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.

Tavel to Paradise – a short story

I’m not sure if this is a ‘story’ or if it is more of a narration which attempts to amuse. I’ve  been silent for over two months so I decided to post it to demonstrate that I am still alive and able to type.

Their home is in a secure compound on the side of a tropical mountain overlooking the sea. In many respects, it is a regal site; the sort of place where House Hunters stand and proclaim the view to be worth a million dollars. The downside is that this idyllic place is in remote rural Honduras, itself a country second to Haiti on the bottom of the Latin American poverty scale.  The night is dark illuminated by moon and stars without the light pollution of affluent places. Gull and tropical bird squawks, permeated by an occasional gruesome howl of a howler monkey, herald dawn as light pushes back shadows. The ocean is there in all its majesty; at the house, it appears as a blanket stretched to the horizon. It is silent because the mountainside drops off to the coast with a steep ravine masking the sound of the waves on the shore. At this magical moment, my husband and I, visiting grand-parents, stand on the veranda and gaze across a lawn of yellow daisies to a low bed of tropical plants silhouetted against the misty waters of the Caribbean.  At dusk, we stood in this identical place and witnessed fireflies dancing upon this same lawn. Now the rays of the rising sun highlight the verdant verge and then sunlight creeps slowly across the lawn illuminating everything in sequence with exotic intensity.

At six sharp the peace of the morning is shattered by Madi and Josiah’s cries as they let their adults know that they are awake and wish to rise with the sun. We change diapers and take them for a walk to enjoy the cool morning air. It is pleasant at eighty degrees. We know that the maturing day will become so hot and humid that our hair will drip with perspiration, and our clothes become damp and clammy. Presently, the children’s parents arise and the house fills with activity as breakfasts are eaten and the day’s agenda discussed.

Shortly before eight a bevy of girls climbs the steep road up to the house. They sit in a row on a concrete roadside stoop and discuss their work in hurried Spanish. These are the Honduran maids who will baby-sit the children who live on this compound while their parents work. They came by bus along the dirt pothole-pocked road and climbed the steep compound road up to the houses. At eight, they disperse: each going to her employer. Sandra enters Madi and Josiah’s house in time for their parents to leave for work. Today each parent mounts a motorcycle to take the short drive down the ravine and back up the side of an adjacent ravine to the hospital where expectant patients are waiting. The waiting room will be crowded with people who came by bus, foot, three wheeled ‘taxi” and donkey to see a doctor.

While the doctors work their clinic, a Honduran maid from a home further along the steep road arrives with a three-year-old girl. She is Madi’s age and a good playmate. For a while, the two Honduran maids watch the children play, and then they escort the girls and Josiah up the hill to another house. We, the grand-parents are alone for a hiatus of silence as we finish the various tasks which we have undertaken during our visit. We also pack; for today, we are all going to Paradise Bay on Roatan. By ten thirty, the two maids are back and now there are there little girls. The girls perch on tall stools arranged in a neat row before the kitchen island. Sandra serves them an elaborate ‘snack’ which looks more like lunch. The girls’ chatter as they eat. After their food, the girls go out on the veranda to play and Josiah stays inside to kick a ball.

He kicks the ball across the room and runs after it his face illuminated with pleasure. He is eighteen months old, but he has already mastered an expert kick. He kicks with his bare right foot which he curves as he hits the green ball giving it a lift into air before it hurdles across the floor with the boy running behind. He has not seen professional sports; his kick is innate not imitative. We wonder if one day he might become an NFL kicker. If he does we intend to quote his early start, his prolonged practicing. His concentration is intense and his pleasure obvious as he runs behind his ball anticipating the next kick. We marvel at the length of his play. This child has no attention deficit! We think that this characteristic is an asset but will change our minds later in the day.

At noon, the two additional girls are escorted home. I prepare macaroni and cheese; Madi, and Josiah eat with gusto. We put Josiah down for a nap. He sleeps. By two pm, the children’s parents arrive home. Both are stressed by the problems encountered in the clinic. In particular, Isaac talks about a young man who came in for prostate follow-up visit and manifested an infected eye. Isaac reports that the infection is so acute that the patient will probably lose vision in this eye, and maybe the eye itself. A follow-up visit, after our return to the USA, reveals the problem to be an infestation of Bot-fly parasites. Isaac reports the removal of three live ones from the man’s top and bottom eyelids. Anne’s problem is a small boy for whom she sewed up a lacerated foot while observing that all his infant teeth were gone, and his gums seriously infected. Anne reports that the mother told her that her son wouldn’t let her clean his teeth. Anne tries to develop a strategy for an intervention to save the child’s future prospects for his adult teeth. Stress is contagious; the final packing time is fraught with tension.

At last, bags are packed and placed in the truck; children loaded, and adults seated. We are off. The road to La Ceiba is a winding coastal dirt road full of potholes. Isaac swerves from side to side as he attempts to avoid the deepest indentations and ruts. Josiah is strapped into his car seat American-style. He hates it. Perhaps he cannot understand why he has to be harnessed on this trip when he was given freedom to roam the cab during his ride with his father to the gas station the previous evening. He complains with squirms and wails. Anne attempts to console him without success. It is a pity that he cannot see the beautiful scenery surrounding that treacherous road. Mountains clad in tropical vegetation, brief glimpses of ocean, oil palm groves, sprouting fence stakes, men harvesting with machetes, roadside horses and cows, scrawny dogs and chickens and simply clad Honduran people. We pass through small settlements consisting of tiny Adobe homes with outside plumbing and kitchens. We cross one-lane bridges occasionally having to wait while opposing traffic consisting of laden motorcycles making their crossing. We can see down into the river where women wash their clothes. Josiah screams and sees none of this.

After an hour or so, I try not to count, outside the town of Jutiapa, we encounter another obstacle. The road is cordoned off; uniformed armed men stand on either side. They start to pull the truck over, but then there is a moment of recognition, and we are waved on. I ask myself whether our unhindered passage is in response to the ‘Hospital Loma de Luz” Red Cross sticker on the doors of the truck, or a more subtle reaction to a vehicle full of gringos and vociferously wailing young child. We cross another long narrow bridge and traverse Jutiapa with its open shops and crowded streets. I notice one block-long queue of people. Isaac explains that this is the line waiting to enter the bank. At the corner, I see an armed guard at the bank’s entrance; he is checking someone’s papers. We pass on.

Now the road is paved; there are still potholes, but they are less frequent and Isaac is unable to swerve into the oncoming lane due to an increase in traffic. Josiah still cries. At least, we are over half way, and I hope, nay trust, that Josiah’s worst performance is drawing to a close. Little did I know how vain this hope would proove. The ferry crossing between La Ceiba and Roatan is notoriously rough and so Isaac and Anne prepare by administering  dramamine to their children and themselves. Indeed, Anne, pale and exhausted, possibly in response to Josiah’s crying, or maybe swerving road and potholes, says that she is already nauseous.

At the ferry pier in La Ceiba, we unload. Dan buys tickets. We treat ourselves to first class; for an additional five dollars, this luxury promises an air-conditioned upper deck with vinyl cushioned chairs and free drinks. We wait in the ticket lounge while Isaac parks the truck. Madi and Josiah run up and down the cordoned ticket lines. A pistol-bearing official asks that they stop. I have a hard time making them obey for the cordoned lines are empty, and the request seems unreasonable; however, an armed official is to be obeyed. Anne captures Josiah and changes his very dirty diaper on the floor by the window. The same guard approaches and suggests that we may progress into the inside waiting room. I suspect that his suggestion is to evict us from his space. We comply.

When we are invited on board the ferry we settle comfortably into the first class lounge. An attractive “hostess” brings us our “free” drinks. Josiah and Madi play among the rows of chairs. The crew cast off.  We watch the shore recede behind us. When we move into the open waters of the crossing, the ferry begins to heave. The hostess passes out “barf-bags.” The deck is too unstable to walk upon. Dan cradles Madi. Her Dramamine is working, and she falls asleep in his arms. Isaac cradles Josiah, who remains very much awake. He squirms, struggles and screams. He has already put in almost an hour and a half of crying today. I ask myself whether it is possible that he can keep this up for long. In our long-off days of parenting, our children never went longer than twenty minutes. I should not have questioned for this boy, who can kick a ball around the room for half an hour, can yell incessantly for three. He screamed the entire one and a half hour cruise. A baby’s cry has a quality which demands adult intervention but Josiah’s gradually blends into the overall ambient noise of the ferry’s engines, and I can almost con myself into ignoring it. At one point, when the deck was heaving its worst, I look across the rows of empty chairs to a pair of fellow travelers on the other side. The gentleman returns my gaze, and we both smile. I take his smile to be one of the empathy; mine is one of embarrassment.

We reach Roatan without having to use the barf bags. The moment that we dock and the boat stops swaying; Josiah smiles, and wiggles out of his father’s embrace to join the crowd as though nothing has bothered him. We claim our bags. That is we attempt to claim our bags. The problem is that through the general kerfuffle we seem to have mislaid our claim tickets. When all the other passenger’s bags are dispensed, we are given ours. A porter locates us and steers us to a taxi. It is a small vehicle, and he straps our luggage into the trunk with a bungee cord. We pile in. Perhaps fortunately there is no baby car seat and so Josiah is not strapped in and does not wail. He seems unaffected by his performance of the afternoon and evening. I expect that he won’t remember a thing, but I shall.

It is now dark; the road twists and turns up and down the Roatan coast. About half way we pass the cruise ship dock. We see a Norwegian ship at dock. It’s brilliantly lit decks glisten several stories above the buildings on shore. This is Roatan’s income source. They come to snorkel and dive along Roatan’s famous coral reef, and to enjoy her sparkling sandy tropical beaches. We arrive at The West Beach Lodge without further incident and are shown to our rented condominium. By now, it is well past Maddi and Josiah’s bed-time. We eat a quick dinner in the open air lodge dining area; and hasten to put the children to bed. As we chase each other around the condominium, we realize that between dining area and condominium someone stood in a dog turd. Dan and I chased around with paper towels. Our administrations have little effect until we deduce that more than one person has contaminated feet. We encourage everyone to shed their shoes. We expect to sleep soundly in preparation for a glorious day on Paradise beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Triangle- a short story.

The three friends often met at The King’s Head, in Earl’s Court for a “Thank God it’s Friday’ drink.  On this occasion, it was a chilly London day, in May 1972, so they huddled before the gas fire as they sipped their beer. Their conversation began with the English obligatory comments about the weather and how unseasonable this wet cold spell was. They then drifted to their usual exchange of workweek anecdotes. Michael amused them with animated tales of his solicitor clients, Kevin of his investment clients, and Joyce of her architectural ones. Their shared woes of their work weeks brought them to the topic of, what they agreed, was their collective need for a restorative vacation.

They had all been in their positions long enough to qualify for time off, so when Kevin suggested that they went to Ireland for a week together, Joyce and Michael applauded the idea. By their third drink, they had their strategy made. They planned to go to Ireland crossing on the Fishguard to Roslare ferry. They would take Michael’s car, Kevin’s tent and camping equipment and Joyce’s cooking pots and picnic basket. They agreed that serendipity was in order. Their only precise itinerary was to travel in a clockwise rotation around southern Ireland ending up in Dublin where they would take the Dublin to Liverpool ferry, or perhaps push on south and take the Roslare / Pembroke or Roslare to Fishguard ferry back. It sounded like fun. Happy and pleased with themselves; they adjourned to Joyce’s place for a sobering cup of  coffee before Kevin, and Michael left to take the tube to their respective flats.

The first problem arose when Kevin called Michael to tell him that his office had refused to give him vacation time, and that he was unable to accompany his friends. Joyce and Michael had already obtained vacation approvals, and so they decided that the trip was still on. Neither of them asked to borrow the camping equipment as the weather forecast was dismal, and they agreed that bed and breakfasts would be more comfortable. The trip without Kevin’s equipment was going to be fine. Losing Kevin was different. The worst part was Michael’s belief that Joyce had gone behind his back and spoken to Kevin to persuade him that she needed to have Michael alone.  Joyce, who was in love with Michael, hoped the opposite. She deduced that Michael was coming around, and had spoken to Kevin telling him that he wanted Joyce to himself. She even hoped that Michael might have a ring and proposal in mind. They did not discuss their suspicions.

The second problem arose when Joyce and Michael arrived at Michael’s uncle and aunt’s home in Cardiff where they intended to spend the night before they went on to Fishguard for the ferry. Perhaps Michael wanted to show off, possibly he was merely thoughtless, but at this juncture, he raised a few eyebrows when he told his relatives that he, and Joyce would share a room. This surprised and pleased Joyce, who had not expected this development. She smiled and acquiesced in the arrangement. She felt sure that it was a good sign. She hoped that it indicated that a proposal might be forthcoming. After dinner, they walked to the nearest pub where Michael drank heavily. When they returned to bed, he didn’t look at Joyce but merely passed out. Joyce lay next to him and watched him snoring. She desperately tried to surmise what went on in his devious mind.

The following day they took the ferry and started their Irish tour. The weather was, as forecast, dismal, grey and wet. The light rain just enough to mask the landscape, and compromise any sightseeing that Joyce and Michael might have hoped for. That evening, damp and disappointed, they took to the nearest pub. It was an Irish pub of the best caliber, and soon everyone was singing. Someone brought out a harmonica and another of the patrons a pair of spoons with which he added to the music. Michael joined in with gusto. As the evening wore on Joyce noticed, with alarm, that he was flirting outrageously with the bar maid and when not loitering at the bar talking to her he seemed to be enjoying pinching everyone’s bottoms. This included the men who took the attention with smiles but made it obvious that they were irked. The only bottom which didn’t get pinched was Joyce’s. At closing time Joyce assisted Michael back to their room where he, filly clothed, he collapsed into sleep.

By now, Joyce was becoming anxious. Michael remained good company and attentive during the day but in the evening he drifted from her side and gave his attention to anyone who would listen to him. Joyce, still under the delusion that he had intentionally manipulated to be alone with her, wondered why he was avoiding intimacy. It never crossed her mind that Michael felt that she had manipulated the entire trip so that she could give him an opportunity to propose. By now, she was sure that he knew that she adored him. She hoped that her tolerance of his ungentlemanly behavior proved her devotion.

When they arrived in County Clare, they visited the cliffs of Moher. The weather was drier, enabling them to spend the day enjoying the sea and magnificent rock faces plunging through the waves below. Joyce was miserable enough to fleetingly consider jumping off the steep edge to plunge into the beckoning turbulence of the foaming seas. Michael seemed relaxed and happy. At sunset, they found a bed and breakfast and checked in for ‘several’ days agreeing that more walking, and less driving were in order. Joyce hoped that this was going to be the breakthrough of the vacation. She was wrong. That evening Michael flirted with a scantily dressed girl in the pub and eventually left with her. At closing time, Joyce walked back to their bed and breakfast alone. She spent the night in agony wondering where Michael was. In her misery, she made a decision.

This was Joyce’s moment of epiphany; she had realized that Michael was a cad. His behavior gave an unequivocal message that he didn’t love her and that their relationship meant nothing to him. Joyce responded to her revelation by deciding that she was going home immediately. But how could she do this? She was stuck on the West Coast of Ireland in a remote spot, and since they were using Michael’s car, she was without transport. The next day was Sunday, so she knew that there would be no public transport. She was undeterred, and in the morning announced to the bed-and-breakfast dining room that she desperately needed a ride. She begged for a lift to anywhere where she could pick up public transport. Eventually, a woman and her husband offered to take her to Dublin when they left that evening. Their only proviso was that Joyce would share the back seat with their poodle. Joyce accepted with thanks. She told herself that she had been traveling with a dog for her entire trip; it made their proviso ironically logical.

Later that morning Michael appeared; he was flushed with animated joy. Joyce wondered whether his happiness was because he felt the burden of resolving his relationship with her was solved, or that he had genuinely fallen in love with his Coleen; She suspected that he didn’t know. When he saw Joyce, he was apologetic and begged her to stay. He insisted that they go to church together so that he could be cleansed his sins. Joyce accompanied him. She watched him pray and even wondered whether his remorse was genuine. She suspected that it was but thanks to her epiphany, she knew that he’d do it again. When she left, Michael waved her off and stayed on.

The red barn and the mad sheep – a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jane Stansfeld, November 8, 2015

Pirates of Roatan- a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow?” she questions unabashed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecstasy – a poem

 We have all had a moment,
Hoarded, savored in memory,
A brief passage of extreme joy.
We treasure the happening
Cling to it throughout life.
It’s euphoria induced by;
An achievement, award
Victory, recognition, love.
Mine haunt to this day,
The high after the birth.
I held her in my arms
I floated in ecstasy,
A feeling so intense that,
When the second child was born
I remembered and cried out,
“Where is my high?”
I was happy, but
A re-occurrence never came.
So I save that singular moment
Retain it as my life’s apex.  

© Copyright, July 2015, Jane Stansfeld