Somewhere In The Class Of Life :

At school I was not at the front of the class: not one of the clever ones whose enthusiasm reminded the teacher this was their true vocation. I sat in the middle of the room, faintly absorbed but not engaged. After spending most of my education looking out of the window I somehow did enough to pass exams, and after school lived a life without glory or engagement until I saw someone who introduced me to myself.

In a bar where I was drinking soberly on my own, reading because my friends would join me later, I looked up to see three girls enter the room and in the middle was one, red of hair, wearing glasses and radiating that sense of mischief I always find appealing: laughing at some remark I could not hear.

I am not one for girls, or should I say I never pushed myself forward in their company. I was always half-way down the queue, friendly but not personal: romance touched my life infrequently but now I felt a call to arms, a primal urgency and stood up, walking towards her just as she reached the bar.

“This may sound mad to you, it does to me, but I need to buy you a drink. You can leave it if you want, but just to buy it for you is something is it not?”

“You are odd ?” she said and smiled before turning to her friends and saying “What a nutter!” and I responded saying, “Not normally but how do you say hello to a girl you have not met without being odd?” and she said, “Not like that!”

A wise man would have walked away but I was lost to being wise so I hung around awkwardly praying for a miracle to grant me access, and so it happened.

One of the girls beside her said “You can buy me one, I’m not particular!” and I said, “I am, but any friend of this lady will be a friend of mine one day I hope” and you could almost feel them recoiling from the smell of cheese but I think they recognised my desperation was sincere and so relented.

Needless to say as we sat at the table, with me the eccentric curio, common interests came to light: journalism was her passion as it would be mine, and confronting injustice her prime motivation: she was noble in her outlook and inspired me to be the same.

Don’t ask me how I managed it, gauche as I was, but I think she got the sincerity and at the end of the evening said, “Are you going to ask me out” and I said “Yes” and thought to myself, “Just for a lifetime!”

She taught me that being an also ran is not to live a life: that passions are to be discovered and followed fearlessly, that each day you do not treasure is a tragedy and sharing what you love is the doorway to Camelot where I dreamed we might build a home.

I married her ten years ago, her name is Adrianne, her two friends were her bridesmaids: I discovered in her company those with purpose never walk alone.

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A Question Of Priorities

Her dad is eight seven and no longer in the best of health : there is no choice, he must go to a home. His daughter is worried for him but preoccupied with work and battling through the grind of middle age. She has her own family now and always puts them first just as her dad encouraged her to do: he’s never one for demanding your attention but somehow she must find the time to order his affairs.

Her father now lives a guest in his own life, smiling at a world he cannot influence and struggles to understand. He used to dance he tells the nurse as she settles him in bed. She smiles kindly in a busy way:pleasant but unmoved: she’s heard it all before, ( These old boys do go on.) She turns away and moves towards the door. He cannot work the remote, so she moves to explain it to him and then hurries on her way.

The daughter walks into the house he called his home. Not where she grew up but still with objects she knows well: that crazy plastic parrot sitting on a branch; the cupboard filled with china from God knows when, the photographs of course, she always looks at those. Here they are , she with her mum and dad, sitting on the beach: she eating her ice cream. He always wore a hat regardless of the place.

She smiles at last and looks around the room. Just by the door is where his old desk sits. What is in there”? She opens a drawer and peers at what’s inside and sees a pile of letters, yellowed with passing time, and held together with some old ribbon, red and frayed. Not really knowing why she picks them up and takes a letter from the pile. It’s dated 1942 while he was on the front, fighting for his country somewhere far away: he’s never talked about it . She removes the letter from the envelope and reads,

“Dear Elspeth,
It’s bloody hot out here. We on the move tomorrow. Some big push. That’s all I know. God knows what will happen, but if I don’t make it through always know how much I loved you. It made me proud to have you in my life, and your photograph is always with me. Be happy and, if I don’t get back, just get on with it as you always do. Somewhere up there will be a star. It’s me twinkling and smiling down on you.

All my special love, Harold xxx”.

His daughter felt her eyelids fill with tears: her Dad always made time for others but not himself. Without knowing why she climbed into her car and drove to see him, Entering the room she sees him lying there, propped up in bed and patient with his lot. Sitting down she moves to hold his hand. “I love you dad. I’ve loved you all my life”. “I know you silly fool. ” he says and smiles.

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She raised her eyes to view her reflection in the mirror, studying the face before her: still young and clean of line, but with too much knowledge in her eyes: that was her belief. In music or in stories she sometimes felt the tremors of adventure, but no longer in her own her life.

When younger her image of a man was of some hero, face like rock and challenging the elements; fearless brave and short of speech: kind but in a discrete way, centered, certain and in control. She glanced over at her husband, still lying in their bed: not a captain on the ship of life or member  of the crew: more a passenger: over time mhe had become a polite and blameless disappointment. She raised her eyes to the mirror again and they spoke of endurance, smiling despite the facts: a soul marooned in a parody of contentment.

Her heart was pounding as her memory filled with images and surprise. That day when she became engaged, showing off her ring and celebrating with her colleagues. Bill, locked in his wheelchair and anchored at his desk: always kindly but impersonal;  the first person she’d asked for help and the least demanding. That look in his eyes when he saw her ring: filling with sadness, pride and a sense of loss before he drew the curtains over his feelings; so brief it left some room for doubt but still it troubled her in her sleep; her one engagement with the elements: powerful and undefined.

And in the news today she heard he was  miraculously walking after some operation and and a brand new millionaire. He’d made some website and sold it on for millions and now was off to see the world. “Life” he said,” is an adventure and I will live it till I die.”

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A Romantic Strategy

Ruth was getting ready for her date with Herman, but her heart was not singing: she recognised she had rung him to arouse the jealousy of the man she actually wanted as her lover, and not from any real desire to see Herman, or get to know him or for any reason at all, apart from stupidity.

Like many of us, she was too proud to admit her mistakes when they affected someone else so, sure enough, she smiled warmly when she answered the door saying, “Herman, come in, come in, how lovely to see you” and offered him her cheek to kiss.

He had been cheered, and emboldened by her call, and felt a romance with her was an actual possibility. In truth, he had tossed and turned restlessly at the prospect of the date and the teasing thought he might be loved at last. Iit made him smile, because if he were honest with himself, always an unsettling experience, he knew his ex-wife had married him more on the grounds of common sense than emotion. He let that thought go and focused again on Ruth and her pleasing and sophisticated manner: she seemed, as they say, ‘well out of his league,’ but then it was she who had rung him, and opened up the prospect of magic entering his heart.

Once at the restaurant they sipped their drinks and studied the menu, then Herman’s hand moved over hers as it rested on the table. That symbol of gentle connection did not settle her. She looked up at his pale face and saw the cautious and possibly clumsy agenda in his eyes. “Let’s not get carried away, Herman” she said. “Sorry,” he replied, and the hand was withdrawn.

“She could act as she wanted, but after all, it was she who had rung him, and that must mean something,” he thought. He was sure the evening and atmosphere would provide him with another chance to establish their new connection: he was famous for his patient pursuit of goals. For her part, Ruth was looking increasingly at the evening as a test of endurance. Clearly, the man, as she now thought of him, had forgotten theirs was just a friendship and was embarking on a flight of fancy which could only cause embarrassment: it was important to nip that error in the bud, so she did what most people do: nothing.

The food was delicious, the music played by the orchestra was competent and unchallenging and the atmosphere at the table tentative and unsettling: no one had the courage to say the evening was clearly based on a misunderstanding. They ploughed on through the expensively provided courses towards coffee and release or, in his imagination, a promise of some sweet union which might draw him away from his solitary life.

In the corner of the restaurant, near the band, was a small area set aside for dancing. Already, in this expensive place, Ruth observed some middle-aged guy with balding head dancing with a girl clearly young enough to be his daughter and wondered what their relationship was. Looking at him, and then back again at Herman, she felt the whole evening to be tragic, possibly even sordid. How stupid she could be?

It seemed a place to her, where men clearly used their money to gain the favour of ladies who would otherwise pay them no attention. The food, produced with diligent thoroughness and some attention to flavour did nothing for her. The love songs played by the band floated over her head unnoticed, and all she could long for was the chance to return to her own dwelling, unmolested or desired: anything she wanted in her life was not in this room or in his company.

“More wine,” he said, and his eyes shone with brilliant anticipation. For his part, he could not fail to notice her uncertainly and a discrete edginess: he could not say why, but the image excited him. He mistook her nerves for frailty and anticipation, and did not realise she was suffering from a mixture of boredom and claustrophobia. “Where would you like to go after the meal?” he said, “Home,” she replied, and seeing his eyes light up added, “On my own.”

Finally, some sense of her mood seemed to enter his consciousness, and he settled back in his chair. The expensive Merlot, now free of that undertone of celebration, tasted inconsequential in his mouth: he would not be ordering another bottle. “Have I misunderstood something?” he asked her. “Yes, I think you have. I rang you because I was angry with somebody else, and not because I especially wanted to see you. I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want to give you the wrong impression either.”

No one can fault her candour, but candour of this sort is seldom admired. On this occasion, Herman sat back in his chair and looked at a woman, who now clearly wished to exit his life with a gathering urgency. He smiled and said, with a hint of iciness, “Glad to be of service. Shall I get the bill?” Ruth just nodded. The evening suddenly seemed to have become unpleasant, and she couldn’t wait to get away. “This is awkward,” she said. “I think I’ll leave you with it and get a taxi home. Thank you for a lovely meal.”

The surprise announcement and offhand use of cliché did little to settle Herman’s battered confidence, and he said nothing as she collected her bag and left the restaurant. The waiter, when he arrived, managed not to raise an eyebrow, smirk, or say anything clever, which was impressive given the fact that the first thing he did when he got to the kitchen was say, “That old codger at table 15 has been dumped. The lady just got up and left him to settle the bill. It was brilliant.” It was moments like these which added the magic to his day!

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A Life And A Half

‘Mackers’ or Mackintosh for the pedantic was one of those fellows who “Packed it in:” four marriages, three of them producing a single child which Mackers called “Spreading the load:” more jobs and ‘vocations’ than you could cram into a career guidance manual and a couple of bankruptcies. “Other than that,” as he used to say, “It’s been pretty quiet”

All that being said, for the last fifteen of his seventy five years on this earth he had been married to Janice, and would often be seen walking with her down to the shops or quaffing ” a glass or two of something soothing” at some welcoming hostelry. Like a volcano once famed for the fury and unpredictability of its eruptions, people now looked at him and the increasingly benign landscape of his life and thought, “We might make plans” or even more unnerving, “Is Mackers becoming predictable in his old age”

Mackers was the master of the ambiguous phrase, touched by humour and a whiff of profundity pitched at greeting card level. “Today’s sorrow is at the heart of tomorrow’s celebration,” “There’s always an encore” and other gentle asides let you know that Mackers was “In the game,” although on what side remained in doubt,till now that is.

Floss, some late retiree, who’d run a gallery in the city and recently moved to this gentle sea side resort joined our chum one day, while he was out enjoying his routine morning coffee.  Always the conversationalist, she had asked him, “What brings you here?” and he had replied, “We are still finding out” which had amused her. A powerful flirt of disruptive determination she flashed him ‘ the eye’ and Macker’s long dormant taste for the reckless rose to accept the bait.

“Have you ever had an affair” she asked him some days later, noting the wedding ring, and he replied, “Only in secret” and she had smiled again. So it was that, within days, morning coffee stretched into a sea-side walk which did not involve much walking.

Janice, whose quiet acceptance of life’s vagaries made her a popular member of any clique where secrets and embarrassment were likely, or that is any grouping involving a significant number of the over fifties, soon picked up a new vigour in his stride

There was an honesty about Mackers dishonesty. A predictability around his recklessness, and Janice had seen every shade of his colourful character in all it’s glory and shame. Long before they wed, they had been childhood chums then friends and only the death of her beloved husband had freed her up to make something of the man who had injected drama into her life and been strangely faithful in an unpredictable way. To his small band of honorary ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, not all of them now living, he had always been curiously loyal, and it was on this basis, and because he was crying and bruised from some fresh disaster at the time, that she had wed him and kept him safely from himself.

“Quiet is not a word you understand” said Janice when she confronted him: her look was not forgiving. Life, it seemed had granted ‘Mackers’ everything but common sense. “It was never a wife you wanted, more a mother,” then added with a twist of bitterness, “ You’ve destroyed so many lives: look at yourself”  and he replied, “ Starting with my own. “ Perhaps the wisest comment he’d ever made!

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My Father Was A Bank Manager


He worshipped steadiness in all things, closely followed by order and then routine: chosen dramas on television were watched to their conclusion whether they entertained him or not, and books finished for the same reason. Holidays involved a trip to Great Yarmouth, staying always at the same bed and breakfast and his cereal of choice, or should we say obligation, was porridge, eaten hot in the winter or cold in the summer, because avoiding the unexpected was fundamental to a decent life, regardless of the season.

As a boy I knew of nothing more than this, and took his punctilious approach to planning to be the norm. His wife, my mother, would raise her eyebrows every now and then but like many men of his era, he presumed always to take command within the home.

So it was until, aged fifteen when as I stood outside the living room I heard him tell my mother. “I’m leaving you! Beatrice, my other half will be around to collect me in fifteen minutes and I must just pack a few things before I leave. I’m sure we will sort out the other details at a later date.”

There was a brief pause and then I heard my mother shriek; a noise  “Not heard in polite society” as my father would say about anything he considered to be impulsive. “What are you doing, what are you doing? ” she asked between sobs and then “Don’t you love me!?” to which he replied

“That emotion has been absent from our lives for many years” before leaving the room, glancing at me without adding further comment, and walking up the stairs to the place I still thought of as my parent’s bedroom.

My mother followed him and then seeing me, their only child, outside the door and clearly lost in shock, paused to give me a hug and somehow we gave each other unsettled comfort.

The story behind his announcement emerged later and involved a bank clerk who he had hired at the branch he managed. Somehow she had, we discovered later, help him “Discover life again” which is a phrase I am sure you will note is full of nuances and thus very unlike my father.

My mother , a shy woman at the best of times retreated into herself and became something of a recluse. My father, ditched shortly afterwards by the girl he had briefly considered the love of his life, was later found to have concealed a theft from the bank in which his new darling was intimately involved: it might be that the discovery of her crime, and his subsequent concealment of it, stood at the heart of his new relationship: we will never know.

My father’s complicity was discovered by the auditor’s and he and his new lover both spent a short time in separate jails, oh the cruelty of the authorities, although it was later discovered that she already had a wealthy paramour some twenty-five years older than herself and had only taken up the banking adventure, and my father, with the full knowledge of her paramour,  as a way of injecting some excitement into her ordinary life.

He sought to reconcile with my mother once he was released, of course, but she was strangely resolute in her rejection. Perhaps the discovery that the diamond she had been so proud of was actually an artificial stone had damaged her faith in him.

Regardless, what I can tell you is five years later, when I was a student at the local university, I encouraged her to join a book club I frequented and, along with connecting with some well regarded texts such as War and Peace” and “Living Life Backwards,” she met Derek, shy to a fault, but strangely determined once his interest was aroused and they are getting married on Wednesday! Perhaps leaving her was the kindest thing my father ever did !

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A Matter Of Perspective

Each day he rose from bed at six, and made them both a cup of tea, “It’s looking cold” he might remark, or “Getting light out there I see.” He was a man of fixed routine, who liked to live predictably and somewhere far beyond his gaze stood the mighty Pyramids, memorials from a distant time: homes to pharaohs long since dead, yet provisioned for eternity.

Each weekday, as he had for years, he sat behind his office desk, working on electoral roles at the town hall office near his home, watching the names come and go, marking out the births and deaths and talked about the voting age, and far beyond this cloistered space, a river flowed inscrutable between its steep and rocky banks: becoming the Niagara Falls,witnessed by an awestruck crowd who stood and ate their sandwiches,

Every year it was the same; he planted out his vegetables, potatoes furthest from the lawn and up against the garden fence, a decent crop of runner beans. A shadow crossed the window frame, his wife was always at her chores and far away, beyond his view, a mighty iceberg broke away and started slowly on its voyage, populated by some birds, and even by a polar bear, watched from a passing ship by  tourists gathered on the deck, wondering at its growling might.

On Sunday’s they might take a walk, depending on the time of year; nodding at familiar sights, or share a coffee with some friends and talk with them on this and that: exchange the news that neighbours share and far away, beyond their sight, the people of the Himalayas, respectful of life’s mysteries and shielded from the bitter cold, could raise their eyes in quiet respect and trace the mountains, carved by ice and forces from the earth below.

And in the evening, home at last, sitting together at their meal  she might raise her eyes to him, and in their depths, for all to see, was all the  wonder of his life: that she with gentle empathy, soft as the light from shining stars, might share with him her purest gift; a love of rare simplicity.

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