30 September 2010

Don't Go Too Near The Water

'Don't go too near the water.'

Little Meg could hear her mother’s voice but the seriousness of the instruction didn’t seem justified. She was a big girl now. And the water looked so inviting.

Meg had been brought here for her birthday, the trip to Morecambe Beach being part of the weekend celebrations. She’d had some super presents, a scooter, and a dolls house with REAL furniture.

A smile played round her lips and she mentally hugged herself. She’d wanted a dolls house for so long. The inside was lovely, the walls were papered and there was carpet in all the rooms. She loved the tiny chairs and tables, the clock on the kitchen wall, and the bed upstairs, and the bath, and the rocking horse in the bedroom. There were even tiny coat hangers on the hook on the door. It was exciting to have her very own dolls house. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends at school.

Meg really wanted to go home and play with the house but since they were here for several more hours she might as well explore.

Surreptitiously looking round, Meg saw her mother talking to Gran, their colourful beach chairs turned away from the sea. She slipped off the blue and white flip flops that had been bought specially for the beach. The sand felt soft against her bare feet, it tickled a bit but she loved the feel of it. If she pressed her feet down she could see the shape of her own feet.

Kneeling on the sand she felt a splash from a big wave. She didn’t realise she was so near to it. Meg leaned forward to sniff the water and a little bit went up her nose. She sneezed. Tasted the salt.

Fascinated, she watched another wave forming. If she hurried she could duck under it. Scrambling up she darted to the very edge of the water and waited.

It was like being in the shower. Turning her face into the spray Meg laughed happily when the water fell away from her face. This was fun, she thought.

Her mother called again. Meg turned and waved, didn’t see the next wave coming. It was bigger and more powerful, knocked her off her feet and dragged her into the sea. Coppery hair fanned out as she struggled against the water.

She felt herself sinking, down, down, down. She reached out to touch the sea bed but it wasn’t there. Instead she was grabbed from behind, arms gathered her up, floated with her. A piece of driftwood glided past, narrowly missing her nose. She giggled, tried twisting her head to look at her rescuer.

‘Keep still, Meg.’

The voice was squeaky, not one she had heard before. She wriggled in the great arms that held her so tight. They were covered in a red fabric. She didn’t know anyone who wore red.

Further and further they went, moving steadily along the coastline. Meg wedged her chin against one of the huge arms and peered into the gloom, wanted to ask where they were yet fearful of knowing. She couldn’t think why it had suddenly gone so dark. She wasn’t REALLY frightened, just a LITTLE bit trembly.

A few minutes later she saw a shaft of light ahead, coming from an open door. That’s why it was so dark, she thought, they were in a tunnel.

Her rescuer piloted her towards the door.

The cave was breathtaking. Meg took it all in, the splendour of it, cave walls lit by lanterns, glow-worms flitting around the ceiling like moving stars, and the biggest cobwebs she’d ever seen. Right in the middle was a table made of sea shells, the colours glowing in the light.

‘Come in, come in,’ said the King, adjusting his lopsided crown.

Meg was lowered to the seaweed covered floor, her hand held fast so she wouldn’t fall. For the first time she could see her rescuer, a QUITE ugly gnome.

‘She was very good,’ the gnome told the King.

‘Oh I’m hopskippingly delighted,’ said the King.

His voice reminded Meg of Freddy, the grown up boy next door. He had the same croaky voice. But the King was a lot older. MUCH older than Daddy. Daddy didn’t have a beard either.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked.

Suddenly the room was filled with more gnomes, hands covering their mouths as they stared at her.

‘What?’ she asked.

Her gnome, her rescuer, whispered in her ear, ‘You should never ask a King how OLD he is.’

Meg looked at the King, thinking she should say she was sorry, but the King had sat down at the rickety table with his back to her. He wore a cloak of green seaweed which had caught in the chair. Meg moved across to tug it out but stopped when the gnomes loudly exclaimed in horror.

‘What?’ she demanded, brushing away a silver fish swimming too close to her face.

As if they were automated the gnomes put their fingers to their lips, shushing her.

Her own gnome whispered again, ‘We do not touch the King.’‘Why?’‘Because he’s the King. The Almighty Ruler of the Seas.’

‘Well, I’M going to speak to him,’ Meg told him. Defiance wasn’t in her nature but she didn’t like being told what NOT to do.

Looking fearful, the gnomes huddled together, then shuffled back so she could move to the front of the table. She wanted to ask the King why he didn’t allow people to speak to him.

Grasping hold of a steel rod that was wedged in the ground, she edged forward. The floor was very slippery and she felt something crunch beneath her foot. Looking down she saw a mass of broken shells, heard the gnomes complaining amongst themselves. Meg supposed the King would tell her off for being clumsy.

Slithering and sliding, she at last reached the other side of the table, sat on a chair opposite the King. ‘Ooooh,’ she said. ‘Why are you crying?’

The King raised his head. Tears coursed down his cheeks, his tongue trying to catch them. ‘Too much salt,’ he said. ‘Too much salt.’

‘Don’t you like salt?’ Meg asked, ignoring the horrified noises coming from the gnomes.

‘It doesn’t like me,’ replied the King.

That was a MYSTERY. Meg wondered how salt could take a dislike to anyone. She didn’t like salt but she didn’t think it was offended by what Daddy called her faddy ways. A shoal of fish swam across the table, she wondered if they’d taste good with chips.

Realising the King was looking at her, she returned her attention to him. ‘Why are you crying,’ she enquired a second time.

‘Nobody talks to me,’ the King explained. He seemed VERY sad.


‘I don’t know.

‘Is it because you’re the King?'

She couldn't see why that should make any difference.

'How old are you?’

In the background the gnomes muttered and tutted amongst themselves.

‘I’m VERY old and VERY lonely,’ admitted the King.

‘How can you be lonely with all these gnomes around?’

‘They don’t speak to me. They don’t make a sound when I come home from my travels. I haven’t got a friend, either.’ More tears spilled out of his eyes.

Meg felt bad. He seemed a nice old man, and his white beard was beautiful. It made her want to push her fingers into it, curl it into ringlets. ‘I could be your friend,’ she said. ‘I always speak to my friends.’

The King beamed at her. Suddenly he stood up. ‘Let’s dance,’ he said.

Meg had never danced before but she went round the table to join him. She held out her arms, eager to see what dancing was like. But the King didn’t take them, instead he stood by her side, put his gnarled hand on her shoulder, and jigged on the spot. Meg jigged as well. She started to giggle, and the King giggled too. Her rescuer joined in, and then the gnomes. And the cave was a riot of laughter.

The King yelped with delight, ‘At last,’ he cried, ‘the gnomes have found their voices.’

Meg didn’t like to say they hadn’t lost them.

They jigged the afternoon away, and the gnomes joined in. Meg was so tired at the end; she just collapsed on a bank of seaweed. I’ll just have five minutes, she thought, using her mother’s words.

‘Wake up, wake up.’

Slowly, Meg opened her eyes.

'Oh there you are, young lady. I thought you were going to sleep forever. Your chips are waiting. You’d better hurry up before they get cold.'

Rubbing her eyes, Meg tumbled off her bed. Her picture book fell to the floor. ‘Can I have salt on my chips,’ she asked, wondering why she suddenly had a desire for it.

21 September 2010

Holiday Romances Don't Work

I couldn't explain why I was glad to be home because I didn't understand it myself, but as I lugged the case from the taxi, too impatient to avail myself of the bearded, tic-eyed driver's help, I got this tremendous feeling of relief. Safe at last, that's what struck me as I fumbled in the flight bag for the front door key. You'd think, after such a brilliant holiday, I'd be sorry to leave. All that heavenly sun, and there was I turning my face to the rain and drinking in cool air as if I'd been starved of it. And enjoying it. Me, Sun-worshipper Class One.

That was a week ago, and I am only now able to think about Giovanni subjectively. Guiltily, as if I'd deceived him. Holiday romances, I told myself, and had been telling myself since the day we met, were to be avoided at all costs. His proposal, sincerely and solemnly delivered, given his inebriated condition that last night, came as a complete shock. Not for one second did I imagine he thought anything of me other than someone to have a good time with. And we'd certainly done that. Had a good time, I mean. From the word go we'd done everything together. Well, almost. I drew the line at sex, even though we both desired it. The idea of getting pregnant hadn't appealed, you see, and how was I to know if Giovanni's suave, romantic approach was genuine. He might have been the sleeping-around type; he might have been stricken with AIDS.

But, that last night, Wow! We'd been sunbathing by the pool all day, apart from a couple of hours when we'd lunched in the hotel: salmon roulade and fancy salad, Positano style. On the night, Giovanni suggested we go down to Marine Grande for a drink at Geranno's. We sat at a table not far from the water's edge. You could hear the water lapping gently around moored fishing boats. We kissed, him stretching his lean, long body across the table, jolting the carafe of wine in his haste to meet my lips; me keeping a beady eye on the azure-blue vessel as it tottered unsteadily on its base. Rather that than ruin the skirt he'd bought me. Organza. Soft orange and cream. It looked terrific with the lace top and I didn't want even a dribble of wine on it, let alone a deluge. It was okay, though, the carafe steadied itself. Breathe again, Deborah. Naturally, Giovanni didn't notice. He was too busy licking the lipstick off my upper lip. I swore he was calculating the hairs that I try so desperately to disguise.

There was a bit of cloud round the top of Vesuvius that night, a sure indication that the next day would be fine. There was a bit of cloud round my brain, too, but I didn't realise that until later. I told Giovanni I couldn't wait for it to get dark so we could look at the stars and maybe see the lucciola, or fire-fly as it's known in England, and he said, in that gorgeous velvety accent that caressed my heart and sent it leaping to the skies, Molto bello. I wasn't sure if he meant it was the idea of watching stars he found beautiful, or me, but, given that he was holding my hand and riveting his inky eyes to mine, I took the credit for the remark.

It was then he proposed. I thought I'd misheard and was trying to work out what he had said, when he repeated it. Marry me. His voice was clotted with desire. He urged me not to catch the plane the next morning, saying I could leave the hotel and stay with him in his apartment. I don't know what he expected me to live on, unless it was love, and we all know love doesn't go far in the shopping stakes. You're probably thinking I'm a mercenary bitch, turning romance into realism before the poor guy could draw breath. And I guess you're right, looking back.

The yellow currency-converter is still in my pocket, a constant reminder of foreign shores.

I did warm to him that night. Not a temperature change. Real desire. I'd been keen on him from the start, flattered that a man with such magnetic Latin looks and magnificently proportioned, sun-bronzed body, had selected me to dance attendance on. But the feeling that was churning my insides that final night was dangerous and I pushed his hand away. Just in time by the look on his face. He was eaten up with passion. Eaten. Smouldering, he was. His libido had really got going. He shuffled uncomfortably on the slatted chair. It reminded me of the day we went to Amalfi, both of us wearing navy shorts and white cotton T-shirts, and he got stung on that part of the leg that joins the buttock. He had trouble sitting for a whole day after that; couldn't even drive his little black Fiat in comfort.

I forced myself to look him squarely in the eyes. I was disappointed to note that the amorous look was fading, as if he knew he was getting the brush-off, but I told myself it was for the best. Holiday romances do not work. Christine and Mark's didn't; Lucy and Ken's didn't. Both couples married; both got divorced within the year. I couldn't risk that happening to me.

Giovanni, I went, as steadily as I could, given that my voice was quivering something deplorable. Giovanni, I went again, adopting a pretentious tone, like my mother did when she was laying down the law. I can't marry you. It would be impossible. We'd have no life together, both of us out of work.

I mean, it would be idiotic giving up a well-paid secretarial post with the Council to become unemployed in Sorrento. I didn't say that to him, though. I didn't even think I should have mentioned work at all, since it wasn't the real reason for turning him down. It was an excuse, that's all. You know, a desperate search for a way of alleviating pressure, as well as lessening the blow. Giovanni whispered. Capiri. He didn't put non in front of it so I gathered he was saying he understood. That was a relief. His expression came close to being comical, his pouting mouth more like that of a disappointed schoolkid than a thwarted almost-lover. It eased things for me, I can tell you. Made me think he wasn't quite as genuine as I'd taken him for, and I felt as if I'd been released from shackles, which wasn't fair, I suppose, considering he'd cossetted me for three whole weeks.

Did I mention that? Did I say he took me to Capri on the Cuma Ferry on the second day and a tour of Vesuvius on the third? I could've done without that. I found it extremely alarming and a big, big worry. What if it erupted while we were up there. It didn't, of course, but he did. He grabbed me round the waist and whirled me to him so he could munch my mouth. Thoroughly. A trifle vigorous, I thought, for a first kiss, but at least it knocked the worry away. All I was aware of was responsive breasts and galloping groins.

We walked a lot in the countryside and lazed by the hotel pool (where someone suggested he must be a gigolo because he wasn't staying there and he was ever so slightly younger than me). The list of things we did was endless. We dined out, sailed to Positano with the Marine Club, swam in the Bay, clambered the rocks below the hotel, sunbathed, and kissed beneath the stars. I'm finding it very difficult to discuss this. The gut is reeling with the pain of it. Suffice to say, I rejected Giovanni Rossi's overture and flew home the next day.

Deranged fool. I've regretted it for a week, especially now, ambling through Gracechurch Centre which for some reason has hired a brass band to harry the hurrying customers. Maybe if he'd said it earlier I would have given the proposal some thought. I am that frustrated, I could kick myself. Evenings lately are interminable. From the moment I leave the office they stretch into eternity. Silent and lonely and cold. I miss his arms, his lips, the happy laugh pirouetting from his luscious mouth. Nights are the worst. Sleepless, as though sleep has been abolished. Tired as a dormouse, I lie in bed studying wallpaper. If I've counted the petals on the roses once, I've counted them a million times. Twelve. Well, there's more, but the centres are tightly closed so I have to discount those. I wait impatiently for the sandman. He bypasses me every time.

The reflection in Beatties window is ghastly. I don't reckon on looking good at the best of times, but that's awful. Straight up and straight back down figure, bowed shoulders bearing the weight of guilt and self-reproach. The band breaks into a Gracie Fields number: The Biggest Aspidistra in the World. Fluke, or what? I wonder if she had similar qualms when Boris paid suit. Or the other two, before she married them. Married three times, according to one of the tour guides on Capri. Me, I turned down the first decent chap I'd ever landed.

I yawn; the reflection yawns back. Beyond, there is a display of suntan products, with a picture of a tree-lined boulevard leading to a beach. Quaint, but nothing like Sorrento. In fact, walking round the Centre is not nearly so interesting as promenading the Corsa Italia, stopping at every window to admire the shoes and suits. Baldan, Ferragamo, and Armani. God, I do miss it.

Pulling a face at the image in the window doesn't help the mood. In fact, it makes it worse. Depression is closing in like the door of a tomb. Would death be as painful? I move on, giving a last minute tweak to the collar of my mac. Sighing. Wishing I'd had the sense to bring an umbrella. The Sorrento umbrella, blue and yellow, bought that day it rained, when we swooped into the doorway of the Coin store, blind to everything except the need to shelter, colliding with a basketful of gamps. The sales staff pounced like ravenous locusts, intimidating in their determination to make a sale. We gave in. We bought an umbrella. Wise choice, considering the pelting rain. See how easy it is to remember, how hard it is to forget? Everything I see, or hear, or do, reminds me so forcefully of that place. And him.

I see Maples' window-display has changed. That pine table is similar to the one Giovanni has. Did I mention his apartment? It was above the shops in Piazza Tasso. Enormous rooms with high ceilings. And so cool. The windows were huge, with small balconies. You could lean right out and not be feared of falling. The horses were stationed below, harnessed to carriages, waiting to take sightseers on guided tours. I couldn't bear the sight of those dumb animals hanging around in all that heat. I wanted to yell to their owners to let them loose. It wouldn't have done any good; they wouldn't have understood me.

I purchased a souvenir or two to bring home, and I bought Giovanni half-a-dozen of the plates he'd admired. Bright green with bright blue squiggles round the rim. Sounds awfully garish, but they were actually quite nice. It seemed a bit like reimbursing him for all he'd spent on me and I rued it like crazy the minute I handed them over. But I needn't have worried; he was overjoyed. Mother always said I was a mitherer of the first order. She was right.

His mother liked the plates. She reckoned he should chuck his old ones forthwith. She was a nice lady, obviously affluent, and as beautiful an Italian Signora as I ever saw. It was manifestly clear, then, why Giovanni had spent money like it grew on hedges. He was well-to-do. He was no more a gigolo than the King of Spain. It didn't change my mind though. I still believed holiday romances didn't work.

I hadn't noticed the bus was in. Breaking into a gallop, I go down the steps and across the road. The currency-converter slaps against my thigh with every step. I aim for the end of the rapidly reducing queue, tagging on behind a frail woman who can only shuffle to the bus. The breathing space is welcome; the panting stentorian. The woman turns to stare. You're too young to be wheezing like a bronchitic crone, she goes. I nod my agreement, wondering how on earth I trekked up Vesuvius, breathing steady. The woman thanks me for helping her up the two deep steps and I wonder how she would have managed on her own. It's okay, I go. When I'm her age, I hope I'll have a partner in tow.

Home again, sipping lukewarm coffee, finishing the books I brought from work: columns of figures that needed totalling, which the boss wanted urgently and which I didn't get round to on Friday. I wonder: should I write? A letter of thanks? I've deliberately not done it before, needing space to air my emotions, to purge my mind of tangled emotive webs. I remind myself that holiday romances don't work, and feel better for the prod.

The coffee's well past its best, so I chuck it down the sink and make some fresh. I see the rain has stopped. There's a peep of sunshine somewhere in the sky, it's glistening on the empty milk bottle on the sill. The grass outside is as near to emerald as it'll ever be considering its weedy state. And extremely long. And long it'll have to stay now the mower's broke. There's something to be said for procuring a partner. Man for hire: will mow, and cook, and wash-up. Making love a speciality. Hah!

Shades of Giovanni.

Tears? This is ridiculous. Why on earth am I crying? Hadn't I been a great lemon about making love. If I hadn't been such a wet lettuce, I'd know how good he was. Is. And pregnant, probably. Alone. I collapse at the table, coffee forgotten. The silent tears run their course, dripping unimpeded down my nose. The make-up will be ruined, but what the hell. There's no-one to complain about the eyesore. Only me. It's the first time I've ever felt lonely. I'm devil-may-care normally and a bit of a gad-about, yet I'm content with my own company; relishing the break, likely, after hectic nights out, dancing. I'm charged with an image of Giovanni and me, dancing so close we could've been glued at the hip. Man, does that make me go gaga. And even more weepy.

This is no good. Three in the morning and still I haven't slept. The phone's ringing in the hall, but I'm not going to answer it. It'll be a wrong number, I expect. Wongs Takeaway. That's the most recurrent wrong number, though why anyone wants spicy food at this hour is beyond me. I couldn't understand Giovanni treating himself to chicken curry at half-past two, after dropping me at the hotel. He told me when I removed the tinfoil tray from the car. Sheepishly, and no wonder. We'd only finished a turbot supper an hour earlier, and you know how filling turbot is.

There, the phone's stopped its ruthless racket. If I'd had enough gumption, I'd have switched on the answering machine. Let it tell everyone they've got the wrong number. That's a laugh. Wouldn't the opening announcement disturb me as much as the unrelenting peals? Of course, I could use ear plugs.

Four hours, I've been tossing. Four hours of frustration, interspersed with melancholy. I wonder: if I shove my feet to the cool side of the bed and straighten this rumpled sheet, will I sleep? I don't know who I'm trying to kid. There's no chance I'll drop off just because the toes have cooled. No way. Therefore, a pair of earplugs is the answer.

Discontented mind, that's my problem. And not because I can't find the cotton wool. It's the business with Giovanni I can't sort. It's now approaching four o'clock and I'm reclining in a sudsy bath. Imperial Leather Mild. I concluded that I might as well have a soak as lie in bed sweating. The phone starts again. I remember too late about the answering machine. Fortunately, the noise promptly stops and I relax back in the water.

I'm soaping the bits beyond the suntan when I'm suddenly hit by a major realization. I am in love. There's a warm glow coursing through me. Giovanni's face appears like magic, framed in the porthole that serves as a window, as if he's been spirited there by a mischievous genie to hear the revelation. Caprice. Enlightenment kills the misconceived logic about holiday affairs. Excitedly, I toss the soap on its dish. I am suddenly unafraid. Debs, I say, you're a real nitwit. So what if Lucy and Chris made a mess of their lives. They obviously chose the wrong men. It doesn't mean Giovanni's wrong for me.

Moving like a whirlwind, I shoot out of the bath. I'm so lively, you wouldn't believe I'd had no sleep. There's foam on the floor, and the towelling robe. Leave it, Debs, I say. Get on that blower and ring your man.

The phone rings just as I reach it. I'm not one to blaspheme, but right this minute I could curse the caller to infernal regions. Angrily, I snatch up the receiver. Now look here, I go, all set to recommend what the caller should do with his Chinese chow-mein.

Come sta, Deborah? goes Giovanni.

How am I? HOW AM I? I am floating to the top of this wonderful world, and it's quite likely that by the time I come down I'll have great difficulty speaking. My heart sings. Joyfully. Three words. No, four. I love you, Giovanni.

10 September 2010

After the Rain

(Montbretia image courtesy of

The evergreens looked much fresher after the rain but the flowers around the front lawn looked quite downcast. Of course, they would soon recover when they dried out and at least the Montbretia still looked showy. That’s what attracted the old man’s attention.

For a man of such obviously advanced years he was stylishly dressed in well pressed jeans and an open necked pale purple shirt with a jacket in deeper shades of purple and green. It reminded Beverley of a poem about wearing purple,’ except that she thought it related more to women than men. Certain she hadn’t seen him before, Bev wondered if he was new to the area.

The stranger extended a gnarled hand and gently touched the flower before looking up and spotting Bev standing by the front door. She felt suddenly as if she’d been caught spying but the feeling vanished when she saw his face light up with a beaming smile. A remarkable face, she thought; though heavily wrinkled the skin seemed soft, almost girlish. Treading carefully on the still wet path, ducking to avoid a random shoot of Wisteria, Beverley Wilson walked towards him.
‘My wife loves Montbretia,’ he said.

‘So do I,’ Bev replied. ‘Perhaps I could cut you a bunch. The blooms are almost done but there might be a day or two’s beauty to enjoy.’

The man thanked her, saying she was very kind, and could she put some paper round them.

Rather taken aback, Bev agreed. ‘I don’t take the newspapers, I’m afraid, but I’m sure I can find something.’

The man grimaced as he picked up a paper carrier bag from between his feet and took a faltering step towards her. ‘I don’t want to cause any trouble, only my hands can’t grip too many things at once. Arthritis, you know!’

Bev did know, hadn’t her mother been crippled with it for years.

‘I’ll go and get the cutters and perhaps you can choose the best flowers.’

Hurrying into the house, shutting the door behind her, she raced through to the back garden and grabbed the gardening scissors from a hook outside the door. The thought entered her head that at least she would be armed if anything should happen.

When she returned, the old man was sitting on the low wall which started where the privet hedge ended. He was nursing his paper bag, his wooden cane propped between his knees, his right hand fondling the head of next door’s tabby cat. Obviously an animal lover, he made soothing noises as he worked his fingers through the black fur. Beverley thought how kind-hearted he was.

He tried to get up when he saw her.

‘Stay there a while,’ she said. ‘I’ll get the flowers for your wife.’ Quickly she sorted out the best, all the time complaining about the effect of recent rain on her beloved flowers. She was aware that she was babbling and tried to stem the apprehension. It was always the same when faced with strangers yet deep down she knew that on this occasion there was no need to feel anxious.

When she had finished she wrapped the flowers with some of the long leaves in several layers of tissue paper and took them to him, hoping somewhat childishly that he would like them. As she approached she thought how tranquil he was, so completely at ease. The word contentment came to mind. She could almost feel his calm, deep inside. Surprisingly, she experienced none of the tummy lurching that preceded apprehension. It was replaced by a sudden confidence, an amazing sensation. She could feel the future opening, welcoming.

‘Aye,’ he said as he admired the arrangement, ‘my wife will be delighted with these. She had a dress in that colour and the Montbretia flowers remind her of it. It was her going away dress on our honeymoon.’

Bev felt a lump in her throat. Her mother had fond memories of a particular dress she wore when she married, only hers was Hyacinth blue. It must be a thing about growing old, she thought, and wondered why she couldn’t recall the outfit she’d worn when she and Ed went on their Irish honeymoon. Perhaps it was because her marriage hadn’t been a happy experience. Ed was not the gentlest of men, he scared her most of the time. They parted after just six years and she’d been alone ever since; her own choice.

Pushing away all those thoughts, she asked the old man if he would like a cup of coffee and maybe some cake? Her boldness startled her. Had she taken leave of her senses? What on earth had possessed her to invite a complete stranger into her house, let alone offer food and drink? She wasn’t usually so sociable but there was something about the man’s demeanour that drove away her customary fear.

Once again she cursed the day of the burglar, that ruffian who burst in while she was in the back garden and made off with her purse, jewellery and several valuable ornaments. Since then she had diligently locked all doors and windows and earned a reputation for overzealously locking herself in the house. The neighbours thought she was a bit odd but although they knew of the incident they couldn’t know how her nerves had been shot to pieces.

‘Cake would be very nice but with tea, if you don’t mind.’

‘Come on into the house, then,’ said Bev, then paused and asked if his wife would wonder where he was. A last minute excuse to back out.

‘Nay, lass, she’s a patient soul. And she’ll be right pleased to see me turn up with flowers.’

Beverley led the way, guiding her unexpected guest round a rather elderly black Vauxhall and over the step by the door. For once the Wisteria stayed where it should be. She wanted to ask his name but courage failed her … a remnant from the past when her mother chastised her for being forward. At fifty-five she should have grown out of childish worries but old habits die hard when they were drummed into you by a dominant parent.

She did ask his name but not until she had made a pot of Assam tea, sliced some Battenberg cake and arranged them on one of her best Spode plates with a white paper doily to make it look nice. She felt quite comfortable in the old man’s presence, not in the least anxious; in fact, as she looked at him she thought how well he suited the surroundings, the eau de nil paintwork and lilac flowers in the wallpaper were in complete harmony with his clothes.

Pulling the smallest table from the nest by the hearth, she invited him to sit down. Helping him into the winged fireside chair, she suddenly asked, ‘What should I call you?’

‘Call me Harry. It’s Harris really but my wife thinks it sounds a bit stuck-up.’ Harry took a bite of cake, then smilingly added, ‘Her name’s Gertrude, Gertie for short. She prefers Gertie for the same reason.’

‘Do you live locally? I mean, I don’t recall seeing you before and wondered…..’

‘Just round the corner from the cemetery. Don’t get out much though with this arthritis and the relentless rain stops me from venturing far.’

Beverley felt the same way about the rain. It seemed that every time she went out of the front door the heavens opened. She could recall better summers but now they seemed to be buried in the mists of time.

Harry agreed about the rain. ‘Gertie hates it, she always says a little is worth a fortune but too much drowns the plant life.’ Harry paused to remove some crumbs from his jacket before going on to describe his wife.

Gertie and Harry lived next to each other when they were children. Although she was four years older she spent a lot of time with Harry. As children they did a fair amount of squabbling and as they grew older each took an interest in other children of opposite and respective sexes. However, there was no comparison for the friendship they shared; a friendship that matured into love. By the time they were old enough for University they prepared to go their separate ways, Harry to Guildford and Gertie to Leeds. Those were nightmare years and no amount of correspondence could bridge the loneliness each one experienced. ‘We were a couple and couples should never be apart,’ explained Harry, somewhat wistfully.

With parental permission they married young and set up house in Guildford, enjoying the experience of being together under one roof. But their hearts were in the Midlands where they grew up and after a few years they moved back to Tamworth. ‘But our wonderful marriage produced no babies,’ Harry said. ‘That was a downside for us, a real tragedy.

‘But you had each other.’

‘Aye, we did that.’

According to Harry, Gertie was a cracker which Beverley assumed meant she was a good looking woman. He wasn’t so complementary about his own appearance and offered the opinion that he had never been able to work out what she saw in him in the first place. Bev, though, could see exactly what Gertie could see. Although she had only just met him she could tell that he was a compassionate man, full of character and understanding. There was gentleness in his movements and his blue eyes and generous mouth seemed always to be smiling. She imagined him to be quite benevolent.

Harry drank some of his tea then replaced the cup in the saucer and reached for another Battenberg slice. He remarked on the china, explained that Gertie adored Spode. Bev was impressed since he hadn’t looked under the plate to see where it was made. She had a feeling that she and Gertie had lots of things in common.

After pouring another cup of tea Bev leaned back in her seat. In a short time he had told her so much about his life yet he knew nothing about her. She wasn’t inclined to talk about her lonely life either, yet when Harry said he really must go Beverley felt at a sudden loss. It had been a long time since she’d had such pleasant and interesting company.

She helped Harry to his feet, handed him his cane and his bag. She had put the flowers inside the bag so that he wouldn’t have too much to hold. Harry led the way to the door then turned to thank Bev for her kindness. Seizing her hand he leaned forward to peck her cheek.

Agreeably surprised, Beverley felt the blush creep up her neck. ‘It was my pleasure,’ she said, and meant every word. Opening the door, she saw that the weather had turned again, it was pouring with rain. ‘You’ll get soaked if you go out in that, I’ll just get the keys to the car and drive you home.’

‘That would be helpful,’ said Harry. ‘But I have a stop to make before going home.’

‘That’s fine,’ Beverley said, ‘I don’t mind dropping you wherever you like.’

The route was unfamiliar but Harry directed her like a true navigator. After five minutes driving, he asked her to pull up by the cemetery gates. Pointing to the sky, he whispered, ‘Look, the rain has lessened. See the sun coming through the black clouds?’

Bev looked out of the car window and sure enough the sun was like a beacon shining through the grey. She hoped there would be a rainbow; she loved rainbows.

Harry smiled. ‘It always does that when I come here.’ He gathered up his bag, gripped his cane, and went to open the car door. But then he turned back and asked if Beverley would like to meet his wife.

‘Well, if it’s not too much trouble.’

‘No trouble at all, Gertie will be delighted to have company. And she’ll want to thank you for the flowers.’

Without waiting for assistance, Harry climbed out of the car. ‘Come on,’ he said, a trifle impatiently, ‘she’ll be waiting.’

Bev grabbed her raincoat from the back seat, locked the car doors and followed Harry through the immense wrought iron gate, thinking he must have easy access to his house from the cemetery path. But instead of following the path round he stopped in front of a grave with an angel at the head. ‘Gertie,’ he said, ‘I’ve brought a visitor.’

For several years Bev maintained a friendship with Harry and, through him, with Gertie. He’d been right, if weather conditions were bad when they visited the cemetery, the sun always came out the minute they arrived at the gate. Bev liked to think it was instigated by Gertie, using sunshine to welcome her husband.

Beverley’s loneliness disappeared the day Harry stopped to admire the Montbretia. He brought purpose to her life, she had someone to do things for, to look after, to laugh with or console on a bad day. She was happy; through him she acquired more friends. He was a popular man. Although he lived alone Gertie’s presence was very real, it was all he wanted.

Now Harry lies beside his wife. Bev visits often, always taking flowers from her garden and her thanks for their friendship. And the sun never fails to greet her even on the wettest day.

04 September 2010

Talking about hair dryers....

Talking about hair dryers… well, the subject did come up when I was in a panic over a recent parcel delivery.

This particular tale goes back several years when Guy and I went to Blackpool to see the famous illuminations. We hadn’t been married long so everything we did had a sort of rosy hue … a weekend in Blackpool, we thought, would not only be romantic but would help recapture our youth.

In our youth the only place to stay in Blackpool was a bed and breakfast somewhere near the sea and within easy reach of the legendary Pleasure Beach (for the benefit of overseas readers, that’s a huge fair) and Blackpool Tower (similar to the Eiffel but not as tall). It was with many private memories that I embarked on the trip but I won’t elaborate on those, save to say that girls will be girls when they’re let loose.

On arrival we started the hunt for accommodation. Most places were full but further back from the sea front we found a nice looking place, clean and tidy and respectable looking, with vacant rooms available. Considering the lateness of the hour we were lucky to find it.

The landlady was a cheery soul. She gave us such a hearty welcome I immediately relaxed. I felt suddenly excited and couldn’t wait to deposit our bags and go out into the night to see the illuminations.

By the early hours of the morning, after completing the Golden Mile course, travelled on gaily decorated trams, exclaimed at the wonderful sights, rode in a landau, marvelled at the animated animals and cartoon people, and shivered with cold, I was more than ready for bed. We ambled, foot sore and weary, back to the B&B.

Our room wasn’t bad, a bit on the gloomy side with dark floral wallpaper and dark brown painted woodwork, but there was some light coming through the naked window. At home I wouldn’t dream of leaving windows unadorned but right then I was too tired to bother about anything other than falling asleep. I positively dived into bed…. a well worn double with a full length, well worn hollow in the middle of the mattress, a trench deep enough to hold a body. MINE! Most of the night was spent trying to stop falling into it. If anyone is ever faced with the same problem, remember that hooking toes under the side of the mattress is about the only way to stay on top, pardon the pun, unless of course someone knows better.

Next morning, with limbs stiff as a board, I climbed out of bed thanking the good Lord that we’d only booked for one night. I’d had about two hour’s sleep in total and my mood was murderous. I just hoped breakfast would improve it.

However, before breakfast I had to do something with my hair. All that tossing and turning in the decrepit bed had done little to make me feel on top of the world. My hair was a SIGHT. Fortunately I’d taken my trusted hair dryer so everything should be okay once I’d done a restyle.

Except there was no mirror and no plug socket to be seen.

I hunted all over the room, getting more and more crabby as time went by.

In desperation, because time was getting on and Guy wanted to go down to breakfast, I damped the hair down and HOPED FOR THE BEST. A mirror would have told me that my hope was not realised. Guy said it looked okay but what would he know … he’s a man.

So, downstairs we went, Guy first with me trying to hide behind him. The dining room was light and airy compared to the bedroom; you’d have thought we’d inadvertently moved into a different B&B.

‘Bacon and eggs?’ yelled the landlady from the kitchen area. ‘Sit yourselves down.’

I headed for a side table that would reduce the view for other occupants, keeping my head low to hide my shame. I just didn’t want be seen by the general public as a wild haired specimen from alien parts. By the time breakfast arrived at our table more guests had arrived. I got a strange stare from an elderly man and wondered again about the hair, anxiously smoothing it down in the mistaken belief that it would improve the image.

The food wasn’t bad and actually the atmosphere was quite positive, people chatting about the illuminations and making plans for their day. One couple complained about the lack of electricity in their attic room which made my lack of plug socket seem fairly amusing. I mean, plug or no plug, if there was no power I would still have been in a dilemma. When you think of the amount of power used for electrically run trams, the illuminations, the fairground rides, it was little wonder that an ordinary B&B had to do without.

Chewing bacon, I gazed at the wishy-washy fried egg and wished I was back home. I was at the point of selecting a toothpick from an empty shrimp paste jar on the table when I noticed a bit of a hush. And then I heard a booming voice right next to me……


It was the local photographer.

I screamed, ‘NO!’

Landlady called out that the photographer always took photographs while the guests had breakfast.

I ranted, ‘Not this guest, he doesn’t,’ before racing out of the room.

We’ve laughed about it since. Recapturing our youth hadn’t been achieved and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they go accompanied by an electric generator and a bag of tools. Oh, and a mirror!