Saturday, January 30, 2010

Milestones

When I think of the word milestone I recall so many years ago when they really were just that. They were permanent markers made of stone suitably engraved with an inscription of the distance in miles to a major city, usually London in my case and of the closest settlements either side of the marker. They were so permanent, so trustworthy, so important that the name milestone took on a completely new meaning; that of an very important event. It is used by business now to measure their trite happenings and by families to mark major events in their lives.

So it was too with Jack Wilson. In his nineties, all he had time to do now was to remember back over his life and to recall the milestones in his life. One afternoon in the retirement home whilst all the other residents, played their games, snoozed or prattled inconsequentially to their friends, Jack made the effort to remember the milestones in his own life. He wondered whether like Shakespeare he could place the seven ages of the man that he once was and the events that marked them.

So Jack thought about his seven ages. Mewling and puking he certainly did but gladly didn't recall them much, or did he? He cried a lot because his older brother bullied him and even broke an arm once, a fact hidden until his mother noticed he only used his left hand.

Perhaps that counts as the whining schoolboy he thought. No, that's not right he enjoyed school, he certainly was not unwilling to go. He had a lot of friends and loved sport and later was entranced by the girls that a few years previous had seemed so silly. How strange it seems now to recall that thrill of just touching hands with that cute girl when they were both fourteen. What was her name, Glenda, Glenys, Gladys? Perhaps none of those.

Now to Shakespeare's lover. Did he sigh like a furnace? No, his romances were fun, disastrous, sad, and ultimately fulfilling and joyful. No, the bard must have got that wrong. Hang on though, he did remember sighing once when given the heave ho by... by... what was her name? Oh yes, it was Leone. She wasn't a lion she was a tigress!

Now what about the Soldier that was quick to quarrel? Luckily with no conflict at the time of his National Service that period passed as a minor irritant prior to forging his career and starting a family with his beautiful wife. It was great for mateship and putting your trust in others but was he glad when it was all over and be a normal civilian again. Later he found a good job that he enjoyed, how they built their first house, and seemed to achieve so much.

What was this Justice with the round belly as the fifth age that Shakespeare was on about? Jack reckoned his fifth age was the best but without the round belly! With his wife Susan and his children growing up, getting some of their freedom back. Perhaps W.S. was right after all the way the two of them gave advice to the kids, embraced their children's spouses into the family, helped them in their careers, babysat and did things as a little clan of their own. Oh what joy life was then.

I've always been lean thought Jack as he recalled the sixth age of man. He laughed at the slippers and spectacles and the 'shank shrunk.' But then he bit his lip. Yes "his manly voice turning again to a childish treble" certainly did that when Susan passed away and he was lost with little to console him and he bawled like a baby.

Snap out of it you old fool he said to himself you are reverting to childishness, it happens to us all. You lived a wonderful life. A wonderful life. Jack slowly nodded off in his chair.

Some time later one of the helpers came around and found Jack asleep.
"Come on, Mr. Wilson. Oh, look you are drooling and your teeth are coming out. It's cup of tea time. I've got a chocolate Granita biscuit for you"
She touched him gently on the hand, but it fell abruptly off the armrest. She felt for his pulse then quickly returned to the office to report that there was a problem with Mr. Wilson.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On the Scent (or the day I said Yes)

I never met Rodney Bowles. No, that is not true, but when I did meet him we couldn't resolve our differences. For years our Writer's group had met at the Community Centre, it was cheapest place we could find. It cost us a dollar a head when we used the tatty room where we read our pieces and imagined we were Adelaide's Bloomsbury Set!
Rodney was the new Centre Administrator and I suppose when he looked through the books, the first thing he did was to increase all fees at the Centre in an attempt to get it to break even. We all thought that when he was appointed an efficient young manager would be an improvement. Several weeks later we all wished he was dead. Unfortunately I was the one that said it.
"Three dollars," I screamed at the November meeting. "That is utter extortion."
"Well I won't be able to come in future," said Maisie Wivel.
I nodded grimly, holding back a smile. 'No more drivel from Wivel,' I imagined the others saying. I deliberately averted my face so that I wouldn't catch their eyes and burst out laughing.
There was mumbling all round. Many of our group were on a pension and would find it hard. Meals of bread and scrape and starving cats and dogs were forecast. The pleaded with me to do something. So I said "Yes"
"The stupid man would be better off dead. I'll have to go to see him, and see if we can't get some sort of concession."
They all nodded in agreement.
In turn they echoed my sentiments, in a modified form.
"Best if he'd never come."
"Why didn't he stay where he was."
And the pathetic Winnie, who I am sure was slightly simple said, " I hate change. It unsettles me."
So it was that I decided to grab a meeting with him one evening after I had finished work. The evenings were drawing in and that night storm clouds scudded across a darkening sky. Rain was promised and that wonderful scent of dampened dust was already in the air.
"Keep calm, don't lose your cool," I instructed myself. Despite this my own vivid imagination had me thumping his desk, punching his nose and wrestling with him on the floor. As I had never met him, he was weak and ineffectual in my mind and easily succumbed to my superior strength and intellectual prowess.
The car safely parked, I strode towards the Community Centre. Rain was spitting down. The wind was blowing the tall pine trees and making them howl in protest. As I went in through the door a woman was leaving.
"Is Rodney Bowles in there?"
She had a folded newspaper over her bowed head ready for the rain. It shielded her face but in answer she mumbled something about a passage. I leaned toward her.
"Beg yours?"
"He's down the passage."
A waft of her scent engulfed me. I reeled back stifled. When I looked up again. She had hurried away, her high heeled shoes clip clopping on the concrete drive.
I went in through the open door. The passage was long and dark and lit only by the last rays of light from that stormy evening. The windows to the west glowed feebly while those to the east were already black. The offices were in darkness, so I made my way along the passage, one hand feeling in front of me. The passage turned then turned again. Already I had lost all sense of direction.
The wind whistled outside, a shutter banged and with eerie regularity a chain rattled. I stopped, straining to hear. I thought I could hear footsteps but it was only the wind.
Bang! A door slammed and I jumped.
"Excuse me," I shouted.
My call was echoed by the empty passages. There was no reply. On I went.
The passage way ended at a door. The door led into a large playroom. Huge mobiles in the shapes of animals hung from the ceiling. In the half light their grotesque shapes swung in the wind. Every now and then an animal face would leer at me then flick around again. The wind was coming from an open door leading into a garden. There outside the sound of the chains again could again be heard as a child's swing kept hitting it's supporting posts. The rain was heavier now. It splashed into the room and already the down pipes gushed their incy wincy spiders and water on to the garden area.
I strained my eyes in the dark. Was there somebody out there?
"Mr. Bowles, are you there?"
Nothing.
I peered out. Yes there was someone there. In the rain, slumped forward in a wheelchair, well that was a surprise, he was disabled. He didn't say a word.
"Is that you, Mr. Bowles? Can I help you in?"
Silence.
"Are you all right?"
Damn the man, I didn't want to get wet as well. I would have to go and help him after all.
Rodney Bowles was quite wet. He was quite dead too. A kitchen knife was stuck in his back.
Now tell me this. Why did I move him? He wasn't complaining about the rain, was he? But for some unexplained reason I thought it would be best to bring him inside. More comfy for him I suppose. So my fingerprints were on his wheel chair. Behind him as well!
So why did I touch the knife? Just don't ask me. Perhaps I thought he would get better without a boning knife between his ribs. He didn't.
Well one thing in my favour was that I called the police.
Wrong. It never entered my mind. I got the hell out of there as fast as my feet would take me. Pity I didn't think of all the clues I was leaving behind.
I was amazed at how quickly they wanted me to help with their questioning. They were up earlier than me the next morning, banging on the door at five thirty. Betty just turned over and went back to sleep, while I accompanied them to the station.
I'd like to say how helpful all my fellow writers were. They were able to quote my exact words of the previous Monday evening by rote. Every one of them.
"I believe sir, that your said of Mr. Bowles; 'Stupid man would be better off dead.' Is that correct?" The detective questioned me with grim determination.
Now, to be fair, they did listen to my explanation. They had my statement typed up, neatly double spaced. This I duly signed and they witnessed it. Forensic had a ball, my finger nails have never been so clean.
But you ask, what of the mystery woman? Sadly my description of her was incredibly vague. All I could give them was a folded newspaper, clip clopping shoes and an unidentified perfume. That's the trouble with men, they are not very observant. I could never remember what Betty was wearing, so why should I remember what a complete stranger had on in the dark, when I had gone to see Rodney Bowles, not her. So I agree that things don't look good for me. What makes it worse though, by saying yes, is that I didn't even get the fees reduced.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Travelling in the good old days

We never went on holidays when we were children, because of the war. Of course we had holidays from school but we didn't seem to do much except muck around up at the sandpit or play down in the copse, close to where Tommy Foster lived.

I don't ever remember Mum or Dad ever having holidays then from their work but I suppose they did. Mind you holidays were very much shorter then, and in any case Dad would have spent all his time in the allotment and only come home at tea time. Mum on the other hand worked in a grocery shop, so we should have noticed that she was at home with us but we didn't! We must have been pretty busy ourselves. We were like wild animals let loose from captivity in the morning, straining at the back door while our hair was combed and our faced examined lest the spinster sisters, Olive and Myrtle Green, who lived up the road should see us less than perfect and make some terrible pronouncement to the other neighbours.

Real holidays didn't start until after the war and unbeknown to Jill and myself arrangements had been made to stay in a Bed and Breakfast in Hastings early in September 1945. We were pretty excited when we realised that we were going on our first real holiday. Dad on the other hand was worried because we didn't have a suitcase to put our things in. So he went round to Granddad to see if he could borrow one. He came back later with a medium size shiny leather suitcase of some age. It's corners were reinforced and it had solid chunky brass clasps and locks. Mum was delighted. Dad merely delved into his pocket for a packet of Weights and lit one up with his home made lighter.

"I never knew he had that", she exclaimed, as she placed it on the floor, got down on her knees and reverently opened the clasps. Apart from a brown paper bag and some tissue paper it was empty, but it was lined with a blue and grey striped silky material which Jill immediately smoothed down with her fingers. She murmured "Ohhhh", and Dad beamed down at us through a haze of smoke. He alone remained standing. Meanwhile I was examining the outside. Faded labels told of other peoples excursions to distant parts. There was a remnant of a Cunard sticker showing part of a liner, a hotel label with the word Metropole on it, a long sticker saying 'CABIN LUGGAGE', and most intriguing of all to me, a tiny notice saying 'EXAMINED BY CUSTOMS'. My nine year old mind conjured up exotic ports, intrigues and daring deeds. Jill on the other hand had found the previous owners name, a Mr. A. Weston, written on the inside of the case. Dad explained that Granddad had bought the case in a jumble sale before the war but he had never used it.

How we managed to get all our clothes in the case I don't know. We wore less then, of course, and for longer. Jill and I only had one pair of shoes each, so they didn't have to be packed. Still, the case was stuffed full and Mum, Jill and me, each had to carry a brown paper carrier bag with extras in. Mum also carried her enormous handbag which stored every conceivable necessity for the journey, as well there was an umbrella, which she took with her regardless of the weather. Dad carried the case, today's newspaper and a box brownie camera slung around his neck.

We started early in the morning and walked to the station where we caught a train to Waterloo Station. I bagged a window seat, but had to promise Jill she could sit next to the window on the next train. We then had to cross over to Victoria Station by the Underground to get another train to Hastings. Naturally Jill and I had an argument over the seats because I counted the tube train as the next train which set her off, crying as usual, because she couldn't see anything in the dark tunnels of the tube. Dad lugged the case up and down the stairs, on the escalators, in through the sliding doors, and past the ticket collectors, while we followed on with our carrier bags. When we got to Victoria, the station was packed. I had never seen so many people in my life. They were hurrying in every direction and the sound was deafening as the shouting, the platform announcements and the noise of the trains filled the building. We found some seats in a crowded carriage and I smirked at Jill as no place by the window was available. She looked pretty glum but instead of crying this time, she cuddled up to Mum and was asleep soon after the train left the platform.

There was not a spare seat in the carriage, and between glancing at the suburbs and countryside speeding by, I examined the other occupants. There was a man in a trilby hat that smoked his pipe incessantly. His wife a shrivelled up woman returned my stare then finally with some distaste took the Daily Express from her husband and hid from me by reading it. Her husband meanwhile puffed on happily, admiring the scenery. Next to me in the corridor seats sat two ladies of about Mum's age who engaged in a conversation that necessitated their bending over toward each other that made it very difficult for me to go into the corridor. Out there were interesting people like soldiers sitting on kit bags and other boys my own age, train spotting. Eventually I escaped, and joined them. The journey then went quickly for me and when I returned to the compartment later, the man with the pipe and his wife were gone and Jill was seated at the window.

"We'll soon be there" said Mum as she dabbed her nose with powder. Dad started to get the case down and all the bags were counted and reallocated. As the train drew into the station, Mum and Dad started to discuss the options of walking to our lodging or getting a taxi. Only well off people had cars then and even a ride in a taxi for many years seemed to me like an extravagant luxury. When we did indulge we all sat awkwardly in the car and said not a word, lest the driver think that we were talking to him, or somehow he would realise how poor and ignorant we were.

So we walked. The address; 62 Hillingdon Road, should have been a clue that the accommodation was no where near the sea and up a steep climb. Better establishments had names like Sea View or Seagulls or other such coastal connotations, on streets called The Esplanade or Beach Road. Neither Jill or I complained because every step was a new adventure on our very first holiday.

Now it is very strange but I don't remember much else about that holiday. There was the beach of course and ice cream, but what stood out was that leather suitcase, and how proud of it we all were. We returned it Granddad after, and much later when he died, Dad got it back again. In later years we bought our own suitcases when we could afford them, and the leather case was used by Jill for all her dress up clothes.

When I was called up for National Service I needed a case of my own, so I went up to the attic to see if it was still there. It was, a little older and sadder looking. It was scuffed and dull and one of the locks was broken. I still used it though, tying up its middle with a bit of sash cord. It travelled with me for several years, and stood up to terrible punishment, including being thrown out onto a station platform from a moving train.

Today, as I was waited for my luggage to come through on the airport's carousel, I thought back to that old case. It had outlived it's first owner Mr. Weston, Granddad and my own Mother and Father. I felt a pang of shame as I collected my cases and put them on a trolley. At some time I had discarded that case in one of the many moves in my life and I had not given it a thought to those good old days until now.