Wednesday, 22 December 2010

WHEN THE GODS COME

Something woke me from my sleep.

In my dream I was lying on a tartan blanket, in a cornfield, in Somerset. My eyes were closed and hands interlaced behind my head. The sun’s rays warmed my clothing, creating a comforting solar hug. As I lay there, I listened to the distant road traffic peter out, giving way to the calming, gentle notes of nature.

The wind blew with the tenderness of breath against tissue paper, caressing the corn stalks and rattling their ears. The mellow yellow sea of corn bent slightly in unison, as if dancers caught in a moment. When the breeze dissipated, so did the corn appear motionless. Yet, its golden radiance caused it to shimmer.

In the amber sea, with the tartan as my raft, eyes closed and ears awake, I heard the whispering flutter of the leaves in the trees over by the copse. Stories developed over time about those ancient trees. There was death, birth, ghosts and ritual. It had been a custom in the area to avoid entering that place; Cutters Wood. Give it a wide berth and instil a sense of reverence, we were told. It was strange though, the allure that small wood had, as if an imprisoned soul were calling out for help. Still, I never set foot within its hold.
Squawking chatter distracted me. I shielded the sun from my eyes, propped myself on my elbow and spied a flock of seagulls low across the sky.

I returned to my raft and watched the clouds passing and became a washed with the feeling of moving, falling backward through the earth. I shut my eyes to blot out the vertigo.

The stillness of the place; the warmth and the dry, sweet smell of nature evoked memories of my childhood. Of running through the corn with Bill and Jake, picnics with the folks, and then there was Cutters Wood. Bill and Jake dared me to go in. My folks told us stories to warn us away. Don’t upset the gods. Don’t tempt them to return. They were so very superstitious, everyone was, but they never told us why. That was until we were 13. Be warned. They will come in time. Look for the omen. They always let you know when they’re coming. I remember that day so well. There was fear at first followed by scepticism as we got older. Bill and Jake moved away with time but we always said we’d keep our pact, to meet in the field every 13 years, to see if the gods were coming. We had, back then, expected them to come from the wood.

I honestly never believed they would come (the lads), but I came all the same; the first 13 years had passed.

From a long way off there was a sound. I strained my ears to make something of it but nothing was definite. Minute by minute I laid there, on the tartan, in the corn, eyes shut and ears awake, listening, defining the sound. There was a rhythm to it as it became clearer. The faint tapping became a loud beat; a drum beat, distorted as it travelled to be heard. As it neared, the beat sharpened and became deafening, like popping corn. I couldn’t look for fear the gods had come.

When I opened my eyes, I realised I’d been dreaming. What had woken me was the sound. The sound in my waking life had stopped. I was more afraid now than when it had started over a month ago. I sat up in bed and rubbed my face, trying to bring life back to my lethargic body, feeling the remnants of the dream fade away.

Watch for the omen, they had said. Oh, I watched, alright, every day for the past 13 years; I watched and recorded the odd, the obvious the signs they tried to hide. Others did too, but no one wanted to listen when we showed them the clues; the evidence. Even when it started raining we were ignored.

It started one morning at six-thirty; it could not have been predicted, though we tried. It never stopped. Day and night, the constant drone of the deluge. It was like a drum beat. A warning. After a few days it got so you didn’t hear the rain. It was soothing, hypnotic and sent me into the deepest of sleeps, every night. There were reports of the vulnerable, mainly the young and elderly and sick becoming hysterical in the confusion of the rain filled world, where day and night merged into one. We saw no sunlight or moonlight. Society became more depressed. Even I, the forever optimist had doubts about keeping my sanity. When would it stop?

The alarmed clock read six-thirty. I sighed and breathed in the cold, damp air; a mixture of mildew and sodden earth, and went to draw back the blackouts. The light was ultra-bright and shot an instant, sharp pain through my eyes and head, like a jagged bullet. My face ached as muscles fought to squint the sunlight out. Turning away, I steadied myself against the bed and rummaged in the bedside cabinet for my shades.

I noticed the calendar above with the marked off rainy days. Forty days and forty nights of rain and now it had stopped. On the floor were scattered newspaper and magazine cuttings filled with clues we’d collected. We were told through entertainment that they were on their way. It was hidden in plain sight. They sang about floods, rain, dancing and singing in the rain and yet more floods. My folks looked back at me from a silver photo frame, a memory locked in print. It was a picnic in the cornfield, with the copse in the background. They had warned us that the clouds and rain were a precursor to the gods return.

I drew back the curtain to reveal the waterway with canoes, rowing boats, dinghies, speed boats, all manner of sea craft, moored to lampposts. The waters rippled their inky darkness giving rise to buildings all sullen grey, in shadow. I followed the buildings skyward, seeing the hot white of the sunbeams striking the stone and brick. Further up, flat rooftops housed the mysterious skyline that in the sunlight were clearly tents and canopies, like beacons, all in their glorious Technicolor. I smiled for the first time since that first day. Further still, I looked and watched as the clouds parted and the blue sky was given up. A heavy feeling in my chest rose as my pent up feelings were ready to spill. Then it sank deep as a shadow passed the sun.

A huge, monstrous beast. A metallic mass of destruction crossed the blue. They had come in their ships bringing strange pulsing sounds.

Like the drummer boy in war, the rain herald that the time had come. Now the battle would begin.

Monday, 13 December 2010

KITCHEN SINK DRAMA


Maggie stood by the kitchen door looking out at the cloudless, ultramarine summer sky. The sun was warm with its rays focusing on the newly potted plants that were in need of nourishment. The hardy hydrangeas were fine but the petunias, in contrasting yellow and purple, appeared crispy and needed dead heading. Maggie allowed her pale face a few seconds to bask in the heat and then shuddered involuntarily, causing her joints to crack in unison. Despite the temperature, Maggie was frozen to her very being. 

She wore her comfortable brown tweed skirt for the fourth consecutive day, along with a white long sleeved shirt, crumpled and buttoned up wrong, under an extra-large man's grey sweater top. Thick, pink, woollen bed socks insulated her legs from toe to knee, and were stuffed into a pair of grubby backless slippers. They made her shuffle about as she fought to keep them in place, as there never seemed to be a unified moment when both feet fit in.
She felt pathetic and disgusted.


‘Why can’t I function as a complete human being? I hate myself. Oh God, help me.’


Maggie calmed a little with the distraction of Pixie, the neighbours Persian cat. She slinked her way between the pink woollen pillars and with bouncing steps, padded under the table, finding some stray object to toy with. Maggie liked the cat but didn’t want company today. She tapped on the table to get her attention but to no avail; Pixie had obviously found something of interest underneath. Maggie shooed and hissed loudly with the desired result, and guided the cat out the door, shutting it behind her.


Pixie jumped up onto her owners green bin to begin her ritual grooming as Maggie watched through the pane. A mental note surfaced from deep in her mind; something about a favour, to put out the bins on Thursday for her neighbours Ron and Andrea. They were visiting their son, eighteen year old Nigel, who was on a working holiday. They’d confided in Maggie over their concerns over his sudden rush to go to Spain and she’d told them not to worry, that a gap year would suit him well before he embarked in more studying.


She missed their chats over the back fence and later their Saturday morning coffee breaks in the kitchen, when John was at the gym, and Nigel volunteered to mow the lawn. He was very mature, she thought, planning his future with fine detail. Every minute was accounted for and every free moment occupied with opportunities to learn or share. How she wished he was here now to help her sort out the mess. Instead she had the postcard that arrived yesterday from the Costa del Somewhere; him serving drinks by night and soaking up the sun by day. Postscript: wish you were here.


Back inside, she looked at the phone as if she expected him to hear her cries and call her, but the phone lay dead, having lost its charge.


Maggie put the kettle on again to make another mug of coffee, knowing it would end up being drained in the sink. A solitary mug, part of a set of eight, remained in the cupboard above. She picked it up and added together three sugars and scattered coffee granules, mostly missing her aim, with her trembling hands.


Bent over, she looked like a frail old woman as she went to fetch the milk out of the fridge. The smell of fermenting salad in its compartment below made her wretch. She fell to her knees, still with the door open, breathing in the decaying aroma. Like a chorus of smells the cheese joined in, at the back, humming high pitch sweetness, and the milk that she tried to rescue, in between gasps, brought down the tone. It was off. Maggie crawled away allowing the door to shut automatically. 


Slowly, she clambered to her feet using the door handles as perches. Her nose stung and her ribs ached. She coughed, at the metallic, acidic mixture at the back of her throat. Dry bread would help but there was only the end piece of a mouldy, crusty loaf in the bread bin. Emptying the paper bag out on the stone lid, Maggie licked her middle finger and dabbed up some of the crumbs. Though stale, at least they got rid of the taste.


The kettle seemed to take its time to reach the boil. Maggie was now slumped over the worktop with her bottom bopping up and down as her knees buckled (Bambi-style), and her forehead resting on her hands, clenched in a knot of prayer. She shut the world out momentarily and felt the heaviness of her eyelids and the coarseness as her aching eyes as they rolled around in their sockets.

The loudness of the click, as the kettle switching off in the still quite room, shocked Maggie awake and seemed to reverberate in her mind. She caught a glimpse of herself in its shiny, indented surface. A haggard, grotesque version looked back which she thought mirrored her anguished state. A closer look revealed broken, bitten nails as she leaned in to preen her nest of hair. What a mess. Even a passing fly refused to be interested in her.


A cold, dry hand reached for the Fairy liquid to wash up the multiplying mugs, knocked over a photo of herself and John dancing on their wedding day three years ago. She remembered a happy, tall but elegant figure in contrast to her drastic bony, Gollum-like body, with distorted back and shoulders from the overbearing weight of emotional baggage. John held her scooped in his arms as she looked up into his laughing face and he looked straight into the lens. A four day old newspaper laid folded and unread on the worktop became saturated from the sudden surge of water from the tap.


‘Oh, no. Don’t get wet. You mustn’t be ruined,’ she cried hysterically, as she followed the trail of muddy prints, which emanated from the dissolving coffee granules, formed by her frantic touch as she attempted to rescue it. The paint-like mess left images on the worktop that resembled Rorschach inkblots. Maggie stared down trying to analyse them as they moved in and out of focus and then she slapped both palms down, dispersing the liquid a further distance. A Jackson Pollock masterpiece embossed the plain white tiles. She grabbed herself, squeezing hard, as if to confirm in her mind that she was real; not senseless, not lifeless.


Her face was streaked in brown marks. Some were faint whist others dark where her fingers had pressed in deep. A few granules stuck fast like barnacles on a ship wreck.  Her shirt collar now acquired a tie-dye print effect adding to the dishevelled caveman look. In response, trestles of her dull, black hair fell over her face.


Forgotten only for a moment, Maggie picked up the paper and shook it vigorously. It came loose from her anxious hand and fell under the pine table. She bent down to retrieve it, swaying and faint from the lack of food. Her searching hand landed on a shoe; a well-kept, brown leather lace-up. Not hers, but one belonging to John. The sorrow welled up, gnawing inside her chest. She felt she would die right at that moment. The newspaper came to rest open by the shoe at the headline page.

Local man, thirty-five, died from a fatal injury on Wednesday after visiting B&Q. Mrs Broadbent, store manager, discovered Mr. Stables decapitated following a freak accident.


Maggie wept.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

TIME MANAGEMENT

Time. Where does it come from and where does it go? This thing that doesn’t occupy space, but flows in a loop of succession from past, present and future. All I know is that I never have enough of it. I could list all the clich├ęs but wouldn’t that be a waste of time?

The older I get the more I notice that one month rolls into the next, and Christmas comes round quicker each year. I’m not the only one who thinks this. It’s an adult concept; remembering our childhood everlasting summer holidays; and they were long hot summers, too. Now I’m thirty-five, the seasons are plucked randomly by the weather gods like a sweet from the pick-and-mix. Before you know it, it’s July and everyone’s counting down to Christmas.

What if time is speeding up and there aren’t enough hours in the day? Someone’s sneaking a few seconds here and there and when we say, where’s the time gone? It’s actually been stolen. Where is it then?

I became preoccupied with time one Friday when I’d popped out of the office for a cigarette break. The smoking ban was in place, so I had to join the sinful hordes, descending the stairs, gathering like lemmings. It was a silent agreement that we took the stairs and left the lift for the rest of the building population to use. It was also a protest against those who shunned our unhealthy addiction, but also they could recognise our fitness drive in our aerobic stair activity.

I was only delayed a few minutes, but that was enough time for me to miss the descent. So, I broke the rule and as is always the way, a consequence of my actions occurred. I took the unoccupied lift to the ground floor; except it never got there. The doors shut on the twelfth floor and passed through to the eighth with no interruptions, and then it stopped. I looked in the mirror and adjusted my blouse and waited for the doors to open. They didn’t open, and the floor indicator light wasn’t lit up so I didn’t know if I was on floor seven or eight. I pressed both but nothing happened. There was no movement or sound. After five minutes I realised I was probably stuck. I was desperate for a fag too.

This was my stuck-in-a-lift experience. Had I not been a smoker, I’d have left my handbag locked in my desk and would never have survived as well as I did, from three in the afternoon on a Friday for a full twenty-four hours.

I have lots of just-in-case items in my bag to my credit, and despite what those young clutch bag girls say, you need a good, reliable bag to hold ‘things’ for all eventualities. I passed time by completing the pocket Sudoku and playing Tetris on the mobile; which before you ask, had no signal from the lift. I had to ration the time spent on it due to the two bar indicator. I obviously looked for the emergency phone but there didn’t seem to be one. I pressed at the reflective stainless steel panels thinking it was housed behind one, but none gave way. The security camera remained static, a Cyclops with a blacked out telescope, or it was monitored by an inept person.

Everyone leaves the building early on Fridays and I wasn’t discovered till the next day when the maintenance arrived. Thank goodness it wasn’t a bank holiday weekend. Obviously, I’m a very significant cog in this business wheel.

Management, due to their embarrassment, gave me a week off work, Marks and Spencer vouchers and a luxury hamper. I asked them where the cuddly toy was but it didn’t go down well. Sod them. I was being okay about their mistake and they just refused to laugh along with me.

A whole week off and I’d rather be at work. It’s funny how we moan about work, but when we have time off, we long for the reliable routine; our security blanket. I actually had lots of jobs I could be getting on with but my motivation had gone. I’d even made a list to get things going but to no avail. I was probably more shook up than I realised.

I put the DAB radio on and listened to Terry Wogan nearly chocking with laughter, trying to narrate a Janet and John story. I was a bit disappointed that I’d missed it, and then I remembered that I could actually rewind radio programmes, and play shows back. I grabbed the remote and pressed the rewind button; it only went back as far as seven minutes. When I pressed play, the last few bars of American Pie was playing followed by a travel update, and then the shows highlight. I listened while I folded towels and married up socks to be put away upstairs. The story was hilarious as they always are, and I’m sure that if I’d been listening to it in the car to work, like I usually am, I’d be on the look out for other motorists laughing with me.

It only happened once at the red lights and I turned to my right as a fellow suited girl turned to her left, both of us wiping tears and checking our faces in the rear view mirror. I smiled and mouthed ‘Janet and John?’ and she mouthed, nodding like a bobble head. ‘Yeah’. We both did thumbs up and then the lights changed; I went straight along and she turned right. I thought I might bump into her again, metaphorically speaking of course, but I haven’t so far.

I reset the radio to play the present show thinking I’d catch the eight-thirty news but Terry announced the time was coming up to eight-fifteen. How can that be if I’d only played back about seven minutes? The microwave clock and my watch read the same time; eight-forty-five. It must be wrong. I rewound the radio again and it gave me an idea.

When I went back to work the following Monday, things started to change. Everyone, as I expected, was extra kind and sympathetic towards my unfortunate incident. Joan the office clown (there’s always one, isn’t there), kept offering to make the drinks, adding every time, that I looked like I needed a lift. The first time I actually laughed, and then the following times it became a pain to hear. Years later when I’d became a legend; ‘want a brew?’ was renamed, in my honour, to ‘need a lift?’  Looking back now I would never have envisioned myself, then, in the position that I now hold, CEO of Acorn Marketing. The radio was the pivot.

After all the fakery of the in-house sympathy, that only lasted till Tuesday, at around four o’clock, normality resumed, as did the never ending pit that was my work load. I  likened myself to Alice-in-Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole but never landing, only falling and feeling the ever ready supply of rabbits, jumping in pursuit, with files in hand shouting, ‘you’re late; you’re late again’.

No one could fault my work; it was of a high standard, and thus my promotion, eventually, to Team Leader (of one of the minor departments). However, every Monday, Larry the manager would email me about the missing data for the Bridgewater file or the updated spreadsheets for last months targets. There was no anxiety involved in my morning ritual of chastisement. I accept my tardiness sets me back some, but Larry now wanted to eradicate that and sent me on a ‘time management’ study day. Joan took my place for the day, much to everyone’s delight at the thought of spending Friday goofing around.

Despite the boredom of being lectured by the stuck up Dorothy Merchant, the study day was rather enjoyable. I bumped into an old friend from college, Jonathan Brewer, and we met up at lunchtime to catch up on the good old days. He’d put on a little weight since our last meeting sixteen years ago when we all made half promises to stay in touch.

‘See much of anyone, Tina? As soon as we left that day I was off on my travels and didn’t come back home for over a year. Married and divorced within seven years and no kids luckily, not that I don’t want any, and that’s not an offer by the way. So what have you been up to then?’

He prattled on a bit longer about himself and by the time I got to answer his ream of questions, it was time for the second part of the lecture, with the lovely old Dot. He had to rush off for some important meeting or dinner, he was being very vague but Jonny did give me his details on a business card that he slipped in my handbag as I was rummaging to turn on my phone for messages.

Monday morning, in the office, I looked through an email from Larry concerning an enquiry into my enjoyment of the study day; I left it to reply to later. Another email, which I forgot to open last Friday, now informed me that an IT technician was coming at ten to run some diagnostics on my computer.

‘Hi, Kevin Bacon, IT,’ he announced.

I looked up to see an older man than I expected,  with short, dark, curly hair that was starting to grey round the temple, or he’d forgone the reapplication of Grecian 2000 for a few months. He wore a crisply ironed shirt with dark grey trousers, and a sky blue sleeveless jumper, and a turquoise tie.  

‘Not what you imaged, eh? It’s the same every time,’ he laughed. As you can see, I’m not ‘footloose,’ but I am fancy free.’ He gave another titter.

I laughed with him to save any embarrassing pauses and enquired about the duration of his task.

‘I’m pretty nifty with these hands, you know. Before you know it I’ll be out of you hair and you can get straight back to your work.’

‘Do you want a lif…t, …a cuppa? I’m off to get a snack. I can bring you one back if you like?’ He nodded, already getting stuck into his work.

‘You don’t mind the music on,’ he said, nodding towards the radio he’d brought in.

I shrugged and added, ‘go ahead,’ and left for the drinks.

Twenty minutes later when I managed to drag myself away from Joan, I arrived back to my office with one surplus drink and an empty room. I looked under the desk even though I knew he wasn’t there. He was definitely gone except he’d left behind a business card and his radio, which was still on.

Oh well, I thought and click on the keyboards. Back to work it is then. Double click. The Bridgewater file. Click, click, click.  I pressed in time to the Neil Diamond classic he was belting out; Sweet Caroline. I looked at the radio to my right, tracing the letters D.A.B and pressed rewind. It won’t work, will it?