As examples of the sorts of fiction we have produced recently, listed below are ten short stories written by some members of the group in the twelve months up to the end of June 2022. All rights to these works are reserved. No portion of these stories may be reproduced, copied, distributed or adapted in any way, with the exception of certain activities permitted by applicable copyright laws, such as brief quotations in the context of a review or academic work. For permission to publish, distribute or otherwise reproduce this work, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This collection of stories is dedicated to the memory of Margaret Briddon, Story Writers Group Co-ordinator for many years, and one of the leading contributors to the initial development of Sheffield u3a, who died in September 2022.
Phil Parker (Group Co-ordinator)
Please read on for the stories listed below:
* ‘Alien Invasion’ by Jan Henry (July 2021)
* ‘Tuesday’s Child’ by Jan Henry (August 2021)
* ‘A Secret Garden’ by Margaret Briddon (October 2021)
* ‘The Secret Garden’ by Sue Halpern (October 2021)
* ‘The Night Shift’ by Margaret Briddon (January 2022)
* ‘The Night Shift’ by Phil Parker (January 2022)
* ‘UFO’ by Phil Parker (March 2022)
* ‘The Far Side of the Lake’ by Julian Fisher (May 2022)
* ‘In the Deep Freeze’ by Julian Fisher (June 2022)
* ‘In the Deep Freeze’ by Sue Halpern (June 2022)
Alien Invasion by Jan Henry
It’s getting like Piccadilly Circus round here, grumbled R4FV.
You said it mate, agreed his friend L9S, who was thinking of the time he had tuned in to the London scenery, all horseless carriages, top hats and crinolines. Bustling, that’s what it was.
Every time you turn round there’s another one of their strange vehicles thumping down overhead like there’s no such thing as a moon headache.
No consideration at all, they’ve been like that for centuries.
I know, but lately they’re having a laugh, it’s all the great gig in the sky; rocket this, rover that and the digging!
Yeah, the digging is adding insult to injury. We’ve had to add moon rock from underneath to shore up the sea of tranquillity again this month, it slipped again. You know the stuff, any colour you like as long as it’s grey.
That explains why the leaders offered overtime money last weekend. I did wonder who would take them up on all that effort. I suppose someone needed the extra cheese.
I know, I had some of that. It’s not just the work itself; it’s all the hiding of it from prying eyes on the planet over there. There’s been an explosion of nosiness from those alien creatures in the past half century and it the new normal as we call it has taken some adjusting to. Do you remember how we used to…?
Shut up, mate, don’t speak to me about then, you can go on all decade about how it used to be. It isn’t like that anymore. That small step Neil made has turned out to be a flood of visits that’s put us on the run. Instead of them just looking at us from all directions in those telescopes they were so proud of inventing, how many millennia behind the rest of us? It was a good day when we learned how to interpret their communication system. Who would have believed these primitive beings would have developed so many codes as to be completely unable to understand each other? Crazy aliens!
You’ve got to give them credit for managing to create the means to power the rockets to not only land here but get back to their strange looking planet too.
Credit! You want me to give them credit for failing to harness the power of our star and polluting the only planet they’ve got with all those smoke making factories, don’t get me started on those short-sighted aliens. They don’t deserve credit for using rocket fuel that is in finite supply. It’s not rocket science.
R4FV, what are you like? Rocket science is exactly what they call it! But before you go on about it, again, tell me, do you think it’s likely that the leaders will want more work done to shore up the Dark Side now the Chinese have made plans to extend their walkabout over there with real aliens making footprints again?
Well, they are snooping around quite near the mines and we have to protect them at all costs. It’s an us and them situation. I much preferred the Chinese when they were in their Ming Dynasty, though they made too much of that fancy pottery for my liking. And the Greeks, I liked them and their playwriting twenty-five hundred years or so ago. Those Romans though, they were too rough for my liking, always on about expanding their empire. Don’t they know that as soon as you conquer more people you’ve made more enemies? It never turns out well doesn’t an empire. Down at that South Pole area is another place the Chinese are casting their eyes at, too, according to their hieroglyphic writings.
Well, the leaders had better get their act together. You know there’s an eclipse due in the next few days.
I’d have to have brain damage not to know about the eclipse, the moon news has been on about little else lately, not that there’s ever much news hereabouts. The times of the tides on the other place are not much interest to me, honestly L9S.
Granted R4FV, granted. On the other hand, just next to my four thumbs and a finger, we need to get on with the harvesting in the cheese mines. It’s the work that pays the wages and the need to hide our centre from the alien invaders is becoming ever more serious. If the aliens from that planet ever found out that the moon really is made of cream cheese, who knows what they’d do?
(Underlined phrases are tracks from the Pink Floyd album, ‘Dark Side of the Moon.)
© Jan Henry 2021
Tuesday’s Child by Jan Henry
‘Grandad, tell me about the Olden Days,’ pleaded Hannah as she made her way across the lounge in the comfortable bungalow where her oldest relatives lived. Snuggling up on Grandad’s lap and assuming the position she liked best, cuddled in his arms, Hannah waited for the story to begin. Grandad Lionel Dacre composed his thoughts as he sought yet another story from his fund of myths and legends.
‘Well, chick, back in the days of the Norse Gods and Goddesses of the cold lands of Europe to the far, far north there lived a God called Tyr. Tyr was the little brother of the hammer wielding God of Thunder, Thor. It’s a bit like you being the little sister of your brother Theo who never enters a room without crashing the door and charging in like a whirlwind of sound.’
Hannah knew that Grandad was right. Theo was a storm in a tracksuit wherever he went. For that very reason she had banned him from her bedroom on more than one occasion. Theo hadn’t listened even when she had shrieked it at him that he wasn’t allowed in her room, but she was working on a notice for the outside of her door that would make her point clear in pink and glitter: Theo Out!
‘I imagine that having Thor as a brother was a noisy experience for Tyr, too,’ Grandad smiled. ‘Anyway, the Gods and Goddesses were having a bit of trouble with Fenrir, the giant wolf. Now a wolf, as you know, has a mouth full of teeth and claws on all paws. Fenrir grew up in Asgard in the far, far north and was fierce enough to frighten all the Gods, who kept their distance from those teeth and claws. The Gods and Goddesses knew that Fenrir would play a big part in the end of days which they thought could not be too far away. The problem was that only Tyr was brave enough to get close to Fenrir to feed him. Fenrir grew to sizes not known of wolves and the Gods began to worry. A giant wolf would be a useful weapon in the battles they expected, but in the meantime Fenrir was a danger to those around him. A plot was hatched.’
Hannah wriggled in anticipation in Grandad’s lap. He always managed to grip her attention and whenever one of his stories had ‘A plot was hatched’ in it, she knew that action was not far away.
‘The Gods tried to bind the enormous Fenrir by playing a game with him where they looped harnesses round his big form and he had to try to escape. Fenrir was wary of the game, but kicked out once and used his great strength to break the leather bonds. The Gods tried again, this time with a metal harness forged by Thor with his great hammer going bang, bang, bang on the iron hot from the forge. Fenrir burst through the links in the harness with a growl that bared his great teeth and would not play the game again.
‘The plot thickened. The Gods and Goddesses could see that if even the work of Thor could not bind Fenrir then they had to find a magical way to trap him. Approaching the crafty dwarves the Gods commissioned fetters that would deceive Fenrir into thinking he could break out easily. The dwarves made the fetters thinner than you would believe possible and were so proud of the durability of their work they called them Gleipnir. Armed with Gleipnir the Gods approached Fenrir again, challenging him to escape one last time in the game from the fetters they presented. Fenrir was suspicious. The lines were so thin that he thought the Gods were trying to deceive him. The Gods told Fenrir that he would achieve great fame for his strength if he tried the fetter and could beat it, but if he would not risk it then he would not deserve the fame anyway.’
‘Fenrir was right, wasn’t he Grandad,’ interrupted Hannah, knowing how these stories often went.
Grandad Lionel smiled a knowing smile at his grand-daughter and she wriggled again in anticipation.
‘Tyr, the god of battles and courage stepped in at this very moment,’ continued Grandad. ‘To allay the suspicions of Fenrir, he offered to place his arm in Fenrir’s mouth as the fetters were attached to the giant wolf. None of the other Gods could believe what Tyr was doing, but to speak would be to give away the plot so they watched as Tyr moved forward and bravely inserted his arm in the great wolf’s mouth. Somewhat reassured by this unexpected move, Fenrir permitted himself to be bound in Gleipnir. Tyr could feel the heat emanating from the fur of the giant beast. He could hear the rasping breath as Fenrir braced himself against the bindings as he had done before. Spit from the corners of Fenrir’s mouth fell on Tyr as the fearsome wolf swayed backwards and forwards to release the dwarf-made fetters. This time it was different. Fenrir was trapped. The skills of the dwarves were holding firm. Fenrir raged as he leapt and strained to release himself but only succeeding in binding himself tighter. Growling as fiercely as Tyr had ever heard him, Fenrir realised that the restraints were more than he could break. He braced his jaw. He bit down with all the rage that was in him.’
Grandad Lionel paused to look at Hannah. Her eyes were wide as she took in the story. Her kind heart was touched with worry for Tyr with his arm in the mouth of an enraged giant wolf.
‘The Gods were shocked. Tyr’s lower arm was gone. His bravery had saved the day but at a huge cost. As time went on Tyr’s arm healed and he learned to use that arm as a shield holder for the battles to come. Tyr’s reputation as a reconciler of men was completed that day and his place in the pantheon of Norse Gods was secured.’
‘Grandad, what happened to Fenrir?’
‘Fenrir’s bindings were secured into great rocks in the ground and he was only released to fight in the battles for the end of days, but that’s another story. For now, can you tell me what day of the week it is?’
‘Yes, it’s Tuesday, it’s always Tuesday when I come and see you for a story.’
‘And Tuesday is named after the Norse God Tyr that I told you about today, Tuesday is Tyrsday.’
‘No, I didn’t know that, but I do now, don’t I Grandad?’
‘And of course there’s the old English rhyme, Hannah dear: Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace……’
‘Yes, Grandad, I know, I learned that one at nursery school… I was born on a Tuesday, wasn’t I?’
‘Yes chick, of course, but did you also know that your own name Hannah means grace, so you are a Tuesday’s child in more ways than one. That’s a lot to live up to child.’
‘I can do it, Grandad, Tyr was brave and I was brave at school today. We went swimming and I had to jump in at the deep end and I was scared, but once I’d done it I could do it again, I think I did it about ten times before we had to get out of the pool because Miss Wilkinson blew the whistle.’
‘That’s my brave girl. And next Tyrsday when you come to our house for your tea I’ll be watching the Paralympics. There’s a girl there who swims all the strokes even though she hasn’t got the lower part of one arm. Claire Cashmore she’s called and we can watch her together having another go for a gold medal in the pool, or she might even be representing us at Triathlon. Now there’s bravery for you.’
‘Really Grandad, without part of an arm just like Tyr, I’d like to see that.’
‘Well you shall, Hannah of Tyrsday, you certainly shall.’
©Jan Henry 2021
A Secret Garden by Margaret Briddon
The whole depot smelled, as usual, of garam masala but since everyone ate it frequently no one noticed the sweetly pungent smell once they had been inside for five or so minutes. Mizhir noticed it as he arrived but seated at the table five minutes later and opening his lunch packet he was immune to the pungent perfume.
The two rooms behind the Speedy Khan Taxi Company premises were rather shabby in reality but as the staff paid so little attention to their surroundings, the faded décor, stained carpet and dusty lampshades were never noticed. A very male environment.
The drivers were a close-knit community, all Pakistani, some recent immigrants and others second generation British. The only adornment in these rooms was their reminder that Allah is great (in Urdu) written across one wall. Today, however, as Mizhir sat at the communal table to eat his lunch he noticed immediately the vase of bright, golden flowers adorning its centre. ‘Those are fine dahlias, they lift our spirits, did you grow them Mohsin?’
Slightly embarrassed at the round of applause which followed, Mohsin laughingly agreed that he was the grower. ‘Yes they are from my own small garden and I must confess that I am rather proud of them. As you all know, my family back home have always made their living from horticulture and so it must be in my blood. The English too are keen gardeners I think. Maybe you, Mizhir, could delight us with something from your garden, you buy lots of good fertiliser. Allah knows this place needs a little colour to brighten us up.’
Mizhir laughed. ‘Sorry brothers, I don’t waste my time growing flowers, I can’t eat them and eating is far more important and rewarding too. I grow good food.’
‘Well flowers are food for the eyes my friend, see how they light up this rather dull room today.’
‘You are quite right, Abdul. I didn’t mean to belittle Mohsin but I do not have a wife, yet, so I don’t grow pretty plants, only useful ones.’
A few weeks later Mizhir brought in a great many tomatoes. Large and firm and placed on the table in a bowl, he declared them to be as ornamental as flowers and much more useful. They did not disagree and needed no encouragement to eat them with their various lunches.
One fine Monday in August a call came through for Mizhir from his neighbour, Ho, a Chinese man who worked in a local Chinese restaurant. ‘I must speak to Mizhir, is he there?’
‘No,’ replied the taxi proprietor. “He is on a fairly long trip to Birmingham today. I can phone him.’
‘Too late I’m afraid, I must take care of it myself.’
Ho had been sitting in his kitchen watching a Chinese video when the frenzied barking of Mizhir’s dog, Hulk, had alerted him. The name was a joke for Hulk was a miniature Schnauzer.
Knowing that Mizhir was away for the entire day Ho was curious and looking at his neighbour’s house he caught a glimpse of a pair of dirty boots disappearing into Mizhir’s bedroom window. He assumed that the man had climbed the drainpipe. This was extraordinary. Being of modest height and strength Ho did not feel able to deal with the situation himself and so rang his neighbour’s work number. Failing to speak to Mizhir, Ho then rang the police and was relieved when they responded to his call fairly quickly and arrived before the owner of the boots had left the house.
‘I rang you officer, I saw a burglar climb in that bedroom window about 10 minutes ago and he hasn’t come out again.’
‘Leave it to us mate, stay inside your own house.’
The police took some time before an officer appeared handcuffed to the burglar. ‘Well done Sir, we caught this chap collecting up his stolen goods in a big sheet and just about ready to take off I’d say. Well done. One of my colleagues will be round in a moment to take your details. We’re very grateful to you but I’m not sure about your neighbour, Mr Jamali isn’t it?’
‘That’s right. Mr. Jamali is still at work and he doesn’t usually get home before six o’clock, but why do you think he won’t be pleased with me?
The policemen laughed long and happily. ‘Well you see Mr Zang, we found a secret garden up there. Yes your pal Mr Jamali is growing quite a good crop of marijuana. It’s quite a professional set up. The best humidifiers, lamps and filtration equipment too, which is why you couldn’t smell it. Did you never wonder why he left his lights on all day?’
‘I never really noticed but I did wonder why his curtains were always drawn.’
Mizhir in prison was certainly not short of visitors. Ho, who had offered to look after Hulk for the four months sentence, came regularly and frequently stressed how much he wished that he had been taken into his neighbour’s confidence, ‘for I never would have called those pesky police.’ His colleagues also came frequently and always laughed at his confession about the wonderful tomatoes he’d brought, courtesy of Sainsbury’s. He came out of prison quite a celebrity but vowed that he would stick to common or garden gardening in future.
©The Estate of Margaret Briddon 2021
The Secret Garden by Sue Halpern
They say ‘Never go back’, don’t they? I went back once. School reunion. It was great, and left me on a high for a day. And then it fell flat, because when I came back to the present, or should I say, forward to the present – that was a huge anti-climax.
We wonder about the Afterlife. But what is the word for our past life, up to today? Our life decades ago, far enough back, seems unreal. Was I really there, at that school, with those strangers, some of whom I knew well? How tangible is it? It’s as ephemeral as the tomorrow I can’t predict. One friend remembered a teacher, a room – but that teacher, that room, had disappeared from my recollections. They never happened. And the vivid memories – I had those too, and I re-lived them for a few moments in time, but then that was gone again, once I came back to the present.
So when Jac got in touch, out of the blue, and reminded me that the invitation to meet up again still stood, I was reluctant to go through that disturbance, stir the memories – to what end? An unsettling displacement. Yet curiosity got the better of me. After all these years, Jacqui’s family still lived at her old house, next door to the school, which had survived, a sturdy old red brick building, undemolished like some of the later flimsier school structures. Some of Jacqui’s relatives still lived in her old home – a former police house, one of a block in front of the police station. When those houses were sold off to private buyers, Jac’s family bought theirs. The police station and the car park are still there. It’s all part of that concrete jungle of houses, parking areas, school, and shops. What was pulling me back now was the memory of our Secret Garden, mine and Jacqui’s. We discovered this on a rare exploration beyond the familiar childhood boundaries. The shop where I lived, the alleyways round the back, the police houses and huge concrete car park, were our play areas. We rarely strayed beyond there. But one day we walked a long way, or so it seemed to me, and we came upon a grassy area surrounded by low iron railings. At first it looked like someone’s unkempt garden, but it seemed to be attached to no house. We let ourselves in through the gate. Wild flowers made a more natural boundary round this area, and the grass was long and varied. We heard birdsong. We picked seeds off the long strands and threw them to the wind. We strode through a jungle. I was frightened of getting lost in there – it was such a big place, and we had it all to ourselves. We made up some games. There was the jungle, the undiscovered island, our shipwreck, our family races through the grass with imaginary brothers and sisters (mainly mine, as Jac already had her own sibling and was not so keen on more). While I loved the garden, I was also afraid of it, afraid of being discovered, told off for being there, and of what might lie hidden in areas of even longer grass that we dared not approach. We only went a few times, and Jac seemed to forget about it fairly soon, but I never did.
Years later, I was home from University and went with my mother on a walk around the area. I told her of the garden, and wondered if it was still there after all this time. She knew nothing of such a place in those streets. I took her to find it. We walked a long way, and I had no idea where we were. It seemed to have disappeared, and I gave up.
Now I am back again – a few hours’ drive into the past, and a few changes. My old home above the shop has gone. All those shops have been replaced by a plain block of sad faced flats. Across at the old police house, we have coffee while I try and remember their living room as it was when I used to go and play there. We make our way through the back garden, now a small paved in area where formerly we pushed our dolls in prams along a path bordered by roses. Out through the gate, the car park is much smaller than I remember. That was where we were tennis stars, playing our matches fired with enthusiasm after watching Wimbledon.
‘Is the Secret Garden still there?’ I ask Jacqui.
She looks blank for a moment. ‘Oh that!’ she says. ‘Yes, I think it’s still there – hardly go that way any more’.
‘I’d like to see it’, I say, ‘though I expect it won’t be as I remembered’.
‘Probably not’, she answers wryly.
Out of the far side of the car park we proceed a minute or so down a short avenue and are passing a patch of grass when Jac stops.
‘What is it?’ I ask.
‘You wanted to see it’, she replies and waves her arm around vaguely.
‘No – this can’t be it!’ I laugh. And then I stop. A sad little patch of long grass lies inside a gap between houses. It is surrounded by old iron railings and a rusty gate, now padlocked.
‘But it wasn’t so close. And it was much bigger than this,’ I say, knowing of course that my childhood eyes and mind had absorbed it in a completely different way.
‘It belongs to the Council’, says Jacqui. ‘They just never did anything with it, yet. I think the neighbouring houses tried to buy it, to extend their own gardens. But there’s some legal reason why nothing has happened. Every now and then it gets mown’.
I stare at our secret garden, our jungle, our vast prairie and desert island, and sea of bulrushes. Our excited girlish voices resonate amongst the blades of grass. Echoes of the past accompany me as we turn and retrace our steps, and plan a quick visit into town. Nothing more to see here.
©Sue Halpern 2021
The Night Shift by Margaret Briddon
Entering the enormous black space and reaching for the light switch, Kevin stood inside the doorway enjoying a sensation not unlike that of homecoming. Silence, calm. The very subdued background lighting revealing the machine shop in all its silent stillness. Rows of silent machines but no operatives. Perfect. Striding to his workstation in a far corner another flick of a switch highlighted his own gleaming machine. This was his private world. Here he felt totally relaxed knowing that he would be undisturbed during his eight hour shift. No difficult attempts at conversation. No domestic pressures and best of all freedom to think of his twin passions – Barnsley Football Club and Subbuteo.
His boss, Derek, regarded him as a treasure. A man who had worked the night shift alone for seven years, ensuring non-stop production and so greater profitability for his business. He’d never met another man in his line of work who could continuously work alone all night.
Kevin’s job was to ‘finish off’ the work which the other men produced during the day shift and at this moment they were producing ‘wendy houses’. It was a good system.
Tonight, as always, Kevin kicked off by switching on his portable radio and then his machine. He rarely noticed his work. He operated a sophisticated machine which, pre-programmed, required no intellectual input and so his hands seemed to perform their tasks by remote control. Almost three hours later and humming away to an old Beatles song, he very gradually became aware of an unusual low vibration. A whisper of a vibration, a steady purr. Oh shit! he thought, was his machine going to play up tonight? The usual routine: switch off the radio and concentrate. Radio off, he was still aware of a faint humming vibration and so he decided to kill the machine and start all over again.
Odd, extraordinary! His station was now lifeless and silent, yet the hum and vibration was continuing and sounding slightly louder now.
Nothing for it but to investigate. He started to walk along the rows and had soon identified the machine which seemed live. Number 18. Good Lord, he thought, I’ve never known anyone leave a machine on all night, I’ll leave a snotty note for old Craig about that in the morning. Switching it off he started back to his corner but ‘what the bloody hell?’ he thought, as he still heard the faint purr of the machine. A shiver ran up his spine. This wasn’t possible, was it?
Forcing himself to turn round he snatched a glance at the machine. It was running slightly more forcefully now and was definitely switched on. He could see the handle clearly in the ‘on’ position. It ran through its routine, although bereft of any material to work with, switches and handles appearing to be operated by an unseen hand. Amazing, he thought, how perfect its ‘memory’ must be. He tried to keep calm and moving less certainly he retraced his steps and again switched Number 18 off. Forcing himself to watch he realized with fear that it again switched itself on.
He tried to walk back to his corner but each step was difficult, bringing added stress and now sweat poured down his back and soaked his palms. Suddenly waves of fear swept over him and panic ensued. The adrenalin started to kick in and with an effort he turned his back on the thing and ran to his own station. Rapidly switching everything off Kevin ran right around the workshop avoiding the rogue machine and raced out of the door.
Outside the cool air brought relief as he reached his motor bike and, jumping on, raced off for home, bursting in on his sleeping wife, Julia.
She tried to make sense of his traumatised state and the incoherent tale he kept repeating. His story sounded ridiculous but she realised it was very unusual to see him in this state.
‘I think you must be having a panic attack love, that’s what it sounds like.’
‘I knew you wouldn’t believe me, I’m not the daft sort of person who has panic attacks.’
‘Anyone can have a panic attack, and if it’s not that then you’ve gone mad, there’s no other explanation.’
Eventually Kevin agreed with Julia’s prognosis and agreed to see the doctor next day; meanwhile she rang the boss making Kevin’s excuse and citing a severe migraine attack which would keep him at home for a day or two.
After a few days and placing great faith in his Prozac, Kevin returned to work. Trembling as he entered the machine shop, he was reassured by the quiet calm of the place. Julia had been quite right. ‘Bloody hell, the mind can certainly play tricks,’ he thought.
Signing in one evening a few days later and chatting to the exiting foreman Bill, Kevin felt sufficiently re-assured to share his imagined experience with him.
‘Gerraway Kevin, which machine were that then?’
‘Machine 18, Craig’s station.’
‘Really lad, some panic attack that must ‘a been, you wouldn’t catch Craig working all night lad, e’s a lazy sod.’ Bill went off laughing.
Chatting to the boss in the tea break Bill retold the tale.
‘Number 18, why that’s the machine that did for old Duggie when he took his eye off the blade remember?’
‘Aye I thought it might be but it’s nine years since that ‘appened.’
‘Aye you’re right. Best not tell Kevin. He missed that excitement because it was before he joined us.’
Kevin worked on normally. No further signs of panic and the doctor slightly reduced his Prozac. Then one night he heard quite distinctly the same distant hum. How could this be? Were panic attacks always the same, he wondered? Shivering, he walked down to check and yes it was machine number 18 again.
It hummed to itself as it went through its paces. Was this all in his mind? Was Julia right when she said he could be a little mad?
The machine seemed to be inviting him to sit down. Slowly he took over the controls, sitting on Craig’s seat. In a trance he lifted some material from the supply bin and fed it into the receiving tank. The machine gobbled it up pushing it through the system. Heating it, rolling and moulding until it was formed. A small and perfect yellow door. Kevin brought down the guillotine and placed it in the cooling rack. One beautiful yellow door for Craig in the morning.
Enjoying the feeling of creating something and switching off the machine, he made to walk away. Instantly the handle flicked on again. Kevin could not walk away, machine 18 compelled him to sit again and carry on feeding it with plastic. The work flowed faster and faster, he could hardly keep up with its greed for fresh material. The doors were spilling out of the exit almost faster than he could deal with them.
Suddenly he failed to move his arm away from the guillotine quickly enough. The blade cut cleanly through and severed the arm completely. Kevin slumped over the machine and slowly it closed down; no more vibration, no more humming and finally the handle switched to the ‘off’ position. The workroom was again silent and calm as the grave.
The yellow doors piled around the machine were now streaked bright red as poor Kevin’s life ebbed slowly away.
The inquest which followed found that the accident was due to Kevin’s unbalanced state of mind. Derek Jackson, manager of the business, tried to distance himself from the case once the jury had found no case against the company. He was, however, appalled by the accident and having no belief in superstition he tried to rationalise the situation. The contract for wendy houses being completed quite soon afterwards, Kevin had to call in his friend, Howard Jones, a sizeable electrical contractor, to redesign the electric machine programmes for the next contract. 30,000 red footstools.
Sketching in the sad details of the previous contract Derek asked Howard to study the electrical wiring of work station 18. Having found no fault in the machine Howard checked the electric supply wall socket and quietly informed Derek of the strong possibility that occasionally the machine failed to switch off completely.
A small and moving ceremony of remembrance was held for Kevin together with a very generous sum of money paid to Julie. The ceremony was followed by the ceremonial scrapping of machine no. 18. Calm was restored as Derek covered the workshop with health and safety instructions while deciding that no workman should ever work in isolation again.
©The Estate of Margaret Briddon 2022
The Night Shift by Phil Parker
‘Bill, what is this?’ She holds the fabric tentatively, as though keeping it at arm’s length would be safer somehow. ‘I know your family are bloody weird, but, hell, there are limits.’
Bill smiles. ‘It’s nothing, hon, nothing much anyway. Just an old family story. A tradition, if you like. All families have them.’
She looks at him, disbelieving. He shrugs. Clearly it isn’t weird to him. He can’t see why she is making such a fuss.
She tries again. ‘Bill, this is 2022, not the depths of the dark ages. We’re grown-ups. We’ve been together long enough to understand each other, to know what makes us tick. I’m marrying you, not centuries of family history.’
He spreads out his hands. ‘It’s just a tradition. It’s always happened. Well, not always, obviously, but always, you know, for the last four hundred years or so. It’s an heirloom, and it provides, well, you know, it provides an heir.’
‘Bill, that’s mad. You know it’s mad. Heirs aren’t “provided” by wearing some old’ – she holds it up, wrinkling her nose in disgust – ‘some old rag that’s seen better days.’ She throws it down on the table, wiping her hands on her skirt.
He snatches it up protectively. ‘Hey, you shouldn’t,’ he says, ‘you shouldn’t do that. It’s an heirloom. Mother wouldn’t approve.’ He stands up, holding the material by the shoulders, inserting the padded coat-hanger and letting the fabric hang straight and even again, before gently folding it back into the box it has come from. He sits down, and looks back at her. ‘Think about it, eh? We can talk about it later. Just don’t dismiss it out of hand. OK? That’s all. We can discuss it another time, when you’ve, when you’ve had, I don’t know, when you’ve had time to consider it.’
He smiles, that winning innocent-small-boy smile she’d fallen for at the gallery. She smiles back. She can’t help it. It’s a sort of reflex. She lets her hand rest on his sleeve.
‘Well, alright, we’ll talk about it another time. But look, there’s no way I’m wearing a disgusting old thing like that, not ever, and certainly not on my wedding night. We should get that straight right now.’
That puppy-dog twinkle in his eye again. ‘Another time,’ he says. ‘Just don’t dismiss it, that’s all I’m asking.’
The announcement of the wedding of Ms Grace Atherton (she’s been very insistent on the ‘Ms’) to the Hon. William Alexander Ponsonby McGillivray, heir to the Duke of Darlington and, incidentally, to a large tract of the Scottish highlands, not to mention a stately home in the wilds of Norfolk, appears in ‘The Times’, and Grace is duly inundated with congratulatory messages from friends and colleagues in the gallery world. She points out that since she and Bill have been living happily in his London town house for nearly two years now, the announcement isn’t exactly life-changing, but more a kind of rubber-stamping of the way things are for the benefit of his family, who seem more, well, more ‘stuck in the past’, as she puts it to her girlfriends at a celebratory meal.
It may be the excitement of the occasion, it may be just the wine talking, but the eccentricities of the Darlington clan become a prominent topic of dinner-table conversation. Grace is more than willing to reveal the antiquated amenities of Darlington Hall, the rooms heated by two-bar electric fires apparently bought in the 1960s, the lumpy four-poster beds that simply cannot be replaced because once, back in 1834, William IV slept in one on his way north to Balmoral, and the antediluvian plumbing system which seems to require a noisy 25 minute wait for the cistern to refill after flushing the toilet.
‘And, dear God, don’t get me started on what they wear,’ she says, although it’s clear that she’ll start anyway, whether invited to or not. ‘You know, I can smell Bill’s dad from two rooms away. He insists on wearing this tweed jacket that I swear could walk about on its own. You know, that bitter smell of stale sweat and too much time being weathered in the rain squalls of all those hunts and shoots and whatnot. And as for his mother and her godawful antique night-shift…’
Several pairs of eyes around the table focus in on Grace, suddenly beginning to regret this mildly inebriated indiscretion, and conscious of breaking a promise to dear Bill not to mention any of the history of this venerable garment outside the family circle. After all, as he has said, the private customs of families of history and tradition should remain just that – private – and even though she knows that traditions in her own family stretch just far enough to encompass the fact that her dad likes to put a fiver on the Grand National every year, and that her mother is not to be phoned or otherwise interrupted during ‘Coronation Street’, Bill’s familial heritage is altogether more complex and, no matter how you slice it, mired in the activities of several centuries past.
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘it’s nothing really…’ But it is, and, only minimally encouraged by Sally pouring her another glass of red, she lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
At Darlington Hall, some two weeks earlier, Bill and his tweedy father remain at the breakfast table, deep in discussion of culling pheasants or peasants or some such. Bill’s mother has invited her – it feels like an instruction – to come upstairs, on the pretext of showing her a sketchbook of drawings made by Victoria (that’s the Victoria) when she stayed at Darlington Hall once ‘when but a gal’, as Bill’s mother puts it. She wishes there had been lessons at school in how to navigate situations such as this, but the local comp was better at how to feed a family of four on a budget or how to avoid unwanted sexually transmitted infections (were there any that were wanted, she had wondered at the time) than at how to function when out of one’s depth in the aristocratic circles of what her own mother has taken to calling ‘Downton Abbey’. Still, she has made appreciative noises about the royal pencil sketches and occasional water-colours, agreed on the basis of no personal experience that having stray wild boar in the garden makes a terrible mess of one’s shrubbery, and is about to suggest re-joining the menfolk in their post-prandial conference (she catches herself using this sort of language with something of a shock, unable to decide whether this is parody or the insidious influence of the situation) when her future mother-in-law disappears briefly and returns carrying an ominously familiar box, which she opens with something of a ceremonial flourish.
‘I believe, my dear, that dear William has already introduced you to this,’ the Duchess says, reverently removing the greying and dubiously-stained garment from its packaging. She lays it out across a convenient chaise-longue, standing back to allow Grace to appreciate the full impression for herself.
‘Yes,’ says Grace, ‘it’s, erm, it’s quite old, I believe.’
‘There are records in the family dating back to 1622,’ says the Duchess, matter-of-factly, as though it might be true of anyone’s family and its documented archive of worn-out clothing. ‘It was a gift to Lady Henrietta Stuart, on the occasion of her wedding to the then Duke of Darlington, from James I himself.’
There is a pause for the significance of this to imprint itself on Grace’s mind, for the weight of history to rest on the fabric in front of her. The Duchess continues.
‘Lady Henrietta was blessed, as you know, with a son to give to the Duke, and thus she, in her turn, gave the night-shift to her son’s wife-to-be to wear on her wedding night, and so’ – she beams at Grace with the certainty of the divine order being fulfilled – ‘and so it has become a tradition in the family over the eighteen generations since, that the wife of the eldest son should wear the royal night-shift on their wedding night, thus ensuring the continuation of the family line.’
There is a pause, a longer one than might perhaps be considered polite. The truth is, Grace has no idea what, if anything, is the appropriate response. She considers pointing out that the act of procreation does not depend on sporting some archaic talisman for success to be achieved. She ponders treating the whole narrative as ‘symbolic’, as though nobody in their right mind would expect to sport a four-hundred-year-old several times worn night-shirt on their wedding night, that it’s not, one might venture, the most sexy of garments. None of these responses feels entirely appropriate. Grace remains silent.
‘Well, my dear,’ says the Duchess, in hushed tones, putting the garment back in its packaging and then pressing the result into Grace’s hands with the sort of reverence that might have been suitable if it had been the Turin Shroud, ‘now it’s your turn. May the spirit of Lady Henrietta Stuart and all her good angels guide you, and’ – she pats Grace on the arm and shares an almost conspiratorial smile – ‘cause your union to be fruitful.’
Grace is silent still. There are no words. But only when the Duchess has made her progress downstairs and left Grace standing alone does she realise that she is clutching a box containing a four-hundred-year-old garment to her chest.
In due course, the wedding ceremony to celebrate the union of the McGillivray, Dukes of Darlington and Atherton families takes place with all the appropriate pomp and dignity one might imagine. Members of his family wear kilts and a piper leads the procession down the aisle, his arrival preceded only by the enveloping odour of sweat-marinated tweed. Minor royals are rumoured to be in attendance. The Oxford college chapel provides a backdrop of suitably timeless sophistication, not to mention draughts sufficient to cause Grace to get goose-bumps. It could just have been the excitement and, let’s not downplay matters, the sheer joy of the occasion. Grace’s father has hired a suit for the event which fits him almost convincingly. Her mother contrives not to drink too much sherry before the reception gets under way, and does not even make a scene when, later, she is found asleep on a bed of fur coats in the cloakroom. There are photographs in all the appropriate places and it is deemed the society wedding of the year so far, although as it’s only February this seems to Grace to be jumping the gun somewhat.
That night, when all the drunken farewells have been said and all the doors shut and suitably locked to separate the newly married couple from the distractions of the outside world, Bill looks at his new bride with that familiar shy butter-wouldn’t-melt smile, and they brush their teeth together in the ample expanse of the luxurious stately home bathroom. Grace isn’t nervous. She and Bill have been living together for long enough for his body to be familiar to her, and hers to him. At the start at least of their first night together as newly-weds, there are decisions to be made about what nightwear is appropriate for the two of them. One of them, it must be said in the interests of full disclosure and in the light of the enduring scrutiny of history, wears a four-hundred-year-old night shift. But which one? Ah, that would be telling.
©Phil Parker 2022
UFO by Phil Parker
The posters line the walls of the old library building. The pull-quotes are excitable. ‘A revelation!’ (The Guardian). ‘Kowalski: an undiscovered genius’ (Time Out). ‘Unmissable!’ (The Times). ‘UFO series is a prize-winner in the making’ (Yorkshire Post). There are others. The artist seems to be the name on everyone’s lips, the missing link between Picasso and Basquiat. The art world’s heart is obviously aflutter with it all.
I’m not much interested in the art world. But I am interested in Jerzy Kowalski, whose debut major exhibition at the age of 92 is what has brought me to Sheffield for the first time in over thirty years. I look round me, startled at the changes. I recognise the Crucible from the old days, though its frontage seems to have changed. But in the other direction there’s nothing but disorientation: the shiny, glassy upturned hull of the Winter Garden, shiny hotels where I have hazy memories of a hideous Town Hall extension, shiny steel fountains in the Peace Gardens. The old world turned upside down, like something alien has landed from outer space. Seems like a good enough metaphor for what I feel inside.
I asked Ben if he wanted to come. He spat. ‘Sick bastard, he ism Tim. Making Mum do all that sort of stuff. Should be hanging him, not his paintings.’ I don’t see much of Ben these days. We don’t often see eye to eye. On my own, then. I walk up the steps of the Library building, decide to put the moment off by taking the stairs to the fifth floor, and then here I am at the entrance to Graves Art Gallery. Inside, there’s the usual sort of crowd, I guess. Not my type, I feel instinctively, without asking myself why. But there he is, on the far side, next to a row of images hanging alongside him, shaking the occasional hand. A bit doddery, ill-fitting suede jacket, wild thicket of flying white hair, even at his age. All these years, but I’d still recognise him anywhere, even after decades. I realise my fists are clenched, and I make myself breathe, relax, loosen the taut muscles of my shoulders and neck. Then I walk towards him.
We called him Jersey back then. 1960s. New-ish council flat in Pitsmoor, one of four in a little block, two upstairs, two down, with a shared front door and a central lobby with stairs going up to the flats above. We lived in the ground floor on the right. Jersey and Hanna were in the flat above us. We’d got a ground floor flat because of Mum, whose left leg ended just below the knee and who wore a prosthetic limb attached with complicated strapping and buckles. It was never strange to us. It was just Mum – she’d always been like that. Sometimes, just to remind ourselves of the family story, we’d ask her about her leg and what had happened. ‘Oh, nothing much,’ she’d say. ‘I was about your age,’ pointing at Ben who must have been seven or so at the time, ‘and someone dropped some big bit of metal off the top of the flats we lived in then and it came flying down out of the sky and hit me on the leg.’ It was never anything special to her, even though I’m ashamed to say that when we were quite a bit older we were often embarrassed being seen walking round town with her.
When we first moved in – me and Ben and Mum (don’t ask about Dad; we never did) – it was so exciting. Ben and I didn’t have to share Mum’s room. The toilet was inside, in a bathroom with a real bath. Heating working all the time, from some central source somewhere. I must have been six, maybe; Ben, two years older. He looked out for me, kept an eye on me at school, though he was in the juniors and I was still in the infants, across the playground. Mum used to make us tea and we’d watch telly, an old black-and-white, with it on our laps. ‘This is the life,’ she’d say, arms round us both. And it was.
Jersey and Hanna were already there, upstairs. We were frightened at first. They’d come down the stairs to the front door, talking in a way I didn’t understand. ‘Polish, Timmy,’ said Mum. ‘They’re Polish. From Poland.’ It meant nothing to a six-year-old. He wore strange clothes, baggy felt jackets, a soft hat to one side of his head so it slipped over his ear, blotches of paint on his face or his hands or the knees of his trousers. She was stern, smart, a bus conductor. We’d see her sometimes as Mum was taking us to school. ‘Morning, Mrs Kowalski,’ Mum would say. ‘Dzien dobry,’ she’d say back, ‘Mornink.’
It wasn’t just the language that scared us. Upstairs now and then we’d hear shouting, stamping feet, things breaking, then the slamming of doors, more stamping feet in the stairwell outside our door, and one or the other of them stomping off down the path to the road. At night there might be crying, not just crying like when you’d fallen off your bike, but a loud keening sound like all the heartbreak in the world pouring out at once. Mum tried to explain sometimes. ‘They were in the war,’ she’d say, though apart from the odd film on the telly that didn’t really mean anything. ‘Lots of bombing, stuff flying down out of the sky, like something coming out of nowhere,’ she’d say. ‘They had to leave it all behind. Came here with nothing. Sometimes I think they’re very sad.’
Some days we’d get home from school and old Jersey would be sitting at the bottom of the stairs, a bottle in one hand, his head resting against the plastered wall, weeping. Mum would shush us to one side, then take him by the arm. ‘Come on, Mr Kowalski,’ she’d say. ‘Let’s get you home,’ and then she’d help him up the stairs to his door, slowly because of her leg and his drunkenness, push it open, take him inside, and come back down a few minutes later, smoothing down her coat as she did so. ‘What is it, Mum?’ we’d ask. ‘Why is he like that?’ ‘He’s very upset,’ she’d say. ‘Apart from his painting, I don’t think he knows how to cope.’ I’d been upstairs to his flat once, peering from behind Mum as she brought him some shopping – Hanna must have been out at work – and I could see that the flat was a tip. There were canvases everywhere, a room full of paint and brushes and easels and mess, and old Jersey in tatty, ragged clothes and a smock that was filthy and grey. The pictures didn’t look like anything to me – some stick figures but lots of broken stuff and flashes of colour and odd shapes. Nothing like I’d ever seen in the picture books I was learning to read from.
I don’t recall when stuff started coming down from the windows of their flat, but at first me and Ben were both excited, like it was a game or something. It might be a tennis ball, or a shoe, or an old magazine. Not every morning, but often enough for Ben to say ‘Old Jersey’s at it again,’ peering out of our front room window at the scabby patch of grass in front of the building. We were too scared to take it back up to him, though. You never knew when he might cry, or shout at us in Polish. Mum used to take things back up to him once she’d taken us to school.
I don’t know why this didn’t strike me as odd at the time – I guess kids just accept that the world is a mysterious place – but part of the game of flying objects was that Mum always seemed to know what they were, even without looking. Sometimes it was the best part of the game. Ben and I would watch from our front room window before it was time for school and something would land on the grass in front of us, not every day, but now and then. ‘What is it then, Mum?’ we’d shout. ‘Erm, a tube of toothpaste?’ asked Mum, from the kitchen, and we’d stare at each other, round-eyed and amazed. How did she know? At the time it felt like she had some kind of super-power, like X-ray glasses the cartoon figures wore in the comics Ben used to get. ‘A cheese grater?’ Wow! ‘A plant-pot?’ Amazing! ‘A pencil case?’ It was like having some special gift in the family, that only Ben and I could share in.
Until the day that it wasn’t. I can’t put a date on this at all, but I must have been about nine when we moved away, and I reckon the flying objects game must have been going on for at least a year. One day a torn painted canvas stretched over a frame landed with a heavy thud outside our window. Mum guessed it was a newspaper. Ben and I stared at each other, puzzled. ‘Oh,’ said Mum. ‘A plastic bottle, then.’ No. She tried a few more guesses, randomly, before we brought her into the front room and showed her the mess. The canvas had been followed by another, then another, and finally with a great crash, a big wooden easel itself. Mum put her hand to her mouth. She was shaking. ‘What is it, Mum? What’s he doing?’ we asked, but before she could answer there was stamping in the stairwell and then a violent thudding at the door.
It was Mrs Kowalski. We couldn’t understand most of what happened, because lots of it was in Polish, but we knew from the tone of her voice that she was angry, very angry, and it wasn’t with her husband. It was with Mum. ‘You are bitch – filthy bitch!’ we heard her shout, and our ears burned as we hid behind the front-room door. There was slapping, a scuffle, and Mum pushed the door closed. We peered out from where we’d been hiding. She was shaking, and there was a huge red mark on her cheek and a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. For a while time seemed to stop, and then I burst into tears. I think Ben must have thought, as the older brother, that he was supposed to be the man of the house, but even he cried too. We were late to school that day.
When we got home, Mum was brisk, matter of fact. We were going to move. She didn’t like it here after all. We boys needed separate rooms of our own now we were growing up. She’d put our names down for a new council house. We could have our very own garden. It would be exciting. The days and weeks that followed were numb. No mystery objects came flying down from the flat above to land on the grass outside our window. In fact, it wasn’t just quiet in our flat. It was quiet upstairs too. Mrs Kowalski still went out to do her shifts on the buses, studiously avoiding eye-contact if we overlapped in the communal hallway, and we heard Jersey from time to time, moving furniture around, or his footsteps going to and fro from the kitchen. But we never saw him, and we didn’t say goodbye when we moved.
And that was it, as far as I was concerned, for thirty years. We grew up, Ben got a job on a building site, got married, had a kid, then divorced, then married again. I went to university, got an academic librarian job that required me to move away. I visited Mum now and then, as she got older and found walking harder and harder, and conversations on the phone more and more confusing, until one day I got an abrupt call from Ben telling me she’d died. I came back to Sheffield for the funeral, but found nothing to keep me there after the event. There was nothing to link my life in my flat just off campus to those hazy days of my early childhood, and in all honesty I think not a single moment passed for decades when the memories crossed my mind.
It was about a year ago when I was cataloguing some new acquisitions that I came across a rather glossier academic tome than the usual. The image on the front cover made me sit down suddenly, gripping the book that was shaking between my hands. It was a photograph of an old white-haired man, someone who’d obviously made an effort to tidy himself up (or perhaps had been tidied up for the occasion) standing next to an easel on which was a substantial canvas. ‘Jerzy Kowalski – Lost Polish Master’ proclaimed the title. The image on the canvas was indistinct, but even in that context I could see that in the midst of what looked like a bombing scene, with unidentifiable fragments of buildings or missiles or other sorts of wreckage in the aftermath of the explosion, there was a woman, naked, but flailing her arms, one leg broken off at the knee, the severed limb, or maybe it was a prosthetic one, lying on the ground beside her. I had no doubts as to what, or whom, I was seeing.
I took the book home that evening and, fortified by a whisky or two, read it from cover to cover. It told me some things I already knew, some that I didn’t. Jerzy Kowalski was a Polish refugee, who arrived in this country at the end of the Second World War, lived in obscurity in rented property in an insalubrious suburb of Sheffield, a widower with no known remaining family, painted incessantly and obsessively, and whose work was only now finding its way into the public gaze. The writer had evidently interviewed Mr Kowalski, and it was clear from the text that the artist was saying little about his life and the inspirations for his painting. The writer made much of this enigmatic quality, and the mysteries of the creative process. There was one particular tranche of paintings, huge, startling and graphic, which the writer called ‘Kowalski’s UFO series’, and the mystery woman at the centre of them, surrounded by flying debris, sometimes whole, sometimes dismembered, always naked, head thrown back in a vision that could have been anguish or a kind of erotic ecstasy. Extensive research, said the writer, had failed to identify the sitter, the focal point of this great series, but despite Mr Kowalski’s reticence, the writer was sure that this was the artist’s muse, his inspiration, possibly (who knew?) his lover.
In the months that followed there were other items about Kowalski in the arts pages of newspapers or cultural magazine programmes on the TV. An exhibition was planned, first in Sheffield in honour of his newfound local celebrity status, then moving to London. I saw an unnerving clip of him being interviewed by Alan Yentob on the BBC News, the camera panning across images of an ecstatic naked woman surrounded by unidentified flying objects before returning to this old man with his rheumy eyes and disorderly white hair. I found out the dates of the exhibition, booked myself some annual leave, and waited.
I walk across the space towards him. He is talking to a tall young woman with a clipboard, who makes some notes and heads briskly across to the office area. I seize my chance. Approaching him, I hold out my hand, mustering my best polite smile. ‘Mr Kowalski?’ I ask.
He looks a little startled, but shakes my hand, and mutters, ‘Yes, yes, I am.’
I try to be casual, interested but not pushy. ‘It’s a wonderful exhibition,’ I say. ‘You must be very pleased with all the recognition, after all this time.’
He looks up at me, mistily, and shrugs. ‘All this talk,’ he says, waving his arm, ‘the papers and the television. They mean nothing. Only the art means anything…’ He trails off, exhausted maybe from the effort. I wait a moment then press on.
‘These paintings,’ I say, pointing to the sequence of eight imposing canvases running along the wall to his left. ‘They are extraordinary. So powerful. I wondered’ – I let a little pause elapse – ‘I wondered if you could tell me a little about them.’
‘Oh,’ he says, cautious again. ‘A long time ago. What does any painting mean? Only what the viewer wants it to.’
I can’t wait any longer. ‘You see, they interest me because, well because I think I knew the sitter.’
The jolt is immediate. Blood drains from his face and for a moment I think he is going to faint, if not worse. But then he regains his composure. He stares at me again, as if trying to read the code that would make me known.
‘Mr Kowalski,’ I say, trembling in spite of myself, ‘please. Please answer me. You see’ – it’s the hardest moment of my life, I think – ‘it’s my mother.’
The effect on him is instantaneous. He reaches for my hand, draws me with him to a couple of chairs ranged against the wall. We sit. He still has hold of my hand, and I can feel that he is shaking. ‘And you are Benjamin, or – or’.
I shake my head. ‘Tim,’ I say. ‘Ben is my older brother. But we often wondered, when we lived in that flat below yours, about it, about it all.’ This is all unravelling so differently than I’d planned it in my head. I’d imagined a confrontation, an accusation, an apology. But he’s too old, too frail, too lost, for me to even think of being aggressive. Still, there are ghosts to lay to rest. ‘Mr Kowalski, please, if you would, can you tell me something.’
He nods, gesturing openly. ‘Of course.’
‘There were things that happened, strange things sometimes. Like you would throw stuff out of your upstairs window, and Mum, she would just know. What they were, I mean. I never thought about it at the time, but now, seeing these paintings, was it – well, a code, maybe?’
He smiles, embarrassed perhaps to be caught in the act, but more, I think at the tenderness of the memory. ‘Yes, it was as you say. A signal. It is safe to come up. We can paint together, and, and –‘ He stops. It is as though the past is real, there within sight of us, as he stares into space. ‘Your mother was –‘ he searches for the word – ‘she was extraordinary. Like no-one I have ever met, before or since. A vision. A woman capable of carrying so much meaning, so much…’ There are tears in his eyes. His hand, still gripping mine, is shaking.
‘Mr Kowalski,’ I ask, ‘were you, were you’ – there is a pause; I can’t bring myself to use the word – ‘were you … close?’
He looks at me with exhausted eyes. ‘Mr Jennings, it is so very long ago. We knew each other for what, two years? But it was as though’ – he gives up on language, makes a whistling sound and gestures with his other hand, at something falling out of the sky and into his lap – ‘she was a gift, from heaven, landing out of the sky from nowhere. She was my, what did they call it when they made such a fuss after the war, my UFO, my unidentified flying object. We do not ask who sent you, where you are from, what you are. It is enough that you are here.’ He closes his eyes. I have exhausted him. To one side I can see the tall young woman with the clipboard, looking over at us, anxiously.
‘Mr Kowalski, it’s not important, but I want you to know that your paintings have my blessing. My mother – she would be honoured. Thank you.’ I squeeze his hand one last time, disengage myself from his grip, and walk steadily out of the room, down the stairs and out into the cold Sheffield air.
©Phil Parker 2022
The Far Side of the Lake by Julian Fisher
‘Oh dear, Gerald. You’re not remembering it right. We did get over to the far side of the lake.’ Madeleine recalled those early days in their life together, those summer holidays of limitless bliss and sunshine, when sad endings never entered their minds, when the light and the sounds and the scent of the moment were all-consuming and nothing mattered at all apart from what was in the moment. And she recalled, as a crystalline nugget of perfection, lying down on the sandy lake shore next to her brother, looking up at the wispy clouds passing across topaz skies and feeling the gentlest breeze caressing her hair; that was perfection, that was heaven.
And now, many years on, they were wondering what had really happened on those endless days. Madeleine recalled some details but most of those memories were more of an overall, idyllic impression; Gerald’s thoughts lay differently and were all about that far shore. She remembered her brother nagging about it back in the cottage they used to stay in, over those cosy evenings while playing whatever the games were that the owners left out for holidaying families.
‘It’s really not a big lake at all and we could easily swim it if the weather was warm and the winds calm.’ That was roughly what she recalled and of course, on that memorable day that’s exactly what they did. They swam right over. But now, at the other end of their lives, Gerald couldn’t bring to mind that moment, only the talking about it, the desire to get to that magical place in their minds, the event they seemed forever to be putting off. And it was true, the idea of such a swim, short though the distance was, did seem risky at the time. Their parents were protective but not to the point of smothering them from reality for they also saw the benefit of risk and freedom. ‘We’d really rather you didn’t, or if you do, make sure Dad or I are nearby, just to make sure you’re alright.’ Those were the kinds of words they would use. Maybe just careful rather than protective.
Madeleine thought of that distant shore and the view back across the lake to their cottage, how perfectly framed by woodland and a backdrop of hills, sun beating down on the water between, its light flashing and dancing on the wavelets. She could smell the water and its lovely freshness, could even recall, strangely enough, sheep wandering on the beach in front of their place and their old, red MorrisTraveller half-concealed by woodland shadow nearby. It seemed all so vivid. And now Gerald was telling her, as he did whenever they returned to those holiday memories, that they’d never made it across, that that memory, so clear in Madeleine’s mind, was just imagined, a false memory.
‘Mum and Dad were never going to let us that far out,’ he would say. ‘Yes, I know we were desperate to try to swim it and I know it wasn’t a big distance, but we were only in our early teens around that time. Okay, the last of those holidays, I may have been fifteen, you thirteen, but it would still have been dangerous. They were right, anything could have happened to us; it could have been tragic. It could have been something that would have meant we wouldn’t be sitting here now wondering about it!’
Oh Gerald, she thought. Don’t you recall that wonderful day? We didn’t talk about it beforehand because we just knew that would be the moment. She kept these thoughts to herself knowing that Gerald could easily get upset if his memories were challenged again. Strange that such a moment could bring such odd feelings into play between them.
And now they both looked into the middle distance, alone in their different memories, Gerald looking at that far side of the lake and wondering, wondering what the world would look like from that point, wondering if the air would smell different, the birdsong contain new notes, strange and beautiful, the light on the water cast a different sparkle from that perspective. For him part of the magic was not knowing, keeping that far side as an imagined realm, a paradise too perfect to be realised in this lifetime. Yes, that was it. Peering back across time through all those years and decades, one of the most poignant memories of those perfect holidays was looking across and wondering about that magical place. That’s how it seemed to him now … wondering, wondering. For Gerald there seemed to be a blasphemy in suggesting they had swum the waters and reached that other side. If they had done that, a perfection would be blemished.
She could feel the delightful ache of her arms, the cold waves smoothing over her straining muscles, and the joy of shouting out across to her brother, ‘Gerald, it’s so near. At last we’re going to make it!’ The cold and the intense sense of pure life and joy, and being with the person she most loved in the world, her dear brother. How could he forget such a delicious moment? It did happen, it had to have happened. This was a diamond that she’d carried through all the ups and downs of her subsequent life, a precious thing that somehow made everything worthwhile. And on that far shore, almost like waking up to a new world, lying spread-eagled, star-shaped on that sandy, pebbly strand just laughing and forgetting; she knew that was her heaven. While that existed, all was well. But now, again, he was saying it never actually happened, that it was only in her imagination. It was always the same when they talked about it, a moment in their otherwise comfortable relationship that jolted her a little. What was the past? Was she imagining her life, and if she were, what was this life all about?
Gerald stood up, walked a little unsteadily to the open window and looked out at the small garden, full of May sun and warm evening scents. He heard the melancholy joy of a blackbird’s song and felt happy as he thought back to that holiday, wondering about the far side of that glimmering lake and whether there might have been the same dreamy warmth that he felt now. His mind wandered back to his sister’s strange idea that they had been there which he knew was quite impossible. And yet was he really sure? These days it was so easy to fall into the moment in a way that time and the past did odd things. Idly speculating, he wondered what memory was after all, what purpose it served, what part of us did it make up? Indeed, could we really exist without memory? He heard her chair creak slightly as she rose to her feet. He pictured her, as he looked out on the garden, walking towards him. But then, just for a moment, it was as if he heard her young self again, a shout of joy, ‘Let’s swim!’
Madeleine walked carefully to Gerald and stood by his side. It really was the most idyllic spring evening. Like her brother, her mind dwelt on those hazy, gorgeous memories. What had really happened? It was so long ago and, after all, there was no-one they could ask. She looked out on the garden and the sinking evening light pouring gold in the loveliest way over everything in sight. She placed her hand in his hand, thinking about that far side of the lake … and that all was well.
©Julian Fisher 2022
In the Deep Freeze by Julian Fisher
Looking back over the past few days, I can see how lucky I was to have survived. My wife had already said that the old freezer really needed replacing, that the food in it was coming out nowhere near cold enough, the edges of loaves still soft, chilled rather than frozen. My happy-go-lucky attitude was the usual ‘It’ll be fine’, anything to avoid an extra cost, especially in these times of financial difficulty.
‘Don’t buy it, I don’t trust it at all,’ she’d said. But I hadn’t come across authentic Ackee fruit since living in Jamaica all those years ago. Even then I knew it was risky, that it had a reputation for causing severe intestinal damage, even death, if not prepared properly. But, mixed with saltfish, Scotch Bonnets and a host of other spices, it was a dish both nutritious and delicious … and, besides, I wanted to relive that little element of my long-passed travels. I could recall that strange and nutty sharpness as if it were yesterday that I had last tasted it.
‘Be careful with that,’ the stall-keeper had told me. Yes, just a week back and the markets along Electric Avenue saw my wide-eyed joy of nostalgia, of a past springing to life in the present. This was a place that exuded atmosphere in sensory overdrive: piles of tropical fruits, greens and yellows of mangos; the reds of tiny chilli peppers promising fire, that intriguing sting of heat; a heap of plantains, those oversized, not-quite bananas, and so much more besides. But the colours and textures were as nothing compared with the intoxicating aromas beguiling me, scents of spices, unfamiliar sweetnesses with always that slight afterthought of danger, something different, unfamiliar, or even distantly familiar in a revival of vague memory. Yes, I could sense in these south London scenes, a diluted but still resonant echo of downtown Kingston with all its colour, noise and threat, truly an intoxicating recollection. The heat of the past was not captured, of course, but Brixton market has still been warm and humid these last couple of weeks, storminess lingering in the skies above, haze pressing down in a pretty good imitation of the tropics.
I loved that place, but the words of the woman, ‘Be careful…’, were salutary; and I was not careful. My eyes lit up when I spotted the curiously pink-fleshed mantle of the Ackee fruit, concealing dark, olive-like seeds within. Thoughts of Jamaica and my past swept me away - I knew within a moment, that I would be preparing that dish not tasted for decades. And it would take me on an unexpected journey every bit as dramatic as my tropical ventures of my younger days.
Days in London brought back the past in different ways, places I had lived in, the aimlessness of my twenties that I could now look back on with affection and some compassion even. It was a rich and gorgeous conflation: travels abroad through excitingly different cultures; the vibrant aftershock of those cultures back here in our own metropolis.
‘Careful’, a word I blithely ignored despite being surrounded by sense. Is that a way in which I dangerously differ from my partner, she, representing caution and care while I still keep remnants of reckless abandon, bits of the structureless life of days gone by? Back home my current life only slowly drew me back from all that. When I brought in the packages of food, the ackee fruit, spices, saltfish, my wife’s response was predictable: ‘Are you sure that’s safe?’ And when I’d prepared the dish in all its golden glory, I had to admit that the salty sharp spiciness in the air was somewhat overwhelming. Even so, I was rather nonplussed when both kids and wife refused to have anything to do with what they considered far too strange a concoction. Okay, I was persuaded to freeze it before eating, heated up, sometime in the future, in the hope that anything problematic might be neutralised before entering my digestive system. From heat to ice, or that’s how it should have been. This was clearly going to be a culinary adventure of a solitary nature.
Carelessness has always been my Achilles heel. It’s led to an exciting life with occasional brushes with mortality. I have found myself in places of danger, putting myself in the line of fire so to speak. And, yes, I have been ill, I have been in very real danger at times. Flirting with that danger has never really described my relationship with it. No. It’s just been carelessness, a being swept up with the excitement of the moment, forgetting the sensible and practical. Maybe that’s why, unconsciously, I was drawn to a partner of opposite predilection: a survival instinct to counter my otherwise devil-may-care approach to life. These days I am almost too safe and take few risks. But now two elements of risk came together in my life … and almost killed me. Weird fruit, malfunctioning deep freeze.
Isn’t that a peculiar epithet, ‘deep freeze’? A phrase that can represent such opposing ideas. You can be ‘frozen out’ emotionally, socially when placed in a ‘deep freeze’. It can mean a cleansing, a purifying in a more literal sense which connects it oddly with the more figurative purification by fire. It is a place of extremity. But now, in ‘the deep freeze’ was to lead to a careless, carefree miscalculation, the converse of the deliberate process of a freezing.
So, what about our freezer? It was old. It needed replacing. It was unreliable. I knew that from those loaves that came out not quite solid. I knew it from the rusty edges decorating the otherwise white goods look of the thing, a creeping russet impurity reflecting its cargo’s deterioration. And inside that box the heat of a fruit from the other side of the world would not be quashed entirely. In my thoughts now, it’s almost a backlash. My careless past carrying through to a global carelessness and now … but maybe that’s a little too much post-colonial symbolism! Whatever the cultural reverberations, the reverberations of my abdomen, my intestines, my guts, were to bring personal calamity dangerously close for a while.
It didn’t smell great. It had seemed, well, mainly deep frozen and it had been mainly in a state of deep freeze. Mainly wasn’t enough.
There was something I liked about the memories the smell evoked and maybe it was memory that almost killed me. A sweet sharp aromatic combination would have put most people off and did so with the rest of the family as I’ve said. But I insisted. This was a meal that would delight me now and bring back my past in the most intense manner. Well it sort of did.
I knew after the first bite of this curry-like production that it might be a life-changing dish. There was a curious after-taste, a bitter spike of flavour almost hidden but not quite, by the fierce fire of the chilli. And it remained. I ate several mouthfuls before the bitterness and its unhealthy sweet undercurrent began to take over. That was the first stage of the bad things to come. Deep frozen I was not as wave after nauseous wave swept over me. The rapidity of change was quite spectacular, a rebellious dish indeed. I felt flushed, and was suddenly sweating profusely. When I stood up my vision swam, forcing me to hold onto the table-side before collapsing back in my chair. And then the roaring of my belly entirely took over proceedings, leading to a dramatic, volcanic outpouring of ackee fruit and accompanying ingredients; I need describe the scene in no further detail and actually cannot as within a short, confused period of time I had lost consciousness. I came to in a hospital ward.
The stomach cramps still visit me sporadically a few days on and my doctors have told me that a combination of dangerous exotic foodstuffs with dangerously malfunctioning freezer nearly killed me. My wife is too relieved to inflict the ‘deep freeze’ treatment my carelessness might otherwise have resulted in but maybe that’s still to come when the relief turns to acknowledgement and full realisation of my stupidity. We have now unplugged our old, rusting box and ordered a functioning model, one that will deep freeze, in the safest way, any exotic provender I may care to experiment with in the future.
But safety is not my way; I like risk, I like close to the edge. So when this fight begins to fade I am planning the trip of a life-time … to Japan. The meat of the fugu fish is reputed to be of exquisite and unequalled flavour, a delicacy I cannot let pass me by if I am to say I have truly lived, though its repute also encompasses a reputation far more deadly; it is thought to be the most perilous foodstuff on earth if not prepared properly. That notwithstanding, I firmly intend to consume it … but please don’t tell my wife.
©Julian Fisher 2022
In the Deep Freeze by Sue Halpern
My parents had deep incompatibilities in their marriage. And that is the reason I hesitated to accept the proposal of my first love. He wanted to travel the world in a hippy-like way, on a tight budget, sleeping rough, hitching rides, exploring the wide spaces and the high mountains. It wasn’t for me. He didn’t want children, at least for ten or so years, until we had had our fun, delayed our careers and smoked weed with our friends. You may ask how we came to be an item if we were so different – but he wasn’t completely unconventional. He proposed marriage, which is something. He regarded his years of rebellion as a temporary phase, which would pass, and he chose me, the most unadventurous and conservative of companions. But in the end, it separated us. I dithered, until he met exotic Faye and ditched me for a more willing partner to share his wanderings.
And so I met Michael, who was a safer bet. We came from the same background, we both hovered on the periphery of those who were having carefree fun. We were grounded, and did everything normal and proper that was expected of us. Within a few years, we had a nice home, good jobs, and children on the way. We shared the shopping, the housework, the cooking. It was the cooking that held us together. Our diets were as balanced as our bank account, our reading, our viewing. Until, that is, I became vegetarian, and then vegan. I can honestly say, the result shook our very foundations. It happened almost overnight – a coming together of various ideas and physical reactions. Something I read made me think twice about what I was putting into my body. I noticed that whenever a period of time passed when we ate no animal products, I felt better, healthier. I became sensitive to the smell of meat, chicken, fish. Michael was working a busy schedule at the time, long hours, and I was doing the bulk of the cooking. I still made him the meals he loved, but it made me miserable, and angry that alternatives had to be planned and prepared too. Some of the time, we ended up cooking for ourselves, like flatmates sharing a place but living our separate lives. We even started eating separately, at different times. We were rather angry with each other. Food and love are, or can be, strongly intertwined. Up to that point, we had never thought of ourselves as two separate people – we were a couple. Now, we had separate kitchen areas. I read a book once where there was a couple who drew imaginary lines around their apartment, designating their own spaces. I think it was meant to be a surreal account of the breakdown of a relationship. I told myself not to be crazy – at least we still shared the same bedroom. But the sense of apartness grew. Michael had a separate shelf in the deep freeze, where he would wrap and store pieces of meat and chicken, to be taken out as and when. I would tut tut, when unpacking frozen goods from Iceland, and stocking up with bulky packets of oven chips. I resented the space his stuff took up there.
When Michael started displaying symptoms of the illness which was to torment him for years, I blamed the meat, tried to convert him, for the sake of his health, to no avail. He said he wanted to enjoy the years he had left. It reminded me of a friend who insisted on smoking heavily even when his chest began to trouble him.
It was when they took Michael into hospital for a few weeks for investigation, that a spectre from the past lumbered heavily into my life. I had gone on my own to a reunion of some old friends, when a large, overweight figure suddenly crossed the threshold and addressed me in one of those voices of incredulity, when you just can’t believe it.
‘I can’t believe it!’ wheezed he, ‘It’s Julie, isn’t it?’
‘Hello Richard,’ said I, trying to avert my eyes from his expansive girth, and couldn’t help but add, ‘I hardly recognised you’.
‘Ah well, tempus fugit and all that’, he replied, giving himself a fond pat. ‘It must be genetic’, he added. ‘I do have a healthy diet despite this …’
‘Vegetarian?’ I asked, remembering his former ways, always wanting to be different from the crowd, and it was, in those days.
‘Of course - since I was knee high to a teenager you know.’
‘He must be eating the wrong things,’ I said to myself, as most veggies and vegans I knew were on the slim side.
‘Is, er, Faye, was it, here?’ I said, looking pointedly behind him.
‘Oh goodness me, that’s ages ago. Faye met an aborigine when we were hitching round Oz, and disappeared into the bush – never heard from her since. He was too interesting, and different, for her to stick with me. No, I’m married to Jean now, second marriage. We live in Kent. Have a nice bungalow, two children at university, three dogs, quiet life – you know, had to settle down some time’.
I ponder this for a few moments. Funny how things turn out. I update him on my life and my conversion to the vegetarianism he had never succeeded in persuading me to join. He made a few jibes about how much more alike we had become. ‘Not in the obesity department,’ I thought to myself. My initial disappointment at him not remaining a handsome hippy soon dissipated though. His mannerisms, his way with words, the sense of humour that had attracted me so many years ago, still worked its magic. The old friends reunion was preparing a garden barbecue, with choice cuts of meat, home-made burgers, chicken marinated in this and that, but there were only veggie burgers and ersatz sausages for the likes of us – so we escaped and went to a super place Richard had been recommended. I had the best meal I had tasted for ages, and we laughed so much. It seemed a long time since I had felt rejuvenated by laughter. I only had a moment of thought for poor Michael eating goodness knows what in the hospital. It was just one of those times – a complete escape from all and everything. And a guilty tinge of regret at not having stayed with Richard. Maybe I could have looked after him better than Jean, and whoever came before, and kept him as young and agile-looking as he was, with the long hair, the grin. The grin was still there though, so that was something. We agreed to keep in touch. I waited for him to express his regret too that things hadn’t been different. But if he felt it, he didn’t say it.
Michael returned from hospital with a grim diagnosis. My euphoria from the evening with Richard quickly faded. I felt upset and terribly guilty. I brought out chunks of choice silverside, lamb chops, chicken breasts, defrosted them from their deep freeze, and tried to spoil Michael with the meals he loved. But his appetite was fading. I re-stocked his shelf, as if in denial of his illness. I crossed our invisible boundary lines and renewed my devotion to him. I wasn’t eating properly myself – who could be bothered to cook much in these circumstances? Richard and I stayed in touch and caught up on all our news, and adventures we, mainly he, had had in the intervening years. After a while, we didn’t have much more to say. He suggested another meeting somewhere, but I never got round to answering, as Michael took a turn for the worse.
We have been through a terrible time. Michael finally left me, and I was plunged into a frenzy of paperwork, discussions with the children, arrangements, changes.
After the funeral, I came home alone. It was what I wanted. It was the first time I would have some time to myself since he died. I felt a strange surge of energy for re-organising my life. The apartment was now a huge place, with no boundary lines. The kitchen was all mine again, and I looked in and hated it. I opened Michael’s wardrobe and started to empty the neat suits and shirts in a row. Then I thought, what’s the rush. I smelled the material, but somehow it didn’t smell of Michael – it was just meaningless cloth and linen. The clothes meant nothing to me. On a strange impulse I went back into the kitchen. I opened the deep freeze and pulled out Michael’s shelf, Waitrose shoulder of lamb, best before June 16th, a few months to go yet. Chicken thighs, for those fancy recipes that had been waiting for Michael to don his chef’s apron and cook for himself. All by himself. Some other things wrapped in foil that I couldn’t remember what they were – the labels seemed to have fallen off. I looked down, and hot tears fell into the deep freeze.