My Record Collection – 107

Faithless – this is another of these dance music bands which my daughter Laura has introduced me too.  I quite like most of what she has bought me (Christmases and Birthdays), it is stuff I would never have bought myself but, like almost all music I suspect, if you give it a chance it pays dividends.  All music is good, there is just some I am not so familiar with.  The band is just 3 people and a lot of computer wizardry…the only one I had heard of was Maxi Jazz (not his real name I suspect) – but with these bands or DJs or whatever the players are not really so important.  Anyway, the records.  First up is 1996’s debut Reverence, which according to fans has never been bettered.  Some great tunes and a couple of nice ballads too, especially ‘Don’t Leave’ and ‘If Loving You Is Wrong’ but I suspect it was the faster dance numbers the fans loved: ‘Salva Mea’ and ‘Insomnia’ but really the whole album just slips from ear to ear and nothing much sticks, which is maybe the whole point of dance music – you feel it but it is of the moment not to be pondered over. High volume is of course recommended.  In some ways similar to Heavy Metal, it moves your body not your soul.  Next is the follow-up Sunday 8pm.  This is an overlong (the songs go on forever) and somewhat slower at times record, although a few more of the songs seem to be in a hip-hop style (although I am probably using completely the wrong terms) I can’t really say which I liked best, probably ‘Hour Of Need’ and ‘God Is A DJ’….but more and more this music, though technically excellent just refuses to stay in my brain…oh well, must be my age.  Outrospective (2001) was a number one album, apparently.  Made little impression on me really, pleasant enough but overlong.  No Roots is next…and a great title track in two versions, but I cannot say I recall much else.  Then finally The Dance, their last record on 2006.  It also is okay. You may wonder just why I have five albums of a band I am not that enamoured of….charity shops and a certain sense of persistence hoping against hope that I will find a great album.  And they are all okay, it is just me – I DON’T REALLY LIKE THIS STUFF THAT MUCH.

Fat Boy Slim – well, again charity shops to blame.  Of course I had heard a couple of singles and thought, only a quid, I’ll give it a go,  And really it is okay, but just so repetitive….which of course, is the point.  With dance music there is no beginning middle or end, just a groove, which may last 5 or 8 or 10 minutes, the decision when to close the track seems quite arbitrary.  The album You’ve Come A Long Way Baby…well, if the fact that it seems to be in every charity shop around says anything then I don’t need to.

Bryan Ferry…well, I liked Roxy Music, I mean who didn’t, though I only bought a couple of their LPs at the time.  Ferry always appeared to be up his own arse – but with a great voice, so my forays have been very few in CD land. Dylanesque  (2005) is his take on Dylan’s catalogue.  And it is quite nice anyway to hear Bob’s songs again, though I don’t think that Ferry adds anything unique or different.  A nice listen but quite passable.   Olympia (2010) is one of Ferry’s latest albums, mostly his own songs – and having re-listened to it twice not much stays with me.  A good cover of the Traffic song ‘No Face, No Name, No Number’, and ‘Heartache by Numbers’ is quite good, but really I am wondering why I ever bought the album.  Last up is a compilation Street Life of both Ferry solo work and Roxy stuff.  Quite good to hear the old Roxy stuff, but apart from hIs famous cover of Dylan’s ‘Hard Rains A Gonna Fall’ nothing remarkable here.  I did once see him live, in the pouring rain and he came on an hour late….oh well.

Short Story – 15 – THE TREE

This is a bit more gentle…

The old man is wheeled slowly out by the nurse.  She positions him beneath the old oak tree, tucks in his blanket, and makes sure the alert button is on his lap; safely within reach.  She gives him a friendly pat of the arm and walks back to the house; she is dying for a break and a cup of tea. 

The old man looks across the garden. His garden.  At least he had been allowed to return to his own house; the house he was born into, the house he grew up in.  The house he had his own children in too – though now they are scattered, like dry leaves after a storm, all over the World – James in America, Amelia in France and Jennifer in Hong Kong.  ‘What on earth is she doing in Hong Kong’, he wonders.  It was all a bit much to take in.  He had travelled, Europe mostly, of course, and one memorable trip to see James and his new family in Arizona – far too hot for him, and he could barely remember James’ children, all grown up now and two with young ones of their own.  He would never get to meet them now, that much was certain.  He did talk occasionally on the telephone, but to tell the truth, they weren’t close.  None of his children were ‘close’.  But then he had not been close to his own parents; packed away to boarding school at six – how he had hated that.  And hated his father for sending him too. 

Now – Laura, his grand-daughter by Amelia, was different; she had come back at eighteen from France and lodged with her grandfather while she went to University.  And she had stayed, bless her – she was now his companion.  ‘My, she must be thirty by now’, he supposed.  ‘She’ll be marrying herself one day and leaving me too.  Or rather, I will be leaving her before then.  I’ve left the house to her in my will.  Plenty of money for the others’, he smiled to himself.

He can hear a blackbird singing somewhere above his head.  He looks up but the heavy canopy of leaves hides the bird from view.  ‘Ah, this tree’, he thinks.  ‘This tree has seen it all’.  He can remember when Laura and her brother Robert (what happened to him – he couldn’t recall) had spent their Summer holidays here with Grannie and Grandpa.  His wife Eleanor was still alive then, of course.  What lovely days they had spent.  And here, under this tree was where they had their picnics.  Ginger beer and egg and cress sandwiches and Victoria sponge cake.  Oh dear, he was dribbling, now where was that hankie – ah here it is.  Yes, how he loved playing with little Laura and Robert, it had been a second childhood for him, running around the garden, playing cricket, hide and seek through the bedrooms of the old house, giggling like a child himself.

A child?  Had he ever been a child?  Certainly not the carefree happy one his grandchildren had been.  He was an only child too, he remembered longing for a brother.  He had always been terrified of his father, with his moustaches and his ‘discipline’.  ‘Ah, bad memories – think of something else.  His mother?  She was always a shadowy figure’, he could barely recognise her from the few photographs he had.  Always escaping, slipping silently out of the room, that was his memory. 

“Nerves”.  His father dismissed her disappearance with that single word, “Nerves” – and then his Nanny would take him back to the nursery. 

As a boy he understood nothing; now he wondered what an awful life he must have led her.  She died when he was thirrteen – a stranger to the end.  

“Your Mother has died.  No need to return until half-term.  Do not let this disturb your studies.”  That was what his father had written. But then, he cannot remember being that upset at the time.

All too soon he was grown up – at least he was away from school.  But straight into the Army and very soon the War.  ‘Better not to remember the War’, he thought.  Not that he had seen that much action.  Boredom mostly, like so much of his life.  ‘Ah, no good regretting that now.   He’d had a good life.  That was what they said, wasn’t it?  But how do you know?  How do you compare to others?’  We, each of us, are actually as oblivious to what goes on, what thoughts, hopes and dreams, and disappointments of others – as this tree is as unknowing of him sitting there, like so many times before, under its leafy boughs.  ‘Morbid thoughts.  Must blow them away.  Little time left now, must remember the happy times.

Ah his dear Eleanor.  Returning after the War and meeting her.  Here of all places, in this very house.  His father had just got engaged to his second wife.  A party for friends and neighbours.  Not that it was such a jolly occasion as he remembers.  His father barely acknowledging his presence.  No change there then.  The only two good things were that he met Eleanor here.  Actually, he had met her once before, but he had been a sulky boy of ten and she barely eight; he only just recalled her.  But my, how she had changed.  ‘Bloomed’ – that was the word everyone said about her.  “Oh Eleanor, how you have bloomed” people remarked. She was now a real English Rose, and she fell, she tumbled gently, her petals still fresh with the mist of morning, into his lap.  He had cherished and watched her flower every year – until she became ill, oh it must be ten years ago now.  She died quite quickly in the end; not too much pain. 

The other good thing was his father’s death a few weeks later.  Driving his Bentley too fast and drunk as well.  Died instantly.  And before he had re-married, so the house came to him, his only son.  A real stroke of luck.  But Eleanor was his real prize.  To love and have been loved; what a prize that was.

He sighs and looks up again searching for that blackbird.  Still singing, still hidden.  This tree.  Yes, it was here that he first kissed her.  His father was out, but fearful of his return they had gone out to the garden and laid down under this very tree.  That was their first real kiss, the gentle pressure of her lips on his, stroking the nape of her neck, and those tiny whorls of hair he wound round his fingers. The back of his hand, gliding down her cheek and onto her neck, her splendid long neck, grazing over the twin humps of her collar bones.  He had watched the rise and fall of her breasts and felt such immense contentment.   Earlier that day they had declared their love for each other.  And those kisses were enough, everything else could wait a while.  That was the beauty of those innocent days.  He had no more idea of female anatomy than how a jet engine worked.  These poor youngsters of today with the internet and all ‘knowledge’ at their fingertips and yet….understanding nothing – and caring even less, he suspected.  Denying themselves the wonder of discovery, the ecstasy of simply kissing. 

But everything has changed now.  Almost beyond recognition.  Air travel, television, mobile phones and computers.  Where would it all end?  At least he wouldn’t be here to see it.  Three to four weeks at the most the Doctor said.  And he’d had nearly two already.  Laura knew – but had been sworn to secrecy.  The last thing he wanted was his far-flung children flying home in a panic, declaring their love for him and all that nonsense.  Better to just go quietly with no fuss. 

There’s that blackbird again.  He never seems to tire of singing his song.  And all to attract a mate.  Ha, nothing changes.  Where is he?  He peers up, trying to discover the bird from the sound alone.  He tries to wheel the chair out a bit but it catches in a tree root, he pushes the wheel but the chair stubbornly refuses to move and he feels himself losing balance, the chair is tipping over.  Falling oh so slowly, a delicious feeling in a strange way, an abandonment – and no-one to catch him, no-one to put him back in his chair, no nurse to tuck him in and give him morphine.  No, none of that, just a delightful toppling over.  Here he goes now, gently falling, comfortably wedged into his wheelchair.  The house rises up and stands on its end, he sees the tree turn almost a full circle, the panic button flies out in a beautiful arc.  Safely out of reach.  He lands with the gentlest of bumps and there just there, on that branch he finally sees him, the blackbird, still singing his endless song…ah, bliss.

Short Story – 14 – THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR

This was written a couple of years ago, so not quite so relevant now….

The couple next door?  Oh, don’t go asking me about them.  Well, of course, everyone does, don’t they?  I mean people are always nosy, aren’t they?  You know how it is, they see them on the telly and can’t help but wonder what they are really like.  But you know me; I don’t like to talk about it.  Besides I had to sign so many pieces of paper when I started here – oh, it must be twenty years ago now, soon after Bert died.  I never really read them, but the man told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should not divulge (yes, that was the word he used – why didn’t he simply say ‘talk about’?) any details of either my work or the clients I cleaned for.  Well, you know me – I never gossip – and can keep a secret as well as anyone.  Bert, used to say I was the soul of discretion, God rest his soul. 

Now where was I?  Oh, yes – the couple next door.  Well, all I will say is that they are nothing like you see on the telly. It is a strange arrangement here.  I live and work mostly at number 11.  I have a tiny flat round the back.  The houses are much larger than they look from the front and number 11 is almost twice as big as number 10.  But since the cuts Dave brought in, I now clean in both houses.  Hmmm…only thirty quid a week extra too, and I am supposed to do it all in eight hours, twice a week too.  Not quite the minimum wage, is it, but I don’t complain.  I go in and clean Madam’s private kitchenette, bathroom and their bedrooms.  Bedrooms in the plural, mind you.  They don’t sleep in the same room – not like Dave and Samantha did.  But they used to actually live here, in number 11. It’s a much bigger flat than next door and what with the kiddies number 10 would have been too small.  There is a connecting corridor between the top floor flats so the public is none the wiser. Tony and Cherie (stuck up cow if you ask me) lived here too, while Gordon slept over in number 10 while he was Chancellor, and when he took over as the boss.  Lovely wife he had mind you, too good for him by far, if you ask me. And do you know she was the only one who ever had time for me.  She always asked how I was and if I needed anything.  None of the others ever spoke to me; not the bitch Cherie, or Samantha (another one ‘too important for their own good’ if you want to know) or George’s wife or of course Mrs. Phillip either.  No, none of them ever spoke to me.  Too high and mighty to talk to a mere cleaner.

And as for her, Madam, why she doesn’t even smile.  She just brushes past me if she is in the flat – it’s as if I don’t even exist.  And messy.  My Goodness is she messy.  Clothes all over the place, slung on the bed, or the chair.  Knickers on the floor sometimes too.  And shoes?  Now Samantha liked shoes, there is no denying that, but she always had them lined up on those rails in her wardrobe, all in neat rows like.  But this one – just kicked off anywhere on the floor.  Sometimes I even have to crawl under the bed to reach one.  And me with my bad back too.  No consideration for others I say.  Now her husband – what’s his name.  oh yes, he’s a Phillip too – just like my Phillip here in 11, nice man he is, polite too – always says Good Morning to me he does.  No, her Philip, Madam’s Philip, he sleeps in his own room.  Smaller than hers of course.  But he is very tidy, his suits always put back on the hanger, and his shirts all neat in the drawers.  And this will make you laugh, his socks are folded in pairs in one drawer and his underpants all lined up in another, he even has them in two piles; white ones and black ones. 

I don’t think they ever sleep together.  Not that that is any of my business, but you can’t help noticing the state of the beds, can you.  Both doubles of course, but his is barely disturbed.  He sleeps on the left side; the right pillow is never creased.  Now Madam’s bed is quite different.  She must kick the duvet off in the night, it is usually on the floor along with half of her clothes.

Did you know, they have a laundry service?  Both houses.  They have a large wicker basket in the hallway, and everything dirty, or what they consider dirty – not the same thing at all – is dumped in there along with sheets and towels and they are dry-cleaned or laundered twice a week.  All wrapped in cellophane too.

They each have their own bathroom as well.  En-suite they call it.  I have a tiny shower cubicle and toilet in my flat, but it’s nothing like what they have.  All marble sinks and gold taps – and the baths.  You could almost swim in them baths.  And they have all these water jets too.  Mind you, makes it easier for me to clean.  Now he, her husband – that Philip.  He never uses the bath, he is a shower man.  Well, he is in business you know.  He leaves the house early in the morning.  Madam uses the bath, and she uses this expensive bath oil.  Leaves a nasty scum mark round the edge I can tell you.  She’s one of those people too who always leaves the top off the toothpaste.  I mean, how hard is it to put it back on.  Cherie was the same, never put the lid back on and a dribble of dried goo there for me to clean on the sink.   They slept in the same bed, Cherie and Tony, no problems there I can assure you. 

But I meant to tell you.  She.  Madam. She keeps a diary.  It’s in her bedside cabinet. It’s one of those posh ones in white leather with a little strap and a lock.  I had one like it as a child once.  I never wrote in mine.  But she does.  Now, this is really naughty.  There is a lock on her diary, but it isn’t locked.  And once or twice I have had a peek.

Now, even though I am, you could say, at the heart of Government, I am not really that interested in Politics at all.  They are all the same underneath, and in my job I get to see them as they really are.  Not that they are so different from us at all, even if they love to act as if they are, so high and mighty.  ‘Everyone gets to sit on the throne at least once a day’, as my Bert used to say.  And I am the one who gets to clean their thrones.  Not that I mind that really, what with me Marigolds and a bottle of bleach it don’t bother me none.  They are all a bit stuck up if you ask me.  Not like normal people at all.  Oh, except her – Gordon’s wife.  She was nice, the only one who ever really talked to me in twenty years. 

But, back to Madam’s diary.  She didn’t write very much most days, lots of initials which I never understood.  But I do remember a couple of entries.  Just after Dave announced that ‘referender’ thing she wrote that this was her big chance, she’d been waiting patiently for years but now she saw her way clearly.  And after that big vote she wrote “Hooray – now for it.”  Then when she became the big boss, she said it was the best day of her life.  What about her wedding day, I thought?  But she added she had better watch out for Boris, better tie him down. Now what was the phrase she used.  Very unladylike I thought, but then you should have heard the words that Cherie used.  F…ing this and F…ing that all day long.

She, Madam, said it was better to have Boris pissing out of the tent than in.  Not sure what she meant by that, maybe she meant the marquee they sometimes have in the Rose Garden, but surely where he goes weewee is none of her business at all.  But the worst was after the last election.  She was furious alright.  You could see where the pen had gone right through the page in a few places.  She said it was all the TV’s fault, that she hadn’t had the chance to explain how wonderful she was going to do that Brexit stuff.  UNFAIR she wrote in big letters, and underlined it again and again.  She even called Mr. Corbyn a ‘you know what’ but the writing was so bad and it looks like she had spilt a few drops of tea or something on the page, made the words hard to read. It might have been a card, or a cad – but I think I know what it really was.  Very un-lady-like.  But then a day or two later she was back to her usual self. “Determined to hang on” she wrote, “they won’t get rid of me that easy.”

Anyway, look at the time I must be going soon and as you know I don’t like to gossip.  That man asked me not to divulge any details and I have been as good as my word.  No, it doesn’t matter how many times you ask me, I won’t tell you any details.  Except to say, they aren’t at all like you see them on the telly, the couple next door that is.  In fact, hardly anyone even knows what I do for a living.  The soul of discretion, my Bert used to call me.

My Record Collection 106 – Marianne Faithfull

Well, this again is a strange one.  She was, famously, the girlfriend of Mick Jagger (and according to some also of Keith Richards).  Whatever the truth, in the late Sixties, either through her connections or because of a real talent, she made a record.  ‘As Tears Go By’ was a charming little song, and her voice was deep and sultry.  But would she have made any impact on the charts without the Stones?  Anyway, of course she did make it big in later years, but after her early chart success, she released a few albums of cover versions.  I never saw them then but later they were re-released and ever the completist I bought them.  The first is It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.   Well, it is pleasant and the song choice is good, but these are hardly great interpretations; they are fairly low-key arrangements and her singing is more spoken word than real singing; which is a feature of Marianne anyway.  From the song choice these must have been recorded in the early Seventies after she had split from Mick and Keith (Just discovered that some tracks were released in 1976 on an album Faithless, also known as Dreamin my Dreams – lots of tracks I don’t have so just ordered it).  The best songs are the ones I know the originals of least – ‘Chords of Fame’. ‘Sad Lisa’ and ‘Madeleine’.  A strange collection – and reading her discography on Wikipedia These songs never appear to have been released at the time, but only as she later re-established her career in the late 70’s.  The next is a double of maybe even earlier provenance.  She apparently released 5 albums in the mid-sixties which are completely unavailable now in any format.  These seem to have been collated as ‘The Collection’ and released again in the Eighties.  A curio of sorts, a little time capsule of naivety, it is sweet and sugary – but for me it completes the picture.

Poor Marianne – after her brief flirtation with fame, the Stones and drugs – descended into a spiral of cocaine and the heroin.  Most of her wealthy friends deserted her.  She had made a couple of films, most notably ‘Girl On A Motorbike’ but seems to have lost or been cheated out of her money.  At one point she was reduced to sleeping on friend’s floors with all her possessions in a couple of carrier bags.  For most of the Seventies she struggled to get clean, and I, like almost everyone else forgot all about her.   She had a small hit with Dreaming my Dreams (which I have ordered but won’t get for a while) but she was still trying to sing sweet versions of other people’s songs.  She could write, and was eventually credited with the lyrics of The Stones; Sister Morphine’.  But it was 1979 when she finally broke through with the brilliant Broken English album.  Her voice was now ravaged by drugs and severe laryngitis, but the desperate pleading edge gave her a new dimension and a new audience.  She was signed to Island Records by owner Chris Blackwell, who wisely gave her complete artistic freedem.  Marianne blossomed with great songs like ‘Broken English’ and ‘Witches Songs’; a superb version of Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ and my favourite ‘The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan’ with its great use of throbbing synths (originally by Dr. Hook).  But the album is notorious for the final track ‘Why D’Ya Do It’ a caustic and expletive ridden rant from a lover to an unfaithful partner.  Rarely has a song contained such anger and hit such a raw nerve.  The whole record brims with searing guitars and great pulsing synths. A wonderful creation.  The follow-up Dangerous Acquaintances was a slightly disappointing affair.  A new producer wanted a more conventional ‘rock sound’ which ended up being a bit bland.  Still – some good songs ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Intrigue’ and ‘For Beauty Sake’, quite a few written or co-written by Marianne herself.  Her next record ‘A Child’s Adventure’ is hard to find and even on youtube is not complete. I will still look out for it.  Unfortunately, her recording career was constantly interrupted by her addiction and only got back on track in 1986 with Strange Weather.   This was produced by Hal Wilner who seemed to find songs in a slower, more tragic and sad vein for Marianne.  Fave tracks ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ Dylan’s ‘I’ll Keep it With Mine’ and ‘Penthouse Serenade’…also a new recording of her old hit ‘As tears Go By’.  A strange album that still leaves me a bit unsatisfied.  Much better was 1990’s live album ‘Blazing Away’, which is a triumph; great versions of her best songs to date – a few from Broken English but also a cracking version of ‘Sister Morphine’ which knocks spots off The Stones.  But then she had a five year break from recording, but she returned with A Secret Life.  A departure from her rock style, as the accompaniment is almost all orchestral and produced by Angelo Badalamenti.  But Marianne loved to confound her critics and chose to record in all sorts of styles as she progressed. But not my favourite album really. 

Then came 2 live albums “Twentieth Century Blues” with a few Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht songs, best of which is ‘Pirate Jenny’ and ‘Surabaya Johnny’ – a nice album and a great version of the song she co-wrote with Keith ‘Sister Morphine’ and a new version of ‘As Tears Go By’.  Then we had the full version of ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ by Weill and Brecht.  I love this mini opera, but not for everyone I suppose.  Great singing though from Marianne. 

Then back to her more regular sound with Vagabond Ways 1999.  I think that this is my favourite Marianne album, of the many you can see I have.  She seems to have just the right mix of songs and just the right band behind her.  And her lyrics again slip into the explicit with the title track and it’s follow-up ‘Incarceration of a Flower Child’ a song by Syd Barrett which foresaw his own mental confinement – Marianne sings it with such a tragic voice. There isn’t a poor track on it – I especially love her version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower Of Song’, and the spoken word final track ‘After The Ceasefire’ is simply awe-inspiring.   She followed this in 2002 with ‘Kissin Time’ a collaboration with the likes of Beck and Jarvis Cocker and Blur, with I think mixed results.  I like some of it but in a way, she seems to be trying a bit too hard to be modern and relevant.  However some tracks are great – ‘Song for Nico’ and ‘Sliding Through Life on Charm’ – which is pretty autobiographical.

Only two other original albums in my collection  – Easy Come, Easy Go – a double from 2008.  Not her best I think, a lot of slow almost dirge-like songs and no real cohesion – as is often the way with double albums. But now on another couple of listens it comes back to life and isn’t so bad at all.  Best songs – ‘In Germany before The War’ (a Randy Newman classic (See N), The Pheonix ( Judee Sill – see S) and ‘Black Coffee’  The final studio album I have (though she has made 2 more since is the rather excellent Horses and High Heels (2014) This is again a lovely collection of songs; two great covers – ‘Long Song’, originally by Lesley Duncan, and ‘Goin Back’ the Carole King classic.  A lovely feel to the record too, great arrangements, my favourite track is the closer ‘The Old House’ but really an accomplished record.  Of course, as you must know I can never resist collections.  I have 2 – a simple one disc called Faithfull, which is strong on Broken English and the couple that followed it.  But I also have A Perfect Stranger which is a double from her years on island Records.  I have about half of these tracks on albums but a lot of newer stuff I somehow missed – ‘The Blue Millionaire’, and ‘Isolation’ (the John Lennon classic) are my favourites.  And that is it for dear Marianne, she is currently ill with Covid-19.  Hope she survives.

Short Story – 14 – A SLIGHT FOG

A rather apt story for these times, maybe

There was a slight fog up ahead.  The sun, still hidden below the horizon, was barely lightening up the sky as dawn approached.  This wasn’t the usual December fog which blankets the valleys and low-lying fields with dense clouds that lay in drifts almost like snow – but perhaps a suspicion of a fog, a hazy ghost of a fog, always hundreds of metres ahead but dissolving into clear air as the car approached.  Just as well, I thought, hating those thick rolling clouds which can be so treacherous on my early morning runs into Perigeuex.  As you leave Campsegret the trees surround you like a cloak and you are almost in a tunnel, then as you crest a hill and the windey road twists and turns, especially in this early morning half-light the road can be deceptive at the best of times.  No traffic at all for miles today; too early for the lorries trundling down to Spain, and only a smattering of cars occasionally passing by on their way into Bergerac. 

After a couple of kilometres though the road straightens out and you can see it rising and falling up ahead.  The fog had practically disappeared now, the sun peeping over the Eastern horizon, but up ahead there was still a patch on an upward sloping section of the straight road ahead.  Strangely, as I got nearer it seemed just as dense, just as white.  I slipped into a dip and lost sight of it, then as I rounded the next hill, there it was still ahead and just as white, just as dense.  I wondered if it were some sort of optical illusion, a reflection of the bright morning sunshine perhaps.  The nearer I got I expected it to thin out and dissolve, but no; it was still there even at just a hundred metres away, and to my eyes just as dense, just as in-penetrable. I slowed down and stopped maybe twenty metres from the strange gently swirling white mass.  It certainly looked like fog, but almost the densest I had ever seen.  And there had hardly been a trace before; it wasn’t as if this were just a slightly heavier mist hanging in some valley, besides it was half-way up a slight incline.  I sat for a few moments wondering if I should just drive through it.  I had seen no cars coming the other way for some time but assumed the few I had seen earlier must have passed safely through this strange mysterious bank of fog.  I started the engine up again and drove slowly towards it.  Even on the edge it seemed just as thick and I was a bit nervous as the car and I both slipped silently into this shroud-like mystery. 

Everything went dark as I became enveloped in this dense white cloud, and silent too; I couldn’t even hear the purr of my Citroen’s engine.  It was the strangest feeling, almost like flying, when you take off and are suddenly wrapped in thick clouds, a surreal feeling comes over you as your senses adjust to this nothingness, then suddenly you burst out and are looking down upon fields of snowy cloud rather than up at them.  In a couple of minutes I was out of the dense foggy cloud and back into sunshine; looking back in the mirror this strange cloud still sat on the road like a fat white toad, squatting, waiting, so surreal – yet only too real.

Well, I thought – how strange.  As I rounded the next hill, I looked back but couldn’t see the misty apparition at all; maybe the slope of the hill it was sitting on had obscured it.  When I got to Perigeuex I asked everyone I met for a couple of days if they too had witnessed the strange bank of dense white fog.  But no, nobody had seen it or even heard of it, same with the radio and the local Sud-Ouest, no mention of it at all.  After a couple of days I let it go, and wondered if I had been imagining it anyway – but it had been so dense, so white, and yet dark within, that it had to have been real. 

Two weeks later and a sunny Sunday morning, I decided to wash the car.  Passing the sponge over the roof I noticed small flakes of red paint in the water.  I looked more closely and there was definitely blistering on the bonnet and the roof.  Very small blisters and the undercoat was bleeding through in a few patches.  Damn, I thought, the car wasn’t that old.  And didn’t they say that cars nowadays will never need a re-spray.  A bit peeved I took it my local garage. 

“Acide”, old Antoine declared “You must have sprayed some acid on the car, quite strong too” he said. ”Look here, and here too, the bare steel is showing through”

“No Antoine”, I replied.  “I have not put acid on my car, why would I do that?”

“Maybe someone, some, how you say – Vandale? has sprayed something corrosif on your car.  But it looks like everywhere.  I am sorry mon ami, but this needs a complete stripping down and re-painting.  Leave it with me and I will get it done in a week or two.”

He kicked the front tyre “This need replacing too, look the tread is almost gone” he walked around the car “Same with all of them.  Didn’t you have new tyres last year?  Must have been a bad batch, I will check.”

Frustrated and quite worried I drove home in the old Renault Antoine let me borrow while he fixed my Citroen.  I was feeling pretty wretched as it was; I’d been suffering a bad dose of diarrhoea, and the headaches I had suffered with as a teenager had returned now in my late fifties.  I went to bed but couldn’t sleep; my skin felt as if it were on fire, I was itching all night.  I rung in sick the next day and took myself off to see Doctor Leonarde.  He said I was rundown; and gave me some ointment for my sore skin.  Complete rest he prescribed.  And I was all too happy to agree. 

I took to my bed, which I haven’t left since.  The car is actually a complete write off.  Antoine phoned and said he had resprayed it, but it was still blistering even through the new paint. 

They are taking me in for tests for cancer later today, I have lost two stone in weight and my skin is peeling so badly I am bleeding in several places, I even have blisters bursting through blisters.  So painful.  And my vision is completely blurred; my headache is now a perputual hammering in my brain, I just want to sleep all the time.  I am really quite ill.  I can’t help feeling it must have been that strange bank of white fog.  Maybe it wasn’t fog at all – but what else could it have been?  There are no chemical factories anywhere around and no-one else seems to have even seen it.  Whatever it was, it is the only explanation I can come up with.   Why else would my car have corroded so badly?  Why else would I have been struck down with this sickness so quickly.  Maybe it was just co-incidence, but I don’t really believe in co-incidence.  It is possible I have been carrying this peculiar cancer for a few years and it has only just shown itself – but how do you explain the car; even after a respray the paint is still peeling.  So, what could it have possibly been, that patch of fog?  No-one else has seen it or been affected – a complete mystery.  But more urgent is my constant pain, I really hope they find a cure soon, I cannot take much more of this. 

I am almost carried into the ambulance car by the paramedics, I am so weak I can barely walk.  Doctor Leonarde is extremely worried, he has never seen anything quite like it; he doesn’t think it is cancer but wants me to see the Specialists in Perigeuex. 

I nod off in the back but wake as the car brakes slightly and I hear the driver mutter in French “What is that just ahead, it looks like a cloud of white fog, but it is such a clear day, how strange.”  The other paramedic says “Ah Emile, it is only a slight fog, nothing to worry about.  Drive on.”

I try to knock on the glass dividing panel to warn them, I raise my arm to the glass.  But I am too weak.  I slump back exhausted. The car drives on and suddenly everything goes dark.  I doze off once more.     

Short Story – 13 – WHY

Patricia Gwendolene Joy Connolly was born on the 13th of July 1933.  We would have to consult an almanac to discover if this was a Friday; but for all the luck she had in her first few years it might as well have been.   She was a twin – though this would come as a surprise to her, because she couldn’t remember a sister, let alone a twin sister.  She had learned not to remember anything; not to remember her sister, not to remember her mother, the sainted Vera and learned also not to remember her father.  But that may not be quite right either, because maybe her father was never hers to remember at all.

And she was never told why?  Why was she separated from her sister, her twin sister? Why, at six years old, was she sent by train to a town she didn’t know?  Why was she met by a strange man who said he was her uncle?  And maybe she learnt also how not to ask the very question, why?

This is an exercise in remembering; piecing together what you were never told or have learned to forget, leaves gaps.  And you are never quite sure if you really remember what happened, or if you are remembering what you were told happened.  Such is the nature of our hesitant tread on this earth that even the heaviest footsteps get washed away by successive waves of time. And the core of stories handed down the generations gets smaller and smaller with each retelling until you are simply passing on the shadow of a baton in this long-distance relay-race.   So I am indulging here and there in a bit of fiction, a dab of decorative infill, if you will.   And who knows anyway if this version of events is any nearer the truth than anyone else’s.  We all, each in our way, have our own version of the past, which we cling to… for without it what are we indeed, but figments of someone else’s imagination.

We have to travel back, way back, into the life of Vera, Patricia’s mother, to begin to understand things.  Vera was my grandmother – and yet never my grandmother at all.  She was the only biological grandparent I would ever know.  Yet she was the one I rejected.  And for good reason too; I already had a Nana who I loved – and who loved me, unconditionally.  When Vera came along with her Astrakhan fur, and a heavy cloying reek of cigarettes and cheap cologne, and told me she was my real grandmother and that she had always loved me, she might as well have been speaking a foreign language.  Well, she had a funny accent, (Northern, I later discovered) and we were Suffolk born and bred; people from Norfolk were strangers to us, let alone from Wigan.

But who was this Vera, and is she the villain of this little piece or just another victim?

We have to go back even further to Grandma Allard.  That is my mother’s Grandma, Vera’s mother and my biological great grandmother, to find out anything about Vera.  I knew Grandma Allard, but not very well, not like my Dad’s mum, my real Nana.  This Grandma was old and crotchety, and she was ill, though I never realised this at the time.  She used to lie on an old sofa, or it might have been a chaise-longue, in the gloomy dark living room at Ipswich Road.  And she had long thin hair which she used to wind up in a plait round and round her head.  She died in 1959 when I was only 8.

This was not the house my mother was born into.  She knew nothing of its existence, or that she had a Grandma at all, or even a sister.  The first she knew was when as a thin and scrawny six-year old she was collected at Stowmarket railway station by Uncle Albert, the second youngest of Grandma Allard’s ten children, and only one of two surviving brothers, both still living at home.  If she was six, this must have been 1939, and Albert would have only been twenty-four himself.   She was perched on the crossbar of his bike and gripping the handlebars to balance herself was pedalled through the strange small town to Grandma Allard’s.

But why was she there?  Why did she not know her Grandma, or even her twin sister?   We will never know.  These secrets are buried with Vera.  My mother never asked her own mother these questions, even as she visited her every week when decades later Vera was dying of cancer.  Maybe my mother had learnt long ago not to ask.  But what we can surmise from what we know of Vera, is that, saint or victim, it was probably a result of the man she was with at the time.  Vera married four men in her life, but there were undoubtedly more.  We have a record that the first husband, Thomas Connolly, died in 1930; three years before the twins were born, though my mother was named a Connolly. So husband number two, Jack Cookson, was not on the scene yet.  Or if he was around he wasn’t acknowledged as my mother’s father.  Respectability at all costs.

The twins were born in the summer of 1933 in Southend, not so far, but far enough, away from Stowmarket.  And all of Grandma Allard’s other children had settled either in or around the town, so why did Vera move away?  But Vera was always different.  When she made contact many years later (she had been living in Wigan for years) she was as different as chalk from cheese.  And she would certainly have considered herself the cheese…so very superior to the chalky relatives she left behind.

But here is where the story gets really complicated.  Twins were born, and for reasons unknown they were separated, either at birth, or very early on.  Neither was told of the existence of the other.  But back then children were never told – no-one would have considered that appropriate at all.  One, my mother, stayed with her own mother and whatever man she was with at the time, who may or may not have been her father.  Her twin sister, Pamela, went to live with Grandma Allard.  Isn’t this peculiar, even given the quite careless way with children back then, when Aunts and Uncles routinely brought up other people’s children as their own, or you discovered that your older sister was really your mother. 

Why were the girls separated?  And the separation must have been meant to be permanent, because neither Patricia nor Pamela knew of each other’s existence.  Had there been some massive family row?  Had Vera been somehow expelled, ex-communicated, shoved away from the family.  Or was it Vera, who had for whatever reason deposited one half of the twins with her mother and then disappeared from sight with the other, Patricia?  And she didn’t see them for years; we have to wonder if she ever wrote to enquire about Pamela, and later about the other twin she had abandoned or if she just left them, only to turn up years later, like an undoubted bad penny.    

When Grandma Allard died in 1959, Uncle Albert, who now, if not earlier, had taken over the role of guardian of the family, showed my mother an old newspaper clipping which Grandma Allard had saved.  It was from the News of the World, and my mother had been featured as ‘the girl in the cupboard’. 

She had been kept in a cupboard.  And been rescued and placed in a Dr. Barnado’s home.  How long she was in the cupboard we do not know.  Or by whom?  Was it Vera’s man or Vera herself?  Unless we find the newspaper report we will never know, and of course even if we do it may not tell us much more than we already know. 

It doesn’t really matter.  I like to blame Vera, maybe because I never liked her, despite her being my blood relative, but possibly she was just a victim of someone else’s cruelty.  But she must have known, and why didn’t she stop him?  Why didn’t Vera take my mother out of the cupboard?  I cannot help thinking she must have had a particularly selfish and callous streak; firstly to have agreed to the separation of the girls, and secondly to have either commissioned, or sanctioned this cruelty inflicted on her little girl.

And why is my mother’s only memory of that time one of darkness and a card with a rose on it?  The darkness is easy – this would be the cupboard, maybe an under-stairs cupboard, or, worse to imagine, a small kitchen cupboard.  The darkness and the cramped conditions and the smells, maybe of old coats, or tins of paint, or polish, or just tired dirty air, and the sounds all muffled, and maybe the worst sound of all.  The sound of someone opening the cupboard door may have been the most dreaded sound of all.  But what is intriguing is the card with the rose on it.  Because she remembers darkness we must assume that the cupboard had no light, but maybe just enough managed to creep in through the cracks or under the door to lighten her little prison cell enough to see a few hazy shapes.  And what she saw was the card with the rose on it.  Maybe a Valentine from one of Vera’s admirer’s, or maybe just a nice picture which Vera had kept and put away in the cupboard, along with all the other things Vera wished she could forget about.  

And we will never know why.  Why was my mother separated from her twin?  Why was she kept in a cupboard?  Vera is long gone and Uncle Albert of course, and my mother’s sister Pamela died a few years ago.  My mother says she has forgotten all about these early years, she only remembers living with her Grandma.  And so I have written this little piece these many years later.  And I am no nearer knowing why either.

Short Story – 12 – THE TEA PARTY

And now for a spot of humour – inspired by Viv Stanshall

Florid and flaxen-fair, fleetingly floating, filmy and flimsy as a fluttering fritillary, Felicity Cholmondley-Brown, fragrant and flighty at forty-five, with features like finely threaded filigree, ‘fol-de-roled’ her fleet-footed and faltering way through the flowery fronds and front lawn of Cholmondly-Bottom, ancestral fiefdom of the feudal Cholmondlys for four hundred and forty years. 

Her mind, as usual, was miles away – re-living her student days in the early Nineties in Paris; dark basement cafes on the Left Bank, sinking into the silky embrace of some Alain Delon look-a-like, smoking Sobrainie cigarettes and listening as yet another budding Jacques Brel plucks discordant chords from an out-of-tune guitar.  ‘Ah well, never mind,’ she thought, ‘those wonderful days are over now.  I must hurry and gather these blooms, for it is almost four and guests will soon be arriving for the tea party.’

Meanwhile, in brown tweed plus-fours in his equally brown study, Sir Cheriton Cholmondley-Brown, eighty and invariably inebriated, was ripping up Pizza Delivery leaflets with barely supressed glee. “Why the buggers should have the audacity to walk up my mile-long drive and deliver them I’ll never know.  If I want a ‘pizza’ I get my charwallah, RamJam, to make me a nice Rogan Josh stuffed Nan.” Sadly, he had missed the actual delivers as he was occupied in chasing two Jehovah Witnesses round the estate, pausing only to refill his shotgun.  Sir Cheriton, known colloquially as Cherry-Chum, had brought his manservant and cook back from his time in India, but had never bothered to ask the ‘brown-blighter’ his name, merely referring to him as ‘RamJam.’

The door-bell rang and old Scrotum, wrinkled retainer, faithful factotum and general dogsbody, wheezed his way to the door.  It was Major and Mrs Honiton and their son Raiph, closely followed and almost overshadowed by, Winifred Sloane; a large lady of even larger opinions.  As she sat, or rather, collapsed, into an ornate antique armchair, the springs groaned, as did Sir Cheriton.  She exhaled, and suddenly her voluminous breasts broke free from their ill-fitting and cantilevered brassiere – like exploding airbags.  They descended, swinging pendulously inside her semi-transparent blouse.  Turning his gaze away reluctantly, Sir Cheriton glanced outside at his small herd of prize Freisian dairy cows.  Cherry trusted nobody to milk these but himself, and his hands were already twitching rhythmically as he murmured to himself “I’d love to get my hands on those udders.”

His wife was chattering away like some infernal songbird to the guests.  Cherry, deaf to almost all entreaty, managed to filter out her squeaky voice – ‘At least she isn’t one of those niggly-moaning old nags like my first wife.’ he reminisced.  ‘Had to have her put away in that asylum in the end, cost a few bob, but worth it to silence the wretched woman.’  He had really had her committed because of her incessant sex-drive, ‘Why, the woman wanted me to impregnate her more than once a month.  What did she think I was?  I was barely sober even then, a miracle I could raise another glass let alone anything else.’

Eventually, he had resorted to having RamJam sleep on her bedroom floor to stop her nightly pestering’s.  He could never quite understand how it took three and a half years since he last ‘invaded her underwear’, for his beautiful dark-haired and olive-skinned daughter Laetitia to be born.  He had some idea it was supposed to only be nine months, or was that elephants?  ‘Biology, never a strong suit.’  He glanced over at his dusky daughter who sat, simply cross-legged on the floor, a look of benign pleasure and inner knowledge spreading across her placid features, occasionally broken by her deep uttering of “Ohm” “Ohm”.   ‘Lord knows what she sees in that’ Cherry thought to himself, ‘Give me a pint of gin any day – if it’s ‘O-bloody-blivion’ you are seeking.’

Sir Cheriton’s slightly confused musings were broken by the arrival of the twin girls by his marriage to Felicity.  Jenny and Gwenny, just 16 and giggling uncontrollably after consuming a litre of vodka in their bedroom, flounced into the parlour.  Their mother smiled and asked how their Art lesson had gone that day – their Rastafarian Art teacher, Moses (nickname of Legs) Akimbo, having left an hour earlier.  “Oh, great fun” said Jenny.  “Yes, we had a wonderful time” said Gwenny, giving her sister a conspiratorial wink.  Sir Cheriton couldn’t understand why Felicity had ever ‘let that Blackie into the house’, but times were changing, he had to regret – though Cherry’s politics, being slightly to the right of Attilla the Hun, he still hankered after Empire.  “Look what we gave India” he declared “Civilisation, Gentlemen’s clubs, Gin, er, Gin Rummy and, well… lots of stuff.  All they ever gave us was flies and syphilis.”  This reminded him that he really must renew his season ticket with the local VD clinic.

“I suppose you call that Art” he said, pointing at the huge abstract canvas propped up against the sideboard. “I can’t see what it’s supposed to be at all; you might as well all three of you have rolled around naked in the paint for all the skill I can see in it.” 

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous Daddy” said Jenny.  “Really Daddy, what sort of girls do you think we are?” joined in Gwenny, tugging furiously and rather belatedly at her mini-skirt, which, riding up her shapely thighs, revealed a few multicoloured daubs and a thong not much bigger than a postage stamp.

“What-ho, Cherry old Chum” said the Major.

“What?” replied Sir Cheriton.  “Oh Yes, What-ho Major”

Felicity called Scrotum over and asked him what he had been doing that afternoon, as he was still in his farm clothes.  “Well ma’am, I’se been helpin’ old Ben the Boar with the Sows.  He be gettin a bit old now and can’t quite get his corkscrew into the cork these days, so he needs a helpin’ hand like.”

“In that case, before handing round the Sandwiches would you like to….wash your hands?”

“Oh, I already done that Ma’am, up aginst a tree in the yard.”

Suddenly, Sir Cheriton leapt from his chair and yelled “Good Lord, there are two simpering Nancy-boys on the lawn.  Scrotum, get my gun and make sure both barrels are loaded.”

Felicity ran to his side and re-assured Cherry that it was simply the new Vicar and his young Curate, both, gaily dressed in striped blazers, white flannels and wide floral ties as, straw boaters askew, they minced their way to the house. ‘Vicar? Well I’ll be buggered’ thought Cherry, ‘or probably will be if I ever go to that church again.’  He simply muttered “What’s the matter with them, anyone would think they were still at Eton, dressed up all girlie like that.  Should have outgrown that nonsense years ago, like I had to.” 

“What?” queried the Major.

“What ho Major” replied Cherry with a wave of his hand, this sufficing for them both as conversation.  He glanced over at the spread of delicacies and spotted a large bowl of curried quails eggs in lime pickle.  He had been blocked up for a week now and his eyes were watering at the sight. “That’ll shift things I should think, give me the right liquorice.” he muttered “knock a few balls round the billiard table on their way out too, I expect.”  Sir Cheriton daily spent an inordinate amount of time in his private lavatory, equipped as it was with a small freezer for his toilet rolls. 

Winifred Sloane waddled across the room like some oversized hippopotamus to greet the two churchmen.  “So nice to have a young and civilised vicar and your handsome curate as well, it has saved the parish money too, as you are both living at the vicarage. Single young men, so vibrant, so colourful, and no girlfriends either. What joy.”

“Scrotum” bellowed Sir Cheriton, “Have you been helping yourself to my barrel of gin in the cellar, damn thing’s nearly empty, the tanker only filled it up last week.”

“No Sir,” hacked old Scrotum, “Me doesn’t like the stuff.  Gives me the right colly-wobbles. I’se a scrumpy man meself.  Oh yes, scrumpy-dumpy for me.”. as he danced deliriously on the spot.

“More tea Major, or Mrs Honiton?” asked Felicity.

“Actually.” Mrs Honiton, a small bird-like creature tweeted, “I’m not sure where Raiph, our son has got to.”

“Oh, the girls are just showing him their art-work upstairs in the studio, nothing to worry about.”

“But he is so impressionable” she chirruped “he really knows nothing about Art, or anything really. Such an innocent boy.”

The conversation subsided, Winifred Sloane was showing the two brightly clad ecclesiasts Sir Cheriton’s large collection of stuffed hunting trophies; she, leaning slightly back to counterbalance the weight of her enormous mammalian protuberances threatening to pull her over.  “Look at the size of that horn” said the vicar. “Mmmm, yeeeess” smirked the curate, rather enviously.  Cherry, having finished off the entire bowl of devilled quails eggs, excused himself and scurried upstairs in somewhat of a panic.

Felicity looked around, the room almost deserted, the remaining sandwiches already curling at the edges and the chocolate cake barely touched – the only sound, a deep occasional “Ohm” from Leatitia still seated sphinx-like on the floor.

The major and his wife rose muttering “Great success Mrs Cherry, great success.  Now where is that boy, Raiph?”

A scurrying sound and a few loud bangs accompanied by raucous laughter came from the staircase, and Raiph eventually emerged, red-faced but smiling, his lipstick smudged shirt-tail flapping ominously outside his trousers. 

As Sir Cheriton belched, grunted, and reached for another frozen toilet roll, the sound of his stentorian farting could be heard half-way down the mile-long drive.

Felicity wandered out again, her mind drifting gently back to Montmatre meanderings, moules et frites and moustachioed, muscle-bound Monsieurs, tall, dark and have-some.  ‘Still’ she thought, ‘everyone seems to have enjoyed themselves – which is really the secret of a successful tea-party. Till next week then.’