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Another Well by Colin Angwin

A few years ago, some sparky copywriter came up with use of the word “silver” as a euphonious euphemism for “elderly”, which is itself a euphemism for “aged”.   The usage has become widespread and a week ago last Sunday I attended a session on Creative Writing given as part of a series of events for oldies grouped under the title of “Silver Sunday”.

 

The tutor, Robert, mentioned a piece by one of his students who came from Eastern Europe, I think, and who recalled that in her childhood she had had to break the ice on the well in order to draw water.   Others from warmer climates had indeed had to use wells for water supplies, but not through the ice.

 

This reminded me of a well I came across as a child.   I must have been about 7 or 8 and I was with my parents in some remote part of India.   One day, as I wandered about the countryside, I saw a magnificent well-head.   It consisted of a huge horizontal wheel linked by a system of large cogs to an equally huge vertical wheel.   This type of irrigation apparatus was and probably still is widespread in Asia and the Middle East and I imagine it has been for centuries.

 

My eye was caught by the third component of the structure, a rope festooned with earthenware pots at regular intervals and looped loosely round the vertical wheel so that part of it trailed down into the well beneath.   An ox was lashed to the horizontal wheel and rotated it by plodding round in a never-ending circle.   This made the vertical wheel rotate in its turn, so that the pots came up out of the well filled with water which, as they passed the apex of their circuit, was tipped into a channel leading to the fields to be irrigated.

 

I picked up a stone and threw it at one of the pots which shattered satisfyingly, shedding its contents onto the dry earth.   I repeated the act with another stone, another pot.   My memory is that I hit a pot with every stone I threw, but my later experience on the cricket field showed that my hand and eye coordination is very shaky so that is unlikely.   It is, however, true that by the time I had finished my little game every pot was broken, and I headed for home well pleased with myself.

 

I dawdled on the way, so that the owner of the well got there well before me and was pouring out the story to my father, who took decisive action.   He paid the man for the damage done, more than generously I have no doubt, and he took a slipper to me, also quite generously.   This is the only beating that I remember his giving me.   I also remember his clear explanation of what the beating was for.   It was not for breaking the pots.   It was for not considering the effects of my action on the farmer, whose whole livelihood depended on the irrigation system I had destroyed.

 

Looking back on the episode many decades later, I also draw two other possibly unfashionable conclusions.   First, corporal punishment can be good – this slippering certainly impressed the desired lesson on me and did not in the least diminish my love and respect for my father.   Secondly, you could be one of the colonial rulers and still behave thoughtfully and fairly to the ruled.

 

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Away from the boys: Miss Bignolds by Yonita Fairfax

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Mask oil on canvas

A big thank you to Yonita Fairfax for sharing her wonderful piece of writing that evokes memories of childhood. It is a very vivid and inspiring piece – I love the ending!

Away from the boys: Miss Bignolds

My mother was highly amused when she had returned from  a visit to their friends, the Roadnights in Kent, who were my brother’s Godparents that their young daughter aged about seven on being asked what her interests were, had said ‘Boys, Mummy, Boys. The grown-ups had chuckled. My mother was unaware that I would not have answered in a similar vein: I imagine that parents generally know little of the trauma of their offspring’s childhoods. I heard very little about hers, except that she adored her father, and since he had been an engineer that they had travelled a great deal and that she had gone to various convents. Hence it was not without possibility that my first schooling, my nursery boarding school, was a Roman Catholic one. I was not aware of this at the time but on reflection have come to that conclusion. The school was a nursery school near Farnham in Kent to which my brother and I both went  during the war years which we still call ‘Miss Bignolds’. Although my mother used to tell of how she had been washed underneath a voluminous white shroud, and that she was kept  in the dining room until she had eaten her revolting food, which she did by discovering that she could tip it out of the window!- my experiences were somewhat different; did not involve washing or food, but the sleeping arrangements and the teasing by the boys who were there with me, one of them being my brother.

The reason why I felt that it was a Roman Catholic nursery school was that every night without fail we used to climb up the dark wooden staircase as silently as possible  and tiptoe round what seemed like a huge bed in which lay a very old wrinkled lady. We said ‘good night’ in hushed tones, one by one. Above her head on the wall hung a crucifix. Then equally silently we climbed down again and dutifully lay down on our mattresses which were placed under the slope of the stairs. We went to sleep with our gas masks next to us. They were such a very weird shape and quite heavy for little children.  We had a practice run of how to put this thing on and how to take it off, like they do now in aeroplanes but the tight feeling it gave reminds me more of underwater goggles. Then the mask would be handed over every morning, and we watched how it was neatly packed away into the cupboard on the right hand wall next to the class room. It was solemnly done and we never played with them. I distinctly remember this although I must have been only about five years old at the time.

During the first years of the war, many parents sent their children out of London for their safety, little knowing that as the war progressed, bombs that were destined for London which did not hit their mark, often fell in Kent, so it became quite a dangerous place to be! Perhaps that is why we slept with our masks near us. It seems that gas was even more feared than the bombs. Masks of various sorts have been a good theme for artists throughout the ages but my painting of a gas mask refers to man’s inhumanity to man and dates from this period of my life.

This time of my life at Miss Bignolds was probably full of unexpected terror. We might also have been out for an innocent school walk, ambling along a narrow country lane when an army convoy came roaring down on us, which forced a sudden scramble out of the way; the only way out, being up a steep muddy bank, clutching at tree roots myself flattened against the earth, and the recipient of a heavy scolding for getting my dress dirty.

I have a lasting impression  that  on one occasion we were taken right up to the edge to peer down a huge deep round hole, rather like a volcanic crater, but here no doubt, a bomb’s crater. A bomb had probably fallen nearby. It could even have been on the property which was fairly extensive. What a silly thing to do, or perhaps the visit  was to explain what was going on. It meant that for many years I had a very vivid re-occurring dream of being pulled up and out of just such a place, up just such a slippery slope, almost like being pulled up from Plato’s well. Perhaps during a rough game I did fall into the crater, in which case I should be thankful to the boys at the school, that they pulled me out.

But what has most stayed with me, the effect which has been the most lasting, is that  I learnt to defend myself from the vicious and unpleasant teasing that I had from the boys.  I do not remember any girls. Perhaps I was the only girl, and hence ripe for teasing.  I am sure I would have ganged up with another girl against those rough boys if there had been one, and remembered her- instead I had to fight it out alone.

The continual self-defence must have made me strong physically, or I drew on an internal strength; or one could say that unfortunately this is when I learnt to rise to a bait, a challenge, -that I could only be pushed so far before retaliating in my own defence. On this occasion, I had been locked into the rusty corrugated iron shed on the grounds and was being  jeered at from the outside. There was no other way.  I managed to lift up high what was for me, who was a thin smaller than average child, a very heavy boulder which I balanced on the opening where the window would have been. Did I warn them? If I had, would ‘they’ of the voices have taken any notice? I let it go. It fell onto the voices beneath the window.

As it turned out the boulder fell on to my brother’s big toe. He lost his toenail. I am lucky that his toe was not broken. I am lucky it was not another child’s toenail. I distinctly remember once we had gone back home to London for our holidays, that my mother painted the area with this red mercurichrome. She developed quite a ritual. ‘You  naughty girl’ my mother would invariably say as she carefully painted the red on to the area of the missing  toenail. I was always there watching this ‘happening’: fascinated by the way the wrinkled pale flesh gradually became red again. My brother was not in pain but with a quick but friendly teasing face, sticking his tongue out at me behind her back, as she bent down carefully to apply the red liquid, as she did not want any to spill, he also made sure that I would remember the incident, and I have.

My mother had not been put into the picture that I had acted in self-defence, and I felt that I had no support from her. Her favourite phrase was ‘comparisons are odious’. With that one phrase she would shut one up if one tried to complain or say something in one’s own defence.

Once we were back in London for our holidays, unknown to our parents my brother and I certainly jumped around as if on a beach amongst the rocks created by a nearby bombed house. We must have been very agile. I shall always remember how the cellulite light switch with its protruding knob hung in the middle of the empty house and the fun was being able to turn it on and off without being ticked off for wasting electricity. It was strange how the staircase   still hung precariously in mid air. With a ladder we could have got on to it, but we did not have a ladder, and neither of us was tall enough to reach the bottom step.

Perhaps the boulder incident  was the last time those rough boys  teased me in that way, as my other memories are calm ones, of another type of self assertion. I found a place to hide. I remember that I could steal away, disappear by walking close to some bushes that must have made an uphill boundary on the right hand side  to the school property. I often re-visit this journey in my dreams.

No one ever found me in my secret hiding place into which I would crawl, nor did they come looking. It was a place for myself far away from those rough boys. The evergreen branches of a wild  prickly tree were interwoven above me like a canopy. Through them came some patches  of light into this tent so that I could read safely away from their teasing. My brother remembers our parents saying: ‘Look at your sister, she is always reading. Reading became a refuge from the world as I then knew it’.

That way I practised invisibility. It was the only way I knew how to protect myself without entering into the defensive/attack mode. Once on a desultory Sunday afternoon, as a grown up when we were doing one of those quiz style analysis exercises you find in newspapers, and I was asked ‘what animal would you be’, I found myself surprised that I had chosen a white leopard, which  blended in so well with its background, invisible against the white snow. I feel sure that it came from this time of hiding into my tented overgrowth to protect myself, away from the boys.

© Yonita Fairfax

Three Embraces by Any Rake

Vintage_Children_Stock_58_by_vintage_visions

Thank you to Any Rake for sharing her eloquently written piece Three Embraces. The piece was featured in “The Return of the Thursday Travellers – A Second Anthology of Life Stories” by the Thursday morning Life Stories group at the New Horizons Centre, Chelsea, London, September – December 2014

“Members of New Horizons have come from all parts of the globe and travelled widely through the course of their lives. This term we listened to stories set in South America, Japan, South Africa, India, Ireland and the UK. It makes for a rich mix of histories.” – Mike Loveday, Open Age tutor.

Three Embraces by Any Rake

In May of 1961 I was chosen to deliver a poem at a Mother’s Day celebration at school. I was selected not for my particular eloquent way of reciting poems or because my diction was better than most eleven year olds. The Nun in charge of arts had been best friends with my grandmother while in school so she chose me and my sister for all the public appearances where we fitted in.

That Saturday morning was warm, sunny and we the students were all wearing the white school uniforms used for special occasions. Our parents were sitting in the auditorium while we got ready for our presentations.

My turn came.  My passionate performance of the sugary poem brought an enthusiastic response from the audience. Some were even standing up applauding.  I must be very good at this -I thought – for how else could these people be so responsive?  And who the hell was that mother in the poem? That saintly person who with a benign smile takes patient and loving care of her children? Do mothers like those really exist?  -I wondered. Following the script I had my eyes fixated on Isabel, my mother, who being in the second row, was easily recognizable among the four hundred parents present.

My mother was five feet nine, highly unusual for women of her generation. Curly auburn hair which she kept fashionably short, well defined brows and long nicely kept hands. In her wedding picture in 1945 her high cheeks stand out as well as the firmly outlined contour of her face.  The small brown eyes look at the photographer and the joy of that moment was perpetuated in the picture.  Friends from her youth remember her as a happy going, flirtatious young lady, the soul of the party.  Mother taught me to read while making the process so entertaining that at three and a half I was reading without realizing it was not just a game. A rich cousin from my father’s side would send glamorous dresses from last season. Some nights before going out she would go to my bedroom and do a little run away walk with these dresses. I was so proud of her looks and believed that among those of my friends, she was the best looking mother.  From her I learned to love the sea, the sun, the ballet and to search for creative ways to solve a situation. Isabel was a lot of good things to me but never the sweet tender mother of the poem I recited as a young girl of eleven. I remember wishing for that mother. And hating the one I had when her demons took hold of her and extended to me.

One could not anticipate the breaking of those fragile gates containing the dark powerful shadows that got the best of her. When the dam broke it was so sudden and fierce there was no way of avoiding the tsunami that would involve us in seconds.  If an answer of mine was not of her liking, she fiercely slapped me on the face. Or it could be that I did not act or react as she expected. If she was on those explosive days I would find myself at the receiving end of a glass, a metal spoon or a shoe viciously thrown at me.  At seven I started to devise ways to disappear from the situation while enervating her. If she got hold of me and pulled my hair until whole locks were in her fist, I did not cry or scream or try to run.  I started singing silly little songs that kept my mind distracted from what was happening. I did not understand at that time that I really had two mothers.  One who nurtured me and helped me grow into a curious and resourceful person. Another who believed her enemy lived inside me and had to be destroyed. I was always listening, looking, feeling, smelling for potential signs while wondering which one of my mothers would be around.

She graduated from Art History when I was about eight.  She later went on to study Home Economics and Family Education.  Afterwards she got a degree in Interior Design and explained us why she could never work in decoration. Her logic was that if people needed help in decorating they must have very bad taste and probably be very difficult to deal with. My mother was very interested in current affairs and politics, a splendid story teller with the ability to keep a mixed audience entertained for hours with her wit and love of detail.  An avid reader of all genres particularly philosophy and historical fiction, she neither guided me nor censored my reading. I placidly mixed Bouvier, Stendhal, Swain with pink novels, juvenile adventures and the study of the catholic saints.

My mother liked to sleep until very late, at times forty eight hours could go by without her getting up from bed.  On those days, I could barely touch the floor or talk out loud for fear of the mood she would wake up in. My heart would throb and my throat close at her violent change of moods, but I was adamant not to show my real feelings.   Being deaf and blind to her demons, or making her believe I was, made me feel strong.

She liked to remind me what an affectionate little girl I had been and blank at why I had changed so much. I could not embrace her or kiss her nor get myself to be close to her even in her good days. We did kiss of course at hellos, goodbyes, birthdays, Christmas or New Year’s. I am thinking of the absence of those lovingly embraces I had seen exchanged between mother and daughter just because they liked to touch each other. No, I could not have physical contact with her spontaneously, though I clearly remember the three embraces I gave her throughout her life.

The first was a fake, selfish and well produced and successful affair when I was thirteen.  The wire holding together the braces on my upper teeth had broken.  I tried to put it back together with scotch tape. No luck. To avoid a furious reaction on her side I tried a different approach. My mother was sitting on my brother’s bed sorting out the boys’ laundry. I stood at her side and looked at her with the sweet insecurity of a docile puppy.  She turned her head surprised at my presence. I threw my arms around her neck, starting to sob uncontrollably. Between tears and snot I managed to explain my ordeal and fear. She comforted me kissing my forehead lovingly while telling me I should not worry at all.  -This things happen -she said softly – I will talk to your father about it.

Occasionally in my teens and early youth I wished my mother was dead. I wanted her gone to stop the abuse, the drama, the shouting, the chaos, the unpredictability.  Growing up very confused by her volatility I created mechanisms to confuse her. Once for example, I threw away a pair of her favourite shoes which she was looking forward to use at a coming event. Another time I quit ballet lessons. Even though we both loved ballet I knew she would be very disappointed. At last I turned sixteen and was almost as tall as her. For some unimportant reason she started going crazy at me like many other times.  This was not any other time.  I was her size now and I could stop her.  When she threw herself at me I held her wrists very hard and looked her fiercely at the eyes. I could almost feel my brown eyes turning black.  -Next time you hit me I will hit you back – I said. Holy remedy.

Her husband, my father, was forty four when he died.  A few months later she was diagnosed with a vicious cancer that almost took her life one year after turning into a widow at forty one.  She told me of her fears of dying and leaving us five children by ourselves.  I was seventeen and being the only of my siblings in transition between high school and university, I was appointed to be with her at the hospital, talking to doctors, bringing her things from home and generally nursing her into good health again. She got well in a few months and in her crazy and determined way, never again returned to the doctor for a check-up. Some years later new medicines started to come out in the market that partially calmed some of her darkness and aggression.

Twenty two years went by from the first voluntary embrace I gave my mother until the second one.  She had not been seriously sick but suddenly a bad reaction to a blood transfusion was killing her. She was around sixty two. Her complexion was very pale, almost transparent.  Liquids came in and out of her body through tubes and plastic bags.  Looking at her so exhausted and fragile, all my love and need of her came bursting out and was expressed without restraint.  I embrace her softly, placed my chest over hers, kissed her eyes, her chin, her cheeks while saying to her:  You cannot go, you cannot go. I need you. This time I cried without thinking or trying.

At sixty nine she accepted an operation to correct a mitral valve defect. I reminded her about the advice she received a few years back to never have open heart surgery. She preferred to die in the operating room than continuing living as a disabled person –she insisted. I did not think she had such a bad life. Swimming in the cold sea of Lima was forbidden for her as were her long walks through the city. But she drove her car, visited friends, enjoyed her grandchildren, went out to dinner with us and had her daily whisky at home. It is true that sometimes she was out of breath and we had to stop and rest because of her gasping. What I believed did not matter, it was her life and her decision.

The surgeon in charge came out to see us when my mother was still in the operating room.  Looking at his face, I knew.  He was a friend of mine and could not hold back his tears.

My mother was already dead when I gave her the third embrace. After dressing her with my sisters, I brushed her hair and put some light make up on, making sure her eyebrows looked as she liked them.  She always placed great emphasis on the importance of eyebrows. This third embrace was a good bye and thank you one.  I kissed her cheek and her forehead while caressing her hair. I told her she looked very nice. Which she did. Her demons were nowhere around. I lit a cigarette from my brother’s packet and smoked it quickly. I remembered then I did not smoke.

And I asked myself –whom will I spent my Saturdays with?

© Any Rake

Yellow Cucumbers by Cornelia J. Glynn

A big thank you to Cornelia J. Glynn for sharing her wonderful story inspired by Christmas and childhood memories…

Yellow Cucumbers

I was not even four years old when my family and I had to flee from Russian occupied East Germany at a nano second’s notice with only the clothes we were wearing. It was the 23rd of December and I had so been looking forward to getting my annual orange. The choice of food available was very limited and I truly believed that we got only one orange a year.

So there we were, my father and I in his friend’s car, driving to West Berlin, where we caught a plane to Frankfurt and then hopped on a train to a mining town in North Rhein Westfalia where I was to meet my Grandfather (my father’s side) for the very first time. It had been a very traumatic experience to leave behind my mother, who made her way to Frankfurt on her own and my sister, who had been visiting my Grandmother in another town so couldn’t join us until a few months later. However, the mere thought of meeting my Grandpa kept my hunger at bay (we had no money to buy a sandwich although a kind lady on the train later fed us) and made me forget about the orange I so cherished at Christmas time. I liked its colour and aroma as well as its texture and taste and would not eat it for days, gently stroking it’s dimpled skin and smelling it in total amazement.

But this story isn’t about oranges, or my grandfather even, and yes, I loved him instantly, as I did my Grandma, which was a good thing because I wouldn’t see my parents again for another year until we received news that my father had finally been granted asylum in the West, and had found work in Frankfurt, where we would live for five or six years.

Living with my grandparents were also my Aunt Mia and her (rather ghastly) husband, whose name I don’t care to utter even and his son, my cousin, who was a few years my senior.

Auntie Mia was a wonderful woman and our bond was immediate. Since I had nothing to wear, she made me dresses out of old curtains, the idea of which horrified me when she mentioned it to my Dad.

Still, she was a great seamstress and as it happened, they were my favourite dresses and I felt good in them.

But this story isn’t about my favourite dresses either, or about Aunt or my bad tempered uncle, or my cousin. Although, it kind of is about her because one day, as a special treat she brought home a big bunch of bananas.

Until then, I had noticed that there was lot more produce in the shops and I was astonished to learn that I could have more than one orange not only at Christmas, but also at other times of the year. As for bananas, they were alien to me. I had never heard of them, or seen them so when Auntie Mia broke one off the bunch and handed it to me with a warm smile on her face, I eyed it suspiciously, before holding it in my hands and then to my nose to check what it smelt like. I wondered if it was a weird type of orange but neither its shape nor its smell resembled that of an orange and I was baffled.

“What is it?” I asked her.

“It’s a banana, Cornelia. It comes by ship from a hot country far, far away and is delicious” she replied.

I turned it around a few times and shifted it from one hand to another, intrigued by its strange shape and colour. “Well, what is a banana and what do you do with it?” was my next question.

My aunt let out a little laugh. “It’s a fruit and you eat it.”

“You eat it?”

“Yes, you eat it.”

Why anyone would want to eat such an extraordinary looking thing, was beyond me. Nevertheless, I bit into the bit where it had been separated from the bunch.  It was hard and sharp and scraped the roof of my mouth and I was not impressed by its taste.

Now my aunt laughed out aloud. “No, no, darling. The banana is inside.”

“Ohhh. But how do you get to it?”

“You peel it.” she explained whereupon I inspected the banana more closely before having to ask “How do I do that?” She gently took it from my hand, removed half of the skin and made the banana look like it was wearing a skirt.

Unconvinced, I took a big bite and chewed it a little, before spitting it out, disgusted and declaring “I don’t like these yellow cucumbers”.

Funny to think that these yellow cucumbers would become a staple part of my diet in later years, when I would eat several a day, but then, aged four, I could not have possibly imagined that.

© Cornelia J. Glynn

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