Saturday, 21 November 2015

Mind The Gap

Mind The Gap is a story from my collection Some Body's At The Door

“I hate the Underground, it’s smelly and dirty. And creepy; you know those things live down there,” complained Andy, shivering. “I’d rather walk.” He folded his skinny arms across his narrow chest and stopped dead exactly where he was, eliciting tuts and annoyed grunts from the people behind him.

Leigh looked at her brother disapprovingly. She paused. She sniffed. “You’re welcome to,” she said, slipping her ticket into the barrier, “But I’m getting the Tube.” Playing mother to an unwilling child, she began to walk towards the downward escalators when she heard little feet running towards her. “Leigh!” shouted the younger boy, moving as fast as he could, his eyes wide and scared. “Mummy said you’re not to leave me on my own!” There was panic and a hint of hysteria in his voice; “Please, don’t leave me on my own down here.”

Turning, feigning reluctance, Leigh held her hand out to her little brother, her thirteen years to his eight opening up like an impossible gap between them. “Hurry up, then!” she scolded as he reached her. “I would like to get there sometime this year!” She pushed the boy, guiding him in front of her, and kept a hand on his shoulder, comforting contact, making sure that she knew exactly where he was. Andy reached up and held her slender-fingered hand in his small one. He squeezed tight as the moving stairs took them down deeper into the grimy half-light of the Underground station.

As they descended, Leigh gazed at the top of her brother’s blond head. Recently she had noticed their age difference more and more, and it seemed especially large at that moment. She looked at her brother and saw a boy, a child. It wasn’t that long ago that she had been a child too, and they would play together and laugh at the same things, but now, now she was a teenager. And things had changed. The gap was growing, she could feel it widening and she didn’t know whether she liked it or not. Leigh shivered. Andy looked up at her, twisting his neck. “Are you all right?” he asked, and Leigh wondered whether he could feel the change as well.

“Fine, fine,” she told him, lying. She felt like an adult when she did it. She supposed that Andy’s childish fear had spooked her far more than she had realised, but she couldn’t let it show or Andy would get even more jumpy than he already was. Instead she said, “Stop worrying, would you? Look out, we’re at the bottom.” She pushed Andy off the escalator. He leapt, avoiding the crack where the metal stairs met the dirty floor. Leigh deliberately trod on it, watching Andy’s face with interest. His mouth opened slightly, his eyes even wider than before. “You shouldn’t have done that, Leigh,” he said in a whisper.

“Why’s that?” asked Leigh, sidestepping to let other passengers past her. “What’s wrong with doing that? It’s not got anything to do with that silly old rhyme about breaking my mother’s back, has it? You know that’s all rubbish, don’t you?” Again, the differences. It wasn’t so long ago that she would have avoided the crack herself.

“Of course it’s rubbish!” shouted Andy, causing passers-by to stop and stare at him. He began to sob, surprising Leigh who was at a loss as to what to do. She hadn’t meant to push him so hard. Andy continued to shout at her through breathless hiccoughs. “I know that’s not true, but you still mustn’t stand on the cracks. They’ll see you. You mustn’t let them know you’re here, so you have to stand just on the steps otherwise they’ll look up and see you. And then they’ll come and get you! And the ones that are already up here – you mustn’t look at them!”

Her mother’s voice crept stealthily into Leigh’s head, the last worried warning words as they left the house that morning repeating; “Don’t forget, Andy’s only eight. Look after him. Make sure you don’t let him wander off. I love you.”

Sighing, Leigh bent down to Andy’s height. “Andy, there’s nothing to be scared of,” she said, trying to soothe him. “Millions of people come down here every day and they go about their business and never get hurt. So just calm down. I promise there’s nothing lurking under the stairs. Come on, Aunty Kelly is expecting us for lunch, we don’t want to keep her waiting.”

Andy sniffed and nodded. “Okay.” He attempted to smile but ended up with an expression on his face that was somewhere between abject terror and sympathy for Leigh and her obvious inability to understand. He was worried. Surely she knew… She used to know. And now she must have forgotten. She had forgotten a lot since her birthday. A lot of things that were important to know. Essential, in fact, to know. Kids knew. Adults didn’t. Leigh, though… He worried still. Leigh was neither here nor there, neither child nor adult, and she was on dangerous ground. Still vulnerable, but unable to believe she was. He would have to look after her today. And for all days until she was safe and he, too, forgot what there was to know.

Andy reached out his hand to his sister. Leigh took hold and gently led him towards the strip lighted tunnel that would connect them to the trains, thinking she was in charge. Thinking she was doing what her mother had asked of her. It wasn’t hard, was it, to keep a little boy safe?

Sad music, a drifting, dreamy version of ‘My Favourite Things’, floated towards the pair as they walked, echoing along with their footsteps and voices through the tunnel. Despite the tune sounding more like a lament than a jolly show stopper, Leigh dug into her pocket for some spare change. She offered it to Andy. “Want to give this to the violin man?” she asked, nodding in the direction of an unkempt man in a long overcoat who stood a little way ahead, creaking out the miserable melody on a decrepit and battered violin. Andy shook his head quickly, decisively. “No, thank you,” he said. He did not go into details – he understood now that Leigh wouldn’t believe anything he said about the buskers. He understood now that it was best just to ignore them and hope that they would go away, just like he did with the monster in his wardrobe and the ghost under his bed.  

“You sure?” asked Leigh, surprised. She hadn’t expected him to turn her down; Andy normally enjoyed giving his money to the various street performers around London, especially when there was the reward at the end of it, a sticker, a badge, one of those little furry bookmark things. He had a collection of them.

But this time Andy nodded, then shook his head, his lips tight shut. Leigh was caught. She personally disliked giving money away. She would rather spend it on herself, after all it was hers, not earned, perhaps, but given to her by people who had earned it and who expected her to spend it wisely. But since the money was in her hand, she threw it into the violin case by the man’s feet, avoiding awkwardness. He looked up and smiled, apparently happy with the meagre offering – literally pennies. Leigh smiled back, meeting his watery eyes, surprising in their age, being polite and not a little embarrassed over the whole situation.  Andy began tugging urgently at her arm, shielding his face with his bag. “Come on!” he said loudly, “We’ll be late!”

“I’m so sorry,” said Leigh to the musician and indicating Andy with her eyes, laughing, hoping the busker shared her problem, understood her meaning. She didn’t want to cause a scene. Another one.

The music stopped. “Not a problem,” said the violin player. His voice was husky with disuse and the words sounded foreign falling from his tongue. Rather than waiting for Leigh’s response, he brought the ancient instrument back up to his chin and began to play again, the haunting music floating away down the cavernous walkways, filling the air, filling every space with the lingering refrain. Leigh didn’t like it. It seemed to hover around her, enveloping her, a cartoon cloud above her head, making her feel dulled. Muted. Deadened.

Andy pulled Leigh along, her own stiff and heavy legs not wanting to move much of their own volition, only stopping again when the busker was out of sight. The music still drifted, but finally Leigh seemed to be knocked out of her fugue. Knocked out of that and straight into railing on her little brother; “Why were you so rude, Andy? What the hell’s got into you?” Her head pounded to the rhythm of the now silent music, and even her eyelids ached.

Andy knew there was a problem. He had the strangest feeling that this was a turning point. It was over, his previous life, his youth, perhaps, because he now understood more than he wanted to. More than his sister did. Which was unfortunate, and very unfair. He took a deep breath, stared straight into Leigh’s reddened, maddened eyes and simply went for it, screaming out his knowledge, making no sense as he did so; “You mustn’t look at him, Leigh, you mustn’t! He mustn’t see you!”

“I am fed up with you telling me what I mustn’t do today, Andrew.”

Andy, chagrined and crushed in a way only a younger brother could be by Leigh’s use of his full name would, in normal circumstances, have said nothing. But this time it was too important for lies and too important for the truth, so Andy had to say something in between; “I’m sorry, I can’t explain, Leigh, but it’s bad. It just is. Why can’t you remember? I wish you could just-”

Leigh snapped; “Enough!” The sound of her voice was so loud, much, much louder than her brother’s had been, that it bounced off of the bright tiled walls and boxed Andy’s ears as hard as a fist would have done. He gasped. Hiccoughed. His throat was scratchy and dry and yet he still tried to explain. “The man, the music man, you shouldn’t have looked, Leigh, you shouldn’t have listened, it’s bad, it’s a trick, Leigh, a trick!”

And then the real blow came. The stinging of his cheek was the only thing that made it real, otherwise he would have thought he was dreaming. A nightmare. Leigh had hit him. His large eyes brimmed with the tears of pain, of fear, of complete frustration and utter despair. They did not fall. Leigh saw to that. She used her sleeve to wipe them before they had a chance as dozens, hundreds, of commuters and tourists passed them, choosing to ignore the incident happening in front of them. Some probably even thought it was entertainment, put on for their pleasure.

No one understood. Because no one else had looked a busker in the eye.

No one understood except Andy, of course.

And being eight and inconsequential in the eyes of the world he could make no one understand.

The slap, as unexpected and ridiculously unnecessary as it was, slowed Andy’s thoughts and for that he was grateful. No longer on autopilot, he could breathe freely, if jagged with fright, and he knew what had happened. What was happening. And no amount of persuasion would make Leigh think again. So Andy apologised, and both he and Leigh knew he didn’t mean it. But she accepted it anyway.

“Come on, then,” she said, rubbing his red cheek and slipping her arm around his still shaking shoulders. Feeling him made her catch her breath, made her suddenly sad because he was only eight but soon he would be a teenager, an adult, an old man. Life was fleeting. And the soulful soulless musician’s music came back to her, if it had ever left. There was a melancholy stillness to the air, sound in a vacuum and she knew what she would do.

She wouldn’t do it.

She couldn’t do it.

But she had to.

Andy felt it. He felt a tightening of Leigh’s fingers on his arm and a tightening of the world around him. He didn’t like it. He couldn’t stop it.

As they emerged onto the platform the first waft of warm air hit Andy full in the face and stole his breath. That gust carried the music, and it was as though he could read Leigh’s mind. Terror ripped through the boy and he tried to run but Leigh had him gripped tightly. So tightly that he had no choice but to follow her lead. And she timed her jump well, just as train hurtled by.

And finally, the music in her head stopped playing.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Sinister Left

Recently there was a news story about an Oklahoma teacher who 'forced' a 4 year old boy to write with his right hand rather than his left. Investigations are ongoing, but it seems as though the teacher was concerned about associations with left handedness and unlucky or wicked behaviour.

Whilst this may sound strange today, it wasn't so very long ago that making left handers write with their non-dominant hands was usual practice in schools. But why was (and, as it now appears, is) being left handed such a problem?

Throughout history, the left side of the body was considered to be a negative influence. In fact, the Latin word 'sinistra' meant both 'left' and 'evil' or 'unlucky', so the idea was well ingrained in society. Today, 'sinistra' has become 'sinister', so the wicked connotations remain. This, along with the idea that the word 'right' also means 'correct' and 'proper', reinforces the belief that anything on the left side had to be influenced by evil in some way.

Superstition has us throwing salt over our left shoulder when we spill it. Why? To blind the devil that sits there. A devil on the left shoulder is counterbalanced by an angel on the right, so turning to the left, using the left side of the body, working with the left in anyway is seen as working or using the devil. Bad stuff indeed. Whereas using the right side of the body is seen as working with the angels, which, of course, is seen as a much better option.

There are always studies going on to discover why some people are left handed and others (the majority of society) are right handed, but as yet there is no conclusive evidence for anything. Maybe one day we will understand, or maybe - as I believe is most likely the case - there is no reason. It just is.

I'm a left hander, and so is my daughter. So far so good for both of us - we've not yet met the devil. But I suppose I'll keep throwing the salt just to make sure...

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Kids' Week - Getting Children Into Theatres

Kids' Week is a fantastic concept that comes around every August. Any child aged 16 or under can see participating London theatre shows when accompanied by a full paying adult - it gets children into the theatre, hopefully fostering a love of plays, ballets, and musicals (all creative arts really), and is a great treat for the end of the summer holidays.

We've taken advantage of Kids' Week twice now. In 2014, my daughter Alice (3 at the time) and I went to see The Tiger Who Came To Tea, which we both loved, and which Alice still talks about to this day. This year we went to The Garrick Theatre just off Leicester Square to see Let It Be.

What a hit!

Let It Be is the story of The Beatles told purely through their songs, played by excellent sound-alike musicians in all the right costumes, in chronological order. The audience is actively encouraged to stand up, dance, sing along, take photos, and even video the performances. It is a totally immersive theatre experience that everyone, whether they know the songs of The Beatles or not, can get into.

Alice (now 4) has been aware of The Beatles and their music all her life. Our household doesn't really 'do' modern music, stopping somewhere in the early 00s, apart from the odd song here and there. 80s and 90s are my preferred decades, whereas my husband adores the music of the 50s and 60s, and especially The Beatles. Before yesterday (no pun intended), however, Alice hadn't been a mega fan, as such. She just enjoyed some of the songs. Now, though, she is obsessed. She has been listening to the music all day. She has been trying - with a little success - to pick out the tunes on the piano. She wants to see the show again.

Her favourite songs are Here Comes The Sun and "All The Lonely People" (otherwise known as Eleanor Rigby).

And that's what Kids' Week is all about. It shows children that there is a different form of entertainment out there than can lead them to open up their own creative outlets. And who knows where that will take them?

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Review: Life, Death & Vanilla Slices by Jenny Eclair

Mothers should never have favourites... 

I borrowed Life, Death and Vanilla Slices from my local library on a whim. I'd heard Jenny Eclair speaking on BBC Radio 2 about her new book, Moving, and I'd thought it sounded pretty good. The paperback isn't out until December, however, and the hardback has a queue of 28 people wanting to borrow it from the library, so I went for something else by the same author.

I'd only known Jenny Eclair from TV and radio, equating her voice and face with comedy and satire, and I had had no idea she was an author, so I didn't know what to expect when I began to read Life, Death and Vanilla Slices. From the first few lines, however, I was hooked.

This is, to use a clich├ęd term, a page turner. I was desperate to know what happened next in the life - such as it was - of Jean Collins, and her daughters Anne and (the favourite) Jess. Each new chapter brought smiles, laughs, and no small amount of tears - the descriptions of a mother watching her children grow until they no longer need her went deep.

The book is funny. Definitely funny. But it is heart wrenchingly, gasp-inducingly sad too. That's because it feels utterly real. This could have happened to your grandmother. Your next door neighbour. The woman sitting next to you on the bus. And, because some secrets are meant to be kept, even when they weigh you down for life, no one will ever know.

The premise of the book is fairly straightforward: an elderly woman is knocked down by a car and ends up in a coma. Her eldest daughter feels she should travel from London to Blackpool to be with her. Both of them reminisce (Jean in her coma, Anne in her life) about what has brought them to this point. The memories start off pleasantly enough, but in every family there are problems and secrets, and we soon find that Jean's second daughter, Jess, is missing (and has been for almost 30 years). But that's not the half of it. There is so much more, yet none of it feels melodramatic or like something from a TV soap; the most clever and wonderful part of this book is that it all seems absolutely real.

I didn't know how the ending would hit me - I had hoped for happy, at least happy for now if not happily ever after, but as the pages began to grow fewer, I had to begin believing that not everything would be resolved. At least not in a fairytale kind of way. I don't want to give anything away, but I was in bits, sobbing to myself on the sofa when I finally closed this book. Partly because the ending was sad, in a bitter-sweet and terrible way, but also because it could have been different. If the characters had done one thing, just one thing different in their lives, everything would have changed. For the better? Perhaps. For the worse? Who knows? But the point is, there were missed opportunities to speak, to act, to live. And that is the saddest thing of all.

5 stars

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Crocodiles in Cream

On 7th August, I was lucky enough to be invited to watch the play Crocodiles in Cream at the Barn Theatre in Smallhythe Place. Smallhythe was the country home of the famous Victorian actress Ellen Terry, and The Barn was her own private theatre. These days, the National Trust has opened the theatre to the public, and there are often wonderful shows put on there.

Crocodiles in Cream is one such show.

This one man play details the life of Lewis Carroll during his time as a don at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he lived alone for 40 years. Superbly acted by the wonderful Kevin Moore, this was a different portrayal to the many other biographies of Carroll – the Rev Charles Dodgson – that have come before. The shy, witty, eccentric, funny, brilliant, yet tormented man that Lewis Carroll was is given a chance to tell his own story, to give his own side of himself, through his writing, letters, and poetry.

In Crocodiles in Cream we learn of Carroll’s love of photography, specifically taking pictures of the little girls he so loved. The play makes slightly uncomfortable viewing with twenty first century eyes and minds, and the audience must question whether they wish to take Carroll’s naivety – as he himself views it – as truth or not. Even Carroll himself admits that his contemporaries find it strange that he takes children to his room and on short holidays to Eastbourne, but he protests his innocence, explaining that they are simply friends. Yes in another of his letters to one girl’s mother, he asks whether the girl is ‘kissable’. And why, if there was nothing untoward in his relationship with the many children he heartily proclaimed to love, did so many parents soon prevent the man from making contact with them. This included little Alice Liddell’s mother. We learn that Alice herself, as an adult and with children of her own, ignored Carroll’s pleas for her to visit when she was in Oxford.
Through these letters, poems, and more, we begin to understand exactly how distraught Carroll was when Alice was no longer there to be his muse. When she grew up, when she left him – or was made to leave him.   

Moore gave Carroll a pathos that, notwithstanding the strangeness of the man’s relationship with the children, was heart breaking to watch. 

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Listeners - What Does It Mean?

The photo above may be tricky to read properly, but it's worth trying. It's the first few lines of my favourite poem, "The Listeners" by Walter de la Mare, and I spotted it on the side of a building in Guildford whilst sitting in traffic. Rain and vehicles made grabbing a snapshot difficult, and I did what I could, surprised and elated to find that the words I had always found so evocative should show up in that place at that time.

"The Listeners" is a strange poem. It could mean many things, it might mean nothing, and perhaps de la Mare was simply telling a story with no subtext whatsoever. For me, there are layers to "The Listeners". The first is that it's a story - a strange and ghostly one - about a man (The Traveller) who is looking for someone or something, and thinks he has found it behind a "moonlit door" in the forest (see where my blog's name comes from?). But there is no one (or nothing) there. His knock is not answered. He leaves, alone.

The second part of the story is the part that intrigues me, though. Who is the Traveller? Why is he there? Does he even know, or is this a dream? Who (or what) is he looking for, and what will he do now that he has journeyed to the place he was told (or was he?) to go to, only to find he is too late? Too late for what? Is this the end of the world? Has he been forgotten during The Rapture?

Each question opens up more, and none of them have answers.

That's what I love this poem.

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,   
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses   
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,   
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;   
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;   
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,   
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners   
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight   
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,   
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken   
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,   
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,   
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even   
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,   
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,   
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house   
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,   
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,   
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Poem: The Coast

A road runs away from me
Down to the coast,
Down to the sea.
I want to follow, I want to be
Down by the coast,
Down by the sea.