Sunday, 25 October 2009

Zac’s psalm

God, I am miserable and broken-hearted.
I want to get drunk.
My thoughts are racing.
I feel frustrated, confused and anxious.
I’m knackered and impatient.
Bollocks! I’m lost!

I want to find understanding
but I’m apathetic and skint.
I’m pondering, searching, wondering
where God is.

I’m hopeful … and sorrowful.
Have you forgiven me yet, God?
Where did it all go wrong?
Get me out of here!

Prove that you can make things real;
Prove that you are God.

Can you stop all war?
Can you take away all illness?
Can you give me back my Dad?
Can you make my little girl better?
Can your make your people as one?
Can you stop your church making people feel guilty?
Can you tell your church to accept everybody as they are?What right have we got to judge each other?

Sometimes it feels you’re there;
other times it doesn’t.
Sometimes I hear you clearly;
other times I don’t.

Which truth is truth?
Show me the way.
Jesus is the way.

I’m sorry, God.
Help me to forgive myself and others.
Thank you for your love and acceptance.
Thank you for not taking away my toys.

You’re not Santa Claus: what can I do for you, God?
Help me to do the right thing.
Help me to do what you want
rather than what I want.

Thank you for being there when I needed you;
thank you for my beautiful sunflower.
Give me peace, God.
Please answer my prayers.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Bathsheba: harlot or innocent?

My husband is dead.

Is there nothing the king will not do for me?

They say he died a hero’s death, at the head of his troops; they say I can be proud of him. Proud of him? Proud of that fool? Who preferred the company of his men to mine. Who has been oblivious to my needs. Others have noticed my loneliness. Many men have tried to seduce me with their sympathy and false words, but I had eyes for one prize only.

I will, of course, mourn my loss as a grieving widow should but when the due time has passed the king will take me as his own – his preferred – wife, and my child –our child – his son – for surely this is a son I carry in my womb – we will take our place at his side.

You look surprised. Surely you do not believe – as I feel sure the king does – that this story is of his making? As if a mere man can outwit or stand against the plans of woman. Was it coincidence did you think that the King should chance to see me bathing? Did you imagine that I had not watched him for long nights until I was sure that he would be on the roof when I took my bath? And did I not choose the perfect place where the light of the moon reflected giving my skin a honeyed glow, and my silhouette was crisp against the wall? As I brushed my hair, didn’t each long slow stroke draw him ever closer into my web?

Of course I resisted. When he sent for me I tarried and played the coy maiden. See, how easy it is with a sweep of my shawl to become demure. ‘What am I that your Lord should honour me thus?’ And when I succumbed - finally - and we fell into his bed, I sighed and moaned and said those things that men like to hear before I allowed my desire to be sated. Always allowing him to think that he is in control. That is the secret.

The king, of course, thought he could resolve the situation; he could solve ‘the problem’ by having Uriah brought home on a pretext. I hadn’t expected him to come up with that idea but Uriah was easily persuaded that a good soldier would not enjoy the pleasure of his wife while his men continued to suffer hardship on the battleground. The stupid fool. He could have saved his life he had but known.

But now the King has walked on the dark side. And only he and I know. He is mine. Our futures are linked irrevocably. And my child will be raised in the royal household as befits the king’s own, and I will teach him the ways of the world that he must understand so he can make real my - his - dream. For it will be to the child of mine that the kingdom of David will pass.

My husband is dead. My husband is dead. Even though I am told it over and over again I cannot believe it. They say he died a hero’s death, on the front line. And I fear …

He was a fine warrior; so how then did he find himself at the front with no defence? He wouldn’t have been there unless he’d been ordered and who could have issued that order?

You are surprised. You don’t expect me to mourn for my husband? He may not have been the best but he was gentle and good. He deserved better. Better than this death. Better than me.

I see you look at me with doubtful eyes; you know the secrets of my heart; I cannot be false with you. So surely you will believe me when I say I mourn for his loss. And I am so fearful.
Fearful for what will become of me, of us, now that he is dead. Will I be left widowed and my unborn child shamed? Will he – the father of my child – help us? Or has he already done as much as he thinks needed?

But they say he is man after God’s own heart. Surely a man, a king such as he would not risk the damage to his soul, the price that playing with the life of another would cost. Yet are we not both guilty of breaking the laws laid down by God? If he would break one law, why baulk at another?

If I had known that first evening when he sent for me what would be the result … would I still have gone? For surely I was flattered by the attention of a man such as he. And my husband has given me little enough attention over the years. You know how lonely I have been. While he has been the perfect soldier, always thinking first of his men and later of me.

But he, he seemed to understand my yearning for a touch, to feel another’s skin upon my own. He who had brought a giant to his feet now knelt at my feet and stroked them, his fingers long and tender. He whispered and smiled at my shyness, bringing his hand up to raise my chin so that I was looking into his eyes, and seeing in them my own longing reflected back at me.

It wasn’t his good looks that softened my heart though doubtless many will say it was. No, it was the words that he spoke. Words of pure golden nectar that touched me deep in my soul. And the songs he sang as I sat back, eyes closed just so I could listen with my everything. So that when we finally lay together, just the touch of his fingertips alighted in me a flame of love so powerful that nothing or nobody could have kept us apart. Where I had been numb I was alive. I shiver with longing even now as I recall those precious moments when he and I were as one.

But now the shiver turns to one of fear and dread as I remember my dead husband and my unborn child. And I weep.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Fish Supper

For our fifteenth wedding anniversary, Hywel took me to a fish and chip shop.
As he held open the door for me, he beamed.
‘You should see your face — it’s a picture. You weren’t expecting this, were you?’
‘No, I wasn’t.’
‘I thought it would be good to take a trip down memory lane, back to where it all began.’
I looked around Aberuffern Fish Restaurant, the scene of our first date. Only in those days it had been Bertorelli’s chip shop. The restaurant, such as it was, had been a small back room separated from the takeaway counter by a plywood partition. There were four, or maybe five, pale blue flecked formica tables, the sort that were fixed to the floor, with matching dark blue plastic-covered seating. Each table had its own mock-crystal salt, pepper and vinegar bottles. To eat in the restaurant, you queued up at the counter and ordered your food with the other customers, but when asked, you said, ‘eat in’ instead of ‘takeaway’, and then your food would be put on a paper plate instead of wrapped in newspaper.
The Bertorelli family consisted of one woman, aged somewhere between twenty and fifty, and two men. It was a threesome that caused much speculation and gossip when they first arrived in town. The only other Italians we knew were the Macaris who ran the ice cream parlour on the prom and they’d been here longer than anyone could remember. The day war ended, Mr Macari gave free ice cream to every child in the town. I wasn’t born then, of course, it was just one of those events you wonder if you’re destined to spend your life missing.
Today the Bertorellis have gone. They disappeared as mysteriously as they came and still no-one any the wiser about their relationship. The chip shop was taken over two years ago by Taffy’s, a national chain. They expanded the restaurant area and refurbished it in pine, with Welsh plaid woollen cushion covers. The walls are decorated with signed prints of much-capped rugby players alongside a bigger photo of the only player from Aberuffern to ever have played – once - for the national team. The waitresses wear pinnies and shawls, and bring your order to your table. The chain is proud of its Welshness, promoting Welsh sausages and Welsh lamb pies, and using only Welsh potatoes for their chips. They stop short of advertising Welsh fish.
‘I was lucky to get this table,’ Hywel said. ‘When I phoned to book, the manager said they had an important group booking tonight.’
Over his shoulder I could see a party of well-dressed men, mostly Japanese.
‘I read about them in the Western Mail,’ I said. ‘It’s the weekend of Welsh culture organised by the Chamber of Trade as part of the ‘sell Wales to the Japanese’ effort. Tomorrow they’re visiting the market for cockles and laverbread, then they’re going to the match.’
‘What? Aberuffern against Twllmawrddu. I fancied going to that. It’s always a hard game.’
‘Then, after all that excitement, the Gwrywllais Male Voice Choir is putting on a special concert in their honour. They’re singing hits from the shows of Andrew Lloyd Webber. According to the paper, the whole weekend is the brainchild of the chairman of the Chamber of Trade.’ I paused. ‘It didn’t say whether any of his committee questioned his idea of Welsh culture.’
‘Lloyd Webber? I like his music. I wonder if there are any tickets left. Where’s the concert?’
‘In the ex-workingman’s club.’
‘Remind me tomorrow.’
Hywel looked at the menu, encased in its shiny folder decorated with a fire-breathing dragon.
‘Nothing’s changed – it’s still chips with everything.’
He was satisfied.
And he was partly right about nothing changing: everything on the menu, with the exception of the Welsh chicken and the chips themselves, was wrapped in batter or pastry, and served with bread and butter and a cup of tea.
I could see one of the Japanese picking up a white triangle from his side plate. He studied it carefully, and finally took a bite. For a few moments his jaw moved slowly, thoughtfully, before he returned the remains of the bread to his plate.
‘I thought I was the luckiest man alive when you agreed to go out with me,’ Hywel said. ‘And I’d never been to Bertorelli’s restaurant before. I’d only ever had chips out of the paper.’
‘They use polystyrene trays now.’
‘Do you remember what you had?’
‘What, back then? I don’t know. Pie and chips?’
‘Scampi. You had scampi. I didn’t even know what scampi was.’
‘I remember. I’d never had it before but it sounded sophisticated and I wanted to impress you.’
‘Well, you succeeded. It was expensive though. I had to have a rissole because I couldn’t afford anything else.’
‘You should have said.’
A waitress walked past carrying two plates, one of fish and chips and another of pie, mushy peas and chips. She put them in front of two of the Japanese party.
‘I wonder what he’ll make of mushy peas.’
Hywel glanced around, following my gaze.
‘Probably think they’re some exotic vegetable.’
He reached out and took my hand.
‘They’ve been fifteen good years.’
He dropped my hand and sat back expectantly as he spotted the waitress bringing our order. He splashed vinegar on his fish and sprinkled salt lavishly over his chips.
‘I wish you wouldn’t do that; too much salt isn’t good for you.’
Hywel was sceptical. ‘Huh, that’s what they say this week; next week it’ll be “eat more salt”.’
He tucked in enthusiastically. I stuck my fork in my chicken and watched the golden fat ooze out. I lifted the edge of the almost crisp skin and pulled it aside.
One of the Japanese had speared a piece of cod in batter and was turning the fork around in front of his face. He eventually popped the fish in his mouth. It must have tasted good because he nodded, said something to his neighbour and continued to eat.
‘It must be very different for them,’ I said.
‘Those Japanese. They eat their fish raw, don’t they?’
‘Wouldn’t surprise me.’
‘If they open a factory here, there’ll be lots of new jobs. I thought I might apply for one.’
‘What do you want to work in a factory for?’
‘I didn’t mean in the factory, but they’re bound to want office staff, personnel, people like that.’
‘They’d want computer literate staff and, anyway, you’ve got a job already.’
‘Working part-time as a dentist’s receptionist isn’t very challenging.’
‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, that’s what I say. We’re managing fine as it is.’
‘I thought I might do a course anyway.’
‘We’ll see. Excuse me,’ he caught the waitress’s attention, ‘could I have some more bread and butter, please?’
Through the bamboo partition separating the restaurant and take-away, a gang of boys was making slitty-eyed faces at the visitors. One of the hosts, an ex-prop forward by the look of him, spotted them. With a coal-face he excused himself from the table, collared the boys and manhandled them out of the chip shop. One of the other hosts, to divert attention I suppose, suddenly launched into an impromptu rendering of Bread of Heaven. His startled audience gave him a polite round of applause when he finished. I think he would have started on Land of My Fathers if his fellow Trader hadn’t returned and scowled at him.
‘I don’t think it’s funny,’ Hywel’s voice was peevish.
‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’
‘You seemed to find it amusing when I said that Roger from Accounts insists on using the paper from the bottom of the pile.’
‘I wasn’t laughing at you, it was something else.’
‘It’s not that time of the month again, is it? You’re very distant tonight.’
‘Am I?’
‘I don’t think you’ve been listening to anything I’ve said.’
I looked at him. With his neatly flicked back hair and rosy cheeks, he would have passed for an earnest TV evangelist.
‘Things have changed, Hywel.’ I paused, watching him, wondering how to say it.
He pushed his few remaining chips around with his fork, wiping his plate clean of tomato sauce. ‘Not these chips. They’re still the best in town.’

Two weeks later, the Western Mail reported that the new Matsushito electronics factory was to be built in Newcastle.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Over the sea

The man had borrowed the truck from his neighbour who used it to take vegetables to market. His neighbour had washed it for him. ‘You’ll want it clean for today,’ he’d said.
The man drove to the girl’s house. She was waiting outside. She called out, ‘I’m going now,’ before she climbed into the passenger seat. A woman in a widows-black dress came to the door and watched the truck drive off.
In the truck the man said, ‘You okay?’
The girl nodded, not looking at him.
‘You don’t have to come, you know. You could wait at home with your grandmother.’
‘I want to come.’
They drove in silence. It was fifteen miles to the airport and the roads were rough and dusty. The last part of their journey took them down the hill overlooking the airport.
‘I remember the last time I came here,’ the girl said. ‘I thought things were going to be different then.’
The man glanced across at her and nodded. There were two cars in the car park. He pulled the truck in alongside. He got out, walked round to the passenger door and opened it. The girl stared straight ahead. He held out his hand. Without looking at him, she climbed out of the truck. Together they walked into the main airport building. It was a large rectangular room with windows on three sides. On the fourth side were an office, toilets, a vending machine and posters listing forbidden goods and the penalties for smuggling. A mongrel was sleeping in one corner; in another a fan whirred constantly.
The man said, ‘Wait here.’ He went and knocked on the frosted glass door of the office. An airport official in his shirt sleeves opened the door.
‘Just to let you know, we’re here,’ the man said.
The official nodded. He looked over the man’s shoulder.
‘Is she all right?’ he asked.
‘She’ll be okay. I’ll look after her.’
The official nodded again. ‘A bad business.’
‘Yes. When will the plane arrive? Is it going to be on time?’
‘Soon, the plane will arrive soon. I’ll tell you when it’s coming.’
He went back into his office and closed the door.
The man stood outside the office for a moment. He clenched his fists then walked back to the girl who was standing staring out of the window.
‘When I was little I thought there was no other world but this,’ she said. She looked at him. ‘Have you seen all the world?’
‘No, I’ve seen a lot of it but there’s much more I want to see before ...’
He stopped.
‘Before you die?’ the girl said.
‘It’s only a saying.’
‘I know.’
The girl turned away. ‘Let’s sit,’ she said. She indicated a row of hard red plastic chairs. She sat upright, her hands in her lap. The man sat a seat away from her. He slouched and drummed his fingers on the chair next to him. He sat up again, ‘What is it with your people? Why can’t they answer simple questions? Why can’t he tell me if the plane’s going to be on time?’
She shrugged, ‘It’ll arrive when it gets here.’ She leaned back against her chair.
He stood up, paced across to the window and back. She watched him.
‘You should be used to our ways by now, ‘she said.
He sat down again and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.
‘Your mother always kept me waiting,’ he said. ‘She couldn’t understand why it made me mad.’
‘But you waited anyway.’
He sat back in his chair. They were silent then the girl said, ‘I should have gone with her.’
The man looked at her. He leaned across, placed his hand on hers and squeezed it. ‘You know she didn’t want that, she wanted you at home with your grandmother.’
The girl moved her hand away. ‘Then you should have gone.’
He stared ahead again. ‘I wanted to but she asked me to stay here with you.’
‘She shouldn’t have gone.’
‘She thought there was a chance.’
‘Was there?’
He shrugged. ‘They said there was.’
He stood up again and walked to the window. The dog in the corner yawned. He sniffed the air, got up, stretched and walked across to the girl. She bent to stroke him.
The official came out of his office. ‘Twenty minutes,’ he said. ‘The plane will arrive. It was on my radio.’
‘Thank you,’ the man said.
The official raised his hands, ‘That’s okay.’ He went back into his office.
‘Did you hear what he said?’
The girl nodded.
‘Have you eaten?’
She shook her head.
The man went to the vending machine. He dug in his pocket for change. He fed coins into the machine and returned with a can of Coke and two chocolate bars. He gave one of the bars to the girl.
She took the chocolate from him and tore open the wrapping. She broke off two chunks. She ate one and gave one to the dog who gulped it down and then sat looking up at her expectantly. She stroked his head, before saying something.
‘What did you say?’
The girl looked up. ‘I said did you love my mother.’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think you made her happy. My grandmother said my mother forgot how to laugh after my father died. You made her laugh again.’
‘She had an infectious laugh,’ he smiled. ‘You have the same laugh.’
The girl bent over the dog again, gave it another chunk of chocolate. The man watched her. ‘You’re very like her in lots of ways,’ he said.
A tear fell onto the dog’s tangled coat. There was silence for a few moments before the man spoke again. ‘Yes,’ he said. The girl raised her head. ‘The answer to your question,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think I ever told her.’
The girl wiped her cheeks with her fingers and sniffed. For a moment they considered each other. Then she bent her head over the dog again.
The man walked to the window. He looked at his watch. ‘We should be able to see the plane soon.’
The sky over the sea was bright and clear. Aeroplanes, when they came, flew in to the runway like albatrosses.
The girl went to join the man. The dog followed her. She gave it the rest of the chocolate.
‘My grandfather used to tell me stories about the sea,’ she said. ‘My mother said that one day I would cross the sea for myself.’
They heard the noise of an engine.
‘Is that the plane?’ the girl peered into the sky. The man shook his head, ‘It’s the car outside, look.’ He pointed through the other window. A long black car had pulled into the car park. Four men in dark suits got out. Three of them leaned against the car. One took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and offered them around. The fourth made his way to the waiting room. When he saw the man and the girl he took off his hat and nodded. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead.
‘The plane’s not here yet?’ he asked.
‘No.’ The man looked at his watch. ‘Another five minutes maybe. We should be able to see it soon.’
‘Well, we’re out there when it arrives.’
‘You know what to do?’
He went and joined the others outside. The girl went back to staring at the sky. The dog nuzzled her hand.
‘I don’t have any more, I’m sorry,’ she said. She bent over and scratched his ear. The airport official came out of his office. He had straightened his tie and put on his jacket.
‘The plane is almost here,’ he said, pointing to the sky. The man and the girl both turned to look.
‘When it lands,’ he continued, ‘I will do what has to be done and then signal you to come out.’
‘Thank you,’ the man said.
They watched the plane land and the official hurry over. The men in the car park had put out their cigarettes and were standing ready. They had opened the back of the car.
The girl turned away from the window.
‘Will you go back to England after the funeral?’ she asked.
‘Not yet. One day maybe. Or I’ll go somewhere else. You could come with me if you wanted.’
She shrugged. ‘Maybe.’
‘He’s calling us out. Are you ready for this?’
She nodded. She put her hand into his and they walked silently into the suffocating heat.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Dying Young

Anne died on Christmas Eve. She had been ill for two years but had the sort of spirit that made you think that she couldn’t die, that she wouldn’t die.

As the illness took hold, everything that could go wrong went wrong for Anne but through it all she was able to find something to laugh about. I’m no Shakespeare or even Dylan Thomas, and I can’t capture in words the essence of Anne. She was special. At her funeral, the crowds in the church were matched only by the crowds outside, unable to get in. It was a privilege to know her.

So where was God in this? We’re supposed to be able to trust God to do the right things. Was it right to let a young mother die when he could have healed her? Nearly every part of me screams ‘No’, but somewhere deep inside is the knowledge, borne out by my own experience , that God can be trusted. More than that, he is the God who chose to let his own dearly loved son be tortured and killed for us, for me, for Anne, because he knew what the end result would be. I can’t begin to understand why tragedies like Anne’s are allowed to happen. I can only hang on to the thin thread if faith that God really does know what he’s doing. Without that, there’s really not much point in anything.

Anne would have been forty this year. Last summer while on holiday, camping under electricity pylons as only Anne could, she bought a rather expensive candle in the shape of the numbers 4 and 0, justifying it by saying, ‘If I make it to forty it will be worth celebrating.’ She didn’t and I miss her.

(Written in the spring of 1995)

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Three Young Men - a folk tale

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a land which was ruled over by a great and mighty leader called The Iron Maiden. Now this land was divided into two unequal parts: the Northlands and the Southlands. In the Southlands the sun always shone, the women were beautiful and the men were rich; in the Northlands, it was always cold, the women were ugly and the men were mostly unemployed.

Then one day the people saw on their television screens news of a terrible disaster which had befallen a small mining village in the Northlands — a mine had flooded and twelve miners had been killed. On hearing of this tragedy the noble people of the Southlands immediately did what they thought would best help the distraught families: they sent money by the bucketload and having satisfied their consciences filed away the details and forgot about them.

Now among the beneficiaries of this remarkable generosity were three young men, sons of one of the miners killed. The money they received was more than they could hope to earn in a lifetime (which, admittedly, is not long for a miner) and they decided to leave the life they had always known and head south to the land of milk and honey.

Arriving in due course at the capital city of the Southlands, the first young man decided to buy a flat on the waterfront (they were shocked to discover the price of houses in the capital) and visit the local wine bar. “A pint of your best bitter, landlord,” he cried. A hush fell upon the room. Was this man from the Northlands or what? A journalist in the wine bar immediately began to question him about his roots. On discovering that not only was he from the Northlands, not only from the very village in which the terrible tragedy occurred, but that he was deeply involved with it, the journalist took him under his wing, drew out his most personal and intimate details and sold the story to a national newspaper. This new-found fame bought the young man many friends who danced and dined and drank with him until the money ran out. Then he discovered that the agreement he had signed for the flat was a tenancy agreement and not a purchase. Who would expect to get a flat for that sort of money? Finding that he had no money left to pay the rent, the kindly landlord gave him two hours to move out and the young man found himself on the street.

The second young man, walking through the gold-paved streets of the city, saw the Porsches and, being a well-read young man, realised that the only way to succeed in this life was to speculate. You have to speculate to accumulate. He booked into a smart hotel, read all the financial newspapers and started dealing. He quickly made new friends who offered him the chance to invest in their company, a surefire winner he was assured. The first he knew of the stock market crash was when he read about it in the daily newspaper delivered to his hotel room. His bank refused to honour his debt and he left the hotel in the middle of the night. Shares can go down as well as up.

The third young man took a job in a large department store, met and married a very nice young woman and settled down in a pleasant house on the edge of the city. When in time his two brothers turned up on his doorstep he was happy to give them accommodation because that’s what families are for. Then one day a letter arrived from the local council telling him that his home was to be demolished to make way for a new road. The young man and his wife and his brothers and many friends straightaway barricaded themselves in and refused to move. Hundreds of their supporters signed petitions, marched in protest and generally made nuisances of themselves until in the end, the council knocked the house down anyway. The brothers found new accommodation at Waterloo and filled their time selling The Big Issue to young executives with furrowed brows in fast cars.

And the Iron Maiden lived miserably forever.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Wednesday Writing

I would reduce God to my size
A god of party tricks and pretty thoughts
My god, god-on-demand
Little visions, little dreams
Little god

But God breaks out of the shell in which I would encase him
The deep roars,
Heaven bursts open,
Stars erupt, dazzling and bemusing,
Rainbows adorn the skies
And my eyes are opened
To the hugeness
Of the One
I call
My God.

And dreams that now seem so tiny
Are given permission
To grow and take root and flourish.

And as we stand in Eden, God and I,
I see
God is not there for my purpose;
Rather I am here for his.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

My dearest Mrs B

My dearest Mrs B,
What a delight it was that you were able to
Join us for dinner this evening.
A shame you could not stay for long
But as you say the children must learn
That needs must where the devil drives
And early to rise necessitates early to bed.
Little Tommy is now quite settled and it is my earnest hope
That you will not hold against him his tears
(And screams) at your every appearance.
I assure you he does know who you are —
Every evening I point out to him Mama
In the photograph on the piano in the parlour.
And, may I just suggest that Hannah’s failure
To answer satisfactorily your questions on
Household budgeting could perhaps be put down to her
Lack of years and experience. At five I doubt if even you,
Dearest, were quite the competent you are today.
Our meal this evening was most
Charming — I can taste it even now.
Nothing surpasses good English food
And boiled tripe and onions always slips down so
Well, but, dearest, I wonder whether
The bread pudding was just a little on the heavy side?
Of course, you know your own business best,
And if you say that this is how it should be,
Far be it from me to criticise.
On a different note, I wonder, dearest,
If you might find time to have a word with the under housemaid.
She is most lackadaisical about her duties,
I even caught her sitting in the middle of the day.
I hope we shall meet in the office tomorrow
But, if not, I look forward to seeing you
At the dinner party for the Hatfields.
I remain, your devoted husband, Sam Beeton.
P.S. If you have your diary to hand,
And it’s not too much trouble,
I would be grateful if you could let me know
A time convenient to you
For me to make my monthly night-time visit.
I would hate a recurrence of last month.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


My mum died when I was nineteen but that wasn’t what did it.

My childless great-aunt who adored me and had wanted to adopt me (as my mum wasn’t married) was killed in the car crash we had on the way back from visiting my mum in hospital just before she died, but that wasn’t what did it.

My friend, the mother of four young children and aged just 39, died one Christmas Eve, but that wasn’t what did it either.

My closest cousin, in her forties, died believing God was going to heal her; I don’t know if that did it.

The resonance of sound, reverberating as it rebounds,
to return again again again.
Each word reflected, mirrored, echoing, echoing, echo.

Calling out to the heights,
your cry thrown back at you,
a hollow shadow, bereft of life.

And when your ears are ringing and
the mimicry becomes too much to bear,
what do you do?

When your questions meet a resounding wall of silence
and a jagged peace tears at your soul,
what do you do?

Turn off the tears, shut down the heart,
build a wall to keep out pain
that buffets and shakes and threatens to undermine.

Let your heartstrings be pulled by sentimental songs,
reminding you of who you once were

and how you used to feel
Before you became an empty echo of yourself.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


Heaven will smell like a wood full of bluebells or lilac in full bloom and open old-scented roses.
It will have the freedom of wide open spaces and the security of a snug white-walled cell.
It will be the tor where the cliffs drop away and the sea joins the sky.

In heaven I will be able to blog all day while receiving chatty emails from friends.

The beds will have the softness of feathers and the fires will blaze.
Chocolate will be slimming and hair won’t frizz in the rain.
There will be an endless supply of Harry Potter books and Wales will always beat England at rugby.
Post office counter assistants and doctors’ receptionists will be nice.
Mel Gibson won’t age and Paul McCartney will sing at my birthday party.
Computers won’t crash nor batteries go flat.
The people I like will be close to me, the people I don’t will be ... a bit further away.

I will have perfect hand eye co-ordination and be able to ride a bike.
My dog won’t steal food but will do as he's told.

My children will remember to close cupboards, switch off lights and not scrape crumbs in the butter.
Other people will notice before the toilet roll runs out and will not leave the empty roll on the floor.
It will only rain at night (except when I’m feeling miserable and a need a storm to walk in.)
In fact, heaven will be pretty much like life on earth with more of the good and less of the bad.

But what small visions, small dreams. Is heaven really only as wonderful as I will allow it to be, as good as the best I can conceive?

I would tie the creator down to niceness and neatness when he wants to show me mind-blowing wonders leaving me open-mouthed at their splendour. That’s what heaven must be, not pleasant afternoons in front of an old movie, but living out the thrill of discovery, where each day, for all eternity is unimaginably wonderful. Beyond words, beyond description. Where the only thing we know for sure is that Jesus is there. And he knows my name.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Mary's lament

And now. Now my baby is a man. And I kneel at the foot of a cross and watch him die. My first-born, my joy and my blessing, whipped and tormented. A mother shouldn’t have to see this. The infant that played at my feet.

They said he would reign for ever. They – angels, shepherds, wise men – they all said he would be the hope and the saviour of his people. How can that be when he hangs limp and battered, dying a criminal’s death?

My hope has gone, crushed with my son. As his body is beaten and tortured so hope is cast out of my soul. As nails are hammered through his flesh, with each thud, my heart breaks a little more.

Blessed. The angel said I was blessed. Blessed to have found favour with God. And how does my blessing takes its form? It finds me at the foot of a cross as life drains from my son’s body. With each agonised breath he takes, I gasp for air for him. I call upon God to send his angels, to move heaven and earth to rescue his son – my son. I beat upon the ground and scream out to God, ‘For this? This is why he was born? No! Where are you?’

My son is dead.
And now words return to me, words spoken by an old man in a temple. A sword will pierce your soul. And as my soul screams, I can only trust and wait, and wonder – what was it all for?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

First Blood

Come on then, if you think you can take me, come on.’
He was taunting me. I don’t like being taunted. I lifted my arm five inches. The gun was pointing at his forehead now. I heard a step creaking behind me. I spun round and dropped to my knees. A bullet flew over my head. My aim was instinctive. I pulled the trigger, once, twice, three times. My attacker collapsed and fell backwards down the stairs. I spun round again in time to register a dark shape about to bring a club down on me. I fired. He stumbled and blood oozed out of his chest. I rolled aside before he fell. I got to my feet, my gun aimed at his back. He lay still. I kicked him in the shoulder. He didn’t respond. I leaned down, grabbed him and pushed his lifeless body over. His eyes stared up at me; blood drooled from the corners of his mouth.

Karen put down the book, closed her eyes, pictured the scene. Replayed the action in her mind. Imagined herself in the role of paid killer, tried to smell the sweat and warm blood. She rolled over on the bed as she ducked to avoid the club being brought down on her, stretched out her arms, her hands together prayer-like, dhuw. One shot was all it took. Karen relaxed, sighed. She stretched across to her bedside cabinet, tugged on the drawer handle, remembered it was locked. She fumbled in her tight jeans pocket for the key. Small grey-metal key. She slipped it in the lock and turned it to the left. She pulled the drawer open and reached in, feeling her way gently. Her hand touched what she was after. She wrapped her fingers around the gun lying in the drawer on its bed of cotton wool. Her Glock 17 pistol. Her own shooter. She took it out, held it against her cheek and stroked it. She checked that the safety catch was on, put it back in its nest, relocked the drawer, and returned the key to her pocket. She lay back on her bed, staring at the ceiling.

‘Hey, Sarge, have you seen this?’
‘In the Police Gazette. It says the Met’s recruiting marksmen again.’
‘What? For London?’
‘Yeah, of course.’
‘You don’t want to go there. Dirty old city, full of criminals.’ Her sergeant had laughed, ‘Naah, you’re much better off down here in the country. Fresh air, a quiet life. What more could you want, bach?’

A lot more. Karen wanted a lot more. A highly trained marksman, she could take out a sniper with just one bullet. But she was stuck in a permanently damp backwater, playing the role of community policeman, just because she’d admitted being able to speak the language.
‘We need to have a marksman on call in that area, preferably one who can speak Welsh.’
There weren’t many who met those criteria and it had seemed a good idea at the time. But that was before she knew how she’d be spending each day.
Today she’d been into the local comprehensive school to talk to year 10 about life in the police force. She’d held the kids’ attention, no doubt about that. They were fascinated to meet a trained police marksman, the only female marksman in the area at that. A bit more interesting than a florist or hairdresser or even computer programmer. Until the inevitable question, ‘How many people have you shot, Miss?’
‘What? Not one?’
Only in her dreams. There she’d tangled with mobsters, gun-runners, terrorists, the most evil of humanity, and she’d come out on top. Every one of them brought down by a single, perfectly aimed bullet. She’d enacted it countless times, each time, calm, poised, in total control because she knew she could do it. Given the chance, she could do it. She could make that instant decision, to pull the trigger and save her own life and the lives of others. She wouldn’t hesitate; she would know that the malignancy standing before her deserved to be dead.
But this was the wild west of Wales not the Bronx. Not a lot of opportunity to use her skills here.

It was late now. She stood up, went across to the window. From her small flat above the craft shop, she could see the length of the main street. The Chinese takeaway six doors down was just closing for the night and the street was empty apart from a solitary couple walking hand in hand. There was a sudden movement on the pavement behind them. A drunk stumbled out from a doorway onto the road before staggering past. Karen sighed. At least he wasn’t driving. She drew the curtains and switched on her bedside light. She took the key from her pocket, unlocked the drawer again, took out her gun and placed it under her pillow.

The next day’s duties included visiting a community centre that had been having trouble with vandals, calling into a housing office to give advice on securing their new computer system, and reassuring some pensioners that the mobile library wouldn’t be given a parking ticket if it stopped on their road.
She’d stopped at the sandwich bar to pick up some lunch when her radio crackled into life.
‘Get your arse over here, Davies, your skills are needed,’ a voice croaked out of the radio.
‘What is it, sarge? Can’t it wait? I’m starving.’ The things Sergeant Thomas, who was six months away from retiring, considered her ‘skills’ usually involved crying women and breaking bad news.
‘No, it can’t, get over here now!’
He was pacing up and down when she arrived back to the station.
‘Where the hell have you been? This is an emergency. I’ve got the Chief Constable on the line every two minutes asking where you are.’
He reached down behind the desk.
‘Right, Davies, this has been signed out ready for you. Let’s go.’
He handed her a 7.62 mm sniper rifle. She looked at him.
‘What’s this for, Sir?’
‘Didn’t I tell you, Davies, you’re the star turn at old age pensioners’ club this afternoon! What do you think it’s for? Get in the car and I’ll tell you on the way.’
While she drove — ‘Put the siren on, girl!’ — he explained the situation.
‘The Chief Constable’s been doing an informal tour of inspection. He’s supposed to be having lunch with the Mayor at 1 o’clock but he’s stuck in a traffic jam. A traffic jam that’s been caused by a rampant cow on the road.’
‘A rampant cow? You’re joking?’
‘It’s no joke, Davies. The farmer can’t do anything with the animal who’s behaving in a very peculiar and threatening way. And they can’t shift her off the road.’
‘Well, that’s a job for the vet, isn’t it?’
‘The vet’s been but he can’t get close enough, it’s too dangerous. So we’ve had our orders: you’ve got to shoot the animal. Now get your foot down.’
She glanced over her shoulder at the rifle on the back seat. Sergeant Thomas saw her.
‘You can do this all right, can you?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ she said, ‘it’s what I’m trained for.’
‘You ever shot anything before?’
‘I told you, Sarge, it’s what I’m trained for.’
‘But you ever shot anything living before?’
‘It makes no difference. I just aim and fire. It’s okay, Sarge, I’m a good shot, top of my class.’
The traffic jam extended in both directions for just over a mile. They stopped the car, got out and made their way down the traffic-free side of the narrow country road. As they passed, car drivers opened their windows and grumbled.
‘What’s the hold-up?’
‘Here, what’s that gun for?’
‘You took your time.’
‘Who you going to shoot?’
‘How much longer have we got to wait?’
They marched on, politely acknowledging the remarks without giving anything away.
At the heart of the jam it was chaos. Cars were spread across the road, where the drivers had tried to manoeuvre around the animal and got stuck when she’d changed direction. The road was covered in cow shit and there was a fair amount splattered over bonnets and windscreens: the smell was pungent.
An irregular unbroken circle of cars surrounded the cow, which was chewing some grass from the hedgerow.
The two police officers looked at each other and at the cow.
‘Looks harmless enough,’ Karen said.
‘Yeah,’ the sergeant nodded.
A thickset man in wellington boots and an old grey duffel coat came up behind them.
‘About time. Where’s the marksman?’
‘I’m here.’
He looked Karen up and down.
‘You’re a woman.’
The farmer grunted, looked at Sergeant Thomas and said, ‘She’s a mad bugger.’
Karen turned and looked angrily at the farmer then she realised he meant the animal quietly watching them.
‘She doesn’t look very mad,’ she said.
‘Don’t let her fool you. She’s just having a rest. She’s a sick animal. Look at the sides of those cars.’
There were deep dents in the doors and on the wings of the cars closest to the circle.
Suddenly the cow threw back her head and mooed, a deep soulful song of the blues, before bending down and charging straight into the side of an almost new BMW. The whole car shuddered and the male driver cried out in terror, ‘Don’t just stand there, do something, can’t you?’ The cow was kicking and bucking like an unbroken colt.
‘Right, Davies, get on with it,’ Sergeant Thomas looked at his marksman. Her face was pale but composed.
She stepped forward and lifted the rifle. As she did so, the cow stopped in her tracks, turned round to face Karen. Lined herself up for her own execution. There were strands of grass dangling from the sides of her mouth and her jaws were moving slowly, methodically. Karen released the safety catch, steadied the barrel, took aim. The cow continued to study her.
She drew back the trigger and fired. The air was silent. The bullet crashed through the animal’s skull directly between its eyes. Her aim was perfect. The cow stood calmly before its legs crumbled and it fell to the ground.
Karen was aware of people getting out of cars, shouting, crying, Sergeant Thomas saying something to her but she couldn’t hear any of it. All she could hear was the whistle of the bullet and the shattering of bone.
She turned and pushed her way through the crowds of people rushing forwards. She started to run, oblivious to the shouts of gratitude and accusation that assailed her, and didn’t stop until she came to a gate into a field. She clambered over it and got behind the hedge just in time to throw up. She sank to her knees as her abdominal muscles contracted and she retched violently again and again. When there was nothing, not even bile, left she sat up. As she wiped her hand across her mouth, she realised she was still clutching the rifle. There were specks of vomit on the barrel. She took out her handkerchief and cleaned it carefully, checking that the safety catch was back on. She stood up, brushed down her uniform, started to walk towards the gate.
Later she’d remember eyes the colour of hot chocolate. For now it was enough that she’d killed; she was blooded.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Every night Alice had the same dream.
In it a huge block of ice glided towards her, dragging with it all the things she knew and thought she loved. It stripped the valleys of her childhood of childish things; the meadows of her youth it raked bare, and the hills of her history it eroded, crushed and reshaped. Characters from her life story became brittle cracked sculptures of themselves. And all around the ice a hundred thousand prisms sucked in red and violet stars and blew out laser white rays.
In her dream Alice watched the approach of the mammoth with fascination. But, always, before the ice reached her, she awoke.
She told no-one about her dream, especially not her husband. His mind was crowded enough; the last thing he needed was her foolishness.
Then one morning, she overslept.
The glacier approached, as it always did, its speed increasing as it drew closer and closer. Like a spectator at the Coliseum, Alice watched. When it was within two feet of her she wondered if she should scream. She opened her mouth and a dagger of white air escaped. As it did, she realised that to scream now would defeat the object: she wanted to find out what would happen. She would not be afraid. This was only a dream; she could come to no harm.
The noise was deafening as photo frames and china dolls, beads and books, unable to resist its power, crumbled and were scooped up by the unstoppable ice block.
But when the glacier was just inches from her toes, another sound penetrated the whiteness. Her husband’s voice cut diamond sharp through her dream state. He would be late for work and it was her fault: she had forgotten to set the alarm.
When he had gone, Alice tried to go back to sleep, to return to the place she had left, but when she did at last doze, the glacier had retreated.
She told herself she was silly, paying such attention to a dream. She resolved to put it out of her mind and to concentrate on real things. And for a time it worked. She continued to have the dream but wouldn’t allow herself to think of it.
Then Alice’s husband had to go away with work. Just for one night. But one night was all she needed.
She went to bed early, switched off the alarm and slid between the crisp sheets. Without the warmth of her husband’s body, they were cold to the touch. She shivered and turned off the light. She fell asleep quickly but, for a long time, the glacier didn’t move. She feared, at first, it had come to a halt, that she was too late. But when it started to creak and scrape and scour its path towards her, building up its speed as it did, she knew there would be no stopping it. Now it came closer, faster than ever before.
She held out her arms to welcome it. Its glassy weight thrust against her. She thought she would be knocked flat but, where the ice touched her body, it melted and took her shape. The colder than breath air that surrounded her froze the water droplets and a new skin coated her.
Alice felt no fear. She felt nothing except relief: the weight of feeling had become a burden. But if she could have felt it, she would have been light-hearted.
She awoke the next morning to find herself encased in ice. Only a thin covering but strong and impenetrable. She smiled to herself as she glided through her daily chores wondering what her husband would say when he returned that evening.
But ice is notorious for catching people out. They don’t see it until it’s too late. In time he came to notice a change in her but couldn’t have said what that change was or when it had happened.
Alice no longer dreamed of icebergs; instead she dreamed of dark rooms peopled by grey men and women doing monochrome jobs. Joy and misery became strangers, leaving calling cards that she only glanced at before shredding. She watched others mourn through a frosted window, or, when required, carefully applied the make-up of happiness. If she saw a rainbow, she would remember a stirring of what might have been delight, but it was too insignificant to crack the ice.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A Proper Charlie

“Are these yours?”

The stranger who had knocked on my door had just the hint of a smile about his face. When I looked down I realised why. In his outstretched hand he held a pair of knickers.

Quick thinking was called for; not only were they my knickers, they were my most sensible cover-all pair. I studied them intently.
“Nooo, I don’t recognise them. Mine are much silkier ... and smaller of course.”
I looked up to see the hint of a smile getting dangerously close to a smirk. Quick thinking was never my strong point.
“Just as a matter of interest, where did you find them?”

“Your dog presented me with them as I came through your gate.”
“My dog. I see. Well, why don’t I take them and try and find out who they belong to?” I said, my sweet smile hiding my evil intent: I was going to murder that animal. He had a thing about knickers. Maybe he’d had an unhappy puppyhood and they represented security to him, I don’t know, and at that moment I didn’t really care. I grabbed the offending object from my visitor’s hand and was about to shut the door when he said “I did have a reason for coming through your gate.”
“Oh, yes, of course, sorry, silly me.”

The knickers resisted my attempts to stuff them in my pocket so I threw them, casually, into the hall behind me.

“I wonder if I could use your telephone? I’m moving in next door and the solicitor, who was supposed to be dropping the keys off, hasn’t turned up. I managed to pack my mobile and I have some removals men getting irate out there.”

On the road outside I could see a removals van and some very grumpy looking men.
“Of course, come on in.”
The phone was in the hall as were my knickers. Hoping he hadn’t noticed, I hastily kicked them under the stairs.
“I’ll put the kettle on, I’m sure a cuppa all round will calm the situation.”

As I backed into the kitchen, grinning maniacally, I wondered why I was sounding like a character in an Aga saga. It just wasn’t every day that a good-looking man came through my door. In fact there hadn’t been a single one since Adam had walked out. Not that I regretted him going. Charlie and I were better off without someone who couldn’t cope with a little slobber on his trousers.

I heard the phone click and my neighbour-to-be tapped on the kitchen door. He looked with some surprise at the tray I was carrying. I had made six mugs of tea and another six of coffee.
“Please take one. Do you take sugar? No? What about a biscuit? They’re homemade, well, I didn’t make them, you understand, but I bought them at the WI market which is the next best thing.”
I was just making a mental note to stop reading Joanna Trollope when Charlie came in. Charlie is my dog, the one currently under a death threat. He’d been playing ‘nosey neighbour’ in the front garden watching every move the removals men made, but now bored with the lack of movement, he’d come looking for other diversions. Charlie is very friendly; he is also very big.

“Charlie NO. GET DOWN. Oh, I’m sorry, let me get you a cloth to wipe your jacket. He doesn’t mean any harm, he just wants to say hello. He’s really very ... oh, I’m sorry, that cloth must have had milk on it ... But he’s really very ... helpful.”

Charlie, realising he’d made a blunder, had gone to fetch a peace offering — my knickers from under the stairs. At that moment there was a screech of brakes outside.

“That must be my solicitor with the keys. Thank you for the use of your telephone. I’ll make sure I always carry mine in future.” He’d made a bolt for the door and was through the gate before I could ask him what his name was.

Peering from behind the bedroom curtains as the removals men got to work, I noticed that all the furniture had that stark bachelor-flat appearance, with not a flounce or frill to be seen. This was a good sign. Now that might smack of desperation but eligible men round me are as rare as a happy storyline in Eastenders. And the few I do meet never seem to hang around very long.

Over the next few weeks, working at home, I was able to keep a close eye on the comings and goings of Whatsisname, as I called him when talking to Charlie, drawing up intricate plans to accidentally bump into him. Unfortunately it looked as if he were drawing up equally intricate plans to avoid me. So it was with a sense of inevitability that I decided I needed to concentrate on some deadlines that were closing in on me. Housework was the main casualty.

So it was, dressed in a three-day-old t-shirt and mud-bespattered jeans, with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip ice cream in my hand, that I answered the door one morning only to come face to face with Whatsisname.
“Why aren’t you in work?”
It was out before I could stop myself.
“I mean you’re usually in work at this time of day. No, wait, I mean ... I’m usually in work at this time of the day. Yes, that’s right. Well, of course, I am in work, I work here. Ah,” I took a deep breath, “would you like a cup of coffee?”

I thought I covered my slip of the tongue quite well; Whatsisname looked slightly apprehensive. He said, “No, I don’t think so, thank you.”
“Oh, I know, you’re worried about Charlie,” I said. “There’s no need, he’s in the garden. In fact, it’s a wonder he hasn’t come round to greet you.”
“That’s why I’m here actually; he’s round the back. His head appears to be stuck in the hedge.”
“Oh, that Charlie,” I hissed through the gritted teeth lurking behind my smile. “He’s always sticking his nose where he shouldn’t.”

We hurried around to the back garden and there was Charlie’s bottom sticking out from the bushes. He wagged his tail enthusiastically when he heard us coming.
“Come on Charlie, get out of there. You’re making a big hole in this nice gentleman’s hedge.”
Charlie wagged even more boisterously but stayed put.
“Come on Charlie, stop being silly. I’ve got a doggy treat here for you,” I lied. My face was beginning to ache with the strain of smiling for so long.
“I wonder if he’s stuck,” Whatsisname suggested. “I’ll go round to my side and see if there’s something in his way.”

The moment he’d gone the real me emerged.
“Get out of there this minute, you stupid animal,” I whispered angrily. “I’m going to count to three and you’d better be out then or else. One......two......three. That does it; it’s bread and water for you.”

“Thank you very much but I’ve already had breakfast,” I could hear the smirk on his face even through the thick bushes. “I could do with a pair of shears though,” he continued.
“There’s a branch sticking into his chest,” he spoke through the hedge slowly and clearly. “If he tries to move, it could do some serious damage. We’ll have to cut it. I haven’t got round to buying garden tools yet so do you have any?”
“Oh yes, hang on a minute, I’ll go and find some.”

I said this with more optimism than I felt. I did have some shears, it was just that they were in the shed and my storage system was based on the ‘throw it in and close the door quickly’ school of thought. Ten minutes later I emerged triumphant if not slightly tattered and oiled. As I opened the shed door, two muddy paws were placed on my shoulders and I was covered in big sloppy kisses.
“It’s all right, Charlie, did you think I’d left home? CHARLIE! How did you get out?”
“I thought you’d left home so I broke the branch and freed him,” Whatsisname said. The smirk on his face was starting to get boring.
“Thank you so much for rescuing Charlie,” I said, sounding rather like Princess Anne on a bad day, “I don’t know how we can ever repay you.”
I did think about offering him coffee but decided to quit while I was ahead, or at least before I fell behind anymore.

One of our favourite walks is along the river path through the woods. In springtime it’s especially beautiful with the bluebells and primroses in full bloom but at any time of year it’s likely to be muddy. Charlie loves to swim in the river which washes off a lot of the mud but he still ends up bedraggled looking. In spite of what you’ve heard about him so far he’s quite well behaved, no, really, he is, so as we walk up the final stretch of road leading to our house I let him off his lead. There’s not much traffic and, as I said, he’s well-behaved. Except when he gets excited. And he gets excited if he sees someone he knows or he might know or if they’re just there really. So when he saw this female coming out of Whatsisname’s gate he had to go and say hello.

I was wasting my breath. He was determined and nothing was going to stop him giving his own distinctive greeting. Thoughts rushed through my mind. Was it too late to turn and run? What happens if you put your head in an electric oven? Is there a Society for the Protection of Dog Owners? And is this Whatsisname’s girlfriend?

For once luck seemed to be on our side — she appeared to like dogs.
“You must be Charlie,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot about you!”
“I’m terribly sorry,” I babbled “He’s usually so well-behaved. I don’t know what’s come over him. You must smell very nice to dogs.”
“Thank you, I think,” she smiled. “And you must be the girl with the knickers.”

At that I grabbed Charlie, put him on his lead and started to drag him away. Perhaps I’d put Charlie’s head in the oven first. Then just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse she called to me, “You must come in for coffee when I’ve moved in properly.”
“Thank you, yes, that would be lovely,” I shouted back, adding under my breath, “oh, no, no, no.”

That evening I needed comfort food. I made myself the biggest bowl of porridge you’ve ever seen. All my hopes for a future with Whatsisname were squashed. I admit there wasn’t a lot going for it but things can change. He might have grown to love Charlie and me. A girl has to dream. As they say in the song my mother used to sing to me when I was little, “You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream ...”

So that’s how I came to be waltzing round with Charlie and my bowl of porridge, singing at the top of my voice, when there was a knock at the door. I cha-cha-ed out to open it to find, inevitably, Whatsisname on the doorstep.

I was past caring. Everything he’d seen up till now must have convinced him that I was the biggest brazilnut in town. It was too late to remedy the situation so I gave it my all and a bit extra.
“Then you’ll never have a dream come truuuuuuuuuue.”

I threw out my chest, spread open my arms and spilled my porridge over his shoes. When it comes to food Charlie’s reactions are faster than Lewis Hamilton’s. One slurp and it was gone. Whatsisname and I raised our heads slowly and simultaneously and then he burst out laughing.
“Why didn’t the estate agent didn’t warn me about you!”
“I’m not usually like this” I said indignantly. “You just seem to bring out the worst in ... us.” I’d just realised Charlie had stuck his nose where well-mannered dogs aren’t supposed to stick their noses. Etiquette was never his strong point.
“Charlie, please, don’t do that.”

Whatsisname bent over and started to stroke Charlie’s head.
“My sister phoned,” he said. “She was worried that she might have upset you this afternoon. I said that seemed unlikely but she insisted that I come around and tell you she’s sorry she mentioned the knickers, sorry, I mean, the you-know-whats.” I was looking at him blankly. “You met her this afternoon, if you remember” he enunciated.
“Met her?” I said doubtfully, “Your sister?”
“Yeees. The one Charlie liked the smell of?”
“That was you sister? You mean the girl who was here this afternoon? She’s your sister? The one who’s moving in with you? She’s your sister?”
“Yes, her company has moved down here so it seemed sensible that she should stay with me for a while until she finds a place of her own.”

I was still saying “Your sister, well, well” and the grin was spreading all over my porridge-encrusted mouth when he said, “Look, we haven’t had the best of beginnings. What about us going out for a meal and starting again?”
“Go out for a meal? You and me?”
He laughed and said, “Well I’d prefer not to take Charlie!”

We arranged to go out the very next evening. Just as he was going through the gate I remembered “Oh, I don’t know your name.”

He turned, grinned and said hang-doggishly, “I’m afraid it’s Charles.”

Saturday, 28 February 2009

The adulterous woman

I was condemned. Found and condemned with no chance to explain. No chance to explain that it wasn’t my fault. That I’d been forced into marrying an older man. A man who didn’t love me or want me for what I was. His only use for me was as a woman; I could have been any woman I meant so little to him. A trophy to be worn on his arm.

But that’s no excuse I know; excuses are meaningless.

I could say that I suspected he visited the local women of the night; that he rarely shared my bed; that he often came home smelling of sickly perfume, not the perfume I used; that other women looked down on me pityingly. I could say all of that.

But I said I wasn’t going to make excuses.

I was guilty. Guilty of the crime.

How could I not be when they found me in the committing of it? When the door of my bedroom was kicked open and they burst in as I lay with my lover. I was guilty.

I grabbed the sheet and pulled it up around me but they tore it away and dragged me, screaming from the bed.

I feel the heat in my face now as I remember how they pulled me from the bed out of the house and into the street as I was. And they would have taken me through the town like that had not my maidservant run after us crying, ‘Let her have her wrap at least, spare her that!’

Begrudgingly they let me draw it around me, but they didn’t stop. As I glanced back at my house, I saw my husband on the roof, looking down on me. I screamed, ‘Husband, help me! For they will surely kill me!’ He didn’t move. He was smiling.

I fought against my captors as we continued the relentless journey to the edge of the town. I knew what would happen there: I would be stoned. It was written in the law of Moses.
I wriggled and squirmed desperately, tried to drag my feet, anything to slow them down, anything that might give me a chance to get free of them. In their hurry, I stumbled and tripped but they didn’t slow down or release their grip on my arms. As we passed through the town, people came out of their houses to watch. I saw women I used to meet in the marketplace. I no longer cared about the humiliation or my pride; I just wanted to live. ‘Ruth, Sarah, help me please, Martha, don’t let them take me, help me.’ But they all looked away.

My shoulders sagged; I ceased to struggle; it was all over. We were approaching the temple now. Were there more of them being summoned to condemn me? What did it matter? I would be dead soon.

Ahead I could see a crowd of people; I thought they were waiting for me and I began to scream and fight again. One of the men dragging me slapped me hard. He spat into my face, ‘Keep your mouth shut, whore.’ As we passed through the crowd, all faces turned to stare at me. I felt the fight leave me again, and when they threw me down, I dropped easily, almost grateful for the end that was coming. I curled up as small as I could and put my hands over my head. And I waited for the first stone. I wondered how long it would take; how much I would have to bear before I could die.

But nothing came. And I realised the crowd had gone silent while the men who had brought me muttered to each other. ‘Why doesn’t he answer?’ ‘What is he writing? I can’t see.’ ‘Why doesn’t he condemn her as the law says?’

I was confused; I didn’t understand why they weren’t throwing their stones. I moved my arm from before my eyes and peered out. The man in front of me was bending down, writing in the sand. Everyone else was watching him; they seemed to be waiting for something. I sat up a little and looked around some more. My guards still muttered to themselves as they stared at this man writing on the ground. Then he straightened up and spoke. ‘If you are without sin, throw your stone.’ Then he bent down and began to write again.

I buried my head down on my chest and brought up my arms around me, waiting for the stones that were sure to come now. This man, with whatever authority he had, had told them to throw their stones. I tried to say my prayers but how could God hear a sinner such as me? I couldn’t even cry. My tears had been used up; I had already wept too much over my sin for any more to be shed. Now I just waited and wished for it to be over. I thought of my child who would grow up without her mother. Of what they would tell her; how she would grow pretending that her mother had died of sickness, how she would live a life of fear and shame, never being allowed to forget what her mother had done. I thought of her smile as she runs to me, her laugh as I spin her round, the soft touch of her skin against mine, the smell of her hair in the breeze and her breath on my face. And I am smiling as I lift myself up. I cannot die bent over, humiliated; for my child, my death at least must be honourable.

I opened my eyes and looked around; I wanted to beg someone to tell my child that I love her. But there was no-one there. There was just me and the man.

He stood and he too looked around, as if surprised. ‘Where has everyone gone?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t anyone condemn you? Throw a stone?’

I shook my head.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ he said. ‘Go now. But,’ he held out his hands and took mine as I started to fall to my knees at his feet in thankfulness, ‘don’t sin any more.’

My husband is divorcing me. I am glad though it means I will not be able to see my child. I am alive and I have another chance. I am going to follow this man Jesus. There are men and women who travel with him; they have said I can go with them and learn all I need to know. And one day I will see my child again and I will tell her how my life was changed and maybe one day she will understand and I can make her proud of me.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


I remember the summer of the Carvers’ execution; it was the summer I met Ziggy. Two momentous things happened during those three short months, the first being that I fell in love.

The Carvers were husband and wife. They believed they had a God-given mission to purify American society. At the trial, in his defence against the charge of first degree murder, Jimmy claimed that an angel had appeared to him and told him to rid humanity of the scourge of homosexuality. To accomplish this, he would frequent downtown nightclubs and lure young men back to his fourth floor apartment where Nancy had prepared and left out poisoned wine. Having killed their victims — there was some doubt about how many — they got rid of the bagged bodies in their waste disposal. They were only discovered when one larger than usual victim became wedged in the shute. It was so simple, it’s only a surprise that more people haven’t tried it. Or maybe they have.

The judge sentenced them to death by electrocution. The electric chair. From the moment I heard of the judge’s pronouncement, it obsessed me, filled my brain. What does it feel like, I wondered, to die like that? Is there an instant, just before the power surges through the core of your being, when every nerve ending in your body tingles with unimaginable ecstasy? Or is it all over in a painless flash? These were my thoughts when I met Ziggy.

He took my breath away. Literally and figuratively. New York City was short of air that summer and I was meandering lethargically along the sidewalk, engrossed in the Tribune’s account of the verdict, when he emerged from the subway, jumping the steps two at a time. We collided. His greater momentum meant that I crashed onto the floor. Ziggy stopped, apologised, realised that I was struggling to get up and leant over to help me. I saw myself reflected in his hazel-brown eyes, and I couldn’t look away. It only needed an orchestral crescendo in the background for this to have been a bad Hollywood B-movie, and if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have believed it either.

I tried to stand but the pain surprised me with its intensity and I grimaced and leaned against the railing. Ziggy couldn’t apologise enough. He insisted on calling a cab and taking me to the nearest hospital. The doctor declared my ankle, badly sprained but not broken, bound it tightly for me, and told me to ‘rest up’. I thanked Ziggy and assured him I would be fine now, but it wasn’t enough. He was, I was to discover, both a perfect gentleman, and an anglophile. On learning that I was visiting from England and staying in a cheap hotel in the village, he hailed another cab, accompanied me there and waited while I packed my things. He took me back to his penthouse apartment with its postcard-familiar views of the Manhattan skyline and installed me in the guest bedroom.

When at last I was able to walk without needing a stick, Ziggy took it upon himself to show me round his city. He let me see things through his eyes. Things looked very different from that perspective. From the top of the Statue of Liberty we looked out over the same seaway so many immigrants had crossed on their journey to the land of the free. Ziggy made a passionate speech about rights and justice. His eyes glistened as he spoke about the inhumanity of the few and the filth that had polluted the city he loved.

Each evening, we watched the television news, which was full of the Carvers and their forthcoming execution. It was a quiet summer for news, and the big channels vied with each other for increasingly unusual angles. Like every school kid in the city, we knew the exact voltage of the current that would pass through Jimmy and Nancy. There was to be no appeal, or rather the only appeal Jimmy made was that the end should be soon. They had completed their work on earth. Like children waiting for Christmas, they were impatient for their reward.

The sun shone on the day of death. Ziggy drew the blinds in his apartment, and draped the television with a black cloth. Then we sat, side by side on the sofa, and waited. The killing itself wasn’t televised; all we saw were the victims’ relatives, the protesters, the crowds baying for blood, and the priest and the condemned pair walking through the compound to the enclosed death cell. Tension radiated from the screen. Even the air-conditioned apartment felt claustrophobic.

When it was all over, Ziggy raised his glass.

‘They are martyrs,’ he said, his face wet with tears. ‘I salute you, Jimmy and Nancy. America needs more people like you.’

I thought briefly of what could have been, and watched as Ziggy drained the glass of wine I had poured for him. The whole momentous event took only a few minutes.

I left New York that afternoon.

At the airport, the customs officer said, ‘Hope you’ve enjoyed your stay over here, Mr Fielding.’ I formed my lips into a smile for him.