Category Archives: Prose

Sticks in the mind

“We are all going as a family to the swimming pool today, Alex, you will love it,” said Michael, his German friend.

So there he was, 15 years old, naked, in a public sauna in Germany, with Michael and Michael’s mother, father and older sister, also all naked.  Nude.  Undressed.  He didn’t know where to look.

Six months earlier Alex’s German teacher had announced that this year’s exchange programme was going ahead as usual, and consisted of two weeks in Germany with a host family during the Easter holiday, followed by two weeks in the summer in England when your exchange partner would stay with your family.  There would be 20 places on the exchange, first come first served.  There was a minimum charge for travel expenses and day trips, and some spending money would be needed, but that was it.

The other thing was that there would be 20 girls from another school nearby on the exchange too.  His best friends at school were up for it.  He was up for it, and he managed to talk his parents into it pretty easily:  they were committed Europeans and keen for him to speak languages and be international.  This was going to be one hell of an adventure.

Alex was a clever, but very shy teenager, a bit of a loner.  This exchange was a daunting prospect but also exciting.  His German would get better, he would get a trip abroad, he would be with his friends.  Perfect.  What he had not realised was that this experience would change his life in so many ways.

The time in Germany was great, but he did feel homesick a few times, particularly when there was no group trip arranged for a particular day or evening.  He stayed with the family of Michael, a German boy of his own age, whose parents were older than his own.  Michael’s father had been a prisoner of war in Wales, and could say nothing bad about the Brits.  They had a big house in Koblenz and Alex spent a lot of time in the guest room which was in the attic.  They would meet up with Michael’s friends from school, but he had trouble keeping up with the German when they spoke so fast.  But he loved the group trips.  They went down the Rhine on a boat, they visited Koln and its famous cathedral and a huge record shop called Saturn where he bought his first album ever (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours), they saw vineyards, and the capital Bonn.  Friendships grew with his British chums, and some started with the girls too.

After the exchange, back in Kent, the British students stayed together as a large group, girls and boys, and his social life went from zero to a whirl in no time.  His shyness, especially around girls, was a thing of the past.  He was happy, for the first time as a teenager.  Looking back he would realise that this was the biggest impact of that exchange programme.

At the time of course, the sauna experience was the only thing he could think or talk about for months.

The View

Arthur sits alone at the oak dining room table looking at black and white family photos on the wall. Autumn sunlight from the French windows makes them glow orange. Library books lie in neat piles, unread. Crosswords cut from The Daily Mail but left undone are clipped onto a board behind a sharpened pencil. A pork pie from yesterday lunchtime sits on a side plate, half-eaten.

There is a knock at the door, followed by the clicking of a key turning in the lock. His daughter, Sue, comes in smiling, carrying an armful of clean laundry.

Hi Dad.’

Oh, hello dear… was I expecting you?’

Yes, you were. Of course you were. It’s Tuesday.’

Is it?’

She sighs and looks out of the window to see the last remaining leaf on the sycamore tree in the back garden fall onto the lawn.

You need to get dressed Dad. We’re at the doctor’s in fifteen minutes’.

Right-oh dear.’

At the surgery, they sit in the waiting room until the nurse calls them in.

Hello Mr Saunders,’ says the nurse.

Have we met?’ he says.

Oh yes. We see each other every week. Don’t you remember?’ she says. ‘For me to check your blood pressure.’

Do we?… Yes, so we do!’ He smiles.

Sue can’t help rolling her eyes and gives her bobbed hair a wipe over, her palm coming to rest propping up her forehead. The nurse glances at Sue as she takes Arthur’s blood pressure and the machine bleeps.

As they get up to leave she touches Sue on the arm gently.

Are you alright?’

Sue looks at her. A tear beads in the corner of her eye.

Thought not,’ says the nurse. ‘Cup of tea?’

Arthur tucks into a chocolate digestive biscuit and sips his tea. ‘Mmmm,’ he says.

Sue and the nurse talk about what the nurse calls ‘difficult choices’. Arthur listens without appearing to. In the past month, it’s been getting worse. Sue doesn’t know how much longer will he be able to live on his own. He drives her mad, but she can see no way out of his living with her and her family.

Couldn’t you get a carer in?’ the nurse asks.

We can’t afford that. Anyway, I’m not sure he would like a stranger coming in,’ says Sue.

Depends on who it is,’ says Arthur, cutting in.

Wait a minute,’ says the nurse, picking up a local paper from the table in the waiting room. ‘What about this?’

She shows Sue a small box ad towards the back of the paper.

Caring Sharing

Home Share Agency

If you are a senior wanting company

Or a young person wanting a room

Call us on 010-244-6231

Sue decides to call the number when they get home. She finishes her tea, pulls Arthur away from the biscuits, and they go out to the car.

Back at Arthur’s there’s no time like the present. She calls the number. A polite young man answers straightaway and he tells her all about the home share idea. It’s brilliant. Young people can’t afford to buy or rent their own places so close to London, and older people on their own want company and some help with the chores. Matches made in heaven. She makes an appointment for the next day.

They set off in Sue’s Volvo. He’s dressed in the clean clothes she laid out for him on his bed. A clean handkerchief pokes out of his pocket. His hair is brushed.

You’re sure you’re OK with this Dad?’

Yes. I’m looking forward to it. Nice trip out.’

They’re going to ask you lots of questions. Please try to sound normal,’ she says.

Arthur turns and gives her a look. ‘What do you mean normal?’ he says.

He wonders if he’s ever been normal.

The young man on the phone is at reception. He’s maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, skinny, smiley, with smooth, coffee-coloured skin and tight, curly, black hair.

He says, ‘Arthur! Can I call you that?’

Arthur nods.

Cool! I’m Karl. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’

Arthur’s eyes open wider. ‘Erm… Good morning… Karl.’

Karl steps round the reception desk and takes them over to some plush armchairs arranged around a coffee table. Once Arthur has arranged his coat and stick by his chair, Karl passes him some papers.

OK Arthur, I just need you to fill out these details for me,’ he says. ‘I can do it with you if you like. No problem.’

Arthur smiles thinly at Sue. Karl explains that it’s a bit like a dating agency. They will try to match Arthur up with someone suitable for him. For the best chance of a match he should only tick the attributes he feels most strongly about. Each tick narrows down the field.

Sue surveys the many testimonials on the walls. Successful matches did occur somehow.

Karl pulls up to Arthur’s chair and reads out each attribute to him, then ticks it if Arthur wants to specify it. Karl certainly has a way with him. They chortle together as they work down the sheet.

A week later Arthur gets a call from the agency. They put all his ticks into the system, and the perfect match turns out to be Karl the receptionist who is looking for a place himself.

Arthur, Sue and Karl meet in a pub the next day. Arthur likes pubs. Sue says it’s the only time he comes alive. She has a Pinot Grigio, Arthur has a glass of house red, and Karl has a Malibu and Coke. She goes to the ladies’ room before they settle down.

Arthur leans over to Karl. ‘She’s told me not to talk about you being black.’

That’s good,’ says Karl. ‘Because I’m not black. I’m mixed race.’

Arthur raises his eyebrows. ‘Oh… any Anglo-Saxon in there?’

Anglo-Saxon is about as common as you can get actually,’ says Karl. ‘So yes, probably.’ He looks Arthur in the eye.

Yes… I suppose you’re right, now I come to think of it.’ Arthur leans back as Sue returns to the table.

Sue is keen to set some boundaries, as she calls them. Karl calls them rules, but he goes along with it. They talk about (not) coming in late, (not) bringing friends back, chores, TV, noise, use of the garden, laundry, cooking and money. Karl listens as she goes down the list, nodding. Arthur says nothing.

Karl says,’ OK, and what about my boundaries?’

What do you mean?’ she says.

Well, I reckon you’re getting a pretty good deal here, Sue. I look after Arthur here for you. You don’t have to be around so much. He gets some company (and trust me, he will now). So, don’t I get some boundaries too?’

Arthur puts his glass down, smiles to himself, and looks at Sue.

Well yes,’ she says. ‘I suppose so…’

And shouldn’t our boundaries be about me and Arthur? Rather than about you?’ says Karl. He turns to Arthur. ‘Is that OK with you, man?’

Arthur says, ‘Yes… That’s OK with me… man.’

A week later Karl moves in. He chooses the room looking down on to the garden – he likes the idea of waking up to the sounds of nature. He carries a suitcase, a laundry bag (half full), a huge, bubble-wrapped flat-screen TV, a crumpled lampshade with burn marks on it, a laptop in a case and a plastic packing box full of pens, pencils, crayons, brushes, paints and paper.

Arthur is sitting in the hallway watching these items as they pass by and up the stairs. Sue stands next to him shifting her weight from foot to foot.

Mind the paintwork, Karl!’ Arthur says.

Don’t worry Arthur, I’m good at this. I’ve been moving this stuff around for years,’ says Karl.

Arthur and Sue hear bumping upstairs as Karl sets things down and shoves them into place. He’s talking to himself very quickly in a syncopated monotone.

What’s he saying?’ asks Arthur.

I think It’s rap, Dad.’ says Sue.


No! RAP.’

They have a month to see how it works out. The next day Arthur gets up as usual at seven. Karl doesn’t. He has to get to work by ten and ends up rushing out of the front door eating a piece of toast at nine-fifty. Arthur gets up to close the door behind Karl, shaking his head. Karl leaves a smell of coconuts in his wake which Arthur quite likes.

When he gets back from work at five, Karl carries in some groceries in plastic bags.

Ready for some tea Arthur?’ he says.

It’s a bit early for me to be honest. I usually go up the pub for a glass of red before dinner. Could we do that first?’ says Arthur.

OK, as long as I can have a bag of crisps – I’ll be starving otherwise,’ says Karl.

The pub is too far to walk but not really far enough to drive. Nevertheless, they go in Arthur’s blue Fiesta. As they walk in under the gaily-coloured flower baskets the chatter inside goes down a notch.

Usual, Arthur?’ says Tom the barman. Arthur nods.

Nice lad, the barman. I’m not sure about that tattoo on his neck though,’ Arthur says, a bit too loudly, to Karl over his shoulder. ‘What would you like anyway?’

Oh… just a Coke please,’ says Karl. ‘And a packet of cheese and onion.’

They take the drinks over to a table in the bay window next to a log-effect gas fire.

I love it here, ‘says Arthur. ‘It’s a real village pub. Not many of those left you know.’

Karl takes this in. Everyone looks well-off, well-fed and white. A group of late-middle-aged men crowd at one end of the bar. They are wearing garish, multi-patterned sweaters and trousers. They greet Arthur.

Oh my God. What have they got on?’ says Karl.

Arthur laughs. ‘They’re golfers.’

Do you play golf then?’ says Karl.

Oh, I used to, yes, of course. Not for a bit now though. My knees can’t take it any more.

In that gear?’ says Karl, sniggering.

Arthur doesn’t want to go into how you can tell a lot about a man from his choice of golf clothes: it has got him into trouble before in here.

On the way home in the car, Arthur suddenly thinks how quickly today has gone.

Inside, Karl cooks them some sausages and mash which Arthur tucks into, making this-is-tasty noises. They chat about Arthur’s family. His wife of 60 years died three years ago. Sue is their only child. She can be a bit edgy, intense even.

Karl says he thinks Sue is lucky. He doesn’t know who his father is; never met him, doesn’t know anything about him. His mother lives in Brixton with his younger brother and sister. She is a cleaner. He doesn’t see much of them. His mother works long hours and the children go to his auntie’s most of the time.

Arthur says, ‘I’m sure she’d like to see you, even so. She must get lonely sometimes.’

I s’pose,’ says Karl, picking up the remote. ‘What’s on TV tonight?’

On Friday night, they are in the pub again. Karl is starting to enjoy this part of their evenings. Arthur is not saying much and gazes out of the window. Karl says, ‘Alright?’

Yes. Yes. I was just thinking about our chat the other night. Look, would you like to see your mother tomorrow? I mean… we could go. In the car. You know? It’s not that far.’

Karl looks up suddenly. ‘Look! I haven’t been back there for over a year now. There’s a reason for that. Leave it, man, OK?’

The golfers fall silent for a few seconds, twisting round to look at them.

Arthur puts his hands up. ‘OK, OK!’ he says, trying to contain his voice in a whisper.

Karl sucks his teeth and shakes his head. He finishes his Coke and stands up. ‘I’m going to walk home. Don’t wait up for me.’ He strides out of the door.

Arthur finishes his red wine and gets in the car. Oh dear. He was only trying to be helpful. There’s no sign of Karl on the way home. He lets himself into the dark house. He doesn’t feel like eating, but there’s no point in going to bed. He won’t sleep anyway. He turns on the TV and sits with a rug over his knees. The evening has become heavy.

Arthur wakes in his chair. Eleven o’clock. No Karl. He goes upstairs to bed.

In the morning, he goes down to make a cup of tea. Should he knock on Karl’s door? He doesn’t think so. That was one of the agreed boundaries. What if Karl doesn’t come back? Or what if he decides to move out? Arthur rests his head in his hands on the table.

Just then, there is movement upstairs. Arthur lets out a long breath and looks up. He hears footsteps coming down the stairs, and Karl walks in. They look at each other. Karl nods hello. He sits down opposite Arthur. ‘You gonna make me a cup of tea then?’ he says. He smiles.

I’m sorry I upset you last night,’ says Arthur, avoiding eye contact. ‘It’s none of my business. I should never have brought it up.’

No, Arthur. I’ve thought about it. And you are right. I should go and see her. It’s been too long.’

Arthur raises his eyebrows.

Anyway. I thought you weren’t good at remembering conversations the next day.’

Oh no. I remember them. If they’re worth remembering, that is.’

They find themselves outside in the Fiesta at ten o’clock. Karl says he knows the way from Brixton station, so they are going to head there first. Arthur gets the map out of the glove compartment and puts it on Karl’s lap. ‘Pretty straightforward really,’ he says, pointing out the route with the end of his car key.

We’ll see!’ laughs Karl, who has not done much map reading before, except on the tube.

How can you get through life without looking at a map?’ says Arthur.

Arthur hasn’t been to South London for a long time. He was born, and grew up there.

Karl can’t imagine Arthur as a boy.

They reach Brixton without mishap.

Arthur, do you mind if we stop for a coffee before we get to my mum’s?’ says Karl.

Arthur looks at him. ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’

Yeah, yeah. I just need to get my shit together first, man. You know.’

They park in a side road and find a small cafe on the corner. They sip cappuccinos and Arthur tackles a slice of Victoria sponge. He watches Karl as he looks out of the window at the passers-by. ‘Nervous?’ he says.

Not really. It’s just … a lot’s happened round here for me,’ says Karl.

Me too,’ says Arthur. ‘I used to cycle past here every day on my way to school. I don’t think I would do that nowadays.’

Karl smiles. ‘I used to walk to school. When I went, that is. I hated it. Most of the time we just used to bunk off.’

Arthur says, ‘On the subject of bunking off, Sue’s a bit put out I think.’

Oh, why?’

I think she is surprised I’m with you… doing this. I normally go over to hers today. I spoke to her while you were getting ready.’

Maybe she’s jealous,’ says Karl.

Karl’s mother lives in a council tower block a few minutes away from the cafe. They pull into the parking area. Arthur has never been in a tower block before and he’s looking forward to the ride in the lift.

You’ll be lucky!’ says Karl. ‘It’s never working.’

But it was.

When she answers the door, Karl’s mother is short but large, in a floral apron. Her round, red-rimmed eyes open wide and her mouth sags, soundless. She has no phone. She had no idea Karl was coming.

Hi Mum,’ says Karl.

She is crying, tears rolling down her cheeks. Her whole body seems to heave with her sobbing. Her ample arms fold Karl’s head into her neck so that he is bent over as if at a drinking fountain.

Mum. This is Arthur. Arthur, this is my mum, Lydia.’ He hadn’t really thought about what to say next. ‘Erm… Arthur is my…’

friend,’ says Arthur. ‘Look, I can wait in the car, Karl. It’s no problem.’

You will not!’ says Lydia, standing back from the door and wiping her cheeks with the apron. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime. You must stay. Karl! Move those toys off the sofa so your friend can sit down.’

Can I look at the view first?’ says Arthur.

They stand in a row: Arthur on the left, then Lydia, then Karl, looking out of the wide east-facing window. She holds both their hands.

They stand staring at the scene below in silence, connected. A sycamore leaf wafts past the window, caught in an up draft.

Lydia squeezes their hands. ‘When you’re down there it’s pretty ugly and dirty. From up here it always looks beautiful.’

Sorry folks

I am sorry I haven’t been on here for a bit.  There are many reasons for that, but none of them really good ones.  So I am back.

I submitted the final assignment on Monday and got the feedback, as usual, very quickly from my tutor.  YAY!  She likes it.  So now I will update the version on here to reflect her suggested amendments.

Next I am doing screenwriting.  Looking forward to it enormously.  Here are the details of the course if anyone is interested:



In front of him, on the other side of the two-way loop, a yummy mummy sat in a booth at a table, dishes of pastel sushi under plastic domes circulating around her to electro-bubbly music.

Over her shoulder a weeks-old baby fixed his china-blue eyes on the passing feast, dribbling and puking snail trails on her left deltoid.  She, unaware, was bent over her smartphone on the table, prodding and swiping with her free hand.

What could a lady who lunches possibly find to get busy with on a smartphone?

Hot-flush embarrassment rose through him as he realised he was doing exactly the same thing. 

Pug miss

They were sitting at the wooden table in the front of the holiday cottage they had rented in Hall-Dunderdale in the Lake District, enjoying breakfast in the sunshine. There were cups of tea and boiled eggs with brown toast on a plastic tray from the little kitchen. 

Despite the cloudless sky the air was fresh. The wagtails sang as they rocketed and plummeted in the wind, ewes called for their lambs in the nearby fields, cows bellowed in the stinking shed across the narrow road. The red-faced fells looked down on the valley from each side. 

The two pugs, Ollie and Delly, in their harnesses but without leads,  were up on their hind legs nosing the edge of the table hoping for scraps. Something caught their ears and they threw themselves into short bursts of body-jerking barking at the road through the gateless entrance to the front garden of the cottage. 

Veering round the bend fifty yards up the road was a black Astra with two young men inside wearing wooly hats. Music thumped through the body work of the car. Its tyres thudded on the uneven tarmac like a drum roll. 

The pugs twisted, made four foot contact with the gravel by the table, and kicked it backwards as they reared towards the road. 

As she looked up it seemed to her that the pugs and the Astra were drawn closer together with each bark and each beat. 

The table was the type you see in pub gardens with benches attached on each side. As she struggled to stand up her legs became wedged between the edge of the table top and the edge of the bench. 

Her hands frantically wiped an invisible glass screen through which she watched the imploding scene. ‘No, no!… Come back!’ she shrieked at the dogs. Then, ‘Stop!… Dogs!…. There’s two of them!’ at the the Astra.

She lifted each leg in turn out of the timber trap of the table, scraping the skin of her shins against the wood.  But she felt nothing. All her attention was on the road. 

The car had slowed to a walking pace and the dogs were jumping up to reach the elbow of the boy in the passenger seat as he leant out of the window, grinning. The car stopped. 

‘Ello luv…are they poogs?’ the passenger laughed.

Her hands had covered her forehead and eyes as if she were playing hide and seek with the boys. Her hair flopped over them and was straggling between her white fingers. 

She slowly uncovered her eyes and let her hands drop. ‘Oh my God!… Oh my God!’ She panted. This was how she had reacted to the torture scene in Versailles on the TV the night before, but this time she was in the scene herself.

She looked around her. 

Somehow she was standing in front of the car and slightly to the passenger side of it, over the bonnet. The pugs were straining up to lick the boy’s fingers which by now were dangling down the door of the Astra.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘They are pugs… Sorry… I should have had them on leads… I didn’t realise… ‘

‘Maybe it’s you who should be on the lead luv. We nearly ran you orver.’ Said the driver. 

‘It’s just that their uncle Boris was hit by a car and died in London a year ago.’ Her face crumpled and her lips trembled. ‘It was awful.’ she said. 

‘Don’t worry… W’or used to ’em’ ere luv.’ Said the driver. ‘Get oop on the fells wi’ em. Yarl be safer thur… ‘ave a nice day!’

The tyres kicked gravel back along the road as they sped off again, laughing.

She dragged the pugs back into the cottage, sobbing, and sat down on the sofa clinging them to her and kissing their snuffling heads.

Pug walk

At eight o’clock the two pugs, Ollie and Dellie, wake me up licking any exposed parts. I pull on some clothes while they stretch out on the duvet like pigs hanging in a butcher’s window. We file down to the kitchen for harnesses and leads, then they hurtle down the stairs, bottoms working like speed walkers’. They paw at the front door, barking to get out. Half asleep I form up, open the door, and we are out onto the narrow lane in front of Wave Crest. They are off. Straight over the sea wall and on to the shingle beach with its sloping hardwood groynes. They head straight to the nearest bushes cocking legs urgently.

We walk over two groynes to the favourite poo spot. I delve in my coat pocket for the crinkly black bags. This is the last thing I need at this time in the morning but one becomes inured after a while. This must be how new parents feel all the time I suppose. The bulging bags go into the red bin, weirdly like a post box, reserved for ‘dog waste’.

Then we are into the social phase of the outing. The regulars with their owners turn up most mornings. I only know the names of the dogs – Rudy the chocolate labrador, Pigsy the terrier, Teddy the labradoodle. There is running and jumping amongst the tussocks, tail biting, whoops of joy. I am slowly coming to, but they would carry on walking for hours quite happily. I, having breathed back the first menthol of the day, am ready for a cup of PG Tips.

‘Brekkie… Come on pugs!’

They stop in their tracks and run over, leaving the throng, the promise of food trumping all other distractions. I shuffle back to the front door. The pugs are there already scratching to get in. They bound up the stairs to the kitchen. I trudge behind. Now we are into the vocal phase of the morning. As soon as bowls are spotted the high-pitched yelps and howls begin from Dellie. Ollie waits patiently for his, allowing his brother to do the talking for both. They gulp down the crunchy biscuits and meat pate, changing places two or three times, licking every last morsel until the bowls are spotless. They lick each others faces and whiskers clean.

The day has started. Without them I would still be in bed.

Slipping away

As Tom sat at the gate-legged table things were slipping away. 

His memory was not what it used to be, starting with the names of people he had known for years, and who now scrambled themselves up together so that he thought he was talking to one when actually he was with another altogether. Why the bemused looks? He knew exactly who he was with. 

His children’s childhood had slipped away too. He thought of them more as friends now. He saw one or other of them most days. They made fun of his odd little ways, which he had always had, but which were emerging from their privacy more regularly nowadays. He’d taken to eating out every night because he had never cooked anything and had no interest in learning, and because he hated eating alone in the house. It always felt like being stood up every evening there. 

Restaurants encouraged the odd little ways to come out.  On his arrival at the Indian a pile of poppadoms and a tray of chutneys appeared swiftly at the table with a small bowl, warmed. He liked to eat out of a bowl. He had got this from the only other restaurant he went to, a Chinese. He would linger at this stage, prolonging the time away from the house. Once he’d ordered the main course the waiter would reach to take away the menu. He would snatch it back. He liked to keep it at the side of his plate for the rest of the meal. You never knew when you might want to consult it. He once asked for soy sauce to go with his chicken tikka (starter size). The young waiter had tilted his head to one side. He probably didn’t know what soy sauce was. Whatever the meal or restaurant, Tom always finished with one… yes ONE scoop of vanilla ice cream please. Variety might be the spice of life, but not when you were eighty seven.

His daughter had a thing about his wardrobe which had taken on an enduring quality. A purple jumper,  which now hung generously about him, could appear every day for a month. Years ago he had sported a pair of towelling swimming trunks on the Thanet beaches for close on a decade.  In the end his wife Mary had spirited them away to a neighbour’s rubbish bin. He had searched high and low for them. He had given up swimming (and beaches) shortly after that. 

Around him in the dining room the dark green wood chip wallpaper was bare, the Welsh dresser’s shelves empty, the occasional tables unladen, the life sucked off them. And he was alone. Mary had died three years before suddenly. This was good for her but not for him he told people in the pub.  She was an angel. Her domain was the home and she ran it really well. He had never before lived on his own. 

At first he couldn’t imagine what he was going to do all day. When it turned out to be not very much he settled into it without self-examination. The afternoons dragged. He would sit in front of the TV with the twenty-four-hour News Channel on (sound off). The highlight of the day was at six in the evening when he went to the pub which he and Mary had frequented together for twenty five years. Now even their friends there had started to slip away. 

After three years of this he was in a rut. He was going through the motions. So he was delighted when his daughter and son-in-law suggested they have his house enlarged, and sell theirs, and move into his place with their three teenage kids. He would move in with them while the works at his were completed. They could take care of him and he wouldn’t be lonely anymore. They would all be together. Light at the end of the tunnel at last. But now the solitary period of his life was slipping away to nothing he had become more anxious about it all. A new bed would never be as comfortable as his own. There was his bad back to think of. He was fine here really. So now his home was slipping away as well. He didn’t know if he was coming or going. People at the pub asked him when he would be moving out for the work. He couldn’t remember. Or he wouldn’t remember.

He lifted his head from his hands and saw a fresh spring gust of wind detach the last dead leaves from the Sycamore trees at the end of the garden. They settled on the bushy grass. 

There was a knock on the front door, a key in the lock, and someone came in. He looked round.  

“Hi Daddy… you ready?”

“Oh… Hello darling… Sorry,  I wasn’t expecting you…Am I ready for what?”

What friends are for

The lift said “Sixth Floor.” I walked along the corridor in the neon light which always reminded me of a Travelodge. I hadn’t been here for ages. I hoped Robert would be alone. It would be awkward otherwise. But let’s face it, it was going to be awkward anyway.

I got to his flat. I didn’t have the key any more so I would have to knock. I hoped he would be awake. Would he answer the door? I’d tail-gated into the foyer behind a neighbour so I hadn’t buzzed up. I knew he didn’t like surprises like that, but at least this way I would get to see him face to face. The worst that could happen would be him telling me to fuck off.

I knocked. Silence. Then the pat of feet inside. The spyglass in the door darkened. This was it. He knew it was me now. The door opened, the chain still on and visible in the gap. His face sagged, his eyes screwed up against the light from the corridor.

“Hi.” I said. “Can I come in?”

He shut the door. He hesitated, then undid the chain and opened it again. He was wearing Calvin Klein pyjamas and bare feet. The smell of lasagne reached me on the warm draft from inside the flat. Tonight’s dinner and always cooked from fresh.

He sighed. “Yes. You can come in I suppose… Let’s go in the living room.” He stepped aside to let me in.

I stopped just inside the door. “Surprised to see me?”

He shook his head. “Only you would turn up unannounced at this time of night, so not really, no.”

“Sorry… Is this a bad time?”

“If you mean is there anyone else here?… No.”

How did he always seem to know what I was thinking? He shut the door and we went along the hallway past his bedroom.

I saw we were not alone. “Wow! You’ve got a cat! Amazing!” I said, as I walked into the living room. Thank God the fire was on.

Robert looked down. “Yes he was Dave’s. I look after him now.”

The cat jumped onto the sofa next to me, tail up and sniffed my jeans pocket.

“I love cats.” I stroked the black velvet-soft head. “What’s his name?”

“Coriander… after his eyes. Black coffee?” he smiled for the first time.

“How did you guess?” I smiled back.

“How could I forget?” Robert went into the kitchen. We could hear him opening the fridge door and running the tap.

Coriander settled on the sofa and looked up. “So. How do you know Robert?” he asked.

“Long story. Let’s say we were friends once. Then more than friends for a bit. I haven’t seen him for ages.”

“Oh, so you’re another of his waifs and strays then.”

“You could say that, yes.” I looked into the acid-green eyes and smiled.

“And what are you after?” said Coriander.

I looked away and out of the window. Cheeky little bastard. “Nothing! I just came over for a catch up innit.”

“Yeah, right.”

I turned back. “I could ask you the same question Corry.”

“It’s Coriander.” The cat dug his claws skilfully into my thigh, just far enough to penetrate the denim and make contact with the flesh underneath. “What do you mean? Ask me what question?”

“What are you doing here? What are you after?” I did my arching- eyebrows thing.

Coriander detached a paw from the denim and licked it gently like a cowboy blowing smoke from the muzzle of a gun. “Honestly?… Dave was off his trolley all day and night, having random people round all the time. He brought me here one weekend when he went away. I’ve been here ever since. Robert likes me, it’s warm here, there’s food and water. He doesn’t bother me much”.

I looked down at my leaking trainers; the dirt on the bottoms of my jeans; the battered bag at my feet. The cat was eyeing me up, ears back, tail swishing.

“Oi! You can stop looking at me like that. You’re no better than I am you little fucker.” I said.

“Don’t think you’re going to be moving in here mate. Robert might have fallen for your crap in the past, but things are different now. He’s got me for a start.”

Shit. Was it that obvious? “We’ll see.” I pushed the cat off the sofa as Robert came back in with the coffee.

“I hope he isn’t bothering you. He can be a bit full-on sometimes.” he said.

“No, no. Coriander and me were getting on just fine weren’t we little fella?” I winked at the cat.

Coriander turned his back to me, sat on the carpet, and licked the other paw.

Robert sat down next to me. “Black coffee, with a little cold water in it…. I’ve missed you.”

“I missed you too man.” I did my looking-up-open-eyed thing. He always was a sucker for a pretty face. Especially mine.

Our lips brushed each other. My hand was on his thigh. The cat flap slammed shut behind Coriander as he went into the garden.

“Well that’s told us!” Robert said laughing.

“A bloke on the TV said that cats and dogs can sense all kinds of things around them. You know. Like ghosts and shit.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true. They know when there’s tension in the air that’s for certain.”

“Sorry. That’s probably me that’s upset him.”

“No don’t worry. He is a bit edgy, that’s all. Who can blame him after that upbringing?” He smiled again.

I drank some coffee. It was a treat to have the real stuff. Robert never used instant. In the distance a siren whooped.

“So… What have you been up to?” Robert said.

“Oh, same old same old.” I looked out of the window again, trying hard to hide my raw eyes. My cheeks felt damp when I put my hands up to cover my face.

“Come on love. I can see you’re not OK. What’s been going on?”

Right there – that was the reason I had come to him. After everything that had happened, and despite all my fears, he still cared about me. There wasn’t anyone else, family or friends who I could rely on like this. I knew I didn’t deserve it from him either. Why was I such a twat? I couldn’t let him see me crying now. I swallowed hard, trying to push it all back inside. But it wanted to come out and there was nothing I could do about it. This was not how I had planned the conversation.

He put his arm round my shoulders. “Oh sweetheart. It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Why was he so lovely? Why was he letting me back in? Come on. You’ve got him where you want him. Ask him! Ask him! ASK HIM!


“Look… Sorry, “I said. “Maybe I should go. I don’t want to lay all this on you. After all this time. You must think I am such a piss-taker. I’ll go.” I picked up my courier bag and shifted forward on the sofa.

His arm tightened round me. “No, It’s OK. Stay where you are. Do you really think I am going to let you go back out there in that state?”

“Maybe you should. You’ve got Coriander now. You really don’t need me back in your life.”

“Maybe. But what are friends for? Stay the night, you look exhausted. Let’s talk about it all over breakfast tomorrow. Then we can decide what to do, OK?”

And that was it. As easy as that. The past was forgotten, he didn’t care about it. I wanted to tell him everything but he kept saying he just wanted to talk about the future.

I did want to tell him. Really, I did.

Catherine comes home

Adapted from “Grace Notes” by Bernard MacLaverty*

Sound of muffled street noises from outside. Catherine going up steps to the first floor. Sound of chatter behind kitchen door. 

Catherine knocks on the door. 

Mrs McKenna: Come in.

Chatter stops. Sound of door opening. Sound of women sitting at the table buttering stacks of bread. Mrs McKenna gets to her feet. 

Mrs McKenna: Catherine!

They hug and both start to cry. 

Catherine: Ma!.. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Mrs McKenna blows her nose loudly.

Friend: We’d better make ourselves scarce, girls.

Mrs McKenna: Stay where you are. We’ll go into the other room

They move out on to the landing.

Catherine: Where is he?

Mrs McKenna: In there. Your old room. But we’ll go in the living room first. Come on.

Sound of a young woman cleaning, tipping ashtrays into a bin.

Mrs McKenna: Geraldine, can you finish this place later?

Geraldine: Surely Mrs McKenna… Catherine!

Catherine: Geraldine Scully!

Geraldine: The very one. I’m awful sorry. About your father… Oh, and sorry, I’ll see you later… She leaves

Mrs McKenna: Would you look at this place? Bottles and ashtrays everywhere. There was some crowd in last night.

Catherine: Did you stay up all night?

Mrs McKenna: No.. till about two. The doctor gave me a pill to knock me out. I just went to bed and left Paddy in charge

Catherine: Paddy?

Mrs McKenna: Paddy Keegan, our barman. He’s been great. Just took over. One of the world’s most genuine men. I don’t know what I’d have done without him. He put the notice in the papers –worded it nicely and all –got Carlin’s, the undertakers –drove the whole way to Cookstown to register the death. Aw, Paddy’s been great –he’s away home for a sleep now.

Catherine: When’s the funeral?

Mrs McKenna: From here tonight at seven. Then in the morning at ten. From the church… How are you?

Catherine: I’m fine.

Mrs McKenna: So you’ve moved off the island?

Catherine: Yeah.

Mrs McKenna: To Glasgow?

Catherine: Yeah… How did you get my number?

Mrs McKenna: Paddy spent the whole day on the phone, contacting everybody. He’s a gem.

Sound of a lorry climbing the hill outside in low gear. Hammering.

Catherine: What happened?

Mrs McKenna: A massive heart attack. He’d had one or two wee warnings but . . .

Catherine: Where was he?

Mrs McKenna: He said he wasn’t feeling great. Yesterday morning. Was it yesterday or the day before? God, I don’t know which end of me is up. Anyway, he felt sickish and had a bit of a pain across the chest here. And he’d been having these pains in his upper arm, of all places. I told him to take his tablets. And off he went, down to open the bar. The next time I saw him he was dead. They’d put him on two tables, rather than leave him on the floor. Malachy McCarthy and Jimmy were the ones who were with him. The early drinking crew.

Catherine: Oh mum. Come here.

They hug.

Mrs McKenna: This is getting us nowhere.

Catherine: That was terrible about the bomb.

Mrs McKenna: I like the way you phoned to check we were all still alive.

Catherine: There’s days go by, weeks maybe, when I never see the news. I just didn’t know.

Mrs McKenna: We missed the worst of it. It went off further up the street. Your father was so angry about it. “It’s our own kind doing this to us”. That’s what he kept saying.

Catherine: The IRA?

Mrs McKenna: Who else?

Catherine: It’s awful.

Mrs McKenna: It’s a policy they have now. Blowing the hearts out of all the wee towns… You’re looking well.

Catherine: I don’t feel it.

Mrs McKenna: Is anything wrong?

Catherine: No –no . . . apart from my father being dead.

Mrs McKenna: You’d better come in and see him.

Catherine: I don’t know whether I can. Whether I want to. I’ve never seen anyone dead before.

Mrs McKenna: Did you not see Granny Boyd?

Catherine: No. You wouldn’t let me.

Mrs McKenna: Well . . .Maybe a cuppa tea, first?

Catherine: Yeah.

They go back into the kitchen. Sound of knives and an awkwardness in the silence.

Geraldine: Is that you two finished in there?

Mrs McKenna: Yes, love. I’m making more tea.

Geraldine: Some of us have work to do…. How’s the piano playing going?

Catherine: Fine.

Mrs Gallagher: Open another tin of salmon there. We’d be far better off giving everybody a couple of quid and sending them down to the Chinaman’s for chips with curry sauce.

Everybody agrees.

Catherine: ‘What’s it like?

Mrs Gallager: ‘Very handy. He’s open all hours. He didn’t do chips in the beginning –but it was the only way he could stay in business.

Mrs Steel: There you are now. That’s the wee cakes done. A feast fit for a king. She shakes an empty carton. Aw, don’t tell me… Would you look at that. There’s only one left. And I’ve another two trays to do. Imagine having only one hundred and thousand left. They all laugh. Our kids call them prinkles… Look at that.. The sole survivor.

Mrs Gallagher: The individual matters… I was that hundred and thousand… Sorry love. I hope we’re not upsetting you with our gabble.

Catherine: No, no.

Mrs Gallagher (whispering) : We’re here to get your mammy through it.

Mrs McKenna makes tea. Mrs McKenna pours the tea and hands the cup to her daughter.

Mrs McKenna: There you are… Milk?

Catherine: No.

Mrs McKenna: Sugar?’

Catherine: No.

Mrs McKenna: Changed times. I mind when you took three. I was always washing the sugar out of the bottom of your cup.

The sound of a Hoover whining and roaring from the living-room.

Mrs Gallagher: That Geraldine’s a great girl. She can do the work of ten.’

Sound of general agreement from the ladies.

Catherine: I’ll get my sleeves rolled up later.

The room falls silent. Next door the sound of the Hoover goes on and on.

Mrs Curran: Your da had a way with words, Cathy, didn’t he? Do you mind the night there was the fight in the bar –the night Barney Neary was in . . .

Mrs Gallagher: Barney Neary’s a dwarf from Newtownstewart. Not that height.

Sound of all the women smiling and chuckling.

Mrs Curran: And a battle royal started. Bottles and ashtrays were flying all over the place. And Brendan said, “The only man who hadn’t to duck was Barney Neary”. I can just hear him saying it.

They all laugh now.

Mrs McKenna: She’s an oul model and there’s no parts for her. That’s what he said about Nan in the Post Office. He heard all these sayings in the bar. There’s manys the one can hear the things but never tell them the way Brendan did.

Mrs Curran: Your father was a character.

Catherine: Maybe I should go and see him…Get it over with.

Mrs Gallagher: You’d never forgive yourself

Mrs McKenna: Who’s in with him now?

Mrs Gallagher: Bella.

Mrs McKenna: Do you want me to go in with you?

Catherine: I’ll be all right. Stay where you are.

*MacLaverty, Bernard, Grace Notes, Vintage: London 1998