Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Day in the Life

Ever heard The Beatles song, A Day in the Life? Well, from the gentle sliding opening bars, to the tumultuous final, drawn out E-chord, it’s a chilling snapshot of the news.

“I read the news today, oh boy…”

There’s a promising young man who is killed in his car, strange potholes appearing all over Lancashire, and general confusion as the newsreader stumbles through life with his alarm clock hounding him.

“And though the news was rather sad…”

This past week has been an apocalyptic mess of news. Perhaps the past month. From every angle, the “stories” have been churned out by journalists, with sub-editors vying for the most clever or succinct headlines. Here’s my own “Day in the Life”:

A tyrant was said to be cowering in a bunker as rebel forces pounded his compound with heavy artillery. He wasn’t cowering, but appeared later on to call on his supporters to “kill the rebels like rats”. He’s a mass murderer, but news commentators discussed his penchant for silk robes and his choice in headgear. Gaddafi remains free.

Some rhinos were savaged by poachers, who cut off their horns, cut them brutally, and left them for dead, only they weren’t. Vets and animal enthusiasts wept, and wondered, why?

A bus overloaded with children slipped into a river near Knysna, killing many. They’d had nothing on their minds except playing soccer at break, exchanging sandwiches, or maybe blushing at the first exchanges of loving glances between na├»ve boys and girls. Children are curiously fearless and yet inordinately fearful. Who knows what they thought, as they slipped away.

On the horn of Africa, millions are starving, children are dying at a (measured) rate of ten a day. The figures are likely far higher. They totter in from the barren wastelands, their bow-legs struggling to keep them from toppling into the dust. The safety camps are sometimes just grotesque hospices, where the childrens’ eyes sink deeper into their fly-specked faces, and their mothers wail, or just sit, silently. These emaciated ones just fall asleep, never having known couches, television sets or restaurants, and are ticked off on lists by grim volunteer medics as they die.

“And I just had to laugh…’

And in my community newspaper?

Well, there were some commentaries on horse riders losing their favourite riding grounds. A letter complaining about telemarketers. Another, about a family facing eviction from a council house, and still another about children born in prison, whose mothers are finally allowed to provide entertainment, toys and education to them. My community newspaper finished off with an incitement to go and see a visiting Dutch reed quartet, and some advertisements telling me to hire people to help me rid my garden of moles.

It just wasn’t funny, this week.

“I saw the photograph…”

*Read more about the Beatle’s song, A Day in the Life, here.

Lyrics | Beatles lyrics - A Day In The Life lyrics

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Monstrous Truth

Don’t worry, I lied. There’re no such things as monsters. The things I’ve told my children when they’ve come to me with questions.

If you visit the source of a river, it’s usually unrecognizable. It may look a little like a mossy drinking fountain, burping up a steady curved stream from the earth. It’s hard, looking at that, to reconcile it with a mass of water alongside a city, straddled with bridges. That’s why it’s scary when the children come to me as if I’m a source of information. My trickle is sometimes polluted with a lifetime of experience.

Well, kids, I’d better put the matter right: There are monsters, lots of them. The truth is, you’re better off recognizing them, before they recognize you…

  • Vampires and other bloodsuckers: They’re the ones who come, not in a cape or covered in glitter, but in the guise of sly deception. They’ll feed of you until you’re dry and they’re sated, and move on, abandoning your desiccated emotions or finances. Watch out for them. They’re hard to spot.
  • Werewolves: Don’t be afraid of all dogs, or men with beards, for that matter, but if someone ever touches you in a way that makes you feel bad, or dirty, or you think it’s just not… right, then tell me. Don’t let anyone touch you on your private parts. A silver bullet won’t kill them- that’s another myth. Unfortunately, they’ll slip into the night, and target some other kid.
  • Axe murderers: They’re out there. People who react with violence to almost every situation- people who enjoy it. They’ll try and hurt you, maybe even kill you by accident, unless you step away from fights and escalating arguments. Walk away. Keep walking. An axe can be a fist, or a boot, or a brick or a gun.
  • Zombies: Dead people don’t really walk around, searching for braaaaainnnsss, do they? Yes, child, they do. They’re called “drug addicts”. They’ll seek you out, haul you away into an eternal night of mindless celebration, until your brain is eaten away. Your weapon? They’re dead, so all you have to do is use the magic word: No. Then run for your life.
  • Witches and warlocks: I won’t tell you how to think- you have the privilege of learning about all sorts of people, but I do hope you temper your intellect with common sense. There are some crazy ideas out there, and I hope that the “magic” of creativity you get to experience is based on reality, and not superstition.
  • Trolls: Sure, they exist. They’ll hate, and hate, and hate. You can be tricked into being one by forgetting compassion and empathy, and respect for others. Be kind, my child, and you’ll be safe.

There are other monsters out there, but I’m sure you’ll find that out. The rule-of-thumb is that you treat people well, and keep yourself from getting into the places where monsters lurk. I’ll always be there to help you, I hope, but you guys can also help each other, too. Stand up for what’s right, and stick to the truth.

I’ll try not to hurt you by shielding you from the truth too much.

And don’t, whatever you do, look under the bed: It’s horribly dusty, for a start.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Ace of Spades

Grace double-checked that all the addresses were right. Email wasn’t at all like the post- twenty years ago she’d kept a worn notebook with the street addresses for friends and family, made her lists from it when it was time to draw up the Christmas cards, each one personalized. No, email, she thought, was impossibly fast. People changed jobs, switched accounts, or just didn’t bother to check them. So much for the online address book. Still, it would suit her purposes today- she couldn’t wait two weeks. It had to happen by tomorrow.

It had been quite a pleasant morning. Not too bad for the last one she’d see. First, she dealt with the necessities: bleached the grouting around the bathroom tiles, rinsed out the bucket with more bleach, and checked that the fireplace was empty of ash. Then, she’d wiped all the other surfaces in the house. Three hours, all told. Plenty of experience, she thought, bitterly.

She tried not to think of the cellar, where the cement had finally set. All those awful months digging in the gloom, with the spiders and mice twitching in the shadows. Grace was glad that was out of the way. The cellar door had taken ages to board up and cover with carpet, too. Her fingers ached a little. Although just 45, she had felt her joints protest at the extra work.

The cat eyed her from the windowsill. Grace smiled. The poor thing was so dependent on her. It’d be hard for the authorities to find a place to keep a middle-aged cat, although, to Grace, Cleo would always be the kitten she’d found her as, teetering on legs no bigger than stubby crayons.

A noise made her think that the television was on, but that had ended abruptly two weeks ago, and she was actually thrilled not to have to listen to Don correcting it all the time. Disagreeing with the weatherman, mocking the talking heads during the news reports. She was quite happy not to hear Don, ever again, in fact.

The noise was just a roll of thunder in the distance. At the next blue flash, she counted: One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, she counted until the thunder groaned again; it turned out that the storm was at least eight miles away.

She put on the skirt she liked. It showed off her knees, and she was proud of them. Knee-pride suddenly felt… silly. She chuckled to herself. A soft satin blouse made her feel warm, and showed just enough of her breasts to be both decent and a little daring at the same time. Grace was sad that the stilettos would have to wait for the next time she did this, but then she wouldn’t be around to see them.

Checking that the lights were off, except the one in the study, she thought again of the cellar. How easy it had been. Nobody had noticed Don’s absence. She had excuses and a fake sympathetic expression all prepared in case anyone had asked where he was, but no-one had. Oh, he’s gone to visit his aunt, she would have said. Very old lady that, it won’t be long now. She suddenly remembered, as she saw the glow of the screen in the corner that she needed to finish up.

Grace pressed “send”.

Grace was happy. Happy that he’d be blamed for everything. How many years of trays of food, expressionless lovemaking and then, towards the end, expressionless everything. He deserved what he’d get.

Going outside, she shivered. Not that cold was important right now, but it was taking the pleasure away from her.

She sat down on the side of the hole she’d dug over the past few nights, in the dark. It was a comfy fit. Launching herself into the damp earth, she looked up. Without all the other light, she could see the stars. None of them were shooting. They just twinkled, much as they had when she’d been born 45 years ago.

She grinned as she began pulling the dirt in on herself. Of how she’d made sure Don’s passport was gone, and how she’d asked a teenager to get the ticket in his name to somewhere tropical. Don! Don in the tropics! That was a laugh. He’d have moaned about the smell of suntan lotion, or the big ants, or something. Anything. That’s what he liked to do. Moan.

Taking her last few breaths, she looked up to see the cat, looking at her. The moon formed a halo against Cleo’s pointed ears. My angel, thought Grace. The last few chunks of earth slipped against her cheeks, and she thought that it was a little ironic: She’d struggled to get all Don’s angles completely secured in the cement, but she wanted at least her hand to be left for people to see.

The night disappeared as the soil toppled into the gaps.

Amanda’s computer made that alert signal she liked. It was the first notes of Fur Elise. She got up and walked over. New mail, it said. From Grace.

Hi, Amanda, I don’t have much time. Don’s been acting very oddly these last few weeks. I think he may be drinking again. He’s looking at me in a funny way, but I can’t describe it. I think he wants to hurt me. Please come and visit as soon as you can. Love, Grace.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Parkour in Parkas in the Park

One of the first rules of storytelling is: If you introduce a talking kangaroo into the story in the first chapter, you’d better have made sure he was used by the third.

Fortunately, this isn’t a story, so the rules don’t apply.

And it may be that the rule applies to a loaded firearm, not a talking kangaroo, but I think any old writer can find something explosive to do with a loaded weapon.

It was sunny down at the park. Hannah stood on a tree stump, twirling the pink propeller toy in her hands and letting it go, to spin evenly out over the footpath where the owners were being led in crooked strolls by their dogs.

James took his skateboard, in his head he was defying gravity and hearing sonic booms as he scraped across the concrete skateboard track. When he tired of that, he and I explored an owl pellet. It looked like a dust bunny, with only the gleaming white jaw and hip bones betraying its origin. Probably a mouse.

Jonah? He was sitting with his knees braced on the rug, shielding his sandwiches from the dogs which trotted damply up from the stream now and then to explore.

Karen was happy to referee, keeping them moving through the long grass where small yellow flowers broke up the green expanse occasionally. I watched for the brown mounds which could end up stuck on shoes and transferred to the floor mats in the car, but the squirrels had devastated the pinecones in the park, leaving the husks scattered, confusing my eyes in the bright winter sun.

There were families and cyclists, runners and walkers. Sandwiches were rejected in favour of chips and juice, and an old woman stopped near us to straighten the tartan jacket on her poodle.

Two pied crows circled overhead, waiting for the activity to slow down so they could swoop on scraps and dead things.

Other families navigated their way around us the skatepark, the fathers encouraging their children and making sure that everyone got a turn. They kept half an eye on the one or two homeless people who had colonized benches, but generally everyone kept a polite distance.

That night, I dreamed I was living stranded on a rooftop. A neon blue kangaroo came to me, speaking deep words of wisdom. I don’t recall what he said.