SPACE FOR CHAOS

This week I won Open Short Story of the 2013 Sunshine Coast Literary Competition for my story Space for Chaos

“What do you think?” I moved the frame a little each way until it fell in the middle. He stood there with all his limbs where they should be. Straight legs holding his torso, hands hanging loosely by his sides. If he liked it he would answer now, before his body gave him away.
My heart danced shyly as he shifted his weight and lifted his right hand to his chin. Stroking its smoothness. He shaved everyday, even if he wasn’t going out. He was a very clean man, he smelt like a lemon grove in the Grecian sun. When we met I had liked this about him. I didn’t have to ask, as with others, that he shower before we had sex. I liked the smell of soap on his skin, fabric conditioner on his clothes. He didn’t leave a mess behind him. No toast sweat on the countertops or short dark hairs round the basin.
I’m not usually one for paintings. I don’t understand them. Still lives or country scenes, why not take a photograph? Abstract and modern paintings show uncertainty to me. As if the artist doesn’t know what they are about, leaving it for the viewer to work out. I prefer photographs, we have them scattered around the room. Mostly of him and me. On walking holidays in the West Country, one his sister took at a pub garden in June. We’re smiling but I remember we were plagued by wasps. They hung around the sweet scent of shandies. Before I met Neil I bought all these photo frames that I liked the look of. Shiny chrome, some with flower tendrils engraved in them. I was young and lived alone. In a flat two streets back from the seafront. I didn’t have anything to put in them, no photos from the children’s home and my only relly, Auntie Joan, was as ugly as she was mean. I kept the promotional family shots they came with. I didn’t mean to, I put them out on the sideboard, on the shelving unit I bought from Homebase. The models in these pictures are very good looking. Sometimes I imagined that they were my family. When Gloria from work gave me a lift home and I invited her in for a cuppa I pretended they were family.
“Oh yes. This is our Geoff. He’s doing so well. He’s taking exams to be paramedic. And that’s Amy. His daughter, my niece. Three next birthday.” She stopped giving me lifts after that.
Neil and I pooled our resources, as he’s so fond of saying, and were able to stump up the deposit for a house on the outskirts of town. When the smell of family barbecues and the stench of car exhausts from the bypass abate I can still catch a whiff of the sea. It smells of salt, ozone and, I fancy, malt vinegar. Soggy chips in a bag. The old chip shop on the corner of Mile Road is shut now. When people want fish and chips these days they want it on a plate, with a glass of sav blanc on the side. I shouldn’t moan about the middle classes, I guess me and Neil are among them. Except I don’t have a taste for the finer things. I expect that’s why I want reassurance on the print I bought from the shop next to Primart, where the solicitors used to be.
I don’t trust my judgement, on paintings and colours. Clothes I wear or home decoration. In the children’s home the walls where painted white or psych ward turquoise. A perfect mix of pale blue to calm us, stop us slashing our wrists, and a green, which was about all the nature we got. Except for that patch of scrabbly lawn out the back. When it was mowed the older boys used to grab great handfuls of grass clippings and shove them roughly down the back of the younger kids’ jumpers. Played havoc with my hay fever. If I try I can still smell freshly mown grass but not in a good way.
I had walked past the shop on my way to the bus stop. I was early so I hung about, window shopping. I don’t like to impulse buy, I have a rule. Never buy straight off, leave it three days, then go back to the shop and have another look. If I still like it, whether it is a new skirt or a pair of shoes or a bathroom cabinet to put my birth control cap in, I talk to Neil about it. Last week I didn’t do any of those things.
The frame caught my eye first. It was a deep midnight blue with sparkles. Sounds awful and I know it’s really naff to choose a print by its frame but it looked sexy next to the plain wooden frames, cheap gilt ones and flimsy black plastic. It wasn’t an art shop, more a shop of pretty pictures to match interior decoration. Colourful. I have simple tastes. Glittery frames are not simple though.
I know I am skirting around the issue. All this talk of frames when you don’t even know the artwork I picked. The artwork I couldn’t resist, that I broke my impulse purchasing rules for. That’s me though, all frame, no feature.
My mother named me Marlene, before she died moments after my birth, unnoticed by the mid-wife. Auntie Joan insisted I keep the name. It’s a stage actress name, a bawdy nightclub singer in dark jazz clubs. Androgynous, small breasts. My face is pale and without beauty. I have clean, even teeth and short wispy hair. I don’t wear make-up and appear younger than I am.
There were blokes before Neil. Blokes he doesn’t know about. I may not be the kind of girl men lose their heads over but I have my charms. At the firm where I work, I used to sit on reception, before I was promoted. I found if I brushed the hands of a man I wanted to sleep with or swept the ends of my hair near his face, so he could smell the exotic tea I rinsed it in, extraordinary things would happen to ordinary me. An intense look from my green eyes and the rest went in a blur. Backs of cars, street doorways, once in a public garden. I’m not the sort of girl you pay for a hotel room for. I know that. These men who came and went were not clean. They smelt of sex and sweat, felt moist and rough.
I have never told Neil about these encounters, not to save him the hurt. I didn’t want him to know about my past, to share it. A girl like me has to save her special moments, not squander them. They’re mine to take out at will, memories waving over me, bringing secrets alive again.
My friend Sarah from the home was special in a different way. She made chains of wild grass to wear in our hair. “We’re princesses now, Marlene.”
And later when Sarah had been fostered by a scruffy, smiling couple from the next county, I found love in awkward places. Ioannes, Greek for John, in the multi-storey car park near the big supermarket on the main road. He swiped the back seat of his car to clear soft toys and Lego. I still ended up with one piece, the head of R2D2, embedded in the skin of my buttock.
Peter from accounts who I saw when his clever wife was away on business. He had messy hair and a tidy house. Books on tables, possessions placed on surfaces in a way that suggested balance and care. Except for glasses and cups. He put them down on the very edge of surfaces, a lip overhanging the edge. He’d push me roughly against the kitchen cupboards and all the time I would be watching and waiting for his half filled wine glass or coffee mug to fall violently to the floor.
The morning before I found the print, at breakfast, Neil and I sipped organic orange juice and nibbled on rye toast with sesame seeds.
“Can you pick up my dry cleaning, Marley?” I pulled a face. “Sorry love. I can’t get away until six.”
It’s not the dry cleaning that bothers me. It’s calling me Marley but he knows this. It’s a dog’s name. I used to think about changing it. I bought a baby names book. “Don’t panic, Neil. It’s for me, not a baby.”
“What’s wrong with Marlene? I’ve never met another Marlene. You’re unique.”
I winced. “I’d be unique without a stripper’s name.”
I thumbed that book for months, all sorts of weird names. Place names; like Chelsea, Paris and India. Herbs and spices; Paprika, Saffron and Coriander. It made me snigger and I thought that maybe Marlene wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe it was just for me that it conjured up a dodgy bint on a small stage, surrounded by men in raincoats. Or a man in drag, sweating under hair extensions, blowing smoke rings from his large, fleshy mouth. But I did still long to be a Ruth or a Helen. Perhaps a Joanne. Maybe I would get lost with a nice, unremarkable name. Sink back into the fluffy rug at home and disappear from view. Neil would come home, late from the office as always, and search the house. Never find me. What if I couldn’t find Neil? If he left and I had no proof that he’d ever been here. Except for photographs, as happy as the promotional shots. And a dent in the arm of the sofa where he laid his head watching the telly, which would disappear overnight. He would leave, I was sure, if he found out what I was really like.
It was a large print, although the frame wasn’t heavy. Still I needed to fetch the car and find a parking space outside the shop. I paid the man at the counter and went to pick up the car. “Never thought I’d get rid of this.”
He stacked it against the wall behind the counter. I could see that it had sat in the shop, gathering dust, for months. Usually I would be put off, if someone else hadn’t bought it already then it wasn’t fashionable or particularly good. But I could see through the dust on the frame to the sparkles beneath and the subject intrigued me. I was sure it wasn’t classy but in all its confusion I could see myself.
I had stood in front of it, not seeing what became obvious later. A beautiful woman dressed in black, her hair unruly against a background of fire red and orange. Her eyes were guarded but I could see the world in them. She longed to shut them, to hide away.
When I first started the job at the financial sales office on Hammond Street I had dressed in grey suits with bright shiny blouses. People were kind but I didn’t want kindness. I found if I dressed all in black, down to my stockings and shoes, I faded into the background. I become noticeable only when I wanted to. It’s strange how black can turn from invisible to sexy by the turn of a head, a carefully planned pout.
I met Neil on the bus, he said it was cheaper than paying for petrol when most of it was wasted in traffic queues. It took him six weeks of shy glances to ask me out. Then it was only for coffee. I liked it. Fast men come and go quickly.
“You have lovely eyes.” That’s what he said. Corny but true. “Why do you wear so much black?”
“I’m not good with colour.”
“You’d look good in anything, Marlene.”
Rain fell lightly as I walked home. My flyaway hair lay damply about my head, sticking to my face at the front. I had paid for the print out of a roll of cash from my wallet. A roll of cash saved for emulsion to do up the living room. We had lived with ‘Cloudy Bay’ for long enough. Neil and I had picked out a tasteful shade of green called ‘Leafy Glade’.
I hoped Neil would like it. I needed him to, as if I had painted the original myself. He was a careful man not given to spontaneous actions. I let myself into the house to collect the car keys which were kept on a hook over the telephone table by the stairs. The house had that empty feel of homes where both partners work, childless. I caught a sniff of sterility. Neil and I were both tidy. Nothing was out of place and everything matched. The large picture window overlooked the front lawn and the facia of the other homes on Lavender Close. And the wall at the far end of living room with a sky light which, when the sun shone, lit it up. Test paint patches of various shades covered a corner of the wall. My insides lurched, warm feelings turning to a shiver of doubt. Who was I kidding? He was going to go off his rocker. I’d forgotten his dry cleaning and spent the money for the paint we had saved for, debated over for months.
I slumped to the sofa. What a fool I’d been. I wouldn’t collect it but what a shocking waste of money. The rain had stopped now and silver clouds were paling. If I was religious I would have seen what happened next as a sign. But I’m not. A shaft of weak sunlight emerged from the skylight, lit the bare wall which now appeared enormous, empty. Waiting for something to grace it. The sun shone like those brass lights set up over the top of paintings in galleries. It was a clean space but it ached for chaos.
He stood there, my Neil, staring at the picture. His head inclined to the right, like an art critic from The Times. “It’s unusual.”
A girl who didn’t look like me, but was me. Her long wavy dark hair, pale, nervous face. A girl with secrets. Her eyes glanced right where a small mirror hung. The young woman looked at her reflection which wasn’t the same. The girl in the mirror was smiling, not a hint of doubt playing on her lips. Her eyes knew, were unafraid.
“Good unusual, or bad unusual?”
A grin broke out across my lover’s face. He laughed.
“I like it,” reached out to me. Placed an arm round my middle and pulled me to him. “It’s very you.”

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MUMMY WORRIER

Is there anyone else out there who feels weird when the kids have a sleepover?

When I became a mother it all slotted into place. That’s not to say I found it easy. Oh no. My parenting style is ‘The Worrier’ rather than ‘The Warrior’. I was the woman who nudged my new born awake to check he was still breathing. And if I managed to get five hours continuous sleep I would wake up in a cold sweat and then go and wake him up to check he was still breathing.

I have worried about whether my boys are getting the childhood they deserve. For the first three years of my eldest son’s life I regularly bought toys and games to stimulate his senses. All he saw for the first years was a red-faced nervous looking woman holding up a toy and shaking it. He owned every toy for infants Lamaze every made.

I held children’s parties with vigour. Twelve courses of food for kids who were just going to stick their fingers in the jelly and run around screaming for three hours. Not that I’d give them jelly. Poisonous food colouring and gelatin made from glue. No fear. And I really should have had therapy the year I hand-stitched one hundred gnomes from felt. And possibly the year I made a gluten-free Taj Mahal which was far to big to ever get eaten. It sat in the freezer compartment yelling ‘trifle’ for months.

These small, perfectly formed beautiful people have taken over my life. They stole away the girl who stayed up beyond ten o’clock and drank more than two glasses of wine. The wild woman who threw caution to the wind, drank a vat of wine and danced on tables with strange and exotic waiters.

Worse than that, I no longer know how to behave without them. I mean I cope when they’re at school. I push wet, muddy rugby kits into washing machines. I fail to wash and dry the only tee shirt my teenager wants to wear. I clean up, I wipe down. I find oats in places only my younger child can scatter them. I write. Usually about women who don’t have children or maybe one child, who lurks in the background cleanly.

We have relatives nearby now and for the first time in eons we get a few child-free nights every now and then. We managed at first. Meals in town, a night or two in a modestly priced motel. Nothing too flash or expensive.

Now we don’t know what to do with our time. Apart from the obvious. Our bedroom walls are flimsy and the kids don’t miss a trick. One of my most embarrassing moments was when the teenager banged on our partitioning wall yelling. “Keep it down in there.”

‘That’ takes all of twenty minutes and then we’d both want something to eat or drink. Something to dull the senses and blot out that picture we hold of ourselves in our head, of how we used to look.

‘That’ safely out of the way, what do we do with the rest of the time? He likes building things, I like reading. He likes messing about with his computer, I like reading. Last time the kids were away The Husband disappeared into the shed and I didn’t see him all day. I ended up watching ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ and eating pistachios.

Sad, isn’t it. But you see last time we were childfree for any length of time we lived in London. We had pubs. Everywhere. We had stamina and could drink solidly for hours without wanting to crawl under the furniture and cry. Last time we were childfree I liked shopping and had spare money to spend. The husband liked to see the things I’d bought and made me parade about in them. Now I get depressed and after a bit he feels queasy. I know people say that we don’t change but I think we do. And not just that I used to be a 10 and now I’m not.

My experiences have shaped me and my favourite experience was having my boys. Even if they did completely ruin my figure, my sense of perspective and my ability to dance on tables.

Now I could be sensible and get therapy or at least work out what will guide my life in the future. Or I could hold them close and savour every moment. Read them stories, scream their names on the rugby fields. Get up early every day to pack their lunches.

Well I’m glad that’s sorted. Is there a sequel to ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, anyone?

TEA WITH AUNT JULIA

The drive down to her parents’ house in Dorset was a slow one. For three hours Sasha drove behind Volvos filled with kids waving from the rear window, and elderly drivers in the left hand lane of the M3. She had lunch at Blandford Forum and arrived mid-afternoon.
Gilbert and Anna Waresley were in the garden dead-heading roses, both wearing ridiculous hats.
“Hello darling! Was the traffic ghastly?”
Sasha knew that meant her mother thought she was late. She nodded, not wanting to mention the hangover she was still nursing, and succumbed to her mother’s thin arms, almost choking from a liberal dose of Christian Dior’s Dolce Vita. Her father waited his turn.
“Hello Sash. Look at you.” Dressed in gardening clothes which wouldn’t look out of a place on a Guy Fawkes dummy, he beamed at her. Any interruption was welcome. Her father detested gardening as much as her mother loved it, but like everything since their retirement, they did it together. “Come on, it must be five o’clock somewhere. Let’s have a drink.”
They went through to the conservatory at the back where tea was usually served. Gilbert, however, was having none of it and poured gin and tonics, generous on the gin.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“How are things at uni, darling?” Anna arranged her features into a face that appeared interested but Sasha knew that her mother was bewildered by her choice of subject.
“Good, mum. It’s getting really interesting.”
“I’ve not quite grasped what cultural studies actually means.”
“Mum, we’ve been through this. We cover politics, sociology, media theory, cultural anthropology…”
“And what are you going to do with that young lady? Can you teach?”
Sasha shifted in her chair. “I don’t want to teach.”
“Of course, you don’t Sash. You’re a doer. I for one want to know what you’re up to. Ignore your mother, she has no poetry in her soul.”
Anna smiled at her husband and stayed quiet.
“I need to interview a mature person about their life. Obviously it has to be as interesting as possible. It’s a fabulous challenge, especially if I’m going to be a writer but I’ve drawn a blank on who I could write about.” Sasha’s face dropped for a moment. “What have you guys been up to?”
“Oh, the usual. Appearing to be sweet natured pensioners while knocking off the odd visitor and burying them in the garden.”
“Never mind him, darling. I’m feeling a bit giddy after all that gin. What say we have dinner early?”
So many of Sasha’s friends hated going home for weekends, complaining about feeling claustrophobic under their parents love and their transparent way of living their lives through their off-spring. Anna and Gilbert were both strong characters. They loved her dearly but they had their own lives.
“What about Julia?” Gilbert had a mouth full of meat. Sasha and her mother waited while he finished chewing.
“Julia? Wouldn’t she be perfect?”
“Aunt Julia? The elderly grey-haired spinster woman?”
Anna laughed. “She may be old but she has lived, my girl.”
“I hope you don’t shock easily, Sash.”

It was a month later, as the air cooled and leaves changed colour silently on the trees that Sasha followed Aunt Julia’s instructions on how to find her flat. A Victorian house divided into apartments, just off the Chiswick High Road with a communal front door displaying a line of labeled door bells. Sasha pushed the one marked Julia Cadogan. It was some minutes before the door opened. Sasha noted that the old woman had walked down two flights of stairs using a walking stick. She followed her back up to her flat, Julia silent in response to Sasha’s nervous chatter. She wasn’t her real aunt, Julia was an old friend of her parents. Her hair had turned white but it was still worn elegantly pinned at her neck. Sasha remembered seeing her one evening whilst staying at her parents’ house, sitting on the guest bed, combing a river of silver hair which reached beyond her waist.
Julia walked shakily through the door of her home and using her stick, pointed to an armchair. “Tea?”
“That would be lovely, Aunt Julia. Do you want me to make it?”
A withering stare answered her question. “I may be old but I manage to look after myself. If you let others help, you lose your abilities. I need to keep all my muscles taut, especially this one.” Her free hand tapped her temple. She was dressed in black as if in mourning and although thin, did not look frail.
Whilst Julia moved about in her small kitchen, Sasha took out her notebook and glanced around the apartment. Every wall was painted a bright colour; vermillion, peacock blue, orange and what looked like William Morris wallpaper, gold leaves on a burgundy background. She was pleased to see several floor to ceiling shelves crammed full of books. Paintings signed by C P Lawrence hung against this vibrant backdrop, mostly nudes with a few of a young woman dressed in a black, a black shirt as it turned out.
Julia appeared with a tray, she had dispensed with the stick. She put the tray down on the dark wood coffee table in front of Sasha.
“I only need the blasted stick for the stairs.” She sat in the armchair to the left of Sasha. The early afternoon sun shone through the window, obscuring Julia’s face, framing her hair in the light.
“Don’t worry child, I won’t bite. Lapsang souchong?” Sasha nodded. “What do you want to know?”
“I have been asked to interview a mature person, who has lived an interesting life for part of my cultural studies degree.”
“And you thought of me?” Julia sat back in her chair, clutching her tea cup with a look on her face Sasha couldn’t place. Was it scorn or amusement? Sasha cleared her throat. “Mum and Dad suggested you. I don’t know much about you, to be honest.” Sasha’s face reddened. “They said you were a fascist.” To anyone else this would be an insult, maybe even to Julia.
“I am a fascist, girl. I’m not dead yet.”
Sasha thought back to the conversation she’d had with her parents a few weeks ago.
“A fascist! How the hell did you meet a fascist?”
Anna placed her wine glass over a gravy stain on the tablecloth. “We were on the tube, traveling from Richmond to Liverpool Street.”
“No, dear, we lived in Barnes then and we were going to Blackfriars.”
“Who’s telling this story, Gilbert? And when has accuracy been necessary in a good story?”
“I want the truth, Mum.”
“The bits I can’t remember, I’ll make up. Not the important bits, of course, I always remember those. Anyway, we were sitting opposite a woman, middle aged but very elegant. Her hair was swept up into a chignon and she held an un-lit cigarette, waving it around and chatting to a bunch of unsavoury looking youths.”
Sasha’s father took over. “They were skin heads, the real McCoy. Shaven heads, high-waisted jeans worn half-mast over Dr Marten boots, braces over their t-shirts. Quite obviously BNP.”
“They were National Front in those days, Gilbert. They were listening to Julia, completely swept up in her charm. They asked her back to their flat in Bethnal Green to show her their Nazi memorabilia.”
“And she was quite keen to go. Even though we didn’t know her, we had to intervene.”
“How did you stop her?”
“We had tickets for an experimental theatre in Liverpool Street.”
“Blackfriars, dear.”
“What’s an experimental theatre?”
Anna stifled a laugh. “The actors were naked, darling. Your father gave his ticket to Julia.”
“Julia loves a bit of nudity, even over entertaining a mob of skinheads.”
“And they were happy for her to go?”
“Julia insisted they exchange telephone numbers of course, never passed up an opportunity to talk shop. I don’t know whether she followed it up.
“What did you do, Dad?”
“I waited in the coffee shop across the road.”
“We joined him for doughnuts afterwards.”

“So, Julia, were you born or created?” It was a risk but Sasha felt Julia wouldn’t respond to Bourgeois questions. Julia chuckled darkly.
“Very good, dear. I was born in 1918, in London, at the end of a very messy war. Between the wars, as it turned out to be, was a promiscuous time, as if we knew it was the last hurrah.”
“What about you? Did you meet anyone interesting?”
Julia laughed, a strangled noise collecting at the back of her throat. “Oh, yes, I met someone. At a party in London, in the late 1930s. Cedric, my lover, was an artist and strongly right wing. He believed that if Marxism ever took off in England then it would be the end of us. The Bolshevik’s were a fearsome breed and Cedric was an idealist. I was 19 when I started posing for him. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Sasha shook her head, not wanting to interrupt the flow as she struggled to keep up her notes.
“There was more social freedom, of course, higher hemlines than the previous generation, higher life, higher ideals. Cedric had heard from friends of the Italian prime minister who was one of the key figures in something called Fascism.
“Mussolini?”
“Of course.” Julia put out her cigarette and closed her eyes for a moment. “He had previously been involved in the Marxist movement but he had a change of heart after a spell in the military. He studied the works of Plato and Nietzsche, among others, which formed the basis for Fascism. You heard of Nietzsche, Sasha?”
“Not one of my favourite philosophers, God is dead as an excuse to behave immorally.”
Julia smiled. “I like him for just that reason. Mussolini wanted to raise Italy up to the levels of its great Roman past. It was very exciting. And then in 1932 when the BUF was created by Oswald Mosley, we had our own movement in England.” Julia paused and Sasha watched her. She had the look of someone who had discovered religion not rejected it. A light shone behind her eyes making her appear younger.
Sasha knew about the British Union of Fascists, they were anti-communist and racist, protecting their own race, as they saw it. Copying Mussolini, they wore the all black uniform.
“We always clashed with the Communists and the Jews but when the Black Shirts stepped in and removed the hecklers using force at the Olympia rally, let’s just say it didn’t go down well.”
“But you weren’t there, you were too young. Strong-arm tactics lost the election. They were bullies, even then. How can racism and anti-Semitism be right? 20 million people lost their lives, surely you can see how evil that was?”
“It was to protect the purity of race. Mussolini didn’t believe in a perfect race, he felt we were already tainted but Hitler really believed we could wipe out the mistakes of the past and start again, shiny and new.”
“You make it sound like an informed choice, it wasn’t. Hitler, Mussolini, Mosley, all monsters!”
“But Sasha, it was an informed choice. We were nearly elected. Diana Mitford, part of British aristocracy, married Mosley. Prince Edward and his new wife were sympathisers.” Julia laughed. “I loved her. The Princes’ American wife.”
“I still don’t see…” I still don’t see why my parents befriended you, thought Sasha and she had said so the last time she had visited them.
“Sash, whatever Julia was isn’t relevant anymore. There have been many people with high ideals throughout history, who have been manipulated by wicked leaders and dictators. It’s not Julia’s role to take the blame for all that loss.” Gilbert’s face was serious for once.
“She’s very proud, darling, but she’s not bad. That bloody lover of hers should have shouldered a lot of the blame. Her parents refused to see her, she hasn’t had anything like family in her adult life. But she’s always had a place here, in our house. It was the right thing to do.” Sasha wasn’t so sure.
Julia was starting to tire, her lined face appeared to slip further down her cheek bones.
“One can make anything plausible if it you present it in the right light. The 30’s were a very political time, war on the horizon. We needed strong leaders. Today our leaders are weak, fat and self-satisfied. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, what sort of examples are they to our young? Margaret Thatcher, now there was a leader.”
Thatcher was hardly a memory for Sasha and was an old woman herself now. She knew that the Iron Lady had few sympathisers among her parents generation, although maybe some who wouldn’t admit support now had put their cross in the Tories box way back then.
“You’re confusing bullying with strength.”
“I kept diaries.”
A gnawing sensation passed through Sasha’s insides, of both desire and disgust. Desire to see those diaries, she was under no illusion as to the value of them, and disgust for the madness they would be filled with. What else could explain the exclusion and worse, of so many innocent people? To protect the race, what about Jews, blacks, homosexuals, gypsies? Even writers were robbed of their voice.
Sasha planted a dutiful goodbye kiss on Julia’s furrowed cheek. “You look tired, I’ll go. What happened to Cedric?”
“He went back to his wife. He wasn’t as strong as I had hoped.”
With two forces alive in her belly, Sasha drove back to campus. This was wrong, her cheeks were aflame as if she were guilty of Julia’s past. Her stomach churned as if she were infected with sores of shame. She still longed to see those diaries, what was the matter with her? Reading them could only make her feel worse. It would be best to let them die with the old woman than poison her own mind.
One of the last things Aunt Julia had said to her had been about Mussolini’s death. Italian partisans had found him and his mistress and shot them by Lake Como. Their bodies were taken to Milan where they were hung by their feet with piano wire in Piazza Loreto for all to see. Italy rejoiced, over 400,000 Italians had died because of this man. So much for protection, so much for leadership.
Months later Sasha picked up the phone, it was her mother to tell her that Julia had died. Sasha didn’t go to the funeral and after she had handed in her assignment, she tried not to think of Julia at all.
The following summer, sitting in the garden at her parents’ house, her mother handed her a blue ceramic urn and a note.
“Not Aunt Julia’s ashes?”
“Read the note.” Her mother urged.
Sasha slowly extracted a piece of flimsy paper from its envelope. Julia had addressed the note to her.
“I never wanted anyone to read my diaries, I hadn’t even considered it until I met you. I want to thank you for the most interesting afternoon I’ve had in years. I don’t have many friends still living now, apart from your dear parents who took me under their wing, despite my ideals. Don’t blame them for this. And although I may pick at the scab of Fascism from time to time, not even I wish to open up old wounds. Our ideals caused suffering. I have made many mistakes in my life and most of them are here in my diaries. They would make a great record of a terrible time but here is what is left of them. You won’t have to read them now. Better dead than read, darling. Be good. Julia.”
Sasha wiped away a tear. “Why did she leave this to me? I want to forget her. I can’t feel fondness for someone with such terrible beliefs”
But when Sasha got back to London she placed the ashes of Julia’s words on her desk. She wasn’t sure why and she meant to throw them out. But as the weeks passed, putting distance between time and her uncomfortable memories, Sasha thought that perhaps the academic views of Julia’s idealism were not part of Fascism itself. Maybe it wasn’t so clear cut. Could Sasha have respect for Julia and not for her beliefs? After all, her parents had been kind enough to see through that black shirt to the heart of a gutsy woman. She left the urn where it was, for now

MAD, BAD AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW

I have never been one for bravery or heroics. Never mad, bad and dangerous to know, although in some ways each one of those.

I have been mad. And as my husband says, I have the certificates to prove it. This morning in the car waiting for my boys’ bus a strange conversation ensued. Sometimes I blabber on and this was one of those times. I told them how when I commuted from London on the train home that sometimes I had to fight the urge to get off the train one stop early. Another train wouldn’t come along for an hour and it would have taken me until midnight to walk home. Too quiet for taxi ranks. That would have really pissed me off.

I mentioned this to my traveling companions once. “Don’t you ever feel like that?” Mouths were screwed up into sneers, bodies shuffled away from me. “No. Of course not!”

When I told this story this morning, Son No.1 looked at me slyly. I gathered myself to receive scorn. “Yes! Yes! I’m always thinking of getting off the bus one stop early in the afternoons!”

I smiled proudly but as they left the car when the bus arrived I shouted after them. “Don’t do it though, will you? Too dangerous!”

Bad. Well my first boyfriends had motorbikes and I sat behind them in all weathers (England). Dressed in denim and leather, a fluttering fringe escaping behind me as I was tossed from the bends on country roads. The whistling noise of speeding down the motorway. Oh yeah baby. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I’ll let you into a secret. I had to have lessons in cool from my first man in black. “Will you lean with the bike you great Jessie. Every time I hit a bend you straighten up and I nearly drop the bike.” “Not cool then?” “Not cool”.

I went to festivals on the back of bikes. There were no bathrooms in those days, only trough toilets and flies on the breeze. I never went anywhere without a full face of make-up and a miniature nail kit in my pocket. I lost my eyeliner pencil once. It was intense.

After an absence of twenty years I got to ride pillion again. The husband bought a retro Triumph a few years back. I had my new racy red jacket and my Union Jack DMs. I was ready to rock! I hadn’t banked on being absolutely terrified and the husband has to be the least dangerous road rider ever. I shook with nerves. Still not rock ‘n’ roll- even after all those years. Headlines swooped in front of my eyes. STEINER PARENTS KILLED IN BIKE ACCIDENT. Mother’s last words to sons “I’ll Always Love You” to the strains of Whitney Houston. I had to stop. The headlines and the songs got cornier and more frightening.

Now the husband has a trail bike without a pillion. I mean I would. But it’s not… Can’t bring myself to part with that red bike jacket.

Dangerous? Let’s face it I’m the sort who would wear a crash hat while driving a car if I could get away with it. I drive the dodgems as if I’m taking my test, complete with hand signals. And I never, I repeat never, stood on the cracks in the pavement to see what would happen. Or lay down with a boiled sweet in my mouth. Ran with a lolly stick in my gob. I heard every wives tail and believed them all.

Of course I’m fast tracking to fifty and that’s a dangerous age. Still. I can be eccentric now. Eccentric is cool for the fifty something. I may adopt a succession of hat wear. Ironic of course. Or wear bright colours to detract from the lines on my face. I could drink gin in the mornings and buy a pair of high heeled fluffy mules. I could team my red bike jacket with a black tutu. I see myself as a cross between Marianne Faithful and Edina Monsoon.

I feel a train trip coming on.