bluegrass

Stella and her belly were doing flip flops, as in she was practicing that shoe shuffle dance so popular at bluegrass festivals in her flip-flops and failing miserably and her stomach, God bless it, was a tightly wound as a Jack-in-a-box.

Daniel was filling the saddle-bags in an intricate pattern, weaving each item so everything needed for the road trip was accounted for. He looked up at the sky, the beautiful blue sky and brilliant sunshine polar opposites to how he was feeling. A damp, grey day in England was how he felt. An uneasiness was eating into his core.

Brian picked up Star and they rode over to Stella’s. The radio mic was on but neither spoke. The chasm between them could not be seen, as Star clung to Brian’s back, but it was palpable to them both.

The four friends rode all day on their way to Telluride, stopping off at Grand Junction for the night. Most of it spent in silence as they slept in sleeping bags like sardines in the tiny motel room. Daniel only spoke to say not a bad time from Fort Morgan.

Brian said he was sorry when he tripped over Stella. Star did not speak at all but was sick twice. Stella kept going into the bathroom to practice the dance, she wished she had her fiddle but they had decided not to unpack the instruments.

By this time tomorrow with Daniel on mandolin, Stella on fiddle, Star on banjo and Brian on bass, their four voices, (high lead, tenor, baritone and Star’s beautiful dissonant soprano) harmonising their own material on the Elks Park Stage, they would know if “Blow the Vault” could become the next big thing.

Just like they dreamed of last year when they lost Virginia and Virgil on the journey over from Fort Morgan, they hadn’t performed and spent the next twelve months rejigging the set without two guitars and without their best friends.

quilt

The pieces lay strewn across the floor. Lottie tried to get the colours balanced. She tried to get the shapes in order. It was too much, she was not her Grandmother. Granny Gwendoline was so accomplished in all homecrafts but she was especially fond and gifted at quilting.

The Institute of Women often asked Gwen to give talks on the intricate designs and interwoven colours, neighbours, strangers, friends and relatives all vied for a quilt from the hand of Lottie’s gran.

Intermingled with the small coloured scraps of fabric were photographs. Lottie had been left, grieving for her grandmother, abandoned by her parents, marooned by the only family she had ever known. Her nickname “Cuckoo” coming to haunt her as with each fragment of fabric and snapshot of her life the realisation that she knew nothing and the only person who would give her answer now she knew the questions to ask was dead.

Her life fragmented into a thousand shards of unknown shape or weight.

The will was read today, by a man more befitting a Dickensian novel than Brighton on a sunny day; all jacket and tie with handstitched shirt and classically tailored trousers down from London for the day.

Mother, suitably fussy, suitably hot and most decidedly suitably bothered was dressed in a pale pink suit, Lottie thought it was new, but no opportunity to ask arrived. Father dressed in linen suit with a t shirt, matching of course underneath, he was so dapper, my dad. I wonder, now I know they don’t belong to me do I still call them mum and dad, or Shirley and Harold. How strange, how weird life was going to be.

My siblings, well the brother and sister I have had up to now, had eyes of greed and avarice for the entire reading, waiting for their piece of gran. That made Lottie smile, their piece was worth as much as these fabric scraps. Why was I trying to start a quilt today?

The will of Gwendoline Grottmarsch-Billington Smythe was an uncomplicated piece of literature. A single page with the entry, “I leave my entire estate to Lottie, my only relative, my one true relative, as DNA will prove.” and then it was signed and witnessed. The solicitor affirmed Gran was in her true mind when she wrote it.

The ballistic testing equipment from the local army base could not have been sufficient for the eruption that followed. Lottie sat quietly, not sure what the estate was apart from the house on Windsor Avenue and the car, the sweet, gorgeous, beautiful 1979 Citreon Dyane in turquoise. Lottie loved that car, she was always thrilled to be driven by gran anywhere in the car named “Putt-Putt”.

Shirley, Harold, the two other children, various neighbours and hangers-on were still conversing at loud intervals an hour later. Lottie had sat quietly through the whole thing with two pink spots on her cheeks and a detached frame of mind. The solicitor moved every one else out of the room but their words were clearly heard through the glass door.

“Miss Lottie, this is the key to Gwen’s house. All the paperwork is there. I will meet you at the house at four if that is convenient and we might go through her affairs. There is quite a lot to get through, especially we need to shore everything up nicely to avoid the vultures.” The solicitor was smiling. “It is not often I get to wipe smile off smug nasty people. Today is your freedom day. Go enjoy.”

The barracking outside had not ceased and when Lottie materialised her mother attacked her verbally. Lottie caught various syllables of derision but she had spent 22 years ignoring the cutting remarks from her family and was well versed in ducking through a crowd.

Pushing open the door at gran’s she could smell the lavender from the bedrooms and the lemon balm from the parlour. Gwen had loved gardening, her speciality was herbs and she loved to concoct lotions and potions.

Lottie tidied up the photos and the fabric scraps she had thrown around the room trying to make sense of it all. How could her mother not be her mother. Oh how she had dreamed that she was in the wrong family. But the how was driving her potty. Potty Lottie, that was another nickname of theirs. Cuckoo and Potty. ……

cruisin4disaster

Looking back he couldn’t think of one thing that led him to rifle through her handbag. It was a number of things, or a culmination of things that brought him to that point. Afterwards, of course, he felt justified because he found what he suspected.

In this age of electronic messaging and texting, only his wife would still write and receive letters. And more damning for her, she kept them. Well she kept this one. The one that was burning a hole in his pocket and his heart. The one that explained the changes in her.

She had grown, not physically, although she seemed to take up more space, her personality had grown. She wasn’t by any a stretch a shrunken woman but he thought of her as contained and since she lost weight, petite. Now she was larger than life, laughing out loud, a twinkle in her eye and a skip in her step. She had stopped arguing, that was it, the one thing that started him searching through the house.

She had been on vacation with her sister, on a cruise to the Caribbean. This was normal, she went every year, he hated to fly, they went on a driving tour in the UK or Ireland in September. He was three hours late picking her up at the airport, he expected a fly in his ear all the way home. Instead he was told, she went for a coffee and read her book, no worries. No worries, she said, that wasn’t his wife speaking, he appreciated it at first, the fact that he could do no wrong but after a week or so he found himself pondering on the why. Why the change? Surely the laid-back Jamaican attitude had not overwhelmed her and taken her over.

It took him over a week to search the house, he went into every room, ferreting in every nook and cranny until her handbag was the only place left to be scrutinised. He felt so low, going through her things, he would never ordinarily go in her handbag, not even to borrow a fiver. He would always ask. Maybe that is his problem, maybe that’s why she went elsewhere.

Stop that, he told himself. Yes he was broken-hearted, but he had been broken before, all the babies they had conceived that never got past ten weeks, each time that killed him. Each time it killed them both, just a little. Maybe it was inevitable that with all the elephants that lived in their lounge, one of them was bound to want out, it was so crowded.

Knowing your wife slept with someone else and acting upon the knowing, he discovered over the next few days were entirely different scenarios. In his head he screamed and shouted and plaintively cried what about me. On the surface though as with every other issue they faced, he remained calm.

When the days spilled over into a week he made a decision, he was going to fight for his marriage, he was going to fight for his wife, he was going to fight. He started the next morning, bringing her breakfast in bed, not that anything was ever resolved over a slice of toast, but it was a start. He wasn’t going to bend over backwards and become a doormat, but he was going to do little surprising gestures to bring her back into his bed. There was no need to dwell on the past, no need to talk about her indiscretion, maybe next year he might go on holiday with her, to China or India. 

Maybe all he needed was a wake-up call that marriages are fragile and need nurturing.

His wife rang her sister on the day of the breakfast to tell her the plan was working. “Thanks sis, you are the most fabulous sister in the entire world. To listen to me moan on about him and the marriage. Thank you for all your suggestions, I thought writing the letter was overdoing it but it seems to be having an effect. I just wish we could talk, you know really talk, like me and you do. Maybe this will be the start, there’s a herd of elephants need shifting, love you.”

newsday

She was crying.

Not pretty tears, red swollen eyes, her nose full of snot, running freely as the tears.

She sat staring out of the window, oblivious to the world going on outside. People were beginning to get up and out for the daily grind. Mr Boyson was having trouble starting his motorbike directly opposite, his cursing, slamming and banging going unheard or unseen. Martha and Martin the twins from number 23 were gabbing on at a hundred miles an hour as they swung their bags and shuffled through autumn leaves.

Doris sniffled and wiped snot on her sleeve, grabbing her handkerchief too late for the slug like trail on her clothes but she dried her eyes. “Well this will never do,” she exclaimed to herself and put the telegram back in its envelope and into her apron pocket.

“Clarence, I am putting on the kettle for tea. Are you coming down today, love?” She spoke up the stairs hoping her husband would hear her. She didn’t want to take a tray up today. In the kitchen she straightened the envelope and put it leaning against the salt cellar.

She drew the black out curtains in the parlour and put the gas masks away, hung up in the cloakroom, she wished this damn war would end before anyone else’s son was killed. She sobbed again, before shaking her head and turning to brew the tea.

raindrops

Rain4

It was the rain I missed most. Growing up in Ireland you certainly got used to the soft days, the showers, the heavy downpours and torrential rain. I remember one summer; I must have been ten or eleven. It rained every single day for the entire summer holiday, then the first day of term; bright sunshine.

Sitting in the room watching raindrops fall down the window, like an ever changing waterfall, I remember that. The wind, there was always wind, would drive the rain against the window panes. The panes themselves would shudder and moan. They were the old type, two halves and a sash cord to raise them up or down, only one fixing in the middle. Designed to last, designed before house burglary became an occupation for so many, but they did like to groan.

The house was, I remember, fond of talking. Floorboards creaked as you stood on them, doors whined as you opened and then exhaled when closed. Tiles on the roof thought they were in a rock band, pounding rhythms with the rain, thrashing out da-dum,da-dum, da-dum. Presses and cupboards held their own secrets; moths, insects and spiders all vying to be top-dog of whatever press they were in.

Up the creaky stairs and along the corridor was the bathroom. For a young curious lad the bathroom held the most appeal. In the twilight, silverfish roamed the tiled floor, woodlice snuck out of the skirting board and made a dash for the underbelly, the dark side of the bath. Once I counted four different kinds of mould and fungi growing in the damp humid conditions, black mould on the walls, a turquoise growth in the corner of the bath. Under the sink was a platform, hewn from fresh timber for the ‘smallies’ in the house but it had aged and in the clammy dank darkness of the bathroom and had grown orange and yellow curly foils of fungi. My brother, the daft one, wanted to eat them but then he would eat anything; charcoal, turf, the dog’s dinner. He was always so hungry and so painfully thin.

He was the first of our family to die in the 2014 emergency. He had always been sickly and couldn’t cope without medicine. Slowly getting weaker and paler, more ghost than human, his skin translucent. The veins and arteries throbbed slower and slower. There was nothing we could do to stop his death, living in a big old house ten miles from the nearest neighbour, no transportation; we sat with him as he took his final breath.

Rain5

Dad and I dug a grave for him in the orchard, it was raining and the raindrops were making puddles as fast as we shovelled. Mam wrapped him in curtains and carried him out to the hole that would become his home. It was very sad. Within a year I was the only one left, in the wind, in the rain, in the house that talked. It got less sad, or maybe I was becoming numb to human suffering, maybe that is why I am so good at my job.

I left the house in a misty rain, August 2015, I didn’t lock the door, I wouldn’t be back and there were still a few people living around, in sheds, in ditches, in hedgerows. Let them have a roof that drums and floors that grumble, let them count the fungi. I was done with it, I was done with Ireland. There were no cars visible anymore, when oil stopped coming to our shores people just put their cars away, buses and trains stopped too so you could walk down the middle of the road and no one would run over you, you could walk all the way to Dublin on the railway tracks with no machine ploughing into you.

Walking with no real plan but to get to Cork and then to wherever I could I am amazed that I landed this new role. I sit in the desert, camouflaged and shoot people. It is a lonely occupation, I can go for days without seeing a soul and then, bang, bang, bang three are dead. The bodies get covered in sand just like the raindrops at home helped bury my family.

I miss my old life; I miss the speaking house, the howling North wind. When I allow myself I miss my family, my brothers and sisters, my mam and dad, all interred in the orchard under the watchful eye of the venting house. I wonder if anyone moved in, I will never go back, this is my life now, each week I get a fresh supply of food, drink and bullets, I want for nothing. Looking out of my peephole with nothing but blue sky and shining sun, I can’t help but miss most of all sitting in my room watching the raindrops cascade down the shuddering windows.

Rain1