U is for Underwear

As a child, I wore too much of it. I was layered up in the Winter, cold (and the catching of one) being anathema to my mother. There was the vest, the liberty bodice – which had nothing to do with freedom – and the petticoat. As money was tight, clothing was not, all items being bought to last. So assorted tucks and hems added to the thickness of my undergarments. Never a slim child, they gave me a well-rounded appearance.

            Spring was the time to shed a layer or two. But not quickly. My mother, a believer in the truth of old sayings, would proclaim, ‘Ne’er cast a clout ’til May is out!’ so I struggled on whatever the weather until the beginning of June.

It wasn’t surprising I rebelled. As a teenager, when the liberty bodice gave way to a bra, a vest was still mandatory. It had more style (if a vest can) than the functional garments of infancy but I was embarrassed none of my friends wore one. I went to a school where communal showers after gym lessons meant we were all familiar with each other from the skin outwards. But my mother expected to find a vest in the washing each week. So she did. I never wore it but slept with it in my bed to give it the appropriate crumpled look.

The roll-on, an elastic type of corset, was introduced to hold my stomach in. We all wore one for a few years but the fashion waned as did my mother’s control of my clothing. Apart from a few sniffy remarks about the smallness of my knickers, she gave up on underwear-policing in my later teens.

I hope I was more liberal about my own daughter’s underwear. I really can’t remember.

Not in Heaven but in Hull

It was an odd match. I never thought I’d be best man to this pair. I stood beside Phil and fiddled with the gold ring in my pocket.

She was a live wire, Beth. She’d danced on the table at New Year’s Eve, her skirt swirling high and her hair and mood higher. Phil had watched and nodded his head in time to the music, refusing to join her. He didn’t say he’d rather be at home with the book I’d given him. He was kinder than that. Lily, now the bridesmaid, had danced with her instead.

Their parents had been neighbours for decades, happy in Hull. There they were, grinning in the front pew, best friends, soon to be related. Creating their dynasty. As the ceremony continued, my attention wandered. I looked at the vicar’s scuffed shoes; a wedding was too every-day to warrant shoe polish. The edge of his cassock was frayed and there was a dirty mark on his dog collar. A nudge brought me back to reality and I produced the ring, placing it on Phil’s large, shovel-like hand, brushing his fingers. He was a huge man, an imposing presence. I wondered, again, why he was marrying the butterfly that was Beth, his childhood sweetheart.

I glanced towards Lily. Wasn’t it usual for the best man to get off with the bridesmaid? The thought amused me. Not likely.

My attention must have wandered again. Before I realised it, Beth and Phil were walking down the aisle as man and wife. I caught Phil’s eye and the glance that passed between us spoke of times past. A similar look passed between Lily and Beth. No regrets – just sadness that it was over.

Although maybe not…

It wasn’t a match made in Heaven. It was a marriage manufactured in Hull.

Published in Wokingham Today, 25 February 2021, as Wokingham Writer’s Group selection for the month.

T is for …Tents

I’ve slept, usually badly, in various tents. Back in the seventies when we had little money, we would camp on the Isle of Wight. We cooked on a gas stove, considered Vesta packet curry the height of high living and bathed the baby in the washing-up bowl. If we were lucky, the sun shone and we drank cheap wine sitting on folding chairs outside. It was fun.

When we could afford something better – a B & B, occasionally a hotel – we moved out of the tent (which rotted in our loft) and up-market. Camping lost its appeal. I said never again.

Then we were invited (cajoled, leant-on) by friends to join them at a camp-site in St David’s in Wales. They went every year. This was glamping. Proper food, nice wine, spacious tents. All mod-cons. They even had a fridge! No slumming it here. We were re-converted and even bought equipment of our own. The new tent was easier to put up than the original one. The bed is still uncomfortable but I’m hopeful of finding a better one. Still the problem of the weather, of course. Wales isn’t tropical. But it was fun.

It has, however, been out-done. We recently went on our first safari – a treat for a special wedding anniversary. We stayed at a ‘tented’ safari lodge. Our room had three solid walls, an open canvas front which was fastened at night and (ta-dah!) a tent-style roof. It had indoor and outdoor showers, complete privacy. The bed was large and comfortable. We knew it was a tent when the wind roared at night and the roof flapped. I thought we had trapped a bird and panicked. But it was only canvas noise.

I like tents – however you define them – but the last experience takes some beating.

Limericks

Mslexia – the writing magazine for women – is publishing a Limerick Advent Calendar on Twitter in December 2020 and has chosen three of mine for inclusion. They were all submitted to Little Ms, the online arm of Mslexia, in various of their Limerick competitions. The first one won one of the competitions.

******************************************

The teenager stared at his phone

No response to my words, just a groan

How’s your day, having fun?

Taciturnity won

FOMO issues best suffered alone

**********************************************

Some say a diaphanous nightie

Implies that the wearer is flighty

And to sleep in the nude

Would appear rather rude

Don your wincyette jim-jams contritely

*********************************************

Her fiction was pithy and Flash

Tales crafted with grit and panache

Her stories exciting

Plots twisty, nail-biting

A pity they brought in no cash!

On the theme of ‘Stormy Weather’

The Wokingham Writers’ Group ran their first internal Flash Fiction competition, which Miranda K. Lloyd, a freelance writer, editor and proof reader, kindly agreed to judge. She gave us the theme of ‘Stormy Weather’ which we could interpret as we wished, with a limit of 300 words. The winning piece, called ‘Stormy Weather’ was by Tom Williams. My entry, ‘Oh, Barbara!’ was one of two Highly Commended pieces, the other being by Harry Dunn, also called ‘Stormy Weather’. They are all below.

Stormy Weather – Tom Williams (Winner)

I had been here before, a lifetime ago. The summer before I went up for my third year. Six idyllic weeks walking the Normandy countryside, drinking cider out of cups in tiny cafés, trying out my French. Mont Saint-Michel in the dawn or squinting in the moonlight at my battered copy of Proust until I fell asleep under the stars.

A lifetime and a war away.

In the darkness of the night sky, there was a liminal band of warm orange above the horizon: it would be dawn in an hour or so. The German groaned in his sleep. I had found him in the shell-hole and fired first.

 I didn’t want to know his name, I didn’t want to make it personal, but he told me anyway. He wanted to talk. His English was rather good. We talked about literature, art and jazz, mainly jazz. He had seen Cab Calloway play in Berlin and the Hot Club play in Paris. ‘They were wonderful.’

 I said I had seen Elisabeth Welch just before the invasion.

‘Elisabeth Welch, very good, Richard, but Ethel Waters’ version of Stormy Weather is so much better.’

 I begged to differ. I knew both versions well but he was stubborn. I noticed that he was blowing little bloody bubbles when he spoke. I had thought he would die in the night.

I was leaving him my water bottle and the last few cigarettes when he woke. His eyes were clear but his complexion was deadly pale. I said some guff about meeting in better times, maybe going to listen to some jazz. He laughed painfully, more bloody bubbles.

‘Isn’t life strange, Richard. You can kill me, ja, but you cannot make me change my mind about Stormy Weather.’

I couldn’t say anything. I left.

‘Oh, Barbara!’ – Linda Fawke Highly Commended

Someone to turn to. A shoulder to cry on. That’s me. A repository of worn-out clichés. My adhesive labels. They phone me with their troubles and I comfort them. Seems it’s my role.

            ‘Oh, Barbara! I can’t stand being alone. It’s grinding me down. I’m sleeping badly and I wake to find I’ve clawed my arms until they bleed. Red spots on the sheets. Then I can’t be bothered to change them. So I go to bed in bloody bedding and that upsets me.’

            I listen while my dinner burns then we go through changing the bed and she feels better. I hear the next day she slept well. I didn’t.

            ‘Oh, Barbara! You’re the only person I’ve spoken to this week. I have this heavy cloud around me. I miss my son. He could phone me but he doesn’t.’

So we talk about her making the call. No, she says. He should do it.

I persuade her while my washing gets soaked in a heavy shower.

‘Oh, Barbara! We had such a lovely chat!’

I try not to sigh.

And a couple more cries from a couple more friends. I should be glad – I was once – but it’s not enough. There’s a storm inside me. I stand in the shower to wash away the panic. In water and in tears. I can feel the thunder in my head and flashes like lightening make me screw up my eyes. Who helps the helper?

The phone rings. Yet another ‘Oh, Barbara!’ call?

I search for my compassionate voice.

‘Oh, Barbara! Just thought I’d give you a ring to see how you are. I love talking to you. It’s been too long. I’ve got some good news to share…’

She didn’t realise what she had just achieved.

Stormy Weather – Harry Dunn Highly Commended

‘Bob the Bass’ liked to fish off the rocks whenever he could. He might only catch the occasional sea bass but when he did, it was always a meal to remember.

    He shouted to his wife, ‘Just off fishing, love. I’ll be back before it’s dark.’

    ‘Which spot are you going to?’ Fiona called from the kitchen.

    ‘Usual place.’

    He made his way along the uneven path before reaching his favourite rock and began baiting up his hook. After an hour, he sensed the onshore wind was beginning to strengthen and as the sea began to roar in front of him, he noticed the fast moving and darkening clouds swirling above him. Checking his watch, he decided to give himself another half-hour and adjusted his stance to counteract the sudden buffeting. He was annoyed for not making his usual weather check but decided to have one last cast.

    When the bite came he knew he’d caught something big. In his excitement, he didn’t notice the gigantic wave forming to his left. The last thing he saw was his biggest ever bass leaping into the air, mouth twisted and hopelessly struggling to be free of his hook. As the wind howled, the massive breaker crashed onto the rock, sweeping him under the raging currents.

    The thought of cooking fresh sea bass for supper gave Fiona a warm feeling as the sound of the wind intensified and the windows began to rattle. She looked out her largest frying pan just in case he’d caught the big one.

S is for Sentence(s)

Lockdown was a type of gaol sentence. So, for three weeks in April/May, I decided to write one or two sentences a day which reflected my mood and what was happening within my family and circle of friends. Whatever came first into my head…

  • I painted my toenails orange today; no-one will see them.
  • A friend fell down the stairs in the night, desperate to book a Tesco delivery slot – two days in hospital with a bleed on the brain.
  • The family Zoom meeting was dismal. What’s wrong with us?
  • Worried about my husband’s weight loss, sore throat and tiredness.
  • None of the grandchildren wanted me to read a story on WhatsApp.
  • First online supermarket shop arrived. Totally hate online shopping.
  • Made gingerbread men to post to the grandchildren and felt better.
  • Gardening all day – therapeutic compulsion. Neat garden.
  • To raise my spirits, my husband took me out for a lovely dinner – in our dining room.
  • Drove a few miles for a new walk today. Different fresh air.
  • Heard on the news of a father and son in a fifteenth floor flat who haven’t been outside for seven weeks. Felt guilty about my bad days last week.
  • My cousin’s online funeral. A detached experience.
  • Did some dusting – something else I hate – as the house is so dirty.
  • Received a parcel – my favourite body lotion, a thoughtful gift from my husband.
  • VE Day. Took my flag out for a walk but no street party.
  • Delivered face masks I made to friends and had socially distanced chats on their doorsteps, a boost for us all.
  • Disappointed with my online purchase of ‘mega’ geraniums – scraggy, little plants, not a flower in sight.
  • Husband has now lost 3.5 kg since mid-March.
  • Why aren’t I getting any calls as a ‘Check-in and Chat’ NHS volunteer?
  • My daughter confirmed she isn’t visiting us this summer from Norway. I knew this would happen but wept anyway.
  • Need to repaint my toenails.

R is for The Resident

My cleaner moved into my house while I was away.

A lovely lady, cheerful and thorough, she’d worked for me for three years, held my key and cleaned while we were away, which was often. She said she loved our house and it sparkled when we arrived back. She’d had many problems and bad relationships. Life was harsh. When she was evicted from her home, I offered her a bed for a couple of nights but she said she could manage. She was a survivor.

A friend phoned me while we were on holiday in France.

‘I went to water your plants. Your cleaner is there with her kids.’

‘That’s okay. She has child-minding problems.’

‘I mean she’s moved in. And there’s a man there, too.’

I couldn’t believe it.

On our return, I questioned her. Pale and tearful, she said it had been just one night, just one, when she was desperate to go somewhere better than her horrible flat.

Something didn’t feel right. I started to think about our other absences. Once, she unexpectedly washed some cushion covers. Just being helpful, she said. Why did a friend find balloons tied to our gate?  She mentioned using my washing machine when hers broke. Was that the reason? And she’d said to tell our neighbours not to worry if the light was on late as she liked to clean in the evenings. How many lies were there? I’d been naïve.

My husband said she had to go. I felt sorry for her but had no choice.

‘I think we’ve come to the end of the road,’ I said.

She nodded, put my key on the table and left. I think she murmured, ‘It’s been good.’

Maybe I should never have offered her a bed.

The French Alps, Sunday, 15 March, 2020

Perfect corduroy stripes on the mountain. No ski tracks, either good or bad. A couple of teenagers walking up the slope carrying sledges, jumping on them and sliding down. A treat – sledges aren’t normally allowed on the pistes. Smaller kids with plastic skid-pans playing on the sledging slope. The sky is deep blue with the tiniest wisp of cloud near the horizon. No wind. Quiet without the hum of the lift machinery. It would be glorious to sit outside a mountain restaurant, drink in hand, jacket off, sun cream on.

It’s hard work plodding across the snow, soft, almost slushy, cut up by the passage of many boots. Here and there a piste machine has flattened it but the smooth surface doesn’t last long. We’re heading for the lake, Lac de Tueda, for a walk.  Going to follow the cross-country trail that rises above it, circles it and then drops back down. I’ve never seen so many people here. Every bench has its occupants. A finely made snow-hole, almost an igloo, attracts children on their hands and knees. Picnic time – cheese and salami spread out on a piece of paper, baguettes roughly torn into pieces. Beer bottles in hand. The supermarket must have done a good trade. A party atmosphere. Well … almost.

A couple of cross-country skiers go past. The perfect tracks cut daily by the resort have all but gone in spite of notices telling pedestrians not to walk on them. A couple of skiers appear on normal alpine skis. Where have they come from? No lifts are working so they must have plodded up. Not worth it, I thought, but it must have been for them.

Enterprising, closed restaurants are selling take-away food. This is allowed and such a good idea. A service and a way for them to make some money and not waste their stock. Some are even giving away food – just help yourself. I take a piece of salami and eat it. Then think how silly I am taking the risk. This isn’t a situation I’m used to.

Ski shops are open for the return of hire equipment but not for sales. Except for the odd cheat – a rail of discounted goods outside one shop. Who would find out? It was there just for a few hours. We look but there is nothing we want. I hope they sold something even though they broke the rules. There would be no end-of-season sales this year.

The car parks, full to capacity a day ago, are starting to empty. We overhear conversations about difficulties in getting transport out of the valley and the problems with airlines. We’d changed our ferry booking and were heading soon for Calais by car. What would greet us in England? We didn’t know but felt we should get back while we could. Goodbye, Méribel Mottaret. See you next in better times.

The chaos of the corona virus was about to begin

(The resort had closed the previous day, Saturday 14 March, at midnight)

Q is for Quiz

I don’t do pub quizzes. But there we were, a few friends on a walking holiday, visiting the local – and it was quiz night. We were already a team so they persuaded us to join in. They called us the ‘hot-tubbers’ because they knew we were renting a house with a tub in the garden. Seemed we already had some notoriety.

Our expectations were low.

‘All the questions will be about TV soaps or modern music. We don’t stand a chance!’

It was a surprise when we could answer many of the questions. It was even more surprising when we won. Not a major prize – free beer – but welcome. And the locals seemed pleased to have new faces in the pub. The landlord complained that many holidaymakers bought their booze with them and drank at home.

On our next walking holiday, the discovery of a pub quiz night caused great delight. Maybe another success? The early questions were dreadful – topics we knew nothing about – but they got better. We heard that the young team in the corner always won. They gave us suspicious looks. At the half-time break, a local said no-one liked this team because they cheated. Mobile phones under the table.

We drew with the usual winners. It was down to a tie-break.

‘What was the size of the wood Christopher Robin visited?’

We knew, of course, all having been brought up on A.A.Milne. The answer was out while our opponents were still frowning. We had won again.

This time it was £25. Embarrassed to be taking the money, we put it in the charity box on the bar. The landlord was thrilled.  But the runners-up weren’t. Would they be expected to do the same when they next gained the prize?

Sometimes there are no winners.

P is for…Pork Chops

I owe my education to a pig. That’s not my view of an objectionable headmaster or even a reflection on someone in my family. I mean a real porker.

Back in the fifties, money was tight. The Sunday roast was stretched out in assorted guises for Monday and Tuesday, then the meat content of the dinners for the rest of the week went down. So a raffle run by Jack, the local butcher, was an enticement for my mother. She bought two tickets.

She got on well with Jack. There was always some banter and he threw in the odd piece of black pudding or some suet now and then.

            ‘You couldn’t sell a few tickets for me, Mrs R, could you?’

            ‘Who’d I sell to?’

‘I dunno. Neighbours. People you chat to at the school gate. There are two prizes of pork chops. Good winnings, those.’

She didn’t sell many but she persuaded my teacher, Mr Williams, to buy one.

After the draw, Jack greeted my mother with a grin.

‘A win, Mrs R!’

Her look of delight faded when she realised she wasn’t the winner.

Mr Williams called round for his pork chops. Mum sighed as she handed them over. Then, to her surprise, he spent more time talking about my future than his good luck. Why wasn’t I taking the exam for the high school?

Blank looks from both my parents.

‘What school’s that?’

He explained I had a high chance of getting in, places were free and they should look further than the convenience of the local school. I had ability. Not to be wasted. This was a real chance for me.

I went to that school. It shaped my life. Don’t know if Mr Williams enjoyed the chops but many thanks to the pig.