You can tell how old this picture is just by looking at the owl-like spectacles. Yes, it is me.
The picture has hung on the wall at my WI for ages. It was in a frame but hardly anyone knew why it was there. Our soon-to-be-departed secretary reframed the picture and included an identifying note but now she wants the story on display as well. I am honoured that she thinks my work is worth recording for posterity ... I suppose it is part of the WI history vis-à-vis my local branch.
Every year National Federation of Women’s Institutes runs a creative writing competition which I won in 1998 with a story entitled A Man in my Life. The title was compulsory for all entrants, 171 in all.
The picture was taken at the Royal Albert Hall, when I was presented with the Lady Denman Cup by the then National Chairman, Eileen Meadmore. The year was 1998. Credit goes to the actual Federation, whose name is inscribed on the cup, but the winner gets to keep the cup for a year as well as receiving high value book tokens as a prize.
This was the announcement in the WI magazine. The story was published a few months later. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen it, here it is.
A MAN IN MY LIFE
The room is so quiet that if you stood outside the door you would suppose it to be unoccupied; but there is an abundance of sound: crackling firewood, squealing chair springs, the vibrating window when a plane takes wing, the tap of steel needles, and the expletives when I drop a stitch. You might hear these sounds if you listen hard but you would not see
Jeffrey's wicked endeavours to make me lose count, my
voice rising with each enumeration as I walk two fingers along the pin,
determined to outwit the arm-waving comedian and cursing the misfortune of
being saddled with an imbecilic brother. The mantel clock proclaims its own
opinion, issuing dull thuds, which are supposed to be reverberating chimes. , and the rest of the day
to get through. Even the fire-logs serve to emphasise the hour, a pair
of charred timber chunks spilling to the hearth. I toe to safety the
smithereens of charcoal and inhale the intoxicating smell of burning wood as I
study the flames, remembering my youth, when Jeffrey
persistently devised new ways to destroy my concentration and the strife at
school when homework was inadequately completed.
The dreadful clacking of
dentures infiltrates the reverie, transporting me to present time like an
exploding bomb. First I am ensconced in daydreams, then, suddenly, I encounter
reality head-on. Unexpectedly, my brother's grinning countenance brings a
swelling to my throat. Family features: grizzled hair, bristly brows and
pointed nose, except that Jeffrey now
has pendulous jowls, skin dark with liver-spots, and hazel eyes mottled with
age. At eighty-five he should be past indulging in puerility, but it is too
late for him to change and, anyway, I am fond of his desultory ribbing. Occasionally.
While he gazes at me in his silly fashion, I set the rocking chair in motion, anxious to start the next stage of the complicated pattern yet hesitant in case
Jeffrey renews the struggle
for power. He looks docile enough, sitting erect like a spectator waiting for
the show to begin, but I never know when he will embark on another wild prank.
In two minutes I could be despising him; in three, I could be storming to pack
his bag and return him to the home from which I delivered him, beseeching the dear
Lord to explain why a man in my life is so essential.
My confession might shock you. If you could witness this scene of cosy domesticity you might think I am satisfied with my life, that my days consist of snug tête-à-têtes and happy reminiscences or that the daily woman's duties give me ample time to knit and amuse my brother. But how can I expect her to clean the mess that incontinence affords, or supervise his eating, and encourage him to aim for his mouth instead of his shirt? And yet, on reflection, your assessment could be right. Beneath the grievances, you might detect a glimmer of the affection I feel, for despite intensifying bouts of wrath and irritation I love the old fool to pieces.
settled to read I resume my occupation. Pins clicking furiously, my thoughts
roam the years, evoking instances of his outlandish behaviour. Though his
impaired mental state drives me to distraction he can be enormously
entertaining; like now, as he absorbs the printed word, contorting his lips and
nose as if they are moulded from rubber.
In the shadow of a frivolous father and two ebullient brothers,
Jeffrey grew vague and bewildered before his time. As
a consequence he relied on me for support, seeing me as an island of sanity in
the midst of a chaotic existence. That's why I never married. The concept of
leaving my guileless brother to fend for himself was inconceivable, though
lately I long to be free of obligation. Notwithstanding, the good days outweigh
the bad. In fact, until the onset of true dementia, most were agreeable; funny
even, if an old man's waywardness can so be called.
As dotage accelerated,
became quite adventurous. At seventy, equipped with his pensioner's pass, he
toured the county for bargains. But his logic left much to be desired. He once
travelled a distance to save twenty-pence on melon, then spent ten times that
amount on chocolate. I still remember his gleeful look when he produced the
melon and the box of chocolates, and my incredulity.
The fingers are flying now and the rocker's going like a swing as I call to mind that day we waited in
Woolworths for our
brother to end a discourse with a chum. Thirty minutes trudging round counters,
failed attempts to resist Jeffrey's
pestering at the photograph booth and the endless wait for obscure pictures.
Secretly chuckling, I recall Jeffrey's
restlessness and his entreaties for a go on the weighing machine - several
times - for the sheer joy of cramming weight cards in his pockets, which on the
journey home were distributed among the passengers on the bus, his laughter so
infectious that the whole of the upper deck joined in.
My feeble eyes are filling up; it always happens when I reproduce the images of bygone days. A pity they couldn't stay the same.
You should see
playing peek-a-boo around the Daily Mail. I pretend not to notice his
buffoonery. I could curb him but he's been in enough trouble since the episode
next door. Unbeknown to me, on the days when I allowed him out alone, he developed
the custom of going in the neighbouring gate and walking into 's
house demanding tea. Initially she humoured him with biscuits or a cake, but
when he burst in and ordered tea and toasted soldiers, with no regard for her
undressed state, she ceased to think it amusing. He's now on tight rein lest
the woman carries out her threat to call the police. Miss Smedley
The room is dimming now that the winter sun has disappeared, and the fire needs banking. The clock thumps its message home. , it says. Time for tea. My daydreaming has taken me to girlhood and back, through teen-years to adulthood. And
Jeffrey's cardigan is almost done.
If the Almighty is willing I will finish it tomorrow, that is if Jeffrey deigns
to let me get on. But then I'd worry. Since silence is an alien characteristic
I wouldn't know if he was behaving or indisposed. Oh, if you could see him
playing his game, retreating behind the paper like a guilty schoolboy whenever
he catches my eye. I cannot help sniggering at his expression, a fooled-you
kind of look, the sort meted out when my counting goes completely awry. I am
tempted to teach him a lesson and leave his cardigan sleeveless but I cannot
succumb to spite. You see, he won't have many more birthday gifts, and I won't
have the foolish fun that life with him has brought.
See his face, see the way he peers at me like the simpleton he is. My throat constricts at the sight of him. Dear God, don't take him yet. For my sake, give him a year or two more.