Cuckoo

I’ve been on sabbatical writing essays unsuitable for this blog and so I offer this 500 word “flash fiction” to prove that I am still alive and well! I hope that you enjoy it.

Seven-year-old Mary walked reluctantly to the piano. When she got there, she averted her eyes, and she turned to catch a glimpse of the last of pair of her class mates holding hands and walking, crocodile style, off to recess. How she hated this part of the music lesson when Miss Grey attempted to address her musical ineptitude. She didn’t know what ‘tone deafness’ was but had overheard her teacher discussing this with her mother. She began to feel hot and put one hand up to her neck to twist a stray lock of hair. She dearly wanted to suck her thumb but knew that this was forbidden.

“Come closer dear,” said Miss Grey as she put her hand on Mary’s shoulder.

“I’m going to play two notes, and I want you to sing along cuc-koo’, ‘cuc-koo’.” Mary gave Miss Grey a distressed blank look, for in her embarrassment at being singled out again,, she didn’t understand what was wanted.

“Let’s try – cuc–koo, cuc–koo” urged Miss Grey accompanying the words with notes on the piano. She chose the octave above middle and gently tapped G followed by C to accompany her singing; G-C, G-C; cuc-koo, cuc-koo.

Mary panicked and said, “Cuckoo. Cuckoo,” in a monotone child’s voice.

“No dear,” urged her teacher, that’s what you did last week. ‘sing the notes, can’t you hear the difference?” ‘She demonstrated “Cuc-koo, cuc-koo.”

But Mary didn’t get it even though she could hear the tone change she was far too flustered and frightened to do anything more than murmur, “Cuckoo, cuckoo”. She knew that when someone was referred to as being cuckoo it meant that they were very silly. Did all this mean that she was silly, did Miss Grey want her to chime like a cuckoo clock to announce her stupidity? Again, she gave a monotone “cuckoo, cuckoo.”

After a few additional attempts, Miss Grey escorted Mary back to her school room to join the other children. Here she relaxed and happily joined in the mathematics lesson.

When school was out Mary overheard her teacher explaining her deficit to her mother. She feared a reprimand and, feigning ignorance, skipped ahead as they walked home. Their route passed up a steep lane overhung by chestnut trees laden with spring blooms standing candle-like erect. They both paused when they heard the distinct call of a common European Cuckoo. They looked up but couldn’t see the bird among the profuse chestnut leaves.

“Do you hear the cuckoo? said her mother “they are active this time of year looking for nests to put their eggs in. They are known as brood parasites because they are able to trick other birds smaller than themselves into raising their chicks.

When the Cuckoo called again Mary’s mother responded with a laugh as she mimicked the bird. “cuc-koo, cuc-koo”. “Do you think that the bird understands my voice?” she asked.

Mary paused and then, feeling joyfully uplifted, joined her mother and bird in perfect mimicry, “cuc-koo, cuc-koo”

JURASSIC REVISITED a short story

Susan unlocked the door and stooped as she entered to avoid hitting her head. At seven feet, she was nick-named “shorty” for she was the shortest person in her group. She felt secure here and was glad that they had chosen this house with its high ceilings and robust construction. She placed her basket on the floor and called, “I’m home” as she removed her hat and outer clothing, which completely cocooned her and shielded her from the sun’s UV rays. Then she took up her basket and made her way to the kitchen where she placed the basket containing three large eggs that she had found on the counter. She thought that they were chicken eggs, but it was hard to tell as chickens were now the size of ostriches, and their large eggs could be confused with those of the larger reptiles roaming the land. Her spoils unloaded; Susan hurried into the main room to join the other five residents of the house sitting in a circle before a crackling radio.

“Did I miss anything?” she asked.

“They just announced that this is to be the last transmission.”

“So why the silence, surely there is no-one to put on commercials?”

“Something happened!”

Susan reached over and gently twiddled the knob. The radio emitted static and then they heard a voice,

“Today is momentous because it is the fiftieth anniversary of the first sun spot emitting X2X as observed by University of Texas astrology student Tony Clearwell. It is also to be the day of our last transmission. We ask that you copy and save this record for the future. We hope that one such copy will be found, possibly even a million years henceforth, a mere ripple in the 4.5 million years of the earth’s existence. It will help to explain the demise of our failed humanoid culture.”

While the transmission droned on with statistics, facts and figures to be saved for the future, Susan let her mind wander. She remembered her grandmother reminiscing, about Tony Clearwell, in her faint old voice. The matriarch told about the ridicule that his first observations had received. She spoke of the acceleration of global warming and the rising of the seas. She ridiculed the 2019 prediction by some of the collapse of humanity within a decade. She always concluded with a comment that farmers were the first to observe the curiosity that all living things were getting bigger. Susan remembered her happiness in the thought, which she took to her grave, that global warming was a blessing.

Susan remembered that her mother shared this belief until it became obvious that things were not OK. She told her daughter,

“At first scientists explained the unnatural growth as being a positive result of   global warming with its prolonged warmer growing seasons and increased rainfall. The unprecedented growth of all living things, exposed to sunlight, including humans, quickly became problematic and stimulated scientists to look twice. We now know that Tony Clearwell’s X2X, a previously undiscovered UV ray, promotes rapid, almost uncontrolled growth in both flora and fauna. Scientists suggest that this X2X UV light is what created the Jurassic age, and killed the dinosaur age when transmission ceased.”

Susan sighed as she thought about the accelerated Darwinian way that dramatically enlarged reptiles, insects and the general spectrum of fauna were adapting to their enlarged bodies and the rapidly growing flora. No one had yet seen a facsimile of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but she imagined that it was just a question of time.

SPRING – a poem

At  present I am preoccupied with visiting grandchildren and so I dug up this poem, written in the early 1970s when I lived in London, and edited now in 2019. Grandchildren can’t relate to this time before even thier parents were born, the senitments are universal so I hope that some of my readers may enjoy it.

I am a child of the night,
City born and thrust
Into the darkness,
Of faceless urban millions,
Sharing stereotyped desires,
And mass-media emotions,
Predicted and predictable. 

But, today I was free.
For today I saw the sun shine,
A warm spring sun,
It dried the ground,
It nuzzled nature to action,
Even as I was excited, delighted,
My heart uplifted by the globe.

Then joyful, I sang,
Forgetting the gray city,
Forgetting the tubes and fumes,
Forgetting humanity, my heritage,
And like the March hare,
Madly exulted in the sun,
My heart worshipped a pagan God.

Leslie a short story

At present I am reading short stories in Amy Hempel’s new collection “Sing to It.” In these stories most of her polished prose is in first person and reads as a stream of compelling, and of-times surprising consciousness. At first, I was confused by her style but after reading a few of the stories I tuned in and let her messages haunt. I can’t duplicate her style but admit some influence and offer this purely fictional tale for your comments.

My routine is simple. I rise before the sun, don an attractive tracksuit and run. I adopt a three-mile circuit. I warm up on the short distance down the west side of Shoal Creek to the park at fifteenth. Here I cross and turn to run up the east side of the Creek where the trial is located next to Lamar and is lit by street lights. Then, at a mile and a half, when the sun has risen, I turn left across a bridge and take the path on the west side of the Creek. I enjoy the dappled sunlit path, the green trees, the earthy smell of the ground, the bird song, and the gurgle of the water in the Creek. In one place, the path opens up, and I pause to take in the magnificence of nature. I do some jumping jacks while staring at the way that the morning sun highlights the Creek. I promise myself that one day, I’ll return with watercolors and easel to paint this beautiful scene. Invigorated, I climb the bank to my apartment, shower, put on an attractive blouse and business suit, and drive my short commute to work.

On the way, I stop at my favorite coffee shop for a sweetened café latte. There are two baristas. From the way that they interact with each other, I assume that they are close. Jose, the taller of the two, always serves me. He must see me in the parking lot for, when I enter, he has my order ready. We exchange pleasantries. One spectacularly beautiful morning I tell him that I had an invigorating run along Shoal Creek that morning.

He asks: “Did you see Leslie?”

I tell him that the route is generally deserted. He comments that Leslie visits the coffee shop each morning with an identical order to mine. We both laugh, then I turn half expecting to see Leslie, instead I see a car entering the lot with the favorite Austin bumper sticker. It reads: “Keep Austin Weird.”

I turn back to Jose and remark, “That Leslie, as a confirmed cross dresser, is well invested in keeping Austin weird.” Jose agrees with me.

I arrive at the office and open it up for the day greeting the staff and my partners with a serene sense of wellbeing tinged with superiority. When the mayoral election comes around Leslie’s name is on the ballot. Leslie as mayor – now that would be weird. The winner is Kirk Watson for another term. I like him and admire the astute way that he brought the rampant city environmentalists and the needs of in-coming employers and their developers together.

His thesis was quite simple, “The environmentalists and business leaders have the same goals.”

His premise startled every one until he explained. The environmentalists wish to protect the green Austin amenities, such as the Barton Creek greenbelt, Shoal Creek, and Town Lake, to name a few; to do this, they need Council’s support and funds. The new comers and developers come because they wish to enjoy the green Austin amenities, such as the Barton Creek greenbelt, Shoal Creek, and Town Lake. They expand the tax base and bring funding for the environmentalists.

Everything evolves and so does my morning run. It begins with an appearance where the west trail comes to my favorite spot, the place where there is an opening commanding a view down the Creek. The man, yes of course, it is a man, is completely naked. He stands fifty feet from me obviously posing for my benefit. I pretend not to see but catch his actions as, he pees an impressive long arch into the Creek. I’m a little taken aback by his presence but not frightened. He is too far away, and I can run. I wonder if he is Leslie, who is known to camp somewhere along this Creek. I do ask myself why Leslie, who likes to be seen as a woman, should wish to assert masculinity to me. I calm myself by telling myself that this person, was caught by surprise, and is as startled as I am.

My office overlooks the street of the coffee shop and, beyond, the way into Shoal Creek. Late each morning Leslie appears calmly walking up the street. He, or should I say she, is perfectly clad in women’s clothing. A clean chin, how does one shave in the woods, full make-up, skirt and blouse, hose and the highest high heels, surely uncomfortable to walk in? To top it all I keep reminding myself that Leslie is enrolled as a mayoral candidate, yep, Austin weird.

Sometimes I meet others on the trail. It is rare. I greet each with a hearty “Good morning” glad that we are always passing. Leslie still appears from time to time, or I think that it is Leslie, always the same place, generally sparsely clad. Sometimes there is a wave of a hand. I respond raising my arm. Time passes, spring becomes summer and then Fall. It is still warm I wear a skimpy top and shorts. The dawn is getting later and my run through the woods is in half light. I begin to fear seeing the naked / sparsely clad one, because something has changed. I can’t put my finger on what, but my sixth sense tells me that things are different; I consider altering my route but don’t.

It is Friday the week before Thanksgiving, and my nemesis jumps out in front of my path. He holds something in his hand. It looks like a gun. I’ve never seen him this close. His chin is covered in stubble. I’m now convinced that he is not Leslie. He motions to me to step off the path into a stand of bushes. There’s a rug on the ground. He wants me to lie down. I am trembling. I must obey. There is a yell, and my assailant is attacked from behind; he drops the gun. Leslie yells,

“Go away you perverted creep. I’ve had my eye on you. You are not welcome. Go.”

Miraculously, my assailant runs off. Leslie picks up the gun and hands it to me. I feel stupid when I look at it and see that it is plastic. I am embarrassed to have been held up by a semi-naked man with a toy in his hand. Leslie gives me a smile and disappears.

I do not call the police for their presence would surely be a poor thank you to Leslie. At the coffee shop, I talk to Jose and arrange for free coffees for Leslie. I don’t explain why. I merely remark, “I’m keeping Austin weird!” Jose nods in approval

I make one additional change; I adopt a new run route around Town Lake.

CHAT WALKS a memoir

Today I post “Chat Walks” which is a short personal memoir. It is offered as a quick read to atone for my last two long “Bobby Shafto” posts.

Every summer we visited my maternal grandparents who lived in a small village south of London. Probably to get us out of the house, my grandmother frequently insisted that we accompany my Grandfather on his daily walk. This consisted of a ramble around the village green taken at a slow pace for he stopped to greet everyone we encountered. He was on first name basis with them all. Each exchange, true to the English, began with the weather and went on to hold his attention for several minutes. I named his walks his “Chat Walks.” The name stuck! Soon my grandmother took to rising from the breakfast table with the words, “Jimmy, time for your Chat Walk, take the grandchildren!”

 

BOBBY SHAFTO Part 2 of 2

Ten years passed during which time the ditty continued to spread. From County Durham, it spread into the neighboring counties. It was passed on by word of mouth by both rich and poor. It quickly reached neighboring county Yorkshire where the mythically wealthy Anne Duncombe lived. Along with many others, she sang it in her youth. By the time that she reached marriageable age she still harbored a secret desire for this bonnie man with romantic silver buckles. The song continued its popularity slowly spreading across the land. It even made its way across The Irish Sea to as far away as Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland[vi]

Thus, it was that when Bobby Shafto returned to England, he found a land replete with women hankering for him. Each hoped that Bobby Shafto’s “silver buckles” meant he was rich and the promise ‘He’ll come back and marry me,” applied to them. He enjoyed his popularity and outlaid the small sum that he had managed to accumulate during his travels to set himself as the desirable bachelor he had become. For the following three years, he moved from place to place wooing women and enjoying his eligible status even though he began to find that once his true net worth became known most of his targeted women’s families told him to move on. Anne Duncombe’s family were different as the size of their fortune immunized them from financial concerns. Bobby liked Anne’s youthful innocence and told her that he was in love. They became engaged.

During Bobby’s absence, Bridget’s parents died leaving her an independent heiress. She felt happy in this state as she was now mistress of her own destiny. She kept up her vigil for Bobby’s return and continued to sing her song. Every day she rode to the glade where she, and Bobby had always met. Here she dismounted to sit and wait. When she heard rumors of Bobby’s return, she increased her vigil. Her doctors advised her to stop lingering in this damp dell. They told her that it was probably the cause of her consumption and most certainly aggravating it. She refused to move to a warmer dry climate to treat her ailment for she knew in her heart that her Bobby would return as he had promised and wanted to be there to meet him. When she heard that Bobby had been seen in Yorkshire wooing Anne Duncombe, her resolve faltered, and she arranged for a trip to London to seek treatment.

Meanwhile, Anne’s youth and fortune reminded Bobby of Bridget. The closer they came to their wedding date the more his old memories of Bridget intensified. He decided that the only thing that he could do was to see Bridget. He traveled north to County Durham, and on the day after his arrival at Whitworth Hall rode out to their meeting place. She was not there so he continued on to Brancepeth Castle. On hearing that she learned of his engagement and had left for London, he followed her with urgency. It was the speed which he now knew he ought to have used on the day of his return to England.

It was here that Bobby Shafto and Bridget Belasyse reconnected. She lay decoratively on a couch and gasped when she saw him. His years in India had aged him, giving him, mature good looks and he still wore his silver buckles. He was in for a greater shock for he hadn’t been prepared to find her pale and thin. They sat together talking until one of her coughing spells exhausted her that her nurse suggested that she ought to return to bed. Bobby swept her up in his arms and carried her to her chamber. When she was in his arms, he was amazed how light she had become. Now his feelings for her intensified, and he knew that he had always loved her.

“Let’s get married.” He suggested.

“Yes.” she responded, “But you have to know that I am dying.”

“But you are not going die.” He shook his head “We’ll help you get the best treatment.” He smiled weakly as he gently stroked her icy cold hand.

“If we did get married …….’ Bridget paused, “if we did, and I died, you’d get everything.” She attempted a smile, “It’d be my gift to you, and I’d much prefer it going to you than to my cousin.” She sank back on her pillows and closed her eyes.

Bobby turned to the nurse, his eyes asked, “What now?”

“She needs to rest.” said the nurse, “Come back tomorrow.”

Bobby stood and lent over to kiss her damp forehead “My only love.” He murmured. “I’ll be back, I’ve learned my lesson I promise; I’ll be back.”

The next day, April 6th 1774, Bobby returned. He was greeted by a front door sporting a black wreath. Bridget had died during the night. The cousin had already materialized and taken over the household. He met Bobby at the door and told him that he was not welcome.

Bobby mourned for a couple of days and then pulled himself together and returned to Anne. On April 18th 1774, two weeks after Bridget’s death Bobby Shafto and Anne Duncombe were married. Their union, by all accounts a happy one, was blessed with children and greatly improved the Shafto holdings for decades to come. They played Bridget’s song at the wedding. Bobby let Anne believe that it was in her honor.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

 

[vi] Some believe that the Bobby Shafto song relates to a Bobby Shafto who lived in Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland and died in 1737.

BOBBY SHAFTO Part 1 of 2

Recently I heard about a question on a game show which went: “Who wore silver buckles on his knees?” The answer, which I was proud to know, was: “Bobby Shafto.” The question made me think about the Bobby Shafto ditty which goes as follows:

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

The still popular song dates from the early 1700s and is now played as a nursery rhyme. It has several conflicting explanations. I delved into these and offer this story as my interpretation of what might have happened. I give it in two installments.

***********************

Bridget Belasyse[i] lived in Brancepeth Castle[ii]. She sat gazing out of her window while her maid combed and braided her long blond hair. It was a crisp north of England morning. Birds sang, and light mists tinged with pink hung over the verdant surrounding fields. Her window faced east toward Durham City. city with its ancient castle and cathedral hidden from view in the valley of the River Wear valley. To her left was the village of Brancepeth and if she turned right and strained, she could see Whitworth Hall across the rolling countryside.

Bridget knew that the castle had been purchased by her warring grandfather and often wished that she had been born a man so that she could partake in this kind of gallantry and adventure. The closest that she had come to war was in 1745 when she was ten, and the English army led by The Duke of Cumberland raged through the countryside on their way north to Scotland to annihilate ‘The Jacobite Rising’ led by the romantic figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie[iii]. What took Bridget’s imagination was not the ruthless defeat of the rebellion but the romantic story of Flora MacDonald, a Scottish highland lass, who had aided the Bonnie Prince to escape abroad. Bridget knew that in the same situation, she would have done likewise.

It was now spring of 1760, and Bridget had just turned twenty-five, rather too old to still be unmarried, but she was headstrong and insisted that she wouldn’t marry “just anyone’’. She pointed out that her idol of feminine achievement, Flora MacDonald, hadn’t married until she was twenty-eight. She said that there was still plenty of time. Those who knew her agreed that, with her fortune and astonishing good looks, there probably was, plenty of time.

Her hair finished. She donned a bonnet and called for her velvet cloak. She went outside and walked with a resolute stride to St. Brandon’s church. Her ostensive mission was to welcome Thomas Goodfellow Shafto, the new rector. When she entered the church, its cool presence reminded her of her belief in God. She hastily curtsied and took a pew to kneel and pray. Beside the altar she could see two men conversing. Their voices echoed but strain as she did, she could not make out their words. She deduced that the one wearing a cassock must be the new rector and the other? The other, tall blond with a relaxed easy stance – surely that was Bobby, his brother. She knew that Whitfield Hall which she saw from her window was their family home, but she had never met the brothers. They had been raised in London where their father had served as politician and Member of Parliament[iv]. When Bridget began to feel uncomfortable in her strained eaves-dropping stance, she slipped out of the church unannounced. The two at the altar heard her retreating footsteps and smiled as they watched the church door close behind her.

“I hear that’s a feisty one” remarked Thomas.

‘One of the Belasyse from the castle?”

“The Belasyse, – If I’m not mistaken that was Bridget. She is monied – no other children – Her parents are elderly, she will get the entire estate when her parents die!”

“Worth a visit?”

“Yes indeed!”

The following morning Thomas and Bobby paid a visit. For some reason, Bridget blushed when her butler announced their presence. She wasn’t sure whether it was something about their voices in the church, or the easy self-assured way that Bobby had stood in the church which had intrigued her and now made her blush. She was still pink when the two entered her drawing room. She served small cakes and tea, acquired, she explained, through her father’s trading with the East India Company. They exchanged pleasantries. She mentioned that she liked to ride. Bobby was quick to follow up on her comment with an offer to accompany her. For the first time in her life, Bridget was attracted to a man. She heartedly accepted. The attraction appeared to be mutual. The young couple quickly fell into a routine of riding together every morning. They adopted a wooded dell, half way between Brancepeth and Whitworth Hall, as their meeting place. The place was damp and beautiful. That spring the ground was carpeted with blue bells. Their brilliant color spread in wonderous beauty under the trees giving the place an ethereal smell of damp earth and blossom.

Both Bridget’s and Bobby’s parents disapproved of their bludgeoning romance. Bridget’s because they wanted Bridget to marry a titled man of good means, and Bobby’s because they wanted Bobby to parley his good looks and charm into a relationship with an heiress to a fortune larger than Bridget’s. Both sets of parents agreed that a separation was required, but by the time they took action Bridget and Bobby had exchanged troths. Bridget gave Bobby a pair of silver britches or knee buckles and Bobby had sworn eternal love and marriage. Bridget’s mother called on the Shaftos at Whitworth Hall and requested that Bobby leave her daughter alone. She offered introductions to enable him to go to sea and ‘shape up’ as she put it, by engaging in meaningful work.

Bobby was attracted to the idea of getting rich quickly and agreed to join the East India Company and to ship out to India. He and Bridget met under their meeting place trees and exchanged a long farewell during which they repeated their vows of constancy and eternal love. They knew that they faced a long separation for the voyage to India alone, around the Cape, took about a year.

In order to thwart her parent’s attempts to pair her off with other suitors Bridget created a comforting song. She took an older north of England tune (circa 1690) and set her own words to it. Every morning, rain or shine, she opened her window and gazed east while she sang her catchy ditty.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

During the day her parents and servants often heard her singing to the ramparts of the castle. She sang to the woods and dells around Brancepeth until everyone knew her refrain. Soon the servant girls took up the song. Some sang of upcoming nuptials, others of temporary separations. The song gained in popularity as it gradually passed from village to village. No-one changed the essence of the first verse for perhaps they liked the ring of Bonnie Bobby Shafto or maybe preferred anonymity for their loved ones. Some added verses to suit their particular circumstances.

There was this verse dedicated to a tall lover:

Bobby Shafto’s tall and slim,
He’s always dressed so neat and trim,
The ladies they all kick at him,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Others with shorter beaus added this verse:

Bobby Shafto’s fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He’s my love for evermore,

Bonny Bobby Shafto.

To be continued.

***********************

End notes associated with this part.

[i] Belasyse, pronounced ‘bel- asis’.

[ii] Brancepeth Castle, originally constructed in Norman times, was purchased on April 7th 1701 by Sir Henry Belasyse, Bridget’s grandfather. He used funds accumulated during his military career.

[iii] In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II of England, landed in Scotland to lead a catholic claim to the throne known as the Jacobite Rising. The rebellion was defeated by William Duke of Cumberland. Bonnie Prince Charlie, as the ‘pretender’ was affectionately called by his followers, escaped with assistance of a local highland lass, Flora McDonald.

[iv] John Shafto Member of Parliament 1729-1742.

[v] Some believe that the Bobby Shafto song relates to a Bobby Shafto who lived in Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland and died in 1737