Life Without Regard

My grandmother, I remember, draped a fur around her shoulders long after they ceased to be fashionable, even when reclining on the sofa in her home. She delighted in making statements such as, “I have offered up my life to scotch and cigarettes, I have given both those brave substances licence to kill me yet both have failed to do so.”

At the time she said this I was twenty three and my grandmother seventy-five, and an embarrassment to her relatives and all those who sought to live a  moral, prayer filled life including the tired solicitor who managed the trust fund which gloriously removed her from the need to worry about everyday concerns. She was my heroine, and as soon as I was old enough to hear, she would regale me with tales of what she called “elegant debauchery” which meant, I think, that whatever the company or its state of undress, there was always a man servant to pour the wine.

“Let them at least see what they cannot enjoy” she might say as she emptied another portion of her grandfather’s fortune down her throat. My mother, her daughter, hated her of course, and clung to more orthodox versions of sanity, but she could not avoid her mother’s company as, it had been made clear,that to absent herself from her mother’s daily life was to lose all access to her unregarded wealth.

My grandmother told me candidly that my mother was a disappointment and she looked to me to maintain the family honour and reputation for excess. “Learn about wine and the beauty of a woman,” she told me. “Let nature speak to you, and music fill your soul and then write of your experiences: that is your destiny.” My father was long dead, rescued from a life he had come to find unbearable by, well, death itself I suppose. Grandmother was armed with nuances of every colour and variety and delighted in disturbing those she thought unworthy of entering her salon. “Bores darling. Unutterable bores who measure everything and understand so very little.” Thus was the vast majority of mankind exiled from her regard. She drawled the word “Very” in such a manner it sounded almost like the gurgling of the toilet emptying commonly held values into some mysterious waste system.

Even the best of us, may find weariness curbs our ability to express our inner being, but for some reason, “Fatigue” itself seemed as reluctant to enjoy my grandmother’s company as were morals or any sense of social propriety: to my young heart she was an inspiration and a pleasure seeker “Extraordinaire,” dressed in period costume.

Her daughter had been raised to despise any manifestation of professional activity but, regardless, recoiled from the well-heeled debauchery so prized by her mother. After my father died my mother avoided any further connection with the opposite sex having, I suspect, spent the last of her optimism on that brief romance.

Events of course, may take an unexpected turn as I was to find out one afternoon when I entered the house at the precise moment my mother pushed my grandmother down the stairs, exhausted in all probability by the unending wait for her mother to do the decent thing and expire in the customary manner.

I don’t think it was loyalty; more a question of style really, but I kept that little secret in the family and, after a cursory inspection, the police left us to it and a funeral was arranged. The church, which opened its doors for reasons which escape us all, was packed to the alter with every kind of lounge lizard, artist and a general body of people recognised by my grandmother as breathing with style if not purpose. The vicar, may his god bless him, scrapped a few facts from my grandmother’s life in order to construct a eulogy, and after a service of no great length we all repaired to the Hall and a wake which unfolded without reference to manners or decency.

The next day, the loyal solicitor arrived at the Hall to read the will. My mother was disinherited without comment, and the hall and trust fund were passed to me in their entirety on the understanding that I did not tarnish the family name with respectability. Without comment I moved my quarters to the ground floor and my mother to a local B&B. After all, no one can be unhappy with the prospect of a cooked breakfast in their life can they!?

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Wedding Of The Century

I was best man at my oldest friends wedding recently. I calmed him as we stood in church waiting for his beautiful bride to make her appearance. The waiting lasted forever, you know how it is, but at last she appeared, stunning to a fault, and the church organ burst into life with the enthusiasm customarily displayed on such occasions.

It must be added, at this point , that she and I had been lovers for some months before this happy date but we had decided that silence was the kinder alternative to breaking my old chums heart, especially given the size of his trust fund and the fact that both her and my circumstances were significantly more modest in comparison. It had been the custom for years that he pay for holidays, so he could benefit from my social skills and I could share an experience I would otherwise not be able to enjoy, and it was on a trip to St Lucia that the warm bond between the three of us was deepened by an unexpected development.

Carletta, that was her name, and I had not always “clicked,” as it were, but over time, we had warmed to each other  to the point where, when he asked me to look after her for a couple of days when he sprained his ankle, both of us saw this opportunity to deepen our friendship as a gift from heaven, or possibly not from heaven, depending on your moral standpoint.

Like me, her finances did not run to exotic holidays, meals at expensive restaurants or those little items of jewellery with which he often demonstrated his love for her. ” He is the boring  yes no yes” suggested Carletta in her delightful accent, and I tended to agree with her, “But he has a lovely heart and is both loyal and generous” I suggested and she nodded in agreement while rubbing her engagement ring with the middle finger of her right hand. A touching gesture, I thought, made a little incongruous possibly,  by the fact we were both lying semi-naked, having just concluded what I considered to be an enjoyable episode of horizontal gymnastics.

Such was her fervour for me at that moment, that she suggested dumping my dearest friend and gambolling her whole future on my unimpressive career.  She soon saw the sense when I advised caution and so she suggested that a couple of years wedded bliss, with me near her to take the edge of the tedium, followed by a divorce citing “mental cruelty” where I could be a reluctant witness in her favour, might secure our finances, rather than just giving into our romantic instincts and walking off into the sunset and almost certain penury.

I do have a conscience, of course. Who doesn’t ? But while I allow it to comment on my actions I do not offer it a management role and pretty much do as I like.  Nevertheless, I was determined to make the adjustment as painless for him as possible. Carletta and I agreed that, after the wedding night, bedroom Pilates should be kept to a minimum making him more susceptible to the deep-thinking and tender hearted beauties I was determined to place in his company during our customary ” Lad’s night out.”

As the ceremony progressed, things took an unexpected turn when the vicar raised his head to address the congregation and asked, ” Can any man show just cause why these two people may not be lawfully joined together .” There was the customary silence before the groom piped up, “The bride is having sex with my best man.” Silence returned for another half-second or two before pandemonium broke out among the congregation and my best friend planted a decent right hook on the side of my head.

There was no reception.

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A Question Of Hope

So I’m talking to my friend Greg.  Him for whom each new girl was, “Real ”  for a weekend at least, although most weekends for him were spent taking a rest from life, until he met his wife, Sandra when the clouds cleared briefly, before he settled down for a career in domestic servitude:  I mean who needs too much intensity anyway, and he seemed happy enough living by someone else’s agenda. We all like a little fun but now he looked down in the dumps, even by his humbling standards, and then it got worse.

“Do you believe in Hope?” he asked  me, and I’m telling you, there is nothing worse than an introspective depressive, unless you are talking a drunk introspective depressive or the final challenge, a drunk introspective depressive talking  to his oldest friend, which is what I am, about philosophy

I mean normally what’s not to like: he’s “One of the pack,”  good to know, buys his round, loyal to a fault, and that pretty much defines friendship don’t you think ?   He has failings: he’s clever, but in that wasted “Off the wall”  way that teachers don’t recognise, and girls always seemed put off by his outsized chin, till he met Sandra, that is, but then we can’t all be floored by inner beauty can we, and she’s no oil painting herself, and if she where an oil painting, she’d require a pretty big frame if you’re hearing me; but I’m straying from the point again. The question he posed was, “Do you believe in hope?” and do you know what kind of people ask that question? The people who don’t feel any.

Let’s talk solid here. You don’t get a guy walking out for the  best night ever with a girl who adores him and clutching a winning lottery ticket saying “Do you believe in hope?” because those people are too busy having fun to talk philosophy. Philosophy is for  miserable people making an excuse for not having fun, or being passed over for promotion or just passed over: period, and that I suppose pretty much defines our Greg.

Still, I don’t want to leave the guy drowning on his own so I ask him, “Are we talking deep- space hope or just “Will I get a holiday?” hope, because, deep-space wise, life’s just a black hole Greg, and I snort a load of beer down my shirt because, let’s hang out the truth here, I can be funny.

OK, more truth, Greg wasn’t laughing so I asked him what his problem was and he said, “It’s all deep space to me Fred, and Sandra’s left me” and there you have it. He’s” Clever in a wasted way” and so I raise my glass and give him the only advice I have to give. “While there’s beer there’s hope and I’ll keep drinking as long as you buy the rounds”  and he walks off to the bar  without a word. After all, that’s what friends are for!

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A Moment Near Paradise

You could call it a connection of minds: two people enjoying a time free of anxieties:  that was all it was and everything. A holiday romance, a trick of circumstance where a lady taking a solitary vacation , “She needed a break to catch her breath,” and I, a cynical journalist who was trying to regain belief, collided as a result of my enduring clumsiness: I spilled my coffee on her dress.  Away from this Paradise, we both had busy lives, lived out on different continents, and yet for much of the holiday, this Eden seemed all there was as daily life faded in our exploration of the present.

After our last evening meal and a couple of soothing drinks, as had become our habit, we  moved to the front of the boat, stretching out beside each other so we could stare up at the sky and the infinite blanket of stars visible above us: pristine, clear and deep. Like the sea beneath us, the sky above was limitless and we, like innocents, lay beneath its stillness. News ceased to matter and only the rocking of the boat reminded us of the moving world.

 Beyond the reach of drama we lay wrapped in velvet  infinity then she moved and touched my hand. She shone for me then and I dared to think she might express her feelings more openly, but she let the moment pass as the warmth coaxed us to sleep: still our fingers played together like children, bonded by unwritten code. It was the nearest I would get to being at peace with myself and the world .

We were two people, free to explore the whimsies of life in a place secret to ourselves,  shielded from our cares by bonds of unspoken intensity. We drank in the silence and then she said, “Do you have a photograph of yourself?” and I said “No”  “OK. Let me take one then” she said, lifting up her camera to take my picture.

Against the rules I asked her “Nothing to worry about is there. Nothing I can help you with  and she said “No.”  We drank some more in silence, tonic water mainly, she didn’t much like alcohol. and then she said. “Off to bed.”

“Before you go” I said, “May I take your picture. Sometime in the future I might want company” and some light came on within her as she waited for me to capture her image. It was a romance built on the denial of intimacy, and yet, as my head lay on the pillow, I fell into that special sleep which a sense of home can give you. Even now she remains the spring of peace within my life.

Shortly after breakfast, with the ship now moored in the harbour as we finished a snack of toast and eggs a waiter arrived to say her taxi was waiting. She rose to leave.

I knew she disliked drama and suppressed it as much as possible and so, as she stepped back from the table,she smiled and said, “Don’t break anything” which was our secret joke.  She walked off then, as if it was an average day: I never saw or heard from her again.                  

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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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