March 2009


whoah!!  What a picture!

whoah!! What a picture!

                                                                         ART BY Jacqui Farell

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His sisters had been smoking on the weekend, with his cousins. Christopher misses nothing, so he knows exactly where the smoking paraphernalia is hidden. Cigarettes, matches and even some strange papers he can’t identify are hidden under the plaster-of-paris mountain in the middle of his older brother’s train set. He walks past the lounge to the play room, and sees that his mother is lavishing yet more attention on his two-year old brother. He takes the matches, puts them in his red dungaree’s pocket, and makes his way out of the kitchen door, progressing down the hill to the farm with the yellow sunflowers and ripening corn.

The burning sun shines on his face, bringing his freckles into sharp focus, turning his nose into a sharp shadow sloping down his chin. His tummy is still full from the caramel tart he’d eaten at Auntie Maria’s this afternoon (after he’d spent an hour watching every little thing the canaries, cockatiels and budgies had done in the aviary). He is still buzzing after finding the corpse of a puffadder on his way home. He had pushed it along with an acacia branch, poking it with the thorns.

He looks now directly at the sun, against his better judgement, against everything he’s ever been told he should do, his little legs still marching him down the hill to the farmer’s field, the seven matches rattling in the box.

He climbs over the rusty barbed wire fence, and feels the dryness of the red soil on his bare feet. It’s been three days since it last rained, he knows. He sits down under the tall corn stalks to continue his exploration of the way things work.

Later, that evening, after his hiding, and after his refusal to eat the broccoli on his plate, his father unceremoniously takes him to the farmer’s house. The farmer is red faced in his fury, and says that he will whip the bejesus out of Christopher if ever he sets another foot on his land.

Trying to sleep, all he can see is the tears on the face of the farmer’s wife. He puts his face into his pillow, and cries at his misfortune. His fat little brother ticks  like a mentronome in his cot on the other side of the room.

FIN

The plane tree stands firmly before the house more deeply embedded in the rocky soil than the house could ever be; more green than the house but for that the house was once my home and once Mum had green curtains across each street facing window.

That the house is still there is a miracle, that there’s still the tree though more gnarled and more woody is doubly surprising. The house jars now with its brand new middle class Tony Blairised neighbours although it is now undoubtedly middle class, not like it was when it was Mum’s den of inequity.

Little red brick house with friendly back yard where fairytales were obvious and magnolias where bright where Mum grew her spinach which I’d never eat sitting from six to eight at the dinner table the lamb cutlets and mash would be gone but not the spinach. “Bed!” Bed. Bedtime sory of the bears eating…sleep. Woken sometimes by strange sounds but still – sleep – school in the morning.

Teacher big red hair and long talon nails (I wish the bears would eat you I want to be home with Mum and hugs). Teacher glaring at me with non-care, with hatred almost, even tho I’s clever and always did my homework and always answered questions with perfect accuracy still the hate.

Teacher with beg red hair and long talon nails her husband visited Mum, you now know.

That the tree should be such a bastion and grow so steadfastly strong surprises me now as I contemplate once being six. Ah well… Mum’s dead and me thirsty.

The public house (white walls dirty) hard lived faces with pint or plonk or cheap smelly liquor and nasty little barflies drowning in my pint. I always walked past here on my way to school, but never went in. I was too young and taken away before the thought could even cross my mind. Now that the thought’s crossed my mind I’m thirty two and quite able to handle a drink or ten. (Twenty drinks later—then I’m the guy you tut at on the late night street).

The little local—crowded this Easter Monday typical British way of being the local’s more home than your sex filled bedroom, as I’m sure Mum could testify from her grave I’v just visited up the road. Psychedelic purple and yellow Tulips like the ones in Regent’s part at springtime. Me and the pastor burying her, what a famous farewell, no Elton John singing a hackneyed song esp for someone else. Small tine criminals never get grand tributes.

Teacher, small and hunched grey and wrinkled smoking a Superking sittting on a barstool and drinking gin and tonic sees me and smiles. “I’m sorry I judged you because of yourt mother, that whoring bitch!” she says, with venom. It is half an aopology, at least.

FIN

The quality of winter afternoon light on an undulating English heath(crisp but dull))pushing its way through the last young beech leaves; hundreds of shades of copper, green, puffed moody clouded tangles and lattices of branches, boughs(seemingly infinite); thrushes, robins and magpies hardly ever seen but always singing nonetheless. In this congested land though, the traffic and jet engines are never far away, human noises mingling with the eddies of wind moving through that  high branch now, this holly bush next, lifting the bracken, pushing it back down again.

And dere footfalls!

If you dislocate your mind for a moment and concentrate on the cumulous clouds(white, graduated grey to black, and bronze) the sound of the rumbling metropolis could indeed be the motors of the clouds above. Stretch, I know, but if there really is such a thing called infinity mention of

In another world, six times removed but absolutely parallel to ours, clouds may indeed be powered along by intelligent motors.

FIN

It is a carbon saving decision on Jeff’s part. All his life he’s jetted here and there, but after seeing firsthand, in June, the perilous state of the Arctic ice sheets, he has made the decision that air travel is something that should be relegated to the history books. His friends and associates had laughed cynically at his uncharacteristic decision.

 He is travelling to the Scottish Highlands to do his skiing this Christmas and New Year, and is pleased to see, from his morning weather check, that the snow thickness is the best it has been for years. At least he won’t be referring to his Italian phrase books again this year. Sure, the Grampians aren’t the Italian Alps, but they’re closer to London, easier to get to, and cheaper to enjoy. It isn’t, though, an entirely practical decision. That his ex wife got the job of carbon recapture scientist for the Department of the Environment was a shock to him, considering he had laughed at her when she told him she had applied for the job. That she had to move to bloody Inverness was a true crusher, which took his two young daughters away from London. He’s looking forward to meeting Anne and Jennie again, he hasn’t seen them since the divorce was finalised two weeks ago.

He makes his way along the people congested (almost everyone wearing grey and dowdy coats) platform, towards carriage D and notices that the train is called The Euston Flyer. Naff, he thinks. In front of him are two young Scottish women, talking in sing song Glasgow accents, with wide hips and big backsides swaying precariously on stiletto heels. They are red cheeked, giggling and exhaling steam in the cold early morning light. The overhead power cables have that sharp, acrid electric smell mixed in with the damp winter air. He steps up onto the carriage into the centrally heated standard class carriage and notices that the fabric on the seats looks a little shabby. There is a faint whiff of disinfectant that he is sure will fade after the carriage fills up. He hopes the fluorescent lighting won’t give him a headache – the ones in the office are a real killer. Still, he reassures himself, it’s only a five-hour journey, and no foot tapping waiting about in departure halls or mind numbing data reconfiguration in front of a plasma screen.

He buries his nose in the Christmas Eve edition of The Times as a suited man, smelling of citrus and sporting holly motifs on his tie, sits down opposite him and sets up his laptop. Jeff sighs, wondering why on earth technology has to be so ubiquitous, and just as he thinks this, a group of 3 i-podded youths sit at the table on the other side of the aisle. They’re talking excitedly about how hot Girls Aloud looked last night. Jeff suddenly feels much older than thirty-two.

The news in the paper is dire (it’s the economy, stupid), so he flicks back to the sports pages to see how Arsenal have been punished for losing their game last night. Living with a bird’s eye view of the Emirates stadium is no coincidence. He takes a special, somewhat obsessive, interest in their progress. He is distracted when a heavily pregnant woman asks him to move so she can get onto the window seat. She is wearing a dowdy fisherman’s sweater but despite this looks radiant and blissfully content. Her green eyes smile at him and he smiles back, conscious of the tooth he chipped on the choc chip cookie he had for breakfast. She takes out a notebook and begins scribbling away.

He gets back to the sport pages as the train announces its departure and slips away from the sixties monstrosity that is Euston Station, lulling him into a shallow sleep. The dirty city haze gives was to clear blue skies. The ticket inspector who clips his ticket awakes him. Jeff notices that the man’s hands are stained by strange purple ink. He is surprised to have fallen asleep, but that can be blamed on his late night with Frank and Ralph last night. Those Christmas holiday drinks always get him in the mood for the festivities, part and parcel of routine and tradition.

He turns to the editorial page and is very surprised to see that the letter he sent to the paper last week regarding the Simon Cowell factor on the music industry has been published. He’s been writing letters to newspapers since he was twenty-one and never been published. To see his name in print gives him a sense of empowerment. “Why is it that music is no longer about the feeling but about the sound, which is super compacted, and over produced? Simon Cowell claims that he is a cultural man, but how can a cultural man claim that El Divo are anything else but a karaoke band who murder tired old songs? The X Factor, I am loath to say, do not encourage creativity. Instead, the contestants seem to be forced into moulds that they have no choice in manufacturing. Take the artist out of the creative process, and you can only call them a machine…”

 The drinks and snacks trolley comes along and Jeff pays for a coffee and cheese and ham croissant.

‘You don’t have anything smaller than ten pounds, do you sir?’ the vendor asks in a Jamaican accent.

‘Sorry,’ Jeff says, ‘I don’t. But tell you what, it’s Christmas, why don’t you keep the change?’

‘Thank you sir, much appreciated, and a happy Christmas to you too,’ the vendor smiles, revealing a gold incisor.

‘That was very kind of you,’ says the pregnant woman sitting next to him, rounded vowels in a soft Welsh accent.

‘Really, it was nothing. I didn’t want to deplete his change supplies. Are you sure you’re comfortable with me sitting next to you? These seats aren’t particularly spacious and there’s a free set of seats I can move to at the front of the carriage.’

‘Don’t be silly. I’m fine with you next to me, plus, its nicer for you to sit at a table seat where you can put your coffee and newspaper.’

He takes a sip on his coffee and winces.

The suited man opposite him chuckles: ‘First time for train coffee, ay?’

‘Is that how they recycle their old oil?’ is the best response Jeff can muster.

Behind them, a prim woman with a little dachshund puppy says to them, eyebrows aquiver, ‘Please folks, keep it a little quieter, this is the quiet carriage, in case you didn’t notice.’

‘Sorry,’ they all mutter, and Jeff gets back to his newspaper, finding out that his stock portfolio, pension fund and overseas Euro bank accounts have lost yet more of their value. He tries to suppress the sigh but it still escapes. Last Christmas he and his family were on his brother’s Lear jet to Milan. Now that his brother’s luxury airline has gone south, the Lear jet is but a poignant memory and his brother is living with him in his little pad. Never, they’d both laughed when Jeff got home at two o’clock this morning, not even in a million years, they giggled, sipping Tesco champagne, had they seen that one coming.

He suddenly gets a whiff of nutmeg, cinnamon, and fruit and hears crinkling paper. The pregnant woman is opening a package and already he’s guessing that it’s mince pie.

‘Fancy one,’ she whispers in his ear, ‘to go with your gourmet coffee?’

‘’Why thank you,’ he says, taking a tiny pie from the proffered package and popping it in his mouth.

The taste! The last time he’d tasted a mince pie like that was at his late grandmother’s house in 1984. He is tempted to take another as the festive-tied businessman quickly wolfs one down.

‘That was delicious,’ Jeff says quietly.

‘Yes, I know, it’s made by the Lambeth Co-operative for the Salvation Army’s Christmas charity drive. I hear that the philosophy is that the tastier the mince pie, the more generous the donations of the beneficiaries. I was lucky to get hold of some! They were in hot demand among the representatives on the Co-Operative development board. Talk about trends, ay?’

Jeff smiles dubiously. This co-operative malarkey! What in the world is she on about?

‘Yes, trends,’ he mutters and turns back to the funny pages of the paper. He can’t concentrate though because there are a group of dubious looking people drinking super strength lager, and bigging up their conversation, a few rows behind him. He’s never travelled with people like this before and finds their pre midday drinking distasteful. It’s something you’d expect on a park bench, not on the first train on Christmas Eve. Still, he can’t help smiling at the red and green pixie-like beanies they are all wearing – at least they’re in the festive spirit, and maybe, he reasons, this morning drinking thing is part of their festive routine. He’s tempted, in fact, to have a beer himself, but no… he can’t meet his daughters smelling of alcohol.

The train is speeding through the English countryside, and Jeff must admit he’s getting a better feel for the lie of the land than he ever has from a plane or the M6 motorway. The winter fields are bare of crops except for some weird yellow plants, which he lazily assumes must be rapeseed. He drifts back into a movement-induced slumber. He is brought back from sleep by guffawing laughs from the lager louts. He adjusts his eyes to the artificial light and looks behind him. The snooty lady’s dachshund has done his business in the aisle, causing mirth among the drinkers who are poking jibes as the dog’s owner quickly scoops the doggy doo into a plastic bag. ‘Savin that for ya Christmas puddin, luv…’ He looks at his watch and notices that the train is more than halfway to Glasgow. The only stop is at Preston in the Lake District, which a cheerful Yorkshire man announces over the public announcement system, is only half an hour away.

He remembers suddenly that he needs to make an appointment to have his tooth repaired. He takes out his phone and walks out of the quiet carriage, dialling directory information for the numbers of a few dentists in central Glasgow. He manages to make an emergency appointment and then calls his ex wife to ask her to drop the girls at the hotel two hours later. She reluctantly agrees, annoyed that she has to modify her Christmas Eve plans. It is then that he hears an ear splitting scream from his carriage.

He rushes back to see what is going on. The pregnant lady, he realises with a shock, has gone into labour, and the I-pod wearing youths are looking at her agog. He rushes to her.

 ‘My God,’ she says to him, ‘This is my third, and I think it’s going to be quick!’

‘Anybody a doctor?’ he yells across the carriage, ‘There’s a lady gone into labour over here!’ He cannot help but feel ill as he notices that her waters have broken onto the mottled grey acrylic carpet.

‘Yes,’ says one of the lager drinking beanie-wearing men he disapproved of earlier, ‘and to make it ever more of a co-incidence, I’m a paediatrician!’

He comes over and Jeff asks him, quietly, ‘You sure you’re sober enough to cope with this?’

‘Don’t be silly. It’s not like driving a car. Also, I’ve helped deliver two hundred and ninety six babies, so anything thrown at me, I can cope with!’

He goes over to the woman in labour and asks: ‘What’s your name, love?’

‘Justine,’ she says, her face running with sweat and grimaced, ‘and this baby wants to come out super fast.’

‘I’m Danny, a doctor, and after we’ve spoken to the conductor, we’re going to get you ready to have this baby.’

Ten minutes later, in the middle of the aisle in carriage D, a baby girl is born. For Jeff, it is an eye-opener, because even although he was at his ex wife’s side for the birth of both their daughters, he always avoided a bird’s eye view. This time though, he had no choice, as Danny needed him to sterilise a knife with a lighter, get him a towel for swaddling, and hold the freshly emerged baby while the umbilical chord was cut.

 ‘Are you okay, Justine?’ he asks

‘I’m just fine,’ she says, smiling as she is handed her freshly swaddled baby. Just then the train arrives at Preston.

Two paramedics rush on, lift Justine and her baby onto a stretcher, congratulate Danny, and rush mother and child off the train. ‘Bye,’ Justine says, smiling proudly. Only now Jeff remembers the story his brother was telling him last night…about his summer holiday on the Western Scottish Islands, an isolated, self-sufficient community who brewed their own alcohol, and a whirlwind romance with a Welsh woman with the clearest green eyes. It can’t be, he thinks.

 Is it possible, he wonders, that I just aided in the fastest ever delivery in the records of Virgin Trains, perhaps in British medical history, and that the baby, quirkily, was actually my niece? It is at this moment on Christmas Eve 2008 that carriage D on the Pendolino Express is truly a quiet coach, apart from a yap from the dachshund. Jeff turns and glares at the prissy lady. She smiles at him and says: ‘Do you want to come and sit next to me?’

Jeff relocates himself, his skis, and luggage to carriage E. Something is just not right about the Quiet Coach. And he will have that beer, after all.

FIN