The towers are icons
that drip with crests and graffiti
like the willow tree’s branches
passing by the moat, under whose shade
they walk – the mother and young daughter
and father who skulks, kicking stones
from loose-chip paths into the water.
He walks a foot or two behind, winking
an eye from the sun as it flares up
And he talks to them.
He tells his daughter who carried the
shield that droops from the postern.
Of course, she doesn’t listen to him –
she’s talking to her mother as they
wave a tour guide to shake a breeze.
The mother’s giving her advice on lillettes
and correct-fitting bras.
And he talks of arrow-slits and fire-arcs
thinking she’s still his daughter, trying
not to be aware of her sprouting body
or the bra-top she wears.
‘Ooo..look,’ he points at a golden shadow
beneath the water as a fish comes up
to feed before sloping back down.
He’s dropped behind.
He nods ‘hello’ at other day-trippers in
cotton shirts and M&S shorts, kids in
tow who rock around them like gnats
down by the stagnant pool.
The father of that family smiles back, ‘salut.’
So, he thinks to himself.
Mother and daughter keep walking,
they keep talking of the laundry basket
for ‘dirty’ underwear. The father still walks
behind, he’s melted into the background
as the two women share quality time.
‘Ah, yes,’ he says to them, to his daughter
as green-legged moorhens run away from
them, ‘this must have been an important
fortress – used to protect the south coast from
a French invasion. How would you have liked to
have lived then?’ Because he doesn’t know
what else to say.
‘Eh? Eh?’ he has to repeat, ‘what
was that you said?’ as they round
the walls that hang high and blotched
with stains from car emissions. There’s
just a few people who have climbed
the gate towers and look down – families with
young children held up. ‘Do you want to
go up there?’ he asks her, pointing.
She faces her father, ‘no, dad,’ she says,
‘I find it too tiring.’ And he thinks what
else could be said as his wife looks in her purse.
‘I don’t have enough spare change,’ she tells him.
So he takes out the money to pay for a ticket
and they cross over the footbridge.
It’s seven-thirty in the morning,
I’m waiting for a postman who never comes,
a postman who slams the gates of others.
There’s a letter never sent,
never known or…
On this October morning a mist licks
damp leaves and an old woman –
I’ve seen her buying a newspaper –
fades in and out as she walks her dog,
pulls her coat about her and yanks
the mutt by its chromed chain.
There’s a letter never sent,
never known or…
The postman goes by, hitches up his trews,
re-hangs his satchel, flicks through his mailsack,
Now who’s got this?
Who’s he been to?
Up early every morning with
my covers on the floor, a neighbour’s half-heard
‘Thank you,’ and now I want to read a word,
just a word. That’s all.
Just a word from you.
My early morning brew sits in my hands,
I open up the curtains, hide behind the nets,
(looking for the conspicuous red),
I’m dripping away like butter,
fading like an Autumn sunset,
and the one constant thought that comes to me,
the one nagging doubt in my head
is whether the postman will deliver to me
Never known or never sent.
[This is a chapter from an extended work. However it was written so that each chapter is a stand-alone story, so is self-contained and is readable on its own without any context. It is about 7,500 words long so you may want to keep that in mind if all you have is a couple of minutes to read it. But I hope you do read it, and I equally value feedback and comments.]
7 June 1944
Eric Blackmore’s breakfast had consisted of fried bread, an egg and a mug of tea.
“Bleachy, you don’t look anything like your photograph.”
Eric laughed and took back the tatty snap and put it in his wallet. He took out two more pictures and showed them to his co-driver.
“Gawd knows why I carry these,” he said.
“Your mother and old man?”
The two of them sat on the wheel arch of their armoured car. Eric Blackmore had been taken off the beaches of Dunkirk four years ago and put back on Juno beach yesterday. The lads called him Bleachy because the hair above his ears had turned white. Some had called him Chipmunk but Bleachy was the one that stuck because it rhymed with Blackmore. It was his twenty-fourth birthday in six days. He had an ironic smile and was trying to grow a moustache that came out looking precocious. He was in the Devil’s Own and drove reconnaissance with Iain McCashin, known predictably enough as ‘Mac’. They were all thoroughly settled on nicknames. Mac had red hair and freckles all over his body and had no connection with Ireland that he was aware of. They’d both been brought up in Deptford and now served together. They both had one arse cheek hooked on the front wheel arch and drank their tea and passed photographs between them as battle tanks slewed through the mud inches away heading inland to France and the 21st Panzer Division.
Diesel fumes mixed with the stench of urine and faeces that was being burned off in twenty gallon drums. Motors and gears whined and strained as four wheel drive vehicles sluiced up sand beaches, the riders rocking side to side, their eyes staring impassively ahead. Across, in a field, thirty or so German prisoners sat with their hands on their heads with three guards keeping watch, one of whom chatted to one of the prisoners in a friendly way. Behind Eric and Iain, where the road dropped away, eight dead British soldiers were lain out with tarpaulin covering most and field jackets covering the rest.
Iain poured out the dregs of his tea and tapped the tin mug to empty out any leaves. Eric gulped down the last of his and then drew in a deep sniff of the morning air.
“Another glorious day in the regiment!” said Eric. “I’m already old.”
Iain took the driver’s seat and started the engine. Eric stood next to him, proud of the cockpit, and leant on the Bren gun. The car lurched forward, ricking Eric back, and set off down the road.
Take a picture, a wide panoramic shot. The fields are green and open. The vegetables are cabbages or potatoes, low and leafy. The fields stretch off into the far distance where a thin strip of the sea merges with the sky. A breeze hustles through the few trees creating the only lazy sound. There is also an old barn missing most of its slate roof. And then there is a sound. An engine throttles down the road that sits above the fields. Our shot follows it for a bit before cutting to the interior.
“What I want to know is, why?” asked Iain.
“What?” shouted Eric as he moved his head left and right trying to find a position where the wind didn’t buffet his ears so much.
“Why?” called Iain. “Why do you carry a broken violin?”
“It was my father’s. He was a violin maker. He couldn’t play a note.”
“Why do you have it?”
“It was the first one he made. It was bought by the local pub landlord who played it every Christmas and St David’s day. His son was killed in 1916 and he broke the neck off saying he never wanted to hear a happy tune again. My father took it and waited for the day the landlord wanted to play his fiddle again when he would fix it for the man so he could play it at Christmas. The landlord died before he had the chance to hear his violin played again. My father refused to either throw it away or fix it until the time was right. He died of a heart attack before that time came. It was given to me to look after and fix when it was needed.”
“When are you going to fix it?”
“I can’t. I’m not a violin maker.”
“So why do you take it with you?”
“I’m hoping to find one.”
Their car came to a stop by a cross roads that showed Reviers to the east and Tierceville to the west. Two old men stood by the post giving it a coat of paint and they stopped when Iain and Eric’s car approached and stared at the two young British soldiers.
“Where are the Germans?” asked Eric. The men said nothing and continued to stare at the two, so Eric said again, “which way are the Germans?”
They said nothing but one of them started to pick his nose.
“Allemande?” asked Eric.
The nose-picker pointed east so Iain put the vehicle in gear and they went toward the town of Reviers.
Reviers had a market square with a market cross. The Germans had left only that morning and the fields and outskirts of town still played host to many soldiers not sure whether to advance or retreat. The road leading in had several burned out vehicles that had been strafed by allied aircraft and many buildings blown out by allied bombs. The people who lived there had learned to keep quiet and off the streets, especially in the last few days as the British, American, Canadian and French armies had tried to regain a place on mainland Europe. The retreating Germans had looted and raped during their evacuation. The buildings huddled quietly around the streets like Shakespearean conspirators, the awnings downcast like shamed eyelids. Eric and Iain’s car turned into the square and drove around the market cross. Eric crouched down low behind the machine gun, the barrel poking around, rooting out any signs of enemy soldiers, sniffing out danger like a dog before the car turned off down a road that led out of town and out into the countryside.
They drove down toward a farmhouse with a field of dead cows and dark trees lining the hedgeways. Rattling through the courtyard they came under fire from an unseen vantage point. The shot missed their car and ripped the corner off a barn with brick fragments dashing into the steel sides of the vehicle. Eric got his head down. Iain yanked the car into reverse and peered through the tiny driver’s port and put his foot down.
The tank fired again.
The round drove into the ground just ahead of Eric and Iain and exploded. The concussion sent their light vehicle skidding at full speed into the last of the farm’s outbuildings, where it nailed into the wall bringing bricks, mortar and slate down. The two of them passed out. Presumed dead.
They regained consciousness in one of the houses of Reviers. They could look through a window and see they were in a downstairs room that looked onto a brick walled yard where washing hung on a line. Eric felt the right side of his face was tender and swollen and his hair matted together from dried blood. He had trouble opening his right eye and he felt nauseous. He couldn’t see Iain, who lay with his right arm and both legs broken. The room was dark, shielded from light by the wall and washing, just two bars of light coming through reflecting off tiny particles of dust. The room was otherwise anonymous – no smell, sights or sounds. The two of them lay on pallets and had been covered with blankets.
Eric tried to sit up straight, was overcome with dizziness and started vomiting. Iain turned on his side to watch that his friend was alright but pain bit him and he had to roll onto his back.
The door to the room opened and more light came in. A woman stood there who was of Eric’s age. She wore laddered tights and scuffed red shoes, a brown checked skirt and a pale pink cardigan. Her hair was unwashed and uncombed and came just past her shoulders. She’d tried to put some make-up on her face but her own flushed complexion brought more colour.
Eric stopped vomiting and looked up to her, shaking and distraught. The woman stepped over to him and spoke in French, soft words, and touched him softly and he lay down and passed out once more.
He came around and this time the room was lighter and the washing was no longer there. A bowl of water had been put beside him and he could just make out the edges of some furniture on the far side of the room.
“Iain? Iain, are you there, mate?” he pleaded.
“I’m here. I’m all broken up.”
“What’s going on?”
“They found us in the wreck. There’s loads of Germans all around and they’re going to try to get us back tonight. How do you feel?”
“Like shit. What time is it?”
“I don’t know.”
The woman came back into the room and smiled at them.
“Could you open the window, please? I need some fresh air,” said Eric.
“Pardon?” asked the woman.
“The window,” he said. “Open the window.”
The woman shrugged.
“Fenetre,” he said pointing.
The woman smiled and nodded and went to the window and opened the curtains wider.
“No,” said Eric, “please open the window.”
The woman looked at him, not understanding, so he did his best to mime the actions as she watched. She eventually caught on to the idea and opened the window. Eric smiled, said ‘merci’ and laid down on his pallet. She then came beside him and knelt down dipping a cloth into the bowl of water and started to wipe the blood away from his face, all the time saying gentle words in French that sounded as smooth as the cloth that brushed his face. Her hand crowned his head and her voice bathed his mind and he lay there looking into the room at the far wall as she held him. Looking into the sepia room.
“On your wall is a picture,” he said.
She carried on wiping and talking. Eric tried to lift but she would not let him. He raised his arm and pointed at the wall.
“The picture,” he said.
She looked where he pointed, spoke to him, asked him things he did not understand and he continued to point at the wall and ask about the picture that hung there.
“Le picture,” he said, “what is the picture?”
“Est-ce que vous poulez du tableau?”
Eric did not understand but he nodded, ‘oui, oui,’ and asked to look at the picture.
The woman got up and walked to the wall and took down the painting for Eric to look at. She brought it over to him and knelt down and turned the canvas around for him to have a look at. He stared at it a few seconds and then smiled at her.
“It’s you,” he said as he pointed at the picture and the woman. She nodded and laughed and started explaining about the portrait as he ran his fingers across its surface and the strange, yet familiar face. In her portrait she wore a wide brimmed white sun hat and her shoulders were bare. Her hands had been brought up to hold a white rose and her red lips were the only colour that erred its way from the canvas.
Eric lifted up his arms to take the painting and held it at arm’s length to look at.
“Can I keep it?” he asked and folded his arms around it.
“Si vous le voulez. Il vaut presque rien.”
Eric kept his arms around it and fell asleep.
Both he and Iain awoke in the middle of the night. Now they were outside, bouncing in the back of a cart. Eric still held the painting in his arms and he could hear voices talking in French, one the familiar lilt of the woman and the other a man’s. Latches were heard being unlocked and the back of the cart swung down. Eric turned his head to see who was there but the pain and pressure stopped him. Someone climbed onto the cart and Eric saw a pair of Size 10 hob-nails and spats. Their Sergeant looked down at them, hands on hips and handlebar moustache greased and said to them,
“If you ladies are finished lying on your arses we’ll have you back in the field in no time.”
The woman’s face peered over and she kissed both Eric and Iain on the forehead and said, ‘au revoir’. She then lifted their bags up and into the trailer and Eric stretched out with one hand to feel the broken violin in his rucksack and held onto the painting with the other.
“Au revoir,” he said.
29 January 1986
“Dad, you are more than welcome to stay for as long as you want – so long as you and mum are talking,” said Lorna.
“You know your mum, luv – it’s best if I give her a couple of days to calm down first. I’ll give her a call on Monday,” said Eric.
“No, I’ll call her later. I would’ve thought the two of you were too old to argue.”
Lorna took her father’s bags from him and led him upstairs to the spare room.
It was one of those days where the sky kept changing. Mostly it was sunny and blue, but big clouds like the ones primary school children paint would put everything in the shade when they flew across the sky. The spare room was pastel shades and Habitat decorated, with art prints for character. Only it wasn’t. They’d gone for a neutral blue that made the room look cold and the rarely used bed still looked as if it needed to be broken in since the mattress was level flat on top and the linen hung down sharply. The room had also given way to some storage with a box of Lorna’s shoes and several rolls of wallpaper against one of the walls with a pink wig and a painting of red trees next to them. Lorna put her father’s bags on the bed and left him to get on with himself.
Eric Blackmore took out some clothes from one of the bags and put them in the bottom of a wardrobe that had been made out of a flat-pack. He took out a spare pair of shoes and put them under a desk that looked over the back garden and a willow tree just outside the window that shook and swelled in the fast breeze. In his other bag he had a Graham Greene novel and the painting that had been given to him by the French girl forty years previously, and the broken violin. The painting had long since been removed from its frame and was kept rolled up. Eric unrolled the picture and laid it on his bed. It had lost a lot around the edges and the heavy paper it had been painted on had yellowed and thinned, but the colours were essentially true since it had been protected from sunlight, even if its integrity had perished slightly.
He stood by the window, opened it and filled his pipe before taking one, two, three heavy drags and the tobacco started to burn and a plume of silver-grey smoke disappeared into the sky.
The garden he looked down on shimmered and rolled in the draught, swapped from lime to olive as the clouds passed over and stayed silent but for the leaves rasping against each other. Eric stood there, leaning against the desk and puffed on his pipe wondering whether he should call his wife sooner than later.
Lorna turned off the television and dialled her parent’s number. It rang five times before her mother picked it up with a, ‘hello?’
“Hello mum, it’s me, Lorna. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m bloody annoyed with your father. Is he there?”
“Yes, he’s here. What’s happened? He told me it’s all to do with a painting.”
“He’s a silly old fool who thinks I’m an even bigger idiot. He cleaned out the garage and found an old painting of one of his ex-girlfriends. He wanted to put the picture in our dining room and I wouldn’t let him. We argued about it and I threw him out and told him to get rid of the picture and not bring it back into the house.”
“Oh, mum, is it really worth so much arguing about? It’s only a painting.”
“I don’t want her looking down on me. Why does he need the picture?”
And on they went talking about Eric and his painting while he stayed upstairs by the window looking over the garden and further out to the trees and farms, down the row of detached homes, in private gardens and people leading private lives, and he thought about his painting as he smoked his pipe. Quite simply, he was not too bothered about being thrown out of his home for the while, but he knew that it would become an issue sooner or later. For the while, though, he was content to stay in the room alone and talk about things later when his son-in-law came home so that he did not have to repeat the same story twice – once to his daughter and then to her husband. Eric stood there watching, thinking and smoking when Lorna knocked at the door and came in.
“Can you not smoke in the room – the smell stays in the curtains.”
“Just having a little puff.”
“I just spoke to mum and she told me about the painting and everything. Is that it there?”
Eric nodded and continued to smoke his pipe, taking extra care to blow the smoke straight out the open window. Lorna looked at the old painting of the French girl and wondered if she could have been her mother if circumstances were different, if she would have taken the same thin lips, erotically shaped neck and crescent chin. She thought how the girl looked pale and spiteful with the vivid lipstick. She let herself get absorbed in the picture with its anonymity. The identity of the subject was unknown and would probably stay that way and still Lorna felt an affinity with the girl for her part in her family’s history. This had been a paragraph previously unsuspected and Lorna could make no sense of it because she did not know whether it was the beginning, middle or end of a tale.
“What was her name?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I never knew.”
“You mean you loved her and left her?”
“No, not at all. I think she saved my life. I loved her for that. We were hit by a German shell and our armoured car crashed. We were rescued by French villagers who looked after us and got us back to the British lines. The girl in the picture cared for us and spoke to us the most beautiful and touching words I’ve ever heard. At that moment me and my mate, Mac, were very far from home, badly injured and in desperate need of a bit of sympathy. She gave it so effortlessly and genuinely. That portrait hung on the wall of the room where we stayed and I asked her if I could keep it and I think she let me. That’s who she was. She had the most gentle voice and her words disappeared gracefully into the air as she spoke.”
“Mum thinks she was an ex-girlfriend.”
“I know, I tried to tell her otherwise but she wouldn’t listen. I’ll give her time to calm down. Do you have tools in that shed?”
“I think so. Bill often plays in there.”
“I need to get my picture framed properly…”
“You need to get rid of the picture and talk to mum because she’s very angry and refuses to let the picture back into the house.”
“Your mother’s wrong so I won’t get rid of my painting. If she was right then she’d have a point.”
“You need to decide which is more important: the past or the present.”
Lorna left her father who finished smoking his pipe, taking his time, and then put on his spare pair of shoes, rolled up the painting and took it with him for a walk about town.
He found a picture framer whose shop was decorated with soft-focus shots of women with big back-combed hair in glamorous poses. The artistic ones were done in black ‘n’ white and the family portraits in colour.
“Dee yee like Boy George?” asked the assistant, an insipid looking girl in her late teens who wore a loose belt resting on her hips and a wide brimmed hat on the back of her head.
“I only want a frame for my painting,” said Eric.
“Yee see, by the way yee looked when yee came in, I fought yee liked Boy George. It’s ‘im we’re playing on the sound system. It’s a Blaupunkt, yee know…”
She looked him over critically, eyed him like she might a turd in the bath.
“Can I have a look at yee picture?”
Eric put the rolled portrait on the glass topped counter and undid it for the girl to look, taking care that it remained on his side of the table-top and that his were the only hands to touch it.
“Is it a Franz Von Stuck?” she asked.
“A Von Stuck. ‘E’s an artist who did pictures like this. I studied ‘im last term – I’m at art school, yee see.”
“I don’t know, I’ve never heard of Von Stuck.”
“Well, if yee were familiar with Von stuck – and I can see I’m on safe ground ‘ere – you’d know ‘is stuff looks good in a plain frame. We got plain frames.”
“I’ll look at some plain frames, then.”
There were some plastic ones in primary colours, fluffy ones in fake animal fur – the leopard skin looking a bit saucy, wooden ones – some varnished, some stained and gold and silver ones with an anti-tarnish lacquer.
“The gold ones and silver ones aren’t real gold and silver, they’re plated. That’s why they look a bit nuclear. The wooden ones are home made, but a bit pricey. Those ones there aren’t real wood, they’re plastic with the wood grain moulded in. They’re cheaper.”
“I’m glad you pointed that out – I was wondering what tree grew shocking pink wood.”
“That’s all reet, fanks.”
So Eric left without his frame, only his painting and off he went back to his daughter’s house holding the picture of the girl who spoke to him, washed him and said ‘goodbye’ to him. Which, at this moment, was enough. He only stopped to pick up a newspaper. He didn’t stop to look in windows that sold man-made fabrics or an optician offering to laser cataracts or a travel agent offering return flights to New York for under £100. £99.99, to be precise.
The two things he did see were:
1/ A man crying by the roadside. There was this fellow who must have been about thirty, give or take a year. He stood outside the local cinema, leant against the railings by the roadside and wore a beige jacket that had corduroy sleeves. He wept, obviously sad about something and drew heavy sniffs every now and then. Eric went up to him and asked if he was alright. The man was coming to the end of his tears and shrugged his shoulders at the question before wiping his eyes and looking at Eric.
“I’ve had a terrible day of self-realisation,” said the man.
“How terrible is terrible?” asked Eric. “What happened?”
“This morning I thought, to hell with it. I’ll just walk and see how far I can go without stopping for traffic – I’ll just cross the road and see which has the most power.”
“How far did you get?”
“I had to stop at the first road I came to. Here. Either that or get knocked down and killed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Eric backing off to leave the man alone.
2/ His 17 year old grandson smoking. You see, Eric decided to take a walk by the river, along a footpath that creased its way below the old theological college, but was now a musical school. He was feeling a bit reflective and meditative and the willows and reeds and the ducks drifting on the current helped him have a Jane Asher moment, even if it was a bit chilly. And just down the way he saw his grandson, Robert, taking a puff on a cigarette. Robert sat on his own, on a bench dedicated to someone dead, his college bag next to him.
Eric stopped at first, not sure whether to let Robert know he’d been spotted or whether he should walk back up through the music school. In the few seconds he paused to think, Robert finished his cigarette and flicked it into the river so Eric carried on and called out to Robert and pretended he hadn’t seen his grandson smoking.
“What are you doing, grandad, where are you going?”
Eric sat down next to Robert and started to fill his pipe. “Me and your gran are arguing, so I’m staying with you for a couple of days. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, I don’t mind. What are you arguing about? Do mum and dad know?”
“It’s silly – nothing really. Your gran’s all in a fuss over a painting. It’ll pass over. I think your mum’s on gran’s side. Your dad doesn’t know yet. Is he at work?”
“He gets home later. What is it with the painting? What’s so bad about it? She can’t have got annoyed over nothing.”
“Here, let me show you.” Eric handed Robert the painting and Robert unrolled it and held it at arm’s length while his grandad lit his pipe. Robert looked at it a good while saying little, just looking and he smiled at the painting while Eric smoked.
“Was she an ex-girlfriend? She’s very pretty.”
“That’s just what your gran thinks. She’s wrong. I don’t know who the girl is, but she saved my life during the war. If it wasn’t for her, you might not be here now.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“You gran doesn’t believe me. I wanted to get the picture framed and put it on the living room wall. We argued about it and she told me to throw it away. I said no, so she threw me out. It’s nothing serious and it’ll soon blow over. Your nan’s a bit spirited. You know what she’s like. How are you, are you courting?”
Robert still looked at the painting, rubbing at the paper with his thumb before looking at his thumb to see if any of the paint had come off. Which it hadn’t. Then he turned the painting around and looked at its back surface and held it up to the light and then to the shade.
“You know, grandad, whenever I get a book, the first thing I do is read the last sentence. Some would think that it spoils the end because you know what happens. That’s never happened to me. The ending always sounds enigmatic because it assumes the reader knows the history, which, at that point, I don’t. Instead, the enjoyment comes from seeing how the story arrives at that point. To see how things resolve. That’s how I feel when I look at a painting – I’m reading the last sentence, the last syllable of time.”
“I thought about getting in touch with her after the war, but I didn’t in the end. There was the problem of not knowing who she was or where she lived. But I also didn’t want to know that she might be dead. Even more than that, I didn’t want to get to know her in case it might spoil my memories. It’s like a good pipe: the first bowl is so enjoyable you have a second, which can never be as satisfying as the first. Have you ever smoked?”
“Do you want to try?”
“Go on, feel the bones beneath your skin.”
“No, mum and dad wouldn’t like it.”
“You’re what? Seventeen, eighteen? I would hope that by now you had done things your parents wouldn’t like.”
Eric held the pipe for Robert to take. Robert still had the painting on his lap and he passed it back to his grandfather, who took it. The pipe still stood there in Eric’s hand and Robert’s palm lifted slowly to take it.
“That’s right,” said Eric, “take it and take a good deep smoke. Get your lips firmly around it to seal off any air and suck in really hard. Really hard. I like the idea of enjoying a conversation and a smoke with my grandson. You’re a man now, and you are allowed to smoke.”
Robert held the pipe uncomfortably and put it in his mouth. Eric smiled.
“You’ve got it,” he said, “now don’t forget, take a deep, full puff.”
Robert sucked heavy on the pipe and the tobacco flamed up. Barely half way through and Robert pulled back from it and started coughing. He held his throat and began spitting to get the embedded taste of ash from the back of his mouth. He doubled up, still hacking his throat, stood up coughing and spitting and Eric laughed and picked up his pipe from the bench. Robert went over to the river’s edge, one hand on a tree and spat into the river to clear his mouth, the other hand still clamped around his throat. The coughing subsided slowly and he came back up drained of colour like the girl in the painting, his face distraught and surprised at what his grandfather had made him do. He looked at Eric who sat on the bench with the pipe in his mouth and a smile on his face.
“That was disgusting,” said Robert.
“I know – so don’t start the habit.”
“So why is there a packet of Marlborough in your bag?”
Robert said nothing, knowing he’d been caught, and just spat out the last of the ash. He picked up his bag and the two of them walked home.
Lorna Miller opened the door to her husband and they kissed, exchanged details of what their days had involved and Lorna told Bill that her father was now staying and why. Eric had also told Lorna about Robert’s smoking on the sly, but she kept that from Bill until the evening. Bill gave her a bunch of flowers he picked up from a market stall – yellow lilies with large leaves and wisteria twined through. He fell into the sofa, still not ready to think about the new guest, more interested in relaxing and scanning the TV page and thinking about things a bit later. Lorna came in with a vase and started to arrange her flowers.
“I saw a famous person today, coming out of Sloane Square,” said Bill.
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t recognise him. I was told he was a racing commentator on Channel Four. You know Rod Hussey? It was him who pointed him out.”
Lorna finished with her flowers and swung sideways on the couch, resting her feet on her husband who started to massage her soles while she twisted her hair around her index finger.
“I spoke to mum about dad,” she said.
Bill said nothing, he took each of her toes individually and gave them a rub, a squeeze, a knead – anything to please.
“Should we intervene or leave them to it, what do you think?” she asked.
“How serious is it?”
“Well, she’s thrown him out. I think he’s being stubborn.”
“All over this painting?”
“All over this painting.”
Bill thought for a while.
“Is it a good painting?” he asked.
“It’s alright. It’s not about the quality, it’s about the girl in the picture. Mum thinks she’s an ex, dad denies it, and so they argue. The quality of the painting is irrelevant.”
“Is the girl good looking?”
“She’s nothing special – neither ugly or attractive.”
“So if the picture is not particularly well done, and the subject unremarkable, why does he want it, and why doesn’t your mum let him keep it?”
“Because he’s being an idiot.”
Bill thought again.
“Will they resolve this?”
“If common sense prevails, if he can let go of the painting.”
Eric was going to read his book. He was going to sit in the garden, watching the woman next door water the pansies with an ornamental copper watering can. He would read a little, every now and then raising to make polite conversation from beneath the shade of a tree, with a Panama on his head, listening to birds chirrup, the removed sound of children playing, shed doors creaking open and the sound of a car pacing by. He was going to. But he didn’t.
Instead, he stayed in his room. He sat on his bed and opened the book, but closed it unread. He then got up and opened his painting, again. He looked at it with a sad eye. He felt sad because he had never got to know the girl, and it was because he never knew her that he had the picture. The picture had to be his memories and the catalyst. He decided that the only way he could do without the portrait was to speak to the girl again. This, however, he knew would be impossible. With no name, address and over forty years separating, the contact could not be made. The girl’s lips and neck, eyes and rose, her picture on the paper would have to remain enough.
He took from his pocket his wallet. From his wallet he took two photographs; one of his wife, and the other of the two of them with a picture of Lorna in her early twenties, about the same age as the French girl. The two photographs he placed on the painting, laid them over the rose. He looked at the painting and touched the shiny surface of his wife’s picture, a shot taken only a few years ago, in colour, of his wife in horn-rimmed spectacles. He then picked up the photograph and looked at his wife who he married in 1944 – just before he left for France. He held the picture, thinking, and took a short glance at his painting, then put the photograph in his trouser pocket and went downstairs to call his wife on the telephone.
Bill and Lorna still sat on the couch, with the television going. They watched the adverts during the commercial break for ways of improving their lives. Toothpaste in pumps, mash from a packet, Shake’n’Vac, Supermops .
“The Edney’s bought a new microwave the other day,” said Lorna.
“Can do jacket spuds in ten minutes.”
“They can make a cup of coffee in it.”
“A cup of coffee?”
“Yeah. It takes less than a minute to heat the water up – they don’t have to wait for a boiling kettle.”
“Three minutes is a long time, after all.”
Eric came in and interrupted their viewing, asking if he could use the telephone to call his wife, in private. They left him alone, turning off the TV as they went and Eric called his wife.
“Hello,” he said, “it’s me.”
His wife, Lorna’s mum, gave him a bit of trouble over the phone but she mellowed slightly when she caught the tone of conciliation in his voice. He talked to her about his day in town, not going as far as to tell of his purpose, said he met Robert (omitted the smoking episode) and the man who had tried to cross the road. She said nothing about her day, she listened to him ramble on and then he asked if he could talk to her. She told him that he was, and he said that, ‘no, that’s not what I mean,’ and she knew, really, and asked him what he’d done with the picture, he said he still had it, and she went quiet and he asked if she’d come round to speak to him and she said she didn’t know, and he said he wouldn’t keep her long and she said she may come round, if she gets time. Which he knew to mean ‘yes’.
Then he took himself away, went up to get the broken violin and took it into the shed and waited to see if Kath would come round to see him and see if he could make amends, help her understand the picture, see what he could say, see if he could have his own bed back. See what he could do for the violin.
Robert sat in the garden, headphones over his ears, fast-forwarding and rewinding through a cassette in his walkman. Not doing much. Not doing anything. Just killing time, trying to find a way of stringing the daytime and the evening together, caught in that age group hinterland: too old to be a child, too young to be an adult. He saw his grandad go into the shed, an old canvas bag in his hand, and Robert pushed himself further under the tree, deeper into the shade to watch his grandad safely hidden from view. He sat with his back against a tree, the leaves hanging down like the teeth of a shark, looking out from the darkness into the light.
He watched his grandad through the open shed door and he saw him hold the pieces of the broken violin. The neck had been snapped off by the body of the instrument and the strings held the two pieces together. He watched Eric cut the strings and inspect the two separate pieces, checking to see that they went together. Eric took out of his bag the bow and laid that on the workbench and a small plastic bag that contained new strings for the instrument. Robert sat still, his walkman turned off, and quietly watched as his grandad held the violin, running his hand the length of the neck, holding it up to check it ran true, constantly rubbing it to feel the smooth wood that had been polished through use. Robert watched and never said a thing. Eric stayed in the shed and took tools down and did the best he could to mend the violin as he waited for his wife to come to him.
Catherine Blackmore got to her daughter’s house just before 8 ‘o’ clock that evening. For the past three hours Eric had stayed in the shed working on the violin and Robert had watched him for most of this, leaving about an hour before his gran got there, so he could shower and change before meeting his friends for a Friday Night Out.
Lorna was surprised to see her mother because Eric had not told her she was coming and Kath complained about him for this. Bill was sent to collect Eric and the two men came in to see mother and daughter in the lounge with a cup of tea.
Bill stayed standing and Eric went around to kiss his wife on the cheek but she refused him telling him he was dressed like a tramp.
“Do you want us to leave you alone?” asked Bill.
“No, you can stay,” said Kath, “he can speak just as well with others here. I’ve got nothing to hide unless he has.”
Kath still had her horn-rimmed spectacles on and her sagging jowls wobbled when she talked obstinately. She never looked her husband in the eye and it was clear he had to do all the work.
“I don’t mind if you stay,” said Eric and he sat down near his wife. “I just want to say I’m sorry about the picture, that’s all.”
“Is that all?” she asked.
“I want you to know that if the picture upsets you, then we won’t hang it up…”
“Will you get rid of it?”
“I won’t get rid of it, no. I told you the honest truth about that picture.”
“Have I not looked after you just as much? Have I not fed you? Have I not looked after you when you were ill? Have I not taken care of you all these years?”
Eric thought about her answer, careful to compose the correct reply and said,
“You have, you have done all these things, and that’s why I’m the luckiest man ever – to have a wife I love and respect in every sense. The picture, though, is not about the girl – that’s just a coincidence. It’s what it reminds me of.”
He knew at that point that his argument was lost, not so much that he felt unable to convince his wife, more that he no longer cared to. Now he wanted to go back to the violin and see if it would play. Kath decided that she would make him work harder.
“You have never once mentioned the girl or the painting in all these years. Why are you so obsessed with it now?” she asked.
“Because it was seeing her face that reminded me of what life missed – an essence. A Richness.”
Kath got up at that point and left the house. Eric apologised to Bill and Lorna and said he was going to see if he could finally fix the violin.
Robert came down the stairs, said he was going out and that he would be home very late.
You now what, that doesn’t seem quite right. That doesn’t seem satisfactory. I’m not sure I want the story to end like that. For those who prefer, I offer an alternative ending and you can take your pick over which you prefer…
Catherine Blackmore arrived at her daughter’s house about 8 ‘o’ clock. She held a soft expression on her face and none of the choler that she had given Eric on the phone, though she sat defensively in an armchair and waited to hear what her husband had to say. Lorna was surprised to see her mother, and glad she had come to talk things over with her father. Bill decided to keep his distance and not interfere, but wisely stay on hand if he was needed. He went to fetch his father-in-law and then hid in the kitchen to make drinks for everyone. Eric sat down near his wife and told her how glad he was that she had come. She said nothing in return, maintained an image of her scorn for him and took off her horn-rimmed spectacles and put them in her handbag.
“Do you remember this photograph?” he asked her as he produced the picture from his pocket.
Kath took the picture and held it near and far as she tried to focus in on it.
“You know I’ve put my glasses away…”
“You don’t need them,” he said, stopping her from getting them out. “It was taken on our fortieth wedding anniversary when we went to Normandy, do you remember?” She nodded. “I was looking at it earlier and I thought, how foolish I’d been. I never lied to you about that painting. Thing is, I never realised what a true picture was until I looked at you smiling at me, and then it all suddenly occurred to me. She may have helped me in 1944, but you’ve been helping me every year since. The painting won’t be coming home with us, but I have something else that will…”
He left the room to come back with the repaired violin, tucked it under his chin and scrawled the bow across the untuned strings.
“Stop that bloody racket. You can’t play that thing for the life of you,” said Kath. “I’m surprised you managed to fix it though. I thought it was buggered for good.”
“I decided not to worry about how a professional would do it, but go about it the way I wanted it to feel.”
The crime you have committed is an evil one.
There is no excuse for what you’ve done.
You’ve shown no mercy or restraint –
Acted the very opposite of a saint,
Shown malice and malicious intent.
So now you face your punishment!
Be gone from here! Take him away, if you please;
Lock him up and throw away the keys.
It’s got the lot. Double tasteful. Well choice.
It’s on top of the North Downs, overlooking the Weald to the South.
It started life as an upturned skip but now it’s a house to its only resident: Geoff.
It has all the mod cons – even running water: it drips down the walls.
“I doubt it has much commercial value, though,” says Geoff to you. “It’s nice here during Summer but come Winter, and it’s colder than a witch’s tit.”
Every morning he likes to say a prayer and sing an aria or two. Then he likes to walk the mile or so into town because that walk makes him feel as though an adventure is about to begin.
His skip is in the centre of a small patch of privately owned woodland. It’s no more than half an acre, if that, and Geoff refuses to sell it to the Borough Council who, in turn, refuse to accept his home and its address: Skip Manor, Geoff’s Woods, Overlooking the M2.
He’s grown a vegetable plot and a flower border from wild plants. At the bottom of his garden path he’s erected a mail box and he checks it regularly to see if he’s had any post. Which, of course, you know too full well he hasn’t. Inside his skip he has partitioned the space into a living room at the front and his bedroom at the back. There’s an old armchair for comfort and a dairy crate for a table, a pile of blankets for warmth and rust holes in the roof and walls for light.
Down the bottom of the hill a nature trail starts winding its way through the woods and up toward Geoff’s land where it has to circuit around because he won’t sell. The council have thoughtfully put a chicken wire fence around Geoff’s property to keep people away from trespassing. A path has been trodden around the fence so that walkers can watch the exhibit check his mail, tend his garden and hang out the washing. Children have built a rope swing nearby and they often exchange verbals with Geoff.
Some people will stop and talk to him and if they’re polite or if he’s not too busy, he’ll engage in pleasant chat. Some of them congratulate him on not selling to the council, others try to stay upwind from his smell and others keep their distance. Geoff tries to keep the garden in order.
Then each morning he comes out and checks to see if there is any post and each morning there isn’t.
It changes when a lady friend moves in. She’s older than Geoff and no one knows how they met or where she comes from.
“She’s the best thing that’s happened to me. She’s tamed me,” he tells you.
Five weeks later the skip is gone and the wire fence comes down and the nature trail dribbles across what used to be the garden with its optimistic mail box.
Geoff and his lady friend move into an old council house he manages to buy from the money he gets from selling the land.
“We’re planning a family, you see. I didn’t think that was anywhere to bring up a kiddy,” he tells you over the garden fence. In his hand he holds the bills, junk and flyers posted by Royal Mail.
Down in the harbour is a small boat
piloting its way across ocean paths.
Dim and distant paths – but paths nonetheless –
across the tide.
A small boat cresting the wave,
a small boat riding the wake.
A brown sail on smooth and polished water;
it takes many hands to steer the craft on its path.
The cats were chasing frogs.
And they were laughing.
It must be a bloody lovely feeling –
being naked and free.
I often sit in an old churchyard,
where I can see the stiff breeze,
blowing ripples through uncut grass.
Each tombstone is illegible –
overgrown by moss and lichen,
and along the pitted path
are pink and yellow roses,
corroded with brown tips,
straining stiffly in the autumn wind.
There are green cedars,
and an apple tree – russet and grey –
stripped clean of leaves and fruit.
Conifers and thistles grow elsewhere,
dried leaves and ivy wrap around stone walls.
There is a discarded Coke can –
faded and buckled – lying in the
crook of a Victorian tombstone.
And the Yew needles are licked with yellow.
I can see down the hill,
down over the yard wall
to the purple and grey valley
whose misty horizon is shrouded in a pale veil.
There are patches of green fields,
odd red-tiled roofs atop white pre-fab walls.
There is the white-noise of traffic on a nearby road.
There are the rotten lumps of flower stems,
written over it all, poking through the
green grass in my silent churchyard.
But there are the tombstones,
not so much grey as a putrid brown,
leaning backwards and forwards – few upright.
There are the sepulchres, cracked and stained,
whose lids look so temptingly easy to remove.
But what each lacks is a name –
the name of the bones whose skin has fallen off.
For some are weather beaten and worn,
and some are hidden by mustard-coloured lichen.
And though they lay silent, sleeping without any words,
they remain kissed by a fading autumn sun.
When I’m down on all fours,
looking into a kennel or cage,
I find a pair of luminous eyes
on level terms, close to mine.
They watch me with extraordinary emotion,
and I realise
I’ve met an animal, face to face,
on equal terms, orbs of terracotta red
just inches from mine,
and I realise,
either one of us could be looking into a mirror.
Silence and colossal stillness pauses
between us as I stare at the eyes –
alien and familiar
at me as I gaze into the den.
Then there’s a blush between us,
because the beast has to turn.
It turns away, from what it sees,
ashamed, or so it seems, of full recognition.