Over the weeks of my recuperation, as my bruises faded and bones mostly healed, I considered alternatives – River, Brook, Flow… Shimmer had a certain ring. But Culvert. Culvert fits.
Three months ago, I stepped into the shallow waters as one thing – a good but conventional mind, a man who looked both ways at an intersection, had cut sugar from his diet, paid his taxes.
Hours later, I was dragged out… Changed. Now red lights are a challenge to my sharpened reactions. Dietary advice I leave for those who need it. And taxes… Well, let’s say, any tax collector only visits my office once.
My time in the water diverted my old self and something new was built over the top. The babbling brook that was me is still there, buried under new, hard layers.
Mum decided to sort the spare room in time for New Year. There was a pile to go to charity, black bin liners filled with old clothes and what Mum deemed ‘tat’ in the centre of the room.
On a scuffed table were items she wanted me to put in the loft for her. A black and white print lay on the table, an image of a man who died before I was born. ‘What did granddad do again?’
She paused in her sorting. ‘Worked at Heathrow, ran a grocer’s. Did I tell you about the time the police came for him?’
Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. Let the image inspire you to write a tale. See here to join in.
Reading Rochelle’s story about her grandfather led me to think about my own.
Horace Reuben Ayres was born in the East End of London within the sound of Bow Bells, making him a true Cockney. He was by all accounts a bit of a rogue.
He did run a grocer’s and work at Heathrow Airport later in life, but early on he was somehow involved in the boxing world (he was said to know the Kray twins, but everyone in the East End involved in boxing would have known them, I’m sure) and supposedly with gambling, illegal outside of racecourses in those days.
He went by a couple of different names – most people called him Len, though my mum doesn’t know why. My grandmother said he was born to a Jewish family, though if he was he was lapsed by the time Mum was born.
Despite searching, no one has ever found a birth certificate or a record of his birth, so we don’t know exactly how old he was and yes, the police did come to the house for him one day. He was in a reserved occupation during the war and left without permission which was a criminal offence. He apparently legged it out the back door while the police came in the front.
I wish I’d known him. He skirted the edges of the law but my mother adored him.
‘Lesley Howard?’ Patricia pulled on her cigarillo, puffed a cloud of blue grey smoke into the air. ‘Is that the Brief Encounter chap?’
‘No, that’s Trevor Howard. Leslie Howard was Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.’
Patricia selected a card from the hand she was playing and slapped it on the green baize table. ‘So in answer to the question, “which film actor would you want to be”, you choose the one who loses the girl.’
Bobby rubbed his stocking feet against the flank of a dozing Labrador. Firelight flickered around the living room, casting picturesque shadows over the threadbare rug, the stacks of mouldering newspapers. ‘Always seemed like a decent sort,’ he said. ‘Shot down over the Bay of Biscay, 1943.’
‘A dead war hero? So decent, so proper, such a good egg.’
He recognised the hard chink in her voice. ‘You and Scotch do not make happy companions.’
She raised a hand. ‘I’m just saying you sound very alike, you and your dead actor.’
‘Always doing the right thing. Fighting for King and country. So noble. So very, very bland.’
Bobby reached for his own glass. New Year’s Eve and she was as impossible as always. Well, this year he refused to bite. ‘Who would you be then? Greta Garbo, I suppose, wanting to be alone?’
Patricia’s teeth chinked against her glass tumbler as she threw her head back, laughing hoarsely. ‘No, not Garbo. Too sulky. Perhaps Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. Remember that scene? Her in a top hat and tails?’
‘Huh. Very, very you.’
She raised her glass. ‘I always was the butch one, dear.’ She drained the last of her Scotch, rolled the glass between the palms of her hands. ‘Ideally, I would have been Gable.’
Patricia nodded. ‘That sharp moustache, the oiled hair, stamping around the Deep South, shooting Yankees.’ Then with a watery smile, she added, ‘Not giving a damn.’
I’m currently planning a new novel and these are two of the main characters. Their spiky relationship keeps drawing me back and Patricia talks to me, even when I don’t necessarily want her to.
For reference, the novel is set in the early 1970s and they’re both in their 70s, hence the selection of old film stars.
The front door and kitchen were on the first floor, level with the road, while a small bedroom and study were on the ground floor, burrowed into the side of the mountain.
Three rooms, one fireplace, a view over the valley. It was enough.
In the winter he grew strong digging away the snow. In the summer he sat on the front step, watched the hikers march red-faced up the mountain.
The locals had been friendly at first, bringing him cast iron dishes filled with of polenta, rounds of Fontina cheese. But the visits had dwindled as his neighbours realised there would be no warm thanks or smiles, no reciprocation.
Some nights he dreamt of what brought him there, the day he turned his own life upside down. But every flagellant knows his own limits and exploring the past was his.
Written for What Pegman Saw, the prompt that uses Google Street View as its starting point. This week we visit the Aosta Valley in Italy. See here to join in and to read the other stories.