MANGO MEMORIES

Although they found the community zip line broken the children and their grandparents chatted happily and waved sticks during their pedestrian descent. The path meandered down a mountainside overlooking a dark Honduran tropical jungle ravine. They were content for the hot mid-day sun diminished jungle terrors of large predator snakes, raucous bird song, and howling monkeys. At a turn, they came upon a wild mango tree. They gathered ripe fruit. At home the grandmother prepared it, and they ate.

The following day they were back shaking branches to gather more fruit. The mango aroma mingled pleasantly with the musty dampness of the jungle. This was Eden. Occupants in an overlooking residence came outside and stood in a gawking row, as though they considered gathering mangoes a forbidden activity. The fresh crop was taken home, peeled, prepared and consumed. All was well.

Three days later, the grandmother began to scratch an annoying, supposed, insect bite on her jaw. A couple of days later, it was swollen and spread across her face. It progressively proliferated; neck, chest, arms, legs, a veritable itchy red mess. She analyzed the last week in an attempt to identify something unusual, – a cause of this allergic reaction. Then she hit upon it – the mango.

Dr Google helped. Yes, mangoes contain Urushiol in their skins. This is the same allergen found in poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac as well as traces in pistachios and cashews. Grandmother’s problem was a prolonged exposure, including residues lurking on clothing and jewelry. We conclude this story with a praise for steroids and time, which work their combined magic in dispelling itchy eruptions. We add grandmother’s suspicion of a minor biblical error for the tropical Eden forbidden fruit is, surely, the mango not the apple.

Time – a poem by LEMS

The other day I was  going through some of my father’s old papers and came across this poem which my mother, LEMS (Lucy Edith Mary Stansfeld, wrote. It was dedicated to him. It appears to have been written in 1968 shortly before she died. I  find it beautiful and moving, worth of being shared. I regret that I didn’t know that she was writing at that time so that I could have discussed it with her.

My purse is nearly empty – this my pain,
to eek the few base coins that still remain.
How prodigal the shining gold I spent
thoughtless, thriftless, and incontinent
And there is none on whom to blame my loss,
this was no crock-of-gold to turn to dross,
But amply and sufficient from my birth
what I have wasted could supply this dearth.
TIME is the currency, DEATH the empty purse
few had more coin, and few have used it worse.
Tip in my hand my last poor pence, weigh my finds,
open my palm to look again – the brightness blinds!
All that was scant and dirty, base and old,
the alchemy of love has turned to gold!

Ski Romance

Amie loved skiing. She was always passionate about her loves, and this one began when she was in elementary school. It intensified every year. When she graduated from high school, her parents suggested that she take a ‘gap’ year to pander to her appetite for the slopes and to help her forget her high-school sweet-heart who ditched her after prom. Her parents managed to get her a waitress position including accommodation, in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Amie arrived in Colorado in mid-September. She had never visited the State in the fall and was greeted by a land of color instead of the white wonderland of winter. She immediately texted her best friend, Betty.

“Hey, Bets, Wish you were here. It’s beautiful. Bet you’ve never seen aspen in their fall color. Pic attached, It’s better than that Nat Geo article Mrs. X made us study last year. So much gold; and the silver bark adds to the image. All this haloed by giant rock outcroppings and dark evergreens. Even though it is too early for snow I’m off to inspect the slopes on Sunday – hope that it swarms with unattached handsome men. LOL, A.”

As planned Amie took the Sunday gondola up to the lowest ski lodge and staging area. Although she was accustomed to ski lifts, she found the ride scary. She kept thinking about a dramatic rescue which and been shown on national TV in which a passenger moved down the open wires to rescue a boy hanging by his back-pack. The support system struck her as precarious – one small connector between gondola and cables and a fifty-foot plunge to the slopes below.

She was relieved when she arrived at the top and walked briskly through the building to view the slopes beyond. A grassy green carpet surrounded by brilliantly colored trees spread out from the building. Visitors dawdled on a paved veranda at the top of the swale and gazed at a sole moose. The magnificent animal, with his head of multi-pointed antlers and large hanging dewlap under his chin pawed the ground and returned his audience’s stare. A park ranger stood between the animal and the spectators making sure that no-one got too close. Cameras snapped wildly. Amie overheard the ranger explaining to a group of boys that the moose is the most dangerous animal in Colorado. Unlike the black bear that avoids people, the moose is fearless and will charge at random. When it ambled sedately into the trees, the ranger waved his hand and allowed visitors to walk across the swath of green to a pedestrian trail leading up the mountain.

Amie followed the crowd. The wind was blowing up the mountainside through the trees. It roared like the sea as it swayed the evergreens. It rustled the stands of aspen whose brilliant golden-yellow leaves danced making a noise like rain upon water. Many of the leaves detached and floated onto the footpath and branches of the evergreens. Amie took photographs of this golden snow. By now, she was feeling tired and so, when she saw a bench next to the path, she sat down. She took a long drink from her water bottle, proud of herself in her knowledge that altitude adaptation requires the body to make more blood and needs extra water to do this. She took out her phone and texted a picture to Betty.

“It’s beautiful, would be even better if there were some beaus around! Feeling tired, must be the altitude. LOL, Amie”

She felt comfortable on her bench and watched other visitors walk by as they also enjoyed the well-used trail. She exchanged greetings with them and shared friendly comments on the beauty of the aspen. Gradually, she felt a presence next to her and turned to find that she was sharing her bench with an attractive young man of her own age. She deduced that she must have dozed off and not noticed his arrival.

“Hi,” he offered a gloved hand, “I’m Chas. I hope that you don’t mind sharing this bench with me.”

Sharing, heck no, Amie was happy to have him beside her, she shook his hand and murmured “Amie, pleased to meet you!”

They sat and chatted about the beauty of the fall colors. Then they joined the other visitors hiking up the path. Their conversation never lagged as they talked about skiing and their mutual expectations for the season. When they returned to the bench, they sat next to each-other. Chas took Amie’s hand in his. She already felt at ease with him and rested her head on his shoulder. She must have dozed off again for when she awoke he was gone.

That evening she called Betty and told her about the strange young man who had caused her heart to flutter. She described his tanned face, resolute stride, teasing blue eyes and gentle voice. During the following week, Amie worked learning the ropes of her waitress position and the layout of Steamboat Springs, all the while speculating about Chas and looking forward to Sunday, the only day the gondolas run in the pre-season. When it came she dressed carefully and took her ride.

This time the aspen stood bare and the golden landscape gone. The ground was bathed in a light cover of fresh snow. It silhouetted the bare aspen branches and coated the tops of the evergreen branches of green needles. Amie took photographs to text to Betty and her parents. She hiked up the path. She didn’t want to admit to herself that she was searching for Chas, although she knew that this was her purpose. He was nowhere to be seen. Each time that she saw a man she hurried to scrutinize his face hoping that one of them would turn out to be him. Disappointed, and tired by her exertion, she returned to her bench.

The cloudless sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shone warm melting the snow. She took out a book and began to read. She wasn’t sure when she first felt his presence, for it seemed to invade upon her gently. She turned and smiled. He put his arm around her,

“Been waiting long?”

“Not really,’ she lied ‘I’m glad that you came.”

“Me too.”

They conversed and walked up the path holding hands. She shared some of her innermost secrets with him and found him to be a sympathetic listener. He responded with stories about his youth but omitted to tell her why he was on the slopes. When they returned to the bench, and she cuddled up against his chest eventually dozing off. She awoke with a start as a park ranger shook her.

The sun, in a red sky, was setting behind the building to the west, and she realized that she was cold, very cold.

“It’s time to leave,” said the ranger “you don’t want to miss the last gondola.”

She looked into his friendly face and asked, “The young man who was with me. Did you see him?” The blank look on his face worried her. She went on, “He is tall, very good looking, and is wearing a navy-blue ski jacket and matching pants, both with hot pink stripes on the sides.

“Sounds like Chas!”

“Yes, yes,” she breathed with pleasure, “yes, that’s him, Chas.”

“You must’ve been dreaming. Chas is no longer with us.”

“But’ she stammered ‘he was here, beside me. Yes, what is more, he promised that he is going to ski with me when the slopes officially open.”

The ranger sighed, and touched Amie’s arm again, “My dear young lady. It’s been three years.” He raised his arms in exasperation, “You must remember, at the time it was all over the newspapers; our Olympic hopeful, Chas, died in an unfortunate skiing accident.”

Amie shook her head and turned away to disguise her clouded eyes. The ranger pressed on,

“Don’t you remember the story, just before his big jump he was spooked by a moose and landed wrong.’ He pointed at the bench,

“Look at the plaque on this bench, it carries his name. It was donated by his parents. You’re sitting on his memorial.”

No Ladies First

underground

No ladies first in this diurnal rush,
Like insects, we swarm to red circles,
Each for himself, thrusting, fighting,
Down, onto crowded dim platforms,
Pushing ourselves into gaping monsters,
To stand, or sit, lonely sentinels.
Lives brought momentarily together.
Here, a pair enjoy hints of each other,
Indicating by eye and movement,
Promises of love’s naked intimacy.
But most, eyes behind unseeing stares,
Rocked and stultified in accustomed whir,
Succumb together to soporific swing.
Suddenly, deadened senses jar into recognition,
Sleepy eyes refocus,
We push and shove out of that airless thing,
To join the busy crowd surging upwards,
And fumbling for forgotten tickets,
We heave sighs of relief to emerge into daylight,
And recapture our humanity.

© Copyright, 9/18/16 Jane Stansfeld

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.”

 

 

 

The Big Meeting – a short story

Wendy sat in the hotel room nursing a cup of tea. The tea was warm and sweet. Its warmth was expected and comforting; its sweetness almost too much. Even Wendy, who was always watching her weight, didn’t know why she had stirred in three lumps.  Perhaps she did  it in an expression of hope, her secret hope that today she might see him. Now, as she drank, she regretted that inexcusable act of carefree whimsy. The tea gave her infinitely more pleasure than her view of her husband, Carl. He stood by the window and held the sheer curtain back with his right hand allowing a shaft of light to illuminate his profile of balding head and middle-aged paunch.  He turned and gazed at Wendy and gave a small cough, one of his habits which she disliked. She knew it to be an affectation, some form of implied humility; ironic when he entertained no such sentiment toward her.

“Ahem…. Hey, Wendy, the Sacriston Colliery[1] group just came into view; soon they’ll be crossing Elvet bridge. Isn’t that the mining village which interests you?”

His voice generally carried well; today over the ambient outside noise outside, she could detect his scorn, even though she could hardly make out his words.  She smiled at him interpreting his stare and look of derision; yes, he was admiring her trim figure, her glossy well-kept red hair and her elegant black pant suit, but the look was also ingrained with hatred. She shuddered as she deduced that had someone else been in the room he would have said,

“Look at Wendy! She’s so petty! She would have made someone a real good wife; if only she weren’t sterile.”

What made her smile was, not the predictability of the statement but the irony that it was a false accusation. She knew that Carl was the one who was sterile but couldn’t tell him. It had happened when she was eighteen, long before Carl’s time. A beautiful baby girl conceived in love. At the time, she believed herself to be abandoned by the baby’s father, and so was persuaded by her mother to give up her child for adoption. How she regretted that action, how she longed for just one meeting with the baby’s father, a time when she could punish him for his action in forsaking her and could tell him that she had stolen his child from them both as a form of revenge. Carl had got one thing right she was interested in the Sacriston Colliery for that was his colliery. She secretly hoped to be able to see him among that group of revelers.

She took one last gulp of tea and placed her cup and saucer on a side table and went to the second window in the room. She glanced out. She saw the crowds of happy people, the uniformed bands which were responsible for the noise and the colliery banners colorfully fluttering, held high on their frames. She sighed and put her hand up to shield her eyes hoping for a better view of the Sacriston banner. It was July 1971. They were in a hotel room overlooking Old Elvet in Durham City. The commotion outside was the annual celebration of “Durham Miner’s Gala[2]” referred to by some as “The Big Day” or “Big Meeting”. Carl had selected their room to place them in the epicenter of the festivities for each colliery stopped in the street before the hotel and played a salute to a selection of dignitaries assembled on a second-floor balcony overlooking the street. Carl aspired to be one of the celebrities on the balcony, but his role was more mundane. His contribution was to have assisted in writing the Labor inspired speech that his boss was to deliver to the crowds when they assembled on the Durham Racecourse on the flat grassy banks of the River Wear.

While Carl stood watching the procession, Wendy thought about the start of the parade which now attracted 300,000 people, seven times the normal population of Durham City. In the old days, this gala was the highlight of the miner’s lives. Their special day began before dawn with a march though their Colliery villages; starting at the pit head under the looming shaft lift wheel, through the streets lined with their small red-brick two-up, two-down row houses, the air, laden with the pungent smell of coal dust, stirred by their excitement.

Each parade was led by a uniformed band playing marching tunes on brass instruments and drums. Following the band came the colliery banner made of brightly-colored silk and hoisted high by two men holding either side of a wooden frame. Each was steadied by four guy ropes, two on either side. Behind the banner came the rest of the colliery; men, women and children.

After their local parade, the groups made their way to Durham to gather on the north end of Millburngate. From thence they progressed up The North Road to turn onto Framwellgate bridge with its magnificent view over the green shrouded  River Wear flowing gently around the promontory on which stood the ancient Norman castle and cathedral. Then they funneled up narrow cobbled Silver Street the buildings echoing their music and casting it upward to the sky. At the top of Silver Street, they opened up into the Market Place from whence they turned on to narrower  streets leading down to cross the river again on Elvet Bridge and thence with a slight jog to turn onto to Old Elvet to pause in front of the hotel before continuing on their way to the Racecourse.

Wendy glanced at Carl. Her mouth was still frozen in her false smile. She walked to the door and put her hand on its knob. She had planned her get-away carefully and spoke meekly,

“Would you like to go down and join the crowd?”

He scoffed and shook his head as she knew that he would.

“Then, I think that I’ll go alone; just to get some air.” She said and slipped out.

She hadn’t expected the crowds to be so thick and found it hard to make her way against the general drift of people. She took off her suit jacket to expose her light green shirt thinking that this made her blend in better. The parade was temporarily stalled while a Scottish group, led by bag pipes, performed an Eightsome Reel in front of Carl’s hotel. Several of the bands, including the Sacriston Colliery played “The Bladen Races.’ Wendy knew the chorus and hummed the words to herself.

Ah me lads, ye shud only seen us gannin’,
We pass’d the foaks upon the road just as they wor stannin’;
Thor wes lots o’ lads an’ lasses there, all wi’ smiling faces,
Gawn alang the Scotswood Road, to see the Blaydon Races.

“We are indeed gannin” she thought, “not the Scotswood Road to be sure, but the Racecourse Road. It’s a different kind of race that today’s lads and lasses will see.”

Wendy walked behind  the Sacriston Colliery as they wove their way to the Racecourse. When they paused in front of the hotel, she looked up at the Carl’s window, the curtain hung across it, and he was not there. At the Racecourse, she sat upon the grass among the Sacriston followers. All the time she studied people’s faces looking for that one face that she longed to see. She watched one of the bandsmen drop off his instrument and thought that she recognized him. She watched him shed his uniform and don street clothing. He cut a good figure, strong and muscular; it made her heart palpitate, and she began to perspire. Just as she felt sufficiently in control of herself to approach him, she saw a young girl, with red hair, like her own, run to him and give him a hug. She turned away engulfed by jealousy. When she looked again they were gone. She turned to an old lady with wrinkled skin and bad teeth who sat next to her.

“Was that band’s man with the saxophone Peter?” she asked.

“Sure,” responded the old lady.

‘Do you know him?”

“Sure, know ’em all, that would that be our Peter “

“And the young woman with him, perhaps his wife?”

“Nah, no wife. You can’t be from around here, if you were, you’d know his story. ’Tis a sad one.”

Wendy hesitated before she answered, did she really wish to unearth a sad past? “I’m sort of local I grew up in Shincliffe; I might have even met Peter, oh so long ago at the Durham Ice Rink, but I don’t know his story. Could you tell me?”

The old woman turned and looked at Wendy but her eyes were dim, so she didn’t see Wendy’s tear-laden eyes, or how much she resembled the young woman with Peter.

“It’s like this; you see, years ago before the young ‘un was born Peter fell in love. He was totally consumed by his lassie and told all his buddies about it. He could think of nothing else except his love.” Th old woman paused as she twisted her wedding ring on her finger.

“After several months of blissful courtship, our Peter began to realize that his girlfriend’s mother disliked him intensely. He knew that her aversion was based on class snobbery, and that she felt that her well-educated daughter, whose father taught at the University, was far too good for a poor coal miner like himself. Too bad that wasn’t it?”

“I agree, so what happened?”

“He proposed, and when she accepted they agreed that the best thing that they could do was to elope to Gretna Green. Peter was to borrow a car so that they could drive north through Newcastle and then West through Hexham to Carlisle, and from thence to the Scottish border and Gretna Green. You see that was all they could do.”

“Yes, I see, so what went wrong?”

“Well, they planned to meet, packed and ready to go, one Friday night in the Durham marketplace. Peter arrived early and waited, and waited. She never came. The next day he attempted to contact her but his letters were unanswered, and he couldn’t get past her mother on the telephone. Then she disappeared.”

Wendy shook her head; this was impossible. She remembered. Hadn’t he called and left a message with her mother that he couldn’t make it? Hadn’t he said that he would be in touch, and then never did? What could’ve happened?

“But his daughter?  Where does she fit in?”

The old woman turned again to face her audience. It was seldom that anyone was so attentive to her stories. She was accustomed to people drifting away, but this woman clung to every word.

“The daughter, yes, the daughter is another strange story. She’s adopted you know. Originally, she was adopted by one of Peter’s friends and his wife. But then, as often happens, the young couple conceived. They had twins. They loved their adopted daughter but worried that with their limited miner’s salary, they would have a hard time bringing up three children so close in age. By now little Wendy was a canny wee thing with that marvelous head of red hair. Peter stepped in, said that Wendy reminded him of his one and only true love, and that he would love to become her parent and raise her.”

“And that’s what he did?”

“Yes, and I’ve never seen a man give a child so much love. He didn’t marry, though there’s many a girl ‘as would have had him. He says that he has been blessed by two loves in his life: and that’s the way he intends to keep it.”

[1] Colliery, a coal mine, it’s buildings etc. The Sacriston Colliery refers to the men and their families who work at, and live adjacent to, the coal mine or “pit” at Sacriston.

[2] Gala is pronounced “gerla” in County Durham.

An April Fool – a short story

Edith paused at the door. She could hear laughter inside. She knew what she would see when she opened it. Highlighted by the sun streaming through the window, she would see her classmates giggling together over a joke, or a secret, which they either wouldn’t or couldn’t share with her. She reached up to her chest and touched the tiny bump made by her silver Saint George medallion. It hung around her neck concealed under her uniform tunic and blouse next to her skin. She said a soft prayer to herself. “Saint George, be with me, help me face and fight my dragons!” The Saint George was new; her mother gave it to her to help her combat her feelings of hopeless rejection by her classmates. Her mother, a most practical and generally unspiritual person instructed Edith that when she felt threatened or unhappy she was to remember Saint George and to know that he was there to assist her in fighting her dragons. As she drew upon her strength to open the door, she heard the Durham Cathedral bells chiming nine am followed by bell ringing in the hall. Both heralded a call to class. Edith took a deep breath, clasped the cold door knob and, opened the door. The girls inside the room turned and stared at her. Katie, an attractive athletic blond, and unquestionably the most popular girl in the class, approached her. Katie was the oldest in the class as her eighth birthday was in September. She was tall for her age and towered over Edith, who was naturally small and was almost a year younger with a birthday in August. Katie came close and bent down so that Edith could feel her breath on her cheeks.

“Hey Edith” she said, “you’ve still got your breakfast on your face; it’s even on your blouse!” She giggled and turned to encourage the others to join in. Midst the ensuing laughter, Edith instinctively put her hand up to her face and then looked down at her blouse. Could she have had dirty hands and soiled her clothes when she felt for Saint George?

“I, I didn’t know,” She stammered. “I’ll go to the bathroom.” She glanced at their mocking faces wishing that she could melt into the floor.

“April fool!” yelled the class in unison, “April fool.”

Their teacher came in. The girls stood to attention and greeted her, “Good morning Miss Harrison.” Miss Harrison led them in the Lord’s Prayer and then turned and wrote 1 April, 1953 in bold script on the top of the black chalk-board. Her white chalk made a familiar rasping sound as it passed over the dark surface of the board. Over the course of the morning’s instruction, Edith began to understand the significance of 1 April and that April fool was an acceptable custom reserved for April first. Katie told Miss Harrison that her dress was hitched at the back. Louise said that her mother had fallen and broken an arm. Miss Harrison merely smiled at each comment and told her class that she was not falling for their April fool’s antics.

Edith clutched her wooden desk and traced her finger over the carved initials on its surface. DH, who was DH, she mused. Why would whoever was the carver carve telltale initials on her desk? Edith did her best to concentrate but when Miss Harrison came to math facts, she let her mind wander. She was confident in arithmetic and knew that if she was called upon she would be able to respond without pause. How she wished that she could revert back to those three years spent in the cocoon of a one-room school. It was a place without cliques where the older children helped the younger ones, no-one teased, and there were no April fools. She thought of her teacher, Miss Woods, a tiny woman with wispy grey hair; tweed and long lanky cardigans. Edith, and her eleven or so classmates, thought her to be inconceivably old.

“Edith,” Miss Harrison turned her, she spoke kindly, “Edith, seven eights?”

“Fifty –six” Edith responded without hesitation.

She forced herself to bring her attention back to the present, and now she heard the clank of milk bottles in the hall outside alerting her that it was almost time for morning recess. Again, she mused of the past, her ‘old’ school and to the occasional sound of boy’s voices echoing in the hall outside their cozy room. She remembered how she and the other children always hushed at the sound. They imagined the “Big Boys” of Durham School, where their classroom was located, to be as big as their voices. The Big Boys were creatures almost inhuman in their mysterious, but infrequent comings and goings. Edith smiled to herself, what wouldn’t she give to have one of those Big Boys come to this room to April fool Katie?

Miss Harrison opened the classroom door. She told Zoe, whose desk was next to Edith’s, to distribute the milk bottles which stood in a crate outside. Edith held her bottle and peeled off the aluminum cap. She was glad that it was intact; sometimes they were torn by birds making the milk inside seem even more indigestible.  Edith disliked the milk, but she knew that she was required to drink this unlikely ‘gift’ from the government. She held the bottle up to her mouth and drank. When she finished she realized that the entire class was waiting for her. As they filed out into the hall and from thence outside Katie came up behind her and pinched her arm.

“You couldn’t have done that any slower; you fool.” She hissed. “You’re not only an April fool; you’re an everyday fool!” Katie might have gone on, but as they crowded into the sunshine of the gardens where they were to enjoy their morning recess Katie’s younger sister Kara came up and touched Katie’s hand. Katie’s sneer left her face supplanted by a loving smile. She paused and bent over her sister.

“Hey poppet[1],” she said, “you go and play with your friends. Be good.”

Recess was always held outside. There were no swings or slides in the gardens of their playground. They sloped down to a wall along the River Wear towpath. The children played Cowboys and Indians in the wooded area, ball on the lawns, and hop-scotch on the pressed dirt paths. Edith hated Cowboys and Indians as the unpopular girls got to be Indians, among them the lowest echelon was to be an Indian’s horse. She hated being a horse on the losing Indian side. Today was different, by an unspoken common agreement which Edith did not understand; they congregated along the steep dirt driveway which swept from the school gates down to the school’s main entrance. Generally, there was a member of the teaching staff on duty outside during recess but on this April 1st the girls were unsupervised.

It had rained during the night, and the undergrowth and trees along the narrow drive down to the main school building hung in luxuriant spender, their damp leaves and branches pendulant and laden with moisture, creating a pungent arcade of green. The air, fresh and clean brought the mantle of foliage into brilliant focus. The girls, from kindergarten up gathered along this driveway. Their children’s high pitched chatter drowned the incessant squawking of the rooks that inhabited the trees and were responsible for the white splotches on the ground below.  The excitement was because, in accordance with tradition, the sixth form[2] girls had managed to bring an old bicycle to school. This unlikely piece of equipment was retrieved from the bushes near the gate and used as a conveyance to hurtle down the vegetation and girl-lined narrow drive to come to a stop in front of the school main entrance.

Behind the main entrance, the staff sat in their cozy staff room drinking tea and making small talk. Of course, they knew what was going on outside but did not intervene.  Years ago when the tradition had begun they had rationalized that little harm could come from a bicycle, and a few happy sixth form girls enjoying April fools in front of the rest of the student body. What they might not have known was that the bicycle had no brakes and that the sixth formers rode three abreast their legs splayed out as they gathered momentum during their ride down the steep drive. On each trip, the entire student body clapped in unison. A couple of the staff peeped through their window to get a surreptitious view of the spectacle.

By the fourth pass the youngest children, including Kara were getting bored.  Edith stood near Kara on the south side of the drive, separated from the rest of her class on the north side. Just as the laden bicycle descended Kara decided to make a dash across the direct path of the bicycle to join her sister. She ran across the green-shrouded drive in front of the loaded brakeless bicycle. Edith didn’t think; she reacted. She ran behind Kara and pushed her out of harm’s way.  The effort slowed her down, and the tip of the bicycle handle bars caught her arm. She fell. The  bicycle and it’s three passengers fell on top of her. Her prostrate body made a cushion so that none of the sixth graders was hurt. It was different for Edith, she had no broken bones only cuts and bruises and an ego more damaged than by the humiliation of April fool jokes.

In the uproar which followed someone sagaciously managed to remove the bicycle and conceal it in the abundant green undergrowth, while the entire teaching staff erupted into the driveway.  Katie was by her side.

“You’re not hurt are you?’

Aided by the school nurse Katie encouraged Edith to get up. When Edith stood the nurse ushered her inside to tend to her grazed body. Edit was quiet and refused to cry. She insisted that she did not need her parents to pick her up. Her embarrassment was supreme; all she wanted was to do was to become invisible and hold Saint George in her hand. When she returned to class, Katie sat in Zoe’s desk. She passed a note to Edith. It read, “Cowboys and Indians after lunch? I want you on our team!”

[1] Poppet is a term of endearment used in North-East England.

[2] The 1953 UK lower and upper sixth forms are equivalent to the USA eleventh and twelfth grades.