Other Mothers and the Kindness of Spring – Short Fiction for Mothers Day


The narrow blades knifing through earth showed no hint of bloom. Carly watched them, remembering the promise on the pack, Plant now, blooms for  Mothers Day. She watered the pot before school,  all anxious-eyed and pajama-ed, curtain of hair swinging onto cheeks sharp with cold . What if they weren’t ready in time?

10805651_10204581249324693_265552903385241743_n (2)

On the way to school, she told Dad about the mothers day cards.
“Miss Parsons said we don’t have to make one, ” she said, stepping over the cracks with pointed toes , ” But I think I’d better, just in case…” Dad said nothing. They walked on for a while in silence. Across the road, Bruce from Number 7 was punching his football against a gate. A flurry of birds rose screaming from a tree. Somewhere, was the smell of toast.

Dad ran fingers through his hair.
” You know, lots of people won’t have a mum to celebrate with,” he said carefully,  “But there are those other mothers, you know, someone who is like a mother to them – warm, supportive, kind…” Dad stopped. Carly couldn’t bear it when his voice broke. She shouted across the road to Bruce,
“Can I be in goal at Break then? ”
Bruce kicked the ball towards her, narrowly missing a toddler on a trike.
” BRUCIE! ” his mum shouted, “Get over here! ”

The mothers day cards in 6P would sport vase shaped cones filled with paper flowers. The greeting, and a photo of the child, was planned for the central flower. Miss Parsons had taken the photos the day before and printed them off specially.
“Be careful! ” she warned them,” It took me ages to work out how to print them. If you cut your hair off, too bad! I’m not reprinting. Carly, did you hear me? ”
She was always shouting in her direction, thought Carly, wishing her teacher liked her. Since Mum  left, she’d found it so much harder to concentrate. Sometimes when Miss Parsons was having a go at the class, she would say with glittering eyes, as if aware she’d gone too far,
“Of course I don’t mean everybody! There are some people who I never need to remind about behaviour. Because they’re always listening, always sitting up, always paying attention… And I’m looking at them right now! ” And she’d swivel her eyes around exaggeratedly, nodding at certain children like a demented bird. The Emilys and Olivers of this world, backs like ramrods, would gaze back smugly. She never looked at Carly.

At break, when the others were gone, and she was making last minute adjustments to her pile of tissue paper – perfectly straight, with no  overlaps, Miss Parsons called her over. Carly  shuffled across on wary feet. Her teacher looked stressed, she thought, her hair even crazier than usual and there were two bright spots in the middle of her cheeks. “You know, Carly,” she said, “You don’t have to make a card if you don’t want to. I know your mum is…well, anyway, I’m not making one, My mother isn’t around any more either.” The bright spots seemed to spread a bit while she was speaking. Carly didn’t know what to say. She opened her mouth.

“Lots of people don’t have mums to celebrate with, but there are those other mothers, people who are like mums – warm, supportive, kind…” (Dad had meant Mrs Jenner who came to fetch her from school, and taught her how to knit and bake if she finished her homework. Her card would go to her.) She tailed off, rather incredulous at Dad’s words bursting out of her like that, on reflex. To her alarm, Miss Parson’s eyes filled with tears. Black eye liner began to snake down her cheeks,  and her eyes became red and puffy like someone from Vampire Diaries. When  she reached out and grasped her hand, Carly began to panic. Surely Miss Parsons didn’t think she meant her? She couldn’t think of anyone less motherly. Mums were soft and warm and wore pearl coloured frocks, like Mrs Jenner. Miss Parsons was hard-edged and brittle with too-bright lipstick, a sort of painted brick in trousers.

“Carly, you don’t know how much that means to me!” her teacher whispered, “I’ve lost my mum, and I’ve not a mother myself. Thank you for that!” When she let go of her hand to trumpet into a mascara-ridden tissue, Carly turned and fled to the playground.  She kept out of Miss Parsons’s way after that. But. later in the day, when her teacher did a, “Of course I don’t mean everybody…and I’m looking at them right now” speeches,  she smiled straight at her.

The mothers day cards adorned the classroom for a week, and every day someone asked if they could take them home. Miss Parsons had replied so often that now the whole class would chorus, “No! On the Friday before Mothers Day!” Only Carly didn’t ask. Although she was pleased to see a few buds on the daffodils, there was no point pretending. There would be no mum to give them to.

But when Friday arrived, all the flowers were budding. Before school, she bent over the lemon coloured fists plunged tightly aloft, and breathed in the scent of Spring’s kindness. She had waited long for this. On the way to school, she celebrated by stepping on the cracks as well as the spaces, unless there were tiny plants pushing up between the stones. When they arrived in class, the mothers day cards had been taken down and arranged on the side ready for Hometime. Everyone was excited. “Is today the day?” they kept asking. Even Carly asked.

At home, Miss Parsons arranges daffodils in a  jug. Who would have thought it? The child said she’d grown them from seed, and cut them specially. Lifting the card from its position near the flowers, she rereads Carly’s greeting.

To the Other Mothers,

On Mothers Day I am saying Thank You because you were kind.

Love, Carly x

wp-1457218837790.jpg

This is after all the heart of Mothers Day, she thinks. Thanks for kindness, to those who have loved. She moves them onto the dresser, next to the photo of her mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Smug Painted Toes and the Smile of God


Now I know I am a skinflint. I can’t help it. Actually I didn’t used to be before I was married. I was the kind of person who would put unopened bank statements in the cupboard just in case there was bad news. One day my then-fiance opened the cupboard and they all fell out. And it was, er, very bad news. But luckily, the landlady was out that evening and didn’t hear anything. And he still married me, which was a relief, but as in all relationships, there had to be negotiated change on both sides and on my side these were mainly money related: –

1. Keep track of what you spend.

2. Open bank statements because this makes 1. a lot easier.

3. Think of other ways to cheer self up after a bad day.

4. Read “Freedom of Simplicity” by Richard Foster.

5. Spend money on the things you need FIRST.

6. Be as generous as you can.

(Just to say, he had a list too but these were mainly to do with flowers, candlelit meals and romantic walks)

freedomofsimplicitylrg

Well, in the first year I worked on 1-3. It nearly killed me. Old habits die hard. I remember a friend telling me she used to show her partner new purchases only when  friends were round to stop him going ballistic. But I didn’t want to do that. I did actually want to spend less money for lots of reasons. I just didn’t know how. I suppose it was a sort of addiction. Then I read the book. It was very good. The blurb said it would show me how to bring sanity to the compulsive accumulation of modern life, how to shift my focus off stuff so it enhances life, instead of filling it. Let go of the need to own. Live simply. Breathe; that kind of thing. The book had a profound effect on me. To the extent that, thirty years later, in the whole area of spending I think I’ve gone a bit the other way. Annoying, but I suppose the flip side of a compulsion.

How does this relate to toes?Well, I’ve never really thought much about mine. They’re pretty average looking; I get them out in summer. In recent years I’ve started painting them in a slightly haphazard sort of way, stabbing the brush generally southwards (it helps to paint them on the wine coloured rug). But as I’ve got older this has become more challenging. Which glasses? The right light? The right position? The results have often dismayed me and I’ve sometimes left the house with feet resembling rare steaks. This week, as it’s been warm, I wore sandals to work but hadn’t made them toe-pretty so compared to everyone else’s beautifully pedicured feet, they looked awful. And these days everyone seems to go and have their feet done in summer – pedicures and gel nails and the like. I’ve always rather pooh-poohed this idea, in favour of Principles, the same ones that prevent me buying things things like ready made ice cubes, pre-cut veg or grated cheese. Except when I’m ill. Or desperate. But I looked down at the toes this week half way through story time and I thought, “You, my dears, are ugly. And you deserve an upgrade”

wpid-20150417_123010.jpg

So I go into the beauty salon near our house and I say, “Hello! I’d like to inquire about your pedicures, with gel nails and…er…nail varnish, or something.” They all gaze at me as if I’m from another planet. Which I am really. They are very pert and pretty but thankfully, kind. The receptionist smiles warmly,

“You haven’t been here before, have you?” she says.

“Er, no. To be honest…” I lean forward confidentially. All three of them lean in too (all of which is quite unnecessary, as there’s no one else in the room) “…I’ve come to the whole pedicure thing rather late in life. I just want to make my feet look pretty. Can you tell me what you do, and how much it will cost?”

They tell me I need a Jessica Gel Pedicure. It costs way more than a skinflint imagines. I think briefly of other things I could spend the money on: –

1. A few paperback books

2. A pair of shoes

3. A summer’s worth of ready make ice cubes

4. A worthy cause.

And I wait, for that little voice in my head, the one that usually tells me what to do, if I’m listening. They all look at me expectantly. I look down at the brochure. There is a picture of a woman with fronds of hair blowing across her face. It must be windy, I think (or a wind machine). And she’s laughing. I have the pedicure. After the weirdness of someone you don’t know handling your feet, washing them, moisturising them and putting on several layers of gel (I think – I was drinking tea and reading magazines by this stage), it was actually lovely. Afterwards my toes look good enough to eat. I’m tempted to ask the receptionist if she’d like a photo, for the brochure.

wpid-20150417_190148.jpg

wpid-20150417_151441.jpg

And as I walk away, careful not to bash into lamp posts while I admire my smug, painted toes, I remember that God – who goes with me everywhere, although I sometimes forget this, and who may be a He or a She or Something Else, no one really knows – is not a skinflint. He has an extravagant smile, evident in things like daffodils. Or twins. Or badgers.

19_12_89_prev.jpg

When I tell my husband about the foot quandary, he just laughs and admires my toes. Then he says, just to rile me, the answer is probably to wear socks and sandals all year round.

Not that his today-socks would be much good in winter anyway…

wpid-20150417_121738.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

The Blessing of Good Signage


I’ve had a revelation. About signage. It happened the other day at a church in the middle of Derbyshire. Despite the cold, and slicing rain, the approach was beautiful – a thumb of stone, a fist of graves and  beneath the lychgate, crocuses.  Inside did not disappoint either. There was amber light, wood and brass, and slabs of paving as soft as upturned faces. It was one of those places that fills you with stillness.

wpid-20150213_144108.jpg

 

wpid-20150213_143305.jpg

But I do not remain still for long. I spend most of the time, as usual, in front of the noticeboard. I see that there is All Age Communion on the first Sunday of the month at 10am. (Regrettably there are no 9.30 or 11.15 services on these days). I wonder briefly if that punches a hole in anyone’s routine. A bit of an upheaval perhaps if you are a creature of habit. I see that there is, “… a fine choir which sings at 9.30 or 10am each Sunday and occasionally in the evening”. that there are regular organ recitals, bible lectures and rambles and that I need to contact Alison for details of the Chattabox group. But best of all, there’s an advert for a talk at a neighbouring town.

wpid-20150213_142749.jpg

Isn’t it wonderful? These are the things that matter to the people who live there. They would matter to me too; remembering which Sunday the kick-off’s at 10 instead of 9.30 or 11, on which evenings the fine choir sings, and to book my ticket for the Pie and Pea supper. There’s something gloriously togetherish about these things. Who needs the Odeon or the West End? Give me the Pack Horse Routes of Derbyshire any day…

But this is why I love signs and notices. They say more about the person who put them there than anything else. This one, in a well known British supermarket, for example –wpid-20150314_100813.jpg

A snappy piece of signage. The sub text? We’re going to make it impossible for you to make this saving because after reading the terms and conditions, you’ll be brain dead anyway.

Then there was this one –

wpid-20140814_164610.jpg

The sub text – I care about Facebook likes and being thought of as adventurous and you must do too, or you wouldn’t be on this plane in the first place  (Wrong. I have to be practically drugged and carried onto planes these days.)

But there are other signs too – the ones that tell you things without saying very much at all.

I brew beer, I'm a Christian and I have a sense of humour

I brew beer, I’m a Christian and I have a sense of humour

wpid-20141205_125841.jpg

In or out? I’ve done both several times in ten minutes. Not sure I’ve made the right decision though…

There's beauty in dead places

There’s beauty in dead places

Life returns, even in graveyards

Life returns, even in graveyards

When you see the rainbow, you forget the rain.

Rainbows – my speciality

I’m a firm believer in signs. I think life holds more of them than we realise. We have to watch for them. Often we have to wait too.

But I think they say more about the Person who put them there, than anything else…

 

I follow a talented blogger, Ellie, who paints pictures of the signs she sees and writes about them. It’s well worth a look if you’re into signage 😉

yellow-flowers

 

  https://propheticpostcards.wordpress.com/

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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 fat fingers.

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!” shouts Tilda and darts away on dimpled legs.

Trees curve above them, the path winds, 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“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 azaleas 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen she’s finished they make their way home. They pass the church as the 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 at the front, 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 love she so trusted, 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 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 God 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.IMAG0058

 

 

 

The Most Thankless Month of the Year


January’s a bleak sort of month. We’re all saying it, (we do every year, but it’s okay, we’re British and atmospherically unstable), bemoaning the dark get-ups, the rain, the bedraggled garden (if we’ve still got a garden. The photos of flooded homes along the Thames fill me with horror.) But even those of us who haven’t faced storm, flood and other nightmares – and some of my dear friends are in this category, – January’s just not a great month. The festive season has stripped us of energy, money and hope for a new shed/dining suite/fence, and the papers tell us everyone’s fighting the Back to Work Blues. There’s just not much pleasure in January, though when we get desperate, we always mention The Bulbs. Let’s face it, bulbs are not going to annihilate your S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but the sight of those green blades knifing palely through quiet earth, all bright eyed and hopeful, do bring a certain something to the day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And it is getting lighter in the evenings – 7 minutes a week according to my mother-in-law, who knows. And it’s been sunny two days on the trot (Okay, so I’m getting desperate. More bulb photos…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve read so many books and blog posts about gratitude being good for me that I feel guilty having the tiniest moan. After all, I’m not flooded out, I’m solvent and have full use of my limbs and other body parts (eyes and ears bit dodgy). I know that thankfulness raises serotonin levels, reduces stress and improves the immune system.  Grateful people are more likely to look after themselves, get regular exercise and have higher levels of mental alertness. This last reason is my favourite as I currently feel about as alert as a slug.

So I decided to write down some stuff to help with the gratitude thing. How to choose? I just wrote down things I noticed, and like.

Things I Like

  1. Bowls of salad
  2. Cut wood
  3. Sun on the fence 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMAG0076

4. The cat

5. Parades of shop

6. Alleyways

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMAG0088

7. Old gates

8. Post-boxes

9. Tiny terraces with plants on

10. Trees

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And graveyards, I like graveyards. Sorry to be strange but they are incredibly peaceful places.  The one near me has a wide walkway, gated at each end and immense trees shielding the graves like watchmen. It’s right in the middle of the town, surrounded by houses, cars and other bits of life. I like that. As if God, who knows we have short memories, planned it that way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What struck me most about the winter floods was the incredible optimism and resilience of the people whose houses were ruined. You had a tearful person or two, of course, but generally most people were positive. And there’s one phrase that struck me again and again: It’s just a house. People were standing in water-logged kitchens, or knee deep by front doors, smiling and shrugging and looking at their soaked and ruined possessions and saying, “We’re lucky it’s not worse. It’s just a house!” It made me think, of the all the effort we put into our homes – the building and painting and choosing and agonising. When it comes to it, when we’re up against the wall, none of it matters that much…It’s just a house. In spite of what they’d been through many of those people were grateful, for health, life, the stuff of everyday. In the place of despair, there was gratitude. You can’t fake that. You have to practise.

Photo by Julian Miles

Photo by Julian Miles

Photo by Julian Miles

Photo by Julian Miles

Meanwhile the days unroll, and Monday comes round and we rise and tunnel through darkness to work. like stiff moles. We’re not flooded out or homeless. It’s just another day this side of the graveyard. We journey through winter towards light. Which we will so appreciate when it finally comes – warmth, sunshine, long evenings.  Another chance really, for the thank-yous.

As if God, who knows we have short memories, planned it that way…

blossom.jpg

Thanks

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

W S Merwin