Statues in the Market Place, Devizes
Ceres on the Corn Exchange, Thomas Southeron Estcourt MP on the fountain
Impossible love; so near and yet so far…
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A Fairy Tale
Once upon a time there was a grand historical building, in the centre of a small but beautiful Wiltshire town, called the Assize Court. For many years the processes of law were carried out within the stern Bath stone walls of the court, and many folk were sentenced in the dock. Some walked under the Ionic pillars to freedom, some to death and some to endless captivity. All human drama was there. Tears were spilt, reputations were ruined and children were left fatherless. Justice was seen to be done. But then one day, as is the way of things, it became obsolete; the last sentence was delivered, and the doors were closed. It stood, slowly decaying, for year upon year; a strange symbol of dereliction in the beating heart of the town. And now, and then, good folk devoted much energy to finding new hope and purpose for the building. Nothing came to pass. The people were met by brick walls and stonewalling. The people gave up the fight. It crumbled. Years, and yet more years, passed. Good folk tried again. No joy. More brick walls and stone walling. It crumbled. Again, passionate people rallied, and tried to make sense of it. Again, brick walls and stonewalling. It crumbled. Until, one day, it had crumbled beyond all hope. At which point the land was used to build houses and offices. And yea, verily, as some had prophesied, someone made a large pot of gold. And lived happily ever after.
This story, although inspired by an actual event, is a work of fiction. The characters within it may contain nuances of many individuals, including myself, yet much of what is written here is untrue. Every skank has a story and we are one another…
Skank polished her designer shades with her hoody and perched them on the end of her nose. She liked her shades, partly because they were cool and partly because she could study passers-by intently and without fear of recrimination. The first afternoon of autumn was quiet and the streets bereft; with summer and carnival receding in memory and disappearing from timelines folk were left with empty pockets and looming anxieties about when to put on the heating and how to cope with the slow fall to Christmas. Skank had stale air and holes in her pockets, and a silent scream in her stomach and veins. She shifted on the bench and stroked her hair with her hand. She cared about her hair a lot. Come pain or moonshine she always had pretty hair, smoothed and shone and straightened, thick and glossed with many a stolen product.
No rick pickings today, she thought. Skank was new to the area and had a brief window of time to scam folk before she got a name for herself. It had gone well so far. She had a nose for them, bleeding hearts, and there seemed to be plenty of them in this town. She mainly went for middle aged women, teenagers and very old men. The middle aged women liked to feel charitable, the teenagers were easily intimidated and the old men were sentimental and embarrassingly grateful to be flattered by a young girl. Skank had an impressive repertoire of begging lines. She had used “Lost me purse and have to get back to Bath” on a non-existent bus on thirty occasions, had needed “Money for the phone to ring up someone to bring me epilepsy medication in to town” eleven times, had “Run out of dog food” for an invisible hound thirteen times, had to “Go to court in Swindon” four times, needed to “Visit a dying relative in Melksham” frequently and had produced “Embarrassed to mention it but require emergency sanitary protection with immediate effect” seven times. Then there was the straightforward “Starving, haven’t eaten for a week” the brazen, “Give us a quid I’ll give it back to you when I get me giro, honest, swear on me kids’ lives” and the killer, “Got to get back to the kids with some tea” lines. The last one worked best. She also found that a sycophantic “God bless your heart” finished off most interactions nicely.
Most days the lines went well, the hair stayed straight and the pockets filled but on other days it rained, the hair frizzed and, tiresomely, people tried to help her. They rang hostels, they bought her food she would never eat, they offered her sleeping bags and moral support, they offered to take her to the council and the food bank and gave her good advice that she had heard so often it just slipped off her brain. Old ladies promised to pray for her and old gentlemen were eager to install her on their sofas for a price. I only want an effing quid, she would think to herself, smiling and nodding behind her shades and making the odd grateful noise, keep your effing do-good sh*te to yourself and just give me the wonga. In her mind it was simple, I want money, you’ve got money, give me some of your money and don’t waste my time. But, to her endless frustration, the people she picked out always wanted more from the interaction. They wanted validation. That they were good, or cool, or more charitable than the next man, or destined for heaven, or something special, or more possessed of tolerance than the average, or richer, or more effective, or wiser than most. Skank could smell this need around a person. It was her way in to their hearts and wallets. Just a shame that it was so time consuming.
She’d had some gear that morning but the effects were wearing off now and she could feel the sickness coming. Shifty was at home in bed, incapable of anything much but the odd punch and some verbal abuse. She didn’t know if she loved Shifty. They had moved here to make a new start but had brought themselves with them, and it had not taken long for them to be subsumed in to local using circles and to replicate their old life. Shifty was in and out of prison, hard as nails and quickly establishing himself as the main man. He had filled the void left by the last one, who had finally been put down for a decent stretch, much to the relief of local shopkeepers and the constabulary. Nature abhors a vacuum and Shifty had stepped in to Tyrone’s shoes faster than a blink. She was with him because, because, because he had a fast ass, because he was a habit, because he was hard and because he would not let her go. She had twice his brains but he hit the hardest. They had been together since she was fourteen. They had a child when she was fifteen, a little boy whom she had called Alfie after her grandad. Alfie had been removed from her arms in the hospital. He had screamed and she had cried. Alfie was now with some strange happy family somewhere else. He had survived heroin withdrawal at birth and was now a recovering addict, aged three.
Skank had found that heroin helped her to forget about Alfie. Heroin helped her to forget what feeling was altogether. With heroin she was invisible, invincible, floating in a sensory deprivation tank, bathed in warm cotton wool and custard, beautiful, immune. She had never quite been able to replicate the bliss of her first hit, well the third. The first two times she had retched and gone in and out of consciousness and thought she might die. The third time the spot was hit and as she went on the nod she dreamed of heaven and her flesh became infused with glory. From that moment on hitting the spot became a devastating obsession, more important than Alfie, or Shifty, or pride, or reputation, or self-respect. More important than food or love or the future and almost more important than her hair. She had tried, once, to stop using. There had been a drought and Shifty had been doing time for mugging an old lady. She had hassled the doctor for codeine and he had referred her to drug services. She was fine on the methadone for a while, despite the fact that it was crashingly dull, and had started to reduce her dose and not use on top. Then Shifty came out of prison and beat her up and it all began to seem pointless and she gave up giving up. When he started pimping her out she started to need a lot more heroin and began to turn tricks behind his back, always looking over her shoulder, always looking over punters’ shoulders, in case he appeared to claim his own.
The other thing that heroin helped Skank to forget was her childhood. Her parents had taught her violence, swearing, poverty, conflict, dishonesty and fear. They had used her as a pawn in their mind games, as whipping boy and scapegoat, as a passport to benefits and housing, as cleaner, cook, carer and courier. They had filled her pushchair with stolen meat and alcohol and sent her out begging in the cold with holes in her shoes. She had had so many fathers that they all merged in to one and she categorised them in to the ones that touched her up, the ones that hit her and the ones that did both. She had craved her mother’s love but had been passed over time and time again for each new hero of the house. In the end she grew cold and silent and withdrew to her tiny cupboard bedroom to play with her hair and self-harm. She was careful to cut in places that no-one would see. The surface of her skin became in time a landscape of abuse, all lakes of bruises and ridges of scars, an undergarment of livid despair. The last straw, the final insult, came on the day when the latest squeeze invited his friends round when her Mum was out nicking. All was fine to start with but as the empty whisky bottles began to populate the living room floor and the shouting got louder and glasses were broken Skank became afraid and locked herself in her room. She shook in fear as she heard stumbling and laughter on the stairs. Then they started banging on the door. “Come out and play, you little whore, you’re Mum’s a right goer and the apple don’t fall far from the tree” “Go away, leave me alone” said Skank. This enraged them and they banged harder and louder until the door broke. They pulled Skank out of the tiny room and raped her on the landing, laughing. Then they took her downstairs and raped her again, in more adventurous ways. Then they went to the pub. When her Mum got home she was rocking on the floor half naked and bleeding. “What the f**k have you been up to?” Asked Mum “Where’s my man?” Skank tried to tell her, she cried and pressed herself to her mother’s breast, desperate to be held and believed and saved “You little bitch,” said her Mum, “get out of my house!” She thumped her hard on the way out of the door and Skank never went home again.
Skank snuffled and fidgeted on the benches by the old Post Office, waiting for an unsuspecting ship to come in, becoming achey and sweaty and just a little desperate. Other users came and went, with bags of stolen meat and bottles of sherry and unlikely business propositions regarding half a bag of gear next Jalloon and complaints about the unfairness of life. Someone had some dog ends and Skank accepted a puff. She wanted them all to go away. No one would give her money if she was sat with that lot. She liked a couple of them but in this game it was every man for himself. Keep your friends close and your dealer closer. Trust no-one and no-one can betray your trust. If you haven’t got a granny you can sell for a tenner then sell someone else’s. And don’t grass unless it pays well. These were the rules. People moved swiftly on when they realised that Skank was not in for going in on any mythical deals and soon she was alone again. She wasn’t a paranoid person but it became immediately evident that there was something different going on today. A couple of people crossed the street without saying hello. A stranger scowled at her with peculiar intensity. One of the ladies who had helped her out more than once would not catch her eye on passing, becoming abnormally engrossed with her phone. A couple of teenage boys pointed at her and laughed. A young Mum seemed very concerned with pulling her children away from the benches. And someone let their poodle piss right next to her. Skank became uneasy. Last week she had tapped someone up for a quid and the interaction had been unusually intense. She had chosen the combination of “Bus to Bath” “Hungry children” “Lost me purse” and “Swear on me kids’ lives” on this woman. It hadn’t gone down well. The woman said that she had heard it all before and had looked Skank in the eye with a burning gaze and asked her straight if she would be spending the money on drugs. Skank had held her gaze with an eyelid flicker barely perceptible to the naked eye and lied through her teeth. The woman had asked what time the bus left and Skank had told another lie. The woman had given her the pound. To the statement “God bless your heart” she had replied that if she found out Skank was scamming her she would hunt her down. These chilling words had been delivered with a comedy voice and a penetrating stare. Since that day Skank had slipped in to the shadows when she saw the woman but the woman’s stare followed her every time.
On the day that she was scammed by Skank, Brenda had simply had enough. Generally she was a soft touch, believing in the ‘What goes around comes around pass it on do as you would be done by’ way of going about things. She had helped people out on numerous occasions and was always good for a fag at least. But recently the constant requests for cash and assistance had worn holes in her charity and she had become weary of supporting people who seemed utterly disinclined to lift a finger for themselves. She was sick of the sob stories and no longer flush enough to subsidise others. She thought a lot about charity and its positive and negative consequences. She hated it when people slagged off the homeless and people on benefits. She had considerable sympathy with addiction and some relevant experience herself on both sides of treatment services. People had helped her out in the past. People had been tolerant and understanding and supported her through difficult times. Her heart went out to the people in the woods and the drinkers on the benches. She did what she could when she could in different ways, either helping people directly, or by signposting them to relevant agencies. She tried to give them unpatronising advice when advice was sought, and spoke up for them in hostile forums. She made a conscious effort to be kind and to treat everyone the same. She wasn’t interested in reward. She just didn’t want to be taken for a mug. But today, she really had had enough, and spoke to Skank in a way that surprised even her. As Skank slid away Brenda knew that she was stupid to have given the money. She had known Skank was lying but had been incapable in some way of saying no. She was angry with herself and angry with Skank. The bile of resentment rose within her and ruined her walk home. It was still with her the next day, along with a feeling of foolishness and betrayal, when she saw Skank hiding behind one of the users in town. So she went home, switched on her computer, plastered Skank’s name all over the town websites and cranked up a virtual lynch mob.
In the space of an hour seventy people posted tales of their own experiences with Skank and her various scamming methods. A pattern emerged involving more travel to Bath than was humanly possible, along with tales of mythical hungry dogs and debilitating medical conditions, dying relatives in Melksham and lost purses. People were disappointed, surprised and annoyed that their well-meant charity had been so badly used. One young girl had been so intimidated that she had given Skank her lunch money on more than one occasion. One old lady reported that her purse had gone missing after a friendly chat. Several dog lovers had been taken in by the invisible hound story. More than one respectable middle aged lady had been moved to tears and donation by the tale of the hypothetical children. And several blokes were offering to ‘sort her out’. The voices of those advising tolerance and understanding were drowned out by the shouts of those baying for blood. Brenda’s schadenfreude was short lived. The satisfaction her vengeful act accorded her lasted precisely seven minutes, by which point she had whipped up a dangerous storm. She had no-one to blame but herself. The voice of her conscience screamed in her ear and her bleeding heart sank like a stone. It was a long time since Brenda had done anything truly sh*tty but she had excelled herself with this one. Skank at least had a powerful addiction to excuse her. Brenda had no excuse. She should have known better and she knew it. She had ‘acted out’ on her emotions. She had fanned the flames of ignorance and hatred with her own hand. And all for the sake of a pound. Overwhelmed by shame Brenda went to bed early and tried to hide under her pillow. From herself.
Skank’s need for heroin was increasing. Her choices were to either beg and scam or steal and fence, or go home to the abusive Shifty and spend three or four horrible nights in a psychological and physical hell. She hated being sick with Shifty. He would cry and moan and sweat and toss and turn and make everything her fault, adding insult after insult to self-induced injury, aiming the odd feeble punch at her for refusing to go in to town and turn tricks. She liked to grit her teeth when she was sick, and lie as still and silent as possible. The third night was always the worst, if you could get through that you were home free. Only that would always, like New Year’s Day, be the time when the man would knock at the door with the world’s smallest bag. And they would fall on him with fawning gratitude rather than leap the hurdle of one more endless night. Sharing a habit was a problem doubled. They never wanted to stop using at the same time and constantly sabotaged each other, time and time again. She had to get some gear. The alternative was unthinkable. She picked her target and fired her shaggy dog food story at the most likely candidate. But the lady with the particularly ugly pug gave her short shrift. “You don’t have a dog,” she said “don’t ask me again” The pug smirked in the full knowledge of a forthcoming luxury tea and proceeded to defecate in front of Poundland. “My Mum says I’m not to give you any money,” said a teenage girl with uncharacteristic confidence, “go away” “You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?” said a cheerful builder, “P*ss off” And finally, “F**k off, skanky bitch,” from a shaven headed lad, “you ripped off my Nan” which statement was followed by a hefty right hook. Skank reeled with pain and bewilderment. The only person who had hit her in this town to date was Shifty. It was the least violent place she had ever been. She was shocked and embarrassed. And her hair was a mess. She drew the line at crying in public, pulled up her hood, balanced her shades painfully on her nose and took herself to Gracie’s house, dripping blood all down her clothes.
Skank almost loved Gracie. Gracie reminded her of her dead gran and had a kind and lovely soul. Her house smelled of lavender and baking and had a front room that nobody sat in, an outside loo and a small garden where cheerful gnomes conspired around a small pond. Gracie’s long dead husband Ron had kept pigeons and the loft was still there, waiting for ghosts to fly home. Gracie channelled a lot of love. She knew all about Skank and her habit. And she was the only person Skank ever spoke to about Alfie. One of the things Skank loved most about going to Gracie’s house was that she didn’t have to lie or pretend or be hard at all. Gracie accepted her with all her failings. Skank hated asking her for money. She would listen to Gracie talk and accept her offer of biscuits, all the while dreading the moment when she had to pop the question. Gracie only had her pension but she saw Skank as the child she had never had and was happy to share. “Oh dear,” said Gracie “you are in the wars. Look at your hair. We’d better clean you up and you can tell me all about it” She ran Skank a bath and gave her a warm fluffy towel and a dressing gown. Skank looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her hair was caked in blood and her eye was swelling up. She took off her dirty clothes and looked at her whole body with its scars and bruises and prominent ribs and needle marks. This isn’t OK, thought Skank, dismayed, this has to stop. As she sat in the bath enjoying the heat, wincing at the pain, feeling achier and sicker by the minute, she made a plan. Tomorrow she would go to the doctor and get referred back in to treatment. She would leave Shifty and start over. Tomorrow would be the first day of the rest of her life. She could go back to college, get a job, meet a decent guy and have a future. Skank was bright. Really bright. She would have done well as school had she been encouraged more, or had she had the kind of home life where one was fed and hugged and had a decent night’s sleep in a warm bed. She had had to use her intelligence to merely survive. It wasn’t too late. She was only eighteen. It could all change and all this chaos just become a memory of youthful folly. That was that then. She had decided. The quest for conditioner proved fruitless so she just combed her wet hair and made a mental note to nick some later, then remembered that it was all going to stop. Tomorrow. She put on the dressing gown and went to sit with Gracie in the kitchen. Her clothes were tumbling in the drier and the kitchen was warm with steamed up windows. There was a strangely comforting smell of washing powder and cabbage. “So, what happened?” asked Gracie. Skank told her about the pug lady and the punch. “Mmm,” said Gracie “I need to show you something.”
Gracie had been going to the library recently and had been learning about computers from teenage boys. She had found that she had quite a knack with them and had bought herself a laptop. Her learning curve had been steep and swift and she had mastered the dark arts of Facebook and Twitter, got back in touch with those friends from her childhood who were still alive and played Bridge regularly with her cousin in Canada. She fired up the laptop. “You won’t like this,” she said “but you need to know” She went on to the most popular town Facebook page and passed the computer to Skank. Skank scrolled down past the requests for information about Poundland opening times and for advice on how to complete simple bodily functions and there it was. Brenda’s vitriolic post. Followed by over two hundred comments, from people she had scammed mainly, and also some from people she had never met. A few voices spoke up for her, saying that she probably had issues and needed help, but most were angry and upset to realise that they were not the only people to have contributed to the wellbeing of the incorporeal dogs and theoretical children. Some even had some novel ideas regarding summary execution. All agreed that she had been Taking the P*ss. When she read the post from the autistic girl who had felt intimidated she almost agreed with them. “Who is Brenda?” she asked Gracie, as there was only an abstract photograph representing the architect of her ruination. When Gracie described Brenda the penny dropped. Skank knew that there had been something unusual about that interaction and had been dreading Brenda’s revenge. And here it was. A new kind of violence with far reaching implications. It was only a pound, thought Skank, what a bitch. And yet everything that was said on the page regarding her own actions was true. Sh*t. “Gracie, what am I going to do?” she said, afraid, “They hate me” “That’s not quite true, is it?” said Gracie “Some of them have been trying to help you. And even some of the people you have deceived are still speaking up for you. Perhaps if you had taken some of the help you have been offered you wouldn’t be in this mess. Haven’t you had enough yet?” Skank had a think. She had indeed had enough of her lifestyle, the endless round of scamming, scoring, shooting up, sleeping, waking up, getting sick and doing it all again. The adrenaline hit of shoplifting had worn thin and anyway she was banned from most of the shops in town. She hated turning tricks, satisfying seedy men who made her skin crawl, for a few poxy quid. She had certainly had enough of Shifty. But had she had enough of heroin? Of this she was unsure. Which was where a methadone script would come in handy. Whatever Russell Brand had to say on the matter. She had been to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting once. Lots of spiritual waffle mixed with a bit of bullshit. But the folk there had looked happy and did a lot of laughing. There was definitely something in it but she wasn’t sure what. People had been friendly to her for no apparent reason and two women had given her their phone numbers. And then she had lifted someone’s bag on the way out, which kind of sullied the experience and meant that she could not go back again. “I think I have had enough, Gracie,” she said “but I am afraid” “What you need,” said Gracie “is a bit of courage and determination. And a biscuit” She offered Skank a homemade cookie. It looked and smelt delicious but wasn’t the sustenance Skank’s body required right now. “Can I take some with me?” she asked as she dressed in warm clothes fresh from the tumble drier. “Of course,” said Gracie and carefully wrapped four cookies in some greaseproof paper “here you go” Skank put them in her pocket, hugged Gracie and thanked her, and made for the front door. She very nearly managed to leave without asking for money but old habits die hard. As she opened the garden gate she turned and said “I don’t suppose you could spare a tenner, Gracie, I’ll give it back when I get me giro?” The internet had opened a whole new world to Gracie and she had been doing a lot of research about addiction in order to try and help Skank. “I’m not going to enable you anymore,” she said “but you will always find a meal and a warm bed and a hug here. Remember I love you” Tears sprang to Skank’s eyes. She got it. She ran back down the path, kissed Gracie without a word and then headed back to town.
Running the gauntlet of whispers and scowls in the town centre was an uncomfortable experience and Skank kept her head down. “Oi” said a familiar voice “Shifty’s got some gear at yours, you’d best get home quick before he does it all” She broke in to a run. A little bit of gear was all she needed to give her the strength to get some food down her, to go to the doctor’s, to leave Shifty and her awful life once and for all. It would stop all the pain and distress that consumed her and give her some breathing space. Her body yearned in anticipation. She flung open the front door of their tiny bedsit shouting “Shifty, save some for me!” There was no reply. Shifty was on the floor by the cooker in a strange position with a needle hanging out of his arm, barely breathing and turning blue. “Shifty!” She shook him and slapped him and took the pin out of his arm. A drop of spittle dropped from his mouth and he emitted a feeble groan. She reached for her phone. No credit. She reached for his phone. No credit. She banged on the neighbour’s door. No answer. She picked up the remains of the heroin, put it in her pocket and ran out in to the street. She ran in to the nearest shop “Get out, you’re banned” said the security guard “But my partner has just OD’d” she cried “please call an ambulance” “Yeah, right,” said the guard, he didn’t get where he was today by helping wasters “just f**k off” She ran to the benches where the users were sat “Shifty’s gone over,” she said in desperation “has anyone got a phone?” “Nah, no credit, he’ll be alright, bloody good gear, mind” was the consensus, and then “Haven’t you got a Naloxone pen?” Skank didn’t even know what a Naloxone pen was but she knew she didn’t have one. Then there was “Don’t call the police, they’ll nick you” and “Got any money on you?” Someone waved a bottle of sherry under her nose and she took a swig before she ran off to see if anyone else would be more helpful. “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on” said one woman “Nah, you can’t use my phone, you’ll just run off with it” said another “You and that scumbag deserve all you get” was the view of several people and some little girls told her to do one. She ran to the Market Place, stood on the Market Cross and screamed “Please help me, Shifty is dying, I need to phone an ambulance, I don’t want any money, I just need to make a phone call, for God’s sake help me, please!” “Drunk again” said one office worker to another “Get away from my car” said a businessman “You’re that girl that’s always scamming people,” said a war veteran “bring back National Service” “Got that tenner you owe me?” said the woman from the Market “F**k off you cow, get a life” said someone who had once been a punter, someone so revolting that she had actually refused his money in the end, leaving him with a grudge. “Please, please, Shifty is dying!” She pulled on peoples’ coat sleeves, she cried and begged and pleaded, she ran in to the estate agents, the newsagents and the pub, but no-one would help her. She ran back to the bedsit, blinded by tears and sweat. In the twenty minutes she had been trying to get help Shifty had stopped breathing and died. She fell to her knees beside him and wailed with grief. She wailed for half an hour. Somewhere, as if from a long way off down a tunnel, came the sound of someone banging at a door. In slow motion, Skank kissed Shifty’s lifeless lips, injected the rest of the heroin, picked up the kitchen scissors, walked to the mirror and cut off all her hair.
The year had not been kind to Brenda. She had heard all about Shifty’s death, through the town websites, in the papers and on the street. She heard that Skank had stood on the Market Cross and cried out for help and that nobody came. She had held herself entirely responsible. Had she not posted her views on Skank on the town website none of this would have happened. Someone would have helped. Shifty and Skank had been in some sense lynched by her own hand. Over a period of a year she became morose and isolated. After six months she picked up a drink. And then another, and another. Because for people like Brenda, one was too many and a thousand not enough. She lost her job. She lost her home. She alienated her friends with her insistent misery and catastrophic descent in to alcohol psychosis. Her teeth fell out and she stopped dyeing her hair and washing. She became that which she had fought so hard not to be, the warty drunk old woman in the corner of the pub, spitting her teeth out in her beer and shouting “You’re all bast**ds” And one night, a year and a day after she had spoken to Skank, she found herself sat in an alley in town in a pool of her own urine, shaking, hallucinating and in dire need of a drink without a penny in her purse. She had had several alcoholic fits in the last few months and could sense that one would come on in the next few hours were she not to get some alcohol inside her. The autumn night was chill and she had left her coat in the woods. She sat and rocked and shivered and prayed to anything that might save her. “Excuse me, but are you alright?” Brenda looked up. A young woman stood silhouetted against the street light. “Can I help you?” Brenda squinted. The voice was somehow familiar. She focussed harder. It was Skank. Skank looked very different. As she moved the light caught her eyes and shone on her clear skin. She was well dressed and had put on weight. She had cute shoes and the same beautiful hair cut in a shorter style. She looked concerned. She clearly didn’t remember Brenda, which was unsurprising considering Brenda’s dramatic decline. “What do you need?” Asked Skank “I need a drink” said Brenda. Skank knew enough drinkers, drunk and sober, to believe that this was probably the case. She put her hand in her pocket, pulled out a two pound coin and gave it to Brenda. “Here you go,” she said “get some alcohol down you.” Then, as an afterthought, she pulled from her other pocket a leaflet. “You might not want this,” she said “but these people really helped me.” Brenda took the leaflet and put it in her pocket without a glance. She was already getting to her feet in order to get to the off licence as quickly as possible. “I’ve had problems myself,” said Skank “I know how it feels. Someone told me I needed courage and determination once. I hope you can find some of that. Do try and get some help. I’ll tell you what…” she produced a pen and a piece of paper and wrote down two numbers “this is my number and this is Gracie my landlady’s landline. Do give me a call if you ever need to talk.”
Brenda looked Skank in the eye with an intense stare. One day she would take Skank up on her offer and beg for her forgiveness but that was not a conversation for today. “Thank you,” she said, and then, as Skank turned to go, “and just one thing…what is your name?”
“My name is Hope” said the girl, as she smiled and walked away.
© Gail Foster 2015
Devizes Carnival tonight! Watch out for Roger…!
Roger’s libido had increased significantly in his eighties, in inverse proportion to the decrease in his hearing and cognitive ability. The long suffering Betty had tried, despite her arthritis and utter disinterest in such matters, to accommodate his needs; there had been cringeworthy forays in to swinging, unusual items appearing in the shed and furtive gropings on the bus to Swindon.
“Carnival tonight” said Betty, one September in the late afternoon. She was baking buns for church on Sunday, and a warm waft drifted through the house and in to the garden and the Devizes air.
“Carnalville?” said Roger “What goes on there?”
“Oh you know. Dancing girls. Men in dresses. People standing on street corners. Sounds of pumping and banging. Drinking. Over excitement. Unwanted pregnancies. Rubbing up against strangers. The usual.”
Roger liked the sound of Carnalville very much indeed. An appropriate occasion for the Calvin Kleins perhaps. And an extra Viagra.
It was going to be a very interesting night.
This is the life, thinks Ray as he settles in his chair with a ready meal. He has everything he needs in this moment. The freezer is full, the heating is on, his recent bout of IBS has run its course and there is an evening of Benefits Street and Big Brother in store. He likes to watch programmes that make him feel superior. Scroungers, he thinks. I pay for their children’s’ iPods with my taxes. Well, used to. Wierdos. Look at the state of that. He likes a nice rant about immigration as well. Coming over here, taking our jobs and our women. Don’t start me off. Oh dear, too late. The fact that his old job in the slaughterhouse had never been under threat from a queue of migrants desperate to wield his cleaver matters not in this one sided debate. He cannot actually recall a time in years gone by when he had to wait his turn at the local house of ill repute due to a high demand for his pet tart from men of the ethnic minorities. These details are of no concern to him. The smell of monosodium glutamate wafts temptingly from his lap. Not his favourite tea. He’s changed his supermarket and is just finishing off the last of the low quality meals he purchased before he went upmarket. The cat stares at him from the corner of the room, unmoved by the odour of processed chicken. It’s been a good day but somewhat exhausting. His cleaning routine took a little longer than usual as one of the bin bags had leaked in the hall. Not very satisfactory, the whole bin bags in the hall thing. The rest of the house is bleached and polished to a high degree, every day. Where does it all come from, he thinks, the dust and fluff and grime. It’s not like anyone ever comes in and he never opens the windows or curtains. Flies might come in. The sound of children playing grates on his nerves and the smell of flowers and trees plays havoc with his sinuses. Sometimes his neighbours have the audacity to barbecue and exchange noisy greetings in the street. Then there are cars starting early in the morning, barking dogs and ice cream vans in the afternoons. No consideration for an ordinary man just wanting a bit of peace.
His right hand aches as he lifts his fork. Along with his bowel it is a part of his body that experiences a lot of strain. His daily routine involves spending several hours a day on the computer. He likes to keep in touch with friends and to make new ones. He has lots of friends, eight hundred in total. The fact that he has never actually met any of them and that some of them are not even real people matters not. He finds the constant stream of pictures of kittens and humorous cartoons about poo reassuring. He shares useful information about UKIP and has his own blog in which he expresses himself regularly. He knows that his friends enjoy hearing about his breakfast. He got lots of likes for his piece about waffles. Waffling on again, mate, seemed to be a comment that a lot of other people were inspired to make. He’s been blocked a bit recently, mostly by women. He doesn’t mind when the fat and ugly ones unfriend him but was a bit miffed at the loss of Fifi Le Bleu, she looked a bit like Doris Day does work experience at the Folies Bergère. Maybe it was his comments about queers. Or women bishops. Or breasts. Maybe she just couldn’t take it from a real man. Plenty more where she came from, he thought wistfully, although he had very much enjoyed their relationship. She had seemed very interested. Well, a bit. Still, there is endless porn to take solace in. He never liked asking for it at the newsagents. His niche interests disturbed the sensibilities of more than one shop assistant so there had been many miles travelled in order to procure magazines concerned with his unusual tastes. Nowadays satisfaction is just a few clicks away and he has developed a few more peccadillos. It’s a victimless crime, he justifies to himself, they look like they’re enjoying it. His mother’s disapproving face appears in his mind occasionally when he indulges, which is inconvenient. She’s dead now so he wishes that she would mind her own business.
There is a knock at the door. Irritated he puts down his fork and heaves his considerable weight up from his chair, wheezing. Haven’t they seen his No Cold Callers sign? He doesn’t like it when people come round to his castle. Halt, who goes there, friend or foe? Hawker, trader, purveyor of jay cloths or ridiculous faiths? Money lender, beggar, cheerful chugger, he sends them all away with a flea in their ear. He looks through the peephole. Two well dressed young men in suits are outside his door. We’ve had the election, he thinks. He voted for UKIP by proxy, concerned that he might be infected with a socialist virus at the polling station. I had the community organisers round last week. Told them exactly what I think of my neighbours and where they could stick their community spirit. Don’t owe any money, well only to the bank, so that leaves…Jehovah’s Witnesses! He flings open the door, startling them. They ask politely what he thinks about the bible and all the suffering in the world. He replies that all the suffering in the world is due to religion, that all bibles are good for is toilet paper, paper planes and lighting fires, and that that Stephen Dawkins bloke has got it right. Having said that, he enjoys a Big Bang. The older man of the two suppresses a yawn and the younger one checks his watch. They apologise for just remembering that their parking ticket is about to run out and discreetly disappear. By now his korma is cooling but he is fired up with adrenaline and righteous anger. How dare they interrupt my tea. Still, I put them right on a few things. He settles back down in his chair. It is getting dark outside. He only knows this because Eastenders is on and there is less light diffusing through his net curtains. He finishes his ready meal but still has room for more. He puts on the light, sticks a spotted dick in the microwave and switches on his computer.
As he waits he revisits a few resentments. He has written to the Housing Association and the Council recently and wonders when his concerns will be dealt with. There are the issues of parking on the pavement, fly tipping by the bin store, noise and untidy flowerbeds but this are small fry compared to his main bugbears, the skip rats and the caravan. The skip rats are the homeless people who live in the woods at the back of his estate. Early in the morning and late at night they go through the bins, foraging for food and things they can sell. It’s thanks to them that his hall is full of bin bags. He puts his rubbish in the bins once a week when he hears the rubbish truck in the next road. I’m not having them nicking my stuff, he thinks, I pay a lot of money for my shopping and I’ll be damned if they’re getting my leftovers. Drug addicts, feckless alcoholics, low life, coming round here taking our jobs and our women, oh no that’s the immigrants, taking our rubbish and making our woodland untidy. He’s never been in the woods but he’s sure that they would be tidier without the homeless. Lots of people make nasty comments about the homeless on the town website and he likes to be in the majority. Now there is a right wing government he hopes that something will be done. I pay my rent, he thinks, well some of it, it’s not fair that they get to live for free. When he is curtain twitching he sometimes sees smoke from their fires in the woods and he has heard their laughter on the wind when he goes down to the bins. One of them said hello to him once, a cheery person of indeterminate gender with dreadlocks, riddled with lice no doubt, returning to the woods with arms full of a two legged stool, half an ancient pizza and a child’s buggy with a wheel missing. He didn’t reply. Give ‘em an inch and before you know it they’ll be taking a mile.
The caravan annoys him even more. It has been parked by the garages for a month. He can see it from his window if he wedges himself in a particular corner of the kitchen. His blood boils at the thought of it. He takes tablets for blood pressure so he has to be careful. He actually takes a lot of tablets for different things. Well, he’s ill. Since he got sacked for an unfortunate incident at the slaughter house he has been on the sick. “What do you mean unacceptable,” he had said at the time, “they’re only animals, just me and the lads having a laugh.” The fact was that the other lads had not found it funny at all and had reported him to the boss who didn’t mess around. Gross misconduct. “Give us yer cleaver,” the boss had said, “get yer porn from yer locker and go before I ring up the animal rights people and tell them where you live.” The longer he has been on the sick the sicker he has got. He has repeat prescriptions for all manner of medications. Depression, anxiety, irritable bowel, asthma, heart problems, insomnia, pain and medications for the side effects of all the above. He has to see the doctor now and again to prove he still exists and is too unwell to work. The last time there was a locum who refused to do a home visit and insisted that he came to the surgery for a medication review. Ray didn’t like that at all. Now that he has his weekly shop and medication delivered, pays all his bills online and has all the validation and sexual gratification he needs from shadow people on the internet, he doesn’t see the need to go any further than the bins. The cheerful young doctor talked about how a healthy lifestyle, gentle activity, social interaction and a good diet can have a positive impact on a variety of conditions, reduce the need for medication and result in increased wellbeing. “Bollocks,” said Ray, “I need medication, not a personal trainer.” “There are mutual support groups,” pointed out the doctor, his exasperation skilfully veiled, “for people with weight issues and mental health problems, and I can give you a pass for the local sports centre if you like, you can swim and do all sorts there.” Ray wasn’t up for any of that at all. He caught his own finger in the door whilst slamming it on the way out. Good job there was another prescription for codeine in his sweaty hand. So, taking all his conditions in to account, the caravan by the garages is a real issue.
According to the nasty things said about her on the town website, the woman in the caravan is called Mad Rose. She is a veteran of the bean field and has travelled all her life. She is of indeterminate age, wears a purple hat and has a scruffy mongrel called Kenny and a horse called Freedom, who is currently grazing in a friend’s field on the outskirts of town. There had been no intent to stay by the garages, it just happened that way. The caravan broke and she is waiting for a part. Rose is no shrinking violet and you don’t mess with her as she has a machete and there are rumours that she is a witch. Her machete comes in handy for cutting wood rather than slaughter and the witch thing, she thinks, lacks originality. Contrary to the opinions of the town website cognoscenti she has never claimed a benefit in her life. She earns the little money she needs with casual farm work, cutting hair and selling her art to whoever will buy it. She paints portraits. There is always someone in need of a haircut or wanting their picture painted. When she was very young and strangely beautiful a famous painter saw her in the street and persuaded her to sit for him, painting her as Persephone in the Underworld. Rose gets by well enough. She has real friends all over the country, folk who welcome her with open arms even if they have not seen her for many years. She is welcome round many fires, and many people have heeded her wise words and made good use of them in their lives. She has lovers, young and old, but needs no man to make her whole and never stops in any bed long enough to bore. Sometimes she prefers no company for months on end. Patience is not a virtue she possesses in great measure; she can be curt and dismissive and does not suffer fools gladly. She likes to sit alone, read and play her flute and ponder on the mystery of life. Tonight, as a light on the horizon heralds the moon rise, wood smoke comes from the tin chimney in the roof of her van, candles burn in her windows and the smell of stew wafts across the estate. She sits on the steps in front of her door, sewing a dress for the winter with coloured thread and humming an Irish song.
Ray’s computer is slow to start. The spotted dick turns noisily in the microwave. He looks forward to checking out a new porn site of unusual perversity and seeing if anyone liked his latest post about UKIP and had enjoyed the misogynist cartoon he had shared at lunchtime. The night is young and he has suffered no ill effects from the chicken korma. He gives the cat the thumbs up but gets no reaction. Unsurprising as the cat died some years ago and Ray had chosen to have it stuffed. Much handier than a living cat, cheaper to keep, less mess. The cat had been happy when it had been allowed to roam free but when Ray was sacked and stopped going out he had nailed up the cat flap. The cat had waited by the door for months, watching it, willing it to open but it never did. Eventually the poor thing died of boredom and a crushed soul. It had cost a few quid to get it stuffed but the result justified the expense. Another minute and pudding will be done, he thinks, then I can get down to some serious social interaction.
The computer screen goes black. The light goes off and the noise from the microwave suddenly stops. All is suddenly dark and very quiet in the front room. Ray shuts his eyes and opens them again. Still dark. He cannot see a thing. He sits for a bit and then a bit longer waiting for the light to return. He’s confused. I’ve paid the electric bill, he thinks. He remembers blokes at work making reference to fuse boxes and wonders if something has blown. He realises that although the fuse box is included in his daily cleaning routine he does not have a clue what to do with it. Perhaps I am dreaming he thinks, pinching himself harder than he might have done had he not been full of codeine. Shutting his eyes and opening them a few more times yields no result. As his brain is entirely unused to problem solving he begins to feel slightly panicky. He gets up out of his chair and trips over the coffee table on the way to the window, knocking his head on the glass edge. He feels a trickle of something hot and wet running down the side of his face and wipes it with his hand but it keeps flowing. He gets up and walks to the curtain, pulling it aside to look outside, leaving a dark stain dimly visible on the net. It looks like everyone’s lights are off. The estate is eerily quiet, apart from the distant cry of a small child. Someone is walking through the play park with a torch. He wishes he had a torch. Or a candle. Or, suddenly and to his surprise, his Mum. He opens the window and shouts to the man with a torch. “What’s going on?” “Power cut, mate.” A power cut! He remembers that these used to happen years ago. Didn’t Margaret Thatcher sort all that stuff out? He must write to the Council. Except that now he does everything online he doesn’t have a pen or a piece of paper and besides that he can’t see a thing. The computer that usually lights his life is dead. His phone is out of charge. His spotted dick is inedible and the contents of the freezer are doomed. He sits back down in the darkness and waits for something to happen.
Time passes. How much time is impossible to say but it must be a few hours as the codeine is wearing off. From the blackness, unchanged by the opening and shutting of his eyes, images begin to form. Some of them are neon bright, some dimmer and indistinct. And with these images come what Ray presumes are Feelings. He knows what anger, sexual frustration, hunger and relief feel like but most of the other sensations he is used to describing as ‘feeling unwell.’ They happen in different parts of his body and vary in temperature and intensity. Some draw tears from the deep ache of his soul, some make him sweat, some flush his flesh to vermillion and some make him want to be sick. The images are of people, that he has loved or hated, missed, desired, conquered or been slighted by; colleagues, shop assistants, faceless girls on websites, kids he knew at school, doctors, teachers and people on buses. The brightest images are the ones that cause his body to scream with pain. His mother. And the cat. He tries to give words to these overwhelming sensations. His mind turns automatically to emoticons, hashtags and ‘lols’ but this is not the language he needs to find. He remembers his Mum from when he was little, doing the Monday wash in the kitchen, flying a kite with him, teaching him to shell peas and the sound of the clatter in the pan. The day he found her on the floor in the kitchen bleeding, bruised and crying. The day the police came for his Dad. Moving to a different town, quickly. Mum drinking a lot. Mum working hard and bringing home the bacon. Unsuitable men. Mum sometimes getting it right and sometimes wrong. Then Mum getting premature senile dementia and gibbering in a home for years until she died. The words come in a flood. Love. Sorrow. Guilt. Security. Frustration. Sympathy. Nostalgia. Regret. Then there is the faint smell of summer flowers, autumn fires, the seaside, pine disinfectant and a taste of jelly. Then the cat. He hadn’t done right by the cat at all. He had kept it as a little prisoner. He remembers the playful furry kittenness of it, its curiosity and free spirit. How it had snuggled close to him for warmth and how, really, it was the only friend that he had ever had. How it had sat waiting by the door for an age and eventually gave up. This feeling is dark and terrible and weighs heavy on every thread of him. In Awe he names it as Devastation. He is drowning in Mourning and tears and cannot contain his Grief. He sees what he has done and rocks in Terror in his chair, in Fear of Judgement. He cannot fight what he does not understand. He chooses flight and rushes, blindly, banging in to the furniture, flinging the door wide open and blundering out on to the street.
What Rose sees from the steps of the caravan is the stumbling figure of an overweight balding man of fifty, hoving towards her from the darkness of the flats. He has a gash on the side of his head and a disorientated gaze. Kenny plants himself at Rose’s feet, growling, as she slowly puts her sewing down upon the step. “There’s no light at my house,” he says, “nothing works and the cat is dead.” Rose thinks for a minute. She doesn’t really want any company and doesn’t know this bloke from Adam but someone told her once, and she had never forgotten this, that what comes to your door is your business. “Right,” she says, “cup of tea?” The dog sniffs Ray’s ankles and deems him ineffective. Kenny has seen it all before and has learned to categorise other beings in terms of threat and potential gain. He likes Rose’s friends because they talk to him about interesting things and give him meat, old ladies are usually good for a stroke, policemen are not to be trusted and the three legged cat up the road is capable of inflicting serious injury. Ray, however, couldn’t get a piss up in a brewery together right now and has no food on him. But he doesn’t smell of alcohol, which is peculiar. Kenny has seen a lot of drunks. They usually smell of Lynx and piss and resentment. Ray just smells of bleach and fear. “Come in,” she says. Inside the van it is warm and bright with candles. A saucepan rattles on a pot belly stove. She gestures to him to sit down on one of the two wooden chairs and gets two cups from a tiny cupboard. Ray feels like an Ork in The Shire, clumsy, unrefined, an incongruous guest and fish out of water. He sits quietly crying, observed sympathetically, curiously or indifferently by Madonnas, angels, Marilyns, butterflies and Buddhas, of varying style and dimension, all gazing at him from the walls and shelves.
He hasn’t been anyone’s guest for a long time, not without paying for it. The last time he sat with a woman he wasn’t paying for had been on the night his mother died, all those years ago, at the nursing home. The matron had sat with him by his mother’s corpse for hours while he cried. She had offered to pray with him and he had accepted, despite having no belief of his own. His mother had believed. He remembered her singing All Things Bright And Beautiful in the supermarket once. How embarrassed he had been. She would have wanted him to pray so pray he did but just for her. Other than his mother, the matron and the tart he had long held in rosy memory, Ray was not a great fan of women, remembering pigtailed ballerinas at little school looking down their noses at him and shadows cast by frightening slags from the villages falling across his playground marbles. He recalled putdowns made by horsey girls and those equipped with gutter wit, all of whom found him a figure of fun. They had come up with Fat Ray, Fat Ray, he ain’t got no mates and is totally Gay. This ditty followed him home, rang out from alleyways and the back of the bus, shouted itself across classrooms and the football pitch and occasionally surprised him in the supermarket. For his entire adolescence. He took his anger out at the slaughterhouse and with whores and gradually became desensitised and inhumane. Girls were for sex, despising, mothering and washing up, they were all lipstick, pointless prayer and teddy bears. And what he hated about them most was that they didn’t want to fuck him, any of them.
Rose puts a cup of sugary tea in to his shaking blood stained hands. She wipes the blood off his face with a warm sweet smelling cloth. He winces. “Doesn’t look too bad,” she says, “get the doctor to check it out.” He nods, big fat blubbery tears rolling down his cheeks. “So what’s up?” she says, sitting in the other chair, looking at him intensely. “The electric went off,” he said, “I banged my head in the dark. I don’t feel well. And I killed the cat.” “Maybe start at the beginning,” she suggests, so he does. Out it all comes in a torrent of pain, his life story, his ailments, his dead mother, the unfairness of everything, how immigrants have it better than he does, what he did to the cat, how he doesn’t go out anywhere but has a toilet seat clean enough to eat your dinner off, that he is having uncomfortable Feelings and finally, what happened at the slaughterhouse. He has never told anyone the truth about why he left the slaughterhouse. Kenny is curled up dozing at his feet but pricks an ear at this particular story. Rose swallows hard. In the past she has been an animal rights protestor but left her group when agent provocateurs turned up suggesting violence. She gives money, when she has some spare, to the local cats and dogs home. She views animals as sentient beings, fellow travellers on the great road of evolution. She despises people who are cruel to animals and for a moment wants to tip Ray’s tea over his head and show him the door with the point of her boot. She breathes deep, remembering that this man is her business because he came to her door and that she believes in redemption. One of the angels in a picture on the wall appears to shudder slightly. Ray is overwhelmed by the feeling of Shame. As the words come out of him and fall on the floor before this person he knows that what he did was truly wrong and he desires her Forgiveness. He becomes silent and so does she. He waits for her to speak. She searches her mind for the right thing to say, the thing that will make a difference to him and to the universe and that will make sure that he never does anything so vile again. The right words are beyond her so, as is her habit when confounded, she opens a book and reads the words of someone wiser than she.
It’s fair to say that William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence are somewhat beyond Ray’s comprehension but he hears the line “He who shall hurt the little Wren Shall never be beloved by Men” alright. “I need to be forgiven,” he says, “for the slaughterhouse and the cat.” “Do you believe that forgiveness is possible,” she said, “and where would you wish to find it?” Ray thinks. He doesn’t believe in anything much, certainly not God. There have never been fairies at the bottom of his non-existent garden. He wants forgiveness from his dead Mum and the cat. And from Rose, this strange person who is being kind to him for no apparent reason. She’s not his cup of tea at all but he is experiencing something new, peculiar and untainted by desire that could quite possibly be Trust. He explains to her that he is an atheist and quite partial to a bit of Stephen Dawkins. She laughs and gently explains that Stephen Hawkins and Richard Dawkins are two different people, that one is trying to prove what does exist while the other puts his energy in to proving what does not, that Hawkins wears his disease on the outside and Dawkins on the inside. And that neither of them would be particularly useful in this situation. “I think you have to forgive yourself,” she said, “and do something to atone.” “Have I ‘sinned’?” he asks, scared that his lack of belief might be no defence against eternal damnation or ignominy in this world at least, “Can you forgive me?” She thinks again, hard. “I cannot give you absolution,” she says. Ray is relieved about this as it might interact with his medication. “But I can bless you.” “Please,” says Ray, “I’d like that.” She gets up from her chair, takes his tea from his hands and puts it on the table. She places her hands on the top of his head and calls on the forces of Light. She uses prayers from different faiths and languages. She asks of The Great Life blessing, guidance, protection, healing and forgiveness for Ray. Her hands are warm and he feels a pressure bearing down from above. And then she is finished. As she lifts her hands away he feels a lightness and a slight pull upwards. She sits down. “Believe what you like,” she says, “but believe in something. The rest is up to you.”
Ray feels profound and disorientated. One of the Buddhas looks like it is actually chuckling. “Anything else I can help you with, she asks, while you’re here?” He thinks for a moment. “Do you have friends?” he asks. Rose laughs. “Of course,” she says. “And how did you meet them,” he says, “and keep them?” “People come in to your life to share your journey for a while,” she says, “you learn from each other, sometimes they stay, sometimes they go, but even when you are not together you are still friends. I meet them everywhere. You just have to spot them when they appear. It’s like a recognition thing.” “I have friends,” he says, “lots of friends, on the internet.” “Right,” she says, “and do you ever actually meet them or speak on the phone?” “No,” he says, “not at all, but they say they like me.” “ And what do you do for them?” “I send them funny stuff and stuff about UKIP.” She chooses to ignore the UKIP thing, sensing that a conversation in that direction would take them both down a urine drenched blind alley. “How do you know that they laugh?” She says. “They send me smiley faces and ‘lols’.” “And how do you know when they are unhappy?” “They send me sad faces and ‘wtfs’.” This is all beyond Rose, although she does have a niece who talks this way but is forbidden to do so in the caravan. Rose likes proper words, believing that too many tiny words cause atrophy in certain areas of the brain. “You should meet some proper people,” she says. “The last person I spoke to was a Jehovah’s Witness,” he says, “and someone with dreadlocks said hello to me by the bins the other week.” “That sounds like Jo,” she says, thoughtfully. “A proper person. You’d do well being friends with Jo. You should wander through the woods sometime.” Ray feels that an enquiry about Jo’s gender at this point may not be wise but he makes a mental note of what Rose has said. “I’m getting tired,” she says, “anything else?” “I’m scared,” he says. “What of?” she asks. “Life.” She racks her brains and reaches up to the bookshelf for a card with a picture of an old gnarled oak on the front. On the back of the card are writ in ink the words of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. “Take that,” she says, “go home and read it when your electric comes back on. And if it doesn’t, wait for daylight. And as for the electric, Leonardo Da Vinci never had any, nor did most of your ancestors and they seemed to adapt and survive well enough.” Ray has a vague recollection of Mutant Ninja Turtles and a bird called Moaning Lisa in relation to the Leonardo reference. She shows him to the door. He has to step over a sleeping Kenny. “I will be asking for something from you,” she says, “in return for my time.” He can’t think what that might be but is grateful to her and feels the stirrings of things that could be called Empathy and Friendship. “Looks like your electric is back on,” she says, “but look at that moon!” The great shining orb in the sky illuminates the flats and the tops of the woodland trees and there is a smell of fires and flowers in the air. He is not the same person who entered the caravan earlier. He feels alive. “Goodnight,” he says, “and thank you.” She nods and shuts the caravan door.
Back in his flat there is a bit of a mess where he knocked stuff over and a blood stain on the net curtain. He checks the lights and all is well. The freezer is humming as usual. The spotted dick sits in the microwave inert yet all potential. He thinks to himself that he had better take some medication but decides to give the codeine a miss despite feeling a bit snuffly with a pain in his head. He switches on the computer. As it whirrs in to life the usual images of kittens and poo appear. He switches it straight off and goes to bed. His dreams are vivid, painful, unusual, full of the faces of all of the people that he has ever known, comprehensive, lucid, comforting. There is an odd bit where someone he once knew called Terry appears saying “You know that light at the end of the tunnel, mate, that they say you see when you are dying? That’s someone with a torch bringing you More Work.” His Mum appears and cuddles him, the cat rubs against his legs purring and all the animals from the slaughterhouse dance happily in a magic wood. He sleeps for hours with the windows and curtains open to the sky and air. On waking he is a different man. He does not turn the computer on. He doesn’t do any cleaning, well not much. He looks out of the kitchen window with hope and joy for the day ahead. The caravan is gone. He feels confused and a little upset. He liked Rose and was hoping to have more conversation with her. He had hoped that she might be a friend, not a tart and not his Mum but a friend. There is a knock at the door. He opens it. There is Rose. And Kenny. “The part for the van arrived,” she says. “My mate brought it round with Freedom and I’m parked up round the corner. I’m going to Ireland for a few months and I want you to look after Kenny.” She hands Ray Kenny’s lead and waterbowl. “He won’t be any trouble,” she says, “but you have to let him take you wherever he wants to go.” “When will you be back?” “Sometime.” She pats Kenny, who raises no objections having seen it all before, and turns to go. “Oh yes, and by the way, you’d better treat him well or he’ll have your leg off,” she says, and off she goes.
Kenny smells of nuts and old socks and is shedding hair on Ray’s cream carpet as he explores the flat. When he comes across the cat he growls slightly and looks confused. Perhaps he has not seen everything after all. Ray takes some meat out of the freezer to defrost and sits down to digest this new situation. Kenny eyes him up then nuzzles against his legs. They sit for a few minutes, man and dog. Then Kenny gets up and runs to the door, his tail wagging, full of enthusiasm and restless energy. Ray looks at the cat. The cat looks at Ray with glazed approval. Ray picks up the lead and opens the door. Kenny runs towards the woods and the smell of fires and flowers and the sound of a woman singing to the ring of a guitar. Ray follows.
Copyright Gail Foster 2015
This story is based on a moment observed in a small corner of Devizes a few weeks ago. Any resemblance to living persons is entirely coincidental. The bins and the woods are real, the characters are all of us and none of us. If you like my story, please share it with others. All good things to you.
(A story created following a conversation with a friend in Devizes)
For all artists, past, present and to come; for freedom, for art, and for her…
Light was hinting over the horizon as Tom wove his way through the streets towards home. Another year, another Carnival. He had been drinking since noon and was none too steady on his dancing feet. When he got to the Market Place he sat on the steps of the Cross to finish his last drop of beer. The town was silent, in stark contrast to the night before when to incessant drum beat the procession had started and stopped, twirled and trumpeted in the August heat. There had been dancers from different countries, excited children waving from trucks, military orchestras, young women with painted faces and men in dresses, sellers of trinkets from wheelbarrows, old boys on bicycles, old women cooing over toddlers dressed as fairies, belly dancers, jugglers, a unicyclist and The Mayor, all marching slowly through the summer evening, filling their buckets with coppers, becoming wearier and sweatier with smiles and face paint fading as the night progressed.
He was a dapper man who looked younger than his forty years, although the lines of life upon his face were clearly visible and deepened by a long night of excess. He was a natty dresser, trendy, his preferred style being a sharp jacket over ironed jeans with ironic tee shirt and neat but luxuriant hair. On this occasion he was adorned by celebration with silly string, a distinct lip stick mark upon his cheek and an unsavoury stain down the front of his shirt. He supped from his bottle on the step and surveyed the detritus of humanity left by the procession. Around the Market Cross radiated all manner of discarded and lost things; a baseball cap, the remnants of several takeaways, someone’s phone, someone’s knickers, a plastic glass half full of an amber coloured liquid, scraps of coloured paper, artificial feathers, cigarette ends, a large pile of vomit and a child’s shoe. He lit a cigarette and as he blew a cloud of smoke in to the air she appeared.
She sat beside him on the step without a word. “Hello” he said, as seemed polite. She nodded in response and silence. “Did you enjoy the procession?” he asked “Yes and no” she said. Her accent was not one with which he was familiar. “Not from round here then?” “No, just passing through.” Until she said this he presumed that she had been on one of the floats, there had been people dressed as Victorians and land girls and she was rocking a look somewhere in between. He couldn’t really see her face, partly due to the half-light and partly to the obscuring effect of her headscarf. He guessed that she was in her early twenties but couldn’t be sure. She was wearing a lot of clothes, heavy boots and lipstick. He hoped that she was pretty. “My name is Tom” he said and held out his hand to her “Hello, Tom, I am ……….” He didn’t quite catch her name, which was frustrating as he was too polite to ask twice, or her eye, but her handshake was warm. He asked her where she was from and she said that she was Czech. He offered her his bottle but she declined.
After a few minutes of companionable quiet he was unable to resist using his Viking funeral line “So what lights your fire and floats your boat?” “Excuse me?” “What do you do for fun, or work, or both?” “Oh, I understand. I am a poet” she said. He didn’t expect this at all. “What kind of poems do you write?” She thought for a few moments. This was always a difficult question to answer. “All kinds of poems. For birth and death, for laughter and tears and anger and grief.” “Can you recite one for me?” “Do you understand Czech?” “No.” “Then there would be no point” she said. He disagreed and asked again and she recited some verses in Czech with a faraway gaze. She had a lilting tone and the poem was clearly sad and somehow defiant. He didn’t have to understand the language to be affected by her words. “That’s lovely.” He was sure he saw tears glinting in the shadows of her eye. “I am published,” she said “you can read my work translated if you wish. I like people to read my work.” He was curious and wanted to read the words in English. She told him the title of the book in which her poems appeared, something to do with landscapes, and the name of the author, which he wrote on the back of his cigarette packet.
“And you?” she asked “Your, what is it, fires and boats?” “Me? I’m not very interesting. I don’t do much and there’s not much to do round here.” “Your work, your fun?” “I’m just a gardener.” “How lovely!” “I do a bit of acting sometimes, and a bit of directing, a bit of writing and a bit of drawing. But I’m not much good at anything and I haven’t done anything for ages.” “Why is that?” “No inspiration. Can’t be bothered. What’s the point?” She said nothing for some time. “There’s always a point. Always. How can you say there is no point?” He felt that he had touched a nerve and was taken aback by her reaction and the rise in tone of her voice. “Well I’m no good and nobody is really interested in what I have to say.” “How do you know that and what exactly do you have to say?” He had to think about this, hard. “Tell me your story” she said, for she needed to understand, so he did. His was a tale of one life left behind and another begun, of a rough take off, a turbulent flight and a comfortable landing, of early challenge and late complacency. Of how once there had been certainty and direction, hungry energy and subjection to a higher will and how now there was ease and a plate full of everything. He told her about how he had found himself at the hub of all the Art in town when he moved in with his brother at The Space, a coffee shop and performance space frequented by the local intelligentsia. He described his town as “the obese but much loved wilful spoilt child of the county music scene.” He said that his boat was set to sea by history and politics and that when he danced he felt that he was walking on water. And yet despite all this he was weighed down by his past, petrified at the thought of a mundane future, and purposeless.
“No inspiration?” She was incredulous “You have art and music in your life. You live in this beautiful place. You earn your money by working the earth and bringing it to bloom. You have time to smell the flowers. You have interesting conversation with interesting people. You can dance and draw and you want for nothing. And you and your society are free!” “Yes, but,” he said “all this pain within me, how can I use a pen to write or draw when my arms are so full of this cross that is my past and my regret?” She had come to this place at this time for reasons known to her and although she was incensed she was a peaceful soul and knew she had to say the right words carefully “I do not believe in your cross,” she said “you should leave it at the side of the road for the poor and cold to use as firewood.” He was mortified at the words of this strange poetess, which rang true on every string of his soul’s guitar “Have you ever thought,” she said “of what it might be like to have all the inspiration it is possible to have, and more, with no means of expression, no pens or brushes, no audience, no surface on which to write, no instrument, no energy, no candle or sunbeam with which to see, no voice or no life left to live?” Her voice shook with tears “Have you ever considered what it would be like to have all the words and images within yourself to heal and save and bless, to confront stupidity or evil with itself, and be forbidden your say, or to have your bequest to generations yet to come destroyed? What say you now of inspiration and your rotting cross?” He opened his mouth to speak but had no words. She uttered three more words only but these would stay with him forever “Create for me” she said. And then she vanished.
Tom was bemused. He knew that he was drunk and he had had some pretty unnerving experiences late at night in town but this one left his very soul naked and shattered like a brick through a stained glass window. He looked all around but of her there was no sign, just a gathering of crows scattering across the lightening sky and swooping down over a kebab. He drained his bottle and swayed on home, dismayed, through littered alleys, the eerie silence broken only by the incoherent mumblings of one lost reveller, a distant siren and two teenage girls looking for a phone. He fell in to his comfortable bed still clothed and slept till lunchtime. All day Sunday he was good for nothing, hung over and morose, her words turning over and over in his painful head, the truths she had spoken adding to his nausea and chemical guilt. He had no internet with which to research her work as he would have liked to do immediately, and the hours until Monday dripped slower than the bathroom tap. The café was busy but his brother’s plea for assistance went unheeded and he found the noise of laughter and humorous Sunday banter wafting through his window from downstairs a distraction to his thought.
He was at the library before the doors opened and sat in front of a computer impatiently waiting for the system to spring in to life. He typed in to Google the name of the author that he had scrawled on his cigarette packet and the title Landscapes. There it was, “Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death” by Otto Dov Kulka*. He typed the details in to the library catalogue page which told him that it was on the shelf. With trepidation he scanned the history section and removed the thin blue volume with a shaking hand. It was not a book of poetry but a private mythology, a memoir and reflection of a historian who had been in Auschwitz as a child. There were photographs of ruined death camps, long dead Jews and Nazis, there were dreams and musings on the nature of God, biblical references and images evoked with words of the inexorable nature of Death, seen through the eyes of a small boy and remembered through the lens of an old man’s memory. There were children’s’ drawings, pictures of dead men’s shoes and the musical notes of Ode to Joy transcribed on thin paper in fading ink. And then there was Chapter Six, entitled Three Poems from the Brink of the Gas Chambers. There she was. She had been twenty and nameless and had thrust her poems in to the hands of a guard at the entrance to the gas chamber, as her last act before descending in to death in the March of 1944. The guard had passed them on to the author’s father and they were the only poems to survive the liquidation of the Theresienstadt family camp at Auschwitz.
How beautiful were her words, translated from the Czech, anonymous and powerful. ‘We, the Dead, Accuse!’, ‘Alien Grave’ and ‘I Would Sooner Perish’, three poems saved from annihilation, gifted to history by an unknown young poetess, snatched from the mouth of the grave and passed through careful hands to speak to justice and the future. She has no rotting cross, she cries for vengeance for the innocent dead, mourns a generation of young men betrayed and asserts her belief in her verse that the glory of war is all bloodshed and violence of which she wants no part. He had to look up the word ‘threnody’ and learned that it is a lamentation to the dead. He wondered what the verses sounded like in Czech and thinks perhaps it may have been the first one that she recited to him in the Market Place. He is amazed and humbled by her words and cries in the library quietly in response to the grief that swells within him. And she, what of she, her final moments, her dignity and terror and her last minute decision to leave her work behind in trust with a stranger in the hope that it would remain. He imagined the procession of the doomed towards the gas chamber, children, mothers, old soldiers and young men, their fear and helplessness, some singing defiantly, some praying, the slow walk in to darkness and oblivion, and that afterwards there would have been silence and only crows picking at the remains of their humanity left blowing in the thin March wind.
And suddenly he understands; what she meant when she spoke about what it is to have inspiration and no means or life or liberty to express it, and what that means for him. A drop of clear quartz falls in to a shining pool somewhere deep within him and he Sees.
His journey, although he knows it not at this point, will take him to dark and frightening places; where artists scrawl their pictures with bloodied fingers on walls in darkness, where condemned men bury poetry in pots in earth round crematoria, where stones and ash are used for paint and bones are whittled in to whistles. Places where cartoonists are incarcerated for satire and children shot for singing; where sacred texts are burned with their authors and the flight of dancers is interrupted by death; places where secret orchestras play whole symphonies and where violinists are forced to use their bows against their will at executions. His enquiring mind will take him through the centuries to gulags and asylums and oubliettes, where he will empathise with artists in straitjackets and blindfolds, facing firing squads, starvation, endless loneliness and obliteration from history. Voices from the past will speak to him in prose and verse, in whispers and deafening rage, and the faces of anonymous prisoners will plead to him from painted fragments. Armed with his interest in politics and history he will come to understand why the power of the artist has been and remains so threatening to hate fuelled stony ground built regimes past and present. His vision of the past will become infused with colour and life and meaningful abstraction. He will devote hour upon precious hour trawling through obscure tomes in the corners of libraries and websites, and become shocked and enthralled, angry and energised, enlightened and inspired.
In time he will make his own art, writing poems and stories and crafting images in pen and ink and paint. He will act and direct and perform in his own play one day. At times he will be lauded and at other times scorned, but he will always get his art seen and make his voice heard. From that point onward he will fight for the right of artists of all kinds to freely make their art, and use the connections that he has to good end, raising awareness of the persecution of artists all over the world amongst both friends and strangers. He will dance with joy at every opportunity, and rejoice in his freedom; he will put down his rotting cross and satirise himself in a caricature that will achieve some minor fame; he will review and promote the work of local artists, and is destined to become a patron of the arts in his old and interesting age.
And every day, for the rest of his life, he will bless and thank her brave poetic spirit for coming to him on that Carnival night; and every night, for as long as he lives, he will burn a white candle in his window, and remember the lost poetess of Auschwitz, and the last three words she said to him.
“Create for me.”
Copyright Gail Foster July 2015
* Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka, published by Allen Lane January 2013 and translated from the Hebrew by Ralph Mandel
Back In The Day, whenever that day was…with affectionate memories of Joyce and Harry Hall
Just one more pint, he thinks, and I’ll be off. From the jukebox pounds an unchained melody. He shuts one eye to focus but the room is swaying from side to side. The Lamb Inn by St. John’s. He‘s been drinking here for all his adult life and some nights he finds it challenging to remember when is now. He knows that once it was the Scribbling Horse and there was another name he can’t recall. Roundheads stayed there in the Civil War. Hordes of foot have marched in through the doors and out again with viewpoint skewed by copious consumption of ale, with banter or with melancholic step. It was acceptable in the Eighties, he remembers, to smoke and overdose on pork scratchings and pickled eggs in bags of crisps. Now the air is easier to breathe, although the unmasked smell of man grows less sweet towards the end of busy nights. These days, as has been so for many years, you can shoot a gun in to a hole in the wall in the front room, still throw a dart in the bar and shoot pool in the back. So many shots, he thinks, bang, clunk, swig.
There was a time when Thursday afternoons were packed. Market Day and after lunch, down with tools and all hands to the pub. He remembers Joyce and Harry well. She was sometimes cross and sometimes kind and woe betide you if you sparked her wrath. He was taciturn, ironic with a longer fuse. She would sometimes appear without her teeth. Harry got new teeth once. Quite disturbing they were, incongruously bright within his face. His Christmas jumpers added to the legends of the Halls, along with the mystery illnesses of Joyce and the brandy she enjoyed much as a cure. Some time passed after the Halls. There was a landlord whose name slips his mind, a time when there was more spit than sawdust in the pub and the drayman refused to brave the grimy cellar depths. Then there had been an intellectual flowering, when George and Ailsa ran the pub. Then there were crosswords (of the paper kind) discussed at length and filled in on the bar, and unusual antiques. When George died his coffin was carried on the dray, pulled by Wadworth’s horses through the Market Place. Now Sally runs the pub, he still feels welcomed and at home.
The barmaids there had been. Funnily enough his requests to “Give us a smile, darlin’” had rarely had the desired effect. Likewise rattling his change and banging his pint glass on the bar seemed never to have had the result he had expected. There had been some pretty ones, some scowling ones, some frankly unusual ones. In the space behind the bar had been no room to swing a cat so when there were two pregnant ones and a weighty lass there had been a slower pint but a most amusing watch. “Cheer up, love, it may never happen” had always been a phrase to raise an eyebrow with the girls. The punky one was fun, quick of wit, efficient with a pint. Once he thought she had her tits out but on close inspection they were comedy breasts, worn for hilarity and shock effect. That night he had cracked one off swiftly in the gents and forgot to wash his hands. Hey, it has to be done, he thought, a man’s a man.
The seat at the top of the bar is empty now. It was one man’s chair for many years. For decades Tim had quaffed his ale and held his court. “Don’t sit there, that’s Tim’s chair.” Tim had watched the comings and goings of the bar through steamed up spectacles, dripping the occasional drop of 6X from his tankard on his beard. He had been the mayor once. He drank his secret deeper every year. Nothing lasts for ever, though, and truth will mostly always out. Over St John’s Street and under the Town Hall, only a few feet from his seat, lies the old clink, where rogues of old would have looked up through iron bars on to the street and heard the voices of those at liberty to frequent the Inn . Who can say if Tim will take his seat again.
So many years, he thinks. Of banter in the flowered yard, of pints and women pulled, in the shadow of St. John’s. Now there is music upstairs in the bar now named The Fold, the strumming and the song wafting down upon the summer air, the sunlight falling through stained glass on the dark wooden table and glinting through his ale. So many drunken Christmasses, he recalls. So many happy days and sad. Babies heads wetted, the dead commemorated with beer.
He becomes maudlin and decides to leave, in fear that if he sits in the corner long enough he may be in danger of losing his religion. There is a house in Devizes Town, he thinks, they call the Rising Sun. Maybe another pint before I go….
Gail May 2015