Alex’s Dilemma

A red convertible wove down a twisting narrow road leading to the beach access point. Alex drove. He was fond of this car, which had been his wife’s before the event. He knew that he would have to sell it soon; however, now he was intent on experiencing a communion associated with her last actions. At the secluded parking area, he reversed into the same corner that she had parked. He closed the convertible top and left the keys in the ignition, as she had done. He made sure that the doors were not locked as she must have done.

He took the narrow path which led to the shore. When he reached the top of the first dune, he paused to look back at the car. The green marine dune grasses contrasted with its brilliant red paint drawing his eye to its singularity. He wondered whether she had paused and looked back as he did now. Had she seen the same scene?

He continued to follow the footpath which he thought to be very narrow and sandy. A sheep bleated at him as it ambled out of his way, and a lone bird rose to the sky with a warning call. He didn’t hear the ocean until he scrambled over the third band of dunes. When they gave way to the shore, he paused to catch his breath. He scanned the beach, happy that he was the only person there.

He took off his flip-flops and slid down the sand onto the beach proper. First, he walked to the rocks on the right-hand side of the beach close to the place where he had immerged from the dunes. He recalled that fateful morning and how her pink towelette bathing coverall and shoes had seemed to wink at him from where she had left them on the grey rocks. He walked over and sat upon the rock to immerse himself in his longing and to revel in the transitional magic of the place. He took off his shirt and laid it and his shoes in the same spot that she had placed hers. He looked out across the beach to the rocks at the far end.

He began to walk. He chose to paddle along the edge of the water where the sand was damp and hard. He let his feet draw in the cool moving wetness of the ocean. Occasionally he dodged when a larger wave broke and pushed itself up the beach. Seagulls squawked and flew overhead. Mingled in with their cries he thought that he heard a faint human voice. It came from the ocean – it startled him as he wondered if it could be Monica’s voice. He paused and gazed out to sea. Far away, beyond the inshore capped waves, he imagined that he saw an arm waving. The call from the waters became more distinct,

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

It had been over a week and so logic told him that she couldn’t still be swimming. He waved back, and shouted into the wind,

“I’m here. I love you. What do you want?”

He knew what she wanted, but he had to ask. The wind swallowed his words leaving him a sense of emptiness. Then he heard her voice again,

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

He wondered what would happen if he responded to her call. It came from a long way out. Even if he waded, and then swim he knew that he couldn’t make a round trip. If he swam out until he was exhausted, as they speculated, she had done, what would it be like to find oneself exhausted in deep waters? Would he struggle as he drowned – and what would that be like? Or would he instantly be joined with her again and enter a new existence?

A large wave broke upon the shore splashing his shorts. He turned his attention back to the beach and continued to walk. The gulls seemed to have abandoned him and her voice gone. He concentrated on listening and instead of hearing her voice he heard children’s voices. They weren’t his children but instantly reminded him of his pressing obligation to his sad motherless children.

He longed to be able to tune out the dual calls from inland and sea. He longed for anonymity and peace without responsibility. He tried to concentrate his attention on the shore-line and the path he had chosen along its wet edge. When he reached the end of the beach he turned and began to walk back toward his shoes and shirt. Half way, his toes disturbed something gold mixed among the broken sea shells and sand dollars strewn in the shallow waters. He stooped and picked it up. A wedding ring, he turned it in his hand. Inside it was inscribed

 “Alex & Monica.”

He knew that this was impossible, but no, there it was in his hands. He twirled it over and over and brought it up to his lips and kissed it. He licked his lips savoring the residual salt. He held it in his hand as tightly as Bilbo Baggins and Frodo held theirs. For a while, he stood motionless in astonishment, then he dared to glance off shore. Again, he heard her voice.

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

This time he responded: “But the children, your children?”

He received no answer and continued his walk, all the time wondering what he should do when he reached the end of the beach. Turn left and plunge into the waters to make that last swim to give her back her ring as a symbol of their loving union. He knew that was what she wanted. Her ring felt hot in his hand; pulsating and reminding him of his longing for her warmth and loving embrace. Turn right and trudge back to the pressing responsibilities of life without Monica. Left or right, which was it to be? When he had reached that fatal decision point, he paused happy that he heard no more voices only his own inner voice responding to a ring held tight in his fist.

He turned towards the left; a pause, a deep breath, then, instead of plunging into the waters, he flung the ring out to sea.

“Good-bye for now my darling. I love you, now and for eternity.”

Without further hesitation, he calmly turned right. He retrieved his shoes and shirt and scrambled up over the dunes. The red convertible, bright as ever, was waiting for him to drive home down a twisting narrow road.

ROSAMUND’S SLEEP.

Recently I read an anthology of short stories “What is Not Yours is Not Yours” written by Helen Oyeyemi.  Ms Oyeyemi writes a form of magical realism in which she morphs well known fairy and folk stories into her own modern day renditions. I found the technique fascinating especially as magical realism doesn’t generally appeal to me. The following is my attempt at something similar.  As an experiment I’ve written the mythical part of the story in the present tense. I invite comments.

The sleepy Cotswold village of Kidlington woke up one spring day in 2016 to an unexpected visit of three busloads of Asian tourists. The residents had had their village recorded as the largest Cotswold village; but, apart from this classification, they knew of no particular aspects of their community, which could, or indeed should, attract tourists. Due to an impenetrable language barrier, the villagers are unable to question their visitors and so local speculation ran the gambit.  Their story spread quickly even as additional coaches arrived.  The unexplained events became local if not national news resulting in impromptu coverage by a number of press teams. These individuals took photographs and interviewed residents but were also unable to discover the motivation behind the visits. Their interviews included Rosy, the elderly lady who explained that a tourist had requested permission, in sign language, to use her bathroom and, upon emerging had her companion photograph her standing in front of the porch under a profusion of fragrant pink rose blooms. They interviewed another gentleman who said that his front garden had been photographed repeatedly. The camera shot which covered this interview showed a typical English garden with mounds of flowering rose bushes.

If we backpedal almost 65 years to that same village of Kidlington and step outside the original village boundary we come upon to the grounds of a rich industrialist who built a secluded home for his young wife. He filled his garden with of roses and among the roses is a decorative fishpond. We see his wife sun bathing and dozing beside the pond. She dreams, or is she awake for she talks to a frog? She tells the frog, “Ah, if only we had a child!” to which the frog replies “Your wish shall be fulfilled; before a year has gone by you shall have a daughter.”

Now she sits and gazes into the pond to admire wriggling black tadpoles. She regards them as confirming symbols of fertility. Quickly, she stands, her skirt swirling around her ankles, and runs into her home. She dismisses the servants, and prepares a meal for her husband. When he arrives home, she greets him with a kiss, and they dine over champagne. They retire to their bedchamber to make ardent love throughout the night. In the morning, she tells him that she knows that their joint wish is fulfilled, and that she is carrying their daughter.

Of course she is right and in due course, the industrialist’s wife gives birth to a girl who is so pretty that the industrialist decides to throw a celebratory feast at her baptism.  He draws up a list of guests and includes their ten closest female relatives. His wife hesitating points out that there is another, eleventh relative who lives in the Outer Hebrides. She is a bad-tempered reclusive old maid who always has a mean word on her lips. The happy new parents rationalize that as she lives so far away she would never come to their celebration. They decide that even an invitation would be wasted on her. Besides, says the practical wife and mother, “We only have twelve Royal Crown Derby dinner services for the high table.”

The baptism goes smoothly with Rosamund, the baby, dressed in a ridiculously long hand-smocked white dress. The ensuing feast is a great success, and when the baptismal cake is cut and speeches made each of the ten female relatives bestows a special gift. The first gives an engraved bible to symbolize virtue. The second gives an heirloom set of carved ivory brushes and combs for her boudoir to symbolize her beauty. The third gives a shining pearl necklace to symbolize riches. The fifth an engraved silver mug to symbolize sobriety, and so on around the table. Just before the tenth stands to make her gift, the guests hear the sound of brakes squealing, a door slamming and in walks the Hebrides aunt. Her hair is disheveled, her clothing black, and her face screwed into an angry scowl. She strides up to the crèche in which Rosamund sleeps and tosses in a diamond and agate broach. She turns to the parents and, before they can apologize, yells “Your daughter shall, on her sixteenth birthday prick her finger causing her to fall and hit her head and,” she pauses before lowering her angry voice into a throaty snarl, “and die.” She turns and makes a whirlwind exit. The astonished guests hear her car speeding down the drive and away.

The proclamation is followed by a horrified uproar, when everyone speaks at once. She waits a few minutes and then the tenth female relative stands. She gently taps her glass with a fork to get attention for she is mild mannered and soft spoken. “My gift is this ancient woven silk shawl which was to symbolize longevity but now symbolizes that it shall not be death, but a deep sleep of a hundred years, into which Rosamund shall fall.” Her words cause as much disbelief and chatter as those of the Hebrides aunt.  The party quickly disperses as all ponder on the improbability of death caused by pricked fingers and the nonsensical concept of a hundred year sleep.

Time passes and the gifts of the women are plenteously fulfilled. Rosamund grows into a beautiful woman. She is modest, good natured and wise and is loved by all. Her parents are solicitously protective and shield her from all sharp objects. Her sixteenth year comes and goes. The family settles into their collective silent belief that the Hebrides curse was the unkind words of an unhappy old woman. Life goes on; Rosamund gets married and has a daughter who is baptized Rosa to distinguish her from her mother. In time Rosa grows up and has a daughter. Rosa’s daughter’s beauty outshines that of both mother and grandmother and so she becomes known as Rosamund-the Beauty.

When grandmother Rosamund approaches sixty-four years she plans a special birthday celebration to be held the weekend after her birthday in the house of her childhood in Kidlington. Her daughter whose birthday is around the same time is now thirty-six and so they decide to celebrate with a joint birthday cake frosted with the words “Happy Birthday, 100 Years” and decorated with garlands of pink sugar roses. Rosamund-the-Beauty who is now sixteen accompanies her mother and grandmother.

On the day of her birthday Rosamund pricks her finger as she puts on her diamond and agate broach. The prick is so sharp and such a surprise that she falls, and hits her head on the floor. She sustains a mild concussion, an ambulance is called. Hours later the Emergency Room sends grandmother Rosamund home to be carefully watched by loving daughter and grand-daughter.

The following afternoon an intern resident doctor makes a house call. Although it is March 1st the weather is unusually warm for England. He drives an open white convertible MG. He passes through the small gate house which is almost obscured by climbing roses. He drives up to the house. Everything is sleepily quiet; the only sound is that of his car engine and his wheels making a scrunching noise on the gravel drive. He shuts off his engine and stares up at the house which looks as though it is about to be smothered by the rose vines creeping across its façade. He steps out of his car and walks to the front door. The air is heavy with silence. He knocks; the sound seems to be sucked up by the silent air. He knocks again and then, receiving no response enters calling as he does so “Anyone home?” he has the uncanny impression that the house sleeps; He speculates that the excitement of the previous day may have taken its toll for even the dog doesn’t stir.  The silence becomes more enveloping; it makes him yawn. He fights the desire to sleep and thinks about his mission even questioning whether his patient might still be alive. He vaults up the stairs taking them two at a time. Grandmother Rosamund’s bedroom door stands open. He enters. This room is the epicenter of the house’s entranced sleep. Rosamund lies sleeping on her bed softly covered by a rose embroidered comforter. He reaches and takes her hand in his. He checks her pulse; it is normal. He is about to wake her when he sees the Sleeping Beauty. Rosamund-the-Beauty sleeps in a lounge chair beside the window. Her long hair curls down over her chest which gently moves up and down in her slumber. He can’t resist her loveliness, he has to touch her. He glances around the room once more and deduces that he is not observed. He walks over to her and stands beside her wrap in admiration. The he leans over and gives her a discrete kiss. She and her grandmother awake and, instead of consternation, greet him as though he were Prince Charming himself. They invite their Prince Charming to join their celebration the following day. This is when he sees the 100 year cake and discovers that since grandmother Rosamund’s birthday is February 29th this is her sixteen birthday celebration.

Some people in Kidlington believe that their strange visitors are readers of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale of “Sleeping Beauty” and that a poor translation made Kidlington into King’s Town. They come to admire the rose hedges and thickets which, the Brothers Grimm tell us, surrounded Sleeping Beauty’s home.

 

 

 

The train flirtation

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

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

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

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

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

“The seats are not taken, feel free!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I ….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you still love him?”

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

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

“Yes, but….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowan – a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The worm – a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

 

The Dream – a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wally, heel, Wally heel.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Good afternoon.” She almost stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Home – a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© July 2015 Jane Stansfeld