Talking cures

‘You want me just to talk, then?  OK.  Well, when I met Michael, the very first thing he said was that he’d had testicular cancer, which I thought was strange because we’d been e-mailing for about two months by then.  Huh, cancer reappeared a few months later, but I’ll try and keep this in order.   

‘He was older than his photograph, about five years, I’d say; his hair was a lot greyer and thinner, but cut stylishly, you know?  Michael took pride in his appearance; he ran, went to the gym.  He was a small man, but he liked having muscles.  A few times, I saw him standing naked in front of the mirror, but I never assumed he was posing.

‘He was always saying I was lovely, kind and funny, but sometimes?  He’d say my jeans made my thighs look big, my lipstick should be pinker; it looked like concern, but I felt less attractive.

Skiddaw_and_Derwent_Water_from_Kings_How_001

‘One day, we were walking up Skiddaw,when he said I was putting weight on.  I said he was unkind, and he just exploded. Out of nowhere, cursing me, shouting, he stormed off and left me up that hill.  It was two
miles, and I was expecting the car to be gone when I got back down.  He sat on the wall, watching me walk towards him, then he got in the car, and didn’t speak to me all the way home, not even when he dropped me off.

‘Next day, he turned up on crutches, told me he’d torn a ligament when he fell on the way down alone, and it was a good job he could look after himself.  On facebook, he posted that he’d fallen off a mountain; he was on his phone all afternoon, checking the comments, then he announced that he had 244 likes, and some people cared.  I did my best, and after a while he was mollified enough to eat dinner.

‘Oh, yes.  I kept misplacing things.  My keys; I’d put them in my bag, and find them in the bathroom or the kitchen.  Plausible, but unlikely places.  I thought I was losing it, honestly.  And he was always playing with my phone, posting things on my facebook page.  Nothing awful, but intrusive.   When I asked him not to, he’d make a big thing about me not trusting him.  

‘He didn’t work for months.  Friends got him a couple of terms lecturing at an FE college.  He was only there a few months, when he said he’d found a blemish on his foot, it was skin cancer, and he’d have to have more surgery.  It was an odd, flat, brownish-purple mark, about the size of a 2p coin; covered in iodine, it was hard to see when he eased back the dressing.  We had a row that week, and when he got in touch two weeks later, he told me he’d had the operation and lost his job.

‘I’m fine to carry on, but could I have some water, please? Thanks’.

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Miss Webster’s spectacles

Miss Webster played the organ at our chapel, and the piano in the classroom for Sunday School.

She lived next door to the doctor’s house, with her mam, who was a very old lady.  I knew my mam was thirty-one, so I worked out that Miss Webster must be old, but she wasn’t; she was just old-fashioned.

She wore cardigans that matched her sweater, like my Great Aunt Ethel, but Miss Webster’s were tighter, and she wore tweed skirts and stockings.  I only once saw her wear a pair of shoes with heels.

She had two pairs of spectacles, both of them on chains round her neck. She wore one
pair while she was playing, and the other pair sat on her bosom, then she swapped them over when she got down off the seat.  The pair she wore while she was playing were tortoiseshell with thick lenses.  Sometimes, we had to stand by her to turn the pages of her music bred spectaclesook.  None of us could read music, so she would nod when it was time to turn over.  Her green eyes were huge and blurry through the lenses, and she could sometimes look at you hard, and be a bit scary. Her other glasses were red, with sweeping wings that went right up into her hair.  Her hair was lacquered stiff, so when she pushed her spectacles up, her hair moved with them.  She would pat it back down, carefully, every time.  She smelled nice, though, like my mam did when she was going out with my dad on Saturday nights.

The last time I saw her was at the Chapel Anniversary.  All our parents and aunts and uncles came along to see us perform. We all sang hymns together, then we each had to recite or sing something of our own. Sunday School was all about practicing for weeks before that Sunday, and Miss Webster played the same hymns and songs over and over until we were as good as we were ever going to be.

That Sunday, she wore a pale yellow silky dress, and her shoes matched, and they had heels.  She slipped them off under the organ seat, and worked the pedals in her stockinged feet.

After lunch the next Sunday, we went to get our coats to walk to Sunday School, and Mam told me we weren’t going, and we  didn’t need to go back.  She said we were too old for it now.  That pleased me because I hated walking there on Sundays, especially in the winter, when I wanted to lie in front of the fire and watch old films on television.

At school on Monday morning, I told my friend Ann that I wouldn’t be seeing her at Sunday School any more, and she started to laugh.

“ There won’t be any more Sunday School,” she said.  “My dad says the Chapel will have to close now; the minister, Mr Pickering, has left his wife and run off with Miss Webster”.   

Monsieur Caron’s Aeroplane

DSC00143Monsieur Caron mows the strip of land between his wood and M. Abelli’s vines; curiously, old bales edge the ditch.  I wondered why, until M. Caron’s daughter told me.     

Caron is a tiny gnarled man in his seventies, wizened face dark from working on his woodland and smallholding; a few cows and goats, and chickens who spend as much time scratching on the road as in the yard.  He came to take a beehive from our roof; his suit swamped him, held up around knees and elbows by straps.  He swarmed up the ladder, lifted some tiles and came down almost as fast, saying he couldn’t take the hive without dismantling the roof. The bees are still here.

Mme Caron was collecting census forms; recognising the surname on her identity badge, I asked if they were related.

“Mais oui,” she replied, then switched to English, I think to stop the torture of her ears with my French. “My father”.  She rolled her eyes and asked if I knew about the aeroplane.

“Really, the whole commune knows.  He and my brother have been building this plane for seven years, and it drives my mother crazy.  She says she will not allow them to fly it as she does not have a good black dress for the funeral.”  

“But, building an aeroplane?” I said, in French to show willing.  Stoically, she continued in English and for some minutes we carried on this bilingual conversation.  One day, she told me, he cleared the barn, and, waving some papers at his wife, announced that he had bought the plans and would now build the plane.  He would build it from materials lying around the farm. Every day he wanders around with a spanner; Maman throws up her hands, muttering imprecations only audible to the chickens.

The aeroplane is still in the barn. The wings lies on the earth floor alongside the fuselage, and the engine has been in pieces on the workbench for many years.  Mme Caron takes the forms and shrugs.

I don’t think I will ever see M. Caron’s plane on that landing strip, but four times a year he will mow it anyway.  It looks like he’s just cutting hay.  

Severine II

40 ansSeverine is 40 today – there is bunting behind the counter, and balloons and ribbons stir gently under the awning.  She’s working, as usual, behind the counter of the patisserie, but it’s taking her twice as long to serve her customers today; they all want to wish her a happy birthday.  The old men shout jokes to her husband in the bakery, nudging each other, and bursting into short, raucous laughs.  It’s already hot this morning, and she wipes her forearm over her brow; it must be warm so near the ovens.

I’m at a corner table in Cafe Aure, watching her moving between customers in the bakery and the cafe. I moved to this small commune two years ago, and I come here a few times a week, because, well, frankly, they have the best pastries in town.  I don’t know Severine well, but she is good with my faltering French, my mixed up tenses and verb endings.  Now and again she giggles at my mistakes, then puts her hand to her mouth, looks up under her eyebrows and apologises so charmingly that it’s not possible to bear her any malice.  I think she must be clever; I see her working on the accounts often, when the shop is empty, and it’s always Severine, not Patrick who looks on as the children sit at the end of the counter, swinging their legs on high stools as they do their homework in the afternoon.

She doesn’t look happy today.  The tendons in her neck are raised, and when she thinks no one can see, she opened her mouth wide and waggled her jaw from side to side, as if she is trying to shake out some tension.

She leans forward into the display cabinet and has to stretch to pick up the empty pastry tray.  She’s small, smaller than I am, maybe only five feet tall, and the tendons on her arms ridge up with effort.  As she drops the tray on the counter, she lets out a puff of air which makes her shaggy fringe flip up and flop back.

I can catch odd phrases from here.  Yes, Flori is coming from Bordeaux for the party tonight.  Yes, he is doing well at University.  And yes, Romain and Lucie will be there; there is no school tomorrow.  Naturally, Romi is at the lycée now; Lucie will follow him in two years.

I found an article on line about Severine a few days ago.  She is a councillor in the town, and has just been announced as a Socialist candidate for the European Elections next year. This is something I didn’t know, and something we have in common; in another life, I used to be a councillor too.  I can read some articles, learn some new vocabulary and maybe talk to her about this next week. It’s good to have something to talk about, or our conversations stumble into silence, and I’m embarrassed by my poor language skills.

Patrick has prepared a special cake for her birthday.  It is on the counter, on croquembouchedisplay; after all, he is a patissier, and one must always remember to show one’s skills!  It is a magnificent tower of golden choux balls, glossy with caramel and usually for weddings, but what an advertisement!  There are other cakes in the glass fridge – I can see a bavarois, and a charlotte from here, and my mouth waters a little.

I wait for a break in the queue, and go to buy bread and pay for my coffee.  Ça va? she asks, raising her eyebrows and giving me a brief smile.  I reply that I am well, and how is she? Her right hand, flattened, wobbles side to side and her mouth stretches, turns down a little.  Comme ci, comme ça, I suppose.

“Trop chaud”, she says, finally, as if she had discarded the thought of saying something else.

As I take my change, I wish her bon anniversaire, and tell her that I hope she enjoys her party tonight.  She looks at me for a long moment, then beckons me closer with her uplifted chin. She taps at her belly.

“Enceinte,” she says. “Pregnant”.  And she smiles at me, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.

Severine I

bunting

Severine is 40 today – there is bunting behind the counter, and balloons and ribbons stir gently under the awning.  She’s working, as usual, behind the counter of the patisserie, but it’s taking her twice as long to serve her customers today; they all want to wish her a happy birthday.  The old men shout jokes to her husband in the bakery, nudging each other, and bursting into short, raucous laughs.  It’s already hot this morning, and she wipes her forearm over her brow; it must be warm so near the ovens.

I watch her over my grand crème.  The tendons in her neck are raised, tense. I can pick up odd phrases from here.  Yes, Flori is coming from Bordeaux for the party tonight.  Yes, he is doing well at University.  And yes, Romain and Lucie will be there; there is no school tomorrow.  Naturally, Romi is at the lycée now.

She leans forward into the display cabinet and has to stretch to pick up the empty pastry tray.  She’s small, smaller than I am, maybe only five feet tall, and the tendons on her arms ridge up with effort.  As she drops the tray on the counter, she lets out a puff of air which makes her shaggy fringe flip up and flop back.

Patrick has prepared a special cake for the party.  It is on the counter, on display; after all, he is a patissier, and one must always remember to show one’s skills!  It is a magnificent tower of golden choux balls, glossy with caramel and usually for weddings, but what an advertisement!  There are other cakes in the glass fridge – I can see a bavarois, and a charlotte from here, and my mouth waters a little.

I wait for a break in the queue, and go to buy bread and pay for my coffee.  Ça va? she asks, raising her eyebrows and giving me a brief smile.  I reply that I am well, and how is she? Her right hand, flattened, wobbles side to side and her mouth stretches, turns down a little.  Comme ci, comme ca, I suppose. “Trop chaud”, she says, finally, as if she had discarded the thought of saying something else.

As I take my change, I wish her bonne anniversaire, and that I hope she enjoys her party tonight.  She raises her eyebrows at me, and beckons me closer with her uplifted chin. She taps at her belly.

“Enceinte,” she says. “Pregnant”.  And she smiles at me, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.

 

Imagining writing spaces

whitehorsetavern

I closed my journal. There was no point in trying to continue writing.  I thought it would be cool to write something in the White Horse Tavern while I was in New York.  That old wood, scuffed brass and monochrome photographs. The bar was already busy when a bunch of young men came in, laughing and calling to each other as they dropped heavy neon jackets and hard hats on the floor, spreading out from the corner seats to where I sat at a small table.  They looked like the crew working around the corner on West 11th Street. They ordered beers and sandwiches, and someone yelled for fries, making the waitress pick up her pad again, as one order became five.  I drained my glass, and caught the attention of the waitress. When it came, my glass was frosty, and the Brooklyn lager was cold and sharp, very different to the bière blonde I normally drink.  I started to catch snippets of conversation, and got out my tablet again.  If I can’t write here, I can make notes, and that guy in the corner has an interesting face.

 

vines from tce lscape cropped

The deep gold light pours over the tiles through the long french window, warming my back through my dark clothes. It’s like this every evening for an hour before sunset, like the light comes through a mid-aged Sauternes; honeyed, sweet with a touch of acid around the edges.

The smell of rosemary drifts through the window, overpowering the lavender and the magnolia.  
The birds are quiet, now, as I bend to my task. A pair of tree frogs call to each other, a massive quacking sound from creatures no more than five centimetres long, but I tune them out.  My words are flowing now, coming more easily each day I sit here.