The house of the rising sun

 

Every morning now I creep up early, into the silence before the kids waken, open the curtains in the front room and watch as the big winter sky brightens over the allotments opposite.  I watch as shadows take shape and eventually colour: the outline of barbed wire over the allotment gates; beyond the allotments, the chimneys and gables of a Victorian school; to the east, the distant minarets of a mosque stand out against the cloud-streaked sky; the copper beeches lining the allotment entrance slowly assume their tawny burnish.  Every morning now I watch and appreciate, because soon I will look out my front window and see only the front window of the house opposite.Sunrise over the allotments

My world has been falling apart recently.  Not in a dreadful, catastrophic way.  Rather, many constants are coming to an end, many big decisions are having to be made: a period of reassessment and readjustment.  It is just now starting to come together again.  I accept the inevitable losses and begin to look to the future with hope, to plan.

As you know, I am blessed with two amazing children.  I moan at them when they are running late for school and ask for a lift, but secretly I love to drop them off in town and watch them walk away chatting together, suddenly all grown up.  Generally, they talk of school gossip and of music, but sometimes they plot, and a seed previously planted led to my daughter having A Serious Chat with me over tea one night;

Mum, we need to move.

But I thought we were happy here…

No, you were right before, we should move.

I look at the boy, he nods his head.

But we can’t afford anywhere better than here.

So why don’t we rent somewhere?

Because we like the stability of owning where we live.

Well, Dad has just bought another house to rent out, I’m sure he’d let us have it as long as as we wanted.

I see…

I asked him about it, he said he knows how proud you are so he wouldn’t do mates rates or anything patronising like that.

Bless him.

It’s in a decent area, the house is a bit bigger than this but still cosy.

Hmmm… I was kind of banking on having the mortgage paid off by the time I retire. If we start renting, I’ll be renting forever.

That’s ok, by the time you retire we’ll have decent jobs, we’ll help you out.

The boy nods.

By then, you’ll also have families to support.

Oh no, I’m going to be career-woman-bitch-from-hell, I ain’t having no brats.

We’ll see about that.

Seriously Ma, you do realise you’re not going to be blessed with grandchildren?

Your brother’s a good boy, he’ll give me grandchildren.

Nope, he’s gay.

He is not.

Really, he’s all gossip and hairstyles, he’s my gay best friend.

Look, I’d be happy if he was gay, but I just don’t think he is.

Don’t you remember how happy he looked the first time he put on my pink Cinderella slippers?

You’re just jealous cos he’s always been better at walking in heels than you.

Exactly.

My boy follows the conversation, interested to discover what is to become of him.

*

(Happy New Year)

Summer in the city

*

This morning’s tour of duty; boy’s room first, open the blinds.  Nearly a teen and he’s still my baby boy, my puppy dog.  Two weeks today since I last saw him.  He’s off round Europe in a motorhome, playing Max to his dad’s Paddy. Not long till the weekend is my mantra.

But for now, I’m alone.  Girl in Africa, boy in Europe.  Sister on some island in the Med, friend in Scandinavia.  Utterly alone.  Even Les next door has escaped to Blackpool for a few nights.  In general, I think I do quite fine with alone, but these are testing times and I’m feeling kinda forlornely.

I consider taking Regina’s advice and finding a protest, to rub up against strangers; but this is a tiny city and its best offering is a rerun of Macbeth at the independent cinema. I settle, it’s ok.  Reminds me of when my boy nudges and says come watch the rugby with me, Mum; I get the gist but not the finer points and when I tire of concentrating, the scenery is easy on the eye.

Back at the car park pay-station, I find my plastic park-card and hold it out ready to slot it in, but there is no slot.  I wave it around in hope.

Just hold it up there, duck, where them three lights are.  A head peeks out from under the paymachine and a grimy finger points up to guide me.  Right up there – look, says the crosslegged imp, patiently.

Right, thanks I say.  I show the card to the buttons and like a jackpot in reverse, they flash rainbows and tell me how much to pay.  I feed a note into the machine and it spews out a few paltry coins, which I press into the grubby hands below.  Spend it wisely, I counsel, I hear wet wipe washes are the way forward.

Walking to the car, my phone rings.  My boy tells me he will be home in about an hour.

But you’re not coming home till the weekend.

Change of plan.

Well, that’s great, but couldn’t you have let me know?

I told you Monday didn’t I?

No, you said the weekend.

Hmmm… oh yeah, I wrote it on the postcard.

I see.  And when did you send the postcard?

Well, I couldn’t find anywhere to post it.

So, you’re bringing me the postcard that you wrote to tell me you’re coming home?

I could hear his grin, the sweetheart.

*

*

You win some…

I am driving my daughter to the nurse, for a jab that will delay the onset of mouth-foaming should she pick a fight with a rabid dog on her trip to Africa.  We wait at a red light on the way to the surgery.  Beyond the traffic lights, on the opposite corner, two narrow upstairs windows have compost bags for black-out blinds.  Between the plastic and the glass, blotch-leaved tomato plants wither in the glower of the sun.

Below, two red stripy poles hang outside the blind-shuffled windows of a barber’s shop.  A young girl – looks the same age as my daughter – pushes herself off from the barber’s door-frame and onto the street.  She is wearing tight black jeans and a big red sweatshirt with just do it written across the front, and she is swaying.  The girl attaches herself to a passing man, steadies herself on his arm, talks as they cross the road.  He doesn’t reply, and when they are back on the pavement, he pushes her away.  As she totters down the side-road, he stands on the corner, hands on hips, watching, and when she stumbles into a cluster of bins, he shouts.  She turns round, the lights turn green, he holds out his arms.   I drive off, not knowing if his arms were spread in exasperation, compassion, or acceptance of a proposition.

The receptionist tells us to take a seat.  My daughter sits, and looks fiercely at me.  She knows I have issues with sitting in waiting rooms; it seems to me like surrender.

Sit, mother.

I stand next to her.

Mother, sit.

Let’s sit at the back then.

I sit in the middle of the back row, and she stomps to join me.

Why couldn’t you just sit at the front?

When we came last week, that chair had urine on it.

People are going to think you have serious problems upstairs if you carry on like this.  Especially when you wear those ridiculous shades.

We sit in seething silence until her name is called.

*

That evening, as I am driving my son home from rugby practise, we see an old man clutch the wall, fall to his knees and lie down on the pavement.

My son and I look at each other.

Do you think he’s ok? I ask.

He’s still looking at me as I stop the car.

What should we do? I ask.

My son looks back to the distant lump on the pavement.

Should we check? I ask.

Yes, he says.

I turn the car around and drive back.  As we pull up, a man and his son walk round the corner.  They look at the old man, who is now curled up, hands tucked under serenely sleeping head.

Alright Derek, says the man.

Do you know him, is he alright? I ask.

We all know him round here.  Derek, you alright mate?

Derek opens an eye.

Are you alright, Derek? I ask.

He sits up.

Am I alright? he asks.  No I’m fucking not alright.  Shall I tell you for why, shall I?

Anyway, always nice to see you Derek, says the man with his son, but we’re a bit late for.

They walk on.

Derek stands.

Are you sure you’re okay?  Should I ring an ambulance?

Yes, ring the fucking ambulance, I want them here, and the fucking police too, get them all here, I’ll tell them fuckers.  I’ll tell them all, the fuckers.

As he speaks, he moves closer to the car, to the open window where my son is sitting.

Glad to see you’re feeling better Derek, take care, I shout as I wind up the window.  I drive off and in my mirror I see him settle down to sleep again.

We drive in silence for minutes, until my son says we did the right thing, Mum and we smile and he tells me about the awesome army guy who made them run ten times round the pitch and do a hundred press-ups.

*

*

This and that

You know those mornings, dreary and disinterested; even the rain is indolent, can’t be arsed, just kind of hangs there for you to walk through, and I do: all the way to work.  They know that umbrellas are against my personal principles, so when I arrive sodden, I get fond chidings rather than sympathy.  A quick rub down with a tissue and a nibble on a rich tea finger as I wipe my specs, then I’m ready for the working day.

This is a big day because I have an appointment in my diary.  Yes, someone wants to sit next to me and talk databases.  Generally speaking, my little corner of the office is left undisturbed by human presence: if my phone ever rings, people stop working and turn to watch as I tentatively pick up the receiver – hello….  no, it isn’t….   no, no, it’s fine...  – and they raise their brows innocently and ask – wrong number? – and I shrug, and they return to their work, sniggering; if I am alone in the office and a visitor pops her head round the door and asks – is nobody in? – I smile sweetly and mutter – nobody of consequence, obviously, fuckwit.

But this day; this day I am someone of consequence.  On this day, someone will come in and ask for me, and she will sit and listen whilst I explain to her the finer workings of a cantankerous lump of data.  She will nod and make notes and I will smile reassuringly and offer her a rich tea finger.

And this is what happens, but something else, too.  I vaguely know the woman who comes to sit with me; she is Danny, the grouchy lesbian.  I know she is a lesbian because she is tall and shapeless with short hair and I can easily imagine her wearing dungarees; she prefers to use the male form of her shortened name rather than Danni, and she is sour-faced, with the hostile air of the unfairly oppressed.  Except on this day, she isn’t.  Her face is rounder, her eyes have softened and she carries herself with the grace of contentment.

As I walk home through the mizzle, I think about Danny and wonder what has turned her from that to this: the mellowness of maturity; the self-possession that comes with a hard-won acceptance; or the love of a fine woman?  Is that something I should consider, maybe – expand my horizons a little, could be the making of me.  There was a manager used to work with us – always yelped – I’m about to eat my brain here – when she was annoyed – she was men all the way until she met the woman of her life, and she stroked my face once, when everybody knows not to touch me.  And there’s Cagney & Lacey from IT, they’re always looking at me coquettishly.  Although they have matching squints to match their matching bomber jackets, so it’s anyone’s guess really.

I frown as I wait for the green man to tell me I may walk.  It’s tricky.  I mean, I appreciate a comely woman as much as the next man, but I’m not at all sure what I’d do with one.  At the end of the night, where would be the point?

Paddling along the narrow path that is both pavement and soakaway to the road above, a black umbrella approaches, and I consider whether to dodge and tut, or just accept the poke in my eye, the cold drip down the back of my neck.  But from underneath the umbrella emerges a man in a dark three piece suit and a bright yellow turban.  He notices me, and his smile is as sunny as his turban as he steps into a gateway to let me pass, and holds his umbrella over me as I do.

I grin back at him, and ‘this,’ I whisper.

*

*

Saturday night is pizza night

A knock at the door is an occasion in our house.  This time it is my nephew and niece, a dog apiece.  Their message is an invite to Saturday Night is Pizza Night – an exclusive gathering around the chimnea at the allotment – an invite I graciously accept.  They remain on the doorstep, smiling expectantly.  The dogs sniff my knees and strain at the leash to cross the threshold; I don’t think so.  I don’t do animals.  For humans I will make odd attempts at sociability, anything below primate has my gorge rising.  Misha is a rescue dog and whippet, eager and utterly beholden; Sofia is Anna Karenina in greyhound form.  Yes, for dogs they’re ok.  But still, they’re not coming in.

Nephew and niece are waiting.  Should I tip?  They’re nice kids, thoughts of financial gain wouldn’t have crossed them.  If anything, they are too nice; not quite other-worldly but possibly meant for a different time, Charlie Bucket’s siblings or born to the bosom of the Cratchit family.  Maybe that’s it; perhaps a word or two of Dickensian wisdom is their hope.  A deep breath and I search for a favourite aphorism.

Luckily, I am saved by my daughter who squeezes into the doorway beside me; she raises her voice an octave to sweet-talk the dogs as she crouches to ruffle their ears, greets her cousins without looking up to see the contentment settle on their faces.

Saturday evening we arrive at the allotment.  Word is, everything from scratch, so I’ve rustled up lavender and liquorice muffins to take along with bottles of lambrusco and frozen dough balls. I dump everything on the supplies wheelbarrow in the orchard and big sister takes me on a tour around our estate.  Flower beds are looking good – she grumbles at the wanton calendula, I silently cheer them on – so we gather lilacs and ivory rosebuds for the passata jar, then sit to drink their health.

Meanwhile, pizza dough is kneaded, shaped, topped, slid onto the stone with Dad’s old spade – spit-and-polished to a pizza-shovel – and slid off again when everyone agrees the cheese is bubbling.  I am on cutter duty.  Niece offers to take over pizza production from her father, and calls Sofia and Misha to lick her hands clean.

The pizzas are delicious, the wine too easy.  Sister and I sway and hum as we cut another handful of perfumed lilacs, which we clutch and sniff and exclaim over as we stumble home.

*

*

Everything about you is violet sky

Last Creative Writing assignment went in today, an excerpt from the final assessment, which we have to continue drafting, drafting until final submission mid-May.   Sick of it already, sick of lengthy decisions over punctuation: commas; dashes; colons and semis – seems to be about as creative as I’m getting on this one.

I’ll have a little break and hopefully be reinvigorated when it’s returned with (hopefully, almost certainly: I have a great tutor) words of encouragement.

Leaving the house this morning, a young woman was sulkily pulling leaves off next door’s camillia, muttering. A little girl caught up with her, breathless, pushing baby brother in buggy.

– You want out of what, Mum?

– Life.

The woman took over the pushchair and they continued on their way.

Two worms are battling it out in my head. I’m going to listen simultaneously, see if they destroy each other, reclaim my head space.