March 07, 2009

So far so good…

Work in progress...

July 2006

“HANNAH!” David bawled at her as her tyres screeched against the tarmac.  The smell of burnt rubber spilled through the open window and made her feel nauseous.  She squinted at the glare from the sun.  She glanced into her rear view mirror and saw an elderly man emerge from a Jaguar behind her and wondered why David was leaning across her to close her window.  Other drivers, equally pissed off at being stuck in a ten mile tailback, were cursing her from open windows.  Six cars down the line three teenage boys were sat cross legged on the roof of a stationary Mark One Golf, and paused their game of cards to add ironic applause to the atmosphere; that couldn’t possibly be safe, she thought to herself.  In the car to her left two children were gazing wide eyed at the crazy woman who had just tried to reverse down a dual carriageway.  The old man was walking towards her car; she held down button to lock the door and urged David to do the same. 

“Fuck this”, she muttered to herself shifting from reverse into first gear. 

“Turn the engine off, Hannah.  I’ll speak to this bloke and then we will switch places.” David was unnaturally calm.  He rubbed his face in frantic despair, a gesture she was becoming accustomed to watching.  He left the car, slamming the door behind him with less composure and met the man from the Jaguar halfway.  Hannah shuffled round in her seat to watch her diplomatic David reason with the man she had come very close to killing.  His hands were raised, palms facing outward- submissive.  He was defending her.  She was suddenly elated, she wanted to kiss him.  She decided she would.  He hurried back to the car and tried to open the door on her side.  He was sweating.  She unlocked the door, ready to hail her hero.

“David!  That was amazing!”  She shrieked as he flew the door open on its hinge.

“Out!”  There would be no debate.  She did not like being told what to do.

“You’re not insured, you shit!” She slurred at him.  David grabbed her by the arm and forced her out the car, dragging her to her knees, laddering her beige tights that were now stained with the blood seeping from the grazed skin.  Humiliated, she rose to her feet to find that David was already belted up in the driver’s seat.  She tried the handle, but he had locked the door behind him.  She slammed both palms against the window over and over, screaming until her throat was raw.  She was unaware of the stares, or she didn’t care.  Exhausted, she rested her head on the top of the car.  The bodywork had become warm under the afternoon sun and was prickly against head.  Defeated, she walked around the back of her car and sunk into the passenger seat.

“What now?”  She asked, sheepish and condescended.

“We wait.  Like everybody else.” And he switched on the radio, awaiting the traffic report.

March 2005

Hannah woke up in the hospital. She squinted at the clinical light and the pain behind her eyes made her feel nauseous. Her mouth was dry and she could still taste the hospital coffee burnt onto the back of her throat- except now the taste was hours old and had invaded her entire mouth. She reached across the table for the plastic jug and searched for a cup. Her joints ached and her muscles were sore from having spent three nights in a plastic chair. Lifting her body from the chair she crossed the room towards to the wash basin in order to clean her teeth. She caught sight of her reflection in the mirror; she gently pulled at the corners of her eyes to try and expunge the signs of wrinkles forming.  She inspected the dark circles around her eyes and considered their permanence; she scraped back her hair into an elastic band, ignoring its need for shampoo, a hair brush, anything. She wondered where David was and how long she had been asleep. She glanced at the clock above the nurse’s station, but was unsure whether to consider the time as day or night. She thought it must be the morning as she watched fresh faced relatives wander through the special baby unit with flowers and giant bears. She inspected her own impressive collection of balloons and cards and poured herself a glass of water.

She stood beside her son’s cage; he stared back, his eyes were unnaturally large- posing an unanswerable question. The ward was long and thin, two rows of metal pens extending down past the nurses’ station to a wide window. The position of the babies was hierarchical; the closer to the window, the more chance your baby stood at survival. The window babies were at the gate of sanguinity.  Hannah couldn’t feel the breeze that would inevitably be tumbling through the window at the end of the row; she was stuck in purgatory. She returned to the cot and touched the child’s hand.  It was an unusual exchange, she didn’t want to wake him, yet she was scared to let him sleep.

“Open your eyes.” She whispered. The baby stirred, but didn’t obey.

The nature of human love had been massively overridden by the human instinct to survive; she longed to hold him to her chest, but instead she scrutinized every breath that inflated his lungs. She placed her finger against the formidable bar and watched the oxygen enter his body through a series of tubes and machines that she couldn’t even begin to comprehend. They looked invasive on his tiny, incapable figure, like they were weighing him down, causing more harm than help. She wanted to rip them from him and carry him home. He would be fine with her, with his mother.

She heard somebody enter the room touch her on the shoulder. She didn’t turn round, she could smell David’s aftershave, but she didn’t want him to see her face.

“How is he?” He asked. What a pathetic question, she thought. “Fine.” she said.

But her mind was churning out awful scenarios. What if her son died? Would her grievances be brought into question? Surely she wouldn’t be entitled to cry as much, to lament as deeply as a mother who had held, cherished and nurtured their child. Would they tell her to move on? Even worse, would they be right?

“I’m going to go home and take a shower. Will you take this shift?” She asked her husband in a polite fashion she usually reserved for co-workers and employees. He said of course, and she walked briskly down the hospital corridor and into the blinding sunlight. She thought her skin looked whiter than the other visitors.

December 2006

Hannah stared silently out of the window as David switched off the engine. Her mother’s house looked different and she didn’t know why. It used to be her sanctuary, a place of support where nobody would let her down. It was warm, nothing in the house matched, the sofa was old and covered in stains, the carpet was threadbare, but it was her home. She always thought she could never love a place more than this, yet in the dark, since it happened, the house looked different. Although she couldn’t see in she knew it would be the same, they always knew what to say in sensitive situations. Her mother could always find the right words, but she couldn’t do anything with their empty words- she just wanted to be alone. The walls looked thick and she thought that if she screamed then nobody outside the house would hear her. She felt hot and anxious and opened the car door. She longed for David to hold her hand, but instead he loaded his arms with the gifts from the back of the car, ignoring her silent plea. The gravel crunched beneath her shoes as she approached the front door- she didn’t need to ring the bell, she had a key, but she did so anyway, out of courtesy, she wasn’t ready to feel at home.

It was the weekend prior to Christmas, the family had gathered to decorate the oversized Norwegian Pine (it looked smaller in the garden centre) and as they ritualistically, as they did every year, removed five inches from the top of the tree so it would stand up, they forced happy giggles with glasses of Cava to the overplayed sounds of Christmas classics.  Hannah sat on the coffee table and dug around in dusty boxes decorated with holly leaves searching for the nativity scene, the angel she made in pre-school and the handcrafted dolls they’d bought in the Philippines all those years ago.  Year’s worth of memories wrapped up in old newspaper and boxed away for forty-nine weeks of the year; and then evoked all at once. It was like a tidal wave, the weight of the water pushing down on her stomach and she found herself grieving for a history she would never have.  Hannah donned the brown reindeer ears and attached a bauble to her nose with some blu-tak.  Her sister laughed; her David told her to grow up, with unnatural scorn.  Slowly they added the charms to the tree.  It became a palimpsest of everything she once loved and treasured.  The tree looked hectic and taunting even though half the decorations had gone with her father when he left.

Hours passed and she had become giddy from the wine. Her sister kissed her upon the head and left to be at home with her husband whilst her mother had retired to her bed, leaving Hannah sitting on the sofa, watching the lights twinkle with regimental pace.

Hannah didn’t know where, but she’d heard the door slam, the diesel engine start and car reverse from the driveway in either anger or despair.  The headlights shone through the curtains in the living room and disappear as David reversed the car from the driveway. She wasn’t surprised. She watched the lights blink, adding a warm flickering glow to the living room; and for a moment she gave considerable thought to burning the house down.  She set her champagne flute down on the mahogany coffee table and approached the tree considering the origins of this ludicrous tradition.  She stepped onto the sofa beside the tree to give herself height, took the angel from the top and gently placed her on the coffee table beside her glass.  And then, returning to the task at hand, with all her force, she pushed the tree to the floor.  The fairy lights continued to systematically twinkle in regimented configuration, but as she stepped down from the sofa glass baubles cracked under the hard base of her slippers, loose pine needles were scattered across the cream carpet, like grass being enveloped in freshly fallen snow and Kirsty MacColl sang sweet abuse to Shane MacGowan over the stereo.

March 2005

Hannah opened the window expecting the aroma of early spring, but instead she was assaulted by the dense fumes emerging from the hospital’s kitchen below her. She was hungry, yet refused to swallow the poison served to her every day on a brown plastic plate. She glanced in misery at the packaged prawn sandwich discarded to the waste paper basket the day before. She closed the window and pulled down the blind. As she slumped into the plastic chair she considered opening the unused camp bed that sat, discarded, in the corner of the humid and achingly oppressive cubicle. She closed her eyes.

“Mrs Ranger.” Hannah felt the nurse’s slight hand brush her knee. She opened her eyes and forced a smile.

“The doctor needs to take some blood.” Hannah nodded her acceptance towards the nurse. Her name was Jessica, she was in her early twenties; Hannah thought she looked like a Dolphin- she exuded benevolence. It was sickening. But she liked her.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”

“No.” Hannah was adamant as she saw the doctor enter the room. He was little older then Jessica, but his arrogance pulverised her demeanour to pulp when he failed to acknowledge either the nurse or Hannah’s response, and he repeated the demand.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”

He looked like a ferret.

Hannah stood, but rather than obey, positioned herself by her son’s head and relished the look of disdain on the doctor’s face. She smiled- “Well?”

He took the baby’s feeble arm and thrust the needle into the search for a vein. He was struggling; the baby’s body jarred in agony, his subtle features warped and contorted. The doctor’s supercilious manner was replaced by beads of sweat forming on his brow. Hannah watched her son’s face descend into a pool of violent blue.

“He isn’t breathing.” The nurse urged the doctor to pull away. His eyes met Hannah’s and they shared the acknowledgement of his treason. A torrent of abuse began to fall from her tongue and stung her throat as she battled between vivid despair and lucid anger. She stepped into him and pulled back her fist and threw it into the doctor’s cheek, and then with the other fist, pitching the force of her blow into his chest.  She continued as the doctor held her at arm’s length by her shaking shoulders. Another two nurses hurried into the room, and she felt the sting of the needle before the other nurse supported her other arm. As the two nurses lowered her to the chair in the corner she cried softly to herself, “He’s my baby. He’s my baby.”


October 22, 2008

The Old Woman

Her walking stick was a magic wand; the silver plait that hung from her frail head had been woven from a spider’s web; the large emerald that sat upon her neck was almost certainly used for dark magic. The wart on her chin, her long crooked nose and the square ends to her shoes convinced me. She was a witch.

It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I hadn’t looked at the clock, but I knew that this was the case. She was never late, and she never missed a date. I have grown up in this pub; my parents have owned it for little less than 30 years, it is my history. When I was 9 I changed a barrel for the first time, when I was 12 I was cleaning the ale lines and as soon as I turned 18 I began working at the bar. I knew all the regulars, but as years passed so did people. Some die, of course, others move away; new regulars move in as the old move out.

Her delicate, papery hands had once been strong and handsome; her hair had once been an explosion of golden tresses upon her head; her eyes used to beguile any man who looked on her. Her moth eaten, musty gardening jacket that sat across her weak shoulders had replaced a regal cape of magenta and gold. She was a princess in exile.

I saw her through the window approaching the entrance. She was the antithesis of the other locals in the street at 2pm on a Friday afternoon. She walked slowly, she had nowhere to be, no deadlines to meet. To her the weekend was just two more days in the week, unnecessarily labelled so. The door was not a heavy one, but she mustered considerable effort in order to open it. For other locals I would have already poured their pint or mixed their gin with their tonic, however, for the old woman I felt this would have been an insult to her routine. So every day I waited at the bar, ready to greet her in anticipation of her order.

This is where they used to drink together. The diamond ring on her left hand, the tarnished gold earrings and the emerald pendant were all gifts from him. They exchanged sweet nothings over the table she sits at every day. She knows he has not left her; she will not leave him, but waits patiently for his return. She is a romantic.

There is no conversation. Every time I serve her is the first time, I am a stranger. I take a glass from under the counter and pour her a pint of India Pale Ale. I think she must watch as I pull the long wooden arm towards me, releasing the coppery liquid from the barrel. Does she compare the way I pull her pint to the way my mother does? Does she even recognise the difference between my mother and me? She gives me the exact change; the price has risen by 5 pence since last year, but I haven’t told her this, instead I gratefully accept her fee and watch her shuffle to her table in the corner beside the out of tune piano, where she will undoubtedly sit until 4 o’clock.

She is old, but does not age. She will never leave and she cannot die. She is a lost spirit.


October 15, 2008

Secrets 2

I saw her approach the restaurant from the common. In her effort not to be noticed she was the most obvious entity in the square. I couldn’t see her face to begin with, she had a thin scarf wrapped around up past her mouth and she was staring at the ground, her loose hair falling down over her ears and past her eyes. She stopped abruptly outside the entrance, lifted her head to the sign above the door and eagerly lit a cigarette. She was lingering beside the window, straining to peer through the frosted pane. I couldn’t yet tell what she was doing, whether she was waiting for somebody; perhaps avoiding an enemy; or spying on a cheating lover. The latter would have explained her rather pitiful attempt to shield her face and appear inconspicuous.

She discarded her cigarette, half smoked, on the floor. I could see that she needed the comfort of further stalling what she inevitably had to do, whatever that may be. She smoothed down her skirt, stalling further, and finally bent down to rearrange the strap on her left shoe. I kept my eye on her as she ultimately walked through the door. I studied her from the other side of the window, I was intrigued. Her nervous demeanour was obvious even to an outsider looking in. She stood just inside the entrance and scanned the room, still keeping most of her face veiled. She cautiously walked around the perimeter, as if she was following an invisible line, though her eyes were no longer fixed to the floor, but at the top of the staircase leading to the upstairs bar.

I saw her disappear through a door, possibly to the bathroom. I could have given up on her now, but I found her manner fascinating, almost comic. After a few minutes she still hadn’t reappeared, and I began to think she had found what she was looking for in a toilet cubicle; or maybe her strategy had been trashed by her irrational anxiety, and she’d not resurface for hours.

And then I saw her return to the top of the stairs. I could see now that she was trying to avoid somebody, she paused before she mustered the courage to walk downstairs. She began her return journey, taking each step with painful caution; she had not chosen her footwear with any consideration for her anticipated stealth; opting instead for strapped stiletto heels.

And then she froze. Someone had hold of her hand; a man. He looked amused as she pulled the scarf from her neck, she must have been hot and she certainly looked daft. He tried to engage her in conversation, but she kept the exchange brief. I wondered whether this man was who she was trying to avoid. He looked pleased to see her, his smile was welcoming and he held onto her hand with loose affection. Her body was half turned toward him, but she pulled her hand from his with unconvincing urgency and walked to the bottom of the stairs. His lack of perseverance in making her stay had obviously disappointed her.

At the bottom of the stairs she scanned the room once more, but with more intent than on her entrance. She was now looking for somebody. I was amazed to see that even in her anxious state nobody seemed to notice or care what she was doing; perhaps she didn’t know anybody. She spotted somebody across the room and she waved feebly. I strained to see, but it was impossible. I moved along in hope for a better view, I was desperate to know who she was looking for. I wasn’t surprised to spot her through the adjacent window joining, at the bar, another man! She began to push her way through the hordes of people who were either too drunk or just too rude to acknowledge her plight. She greeted this one with more ease than she had the last, reaching up to plant a friendly kiss on his cheek. He put his arms around her with loving intensity, and I wondered why this forced her to retreat so quickly. She looked keenly towards the barman, hoping to be rescued from what was quickly turning into an uncomfortable exchange. The man had his back to me, I couldn’t see his face, but he was talking at her. Were they arguing? She was answering him, although avoiding eye contact; an irrefutable sign of guilt. And then she stopped suddenly and stared straight at him. Through the constant hum of people’s voices and laughter, I could tell there was silence between them. Something had been said and it couldn’t be taken back.


October 09, 2008

Secrets

She had never been entirely sure of the city; maybe it was the inevitable confrontation that loomed before her, or the fact that she had been away for so long, had called a different city her home; but she found herself stumbling across the dark common trying desperately to find the bar that used to be a church, or the pub that used to be the library, or even the restaurant that had once housed the local Women’s Institute. She was confused. And as her stilettos sank into the damp turf she immediately regretted her choice of footwear.

She was grateful for the chill in the air. It was barely October, but she found solace in being able to hide her face behind the thin scarf wrapped across her shoulders. She finished her cigarette outside the entrance and tried to gaze in through the now heavily condensed windows; the only thing worse than walking into a party alone, she thought, was walking in alone unprepared for confrontation and interrogation.

She rearranged her skirt once more, bent down and re altered the strap on the shoe of her one smaller foot and walked into the restaurant. She was met by noise and laughter; she recognised nobody. She edged around the perimeter to the staircase hoping to make it to the bathroom in time to compose herself before having to shamelessly lie to her dearest friend. She was lucky; the inevitable queue for the ladies began inside the initial doorway. She waited patiently rehearsing over and over her expression that would indicate her innocence. She knew she couldn’t spend the entire party locked in a cubicle with a porcelain bowl. She would tell Adam eventually, but not tonight; ritual humiliation, she was aware, was not the most desirable party piece. She also knew that friendships are precarious, especially ones with secrets. And secrets, when revealed, must be handled with sensitivity and class. Not tonight, she told herself.

She wondered if she should talk to Paul before she approached Adam, or whether she should avoid Paul altogether. It was a big party, it was possible. She had always doubted her ability to lie well. She had always assumed this was because she was too pure of heart; however, she was beginning to think more and more that it was merely an art form she had never quite mastered.

She left the toilets in the same manner in which she entered the restaurant; vigilantly, although anybody standing by could have mistaken her caution for nervousness. As she headed hurriedly back towards the stairs, face still buried beneath her scarf, she felt somebody grab her hand.

“Where’s the fire?” An animated voice asked from the surrounding noise.

She froze. Removing the scarf from around her neck (it was a ridiculous disguise, and the restaurant was, in fact, very hot) she looked up and smiled at Paul.

“I need to find Adam.” Paul had not yet let go of her hand. She didn’t want to forcefully pull herself away, but she had a plan. She rarely planned, so she begrudged Paul for trying to ruin her agenda. She pulled her hand from his and began to walk down the stairs. She was disappointed he hadn’t held on tighter, but stuck to her strategy to find Adam.

She saw him across the table tops towards the bar; perched at the end surrounded by friends, work colleagues, people she had never met before. She waved feebly from across the crowed space and pushed her way through the hordes of people who were either too drunk or merely too rude to acknowledge her polite appeal for them to move. She had never liked crowds; she felt uncomfortable in small spaces; and despite the chill outside, this particular space was oppressively hot. She began to feel light headed, and knew the sooner she wished Adam a Happy Birthday and exchanged awkward pleasantries, the sooner she could disappear outside for a cigarette and calculate her next move.

“Happy Birthday.” She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. Adam put his arms firmly around her waist, holding her with far greater intensity than Paul had done. This, to her, was less of a surprise than a concern.

“Have you seen my brother?” He asked innocently, but with undertones of accusation. She was paranoid. Her mouth was dry, she was thirsty, and as she desperately attempted to make eye contact with the barman, urgently trying to convey her need for gin, she muttered something about passing Paul on the stairs.

“Did you talk to him?” He was persistent, and once again her capacity to lie was failing her.

“Yes. Briefly. Do you want another beer?” She reached into the depth of her handbag for her purse, avoiding eye contact; an irrefutable indication of guilt.

“Why are you being so evasive?” This is why she never planned. Her composure slipping, she resorted to the further evasive tactic of answering a question with a question, “Why are you asking so many questions?” She stared at him, she knew what he was about to say, but no matter how many times the phrase passed between them she knew she would never be able to say it back. It broke her heart more than it broke his. He was her best friend.

“I love you.” And there it was. Disappearing into the ether like so many times before, and she replied the only way she knew how. Evasively. “Drink your beer” she muttered pathetically as the barman approached to take her order.


September 27, 2008

Pre–U, Pretty–Unfair.

The government has recently announced new diplomas in humanities, sciences and languages, as well as proposals for an extended diploma designed to create wider opportunity for students hoping to attend university. However, everybody knows the most popular and desired qualification from universities is the traditional A-Level…that is until the introduction of the Pre-U…Pre-University? Pretty-Unfair?

The Pre-U, the government claims, hopes to “restore the importance of essay writing and the end-of-course final examination”, and will be available to those students hoping to grab the top university spots. Amongst the allegations that A-Levels are becoming easier, this is obviously the perfect solution in discriminating between suitable candidates. Or not! The resources required to run the programme will come at a price that only independently run schools can realistically afford.

I, myself was educated at my local state school and was accepted into Warwick university on the basis of my A-Level grades that are fast becoming deemed an average qualification. Further education is now widely available (and so it should be), but with A-Level pass rates reaching 97% there is little to distinguish between the privately educated £26,000 a year students and the “freebie” state schools. And many people would say that’s just not cricket (or lacrosse)! It seems even the government, contradicting their claims for wider access for all, think something has to be done to re-establish the advantageous position that private education used to hold- I doubt many of their children attend the local state comp.

The Pre-U has not been designed to give the advantage to the students who may otherwise be held back. If this was the case, it would be widely available from private schools to inner city comprehensives. The truth is it is an elitist queue jumping tactic designed to give the advantage to the privately educated students who now have to compete with the rest of the UK for the most prestigious university places.


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