Friday, 1 August 2008

The Christmas Tree

It was December 7th, 2007, when I first noticed they’d put the Christmas tree up in the town square.
Obscured by the skinny arms of deciduous trees, it glinted and winked at me through the freezing night air.
There was a threat of snow, maybe some sleet was falling. People were going home for the weekend; closing their shops and businesses – getting ready to turn out the lights on a week of toil, on a week of money. And what would they see, as they turned from their shop doorway, but a magnificent Scots Pine tree decked in silver blue.
If I were a shopkeeper, I think that would be enough for me. That would be enough for me to think ‘this is okay’, that this week of arrogant shoppers, time-wasting browsers and thieving children was worth it, because it’s nearly Christmas and Christmas is bigger than just me and my troubles.
See, these shopkeepers are providing a service, one that actually creates ‘Christmas’ in so many households. I’d feel privileged to be a part of that.
And I think that’s how I felt - privileged - as I gazed out at the Christmas tree, across that worsening winter’s night.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

The landing stage

We’d get such a kick out of our trips on the dinghy. Mum always made us don lifejackets, and dad told us not to fuss. He said ‘it’ll all be worth it once we get out there’.
He was always right, of course. The moment the motor croaked into life and the boat started to wobble and then pick up speed, Emma and I would immediately stop our moaning and grab hold of the sides of the boat with mounting anticipation. We’d babble between each other to show our excitement: a strange and incoherent language that must have puzzled our parents, if they were even listening.
This ceased altogether once we left the harbour. Silence thereafter, until the speed reached levels where we’d bump and fly atop crests of surf. Such leaps would produce short squeals and other emanations of surprise and excitement. Exhilaration is all the more amazing and easily arrived upon for the young, I think.
Once though, on one of our summer boat rides, I decided to jump overboard. I’ll never know why, for sure. I think I wanted to see just how safe the lifejackets were. Very safe, as it turned out.
I plopped into the sea and the orange float kept me bobbing where I fell. My dad calmly slowed and then turned his vessel, bringing it alongside before easily fishing me out of the water.
I sat silently and listened to them talking. Everyone thought I’d just fallen out of the boat as it hit a larger wave and my mother severely chastised my father for going too fast.
He couldn’t say it wasn’t true; he loved to take us faster. He seemed to get a real kick out of hearing the excitement levels building to a roar behind him.
He accepted the shame and we headed back to the landing stage. I kept quiet while my mum held me close to keep me warm. She tried to dry me with her cardigan.
Everyone seemed in shock when we climbed out onto the wooden jetty. I felt awful, but could do little now except go along with the subterfuge. I sat in the middle of the landing stage, a towel wrapped around me, and started to cry.
Within seconds the family gathered round, rubbing my shoulders, telling me it was all okay now. I sensed it was now, okay, or at least that it would be alright again, soon.
Then, to my great shame, as I noticed the disapproving glances being fired in my father’s direction, I looked up with watery eyes primed and asked if I could please have an ice cream.
They bought me the biggest one in the shop.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008


Before she snuffed it out, the last candle for the last time, Barbara had to say a little prayer.
She bought candles, small tea light candles and scattered them about her lounge. She laboriously positioned them in her favourite places around the room and went by with a box of matches, striking one and then applying the glowing flame to a cream coloured wick, watching the satisfying movement of the energy; the torch passing from match-head to candle.
Twenty-one candles were lit each night and twenty one matches had to be struck to bring them to life. Then Barbara would sit, balled up on her sofa. She'd pick up her remote control and aim it at the screen, but always the glint and glow of the myriad flames would coax her eyes away from the television.
Each night, before she was able to watch her favourite programmes on TV, Barbara found herself just sitting, solemnly in the candledark, and gathering in the strange warmth of the scene.
She sucked it all in; the strange beauty of the ordinary objects of her household clutter, the shadows moving upon wall and carpet. The everyday seemed altered and alive, under the candle's eye; as if everything there felt able to softly melt into the other, to become one molten form, slowly touching and living as and within its neighbour.
After the woes of the day had sunken deep into the thread of the carpet, Barbara would lift her arm again and sink into whatever buzzed onto her screen and hope it would not be so visceral as to wake her from this reverie.
She never worried though, about the strange shapes on the TV. No matter how dark her television screen became, the tiny flares of the tea light candles were there reflecting back at her, always keeping her safe.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Farmhouse

Through grey reminiscences of childhood – a childhood spent in dark mornings, driving rain and frozen fields – I remember The Farmhouse.
The Farmhouse was the name we gave to the little cottage at the edge of the farm buildings that we used to rent out, of a summer, to the kind of people who prefer not to go abroad for their holidays.
Sometimes they were older people, retired and content with a slower pace of life, or they might be couples without children, wanting a brief escape from their busy city lives.
We gave them a chance to experience the life, the world we had created for ourselves, chiselled out in this little strip of Devon countryside. They gave us their money, in return.
Whenever a new couple arrived I liked to sit on the gate, in the afternoon when most of the farm chores were completed, and watch and wait for them to come out. Sometimes they would go for a walk and I’d say hello and open the gate for them. Other times they just climbed into their blue cars and drove away. I’d hear them coming back later, when it was dark.
One man hit his head on a wooden beam inside the cottage and said he was going to sue my dad. Another man thought he’d seen a ghost in the upstairs bedroom.
One time a woman sneaked her cat into The Farmhouse and kept it there for three days before it escaped through a window and got onto the roof. My dad had to retrieve the cat from the roof with a long ladder.
Though he told the woman he was within his rights to kick her and her husband out of the cottage without a refund, he let them stay and I even got to fuss the cat (Mr Rufus) and give it water to drink. My dad was impressed that the cat had managed to kill three mice during the week it had been staying.
The people who owned the cat were Gill and Jimmy and they became good friends with both my parents, after that. They used to come and stay for two weeks every summer for five years. Later, they all fell out around the time my mum and dad separated, and I never saw them again.
I left with my mum while my dad struggled on with the farm. He bought a cat to keep the rodents down, and I suggested he name it Mr Rufus, but he said he couldn’t as it was a female cat. Instead he called it Lotty, a name he would sometimes called my mother.
Eventually, dad was made an offer for the land and buildings. The farm was pretty much finished anyway, so he sold up and moved to Canada. All the farm buildings and some of the barns were turned into holiday cottages.
I moved out, last year, and got a cat for Christmas. It was a female but I called her Mr Rufus. My plan is to save up and one day I’ll take her away with me, on holiday, for one week.
We’ll stay in The Farmhouse, look for ghosts and sit on the gate all day and watch the other guests as they come and go in their silver cars. Just me and Mr Rufus and The Farmhouse.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Chimneys and aerials

First came the chimneys.
Flues to flush out the wasted energies of our lives, the remnants of the warmth, spent and blasted out straight up at heaven.
Later came the aerials.
They settled overnight, like an invading alien army, landing and settling upon our rooftops as softly as winter snow.
And as one pushed the waste out, so the other sucks it back in – twisting it through the thinnest strands of wire and cable – before blasting it straight out of the living room smog and into our faces.
The watching nation is sitting comfortably. They want for nothing, yet they barely own a possession in their home.
And their television, it sings to them, lulling them to sleep with one eye open. Because all the nightmares they need to feel alive, they happen right there on the TV screen, projected into their homes and minds.
Their sickest dreams crawl, with lank hair and mud, straight out of their flatscreens, scraping and bloody across the floor, and slide right into their fireplace.
There the nightmares will hand you a match and ask you to light them up. Soon they’ll be soot and ashes again, black snowflakes of fear. Broken and bitesize.
Because they need you to feel safe too: safe enough in your homes, but scared enough not to walk too far from your door. Safe enough to gather our families around the television come winter, keeping us all warm by its familiar glow.