“In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth then and bite til the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison and we will all come to the end together; and even to the beginning: living as we do in the middle.” Ursula K Le Guin
A boy sits on grass in summer. A few feet from his, on cooked concrete an army of children dart around like ants. The teacher is on her way to the staffroom seeking coffee and consolation. She stops. She bends. She smiles.
“Are you okay?”
He nods. He looks okay, she thinks, this small boy new to playground ways, calm, watching.
“Do you…would you…how about I find someone to play with you?” He looks up at her.
She is troubled. He is not. She wants to solve things. He does not.
He shakes his head “No. I’m fine.” Dark eyes, long lashes. His American twang makes her wistful for home. His legs are crooked, arms resting loosely on his knees.
She stands, looks at her watch. “So….um, what are you going to do now?” She wants to go but she can’t.
“Oh, just watch,” he says. She begins to move away but hesitates. His voice is quiet but matter of fact, “I’m trying to understand this place,” he says, “I thought it’d be easy but I’m still wondering here…”
She smiles. She understands. The English are different, she thinks – their mysteries locked away behind pleasantness. Or perhaps the English have no nightmares…
She walks away slowly, uncertainly. The girl at the corner by the bins is wistful.
“Are you alone?” The teacher is solicitous.
“I wanted to play with Alva!”
“Would you do a job for me?”
The child is exultant, elevated by the teacher from abandoned to privileged. Other eyes are envious.
The teacher’s heart has been broken twice, first by an American, then by a Brit. Brokenness, she thinks, despatching the child for stationary, makes her a good teacher but an annoying person, unwilling to do small talk, to natter about what doesn’t matter.
She inhales the staff room essence of coffee and ink. People are talking and laughing. Sunshine bounces off metal and glass. She drowses in the warmth from the window, hands cupping her drink like a prayer. People smile at her, chat. They skirt around the Big Thing – the accident which changed her life forever – but they are kind, their eyes warm. There are many ways she realises, to show concern.
After Break, with her stationary carried proudly behind her, she sees that there’s now a group of children on the grass. They are laughing and rolling about. There’s now no boy sitting alone.
The teacher exhales with relief. Maybe after all this, there is a God, she thinks, who is a child at heart. She walks slowly across the grass, takes her son’s hand, hauls him up. Then they limp back to their classrooms together.
My story, The Evenness of Things, is available to download from Amazon Kindle –
The Olive Tree
When it was all over, she resigned her job, packed a case and flew to Montpellier. It was strange really. While it was all unravelling – thirty years of careful working life – she knew, at the end of it, she would need to go away for a bit. But where? Night after night, stiff with horror at the accusations levelled against her, her mind taut with McGowan’s sweaty face, she lay awake until birdsong began and the window fringed with light. The only thing that would sometimes help – if not sleep exactly, a kind of drifting wakefulness – was a systematic list of possibilities, each night a little longer like the game she used to play as a child, “I went to the shop and I bought…” Holland, Vienna, Lake Garda; Spain, Tunisia, Venice; The Canaries, Morocco. Money wouldn’t be a problem. She knew that. Whatever happened, they would pay her off; no one wants a scandal, especially in a well-known company like theirs, struggling for survival against other giants.
So it was with a breath of surprise that she found herself on a plane to the south of France less than twenty four hours after she’d messaged Annie and bought a ticket. It had all seemed so clear in the end. Walking away from the brick building that held most of her life, determined not to look back, she ran for the 381, sat down in a seat offered by a spotty youth with sideburns, and opened Facebook. And there it was.
Kate – it’s been such a time. Saw you were friends with Ali and added you. Would so love to catch up. Come see us! We are in Almeres, near Montpellier, in France. I’m at a bit of a loose end. P away a lot. Come any time…
As suburbia had jerked past – grey October people and concrete – she’d remembered; photos, some Christmases ago – a stone house, blue shutters, an olive tree. It had struck her at the time as being the kind of place you saw in tourist brochures, not the sort people actually lived in. When she got home, she dug them out of the old tin box that had held special things since her teens. They were a little creased and she’d had to hold them up to the light to see them properly. She messaged Annie.
Coming in to land, the plane shuddered and creaked in that way that precedes impending death. Kate gripped her seat. God, I’ve been through a lot. Don’t let me die as well. Not til I’ve seen Annie again, and eaten olives…For the tenth time she counted the seats to the nearest door. None. Good. Booking the seat next to the middle exit was the best thing she’d learned from her fear of flying therapy. That and the fact many peaceable people wear rucksacks.
She and Annie examined each other with wonder by the double doors near Arrivals. She supposed she had changed as much as her old friend, a shy dark eyed girl who had somehow chrysalised into an elegant woman entirely at ease with herself.
“Where did they go?”
“I don’t remember you being so tall!”
“You’re practically French now!”
They talked all the way to Almeres, spinning past fields, around hills and under leafy archways of filtered light. Kate stared at the space, the sky, tiny villages with their twists of olive trees. It was such a relief to exclaim over things other than work. Other than the latest development on the case. On McGowan and his newest angle. On her certain demise. She had worried for six months that the worst would happen. Well, the worst had happened, and here she was in France, in October, with her old friend.
Annie had negotiated a narrow street, crested a hill and pulled into a driveway edged with pots. Kate, punch drunk with exhaustion, felt herself opening the passenger door and sliding dream-like into this other world; a breath of wind, of lavender; through the gate, fields bathed in amber light. The stone house, perched on a rise above the village, was low with blue shutters. Her heart lifted with pleasure.
Inside – filled with polished wood and stone – Annie left her to rest while she prepared supper. She drowsed, aware of drifting across a sea of sunlit geraniums, tomatoes and olive oil. Until McGowan’s angry face thrust itself into her dreams in its usual way – large, red, devoid of all feeling, all humanity. Shouting, always shouting.
“Do you honestly say you were unaware of this? That you had no idea? You are the last check, Kate, the last check, before it gets to me! That is your job! How was I to know the risks if you didn’t tell me?”
She jolted into consciousness. Beads of sweat pricked her scalp. A familiar surge of antipathy towards her old boss overwhelmed her. She had never liked him – the hearty laugh, the self-interest – but now she found herself inventing his ruin. He was a hard man. The only time she’d ever seen a glimmer in him, a softness, had been when mentioning his daughter. There were no photos, no clues to the man ever having had a life, a family. But he had mentioned her once, and his whole face had changed. Kate had never forgotten.
The distant clink of china was replaced with Mozart, Kate got up, washed her face, went down.
“Ah! Bienvenue en France! How was your journey?” Pierre was an English gentleman with a French name. He was solicitous, seating her by the window, pouring wine. She smiled. Annie appeared, carrying olives and a baguette.
“I love olives! Are they from that tree?”
Pierre nodded. “It was a dry, stunted little thing,” he said, “I had to move it. Quite a tricky business. Had to prune it, dig a moat, soak the roots…but look at it now! And just taste these olives!”
They ate, reminisced, filling in the gaps, but still there was no talk of work, of how they’d really spent the years.
“What do you do, Pierre?” A different job, a safe topic.
“I’ve been seconded out actually. An airline.”
A beat. A gust of wind. The patter of rain, olives falling.
She cleared her throat, “Which one?”
He named it. “I have to travel a lot. Not so good!” His eyes shone behind steel rimmed glasses, belying his words, “But it’s mostly trouble shooting. I’m never away for long. Actually, I’m in your neck of the woods next week. Our HQ’s on your doorstep.”
Spearing asparagus, Kate was aware of her heart, pausing, stepping out, staring. Her fingers, slippery, struggled to hold her glass. How could she have travelled so far, to be in this place again?
Pierre poured wine, became expansive, “Sad case really. There’s been a complaint – bullying behaviour, a dismissal. And the gentleman concerned is now fighting for his own job. There’s a disabled daughter apparently. No mother…”
A roaring in her ears, a memory. McGowan in his office, late one night; she, thinking he’d gone, not bothering to knock. He had reacted instantly, pretending to be asleep but she had seen – the look of despair, the head lowered along a length of arm, flung out, palm up, fingers splayed like drowned sausages. She pushed aside a shred of pity. Now, at last, she had a chance. She would tell Pierre everything.
Annie served sizzling meat, gratin dauphinois.
“I was the one he dismissed. Well, I resigned in the end.”
Her voice, quiet, calm, held a steadiness she did not feel. Her hosts did not respond at once. Annie took ratatouille, Pierre a mouthful of wine, they resumed their placid eating. It was only then she realised she had not said it out loud. She had not said it at all.
“Where do you work these days?”
Kate observed her old friend over the rim of her wine glass. Her eyes, still huge, were warm and wise.
“Oh,” She replaced her glass carefully on the coaster, a slim square of wicker, “I’m between jobs at the moment. That’s why I decided to take up your invitation. How long can I stay?”
That evening, she sat at the window, looking out. The rooftops, threads of orange and red, dipped and rose into liquid indigo. There was the sound of doves. Below, the olive tree’s silver leaves trembled in twilight. She thought of her job, of the years of early starts and late returns, of the sacrifices, hours and hours of effort, of energy, of giving ‘til there was nothing left to give.
“You and I,” she said softly to the olive tree, “We were the same, really. All washed up, and nowhere to go.” She remembered something she had read in the middle of it all, derided, pushed aside.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
“I do not need revenge,” she told the olive tree, “I’m beyond that now. But it will be a long time before I can forgive him!”
But as she lay down and slept a sleep she had not known for years, she knew in a way, she already had.
The olive branch is usually a symbol of peace or victory. Greek myths tell how a dove brought an olive twig from Phoenicia to Athens, where it was planted on the Acropolis to become their first olive tree. The early Christians often allegorised peace on their sepulchres by the figure of a dove bearing an olive branch in its beak.
Waiting for Grandad
The old man leans on the gate at the edge of the park. It is heavier than he remembers but then so are most things. Like his own stomach and the bag of weekly shopping. He sighs. If only he had taken better care of himself when the whole damn thing had started – the ageing, weakening, sagging thing. He could be like Malcolm next door, still running at the age of 75 despite the inconvenience of bow legs, and piles.
The gate swings open and they amble in. Tilda runs ahead, pigtails bobbing.
“Look, Grandad! Look!” She’s crouching by a clump of bluebells, strokes velvet leaves with a fat finger.
He and Renee look at each other, smile. She leans on him slightly as they walk. He feels the weight of her, fragile and bird-light. Tilda looks up and grins at them, a scatter of freckles and missing teeth.
“They’re beautiful! Be careful not to damage them now!” calls Renee.
“I won’t! I’m off!” shouts Tilda and darts away on dimpled legs.
Trees curve above them, the path winds, all dappled and fringed with blossom or water. Memory floats ahead to the bridge, the river, the view of the church. So when they get there, calling for Tilda, his yearning to see it and to be there looking down on pleated water, his wife at his side, is free of pain and he can just enjoy it. He puts his arm round her ignoring the stab of agony through his right shoulder and whispers in her ear. She smiles.
The colours in the woodland garden are pastel – white, pink, lemon. The path snakes out of sight beneath trees where they sat with their own children not long ago – picnics and cricket and Hide-and-Seek. There’s even a glimpse of Ellie’s blue jacket between trees and the sound of her counting, while the others run for it when her eyes close.
“Do you remember those days?”
Renee smiles and squeezes his arm. “As if it was yesterday!” she says, “And it’s lovely to look back. But we have to keep going remember, to look forward.” He nods though he can’t help wondering what on earth there is to look forward to.
Today is a beautiful day though, he thinks, admiring the smell of sun on earth and shadows on grass. Tilda hides behind bushes, jumps from stumps. He marvels at her speed, her agility. He loves looking after her while her parents work.
“Catch me Grandad!” Her voice echoes, bounces off trees, “Catch me! Quick!”
On the way back there are azealeas and cherry blossom, Renee’s favourite. She points out the house they’d planned to retire in. They laugh. They both know the old brick semi with its white fence and square of lawn was all they ever wanted really. That and her prize-winning angel cake.
“Come on, Tilda!” he calls, as they reach the water again, “Stay near us! Time to take Granny home…”
The clouds have gathered and there’s a chill in the air. As they stroll back, the trees lean in, blocking out the sky. He shivers. At the bridge he hunts for familiar, for safe – the view of the church, railings, folded light on water.
They follow the path, heave at the gate, pass the pub. Soon they near the graveyard with its spring flowers and drift of blossom.
“Oh! Look! Can we walk through? It’s so beautiful!” cries Renee pulling his arm.
“Alright,” he replies though he’d rather not.
The trees clasp hands in lacy sleeves. On the graves there are bluebells and tulips. It certainly is beautiful here, he thinks. No wonder she loves it…
“Dad. Are you…are you alright?” Ellie’s voice is gentle. Time tumbles. He feels unsteady, looks at her, confused, then down at the hand in his and sees smooth fingers between his knobbly ones.
“Ellie?” he says.
She gives him a squeeze. “You’ve been miles away, haven’t you?” she says, “You’re probably tired after the walk.”
She fills watering cans, tidies the grave. He just stands there, watching. Until he realises that the tennis ball in his throat has swollen and burst and made his face wet. Then he moves away. He does not want his daughter to see him upset.
When she’s finished they begin to make their way home. They pass the church and Good Friday bells begin to ring. The door is open and the nave is filled with lemon coloured light. He pauses. There are shadowy people in there, some kneeling, some sitting, all so still. Of course his eyesight is not what it used to be but he fancies he can see her in her usual place on the front row, head bowed. Behind her on the pew a perfect cuboid of greaseproof paper for after-service coffee. He blinks and she disappears. He hopes the God-man whose death-day she shares is keeping her safe somewhere…
“Dad?” enquires Ellie, “Shall we…? The boys are coming and Tilda will be home from Jake’s and desperate to see you.”
He nods. They walk slowly, listening to birds and the sound of bells across quiet streets.
They arrive at the house at last, Ellie exclaiming at the sight of Tilda’s car in the drive. His son-in-law is in the front garden. His grandsons are on the way. In the hall there’s the smell of tea, and angel cake. And as he hears squeals and a pounding on the stairs, he decides that the God-man who died on this day has many ways of bringing back life. If we let him, if we listen…
He leans on his stick smiling, allows himself to be engulfed. Then he’s led into the sitting room for tea.
Moths for Beginners
The sign must be for people who love the park but she wonders if anyone loves it that much – Trees? Butterflies? Pond Dipping for Adults? And then she sees it, right down at the end, handwritten, as if tacked on as an afterthought: Moths for Beginners. She laughs aloud, suddenly and inappropriately so it sounds like a cross between a bark and a drunken snort. This alarms a child on the ground nearby, counting stones. Sorry, she says, but the child runs screaming to its mother whose glare is venomous above his tousled head.
She tries to explain, I was just… reading about the courses. One of them’s called…Her voice tails off.
This is what happens, she thinks, when you’re older and alone. You talk to strangers and they think you’re mad. She backs away. The afternoon is still liquid. She walks under trees dimpled with age and thinks about moths. Was there really so much to learn? Small, white, annoying…end of story. An old couple walk by hand in hand. The woman is slightly stooped. She looks up at her husband with leathered face and there is love there, and history. A sudden twist of pain. …
She plunges between rhododendrons. It’s cooler in there and dark. She’s breathing hard and there are prickles of sweat on her lip. For some reason she’s thinking of Candice Morgan who took up all kinds of weird hobbies when her husband died. Like abseiling. She kneels down in circles of shade and peers through branches into sunshine. She hopes her knees are not dirty and is reminded of her OCD – checking the oven, the plugs, waiting for “Thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s” before she can walk away. She sees – the old couple, teenagers, the stones’ child with his mother. A dog noses close. A bird calls. The world spins on, merciless. If there is a god, she thinks, and on balance, there probably isn’t, given things like sudden death and painting by numbers, I would like him to make something happen…The thought becomes a whisper. Do something! Her vision blurs before she realises her cheeks are wet. Fists ball eye-lids like a child.
When all is calm she emerges, treading like a trespasser into frills of shade. The woodland is emptying, the families going, distant voices bounce between quiet trees. At the gate there is a group dressed in rain macs. At first she hardly sees them – grey haired, invisible – until with a burst of clarity she realises she’s just like them.
Charlotte! How are you? The woman lurching towards her is holding a clipboard and a torch. A strange feeling prickles at the base of her neck.
Gosh! It’s been years! Heard about your loss. Are you coping? We’re just off for a walk aren’t we Gerald? Come with? Candice Morgan has kind eyes despite a kind of plummy cheerfulness reminiscent of their school cloakroom. Not on your life, she thinks, eyeing the rather motley assortment before her. Too many head-scarves and walking sticks. One of them is wearing a tea cosy. She laughs suddenly and inappropriately, and says with false heartiness, A walk? Oh, that’s alright! I thought you might be Moths for Beginners or something!
Candice’s smile does not falter, We are! she says. Ears flush with shame. To her horror she can feel the eyes filling again. Gerald rattles his bag. She has a glimpse of Merlot and a wedge of cheese. Somewhere there is the clink of glasses. We don’t do it for the moths, he says.
She looks at the group and notices something – an expectation, an easiness.
“Come with us?”
There is a beat in which she declines and walks away, unlocks her bike, heads home. But, rewinding this decision, she has a revelation.
Moths might, after all, have more to offer than previously thought…
The Waiting Room
There’s a blast of cold air as someone comes in. We all look up then quickly away. The woman is wearing a headscarf. From beneath the material, matted hair curls down in oily strands. She has a bruise on her forehead and her eyes are too big and too far apart.
Oh God, please, please, please…
I’m not surprised though when, dragging feet like dinner plates and lugging carrier bags, she lunges towards me, and then lowers her sizeable backside into the next seat. Because they always do, particularly when I pray. Which goes to show, I suppose, that either there isn’t a god (possible) or that the god I pray to has a different agenda to mine (probable).
I’ve been there a while, the fug of stale air sticking to me damply, smelling of coffee and newspaper. Not many in here; a texting teenager, two old ladies, a suit, all relieved to be out of the stumbling cold. Every time a train thunders past we check the clock, hope spanning the room like a prayer. Twenty-five minutes is a long time to wait when you’re wrecked and you want your bed. The conference was inspiring but I’ve got so much to do before Monday. It’s annoying that the train is late and my life is on hold like the lives of the others in the room though they do not appear to share my irritation, all relaxed enough to look bored. The teenager is yawning, his baseball cap pulled low on his head like a beak. One of the old ladies is whispering but the other is dozing, opening her eyes to grunt to her friend in the gaps. If the newcomer is chatty, I think, glancing at her fearfully, phrasal grunting is the way to go. The suit is reading. Leaning slightly to the right, ostensibly to check my case, I can see the title of his book, One Hundred Things I Wish I’d Known about Management. Me too, I think. Starting again at my age isn’t the easiest thing.
“Ohhhh, I’ve had a helluva journey!” She sighs. Her voice is rich and gravelly and she has a cold.
“I wen’ on the underground on the way up, yeah, but everyone laughed at me! I ‘fink it was cos my trousers is ripped…” she sighs again and rubs a heavily ringed hand across her face.
There’s a sudden waft of unwashed flesh and alcohol. She prattles on. I try to ignore her, but I’m cursed with politeness and find myself nodding in the gaps.
“Hove to Northam’ton. I go every week to see ‘er. It’s a long way but they gives me money for it…”
I steal a glance at the clock. Still twenty minutes. I could always get up and walk out. Baseball boy and Suit man are watching me with interest – a kind of Thank God it’s you and not me look. But I’m not thanking God. I’m tired and I’ve a way to go and I have enough problems of my own. This is not the time to bring someone along who needs help!
“I tries to keep the money but it’s so hard…it’s so hard…” I’m grunting phrasally but to my horror she begins to cry, “She’s so young to lose a baby and my partner, he was beatin’ us both up…an’ I can’t bear to think of ‘er in that place with all those nutters…an’ somehow a drink, jus’ a little drink…well, it helps…”
I turn to look at her. Her eyes are huge and the wrong shape as if someone has hung weights on them. Her mouth is wide and wobbly. There’s vulnerability there, and desperation. I fumble in my bag for a tissue. She snorts into it. I glimpse blood and mucous.
“Ohhh fank you, fank you, you’re so good!”
No, don’t say that. Please don’t…
I feel ashamed. Whispering lady has stopped whispering and is staring too. This is a freak-show. Suddenly I am filled with Guardian-reading, bible-believing, liberal-voting righteous anger over her plight. How dare they judge her! How dare they assume what she is like! This woman has a life. She has a destiny and a soul that is unique and precious! I wonder briefly whether I should tell her this but decide instead to offer her the train fare for her onward journey.
“If you let me buy it,” I add quickly.
Dozing-lady’s eyes snap open.
“Or we could split it between us!” she says. She sits up, wide awake. She is incredibly well spoken. I gape at her. So does her friend.
“Why Dorothy!” she quavers, “I thought you were asleep!”
“I’m up for it,” says Baseball boy, “It’s bloody cold out there. She needs to get home.”
Suit-man just nods and takes out his wallet.
“You’re so kind, so kind!” The woman is sobbing.
I cannot speak.
Later, as the train pulls away, I see her standing at the waiting room window waving her ticket like a flag.
“God bless you!” I’d said, as I left for the train.
She was pink with pleasure despite the tears on her cheek.
“God bless you too!” she called after me. And as we snake through the night with those waiting room faces fresh in my mind, I realise He already has.
Thank you for reading. If you have enjoyed these stories you might enjoy my novella, The Evenness of Things, available from Amazon worldwide downloadable to a Kindle or Kindle App. Details at the top right of the page.