A Break With Routine

I am the man you pass in corridors, or walk by on the street: an unassuming example of conformity, avoiding challenge if he can, and letting duty rather than expression be his guide: a man who knows his wife, as much as it is safe to do so; shares routines with her, loves documentaries, weekend walks and is thought of by her, as far as he is aware, to be a kindly man. boring  to a fault, and so I  have always been: year on year.

The train journey was unusual can we say. I was travelling down to London for some meeting to do with work, armed with a newspaper, and glancing blankly at the scenery until the train began to slow, before stopping at a next station.  The carriage was fairly crowded, but somehow I still had an empty seat before me, and thanked the fates for granting me the space to stretch my legs,until, that is, a women settled herself in it, separated only by a table and saying, “I bet you’re pleased to see me” and I looked up, slightly started, and said “Sorry!”

“You know” she said, “The train is bit crowded but you were enjoying the extra legroom until I came along and sat right in front of you, making you crunch your legs up. What a shame”  I smiled at her, and said, “Life has few free pleasures, and leg-room on a commute is  one of them.” Her eyes were soft and accepting and she looked at me with interest, as if I somehow stood out from the crowd. “What’s your life story then?” she said: the question was not invasive. More a sort of platform, a chance for self-expression, unheard of in the world of “also-rans.”

“I get along as quietly as I can and talk to passing hedgehogs,” I told her and she laughed a little so I asked her , “So what’s you story?” And she told me, she was off on an adventure, moving to the city and away from close inspection. ” I can’t imagine what that’s like I said” and she told me “You can do and be anything you want, and to hell with convention” I said, “I bet you’re happy”

“Oh yes, I’m going to be” she said , “And if you like, just because I can,  I shall change your life for one minute only?”  “Change my life” I said, “Oh no. Everything’s in order, I stay away from drama” but she said, “Not today. Today is for adventure. Wait two minutes and join me in the toilet” With that she smiled, as if she was talking about the weather and then rose up and walked along the corridor.

We know, don’t we, what any man should not do, or might do, and so I did: don’t ask me why. I walked along the corridor, knocking softly on the door and she pulled me inside the tiny cubicle, saying “This is called kissing” and with that she pulled me to her. I swam in the exhilaration, and the devil take the consequences,  until she said, “That’s it for now, or we will lose our seats.”  So we returned, looking slightly flustered and just in time for the inspector to shout out “Tickets please”. We smiled at each other like  naughty children, and I reached out to touch her, but she withdrew her hand.

At our destination I said “I won’t forget you and I wish I could be with you” but she smiled and said. “That was your adventure. Keep it safe within you, and when others call you boring, think of me and say, I kissed a girl on a train.” With those words she left me, no address given,  offering only moments, but the memory of that encounter became my secret reservoir until I got home!                                    

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A Life In Passing

I was standing on the bridge the other evening, admiring the view, and the way the current played against the boats moored along the river bank when a man thrashing around desperately in the water appeared from underneath the bridge. He was clearly in serious difficulty so I shouted down to him, “Do you have some means of identification on you?” His voice was not clear, and he kept screaming “Help me. Heelp meee” which didn’t answer my question one way or the other. Finally he said “Yes” and I responded, ” Good, they will be able to identify your body when you are retrieved from the water.”

He looked alarmed and kept shrieking, “Help me. Help me” but when I informed him I was wearing a new and freshly ironed pair of trousers I think he understood I could not risk the damage to my wardrobe helping no one but a stranger. I sought to comfort him by saying, “The world’s population is exploding, giving rise to a multitude of problems: your sacrifice, intentional or otherwise, will be applauded, in  in your obituary if you merit one”

I have to say, salient as these points were, I fear he either missed them or was too absorbed in his own circumstances to pay attention. All things end well, however and  I read the following article in the  local paper.

“Humphrey Collins 45, of Lower Bridlington Street drowned in the Thames on Friday evening. He was carrying a driving licence and wearing clothes purchased from a mid-level high street shop. His wife said she would collect his belongings as soon as she got back from her holiday with a male friend . The weather in Florida, she informs us, “Is simply glorious.”

He may be missed, but that was not apparent from our initial investigations which is all we will be making. A  local man who seeks no personal credit or publicity,  reported having a brief meaningless conversation with him shortly before he fell in the river, although he added that his shirt did not appear to be ironed!  Viewing figures on his Facebook page recorded a measurable, if short-lived increase,  after his death.

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Ronnie Crouch

Meeting Ronnie Crouch for the first time at what was to become “my local” shortly after moving into the area was an experience. He was a sprightly,  slightly elderly gentleman, with a glow about him which draws the attention of those still wading through the chaos of their own making, otherwise known as middle age. Just the kind of bloke I like to get to know, so I said to him as I stood at the bar waiting to order my drink, “Well the sun seems to be shining then” and he smiled at me and raised his glass in salute.

We started chatting on this and that and nothing, as people do, and then, prompted by curiosity, and moved somehow by his unscarred optimism I asked, “What keeps you young?”. He replied, “Since I could stand on my own two feet I’ve only been interested in four things, Booze, food and sex and shelter,”

” Not too bothered,  with the ancient Egyptians or the consequences of global warming then” I said. “Couldn’t care less.” he replied. I’m old enough to know that anyone who wants to run a country these days is a bit gone in the head, so after a century or ten of mankind getting it as wrong as he can. I’m  sticking to simple pleasures while they are still available.”  He paused briefly and then added. ” Its a bit like giving a gun to a five year old, letting mankind manage his own affairs”

“Bloody hell” I said, “We’re going a bit deep aren’t we,” and he smiled. “When we were primitive enough to be frightened of something other than ourselves there was some hope, but now we think we know it all and can do what we like so sure enough, we are gradually messing up anything we can see, and most things we can’t” I looked at him anew then, because I could see that the “Booze, Food, Sex and Shelter” thing was more a protest statement than a philosophy so I asked him , “What’s the strangest thing you’ve  done?”

“I climbed up to Machu Picchu last year” he said, “And I can tell you I was out of breath when I got there.”  I was surprised and impressed because the guy was clearly already in his seventies, and he continued . “I sat down and took  out a Big Mac and a Coke, to toast that ancient civilisation, with the cuisine of the modern age.” He  looked at me as if he was telling me something, but I’ve no idea what it was!

It was time for me to go, so before left I asked him what his tip of the day was, and quick as a flash he said, “There’s no such thing as fresh wisdom.” That’s Ronnie for you, every glib aside had an aftertaste , and every casual observation was drenched in experience . He was the most complicated man of simple tastes I ever met.           

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A Timeless Union

One afternoon my Grandad said to me, “Son, to men, women always remain a mysterious entity while to women, men become a flawed utility.” He made the comment with a chuckle and it made me smile because I remember Grandma telling grandad time and again that “You never load the dishwasher correctly,” or saying to any one present “He never puts things back in the right place,” which was possibly a little harsh.  There were other observations of a similar nature but the irony was, if anyone else but her was forward enough to criticise him, she would launch herself at them with one or two of those pithy observations for which she was famous.

Of course, from a woman’s point of view I can see that my grandfather could be exasperating. Part of him was over- detached and, I suspect, if he was watching his house burn down he might well turn to me and say, “Son, do you notice how every flame that rises is unique. Looked at selflessly, there is a miracle in everything you see” which might be true, but the need to act is sometimes more urgent than the ability to observe: a factor he could overlook. 

He was a teacher of English at the local institute and his reluctance to prioritise was a source of wonder or irritation to many, but probably not central to his occupation. I once raised the subject of men who were violent or without conscience and he nodded. “There is an example for anything you want to imagine in life, sad as that is, but I am what is called a domesticated male and grinning weakly is my last retort.” He was the least self-important man I knew and somehow the most inspiring.

On the subject of my grandma most of my grandad’s remarks were made by means of eyebrow movements but even in their eighties I remember him saying of her, “When your grandma walks she is the picture of grace: do you know that” and I did because he said the same thing about her regularly. She was an ice skater of some note in her youth and that innate sense of balance and poise remained present in her movements.

He was capable of wearing out her patience with an unbroken supply of good humour until she would just shake her head and retire behind her knitting. I remember him saying on another occasion, “When God created men and women a passing angel said, “If they don’t kill each other they’ll have to learn to live together” and I agree with that.

At the end of his life, he contracted pneumonia, born with his customary good grace and she nursed him tirelessly while criticising him for going out in the rain in the first place. At the heart of their relationship, it seemed to me, was her belief that, hopeless as he was, he reminded her of the possibility of “Good” and she protected that in him every day.

As fate would have it, the strain of caring for him in those last days caused her to have a heart attack and she actually died two days before him. I remember being astonished by the news and thinking there must be some mistake, but there wasn’t. 

They were buried on the same day, and lie in death, as they did for fifty-three years in life, together and in the same bed. “Life is a mystery son” he said to me, “But an engrossing one” and in all my days their marriage was the finest example of a life well lived I ever saw: their union gave a purpose to his days and my grandma the freedom to be herself

Hidden behind her irritation was the knowledge that beyond him lay wilderness, from which his love protected her, and in her cherishing of him their world became civilised. I shall miss them dearly.

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My Life In Residence

My name is Stanley Castle, which is the name I prefer, although the familiar, “We’re all friends now” people insist on calling me “Stan.” I am a man who relishes order and formalities and excessive familiarity unsettles me: it has always done so.

 I live at the Bramley Home for the Elderly ,by-line,  “We Bring Compassion to Understanding” where the levels of absent-minded neglect, and even cruelty, remind me of my childhood. Life may indeed go full circle, and so, emotionally, I am back where I started as a burden too far for staff whose minds are on other things and who wish to be in other places. 

Thus it is that the cruellest among the nurses are baffled that I smile at their conduct, which brings back fond memories of my mother, a haughty, fastidious lady who aspired to an aristocratic heritage founded on some baseless rumour later laid to rest; as I shall be in due course.

I sit now, silent among a circle of faces,  staring at the television and discover the clock to be the most animated presence in the room. Sometimes there is a flurry of activity and some relative comes in to visit someone else and says something like “ How’s it going Gran?” as if all  the residents are having fun, and  have just finished a meal of oysters and  champagne. No one comes to party here in the Waiting Room for Death but this truth remains unspoken,  The lunch recently served under the title “Shepherd’s pie with peas” may have contained  nutrients, but flavour had been exiled to make way for them.

Do I sound bitter? Who cares, bitterness is free, and I won’t last long enough to suffer the consequences so I make a point of glaring at anyone lucky enough to have a visitor and make them feel as uncomfortable as possible. It has not made me friends, but it has given me the energy that anger brings, and that is something I will treasure until I cease to breath and they can fold me up and bury me out of harm’s way.

 It was not always so.

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The Cost Of Love

He loved her but it didn’t show:gave her protection from a distance and  understanding without a sense of intimacy. Just some guy in a cubicle crunching numbers through the working day: it wasn’t climbing Everest but it paid the bills.

“Hey Bill” she’d call, asking for advice, given, always, without a comment. Some years before, and in another place, he had been king of the track and a man of influence but that was then. Now wheel- chair bound after some horrific accident he kept his glories to himself, and ambitions in his memory. The evenings were never short: unfilled hours, stacked upon themselves, brought no relief from his reflective solitude.

Pride is the last refuge of the unfortunate; spectators of the happy story, a background presence on the road to glory. He loved her but it wouldn’t show.

Now the day had come. Her smiling lit-up face telling everyone the news: the diamond on her finger, the crowd of workers circling her desk , asking for the details. Without access, his chair was poor in crowds, he worked as if no news could touch him. Before him the numbers queued up on the page, commanding attention: patient, ordered, logical.

Desire was the gate to pain, wanting placed you in a desert, silence was his dearest friend. Why should he embarrass the girl he most adored?  Some awkward guy, buckled in his chariot, quick of mind but lacking feet: young but now without his youth.

“Hey Bill” she said, moving over and standing by his chair, fingers extended in that glowing way. Sadness surfaced briefly in his eyes,telling  the unspoken truth that his heart was now an orphanage for dreams. “I’m very pleased for you Sarah,” he spoke in monotone. Caught off-guard she stared into his eyes , now restored to ordered symmetry. “I wish you joy.”

Not all we feel is for consumption. not all mountains can be climbed. For some, he thought, love must remain impersonal.

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The Other Side Of Life

She was a woman of significant achievement,  pursuing  a successful career in the legal profession who enjoyed everything a person could wish for apart from empathy  and a friendship of trusted intimacy, while he was a man of little perceptible professional or material value apart from an enhanced sensibility which often added texture to a situation and depth to a conversation: more than that, perhaps, he was kind, because kindness to others was the foundation of his beliefs and the secret behind his poverty: he never placed his needs before another’s, and always said his wish was to understand and discover rather than own: a point of view which irritated many people, including his father.

As a result of conversations held at a cocktail party hosted by his cousin, more prosperous, more “realistic” if we can use that word, than him, they had become acquainted and he had asked her to dine with him and, she, moved by a sensibility seldom encountered in her professional life, had decided  to accept. After all, what could be harmful in a few words exchanged over a convivial meal?

In fact what happened was he opened the curtains of her mind and pointed out the carpet of stars above, visible to those not obsessed by material concerns. She found herself moved by his words as little else had done: life became a timeless place, where love-minded souls gathered round the fire of experience and shared their dreams.

Everything her life had taught her told her he was not a man to become involved with but her private soul, which looked out on life and asked the question “Why?” could imagine nothing more precious. Was she privileged to know him or a hostage to her needs ? Only time would tell.

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A Gift Too Far

Mark Flatterby, a man in his late fifties, lived moderately, surrounding himself with colleagues, friends of respectable character, a wife and two children. All good on the Flatterby front then until a certain Maureen Cartwright turned up to work as an intern in his department: she was a student at the local university, yet seemed to have a character unsuited to scholarly pursuits.

What is of interest is that she had a flighty way with her and a manner of ducking her head to the left and smiling at you as if she and you had discovered a special connection. She had a “look” which I understand could slip the moorings of the most grounded man.

It seems the solid dependable Mark had taken young Maureen out to lunch to discuss her future, after purchasing a significantly expensive diamond and ruby necklace which he said would remind her of the glorious times they had shared during the course of her summer job, which in reality meant no more than the odd coffee in the canteen and quick remarks shared by the water fountain. Needless to say, she accepted the necklace without hesitation and took to wearing it at work and rewarding her gallant superior with more coy head movements and a small helping of shy and bashful simpering.

The necklace was followed by a matching bracelet because, as Mark had told her, it seemed a bit half-hearted not to give her the whole set, and so it might have continued had his wife not allowed her eyes to stray across her dull husbands credit card statement where she spotted two items amounting to four and a half thousand pounds with the name Buttermere jewellery against them. Not having received any surprise gifts in the last thirty-four years her suspicions were aroused.

Following a short conversation on his return from work he could be seen leaving the house, suitcase packed, and with his ears still ringing from his wife’s choicer observations about his character, also including “incidents” from their distant past, kept in her mental “trophy cabinet” where all the details of his previous crimes were preserved in undimmed glory.

That’s where I enter the story: after a phone call outlining the situation, I had gone to the bar of the Railway Hotel to find Mark holding up a glass of wine, clearly not his first, and smiling at me with a mixture of hope and resignation.

“Come with me Nige” said Mark and his vocal chords slid around the “G”  in a  way suggesting it was no longer safe for him to drive. “Where are we going?” I asked and he told me, “I‘ve burnt my boats and now I must propose to Maureen.” He had decided to throw himself at the mercy of Adventure; a goddess of uncertain character. “Is that wise?” I said but he told me that he had discovered his inner fire: love had called from the shadows and he must visit her and other nonsense believed by those who think fate might save us from our character.

A ring had been purchased, at Buttermere Jewellers of course, and we were set to travel to Maureen’s home, with me providing the gallant romantic with a steady supply of Dutch courage. When we arrived I settled discreetly out of sight but near enough to hear the speech we had rehearsed on our brief dream-filled journey.

After peeking indiscreetly round the corner I saw a guy open the door. He was built like a rugby player come boxer, who it quickly transpired was her current fiancé: he made his displeasure felt by means of a short but pointed demonstration of fist flexibility, after which Mark and I returned to his new abode.

Not all was lost, because Mrs Flatterby always believed that if you are going to marry a fool, you might as well stick with the fool you know. Apparently, love can survive the impact of an occasional reckless impulse and I am pleased to say that, following further purchases of jewellery and a “surprise” holiday for two in the Caribbean, he was allowed back inside the marital home, whilst this most grievous and recent crime took pride of place in his good ladies trophy cabinet, ready to be exhibited at the first sign of a transgression: let us hope that never happens

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A Fly In The Appointment

Simon Warmsley- Maddock, ( his mother had added the ‘Warmsley’ in a fit of vanity), when a boy of six, was a smooth cheeked young lad whose complexion was eased towards his parent’s idea of perfection by a diet of chocolate,  doughnuts and a light sprinkling of multi- vitamin tablets.. He had little to offer the world except unbreakable self confidence and thus, over a  career spanning thirty years,  morphed into Major-General Sir Simon Warmsley- Maddock, Chief of Staff at the army’s Department of Hygiene and  Deportment .

This crucial role, which developed in importance with the growth of television and multimedia, led him to engage in periods of public speaking when the mysteries of his role could be revealed before a sleeping audience. In a hall outside Exeter in the County of Devon, where at least twenty people had gathered  to hear his address, Major General Warmsley- Maddock , in a languid imitation of  discrete ability, rose to engage the silent crowd.

The para-normal seldom makes itself known to us, but a well-trained and vigorous fruit fly, who had been a classmate of Simon’s in a previous life was in the room plotting his revenge. An unforgiven  scone-theft made by the glorious general when the fly was still  in our dimension was the cause of the vendetta.  The flies early death and transformation to another species had been unfortunate, but the bitterness of some crimes lives beyond a single lifespan, and so it was for that boy, now buzzing before the fearless General.

As the speech began, the well-trained fly landed on his nose and tickled him gloriously. Warmsley- Maddock moved to wave him off, but the  smart fly remembered the General’s strategems and ducked neatly to the left before fluttering its wings over Simon’s eyebrows. The physical dialogue continued with growing energy, until the audience realised they were in danger of being entertained: video’s were made.

“Get off me you stupid bugger” screamed the General to the delight of various You Tube enthusiasts until, at last, the fly retired for a rest. The General, now not completely smart, searched for his notes which had fallen under the reading stand. Dignity forgotten, he crawled on his knees to retrieve them, thus revealing a pair of the  pink panties which gave him  comfort on formal occasions. 

Within days, he was a star on many computer screens, and was shifted to a new department, with less damaging public repercussions,  as Head of National Security: a role where competence was less required.

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We were as different as two people can be, with different approaches to life, culture and religion but at the centre of it I felt you would always be true to me, and so I opened the door to my heart and let you in. Love can be like burglars don’t you think? It can steal up on you and possess you without a sound; presence unnoticed until you discover happiness is no longer possible on your own.

We were chaste, because you said it must be so: in your culture, you told me, a girl cannot be familiar with a man before marriage and it was a formality I was happy to respect and understand. I loved the courtly sense of life it echoed but some consequences of this custom I did not understand.

It seems you were already engaged to be married to a man you had met only once in your mid-teens and this voyage through university was your parent’s concession to modernity. They would trust you to maintain your innocence until your studies were completed when you would fly home and marry your betrothed, according to their wishes.

It was your custom and your culture that this would be so and you made it plain that respecting the wishes of your parents was more important than any private dream or urgency. In a sense with me, unconsciously I’m sure, you were displaying what could not be offered, and I was banging on the shop door with a currency which would not be accepted.

Neither of us were especially religious, but I discovered that custom and expectations can hold you to a behaviour as much as any faith, and disappointing your parents was not in your lexicon of conduct: your choice could not be personal.

As what you meant to me became clearer and more urgent, you shared the sadness we both felt, but I could only watch you board a plane and take my grief at your parting as the price of past happiness until, bruised it must be said, I realised that “Life, humorous and pitiless,” had played a trick on me and I must move on if I were ever to breathe again and so I did.

Two children and a lifetime later I saw you on some Indian TV channel, rounder and more solid, can I say, but clearly still quite beautiful. “Our Political Correspondent” the words read on the screen, and I wondered how “My Meera” had become so serious. When young, what we cared about was literature, and “inner meaning” and integrity and other vapourisms with which students fill their intellects.

I wrote to you, care of your TV station saying,

“Darling Meera,

I do not wish to interrupt your life, but we are both old enough, are we not, to recognise everything our parents told us was genuinely felt but not necessarily right, and the feelings I had and have for you are both true and real, and would have value in any culture in any era. Contact me please and save me from myself”

I have not received a reply.

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