‘A Blank Canvas’

 

Laetitia sits by her drawing-room window. A small tornado of dust spins across the black tarmac of the garden and catches on the leaves of dandelions and shepherd’s purse that have pushed up through the cracks, but Laetitia’s eyes are closed and she does not notice.

She smiles as the chairman’s bluff, warm voice repeats the listener’s question to the panel: a garden can bring so many problems  but at the turn of a switch, the experts are there, like doctors, to offer comfort and advice. Her bony hands, knobby with arthritis, stir slightly on her lap as she deftly untangles and ties back sweet-peas. The salvias are thick with scarlet blooms, and the banked-up straw has worked wonders in suppressing weeds and slugs beneath the strawberries. Her narrow, bent back aches slightly, but she has been stooping to fill a punnet with the fruits that smell of summer.

Outside, starlings chase each other across the lumpy grey surface, unafraid of the tabby cat that sprays the fence. But Laetitia’s new garden is a rich mixture of shapes and colours, through whose lush profusion the striped cat stalks like Rousseau’s tiger.

***

The trouble had started when Adams had become obsessed with vegetables. For years, he had cossetted the herbaceous border and pruned the shrubs with deliberation and care; he had attacked slugs and greenfly, and dosed the leather-jackets in the lawn; he had planted out the summer annuals with artistry and skill. He knew that Laetitia had liked to watch him, and she had sometimes tapped on the window and waved, so that he had nodded and adjusted his cap, his cheeks warming faintly with pleasure. The obsession with vegetables, however, had germinated in his old age and had rooted and strength-ened even as he grew more frail.

At first he had confined himself to a few spring onions and radishes, sneaking them into a corner of the furthest flower-bed.  But gradually the obsession had grown within him, spreading like a gall. He had become more ambitious, he had fretted about the waste: there was so much land, wasted on useless flowers. Bare soil should be made into food: soil and sunshine and a tiny seed could be transformed into something good to eat. What he really wanted to grow were waxy white potatoes and runner beans. He liked the idea of beans with their scarlet flowers, the bamboo supports peaked together like a wigwam. And perhaps a few carrots; they looked good on a plate, meat and three veg., white, green and orange, as pretty as any bed of annuals. He’d need to ask her, of course. She might not like it. It would need some thinking about, how to tackle her. It was her garden, after all, though he never saw her in it. He scarcely spoke to her, except to get his money. But she saw him, and saw the garden; she sat there in her chair, watching from her window. He was sure she hadn’t seen the radishes, but beans were tall — he’d have to ask.

***

Laetitia heard the latch on the garden gate, and watched as Adams wheeled in his bicycle. He was looking old, she thought; he was bent like an old twig with cracking bark. His face was gaunt beneath the earth‑coloured tweed cap, and his eyes were almost hidden behind the thick‑lensed glasses.He pushed the bike slowly along the path, his knees bent, his feet sticking out sideways as though … as though he had wet himself! She covered her mouth with her hand as she smiled, then rebuked herself and pulled her navy cardigan down over the top of her pleated skirt. She supposed he would be coming in this morning to ask her about growing more vegetables.

In the evenings, when she made her customary slow and solitary progression around her garden, she had noted the radishes and spring onions hidden behind the delphiniums, but she hadn’t minded because she liked to watch the crimson spheres and thin white columns grow.

But the other day she had watched as Adams had stared for a long time at the far end of the herbaceous border, and had then paced out imaginary rows. He might as well, she murmured to herself, he might as well. Just a few, and as long as the vegetables look attractive. But no cabbages or brussel sprouts, they’re so  common.

Later in the summer, when the evenings were long and balmy, she took up her two sticks and slowly negotiated the back steps into the garden. A dog barked briefly next door, and a car revved in the road, but here bats flittered round the eaves and a blackbird, relieved of this year’s offspring, sang from a bough of the plum-tree;  Laetitia stopped to listen, a smile lighting up her wrinkled, sagging face. The new vegetable patch was prolific and it didn’t really matter that Adams had planted a row of dwarf beans behind the lavender hedge, they were not visible from the house. The fuchsias were beautiful this year,  dense bushes of  flamboyant pendants. But she did wonder why the Shasta daisies, that usually reared up at the back, had not yet appeared;  she must remember to ask Adams to keep an eye on them and to replace them, if necessary, with something tall.

Adams now came to work with several carrier bags tucked into his bicycle basket, and Laetitia sat at the window and watched as he knelt by the rows of carrots, or gently pinched the swelling beans to test their size. The weighted bags hung from the handlebars when he left, and, once or twice, he knocked at the door and gave her samples of his produce, the fruit of his labours and her soil. But her fingers were too stiff to prepare them properly, she preferred the frozen or tinned varieties, so she smiled and thanked him, and told him to keep the vegetables for himself. She wondered, idly, what he did with so much produce  — perhaps he sold a few, to augment his gardener’s pay.  She couldn’t begrudge him that for he had bought the seeds and, if he made a small profit from his work, well, he deserved it, he had served her well.

In the autumn, while Laetitia day‑dreamed and listened to concerts on Radio Three, Adams enthusiastically mulched the beds. He spread compost, then dug it in with handfuls of bonemeal, and he mounded up soil around the leeks. His wiry old body quivered with the effort, and his face was flushed with excitement.

But, when Spring arrived, and the pale green swords of the emerging delphiniums mysteriously shrivelled and died, and the cornflowers and campanulas failed to appear, he was quick to knock on the kitchen door and explain that the soil was starved of nitrogen, even the compost hadn’t helped. He talked quickly, animatedly (Laetitia had never heard him talk so much) about rotation, and leguminous plants, and nature’s cures. She must not worry, he said, the slits of his eyes glittering behind his glasses, he would cure the soil organically, that was the modern thing, and she would see the plants flourishing again. He would make the desert bloom, he said: she should  just be patient, if she would.

Laetitia was uneasy, but she would have to let him do as he suggested because there was nothing she could do herself. She marvelled as Adams skipped around the garden like a spring lamb. He hoed and raked and planted, he hammered nails and ran wire supports along the fences. Barricades of thorny rose‑clippings, cages of wire‑netting, flickering bird-scarers: the garden was transformed. And, as May advanced to June, feathery leaves, spiralling tendrils and grey‑green spikes appeared, in rows, and clusters, and climbing up the fences. The dark bulbous heads of beetroot bulged above the earth. Huge orange trumpets bloomed among broad hairy leaves, sweet‑scented flowers of broad beans and shy white peaflowers all nodded in the summer breeze — then turned brown and withered, to give life to their fruits. And the herbaceous border contained not one uselessly decorative bloom.

Now, Adams came three times a week instead of two, and would take no extra money. He harvested in a frenzy, pulling, lifting, cutting. His carrier bags were so full they split and burst in the middle of the road; he abandoned them and their contents in the gutter. Once, from her bedroom window, Laetitia saw him leave the bulging bags by someone’s dustbin.

Soon he gave up the pretence of coping with the harvest, and the vegetables swelled and rotted with old age. But he could not stop: Laetitia watched helplessly as he transplanted leeks, and sowed another row of lettuce. She longed desperately for pelargoniums and sweet peas —  but the huge peapods turned white and wrinkly, the broad beans grew broader and the radishes bolted behind the gardener’s back. She tried to hope that Adams knew what he was doing, that the soil was thankfully sucking up nitrogen, or whatever it was, in preparation for next year’s antirrhinums; but she knew that Adams’ obsession, and his vegetables, were rampaging uncontrolled.

In the autumn, when Adams had piled  yet another compost heap with yellowed pea‑vines and courgettes that had become marrows, and had begun to lift the last of the potatoes, Laetitia rapped on the kitchen window with her teaspoon, and imperiously beckoned him to come into the kitchen. She demanded, in her thin clear voice, to know whether the experiment had worked:  she wanted her flowers reinstated.

For a moment, Adams stood quite still with shock. His bald head shone and his eyes glittered feverishly as he attempted to straighten up and look his employer in the eye. He waved his arms stiffly from the elbow, and shuffled his sturdy boots.

Not yet, he said, these things took time. He would need to test the soil, he said; he would have to get a kit, and test the soil scientifically. He was sure the cure was working well, but she should not expect too much in just one growing season. Sprouts, now, brussel sprouts, they might just do the trick. And all‑year spinach, that would keep the cure ticking over. He could, of course, try for a few frost‑hardy perennials, but …. He looked out of the window, and shook his head doubtfully.

Laetitia knew she could not win. She let him return to his potatoes, and she made herself a cup of tea. She took out her favourite bone-china cup that was hand‑painted with blackberries and purple plums, and she half‑filled it with dark smoky‑flavoured Lapsang then carried it carefully to her chair.

She sipped her tea and mourned her flowers. And she watched as Adams mounted his bike and rode off, slowly, down the road, his bent legs scarcely propelling the aged machine. Soon he would take his holiday; but afterwards, it would all begin again — the mulching, and the trenching, and the obliteration of all that she had loved. She sighed, and put down her cup, and she lifted the heavy telephone directory onto her lap.

***

The builder was stout and ruddy‑faced, an Irishman who said that yes, to be sure, he’d do it in a day. He knew a gang, he said, who’d lay tarmac in a flash. It took them three days, but it was that digger there, you see, the corner was a bit tricky, and yes, no indeed, the rubbish would be gone tomorrow.

The noise of their machines and the smell of hot tar had filled the house, and neighbours had stopped to stare, but now the garden was good and flat, an easily cared-for, blank, unpainted canvas.

Laetitia closed the curtains, and poured out a tiny tot of brandy. Her hand shook a little and she found it hard to hold the glass. She turned on the television, and then sat down in her favourite chair, lifting her legs up onto the footstool, and tucking her skirt around her knees. The credits rolled silently up the screen, and while she waited for the programme to start, about the gardens of Sissinghurst and Stowe, she wrote out a cheque to Mr. Adams, calculated for one month’s wages at four days a week. Tomorrow, if the weather was fine, she would make an expedition to the Post Office. She might even treat herself to a  copy of ‘The Gardener’s World’.

 

(This story was short-listed for the Wells Festival of Literature short story competition in 2002)

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Giacometti’s Finger

 

You do not need to talk in a gallery.  Dim white spaces rustle and whisper above polished floors. Peopled spaces, where muted sounds jostle to be heard, the sounds of thoughts and whispers, and footsteps, footsteps slow and soft or with positive heels.  Listen! To the negative spaces positively bursting, pushing at the limits, bustling with half-heard phrases from unheard minds.

Listen to the question marks hanging like hooks: ‘What am I supposed to think?’ ‘What was happening in his mind?’

Feel how the minds reach out tentatively yet must forbid the longing hands to touch. ‘Please do not touch’. It is not allowed. But the sculptor touched, moulded, daubed and fingered the plaster, and later caressed the rough and dully-gleaming bronze. Where his finger-tips smoothed the surface, the light now reflects. Shadows lie in the grooves, in the valleys of the mind.

Thought is uninterrupted in the shadows of my mind, for no one needs to speak. And we may not touch.

 

Do you see that one over there, with the short,

orange hair? She’s just dying to …

 

 I need my tea.

Someone sat on my chair

while I was lifting a piece of paper

that had dropped

on the floor.

 

… She’s going to touch it. Look!

She must be stopped.

Ah, she’s seen us watching, she saw your glare.

 

There were only three words on it.

 A tiny piece of paper,

torn from a notebook.

Royal Academy. Where?

 

Where are we at? That’s

not to be indulged in,

such existentialist chat.

We are here.

I am, therefore I see.

That orange-haired one sees, but does not

believe it is.

So she needs to touch. And feel.

To be sure it’s there.

 

I don’t know what you’re on about.

I need my tea.

 

I saw how he crumpled the piece of paper that he had picked up, stuffed it into the pocket of his navy serge trousers. His body bulges about his belt — even the sculptor’s grim humour would be unable to reduce him to manageable proportions; to an elongated stick-torso lacking viscera, not at all.

That paper fell from my notebook.

I wrote a simple question: ‘Where?’

The woman was looking in a shop-window, looking at shoes that I thought she could not afford, perhaps yearning for expensively-shod feet. I could have asked another man, but women can be more sympathetic, so I came and stood beside her with my question extended. I made myself unthreatening, a genuinely questing face.  She was surprised, but it didn’t take her long to understand, for she glanced along the street and then pointed.

She mouthed, ‘That way,’ silently.

Her mouth and face made exaggerated movements. Behind us the traffic roared and a bass-beat drummed from a passing car, vibrations trembling in the diesel haze.

I smiled and cupped my hand behind my ear, and formed my lips into another question: ‘What?’

Oh!’ she replied, out loud, and ‘Sorry.’ She shouted a little to help me understand: ‘That way, opposite Fortnum and Mason’s. You can’t miss it. You’ll see the pillars.’

I saw the pillars. A small girl clasped one, hugging it as she watched a pigeon that waddled, fat-breasted. From ground-level, adult legs and torsos are pillars (but not so the body of the one who wants his tea, the one who has my paper and the spheroid frame, enceintured like a figure-eight).

A child’s head must angle back on its shoulders, looking up at tall figures scurrying past; but here figures are cast in freeze-frame, rooted to the bare bronze like trees anchored in brown forest mulch.

Tall trees, stirred into violent motion by the battering wind. Children were shrieking in the wind, tilting their bodies, arms spread, trying to fly; the wind was snatching away their shouts and laughter, stimulating their living bodies with its own furious energy. Ahead, the trees bent and roared, and I walked silently away, swiftly fleeing that memory, in amongst the tall dark trunks. Deeper and deeper into the dimness, until the dark, comforting pillars remained unmoved by the shaken canopy and the sounds were muted. Not even a blackbird chirred in warning when I leant against a living trunk and stared into the unspeaking future.

But she was moved by my shaking body. She came to me from the darkness, her pale beauty softly shining with green-white moth-light among the columns. A ghost? A mirage of things ahead? I could not tell, but she came to me, smiling; like ivy she wrapped her arms around me and bound me to the grey, smooth bark, holding me until I was still. And I wept because I could not speak, but she laid her fingers against my neck. She leant her head against my chest and pressed her ear against my throat and when, unspeaking, I said, ‘I love you’, she entwined me in her pale blonde hair like moonbeams and said, ‘I love you, too.’

She heard my silent words and gave me hope, but soon afterwards her pale column of light grew dim and dark and she left me. She left me hope, and she went away. But she couldn’t take away the memory: the memory of the misguided missile, flying in play, that had once homed in soundlessly on my home of sound. The memory,  of children screaming, clutching at each other and at the remnants of my voice — as I lay with shattered throat and screamed, unscreaming …

Is he ill? That one over there,

fluttering his hands?

Who shakes, and pulls at his poloneck,

and makes strange faces.

Is he ill? Is he having a fit?

‘Excuse me, sir, are you unwell?’

 

The one with orange hair watches,

sees how – in answer to the question –

he takes out his notebook

from the pocket of his jacket.

His pencil scratches; he writes,

at once becoming calm.

She sees, and touches on

his inability.

 

A piece of paper with three words,

‘I am alright.’

But there was a streak of white, a scar.

A mark at his throat.

A sign of previous harm.

 

I had become uncalm. I make odd groaning sounds in my haste to explain and reassure, and my mouth snarls. But now he has my two notes to compare, no longer to puzzle over because all is clear. People had stared, sensing an interesting distraction, but now they have all moved on, and the dim white spaces softly rustle with unspoken sound. For no one — save the watchful attendants — need talk in a gallery.

Around us the thin figures stare into the void from tiny, pedunculate heads, and men stride ceaselessly, locked forever in a single measuring pace; forever trapped in that moment of their silence. We — they and I — are trapped inside our heads. We may not speak.

But surely, here, this is one who calls? His long arm points, his finger outstretched, his left arm curves behind, beckoning.  I can almost hear his voice, urging us, begging us to ‘Hurry! Come and see!’

He is urgent in his need to show, his finger straight and statuesque as a black pointer’s nose. I look to see what mysteries we should see, but he points only at passing people, spectators moving past his gaze, schoolgirls with sketchbooks, a drifitng greybeard. A young woman with orange hair.

And then I see the story that he seeks to show. He does not gesticulate to indicate but to create: multiple shadows at his feet, grey radii on a whitened base. The left arm grasps an invisible world, holds it against his shoulder; its shadows, each like a succeeding movement caught by stroboscopic light, grope straight-armed, then curve and pull, enfold.

‘Come close,’ he is saying,’ let me put my arm around your shoulder and show you the world.’

But with his other hand he points, and the shadows of the pointing hand stir a memory and I search my mind for connecting images. I stare and stare, and crouch down, mesmerised by the silent drama at my feet.

A living hand lays a small object, a lipstick case, near the shadow’s free end. The woman in black with the orange hair crouches by the sculpture’s toes.

‘That’s a fish, she says quietly. ‘In a moment he will strike and catch it.’

She smiles and leans forward, and her short bright hair is lit like the sun that breaks through dark clouds. At my instant of identification, she had seen it, too. My hands are rigid, I feel my face and mouth contorting  and, in frustration, I push at the sound, trying to force it out.

‘A heron,’ she whispers.

I nod, struggling and spasmodic.

‘Yu – uh – ss.’ I say. It is very loud.

She laughs softly. ‘Ssh. We’ll get thrown out for talking.’

She reaches out to help me to my feet, for I am weak with disbelief.

 

Excuse me, madam.

Please don’t –

 

Hush, leave them be.

They grope

at shadows only; things that cease

existence when the lights

are out.  See

how she needs to touch

his throat.

To feel.

To be sure

his voice is there.

 

***

This story was inspired by the shadows on the floor at the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Giacometti’s sculptures in 1998

‘Cats’

The envelope merely stated: ‘To the young lady who lives in the basement flat’.

There was a single sheet of paper inside, upon which was written a poem, in firm black ink. Catriona read it quickly, unable to take in the words.

To “The Lady‑with‑the‑Sky‑in‑her‑Hair”

Your black hair, glossy,

Reaches out

And entwines the blue sky,

Wraps it

In shining fingers

And pulls it down

Around your head,

Like a blue, silk shawl.

You are a celestial pillar,

Rapt

In beautiful, fierce anger.

And even the cat

Is cowed.’

There was no signature. She read it again, and now she knew who had written it. She saw herself, raised high above the viewer’s head, enhanced through his vision, and she was moved and excited. But she was also fearful, that he should interpret her in this way, and thus ensnare her.

As she folded the piece of paper, she saw another line of writing, on the back: ‘What you need is a Tom!’ Even as she read this suggestion (or was it a proposition?), she thought she knew what was in the black plastic sack, upon which the envelope had been propped: and she was disgusted.

***

There was another dead cat in the lane behind the terrace. Catriona could just make out its shape, where it lay stiffly in the mud. She hung her tights on the washing‑line, then leaned over the railings to stare down. The lane was a dark, rutted gorge, its cobbles long since displaced by heavy lorries and an endless sequence of men with road‑drills, spades and inappropriate tarmac. It was bounded by stone walls that were pierced by wooden doors, some strong and locked, like Catriona’s, others broken and hanging. Behind the walls and their backgardens and dustbins rose even higher walls, four storeys high, of stern Victorian terraces.  The cat, once so large and vivid orange, was diminished and darkened by the surrounding stone. Would this corpse, too, suddenly vanish overnight?

The terrace in which Catriona lived curved around the top of the hill, so that the windows and back‑door of her basement flat opened onto a steeply‑sloping lawn. Her garden was small ‑ the grass ragged, the few shrubs alive but stunted, and the patch of soil that nourished nasturtiums and daffodils was adequate but sooty ‑ but she was happy to use it as an extension to her tiny flat. Yet it was a constant irritation that the neighbourhood cats used it, too. It was not only their noise that irritated (and sometimes, in the night, frightened) her: it was their casual acceptance that any patch of sunlight was theirs, that the dustbin and shrubs were parish boundaries to be sprayed with pungent stink, and that the powdery soil had been provided as a public cats’ convenience. The cats clawed open dustbin sacks, then sat and chewed, heads tilted, at stringy offal and kitchen towel soaked in miscellaneous juices; they formed small gangs that paced, with twitching tails, glaring at the opposition; and they hunted for newly‑parked cars, searching out the warmest engine, and stamped their muddy feet in triumph on the bonnet.

Catriona hated them. She rapped on the window or she opened the door and threw things. Once, she threw her shoe and, so powerful was her anger, the shoe sped the length of the garden and dropped over the railings, out of sight. When she went to fetch it, treading cautiously down the steep, slimy steps towards the wooden door, the cat (amused and undeterred) peered down at her descending head, and purred.

There was so much food: not merely carelessly thrown junk, but purposely‑placed food, offered by cat‑owners and by cat‑less people who felt sorry for the strays. There were little bowls and dishes, and opened tins. When Catriona walked down the street, past the rows of doorbells and empty milk‑bottles, there was even the occasional saucer left on a top step, the surface of the milk crusty with floating dust. There was also the man who put out meat. She had seen him in the back lane; he looked about sixty, and wore a suit, and he came out of the green back gate, the one with peeling, scabby paint, the house that had sixteen door‑bells at the front. She wouldn’t have paid him much attention except that he held out a bowl and called for the cats in a strangely high, thin voice. The cats clearly recognised the call: furry heads lifted and turned, backs were arched and stretched, and cats of all colours leapt lightly off resting places, slunk around corners, and bounded towards the bowl. The man’s feet were lost in a multicoloured snarl of fur, and within seconds the bowl was empty. A few of the lucky ones ran off to sit and crunch at bones, little delicate bones that splintered like chicken. Catriona hoped they’d choke.

drawing from 'cats'

There was a lunchtime in early spring when Catriona escaped from her office to sit in the unexpected sunshine in the park. The trees were still bare, but blue and white crocuses were piled like  carpets on the lawns. She chose a bench in the sun, and sat with eyes closed, head tilted towards the imagined heat. But soon a shudder indicated that someone  had joined her on the bench. She opened her eyes slightly and saw a man, and tried to suppress her annoyance that she could not be permitted to sit alone. But then it seemed that the man was familiar, and she peeped again, and puzzled. She was almost sure it was the cat‑man from down the lane, but he wore an unfamiliar tweed jacket and a matching cap, and he was a little older than she had thought. It was annoying, the way he fidgeted and muttered, and she was just making up her mind to move when he said:

‘Excuse me … I wonder if you could help me. What is the name of the spice that one obtains from crocuses? Or croci, I wonder if one should say?’

‘Oh! I’m sorry … I don’t ‑ ‘

‘You see, I’ve temporarily forgotten ‑ wretched memory!’ His voice was gentle, self‑deprecating. ‘It’s from the stamens ‑ you know, the yellow rods, inside.’

‘Yes, I know which are the stamens.’ Catriona was offended. ‘Saffron.’

‘Ah yes. Saffron.’

‘Why? Are you thinking of collecting some?’ She was prepared to be judgmental.

‘Oh no! I merely needed the word. Thank you.’

The man turned away, and watched the squirrel that had been stopping and starting among the flowers. His lips were moving, though, and occasionally his hands twitched impatiently.

The squirrel reared on its hind legs, then dropped down and scuttled towards a tree. The man gave a pleased little snort.

‘Did you see?’ he asked. ‘That’s what I find hard to capture. The skeleton itself must flow, and loop and turn.’ He was trying to explain with his freckled, bony hands, as well as with his words. ‘But the words must flesh it out, do you see ‑ almost disguise the structure. That’s what I can’t get right.’

Catriona was embarrassed; she was prepared to dismiss him, possibly as a victim of some sort of dementia. Yet he seemed harmless, and one didn’t often meet interesting people in the park.

‘You don’t see what I’m getting at, do you? Listen!

Sinuous snake‑shape,

slithering

through saffron ‑

you see there, that’s why I needed your help ‑

through saffron.

That suddenly curls,

furry fluffball,

grey among blue and yellow

goblets,

uncoiling and stretching

its bristling, prickling

whiskered tail …

I haven’t got any further, yet.’

‘Yes. I do see. I think.’ Catriona wasn’t sure whether to be impressed, or wary of the old man’s pretensions. ‘Have you done poems for other animals?’ She tried to think of a suitable example. ‘How about a cheetah? Or an ordinary  cat? You’re fond of cats aren’t you?’

Catriona was sure it was the same man; but his face closed and his expression was blank.

‘Fond of cats? No. No, I’m not fond of cats. There is no fondness in them, they do not reciprocate ‑ they can only take . Good heavens, look at the time!’ (He didn’t even consult his watch.) ‘I must be going. Goodbye!’

And he was gone, moving surprisingly briskly through the lunchtime strollers.

It was a few weeks before Catriona saw him again. She hid behind the damply‑hanging towels and watched as he called the cats. This time, he held the bowl high, out of reach, and he pushed the cats aside with his foot so that one, and only one, could receive his gift. He walked backwards, encouraging the brown Burmese to follow, enticing it in through the garden door. The graceful animal stepped daintily out of sight.

He didn’t notice Catriona that time, but he saw her, a few days later, when the scarred grey cat leapt over the railings.

Catriona had flung open the door and chased the cat down the lawn. The animal bundled itself together, then unfolded like a flying fox and hurled itself at the far wall. It scrabbled and bunched its body against the stone, then pulled itself up, to sit, panting and glaring at its pursuer. She burst out laughing at its anger and then realised the cat‑man was below her in the lane. He held a plastic bin‑bag that hung heavily as the wind rattled rubbish on the stones.

‘No, I’m not fond of them,’ he said, ‘and nor, it seems, are you!’

‘It was ‑ defaecating ‑ on my lawn.’

The elderly man continued staring up at her, wordlessly, until she became uncomfortable.

‘Mmmm …. a lion rampant, gold on green.’

‘It looked more like a suction pad with claws,’ Catriona said, puzzled, but trying to be helpful.

He looked at the angry cat, and smiled. ‘Yes. Oh yes. That’s a nice idea. Thank you so much.’

Catriona smiled back, and then went inside.

***

She poked the black bag with her foot, but it was ungiving and hard. She patted it cautiously with her hand and its contents were curved and tall, so, since the bag was not heavy,  she took it, and the letter, downstairs to her flat. She read again the poem ‑ and was no longer frightened. She cut the string and rolled back the neck of the bag, and stared into the unblinking glass eyes of the ginger tom. His broad face glared at her, his back was arched, his hair bristled stiffly round his neck, and every part of his body signalled ‘Keep off!’ Catriona stroked him gently; so cold and dead, yet skilfully reincarnated to such heat and fury. His legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. She expected him to raise his tail and spray the cupboards, marking the kitchen as his territory.

The ginger tom, captured, then recaptured in such rampant gold perfection. As she, too, had been immortalised in words, and petrified, azure‑tipped.

It was not until the weekend that Catriona felt confident enough to respond. The poem had been unsigned, there had been no address, but the gift had laid a burden of uncertainty upon her that must be cleared. In her handbag she carried a small replica of a fossil fish that she had purchased at the Museum gift shop and had wrapped in blue metallic foil. The bones of the fish, compressed and preserved by aeons of hardening sediment, were starkly drawn as though by an engineer’s pen.

Catriona’s feet crunched on the poet’s basement step and, thoughtfully, she pushed aside the small, crushed shoulder‑blade with her shoe. She rang the bell, but there was no answer, and the curtains were closed. A girl, going up the front steps, saw her and told her that he had gone.

‘Three days ago. He’s flitted ‑ he was way behind with the rent.’

‘Do you know where?’

‘No, he didn’t tell anyone, just skipped. I hope he’s got somewhere to go, though, he left loads of stuff behind. He must’ve been a bit weird, though ‑ do you know what they found in there?’

‘No.’ But she could guess.

‘Cats! The place was full of dead cats, all stuffed and mounted. Gross!’

Catriona shook her head in amazement, laughing with the girl, and walked away. She wondered if there had been a stuffed squirrel, too.

 

This story was published in Chapman, Scotland’s Quality Literary Magazine‘, volume 81, in 1995.

 

Blackthorn Winter

I wrote this story several years after I and my postgraduate student had visited a farm in Ayrshire, on a bitterly cold day, in relation to our research on the liver-fluke, Fasciola hepatica, whose larvae develop and multiply in snails. (Even parasitologists can figure as characters in novels!). The farmer was very welcoming, but he told me his wife was ill, and there was an air of sadness and hopelessness about him – and the farm – that I have never been able to forget.

****

Madeleine watched as John tugged at his eyebrow and his large, square face furrowed in concentration. He held the ‘phone tightly against his ear, and nodded as he listened.

‘Aye. Aye …. Fluke’s bad round here, right enough.  .. Aye. It’s a wet land, that’s for sure, it disnae drain well.’

He glanced at her and then, seeing that she was listening, looked quickly away.

‘Aye. … That would be fine.  Next Tuesday then. Aye. You’ll come to the house, I’ll be waiting for you.’ It was a statement, and he replaced the phone in its cradle on the wall.

Someone was coming to the farmhouse, but John would wait outside, he wouldn’t let them in. Someone coming about liver-fluke in the sheep: but the sheep were all right, weren’t they? She realised she didn’t know (there were so many important things she no longer knew) and she waited for him to tell her.

He was a big man but, as he stood awkwardly in the doorway, she wondered how she had missed noticing that he had grown haggard, and she felt helpless because there was nothing she could do.

‘Some doctor, from the university. Says she’s doing a survey —’

She?’

‘Aye. A lady doctor. She’s doing a survey or something into liver-fluke, she wants to come and look for herself. She’s after getting the snails, to see if they’ve got the worm.’

He had been going into the scullery to put on his boots when the ‘phone rang, and he stood there in his socks; there was a hole in the toe and she could see his yellowed toenail.

It reminded her: ‘Is your thumb still sore?’

He blinked and was still for a moment, then he looked at his left thumb, and held it out towards her. The nail was black and purple, the skin around it suffused and straining, taut with the pressure.

‘Aye, my thumb is still sore,’ he said, gently.

She reached out and touched it, the rough, hardened skin, wanting to talk about it more, but he withdrew his hand and she saw how his face went blank.

‘A doctor coming,’ Madeleine said. ‘Next week. I had better start and make the house nice, then.’

‘Aye.’

After John had gone out into the yard Madeleine stood by the sink, staring out of the window. The white cockerel was courting the hens, and Madeleine laughed to herself at his ridiculous side-stepping, and the way he dragged his wing, trailing a cloak for his queen of the moment. Why did he think that made him seem desirable? The hen ignored him, staring dreamily into the distance as she scratched the ground, then stepped back a pace or two to interrogate the soil.

There was a blue African violet on the window-sill, its colour dark and vibrant, and  Madeleine lifted the pot and plucked off a discoloured leaf. Curtains and the gathered pelmet, orange-flowered, fringed the view, but the material was speckled grey and green with mould, and condensation trickled down the window and pooled on the sill. The kitchen was warm and humid, ‘like the rainforest’, Madeleine imagined to herself (was that where African violets grew?); but the world outside lacked warmth or colour and it seemed to her that the wind sliced the grey air like a pale cold blade.

The air, or perhaps the ground, pulsed with the revving of the tractor as John shunted it to and fro in the yard. She wondered what he was doing, then remembered that he had mentioned something about pallets, stacking pallets, and although she could only see the top of the red cab above the drystone wall, she imagined the prongs of the forklift, spearing the wooden trays exactly between their bars, carrying them like the plates of pallid vol-au-vents extended at the chapel party.

Her attention was caught by something that flickered in the wall and she re-focussed her eyes, hoping for a recurrence, hoping that it was no illusion, that it was real. Years ago the flickering had begun: tiny rectangles and triangles, ever-shifting patterns of black and white at the periphery of her vision, a kaleidoscope without colour that gradually encroached, creeping inwards until the real world was obliterated for an hour by a changing world of her mind’s own making. Ten, twelve, years ago, a time when she had been unafraid to visit a doctor: ‘visual migraine’, he had pronounced and, in naming it, had dispelled her fear of the unknown. ‘Nothing you can do about it, it’ll come and go.’

But this time the flickering had been a mouse. It reappeared, running delicately between the stones like a child gymnast upon the barre; stopped to sniff the air, nose pointing, tail curled across faded yellow lichen, then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

‘Maddie! Mad!’

John stood by the side-gate, waving to atttract her attention. He had put on his old blue boiler-suit as a concession to the cold, but the top buttons were undone as though to point out that this was not mid-winter, merely an unseasonal spell of cold in April. ‘Blackthorn winter,’ he called it.

Madeleine opened the back door.

‘Maddie, can you come and give a hand?’

She looked back into the kitchen, undecided, not wanting to leave the security of the house.

‘Please, Maddie — it’s the lambs.’

Usually when he spoke to her his voice was calm and reasonable: she loved his voice, she wanted to catch his words and clutch them to her. But now there was a sharpness to it and she glanced at him quickly.

‘They’ll die if we don’t do something.’

The roughness of his fear frightened her, and she nodded.

‘I’ll get my coat.’

 

He needed her to help him, to carry bales. They built small shelters of pallets and straw, in the open barn, in corners of the yard, and even in the garden. Madeleine’s frozen fingers were nipped by baler twine as she carried the rustling straw and her old tartan coat bristled with the hollow stalks but she helped, uncomplaining and frightened by John’s haste.

The blackthorn hedges bore white flowers, a smirr of snowflakes on black pencilled twigs, but up in the field there was no colour except shades of grey, the sky merging with the sodden land. Her slithering footsteps left muddy trails, and lambs lay huddled and quiet while their mothers nosed at the scanty grass and the biting wind scoured the landscape.

The ewes cantered for the open gate, their fleeces juddering, and lambs panicked bleating amongst them so that the lane to the farm was filled with the roaring of sheep, and they packed the yard with a panting, steaming mass of uncertainty. It took Madeleine and John more than an hour to sort them out and reunite lambs separated from their mothers, and soon the barn and every shelter held pregnant ewes or  ewes with lambs at heel. Then there were hurdles to be carried, and troughs to be moved, while the wind drove stinging sleet into every corner.

John brought her an armful of hay.

‘You take this to the ones in the garden,’ he said, and Madeleine knew he didn’t want her to see how little hay remained in the barn.

The grass was not growing, and soon the hay would run out, and the feed bills had been unpaid so long that they would not be allowed more credit. The ewes were undernourished, and unfostered lambs lay down and did not rise again, but died because there was no dried milk. Madeleine carried the hay to the ewe and wished she could take the twin lambs inside into the rainforest warmth of the kitchen, away from this unforgiving Ayrshire landscape.

 

But they still had eggs. When John came in for his tea she fried eggs and bread on the hob, turning her head to feel the comforting heat on the left side of her face,  and watching surreptitiously as he washed and dried his hands.

‘If only the sun would shine …’ she said.

‘It will take more than that.’

His hair was still dark, though thinning, but on his chin the stubble was pure silver. She liked that, and would also have liked him to grow a beard, but she didn’t tell him so. There was no longer a mirror in the bathroom, because one day a few years ago she had unscrewed it from the wall and taken it down, later telling him that it had broken. He had nodded and after that he had shaved by feel, but more recently he had often allowed the stubble to grow for two or three days.

She pushed aside the unpaid bills and uncompleted forms that littered the table, and sat down opposite him.

‘What shall we do?’ she asked, feeling the hopelessness begin to rise inside her again.

‘We will manage somehow, don’t be afraid, Maddie. Perhaps the doctor from the university will pay us, perhaps we can charge her  for gathering the snails.’

‘Tenpence each. We will make our fortunes.’ She laughed bitterly and, resisting the urge to pluck at her face, knowing how it disturbed and perhaps revolted her husband, shifted on the chair to sit on her hands, leaving her food untouched.

‘We should sell up.’

‘Don’t talk like that, Mad, you know it’s no use. Where would we go? What would we live on? The ewes’ll get by somehow, we’ll all get by.’

‘You’d be better off without me, you’d find something if you were on your own.’ In her squirming agitation, her hand was released and of its own accord it leapt to the corner of her mouth and began pulling and massaging the growth.

The look he gave her was such a mixture of despair and alienation that she couldn’t stay any longer at the table, but pulled her cardigan around herself and slipped away  (uncaring that her knife clattered to the floor and that she had trampled the fallen teatowel), and escaped to the safety of her little chair in the dimmest corner of the sitting-room.

And so began another of those phases of dark hopelessness when day and night were scarcely distinguishable and she longed even for the precise definitions of a visual migraine to impose some certainty upon disorder. She was barely aware that John came and went, occasionally bringing her a mug of tea, coming and going through the house; if she wondered, she assumed he was with the sheep, or in the yard. Once or twice, smelling hot fat, she thought he might be cooking.

Then there was a time when he stood before her and said, ‘Maddie.’

She raised her head, but didn’t meet his eyes..

‘Maddie, please. The lady doctor is coming this morning.’

‘A doctor?’ She was confused. ‘But I don’t need a doctor.’

‘The university doctor — the liver-fluke woman. Do you think you can tidy yourself — will you tidy the kitchen? She may want a mug of tea.’

‘I don’t want to see her.’

‘No.’ He was, as usual, gentle with her. ‘No, you don’t have to see her if you don’t want. But the place looks bad, it needs tidied. Please, Maddie, we must make a good impression, it may be she can help.’

Gradually his words penetrated the fog that was in her brain, and began to make sense; and after some time she pushed herself out of the chair, feeling the aching stiffness in her legs. What could the snail woman do? Madeleine couldn’t even begin to puzzle out an answer, but washed herself and changed her clothes, and then she set to in the kitchen. It was still early, barely eight o’clock; the gate and wall were rimed with frost and above the hill the sky was a cold, pale blue. Lambs bleated, and the ewe in the garden shelter stood up and stamped her foot when the orange farm cat approached too close.

The African violet was limp from neglect and Madeleine gently dripped water onto the soil beneath its leaves, then began to wash the accumulated mugs and dirty dishes and the frying pan that was opaque with congealed fat. In a haze of incomprehension she put away cutlery, and swept patterned flakes of mud, sinuous as flattened snakes, from the brown lino; she made a neat pile of the unopened envelopes and bills, and squared the short row of cookbooks and manuals on the dresser. After a few minutes’ contemplation she took up the photograph, already twelve years old, of their son in his RAF uniform, and put it in the dresser drawer.

Soon a red car drew up to the gate and John came out from the yard; he was wearing his old tweed jacket over a patterned pullover, and he held the car door open for the driver. The woman had short grey hair, and was sensibly dressed in fleece jacket, jeans and boots. She shook hands, and Maddie watched as she introduced John to a sulky-looking girl in her twenties who came round from the passenger side. The girl had dark wavy hair that was escaping from a shapeless black  woollen hat, and she didn’t smile; but the woman had a pleasant face.

In sudden panic Madeleine filled the kettle and placed it on the hob: the teapot and cups and milk were already waiting on the table. She snatched another quick glance out of the window, ready to flee into the bedroom, but the snail collectors had picked up their rucksacks and John was starting to lead them off along the lane. The grey-haired woman stopped briefly and looked back, staring at the kitchen window as though she sensed Madeleine’s watching presence: the woman waved a hand, then turned away.

For a long while Madeleine stood irresolutely by the sink, gazing out at the minute details of her world. Then, after warming her red tartan jacket and old grey socks on the battered chrome hob-cover, she pulled on her boots and went outside. Although the air in the valley was frigid and still, the sun was already starting to touch the top of the field behind the farm, and the high pasture glowed startlingly green. The ewe in the strawbale shelter snickered softly to her lambs and they ran to her, butting her udder with their heads so that her rump lifted in the air; the shelter and scanty hay were caked with their droppings.

Madeleine untied the wooden pallets and dragged them aside.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Come with me.’

With a long stick in her hand she slowly walked the ewe and her offspring out of the garden, and along the lane; she didn’t hurry, merely allowed the ewe to feel the pressure of her presence, so that the sheep zigzagged calmly in front of her, the lambs jostling and darting at their mother’s flanks. She moved so slowly that the ewe waited patiently in the lane while she opened the field gate.

‘In you go,’ she said, and was sure she felt the ewe’s profound sense of liberation as it galloped off across the frost-whitened grass then stopped to graze.

Liquid notes poured earthwards from an unseen lark, and Madeleine leaned back against the gate, eyes closed, seeing only the shadows of branches patterning her eyelids.

Some time later she heard quiet voices and, unobtrusive as a shy vixen, she slid away from the gate and behind the hedge. There was a strange pleading note in John’s voice and with a dull shock she realised he must be speaking about her.

‘If you could just look at her, doctor … I don’t know any more what to do.’

‘Mr Livingstone, I’m not that sort of a doctor, I’m not a medical doctor —’

‘She has just lost heart … the hopelessness has infected her, and made her ill.’

‘Perhaps then it is in her mind.’ The woman’s voice was gentle. Madeleine wondered whether the sulky girl was listening too.

‘No, no! There’s nothing wrong with her mind, she’s not mad. You will see it for yourself, if she will let you look at her.’

Their voices were closer, the other side of the hedge, and Madeleine pressed against the vegetation, hiding yet wanting to observe the speakers, too.

The woman was walking next to John, looking at the ground as she spoke, but when she drew level with Madeleine’s hiding place she paused and looked up. Her eyes met Madeleine’s through the hedge and she seemed completely unsurprised.

‘I think your wife is just here,’ she said to John. ‘Hallo, Mrs Livingstone.’

Maddie? Mad?’

The girl, hearing his words, laughed a startled high-pitched sound.

‘Is that you? What are you doing there?’ John hurried to the gate.

‘I brought the ewe.’

She stood away from the hedge and saw how the visitors stared at her, how the doctor’s face froze before she glanced away; how the girl stared unashamedly.

‘Did you find the snails?’ She made herself speak, to fill the silence.

She hadn’t looked at her own face for a very long time, but she could imagine what they saw: the growth at the corner of her mouth, like gnarled bark formed around an alien wire that holds a fence; a crumpled lava-flow, petrified, but not grey — the colour of damsons, of thickened jam brought to a rolling boil.

‘No, your husband was just showing us where to look, we’re going back to fetch the collecting equipment.’

Maddie looked away, towards the steeply-sloping field, and saw that sunlight was sweeping slowly across her world. Silver-tipped leaves darkened, and began to drip gold droplets; scarlet fire hung shimmering from thorns; the sunlit grass glistened with moisture and the lambs skipped across frosted shadows cast by trees.The hedgerows steamed.

Suddenly the girl laughed again, and pointed.

‘Look at the sparrows!’

Madeleine looked, and saw two sparrows arguing on a branch. Steam drifted upwards around them but they were oblivious, quarrelling and shouting with fluttering wings.

‘It’s a sparrow sauna,’ the girl said, with a sly look.

Madeleine noticed how the doctor glanced again at her face with compassion in her eyes, but she didn’t care.

Steam almost hid the sparrows from view, and she began to laugh.

‘A sparrow sauna! Yes!

She caught the girl’s eye, and they began to giggle together helplessly, at the absurdity of everything, and when she looked at John, his face so shone with hope that she was dazzled and could not look away.

***

This story, written in 2005, became, in a modified form, the first chapter of my fifth novel The Embalmer’s Book of RecipesMadeleine, who has moved to the Lake District, is one of the three main characters.tebr front coverThe novel can be bought as a paperback or ebook from Amazon

The photograph on the cover of this 2nd edition was generously given to me by my friend, photographer Rob Fraser, to whom I am very grateful; it was part of ‘The Landkeepers project carried out by him and Harriet Fraser.