COUNTING PEGS    

This story won first prize in the Write Around the Murray Festival in 2013. I thought I’d give it another outing.

Helen was in the garden again. Counting pegs. Some days she’d count them as she put out her washing but once she had begun to put them in colour order too. Warms to cools to white. White was the coldest being the colour of snow. From then on, she not only counted pegs but followed her colours too.

Sometimes she could hear the baby scream. She didn’t rush inside, not until she’d finished. Then she would run, holding the washing basket in one hand and the peg basket in the other. Across the grass and the terrace, stumbling past earthenware pots crammed with Lobelias and Impatiens, and up the steps to the French doors. She wouldn’t leave the unused pegs outside. Once inside she would count the pegs left over and add up the scores to make sure all pegs were accounted for. Only then would she see to the baby. Scoop him up and unhook the ugly bra, the only one that fitted. Hugo latched on and sucked noisily. Finn would start to yell at the top of his lungs. He’d spent a lot more time at home since the baby arrived.

She hadn’t talked to Alan about the pegs. And the pegs were just a part of it. There were days when Helen sat at the kitchen table, holding her chin in her hands, her eyes squeezed shut. Shutting her mind to her house filled with smooth surfaces, bench tops and tables, now covered with the debris of family life.

“Are you alright, Mummy?” Finn’s voice, curious but not concerned, he was only three and half after all. “Can I watch TV, Mummy?” Helen swept her hands through her hair and stopped at the matted curls which held them prisoner. She looked up at the innocent but still manipulating face of her first born. His white blonde hair cut short on the sides. The glint in his eyes told her that he knew he had won, even before she spoke softly. “Yes”.  She wondered if she had the energy to care whether he watched too much telly anymore.  Her previous regimes seemed to belong to someone else, someone military perhaps.

How Alan hadn’t noticed was astonishing to her. He must have a lot on at work, she’d stopped asking. Or he’d been screwing one of the paralegals, she had no feelings either way. Helen felt invisible, her form was completely transparent, a substance like cellophane stopped her innards from leaking onto the new carpet.

She hadn’t always been like this, she thought to herself for who was there to listen. The strains of ‘Bob the Builder’ could be heard from the other room and Helen could weep at how her life had shrunk to this. Even the face of her angel baby didn’t touch the fibres of her anymore.

She had once been a girl who’d broken men’s hearts, who refused to bow to convention. She’d wanted to be free but in time ended up behaving like the men she looked down upon, leaving before her one-night stand awoke, drinking too much. One man did stand out, not Alan, he came later. This one had been called Dave, they’d met at medical school. When they moved in together, she swapped their traditional roles. Helen would wash the car on Sunday mornings while Dave would sweat over a roast, trying not to burn the gravy. It turned out that Dave was a terrible cook and she hated cleaning the car. Even now she drove round in a car whose bonnet was marked by rotting fruit dropped from trees, while the inside looked as if she had strewn the contents of a litter bin evenly over seats and in the foot wells. Wet food dried slowly on the baby’s car seat.

She hadn’t even wanted children. She wanted to travel the world, save the planet, dance in Rio, and meditate in the Himalayas. At the end of the day even Helen the brave became a slave to her body, her urges, and the chemical compositions of her. When she met Alan, she had recently shaved her head for charity but he saw through the stubble to the woman Helen really was. He saw what no one had seen before. She wasn’t an easy lay who was great fun at parties. She was all heart and soul. And the sight of her scared the be-Jesus out of his mother which could only be a good thing.

She’d been attracted by Alan’s fair hair, his face which turned pink when he was flustered. It touched her insides that he was a vulnerable man. She had no time for heroes. Helen could see in his eyes that he knew she didn’t believe him when he pretended to be the tough guy.

Now Alan came home to a woman with dried milk and cereal stains on her clothes. He tried to help, bunching discarded clothing and carefully folded soiled nappies and putting them down somewhere else. When Helen made a supreme effort and showered, her lank hair curled with tongs for extra body, she had no interest in laying down her besieged self for her husband. She was the hand servant of infants and there was nothing left for anyone else. Least of all herself.

Helen’s mind drifted to the women she used to welcome into her surgery, sad women with washed out faces, limp clothing. She would flash her confident and slightly smug smile at them, prescribe tablets and talk to them in her dulcet tones. “You’ll be fine. Make sure you shower in the morning, it’ll make you feel better. Buy flowers for yourself and don’t expect to be perfect.” She thought she’d got it nailed, the post-baby blues. Now Helen could only imagine how those poor women must have hated her.

After Hugo’s birth but before the pegs she had made up tunes in her head, noises to shut the demons out. Helen hadn’t planned the counting. She was out at the clothesline during one of those wonderfully warm and blustery days, perfect for laundry. She was attempting Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, the notes crowding her brain when she realised that as she pegged each item of clothing numbers flew from her frontal lobe. Numbers clear and certain against a backdrop of mess and madness, they stood up tall and proud, very clean. The sounds of music and Hugo’s wails slipped off beyond the mountains. Only digits ruled here.

After work Alan stormed through the kitchen, effing and blinding. “Damn, damn. I forgot to get those papers to the bank for signing.” Vague thoughts of re-mortgaging floated through Helen’s mind. They missed her doctor’s salary, had fallen behind. Alan looked over at her, a skeptical expression on his face. “I don’t suppose you…? Fuck it, Helen. You’ll have to. It’s just a case of signing them in front of the mortgage manager. Nice girl.” The rosy colour in his panicked face didn’t make her glow anymore. Helen felt numb.

Alan didn’t know that it’d been a month since his wife had left the house. A month since the front door had clicked safely behind her. She’d been buying groceries on-line and festering in a range of nightwear during the day since that awful time in the post office. She didn’t want to tell him, but she didn’t want to go out either. She had to keep her secret or the contempt he held in his eyes for her could well evolve into pity. Helen would not be pitied.

She planned her maneuvers overnight, while Alan slept. She prepared the bag for the baby, spare nappies, clothes, teething gel and a rattle. She placed them in the bottom of her Mclaren stroller, the Rolls Royce of buggies. Alan had bought it himself, proudly showed her its features. Yet another status symbol where the cheaper option would have done just as well. Helen placed a book and a pop gun in the basket for Finn. For herself she packed a bottle of rosemary essential oil for nerves and threw in one of those miniature bottles of scotch Alan brought home from mini bars in hotels. He still hadn’t realised he was charged for them.

Helen sat on a dining room chair next to the stroller and heard Hugo’s faint cries, growing more frantic. She ran up to his room, Alan hadn’t wanted their newborn in their bedroom, he couldn’t sleep. If he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t work. And someone had to. Helen felt her inner soul become less visible than it already was. She sat downstairs, baby at her breast, tears on her face. Afterwards she crawled into bed beside her sleeping husband who had no clue to the world Helen now inhabited.

Alan had left before Helen opened her puffy eyes. Finn was sitting crossed legged on the bed, poking sticky fingers at her cheeks. Alan must have given him breakfast. Helen wiped a crusty line that ran from her mouth to the pillow. “Mummy! Hugo was screaming and screaming.”

Helen only heard the sound of next doors car reversing sharply from their driveway. “No, sweetheart. He’s quiet.”

Finn grinned. “He is now. He might be dead.” He began to jump on the bed.

There was no fear at the core of her, only a sense of right and wrong. It would be wrong to go back sleep before checking on Hugo. She launched across the bedroom carpet and ran into the baby’s room. Hugo was passed out on his back, his tears still wet on his cheeks. The room stank of shit.

 

Helen sat with her coat buttoned up and Hugo in the stroller next to her. Finn ran around with his hoodie on backwards. Surely that was dangerous. All she could think of was how she could murder a cigarette, but she’d given up years ago, there were none in the house. She remembered her first boyfriend, older, who had smoked, and she’d nicked one of his cigarettes and put it in her jewelry box, along with an American dollar from a childhood holiday in the States. If she still had that ciggy it would be very stale.

She shook her shoulders and wheeled Hugo out to the car, transferred the documents from the basket at the bottom of the stroller to the passenger seat. She un-strapped Hugo and placed his moist, limp body in his seat. Then she went to collect Finn who had his head in the fridge begging for orange juice. “No darling. We have to go out now. Remember, we’re helping Daddy.”

That seemed to work, his face split in a grin. He closed the fridge door and placed his pudgy little hand in hers, it was still covered in honey from breakfast. Why did she not feel overwhelmed with love for this cherub of hers? She didn’t feel safe with him, didn’t know what he was going to do next. Helen’s mind drifted to the laundry she had put on early that morning and found the strength to leave the house, lock all the doors, making sure she had her front door key in her pocket.

The bank was in the centre of town, near the town hall and the library. Parking was difficult unless you got lucky or you used the supermarket car park. On the way there Finn counted trees which Helen understood. She would have counted them herself if she hadn’t needed to keep her eyes on the road. It came from long car trips before Hugo was born when Finn would get bored. Alan asked him to count trees and it worked. “Two, Six, Three!”. She tried not to let the jumbled sequence bother her.

“Look at the play park, Mummy. It’s shiny and new.”

He was right, they had stopped going to the play park because of broken and faded equipment and that awful time when Helen’s friend’s daughter, Freya had picked up a syringe and pricked her hand. Monica had to take Freya for a HIV test which mercifully turned out negative. Now it had a fence round it and slippery dips and swings in reds, blues and yellows, turrets around the top of the slide. Finn loved castles.

As they approached the town, Railway Street, where men and women bustled on both sides of the road, her hands became clammy and sweat beads melted in lines from her forehead. If there’s no parking in the town she would go straight home, Helen didn’t want to crawl curbs looking for spaces. She begged the parking fairies not to find anything, she wanted to go home and stand in the garden, the wind whipping up her skirts, the peg basket in one hand.

And there it was, opened up like a dark chasm, a shady spot where the sun didn’t shine. There were no contenders. No other hurried drivers needing to get their wages from the bank, return that overdue library book, late for their life drawing class at the town hall. It was only Helen. She circled once more for luck and when no one came she slid effortlessly into the spot, as if it were made for her 2005 model Land Rover.

Her heart pounded in her ribcage, she looked at the manila envelope on the passenger seat. Her breath became shallow and the sound of waves filled Helen’s inner ear. Finn stopped counting trees and Hugo began to whimper. He was still slightly pink from his screams of this morning. One whole month, four long weeks, she had stayed at home going quietly mad, becoming lonelier by the day. Friends stopped trying to visit, she’d been hostile at their attempts and couldn’t blame them.

Helen’s damp hands gripped the steering wheel. She knew there was no way she could get out of the car and walk into a building as austere as this bank, with a noisy toddler and fretful baby, her face slippery with sweat, dark wet spots under her arms, to meet this ‘nice girl’ Alan had spoken of. Helen wasn’t a nice girl.

The last time she had left the house she had queued in the post office for a passport for Hugo. The line had been long, and Helen held her mewling baby in one arm and restrained a restless Finn with the other. They could travel to the places they had before kids, couldn’t they? Vietnam, India, Nepal. The passport papers were clamped between her teeth as she breathed through her nose. When she eventually reached the man at the counter and handed him the slightly grubby forms, he raised an eyebrow and turned down his lips. “Madam, we like our forms in better order. You’ll have to fill in another and re-join the line.”

She didn’t know what possessed her but instead of arguing assertively and getting her own way, Helen burst into tears. Not pretty tears but big globs of salty water, her eyes squeezed in on themselves. The man had shrugged. Helen was determined that today would end on a more positive note. ‘I’m not doing this’ an inner voice struggled to be heard. Helen started the engine and drove back along Railway Street, turned right into The Avenue.

At the park Hugo slept in her arms while Finn ran round in circles, his arms stretched out and his brain full of sugar from the doughnuts she had bought from the bakery.

“Mummy, I’m outside! I’m outside!” Helen couldn’t stop a smile from creeping onto her naked face. She wiped the sugar carefully from her lips, trying not to wake Hugo.  Alan would be livid about the paperwork, but she would gladly swap him, the house and the Land Rover for the look on Finn’s face. And somewhere at the back of Helen’s mind lurked that basket of wet clothes. It was a breezy day and the sun shone brightly, another perfect day for laundry.

THE GHOST OF ELVIS

I  wrote this story some years ago. It’s about the 70s, and family holidays on the East Coast of England.
I’d like to Google-map a particular time and place; Felixstowe, Suffolk, England. August 1977. Home in on the floral gardens on the seafront, the many caravan roofs of our caravan site. The ice cream parlour with a giant Mr Whippy out the front. The rickety roller coaster and the inflatable bouncy moon in the fairground.
We’d arrive by train, carrying our suitcases from the station. A dark bricked affair with more than a nod to the Gothic. We crossed the brow of the hill with an excited feeling hitting our stomachs as the sea appeared between sky and shingle. We owned one of the bigger caravans in the Beach Caravan Park which gave a superior bounce to our step. There was a social club. We never went — my parents weren’t. A swimming pool and the kiosk which sold boiled sweets and ice lollies. My younger brother, Karl, screamed for the toilet every time his bum hit the water. The damp concrete changing rooms where once I’d heard a couple of older girls, singing The Rubette’s Sugar Baby Love. Beautiful, full figured girls. To my daggy twelve year old self they were angels.
The caravan was an eight-berth, and there were five of us of varying sizes. Mum and Dad’s bed converted into the place where we ate breakfast. Cornflakes and sterilised milk, lunches of cheese sandwiches or the helpfully named, Luncheon Meat. My mind has drawn a veil over most of the dinners my mother made on the tiny gas stove. I can only imagine what they were from the memory of television advertisements on our set at home. The boy who grew up advertising beef burgers. Cheese and ham Findus Crispy Pancakes; baby food in a crunchy coat. The sweaty, dampness of processed cheese.
The table turned miraculously into a double bed. We never saw this, just as we’d never seen our parents’ bedroom at home.
“Perhaps they’re robots and don’t need sleep.” Karl said as he pushed Grace and me on the roundabout at the playground. He was a huge Doctor Who fan but had recently fallen off the slide in the play park twice, so I ignored his comment, considering it childish and possibly the result of brain damage.
Karl pushed the roundabout and with a loud thump, jumped on one of the spare seats. I felt sick from the spinning. “Don’t be stupid.” My eyes rolled to the sky which was grey and intense although no rain had fallen yet.
“Boys are stupid, aren’t they Jude?” My sister, Grace, two years younger, open to suggestion. “There’s a gloom in the sky. Something’s going to happen.” She could almost tell the future sometimes, only not her own. Something her husband later took advantage of.
Karl gave Grace a shove and she fell from the roundabout. “Oh, look Grace. It already has.”
“Oh please, children.” I stretched on the grass, and yawned, as if I wasn’t one. Grace scrabbled to her feet, bottom lip wobbling.
“Can I pick the gravel out of your grazes?” Grace nodded at Karl’s request, forgetting he was the cause of them. She sat down, I marveled at her braveness. Her fists were clenched but her eyes were dry.
Three older boys approached the park that had been ours that morning. One tall and gangly with ginger hair, wearing a badly chosen red tee shirt. The others were both dark and shorter. One sat on the swing, he delved into his bomber jacket and took out a dark packet I recognised. Placed a cigarette between his lips. John Player Special — Dad had a packet hidden behind a shelf at the back of our garage at home. Secret ciggies. I loved the fruity smell of the foil tucked in the packet. The boy pulled the collar of his jacket up and waited. He wore a cheap anorak, similar to the boys at school, and nudged the redhead with his elbow who then produced a brightly coloured lighter. He lit the cigarette dangling between his friend’s lips. The boy smirked and blew smoke from his nose. I felt the kind of excitement I normally only got as the big dipper in the amusement park tipped over the top into oblivion.
He looked like Elvis. I had a poster of Elvis on my bedroom wall at home, dressed in black leather with his collar up just like Cigarette Boy. I imagined the music from the film, King Creole, rise around me. Bad boy music.
“Jude. You’re staring.” Grace hissed from the patch of grass where Karl was still picking away at her raw knees.
I wanted to go back to the caravan, not wait for Dad to call us in for dinner. Dad was alright but he was very uncool. His hair slicked with Brylcreem. I watched him in the morning sometimes. Combing the white cream into his black hair until it set, not a hair out of place. I didn’t want this vision of adolescent boyhood to laugh at me. My nylon polo neck and homemade trousers were starting to itch my skin.
Cigarette Boy raised his head and looked straight at me. My insides went liquid.
“You’re still staring, Jude.”
The boy looked right at me. I was in love.
Later I told Grace about it. “But he can’t be your first love. That’s Elvis.”
“This is different.”
“How?” She wound a line of gum around her index finger as we sat on the front steps of our caravan. I looked at her with pity.
“It’s about probability.” We’d covered it at school the previous term. “I’m not likely to meet Elvis now am I? I mean he lives in America and he’s forty-two.”
There was more to it but I didn’t want to discuss it with anyone. Not even Grace. I could touch this boy, maybe even kiss him. A tingly feeling ran through me. Elvis songs and the films they showed in the holidays, the black leather suit and later, the white jumpsuit covered in rhinestones. He had a look that made my knees melt but I could never breathe the same air as Elvis.
My parents had just finished painting our caravan and the air was strong with the smell of it. They liked green, my folks. It was green before but they’d changed it to a different shade of green.
“Girls, want to go for a walk?”
I shook my head at my dad. The others went while I sat quietly daydreaming about The Boy with the Cigarette. His eyes were brown, although they could have been blue or green, I hadn’t got close enough. How could I get him to notice me? I looked down at my skinny body, my chest looked like I’d shoved a couple of conkers up my jumper. Boys like that preferred a woman’s body. Boys like that could get any girl they wanted. I regretted my savage holiday hair cut as I ran my hand through its roughness. Grace had lovely hair. Blonde and smooth.
I curled up in bed that night my mind spinning with images of Cigarette Boy. He calls me over, tells his friends to get lost. Pushes me down onto the swing, towers over me. Places his hand on the back of my neck, kisses me roughly. Me, plain old Jude Sullivan, with my cheap clothes and underfed body. Someone like him could like me, want to wrap his arms around me and never let go. Cigarette Boy proposed to me from the top of the park slide as I held on tight to railings, not believing it was really happening. Clouds spun like sugar while he held out a ring with a rock the size of Priscilla’s.
As I opened my eyes I fancied there were sea horses galloping by my face. The sound of heavy rain beating down on the caravan roof. The light had changed, as if we were under water.
A sharp knock on the door brings me fully conscious. Dad came in holding a folded copy of The Sun newspaper in his hand, Mum’s favourite. This was new. He dropped the top part of the paper to reveal the front-page, without a word to cushion the blow.
‘Elvis Dead at 42’. A photo of my hero holding a towel to his bloated face. I made a gagging noise and clutched at my heart.
“Jude, are you alright?” Grace shot a look at our Dad. “What were you thinking of breaking it to her like that?”
Dad smiled. “Breakfast in five minutes.” Dad had never approved of my obsession with The King of Rock and Roll. He had found love letters I had written to Elvis when I was ten. I’d put them on the window sill as a homage to my love. I had meant to hide them but I’d forgotten. His face had turned white when he found them. Dad was five years younger than Elvis. I’d listened at the living room door while he talked with Mum.
“Jean, do you think Jude should talk to someone about this. It’s not right. A girl being in love with a fully grown man.”
“Derek, don’t be silly. It’s just a girlish fixation. Mine was Buddy Holly.”
“I don’t know. She’s a bit of a worry that one.”
I found something black to wear. I wasn’t allowed to wear black but I’d picked up some bits and pieces at the Girl Guides jumble sale as it was for a ‘good cause’. I had on a black pencil skirt neither of my parents had laid eyes on and a navy jumper. Grace put her arm round my shoulder, she had to stand on tip toes to reach it.
“Clear a place for Jude. She’s devastated.” She’s never lost her knack for drama.
Mum and Dad moved the cruet set to one of the seats. My brother looked up at me, eyes wide, wondering what I would do next. “Sorry for your loss,” Karl said before giggling under his breath. Mum cuffed him round the face. Grace stared at him. “You are so cold.”
I remember a strained breakfast. My first experience of loss to the backdrop of stilted conversation, and soggy cereal. Loss followed me around in later teenage years. Three years later I became obsessed with The Beatles, my favourite was John Lennon. Most people learnt about death from their pets, but we weren’t allowed pets.
After we had finished eating everyone cleared the table around me while I sat there, hopefully looking sad and majestic. The air was close, and I was starting to sweat under my nylon jumper. The only alternative was a pink one with Dumbo the elephant on it. “Do you want anything from the shops, Mum? I want to take a walk.” Grace started scurrying around. “Alone.” Her face dropped. I felt sorry for her, but I felt the need to brood, to process sad thoughts.
“We could always do with more sterilised milk.” Mum gave me more coins than needed. “Get something for yourself, sweetheart.”
I found my knitted beret but decided I would look more the romantic heroine if my hair got wet, the only time it would lie flat. It looked longer that way too.
As I left the caravan Mum shouted. “Take your brolly, Jude. There’s no point looking tragic if you catch your death.”
It was one of those dome umbrellas. The idea being that you could see through the plastic as you walked. It was completely blurred, and you couldn’t see through it even when it wasn’t raining. They quickly went out of fashion after people collided in the street, but my mother had a knack for picking up things from the bargain bins.
“Hey look everyone. Pencil animals to cheer up your pencils and make you smile.” “Jude, jelly shoes. Cheap at half the price.” “Broken biscuits!” None of us would eat broken biscuits. They ended up in the bottom of the cup when you dunked.
I dumped the umbrella in the margarine tub by the door. It was meant to be filled with rainwater to water the plants Mum had planted. “Jean, those plants are looking good.” Dad hadn’t realised that Mum had planted plastic flowers. She was hopeless at gardening.
It wasn’t far to the general store. ‘General store’ reminded me of America and America of Elvis. Heart attack at forty-two. Tragic. Of course, at that stage no one knew the ultimate tragedy, this beautiful, troubled man had died on the toilet.
By the time I got to the shop I was wet and steaming. The temperature was rising and the rain more than the usual steady drizzle. The shop smelt of fun. Bon-bons in jars and liquorice sticks. I loved to look at the magazines stuffed with free gifts. Last week I had found a Jackie comic with free sunglasses. My latest edition had a story about a girl who put her boyfriend off by being totally obsessed with David Essex. Worth making a note. I had enough things going against me; I didn’t want to put a boy off with any of my obsessions. Elvis wasn’t the only one. I had a girl-crush on Marie Osmond and had already decided I would have twins, when the time came, and I’d call them Donny and Marie. I couldn’t call a child Elvis, it wouldn’t go down well at Wood Green Infants.
I picked up a copy of Diana, the magazine for young ladies, and walked past the papers to get to the milk. The daily headlines held me in their grip. The King is Dead: Elvis. Elvis is Dead, next to a picture of my hero covered in sweat, pasty and fat. Elvis, King of Rock. Dies at 42. Where was the man in black leather who danced and made my legs turn to water? Where was the King of Rock and Roll? This man wasn’t him.
If I didn’t pick up a newspaper it wouldn’t be true. If this could happen then life was rubbish and God didn’t exist. My stupid magazine fell to the floor. I felt sick.
A hand grasped my shoulder firmly. I could smell juicy fruit chewing gum and stale cigarettes. The ghost of Elvis?
“I know how you feel. He was the King. The coolest.” Not an American voice. The ghost of Elvis took my hand and squeezed it until it hurt. The grip loosened and I looked up into the eyes of The Cigarette Boy.
Eventually Ernie who ran the store coughed. “You kids gonna buy anything? I’m not running a grief counseling group.”
Cigarette Boy turned to me. “You wanna hang out?”
Oh yes. “Yes. Please.”
The rain was heavier now, and no one was about. Cigarette Boy, still clutching my hand, pulled me along to the play park.
“You don’t mind the rain do you, Elvis Girl?” My heart swelled.
I shook my head and my hair, which was plastered to the side of my face, sent out a spray of raindrops. He stopped at the roundabout and let go of my hand. “Come on.” He sat on one of the triangle seats, beckoning me to sit on another. We were soaked through.
“No one understands. My Dad had the newspaper out on the breakfast table. Not a word. He knows I love Elvis.”
I found it surprising that Cigarette Boy would have parents. Such a thought seemed too bourgeois. I’d imagined he roamed the park alone, surviving on hot chips and the generosity of besotted housewives.
“Mine came in holding up the newspaper as if it were a joke.” Cigarette Boy spat out something green in reply. It landed on the grass a foot from us. “They don’t take us seriously. I swear my Dad was never young.” He held out his hand. “Mark. Mark Baker. But I’m thinking of changing it to Presley. By deed poll.”
I nodded, wearing my cool face. “Jude Sullivan.” I took his hand and my stomach flipped.
The rain was easing off as Mark started patting down his pockets. “Fancy a smoke?”
“No. I’m trying to give them up.” I hadn’t done anything more dangerous in my life that cramming two Crème eggs into my mouth at the same time, but Mark wasn’t to know. He nodded and gave me a ‘too right’ kind of look.
Just then Mum appeared from our caravan waving an umbrella furiously.
“Your old dear?” asked Mark.
“Yep.” My face reddened under my sopping hair. I gave a ‘coming in a minute’ wave in Mum’s direction. I wasn’t sure about calling her ‘old dear’. My mum was funny and good at parties. I wanted to grow up to be like her but she wouldn’t be best pleased I’d forgotten the sterilised milk “If it’s sunny tomorrow, do you fancy going for a swim at the pool with me?”
I could hardly believe my ears. I nodded vigorously and started to run off. “Nice paint job.” Mark pointed at our caravan sniggering.
“Elvis brought you together.” Grace said with confidence later. We were at the pier devouring Mr Whippies. Ice cream ran down our arms as we tried to lick it away in time. Mum and Dad dragged us all out for a walk along the promenade once the rain had stopped. Dad was too tight to buy 99’s.
“I can tell you’re smitten. Is his name Byron?”
“Mark Baker. But he might change it to Presley. By deed poll.” Grace nodded sagely but I could tell she didn’t know what it meant. Nor did I for that matter. I imagined Mark’s arm draped round my shoulder as we hung out at the swimming pool. Older girls giving me daggers as he whispered something clever and funny in my ear.
When I reached the pool the following day, my towel wrapped firmly around my skinny frame, I had no intention of getting into the water, I still wore a one-piece, Mum thought I was too young for a bikini. I spotted Mark leaning against a wall as far away from the pool as he could be, I approved. I walked towards him. His eyes were dark, nearly black, and he was wearing a pair of brief swimming trunks, also black. He was a lot skinnier than I’d thought. He wasn’t smoking, nowhere to put his cigarettes, but I could tell he wanted to.
“Hello, Mark.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Jude. Jude Sullivan.”
He nodded. Two girls walked by, spilling out of their bikinis. They burst into giggles when they saw Mark. I expected him to say something suave like; “Hello, Ladies.” But instead he seemed annoyed.
“What are you doing here, Jude?” His eyes were darker than I remembered. His mouth unsmiling.
My heart caught in my mouth. “You asked me. Yesterday. On the roundabout.”
Mark turned towards me and spat out a reply, his chin jutted in my direction. “Piss off.”
I looked down at myself. Regulation black swimsuit, and tatty old towel. I had to get away from there. I’d already paid the five pence entry fee. I felt a fool. I passed the giggling girls on my way out. One smiled at me and walked over. How could I ever have thought that a boy like that would be interested in me. “Don’t worry about Moody Mark. He’s always like that. Blows hot and cold all the time.”
. “Come and join us on the swings. I’m Carla.” She slipped her arm through mine. Another girl sitting on the grass said her name was Donna. Carla was already on the swings, she swung through the air with freedom. They were my angels. I told them my name, my voice shaking.
“All the girls fancy him at first, but he doesn’t even notice it. He just loves Elvis.” said Donna.
“I love Elvis too. That’s why we got talking in the shop yesterday.”
‘Mark lives on site during the season, his dad is the bingo caller in the social club.”
Carla chipped in. “He’s been saying all summer that his real dad is Elvis. He looks like him a bit, don’t you think.”
He did. He really did. A thinner, paler version of Elvis. The ghost of Elvis.
“We all believed it a little bit, we wanted to. Glamour’s hard to come by in Felixstowe.”
“But it’s obvious now that he’s not. I mean he would have been whisked off to Graceland by now.” I thought outloud.
I walked back to the caravan. Grace was skipping towards me. “How was the date, Jude?”
“Pooh on toast.”
She grinned. “It’s true, you should never meet your heroes.”
I’d lost two heroes in two days, but I’d made a couple of friends. Swings and roundabouts. And slides — if you counted my brother Karl.

STRANGE DAYS INDEED

A hard time to write. My head is a vacuum with only coping strategies to fill it. Ideas a one-way street. My once a week trip is to the grocery store, I find no muse among the cashiers or shelf stackers, although I do find grit and bravery. Just about everyone who’s allowed out for work is wearing a uniform, a necessary barrier between us. No creativity there but essential services. Looking after us, saving our lives.

I’ve never spent so much time at home. Although, to be honest I have, when mental illness was a cloak I wore. Cue the Walker Brothers. This is different. My constants; my husband, my sons, the dog. The tv remote, pages of a drawing book waiting to be filled. A blank page on my laptop. Constantly looking at my phone, for news, when there is only one story. Regurgitated through social media. I’ve done that many stupid Facebook quizzes. I’m Doris Day, my husband is Keanu Reeves. I’m an oblong, a sunset, a patch of gravel near the lawn.

Another constant is our homes. Mine is new. We moved in as the virus grounded us. It has lots of delights but no old treasures to find. No old pens or coin down the back of the sofa, or an ancient, rolled up magazine behind the heater. Everything in this house was chosen carefully by me.

A home like a huge eye that looks out, and no one looks in. I can see the sky, but can the sky see me? I’ve lived in 22 houses. Beachside units, a McMansion, a garden flat. Water views, acreage, green hills and a mountain that disappears in misty weather.

I marvel that the people in my psychological thrillers and dramas on the telly are still allowed out. Where is their social distancing? Where do they buy their toilet rolls from? Then I remember, my reality is now science fiction fact. What will our world look like in the future? Will we go back to normal, or will our stories change forever?

Will nature take back what we have ruined? Is this the in breath before a completely new outbreath? All questions, no answers.

I awake every morning and the virus is still not the first thing I think of. It’s the second. It takes a moment to form. I try not to think about it too much for it’s always been what we don’t know that frightens us. I get up and shower, sometimes I put makeup on. I exercise, I make tea, drink coffee. Eat three meals a day. I read, I watch. I wait. How about you? What colour is the sky in your world?

MAKING A CLEAN BREAST OF IT

I think I must be entering my second childhood. I always thought this meant going back to childish ways; dribbling your food, banging cutlery on the table. Wetting your pants. But at the grand old age of 52 (believe me it doesn’t seem like much from where I’m sitting) I’m missing the wild part of me that I spent years trying to forget.

I’m never going to go bra-less under a tight tee-shirt again but I may start wearing clothing with statements emblazoned across my chest. My sister has bought me many over the years and I regret I didn’t have the confidence to wear WONDER WOMAN out and about. I wore it for exercise and knocking around the house. It was my nick-name for a while in my London days.

Today I wore my REVOLUTION a la Russell Brand tee-shirt to pick up a prescription from the chemists. A silver haired man engaged me in conversation. It felt good and safe that he wanted to know all about revolution and not just to stare at my ‘charlies’. I may dig out that PARIS IS A STATE OF MIND I’ve always felt too awkward to wear. Just because I’ve never visited said city, but I do have plans to. So there.

I asked my husband for a leather biker jacket for my birthday. Of course I had one, back in the day. With a leather fringe which went out of fashion too soon. I wore it to the Anti-Heroin festival in Crystal Palace, and on the back of BSA’s, Triumph’s and Suzuki’s. Holding on to long haired boys while my own waist-length mane twirled into knots in the wind.

Thinking about it I used to wear a lot of statement tee-shirts – the one with tyre marks that I wore to Stonehenge Free Festival. And the rather scary graveyard one that I leant to my cousin and never saw again.

I wore stockings of every colour and print, coupled with mini-skirts before they came back in fashion. If I had been born later I would have worn them with shorts but I stopped wearing shorts ten years ago. I donned ripped jeans because I’d climbed mountains in them, gate crashed parties by crawling under fences with an opened bottle of French red in one hand. I’d earned those rips. The store-bought, ready-made torn jeans of today wouldn’t suit me. It’s been a long time since my ‘scotch eggs’ (rhyming slang) were skinny.

A couple of years ago I started buying scarves (which I hadn’t previously got the hang of – what to do with them?). Not just to hide my ageing neck, they suddenly seemed like a good idea. And I love them still but I want to wear them with my Connies and my kick-arse second childhood threads. I’ve discussed dyeing my hair purple (once the grey arrives) with the husband. He’s not sure but I want to be Helena Bonham-Carter not Jackie O. There’s life in the pre-menopausal, temperature-challenged, slightly moody old cow yet.

Christmastime, oh Christmastime

Christmastime and the past festive times are snugly bedfellows. As parents we try to bring, or avoid, our Dickensian ghosts of Christmas past. The husband lived in a huge house and the family Christmas tree was tall enough to reach two floors – the living area had a galley that ran around the top. High enough for many a childhood accident, and to put the angel on top of the tree I suppose.

Christmas Day involved three trips to church and presents were given out by Pop after the Queen’s Speech by the warmth of the fireside.

Meanwhile in the shires, our new build (updated every year or so) was without a fireplace. Father Christmas was clever enough to dump a Santa sack filled with toys at the end of our beds. Presents from family and friends were neatly wrapped, but for some reason (economics and time probably) my practical Dad decided not to wrap the gifts from him and Mum. There were a lot of them and this decision made access easy, after midnight when the man in red left the house. Shouts and the turning on of lights regularly disturbed the remaining night until dawn arrived and we all gave up.

Our tree was made of plastic, and green and silver tinsel. It was placed on a table to give it stature. Dates and nuts gathered round its red plastic pot.

No Queen’s speech for us. Top of the Pops was king. Waiting to hear who’d made the top slot in the charts before lunch. Slade and Wizard dancing energetically on a tiny stage. Looking back at the disc jockeys who presented it our 70’s childhoods has a dark side now.

In the present, no pun intended, we have our traditions on the other side of the globe. Stockings on the mantelpiece after dark on Christmas Eve. Gaudy tinsel blowing in Queensland’s humid breeze. The real tree I insist on, although huge, not as big as the husband’s childhood one, the bigger presents jostle for space under it. It took me and the kids years to talk the husband into opening the presents earlier in the day. Especially since the Queen’s Speech isn’t shown until bedtime.

We have Christmas pop songs playing from late November, our family lunch out, our Boxing Day cinema date. And on Christmas Eve I’m massaging butter under the skin of the turkey, muttering under my breath and listening to shouts of joy coming from the pool.  Even the dog’s in there.

Christmas morning I’m cooking a lunch which really belongs in the Northern Hemisphere. We play board games after lunch but now the boys are almost grown. Son no.1 has a girlfriend and they will make their own traditions. I remember the husband, when he was just the boyfriend, and our Christmas Eve tradition of cheese fondue and Drop Dead Fred on the telly. I implore my kids to spend at least one future Christmas in the colder climes. There’s nothing quite like it.

WOMAN WARMING

This morning, the last day of January, two thirds into summer I looked up and noticed the light streaming through the trees into our home. Why had I not noticed this before? Why had I not visited the beach? (Dot-to-dot patterns of tiny moles and freckles might have had something to do with it.) Why was I smiling again?

The temperature at 9.00am was below mid 20’s. The needle hadn’t pointed to 30 at eight in the morning. I can choose to take a dip in the pool – my life doesn’t depend on it. I won’t have to spend the day in wet soggy swimmers in order to get my chores done. I am free.

Every summer seems to get hotter as I let the flame of menopause lick my boiling head.  We live in the hinterland, miles from sea breezes. Our house is nestled in a small valley. Our cottage is full of holes – all the better for snakes to get in but without basic insulation. “We can’t put in a air-conditioner. It won’t work unless everything is sealed,” the husband says. I’ll seal him if he doesn’t watch it.

Pool dips, cold water splashes. Sitting under fans. Mild heatstroke which had me peering into a bucket expecting a vegetarian panini to resurface.

I have an arsenal of cooling devices for bedtime. Ceiling fan, two pedestal fans strapped to the foot rest of our bed. A very loud machine with an internal fan. We filled it with ice and water and directed its flow to be swept up by the two aforementioned fans. Before bed I had a total immersion shower and headed upstairs with an ice bucket. I soaked a sarong in the water and draped it over my poor hot body. Soaked a small towel and placed it over my middle-aged glow-in-the-dark neck. The whole operation took about half an hour. I laid awake wondering how the husband had talked me into moving to Queensland.

We missed our lovely trip to New Zealand, cool breezes and cold oceans, because the husband broke his leg, had four operations and complications just before Christmas. He asked the doctor if air travel was possible. He mouthed the words DEATH and TRAP.

It’s getting worse for me every year but this year the husband kissed my beetroot coloured head before he went off to sleep, muttering something about research. Air-conditioner. Next year. I think I heard.

February please be kind. And hopefully next summer I’ll drift off to sleep in a polar blast of icy air, and my face will no longer be heart attack purple.

 

 

 

SEASONS END

I’m a rugby mum. I have two strapping teenage boys who charge the field; tackling, going hard, ripping the pill, fending and running fast.

But I’m a nerd, a book worm. Was always last to be picked in sports. I remember the shame as my back prickled with horror as it rubbed against the fence while I made myself as small as possible. Skinny and pale from lack of sun. My two don’t get their sporting genes from me.

From February to September I drive my boys to training. I’m there at the school gates, kit bags packed, snacks at the ready. My youngest and my eldest, a friend or two, pile in. I drive a round trip of an hour and a half to get them there. And back home again. The car less fragrant after training. Rugby socks and sweaty armpits, the scent of them clog my nostrils.

Games on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. The jersey wash. Rep rugby runs simultaneously with the club season. Weekend tournaments on the Gold Coast, driving to Kempsey. Scary motel rooms.

During the season I see myself as supportive mummy. A woman of integrity and grace. Chatting to parents on the sidelines. Clapping politely when either team score. I am a pacifist. I wear a half-smile. I’m a woman of substance.

Until the Grand Finals.

I turn into a lunatic. I scream, I shout, I bellow. I punch the air aggressively. Blood runs steaming hot through my body. I jump up and catcall while everyone else remains seated. But I can’t stop.

And I cry. Sob even. My youngest, the captain, giving a speech. A speech he is teased for by his mates. The low voice-breaking wobble. Forgetting to thank everyone. To me he’s Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill. Bono.

I bawl my eyes out win or lose. Then comes the realisation that I’m free. I don’t have to live in my car for the next five months. Six layers of clothes in the foot well, three changes of shoes. I can be home before dark. Have time to cook.

But first comes the post-rugby season blues. That rugby shaped hole at my centre. I try to reconcile graceful mummy with the crazy witch from the weekend.

“You’re very aggressive, Mum.” My eldest tells me. My bottom lip wobbles. He smiles. “But in a good way.”