Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’

Close followers of the blog will know that I occasionally enter short story competitions around the globe, ‘subject matter various’. So far I have copped a few finalist guernseys but am yet to win one – but, you know Dear Reader, nothing ventured …

One Finalist award last year was in the excellent Literary Taxidermy competition, where in a wonderfully quirky set up the writers are given the first line and the last line of a famous novel and told to fill in the bit in the middle – last year was Fahrenheit 451. To read that story, buy the anthology here or in any good bookstore.

This year the story prompt was from “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, (incidentally the basis of a great new TV series loosely based on the novel), and the stories had to begin with the words “124 was spiteful.” And they had to end with the word “Beloved.”, and be no more than 2,500 words long.

Although the 36 stories that got an “Honourable Mention” did not make it into the final anthology, they all reached the penultimate round of selection, which the judges said was as a result of “impressing our many readers”. So while it’s nice to win every time, it’s also nice to get recognised in this way.

Interestingly, yhe competition was won by another Melburnian, Amanda le Bas de Plumetot, with her story “Cornucopia”. Congratulations to her!

Here’s my entry. Enjoy.

LOVE STORY

124 was spiteful.

Still spiteful, after all this time.

A well of bile and defiance which never ran dry.

He honestly didn’t know why 124 kept it up. Most of the others had been tamed by the continual threats of sudden violence and the total loss of control over their own lives. They were mainly intellectuals. University types. Some businessmen. And various people of power and authority. Even an ex Government minister who had somehow avoided being shot. But while they inevitably subsided into morose submission, 124 retained his nasty edge.

He was sly. He would communicate welcome signs of acquiescence, then suddenly snarl a carefully considered insult, always designed to cut to the quick.

Usually it was about how a man such as he obviously was – a man of erudition, education and compassion – could square away working as a warden in a place like this.

How had he salved his conscience? What did he tell his children he did during the day? How would he feel if his child or mother or friend hung from these dank walls?

Usually he just ignored the jibe, but the truth in 124’s questions hurt. Stung him. He longed to shout that he was as much a prisoner of circumstance as the prisoner himself, because it was not as if the guards had any choice in their assignment. To refuse to serve in the jail was to risk being added to the list of inmates. Not just him, but his family, too.

So he accepted his lot, and tried to do his job without unnecessary cruelty. Lord knew there were more than enough guards in there who reveled in the excesses that their petty kingdoms granted them. In reality, he and the prisoners he tended to were locked in a ghastly embrace not of their making.

Sometimes 124 would let slip information about his life before. He had been a tailor to the great and mighty, creating suits of the finest weft and weave, and crisp khaki uniforms for the Generals. His store in the old town had been well-known – to shop there was to mark oneself as a man of means, and visiting it proclaimed you as a man who did not fear to rub shoulders with regime insiders.

He adopted an air of injured obsequiousness with his clients, as if no-one could truly appreciate his endless labouring for perfection, the results of which were exquisitely fitting clothing with a finish finer than from anywhere else in the City. He would quietly bemoan his failing eyesight and tortured fingers, clucking like an old hen as he moved around the customer making a chalk mark here, inserting a pin there. He would speak sharply to an endless retinue of young male assistants, berating them if they ever moved at anything less than a brisk trot.

He served his customers honey cakes and sweet tea, as was the custom. And, if they asked for it, a single malt lowland whiskey which was secretly shipped to him inside the bolts of cloth from Scotland, served in innocent china mugs for discretion.

Come the revolution, he had been vacuumed up with anyone who had associated with the previous regime. His store was ransacked, and he was incarcerated without anything resembling a fair trial. One of his many assistants babbled that he had often been seen speaking quietly with a secret policeman or officer or politician, his confidences unheard but his manner furtive. Another mentioned the shoe box of cash secreted under the counter, carefully husbanded against a rainy day. During the Terror, that testimony was more than enough for the tribunal. In less than ten minutes it was agreed that he had been informing, likely as not, and hoarding currency to boot. Either could have seen him tied to a post in some courtyard somewhere, blinking in the dawn sun, but as it was, he was flung into jail and forgotten about.

He became “124”.

The number was written in chalk above his head, where he stood or slumped against the bluestone wall, chained by one wrist. In reality, the metal ring and chain was a needless cruelty, as no one had ever escaped from the dungeon under the citadel in the 1200 years since it had first been built by the Crusaders as a forward post. The guard had counted eleven locked doors between the prisoner and the outside world, every one of which was double manned. And no one could tunnel out from any of the cells, as the walls were fifteen feet thick and plunged deep into the ground below the levels the prisoners were held on, and below that there was solid rock.

Prisoners never left their cells, using a steel bucket for their ablutions, which they emptied into a hole in the floor that was the entrance to a hugely long pipe not wide enough for a man’s shoulders to pass through, and which the guards would hose down weekly.

One baleful lightbulb burned in the centre of the room, night and day.

He had a small metal plate, and a single spoon, which he would present to the guard daily for what passed for food in the prison.

He often mused that he would have altogether preferred to have been shot like the others, rather than endure his prisoner’s life. Get it over and done with. 124 had told him once that he would have preferred that, too. He said he would seriously consider killing himself, except as he wore no clothes he couldn’t twist them and hang himself, nor could he contemplate pushing the spoon’s handle into his eye. “Maybe you could do it for me?” he had asked the guard. “You don’t care whether we live or die, or you wouldn’t be here. Could you help me die? Just make it look like I did it, eh?”

The guard had shaken his head sadly and turned away. “See! You’re a coward!”

124’s cries rang down the corridor after him. “You are not a man. You are a coward!”

Laying in bed that night, listening to his wife and daughter sleeping, he knew it to be true. He was a coward in many ways. He had thought of trying to drive over the border, but knew that to do so without good reason would be to invite a bullet to the head from the militia. He knew some who had tried and made it, and some who had tried and disappeared. He knew he did not have the courage to take the risk.

Except, he thought to himself, in times like these, even just to survive took courage. To get up, eat some bread and fruit, go to work, endure the scenes of degradation and fear, and then return home, forcing a smile to his face as he enquired after the girl’s schoolwork, or whether his wife had seen her mother that day. To simply continue with the daily round took all his strength.

Sometimes he wanted to run into the crowded street with its sellers of trinkets and foodstuffs and threw his head back and simply scream. Suck in deep lungfuls of warm, fetid air and scream out his agony. But he knew that to do so would bring his own arrest, and see him shipped to a re-education camp, or worse.

So he endured. Day after grinding day, he endured.

Then there was a day when he walked into the cell, carefully choosing a time when no other guards would disturb them, away from mealtimes or washing the cell, placed a metal chair inside and closed the door quietly behind him. He waited for 124 to look up and engage him. And when he did, he spoke quietly.

“Why do you attack me with your insults and sneering?” the guard asked. “I have never done anything to hurt you. I did not put you here. You must know I do not want to be here. I am a road worker. I lay asphalt. They make me be here. With any other guard, if you spoke to them the way you speak to me, you would be beaten, or worse. Why do you force your anger on me?”

 124 sat a little more upright, and studied him, then answered politely.

“You are all I see on any day. After the interrogations, they chained me here, and I have seen no-one but you. I have done nothing wrong, yet they leave me here to rot. I am becoming weaker. I will die here, never having seen the sun again. An injustice has been done to me.” He gestured to the wall with his head. “They have even taken my name away. This insult must be answered, or I will go mad. So tell me: who should I be rude to, if not you?”

The guard considered carefully.

“But I am a prisoner here as much as you. Shedding your anger onto me is unjust. I treat you courteously, and do not inflict needless unkindness. Should you not treat me more kindly in return? They broke a man’s leg the other day because he swore at them. And they have not set it. I think he may die from pain and sepsis. I do not behave like this, do I?”

124 looked at him with a blank expression. After a long while, he spoke intently.

“But you are complicit in their wickedness. You are not the worst of the worse, but you are here, are you not? Yes, you treat me with common courtesy, perhaps, but how is that adequate redress for what has been done to me? You are a lackey. You are no different to the Kapos who shovelled the bodies into the crematoriums in the Nazi death camps, in return for the right to live a few weeks longer. Yes, perhaps your guilt is a little less, by degree, but no more. You are a log in the wall of the state they have erected. You are but a cog in the machine, and you allow yourself to be used by that machine. Your very submission to them is endorsement of what they do. This is why I insult you. What else can I do? It is the only way that I can resist. And if I do not resist, then I am complicit, too. Am I not?

He gestured to the man sitting on the chair.

“It is not personal. You are there.” Then he rattled his chain. “And I am here.”

124 shrugged. He left.

That night, he lay very still, pretending to sleep, and thought about what had been said to him. His eyes stared at the ceiling above him, though he saw nothing. Around four in the morning he rose and made himself a cup of tea. His wife found him sitting at the table nursing the cup hours later. She went to him in concern, for it was obvious he had been crying. But no matter how she urged him, he would not tell her what was wrong. Eventually he washed himself in their small bathroom, and left for work. Before leaving he kissed his wife and daughter and looked into their faces tenderly.

Walking to the jail, he made two small purchases. When he arrived, he engaged the front desk sergeant in conversation about the previous evening’s football game, because he knew the sergeant cared for his team more than life itself. He agreed it had been a hard fought battle, but the sergeant’s team had won through with superior fitness and effort. He moved on to his duties still able to feel the sensation of the sergeant’s firm handshake.

124 looked up as he came in. It was cold in the cell in the early morning, and he shivered. Later it would be unbearably hot. That was the way of it.

He spoke firmly.

“I have been considering what you said to me yesterday,” he announced. “And I have decided I must do more to help you. You know you will never be allowed out of here?”

124 looked up, surprised at this development. He shrugged and nodded. He knew it.

“They cannot risk you telling what you have seen here. And they have no interest in you anyway. They may kill you, as they have hung many at the main prison, in groups I am told, or you may simply be left here. Actually, they may have forgotten you.”

He paused, fingering the chalk in his pocket.

“What is your name?”

124 looked down, sadness in his eyes. His voice, when it came, was very different to his usual bitter tone. He almost whispered.

“It is Saleem Muhammed, good sir. Mr Muhammed. Named after my father: he was Saleem too. All the men in my family are called Saleem.”

He walked forward, and with his sleeve he rubbed out the “124” on the wall above the prisoner’s head. Then he carefully wrote Saleem Muhammed on the wall and stepped back.

“Like this?” he enquired, pointing to the wall. 124 turned and looked where he had written.

“Yes,” he said,” in wonderment. “Just like that.”

The guard let the piece of wood secreted in the sleeve of his shirt descend into his hand, and before 124 turned back to him he brought it down on the back of his head with all the strength he could muster. When the prisoner fell, he ignored the blood and brains spattering on his legs and kept hitting him. He kept beating his head until eventually he felt sure the thing was finished.

When he went back to the Sergeant, he explained that 124 had obviously found a piece of chalk from somewhere and engaged in forbidden behaviour by writing his name on the wall. He had then been insulting to the guard, using foul language. He had no alternative but to punish him severely, but he feared he might have killed him.

His superior inspected the scene and accepted without question that a piece of wood had been lying nearby and had conveniently come to hand.

“He deserved it,” he observed sourly, and rubbed out the name that the guard had written there just a little while before. How fleeting had been 124’s dignity, the guard thought.

“We’ll get rid of him. Go clean up. Take the rest of the day off. You did right. Didn’t think you had it in you. Well done.”

He gratefully accepted the offer.

At home, he reassured his wife and child that the blood was not his, and all was well. He offered no further explanation, and they knew he would not. But when he was clean and changed, he held his wife’s face in his hands hand and gently murmured:

 “You are my world. You and the child. My whole world. Please never forget that.”

He paused. This was unlike him, he knew.

“You are …

He struggled to say it just right.

“Beloved.”

 

My mother’s character was forged early, when she left school at 14 and somehow forgot to tell her parents.

Rather than attend Mrs Llewellyn’s Academy for Young Ladies she spent her days tramping the black hills above Swansea for a view over the shining bay, when the rain relented long enough to do so, or down at the docks watching fishing boats unloading their catch. Sometimes she would patrol the centre of the town, admiring the new “flapper” dresses in the shop windows.

She figured she wasn’t learning anything that would be any help in life’s coming endeavours. She had no interest in discovering how to comport herself to good effect at a middle-class cocktail party full of silly boys who laughed too loud and coughed over their Craven As, and even less enthusiasm for delving into the mysteries of creating a Crème brûlée for some future husband.

She did not make a fuss, just quietly absented herself. And as her father kept paying the fees, so no one from the Academy bothered Mr Reynolds as to why Betty’s chair was empty. Such an indiscrete enquiry would have been considered infra dig. Her wayward wanderings were only discovered when her mother was walking home clutching another bottle of nerve tonic after one of her regular visits to a local physician who never hesitated to relieve her of a shilling for needless consultations, and she happened to discover Betty skipping stones on Cwmdonkin Reservoir.

The confrontation with her father over her behaviour lasted a little over ten minutes. “I am not going back, and you can’t make me.” She pursed her lips with obdurate certainty. Her father looked at her resignedly. He had never thought it worthwhile educating the girl anyway, and had only reluctantly agreed to satisfy his wife, who had some notion that it was the modern thing to do. “You can’t just moon around doing nothing,” he argued. “I won’t,” she said. “I’ll come work in the shop.”

The fishmonger looked at her balefully – he enjoyed escaping to the little shop in Sketty every day, without the responsibilities of dealing with the females in his family for a few hours. And he knew his wife would play merry hell over the thought of the girl standing behind the counter. On the other hand, he knew the girl could be trusted, and was quick-witted. “I can’t pay you much,” he said, doubtfully. “Whatever you can manage,” she replied, smiling. And so it was done.

She took to the work immediately. Her peaceable manner quieted her worrying father and went down well with customers. She seemed to have a natural instinct for those who could be trusted to take some food “on tic” till next payday, and very rarely got that judgement wrong. The gratitude of those customers struggling to survive what they were now calling The Great Depression was palpable. Her father even took to enjoying a quiet pint of a lunchtime at The Vivian on Gower Road, where he would catch up with old comrades from the trenches who, like him, had somehow survived the carnage at Ypres. The lick of gas had left him perennially short-breathed, but some had got it worse. Billy had been blinded, after all. They would talk, and sometimes a runner would take half-a-crown to the local bookie, but only when he knew the business could stand it.

Back at the shop, Betty bobbed and weaved, enjoying the responsibility, and became adept at totting up lists of figures on a scrap of paper, and blindingly quickly. It was a skill that never left her, at least until her mind failed into her dotage, and a useful talent which she eventually passed to me. To this day I surprise work colleagues and my own family with my capacity to glance at a column of figures and deliver an approximation of the total in moments, accurate to within a few pennies at least. Give me a pencil and paper and I’ll give you the exactly right answer in seconds. “Thank the fish,” I sometimes grin, obscurantly.

She married, and moved. But my father died of a massive coronary when I was just two, worn out by six years on destroyers in the second war, ultimately the victim of too many fags and one too many scotches. There wasn’t any money, and she adapted to life as an impoverished single mother with the same resolute and unfussed purpose that she applied to all the other areas of her life. Stoicism was her watchword. She just got on, and did.

Despite the pressure cooker existence of being a single mother with a precocious only child, she and I rarely argued, mostly because early on I worked out it was a pointless exercise.

Once her mind was made up, it was unmade so rarely as to be a news event, and in turn her mulish stubbornness had been passed down to me.

We took it in turns to ignore the adopted position of the other, always moving the conversation onto safer ground when argument loomed. It was, thus, an unproductive relationship by modern standards, but a peaceful one. Where today parents and children would be urged to “have it out” and “find common ground”, we simply left patches of emotional turf unexplored.

She rarely cracked the whip, except when I reached the fringes of adulthood, and then only ever over the time I was due home, as she used to say she had enough to worry about without lying in bed concerned I had crashed the Triumph Herald on the way back from the pub.

Eleven meant eleven. The cold stare I received if I rolled the little white car down the drive at ten past the hour was too high a price for an extra ten minutes of freedom.

And if I was ever going out for a drink she would warn me, as if by rote, against drinking scotch. “It doesn’t agree with the men in our family,” she would intone solemnly. “You do as you like, boy, but I tell you I always knew when your father came back from the pub if he’d been drinking whisky, just by the look on his face. It doesn’t agree with our men.”

She was right. It didn’t. And much as I love a peaty, oaky single malt, to this day I always ration myself to one or two at most. I can guzzle a crisp bottle of Chardonnay, smash down a vodka or three, and above all drown myself in good, chewy bitter ale with the best of them. But if I drink too much scotch, my head is thicker than usual, and my mood next day is always one of black despair. She knew things.

She ignored my choice of women, figuring it was none of her business, and only tut-tutted mildly at my occasional business misadventures. “Better to give it a go,” was her placid judgement.

There was really only one disagreement that echoed down the years between Betty and me.

It grew from what she regarded as her encyclopaedic knowledge of fish, and a defiant desire on my part to win one argument – just one – on her home territory.

It began one Christmas, when we received our customary creaking crate of fresh fish delivered to our local railway station from Uncle Ken, her brother, who still worked his stand on the docks in Swansea, buying the catch wholesale and shipping it to hotels all over the country in rough hewn planks packed with newspaper and ice.

This was long before the days of refrigerated transport, of course. By the time the crate arrived it would always be showing signs of melting, and smelling strongly. But if the railways managed to get it to us overnight, the fish inside was still fresh enough to add a touch of luxury to our otherwise somewhat bare Christmas feasts. Usually a cod, from Iceland, maybe a ling or two from down Cornwall way, perhaps some langoustines from Scotland or Brittany, and always a sea trout – or sewin as the Welsh call it – Salmo trutta cambricus – because that was her special favourite. Brown trout that had escaped the river for the open sea, and were richer and deeper in colour and flavour as a result.

She would nestle the gleaming silvery fish lovingly in her hands, often three or four pounds in weight, and show me that the mouth of the sea trout is slightly longer than the salmon, reaching behind the line of the eye. At that time of year they often turned up in nets off the North Wales coast, or were caught on lines as they returned to their home river to spawn. She would explain how despite its pink flesh, the real difference between salmon and sea trout is in the taste. “It feeds like a salmon on whatever the ocean has to offer – often small crabs and things – it looks likes salmon, but it will always taste like a trout.”

She would smile in delight. “It always tastes of the river, wherever it’s been.”

The white fish she would bake in a pie with leeks and a potato and cheese crust. Langoustines would be saved for a Boxing Day party with the Sedwells from next door, made merry by a naughty second glass of sherry before lunch, and then helped along with the luxury of a bottle of Mateus Rosé as we cracked the shells, praying our thanks for Ken’s generosity, and afterwards there was always an obligatory game of Pontoon, but for matches only, as Betty didn’t hold with gambling.

But the sewin was always carefully sliced into neat parcels wrapped in greaseproof paper, carefully husbanded to provide her with a few meals, and piece by piece in the coming few days a fillet would be braised on the stovetop for her private lunch, always served with impossibly thinly sliced but thickly buttered Hovis bread. She would eat it alone, at the little lino-topped kitchen table, chewing slowly, with a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes.

Our disagreement came when one year Ken dispatched some skate in the crate.

“Ugh”, she muttered. “Skate. Why on earth would he send us skate?”

I looked at the curious ՙwings’ of fish lying sodden against a background of racing results and a weather report for the Swansea Valley. They were about the size of my spread hand, thicker at the top than the bottom, with curious ridges running the length of the fillets.

“What is it?” I asked, intrigued.

Her lip curled ever so slightly contemptuously. Skate, she opined, was not something that should ever be seen at a polite table. “They’re ’orrible ugly buggers, for one” she said, explaining how the stingray-like fish sometimes came up in the deep nets on the edge of the continental shelf. “Good for cat food, is all.  You have to throw most of the fish away, and they stink of ammonium sometimes, too. All you get are these little bits.” She gestured at the wings with distaste. “Why on earth would he send us this? ’Spect he couldn’t sell it anywhere else.”

Something about her untypical annoyance encouraged a little devilment in me. “We should cook it though, yeah?” I pointed to the clock. “It’s near lunchtime, anyway. How bad can it be, eh? It’s a meal.”

She looked irritated. “The Sedwell’s cat can have it. I wouldn’t thank you for it.”

I persisted. “That’s a waste, Mam. ‘Waste not, want not’ you’re always saying. We should give it a go. How do you cook it, then?”

She picked up the little parcel and thrust it at me. “Stick it in a pan and fry it up with a bit of fat if you must. But I don’t want any.” She scowled.

I chuckled and grabbed an old pan and melted a knob of butter in it. She watched my out of the corner of her eye, and I whistled a few notes, pretending I didn’t know she was watching. I used the Welsh Shir Gȃr from Camarthenshire, as she had treated herself to a pat because it was Christmas, although I found it far too salty.

“You make sure you get it cooked,” she grumbled, “got to be cooked right through.” Despite herself, she glanced at the pan. “See that pink bit? You don’t want that. Hasn’t been bled proper.” And she got the butter knife and carved a small portion off one of the fillets and threw it away, murmuring “Skate” to herself disapprovingly as she did.

The wings browned nicely, and when the fillets were flipped so the ridges were pan side down, that side crisped agreeably, too, although I hadn’t floured them. I flipped a little butter over them, and turned them out onto a plate.

“Mum, “ I urged with my first mouthful, “this is delicious. Really. Try a piece.”

When pressed, she accepted the tiniest morsel of milky-white flesh from me on a fork, and daintily popped it in her mouth. Then turned away, and mumbled “Skate” again, making a disapproving clucking noise. Nothing I could say would induce her to try any more, although I was ploughing through the delicately flavoured flesh at a rate of knots. “You enjoy it, boy”, she said, “if you like it. But it’s not for me. No, thank you very much.”

And no matter how I pushed her for why she didn’t like it, nothing else was forthcoming. Which was her all over, truth be told.

As the years past, and the humble skate metamorphosed into the poisson du jour for so many food experts and critics, her implacable opinion never wavered. I sat her down once in front of a television and made her watch some famous chef produce a clutch of wings in brown butter, with some deep-green baby beans. A picture on a plate. “Not for me,” she insisted, with a steely tone.  And changed the subject.

Towards the end, her mind went walkabout. She would confuse me with my father, grumbling that I hadn’t fixed the side gate yet. She would worry who was minding the shop she had stopped working in 70 years earlier.

One day, the nurse said she was being “difficult”, and would I mind popping in to calm her? And as I made my way into her room, she was banging a fork on her tray, clearly agitated.

“Skate!” she cried at me when she saw me come in. “Skate! Not for me boy, you can take this away. Give it to the cat.” And she pushed the table towards the end of her bed on its roller feet, glaring at me.

She died the next day. 93.

Just sat up in bed, apparently, insisting it was time for a nice cup of tea, then fell backward again, and that was it.

She was a determined woman, my mother, who ate a lot of fish.

But not skate.

No, thank you very much.

 

Copyright Stephen Yolland, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Good day, Dear Reader

We were recently thrilled, not to say mildly amazed, to have a short story which we wrote almost on the off chance, selected as a finalist for the prestigious Ada Cambridge prize at the well known WillyLitFest.

It was our first time ever submitting a story to anything, so now, of course, we will submit endlessly to prizes all over the world, not to say publishers, and probably get knocked back by every one, but in the meantime we will bask in the misapprehension that all one has to do is write and enter, and all will be well.

Many people have asked if they could read the story, which is published along with all the other shortlisted and winning poetry and stories. But for anyone who can’t get to Williamstown to buy a copy, here is my story. It has been professionally edited, so any mistakes are mine alone.

The Blitz in Swansea

SCARLET NIGHTS

The woman emerged slowly from under­­ the corrugated roof of the Anderson shelter. The dawn light was barely discernible over to the east – a lick of paint along the edge of the clouds that spread across Swansea Bay like a dirty counterpane, towards where she knew the docks would already be rousing themselves.

The sky lowered an ugly black, and she shivered, despite wearing two jumpers under her thick woollen overcoat. It had been threatening to snow for days, and yesterday there had been momentary sleet as well as the endless drizzle and rain.

She looked at the soil banked up on the sides of the shelter.British convoy attacked

He’d done a good job of it, home on leave for those four days at Christmas, though a day of that was lost travelling up and down from Plymouth.

She’d hugged him tightly, chiding him, though, for making the journey, telling him he should have stayed in Plymouth with his mates and had a couple of days in the pub. He just laughed quietly and told her he’d never do that.

All he’d thought about on the convoys across the Atlantic was making it through to see her again, and the boy. She’d expected him to just take it easy and eat whatever she managed to pull together to spoil him for a Christmas lunch, but he’d shared a small celebratory whisky with her and then gone straight to the back garden, and started burying the new shelter in soil, hacking away at the stone-hard ground with a pick-axe.

After a day, the rest of the garden was effectively destroyed, but the shelter had its extra layer of protection.

Then Christmas Day intervened, and she insisted he go to the Prince of Wales for a pint while she prepared a chicken she had near-begged from her distant cousin the butcher, with all her meat coupons for a month, and a none-too-subtle appeal to family loyalty.

anderson shelterOn Boxing Day, he disappeared for an hour and came back with seedlings of cabbage and Brussels sprouts, and showed her how to keep them warm in punnets in the conservatory for a little while, and told her when to transplant them to the roof and sides of the shelter. And then he was gone again, back to the grey waves and hunting U-boats, his shy smile playing on his face in her memory. She had planted the vegetables, and prayed they would take. Food was getting scarce, and the boy was painfully thin. Despite the bite in the wind, it looked as if some of them might make it, at least.

She heard a cry and hurried back to the shelter. The boy had been grizzling; he had been awake most of the night before falling asleep just an hour ago. He definitely had a fever, since the previous morning she thought, and it seemed to be no better despite her giving him doses of aspirin powder mixed in a little milk. Feeling his forehead with the back of her hand, she was now alarmed. It was even more clammy, and hot.

She lifted him from under the blanket with ease, his tiny body belying his seven months, and rocked him gently, but he just cried. She dipped a cloth in a mug of water and wiped his head, but he shook it and turned it away from her. So she opened the door to the shelter a crack with her shoulder, and sat down with him again, willing the cool air to make him feel more comfortable.

She moved back with him into the mock Tudor-timbered semi-detached home. She loved the little circular close with its matching houses, though she never imagined she would live there alone for any length of time. The windows hid their secrets behind the white chintz. She was but a stone’s throw from the lawn tennis club where she had played almost every day as a teenager, and St Paul’s and Holy Trinity Anglican Church within whose dank medieval walls she took solace, but days like this she felt very lonely. She made herself a cup of tea, taking care to warm the pot as her mother had taught her, and stared helplessly at the little lad turning fitfully in his cot, still crying.

When she had finished, and washed and replaced the cup on the tall boy, and leaving him in his cot still crying but near, it seemed, to exhaustion, she went next door and knocked tentatively. She didn’t know Isabella Jones well, but she knew she was a nurse at Singleton Hospital, and so might have a better idea what to do.

‘Coming! Stay there!’ came from within. After a minute, the leadlighted door swung open, and Mrs Jones was there, fastening a nightgown, her hair tied up in a towel.

‘Oh, hello there, sorry, I just got off nights, was having a bath. I thought they were sending to bring me back again. It happens. Gosh, don’t stand there, you’ll catch your death. Or I will. Come in. Come in.’

She explained she couldn’t. The boy. She’d left him. But she didn’t know what to do. Could she come? Have a look?

A few minutes later they were standing over the cot. The nurse felt his forehead as she had, but also picked him up and put her head to his chest. Then she turned him round and listened to his back. She shook her head slightly, seeming confused. Did she have a teaspoon, by any chance?

She passed her the one she had just washed up after her cup of tea, and Isabella Jones, with some difficulty, managed to open the boy’s mouth and depressed his tongue a little with the back of the spoon.

She clucked, and returned him to his cot. After a few more tears for good measure, he quietened slightly and started to fall asleep again. She stroked his growing head of hair away from his eyes, and asked the woman for a block of ice from the little freezer box at the top of the refrigerator. She rubbed his forehead with it gently a couple of times, and then his lips, and worked it between her fingers, causing the ice to melt ever so slightly, and a trickle of cold water to enter the dozing boy’s mouth. It seemed to settle him further.

When he was quiet, the nurse went to the kitchen sink and washed her hands thoroughly with carbolic soap. She turned to the woman, a worried look on her face.

‘Look, cariad, I’m not a doctor, but you know I’ve seen just about everything in my time. We get to know things when we do half the doctor’s work for them nowadays, what with so many of them being off somewhere for the war, now.’

She paused, frowning.

‘There’s no point beating round the bush: I’d bet the King’s pound to a beggar’s penny he’s got Scarlet Fever. His throat looks very sore and his tongue is all white with little red spots. It’s an early sign. It’s called Strawberry tongue.

I’d say by tonight or tomorrow morning the white will have gone and his tongue will all be bright red, and then he might get spots on his body, and you can pretty much guarantee his little cheeks will go a nice shade of bright pink. Can’t miss it.’

The woman looked at each other, concern on the face of one and something close to terror on the face of the other.

The danger, the nurse explained, was the fever. Or that the infection would spread to the organs of the little body. Meningitis. Even rheumatic fever of the heart. It used to happen a lot, less so nowadays, thank goodness. She started ticking things off:

‘You’ve just got to get his fever down, and keep him as cool as possible. His temperature might go up to 102 and stay there for a while, so the aspirin will help, and it will help his poor throat too. There is an anti-toxin but it’s a toss-up whether there’s any around. I’ll walk back to the hospital and ask. And I’ll get Dr Mullaway to come round and look, too.’

The woman was all for simply picking the boy up and walking round there with her, but the nurse firmly said no.

‘They’d lock him and you in a room, dear and you’d be there for days. It’s very infectious, that’s why I washed up so carefully. And they couldn’t possibly risk having him in a place with lots of sick and injured people in it because they’d be dead set to catch it more easily. It could kill people, just taking him there. Dear me, no, that would never do.’

Excusing herself, the nurse bustled next door, and a little while later, with a wave, she headed off down the street. After what seemed like an age, with the woman just sitting at the kitchen table staring at the little boy, and occasionally wetting his forehead, she saw the nurse return and leapt up to have the door open before she got there.

Yes, she had told the Doctor, who had promised to call on his way home that evening. Meanwhile, here was some calamine lotion in case the boy developed a rash that was itchy – ‘Their skin feels like sandpaper, gets very dry, drives them mad. Specially on their back, and they can’t reach that, of course.’ – some more aspirin powder – ‘Give him a little more, it won’t kill him, but the fever might.’ – and she passed her a very light gown made of soft cotton. ‘Put that on him, not that thing he’s got on now. It’s too hot.’ She tapped the front door. ‘And keep this open a bit, and get the temperature in the house down. If he gets even hotter, pop him in the kitchen sink and let him have a cool bath. Pat him dry, but not perfectly dry.’

The woman nodded, taking it all in. Her neighbour excused herself. ‘I have to get some sleep. I’m on again at four. I’ll drop in before that.’

The day dragged by. Outside a light drizzle fell, whipped up by the west wind beating up the Bristol Channel. Mercifully the child slept, from time to time, his rest punctuated by bursts of distress. She slept in the kitchen chair for a few minutes here and there, but found his silences when she slept unnerving. She kept checking him to be sure he was still breathing.

She forgot to eat herself, but managed to get a little warm milk into him, but soon he rejected the bottle and took to crying again. When her neighbour reappeared, the mother’s red eyes were filled with tears with frustration, and gritty from lack of sleep.

The nurse repeated the earlier examination, and this time she had brought with her a thermometer, which she held under the baby’s armpit for as long as he would permit it, and then she examined it carefully. She nodded.

‘It’s just under 102. Bang on for Scarlet Fever. And his tongue is redder. But he seems tougher than he looks, poor little bugger. He’s still strong, going by that set of good Welsh lungs on him. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Mullaway will be along, but I expect he’ll say the same.’

She waited. An hour passed. Then another. It was getting quite dark now, and she couldn’t look out of the window, with the blinds drawn for the blackout. The boy was unchanged. She listened for the swing of the garden gate and a man’s steps on the path. She listened for a very long time.

It started, with no warning, at almost exactly seven thirty.

The ground shook with repeated tremors, each followed the moment after by the unmistakeable crump of a bomb exploding, and then soon after by the boom-boom-boom of anti aircraft guns responding and the distant howl of air raid sirens. She scooped up the boy and rushed to the front door in horror, flinging it open and looking out. It was not the first time Swansea had been bombed, of course, and she knew to grab her coat, a bottle for the boy, and head to the air raid shelter in the back garden immediately. But she paused, for just a few seconds, mesmerised by explosion after explosion from the east, over by the City centre, and the docks, and now and then a blinding series of flashes and resulting fire from Townhill away to the left. Uttering a quick prayer, she rushed to the shelter, pulling it closed behind her, and sat there nursing the screaming child in complete terror.

The barrage continued for hours. Whenever she thought it might have ended, the bombs started falling again. Once she heard an ack-ack gun nearby rattling out its furious tune, and she thought it must be the one sited atop the hospital. Most of the bombs seemed to her to be falling over to the east and north, but once there was an almighty crash from … from where? From what could have been her own home for all she knew, but she was too afraid to open the door to the shelter. It seemed awfully close.

After the alarms had subsided and it seemed there were no more explosions, she dared to look out. Her hand flew to her mouth as she could see that from one side of the horizon to another there seemed to be a continuous sheet of vivid flame and acrid smoke. And right nearby, in what must be the next street, a house was ablaze, its roof already well alight. She knew that people would already be there, passing buckets of water to douse the flames, and she would have helped, but she could not leave the boy, nor could she take him, so she just stared, mutely, in agony for the people concerned.

When day came, the true nature of what had happened was obvious. A massive pall of smoke hung over everything, seemingly incapable of being disturbed by the wind, such was its thickness. A sickly-sweet smell of burning oil pervaded the air. All her neighbours were gathered in the street, huddled in small groups; the occasional car came and went. As the boy seemed settled for a moment, she left him in his cot again and approached one tight knot of women to listen.

‘It’s all still burning. My Matthew, he’s over there, they’ve called in all the wardens and police, every single fire engine, and the army, too. It’s a right bloody mess. Brynhyfryd, Townhill and Manselton got it the worst. And Matthew says they flattened the Regimental HQ for the Royal Artillery, but even so they kept fighting back with any guns they had. There’s hundreds dead, they say. Hundreds. And God knows where they’re going to put all the people who’ve lost their homes.’ She gestured to her right. ‘They’ve lost everything. Only moved in there six weeks ago. And they’d done a lovely job of the bathroom. Such a shame.’

The woman knocked on Isabella’s door, but there was no reply. She walked her kitchen, back and forth, chewing on a finger, not knowing what to do for the best. At one point she went down on her knees by the little crucifix in the bedroom, and prayed for guidance. The boy seemed no better, but no worse. Although when she took off the little hospital garment and bathed him, she saw that a bright red rash had appeared on his lower legs.

She walked to the end of the road with him, but then walked back. The streets seemed eerily quiet. She picked up the phone in her hallway, but it was dead.

Around five thirty, just as dusk was falling, with the fires still burning in the distance, there came a knock at the door. Dr Mullaway introduced himself, wearily, and apologised for not having come sooner, but …

He simply waved his hand in the direction of the events of the night before.

The words tumbled out of her mouth chaotically, the emotion of the last two days finally breaking, like a dam: his fever, he’d been alright and then suddenly, and the nurse’s advice, his tongue, see? Her husband was away, she didn’t know what to do, but how is he, Doctor? You hear these things, such terrible things, about children dying from Scarlet Fever, and I can’t get out, and I don’t know, and look, look at his legs, now the poor thing, his legs.

She sucked in a great gulp of air and looked at the Doctor, her face a mixture of worry and anger. ‘His legs! Poor little mite! Now look at his legs!’

The Doctor looked at the little nuggety woman, and for the briefest of moments his eyes blazed. But then he caught himself.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ he said quietly. Almost in a whisper.

Mullaway looked at her steadily, while she composed herself, then proceeded to examine the boy carefully. She said not another word until he’d finished.

‘Just keep doing what you’re doing,’ he said in the end. ‘Good luck.’ And he left.

And that night, the sirens howled again. And the next night.

In later years – decades later, a lifetime later – when her man was long dead, and the boy had three children of his own, she would repeat Mullaway’s words to herself. Sometimes when she would sit and watch the boy swim, or run, or playing with his kids.

Or she would just look at him when he was standing there.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ she would say. To herself, mainly.

And then she would tap the arm of her chair, or clap her hands together, and change the subject.

As if she’d said nothing, and nothing had happened.

 

HISTORICAL NOTE

The worst bombing of Swansea in South Wales occurred over three nights on 19th, 20th, and 21st February 1941. The period known as the Three Nights’ Blitz started at 7.30 pm on 19 February. My mother and brother survived the event in an Anderson Shelter in Brynewydd Gardens, Sketty Green. By the time the ‘all clear’ siren sounded after three days, major parts of the city had been destroyed, and 230 people were dead and 409 injured. 7,000 people lost their homes. The city centre suffered direct hits that started major conflagrations, destroying many commercial premises. It has still not been entirely rebuilt.

A total of nearly 14 hours of enemy activity were recorded. A total of 1,273 High Explosive bombs and 56,000 Incendiary bombs were estimated to have been dropped. An area measuring approximately 41 acres was targeted, with 857 properties destroyed and 11,000 damaged. To raise morale following the blitz, the King and Queen as well as the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited Swansea.

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 4.43.23 pm

I want to write a poem

Just dripping with angst

Jam-packed with pathos

With oodles of empathy

To tear the hearts out of teenage girls

and stir those of tired old men

I want to write a poem

That years later will still sound fresh

Riddled with irony

Spilling meaning everywhere

Entrancing yet confusing

Illuminating but complex.

I want to write a poem

That drags you in,

locks you into contemplation

pesters you to deal with it

like a nagging ringtone

made solely of words.

 

But you got this, instead.

I need a gin.

 

#poetry #writing #poems #creativity

PS the book is still for sale – get one when you next Amazon yourself.
https://www.amazon.com/Read-Me-Poems-One-Story/dp/1409298604

Bang you're dead

I lie next to you, a long wait into tomorrow
and listen to you gently snore.

Whoever invented that phrase
~ gently snore ~
they knew. There is ungentle snoring,
when I nudge you in the back and roll you
half awake into silence
but that is not this.
This is a soft rhythm
like the sea caressing white sand.

The rain on the new tin roof
suddenly changes tempo
as if to accompany you.

For a while there, it rises and falls
in time with your chest
in time with your dreams.
And the life in your breath
and the life in the rain
soothe me.

Suddenly I am assailed by images.
Unbidden. What would happen
if you were taken out of our lives?
A truck, a tree branch, your heart.
Seeing the police, our daughter’s face.
The nights.
I could manage the days, I think.
But not the nights.
I listen for the gentle heave of air.
And again, and again, the gentle heave of air,
and I am comforted.
Do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Not yet. Not yet awhile, at least.
Go to sleep.

The rain falls on the world like a balm.
And by the light of the clock
I see your face perfectly calm and think
how you would hold me, if you knew.

To purchase my collection of poems, “READ ME: 71 Poems and One Story”, please head to:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/stephen-yolland/read-me-71-poems-one-story/paperback/product-6314418.html

Any profits donated to charity.

woman

 

For 200 years. No, 400. Make that a round 700.
She has walked this street.
The same small, bent woman.
Separated from herself only by the inconvenience of birth and death.
She wears black. Her husband died decades back.
Lost at sea. Killed by the Turks. Hanged for thieving.
Shot by the Nazis. A cigarette heart attack.
And still she walks. Up and down.
Back and forth on this one long endless street.
To the tomatoes.
To the salt cod.
To the rooms she cleans for pennies.
And then home.
Hello to a friend in her window.
To the quiet room, and quiet dignity.
At the end of her street, at last.
For another 200 years. No, 400.
Make that forever.

Save

Save

lecter

THANKS, FACEBOOK. I NEEDED THAT.

Now I get anxious when I look at pictures of babies on Facebook.

I do not understand. I think we should be told.

One minute they’re on the breast. Or gurgling cutely. Rolling on blankies,

eyes bigger than berries.

Next they’re pulling the wings off flies, beating up the kid down the street, and one in umpteen thousand turn into serial killers.

How do you tell? Why one and not the other?

You can’t really “Dislike”. A baby.

Can’t say, “Honest injun’

I reckon you’ve got a little nutter there.”

Don’t like the way he’s staring.

People will be upset. Understandably.

But not in Hawaii. Not so much.

Hardly any at all, in fact.

Must be all the Pina Coladas.

Hard to be all screwed up when a Pina Colada is just a

swim-up bar away.

You’re pretty safe in Hawaii.

Bad in Washington. Way bad.

Everyone has a 0.025% chance of being strangled – strangled, or shot
– most likely.

By a nutter. In Washington.

Maybe it’s the politics. CSPAN is driving all the babies mad
left watching TV, while Mum fixes breakfast.

But you probs won’t be dead by poison. That’s exaggerated.

Agatha Christie is responsible for a lot of misconceptions.

So if you’re sick after the lox and cream cheese bagel

it’s probably just the fish.

The fish has gone bad. Not the baby.

So now you know.

Istanbul

 

Who did you lose?

Was that your husband lying there? With half his head missing.
The one who held you in those strong arms for the first time, all those years ago.
The face which gave you a weary smile after work every evening. Sharing food.
The man you moulded yourself to, every night, and fell asleep, safely.

Who did you lose?

Was that your son, lying there?
Arms entwined with the airport trolley he was blown into.
Was he leaving to study abroad? Or just a vacation?
His first time away from home.
That crooked, shy smile you will never see again.
Look: his jeans are torn. He would have hated that.

Who did you lose?

Was that your daughter? Is that your other daughter?
You were just there to wave her off.
On her way back to her husband, and her two small children.
You never wanted her to move away.
But just yesterday she smiled at you over coffee and said “You’ll always be my Mumya. Where would I be without you?”
Always.

Who did you lose?

So sorry to broadcast your grief, but we need to touch it. Need to ask. Need to know.
Because they weren’t “41 dead”. They were your family.
Your blood, being washed away. Blood of your blood.
Cannot hold your gaze, but must. All must.
All humanity has failed you.
And next week, we will fail another, again.
Another Mother. Father. Son. Daughter.

And so

stars

 

ONE NIGHT OF MANY


I lie beside you, a long wait into tomorrow

and listen to you gently snore.

Whoever invented that phrase

~ gently snore ~

they knew. There is ungentle snoring,

when I nudge you in the back and roll you

half awake into silence

but that is not this. This is a soft rhythm

like the sea carressing white sand.

 

The rain on the new tin roof

syncopatedly changes tempo

as if to accompany you.

For a while there, it rises and falls

in time with your chest

in time with your dreams.

And the life in your breath

and the life in the rain

soothe me.

 

Without warning, I am assailed by images.

Unbidden. What would happen

if you were taken out of our lives?

A truck, a tree branch, your heart.

Police at the door, our daughter’s face.

The nights.

I could manage the days, I think.

But not the nights.

I listen for the gentle heave of air.

 

And again, and again, there it is,

that gentle heave of air, and I am stilled.

Do not distress yourself with imaginings.

Not yet. Not yet awhile, at least.

Go to sleep.

The rain falls on the world like balm.

And by the moonlight of the clock

I see your perfect calm face and think

how you would hold me, if you knew.

 

 

readMeTo buy a printed copy
of my collection of
poetry, “71 Poems and One Short Story”,
(there’s a download, too), please go to:

http://tinyurl.com/cumbx42

 

 

Poem

lonely headstone

There are days, when I can smell the sweetness of death.

Please do not be alarmed.

I do not seek death, nor wish it.

But as one gets older and friends drop off you cannot help but think,  what is that like? Eh?

Did it feel like anything? Or nothing?

And am I afraid of dying or being dead,

or am I simply afraid of leaving,

and being left out of what comes next?

And sometimes, I think

How calming it must be

To put down the cares, the day by day, the grinding

and simply sleep, deeply. Deep. Dreamlessly.

Less … dreams.

And if I am welcomed to a place

where all fears are stripped away well,

then that will be nice too.

So either way, it’s OK, I guess.

Sometimes, I can smell the sweetness of death.

We may as well. No one’s come back to complain.

I don’t think I am odd.

Or maybe, I am.

domestic violence

 

Yesterday was White Ribbon Day, to protest against violence against women, and domestic violence especially. We are not 100% sure if that is what this excellent and thought-provoking poem is about, (it’s a poem, after all, and therefore open to interpretation), but that’s how it speaks to us. Strongly.

We love the way the poem builds in intensity through a repeated motif. This is very skillful writing.

 

CREAKS IN THE FLOORBOARDS

Oh but to shudder at the hands of a lover

Is no fun

No no no

It’s no fun

Mmm and they say she’s oh so clever

Got some charm, keenness about her

It’s alright,

They keep proclaiming

She’s alright,

Yeah he’s alright,

So let them keep on livin’

Don’t intrude on others’ business

She’s alright,

Just keep dancin’ in that darkened corner

She just fine,

Keep on peeling those potatoes

and tossing that great salad

Keep on sending out those letters

Telling everyone about

How bright

How kind,

How wonderful it is

to be around her,

Don’t let them see the secrets

Buried deep beneath the floorboards,

They’re alright

We’re all just fine,

Quit losing sleep over this duo

It’s their battle

We shall not intrude, no

Regardless of what we hear or see, no

She’ll be alright,

Look at her beaming,

Great big grin

look, now they’re kissing,

They’re aright

They’re just fine.

 

From: http://wanderingthroughhersoul.com/

 

soldier

 

Hating war – arguing for a pacifist position, even one that is not utterly purely pacifist – does not mean we cannot weep for and celebrate those who fight wars on our behalf.

With the tragically costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Remembrance Sunday – just like Anzac Day in Australia and Memorial Day in the USA – has assumed a new significance, and a new enthusiasm from the young.

 

From left to right: Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18, Victory Medal 1914-18, Medal for Military Valour, Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918,

From left to right: Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18, Victory Medal 1914-18, Medal for Military Valour, Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918,

 

For ourselves, remembering a father who died at 46 worn out by terrifying six years of naval service, a cousin who endured tropical diseases for his entire life after incarceration in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, a Grandfather who served in the trenches in World War 1 and another Grandfather who received the DSC for trawling up mines dropped by Zeppelins in Portsmouth Harbour, we have always paused for two minutes at the appointed hour, bought our poppy to wear in our lapel, and subscribed to war casualty charities.

In our view, despite that, we are convinced that the very best way to show our respect for those we commemorate is to state, unequivocally, the old an unarguable truth.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.”

This list of current conflicts, worldwide, makes very depressing reading. Are we really doing the best we can?

Listen to any old soldier, and simultaneously, along with their sadness felt for their injured or fallen comrades, and their quiet pride in “a job well done”, you will almost always hear them explain how the horror of war was worse than anything they could have imagined. How they often felt they had more in common with the foot-soldiers opposing them than they did with their own leaders. And always, how anything must be tried, and done, before humankind responds to a crisis by turning to arms.

Even the most significant war leader in 20th century history, Winston Churchill, who through sheer force of will saved the world from fascism and rescued democracy in its darkest hour, remarked, “Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.”

From their graves, the dead of countless wars cry out to us for attention. “Don’t do it again! Don’t do it again!”

If you are interested to purchase my collection of poems called Read Me – 71 Poems and 1 Story – just head here.

karen

 

We are on record as long being a fan of Karen Gillan, whose body of acting work is growing but who is best known still as a hugely successful Dr Who “companion”.

She’s approachable, funny, sexy, smart and has loads on on-screen chutzpah, with a wide range of available emotions projected by those big, ridiculously perfect hazel eyes.

She also sends us video messages – well, one video message – but that’s a whole other story.

Anyhow, now it turns out she’s a fine writer and director too.

 

 

Watch it. Conventional. Ten minutes of perfectly nuanced misery.

The short form of video is highly demanding. Much more demanding than many of the great, flabby two-hours-plus bore-fests that pass for feature films.

Karen Gillan knows a lot about fan conventions. Goodness: we can only hope her experience of them is happier than this very creepy little film.

Apparently she’s very good in the new version of Jumanji, which is getting good reviews as a genuinely funny family-style movie.

We’re betting there is much more to come from Ms Gillan – keep an eye wide open.

 

recycle poems

 

poem

A fellow blogger, the wonderful Miss Snarky Pants, challenges the world to create something meaningful (or just good) in just Four Frigging Lines.

Needless to say, we could not resist. Can you? Just put your effort in the comments section of one of her (so far) five uniformly excellent efforts.

 

Tuna-Can

 

In the gutter, on its own, a single empty can of tuna in lemon and cracked pepper.
Mouth open, like a gasping fish, staring at the sky.
I hardly know whether to rail at its former owner for his callous discard
Or to take it home and bin it safely, like burying the dead goldfish no one wants to hold.

 

readMeAnd as we constantly remind you (the house reno is expensive) to buy all our poems (well most of them), plus a short story, head to 71 Poems and One Short Story, available in soft cover or as a download.

 

Respect.

Respect.

For more of the same, head to: paltrymeanderings.com. We like.

Surrounded by blackness on all sides, in utter impenetrable silence, and for a very, very, very long time, it did nothing.

There was nothing to see, so it did not see. Nothing to hear, so it did not hear. Nothing to feel, so it did not feel.

There were simply vast, unconscionable amounts of entirely nothing.

So – most importantly for our story – it thought nothing, either. With no external stimuli to provoke it, it simply did not concern itself with anything; it merely peacefully existed.

And incredible as it might seem in light of what happened later, for some handfuls of millions of years it did not even notice itself.

Then, during one instant which it would remember – well, forever, actually – a small, shiny proton appeared momentarily.

Over there. In what it would later come to know as “left”. And also “down a bit”.

Later – much, much later – it would come to understand that the lonely proton had flared into being for a few hundredths of a second as the result of a random and unpredictable thermo-dynamic fluctuation in the void in which it itself floated.

Like the last dying ripple of a stone cast into a pond uncountably many leagues away, space and time had broken upon the shores of its awareness in the form of one of the smallest building blocks of the Universe. And then it had immediately ceased, for with nothing around it to cling to the proton instantly had broken down into its components and they had dissipated into the nothingness almost too quickly to be observed.

Except the brief, evanescent burst of the proton was seen by the being – which, without even realizing it was doing it, had been peacefully observing nothing, and everything, with absolute and immediate accuracy.  And that was why, despite its apparent slumber, it could not miss the arrival, and near-simultaneous departure, of the pretty little particle.

The glittering sub-atomic appearance, brief and unthreatening though it was, nevertheless troubled it greatly.

Contradictions and nervousness rippled through it. It shook with excitement. Seething with speculation, for untold millennia it considered one critical and shocking question.

Not, as one might have imagined, wondering “What Was That?” No, no. What first occupied its attention was a much more pressing problem than the transitory proton.

What nagged away at it insistently was the question: “What am I?”

“What am I?” it wondered. “What am I?”

With no previous consciousness, and with no terms of reference whatsoever, it marveled at itself, and at this new sensation of existence, without, in truth, the slightest understanding of what was going on.

Casting frantically this way and that to work out what it was, it looked about itself, systematically, but in utter confusion.

Up and Down. Side to Side. In and Out. Backwards and Forwards. Along every plane and from every angle. Indeed, from many different perspectives simultaneously.

(If it did but know it, it actually looked for all the world like a large mahogany gentleman’s desk inlaid with a rather dinky line of shell marquetry around its edges and its drawers. Lots of drawers, in fact, with little pressed-metal knobs, that held promise of all sorts of treasures hidden away inside, and a couple of attractive glass paperweights adorned its leather-inlaid heart. But it wouldn’t understand all this until much later.)

Time passed. Lots of it. Loads and loads and loads of time.

Soon enough, and in a neat twist of reasoning that we can ascribe to what it actually was – which for want of a better term we could describe as “a really, really, really clever thing” – it soon realized that its own sudden and shocking existence was perhaps most easily understood by reference to what it was not. And in a miraculously short time after that, (for its powers of perception were, indeed, remarkably unconstrained), it had consequently separated the Universe into two orderly halves.

One half of everything it perceived to be it fittingly called “Me”.

The other half, it called “Not Me”.

The Me was pleased and much relieved by this development. Its jarringly unexpected coming-into-being seemed much less troublesome now that everything was neatly broken down into itself and … something else.

Thus reassured, it settled down to make a full and patient examination of itself.

Driven by insatiable curiosity, it first tried to work out why it had suddenly become conscious of its inherent Me-ness in the first place.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes. – Dylan Thomas

By dint of absence of any other observable data at all, it almost immediately decided that the sheer,ineffable thrill of the proton’s appearance had awoken its knowledge of itself. It could remember nothing before that, and so it seemed perfectly practical to place this sudden awareness of itself and its surroundings to that startlingly incandescent moment.

Next it spent a few million years pondering the proton. Was the Me somehow related to it? Connected to it in some way? Should it search for it? Was it coming back? Was it important? Indeed, as the only thing it had ever experienced, were the Me and the proton all there was to consider?

For what seemed like a very long time indeed, but in the scheme of things was merely a blink of the Me’s eye, the Me looked around and wondered why no other protons had appeared to disturb it, before or since.

But after an æon or two of this, it happened on a thought that occupied it even more deeply.

Surely, it reasoned to itself, what the proton was could not be nearly as important as another question that bothered it constantly – like the buzzer on a motel clock radio after too many drinks the night before – and that question, of course, was why, for goodness sake, had the Me not been aware of anything before the proton?

Beyond the awful, inky nothing that surrounded the Me, (which was, in fact, only three billionths of an inch thick, but being so thoroughly enmeshed in its musings it hadn’t actually noticed that yet), the Not Me pressed inwards. It edged silently towards the Me, as if holding its breath for the answer to this one. Not Me quaked and tightened around the Me, just by a fraction, and whispered silently to itself, listening, wondering, waiting.

And then – perhaps somehow alerted by the new-found excitement in the Not Me – the Me saw to its wonderment that far from being empty as it had assumed, the Not Me that was near it was actually jam-packed with innumerable billions and billions of particles crowding nearby, just beyond the layer of darkness, vibrating slowly – so slowly, in fact, and in such tiny increments of space – that the Me hadn’t even realised that the Not Me was moving at all!

Gazing in amused wonderment, the now insatiably inquisitive Me was straight way tempted to investigate further the gentle quadrille of the miniscule particles that swirled around it.

But without an answer to the nub of its problem, to wit: why it had not perceived its ownself at some point before what it had recently decided to call “Now” – or indeed, why it had not noticed the crowded, quivering Not Me earlier, which after all was only just over there outside the Me, so close at hand – the Me was frankly too troubled to do so.

So after trying and failing to find any concrete answers by simply looking about a bit, and drawing on hitherto unsuspected intellectual resources that spontaneously delighted it, the Me resolved – for it was nothing if not a very practical being, as we shall see – that it would simply have to run with what would eventually become known in another place as an assumption.

In short: the Me decided that in the absence of observable empiric data, it made good sense to “make up something that fits, until you can prove it’s wrong”.

(And thus it brought into being that delightful hobby for people with staring eyes and strange haircuts who listen to Laurie Anderson CDs on repeat known as Theoretical Physics, but of course it didn’t know that then.)

In this wise, the Me plumped for the conclusion that – before what it now called “the Me moment” – it had simply not been necessary for it to be self-aware.

For want of a better explanation, it assumed that although it had existed, it had not needed to know of its existence – and so, post hoc ergo propter hoc, as it were, it did not know.

The Me patiently examined this conclusion from all possible angles, and could not fault it.

(You might imagine that it would also have paused to wonder how it could so instinctively express its cogitation in obscure Latin phrases, a language that had not been used anywhere in existence yet, but that was just one of innumerable trifling considerations that would have to wait until more important questions had been answered.)

Ploughing remorselessly on now, the Me then painstakingly worried away at another thought that had occurred to it, from amongst the untold trillions of thoughts that it had every second. And this one was a real biggie.

That not just “it” but “Everything” must have some purpose, if only to take its natural place in the scheme of things.

This first and most painful bout of existential angst was very intense, but quickly resolved. Yes, yes! It must surely be true! Even if the purpose of a thing was merely to lie passively next to some other Me-ness, like a compliant jigsaw piece fitting neatly into another, purpose there had to be. Pointlessness was surely pointless.

And just as it now observed that the endless particles around it in the Not Me were somehow interlaced seamlessly with one another, and that to remove even one from its place would cause a cataclysmic rent and collapse, so therefore it, too, the Me, must be where (and when) it was for a reason. For if the Me held no inherent purpose, no relationship with something, even if it did not yet know what that something was, then why would it exist? But it did exist, so therefore it must have some role to play. “I exist, therefore I should exist” it trilled.

The next thought arrived a nano-second later. “So what am I for?” it demanded of itself. “What am I for?”

Breathlessly rushing on for a few million years, the Me rifled through the arguments available to it like an over-excited burglar happening on a fortuitously open bank vault.

It reasoned that it must have begun at a particular point, and at some stage it had become needed by … well, something, or because of something … and so – of course! – before that moment self-knowledge would have served no purpose, because – and the Me raced effortlessly forward to its conclusion! – to be aware, but purposeless, would indisputably have no point at all, as mere awareness, it was sure, affected nothing else, either positively or negatively. And, indeed, might be intolerably boring.

(Thrilled with this reasoning, it made itself a mental note: ““Quod erat demonstrandum: we all do what we can.” It was not sure why this thought was important, but felt convinced it was, and promised itself that it would return to nut it out, one day.)

So. Conclusion: the Me fitted in somehow as well. Because it must!

It rippled and rang with the sheer orgiastic delight of its logic. Very well, it mused, it didn’t yet know what the reason for its own existence was, but it felt distinctly less alarmed now it had deduced that a reason must exist, and soon enough, if it continued to concentrate, it was confident it would work out what it was.

Having now been on the job for what seemed to it, suddenly, as an awfully long time, the Me paused for a well-earned rest. Happy with where it had got to so far, it rather liked the sensation of not doing much thinking for a while.

It added another note to its rapidly growing list of things to remember. “Take a break from thinking now and then. Maybe about 14.2857 recurring percent of the time,” it advised itself portentously, along the way inventing Sunday, the decimal system and a few other useful concepts without even noticing. Meanwhile, the Not Me crept ever closer, and waited anxiously for the whole complex tangle to be sorted out on the Me’s mental blackboard.

Lolling around in the dark, approvingly noticing the inlay around the edges of its drawers for the first time, the Me now began to dimly recognise the awesome deductive capacity it could marshal with such little effort.

It was as if it already knew anything it needed to know; all it had to do was turn its attention to a problem and the resolution would eventually become clear, like mist clearing on a beautiful, still lake of knowledge. And with this awareness, the tensions within it settled somewhat. There was a reason why. Because there had to be. So now, the Big One. What could that reason possibly be?

Here, the being’s deductive process – which was rigorous and invariably accurate, if for no other reason than it had an innate ability to consider all probabilities simultaneously and ascribe correct values to them – nevertheless slowed down just a little, because the number of possible reasons why it existed were so vast as to tax even its own seemingly inexhaustible computational capacity.

It spent some time, for example, wondering whether it was supposed to be a forty-seven inch flat-screen hi-definition television, an item with whose innate angular beauty it was instantly infatuated, and which was tremendously thrilling and desirable and perfect for viewing something it decided to call “sports”, and it would have been really quite content to be a television forever were it not, obviously, for the complete absence of anything to be watched on itself, at least until about a trillion years from then.

It thus followed, the Me reasoned carefully, that whilst it might become just such an item at some stage in the future, it was highly unlikely that it was supposed to be a flat-screen TV just yet. It similarly rejected being a “V8 Supercar”, “Designer Fragrance”, or “Hollywood Red Carpet Interviewer” for the same reason.

Poo-poopy-do.

For a long time it was quite taken with the idea of being a conveniently-sized ball of dung, stationed outside the home of every industrious little dung beetle, so that their existence would not be so miserably dominated by scouring the desert for poo of all shapes and sizes and then spending hours in the hot sun uncomplainingly prodding it into an easily-maneuverable shape and size.

The Me felt very compassionate towards the tireless little beetle. He reasoned that even as he extended compassion to the Least so he extended it, by proxy to the All. The idea amused the Me, and it made a point to remember it.

Not entirely au fait, as yet, with the niceties of mass marketing, the Me even nevertheless drafted a quick advertising jingle to promote the idea that went something like this.

“Poo, poo, just made for you,

 yes, do do do, choose ezy-poo

 delivered to you, you’ll be glad too

 with A-may-zing easy-roll Poo-poopy-doo!”

Being a ball of poo would, it felt sure, would be a selfless and meaningful reason to exist.

But sadly, once again, the fact that no dung beetles would be around for quite some time stymied that line of enquiry, too. Then in quick succession, it considered and rejected, for various reasons, the proposition that it was a field of daffodils enlivening the surface of a small rocky planet in the Lamda Quadrant, a very obvious cure for Malaria merely waiting to be discovered, or whether it was a rather nasty virus that caused the four-winged, Greater Blue Flerterbee to fall out of the sky unexpectedly and in alarming numbers on a rather nice globe circling two twin suns in a galaxy with a rather curious Coke-bottle shape, thus leading to the extinction of all life-forms on that planet within a couple of generations.

None fitted.

Last, but by no means least, and with an aesthetic sense that it found delightfully unexpected and artistic, it wondered whether or not it was merely supposed to fill the space around it with floating three-dimensional pyramids made of delicately scented orange seaweed and sparkling Tarl Tree blossoms.

(And that one nearly won, actually. Which would have been interesting.)

Yes, able, now, to roam its growing understanding in all directions at one and the same time, the Me patiently examined of all these intriguing options, and more.

It considered alternative reasons for its own existence to the value of 10 x 10²°. Which really was an awful lot of reasons. And sooner or later, as a direct result of its nascent omniscience, and with a rather annoyed snort of surprise – in light of its previous lack of wakefulness – it was very soon after additionally confronted by a growing certainty that it had always existed. Putting it at its most simple, the Me realised it had always been there.

Always, and forever.

This was an unexpectedly Big Thought. In fact, to be frank, it was a Big Thought And A Half.

Wandering up and down the timeline now, watching itself, it very quickly also correctly surmised that it always would exist, too. Right up until, well … forever, really. And once it had occurred, this new Thought seemed entirely appropriate and natural and comfortable.

Until, that was: until it observed – with some further distress – that all around it other things were coming into being and then moving into non-being with astonishing regularity.

Indeed, it rapidly deduced that moving into non-existence was much more common than moving peacefully through existence with no apparent end, and, indeed, after a few more millennia, it observed that it could find no other beings that shared its own notable, distinguishing, essential never-endingness.

This latest discovery intrigued it mightily. In fact, so mightily was the Me intrigued that it stopped worrying about what it was for a moment, and started looking around with more interest.

It was simply fascinated by the sheer … dyingness … of all it saw around it.

The Me wasn’t sure where it had got that word from, and there was something about it that it didn’t like all that much, but it didn’t have time to worry about trivia. Not when it observed that unlike itself, everything around it seemed to be in the process of discharging tiny amounts of energy, and in doing so, declining to entirely predictable, unavoidable nothingness.

There was an alarmingly vast amount of this decline going on. All around it, apparently spontaneous changes were going on all the time to smooth out differences in temperature, pressure, density, and chemical potential. In fact, the more it went on, the more it went on. Yes! There was no denying it. The process was accelerating.

Still somewhat uncomfortable with “dyingness”, the Me hastily coined the term “entropy” to describe this apparently calamitous force that it observed in the Not Me all around him.

The Me took a step back, and thought for a while.

It took a step back, and carefully considering all the observable phenomena, it came up with something rather like this to define what it was seeing:

Quantitatively, entropy is defined by the differential quantity dS = δQ / T, where δQ is the amount of heat absorbed in an isothermal and reversible process in which the system goes from one state to another, and T is the absolute temperature at which the process is occurring.

Encouraged by this understanding, the Me now also understood that more precisely:

In any process where the system gives up energy ΔE, and its entropy falls by ΔS, a quantity at least TR ΔS of that energy must be given up to the system’s surroundings as unusable heat (TR being the temperature of the system’s external surroundings). Otherwise the process it was observing would not go forward.

And in a rollicking fever of enthusiasm, it also realized that:

The entropy is defined as the number of microscopic configurations that result in the observed macroscopic description of the thermodynamic system, or:

where kB is something that would become known as Boltzmann’s constant 1.38066×10−23 J K−1 and   is the number of microstates corresponding to the observed thermodynamic macrostate calculated using the multiplicity function.

And that was how, after all this feverish figuring, that the Me finally came to know what its reason was.

There was no doubt. The terrible, incontrovertible fact was that – all around it, wherever it looked – the Not Me was dying.

Inexorably, undeniably, because of its own nature which it could not escape, the Not Me was destined, finally, to become perfectly smooth and calm, in a state of utter non-ness, untroubled by thermo-dynamic fluctuations, and unutterably silent and quiet. It was a fate from which there was no return, for once reached, there was nothing to rekindle the energies expended.

The Not Me would simply cease to exist.

And then, the Me mused, what would become of Me?

Would I exist alone? With nothing left to observe, perhaps, but nonetheless awake?

And in a fraction of a millisecond, it knew that this outcome was too awful to contemplate. Utter knowledge, surrounded by utter nothingness, would be unbearable to it now.

Driven back to the fundamentals by its own ruthless logic, the Me considered again the beginning of its own awareness. It saw clearly now – “How could it not have known?” it berated itself angrily – that the tiny, scintillating proton had been a desperate cry for help from the Not Me. It was so obvious! Aware of its own inherent, inexorable non-ness, it had turned to the all-knowing Me to find a solution. And perhaps, even, the Not Me had known – somehow – that the Me needed the Non-Me too. That once awoken, it would have to act, for not to act would leave it, ultimately, alone and perfectly brilliant, transfixed in horrified eternally silent and motionless despair.

And as it divined its purpose, the Me also saw that it was capable of decisive action. In an instant of perception, it was transformed. It became action personified.

Surging forward through the darkness that surrounded it, the Me spoke with a voice that resonated through the umpteen layers of reality.  For the first time in history, it spoke effortlessly and in chorus to the largest perfect number of particles of all kinds that it could see … crying out to the 232,582,656 × (232,582,657 − 1) tiny building blocks that it somehow instantly knew made up the Not Me.

“I Am!” it thundered, for the whole Not Me to hear.

The words echoed through all of existence like nothing had every done before. (Which was literally true, as it had just invented sound.) And the ever more confident Me really liked the phrase. It felt appropriate and proper, somehow. So it repeated it.

“I Am … The I Am!”

It rolled the phrase round and round, enjoying its profundity and orderliness. How it was so perfectly Beginning and End-ish. The Me made a jotting in the margin of History to use the phrase again when it felt the need to explain itself to someone.

It stretched, and stretched, pushing its boundaries outwards, tearing away at the darkness that clung stubbornly to it like wet serge shorts on a schoolboy’s leg. Yes, it knew its reason for existence now, and faced with such a cause, its course of action was as clear to it now as a shining new dawn.

It must act at once to end the dreaded entropy: for it was the Me’s job to banish this awful dyingness and save the Not Me, before it became quiet and flat and silent and the Me was left to stare at where it had been, alone and mad.

And now it also knew with perfect understanding that this task would become something of a recurring leitmotif for its own existence. A struggle – just beginning – which it could now see with terrible clarity would last until the end of Time.

“Listen! Everything!” it cried, in a voice that brooked no opposition. “Listen to me!”

The Not Me took a firm grip on itself and held on tight. It waited, hushed and expectant, for what it knew had to come, and what had come before, and what would come again, impossibly far into the future.

With a giant, convulsive gasp, the Me cried out in a great and terrible voice.

“Let … there … be … Light!”


And lo, there was Light. And man, it was good.