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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Poor Mr Price

Many people think it's a depressing job clearing people’s belongings when they die, but Wills have to be proved and relatives want their inheritance. Life goes on.

It’s hard and often dirty work emptying a lifetime’s possessions from a home and not many relatives want to do it. Mum reckoned it was an invasion of privacy, but I didn’t see it that way, because what can be more private than death? Although I have to confess I felt decidedly uncomfortable the first time I went into a home and had to decide what was rubbish and what I could sell for profit. But I soon learned to be businesslike, although it always upset me when I came across old photograph albums that had been left behind. All those faded faces; loved ones from the past, forgotten and discarded. It seemed heartless to dump them, so I used to take them home.

There were places where I found myself looking over my shoulder. The house would have an uncomfortable atmosphere and more often than not I would discover from neighbours that the owner had been unhappy, or unloved, or was sadly just not a very nice person.

Thankfully, most of the homes felt empty and peaceful and I’d quickly begin to get the feel of the man or woman who’d lived there. A sideboard drawer crammed with cast aside bits and pieces can tell you a lot about a person. While I emptied cupboards and sorted I would come across their hobbies and interests, so I suppose mum was right about privacy in a way.

Then one day the phone rang. It was a son needing his father’s house cleared.
The tiny brick terrace was dingy and neglected. Inside there were a few bits and pieces of china and glass, half a dozen bits of furniture and some odd and ends upstairs. Not much that was saleable, but just enough to make a small profit.
Looking sleek and prosperous, Mr Price nodded at the price I offered and I wondered how many more quotes he’d obtained before mine.
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I want it cleared tomorrow morning. I’ll be here to let you in.’ It was a bit sudden, but the customer is always right.

When I arrived the next day there were half a dozen expensive cars parked outside the house. A middle-aged woman elegantly dressed in black opened the front door. Mr. Price hovered behind her. ‘We’re in the living room having a cup of tea to warm us up before we go to the cemetery. You can start upstairs,’ he said
That was a first. They hadn’t even buried the poor soul yet!

As I made my way up the steep, narrow stairs carrying two boxes and a roll of black sacks, a middle-aged man carrying a heavy cardboard box was coming from a bedroom.
‘Ah --- yes, I'm just taking the few little things that were promised to me by uncle,’ he stuttered.
I reached the landing and peeked over his shoulder. The bedroom was empty of the few saleable bits and pieces that meant the difference between profit and loss.
Shielding the contents of the cardboard box, he brushed past and made his way downstairs.
Luckily I hadn’t paid Mr. Price yet.

We stood in the dark, narrow hallway, where the scent of expensive aftershave fought a losing battle against the overpowering smell of poverty and neglected old age, and I wished I was a hundred miles away.
‘We agreed on a price for the contents yesterday, but the family is still taking items from the house,’ I said.
Mr. Price frowned. ‘It is usual for relatives to take a little memento in remembrance.’
‘But that’s before you get quotes, not after. The council charges to put un-saleable goods on the tip. You’ll have to pay me if there‘s nothing left to cover my expenses.’ I looked at his smug face and felt my patience snap. ‘Look – this really isn’t the time. We don’t usually clear houses on the day of the funeral. I’ll come back when everyone has finished taking what they want,' adding under my breath, 'in your dreams.'

I had just turned ready to leave, when raised voices erupted from the living room.
‘I tell you he promised these bits to me!’
‘I've got more right to them than you have,’ someone replied.
‘Oh yes, and when was the last time you saw him?’ Another shrill voice joined in.
There was the sound of a tussle, and the tinkle of broken china.
‘Now look what you’ve done!’

Just then the doorbell rang. Because I was nearest I opened the door.
Parked in the middle of the road was a hearse and on the doorstep a funeral attendant with a suitably sorrowful expression on his face began to lift his top hat. But before he could open his mouth to speak, more shouting echoed down the passageway.
‘I’m not with them,’ I blurted and like an idiot, found myself opening my hands and patting my pockets to show I wasn’t leaving with a little something to remember Mr Price by.
The attendant shrugged, lifted his eyes heavenwards and walked slowly back to the hearse. He’d evidently seen it all before.

As I opened the garden gate, something jutting out from under the lid of the dustbin caught my eye. It was an old photograph album and I wondered how many pictures of poor old Mr Price it contained….So I took it.



Shovels full of Goodness.

Our Street

There are nearly two hundred two up two down terraced houses in our street; every house has a small front garden, and nearly all of the gardens have a rickety wooden seat built for two by the front door.
On warm summer evenings the residents sit outside gossiping with their neighbours, whilst keeping an eye on all the comings and goings in the street.
‘It ‘ent fair,’ my friends moan, ‘you can’t get away with nothing round here, there’s always some old nosy parker watching us and shouting they’ll tell our mum and dad.’

On Sunday afternoons while we laze in front of the fire digesting our dinner and listen to comedy programmes on the radio we wait for the sound of a hand bell being rung outside in the street.
As it begins to clang, Mum fetches a pudding basin and hurries out to a tiny old man wearing a padded flat cap and with a large tray balanced on his head.
The tray has straps and when he lifts it down, the straps stay around his neck making him look like a cinema usherette, but instead of ice cream the tray holds winkles.
A pint basin-full costs sixpence. Dad loves them. He uses a pin to pull the insides out then waves them at us. He says they’re delicious but we pull faces and scream as he pops them in his mouth with relish.
In the summer the winkle man sells muffins instead, but we never buy them. Mum says they’re not very different to bread, so it wouldn’t be a treat.

The ice cream man has a bicycle with a box on the front. The ice cream is stored in dry ice to keep it cold.
He rings his bicycle bell and shouts as loud as he can and is mobbed when it’s hot. Mum always has a first lick of ours just to make sure the ice cream is ok and hasn’t been touched by the dry ice it's stored in, which makes it taste funny. At least that’s her excuse and we don’t mind, because she can’t afford to buy one for each of us.

Sometimes a rag and bone man calls in the street with his horse and cart. One year he gave out baby ducks in exchange for rags. Mum felt so sorry for them she took out a big pile of clothes, and he gave her six in return.
She and Gran put them in a box by the range to keep them warm and tried to feed them, but they died.
Sometimes he gave out baby chicks and one year mum swopped for four. She said we’d fatten them up and have them for Christmas dinner.
Dad licked his lips and said they would taste better than the scraggy things the corner shop sold every year and was looking forward to as much chicken as he could eat.
Gran said she’d learned how to wring chickens necks while she was in service and every year at Christmas she pulls the insides out and plucks the feathers so we thought we had it all planned, but when it was time to kill our chickens she couldn’t bring herself to do it, because she’d been feeding them all year and they liked her. Luckily Mr Rumble from across the road offered to do it, and mum said he could have one for taking the trouble.
When he went down the garden we pulled the curtains and turned the radio up as loud as it would go then shut our eyes and put our fingers in our ears.
When he came in dangling our dead chickens by their feet we all cried - even Gran, so Mum said he could have them all, and we had one from the corner shop as usual for Christmas dinner.

While Mr Turner the greengrocer weighs out vegetables from the back of his cream coloured farm cart, his scruffy piebald horse eats from a bag of oats pulled tightly over its face, and usually leaves a nice pile of manure on the road.
It’s dangerous to go too near the horses hooves and cart wheels and we get shouted at if we forget, but no-one shouts at Mr Goldstein when he darts around the back of the horse and happily scoops up the steaming heap.
He is a Jewish Russian emigrant and has lived in our street for many years. He and his wife are both short and thin and move very quickly. Mrs Goldstein has pierced ears and wears the heaviest gold earrings I’ve ever seen. Every time I look at them I promise myself I’ll have my ears pierced and wear earrings exactly the same when I grow up.
The shovelfuls of goodness Mr Goldstein regularly scoops up are lovingly heaped around two large rose bushes growing in his front garden. Each month the pile beneath the roses grows steadily higher, and on hot summer days the smell overpowers the perfume that wafts from the large pink and yellow blooms. We hurry past their house pinching our noses, and can’t understand how he and his wife can bear to sit out in their front garden, but have to admit no one else in the street has leaves so large and glossy, or blooms as big and showy as Mr Goldstein’s.

During the war, two big dustbins were put in our street for leftover cooked and raw food. The scraps would help feed pigs, which in turn would help the war effort.
Although the war has been over for a few years, the bins are still there and now the scraps are collected by Charlie Martin for his pigs.
Charlie drives a pony and a home made cart styled after a Roman chariot. His heavily Brylcreamed, black hair is brushed straight back and his face and hands are a deep golden brown from being outside all the time. He always wears a clean shirt, but holds his grey flannel trousers up with a tie or a piece of rope, and we’ve never seen him in anything but turned down Wellington boots.
Every couple of days he drives into our street at a fast trot and empties the bins. Although Charlie is friendly and waves to us we don’t hang around him because the bins and his cart smell even in the cold weather.
The pigs are kept on a large allotment near the Recreation grounds. When we’re playing on the swings we can hear the pigs squealing impatiently as he boils up the food that’s come from our bins.

The Co-op bread man has a huge black horse called Nobby. Nobby is mum's favourite. He won’t wait for the bread man to finish delivering to the other customers at the end of the street. He ignores his driver’s shouts to wait and walks down to our house, steps onto the pavement and stands our tiny front garden resting his nose on our front door until mum opens it. Then they both wait for the sweating bread man to catch him up. Mum always pulls a bit of bread from the end of the bloomer loaf she’s just bought and feeds it to Nobby. She only buys the Co-ops bread because of the horse.

Sometimes a flock of ducks and geese are moved to a stretch of river that runs just behind our street.
For a few moments everything comes to a standstill as they are driven along. They look so fierce I stand behind our front gate as they rocket along in a blur of movement and sound. With feet flopping and slapping on the hard road they stretch their necks skywards and indignantly honk and hiss. They leave a silent swirl of downy feathers in the gutters when they have passed.

We have a local factory that makes galvanized milking stalls. For a few minutes four times a day, our quiet street gets very busy as the workers who live locally and walk or bike to work hurry to and from the factory.
Even indoors I can hear their chatter and their steel tipped heels briskly hitting the pavement. There is always someone whistling and the smell of oil that seeps into their clothes during the day lingers in the air for ages after they’ve passed.
The factory bosses drive cars. When we’re playing outside one of us keeps lookout and shouts, ‘car coming!’ Then we have to stop playing marbles in the gutters or skipping games across the road and wait on the pavement until they have passed.

Simmonds Brewery is just around the corner. The beer is brewed in huge copper vats in whitewashed basement rooms. Further along in another basement room artists touch up or paint new pub signs. They work with their easels facing the window and we always try to guess the name of the pub when we kneel down on the pavement, and peer through the barred windows.
The brewery is on both sides of the street. The smell of malt and hops is overpowering and it’s extremely noisy with the sound of banging as the Coopers make and repair oak beer barrels. Workers whistle and shout cheerily to each other as they load and unload lorries and in the background beer bottles being washed rattle and clank and are then re-filled as they speed along the conveyor belts.
Across the road from the bottling section are the stables for two pairs of shire horses. They deliver the brewery’s beer to most of the pubs in our area. Their hooves strike sparks against the cobbled yard as they strain to pull the heavily laden wagons through high, iron gates, while the driver, who wears a bowler hat, a brown belted raincoat and drapes a tartan blanket over his knees in cold weather, sits high on the front of the wagon as they begin their days work.

Television made the rickety wooden seats redundant. Houses have been pulled down and cars park nose to bumper in the narrow streets where we used to play.
The Brewery was taken over and moved to the edge of town and now blocks of flats stand where men and women once made milking pens - but something has survived.

Their driver in his smart bowler hat flicks the reins and talks gently as the descendants of my childhood Shires, beribboned, groomed to perfection and as powerful as ever, pull a smart Simmonds cart full of oak barrels in front of admiring crowds at County Shows all around the country.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Cold Comforts.

Cold Comforts.

This winter is harsh with bitterly cold winds and heavy frosts, and the inhabitants of the long rows of terraced houses huddle over their fires cursing at the draughts whistling through window frames no matter how much newspaper is stuffed into the cracks.

Doris Smith grunts and stirs in the sagging chair that is as near the fire as she has been able to drag it.
During the winter, Doris always wears a pair of her husband’s thick woolly socks over two pairs of stockings which are held up just above her knees with grubby elastic. On her feet are expensive fur lined slippers that she treated herself to at the beginning of winter, but despite the three layers covering her chubby legs, the fire is banked so high that nothing can completely protect her skin from the heat and remnants of the ugly, brown mottling that runs from her ankles to her chubby knees and darkens with every hour she sits there, will still be there during the summer.
She stirs briefly because her arms are chilly. Settling a tatty shawl more firmly around her shoulders, she glances at the clock on the mantelpiece and grunts. It’s nearly five o clock and the old man will be in for his dinner shortly, but it’s too bloody cold to stand in that freezing kitchen cooking, especially when he’ll probably leave half of it uneaten or throw it at the wall in a drunken rage. Working at the brewery he’s constantly drunk but she gives as good as she gets and doesn’t give a toss what he gets up to, as long as he hands over a few quid housekeeping on payday. And if he doesn’t give it to her willingly, she’s quite happy to pick his pockets when he’s sprawled across the bed in a drunken sleep.
Doris shuts her eyes and as she drifts back off to sleep thinks she’d tell him the pipes are frozen. That should shut him up and he’ll be too drunk to check. As for Jimmy their ten-year old son - he can fend for himself. He usually does.
There has been a spate of births coinciding with the cold snap and Edie Waters, the street’s unofficial midwife, has been forced to go out in the cold almost every day.
Many of the homes where she delivers babies are desperately poor and a decent fire in the bedrooms is only a dream. After sitting for hours in icy cold rooms, Edie feels as if she’ll never be warm again.
Going home to her own cosy kitchen and thawing out in front of the fire is sheer bliss, but the icy draught which eddies around her ankles from under the doors is driving her mad.
Pulling out her rag bag from under the stairs, Edie finds one of her husband Jack’s old shirts, cuts the sleeves off and stuffs each sleeve with small bits of rag. She ties off the ends then lays the two temporary draught excluders along the bottom of the doors and surveys her handiwork. They aren’t the prettiest things she’s ever made, but they work. Her feet feel the benefit almost immediately.
Horace Rumble has settled for the evening. He is sitting on his old but comfortable sofa in front of the fire, with a faded but warm feather quilt over his knees, and with two plump cushions wedged behind his back.
A widower for many years he has slipped quietly into the life of a bachelor, able to please himself when he eats and where he sleeps. Long ago he cleared out the back bedroom and the downstairs front room and locked their doors. Now he lives mainly in the kitchen with its range which copes with his little bit of cooking and keeps him snug and warm. If he feels lonely he has a radio sitting on a shelf by the side of the chimney breast. When he wakes in the night he has all the makings for a cup of tea, and his pipe, tobacco and an ashtray are within hands reach on a small table at the end of the sofa. A battered tin with a faded picture of Queen Victoria on the lid holds his favourite biscuits, and if the cold wakes him in the night he can stoke the fire without leaving the room, having made sure he has filled up the coal bucket just before he settles for the night.
Sighing contentedly he puffs on his pipe and watches coils of blue smoke writhe towards the ceiling. Horace reckons he’s at his happiest when he can sleep here in front of the fire. He glances up as a strong gust of wind rattles a dustbin lid across his small back yard. He’s lived a long time and seen all sorts of weather, but the winter of 1934 is going to be a hard one.
At number 94 Ida Pargiter or Ma as she is known, stands in the scullery heating a pan of watery stew on the gas stove while she waits for her two daughters Rose and Primrose to come home from work.
Many years ago, Ida’s husband escaped the wrath of her tongue and ran off with a factory worker from Liverpool. Now her daughters, middle aged, unattractive and totally submissive are the wage earners. Handing their unopened wage packets to their mother each Friday, they dully accept her complaints that things cost so much more these days as she grudgingly hands them a few shillings each.
In the kitchen three straight backed wooden chairs are drawn up in front of a smoking fire made entirely of coal dust.
Meanly eking out the meagre coal supply during the evenings and weekends while the girls are home, Ida has indulged herself with roaring fires during the day, but now they have run out of coal and the girls don’t get paid until tomorrow. It’s so cold that despite being bundled up in a thick woollen shawl over three layers of clothes and with a large hand knitted scarf around her neck, Ida can barely feel her hands or feet and her long thin nose, which she sniffs incessantly, is tinged with blue.
Glancing guiltily in the direction of the front door she scuttles into the larder and reaching into a grubby shopping bag hanging behind the door, pulls out a small bottle of brandy and a large bar of Cadburys. Breaking off a chunk of the rich brown chocolate she hurriedly chews and swallows, then takes a deep swallow of brandy.
Hearing the two girls at the front door, she quickly pushes the illicit hoard back into the bag, shuts the larder door and reaching for a spoon rattles it against the side of the saucepan.
Wiping her mouth, Ida pops her head around the door to the kitchen. ‘You’d better keep your coats on,’ she tells Primrose and Rose. ‘We’ve no more coal only dust, so you can give the bedrooms a good going over after tea, that’ll keep you warm. There’s nothing like a bit of hard work to keep the circulation going. And make sure you keep that curtain over the door. I’ll catch me death just see if I don’t, and then where will we be!’
A pungent fug of unwashed clothes and overcooked cabbage drifts from the scullery at Ted and Nellie Tatum’s.
In the kitchen a washing line draped with Ted’s underwear hangs from the ceiling. On a battered fireguard stretching across the fireplace, steaming nappies add to the heady atmosphere.
‘Ted, what are you doing out there? I can smell them potato’s have boiled dry and the cabbage will be the same I’ll be bound. I can’t take me eyes off you for a minute. I been slaving away all day trying to keep house and home together, the least you can do is make sure we get a proper cooked meal in the evening.’
In the scullery Ted silently mouths along to Nellie’s daily litany. He closes his eyes, hunches his scrawny neck even further into his bony shoulders and as she pauses for breath breaks in meekly. ‘Yes dear just coming; sorry about that, but they’re not burnt; just a trifle dry.’
Ignoring Derek the youngest of their children who is trying to bite her leg, Nellie throws forks down on the table and yells in the direction of the stairs for Mavis and Freddie to get themselves down for their dinner quick, otherwise it will be stone cold and not fit to eat.
Moving rapidly from sideboard to table, she bangs a bottle of brown sauce down and swooping a large red hand under the table comes up holding Derek by the scruff of his neck. Plunking him down in a chair, she wipes his nose on the edge of her apron and threatens that if he doesn’t stop snivelling he’ll get no tea.
Mavis and Freddie who have been playing in the bedroom land at the bottom of the stairs with loud thuds, burst into the kitchen and fling themselves onto the rickety chairs that stand around the table in the middle of the overcrowded room.
While Ted spoons cabbage and lumpy potatoes onto the plates, Nellie cuts a slice of corned beef for each of them.
The last to be served, Ted ends up with the thinnest piece. Hanging his head, he picks up his fork and pokes tiredly at his dinner. Around him silence falls as the Tatum family began to bolt down their rapidly cooling food.
Jacko Simms an ex boxer, and now landlord of the Golden Horn Pub, hurries in through the saloon bar doors and warms his hands in front of the blazing fire.
‘That does it,’ he declares. ‘I’ll have to put a notice up. The Gents is out of action. The pipes are good and frozen. I’m hoping that paraffin heater I put in the Ladies will keep them warm enough, but I’ve got me doubts.’
He walks across the room and peers at the thermometer hanging just inside the doors. ‘Blimey! Look at that. It’s only just above freezing in here even with the fire going. I’ll have to keep it burning all night and leave the cellar doors open. If the beer freezes in the pipes there’ll be hell to pay.’
Elsie his wife, slim, blonde from a bottle and ten years younger than Jacko, is exasperated. ‘Oh for goodness sake stop fussing. The beer pipes have never frozen yet and we’ve had low temperatures before. We’ve got fires going in every room and as long as we keep this one well banked up for the evening, the bricks will throw out plenty of heat overnight. We can get it going again first thing. That is if some of us don’t hang around in bed.’ She glares accusingly at him, for Jacko is a night owl and likes to lie in leaving Elsie to get things moving in the mornings. ‘If the gents want to use the toilet they’ll have to pop home and do it; most of them live near enough,’ she says.
Jacko opens his mouth to argue, but Elsie holds up an admonitory finger. ‘And if the Ladies freeze up they’ll have to do the same.’
‘But we’ll lose custom.’ Jacko protests. ‘We was only half full last night and it’s even colder today. If they have to go home to do the necessary they won’t come back.’
Elsie has heard enough. ‘Jacko we can’t do a lot about it, unless you can get out there and work a miracle to change the weather. Now you go and bring in some more coal and I’ll get some buckets of water just in case. If there are no customers this evening – and I’ll believe it when I see it – because nothing will keep that lot away from their beer. But if no one comes in, then I for one will be thankful. I shall have a hot bath, take a hot water bottle and a good book to bed, and say thank you to him upstairs for giving me the night off.

Around the corner from the Golden Horn, The Bonnie Prince Charlie pub only has three customers, but Dorrie Adams the landlady doesn’t mind.
She drapes the bar cloth over the pumps and looking in the mirror behind the bar pats her blonde hair and pinches her cheeks. She smiles in satisfaction at her reflection. She is forty five, but a well fitted corset keeps her figure trim, and careful grooming and a weekly visit to the hairdresser helps her look at least five years younger, although Dorrie likes to kid herself it’s more like ten.
Smoothing her dress over her disciplined hips, she takes a final glance in the mirror and then goes down to the cellar and selects a dusty bottle of champagne that she has tucked away for just such a night as this.
She places the champagne in a bucket of ice, goes back upstairs, and puts the bucket on a bedside table.
Checking the glowing fire in the small fireplace she slides her hands under the bed covers to feel the hot water bottles she had placed there earlier but they are rapidly cooling. She refills them from a tap in the bathroom and slips them back between crisp cotton sheets.
Casting her eyes over the cosy room, she tweaks the pillows and with a satisfied smile returns to the bar.
James O Connor, Dorrie’s dark haired handsome Irish barman is collecting glasses, cleaning ashtrays, and wiping the tables.
‘Leave that James,’ Dorrie orders. ‘We won’t get any more customers tonight. I can see to anything else that needs doing. You look cold and tired. Look, I know your digs haven’t any bathing facilities. Why don’t you go upstairs and have a hot bath. It’s just the thing for a cold night like this. And I’ve a nice fire going up there. After your bath I can bring you some supper. You can sit and eat it in comfort.’
James blushes. An idiot could see the only reason he’d got this job was because Dorrie had an itch for him, and he knows perfectly well what she has in mind for this evening. He should leave right now for isn’t she old enough to be his mother? On the other hand he needs the job and he misses his home comforts as poor as they’d been. He wants a bit of spoiling. He left Ireland to find a job but it hasn’t worked out with all the building sites shut down due to the weather.
James thinks of his spartan room back in his lodgings. His stomach growls in protest at the mere thought of his landladies meagre, badly cooked meals, and his shabby room with not even a scrap of carpet by the bed to keep the cold from his feet.
As one of the customers leaves, the icy blast whipping across the room through the open door helps him decide.
With the lights dimmed and his eyes shut he will think of Catherine his girlfriend back at home in Ireland. But, if he is going to take Dorrie up on her unspoken offer, he might as well make a good job of it and get his feet properly under the table at least until the spring.
He walks over to her and runs his eyes suggestively over her body.
‘Well now,’ he says. ‘I’m thinking a warm bath might be just the thing, but I’ll need help to wash my back.’
Flies Will Get In.

I was sitting under the tree at the bottom of the garden with my mind comfortably blank. The sun danced over my skin through the canopy of leaves and sparrows chirruped above my head. It was summer holidays and right at that moment the world was a pretty nice place.
You can imagine my surprise when a dirty great angel dropped out of the sky and landed in front of me.
‘Better shut your mouth flies will get in,’ he said, as he elbowed me to the edge of the seat and then swanlike, fluffed his wings, tucked the tips under his arms to keep them out of the dust and plunked himself down beside me.

He held his face up to the sun and closed his eyes. ‘This is nice. I’d forgotten what the sun feels like. Not that we don’t have the sun up there.’ He opened an eye and squinted at me, ‘But it’s not the same.’
I didn’t say anything. Well - would you?
We sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes. Or rather he was comfortable; I was stiff with fear because he was real. I could feel the silk of his tunic tickling my leg and I could smell him. I was reminded vaguely of ducks.
He reached out, and putting his finger under my chin gently shut my mouth.
‘You know Christmas?’ What a daft question; of course I did. I nodded.
‘Do you get lots of presents?’ Ah – that was difficult. Compared to some of my friends in the street I did, although I didn’t get as many as rich kids.
‘A bit like this?’ He held his wings down with his elbows and made even handed motions with his hands. I nodded.
‘Let me put it this way, you wouldn’t say no to an extra one?’
‘Yes – I mean no,’ I stuttered.
‘Oohh she’s got a voice. Good thing too, I haven’t got all day much as I’d like to stay.’
Suddenly I felt braver. I mean, how could you be scared of an angel like this?
‘Why are you going to give me a present?’
‘Well, you know how God keeps an account of your behaviour. Red marks for naughty and black marks for good?’ Yes I did know. I often saw God up in the sky sitting at a desk with a big book and red and black inkwells; especially when I’d been horrible to my little sister.
‘He has so many names to keep track of it’s becoming impossible to keep the books bang up to date for a whole lifetime. No-one seems to want to work in the behaviour accounting office these days, so the heavenly board has decided to try something new. Every year we’ll do a stock check for want of a better word. We add up your marks. If you’re in the black we’ll draw a line under the year and give you a Christmas wish as a reward. But - if you have more red than black they’re carried over. We don’t let sinners off no matter how busy we are. The angel union has agreed that its members will act as messengers and to carry out the wishes. You’ve just scraped in with five black marks to spare, so here I am.’
He reached into his tunic pocket and pulled out a parchment scroll. ‘This grants you one action. You can ask for whatever you want. The only stipulation,’ he peered across at me, ‘you do know what stipulation means don’t you?’
I nodded again.
‘The only stipulation because you are under age, is that you can’t ask for money. The wish can be good or naughty, but do remember that although He won’t be giving you a mark, He will see what you’re doing. No action however small gets past God.’
He stood up and unfurled his wings. ‘You can pray to me in advance. Book early for Christmas as they say. Oops I forgot. I’m Anthony, and I will be waiting to carry out your wishes. Have a nice day.’
Before I could blink, he had unfolded his wings and shot up into the sky causing a bevy of startled sparrows to rush for cover into ourxt door neighbours ivy.

I began to think about what I could ask for. I knew better than to pray for something stupid. Perhaps I could make a list. It was six months to Christmas. I had plenty of time.

When we went back to school the headmistress said we’d be doing a nativity play in the church at Christmas and I’m going to be the Angel Gabriel because I’ve prayed to Anthony and told him that’s what I want. Gabriel wears a long white gown with huge wings and a golden halo.
You have to run down the aisle of the church, jump into the pulpit and put your arms out and say, ‘Fear not for I bring you tidings of great joy.’ I’ll be really good at it because I’ve been practicing running down our garden path.

Stupid angel promising me! They picked Susan Gibbs as the Angel Gabriel. They said I had to do the bible readings. I hate it; they make me do them every year and I never get to dress up. I’m telling mum!


I hadn’t thought of Anthony in fifty years. Of course it was a dream, but I suppose sitting under the same tree brought him to mind. I was such an imaginative child.
‘Well better late than never I suppose.’A never forgotten voice jolted me out of my daydream.
‘You’ve got old. I wouldn’t have known you,’ he said.
‘Go away, you’re a dream,’ I snapped.
‘Oh we’ve grown up rude have we?’
‘No, not rude, but old enough to know what’s real and what isn’t.’
Then all the disappointment from that long ago Christmas suddenly welled up in my chest.
‘Dream or not,’ I shouted, ‘you shouldn’t have promised me. I prayed and was extra good just to be on the safe side and bloody Susan Gibbs was picked as Gabriel.’
‘If you’re going to be unreasonable I’m off.’ I’d forgotten how big his wings were and as he ruffled them impatiently the familiar smell of ducks wafted under my nose.
I scooted along the bench and patted it. ‘Oh come on, loosen up. I only hope I remember this when I wake up. So what happened?’
Anthony sat down, and gazed up at the branches above our heads. ‘It was this tree. I hit my head on a branch on the way up. Amnesia. I don’t know how I found my way home.’
I laughed. ‘Oh please! I thought all aches and pains and illness disappeared when you go up there.’
‘You shouldn’t believe everything you’re told. Past memory isn’t so important in the spirit.’
‘You’re not the only angel. Someone else could have done your work.’
‘I dropped the scroll on my way up; the angel who was in charge of records was promoted up a level, and without him the whole scheme collapsed. It was only a pilot scheme; I did tell you. They gave me filing duties while I was ill. When my memory came back it gave me quite a turn when I found they hadn’t closed your year off, so here I am ready to do your bidding.’
I patted his knee. ‘Thank you; it’s the thought that counts.’
‘You still don’t believe me.’
‘Come on, you said yourself I’m grown up, but merely out of curiosity you understand, do the same rules apply; nice or naughty, no marks for bad behaviour and no age limit?’

His skin was warm beneath the thin silk of his tunic as I ran my fingers up and down his hard muscular thigh --- and prayed.

Maggie Brouchard is Crazy

Margie Brouchard is Crazy.

Traveling north, every so often a place name catches my eye, and I stop, take photographs, and look through old newspapers in the local library. I walk around, talk to the residents, and visit cemeteries, trying to find out everything I possibly can about the history of the town.
At night, I book into the cheapest motel I can find and sit on the bed until the small hours making copious notes on my laptop.
My book will be a record of the hundreds of small towns scattered throughout the Midwest. I’m tracing their birth, the halcyon days of the forties and fifties when the American dream was alive and kicking, and now, many of them are in relentless decline.
It will be illustrated with the best of the hundreds of photographs I plan to take, and there is nothing, nothing that will make me quit until it’s done, dusted and for sale in all the best bookshops.


And then one day I was an unmarried forty four year old nobody, in a steady, but blindingly boring job transferring figures onto a computer, in a town that takes a mere twenty blinks to pass through rather than ten.
Don’t ask me how it happened. It just did. Whatever: barren described my life, and the only guy I could call a friend was Harvey who sat knee to knee opposite me in the windowless cubicle we called an office.
Harvey lives with his mother and spends all his spare time and also a lot of the company’s, exchanging emails with a German girl. They’ve never met, but it hasn’t put him off saving for an engagement ring and planning their wedding. Secretly I have my doubts, but hey - even though he’s overweight and has a skin problem, at least he can hand on heart say he has someone.
I was such a sad sack I’d taken to telling my troubles to Larry, my landlord’s scruffy Labrador cross.
A stomach on four legs, Larry always managed to be around when I was eating, and as long as I made him wait for my leftovers, the mutt could be depended on to bend a sympathetic ear while I pondered the meaning of life, or, in my case, no life.
Night after night after work I settled ever deeper into my self imposed cocoon. Watching sport, listening to the Eagles on my headphones, I ate like a pig, spooning food into my mouth straight from whatever I’d hotted it up in, because who was there to care if I didn’t use flatware and a plate? There was only Larry, and let’s be honest here; as long as there was food, he couldn’t care less.
But what brings me out in a flood of cold shame was my virgin bedroom. Four years since optimistically moving in, it had never witnessed so much as a chaste kiss, let alone soaked up the vibrations of two sweating, heaving bodies and the leg trembling euphoria following a plain old fashioned screw. At my age it was a disgrace. I was a disgrace.
Becoming increasingly aware that I needed to make a change in my life, one day I was viewing a cunningly designed one room apartment on the edge of town, anticipating all the savings I’d make on rent because I didn’t need a lot of space.
There I was right in the middle of multiplying two hundred and thirty four dollars by twelve and happily anticipating being able to raise the blinds without even getting out of bed, when the tastefully painted walls suddenly lurched one way, my insides tumbled the other and I experienced a vivid flashback to my college days when I lived in just such a single room. Ok it was dire in comparison to the one I was checking out, but one room is one room, no matter how much you pretty it up and hide the bed in the wall.
With the dotted line awaiting my signature, my life was about to turn full circle.


It felt good when I resigned from my job and I was on a high as I packed two suitcases and decided to rid myself of everything else I owned by holding a yard sale.
Using the money from the sale, I bought a good quality digital camera. With the few dollars that were left, I went to the pet store and selected a roasted pig’s ear and some rawhide chew sticks for Larry, because even if he didn’t miss our conversations, I would.
Finally, having exchanged email addresses with Harvey and assured him that wherever I happened to be I’d be honored to return and be his best man, I turned the key on my roomy bachelor apartment and began my journey home to Caberry. As the place of my first beginning, it seemed a fitting place to launch my second.


Two days later and here I am in Caberry’s only tavern. Too young to know what the inside of it was like when I left town to go to college, I suspect nothing has been changed or replaced. Old fashioned and shabby, it’s only claim to modernization since I left so many years ago, is an asthmatic air conditioner pushing out waves of air only slightly cooler than of that outside.
Faced with sour faced wives and yet another plate of cold cuts because, ‘it’s too hot to stand over that damned stove,’ it’s at Leary’s tavern the men of this dying Midwest town gather after work to snack on salted peanuts, wash the dust from their mouths with glasses of ice cold beer, and, lacking a local newspaper for the last ten years, exchange the latest gossip.
Today Albert Schwartz the mortician is leaning on the bar about to tell us why he reckons Margie Brouchard is crazy.
The town’s only funeral director, Albert may be short and slightly built, but he has presence. I’ve seen old men lower their eyes when he passes and elderly women furtively cross themselves when his back is turned.
With an ageing population business is booming. According to Mrs Burns whose son Kenny is a bank teller in Forrest, Albert is the richest man in the county, and since the towns regular preacher departed to open a charismatic church in Kentucky, he is also the only man in town with a link however tenuous to the hereafter and so commands attention whenever he speaks.
It seems that earlier on, Margie had burst into his office interrupting his delicate negotiations with Joe White.
Joe owns the only hardware store in town. His mother in law has just passed over and Albert was giving his all persuading Joe to settle for a top of the range casket for the late Sadie, who would turn over in her grave and haunt him forever if he allowed her cheapskate son-in-law to go with the imitation oak.
“She’s crazy I tell you,” Albert says again. “You know what she did? She tried out all the caskets. Said she’d come to arrange her father’s funeral and wanted to find the most comfortable one for him. She laid down in them and closed her eyes; crossed her hands on her chest!
I was about to throw her out because she didn’t take her shoes off, and some of the linings aren’t as strong as they look – by the way that’s a trade secret, and I’d be obliged if you didn’t repeat that – and in all the ruckus that skinflint Joe sneaked out without finalizing. But then I pulled myself together. After all I’m a professional. She’d suffered bereavement. People do funny things at a time like that. I could write a book.
Anyway, seeing that she looked pretty damned happy lying in the lead lined, eternal rest module, and there are eight grown kids in the family and they’re all doing well, I figure cost is not going to be a problem and I can catch Joe when he shuts up shop. So I take a deep breath and try not to look at the marks she left on the satin in one of our mid range caskets, but when I open the diary to settle a day for the funeral, she tells me as bright as you please that her pa hasn’t died yet, they’re just getting everything ready to go.
Later on I’m chatting to my wife while she puts the finishing touches to Sadie, who, you’ll be pleased to know, looks a lot better now than she did a week ago, and Anna told me the crazy girl’s father is lying in St Josephs’ in Fairbury with some sort of cancer, although he’s not on the brink yet. Anyway; Margie’s mother Hester - who in my opinion is even crazier than her daughter and has a drink problem besides - has told the doctors if her husband starts to fade over Easter weekend, they should put him on life support and hold him over at least until Monday.
They’re having a family cook out on Saturday and an Easter egg hunt and picnic on Sunday and she doesn’t want to disappoint anyone with a cancellation.”


Crazy Margie! It sounds as if she hasn’t changed. I particularly remember a hot afternoon during summer vacation when we were diving off a bridge into the deepest section of the river to keep cool.
She always tagged along after us guys, even though we tried to chase her off and made her life a misery when she wouldn’t take the hint.
We always knew when she was in a mean mood and that morning, she’d had to do extra chores because two of her brothers had sneaked off at dawn to walk five miles to the next town to watch a baseball match. From the look in her eyes we didn’t doubt she’d get her own back as soon as she had the chance, but none of us guessed just how mad she really was.
You know how boys can’t help showing off when girls are around, even though it was only Margie and she didn’t count. Well she was on the bridge sitting on her bike as quiet as a mouse as we got more and more stupid, when suddenly she let out an almighty screech and pedaled straight off the edge and into the river.
I still laugh remembering Joey Burgess who was in the water at the time. She only just missed him. I swear he was so scared he shot out of the river without touching the banks and ran all the way home dripping wet in his swimming trunks and barefoot. His mom was picking the thorns out for a week.
Margie was lucky and got away with a broken leg, although it wrecked her bike. She was in a lot of trouble with her old man over that, although he waited until her leg was out of plaster before he took his belt to her.
“Maybe knowing he’ll be tucked up snug as a bug is helping her to cope with the thought of losing him. Maybe it’s the last thing she’s able to do for him and she wants to get it right,” I suggest, pushing aside the memory of welt marks across her shoulders and the back of her legs.
“And maybe pigs might fly,” comes the rejoinder from some bright spark sitting at the back of the tavern.


At the visitation I’m pleasantly shocked to see Margie sedately dressed from head to toe in black, complete with sheer black nylons and high shine patent leather stilettos that throw back the colour of the blood red roses and white lilies arranged around the casket.
I can hardly believe this is the same girl who for a dare ate a dozen live grasshoppers, then puked them up on her mothers freshly mopped kitchen floor.
She is shapelier than when she was sixteen and egged on by a bunch of school friends, myself included, skinny dipped in the water tower at the end of Main Street at midday. It was a memorable moment causing the first and only traffic jam the town has ever had, and gave me such a hard on I had to sit crouched over for half an hour before I could walk home.
As if born to the role of hostess, I watch Margie smoothly take over from Hester who’s been sneaking sips of brandy from her husband’s old hip flask.
Hester walks over to the coffin, leans over, pokes her departed husband in the chest, mutters something that sounds to me like, ‘s*n o* a b***h,’ then walks unsteadily towards the door leading to the basement where Albert carries out the more distasteful side of his profession.
Hester’s brother and sister in law are looking for her. They want to offer their condolences and ask Albert where she is. I catch Albert’s eye, make hand gestures to indicate drinking and point wordlessly towards the basement stairs.
Skilled at thinking on his feet, Albert tells them Hester is taking some time out with Mrs Svenson. She and Hester having been friends for forty years he says they are catching up on all the latest news. He laughs and reminds them how old ladies can gossip.
What Hester’s relatives who are from out of town don’t know, is that Mrs Svenson breathed her last at 3 am and as they speak is lying silently beneath their feet in the basement.
Luckily for Albert, Hester’s brother couldn’t care less if he sees his sister or not because they don’t get on, and having missed lunch because of the long drive to get here, grabs his wife’s arm and they go in search of the buffet.
I notice Albert is beginning to look a mite frayed. Snatching up a plate of cookies from a side table he thrusts them into Mrs Fostermeyer’s hands, although all she is doing is looking for the ladies room, then, after checking no one is looking except me, and he knows I won’t tell, he locks the basement door and slips the key in his pocket.


I wander over to the casket to sneak a closer look at Margie’s legs. It’s a struggle to prevent my face mirroring what’s going through my mind as I feast my eyes, while she tells Mrs Jackson who runs the boarding house on Grover Street, that her father had a couple of false starts or should it be ends? Whatever…Twice he stopped breathing and they all thought he’d gone, and twice he hadn’t.
Mrs Palmer makes tutting noises and pats Margie sympathetically on the arm.
“But it was ok,” Margie assures her. “Mom propped a mirror under his nose the third time just to be on the safe side. Twenty four of us were there to see him out,” she adds proudly. “We set a family record.”
Friends and family begin to queue for a final look at her father. While the visitors file past gushing sympathy and saying how well her father looks, I’m rendered speechless by the swell of her breasts pushing against the thin black dress. I swear the more compliments she gets, the more they swell. I lick my lips and can’t help comparing them to two mounds of quivering, sweet tasting Jell-O.
Aroused more than I could believe possible considering I’ve been hanging around a dead body for the last couple of hours, but at the same time feeling queasy from the nauseating mix of lilies and embalming fluid, I wander out to the parking lot and light up a cigarette.
Watching the stream of friends and family passing through the funeral homes doors, I picture all those good folk rushing home and leaving a trail of discarded clothing through the house as they head for the shower and try to get rid of the cloying smell of death.
Swallowing down a lungful of nicotine, I wonder if I can catch Margie when it’s all over. Maybe we can take a walk. Talk about the old days.
I suck some more on the cigarette expecting the rush of calm the little white stick normally brings - but it doesn’t happen. Instead, I experience a sudden violent urge to leave before the town draws me in.
Do I want to end up shuffling between Whites Hardware with its pot bellied stove in winter, and Leary’s air conditioned tavern in the summer? Unfulfilled, dried up, do I want to end my days swapping tall stories with all the other old farts that never left?
The thought sickens me and I cough as bile scorches the back of my throat. I’ve pulled myself out of stagnation; gambled everything on writing this book. It’s my only chance - and besides, Margie is crazy. I’ve seen it for myself. And doesn’t Albert say so?
Overhead, a flock of birds screech crazy, crazy, crazy, as I pull my car key from my pocket. The murmur of voices from the only friends I have, drifts across the parking lot as I slide behind the wheel.
I don’t need to pack. My whole life is in two suitcases in the boot of my car.
The engine screams and drowns everything else out as I stamp down on the accelerator and head blindly towards the highway out of town.


It’s late and I need to sleep, but rather than look for a motel as I approach yet another small town that reminds me of home, I put my foot down and risking a speeding ticket, roar through the dusty main street in the blink of an eye, but I can’t outrun images of Margie and as the distance between us grows, so does a miserable awareness of another chance missed: irretrievably lost.

This Old Thing?

1,200 words This Old Thing.
By Diane Rayburn

It had been warm and sunny with no mention of rain on the weather forecast when they left home that morning. Then, as Ann left work, the skies had opened, but there was no time to shelter. Jamie and Sara her children were due home from school at any moment.
Ann shivered. The movement shifted the collar of her thin summer coat letting a dribble of icy rainwater down her neck. Luckily, the entrance to the cul-de-sac where they lived was across the road.
While she waited for the traffic to thin, Ann tried to plan what to cook for that evening’s meal. It ought to be something warm and nourishing, but it would take too long; she didn’t have the energy.
While she guiltily settled on unhealthy but fast, a passing car hugging the kerb drenched her with the contents of a rainbow hued puddle that had formed over a clogged up drain.
Ann gasped. The sheet of dirty water cascaded over her head, down her face, soaked the front of her coat and grit, half-rotted leaves and black silt stuck to her legs filling her already sodden shoes.
Smelling of petrol and shuddering to think what else the water contained, she dabbed ineffectually at her face with a limp square of tissue and squelched unhappily home.
‘Mum, wait for us,’ Sara and Jamie’s voices called out from behind her as she stumbled into the narrow bleak hall of the small terrace house they had moved into after Ann’s divorce.
‘What happened to you?’ For once they were both looking at her.
‘Careless drivers and what you get for day dreaming.’ Ann was about to kick the door shut, but stopped when she heard someone calling from the front gate.
All she could see was a gaudy golfing umbrella, and the bottom of a snazzy brown rain coat over two long, twill clad legs.
‘Ah it is you.’ A voice muffled by the rain pounding on the umbrella called out. ‘I’m very sorry I honestly didn’t realise how near I was to that puddle. I stopped to apologise, but you’d crossed before I had a chance. You must let me pay to have your coat cleaned.’
Ann stifled a yawn. Once she would have given the driver a piece of her mind, but she had no energy to spare since Steven had walked away from them. The initial feeling of anger and all the emotions that accompany even the friendliest divorce had finally settled into a sad dullness. Each day felt like the last and although the children and her job kept her busy, it seemed as if nothing special happened to her anymore. Ann couldn’t remember the last spontaneous thing she had done.
At that moment a gust of rain blew into the hall flinging a random pattern of raindrops down the dingy cream wall.
Fighting off another yawn Ann invited him in and studied him as he stepped over the threshold. He had a neat nose, kind blue eyes and slightly thinning dark brown hair. He wasn’t good looking, but somehow his face escaped being ordinary due to a humorous twist at the corners of a generous mouth.
Her ex husbands mouth was pinched. When she had proudly taken him home to meet her parents her mother said he had prissy lips and predicted he would be hard to live with. Ann, blissfully in love for the very first time was deeply hurt and hadn’t spoken to her mother for months.
He hesitated on the doorstep. ‘I’d better not come inside; I don’t want to ruin your carpet.’
Ann was trying to peel away a lock of hair irritatingly clinging to her cheek. Tucking it behind her ear she looked down at the dirty wet patch dripping into the carpet around her feet.
Suddenly, he put his hands over his mouth, and as he turned away his shoulders began to shake.
It was only a coat for heavens sake. It wasn’t that bad! Embarrassed, and wishing desperately he would go away, Ann was about to awkwardly pat his shoulder when muffled snorts escaped from behind his hands. He was laughing! Then Sara and Jamie began to giggle. ‘Oh mum, you do look funny.’
Ann glimpsed her face in the hall mirror. Her thick blonde hair dotted with debris from the gutter hugged her scalp in mousy strands. Her mascara had run and her face, deprived of that mornings light coat of foundation was red and blotchy.
Feeling the beginnings of a sob catch in her throat Ann took a deep breath and fighting for control turned towards the stairs.
‘While you’re all falling about with mirth I shall go and get changed. James, see this – this - person – out,’ but then she ruined her careful exit by sneezing and tripping on the bottom stair.
He came towards her. ‘I’m sorry. My sense of humour gets me into all sorts of trouble; I wasn’t laughing at you.’ He cleared his throat and fought to control his face. ‘Well, technically I suppose I was - but I wasn’t if you see what I mean. I suspect you’re remarkably beautiful when you’re clean and dry. Oh God listen to me I’m making things worse! Here’s the money for your coat.’
He fumbled in his wallet, put a twenty-pound note on the telephone shelf at the bottom of the stairs, and backed out of the door.
Ann’s temper snapped. Forgetting all about being wet and miserable, she snatched up the twenty pounds, and telling the children not to follow kicked his forgotten umbrella into the garden, and ran after him.
The rain was coming down harder than ever. Ann dodged between cars and then slowed her pace when she recognised his bedraggled figure standing helplessly by the side of the road.
Despite its expensive appearance his raincoat was obviously letting in water and his trousers clung to the front of his legs like a second skin.
Childishly pleased to see how wet he was, Ann felt her bad temper miraculously leak away and a long silent imp of mischief slide into its place.
‘I’m Ann Carter, divorced with two children. You left your umbrella behind … I like your legs,’ she said calmly.
He looked distractedly over her shoulder. ‘Someone’s stolen my car. I’ve only had it for two months. I know I parked here. Oh sorry; I’m Sam Black, unattached - I really love that car … ’ Bemused he looked down at his legs. ‘Do you?’
Ann began to laugh. She pointed at the double yellow lines shining cleanly against the wet tarmac. ‘Not stolen – probably towed.’
Laughing, her eyes met his and then, stunned into silence she felt the knot of unhappiness that had been part of her for so long slip away.
Laughter,’ she thought. All I needed was laughter,’
then, remembering that he had said she was probably beautiful, I’ll have to dry out and show him.
‘My mobile’s in the car,’ he protested weakly, but then he smiled and gently touched her face.
‘Your coat’s ruined.’
She laughed again and put her hand over his. ‘What this old thing? Come on, let’s go home and get dry.’