"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.

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 rouĂ© 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.