"Once or Twice Upon a Time" is a home for stories longer than is usual for blogposts. Some have been previously published in hardback. These are indicated (p) along with the year of publication. Word counts (2500 etc) let you estimate how long a read will take.

October 27, 2013


  (October 2013.  1750 words)

Remember ledgers? Massive books bound in boards, their spines lettered in gold leaf - "Sales", "Purchases", "Petty Cash", "Inventory" and so on, the pages ruled in columns for double-entry bookkeeping - Date. Item. Paid. Received, the columns totalled at the bottom and the totals carried forward to the next page.  The pages were pale blue, and when the ledger was closed the page edges showed swirly patterns in red, blue and gold and at close of business every day, in banks, department stores, concert booking offices, coffee bars, stockbrokers' dens, Dickensian counting-houses and all manner of premises where cash is king - the ledgers had to balance.  And if they were weighed in the balance and found wanting, someone was in for bother. The out-of-balance had to be accounted for and no one could go home until all balances came out at zero - no more, no less.
  "But we're only tuppence out!" Mrs. Denville protests.  It is 5 o'clock.
  These days accounting is done on computer spreadsheets - but this is 1997 when ledgers were still widely used.
  "You do protest too much, Mrs. Denville!  Find it! Tuppence is tuppence after all."  
  "But it's tuppence in our favour!"
  "Then we owe somebody tuppence! Find out to whom!"
  "You're the boss," Mrs. Denville sighs, but sotto voce, while Mr. DeWitt, Head of Accounts, snaps his briefcase shut, puts on his bowler and with a cheerless 'Goodnight' abandons his minion to the task of unearthing the redundant tuppence.  This is far from Mrs. Denville's idea of a game of soldiers so she sticks out her tongue at the Boss's departing back and bangs the sales ledger down on her desk. She snarls, "Come out, Tuppence. I know you're in there somewhere."
   An out-of-balance twenty pounds or twenty thousand pounds or fifty-five pounds and forty three pence  is an entry that someone forgot to enter or entered twice or entered in Petty Cash instead of Sales.  So - in the unlikely event that someone forgot - or worse, double entered an entry totalling tuppence,  Mrs. Denville knows she is looking for an arithmetic mistake.  Very likely one of her halfwitted colleagues sometime during the tedious hours since nine a.m. has added up a column incorrectly.  She could write a new entry saying "Error cast on dd/mm/yyyy  - 2p" and that would be that. Ledgers balance now. Let's get off home. But Mr. DeWitt has a long memory, is eagle-eyed and will spot this ploy by 9.03 a.m next day, and anyway, such transparent dishonesty is against Mrs. Denville's nature.
  So she sets to work. First check whether someone's biro smudged making an entry unclear? Does one of the halfwits write "2's" to look like "4's" etc? No problems there.
  Now we're in the nitty-gritty. Adding columns of up to forty entries using a desk calculator is error prone and because of this each column must be added and the addition checked. This ensures the column totals are correct. Have the totals been carried forward to the next page correctly?  There's many a slip twixt cup and lip in bookkeeping and the office clock pings remorselessly on and if the wretched tuppence is not found soon Mrs. Denville will be missing "The Archers."
   "An everyday story of demoralised bookkeepers," says Mrs. Denville, turning a page and stabbing at her calculator. The calculator, made in China, has a habit of entering a keystroke twice. This gives rise to errors much greater than tuppence, and by the time this "Heap of oriental rubbish" - says Mrs. Denville - has played its dirty trick three times she wonders if a device so small would smash the clock if she threw it across the office.  Grimly she bends again to her task under her green shaded desk light, her rimless glasses firm on her cherubic nose. Outside, the October sky darkens and inside things begin to click and creak as the office heating goes off.  Mrs. Denville puts on her padded anorak and utters words which are in her vocabulary but rarely used.
   At half past six she pulls the anorak hood over her hair and shivers despite the padding. Then, with only one page left to check and the tuppence not so far found and the awful prospect of starting over looming, someone in the doorway says "Unbalanced sind wir, liebchen?" This breaks Mrs. Denville's concentration. Her irritation explodes.  "Damn you up and down the hills of India!" she cries. "Why a dump like this needs gumshoe Security Patrols - " But when she looks up, whisking off her glasses, she sees that the figure in the doorway is not Security. The Security men have peaked caps and yellow tabards and ID tags hanging from their belts.  Her visitor is dressed in a frock coat and knee breeches, white hose and buckle shoes. There's a rust coloured cravat knotted untidily round his neck over a grubby shirt, and his shoulder length hair looks lank and greasy. She notices he has big hands. Now Mrs. Denville is scared.  An escaped madman? An addict high on bad acid? An axe murderer or worse?  Her heart quickens. She stands up, moves behind her swivel chair so that chair and her desk covered with ledgers lie in the madman's path. All she has to hand to defend herself is a not very heavy calculator, a plastic ruler and a paper knife. And some very heavy ledgers. And a panic button to call Security, but it's next to the door, the far side of the intruder.
   The madman does not move.  She picks up one of the ledgers two-handed and holds it across her chest.
   "Who are you?  What do you want? I'll ring for Security!" - then "What did you just call me?"
  "Liebchen," he says. "And you are cross because a penny you cannot find?"  Still he does not approach.  She sees he is a young man, perhaps thirty years, with a kind, stern but troubled face, clean shaven. She wonders how she suddenly knows he is not dangerous. Weird, but not menacing.  She lays the ledger back on her desk.
   "Two pence, actually." How on earth does he know? How can he know . . ? He must have met Mr. DeWitt  . . but Mr. DeWitt is long away.
   "Under the piano they roll. Sie sind so kleine."
   This conversation, Mrs. Denville thinks, is getting away from me.
   "Piano?  What piano? There isn't a piano. And it's not a real tuppence! Not a tuppence coin, I mean. It's an unbalanced tuppence." She thinks, he's the one that's unbalanced, but this she does not say.
  "Ach so! Perhaps some account you have not paid?"
  "What? Look - who are you? Bursting in here going on about pianos and accounts not paid, in that fancy get up.  We don't do dressing-up Friday."
  "Rarely properly was I paid, and I an artist amongst blundering artisans. Und es ist Mittwoch."
  Mrs. Denville thinks "Pedant!" and begins to look for a way out, reminding herself she still has an illegal tuppence to dispose of. On paper. Maybe she could give him the tuppence to go away and enter "To disposing of Madman - 2p."
  "Whose account, for Goodness sake? We don't get accounts for only tuppence. Can't you see I'm busy?"
  "Consult your payments für einem Monatja?"
  Mrs. Denville grips the back of her chair. "Look here! Are you from the Inland Revenue? We're all above board," thinking, of course he isn't from the Revenue. The Revenue barge in mob-handed and not in frock coats.
  The stranger smiles for the first time. "All accounts received against ledger entries for payments you should check. Bitte, liebchen. Much time I have not."
   Something insistent in the young man's face urges her. She takes a sheaf of invoices off the spike, leafs back through them to the previous month, cross checks them against the corresponding entries in the Paid column of the ledger - and finds her tuppence! Now she remembers. A supplier of long standing had given them a generous discount and Mr. DeWitt in a moment of uncharacteristic generosity had instructed her to give the same amount to a charity of her choice. And there it was!  A donation to the Royal Institute for the Deaf, entered in her own hand, at tuppence less than the supplier's discount. Her own mistake!
   Mrs. Denville lets out a long "Phewwww!" and then to her benefactor "How did you know?" He is no longer there but the self-closing door is still moving.  She gets up, rounds her desk, goes to the door, pulls it open.  "Just a minute! Come back!" The landing outside the office is empty. She looks over the balustrade. There is no one on the stair. There is no one in the lift. Mrs. Denville stands silent for a moment. "Was I dreaming?"
  Back in the office her phone is ringing.  It is Ted, her husband saying "I guess you were  out of balance? I'm in the car, right outside. Will you be long?"
  "Just finished.  I'll be right down. Oh, Ted. Did someone just leave the building?  Funny looking chap in - " she hesitates. Ted won't believe a frock coat!  " - in a hurry?"
  "Not in the five minutes I've been here, love."
  She tidies her desk, slowly, because she is thinking but can make nothing of what she is thinking. She leaves, locking the office's outer door after turning out the lights. She goes downstairs and out to the car. Her husband leans across to open the door, kisses her cheek when she gets in.
  "Long day, love? Let's get a take-away."
  He has a CD playing. The track is a solo piano piece. The catchy tune goes very fast. She doesn't know why she is compelled to ask what the piece is.
  "Well," her husband says, "It's a rondo. I forget its opus number but it's been nicknamed 'Rage Over a Lost Penny'.  It's by Beethoven. He wrote it when he was about thirty, but it wasn't published till after he died."
 "Wasn't he the one who went - ?"
 "Went what, love?"
 " - deaf?" she says and falls silent, lost in thoughts she will never share with Ted and they reach the Indian take-away, while a voice in her head insists - "Liebchen . . "

September 25, 2013


    (September 2013.  2200 words)

   Mr. Killermont died last night. Well, I assume that's what's happened. He was in the bed opposite when I fell asleep - not easy, hospitals are noisy places - but he wasn't there when the breakfast trolley came rattling through the ward.  I think there'd been a commotion in the small hours, a scurrying of feet, a swish of bed curtains, but I can't be sure. Anyway, he's not there now. If you ask the staff they'll say something like "He's gone to a Better Place."  Or, "He is At Rest." No he isn't. He's dead. I never even found out what was wrong with him. He looked a fairly solid chap to me. He'd a not unhealthy pinkish glow about him, not that I'm a doctor or anything. I've seen the nurses tweaking his cheek between finger and thumb and asking how he feels today and how he's coming along nicely and he'll be out in a day or two. 
   I wonder where they take them?  When they die on the ward I mean. Killermont was the second in the two days I've been here. If it's like that on all the wards there must be quite a pile of bodies some place. Is there a collective noun for corpses?  That'll be something to think about when the visitors come trooping in.
   Now in case you're wondering, no, I'm not in danger.  I was playing a round of golf when the head flew off somebody's driver and nutted me. So here I am, head shaved, scalp stitched, skull X-rayed, bandaged up, resting. It's morning and I've got some stiff bacon and a fried egg made of leather, yet the care assistant who wheels the trolley assures me it's all prepared on the premises. I've figured that one. It was all prepared on the premises - yesterday. Then it was left out all night and briskly microwaved this morning to toughen and warm it.  Ah well! It'll be over in a day or two. 
   But it's all over for Killermont right now.  He won't be crunching bacon again. He won't be examined by a ward doctor from a Commonwealth country any more. Nor will his glance hose the nurses up and down as they go about their business. Wait a minute!  Maybe that's it!  Maybe he pulled one of them or one of them pulled him and they're indulging in curative therapy right now in the linen store. Or the sluice. I wouldn't put it past Killermont. He'd the look of a successful roué about him; I said already, he was pink faced. Fleshy. Lucky so-and-so.
   Then again, maybe he absconded. Going AWOL would be easy if you think about it. The ward's on the ground floor, windows always part open, wheelman waiting outside in high powered car.  Or he just strolled out past the nurses' station when the night shift was busy planning its holidays on the ward WiFi.
   Why am I fantasising like this?  Killermont is dead.  Or in Intensive Care. That's another possibility.
   Here comes the care assistant for my breakfast tray.
   "Mister Killermont?  Has he . . um . . passed away?"
   "I can't tell you that, squire." He taps the side of his nose. "Patient confidentiality. Health and Safety  an' all that." They call this 'Keeping Our Patients Informed.' And off he goes with a trolley with a wheel that squeaks.
   There's a private room at the end of the ward where my bed is. This room has a window into the ward with a venetian blind, but the blind is closed.  It wasn't closed yesterday so I guess there's someone in there now, maybe seriously ill. Ah! Perhaps it's Killermont, trundled in there for his own Health and Safety. He didn't look seriously ill last time I saw him but that was yesterday and this is a hospital.
   After ward rounds - "How are we today?  Bowels O.K?  Gooood!  Gooood!" - foot traffic into and out of the private room increases. If Killermont is in there he's getting special attention. Nurses come and go. Before entering the private room they take a blue plastic apron and surgical gloves from dispensers on the wall.  One goes in with towels over her arm and comes out a few minutes later carrying a hypodermic syringe.  I try to catch her eye but she hurries past and puts the syringe into the sharps wastebin. Another nurse goes in carrying a tray of instruments. Then there's a lull. Then there's a serious development that makes me fear for Killermont. The last nurse in dashes out, runs out of the ward but reappears in short order pushing a defibrillator unit, a one woman crash team. Now Killermont could be in big trouble.  The nurse and the defibrillator disappear into the room and pretty soon from behind the door comes the expected "200 joules!  Clear!" and a thump like a  . . like a . . . well, like a body bouncing in shock. Silence. Then "Have we lost him yet?"  Then muffled voices as though an argument is breaking out and then another "Clear!"and another thump. And after a minute or so, a final "Try 300! Clear!" Thump. "He's O.K. now."  This is puzzling, and even more so a little later when the nurses reappear pushing the defibrillator, followed by a patient trolley pushed by the care assistant, the shape on it completely sheeted. And now I get the care assistant's attention.
   "Mr. Killermont?"
   "Regrettably, squire. But don't distress yourself. You haven't seen the last of Mr. Killermont."
   Hospitals give you plenty of time to think, and I think about this remark.  Does he mean the ward will be invited to view the late Mr. Killermont's remains in the hospital Chapel of Rest, or maybe even attend his funeral?
   So when the care assistant walks the ward again, taking the orders for evening meals, I question him again.
   "Mr. Killermont, squire?  He asked for his remains to be donated to the Trust."
   "Trust? What Trust?"
   "The Trust that administers the hospital."
   "Ah!  For research? Benefits everyone, I suppose."
  "In a manner of speaking, squire.  Now, your tea. What's it to be?  Macaroni cheese or a nice plate of pork goulash. Or how about a nice thick  slice of ham? The cuts looks really tasty - home grown and fresh in this morning and all prepared on the premises."
  "Sounds good," I say. "Put me down for the goulash. Pity about Mr. Killermont. He'd have enjoyed that."

September 21, 2013


(2013.  2950 words)

   I figured Mrs. Gonella was home because her motor-bike was chained to the area railings.  No one is having Mrs. Gonella's bike; she secures it with something like anchor chain and a padlock you could smash skulls in with. I see her out polishing her bike - metallic blue and chrome. I think she polishes it more than she rides it.
   I went up the stairs and just as I reached the first landing the door to the flat on the left was flung open and Mr. Gonella stumbled out like someone inside had pushed him. From inside I heard Mrs. Gonella proclaiming something that sounded like a useless old jaffa can just stay out there till he's figured how to treat a girl properly.  It looked like Mr. Gonella might actually fall, so I put out an arm to steady him.
   He grinned at me from a mouth full of gaps then jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the slammed door. "Got into bed the wrong side," he said.  Mr. Gonella, my downstairs neighbour, over six foot but stooped, fence-post thin and wrinkled, jowls sagging, skin tight over ribs, buttocks so flat they're hardly there. How did I know all this?  Because Mr. Gonella, bundled unceremoniously out of his flat, was jay-bird naked. Behind him the letter box opened and something bright red and crumpled was pushed through from inside to land on the doormat. The mat had a legend, "Not you again!"
   Mr.Gonella turned and stooped to pick up the red fabric. I averted my gaze.
   "Oh thank you, me darlin'" he said to the door. "Thank you so much."  He turned to me again. "Me boxers. She bought them for me. Says she don't like me in them poncy white Y-fronts. 'Good strong colour suits you' she says.  Red, eh?  Red rag to a bull, the cow."
   "They're red alright," I said. They were scarlet.
    He steadied himself against me while he thrust his feet into the legs of the boxers and pulled them up. They hung about his skinny thighs. He snapped the waist elastic with both thumbs and then patted his stomach. "There you go. Keep the winds of change out." He leaned to me as if to share a confidence. "If I make it to Christmas I'll be eighty.  You get to my age and it ain't as easy as it was.  She's younger. You need to watch younger women, Gerald. They can make impossible demands. You get you need that, what they call it? Niagra. That it?  She ain't even seventy five yet - I think." He stared at his fists, his fingers uncurling one by one. "Yep. Seventy five.  You hear what she called me?  Jaffa!"
   I repeated the word as a question.
   He cackled.  "Jaffa oranges. Seedless, see? Kick a man when he's down, so to speak."  
   I forced back a smile.  I liked Mr. and Mrs. Gonella. I heard them rowing quite often. Things went bump and bang in the night and sometimes pans clanged from the walls. But other times I heard bits of Chopin waltzes or fifties ballads coming up through their ceiling from a pretty good piano by the sound of it - and sometimes their voices in pretty good harmony rendering "Let me call you Sweetheart." 
   Mrs. Gonella, she's like a little sparrow. Tiny beside Mr. Gonella. Her head goes from side to side when she talks and she uses a lot of rouge, blues her eyelids and puts on violet lipstick.  When she's dressed for the road in her black leathers and she gets astride the bike and puts her sparrow's head into her helmet she looks like an insect with a single black glossy eye. "I can see out, baby," she'll say, "but you lot can't see in."
   Mr. Gonella - he'd been a craft baker. "Good bread," he'd say. "You don't need much else." He'd come upstairs to present me with a sourdough loaf, still warm, so good, so bloody tasty you could eat the lot at a sitting. "Get some good cheese, Gerald. And a few tomatoes, sliced. Shake of salt. You can't beat it."  He was a kindly man, and now he was banished to the stone flagged landing in his bare feet and scarlet boxers, the victim of marital conflict which boggled the mind, whatever the cause.
   Should I intercede in their domestic?  Should I invite him up for some tea and lend him a T-shirt and some pants?  And a pair of slippers and sit with the telly till things cooled down?
   "Will Mrs. Gonella . . ?" I began.
   "Not to worry, Gerald.  She barks worse than she bites. Don't judge too quick, son."
   I'd no time to reply, for the door opened and Mrs.Gonella came out.  She was in her leathers, her little feet in black zipped boots. She carried her helmet. Black wig day, I noticed.
   You could say she gave us both a hard stare.
   "I owe my life to this young man here," said Mr.Gonella, hand on my shoulder.
   "My bad luck he was around, then," she said. "Just look at you!  What a ticket!"
    I didn't know what to say.,
   "I'm off to collect my teeth," Mrs. Gonella said. "Then you're for it, Gonella, you old scarecrow."
   Should what he did next have surprised me?  He turned to her and kissed her brow under the false black fringe. "You take care on that bike. And if the Law stops you . . don't bite anyone."
   She screwed up her face and the tip of her tongue peeped out but the grimace was full of forgiveness and then she turned and went down the stairs, the heels of her little boots clacking on the stone steps, and I thought  - they love each other. Simple as that.
   "Does she . .  ?" I floundered. "Is she . .  ?"
  "Safe? She's been into bikes her whole life. Bikes is how we met. I was delivering bread rolls to a motocross event in Perthshire.  Big marquee and all, and mud you wouldn't believe.  She showed me where to put the rolls and stuff. Seemed like she was in charge of the bun-fight. Didn't find out till later she was County champ. All-comers, Gerald, not just women. Utterly fearless. She could make a bike dance just about.  Anyway, knock me sideways, she said 'Right. This biker needs a baker. Can you wait? I've one more ride.'  Talk about frontal assault! Fifty five years we've been together. That day to this."
   He broke off at the sound of the motor bike revving and setting off, then "Come in for a cuppa, Gerald. We made muffins this morning.  Blueberry. Unless - " He pushed the door. It opened. "Good. I came out without me key. Come on in. I'll just put some kegs on. Go through. Sitting room straight ahead."  He went into a room off the panelled hall while I went where directed into their sitting room, my glance caught straightaway by the piano. "Blimey!" - under my breath. A six foot grand!  I was looking at thirty thou and the rest. The instrument stood in the oriole window positioned so the performer faced into the room. The lid was raised.  A volume of Chopin waltzes was on the  easel. How in the name of Brahms and Liszt did they get it up the stair?  I went round it to stand behind the stool and struck a note pp just as Mr.Gonella came in.
   "Play if you can play," he said, meaning keep off if you can't - the closest I'd ever heard him come to sounding severe.
   "It's a beauty. Do you . . ?"
   "No.  Elsie - Mrs. G. She's not bad."
   "I hear her sometimes."
   "She can't give it full throttle with neighbours upstairs and down."
   "I wouldn't mind."
   "I'll let her know." He gave me a grin. He'd put on trousers, grey flannel, and his feet were thrust into slippers in a tartan pattern but he'd wrapped himself in a black kimono with dragon motifs in red and gold, tied at the waist, loose, dangly sleeves. Maybe he noticed my surprise for he said "Very comfortable, Gerald. I'll get the muffins. Tea? We're partial to fruit tea.  Strawberry?  Apple and cinnamon? Or bog standard."
   "Typhoo'll do me."
   He made a stirring motion, looking at me.
   "Wee bit of both," I said.
   He went out and I took in the room. Heavy velvet curtains.  Solid old furniture. A button-back chesterfield that could be Victorian. A gate-legged table draped with a heavy, tasseled cloth. A high   oak surround over a tiled fireplace.  A clock ticked on the mantle, a quiet, graceful sound.  You might say everything in the room seemed older than its owners - except for that magnificent piano. Photographs on a sideboard. Their wedding.  A younger Mr.Gonella with - I assumed - his parents. A girl in school uniform - this one in black and white. She wore a blazer over a gym-slip with a broad brimmed hat and the impish face wearing an impudent smile could only be teenage Mrs. Gonella.  A uniformed soldier with beret and campaign medal.
   I was looking at these when Mr. Gonella carrying a brass tray with tea mugs and a plate of muffins, came  back into the room. And now I noticed the tremor in his arms, enough to set the mugs and teaspoons rattling, and as though he noticed what I'd noticed, said "Never give in to things, Gerald," and he carefully set the tray down on the table.
   "Can I help?"
   "No, lad.  Sit you down.  She'll not be long.  Gone for her teeth."
    Sitting, I said "I have to ask, Mr. Gonella. Teeth?"
   "Her top set's been getting more and more uncomfortable for three months. Got a card this morning. Her new ones are ready."
   I had to work hard not to laugh aloud at her bite becoming worse than her bark when the new teeth went in . . and then I remembered his "Don't judge too quick, son." I accepted the plate he offered with a muffin, followed by a mug of tea, followed by another image - how celebrating the imminence of Mrs. Gonella's teeth had somehow ended up with Mr.Gonella stark naked outside his own front door.
  For a while we drank tea in silence and the clock chimed the hour.  I'd peeled the paper case off the muffin. "Mr. Gonella, that's about the best I ever tasted," I said.  So we talked about muffins, how what they are depends where you come from. How just two men managed to get the piano in without taking a whole window frame out. How you don't come across chiming clocks very often - this when he glanced at the clock as it struck the half hour.  How it had been a wedding present. How when he asked her to marry him she'd said "So you want to make an example of me then?"
   "She had to explain that one to me in the end, Gerald. 'Work it out, work it out,' she kept saying."
   "An example?" I said. "Usually they want us to make an honest woman of them."
  He was leaning forward, to explain I think, when we heard the motor bike thrumming outside and throttling down and I saw him relax. "Always like to hear that," he said as the engine stopped. "Back safe. I'll just make sure the door's off the latch." He got up, went into the hall, leaving the sitting room door open. I saw him open the front door even before Mrs. Gonella appeared. I guess she was shackling her bike, taking off her helmet, loosening the leather top, coming up the stair. When she came in I saw their arms go round each other briefly before she drew away, went into a room off the hall, while Mr. Gonella rejoined me.
  "We've always got along together," he said.  "Bash each other about every so often, who doesn't. But we've always got along."
    For something to say, I said "Your son's in the army? I noticed the photo."
    He looked directly into my face. His eyes were quite pale blue.
   "He came back from the Falklands. That's him with his campaign medal. But he didn't come back from the Gulf.  Blown up by  . . what they called, I.E.D."
   "I . .  "  The floor did not open and swallow me as it should have done.
   "Shush, son. You weren't to know. She got me through. We got each other through. Never wanted to be anything but a soldier.  He'd just been promoted captain. He'd a bright future. He was our only one."
   The moment was saved by Mrs. Gonella coming in. She'd changed her wig and was now all auburn curls and when she saw me, said, "What's Gonella been telling you?  Don't believe all his tarradiddles.
Most days he doesn't know what day it is."  But she stood close to him and held a round plastic box out to him and said, "You must put them in for me."
   "A pleasure, me darlin'" he said.
   Scenes like this, I kid you not, you can only watch in amazement but if no tears come to your eyes, I tell you, you've never really been alive. A voice in my head said over and over "Their son is dead."
   "Open wide," he said. To the box! He unclicked the lid. He took out a top set of dentures. He tipped her chin up. He said "Shut yer eyes and open wide!" And she did, standing meek with her mouth straining open while her husband with gentleness, with this old hand trembling, two fingers under the pink plate and his thumb resting on the front of the brilliant teeth, settled them into place, pushing the curve of the plate up into the roof of her mouth.
   "Now don't bite the hand that feeds you," he said. "Right then. Open yer eyes." He held her by the shoulders. "Let's see. Smile for an old man." She switched on a grin, then turned away, went to the mirror over the mantlepiece, angling her head this way and that, still grinning "There's a girl that can manage celery again. Quite comfy. Better than the last ones. Where are they anyway?"
   "I put them under yer pillow instead of in the glass. For the tooth fairy. The big one."
    She looked at me. "He's always like this," she said on a sigh. "Any tea left?"
   The voice said "Their son was blown to bits," and I thought how you have to work out ways of coping.
    While she examined the tea tray, her back turned, he indicated the photo and laid a finger across his lips. I nodded. "Blown to a bundle of bloody rags."
    So we sat, Mr. and Mrs Gonella in the chesterfield, myself in a plush upholstered easy chair.
   "I bet these teeth are great for muffins," she said. "He makes lovely muffins," and when he said "We make," she squeezed his knee and broke a chunk off her muffin and popped it into his mouth, quite unabashed in front of their upstairs neighbour, and I thought how all that they did was done with tease and tenderness and wondered who led who and how often and even with the best will in the world you could sometimes end up in the altogether on the landing.
    The clock chimed the hour again, cuing my excuses to leave.
    "Come by again," she said. "Don't be a stranger."
    She got up and went with me through the hall to the door, a tiny woman who had born a son who had not come back from the Gulf.  She stepped out onto the landing with me and pulled the door closed but not latched.
   "Don't mind him if he calls you Gerald. He calls the postman Gerald. He calls everybody Gerald. That was our boy's name. Gerry.  When I came in I could tell he'd been telling you."
   There's nothing to say. I took both her hands and pressed them in mine, detecting the strength that could still control a motor-bike. I said, "He did, Mrs. Gonella. He told me."
    We made our goodbyes and I went up the stairs, let myself in, stood just inside my front door.  You have to work out ways of coping when what you really want to do is die because only death brings an end to pain. You have to bury shattered bone and ripped muscle in the back of your mind, and work to overlay it with all you did before and never give in to things, Gerald. I imagined a teenage Gerry sinking pints with his mates,  saying "My folks are bonkers. Absolutely bonkers." And the parents, their world shorn away in a moment of noise and madness,  but making a new one because they have to, because there's no other way, a new one that will suffice until you swirl down into the vortex that must one day claim us all.  
   I went into my sitting room, right above theirs, and from downstairs came one of the Chopin Grandes Valses Brilliantes, at full throttle, Mrs. Gonella getting her teeth into the music, not giving up, not giving in and not starting over even when her waltz stumbled and fell into a minefield.


May 26, 2013


 (2013.  1675 words)

  In the late afternoon of his wife's fiftieth birthday, Hamish Lancaster picked up their daughter Imogen from after-school hockey.  The teenager tugged the car door closed.  To be specific, she closed the passenger door of her father's Bentley, model - "Flying Spur", colour  - 'Scorched Earth', registration GO HL. The closing door made hardly a sound.  The car's interior was filled with the smell of leather upholstery. The dash and doors were furnished with much figured walnut. To Hamish Lancaster it was always "The Bentley", never "the car." To Imogen it was luxurious yet she did not like it. Her classmates said it was the kind of car that the top echelons of drug dealers swanned around in.
   She settled in her seat.
  "We won, Dad. I scored."
  "Fasten your seat belt, Imogen. And text Mummy that we're on our way."
   She clicked the buckle, then thumbed her mobile, "Hi Mum. Just leaving sports ground." Then she looked sideways at her father, who looked ahead, driving soundlessly out of the car park adjacent to the School's sports complex.  "I said I scored."
  "Yes. What have you got for Mummy?"
  She said "I acheived a goal. For the school."  'Achievement' was her father's favourite word.
  "Yes. I asked you a question, Imogen."
  She did not persist.  At home she would say "I scored a goal for you, Mum, for your birthday!" and her mother would hug her with words of praise. So - what could she say she had got for Mummy that would irritate Daddy? A kit for breeding tarantulas? A boxed set of every Doctor Who since the Year Dot? A one hundred pound voucher for Anne Summers? But Hamish Lancaster, a man with a plentiful moustache and sparse hair and a very expensive car, had a great many achievements to his name but little sense of humour. He would admonish her for the the vulgarity of these choices, but they would not amuse him.
  "Let's wait till we get home, Dad. Then it'll be a surprise for both of you."               
  "You know I don't like surprises, Imogen."
 "Any more than you like other people's achievements, even your daughter's?" Her father, negotiating a roundabout, said "Never distract a driver by talking on roundabouts, Imogen,"  so that she wondered if he had registered her comment let alone it's sarcasm.  She tried teasing again.
  "Dad - you tell me yours, and I'll tell you mine." She was poised between fourteen and fifteen, between girl and woman, and - though she did not yet know it - between love for and judgement of her parents. And she was beautiful the way ponies are beautiful, slender, glossy haired, long-limbed. Her mother saw this; her father would not regard mere beauty as much of an achievement, and said "I have bought Mummy a shrubbery fork."
  She did not speak for six beats, then she said, pausing on each word.  "A. Shrubbery. Fork?"
  "Yes. You know how Mummy loves the garden. What a grand job she makes of it. It's her great - "
  " - achievement?"
  "Exactly, Imogen. Her achievement. And her greatest pleasure - "
  " - really?" thinking "Better than sack-rolling with a balding Hamish?"
  "Yes. Look at the time she devotes to it. A shrubbery fork will take much of the effort out of clearing weeds. It's of stainless steel. With an ash shaft and handle. Not heavy at all. Just the tool for lady gardeners. Our couriers will have delivered it by now. I had it wrapped by Dispatch so the package looks nothing like a fork. To surprise her when she unwraps it . .  "
  She laid her hand on his arm. "Oh, Daddy!  How clever! So what does her not very heavy stainless steel ash handled shrubbery fork look like all wrapped up by Dispatch? A drum kit perhaps?  Or a weekend break in Florence or Budapest?"
  Now her father looked sideways at her. "What is your point, Imogen?"
  She had to deal with a knot of anger tightening her throat. "Nothing. I just thought Mummy might have appreciated something more unexpected. Unusual. You know - a birthday surprise. It's her big Five Zero after all."
  "She will appreciate my making her work in the garden easier. She will appreciate my thinking of her.  A drum kit! How very ridiculous. Can you see Mummy playing drums? And that's a ridiculous expression. Big Five Zero. No, Mummy will dote on her fork. Now she is settled in life, in her sixth decade, she doesn't need surprises. She has the garden.  She swims twice a week. She meets her friends for canasta, or lunch. She wouldn't want at her age to take trips to - where did you say? Florence? Budapest? Far too hot. And who would water her tomatoes?"
   She realised she was crying, looking out of the passenger window of her father's Bentley so he would not see her tears of rage, or despair.  Oh, Mummy, Mummy, don't you ever, ever complain? Are you so used to him you just don't notice anymore? 
  "Dad . . I think I'd like to walk the rest. We're nearly home. I can call at The Happyshop to get her a card. Mrs. Fairweather has nice cards."
  Without surprise he said, "Very well. My card was wrapped with the fork. We'll see you back at he house then."
   He pulled in, in front of the village shop and she got out and he drove off, so he did not hear her using the word she would never use in front of him, or her mother, as she stamped across the pavement.   "Jesus!  A fucking garden fork. What? Thirty quid? And how much did his fake Rolls fucking Royce cost?  A quarter fucking million and the rest." She went into the little shop.
   "Hello love. Your Mum was in earlier. She wanted some food colouring. For a cake."
   "Hi Mrs. Fairweather. Yeah.  It's her birthday. She's fifty. I forgot a card."
   "On the rack there, Imogen dear. Why, you've been crying?"
    She went to the display of cards, talking over her shoulder.
   "It's O.K.  I'm O.K now. Spat with Dad. Sort of."
   "I saw you stop outside. I thought, our Imogen looks real cross."
   "It's nothing. Just Dad."
   She took a card with a picture of a Happy Birthday Girl wearing pink spectacles shaped like goblets and the legend "My birthday drinking glasses."
   "So what will you give your Mum?  Or is it a secret?"
   "Not at all.  She's getting a stunt kite. You know - for acrobatics. It has two strings so you can make it swoop and soar. You need both hands to steer it. She's never had anything like that. She'll love it."
   "Does your Dad know?'
   "Not yet."
   "Bit straight laced, your Dad. That's ninety nine p, dear."
   She left the shop and walked the few minutes to the drive gates and more minutes to the house, wondering for whose sake her mother kept the house, kept the garden - which was a picture, yes, was a real achievement - and kept her silences while both of them, wife and daughter, listened to Hamish Lancaster droning through the catalogue of his achievements. These, she was old enough to understand, kept them in comfortable security, paid for her school, her flute lessons, a heated pool in the back garden, and so on and so on.  "Whoever would think," she mused, "that one solitary Hamish could end up with so much wonga just from printing and selling picture postcards."
    The Bentley was parked in front of the house. Hamish Lancaster had, she assumed, gone inside for the front door was closed. She was coming up the curving drive when her mother appeared from round the side of the house and pointed a set of keys at the car. The flashers and beeps and clicks announced the car had unlocked itself. This was odd. Her mother rarely drove.  She stepped out of sight behind a rhododendron.  Her mother opened not the driver's door but the rear door, driver's side. And now she saw that her mother was carrying a shrubbery fork - the shrubbery fork? - the tines gleaming. But she was gripping it half way along the shaft, her hand clenched in a fist round the wood, holding it like a spear, a four pronged trident.  Standing outside the open rear door, her mother took the shaft in both hands and drove the tines of the fork into the back of the leather seat, and wrenched it out and drove it in again, into the seat this time, not making a sound herself but the sound of puncturing leather was so rewarding that Imogen sat on the grass and began to laugh, while her mother methodically savaged the seats, and the arm-rest between the seats, and the head restraints behind the seats. Then she moved to the other side of the car so that now she could see her mother's face grimly smiling.  And Imogen, fourteen going on suddenly grown up, whispered "She using both hands! Like she'll  need for the kite! Give it some wellie, Mum," and watched in fascination as the desecration continued.
   Her mother came finally to the driver's door and wrenched it open. She changed her grip on the fork and with her hands higher than her head, drove the tines into the leather where Hamish Lancaster sat when driving, so that Imogen winced and said "Ouch! Right where is hurts most." Then, passion spent, her mother abandoned her assault with the fork sticking out of Hamish Lancaster's seat where it rocked to and fro for a moment before coming gently to rest, handle against the steering wheel, while Mrs. Hamish Lancaster walked round the car, not hurrying, peering in through the doors, one by one, surveying all that her Big Five Zero had achieved.