Fiction Month1. Three Marriages.

November is Fiction Month at Anecdotage. This year’s Fiction Month is starting later than usual because I didn’t want to interrupt my travelogue memoir: Solo to Africa. Here then, beginning today is the first of a two-part, brand new story, ‘Three Marriages…

Three Marriages

It feels hopeless. I’m staring at my reflection, sitting here on the stool at my dressing table and I’m thinking I might just feign sickness and send Solange to the wedding on her own. I let go of the soft concealer brush. I can do nothing with the sallow shadows under my eyes, the furrows around my mouth, my sagging, fleshy cheeks, thin, pale lips and wrinkly neck. I can’t pretend I’m younger than my age, can’t compete. Instead I pull the comforting folds of my ancient, towelling bathrobe around me and consider my options for the day.

I could don gardening gear and make a start on the rose border; or I could walk the dog-a long, leisurely stroll across the meadows, returning via Mabel’s Coffee Shop. I could come back and do some baking. I could loll about in a hot, fragrant, bubbly bath with a large glass of Merlot and listen to an audio-book. I could heat up a ready meal and slob around on the sofa watching a film. Yes. It sounds a perfect Saturday. I take the towel from my head and begin dropping make-up items into the drawer, leaving a dusty pink trail across the glass top, then there’s a knock and my daughter enters before I’ve a chance to answer, bustling up behind me looking like she’s stepped from a page of Vogue magazine, wearing a cream silk jumpsuit, her honey-coloured hair swept up into a twist.

She is exclaiming before she reaches my stool. “Mother! What on earth are you doing? Do you know what the time is? The taxi will be here in twenty minutes! You haven’t even started your hair. Whatever is the matter?”

                So many questions. But she knows the answers. She knows how I feel about my wedding invitation. Emilia, the bride, is the daughter of my oldest friend, Sonya, and the same age as Solange. The two girls were born in the same month, grew up together, in and out of each other’s houses here in this sleepy corner of our Wiltshire village. It would be unthinkable not to attend the wedding, this most important event in our friends’ lives. Wouldn’t it?

Solange is opening the wardrobe and taking out the dress and jacket we spent days looking for, scouring the shopping centres of several cities, trudging around clothing departments, searching the independent boutiques until I felt that if I was to try on one more floral shift or fitted, peplum jacket I’d run screaming up the High Street in my baggy, grey underwear. I watch in the mirror as she hangs the outfit on the outside of the wardrobe, smoothing it down. It is a dress in muted tones of dove grey silk with a loose linen, duck egg blue jacket on the top. I gaze at it. On the rail it looked beautiful. On anyone else it would look wonderful. The lure of the gardening gear is stronger than ever.

Solange is thrusting a hairbrush into my hand. “Here”, she says, “Start brushing your hair while I delay the taxi and get some bits.” She rushes from the room, leaving me to drag the brush through my mangy locks.

She returns with a hair dryer and some cosmetics, dropping items on the glass. “Tilt your head up!” she instructs, and begins to sponge foundation on to my face, then “lids down!” as she dusts my eyelids with a deft sweep.

I try to protest. “Sh!” she hisses, continuing with her mission to make me presentable. “Did you get that sculpting underwear on yet?” I shake my head and she tuts. “Next job then.”

Together we squeeze my protesting body into the dress before she teases and coaxes my wayward locks into a semblance of style. I’m relieved to see that the veil on my chic, blue-grey hat conceals some of my face. Solange stands back like an artist assessing a portrait. She darts forward to adjust the hat then turns me towards the mirror. “Ok, Mum. Stand up now and take a look.”

I can barely breathe in the constricting underwear and I wonder how I’ll cope in these heels but I admit she’s done the best she could, although not enough to allay my humiliation in the face of young, beautiful competition.

She is glancing out of the window. “Come on. Taxi’s waiting.”

She thrusts a small, matching clutch bag into my hands, pops a creamy hat with a broad, sweeping brim on to her head and grabs my arm as if I’m about to escape. Moments later we’re in the taxi and she’s instructing the driver. I study her as she sits beside me, cool, sophisticated, adult and I wonder at how she’s becoming the parent here, to my diminished, fearful self.

My hands feel clammy in my lap as we pull up outside the church. Solange steps out of the cab and waits for me, then tucks her arm in mine. “You look gorgeous, Mum”, she says. “I’ve done a brilliant job!” She’s done her best, I think.

                I’m breathing fast, my heart thumping as we enter the sunlit churchyard. The guests must be inside by now and as we approach the stone archway of the porch, I can hear organ music; the last few notes of ‘The Wedding March’ dying away. The oak door is open a sliver, policed by an usher, the bride’s younger brother; he pulls it open enough to allow us to slip through and indicates a space on the last remaining back pew, on the bride’s side, of course. No one notices us slipping in to sit on the hard, wooden pew. All eyes are facing ahead, to the couple in front of the altar.

Emilia is in place, half-turned towards James, the groom, as the vicar prepares to speak. Now I’m feeling hot and cold, scanning the assembled guests for a familiar head, for another couple, an older man with a much younger woman, a couple who could be father and daughter, except they’re not.

 I think I’ve spotted them half way down the row. I nudge Solange, who is engrossed in the ceremony. “Is that them?” I hiss and she looks where I’m pointing, at a balding grey head next to a red-haired one, an auburn cloud of hair cascading, hatless in riotous ringlets over slim shoulders. My daughter shrugs. Even though the back of Giles’ head is as familiar to me as my right hand I feel a tingling jolt that he is there, only a few pews in front of Solange and me. Does she feel the same way? He is her father, after all, although she’s disowned him since he left us for a woman her own age. But Solange has eyes only for her best friend, a vision of ethereal beauty in French lace.

I drift into a trance of memory, the heady scent of wedding flowers like a drug as I recall my own wedding to Giles in the tiny Normandy village of my birth; processing along the village street followed by the guests, braving a cacophony of trumpets, shrieks and whistles, standing before the mayor, solemn in his finery, emerging into the sunlit courtyard, white damask clad trestle tables adorned with gleaming, silver cutlery and small bags of candied almonds tied with white ribbons. Canapés and champagne flowed before we sat for the meal, after which, the speeches. Giles took my hand and led me into the middle of the space as the band struck up the first dance and I thought I could never be any happier in my whole life than at that moment.

There is a sharp pain in my side. Solange is elbowing me. It is time to stand as the couple prepare to exit the church. They advance, sedate and glowing, glancing right and left to give a smile and acknowledgement, three small bridesmaids in pink satin stumbling and giggling as they follow. As they pass us all I want is to slide out now, to slink from this place and go home, home to a comfortable cardigan and a cup of tea.

Why is Claire so reluctant to attend the wedding? And what will she discover as the celebration continues? Check in next week for the conclusion to Three Marriages…

Fiction Month Week 3-New Short Story Begins Today!

Caught

Trap! Paralyse! Consume! An unwitting moth flutters in an innocent, random pattern only to be ensnared, caught in a mesh of elastic threads, thrashing wildly but doomed as the predator pounces to inject the body with piercing jaws, stilling the spasms, rolling it with rapid efficiency into a food parcel; to be consumed later.

Here in my father’s back yard, in the still warm air of a September evening, I am glad of a distraction from my task. I light a cigarette and inhale, watching the curling twist of smoke wind upwards. Excitement over, the rotund spider withdraws to the shadows, out of sight until aroused by the next tweak.

Back inside I gaze around at the devastation I’ve wrought and think it’s enough for today. Amidst the piles of books, sets of musical scores, files of correspondence and personal papers in my father’s study there is a box containing old photographs and it is these I’ve been perusing, losing a sense of time both literally and figuratively as I delve back into his life; a jumble of grey-brown, faded and dog-eared images chronicling events and scenes, depicting some characters I remember and many I do not.

I realise I am hungry but have no wish to eat here, alone amongst the detritus. I will walk down through the village to the pub. Before leaving I slip a photo into my pocket, a picture of Imberton Village Dance Band on stage. In the twilight, the quiet of the somnolent village street is punctuated only by the last, retiring song of a blackbird as he defends his province and by the distant, mechanical hum of a lawnmower.

To stroll along this street is to walk in my childhood steps, the way I went to school; down along the hot tarmac, treading on the raised tar bubbles that erupted like sticky larva under the sun’s  hot rays. Here in the gateway by the open field my brother and I paused to see who could pee the furthest as our exuberant, steaming fountains arced over the gate. On past St Mary’s where we languished, imprisoned at Sunday school, the time hanging heavy until we could loosen our collars and race back home to lunch, through the ivy clad churchyard, whose deceased inhabitants now play host to a newly interred inmate.

It is growing dark by the time I am level with the gravel track that slopes up towards Abbott’s, where a lone street lamp casts enough light for me to make out vestiges of the faded imprint on the side of the building; ‘Abbotts Grocery’. I pause for a moment, remembering. The old red brickwork had been painted yellow, the words in red and green, though now all that is visible is a faint square of flaking cream with a few pinkish lines. Old Ma Abbott, who’d seemed ancient to my seven year old self, must be long gone by now. But what of June? To my naive, infant scrutiny she had appeared grown up, although she couldn’t have been much more than sixteen when we plagued the shop in our crude, heedless bids for amusement. She would greet us, soft voiced, smiling with wide spaced, guileless eyes like a baby fawn’s as she tipped Rhubarb and Custards from a jar into a paper bag or ladled out ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder. I’d peer at her upswept, beehive hairdo and the way her wide skirt fanned out like daisy petals, buoyed up by layers of stiff petticoats as she climbed the step to replace the jar.

I’d been the youngest, tolerated but not acknowledged, the tagger-along, more spectator than participant as we roamed the village in search of diversion. We built dens, made bows and arrows or rudimentary, wooden guns, climbed the hay bales in Worts’ barn, fished in the stream, spoke in hushed whispers about the mysterious Bryant sisters, whose nocturnal activities had provoked speculative gossip from our parents. We played endless games of Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, when my involvement was accepted if I agreed to be the Indian, or the ‘baddie’ and submitted to the inevitable tying to a post to be danced around and jeered at or executed by bow and arrow or firing squad.

A few heads turn as I enter the pub, one or two nodding and murmuring in uneasy recognition. I am known to them nowadays only by association with my father. They are caught in the uncomfortable circumstances that accompany a meeting with the newly bereaved. I order my meal and take my pint to a lone, corner table, allowing them to continue their conversations unburdened by the obligation of sympathy.

While I wait I withdraw the photo and place it on the table. The band members are on a wooden stage flanked by velvet curtains in what looks like the village hall. My father is seated on a stool at an upright piano, to the right of the picture so that his face is only visible in profile, mouth open, his head tilted down, intent on his fingers as they depress the keys; one foot underneath pushing down on a pedal. To the left of the stage his brother Dib sits leaning forward to strum his banjo, a bowler hat perched at a jaunty angle, staring a broad grin into the camera despite the cigarette jutting from the corner of his lips. I guess that the slim, smiling woman in the centre at the microphone, dressed in a neat, dark frock with a lace collar is Doris Lampard. Behind them, less distinct are a guitarist and a drummer.

I am aware of someone standing at my elbow; a stooped, portly, elderly figure leaning on a stick, sharing my view, peering with rheumy eyes at the picture. I recognise him as Arnold Goodridge, one of my father’s friends, although I’m unsure of the connection. Perhaps he’d been a fellow parish council member, or they went to cricket matches together.

“That would have been a Saturday nighter,” he says, gesturing at the photo. “There’s your Dad, on the old Joanna, and your Uncle Dib up front. He was a lad, that Dib!”

The bloodshot eyes are lit with interest as he leans forwards to peer closer. I pull out a chair, inviting him to sit and he accepts my offer of a pint. He squints at the aged image, pinching it by the narrow, white border as he holds it up to the light.

“I know that Doris used to sing,” I tell him, “but who are the other two- the guitarist and the drummer?”

I wait while he examines the scene, his breathing rapid and wheezy, the sound my father’s piano accordion made when he was warming it up. He takes so long to answer his pint arrives and he lifts it to take a long draught before he speaks.

“That there,” he prods the guitarist in the picture with a thick, stubby finger, “is old Ernie Brabrook. He used to have the butchers, up on the Copseway. That’s up the road behind your Dad’s place. And that fellow behind the drums is Dick; Dick Abbott that had the grocers shop. You’ll remember that from when you was a nipper.”

I nod.

“I do remember. Walking past it tonight made me think of when we used to go up there for sweets. I’m afraid we went in more for the thrill than to buy anything. We were terrified of Mrs Abbott so we dared each other to enter.”

The old man smiles his understanding.

“Oh ah! She was a hard woman, Mae Abbott. Bitter, with a wasp sting for a tongue. Weren’t no one missed a tongue lashing from Mae at some point. ‘Course Dick got it the worst. He spent as much time as he could out of her way; he had his grocer’s round in the daytime, doing deliveries, then he’d be out with the band as often as you like, four or five nights a week sometimes. He played in the darts team, too.”

“So Mae didn’t go along to see the band? I suppose if Dick was on stage she’d have no partner for dancing.”

“Mae? No! She weren’t one for dancing. Back when they was first married she had June to look after. She only ever went out on a Sunday, to church, as I recall.”

“June must have been born quite soon after they were married, then.”

He scratches his head, frowning at his glass.

“Things was different then.”

For now the old man has completed his narrative. He drains his pint and hauls himself to his feet as my meal is delivered to the table with enquiries as to whether I’d like any sauces and another drink.

Arnold is shrugging his coat on, turning to leave then he stops to voice a thought.

“I might have one or two of them photos at home, the band and that. I’ll have a look and bring them round, if you’re interested.”

I am. I thank him.

“Arnold, before you go, can you tell me anything about June? Does she still live in the village?”

He grips the chair back as he faces me, his knuckles white, his breath whistling.

“I’d have thought your Dad would have told you. She passed away. Must have been twenty years ago; not that long after Dick, but before Mae. It were a sad business.”

The spiders have retired for the night when I go out to take a last cigarette in the cool air of the yard. This small space, illuminated by a shaft of light from the doorway is cluttered with accumulated rubbish and scruffy with weeds, neglected and unloved, another task to be undertaken before I leave. My father had been devoted to his small garden, growing gaudy dahlias and rows of fat onions, trimming the hedge and tending the pond, now relapsed into a murky, stagnant pool, clogged with choking blanket weed. When my mother died he’d withdrawn to the house, leaving his beloved plants to fend for themselves, as if the garden itself had been responsible for her death. Grief affects people in strange ways, driving them to relinquish lifetime habits and adopt new ones. I think how little I knew him in the later years, my visits short and peremptory and executed from a sense of duty.

I make my way to bed in the tiny, inhospitable guest bedroom, crawling between slippery sheets topped with unaccustomed, heavy layers of blankets and an eiderdown; the bedding a relic from when we were boys, although never in this cramped bungalow designed for retirement. The elderly bed springs creak and protest as I fidget, sleepless with memory. June Abbott; she’d have been in her sixties now. What had happened to her?

Celebrating a Long and Well Lived Life

There is no other life event that compares to a funeral. You expect weddings to be picture book pretty, baby-naming to be joyful, divorce to be bitter and embattled, but a funeral can be any or all of these things and more besides, depending on your relationship to the deceased.

Last week I went to my cousin, Gordon’s funeral. He’d reached the grand age of 92 and was the son of my eldest uncle. Like many families of the age, my father’s family was and is an enormous, village tribe consisting of so many branches I’ve lost track of who everyone is and how they are related to me. Being the youngest of seven my father was uncle to Gordon at an almost identical age, prompting my grandfather [who died before my birth] to use ‘Uncle’ as his nickname.

Gordon’s funeral was held at the church in the village of my birth, a tiny, country church in a beautiful, picturesque setting, bathed in the glow of the May sunshine. The small building was packed, as it was for my father’s funeral five years before. My brother and I were directed towards the front pews. Would we know anyone? We are from the family that ‘got away’-my father having left the village with us to take up employment in another part of the country, hence contact with the many aunts, uncles and cousins has been sporadic and increasingly rare.

We made our way up the aisle, aware that curious looks were pursuing us. The lack of familiarity was mutual. I stopped by the first pew with some space. The occupants turned their faces to me, the fleeting blankness eclipsed by impulsive wide grins of recognition. These are two of my best remembered cousins; my recollections of them ingrained as glamorous, fifties belles in stiff, circular skirts, heels and beehive hairdos. They stood to hug us as we all exclaimed our pleasure at meeting.

Of my grandfather’s four sons, my father was alone in pursuing a career away from greengrocery, and Gordon had continued the fruit and vegetable business his father [Edgar] ran. His coffin was born past us adorned with a riotous profusion of flowers, fruit and vegetables, including bright bunches of carrots, vibrant spears of broccoli and large, emerald cabbage leaves. What more life-affirming sight could there be than a mountain of freshly picked plants?

I have attended a variety of funerals during my life; some consisting of no more than six attendees, sad affairs that make you glad, at least that the deceased was not present to witness such a poor turnout. Gordon was a gentle, amenable man, affording to everyone he met the same smiling courtesy and kindness and nobody would have been more proud and delighted to have seen the crammed church, the smiles of recognition and the pleasure we all took in re-acquaintance.

Hymns sung and thoughts sent, we all gathered in the village community centre for tea, cake and recollection.

For those closest to Gordon it was of course an unutterably sad event but there must be an element of comfort to be gained from reflecting on what turned out to be a cheerful and celebratory occasion.