Friends

21 October 2017

The Annual Check-up


'Have you ever had an operation, dearie?' croaked the old woman, her wizened fingers meddling with a black chiffon scarf.

Annabel looked at her in astonishment, more for her boldness in speaking to a stranger than the question itself.

The woman inched along the green bench until Annabel felt her bony elbows touching hers. She could smell her age, that fusty smell of old bones and looming death. The colourless, egg-shaped face, framed by silver-white hair, was strangely familiar. 'I’d like to hear about your operation,' the woman said.

Had she to have one herself? wondered Annabel. Was she het up because of it? Idly, she surveyed her surroundings. Two bowler-hatted men strode towards the reception desk. A nurse with a clipboard escorted a man on crutches. On the benches, injured toddlers whimpered into the comforting breasts of anxious mothers, and not much braver adults sat in stony silence, waiting.

The woman’s question was probably fairly normal, considering where they were. It would be something to do while she waited and it might be amusing to humour her and list her medical experiences. Like the one where that brute of a doctor dug out an ingrowing toenail. Or the harrowing extraction of her third wisdom tooth which had wrapped its roots around its neighbouring molar, necessitating a drilling process guaranteed to put her off dentists for life. Then there was that glorious out-of-body experience when she gave birth to Kim, whose foot was wedged in her ribcage and caused such excruciating pain that she fled her physical form entirely unaided for half an hour.

Annabel studied the old woman sitting beside her. A harridan of minute proportions, craggy chin, heavily lined brow, and intensely blue eyes which seemed capable of scanning a body like an x-ray machine. Perhaps she was an x-ray machine! Perhaps she had grown a heart overnight and been cast out of the department as useless. Given the sack, so to speak. Whatever she was, she was uncannily familiar.

A man in a white coat pushed an empty gurney through the rubber flaps that served as doors. A stethoscope hung from his top pocket. Annabel’s nose wrinkled as the smell of ether wafted in her direction. Quite like old times, she thought, evoking the event which had the most impact on her life.

Now that she had decided to relate her story, Annabel was tempted to ask the woman’s name but in the end she felt perhaps it was better not to know. Examining her fingernails, she speculated about where to begin. Her tale could be classed as an accidental incident rather than one of a medical nature, although a surgical procedure might well have been carried out had there been enough time.

The action took place this very day, long ago. It was enough to say it occurred on her fortieth birthday. The year was irrelevant. Andrew had taken her to a bell-ringing contest to celebrate. Celebrate! There was nothing to celebrate in that dismal hall with those disgracefully ragged drapes covering the windows and teams of bell-ringers incessantly brandishing brassy bells by their wooden handles, coloured streamers fluttering in their wake. Up and down, up and tediously down.

Annabel shuddered as she remembered the rancour which flooded through her and the accusation she was tempted to fling at him: If you thought this was my idea of fun, you were sadly mistaken. Fortunately, Andrew sensed her disquiet and suggested they leave. Thank God, she mutely cried, not really wanting to upset he who had not yet produced her birthday present and who must, for the time being, be kept sweet.

Kim was waiting outside, leaning against the wooden panels from which the cheerless hut was constructed. Annabel had been surprised to see her daughter dressed in her best blue trouser-suit, wearing the lovely perfume Andrew bought at Christmas. Gardenia, she thought. These days Annabel had difficulty remembering precise details like which scent it was though she did recall that Kim’s blonde hair was swept into a French pleat with not a single securing pin in sight. Kim was very clever at disguising things. Even her love was hard to find. Annabel sniffed and swallowed hard, knowing she would never find it now.

Kim was idly swinging a set of keys which glinted in the light of the hut’s swaying lantern. Annabel briefly wondered why her daughter was dangling them in front of her when they were not her keys.

'Your car, Madam,' Andrew proudly announced.

Annabel remembered those words as if they had been uttered only yesterday and she recollected the joy she felt when she saw the bright orange second-hand Beetle parked at the kerb. Beetles were her favourite cars in all the world, prompting thoughts of Howard, that wonderful man who took her virginity on the leather-covered back seat.

It’s yours,’ Andrew said, tossing back a wayward lock of mousy-brown hair. Taking the keys from Kim, he placed them in Annabel’s hand and curled her fingers over them. ‘Happy birthday, darling.’

She vowed the driving seat had been moulded especially for her, though the pedals were a distance away even when the seat was adjusted. She strained her slender ankles to reach them, smiling at Andrew who sat in the passenger seat. Kim had by that time gone home.

Pausing briefly to brush her dark fringe from her brow, Annabel imperceptibly shook her head at the crystal-clear image of that night. She moistened her dry lips so that she could continue.

She had driven Andrew to the restaurant where they were to have dinner and where they imbibed much champagne. It was, after all, a celebration of her fortieth birthday. Afterwards she drove home in the rain, the pair of them singing country and western songs as loudly as they could. Annabel got so carried away she let go the wheel and waved her arms above her head.

The car skidded on the greasy road and careered into a telegraph pole. Momentarily, she saw a woman’s face through the window, timeworn and ashen with fear, her mouth widening into a scream. Her black scarf fluttered as the screen abruptly shattered into a fog of tiny fractures. The image had tormented her ever since.

It took two hours to release her broken body from the tangled wreck. Andrew was lucky to have been thrown clear. Long after he and the elderly victim had been carted off to hospital, firemen worked steadily and untiringly to free her from what remained of the birthday gift, operating their cutting equipment proficiently and with no time to lose. Even in her distressing incapacitation she could not help being impressed by their strength. She felt comforted by the efficient way they worked and watched trance-like as they carefully removed the metal covering and exposed her body to the rain.'

'A disasterous end to your birthday,' observed the old woman.

'It certainly was,' replied Annabel, looking round on the off-chance she might see Andrew or Kim.

'I imagine you were glad when it was all over.'

Annabel laughed. 'You could say that.'

The woman nodded knowingly. She adjusted the bag on her lap and hooked a hand through the strap. Then her brow puckered and she inclined her head to one side. 'But wasn’t there an operation?' she asked.

Annabel’s reply was gruff. 'It wasn’t necessary.'

'As with me.' Easing herself to the edge of the bench, the woman struggled to her feet. tottering slightly with the exertion. Annabel shot up in order to steady her, cautioning her to be careful not to fall. An appreciative expression was etched on the pallid, elliptical face. Flattening her copious grey skirts to her side, the woman gave Annabel a toothy grin. 'I’m glad you told me ,' she said, and went on to ask if Annabel was waiting for someone.

'Not really,' Annabel remarked. 'I come once a year to make sure nothing was overlooked. An annual; check-up, you might say.'

Livid weals appeared on the woman’s face as she scratched the diaphanous skin with grimy nails, giving the appearance of having been slashed by something sharp, like a knife or a piece of glass. 'Strange I haven’t seen you before,' she said. She began to fidget, her arms restless at her side, fingers meddling with her skirt. An agonised frown etched her forehead, yet when she spoke again her voice was calm. 'My mission has long been the search for truth.' Laying a gnarled hand on Annabel’s shoulder, she added, 'Now that I have it I am grateful, though gratitude is perhaps an ill-suited sentiment in view of what you did.'

So it was her, thought Annabel, the unknown casualty. All these years being haunted by that anaemic countenance, yet she failed to recognise it when they met. What on earth could she say? Was an apology enough? Indeed, would an apology be accepted? She was about to attempt some kind of justification for what happened that night when the old woman spoke again.

'Don’t fret about the accident. You did me a great service, as it transpired, since the cancer would have been a sight more painful.' Fiddling with the ragged scarf, she peered at the clock on the magnolia painted wall. Bustling clerks and nurses tidied the place ready for the next day’s batch of emergency patients. Gripping her capacious black bag, the old lady stepped away from the hospital bench.

Annabel queried if she was leaving.

'As soon as my hearse arrives. It’s late, as usual.'

'You can share mine,' offered Annabel. 'Mine’s invariably early.'


15 October 2017

TWITCHY FINGERS

Twitchy Fingers or keeping calm.What do you do if or when you are nervous? Do you have a twitch or continually tap your foot, do you have a nervous tic, or simply twiddle your fingers? I asked this question of a friend and she came up with no end of strange habits which included neck stretching and a twitchy eye, neither of which I had noticed.
My family members twitched, mainly the men and always in the neck area. One uncle looked as if he was trying to remove his head from his neck, so elaborate was his neck movements. As a young girl I mocked the action and my mother repeatedly told me me I would have a permanent twitch if I didn't stop. 
I also remember as a child doing things like not stepping on cracks in the pavement and, if I did, feeling compelled to do a twirl twice before moving on. Who the heck teaches kids things like that? Was it other kids, devising things as punishment or forfeits? Little did they know that things stick in minds enough to pursue them into adulthood. Yes, I still avoid a paving slab if it has a crack in it and look at the age of me! Why didn’t I forget about such things as I grew older?
I have seen the embarrassment in others when they realised people had noticed their funny ways. I wanted to tell them not to worry but that would have drawn attention to the fact that she or he was being watched … and would definitely make things worse. 

I look forward to your comments on this matter and I promise not to laugh at any strange habits.
Medical update: I am much better but still cannot sit for long in one position. Since the last scan, which revealed nothing, doctor has decided I should have a camera down the throat job to check stomach area. I don't fancy it - the very idea is enough to cure me - I'd rather keep burping!

12 October 2017

Eleanor Nobody

I think I'm getting there! Slowly but (possibly) surely. Had my scan - not a full blown one, just an examination of the tummy, but the outcome was good.  No sign of stones in the bladder. It seems it's back to the drawing board although, having said that, today has been better. I can't sit long in front of the old PC but my movements are easier. Fingers crossed that the path to recovery isn't too long. 


Hope all my friends are well. In the meantime here's a story about Eleaner Nobody. Maybe soon I will find sitting more comfortable.


Eleanor Nobody

The draper's doorway was shaped like a fifty-pence coin cut in half, with the shop door situated in the shortest stretch. That's probably why I didn't notice the poor soul huddled in the dark recess. The March wind was as cutting as a sculptor's chisel the morning I cut into the doorway to wait for the city bus. Five years ago in March. I know the date exactly. It was Jimmy Brain's fiftieth birthday. He was the office manager where I worked and he'd detailed me to get cakes for the staff. Fresh cream cakes, he'd asked for, but I'd cheated and bought them the night before; kept them in the fridge in an airtight box. Jimmy was too busy lamenting his age to worry about the freshness of cream cakes.

But it's not the birthday I'm telling you about, it's the encounter with the bag-lady. To this day I remember her peculiar stench, a stink like fetid drains wafting from her meagre person whenever she moved. The skin on her cheeks was so stretched I almost expected it to split, and I reckoned it had been some time since she'd had a proper meal. I gave her two chocolate eclairs. They were both mine, so it didn't matter. I should've only had one, but Jimmy wasn't one for keeping tabs on his purse strings. The woman's eyes shone when she saw the cakes. You'd think I'd dished up a three-course meal.

By the April, she got round to trusting me. Every day, after she'd sorted the contents of her plastic bag into prioritised order, she devoured my offerings of corned beef sandwiches and a beaker of soup. Even at weekends I took her something. I couldn't bear the concept of her starving while I gorged on bacon and egg.

Her name was Eleanor. Eleanor Nobody, she grumbled on one of her bad days. Arthritis plagued her when it was damp and that April was wetter than most. I couldn't conceive how someone with such a genteel name ended up sleeping rough. And why she chose the one by the bus stop was an utter mystery. I suppose it was interesting in a freakish sort of way. Something to look at. Same could be said for the commuters: it gave them something to blether over. Eleanor's outfit would be the talk of the town.

I always imagined vagrants as a grey race: grey underclothes, grey outer clothes, grey skin. Not so with Eleanor: she wore a coat the colour of winter berries, a midnight-blue skirt, off-white tee-shirt, green cardie, thick black stockings, and brown zip boots. All stained and tattered, in keeping with her current status. She had a yellow silk rose that had seen better days. Wore it like a medal on her chest. If she accidentally knocked it off, she'd scrub around until she located it and pin it back on. I took her one of those pins with a safety catch when I got to know her better and that put an end to her disquiet when the rose slipped off. I knew she was grateful by the cheerful grunt. Mostly, if I touched on a topic she didn't like, the grunts were harsh and unfriendly. Not that I took any notice. I'd got used to the fluctuating moods. I figured if I was in her boots I'd have entered the raving loony stage within a week.

Some days she was really informative. She had a son somewhere. Hadn't seen him since he was a teenager. Bastard, she called him. Born one and behaved like one. Ostensibly, she was ostracised by relations for begetting an illegitimate son. That was in Worcestershire. She couldn't remember precisely where; or else she didn't want to. It was May when she told me that. We were eating the ham rolls I'd saved from the night before. I considered it a great coincidence, her mentioning her son the day after my Jason's birthday. Jason was thirteen and I'd done a Sunday spread for a few of his cronies. Pizzas and quiche, that sort of thing. I should have known by their indelicate speech they wouldn't appreciate such fine savories. Right lot of agitators, they were, complaining about the lack of chips. Perishing cheek, when they were eating for free. Not wanting to upset Jason on his birthday, I pacified them with portions of french fries. My old man, Gerry, remarked that Eleanor would have been glad of a few slices of quiche. He's got a kind heart. Certainly, Eleanor didn't find fault with cold pizza next morning.

We left the area in the September. Gerry changed his job, see. He was still with the same hook and rivet company, but he was transferring to another branch near Cannock. It meant moving house. Gerry was more than happy to leave but our Jason was a bit down-in-the-mouth about ditching his ruffian mates.

I told Eleanor at the end of August. She looked quite presentable that day, dressed in my old lilac coat and plaid skirt. She'd discarded the red coat as soon as I took it from the carrier. You should have seen her elation. It was an absolute joy. Anyway, to get back to the tale. Not for one minute expecting her to take it badly, I broached the subject of the move. Straight up, it was a good couple of weeks before she could converse properly but at length she softened and began taking an interest in our plans. I'd left work by that time so I could lengthen my visits to the doorway. Without considering the consequences, I plotted a going-away do. A big breakfast, with tablecloth and camping stools, regardless of the inquisitive eyes of the strap hangers-on the bus. Gerry thought it was a bit foolhardy but I carried on. Trouble was, I inadvertently leaked the idea when I asked if Eleanor liked black pudding fried. She had a look of disbelief about her, treating me to wary glances when I surveyed the inlet for the best spot to lay a cloth, then checked the shop's opening times. I needn't have bothered. Three days before the event Eleanor Nobody disappeared.

The new house was terrific but I couldn't settle. I made it nice for Gerry and our Jason, but not having a job gave me too much time to brood. You'll think it daft but I was worried to death about Eleanor. What if she hadn't found a shelter as convenient as the last? Eventually, contemplating the possibility that she might have returned to Newtown, I resolved to investigate. With Gerry's blessing, on Christmas Eve, I went to check it out. Gerry was as guilt-ridden as me over deserting Eleanor, though I pointed out that in the end it was she who deserted us, in a manner of speaking. Gerry said, if I found her I should bring her home for Christmas. Naturally, Jason shouted his mouth off. He said he didn't intend sharing the house with a smelly down-and-out. Not that he was the most sweet-smelling individual himself,but I guess he was entitled to a view.

The weather was as cold as that other day in March, especially at six o'clock in the morning. Calculating the journey would take three-parts of an hour I worked out that if I left at six I'd be there well before the draper opened up. If Eleanor had resumed occupancy she was certain to be there when I arrived.

I found, not Eleanor, but her treasured, ragged, yellow rose. It was on the floor, partially covered by newspaper, in the dark recess where Eleanor would have slept. I picked up the paper, a week-old edition of the Evening Mail folded so that the middle page was uppermost. Funny that, I never knew if she could read. As I leaned despondently against the shop window, it occurred to me that in nine months I'd learned very little.

The city bus drew up, on time as usual, its occupants on a final spree before the Christmas shut-down. I studied the faces as if I would find Eleanor there. Automatically, I rearranged the news-sheets in numerical order. Where on earth could Eleanor be? It was Christmas for goodness sake. She shouldn't be roaming the streets at Christmas. Pathos swelled inside me and, yes, the mournfulness that accompanies a graveside vigil. Folding the paper neatly, I bent to lay it beside the rose. Laying it to rest, I thought, shuddering at the implication. It was then I spotted an article ringed in red. Festive cheer for the Homeless. I read on. I was curious to know how people who had been abandoned by society could find festive cheer anywhere.

According to the feature St John's Crypt was the place for the homeless to be that Christmas. Several volunteers would forego their own festive repast to serve turkey dinners and plum pudding to the less fortunate ... Santa Claus would bestow appropriate gifts. Why is it that patronage often comes across as charitable condescension? At that time, the phrase foregoing their own festive repast smacked of pure pretension. I know better now.

Gerry took me to the Crypt the next day. And Jason. Gerry'd won him over with the promise of a computer. Second hand, admittedly, but Jason deemed it better than nothing. Clutching Eleanor's rose, I searched the queue outside the church. Eleanor wasn't there. Neither was she in the Crypt. The helpers didn't recall having seen a woman of her description.

I never saw her again but the lessons she unwittingly taught me, the importance of independence and the value of respect, have lingered on. Every Christmas since Gerry and I have helped at the Crypt. And Jason, bless him, on the strength of the episode with Eleanor is currently training to do social work.

07 October 2017

SPIRITS OF THE PAST


Hello, my friends. I apologise for being unable to visit your blogs but it would take longer than the five minutes I allow myself to be on line. Re-posting a tale is all I can do at the moment - it is an ongoing tussle to overcome pain. Doctor is sending me for a scan.... which I dread because I've never had one before. He suspects there is a problem with the gall bladder.... but I await specialist's opinion. In the meantime here is a story I wrote many years ago... I hope my writing has improved since then. Take care of yourselves x

SPIRITS OF THE PAST

It was the weirdest dream I'd ever had. I was flying, literally, soaring like an eagle right into summer, leaving the New Year frosts behind. A silver cape streamed behind me. A black mask, slightly askew, had captured an aimless spiral of blonde hair. Apart from isolated cotton-candy clouds, there was nothing to see. I thought the world had disappeared until I found myself gliding over a floating mass of what appeared to be dark brown rocks. I hovered briefly in order to survey the great bulk of... well, I'll call it rubble for want of a more descriptive word. I could distinguish some mountainous areas in the middle, with colourless water snaking in and out, but the majority of the terrain was flat and sombre, littered with boulders and various markers. I shoved the delinquent hair behind my ear, adjusted the mask, and then zoomed down for a closer look. The nearer I got to that spherical island the more chilled I felt…yet it wasn't cold. In fact, the higher my cape flew the more of my shoulders the sun found to roast.

The markers were a diverse array of signposts each pointing in a different direction. Mostly the posts were constructed from wood, ramshackle and splintering, but one or two were elaborately created. Those were placed abreast of wooden stiles, though there was no path upon which to travel when one had clambered over. I plunged towards the first post and latched onto it by wrapping my arm around its imposing pointed prong. The letters inscribed there were huge and I had to tilt my head to read it.

Welcome to the Forties, it said.

Thank you, I said.

Slackening my grip, I drifted in the direction of less elaborate signs. They were branded with dates, deeply chiselled for permanency, years ranging from 1940 to 1944. Again I felt that sweeping chill. Vibes of bloody battles made me shudder. A curious burning smell made me want to puke. Lamentations filled the air and my cheeks were showered with watery drops. I glanced upwards expecting to see rain clouds, but the sun was shining as fiercely as before. Hastily, I averted my eyes, not liking the perception of such acute sadness. Anxious to find more agreeable surroundings, I pulled my cape closer and wafted away.

Flitting over a cheerless lake, I advanced towards a solidly constructed signpost, made of steel with wrought iron digits standing proud, each digit entwined with withered roses and sprigs of laurel. 1945. Waves of acclamation caressed me, yet the impression that someone had died was very strong. There were no mortals to whom I could attribute the echoing sounds yet I definitely heard laughter and muffled exchanges. And enunciated names: Hitler and Ribbentrop. My own impression was one of relief though I couldn’t explain why. It might have been the warmth, or the unexpected peace.

Ahead of me, descending slowly earthward, was an additional signpost. Enthralled by the method of descent I watched it alight on the brow of the hill, its arrow-like arm indicating the direction of the fifties. What lay on the other side? Would there be chaos, more gunfire and smoke, more flashing lights and despairing cries? I decided not to proceed. I had seen enough. All I wanted was to go home. If only I knew the way.

Swiftly, I arched away from the ghosts that occupied that extraordinarily desolate chunk of land, gathering about me the cape which seemed suddenly leaden. I panicked that the exit point might elude me, completely forgetting I could fly. I whirled round in my agitation and collided with a hitherto unseen monumental placard, suspended in mid-air, the size of the tract itself. I paced back, tortuously slanting my neck to behold the colossal red lettering. Red as blood, the only vivid colour in that dingy brown expanse.

YOU ARE NOW LEAVING OUR DECADE
WE TRUST YOUR VISIT WAS INSPIRING

Somewhere a clock chimed. Out of the remoteness came Ma's piping voice shouting me to wake. My eyes fluttered open. The silver cape was on the five-drawer chest where I had left it after the fancy dress ball. The mask was hanging by its elastic on one of the knobs. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was back home, in our matchbox-sized house, a bright and cosy property just big enough for Ma and me. We were unassailable. We were unaffected by past decades. Or were we?