A Christmas Story

You do better with a dog, of course. People don’t notice that you’re a bit smelly and that even when you were a young man, you never were very handsome. They just notice your mutt, staring out from under the edge of the blanket. Doesn’t even make any difference if he’s a bit of a podge. Actually, my Fred was a bit, well, just a little bit chubby. I found him in the park one night, going through the litter bins. Skin and bone then, nothing of him.

I shooed him off, because I was planning to go through the bins myself. These ones are about four hundred yards from the takeaway, just enough for people to be ready to chuck away what they don’t want. Especially the kids who want a bit of ‘how’s your father’ under the trees in the summer, they sometimes throwaway more than half what they bought. So busy gazing at each other they don’t have time to eat.

Anyway, that evening the little blighter had cleared the bloody bins. I guessed as much as soon as I saw him, ripped soggy newspaper all over the ground, and there he was, licking his chops in the middle of it. I delved in just in case, but not so much as a chip. So I walked on to the next bin. And guess who followed me? Well, he knew a thing or two, that dog. I definitely had a bit of luck there. A whole chicken wing, some chips and half a can of lager. Can’t believe what people throw away. I was just attacking the chicken when he, well, he sort of whimpered. I looked down at him I thought to myself, well, he didn’t know he was robbing me at the other bin, did he? And he’s hungry, too. So I gave him a couple of chips.

Just then several lads came by, mucking about, shoving each other. They all had huge, mouth-watering burgers in their mitts. Then one of them butted one of the others so hard with his shoulder that he dropped his. Quick as a flash, the dog had it and ran off into the bushes. Well, they weren’t going to chase him for it, were they? They just laughed and carried on, jeering the lad who had dropped it.

I watched them going. God, those burgers smelt good. I sat on one of the seats and started on the chicken. Not a lot of meat on a wing. But there were still the chips. I began to eat them very slowly, making one chip last at least three bites, really savouring it. Every now and again I took a swig of the lager. At least it wasn’t as cold tonight. I could just see the Christmas tree in the town square. They leave the lights on till eleven.

A couple walked past me, hand-in-hand, smiling at each other. I’m invisible when I’m not on the pavement, under that blanket. I’m always the invisible man for a lot of people, of course. Some are just embarrassed and avoid my eye, some think it’s all my fault and I should leap up and get a job. Chance would be a fine thing. One minute I had a wife and kid and was doing OK, then redundancy, a nasty, messy divorce, and back home, broke, with the parents. When Mum and Dad died, as parents do, then the council shoved me out, and well – here I am. No fixed address. You try getting a job.

I don’t often let myself get maudlin, I try to take each day as it comes. An optimist, in spite of everything. No good going over what might have been, just keep hoping for a miracle. A Christmas one, perhaps? Yeah. There’s a laugh.

Just as the gloom was about to take over, I felt something move at my feet. I looked down, and would you believe it, there was that thieving hound. And what’s more, he had a bloody great piece of that burger in his mouth. I watched, disbelieving, as he jumped up on the bench beside me and placed it on my lap.

“Well, old boy,” I said, stroking his cold head, “that’s very generous of you and much appreciated. But I’ve had the chicken, so you have this, and we’ll share the last of the chips.”  To be honest, the burger didn’t look much cop anyway, as he’d slobbered all over it, but I wasn’t going to say that, was I?

I’ll swear he understood. He picked it up and ate it, then nuzzled me as if we were lifelong mates. He hadn’t got a collar on so I thought that if we were going to be friends, I’d better give him a name. I picked on Fred as my name is Frederick, but everyone has always called me Rick. It seemed to bond us, sort of. And when I told him, he grinned at me like he approved. We sat there companionably until the lights on the Christmas tree went out.

“We’d better go and find somewhere warm to sleep, Fred. Come on.” And he followed me round to the back of the gents, where there’s a big paper recycling bin. You can always find stacks of newspaper hanging out. I extracted enough to wrap us both up in, and found some thick brown paper, which was a bit of a bonus. Then we poked around the bins until we found some carrier bags shoved into a cardboard box.

We went to a very sheltered bench in front of a large conifer hedge, and I covered it with cardboard and newspaper, then I filled the plastic bags with the paper to lay on top of my blanket. There were even enough carrier bags for me to put one on each foot.  And Fred and me snuggled down together, keeping each other warm. You’re not supposed to sleep in the park, but the night warden remembers me from when I was someone proper and he turns a blind eye.

Well, that was the start of Fred and me. He was my Christmas miracle, really. Everything got better. People were much more generous because he was such a good actor, especially at doing starving and pathetic. You should have seen the transformation when we had finished work for the day – he got frisky and grinny and, well, everything you could want from a friend, really.

That was nearly a year ago. Three weeks ago the coppers asked me to change my pitch. Well, you know, asked is a bit of politeness, there wasn’t really any choice. So the next week, Fred and me said goodbye to the High Street, and kipped down just outside the new shopping precinct. I put the cap on the ground, pulled up the blanket and he arranged himself into pitiable mode. We were doing OK. I’d just decided that it might be a better gig anyway, when this woman appeared from nowhere and pulled back the blanket without so much as by-your-leave. Tall, well-dressed, middle-aged, she didn’t look barmy. I just about had time to clock all that, when she threw herself to the ground, burst into tears and scooped Fred into her arms.

“Sandy! Oh, Sandy, darling! Where have you been? We’ve looked everywhere for you.”

Fred looked a bit startled but he obviously knew her and tentatively began to lick her face. Before I had a chance to say anything, she shoved me back hard against the wall.

“I suppose it was you that stole him from our garden? I know all about you people. I suppose you thought you could get an allowance for him? Well, at least you must have been disappointed there, thankfully. Have you any idea what I have been through? I shall be informing the police. Meanwhile, I am taking MY dog back right now.”

Fred was wearing a red collar we’d found in the park, and she took her scarf off, and looped it through to make a lead.  And that was it. She dragged him away, and even though he was whimpering and looking over his shoulder at me, she didn’t look back. There was a small crowd round me by now, all standing silently. I think they didn’t know whether to berate me or sympathise with me. Jack, the local copper who I’ve known since better days, pushed his way through.

“Don’t worry, Rick, we all know that you found him. I know her, she’s a nice lady, her dog was stolen long before you got Fred, so I never connected it. He’s a pedigree, you know, so I guess whoever did steal him simply let him go when they realised he’d been de-knackered. I’ll have a word with her, say it wasn’t you.”

I nodded. I was gutted. I think it was even worse than when I realised my ex-wife was taking our daughter abroad and I’d probably never see her again. Fred and me had been together every minute of every day for a year. He was my best mate. He was the best mate anyone could ever have. I got to my feet. My shoulder was hurting from where she shoved me against the wall. I began to pack up my blanket and cap. As I picked up my bag I could feel the carton of biscuits I’d bought for Fred last week after we’d had an especially good day. They were his favourites. To my horror I felt my eyes begin to prick. Jack put his hand on my shoulder. He pushed a tenner into my hand.

“Go round to the shelter tonight, Rick. Things will look better in the morning.”

They didn’t, of course. I’m back outside the precinct, but I’m invisible again. And lonely. More lonely than I ever was before I had Fred in my life. They’re putting on the Christmas lights in the precinct today. Christmas makes everything worse.

“Excuse me?”

I looked up from my blanket. There she was. The woman. And there was Fred, with a smart leather collar with studs in it. He launched himself at me, licking me enthusiastically and drooling everywhere. Good job. It hid the tears rolling down my face.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise until Constable Brown explained. You rescued Sandy, didn’t you? I am so sorry I accused you of stealing him. Can you forgive me? You have looked after him so well.”

Fred was draped over my lap looking up at me with his lovely, loyal eyes.

The lady continued, “I think he’s missing you. He can’t settle and I believe he is pining for you. He’s not even eating much.”

The biscuits were still in my bag. As I reached for it, Fred dived in headfirst and dragged out the carton of biscuits. He put it in my lap. I opened it and gave him a handful which he scoffed down. Then he pushed his way under my blanket and lay on my legs. The lady sighed, and then smiled at me. She had a nice face when she smiled.

“I have a proposition for you. May I call you Rick? I think perhaps Sandy has become Fred. Now, I was offering a hefty reward for his return.”

“I don’t want any reward.”

“Just as well, as I wasn’t going to offer you one. But, I wonder if we could share Fred, perhaps? I have an empty basement flat and a large and almost unmanageable house and garden. And my work means I have to travel a lot and I don’t like leaving the house empty. And I used to absolutely hate having to put Sandy,” she paused, “or rather, Fred, into kennels. I need someone to live in the flat, manage the garden, look after the house when I’m away and be Fred’s carer. I can’t offer you much in the way of a salary, but it will be enough to live on. What do you think?”

At that moment there was a noisy blast on a trumpet, and we all jumped out of our skins. The whole area was flooded with brilliant colour and music as the precinct Christmas lights were ceremonially switched on. Fred popped his head out of the blanket and looked up at me. Expectantly.

“I think,” I said, getting to my feet and folding up the blanket, “that miracles do still happen.” I reached down and fondled Fred’s ears. Then I looked at the woman. Just for a moment I thought she was wearing wings. A trick of the light.

“Merry Christmas,” I said.

 

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A Shaggy Dog Story

Another dog? You are, said my friend of many years, quite mad.  She is right, of course. And if she sounded a bit like Lady Bracknell, well, she’s another of my theatrical buddies. But, to channel Oscar Wilde again, he once said, ‘you have to be yourself, because everyone else is taken’. And I am not myself unless my house is full of cats and dogs. Fortunately, neither is Ro.

When we lost our darling, smelly old Sprocker  a few months ago,  we listened to our nearest and dearest saying, hopefully, that perhaps two dogs was enough for their ancient parents to manage?  Then we decided that they were quite wrong, and embarked on a doggy waifs and strays hunt. And that is how, two weeks ago, we became the proud parents of a maniac called Patch.

We were alerted by a friend, who had seen his picture on Facebook, that a border collie was lurking in a refuge in Whitstable, and they were desperate for someone to take him on. So, after a phone conversation with Susie, who owns the refuge and devotes her life and money to rescuing animals, two weeks ago we packed our resident canines Connie and Blue into the car and sallied off to meet Patch. On arrival we were met with several ponies and a couple of splendid goats, but, deciding our garden was not large enough, we stuck to our guns and found Patch.

It was mutual love at first sight. We released all three dogs into a large field and threw balls as they played together. No problem with that. I had already asked if he was good with cats, and been assured that he had not been bothered by the ones at the refuge. As we had come a fair way to see him, and had our other dogs with us, Susie waived her usual rules and we signed the adoption papers, paid his exit fee, packed him into the car and started back for Brede. It occurs to me at this juncture she may have known a thing or two – she did mention a couple who had brought him back after two days.

We had taken an extra lead and car harness with us, and smelt a slight rat, so to speak, when it transpired that Patch had come supplied with neither. Unusual, we thought, for a three year old dog, ostensibly re-homed because his owners had not been able to take him with them to their new residence. But he had not been neutered or vaccinated either, so we suspected a bit of neglect here. Possibly because of large budget problems. Not everyone realises how expensive animals can be and we suspected a family had been given him as a puppy. He is white, and a lot of the old superstitions about white border collies still linger on, so he might have been difficult to sell as a working dog.

Anyway, we put our sturdy car harness on him and levered him into the car. It took him roughly ten minutes to break the harness. So for the next fifty minutes or so, Ro drove and I physically held him down on the back seat,  while  Blue and Connie peered anxiously over from their safe haven in the boot. I should probably mention here that Patch is quite a large boy. When we arrived home, he erupted out of the car into the drive and proceeded to charge around like Usain-dog. As many of you know, we have a custom-built chalet and run in the garden for acclimatising new additions to our family, giving them and us a bit of time and space. He finally settled into it with a large grin of approval and much tail wagging. And we and the resident dogs collapsed in a heap.

The following day we took him up to the woods with the others but it proved to be an abortive outing. It is a necessary safety precaution to get the dogs a certain distance from the car park on leads, and it quickly became obvious that Patch  had never walked on a lead in his life. Or indeed, ever been taken for a walk. We now think his whole life has been spent in a back garden with perhaps half an hour a day of children throwing balls for him when they returned from school,, because the only thing he seems to know about is catching a ball. And the lack of any real activity has left him genuinely hyperactive.

Well, he’s a quick learner. We’ve had to take a rain check on him walking in the woods with his mates, while he practices having a lead put on, also not pulling his handler over or jumping up. But we are getting there. He sits on command now, (well, most of the time!), takes a treat without snatching, and comes back when called – some of the time. So, yes, we are making progress, but slowly. Sadly he chased one of the cats, the nearly unforgivable sin chez Clewer, but we think he has sussed out that is a no-no, because I was SO cross with him – the one and only time so far!

One of the biggest problems was his tendency to proposition the other dogs. He seemed to fancy Blue like mad, Blue was not amused. So, ten days ago, we dog-handled him into the car again to go to the vets. We didn’t tell him why he was going – thought better not, really. I will skim over the fact that we had to be ushered through to the vets office to wait by ourselves as, on arrival, he skidded into the waiting room, promptly intimidating all the waiting animals and their owners.

By some miracle we got him weighed – approximately. And then two strong male nurses disappeared with him, promising to ring telling us when we could fetch him.  About 5 pm, they estimated.. It was about 10 am then. The phone rang at 1.30pm. Would we like to collect him?  Immediately? Everything had gone well, but he had come round from the anaesthetic rather fast. By this time we knew what that meant, and leapt into the car. The practice staff greeted us with relief written large on their faces. It took the same two strong nurses and the vet to control him as they handed (for handed, read ‘strong-armed’) him back to us, and we left with  cries of ‘Good luck’ ringing in our ears. Also orders not to let him jump, and to keep his buster collar on (that’s the Elizabethan collar to stop them getting to their wounds).

Of course, they knew as well as we did that both were quite impossible. Metacalm, sedation  and finally diazapan had had no effect on him at all. He split the collar and we abandoned it within 24 hours. After I, in desperation, dosed him with three diaazpan he slept for ten whole minutes. But his wound has healed beautifully, though as yet his libido does not seem to have diminished. And in a couple of days we have to take him back to the vet for his check up and first vaccination.  I imagine they are bracing themselves already. We certainly are!

So, where do we go from here? Well, it is not a totally new experience for us . Blue was reckoned to be a dangerous dog when we adopted him ten years ago, and was biting everyone including me. And he’s a smashing dog who wouldn’t hurt anyone now he doesn’t live in fear all the time. Sprocker was a disruptive maniac, but smaller than Patch so easier to control. Lottie, our wolf hound, pulled me over so many times I was black and blue for months, but she learnt to behave. And we have other shaggy dog stories, Kelly, Maisie, they were all a challenge at some point, but happily you forget all that when they finally become civilised.

We have changed Patches diet, which seems to be having some calming effect on him. As people can get a sugar-high, so dogs can get a preservative-high, so we’ve cut all preservatives out. We tried spraying pheromones around, but that made everyone dozy except him. We bought some highly recommended ‘Calm-eze’ tablets, but by the second day on them it became  obvious  that they were making him considerably  more hyper  rather than less, so we have abandoned them.  We have one more string to our bow – a ‘calming collar’ – it only has a limited life so we are saving it for our next vet visit but not holding our much hope.

But Patch is lovely. Not an aggressive bone in his body as far as we can tell, and we think quite bright. Just a dog with no experience of any kind of training or a proper doggy life. We hope, for all our sakes, we can remedy that. So cross your fingers for us all.

 

 

 

 

A day in the life of Roland Aloysius Gardner

 

Subtitled

It was the mouse wot dunnit!

The morning of June 8th dawned fine and balmy, full of hope and birdsong. In fact, the birdsong may have been a tad too fulsome, having woken Ro at about 4.30 am so, to be honest, he was not in the best of spirits. But, notwithstanding, he ate a hearty breakfast and departed in good cheer to his hairdresser, to have his luxuriant tresses coiffured, leaving his help-meet, the Goodwife Sal, to attend to matters domestic , as befits her sex.

All was going well, and the Goodwife was embroiled in domesticity, that is to say, making the conjugal bed, when she heard a strange noise. She quickly identified this as emanating from Phoebe, a tiny but extremely vocal household cat.  As she turned to speak to her feline helper, her delight turned to horror as Phoebe dropped a large mouse at her feet.

Now, the Goodwife is what a later age would come to call ‘phobic’ about mice. That is to say, reduced to a shivering, moaning wreck in the blink of an eye. However, she had just enough presence of mind to drop a waste-paper basket on top of the mouse, hoping it had shuffled off this mortal coil, but confining it if it had not. Then she grabbed the cat and exited the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

Sometime later, the Master of the House returned, relaxed and newly pomaded, only to be informed of the intruder in the upstairs chamber. Bracing his manly muscles he leapt up the stairs and lifted the mouse cage (otherwise known as the waste-paper basket) preparing to dispose of the corpse. But he had misjudged the situation. Released, the dead mouse sprang back to life with considerable alacrity and dived under the bed.

Now, some description of the conjugal chamber is required here. The home of this somewhat bucolic couple is a small but beautiful old country cottage, where they live in harmony with not only each other (most of the time) but their three dogs, and several cats.  The bedroom occupies the entire top floor, and is dominated, of course, by the bed. This stands between two stanchions and does not leave much room for manoeuvre, especially as the bed has four large drawers under it.

The Master of the House (hereafter referred to as the MotH) summoned the Goodwife for help in trapping the mouse. With extraordinary courage, having donned knee length socks over her jeans (to stop the mouse running up her trouser legs), thick gloves, and wraparound goggles, the Goodwife entered the fray. The MotH disdained extra clothing, but armed himself with a torch, a colander and a table mat – sorry, you’ll have to work it out!

The first drawer to be evacuated proved to be the Good-wife’s shoe drawer and spilled an embarrassing number of pairs of shoes over the carpet but not the mouse. The second was the MotH’s shoe drawer  and was mainly notable for the array of shoes not worn for some time. The MotH pounced on one pair with cries of joy, having apparently mislaid them some years before. However, the mouse was still eluding capture.

At this point, the ottoman at the foot of the bed was piled high with the bedclothes from the now unmade bed, and the MotH remembered that is was possible to separate the bed into two hales. Indeed, it was the only possible way to elevate up our narrow staircase originally. So, aided by the Goodwife, he proceeded to dismember the bed., enabling him to see underneath the entire area of the remaining section. And.– victory was his! Well. nearly. The mouse was spotted lurking furtively under the headboard.

With enormous bravery and ingenuity the MotH lay full lenth on the carpet, and, confronting the mouse literally head-on, managed to trap it under the colander. Some  further strategic manoeuvring, that is to say, the table mat slid under the colander (see, he did know the right tools for the job!) and the mouse was ejected out of the window on to the roof. The Goodwife then ran frantically round slamming the windows closed against its re-entry.

There was then the small matter of restoring the bedchamber. Sadly, ato the mortification of the Goodwife, who obviously had failed in her domestic tasks, a considerable amount of dust and fluff had been uncovered during the furniture moving exploits.  By the time this had been removed, and the  bedchamber returned to something approaching its previous appearance, evacuating the mouse had taken one and half hours, and the MotH was exhausted.

But no rest was allowed. It was time to walk the dogs. For the first mile we limped around, not quite comatose, but coping, even possibly recuperating, but then we were plunged into chaos again.  Ancient and bolshie Bengie-Sprocker, in his 17th year and with his front legs going much faster than his back ones, decided to plunge down a slippery slope into dark and muddy woodland. No use yelling for him, he was always selectively deaf, now he is really deaf.  We called back the other two and were both trying to apprehend  the truant when a saviour appeared and , summing up our limited resources,  leapt into action and, catching him, made a dogizens arrest and returned our recalcitrant and totally unremorseful dog  to us.

This same rescuer re-appeared some short time after, when the MotH  was taken ill in the woods, overcome by the events of the day.  He dialled 999, probably saving the MotH’s life by doing so. And that is the true story of a day in the life of Roland Aloysius Gardner.

And the moral of my tale? Just remember to vacuum under the bed. Oh, and as my mother used to say, always wear clean underclothes, because, well, you just never know…

 

Time Remembered

It has been pointed out to me that although I blog every two weeks on our Shorelink site (www.shorelinkwriters.co.uk) I have totally neglected my own web site for some time.  It was suggested that as I sometimes write short stories and occasionally even attempt a poem, perhaps it would be fun to post some of these on my own blog site. So here goes. I wrote Time Remembered last autumn. I hope you enjoy it.

Time remembered.

Verity was conscious that her feet were aching, but she could live with that. The worse thing was that she was bored. Here, in Oxford Street, teeming with thousands of shoppers oohing and aahing at the glittering goods on display all around them, she was bored. Once upon a time she would have been as avid a shopper as Emily, her sixteen year old daughter, who had just dived into yet another boutique, which looked exactly the same as the one she had just exited, calling ‘won’t be a minute’ over her shoulder.

Perhaps she had become the epitome of freedom from want, except she didn’t want anything because she had so much. She edged into the shop after her daughter and perched on the uncomfortably frail cane chair just inside the door. She exchanged a sympathetic glance with the quite smart, but middle-aged and indefinably middle-class woman on the chair opposite. Then she realised with a shock that she was communing with her own mirror image. My God, she thought, remembering the mini-skirted girl in the long white boots who used to scour London’s streets for bargains in her lunch hour. Where did my life go? That dreary cow is absolutely not me, is it? But it was.

“Mum, what do you think?” Emily twirled before her in a silver and blue ball gown. She looked amazing. And young.

Verity smiled. “The best yet. You’ll be queen of the prom in that, I think. Is that the one? ” She tried to stop it sounding like a plea, and obviously succeeded too well. Her heart lifted but then sank again at Emily’s reply.

“I think so. But just a couple more shops to be sure. You OK?”

“Bit worn out, love. What with your dad being away and Ben being home ill, it was a hefty morning.”

“Trust my stupid brother to get flu just when we wanted a proper girl’s day out. And you had to walk Sammy as well, didn’t you? I know, Mum, you go and get a coffee in Harrods and I’ll come over when I’m done.”

Verity gratefully accepted the offer, checked her daughter had her phone (as if she would be seen dead without it!) and her bank cards, and made her way across to Harrods. Subsiding gratefully into a comfortable leather chair, she ordered a pastry to supplement her coffee, and reflected that her kids were probably more thoughtful than most teenagers. The pastry was typical of Harrods when it arrived, huge and indulgent.

Verity was just wielding her fork to attack it when a voice behind her said, “I thought it was you, but as soon as I saw that cake, I was certain.”

She froze, fork suspended. Then very carefully she put it down on the table, afraid that if she put it on the plate it would rattle, and become obvious that her hands were suddenly shaking. She turned slowly to face the voice.

To face the eyes. To face the mouth. To face the face.

She thought, ‘I am blushing’, how strange. I didn’t know I still could.’

“Can I sit with you?” His voice was deeper. Older. But still beautiful.

“Of course.” It came out a bit high, a bit breathy, but nearly normal.

He sat opposite her, placing his drink (still red wine, she noticed) on the small glass table between them. “I saw you. I followed you here.” He placed his hand on his heart, bowed his head and said. “I cannot tell a lie.” Then he grinned at her and twenty years rolled away.  “Was that Emily?”

She nodded.

“And Ben? How is Ben?”

“Home from Uni with man-flu. But good, when not suffering. And your two boys?”

“Both at Uni. Charlie is doing a PHD now. I think he is going to be an eternal academic. But in a good relationship. Henry is sports mad and brings home a different girl every weekend.”

She nodded and they fell silent. His hand crept across the table until his fingers touched hers. She knew she should withdraw them, but it was as if their hands were magnetised.

“And Lucy?” She was proud of how un-wavering her voice was.  “How is she doing now the boys have left home?”

“She’s started her own business, making and selling jewellery. It’s going quite well.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s good.” A voice in her head was going no, it is NOT good, I wish her fucking business was a disaster, but she resolutely silenced it.

A brief pause, then he asked, “And Luke?”

“Oh, he’s doing OK. Company director now. Tours the world. He’s away in Dubai at the moment.”

“And you?”

She hesitated. “Busy. You know, family and stuff. And I’ve started to do come teaching again. Just evening classes to get my hand in, really.”

His fingers grazed hers and her spine tingled. The air between them was noisy with questions.  Were they worth it, these families of ours?  Would it have mattered if we had not been so bloody loyal? Are you happy? Do you still…?

He broke the silence, his pressure on her fingers intensifying. “Do you still…”

“Hey, Mum! I managed to find the most fantastic, absolutely incredible…” Emily stopped beside them. Her carrier bag high in the air, her eyes puzzled as she glimpsed their quickly withdrawn outstretched hands.

“Oh, darling, how lovely. Come and join us. I was just explaining to this gentleman that I ordered this huge pastry and then promptly lost my appetite, but I was sure that you would be able to cope with it when you got here.”

“Too right I will. It looks yummy.”

He stood. “And I must move on. Please have my chair.” He turned to Verity. “So sorry about the pasty. Life is full of regrets, isn’t it?”

She gave a polite laugh and watched as he disappeared back into the crowed street.

“He was dishy, Mum,” Emily splattered the words through a mouthful of cream and giggled. “Do you know, just for a minute, when I came in, I thought poor old Dad, Mum’s sitting there holding hands with the love of her life. How daft is that?”

And they laughed together.

 

Sally Patricia Gardner.        October, 2016.

 

 

 

A Film For Our Time?

Always a bit of a film buff, I do enjoy a visit to the cinema. Like many of my generation I grew up before television became compulsory in every household, and the weekly visit to the cinema enriched our lives no end. In fact, in the drab British fifties, where every street boasted a bomb site waiting to be cleared, films were our main form of escapism. They showed the possibility of a glamorous world quite beyond our experience.

I especially loved those old Hollywood musicals – you know, the ones where people would burst into song at the drop of a hat, and dance along crowded streets regardless of the passing traffic. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, my heart was yours. But I had very catholic tastes, and loved them all, from the Westerns, and the quasi religious epics (which all seemed to star Charlton Heston) through to the crime thrillers.

I became conscious as I grew older that films also had the capacity to change hearts and minds. Even Bambi, all those years ago, made people view the treatment of animals and the planet they, and we, live on in a different way, and we can all think of many films which have influenced our thinking.

In the last week or so, I have seen two films. The first was Ken Loach’s bleak and horrendously accurate, I, Daniel Blake. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. This gives me food for thought, as although I was gripped by the film, I could not resist the feeling that it was a political statement rather than a great film. Ken Loach, as so often in his illustrious past, is concerned with highlighting a broken system which breaks lives. From which, as for the central character in this case, there is no way out.

For anyone who does not already understand how easy it is to fall through the net through no fault of your own, to end up homeless and hopeless on the streets of our so-called civilised county, then this is the film for you. But if you have not already noticed the prevalence of food banks and the despairing souls sleeping on our streets, then you will either not go and see it, or dismiss it as leftish propaganda.

I think it was a worthy social commentary, splendidly acted and directed, but that, sadly, that it will change nothing. Perhaps if it had been shown on television without any prior publicity it might have caught the audience that Ken Loach must have hoped for, as Cathy Come Home once did, but I fear only the already converted old lefties like me will flock to see it. Fifty years on, social media makes it more difficult to take your audience by surprise with a left hook to their conscience.

The other film I saw was A Streetcat Named Bob. I had read James Bowen’s book about his experience of being rescued from his life as a homeless druggie on the streets of London by Bob, a ginger cat. No secret that I am devoted to cats, so no surprise I wanted to see the film. I expected confetti. Something charming and light, a sort of feline Marley and Me I had seen a couple of reviews, ‘charming’, a ‘delightful comedy/drama’ ‘fun’.

I am left wondering if they saw the same film as me?  Because although this film is indeed charming and delightful, that very framework enables it to deliver a mighty punch to the gut. The script is totally non-judgemental. No-one cares about the previous circumstances of the destitute. There is no subliminal message about some being more or less deserving of their fate, there is no categorising of the good, the bad and the ugly. (Sorry about that, but I have admitted to being prey to cinematic influences.)

While centring on James and Bob’s life and relationship, the film makes no effort to camouflage the dirt, the danger and the sheer horror of life on the streets. Even the confrontation with the Big Issue seller underlines the poverty and desperation of those frantically trying to rise above the circumstances they find themselves in. But neither does the film shy away from recording the suicidal apathy of those who have given up.

Luke Tredaway is a remarkable young actor, and his portrayal of James has enormous honesty. From the first frame I felt total empathy with his initial alienation. Bob, we are told, had a little help from his friends, but also emerges as a feline thespian of no mean ability.

So what is my point here? Well, it seemed to me that possibly A Streetcat Named Bob might, almost inadvertently, ultimately change more hearts and minds than I, Daniel Blake. Because the unpleasant truths it portrays are there for you to find, rather than thrown at you. And because in the end, this true story is about hope and redemption. Perhaps, without at least a glimmer of that, we shrug our shoulders and keep our heads down.

Sally

 

Not beaten.

One of my grandsons, Peter, put this on his Facebook page on National Cerebral Palsy Day last week. He will be celebrating his 21st birthday next month, and  we are, as you can imagine, very proud of him, and I asked his permission to share this.

“Tippy Toes”

I was in two minds about telling this, mainly because I don’t like going back on this stuff I’ve lived through. But, I sometimes feel that people don’t get why I do certain things that others consider annoying or problematic. Lemme’ start from the beginning. People say they struggle to remember when they were really young and that they wish they could. To me, I was fine with not remembering, and here’s why. When I started walking, my family weren’t filled with joy or happiness, instead they were scared that I was walking on my “tippy toes” and that something was wrong. Turns out it was. I got taken to hospitals, doctors, physiotherapists and I was finally diagnosed with a disability called cerebral palsy. I don’t remember being diagnosed, but I remember being a kid who grew up knowing that the only way to walk was on my “tippy toes.” Yeah, it’s weird isn’t it? I thought everyone else were the weird ones for walking on their flat feet. But, I was the odd one. I got to about 6/7 when I began to understand what was wrong with me. However, I didn’t understand why I had to go through all the things I did as much as I do now. My Mum, Dad and I went up to London to see a specialist who told me that I was going to be in a wheelchair by the time I was 16. Imagine hearing that as a kid? I genuinely didn’t feel like doing anything after that. I would be the kid finishing secondary school in a wheelchair, or so I was told. This was when the process of trying to prevent this started to begin which was one of the darkest times of my life. I had to endure weeks of different tests that were done on me. I had casts put on my legs for weeks, a night cast which was designed to painfully bend my ankle into shape, injections, scans, physiotherapists stretching my ankle which was so painful. I had times when I would be knocked out, “experimented” on to see what the problem was, and then wake up on the sofa at home with no clue what happened. At times I would cry and hug my mum simply saying “take it off, it’s so painful” or “why me, mum?”

Was all this for a good cause? I would love to say yes, but no it wasn’t. All of this did nothing in my opinion (even though it probably did somehow). From then on, other problems in life began to occur and I had that to deal with. Whilst handling this I also had to keep up with fulfilling a childhood and living a life. I would do all the things kids had to do when they’re kids such as school and all that jazz. Then I had to come home to doing stretches, special exercises which were again, so painful. This was every night, it wasn’t like a diet where you can have a bad week and make up for it with 2 weeks good eating. That week could’ve been the reason I got worse.

Just to add some background, I did primary school, where my class mates would look at me weirdly; not because of my disability, but because they didn’t understand my disability. I could never be the “football guy” even though I loved playing it. I used to get frustrated watching kids run and do mad skills whilst I would struggle to walk without tripping up every few minutes. However, secondary school came around and this happened again. I used to get severely bullied and picked on due to this disability. At the time I was an overweight kid, so that also didn’t help. People would rugby tackle me to the ground and would watch me struggle to get back up only to find it was repeated again and again. When it got to Years 8 and 9, I began to change myself and fight back. I endured years of this disability trying to dominate me, now it was going to take years of me fighting it. No matter what happened, I was never going to give up. Nobody was going to tell me I wouldn’t be able to do something and I was going to beat it. The fight was on. I would do the stretches with extra effort everyday until I got better and better with a positive attitude, despite the odds not looking as if they were in my favour.

Life seemed to turn around, I got better at walking and learned to cope with it. My peers began to understand more and they saw me as a friend rather than as “that guy who walks funny.” In Years 10 and 11, I focussed on my body and how I could improve that. I dieted, went to the gym, exercised any way I could. The weight suddenly dropped and I became slimmer and slimmer, to the point where I was madly loving my body! This wasn’t due to how good it looked, or me bragging, but because I thought I’d never see myself look like it. At one point I weighed nearly 17 stone. In 6 months work I dropped that down to 13 and a half to 13 stone. I became so happy! When I was 16, due to all my hard work and the determination, I went for another check up. I told them how I felt; I said that I thought everything they did was a waste of time and that they made me go through so much pain that I didn’t deserve. I got checked and I got taken off the list as having a “registered disability” due to my progress. I went up from being 3 on the scale to a 9 on the scale. The true reason for this; and therefore the real cure to this I felt is finding the right mind set. If you tell yourself it’s not beating you; then it isn’t beating you. I personally think it’s never too late to put things right. Nobody else takes this credit apart from me. My family supported me so much and they pushed me, but at the end of the day it was always up to ME to decide for myself how I wanted to live with this. I had never been so happy; but weirdly in the same way I felt a little upset, which I’ll explain why in a minute. However, I went on to getting the same feeling of having a life that I should’ve had ages ago. I got into relationships, which were happy ones that even to this day I never regret. I made friends, I even learned to drive. I passed my GCSEs, passed my A Levels and then did a gap year as a Learning Support Assistant, which I loved as I saw it as a chance for me to give something back. I am now at University studying Film and Television, I gym 5 times a week, eat healthy and maintain my body also. I became independent, moved away from home. I was an adult. It’s all scary stuff but I’m loving every second of it.

You remember me saying that I felt upset when I found out I no longer had a registered disability? Well, I know what you’re thinking, why the hell is he upset? Why after all that moaning, isn’t he relieved?

The reason is simple, everything I am, the person I have become, the things I want to do, the people I love and care for…I owe to this disability. I became a better person from it. I spent ages improving it, but it turns out I was finding a way to live with it. This disability is with me under my terms. Not the other way round. This disability, not registered, still lies in me. Whenever times are tough, and oh god they are believe me, there are times when I feel like laying in bed and not wanting to get out because I’m so exhausted. When this happens, I just think of what I went through and how I overcame it. That is what gets me out of bed. That is what makes me want to face each day.

I could go on about how happy I am right now, the friends I have, my family and everything else, but I think you get the idea. The thing is, sometimes not giving up is all you have in life, and even if this is the case, harness it, embrace it and never ever let whatever is hurting you defeat you. It’s not about finding the correct medicine, operation or whatever. In my point of view, it’s about having the right mindset. And yes, I still get very exhausted from my disability, it still effects me. When my mates ask me to go out for a night of clubbing I do have to say no most of the time, not just because of work, but because I am actually exhausted, but I learnt to give myself time to rest, even though right now I feel like taking on the world! As I said before, this is why I worry it gets annoying and problematic for people as I feel that when I say no, it’s because of them or because I don’t want to be seen around them. Believe me, when I say no, it’s for my future benefit. As much as I would love to do everything people ask me to do such as going out, shopping and everything else, I have to respect my energy levels which I think I’m getting used to doing.

I hope this story and explanation gives answers to a lot of questions and explains a lot to people about me. My tiredness isn’t from my disability effecting me. It’s from me not letting my disability effect me. If you don’t believe me, here’s me now with all the work I did. It’s me when I was 16, and me now when I’m 20.

If you’re suffering, facing the worst, please don’t bottle it up. Fight for your chance to live a life you’ve been given and for a life you deserve. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s never easy, no one said it was, but you can do it.

I haven’t made the pain go away, I’ve just made some room for it.

Not beaten.

Forgotten heroes?

Now this is a ‘spin-off’ from my new novel, The Ides of Daisy March. The story, as I have said on this blog and in other places, was inspired by my mother’s unhappy early childhood. But those of you who have already read it will know there is another character who is inspired by my own history.

My father was one of the 40,000 men ordered to stay behind on the beaches to form the rearguard action at Dunkirk in 1940. Their task was both simple and horrendous. Hold back the enemy while the rest of our surviving troops were taken to safety across the channel. They performed this job magnificently. The bulk of our army, 330,000 men, was not only saved to fight another day, but managed to destroy most to their equipment before they left the beaches. This was crucial in order to stop it falling into Nazi hands and being used against us.

The rearguard knew from the start that their options would be death or capture. There would be no escape for them. Many made the ultimate sacrifice and died fighting, and for those that survived a grim fate awaited. 80 young men were forced into a barn and massacred by machine gun, and there were other mass executions. Those remaining were marched across France into Eastern Germany. Many died en route from starvation and exhaustion. Others who finally reached the Stalag camps were then used as slave labour down the mines or in the fields and factories.

Their captivity continued for five long years, and just when they might have hoped the end was in sight they were subjected to another horror as the Allies began to advance. The men were forced to march across Europe for hundreds of miles in freezing winter weather. With totally inadequate clothing and food, countless men collapsed and died in the snow while their companions were forced to march on.

These brave men had no idea that their action had stopped the massacre of our troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, and had enabled them to access the ships on the channel. And to live to fight another day, until our nation emerged victorious. Without them and their valour we might well have lost the war.

My father came home on a stretcher, riddled with tuberculosis.  He died soon after. He and my mother had been married only a few months when he went to war, and she was expecting me. I never knew him. But I am hugely proud of what he, and all those soldiers did. And I would like more people to be aware of their history.

General Tim Cross said to me a few years ago that these men seemed to have been ‘airbrushed out of history’. And certainly there has been no official recognition or thanks for their sacrifice and achievement. It is surely time that there was.

The Dunkirk Rearguard Medal is a figment of my imagination at the minute. But could we make it happen? I know there are people out there in all walks of life with campaigning skills that I don’t have. If you are, or know someone who is, can you help me promote this vision?

I doubt there many rearguard survivors out there, but there are loads of descendants, like me, to whom it would mean so much. My father gave his life defending us. He wanted to see his daughter grow up in a free world. He, and his fellow soldiers, were heroes all. We should celebrate that. Can you help me achieve this?        Sally

 

 

Out soon, my very personal new novel

The photograph which forms the cover, and the inspiration, for The Ides Of Daisy March. was taken when my mother was twelve years old. She came from the ‘buttoned up’ generation. You simply did not talk about emotions; in fact, you didn’t really talk to your children at all. She was an only child and I was her only child. We both grew up fatherless, though for very different reasons.  She was in her eighties before she told me about the trauma of being forced to leave her beloved foster mother, who she had believed to be her real mother. She said: I was five years old when my mother told me that she was not my mother …  and then, all those years later, she cried. That stayed in my mind for many years until one day those words insisted on becoming the opening sentence of my new novel.

My mother was, of course, born ‘on the wrong side of the blanket’ at a time when the sins of the fathers (as they were then referred to!) were indeed visited on the children. I believe the circumstances of her birth, and the totally undeserved deep shame and guilt she felt about it, coloured her entire life. I wish she had lived long enough to understand that today she would have been just one of many whose parents have actively chosen that path. But I am not sure she would ever have believed that.

There is another character in my novel who is inspired by my own history. Like Georgie, my father was one of 40, 000 men who fought the rearguard action and stayed behind to hold back the Nazis at Dunkirk . This enabled the other troops to access the boats and be taken to safety. These men  knew there was no escape for them. Unlike Georgie, my father  was repatriated four years later riddled with tuberculosis, for which there was then no cure. My mother was pregnant with me when he left. He did not live long enough  to ever give me a cuddle.

All these years on, I am mystified that those men, many of them who made the ultimate sacrifice, have barely been recognised. It is a received truth that without their bravery, we would probably have lost the war. Where is their medal? Surely it is more than time to honour and thank them.

The Ides of Daisy March was inspired by my mother’s story. But I am a writer of fiction, and Daisy’s story, and her career as a war photographer,  quickly becomes her own. However, she has grown from truth, and I hope my readers will love her as much as I do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This one is for my father.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

That quotation has always seemed to me to sum up democracy in our country. So I was deeply shocked recently to be told on my Facebook site by one of my friends (and yes, he was someone I considered to be a friend, far more than a casual acquaintance) that he would consider me traitor if I voted to remain in the EU. This was after I posted a plea for less hysteria and more respect on the referendum debate. Worse was to come. When another post was so bigoted that I asked this person if they approved of racism, I was promptly banned from his site. So instead of, as I had hoped, provoking a thoughtful answer, I had to accept, sadly, that yes, he is a racist.

My father gave his life in the fight against fascism – or racism, if you prefer. What has happened to our great country that these thugs think they have the right to shout everyone else down? How dare they make this referendum about persecuting others! Of course there are arguments for and against the EU, but not as far as these thugs are concerned. They don’t want to listen to anyone else, respect for other people’s views is not on their agenda. Stirred up by the Murdoch press (and yes, Mr Murdoch knows exactly what he is doing, I am sure) for them it is totally about immigration, which is all bad. They don’t actually use the word ‘Aryan’ but they do throw around words like White and Christian. Christ, of course, was not white, but Middle Eastern, and preached loving our neighbour, but never mind such details.

I believe we British should be defined by our generosity and our kindness, not our blind bigotry. The murder of Jo Cox yesterday may not be anything to do with all the hatred and anger which has been stirred up by this referendum, but that it is hard to believe in the present climate. For God’s sake, reinstate democracy and respect for each other before it is too late. And we wake up one day to find the fascists are at the gate. Or already in Westminster.

 

The Ides of Daisy March, cont

I must apologise to anyone wanting to read this taster for my new novel, because you will have realised that you have to scroll back 2 weeks for the beginning of it, but thank you for the many encouraging comments you have sent me. I expect the book to be out later this summer but will keep you posted. 

The following morning I was up early and dressed in my coat and boots, with the carpet bag at my feet. I waited at the gate, holding MumMarch’s hand, for the coach to arrive. When it did, I was surprised that it was not Mrs Gosling sitting in it, but a lady that I didn’t know. She jumped out came across to me.

“You must be Daisy? I am Emma. Mrs Gosling sent me to bring you home.”

I opened my mouth to say that I was home already, but then I caught the slight shake of her head that MumMarch gave me, so I just said, “Thank you.”

‘Come on, then. Oh, is that your bag? How pretty it is.” And without pausing for breath, she picked it up and put it inside the coach. Then she turned and saw that I was clutching MumMarch tightly.

“Oh, Daisy, I am sorry. Do you want me to get back inside the coach while you say goodbye?”

But there was nothing more to say. I squeezed MumMarch’s lovely warm, comforting hand and then reached up and kissed her cheek. Then I jumped into the coach and flopped down beside Emma. She banged on the window just like The Posh Lady, and we were off, trotting into another world. I stared out of the window, willing myself not to cry.

“Daisy?”

Her voice was gentle and concerned. I turned to face her. She was not old like The Posh Lady, and for the first time I wondered about her. She seemed to understand the question in my head without me asking.

“I work for Mrs Gosling.” She giggled in a way that made her seem much more like Alfie and Georgie than a proper grown up. “I am what they call a ‘maid of all work’. That means there is only me, trying to do everything. Well, except the cooking. Mrs Grant does that. That’s why I stay there really, because she’s teaching me how to do all sorts of stuff, and when I know enough, I’ll be off. I might even be able to go and work in America.”

I stared at her in awe. I knew America was another country, because Georgie had learnt about it at school. But I suddenly felt I didn’t want her to go away.

“But you won’t go yet?” I asked.

She laughed again, and bending over, untied my bonnet and laid it on the seat opposite us. “We’ll put that back on when we get there. No, I won’t go off yet. My young man is at the war, and I’m waiting for when he gets back, and then we’ll be married and go together. He’s from Ireland, and his Auntie is out there already. He says it’s a fine place and we’ll get very rich.” She paused as if she was not quite sure of this, and then she laughed again, shrugging her shoulders as if to say that she knew it would all turn out well.

I decided she was very pretty, with her reddish brown hair and dark eyes. I had dark eyes, but my hair was very fair, which I thought made me look a bit odd.

She smiled at me. “Now, Daisy, tell me about you.  Mrs Gosling told me yesterday I had to go and fetch her daughter, and you could have knocked me down with a feather. So where did you spring from?”

I had no idea how to answer her question any way but truthfully, so I replied, “I don’t know.” How could I explain that I had even less idea what I was doing, or where I was going, than she did? I felt that I should offer something more, as she had told me so much, so I added, “My mother says I must be very good.”

Misunderstanding, Emma laughed, “Well, I suppose that is what she is hoping.”

“Oh, no, I meant my real mother, MumMarch, she …” I caught the look of bewilderment on her face and realised that I had said the wrong thing. I frantically tried to put it right, babbling, “No, sorry, I, um, I mean my other mother, I mean, oh…” It was all too much; I put my face in my hands and was unable to stem my tears.

Emma drew me close and put her arms round me. “You poor little mite. Here, let’s dry your tears. Come on.” She wiped my face with a soft handkerchief, which she tucked into my coat pocket. “There, that’s in case you need it again. But I don’t think you will. She’s a nice enough lady, Mrs Gosling. You’ll be alright. She’ll look after you. And, so, Daisy-pops, will I.” She began to hum a little tune around my name, which made me laugh through my tears.

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do, look up and smile – there that will do! Come along then, join in!”

And I did, tremulously at first, but we sang it more and more lustily, till she changed it to Little Miss Daisy and we both tried to think of something to rhyme that was like tuffet, and that made us laugh even more. And then the coach stopped, and Emma looked out of the window, and reached for my bonnet and tied it back on.

“We’ve arrived, Daisy-pops. Now, big smile. I can’t see Mrs Gosling waiting, but she said to take you through to the drawing room as soon as you got here, so that’s what we’ll do.”

“Can I have my carpet bag, please?”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it.”

She opened the door and jumped out, taking my bag with her. Then she waited while I climbed out, a bit stiff from sitting so long. The coach pulled away, and we walked up a short path through a pretty garden with lots of trees. The house in front of us was tall, I could see four lots of windows between the black front door and the roof, but it was not huge. We went past the front of the house and through a door at the back which led into a large kitchen. It felt cosy, not unlike the one at home, only bigger. It was warm but there was no-one working there.

“I’ll take your bag up to your room. No – don’t look so worried,” she held up her hand to stem my embryo protest, “I won’t let any harm come to it and I won’t open it until you are there. I just don’t want you having to drag it around, right?”

I didn’t want to be parted with this precious gift, so I hesitated, but her smiling face convinced me. “Right,” I agreed.

She led me along a passageway and then up a short flight of stairs. At the top of these was a small room with a chair in it and an umbrella stand. I would later realise that this was the front hall and that the kitchen was in the basement. Emma knocked on a door, and I heard The Posh Lady’s voice calling me in.  I swallowed hard as Emma gave me a gentle shove which propelled me into the room, before disappearing with my bag