Friday Fictioneers: Slices of love

PHOTO PROMPT © Valerie J. Barrett

Nan didn’t have a fire in the kitchen.

If it was cold, she’d turn on the gas oven, leaning inside with the ticking lighter, me listening for the whoomf of the burner, watching for the sapphire flame.

I’d sit on the step with the musty scent of linoleum and coconut matting, the plastic tang of cyclamen growing in the lean-to, impatient for slices of thick white toast slathered in butter, a cup of Cadbury’s hot chocolate.

She’d peer into the grill, owl eyes made large by pebble glasses, hands on hips as the toast crisped.

***

Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. See here to join in and to read the other tales.

When I saw the old range and kettle, I instantly thought of my Nanny Cuthbert – or Lou as she was called – my dad’s mum. We’d regularly visit her in her terraced house in Uxbridge on the outskirts of London and she showed her love with food: toast cut straight from the loaf; hot chocolate; beef suet pudding cooked in an enamel dish.

Her kitchen had changed very little since the war (bear in mind I was a child in the 1970s and 80s) and to some extent resembled the kitchen below from the Imperial War Museum – though Nan did have the ‘mod-con’ of a water heater above the sink.

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How to measure happiness

 

Happiness used to be measured by the size of the ice cream I held, by the ribbons of raspberry sauce looped over the top, the chocolate flake pressed into the middle. By watching the toy ballerina in a jewellery box twirl, imagining myself wearing the same pink tulle, spinning like a dainty top on pointed toes. It used to be Tiswas and squashing Jelly Tots together to make burgers and colouring in my poster of hot air balloons, keeping within the lines.

Now I know more.

I know sugar should not bring me happiness (though it still often does), I know I will never wear pink tulle and that the Royal Ballet rarely accept clumsy forty eight year old dancers with knock knees. I know Tiswas wasn’t as good as I thought it was and that keeping within the lines in life will not necessarily bring me the rewards I think it should.

The weight of all this should bear down on me, should press the happiness from my cynic’s heart.

But it doesn’t.

I am happy with what I have, with who I am and with the people who love me and who I love. And that’s enough. That’s everything.


To understand the nonsense that were Jelly Tots and Tiswas, see here and here.

 

In the dark, all alone

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I’m in bed for the longest time, trying to fall back to sleep, trying to ignore the pressure in my tummy, but I won’t sleep while I need a wee so badly and I don’t know what to do because I know what’s out there.

But it’s no good and I think if I have to do it then make it quick, so I kick off my duvet, though it’s caught round my foot, and I push away my panda and my Sindy dolls and the others and I put my feet to the floor, scuffing dolls and bricks and books out of the way as I go.

It must be later than I thought, because I can’t hear the telly downstairs and all I can hear is snoring and the creak of the boards under my feet and the odd snap and crack which I tell myself is just from the house, just the voice the house has at night, nothing more.

I reach the door and wait. I want to be fast, so fast nothing can catch me, but I need to be slow too, because what if there’s already something waiting out there on the landing? But I know I won’t see it until it’s too late, because it will be hiding in the darkest shadows, breathing shallow, waiting for me, just me.

I think of Dracula and Frankenstein and ghosts and mad men, arms round their backs, all tied up in special coats, screaming between the bars of their cells. And I think of the faces that come at night, rushing from the darkness, their blank, open eyes, their hollow mouths buffeting my cheeks and I want a wee more than ever.

I step out on the landing, the door creaking so loudly I’m worried it will wake someone and I hope it will wake someone then I won’t be alone and I won’t have told anyone I was scared because I’m really too old to be scared of the dark.

The loo is across the way from my room, past my parents’ door, past my brother’s, very close but so very far away when you’re afraid, when you’re alone.

I run, open the loo door, switch on the light, lift the lid and sit, not daring to look down, not daring to look, in case the SOMETHING is there, staring back, in case it will reach up and snatch me. In the day I’d take my time, pick at the walls, peel off the brown paint with my fingernail, but not at night, at night I wee as fast as I can and I wipe myself, though not as well as when it’s light, and I won’t stop to wash my hands or to flush, because that means I’ll be longer, in the dark all alone.

I’ve pulled my pyjama bottoms up and it’s time to turn off the light, but I need to look first, need to check there’s no one there, nothing there, so I look out onto the landing and I see the brown swirly carpet and the airing cupboard, the Firebird paintwork and there is nothing, though I know that won’t stop me thinking there is. I can’t put it off any longer, so I pull the light switch and it’s dark, so much darker than before and the panic hits me, blinding, deafening and I worry I’ll be paralysed by it, that I won’t be able to run.

Then I’m running – one, two, three, four, five steps across the landing – I’m through the door, over the floor, in my bed, the duvet pulled over my head before I can think. I was sure this time there’d be a claw on my shoulder, teeth in my heel, but I’ve escaped, I’m alive and I wait for my heart to settle, for the shivering to ease so I can sleep again.

And I hope that tommorow night I won’t need a wee.


Day Seventeen: Your personality on the page

Today’s Prompt: We all have anxieties, worries, and fears. What are you scared of? Address one of your worst fears.

Today’s Twist: Write this post in a style distinct from your own.

Here’s a stream of consciousness from a very vivid childhood memory. I think I watched too may scary movies as a child…

Wild is the Wind

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Buxton in Derbyshire- ever heard of it? It’s a spa town one thousand feet above sea level, built among the rolling, pitching hills and moorland of the Peak District.

Being so high, it has its own micro climate. There’s many a time I’ve caught the train from Stockport on the way to visit my mum, and as the engine pauses at each little station- Davenport, Woodsmoor, Hazel Grove– the grass beyond the window becomes low and scrubby –Middlewood, Disley, New Mills– the incline of the track grows steeper- Furness Vale, Whaley Bridge– and there might even be a smattering of snow on the limestone peaks. By Chapel-en-le-Frith the temperature in the carriage begins to dip and once the Dove Holes scrap yard has flown past the window, you know you only have five minutes to grab your bag from the rack and wrap up warm.

Brace yourself is my advice. It’s usually windy, always a few degrees colder than even Dove Holes (pronounced Duvuls by some locals) and most streets rise up or round a hill, meaning that in the winter you struggle up or slide down to the shops. Every road out of town snakes through open moorland, so most years it’s cut off from the outside world as the snow descends, and when it does, it feels as though the town itself hunkers down to wait for the thaw.

When I was twelve, we moved into a house similar to the ones in the picture above. See the funny dormer window, jutting out of the roof? That would’ve been my bedroom, the one I shared with my fifteen year old brother. Even the sandstone’s similar, except ours was sooty and blackened from a century of coal burning.

I remember ice on the inside of that little window: hunched by a one bar electric heater, colouring in my Doodle Art posters: listening to Wild is the Wind by Bowie, the scratch as the arm lifted from the record, the click as it settled into the opening grove- that song always on repeat.

I tried to paint a mural on that sloping roof-wall. It was intended to be a castle-topped crag, fire-breathing dragons swooping majestically around the turrets. But the paper was wood-chip so impossible to paint on and anyway my artistic skills let me down. Dissatisfied by my ow inadequacy, I went off the whole idea. I still remember being offended when my mum painted over my grey and black splodges.

I don’t have many shining memories of that house. We’d left behind a semi on the outskirts of town, a vegetable garden and the wilderness of the hills, for a terrace near the town centre, where there was nothing but a mossy-flagged back yard and the serenade of drunks singing and laughing their way home from the pub.

I passed through the years of mental illness people call their teens in that house. I skipped school from there, scraped a few ‘O’ Levels and dropped out of ‘A’ Levels, all whilst sleeping under that roof, staring through that dormer window.

And now I live in another terrace house. It’s in the South-West of England, where the weather is many degrees warmer and the spring flowers come up a good four weeks before they do in Buxton. I still live on a hill, but because the winters are kinder, the Gulf Stream closer, we don’t hunker under the same snow-laden skies.

And anyway, I look on that old house more kindly now. I’ve walked past it several times since we all moved out and it’s bright and cheery, a pleasant family home.

It seems the blackness left the place when I did. Funny that.


Writing 101- Today’s Prompt: Where did you live when you were 12 years old?Which town, city, and country? Was it a house or an apartment? A boarding school or foster home? An airstream or an RV? Who lived there with you?

PS Can’t believe I forgot Wild is the Wind when I talked about my favourite songs the other week…

The joy of additives

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Instant food seemed a big thing when I was a kid.

Partly because it was the seventies and manufacturers were riding the wave of the sixties processed food revolution and partly because my mum worked two jobs and no sooner had she come home from the first did she have to leave for the second. Instant food that freed people from the ‘drudgery’ of the stove was thought miraculous back then, no matter how much goodness was stripped from it or additives pushed in.

I have fond memories of some instant foodstuffs.

There’s the first time I ate a Vesta chow mein and watched hard strips resembling cut offs from laminate flooring transformed via the deep fat fryer into crispy noodles.

There was butterscotch flavoured Angel Delight which was like something from a sci-fi movie. You began with a pale powder that could easily be the earthy remains of someone’s Nan, add milk and whip until your wrist threatens to detach and you end up with a thick, creamy pudding that tastes how a robot would imagine caramel mousse- mainly sugary with an undercurrent of ash and plastic chairs.

Pot Noodles came later, but still ticked a box in my head- the ‘salt’ box mainly. I loved the weird, shrivelled peas, the paper-thin slices of dried carrot, and the square of desiccated noodles all reconstituted with half a pint of boiled water and a sachet of tomato ketchup- delicious.

Despite the waves of plasticised food that hit the shelves then, it seemed most people in the UK still had a roast dinner for Sunday lunch. The scent of boiling brassicas and gravy that filled our house and emanated from every neighbour’s kitchen once a week seemed permanent, timeless. Then the Sunday trading laws were changed and we all decided we didn’t want to stay at home peeling spuds and hovering over a slab of meat the size of a walrus’s buttock. We wanted to leave our homes, drive out of town and go to aeroplane hangar sized ‘outlets’ so we could row over furniture or shoes or DIY equipment we didn’t really need. Ah, progress.

Anyway, before the Sunday lunch was swapped for retail parks, there was another instant foodstuff, an occasional Sunday treat that delighted us all.

Our first peak of excitement was on seeing the finger biscuits. Pale, crispy little sausage shapes, each coated on one side with enough sugar to down a rhino, my mum called them boudoir biscuits, which made them sound terrifically sophisticated, surely made in Parisian garrets by chefs wearing tall white hats and sporting waxed moustaches.They actually came out of little plastic packets, but they signalled something wonderful- the appearance of a Bird’s Trifle. I remember trifle being served at Christmas, Easter, maybe a Bank Holiday weekend, though they felt rare as hen’s teeth to me.

After the boudoir biscuits came the ripping of the jelly cubes, a weirdly primal activity, which involved pulling apart the segments of a square of rubbery, fleshy jelly ready for it to be dissolved in boiling water. Because it was always raspberry flavoured it was red and being the weird little soul I was, I always imagined I was a zombie, tearing the limbs from an unfortunate victim. Yeah, I know, but I’m over that sort of thing now.

After the jelly was made and set, the custard was next, though I don’t think I can have been trusted to do this, as the preparation of it passed me by. Next was Dream Topping- like cream but not as nice.

Finally, the best bit, and the sign of true sophistication- hundreds-and-thousands. Yet more sugar and coloured like shredded rainbow, these sugar strands had to be sprinkled just before serving because the colour bled.

That was it, the ceremony of the Bird’s Trifle. It was all sugar, very little nutrition and about the most exciting pudding conceivable in the seventies. I remember the remains being left in the fridge for the next day and the colours from the hundreds-and-thousands had always run Pollock-esque on the top and the jelly took on the flavour of beef or dripping, or whatever else was in the fridge.

But it was still a joy.


This was written for the Writing 101 course, Day Ten.

Today’s Prompt: Tell us something about your favourite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory.

Lost

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I need to go home now.

I keep telling them, the girl with the watery-eyes and the other one. I don’t know their names. No one tells you anything here and I don’t know why. It makes a fluttery ball form in my chest when I think about it, so I try not to think about it.

They’ve put me in a room but it’s not the right one, because the sun comes in from the wrong angle. The sun’s always come in from left to right, not right to left. And it’s the wrong shape- I get a wiggly shadow on the floor that never used to be there, not when I was home. I’ve told the girl with the watery eyes, but she just smiled and patted my hand. I didn’t want her to pat me- I’m not a dog. But the sun had moved all the way to the left, which means it’s nearly time for something and I get all jittery and find it difficult to think when I know it’s time for something.

At least the girl with the watery-eyes smells nice, like… something sweet. Something to do with a big piece of wood and a rolling pin.

The other one just smells like mince, like she’s got a pound of mince tucked into each bra cup. Dirty cow. What’s she doing looking after old people when she’s got mince in her undies. I tried to have a look, lifted her arm, tried to pull down her top to see how she was keeping it in place, but she grabbed my wrist. It pinched and I tried to wriggle free so she pinched some more. I screamed like billy-o until the watery-eyed one came and took me to my room. She’s got a soft voice, like a wood pigeon’s coo.

Almonds. That’s what the watery-eyed one smells of. Almonds, like that cake with sliced fingernails on the top and jam on the bottom. Sliced almonds, that’s what I mean- but they look like fingernails, like my Mam’s fingernails when she took the polish off with a ball of cotton wool. The cotton would start white like a snow cloud and end up with a smear of sticky red like a post box.

The food’s all wrong, too. They don’t mash the carrots and there’s no butter in them and no matter how much I try, I can’t find my cruet set, the one with the push-button on the top. I asked one of the old women today if she’d seen it, but I think she was a bit simple because she started to tell me about her cat being run over. The old lady had sticky spit in the corners of her mouth and her nose was running. I didn’t have a hanky, so I wiped her nose with her dressing gown. My Mam used to spit on a hanky to clean our faces- the spit smelt of cigarettes and she always scrubbed hard until I cried.

The watery-eyed girl told me her name. She says she told me what it was before, but I think she’s got me confused with one of the old people, because I’m sure I never knew it. When she told me and I smelt her smell again, I thought of a wooden table big as a door, sunlight slanting onto it through a high little window. The table’s white and dusty, covered in flour. There’s a ragged circle of something beige and a metal pie dish and my Mam standing over it with a rolling pin. And her fingernails are clean and white, just like the flaked almonds that sit in a bowl in front of me.

My Mam making Bakewell Tart.

I don’t know why the thought made me feel so sad, but I started to cry and the watery-eyed girl put her arms around me. I told her, she needs to send me home now, else my Mam will worry. The watery-eyed girl patted my back and I didn’t want to shrug her off this time. She sat me in the chair they’ve put in my room where the light’s all wrong and said she’d fetch a cup of tea. I asked her for a slice of Mam’s Bakewell Tart, but she just smiled and left the room.

I really think they should send me home now.


Today’s Writing 101 challenge was to write a post about losing something.

Much of my fiction seems to involve losing things- people, memories, minds- it’s clearly something I’m fixated with. But then it’s a good subject to write about, making the protagonist terrified, agonised, forcing them on a quest to recover what’s gone.

Sadly in this story, my protagonist suffers from dementia and has lost her connections with the present, with her own past and she’ll never get them back. But she grasps at moments that comfort her- the memory of watching her mum baking.

My first published stories were in an anthology called Still Me in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society. If you’re interested in supporting the society and reading some short fiction and poetry, do take a look at Pewter Rose Press

The monastery

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Now, let’s get this straight from the start. Some people are described as ‘widely travelled’- I would describe myself as ‘narrowly travelled’. Very narrow. So, when I’m asked to imagine myself somewhere and to describe it, you’re not going to get warm, sandy beaches or sun-kissed, oiled-up lovelies.

You’re going to get something cooler, muddier. Earthier…

My wellies are on, my jeans tucked well into my socks until they bulge.

I scuff up the steps and our wonky garden path, leaving home behind. I pass the coal house- concrete, pitch black inside and filled with spiders’ webs. It would make a good play house, but it’s too cold, too filthy and I don’t like the dark. I pass the cabbages- yellowed and gone to seed. No-one’s touched them since my dad moved out.

I reach the top of the garden, and there it is, the drystone wall that marks the boundary between my world- Firefly paintwork, Tiswas, pork chops for tea- and Barker’s Hill. The hill is wilderness, as wild as the Serengeti as far as I’m concerned. I wedge my toe in a gap between some loose stones, not too far in because the rubber can snag on sharp edges and you get caught up. I swing my leg over the wall, imagine I’m mounting a tall, grey-backed stallion, though I don’t really know what the word ‘stallion’ means, and I don’t like horses anyway. Not if they’re anything like donkeys, because  donkeys bite your fingers when you try and feed them carrots.

I swing my other leg over the wall and drop down into a forest of nettles, waist height. This is why I’m in jeans, why they’re tucked so tightly in my socks. I’ve been over here in a skirt before when we first moved in and found that dock leaves don’t help.

I swish a boot around, trying to catch the nettles at their base, pressing them down so they lie flat. I haven’t been over the wall in a few weeks and the prickly gits are lush and green, their tresses waving in the breeze, ready to attack the unprepared. Nettles conquered, a path beaten, I move on.

There’s an arrangement of limestone boulders at the bottom of the hill, where water sometimes gathers. I found a froglet there once, green and speckly, keen to hop even though he hadn’t grown front legs yet. But it’s summer now- too late for froglets.

Further up the slope, there’s an outcrop that local kids use as a den. A natural overhang of grey rock is the roof and three large rocks have been moved under it to make low walls. Maybe it was for a shepherd, or someone watching cows- is that a cowherd? Anyway, it’s probably older than our house and the RAF base and the catering college. I found fossils in the den walls, tiny ammonites, the rubble of a broken seabed that turned to rock. Like looking back millions of years.

But I’m not going to the den today.

I walk round the base of the hill, until the hard, scrubby grass turns squishy and I know I’m almost there. This part of Barker’s is always boggy, always sags and squelches under your boots. Only once have I seen it dry and hard as the limestone, cracked like a dried up river bed. But it’s rained heavily over the last few days and the cows have been through and the mud is churned, pitted with a thousand hoof prints.

I stand on the edge of the thickest mud. It stretches for what seems like forever, to the horizon, or at least the boundary wall. If I get stuck I’m on my own- no big brother to pull me free today. But I so want to visit the Monastery, I convince myself it’s not as bad as it looks. I plunge in but try and stick to the edge, where the mud’s not as deep. Still, I have to stop every so often, shake the heaviest of clumps from my boots, stop my feet from weighing me down.

A few more steps. The light begins to dim as I cross into the shadow of the wood. Trees climb the slope, though young ones, younger than the Monastery- all the trunks are slim enough to wrap my arms round and I know trees get thick as they get older. There are a lot of them, thin grey trunks, though a smoother grey than the mottled limestone. Before I know it, I’m there.

Walls litter the bank, their rubble tumbling into the mud. Not one wall is intact, but I can still make out their lines. I try to work out where the monks slept, where they ate. That section there’s taller, though leaning at such an angle, I wonder for how long. I think of that as the bell tower, calling the monks to prayer. How often do monks pray anyway? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s lots. I imagine their bent, cowled heads, their hands tucked in their sleeves, the scuff of sandals on limestone flags. Did they really wear sandals- even when frost had crisped the grass? Their feet must’ve gone blue-black- maybe their toes fell off. My toes are cold now in socks and wellies, and it’s summer.

The tree roots have grown round the walls, forking and bending round the blocks. I wonder how something so solid could also be so flexible. Then the sun slips behind the clouds. Leaves rustle, though there’s no wind today.

A shadow darts from one trunk to the next. I stop. Wait to see if there’s another. I feel my boots slide deeper into the mud, past the sole, the toes. It feels as if I’m not sinking, but that the mud is crawling upwards. It’s a frightening thought, and I know that the longer I stay still, the higher the mud will climb. But I can’t move because I’m waiting for another shadow. Or a lack of shadow, or the sun to come out. Waiting for something.

A crack of wings, a chitter and squawk as something black takes to the air and flaps away. I jump, jerk back but can’t move because my ankles are wedged. I flail my arms, nearly fall, then steady myself. I know it was a blackbird- my dad taught me to recognise its croak- but I imagine it a raven disturbed from feeding and if I wait for its return I might be drawn to see what it was eating and suddenly I don’t want to be here.

I try to turn, but my feet move while the boots stay welded to the mud. I try again and again, but the boots won’t come. I keep looking back to the trees, watching for the ravens and the monks. I consider deserting the wellies, leaving them stranded while I wade home in my socks. I imagine my mum’s face when I give her mud-filled socks, tell her about lost wellies. It’s not a happy thought, so I persevere, pointing my toes up so the boots can’t come off. I pull one leg out and it waves in the air as I search in vain for somewhere dry to stand.

Step by sucking step I walk free, back to the drier margins of the bog. On solid ground I move quickly away, listening for a snap of feathers, the ring of a ghostly bell.

I’m sticky-hot and tired by the time I reach the nettle patch. The sun’s back out, baking the scrubby grass, making the clover glow bright pink.

I take one last look at the wilderness before I climb our wall, knowing I can conquer it again tomorrow.