GULLS ROOSTING (from ‘Poems from Long Ago’)

28 Aug

 Dark flurries over roofs and swaying trees,

against the rosy evening, rise, swoop, dip and glide, slide

on barely beating wings along the fluent wind,

the earth below held cold in sudden shadow,

scentlessness

of damp grass and dank air, and the sky

floats north above the fallow valley

on the ceaseless stream receding 

over wooded hills to cliffs and crags of other sunlit clouds

along the earth’s rim 

Returning to the Marlborough Downs (from ‘Poems from Long Ago’)

22 Jul

June 15th - High Wind 023

 

 

Sometimes in memory I see

those boundless skylines, hilltop woods and distant knots of trees

whose echoes linger on the sky; a rutted road

receding over folding hills

beneath a burning sun.

 

And as the memory expands and grows I see

an afternoon progressing through the hours of heat,

golden haze upon the stippled corn, a silence

counterpointed only by the song of skylarks and the drone of bees

and all the creatures which abound

among the stalks.

 

Yes, reaching back, the memory grows weak

as I attempt to see to evening and the setting sun

bestow a ray of gold on every bush, on every leaf,

the haze dispersing – colour, texture, shape of sun and shadow growing sharper

more distinct; the dots of trees along a distant ridge, the flawless downs,

the hilltop camps arranged in cosmic silence seem to gain

a power greater even than before and all of time

is held within a point of timelessness.

 

Yet memory alone cannot retain

what moved so long ago through head and heart and feet, I just recall

as clouds process across the western sky,

a sense of hope.  

 

The Curse of ‘Constructive’ Criticism

19 Jul

all pictures 694

The entire human race, it seems to me, is falling over itself to give advice. On marriage, on weight loss, on healthy eating, on everything that it’s possible to give advice on. And almost always, you notice, it’s people who are least qualified to give advice that are the first and most eager to give it. Advice on relationships nearly always comes from people who have left a trail of emotional debris in their wake, and financial advice from those whose extravagance and mismanagement has left them stony broke. A recently deceased second cousin of mine was forever dispensing financial advice on the strength of being a “stock market operator” and when she died it turned out she was penniless, having “stock market operated” her way through the fortune left to her by her father. So great was her talent for losing money that I often thought she should’ve set up as a consultant to corporations wishing to establish losses for tax purposes. 

This tsunami of advice is nowhere more evident than in the field of writing – that pitiable object, the hopeful, unpublished author being its most targeted victim. It positively oozes from every quarter – friends, family, other writers, articles, websites, entire books by people who feel themselves qualified to pontificate on the subject and, not least, the publishers and agents to whom you might dare to offer your manuscript. They always make a huge deal of their helpful and welcoming submission process even though they know they ‘re going to reject your work before they’ve even glanced at it. This typically includes something to the effect of: ‘Before submitting your manuscript, show it to as many people as possible to obtain a wide range of opinions and reactions, every one of which is valuable!’

Okay, that’s fine in theory but reading a manuscript takes time and – if it’s read properly – concentration, two things which are in very short supply in the modern world. Normally your rather humiliating solicitations are met with a reaction like ‘Oh yes, I’d love to read it! I can’t wait!’ followed, six months later, by, ‘I’m so sorry! I’ve just been so busy! But I will read it next month when I’m on holiday. I promise!’ Yeah right, you think, and you don’t even have the pleasure of blaming them because it’s not really their fault. After all, you’re only a writer – something which is extraneous to everything. They’re involved in Real Life.  

Nonethless, your manuscript does occasionally get read, and when the verdict is in you’ll probably wish it hadn’t. An old American friend of mine, now a published and established author, recently phoned me up to inform me he had an unexpected window in his busy schedule and would I send him the novel I’d been trying to persuade him to read for years.  A week later he phoned me in a state of euphoria, pronouncing it “magnificent!” but then presented me with a catalogue of all its faults and changes which had to be made (including the title) to the point that I found myself wondering which bit of it was actually so “magnificent”.  He then showed it to his wife – who comes from the Deep South – and she then phoned me up specially to present her own shopping list of changes, criticisms and suggestions.

I tried being Big about all this – after all, the last thing you want is to be branded as someone who can’t take criticism. I considered all their suggestions as objectively as possible, trying to decide which ones were valid, and incorporated quite a few of them. But, as I did so, I found myself losing track of the novel I had actually written and it occurred to me that there is a fine line between constructive criticism and wanting to take control and have the book rewritten the way you would like it to be. My American friend’s wife took great exception to the fact that an adult male character of mine cried (not manly) and even greater exception to his leaving a pair of soiled underpants lying around his flat in view of his girlfriend (Peter, that’s repulsive.) On the other hand, she suggested that two of my characters (a middle-aged married man and a much younger woman) should ‘have a little affair’ (delivered in her Blanche Dubois accent) – something which would have completely destroyed the dramatic tension, rendered a large part of the book meaningless and been decidedly tacky. The truth is she wants all her male characters to be the sort of men she fancies (variations on Clark Gable as Rhett Butler) and it doesn’t matter how many hearts they break or how many times they cheat on their wives just as long as they don’t cry, fart or generate too much snot when they blow their nose.

Then you have that dreary old refrain – usually from an ageing aunt who’s had one too many sherries – ‘You just have to keep on trying, dear. Did you know that Anne Bridge submitted “Illyrian Spring” four million, four hundred and forty-seven times before it was accepted.’  No, I didn’t, but the fact is that it was eventually accepted because getting your work published was easier in those balmy days.  You also frequently find situations where two critics, whose opinions you respect equally, directly contradict each other. At the end of the process you feel not helped or enlightened but exhausted, disorientated, confused and ready to abandon writing forever to try your hand as a traffic warden.

Having been subjected to this for years, it seems to me that the best response to criticism is take it with a very large pinch of salt and to try to be coldly objective about it, not personal. Even if it’s negative, they may have a point. Then again, they may not. But at the end of the day, never forget it’s YOUR book – nobody else’s – and you wrote it the way you did because that’s how you wanted it written.

I hope that doesn’t sound like advice. If it does, ignore it. 

 

Night (from ‘Poems from Long Ago’)

15 Jul

Vast

silence

vast silver silence

two o’clock

the soaring firmament is mine,

Earth

belongs to owls and badgers

weasels, beetles, maggots,

boundaries are redefined

by tiny tracks and feeding grounds,

a single cry

denotes the forest humped against the night

 

Vast

silence

Mars suspended out across the ocean

now the sky surrounds

this planet bearing all its life in whispers

stars are underneath the earth

and suddenly you sense its giant bulk,

its massive roundness,

how

it hangs with perfect buoyancy

in emptiness

CARMEN (from Loved and Lost in Lewisham)

13 Jul

Kate wanted to be a film actress. Not a film star, a film actress. She’d got the looks for it, she’d got the figure for it and by golly she’d got the talent for it. But she was having real trouble finding work. And now, to cap it all, she was having a row with her boyfriend Craig – a hopeful but unpublished writer. At least, she was having a row – Craig was being annoyingly unresponsive. ‘Why do you hate me Craig?’ she cried, ‘Why do you despise me? Oh God just tell me WHY?’

‘I don’t despise you,’ he mumbled, ‘it’s just…’

‘Just what?’

‘Well, it’s just that you’re a bit… much.’

‘A bit much? A bit much! What do you mean, a bit MUCH!?’

‘Well, it’s like… when we’re watching telly you always want to snuggle up and put your arms around me. I mean, that’s fine once in a while, when I’m in the mood. But sometimes I feel as though you’re climbing all over me and I can’t breathe.’

‘But I love you! Don’t you understand?’

‘I know, but there are times when a guy just wants to sit in peace with a glass of wine and watch a film. And then there’s…’

‘What?’

‘Well… you know. The sex.’

Kate stared at him. ‘If by “the sex” you mean the most beautiful and intimate act that it’s possible for two human beings to perform together, then what’s wrong with the sex?’

‘Nothing. It’s fine. It’s just… well, I haven’t liked to mention it before but… your habit of bursting into the Hallelujah chorus every time you climax. I find it a bit off-putting. And I think it’s disturbing the neighbours.’

Kate stood frozen to the spot, trembling between fury and tears. ‘Very well, I’ll… I’ll go then! I’ll go now and never darken your door again!’

‘Well, there’s no hurry, just when you’ve found yourself another place…’

‘Oh I’m not waiting till I’ve found another place! I’m not staying here another second! Not after being so degraded! So humiliated! I’ll go tonight. Right now! This very MINUTE!’

‘Please yourself.’

‘So this is goodbye then! Goodbye forever, Craig!’

‘Could you make sure you slam the door on your way out? It hasn’t been shutting properly for some reason. I think the damp’s maybe buckled the doorframe.’

‘Oh don’t you worry, I’ll SLAM it all right!’

It was only when Kate was outside in the lamplit street, shivering in nothing but a diaphanous blouse and a cotton skirt that she realised she’d forgotten to pack.

*

So here she was – homeless, destitute and broke. Four months earlier, having saved every penny, she’d taken the momentous decision to give up her mind-numbing job as a data processor for Marketsearch, get herself an agent and go for it! But it had been tough. At least she’d had Craig to give her moral support and a roof over her head. Not any more.

The first thing she had to do was find herself somewhere to live – some dingy, desolate digs out east among the pimps and the druggies, with a flea-ridden mattress for a bed, lit by a forty watt bulb! But she couldn’t find anywhere so she was forced on the mercy of her friends, all of whom lived in Chelsea or Knightsbridge.  As each friend got sick of her she moved on to the next.

One friend who had not yet had a chance to get sick of her was Selena. So she went to her flat and cried all over her and Selena let her stay. Her wedding was in three weeks time and since Kate was a bridesmaid it actually worked really well. She could help her with the preparations! ‘Just keep out of my mum’s way, though,’ Selena advised her. ‘She’s kind of on a roll.’

Selena’s wedding was like a dream. The weather was perfect and all the guests were rich. Selena looked ravishing in her wedding gown and for her bridesmaids she gone for crimson trimmed with gold, with a full-bodied skirt, nipped-in waist and rather revealing neckline. Kate thought she looked more like a medieval serving wench than a bridesmaid but nonetheless her outfit attracted quite a lot of attention, not least from Tony – or Antonio Francesco Dolmio del Vespuccio, to give him his full title. He was in his early fifties, Italian and a businessman. His English was pretty good but he spoke it in a very stiff, formal kind of way which Kate thought was really funny. And quite sexy. In the course of conversation, she told him about her terrible predicament.

‘Well, you can stay in our house in Kew for the next three months if that will help you in the short term,’ he suggested, ‘if you don’t mind looking after Carmen. We are going to our villa in Sorrento.’

‘Carmen?’ echoed Kate, perplexed, thinking she was going to have to be responsible for their retarded daughter.

‘Do not worry,’ laughed Tony. ‘Carmen is our cat.’

Kate’s jaw dropped. ‘Oh my God, that would be so perfect!’ she squealed, ‘I adore cats!’ And she gave Tony a great big hug and a kiss on the cheek, even though she barely knew him. He didn’t seem to mind.

As Tony was driving home with his English wife Brenda, he told her about the proposition he had made to Kate. She was not happy with the idea.

‘Why can’t Mrs. Scroggins look after her like she always does?’

‘Mrs. Scroggins is become old and ugly. She is no longer to be trusted.’

‘Rubbish! She’s completely trustworthy. She’s very conscientious about Carmen.’

‘But Mrs. Scroggins enters the house only to feed the cat. If Kate is there the cat will have love and company all the day!’

‘Mrs. Scroggins gives Carmen all the love and company she needs. I didn’t care for that girl. As soon as our backs are turned she’ll probably have some slob of a boyfriend living there with her.’

‘I will make it a condition that she does not do it.’

‘You won’t know.’

‘I trust her to keep her word.’

‘I don’t. I wouldn’t trust her around a corner. She’s too sweet.’

Tony glanced at her with an annoying little smile, ‘Are you perhaps a little jealous of her?’

Jealous of her?’ laughed Brenda. ‘Why on earth should I be jealous of her?’

*

On the day of Tony and Brenda’s departure, Kate arrived in a friend’s boyfriend’s jeep armed with seven suitcases, numerous shopping bags, her laptop and her portfolio. She was sweetness itself and made a huge fuss of Carmen – one of those smoky-grey jobs of indeterminate oriental origin – lifting her onto her lap and stroking her ceaselessly while they were having tea. She told them she had loved cats ever since she was a little girl and used to stay with her Grandma in Devon who had a gigantic ginger tom named Marmaduke. She listened carefully to the instructions about Carmen’s feeding regime (she had a delicate stomach and was on a special diet) and asked some very intelligent questions. As they were leaving, Tony mentioned in passing, ‘There is one little thing you should know about Carmen. She is very sensitive and emotional. If she feels rejected she might go out and perform acts which are reckless. It is attention-seeking, quite simply, but it is a little tiring.’

‘Oh don’t worry, Tony, I would rather die than make Carmen feel rejected!’

On the way to the airport, Brenda said, ‘I still don’t trust her.’

*

Kate couldn’t believe her good fortune. Three whole months in this fabulous house rent free! She went exploring. The bathroom alone was bigger that the dump she’d shared with that loser Craig. There was a Jacuzzi the size of a swimming pool set in real Italian marble. A sauna. A choice of bedrooms all with beds like huge, cuddly clouds. The kitchen was state-of-the-art with French windows opening onto a sunny terrace with loads of herbs and flowers in vast terracotta pots that looked like they’d come from Egypt or somewhere! And the telly was the size of a cinema screen. It was all utterly amazing and fantastic!

She took her responsibilities as Carmen’s guardian very seriously, feeding her exactly on time every morning and evening – never forgetting to give her her ‘treat’ at bedtime – and was rewarded with unconditional love and devotion. When she was curled up on the sofa watching television, Carmen would curl up with her. When she was snuggled up in bed, Carmen would snuggle up with her. When she was relaxing on the terrace with a glass of Chardonnay, Carmen would jump on her lap and ask to be stroked. When she was luxuriating in a cloud of bubbles, Carmen would perch on the marble surround, purring and gazing at her adoringly and occasionally stretching out a paw and patting her nose.  Often they would pass a happy hour rolling around together on the Persian rug, playing with Carmen’s toy that look like a dead rat. Kate laughingly drew the line at allowing her to follow her into the loo.

The weeks passed in this blissful state, Kate now able to devote all her time and energy to building her career. But she made little headway. After each failed audition she would plead with the director, ‘Tell me what’s wrong with my acting! Just tell me, I beg you, so I can change!’

‘Well… I think you just need to tone it down a bit, sweetheart,’ was the customary response.

Then Kate would return to the house where Carmen would be waiting to comfort and console, rolling onto her back, offering her tummy to be stroked, her green eyes gazing adoringly up into Kate’s blue ones. ‘Sometimes I think you’re the only person in the entire world who appreciates me,’ Kate murmured to her more than once with a heartfelt sigh.

After one particularly crushing disappointment, however, she was so depressed she couldn’t even respond to Carmen’s advances, so she took herself off to her bedroom and shut the door firmly behind her. Carmen, unable to comprehend such behaviour, positioned herself outside the door and yowled plaintively. Kate sighed, got off her bed and went to open it.

‘Carmen,’ she pleaded, ‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings my darling, but you must understand…’ But before she could finish her sentence, Carmen had darted through the open door and jumped onto her bed.

This actually rather annoyed Kate. She grabbed her and put her back outside, shut the door and returned to the comfort of the quilt. The yowling started up again. Kate tried burying her head under her pillow to drown out the noise but it was no good.

Exasperated, she got up again, reopened the door and dived onto Carmen but the little cat was slippery as an eel and was once again through the door and onto the bed. She seemed to think it was some sort of game. Or challenge. Kate stared her full in the face, wagging her finger and stating sternly ‘No!’ like a dog owner at an obedience class. ‘There are times when I need to be alone, Carmen. You have to understand that.’ But Carmen clearly did not understand that – she looked only rejected and bewildered. So Kate relented and let her stay.

A similar thing happened a few days later after an audition for a TV advert for panty liners, only this time Kate was trying to keep Carmen out of the bathroom so she could have a good long soak in peace. She wondered if, subconsciously, she was testing the relationship, testing whether Carmen cared enough about her or had sufficient emotional maturity to understand when she needed some space. Or was it Carmen who was testing her?

In the end she gave in again, though she now greeted every loving paw-pat on the tip of her nose with a faint frown. Things had changed, she knew – the incidents in the bedroom and bathroom had altered the dynamic of the relationship slightly but significantly. ‘You go on as though you love me,’ she murmured in the course of a deceptively cosy session on the sofa, ‘but all this purring and prodding means nothing if this relationship’s just about you. And it is, isn’t it, Carmen? You don’t give a fig about me, not really, you just want affirmation. If you really cared about me you’d be more sensitive to my feelings and my needs!’

But then she caught a look on Carmen’s face – a look of simple animal innocence – and the guilt swept over her like a tsunami. How could she expect her to have emotional maturity? She was only a cat! She was imposing her own expectations on the poor creature – her expectations and disappointments and sense of rejection and expecting her to respond as though she were a fellow human. ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry, Carmen!’ she cried, gathering her into her arms and almost suffocating her with love. Carmen looked confused.

As the cycle of anger, resentment and contrition continued, Kate began to wonder about Carmen. Did she have issues Tony hadn’t told her about? Okay, she was only a cat, but cats could be complicated. She remembered the side of cosy old Marmaduke’s character that had revealed itself once when he caught a mouse in her Grandma’s garden. He had simply played with it for hours, patting it around with his paw as though it were a ball of wool, then inflicting some near-fatal injury on the poor creature before letting it stagger away to apparent safety only to reach out nonchalantly and grab it again. And when Kate tried to rescue it, he had snatched it into his jaws and looked daggers at her, growling. By the time he’d finally got bored with the game, the pathetic, palpitating, battered little beast was barely alive. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to put it out of its misery and had had to call on next-door’s gardener to administer a fatal whack with a spade. She understood now how that mouse had felt. What Marmaduke had been doing to it physically, Carmen was doing to her mentally. Why did she feel guilty all the time? She was doing her duty by her – feeding her at the correct time every day, emptying her disgusting litter tray, giving her more affection than any animal could possibly expect. But she had rights too! She was a human being – she was further up the food chain than a mere cat and she had a right, once in a while, to watch television in peace or just sit in the garden and drink a glass of wine without having to use her other hand to stroke a purring, palpitating pelt! The truth was that that cat was a control freak and, in her sweet subtle way, was ruling her life. She wished she’d never agreed to this arrangement! More than once she toyed with the idea of packing her bags and leaving but then she thought of the cold, unforgiving world beyond those doors, the dingy rooms, the reluctantly offered sofas in her friends’ flats. She was even horrified to find herself, on one occasion, missing Craig.

She had an audition coming up. It was for Mrs. Elton in a new television adaptation of Emma – a rather plain, unglamorous character for her, she felt, but what the hell? She was an actress – with the right costume and makeup she could do plain and unglamorous. Her audition speech about her and her husband’s prospects of social advancement in the parish of Highbury was profound, tragic, utterly heart-rending and, as it rose to its climax, she was sure she had the part in the bag. She hadn’t.

At once furious and utterly desolate, she tore back to the house, slammed the door behind her, poured herself an enormous glass of Shiraz – even though it was only four in the afternoon – then curled up on the sofa, hugging a cushion and staring at ‘Dora the Explorer’ on children’s television. Carmen, sensing her anguish, jumped up on the sofa and was dismayed to find that the cushion seemed to have taken her place in Kate’s affections. She tried to clamber over it and rub up against her cheek but Kate thrust her away so roughly away that she landed on the floor. ‘Look just fuck off Carmen! I’m sick of you! Just go away and leave me in peace!’

As Carmen attempted to regain the sofa, Kate suddenly lost it, grabbed her, took her outside and dumped her in the middle of the terrace. ‘JUST STAY OUT THERE AND LEAVE ME ALONE!!!’ she yelled.

The cat responded by following her back towards the door, meowing plaintively. Kate clapped her hands over her ears. She was gripping handfuls of her own hair. Then she turned and glared at her with the eyes of a mad woman and emitted a scream which would have won her the lead in Psycho. Carmen, terrified, slunk off a few yards then turned and stared at her in horror.

Kate stormed back into the house and blocked off the cat flap with a tray then dragged the kitchen table across to wedge it in place. Then she took three aspirins, washed them down with yet more wine and curled up once again in a tiny ball on the sofa. She could hear Carmen attempting to get through the flap in the kitchen door and being frustrated by the obstruction. Frantic scratching and clattering accompanied a resumption of the yowling but the barricade held firm. Kate grabbed a cushion, wrapped it around her head and managed to fall asleep.

She awoke suddenly with a headache. It was now pitch dark beyond the uncurtained windows and she sensed that hours had passed though she had no idea how many. But she was aware that something had woken her up. A strange, different sound. She removed the cushion and raised her head like a deer at a water-hole sensing danger. She heard only silence. Then she realised, with dawning horror, that that was the sound which had woken her. Silence.

She went outside onto dimly-lit terrace to discover that Carmen – the most homebound cat on the planet – had vanished. Horrified, she went back inside and found a torch then searched all round the little garden, calling her name. She pointed the beam over the wall into the neighbouring gardens. She called at the top of her voice, pleadingly, but she knew in her heart of hearts that she was wasting her breath. Carmen had gone off to wreak her final revenge. She had gone off  to perform acts which are reckless. She could be in any one of the gardens by now, or in the park, or she could have made for the river!

Telling herself firmly not to panic, she went next door and rang the doorbell.

‘Ah! Are you looking for the suicide cat?’ laughed the elderly gentleman who answered the door, as though it were a huge joke.

‘The suicide cat?’

‘Yes, always trying to do away with herself, that moggy of Brenda’s. Pure attention-seeking of course. She’s a real drama queen – if you’ll pardon the pun.’

Kate, frowning, asked permission to search his garden.

‘Yes, of course, help yourself, my dear. I’d give you a hand but I’m not very good in the dark – bit doddery on the old pins, you know!’

His garden was bigger than Tony and Brenda’s but nonetheless she went through it with a toothcomb, shining her torch into every nook and cranny and calling ‘Carmen! Carmen! Please come back, Carmen! I’m so sorry Carmen!’  The little tool shed was locked but she looked in the greenhouse, inside seed boxes, under slats. Nothing. Then she tried the next house along. And the house on the other side. Same story.

She returned home and refilled her glass of wine, knowing the situation was hopeless. She could look in every garden in the street and not find her because a healthy, agile cat like Carmen could’ve gone for miles. She gulped her wine with trembling hands and wondered what on earth to do next. Should she call the police? Should she make some notices and stick them to trees and lamp posts? Should she put flyers through people’s doors? Should she contact the local paper? Should she open another bottle of Shiraz?

As she grew increasingly tight she could not prevent her brain from conjuring all kinds of lurid images of the manner by which Carmen might already have ended her short life. Then, deep in Shiraz-fuelled blackness, she glimpsed a ray of hope. Cats had nine lives, hadn’t they? So even if she ended this one she would still have eight left – if that made any sense. She remembered her grandfather saying that you could drop a cat from a fourth-storey window and it would always land on its feet and just walk away as though nothing had happened. Hence the expression – landing on your feet! And none of the houses in the neighbourhood were more than four storeys! But there were always trees. And the river. And cars and buses charging to and fro along the main road at the end of the street!

She pressed her hands to her face and burst into floods of tears, swaying slowly from side to side in agony. ‘Oh Carmen, I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!’

At that moment the telephone rang. Kate dived onto the receiver. ‘Is that Senora del Vespuccio?’ said a man who was clearly rather proud of knowing the Italian for ‘Mrs’.

‘No… no, it’s not. But I’m…’

‘You’re looking after her cat?’

‘Yes! Yes!’ A smile of hope broke through Kate’s tears like sunshine through a rainstorm. ‘Have you seen her?’

‘No but I can hear her. She’s stuck up on our roof, screaming her head off. She’s been up there for hours and it’s driving my wife nuts. I know it’s her – she’s done it before.’

Kate grabbed her torch and tore out into the night and five minutes later she’d found the address – which was in the next street. The man who had phoned her was standing in the driveway, staring upwards. He turned at the sound of her approaching footsteps. ‘Hi, I’m Phil,’ he said, offering his hand. ‘Phil Jenkins. Call me Phil.’

Kate distractedly shook the hand and took Phil Jenkins in at a glance – forties, balding, boring. She gazed up at the dim, towering frontage of the house and felt giddy. She couldn’t see Carmen but she could clearly hear her plaintive wailing.

‘She’s stuck at the corner of the gable,’ murmured Phil Jenkins. ‘You might be able to get to her from the skylight.’

Kate couldn’t help noticing the use of the word ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ or even ‘we’, which didn’t strike her as very gallant.

‘I’d try and get to her myself,’ he said, as though reading her thoughts, ’but that cat doesn’t like me. We’ve met before.’

He led her into the house and up two flights of stairs. A woman and some children materialised like spectres from various doorways but Kate was too distracted to take any notice of them. Then up another, narrower flight of stairs. On the landing, Phil Jenkins took a long rod stowed in a corner and used it to open a trap door from which an aluminium ladder slid efficiently down. He climbed up into the loft and switched on a light and Kate followed him, rather wishing she’d resisted that third glass of Shiraz. The loft was full of the usual junk – old furniture, boxes, abandoned toys, some suitcases. The man opened the skylight and immediately Carmen’s screaming was painfully audible. He found a stout wooden chair and placed it under the opening. ‘You go ahead,’ he said. ‘If she sees me there’s no knowing what she’ll do.’

Kate climbed onto the chair and put her arms though the skylight and the rest of her torso followed. She experienced a moment of vertigo but soon regained command of herself. It was freezing cold but at least that sobered her up a little. The skylight was quite low in the steeply sloping roof and she could get through it with ease. Beneath her was a gutter leading, a few feet away, to an angle of the roof and an arrangement for channelling rainwater into the downpipe. It was there, on the tiles, that Carmen had positioned herself. Beyond lay the abyss.

‘Carmen… Carmen…’ Kate called out gently, soothingly, so as not to startle her. ‘It’s me, Kate. I’m so sorry, Carmen! Please forgive me!’

Carmen responded by presenting Kate with her bottom and gazing haughtily at the stars, her tail lashing like a whip. At least she had stopped yowling.

‘Carmen, you must understand,’ Kate pleaded, ‘I didn’t mean it! I’ve been under so much pressure… the rejection, the humiliation… and I took it out on you, which was so wrong of me – so so wrong of me! I know all you wanted to do was love me, to comfort me, and that was how I repaid you! I became paranoid – but please, Carmen, I beg you, don’t do this thing! You’re so young! You’ve got your whole life ahead of you! And it’s going to be wonderful, I know it is! You’ll probably meet some handsome tom and one day, who knows, you may even have kittens!’ (Then she remembered Carmen had been spayed and felt terrible.) ‘Come down, Carmen, I beg you! I promise I’ll never be horrid to you ever again!’

If only she understood what she was saying to her, Kate thought to herself. But animals were so sensitive, so telepathic, she must have been able to pick up on the tone of her voice. Then, sure enough, Carmen turned and looked her straight in the eye and meowed softly, forgivingly.

‘Oh Carmen! That’s right! Come to me, Carmen! Come back to me, my darling!’

She began to creep in her direction but the roof was so steep that with each step she slid a little nearer to the edge. She was struggling to maintain her footing.

‘Would you mind very much holding on to my legs, Mr. Jenkins?’ gasped Kate. ‘I have to get further out!’

Phil Jenkins, who had been moved almost to tears by Kate’s performance, had no quarrel with clasping the comely attenuation between those comely ankles and those comely calves – his nose almost touching the hem of her skirt – and becoming the rock-hard anchor which alone was keeping her from tumbling into eternity. She hoisted herself upwards and wriggled until the frame of the skylight was jammed into her pelvis, her entire torso lying flat on the tiles, her arms reaching out towards her charge.

‘I just need to get a little further! Just a couple more inches and I’ll be there! Keep coming, Carmen! That’s right, my darling! Keep coming! I’ve nearly got you!’

‘Don’t worry,’ murmured Phil Jenkins in a husky, reassuring tone, ‘I won’t let you fall.’

Kate, stretching herself to the absolute limit, just managed to brush Carmen’s fur with her fingertips. But she couldn’t get hold of her. ‘Carmen, just come this way. Just come this way a tiny bit!’

Carmen seemed to oblige and Kate made a grab for her. But the grab was too sudden and instead of taking hold of her, she pushed her. For an instant she was a frantic scrabble of claws on tiles, Kate caught a look of terror, betrayal, forgiveness and farewell all mingled in those huge, beautiful eyes and then there was only the roof, the gutter and the blackness beyond. Kate’s scream rent the night.

Then, to Phil Jenkins’ astonishment, she scrambled back through the hole at the speed of light, down the loft stairs, down the main stairs, through the hall and out through the front door. He followed her, but she had already disappeared around the side of the house.

Had there been a flat surface beneath, Kate’s grandfather’s theory about cats always landing on their feet might have held good. But there was a steep rockery contained by a brick wall at the base of which a concrete path ran along the side of the house. Poor Carmen had undoubtedly come down feet first but then slid on the rocks and struck the angle of the wall, because her body now lay below in the path. Kate stared at her, paralysed with horror. In the dim light of an outside lamp she could just make out the ghastly grey-blue of the animal’s gums and lolling tongue and a tiny telltale trickle of blood from her lifeless mouth.

The children, burning with curiosity, were being restrained by their mother at the back door. Kate was hunched over Carmen’s corpse heaving and sobbing in agony. Phil Jenkins crouched beside her and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Had his wife not been so close by he would have put a comforting arm around her.

‘The irony of it is that if we’d just left her she’d probably have got down on her own,’ he murmured soothingly. ‘She always has before.’

The irony was lost on Kate.

‘What are you going to do with the body?’ he asked. Then, finally displaying a glint of gallantry, he added, ‘I’ll deal with it if you like.’

Kate did not reply at first. Her breath was still heaving, but then she made a determined effort to compose herself. ‘No,’ she whispered. ‘No. I have to do this.’

‘Well, at least let me find you a bag.’

She carried Carmen home in a supermarket carrier bag bearing the slogan Bag for Life. All of a sudden the little imp that used to coil herself so playfully around her feet when she was watching television seemed to weight a ton. Back home she did not know what to do with her pathetic cargo. She put her in the utility room – for want of anywhere else to put her – then moved to the kitchen like a sleepwalker, sank down on a chair by the table and stared into space. Her little plate with the remains of her supper stood on the special washable mat in the corner beside her water bowl. The tray which Kate had used to banish her from her own home lay on the floor. It was then that the full horror of what had happened overwhelmed her.

‘Oh my God! What have I done?!’ she cried, burying her face in her hands. ‘What have I DONE?!’

She was trembling like a leaf. She was hyperventilating. She was going to pass out! She needed a paper bag! No she didn’t, she needed brandy. She got to the cupboard and found a bottle of Tony’s Courvoisier but her hands were trembling so violently she could barely get the cap off, could barely pour it. The neck of the bottle clattered against the rim of the glass, she spilt half of it on the floor. But she finally managed to get some in and downed it in one gulp. She splashed some more into the glass, and downed it. Then she sank back into the chair.

She didn’t sleep a wink that night – that final, panic-stricken look in Carmen’s eyes haunting her every waking moment. She made a decision to go off first thing in the morning and see about funeral arrangements. Giving Carmen a proper send-off was the least she could do. Then would come the worst part – the confession. She spent the rest of that terrible night rehearsing what she was going to say to Tony and Brenda.

The next morning she went along to the veterinary surgery whose number Brenda had left with her feeding regime – just in case. They could probably have dealt with her enquiry over the phone but she needed to get out of the house, needed to feel she was doing something positive for Carmen. The waiting room was full of the usual assortment of mangy dogs trying to get at each other or at the cats inside their baskets and mothers and children crying over their terminally ill hamster. The walls taunted her with patronising posters about how to care for your pet properly. The woman behind the counter was one of those horsy types who look a bit posh to be working as a receptionist anywhere but at a vet’s. She was probably the wife of one of the partners.

‘Can I help you?’

Even though Kate was a potential customer, she felt intimidated. It must have been the guilt, the guilt that was gnawing away at her very soul! She couldn’t bring herself to confess to this woman what had really happened – that a happy, healthy cat who had had her entire life ahead of her had been driven to suicide by her treatment of her – that she was, in effect, a murderer.

‘The… the thing is,’ she faltered, ‘I have an animal… and I think she might die, and I… just wondered how much it would cost to have her cremated… I mean, properly… on her own, with a casket and everything.’

The woman took a moment to absorb what Kate was saying. ‘It depends what kind of animal we’re talking about.’

‘A cat.’

‘But this cat isn’t actually dead yet?’

‘Oh no, she’s alive!’ cried Kate, reddening a little. ‘Alive and kicking! Just… not very well.’

‘Don’t you think it might be a good idea to book her in for an appointment, then?’

‘Oh no, there’s nothing wrong with her!’

‘I thought you just said she wasn’t very well.’

‘Well, I mean… she’s just… suffering from old age and might die soon… of old age – the way all animals must. Well, all humans too, of course! I’ve had her for years and I love her so much and I just want to know how much a proper cremation would cost so that I can… start saving up for it.’ She even managed a smile, relieved that she’d finally come up with a lie that sounded reasonably convincing.

The woman stared at her for a moment then turned to a computer screen. After an eternity of tapping, she announced, ‘A cat cremation arranged through this surgery would cost two hundred and twenty-seven pounds plus VAT.’

Kate could hardly prevent her jaw from dropping through the floor. Two hundred and twenty-seven pounds! She was only a cat, for God’s sake, not a carthorse! ‘Thank you,’ she murmured. ‘I’ll get back to you when… the time comes.’

Walking home she felt terrible in the knowledge that Carmen’s remains would be denied a decent cremation and a casket with her name and a pink bow on it and were going to have to be disposed of in a more prosaic fashion. Not that she would have begrudged Carmen two hundred and twenty-seven pounds if she had it – but she hadn’t. She tried to console herself with the thought that, had she been rich, Carmen would have had the most beautiful and moving funeral service known to cat!

But the worst was still to come. The phone call. The confession. She knew she must get it over with as soon as possible. But first of all she had to decide on a story since she could not tell them anything remotely resembling the truth. Tony had warned her about Carmen’s sensitivity and about her tendency to reckless, attention-seeking acts whenever she felt she was being sidelined or treated dismissively. Perhaps she could say that the cat had got run over. But how would she explain the absence of a body? Brenda would have expected her to get her properly cremated and pay the two hundred and twenty-seven pounds out of her own pocket.

The only solution was to make out that Carmen had simply disappeared. This was London, after all. Anything could have happened. She could have been attacked by a dog, or a rat, or an urban fox. She could have been abducted by hoodies who might think it fun to drop her off Kew Bridge and take bets on how far she could swim before drowning. Okay. Her story was going to be that last night Carmen didn’t come in for her supper, which she thought most unusual and very worrying. She searched everywhere for her – she asked all the neighbours, she scoured their gardens with a torch, calling her name – the neighbours would corroborate that. The following morning, in daylight, she had widened her search. She’d reported it to the police – yes that was brilliant! She could even do that, just to give the whole thing a touch of authenticity. She’d do that straight away! Of course, the Met would have far better things to do with their time than search for a missing cat, but if she smiled sweetly at the duty sergeant – maybe rustled up a few tears – he’d probably agree to file a report. That would be enough to show Tony and Brenda she cared. She’d have to square Phil Jenkins, of course – but that shouldn’t be difficult since he clearly worshipped her.

That evening found her perched for hours staring at the phone, her hand periodically reaching for the receiver, then retreating. Finally she snatched it up and dialled the number. Her heart was thumping. She felt nauseous. She was praying with all her might that it would be Tony who answered, not Brenda. That was why she was phoning in the evening – she reckoned there might be more chance he’d be at home.

‘Bon giorno!’

It was Tony. Thank God!

‘Oh, Tony, I’m so glad I’ve reached you!’ Her voice was trembling. She could barely speak.

‘Kate? Is that you? What is the matter? You sound so strange!’

‘Something terrible’s happened, Tony. I can hardly bring myself to tell you! It’s Carmen…she’s… she’s disappeared.’ And then she dissolved into tears.

Tony was concerned, but not about the cat. ‘Kate… Kate… you must not distress yourself! She will probably return! Cat’s do that!’

‘I pray she does, Tony!’

‘Besides, it is only a cat. We were fond of that cat but it was not a human being. Such things happen. Especially in London. I told my wife that it was foolish to have a cat in London but she insisted. You must not blame yourself Kate!’

‘Thank you, Tony, for… being so understanding!’

When Tony announced the news to Brenda she broke down in floods of tears. She was inconsolable. ‘Oh my Carmen! My poor little Carmen!’ she wailed. ‘I knew we should never have left her with that bloody girl!’

‘It is not her fault,’ Tony retorted. ‘Such things happen. Especially in London. There are so many dangers!’

‘I loved that cat! I loved her like my own child!’

‘That is an insult to our children.’

‘I can’t help how I feel!’

‘It is possible still that she might return!’

‘No she won’t. I know Carmen. She never wanders. Something terrible’s happened to her! I can feel it! Oh my poor darling!’

When Brenda had calmed down a little she remarked, sniffing and dabbing her eyes, ‘Well, at least there’s one positive side to all this. It means there’s no reason for that girl to go on living in our house! Mrs. Scroggins can keep an eye out in case she does turn up. I want you to phone her back and tell her to get the hell out, Tony!’

Tony was thoughtful for a few moments, then he seemed to soften. He put an arm around Brenda’s shoulder. ‘You are right. She has proved unreliable. My judgement was wrong and yours was right. I will phone her at once and tell her to leave.’

‘Well, I’m glad you’re finally seeing sense.’

Tony strode to the telephone, snatched up the receiver and dialled the number of the Lotus Flower Chinese takeaway in Twickenham Road. ‘Kate? It is Tony. You must leave our house this instant! This is our decision. No… no… I am sorry, Kate, I will not listen to your pleas for mercy! You must go at once! That is my last word!’

He replaced the receiver on a very confused Cantonese lady who was still waiting to take his order and stood for a moment gazing out of the window. ‘I cannot rest while Carmen is unaccounted for!’ he proclaimed suddenly. ‘I will fly to London at first light and find her myself! I have money! I have contacts! I have influence with the police! I will search behind every bush, up every tree, in every drain! I will not rest until I have found her!’

‘I’ll come with you!’

‘No, it is better that you remain here in the bosom of our friends! I will move more swiftly alone and you will find the experience traumatic. The absence of Carmen in the house…’

‘You’re right, I couldn’t bear that! But promise me you’ll call me the moment you have some news!’

‘I give you my word!’

*

 

The next day was dustbin day. Kate had put the Bag for Life containing Carmen inside a bin bag and, as she was putting her out with the rubbish she wondered if she should maybe mark her final departure in some way – a moment of respectful silence, perhaps, or a few appropriate words. She was reminded of those films where a platoon of men are lost in the desert and, one of their number having finally succumbed to heat and exhaustion, his fellows are gathered awkwardly around a mound of sand marked by a makeshift cross fashioned from two sticks. Someone murmurs to their leader, ‘Do you think you should maybe say a few words, Cap’n?’ And the Captain, looking embarrassed, replies, ‘Well, I’m not much of a hand at this sort of thing, but I’ll do my best.’

Standing before the open mouth of the wheelie bin, Kate bowed her head. ‘I’m so so sorry, Carmen. I hope you’re happy playing up there among the flowers in Heaven, and I hope God looks after you better than I did. Amen.’ And she dropped the bag inside and shut the lid.

Later that morning, her mobile bleeped to inform her she had a text message. She looked at the display and was amazed to discover that it was from Craig. It comprised only a single word: ‘Sorry’.

That afternoon, Tony touched down at Heathrow. The moment he’d cleared passport control, he phoned her.

‘I am staying at the house tonight. And because you have been through such a terrible ordeal I am going to take you to dinner at an expensive restaurant.’

Kate was horrified. She couldn’t possibly go out to a fabulous dinner with Tony after what had happened! It would be so disrespectful to Carmen’s memory!

When he arrived, he kissed her on both cheeks then hugged her comfortingly. ‘You have been so brave through all of this.’

‘I’m so so sorry Tony,’ she whimpered, glancing shyly up into his eyes.

‘Perhaps she will suddenly return. There is a saying that cats have eight lives, no?’

‘Nine. But I think that may have been her ninth.’

While Tony was soaking in the jacuzzi to recover from his journey, Kate – feeling like a traitor – got into her black mini evening dress from TK Maxx and her Jimmy Choo shoes she bought on e-Bay then sat at her dressing table putting on her ear rings that looked for all the world like real diamonds. As they were leaving, he told her she looked ravishing.

They took a taxi into town and dined at Franco’s where Kate was serenaded on the guitar by an unshaven man who smelt of garlic. Caressing the stem of her champagne flute, she told Tony her life story – a tale of disappointment, of broken promises, of unrequited love. Laying his fingertips gently over the hand which was caressing the champagne flute, he told her his life story – a tale of disappointment, of broken promises, of unrequited love. Afterwards they went to a nightclub for a while then rode home in another taxi and had a nightcap. At last she told him he should turn in. He must have been exhausted after his long journey!

He kissed her on the cheek as they were parting. ‘Thank you for a wonderful evening, Tony,’ she murmured as he briefly stroked her hair.

But Tony could not sleep. An hour after going to bed he was convinced he could hear sobbing. He listened intently. He could. He was certain.

He threw back the quilt and got out of bed, wearing nothing but a rather fetching pair of snow-white boxers. He had a good body for a man of his age – lean, taut, tanned. He was proud of his body. He didn’t work out, but he swam and played tennis a lot. He stepped out into the corridor, his head cocked like a spaniel that has just heard its master’s car pull into the drive. The sobbing was coming from Kate’s bedroom.

He entered without knocking. She was perched on the edge of her bed in pink panties and a tiny blue top. She turned and looked up at him pleadingly, her eyes glistening with tears.

‘Kate, what is it? What is the matter?’

‘Oh, Tony, I just can’t stop thinking about poor little Carmen! I keep seeing her face – her little face when she was rubbing up against me so lovingly, so trustingly! And then… and then… I’m so sorry Tony! You entrusted her to me and I let you down! And I miss her so much! In that short time we became so close! I loved that cat like my own child!’

Tony sat down on the bed beside her. He reached out and gently caressed her hair, the hollow between her shoulder-blades, the small of her back. A little tremor ran through her entire body at his touch. Was it shame or terror or excitement or a mingling of all three? She did not know.

‘Meeting you has made me understand what has been missing from my life all these years,’ he murmured, sneaking an arm around her waist and pressing his lips to her golden tresses. ‘Someone who is filled with passion as I am, someone who is overwhelmed with a passion for life and for all of God’s creation, even a tiny helpless creature like Carmen, someone who is capable of returning the volcano of love that I need to give! I know now that Brenda has been keeping me in an emotional prison, that she has been suffocating me emotionally. You are my soul mate, Kate, and I have found you at last, my true soul mate!’

But a moment later, when he had slid her top over her head and his snow-white boxers down from his sinuous things, Kate suddenly froze. ‘Tony, this is wrong!’ she cried, trying her best not to stare at his monstrously motivated manhood, ‘This is so wrong!’

And she grabbed her top and fled from the room.

*

When he opened the door, Craig was wearing that tee-shirt with the words I like Girls who like Girls which Kate had always thought horribly tasteless. Nonetheless she took him in her arms.

‘I’ve learnt so much about myself over the past few weeks,’ she murmured. ‘And I’ve changed, Craig! God how I’ve changed!’

‘Not too much, I hope’ he said.

Midsummer Night

10 Jul

all pictures 407

 

 

Windows wide upon the whirring world

the curtain stirs

between the shadow-mouths of furniture

and shifting trees, between the brink of sleep

and forest-realms of badgers, foxes, owls;

the lapsing, rising breeze

deflects the nightjar, holds

one blackbird calling

in the deep wood; is the moon

vast, round, bronze beyond the maybug’s

fumbling? The distant line of downs

still visible from Great Oaks Wood?

 

 

Discovering the Skeleton of a Palaeolithic Woman (Seven Barrows Down)

8 Jul

4th of July 032

 

 

You are us

we are you

and forty thousand years

evaporate

 

Huddled in your home

you heard the howling winter wind

saw fire flickering on stone

you held us to your breast

as wolves wandered through the land

you are our mother

why would we desecrate your bones?

 

 

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