Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Wall

Those who were on the inside, never realized their situation, as such. It was those on the outside, looking in, who observed that there was an ‘us’ and ‘them’- that there was a difference.

And so it was with Crandid. He had been on the other side for as long as he could remember, and had always looked in with a mixture of pity and jealousy. To be that content, he thought, at least to look that content, would be worth a time on the inside.

Everything had a price – Crandid knew that. Everything had a cost and he knew that if he were ever to penetrate behind the walls, then there was sure to be some sort of sacrifice. Some means of extracting a part of him, in order that he could live in contentment with the majority. Was it just compromise or was it selling your soul? Was it worth selling your soul to be content?

Just how happy were the folks on the inside? Thought Crandid. It’s not as if he could ask them until he was actually in there – then what? Would they tell him the truth? Would they know the answer themselves?

That was when Crandid came up with a plan. At around 2am until 2.15am, the security personnel in his sector would leave the vicinity of the outer wall. Most went to the bathroom, some still smoked. The fifteen minute break in every twelve hours was decreed by the Provost.

This gave Crandid the time to paint his slogan on the wall:
‘Your life is a lie.’

He made it back over the wall without incident before the security folks came back.

Crandid knew there would be those who couldn’t see it, and those who didn’t read words (and perhaps those who didn’t want to see), but the rest would have to come face-to-face with it at some time in the day.

Standing on a high hill not far from the wall, Crandid could watch the reactions of those who were inside.

The first to pass that morning was Mister Jasper, the banker. He lived with a frozen face – a face that only reflected contentment. That was when Jasper saw the phrase on the wall.

He felt his stomach sink – someone out there knew. Knew his secret. Knew that he had never wanted to be a banker – he’d always wanted to be a gardener. To create and raise things from the soil. He was lost. He ran the World bank, a job he despised.

Crandid saw a rather well-dressed gentleman, read his slogan, break down in tears and throw away his business case.

A little later, a woman dressed in expensive clothing happened to walk by. She was smoking a cigarette and was talking on her phone. She looked at the slogan and not only did she stop talking, she dropped her phone.

She felt a shock run all the way through her body. Who knew? She thought. Who the hell knew?

Every night she played the role of the contented wife, and every night she did what she had to do, to be a good and happy wife – but who knew she was also having an affair with the woman across the hallway? Who?

Crandid caught the sight of a woman running away from his slogan. She looked anxious – a look he had never ever seen before from one who lived over the wall.

Early in the afternoon, the Provost of the Highland Sector was sitting writing his next speech for the Assembly. As he looked at the sun, he read what Crandid had written on the wall.

His heart almost stopped. Who knew his secret? Who knew that he had lied about his college degrees, that he had lied about his time as a medical doctor? They were coming for him now, he was sure of that. There was only one thing to do and that was to confess in his speech to the assembly this very day. The Provost ripped up his papers and started again.

This action confused Crandid but one thing was for certain, in all three cases, those who had read his slogan had lost their contented look and replaced it with a face more serious.

Perhaps, thought Crandid, no one was really content. Perhaps all those on the inside had sold their souls to live there, and the false face of contentment was their price.

That was when Crandid decided he was happier to live on the outside. You didn’t have to lie out there.

Out here was for the brave, and for those who didn’t depend on others’ opinions to be alive.
As he walked back to his home, he felt sorry for the people he had seen today.

bobby stevenson 2016

Friday, 18 November 2016

Painted Love

When the flowers had all but disappeared from Clare’s garden, she had replaced them by painting roses and daffodils on a brick wall at the rear of her flower bed. There would be no beautiful smells welcoming a visitor as they walked up her path, but then there hadn’t been any visitors in such a long time – at least not since that peculiar day.

Last Spring when her car had finally given up the ghost, she had painted a newer, flashier model on the door of the garage. She stood back and smiled at what looked like the best car she had ever owned.

Sometime in November, Clare painted the downstairs’ room all in white and then, one by one, she painted each of her family members on the walls around the room. When it was finished, and she had pushed the table against the back of the room, it looked as if her family would be there for her at Christmas; all sitting at the one big table. She smiled because nothing like that had ever really happened in those days long ago. She had even painted in her grandparents and those long-remembered pals who had left this life too soon.

Clare placed plates in front of each of the painted figures, and somewhere in the attic she had found an old wind-up gramophone. There was one record – a big heavy shellac disc with a song titled ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’ and given the circumstances she had to laugh at the irony. It was meant to be played at 78 RPM but the way Clare sometimes over-wound it, it sometimes played too fast and then too slow. It made Clare smile and she sang along with it, again and again, regardless of the speed.

She painted turkey and peas and potatoes on the plates, and for her Aunty Sue (who was a vegetarian) she had painted a selection of vegetables.
Clare had conversations with all of them at the meal – not that things like that had really happened in life. At her old Christmas’ meals, everyone spoke at the same time. But hey, that was what living was about and that was what people were about. She missed them all.
Before Clare knew it, she was throwing a New Year’s Party. She asked each of her painted family to make a resolution, then she made one herself; hers was simple – it was to find a partner and settle down. Clare was sure she heard all her friends and family applaud.
‘At last’, she could hear them saying. ‘About time,’ was another.
She painted out a few ideas of partners but most of them were based on old boyfriends, and all of them completely wrong for her. Then one cold night, she found a bottle of brandy in the cellar – it must have been there years. She’d promised herself that she would only have one sip every birthday but in the end greed and loneliness got the better of her, and she drank most of the bottle.
When she awoke the next afternoon, she found that she had painted a partner on the canvas – one that she would have never gone out with in the old times. 

He was more exciting somehow. He was new and more than that, an undiscovered land.
She wasn’t sure if it was the hangover but she could have sworn on a Bible that he had winked at her. Later when she was having her usual daily cry at the window, she heard someone calling her name – of course she knew that was impossible, for as far she was concerned there wasn’t anyone left. She was the last woman, and probably the last human on the planet.
“Clare,” there it was again.
She turned to see her partner, her boyfriend, her lover lift himself from the painting and beckon her to come to him.
Clare stopped and a cold chill filled her blood. She realised that she had probably finally gone insane. All those years, all that time being alone – all that poor mental health.
Then she lifted-up her spirits, and she smiled to herself, realising that it didn’t really matter that much – not now – and gave her lover a kiss.
What a way to go, she thought, what a bloody brilliant way to go.
bobby stevenson 2016

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

A Christmas Walk

He had always lived in the city. His parents had met there, and his brothers and sisters had been born there.

Sometimes they’d visit the countryside, but it would always be on a blue-sky day. This led Andy to believe that the city was mostly a dark and wet place and it was the land beyond where the sun always warmed the land.

He’d dreamt of his father again, meaning the he had woken at 3.20am in a pool of sweat. Each time that he saw his father, he would bend down to tell his son that everything was all right and that he was good and not to worry.  The first few times it had happened he’d mentioned it to his mother, but it caused her so much pain that he stopped talking about his dreams.

His father had worked in the city. Every morning he would cycle to the railway station, take the express into the centre, and then cycle to his office. Then on the dark unforgiving Wednesday a large truck had cut across his path. The driver hadn’t seen him, in fact he couldn’t see him, and the truck hit Andy’s father.

Andy remembers his teacher standing at the classroom door, she had just been talking with the school secretary. She turned and looked straight at Andy. Straight into his eyes – straight into his soul. One human being locking hearts with another.

There was a sharp pain in his heart which told him it wasn’t good news.
At the funeral, several of his uncles and family friends slapped him on the back and told him that at thirteen years of age, he was the man of the house now. Andy had no idea what they meant.

His dad’s sister, aunt Alice, had rented a house for Christmas. It was up in the hills to the west of London, and everyone was going to be there; his grandparents, his own family and most of his uncles and aunts.

“It’s what the family needs at a time like this,” his grandmother had said. “The first Christmas without my boy”.

It had started snowing on the evening of the Wednesday before. They left very early on the Thursday morning, to ensure they all made it to the house before the snow got heavy. Christmas was not until the Saturday but everyone wanted to get snuggled into the house before the big day.

The place was perfect and aunt Alice had chosen well. Andy had to share a bedroom with one of his brothers and one of his cousins, but if he was being honest it felt comfortable. Andy felt a warmth in his heart that he hadn’t felt for a very long time.

Everyone mucked in with the Christmas dinner. The family had decided to hand out the presents after they had eaten and after they could then all sit down in front of the big log fire.

Andy had saved his money and given his mother a small picture frame in which he had placed a photo of his father. She had beamed the biggest smile towards him when she’d opened his present.

Andy got books and games, and a welcomed new phone. He knew he was lucky – luckier than most people. But still.

After the Christmas lunch, he decided to go for a walk along the trail that led out of the village. It was a beautiful day and the blue sky and fresh air seemed to cut into his lungs.

Since he was going outdoors, he had been given the task of taking the three family dogs for a spot of walking. They all needed it, given what they had just eaten.

Andy wasn’t alone on the path and decided to keep the dogs on their leads in case they chased the man in front.
For the first time in a long time, Andy felt a little contentment, inside. The pain had gone for a few hours and he felt like his old self.

Sherlock, the oldest of the dogs, gave a bark which brought Andy back to the here and now. The man up ahead had dropped a small dark object and the dogs thought it was something to chase.

Andy ran ahead and picked it up. It was a small box, and inside was a little medal. There was an engraving on the back which read ‘To the greatest. Saint Andrew’s University – 1998’.

Andy felt that the man would not want to lose this and as he shouted on him, the man turned a corner behind a bush. Andy set the dogs free to see if they might catch up with the stranger but when they all got to the corner, the man was gone.

Andy slipped the medal back in the box and put it in his trousers.
It was the following day that it happened. His mother was washing some of their holiday clothes and, as usual, had to empty Andy’s trouser pockets. She had found the little box.

“Andy! Andy!”
Andy ran to the utility room.
“Where did you get this?” She asked her son. Andy told her the story and that was when she almost fainted. Andy had to get her a chair to sit on.
“Every year just before the Christmas break, me, your father and the rest of the students would have a cycle race from our rooms to a pub in the centre of Saint Andrew’s. Whoever got there first was given a medal and whoever was last - bought a round of drinks. Your father, with me on the cross-bars, won that race in 1998. He had it with him the day of his accident and although I searched through his clothes I couldn’t find it. What did the man look like?” Asked his mother.
“Just a man,” said Andy. “Just a man”.

bobby stevenson 2016
photo:  Christmas in the Cotswolds - Andrew Roland

Friday, 4 November 2016

Beautifully Broken

Sara stepped out the front door with an artificial spring in her step. Whatever happened in life, you had to turn up and shut up; her grandfather had taught her that. Her daughter, Willow, ran down the stairs and caught her mother’s hand as they stepped into the world. Sara didn’t know, as the two of them walked up the street, that her seven-year-old daughter had lain awake last night listening to her mother sobbing. Willow held her mother’s hand even more tightly than she did yesterday.

Across the road in number 17, Eric watched the lovely mother and daughter skip up the street: oh, to be that happy, he thought. Eric waved to his wife as she left to start the first of her four cleaning jobs that day. She had to work all the hours she could, now that his hip had grown more painful. He could still climb up to the attic when the house was empty and those steps were like a stairway to heaven. Up there he could try on the dresses and the high-heel shoes, and in the mirror, he didn’t see Eric but the beautiful Titania. What harm was he doing? He felt certain that God would understand.

Helen did what she always did at this time every morning: she would eat her breakfast and watch the world go by from her window. She had stopped putting milk in with the corn flakes, and had gone straight to drowning them in vodka. It gave her a warmth and glow that porridge had once done. She knew that by 10am the sun would be shining in her head no matter what the weather was outside. Passing folks would wave at Helen – the smiling happy lady who sat looking from her window at number five.

Kelly smiled at the mirror. She had to get the first smile right. It had to look natural, welcoming, and loving. She didn’t want her eyes to give the game away. She had to get it correct, for her sake and for his. He wouldn’t be coming home for another week but every spare minute she had, was spent practising that smile. It had been his third tour of duty in Afghanistan when it had happened. She told herself that she had married the man, a brave soul with a good heart and not the legs – the ones he had left in another country.

Sandy walked to the shop to get a newspaper, one that he knew he wouldn’t read. Newspapers only sold misery and lies anyway. What was really important was the fact, that if he made it there and back without stepping on a crack in the pavement – then he wasn’t a failure and his wife was wrong.

Katie watched Sandy through her dirty window. She wanted to tell him that he was married to the wrong woman, and that she could love him much better than that wife of his. Somehow Katie’s life had passed her by as she had nursed her long-gone mother. It was probably too late to say to Sandy, she thought. Then she heard the voice calling on her again and she wondered if she was going the same way as her mother and grandmother.

Another morning was almost over in the street of the beautifully broken, and up and down  the road the silence was almost deafening.

bobby stevenson 2016

Photograph of children playing in the street taken through a window [1949-54] Nigel Henderson 1917-1985 The papers were acquired by the Tate Archive from Janet Henderson and the Henderson family in 1992.