A SALAD OF WORDS
A Collection of Poetry and Short Stories
by Keith Salad and Val J Chapman
An’ All That Jazz
She sat on her bar stool,
It was late in the night,
And the glow from the lamps hit her red hair just right
As it fell and it tumbled
Right down to her waist,
But the red dress she wore barely covered the whore she’d once been.
At the click of her fingers
The barman appeared.
He’d been doing that for too many years;
Shaking her cocktails,
Shining her glass;
Hovering, waiting, ‘til she made a pass at him.
With her long legs crossed
On the tall bar stool
He watched, as she sat,
And one strappy shoe would
Nonchalantly tap to the rhythm of the blues,
But when she looked his way he could see the melancholy hue in her eyes.
And the piano pieces tinkled
In the corner of the room,
As the piano player’s fingers tickled ebony sounds that matched her mood.
And with the light in her eyes now dimmed
By the gin and her loveless life,
She’d have one more Manhattan for what did it matter now?
Then the clock on the bar
Read a quarter to three,
And he knew very soon she’d be leaving him be,
At the Two J’s Jazz Club
Where pianos played,
And lonely whores often got laid to rest.
Val J Chapman
In the Absence of Words
In the absence of words
There is a void which nothing else can fill.
You will have nothing to say,
And I will have nothing to tell.
In the absence of words, how can we express
All the hope, regret, love that we feel?
And how then can we know who we are
And which or what is real?
A sentence can be a string of pearls,
But in the absence of words, just a string.
And your voice would tell me nothing
Without the song to sing.
A word can make a world of difference
If written when the time is right,
So speak out your pearls of wisdom
Or, in other words, just write,
Val J Chapman
The Art Class
Fifty-Something ladies draw a circle round the table,
Brushes, pens and pencils poised with hope,
While sixty-something men, always the minority,
Make background noises to their feminine music;
Artistic license in harmony.
Relating to each other with laughter and amusing quips,
Their brushes dip and flow on silent paper,
Creating images of the future, reflections of the past.
Experience makes its mark to last
Forever on life’s sheet.
With hazy hues of softest sunset
Or laughter lines in model’s face,
They trace a picture of collective calm
Which no alarm can shatter,
And no brush marks can erase.
Good teaching draws out latent talent,
Astounds unsuspecting pupils alike,
As with brittle acrylics and pastel palettes,
They amaze each other with their prowess;
An unknown quantity of the past.
The colours of women, the ambience of focus;
Total, engrossing, empowering.
Yet with all-knowing self-awareness.
Traumas, troubles for the moment swept aside,
On hold until tomorrow.
Pen and ink has linked their timeless journey,
Their many days of sacrifice and tears,
Leaving white space now for relaxing times,
And room to grow in autumn years.
Val J Chapman
I catch him, out of the corner of my eye,
Glancing across the table between courses.
And there’s the inkling of a smile, endearing.
And I feel the love between his sighs.
I catch his hand, out of the love I feel
Coursing through the veins.
And there’s the tingling of the lightest touch,
And I feel him holding my breath.
I catch his warmth as I reach out
To feel the heat of his heartbeat.
And his energy trembles through
The flickering candlelight.
I catch his thoughts
Floating through the ether, thinking alike,
And know he can already taste
The sweet longing of dessert.
Val J Chapman
Flavours of Childhood
Warm baked muffins from the baker’s
A hot sixpence in my hand
Doing errands for my Mum
Making castles in the sand
Splashing through muddy puddles
With tramping Wellington boots
Snow and whispering snowflakes
Hearing the owls hoot
Sounds of the sea, collecting shells
Feel of summer’s cotton socks
Sound of the shrill school bell
Fresh-smelling summer frocks
Trembling tummies on school days
Shyness, hiding from the boys
Who shouted on the red school bus
And made a lot of noise
The toffee factory down the road
And the smell of new boiled sweets
Shouts of noisy children
Playing in the street
Catching tadpoles in the stream
Paddling pools and sailing boats
Then winter’s frost, smoky coal fires
And putting on our winter coats
Motorbikes and sidecar rides
And bicycle pedals with blocks
Picnics on the tartan rug
Sitting on the rocks
Rolling down the hillside
Amongst the wild summer flowers
Always playing in the sun
And leisurely carefree hours
Val J Chapman
Footprints in the Snow
Footprints in the snow,
Here they come, there they go,
Leaving their mark
In white snow, stark.
In bright sunlight.
As people go
There’s a memory in the snow,
Leaving a trail.
Postman with the mail;
Cyclist on a bike,
Make their mark, like
Dogs’ pads, cats’ paws,
Horses’ hooves, birds’ claws.
Boots and shoes all fuse
With tyres and wheels,
Toes and heels.
Snow clouds over
And snowflakes cover,
Filling each print,
Leaving not a hint
Of where they go.
Lost footprints in the snow.
Val J Chapman
I have been truly blessed indeed
To see you grow from that once elusive seed,
To complete the family that means so much.
For me, the ultimate finishing touch.
For you have come to mean so much,
The true extent you may never know,
Until that day comes along
When you have a child of your own.
Your gift to me, of unbelievable worth,
And still so shiny and new,
Demands my unconditional love,
And this is my promise to you.
For each beautiful smile puts a glow in my heart,
And its brightness lights up my life.
And I shall cherish you throughout this time,
And love you dearly for as long as I might.
I will wrap around you my cloak of love,
To protect you and keep you from harm,
And have you know I will always love you,
No matter what you may do.
My home will always welcome you,
As an oasis of peace and calm.
And I want you to know you can come to me
And be cradled in loving arms.
My life has new meaning because of you;
I could not have asked for more,
And I will give you all I can give,
Until Old Father Time knocks on my door.
And when I hear that fateful knock
And can no longer be by your side,
I will watch over you from the shadows,
And lead you into a life of promise,
To be confidently carried with happiness
And all your dreams fulfilled;
Sending you joy and peace forever,
And beyond, until the end of never.
Val J Chapman
We had a little spark
Which might have been a flame
Her glow lit up the dark
She didn’t have a name, except Child
We had a little spark
A rosy candle glow
She didn’t have a name
And now we’ll never know
The place where unborn babies go
Is called the Never Never Land
She never had the chance to grow
So she went to play with Peter Pan
Nobody grows old in Never Never Land
Footsteps of Time
Footsteps rain across my brain
And count the hours each day
Stilettoes, flip flops, sandals, brogues
Accompany early morning rain
No electronic buzz or radio
Awakens the likes of me today
No cup of tea, no friendly voice
Barely a glance from passers-by
But maybe there’s the smallest chance
I’ll hear the ring of coins ker-ching
And cast a grateful glance their way
I count the coins in father’s cap
The one I took from home
But now only my alms reach out
So mine now, all I own
Dog still asleep with chin outstretched
Upon the bare cold stone
I stroke his head as soulful eyes
Say “when can we go home?”
There’s not enough for food today
We’ll hang around though, eh boy?
There has to be another way
There has to be
Val J Chapman
A Forgotten Tragedy
As well as all the men who fought, animals also played their part.
Eight million horses, mules and donkeys died
And only 62,000 thousand returned;
One animal for every four men.
So let the four–legged warrior’s sacrifice be known;
The significance of horses in the bloodiest warfare in history.
It’s the forgotten tragedy of the Great War.
No horse of less than fifteen hands
Would carry crucial supplies and ration carts,
Ambulances and ammunitions.
The wounded on stretchers placed on carriages,
Through constantly shelled and muddy conditions
Where four wheeled vehicles failed.
A soldier holds the reins of his trusted steed,
They share a bond like no other.
Pitched into the line of fire, conditions dire.
They were caught up in mustard gas attacks,
Though often fitted with equine gas masks.
But soldiers left their horses unchecked
And the worst was not artillery or gunfire threat
But infection, disease and malnutrition;
Colic from misfeeding, saddle sores,
Thrush, rain scald, laminitis;
The list is endless.
And soldiers would charge their horses into battle,
Often resulting in both their deaths.
They endured unimaginable suffering
Of things most hateful to them:
And the bright lights of bursting shells
On those most sensitive eyes.
And the terrifying smell of blood.
Despite their undeniable strength,
The horses were no less vulnerable
To the dangers of the battlefield.
And in those battlefields, the Somme being only one,
They were sometimes left tangled in barbed wire
In front of the trenches, to die alone in no-man’s land,
Or wandering aimlessly through the sodden landscape.
Such a senseless loss of life.
And for the few thousand who didn’t lose their lives,
Most were slaughtered, fed to soldiers,
And the luckiest resumed their former lives, traumatized.
Around 8 million horses, mules and donkeys died.
They didn’t take sides.
Val J Chapman
Can you hear the shells incoming?
Is your name on one this time?
Can you feel the fear/ It’s numbing!
Is your skin burning like lime?
Bullets screaming past your ear
Will the next one be for you?
Can you exorcise the fear?
Oh God! Help me. Oh, Jesu!
This is more than man can bear
This is hell upon this earth
And for those for whom I care
I must prove what I am worth
Me and farm boys from the Shires
Heaped upon war’s funeral pyres
Names like Harry, Dick and Tom
We’ll have no cowards on the Somme
He Always Brought Flowers
He always brought flowers, even the first time we met
On a date we’d arranged on the Internet,
Along with tales of his wife who’d died, he said.
I was sorry, I said, for the life he’d led.
A large tip for the waitress then; generous too.
I’d like us to meet again, he said; how about you?
We started to meet on a weekly basis
While he spoke of himself and his Cheshire oasis.
A five-bedroomed house, rolling lawns,
Housekeeper, gardener, places abroad.
Two kids still at home but doing well.
One son at Sandhurst, I thought “bloody hell!”
Seats at the opera then, suit and tie.
Holding hands, feelings running high.
Hobbies of cycling too, he told.
The Tour de France, maybe we could go.
There was a chance he could get away in July,
Catch the last leg. I was happy and didn’t ask why.
We climbed the Eiffel Tower, we sailed along the Seine
We strolled along the Champs Elysées in the pouring rain.
He met all my family; I never met his
Though he’d said that I could, but the difficulty is
His son who had been very close to his mother
And it could cause problems, you understand, meeting another.
He was often away, abroad or on the road,
Though he always brought flowers when he came back home.
He didn’t have a landline which I thought was very strange;
Only a mobile with a long list of names.
Who were all these people? I felt I had to ask.
He said ‘Not to worry’, just his business contacts.
But why didn’t he answer my calls when I phoned?
And why did I always go home alone?
My many questions were always batted away
With a promise of forever together someday.
But my voice was just a whisper which he hardly ever heard,
Even though my emotions were soaring like a bird.
Alarms were ringing somewhere but I didn’t want to hear
And so I hadn’t listened when friends had said “stay clear”.
But I couldn’t do it now, I knew something was wrong
And he may never hear my unsung song.
The fingers of time were drumming loud.
Happiness hovered but it was an elusive sound.
Then someone found me his address, they found a landline too
And I needed to ring it and find out what was true.
It was very strange but reality beckoned me
Although being strong it was very hard to be.
My heart began to pound and I started to fear
Exactly what he might say, but I just had to hear.
And so, brave but trembling, I picked up the ‘phone,
Hoping we could talk and that he’d be alone.
But now all the flowers he gave me are dead
And there was just his recorded voice which said
“Sorry, my wife and I are not at home.
Please leave a message after the tone”
Val J Chapman
The streets of home are paved with comfort,
Where familiarity falls like rain all around,
And printed memories in black and white
Recall me to its rightness.
I trawl the shoreline of my memories,
Collecting the shells of time gone by,
And the voices whisper like waves
Lapping soft and quiet in reminiscence.
Home is where these memories were made
To form and shape my life.
From here the net was cast across the miles,
With the knot at its centre holding fast.
And when the final thread is broken,
It will still tug me to its source;
Back to the place where I was born,
And to where I shall return when life has left;
To that safety net of home.
Val J Chapman
I am strong, but I am also weak
I shout, even though I whisper
I am silent, even though I rage inside
I am tearful, even when I am joyful
I cry, even though I am happy
I am happy, yet I am also sad
I am confused, even when I understand
I am confident, although I am trembling
I shiver, even though I am warm
I am scared, though I know I have nothing to fear
I am grieving, even though you are living
I am living, but I am dead inside
I look, even though my eyes are closed
I see, even though I am blinded
I am loving you, even while I hate you
I am sorry, though I have no regrets
I miss, you even though you’re here in my head
I am winning, even though I have lost
I am me,
Val J Chapman
I Wish I’d Said
I wish I’d said it at the time
The time when your life was leaving
Leaving me, our family.
I wish I’d said it at the time.
Our life together flashed before me
Images of you, of me
Scattered, as if thrown from a tree
Leaves everywhere, in disarray.
Or a jigsaw, the box of life thrown into the air
Its thousand pieces landing everywhere.
What do I do, what do I say?
How do I continue without you here with me
Our life is scattered, shattered now.
I wish I’d said it at the time
When you were with me still.
Though so ill, you couldn’t see me cry,
And why you’ll never know,
I wish I’d said it at the time,
I love you so.
Val J Chapman
The Landscape of Life
In an old writer’s cottage I sit and I think,
And consider my life which went by in the blink
Of an eye, and a wink
Takes me back into life’s deep, dark kitchen sink.
If I could only paint the landscape of my life;
Its earthiness, worthiness, its growth.
And the grass which constantly grew under my feet,
And each kissed and missed opportunity sweet.
I can drift away in the mists of my time,
As I dream from my old stable door,
Away from the landscape I encounter each day,
To see Ashworth Valley just rolling away.
I would paint all the flowers which petalled my life,
With their pearls of wisdom all told,
And the trees which branched out to reach me
As I struggled to trudge through the weeds.
Now horizons have widened, my vision is clear;
I can see all the woods through the trees.
And new blossoms unfold into perfect profusion,
As I walk my landscape with no disillusion.
Val J Chapman
Me and the Moon
By your white light I am brushed and
Freeze-dried by your aura, I lie,
As a life drawing or a china corpse.
With the goodnight kiss of the constellations
And the hug of the Great Bear,
I am eclipsed by your vivid crescent
To sing a stark duet in the darkness.
You hover far above that virtuoso dog at midnight;
Deliver the postman in your misty morning face;
Slay dark clouds to cotton threads.
You oversee the world, sustain the stars; rule the tides.
You are my method to avoiding madness.
I am anchored by your gravity.
I touch your ageless texture, absorb your eternal light
And, suffused by your boundless energy,
So my bright day begins.
Soar the galaxies, climb the clouds;
Collect the stars around you.
While, moonstruck, I climb from my weightless coma
With the belief that, like you, I can ride the skies.
I am your fallen star.
Val J Chapman
When the Sky Hits the Ground
Somewhere between life and death
Is a place where complete forgetfulness
Lies waiting for the darkness to drop.
Frail and ever failing, falling
Over invisible threads of time,
This cruel journey begins.
Gnarled fingers play their silent music,
Worn out feet tap their unheard rhythm,
While the future makes its final decision.
Life’s quality now in question,
It’s a place where every suggestion
Is met with a frightened frown.
And this is where I found the signpost,
Turning left at reason
And right at common sense.
Everything is now a mystery.
I can’t recall my family history;
Its face is unfamiliar now.
And while I wait for the sky to fall,
Through conscious confusion to unconscious delusion,
Today, at least, I’ve remembered to forget.
Val J Chapman
The First Frost of Age
Touched by the first frost of age
Winter’s tears dampen the diary page
Affairs once fateful
Now matter not
Showers of rain
The ache of nostalgie
No longer pain
Look back, rue the past
Forgive yourself, nothing lasts
Come so far, so far
How far to go?
‘Til age with winter’s drifting snow
Covers my footprints.
In a tightening girdle of memory
My world’s contracting fast
I hold the pictures close to me
And deny the facts
I forget, I forgot, I forego
The luxury of regret
Nostalgia not for me
I waltz to the faint echo
Of someone else’s music
In a fog of reverie
The wind, winter sharp, blows through leafless trees
Its bitter bite threatening bronze autumn days
Soon frosty fresh breath will be clouding the air
And curtains shut out the dark of the night
The rain showers down on grey school days
Pelting umbrellas of red green and blue
Their hue a stark contrast against leaden skies
Making day almost night before it is due
Drenching the gardens where summer has left
Fading colour and bare bark of trees
The leaves all have fallen, become crisp and dry
In crackling carpets of gold and green
The shivering cold of early morning
Feathering frost on window pane
Lakes and ponds become shiny glass
Where children skate in boots and scarves
The skies cry in frozen flakes
Drifting down on farms, fields and lanes
To cover the country and stifle the sound
And beckon you home at the end of the day
To flickering firelight, warm gold liqueurs
Glowing embers to warm frozen fingers and toes
Forget dawn’s icy light and watery moon
In the welcoming warmth of your haven home
Val J Chapman
In this place called Mangitanio, where the sun always shines, it shone down today on the two most important people in my life; Gerry and Sam, my beautiful daughters. Geraldine, the younger sister, just recently made up 23; and Samantha, almost 27.
Gerry, who had come back to live nearby 2 years ago after graduating from Staffordshire University, if I’m honest, was my favourite. I know a mother shouldn’t have favourites but I couldn’t help it; she was gorgeous; everyone said so, and she was a lovely person too, and an extremely popular girl with many faithful friends.
On that fateful morning, Gerry had walked in the door calling “Mom, Mom; you in?” She had started calling me Mom ever since leaving Uni; I guess she thought it was more grown up than saying Mum, or maybe she thought that sounding American rather than English made her more interesting. The door opened and the sunshine came in with her. Gerry brought brightness wherever she went, and her bubbly personality always uplifted me. But this particularly morning her voice was flatter somehow; it didn’t exude that tinkling sound it always had, when she seemed to almost sing the words. She asked if I was in as if she was afraid I might be, though she could be almost sure that I was, having recently started up my own small business in event organising and was, for now, working from home.
“I’m in the study, sweetie.” I shouted towards the door. “Got some ‘phone calls to make before I go out to see a client later.”
As soon as I saw her it confirmed my suspicion; something was definitely wrong. I went over to her, reaching out, touching her arm.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart; what’s happened?” I knew I was frowning as I said it, my eyes portraying the worry in my heart.
“Mom, come and sit down” she said, patting the seat beside her, “I’ve got something to tell you“, but, just as Gerry spoke the words, my mobile ‘phone starting buzzing on the desk beside me, then loudly rang out its urgent jingle. Mobile ‘phones seemed to be like that, I thought. I always seemed to be able to leave a landline ‘phone to ring out if I didn’t want to be disturbed, but mobiles were different. Mobiles always seemed to cry out to be answered and I couldn’t decide whether it was the ringtone I had chosen or simply the very nature of the beast in that, being a mobile ‘phone, it was meant to be answered wherever you happened to be.
“Just a second, darling,” I said, “I need to take this; won’t be a minute.”
I saw her face fall and I saw the look in her eyes as she watched me when I stood to take the call. I turned and walked away.
“Hi Bernie” I said, “Do we have an answer from Soprano’s on the venue size yet?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Gerry get up and quietly slope off into the kitchen next door, then I heard her put the kettle on.
“Sorry about that, Gerry; I really had to have that information this morning; we have a deadline to make. What do you think about Market Vale as a venue?” I said.
She looked at me, astonished. “How would I know, Mom?” she said, rather brusquely. “And you know what?” she snapped. “Forget the coffee!” and flounced out of the back door. Well, maybe flounced was the wrong word, but I know she took the sunshine with her.
I never forgot that morning, those words, that time; I couldn’t. It haunted me for the rest of my life. Why had my work taken over, pushed itself in front of my daughter and her problem? It had no right, and I had no right to have let it. I should have switched my ‘phone off or ignored it; it would have told me who had rung and I could have returned the call later. But I didn’t, and I hadn’t listened, not until much later in the day when I discovered from Sam that Gerry had been to the doctor’s that morning, apparently worried sick about the headaches, the stumbling, the blurred vision.
The months that followed were a nightmare; seeing my daughter in the hospital undergoing test after test, scan after scan. And I was just as scared of the consequences as she was, probably more so, if it meant that I might lose her, my favourite daughter. Gerry told me not to worry, that she wasn’t frightened. She said she knew she might die because the brain tumour they had found was inoperable; the size of a tangerine, they’d said. She was so brave.
“Honestly, I’m okay, Mom; really” she kept saying. “I just don’t want to go and leave you and Sam behind, and I don’t want you to be sad.” I know what she was trying to say, bless her, but it was far easier said than done. That was when I lost it; I hadn’t meant to but I just couldn’t help myself; the tears just flowed. I’d tried to hold my emotions in check right from the start, from when I’d first heard the diagnosis from the consultant, knowing I had to be strong for my daughter’s sake, but suddenly I started sobbing, and once I’d started, couldn’t stop. I knew I had really needed to do that for a long time, and it wasn’t just a few tears but rivers of them, flowing like a torrent. We all cried then; Gerry, Sam and me, but afterwards, I had to admit, I felt cleansed in a way; I had had to let my emotions out; we all did.
And afterwards, we looked at each other and laughed, which was a ridiculous and amazing thing to do in those circumstances, but we each saw the funny side of what had happened to us all, and how we must have looked. That was the last time we laughed, for a long time.
Geraldine’s funeral was the most painful day of my whole life, finally having to say goodbye to her; to actually see her body lowered into the ground forever. It felt like the end of my life too.
And I never forgave myself for not listening when she’d tried to talk to me that day. I still wanted to tell her that parents make mistakes too. And now, nearly every day I just sit in her bedroom and listen. Nothing has changed in there, even after all this time, and at times I can almost feel that she is still there in the room with me; almost.
And I’m listening now, but there is only silence.
Val J Chapman
(These were my Doris Days)
Her profile, when she looked away from me, and she often looked away from me, was really quite angular. The set of that jawline which had a sharp corner right below the lobe of her ear, and the aquiline nose with a bump on it near to her small, close-set eyes which always seemed to dart about, bird-like almost. I would often watch her from across the street, coming out of her house when she always looked furtively up and down, her little head whipping from side to side, as if thinking she might be being watched. Well, I suppose she was really, by me. But I couldn’t help it, she fascinated me. She was just the typical, little old lady to others, but I always felt that there was something more to her; she just had a look that told me that she might have a secret, and I wanted to know what it was. My mates at school had all told me she was a bit loopy now, but that she had been a singer once, in the old days; in the Doris Days, as my Mum put it. And yet I could never have imagined her, Mary, with a microphone in her hand belting out some blues number; it just didn’t fit the image. She was a spinster, Mum had said; a new word to me; a cool word which I thought could have meant she was a DJ; you know, a disc jockey but, apparently, it meant that she’d never been married. I often saw her bustling about the shops in town with her old brown shopping bag slung over her arm, nipping into one shop and then another, though never seeming to buy very much. And I don’t think she ate very much either; she was a real skinny- ribs. And her hair, which was steel grey, was always tightly scraped into a little bun thing at the back of her head.
The day it happened I was standing at the mirror in the sitting room adjusting one of my piercings; it was a new one in my right eyebrow, and I thought it looked well cool. First, I heard the siren screaming round the corner, and then a bright flashing light was reflected in the mirror. As I dashed to the window, a small crowd of neighbours had formed a ragged mob outside Mary’s gate, their heads bobbing about as they enquired of one another what might have happened. Then a bit later, two uniformed ambulance men came out of her front door carrying a stretcher on which lay a very pale and, seemingly, unconscious Mary.
“Have you heard about Mary?” Mum was saying, further on into the week. “She’s broken her leg, apparently; quite badly, they say.”
“Oh no!” I said. “Poor ol’ Mary. She won’t be doing much shopping now for a while, will she?” I thought about it a bit, then I said to Mum “Which hospital is she in? D’ya think she’d like a visitor? It must be dead lonely in there.”
“What, you?” Mum said, in a voice obviously astounded by my suggestion. “Yeh,” I said, “why not me?”
“You’d give her the fright of her life” Mum said “with all those piercings and tattoos!” She always had to get a dig in whenever she got the chance and, I had to admit that, this time, she might have a point, as I pictured myself walking through the hospital ward, where heads would turn to stare, as they always had. I did look a bit intimidating, I know, but if they knew me, they’d realise I was just a pussy cat. And I was willing to check Mary out, though I hoped I wouldn’t give her a heart attack.
I decided to lighten up on the heavy black eye make-up and, rather than appear dressed in my regular total black, I added a coloured scarf which I draped loosely around my neck with the fringes showing at each end; I thought this added a touch of softness. I really needed it today.
“Okay?” I said to Mum, standing in front of her as she did the week’s ironing; I suppose I was asking for her approval, as always. She looked me up and down, head to toe, then said “Here; take her these flowers; she’ll like that” and produced a small bunch of sweet peas she’d picked from the garden. “Great! Thanks Mum” I said. I was touched; my Mum had obviously thought about my visit at some length. Did she believe I was really okay after all?
I was right; it happened just as I imagined it would. The patients and their visitors all stared at me; but I was used to it, it didn’t faze me, not one bit. I just hoped that Mary wouldn’t be fazed either. But she was asleep when I saw her, lying in a bed at the far end of the long ward. And I was shocked to see that there were rails around her narrow bed, to prevent her falling out, I supposed. Gently, I touched her hand, and softly, I spoke her name. “Mary, Mary; it’s me, Max; Maxine from across the road.”
“Mmm,” she mumbled, “Move over, darling.” I smiled. Who did she imagine she was with? A lover, I thought, obviously. Mary opened her eyes then, but appeared not to see me. Then she seemed to come round with a start and, with one quick movement, sat upright in her bed. I leaned over and plumped up her pillows.
“Who ….?.” she started to say, but I interrupted her. “Mary, it’s Max” I said again, “and I brought you these” and handed her the flowers. “How are you?”
“What are you doing here? Oh, you’re that punk rocker kid, aren’t you? Well“, she said, “I can’t say I like the look, but at least it shows you have a mind of your own; that you like to express yourself, and I believe in that.”
“Really? You do?” I said, “Wow! You’re okay” I said, astonished at her forthright way of speaking, and of her astuteness. Respect!
We had known each other about two minutes and yet she had taught me something about myself already. I had known she was different, or, at least, not what she appeared. “What do you like at school,” Mary said, “or are you at college now?”
“Yeh, college” I replied, “I’m taking Psychology.”
“It figures” she said, with a smile which transformed her face, but she said no more.
On my way back home I had a terrible feeling of regret when I realised I hadn’t even asked her how her leg was; her broken leg. But I had her door key in my hand which she’d given me, asking if I could fetch a fresh nightdress for her the next time I visited. How trusting she was; now she at least must believe in me, right? And I couldn’t wait to see her house, especially after her telling me all about her teenage years and her fanatical following of her idol, Doris Day, back in the fifties. And I couldn’t get over the coincidence that Doris Day, or the Doris days, were something that my Mum always talked about when referring to the ‘old days’ as I myself thought of them.
I turned the key in the lock with trepidation and entered Mary’s hallway, but it was just as I’d imagined it; an old lady’s home with old furniture, dark and a bit depressing, if I’m honest. I went through to the living room; just the same, though with a bit more colour in the drapes and furnishings, but not much.
As I headed up the stairs to find the nightwear she needed, which she’d said she kept in her bedroom, I was totally unaware of what was to come next. Her bedroom door was ajar when I reached the top of the stairs; I suppose the ambulance men had left it open, and all I could see were, at first glance, posters of an old film star; I only knew that from the woman’s clothes and hairstyle, but the woman was really quite beautiful, as Mary had told me, though with the girl-next-door look about her. And there were lots more posters; in fact, they covered almost every wall. Then I saw a red box on the floor; it looked like a box but, when I opened the lid, it was an old record player. The metal letters on the front of it read “Dansette” which, I’d heard Mary say, was her pride and joy, and something she just couldn’t think of ever living without. Beside it, also on the floor, were some of the old vinyl records Mary had obviously been playing recently. I found it hard to imagine that this was how records were back then, hard black plastic with grooves for a needle-like diamond stylus to produce the sound; amazing! I read the titles, though they meant nothing to me, “Secret Love; Sentimental Journey; Move over, Darling”. That one shook me; it was what Mary had woken up saying when I went to see her. Now it began to make sense.
Looking around, there was shelf upon shelf of vinyl 12 inch records, all meticulously filed and beautifully preserved in their brown paper sleeves. There were lots of books about Doris Day too, and old VHS films with titles like “Lover, Come Back”; “Send Me No Flowers”; there were lots. I had never heard of any of them, but I would be asking my Mum as soon as I got home.
I’d better look for her nighties, I thought, and immediately felt a touch of guilt at having been exploring Mary’s home and belongings while she wasn’t there. Just then, though, something bright in the corner of the room caught my eye. It was then that I saw the blonde wig.
Val J Chapman
In at the Deep End
Dave and Scott, two dive buddies on holiday from England, had anticipated this for so long, and were feeling on top of the world as they glided silently side by side through the deep blue waters of the Caribbean, their silver air bubbles floating softly up to the surface way above them. The excitement and fascination they had felt upon discovering the hull of the old coaster, rusting and falling apart since its demise in 1968, was increased still more today as they revisited the underwater site of the Condecita yet again, one thousand tons of its rusting metal sunken into the sea bed.
The old coaster had been poorly maintained; barely sufficient, it seemed, to keep it tramping along. It had been a working vessel, but now it was a rust bucket. Its cargo of concrete blocks was still apparent though, randomly scattered as they were along the seabed like rocks on the seashore, and now with a covering of bright green algae. The buddies smiled at each other as they saw the hull of the rotting coaster thickly barnacled and rife with sea life for the surrounding shoals of fish, their fins softly waving through the clear, turquoise waters. Trumpet fish, with their long noses, swam around snuffling in search of food, while the graceful fins of angel fish wafted through the still waters, and the colours of the stripey clown fish shimmered brightly as they darted in and out of the surrounding rocks. Stone fish lay, as still as stones, and just as grey, waiting for food to come along, when, in a fraction of a second, they would snap open and devour their prey within moments of it swimming by.
Beyond the rocky seabed of the spilled concrete blocks, the buddies could see another small group of scuba divers who were busy chopping up sea urchins. As soon as pieces of the chopped sea urchins began to float about, clouding the waters all around them, the divers were suddenly surrounded by shoal upon shoal of hungry fish. A sleepy octopus, camouflaged and huddled in a hole, slowly stirred itself upon feeling the activity in the waters around him, while a tiny seahorse clung tightly by its tail onto a blade of sea grass in anticipation of plankton drifting by on the current. Other spiky white balls of sea urchins littered the sea bed like so many rolling tennis balls.
Dave and Scott watched in fascination as the other divers, one with a camera, photographed their underwater activity, while, way above them, the hot and relentless Caribbean sun shone down and the turquoise waters were shot through with bands of brilliance.
On discovering the wreck of the Condecita on a previous dive, Dave and Scott had returned to their hotel to research its history and had become filled with curiosity, since this was something which had happened some time before they were born. The captain of the vessel had been a José Delgado, a heavily bearded and unkempt man in his forties who, with filthy trousers tucked into well-worn boots, could apparently be found most nights sitting up on deck puffing on a pipe of something pungent and drinking his contraband rum. El Capitan, it was believed, had drowned in the wreckage, along with two of his crew members whose bodies had been found: a cook and an engineer, although there had been some uncertainty as to the truth of this report. An enquiry had followed when the boat had gone down with its cargo of concrete, but an unsafe verdict had been reported through lack of evidence. Scott had vague memories of the event of thirty five years ago and recalled newspapers reporting the concern of the investigators working for Lloyds of London, specialists in marine insurance. One journalist had even reported sightings of El Capitan, some years later, having somehow survived and reinvented himself as the landlord of a bar somewhere in Jamaica.
That evening, Dave and Scott, their wetsuits plus one thousand pounds’ worth of diving equipment stowed away until the following day, sat chatting in The Capstan pub and fantasising about their energising and extremely successful dive. They were fascinated by the story of the captain and why the boat had gone down as it did all those years ago, but surmised that the boat had unexpectedly hit shallow waters and run aground on the rocks of the Cayman Islands.
The more they drank, the more reflective and romantic the dive buddies’ story became, imagining that El Capitan could even be on the run again, having deserted his Jamaican bar when it became too risky to stay and be discovered by the insurance investigators.
“But”, wondered Dave, aloud, “if he didn’t drown in the wreckage, and he’s still alive, where do you think he could be today?” with the hint of a smile on his deeply tanned face.
Just at that moment, something; he couldn’t say what, made his buddy, Scott, turn around and glance towards the end of the bar where a weather-beaten old man, glass of rum in one hand, pipe in the other, stood smirking behind his beard.
Val J Chapman
I awoke on that long awaited Monday morning, slowly coming out of a heavy and dreamless sleep. My first thought was that my alarm clock hadn’t woken me and I immediately sat up in bed with my own feeling of alarm that I was going to be late, inexcusable on the first day of my first job. I shot a look at the clock on the cabinet and my shoulders slumped while exhaling the breath I realised I’d been holding, as I saw that it was not quite 5 a.m. What had woken me I had no idea; maybe the unconscious anticipation and concern about getting to work on time, always a worry with today’s traffic situation; or perhaps it had just been the dawn chorus, the beautiful birdsong and distinctive crow of the farmyard cockerel half a mile away.
Sliding out of bed, I opened the blinds to see the dawn of this brand new day. The sun was already casting its early glow across the valley and fields, the same view which I recalled seeing for the first time last year when I came to view the house to rent, commenting to the current owners that the views alone could sell it. I could hear too the occasional sound of a vehicle going by on the main road, though they were few and far between so early in the day. This would not be so later on, as the traffic would increase as the time approached 9 a.m., the time when many people would begin their working day.
No longer sleepy, I began to feel exhilarated by the thought of my first day at work, and also, knowing I had time to spare, I made myself a cup of tea and opened the stable door. The sky was a misty blue, the soft breeze barely ruffling the leaves of the tall trees in the neighbouring garden. And as I looked out at the view, the milkman came around the corner with the morning’s fresh milk and a cheery hello. It was going to be a good day, I could feel it; a new job to kick start a new life which would hopefully be my reward for all those years of studying. I looked out at the road, still fairly devoid of traffic, and thought that by the time 5 p.m. came, I would be driving back home along this same road, knowing far more than I did at this moment. By then I would know if I’d done the right thing; the next 12 hours could change my life for good.
And by then, this road will be entirely different; no longer quiet but throbbing with the noise of passing vehicles, of which mine would be one. And the sun, so bright now and full of promise, may have disappeared behind the clouds, the cacophony of birdsong diminished, and the milkman’s deliveries long ago completed. And by 5 p.m. I too will be an entirely different person.
Val J Chapman
My Father, the Minister
My feelings consumed me. I could feel nothing else; not the sheets on the bed, nor the pillow beneath my head. My eyes burned in their sockets and when I turned my head to look around the room, I could see nothing but intense yellow light and the shape and silhouette of the burning, bare light bulb on the landing. To keep my eyes trained on the light focussed my thoughts so that I didn’t have to think about other things; noises outside, howling wind over the surrounding moors, and my father’s snoring.
He had come home late that night, noisily banging the back door, as always, and almost knocking over the hall table which still held my mother’s ornaments, though they were now covered in a thick layer of dust. Mother had been so proud of her home and meticulous in her housework, often doing it long into the evening when I was in bed. Now there was only him and me; him almost always drunk, me almost always afraid.
Our house was on Ramsden Road in the Lancashire village and windswept valley of Watergrove where, even in summer, it was often rainy and wet; the reason, of course, for the many woollen mills in the area and for which the town of Rochdale was famous. And as there was no public transport in those days of the early 1920s, I had to walk to school, father had to walk to work, and I remember my mother once carrying a score of flour, in a pillowcase, from Roads Mill a mile away; we were a hardy breed.
Morning came slowly, dim daylight seeping through threadbare curtains and a new day forced itself upon me. Dragging my weary body from my warm bed and using what little was left of the water in the bowl on the dresser, I sketchily washed my face in the icy liquid and pulled on itchy, grey woollen socks to prevent my feet from contacting the freezing stone floor where the rug didn’t reach. I could hear my father in the kitchen downstairs, still slamming doors and plates on the kitchen table. Shouting my name up the stairs, he commanded me to get up for Sunday school, even though I didn’t go until the afternoon. As I entered the kitchen, our eyes briefly met, then his slid away while he busied himself with brewing the tea. The larder door was open and from where I stood I could see there was little food left on the shelves. My mug of tea stood on the kitchen table, its steam rising enticingly in the cold winter morning.
I noticed father already had on his white dog collar and black frock coat ready to perform morning service at the United Methodist Free Church up the road, and where he would no doubt again be delivering his sermon to the reluctant congregation, spewing out his anger and his protestations about the evils of drink, to the four corners of the church.
Val J Chapman
Waiting for Scarlett
Late night city streets were the perfect backdrop for the game that was about to begin. A recent downpour of heavy rain had left pavements glistening and sparkling in the shadowy lamplight and the few passing vehicles threw up splashes of muddy water from roadside puddles which swam over the pavements, only to drain back into the same puddles lining the gutters of King Street for hundreds of yards.
Maurice had spent many hours on this street; many hours and as many years. Indeed, from the age of 35 he had dreamed of finding the woman who appeared to him in wild and vivid fantasies; fantasies which filled all his sleepless nights and most of his waking moments. Her name was Scarlett. She had long, flowing red hair, red high heeled shoes and a long black coat and, wrapped loosely around her neck and shoulders, a long, flowing red scarf which floated in the wind. He could always hear her shiny red stilettos click sharply along the glistening wet pavement.
Maurice knew she would be there one day, and he knew in his heart she would run to meet him, throw her arms around him and cry on his shoulder in ecstasy and relief, because she too had waited so long for this night, for this meeting; for this very moment.
Last night it hadn’t rained; it had been dry all day, and all day Maurice had watched the street from the dirty window of his dingy bedsit, but the white fluffy clouds had scudded past the bright sun high in the sky, and even when the skies darkened, the moon was bright and full and looked down on his street with a face that laughed at him. But tonight Maurice laughed at the moon as it hid behind the black clouds. Tonight the weather was perfect for Maurice’s little game.
He pictured Scarlett, as he had in his countless dreams, hurriedly walking along the wet street ahead of him; just far enough ahead for Maurice to recognise that it really was her. The sound of her clicking heels excited him, made his heart race and his palms sweat, and he would wipe them dry down the legs of his trousers. The trainers he always wore meant that, while he followed her, she would be unaware that he was there. This was what Maurice liked; his total anonymity and her total oblivion.
He visualised himself gradually closing in, his strides slowly increasing, almost catching up with her, but only almost, whilst getting so close to her that he could smell her perfume on the night air. The click of her stilettos would echo seductively in the empty street ahead of him and her long red scarf would float out behind her, almost touching his hand as he reached out towards her. He could feel the slippery fabric of her scarf slip through his hot hands and the wind whip it up into the air above their heads. His imagination ran riot and his body became tense in anticipation of his fantasy finally becoming a reality.
But the game Maurice played would stay exactly that; a game where, year in, year out, he would hang around the corners of King Street looking and watching for this red-haired siren who dominated his thoughts on rainy nights and took over his imagination. It was what kept him alive, for, without this vision, this woman named Scarlett, what else did he have? And so, Maurice told himself, at least he had her, if only in his dreams. And the people would see him and pass him by as they went about their business along King Street.
“Hello there, Maurice.” they would call out, “How are you today? Still waiting for Scarlett?”
Val J Chapman
Jessica sat in the playroom of her Grandmother’s house and sulked; she was bored. Granny was having tea in the drawing room with two of her cronies from the Bridge Club and Jessica had been told to make herself scarce, whatever that meant. “I can’t make myself one of those” she’d said, scowling, “because I don’t know how”. But she knew that what Granny really meant was for her to go away and play.
Well, she was bored with play; she’d played with everything in Grandma’s playroom lots of times. The old rocking horse used to be great fun a year ago but now she wished it really did trot, just like the white pony she’d ridden over at the old stables. And the old wooden chest which held all manner of things: puzzles and games, building bricks, an old wooden abacus with its coloured beads, a blackboard and sticks of coloured chalk; they were all quite fun when she had first come to stay but that was years ago when she was just a child. Suddenly, Jessica remembered that she’d seen another wooden chest somewhere in Grandma’s house, but where was that? It might have been in a bedroom upstairs, although she seemed to remember she’d climbed some more stairs up to it, even higher than the bedrooms, and that those stairs hadn’t any carpet on them and were a bit dusty. Mummy had told her she wasn’t to go upstairs unless Grandma said she could, but, Jessica thought, Granny wouldn’t know where she was and, anyway, she was far too busy drinking tea with her friends to even notice. I wonder if I can find it
again, she thought to herself; I might even find some secrets inside.
On climbing first one flight of stairs, and then another, she came to a long landing. These must be more bedrooms, she thought, but Jessica wasn’t sure because she had never been allowed to see inside a bedroom in Grandma’s house, yet somehow she knew that all the bedrooms would have chintz curtains with pretty frills and a tiny rosebud pattern. That trunk must be in one of these rooms, Jessica thought, but which one? She stretched up to reach the handle of one door but couldn’t quite manage to push it open. She pulled a face, guessing the door must be locked. Perhaps they were all locked, but why? Mummy didn’t lock her bedroom door; Mummy didn’t mind if Jessica saw her in her underwear, but she knew Granny would mind, very much.
Jessica then looked further along the landing and noticed a smaller door at the far end up a few steps which went round a corner out of sight. Skipping towards them, she noticed that these had no carpet, unlike the rest of the landing. Jessica smiled a secret smile. This is it, she thought. There was a doorway here but that was smaller than the rest and when she tried to open the old fashioned latch it wouldn’t work. Suddenly, her eyes lit up when she saw that there was a large iron key in the door. Maybe Granny had been in and forgotten to remove it when she came out; she was getting very absentminded these days.
Ever so quietly, Jessica turned the key; it gave a satisfactory click, and when she pressed the latch, the door creaked stiffly, opening just slightly. Jessica stealthily peered around the door into the dark room, her pupils gradually becoming accustomed to its dimness. In one corner, the sunlight slanted across from a small window pane, catching in it the dust motes which floated silently down like snowlakes. With eyes like saucers she hungrily took in all she saw. Almost everything in the room seemed to be covered with dusty sheets. On tiptoe, she crept into the room and lifted the corner of one sheet but all she could see was what Jessica thought of as piles of junk; probably Grandma’s cast-offs. There were old lamp shades, stacks of bedding, even some old plant pots. Then she noticed the trunk; it was in the far corner of the room only partially covered. The trunk looked very heavy and had beautiful carvings of ladies on its lid with some leaves and stems which formed a lattice work weaving around them. She thought how lovely it was and would have liked to look inside, but she knew it would be locked, like most of Grandma’s things.
The lid of the trunk also looked extremely heavy. It had a keyhole but Jessica couldn’t see a key so, putting both her small hands, palms upwards, against the heavy lid, she heaved it upwards. It moved, but only a little. Then, summoning up all her strength, Jessica pushed some more. With one great heaving groan, she managed to prise it upwards. Suddenly, the lid sprang up making her jump, and something clicked. The old metal hinges at each side of the lid had held and it stayed open wide enough for Jessica to
lean over and peer inside. There seemed to be mainly old clothes and a funny smell, like a mixture of perfume and moth balls. Jessica leaned further over the edge to try and reach something green that shimmered. Tugging hard, she pulled it out from under something else that was dull and black. There, she’d got it! Gosh! Surely this didn’t belong to Grandma. It was a long shiny dress, very slinky, but very straight and narrow. The dress was a shade of green between the colour of the sea and the colour of the sky; what was it called? She wasn’t sure but she knew she loved it. And the fabric was, well, she didn’t know that either, but it felt heavy yet soft and Jessica guessed it must have been very expensive. The green dress had a plunging neckline with a deep ‘V’ which she supposed might have been very fashionable in Grandma’s day. Jessica dug even deeper and found something fluffy; no, not fluffy; feathery, and she dragged it out from the tangle of old clothes, anxious to see exactly what it was. She pulled and pulled, thinking it had no end, then suddenly almost fell backwards with the end in her hands. Jessica couldn’t imagine what you would do with this except perhaps wear it as a scarf. Yes, maybe that was it, and she draped it around her shoulders, but it was much too long and dragged along the dusty floor. Still, she thought, it felt fabulous and that it was called something like a boa, although she had thought that was a kind of snake. Oh, of course, that was why; because it was long and narrow and it slithered. She tried hard to imagine Granny wearing something like this in the olden days and pictured an orchestra playing a dance tune like the Charleston or the Black Bottom. She’d heard Mummy talk about that dance and remembered its name