front long and un-kept. There was still no “For Sale” sign, which makes me wonder if Goeff has had a lapse in efficiency. Then it hits me, Goeff hasn’t been inefficient he has decided to keep the house for himself. Yep, he is keeping house that I so wanted. I know that he keeps it to spite me. I still have a front door key, and so I go inside. The empty rooms echo as I walk across the floor. I can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering to me. That house ought to be mine. I am the one who should be living there. It crosses my mind that I don’t want anyone to enjoy this place, especially not Goeff. Over the next month, I make it a point to make a detour and go by every day on my way home. During that time, nothing changes except the house continues to beckon to me casting its spell.

Each visit I bring in miscellaneous flyers and papers, which have been delivered to the house. I place them on the kitchen counter next to a small stack of Goeff’s cards which he left on the counter. One day, I remember; it was May 1st, exactly a month after my birthday; I notice that we forgot to pack up Mother’s fancy toaster. It sits next to the pile of papers and winks at me. I decide to toast a couple of Goeff’s cards. It is good to see them burn. I take to toasting a couple of his cards each day. Each time they smolder and emanate a burnt paper smell along with a whiff of smoke. If I do more than four they give off a flame. Then, one day, about a week later, I place a few of the papers against the toaster, put in Goeff’s cards and push down the lever. I leave. I drive around the neighborhood and cannot resist returning to the fated street. When I see a small  plume of smoke seep from the roof, I feel a pang of regret and then a sense of justifiable release. I drive back to my apartment.

For the first time since Mother died I am at peace. I am almost happy. Tomorrow I’ll drive by again. I’m sure that Alice will call Goeff and give him the news. I go to my refrigerator, pour myself a beer and take up Goeff’s birthday card. I am now ready to open it.

“My dear brother;
Happy, Happy birthday.
Good news, Father was right; the etchings were valuable and included several unique originals. I managed to sell them for $700,000 bringing Mother’s total estate to $900,000, I delayed telling you this great news as I wanted to give you a very special birthday surprise. For this birthday, I have thrown in $50,000 of my own money so that I can now enclose the deeds to Mother’s house. It is yours.
Since you love the place so much my hope is that you are able to live there, but it is yours, so do what you want with it.
One caveat, I took temporary insurance out to cover it through April. Come May 1st it is your responsibility. You have a whole month to do it -please don’t forget; insurance is important.
No need to call, I know how much you hate the phone.
May the house bring you much happiness!
Your loving brother,
Goeff.”