A shocking day.

She could do it. Sure if she had got through being on the ward during the blitz, this was child’s play. They didn’t know that she had only been driving for two weeks, and hadn’t learnt how to put the car into reverse.

She had never been to this house before. The lanes got increasingly narrow as she drove, the hedges closing in on both sides. She leant forward, gripped the steering wheel and kept driving. As she climbed the steep hill she hoped it would level out before she reached the house. She looked out for the three fir trees that they’d given her as the marker. Was that them, or were there only two? She kept on, slowing as much as she could without stalling, hoping that nothing came the other way on a road where it was difficult enough for one car to pass.

She heard the putt-putt before she saw it. A tractor was coming towards her and it didn’t look like it was stopping. So she did, crunching the hand-brake as high as she could manage. When the farmer was so close she could see his angry face, he stopped and gestured for her to move back. She shrugged and held up her palms. He jumped out and walked towards her, shaking his head. She wound her window down and put on her best smile.

“What are you doing?! Sure there’s a gate back there you could pull into.”

She took a breath and laughed,

“The funny thing is, I don’t know how to do that yet. I’m qualified as a doctor and this is my first locum post that required knowing how to drive so I’ve taught myself the basics.”

The farmer whistled,

“So you’re telling me you, a girl clever enough to do a man’s job, don’t know how to put your car into reverse?”

He opened the car door, gestured for her to get out and then moved the car where he wanted it, leaving her standing at the side of the road. She watched the thick muck squelching over her good shoes and swallowed a gallon of pride as the farmer approached her again. She shook her curled hair back and raised her chin,

“Could you point me in the direction of the three firs please?”

The farmer pointed his grimy finger further up the hill,

“You’re nearly there.”

She thanked him and walked down to get her doctor’s bag out of the car. She would walk the rest of the way. How she would get the car to face the right way to get home was something she could worry about afterwards. She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a lace-edged hankie. With a whimper, she used it to clean her shoes and then put it into the bag. No-one would respect a doctor who was not only a woman, but also walked dirt into their house.

She glanced over her shoulder to check her car was all right and then knocked on the door. No answer. She lifted the brass knocker to bang again and it came off in her hand. When a middle-aged man opened the door he saw her standing there, smeared muck on her shoes, a doctor’s bag in one hand and their door knocker in the other. After a short, surprised silence he opened the door wider to let her in. He took the knocker from her without a word and led her on to the bedroom.

This was when she could regain her composure. This was where she knew more than the other people in the house. She was the doctor, dirty shoes or not. They didn’t know her car was back down the road with little hope of being driven away. All they knew was she was the doctor. Here to help.

She put her shoulders back, glanced at the person in the bed and used her most reassuring voice,

“So. How long has your father been ill?”

The man’s eyes widened. An old clock chimed four. A rooster crowed. She moved her bag from one hand to the other, puzzled.

“That’s not my father.”

She looked at the bed again and back at the man.

He shook his head and looked almost sorry for her as he said,

“That is my mother.”

The wee rascal

He checked the empty windows. He listened for approaching footsteps but he guessed he’d be in luck. The fuss his sister was making over her Sunday outfit was distraction enough for everyone else. He held his breath, reached up his grubby hand to the key and turned it. Click.

He was free! No church for anyone in this family today. No hard pews where you could never find a comfortable spot. But then, comfort was not what they were aiming for with their soporifically long sermons and prayers.

They had their own family box pew so that meant he couldn’t even stare at other people, just the same old faces of his own family. Fidgeting was never going to be allowed when his father and mother were right there watching him. Once he’d spotted a wood-louse crawling slowly across the floor. He’d put his foot out to let it crawl over his shoe, bent down and picked it up in his fingers. Not to kill it, just to look at it. He thought he’d got away with it until he felt the heat of mother’s eyes, glaring at him.

So, of course he didn’t want to go to church.

He jogged round the edges of the stony drive, whistling. He stopped to pull the barley stick out of his trousers. Sucking carefully so it didn’t lose its shape and he could put it back where he’d found it, he skipped through the gates and took a sharp left into the fields. It felt right to stay out in the summer air today, not closed in a stuffy, dusty, dark church. God would understand.

He reached the woods in no time. The trees stood to attention and bowed in the wind as he passed. He found a soft place to sit down and smiled. Definitely better than a pew. It was only when he’d tired of whittling with his trusty penknife that he realised he wasn’t alone. A twig snapped behind him. He spun round,

“Jacob! How?”

His wee brother was panting,

“I followed you! I saw you lock the door and put the key in your pocket!”

William scowled at him for a second and then turned away. He grabbed the lowest branch on the fir tree and swung himself up. He climbed higher and higher until his wee brother’s voice and face were fading. He reached the highest point easily. He’d climbed this tree before.

All of a sudden the branch beneath his foot snapped.

He fell.

Through twigs, needles, sap and scraping wood until he hit the ground.

Jacob’s face was close again and the crying was deafening. William closed his eyes. The wails got louder.

“William! Are you all right?”

William kept his eyes closed.

“William!”

Jacob was wringing his hands. It was strangely fun to watch through half-open eyes. William went for broke,

“I’m dead.”

With screams, Daniel went running back to the house, where the rest of the family were just emerging from the back door, already cross.

When he told them the shocking news, mother started running towards the trees. His sister just harrumphed and stamped back into the house. It was too late to go to church now. Too late to swish in with her new dress and matching petticoat.

Father just sighed and went back to his study. What else could a man do, when he lived with such a wee rascal?

Sounds of the Sea

It was one hundred and three, or if someone got in his way, one hundred and six steps down to the shore. He always took his time – a deliberate setting of one battered DM shoe in front of the other. The way was mostly hazard-free, the path was a gentle, paved slope and then one tiny jump onto the sand. He needed to be careful not to drop what he was carrying. If that fell to the ground, he would lose everything.

When he got close enough, but not too close, he spread out his coat and sat down on the sand, placing his tape recorder beside him. He always timed it with the tides – too far out, and he wouldn’t hear it, too far in, and the water would catch him. He knew the sound of the tides, and planned his whole day around it.

Today was a good day – not windy enough to make the mike roar, but sufficiently breezy to help the waves in their quest to hit the shore. He shooed the pigeons away, listened for any other human intruders and then counted his finger across the buttons before pressing the one with the selotaped label marked ‘record.’

“What you doing mister?”

Sighing, he turned to the voice,

“I’m enjoying the seaside.”

“But why don’t you just paddle and look out like everyone else?”

“And why don’t you mind your own business and go back to your sandcastles.”

“There are no sandcastles, see?”

“Just get lost, will you?!”

The child huffed off. He resumed the recording. People would wonder why he recorded the same thing most days. They were wrong – the sounds were always different – the wind, the water, the birds, the people. In summer or sometimes earlier than that, there was the sizzle and crack of barbecues, the scrape of spades against sand, the banging of buckets, the clink of flasks of tea, the thwack of deck-chairs, the whizz of frisbees and footballs, the shrieks and occasional wails of little children. Those sounds held him and healed his loneliness for a brief, precious time.

He came in the winter months too, but his fingers were stiff so it was hard to start and stop the tape. Sometimes he got back and found that the only sound he’d captured was his shivering breath. He taped over that. The best ones were when the waves were roaring and crashing against the shore. They took him back, those ones.

As it got colder, he stood up, put on his coat, lifted his tape recorder and headed back.

“Marty! I thought I’d find you here!”

Marty’s shoulders drooped.

“You and me need to get going.”

He found his arm pulled and stumbled to keep up with the longer strides of his ‘carer’. He hated that word. He didn’t need cared for, he just needed to be left in peace.

“You still playing with that tape player, Marty?”

Marty didn’t answer. He dragged his feet over the hundred and three heavy steps back to the nursing home, his hands tightly gripping the recorder. He kept it beside him as they pushed unwelcome food against his mouth, as they ‘sweetheart’ed and ‘dear’ed him. He lifted his legs and arms to get his clothes off and pyjamas on.

And then. Finally. He pulled his recorder onto his knees, closed his eyes and pressed play.

They didn’t understand, any of them, what it was like for an old sailor to live so close to the sea, and never be able to see it. But, thanks to his tape player, and his ears, he could. With every recorded sound, every gurgle, every splash, every pulling back and coming in, he saw the sea. Not like everyone else, not like it was before he lost his sight, but now he had learnt how, he saw it better than he’d ever seen it before.

The one hundredth sheep

In my last book, The Lost Things, one of my characters uses the ideology of the hundredth sheep to inform her attitude towards every individual that crosses her path. In the New Testament parable, the shepherd leaves his other 99 sheep to search for the lost one. It’s the idea that each person is worth dropping everything for. The value of the one is more than a nameless multitude.

Continue reading “The one hundredth sheep”

Disappearing

The only thing he had done wrong was want back what was his anyway. Mrs B had thought she’d put it out of reach, on top of a cupboard at least twice his height. But as he watched her, his face wet with hot tears, he noticed the wobble.

They all sat cross-legged on scratchy carpet inside a metal square for story time. She was reading a book called Funnybones today. It made him think about mum, and the funny way she walked at home. She always said it was because she’d spent too much time on ships in her pirate days. It made her stagger and sway. Sometimes her sea legs made her grab him to stop from falling. He didn’t like the way her face looked then. Sort of surprised. And a bit frightened. He was too small to stop her fall but he still put his hands up to hold onto her sleeve. The bit straight after that was the worst because she cried and kept saying sorry over and over.

He put his hands to his cheeks to try and stop the pain of not crying. People don’t tell you that; it is messier to let tears out but a lot less achy than holding them in. He looked up at it and remembered the fun he and mum had making it. That afternoon his mum had not been so pirate-y. She had been sitting down he supposed. Sitting down mum was way better.

As everyone filed out for their toilet break he saw the cupboard wobble again, every time someone brushed past. He waited until the room was empty. He pushed himself up and slowly approached it. The bell was going to ring in a second. He timed the ring with the bang he gave. It didn’t budge. He put his tiny arms against the edges and shook. It slid off and fell to the ground in front of him, scattering a few crumbs.

It was only when he had his mouth opened to take a bite that she came back in. All red and spitting, she pulled him out by his sleeve and pushed him onto the stood-out bench in the corridor outside. He peered back in and watched as she swept up the crumbs and the bun. Tipping it into the bin.

As time passed, he knew that he was stood out for the rest of the day. Every time he heard foot-steps he shrank back into the coats behind him. He heard the class chanting times tables and singing nursery rhymes. The teacher sounded happy without him there. He pulled at another finger nail, and watched as it bounced back again. Mum hated him doing that. It meant he never needed her to cut his nails for him. Maybe she missed him sitting on her knee.

He mustn’t think about her right now. She would probably cry again when she heard what he had done. He got on his hands and knees and crawled as far as he could. Maybe if no-one saw him, no-one would tell her. Maybe if he was actually invisible this horrible day would disappear too. He looked down at the wrinkle in his pullover and spied a crumb. He put his finger and thumb around it, grabbed it and put it on his tongue. He closed his eyes, thinking about that time when mum had been like any other mummy. Laughing, mixing, spooning it into bun cases, letting him lick the spoon like her mummy had let her when she was wee.

They had been happy. No-one had fallen. No-one had cried.

That bun had been the best thing he’d brought to school. Ever. He would never ever forgive Mrs B. She thought he was just being fidgety and naughty about it, but it was his bun, his and mum’s.

By the time the last bell rang he was behind the coats, hidden. As his classmates lifted theirs, he turned his face towards the wall and curled up tight.

“What on earth are you doing Matthew? Get out of there and put your coat on before your mum gets here.”

Matthew moved slowly. In the end, Mrs B forced his arms into his coat and zipped it up, nipping his chin.

“What a fuss over a bun!”

He felt his jaw ache again.

“Don’t look so upset! Goodness, you can make more!”

Matthew didn’t tell her that it had been the last one for who knows how long. She didn’t know about his mum being a pirate. She didn’t know that you can’t bake buns whenever.

Not when you have a funny mum like his.