Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Part One

rapae_pupa_green2It was a Saturday morning in November. Ruth Feather was looking out of the kitchen window at a set of old flagstones, which she and her boyfriend, George, had piled against the back wall. They’d salvaged them from a local yard. The radio was on and she was listening to the news, “Doha climate change deal clears way for ‘damage’ aid to poorer nations”. ‘Climate change will have to wait’, she said to herself. ‘What am I going to do about my backyard?’ It was raining hard and, as she’d found out when they’d moved in, it sloped the wrong way, back towards the house. Despite being an athlete, George was not that interested in DIY. And she…yes, well, she liked to start things but was first to admit she didn’t always have the patience to see them through. She touched the glass, following a rain drop, chasing the channels downwards, trying to guess which way it would go next, rolling into other channels, getting bigger on its way down towards her clay floor below. She sighed. They’d just have to get someone in to look at it, that’s all. But how much will that cost? Money was tight just now; more sighing, a bit of grimacing and a heigho. ‘Time to get back to my lecture.’

Ruth worked as an Earth Scientist at the university, carrying out research into climate change. She was working on a talk for a group of adult students. “Fracking law needed to control British ‘dash for gas’, says MEP.” Another news bulletin on the radio. She put her pen down and listened. It had stopped raining, so she decided to go and take another look at her sloping floor. It was a small backyard behind their terraced house with an alleyway behind, protected by security gates. It was often used as a short cut for people in the road behind. She’d nodded in greeting to a few people she met but she didn’t really know anyone to talk to. Still, it had only been six months…early days yet.

She heard a giggle of laughter from over the wall, then a shriek. It sounded like a young girl, running up and down the alley. She hesitated a moment before drawing back the back door bolt. She had rubbish to put out, anyway.

A little girl, about six, almost collided with her, swerving at the last minute. There was a man with her, further down the alley, walking up towards her. Ruth paused. She hadn’t really met anyone yet. When the man was within a few yards of her, he smiled, ‘Hello, I see you’ve met Tilly, then! Sorry about that. I bring her out here once in a while to let her run off some energy. She’s got quite a bit. Tilly’s my granddaughter, by the way.’

‘She’s lovely’, replied Ruth. ‘It’s nice to hear someone having fun out here for a change. All you usually hear are wheelie bins and pigeons.’ ‘I know’, said the man. ‘remember when we had the Queen’s Jubilee in the summer,  well, I took Tilly and the family up to the social club on the hill. There was nothing happening here. But, look see, you could put a bench here and a bit of paint on the walls and even put in some raised beds for flowers and things and this could be a really nice place to pass the time in the sunshine…don’t you think? Ruth gave him a sideways look. ‘I sweep up outside my own back door for her sake but no-one else is interested.’

‘Why d’you say that? I’d come out here and help out.’ Ruth started thinking how busy she was at work. Wher would she find the time? All she ever wanted to do was eat and sleep when she came home. ‘No, everyone round here’s too old or just not interested. That’s what I think. We’ve lived here for three years now and you’re the fifth, sixth person I’ve spoken to. No-one’s that bothered any more. Why should they be?’

‘My name’s Ruth, by the way. Nice to meet you.’ ‘I’m Barry,  and you too.’ They both smiled. ‘Sorry about that, going off on one again. I get so angry at times. The wife tells me to calm down.’ ‘We’ve only been here six months and you’re the first person I’ve met out here. It would be good to do something out here, wouldn’t it, like have a summer party or something, don’t you think?’ He just looked at her. ‘I like your accent. Welsh, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes, I’m from a little place called Bwlchgwyn originally. Well, best be heading off. It’s been nice talking with you, Ruth. I’d better get Tilly Mint her dinner started. She watched them walk back up the alley and disappear before turning back in to her own yard, closing the door behind her. She looked around. Standing in puddles on the damp clay, she let out a long sigh and went back to her lecture notes upstairs.

George was out back, mopping up the puddles. He could hear the news headlines on the radio from the kitchen. “What’s next? Loss of our islands? Seychelles negotiator tells US.” ‘Oh, will you turn that off’, he called inside. ‘You and your climate change talks! It’s so depressing.’ Ruth came out onto the step. ‘They’re really important, George. You know that.’ He couldn’t help but notice how cute looking she was in her huggie slippers. ‘ I’ve told you we’ve got four years left to save the planet. There’s exploding sun spots and volcanoes, el Niño and El Niña, clouds and surface albedo, all caused by ever growing carbon emissions. Something needs to come out of these talks or else earth temperatures could rocket by up to 6 degrees and…’ ‘Oh, you and your bloody surface albedo!’, George erupted. ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough. It’s the weekend, the weekend, do you remember that? Can’t you just give it a rest for five minutes..?’ He was still holding the mop while he fumed but couldn’t think of anything else to say. Knowing she was probably right and he was actually in a corner – it was her job to know about these things, after all – he turned on his heels, struggling to pull the bolt back on the door. When he did get it open, he leant the mop carefully against the door jamb and walked out into the alley. Ruth looked after him, open mouthed and the mop fell over.

He found himself outside without his keys. The alley was sealed off by lockable gates. There was one at the far end of the alleyway, wide enough for a car to fit through and two smaller ones, leading off into the Lane, in-between the houses. George wasn’t going to go straight back in, anyway. He sulked, ‘What an idiot!’ He loved Ruth without a doubt. He knew her work was really important. How many times had she come home knackered after another late night meeting, too tired to eat, nevermind talk? Oh, he was bothered alright. ‘That bloody floor, we’ll never be able to fix it. How can we possibly afford someone? I’m riding to work on my bike, as it is.’

He brooded up and down. His job was insecure, he knew that. With another round of spending cuts, who knew what might happen next? ‘No need to take it out on Ruth, though.’ He was just turning at the end of the alley to go back when an elderly woman opened her back door and came out, holding a rubbish bag in both hands. George moved across, ‘Here, let me help you?’ ‘No, it’s quite alright, young man. Thank you, I can manage…now, if I can just pick this lid up.’ She tried to open the top of the wheelie bin and lift the bag but couldn’t quite manage it. George stepped over and held the lid open for her. The woman did the rest, with two hands, in it went. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘my name’s George. George Seacole. From number 34, you know, next to the shop, P&I Sports, empty now. We’ve not long moved in. Pleased to meet you’. And he held out his hand.

She looked at him for what seemed like an age, before taking his hand. He felt hers, soft and hard, boney and veined, cool in his. ‘Pleased to meet you too, young man. My name’s Mrs Harris. Have you got time for a cup of tea and a biscuit?’

The alley separates the two rows of houses, like a stream. There are two narrow cuts at rightangles, linking the alley with the lane, sealed off by narrow gates. From above, it resembles a mortice key, laid on one side, its teeth directed towards the Lane. This side is made up  largely of 1920s terraced housing with a carwash at one end and a café bar, a newsagent’s and a small supermarket at the other. A row of flats stretched across the top. All of the residents and businesses are given a special key to open the gates. The houses on the Lane are mostly 3 bedroomed with a small backyard.

Over on the Avenue side, the houses were made up of slightly later, 1930s terraces, each with a small front garden and a larger back one. Onto the corner, jutting onto the supermarket and the row of flats was a GPO sorting office. Apart from this, the Avenue was residential, full of trees.

You see the occasional person passing through the alley but, by and large, it’s only used to keep the bins in, purple, blue and green. Dead space? You would be forgiven for thinking so. Sometimes, a few children play out in it. Occasionally, runners use it for exercising and sprints. There’s a man who lives in one of the flats above the supermarket who sets up the big bin line on a Monday night. Quite a line of purple it is too!

The Lane is mixed. There are small businesses, some with flats above – café bars, an estate agent’s, a betting shop, dress shop, a plumbing business, and lots of pigeons. Everything’s been tried, bar a sparrowhawk, to shift them but they must like it round here, so they stay. As do the people. It’s a popular place. Leafy trees line the Lane at regular intervals and it’s not far to nearby parks and the city centre. The area has grown noisier and busier with traffic over the years and parking can be an issue. So is licensing. After a late night pavement bar was granted an temporary licence, a group of residents successfully campaigned against it being extended.

The next day, Barry watched from his bedroom window, as rain poured down outside. It was already 10 o’clock but he’d only just got up. He knew Ange would be dropping Tilly off at any minute. Strange after all these years in the building trade to be spending his time looking after her. He couldn’t help smiling. He never knew he had it in him. Still, patience and doing a job well were always his reward, things he prided himself on doing and they were paying dividends with her. After breakfast, they were going to make puppets with moving parts from balsa wood and pins. They’d paint them and, then, he’d watch Tilly use them in her stories. That was the best bit. She had a crackin’ imagination.

Barry’s wife, Jane, had a part-time job, 4 days a week, in an office in town. It was good, really, and helped keep them going. Casual work had almost completely dried up. He reminded himself he’d go over later to fix Mrs Harris’ window. He’d take nothing off her. The cruellest blow had been losing the maintenance contract with Gypsum Housing Association. Since then, he’d applied for all sorts of jobs but no good. They were just about managing to keep their heads above water but, if nothing came up soon, he’d have to bite the bullet and sign on. He sighed at the thought of this…he’d only signed on once, just after leaving school and once was enough. He hated being treated like shit.

Fair play to people who have to, though. That’s what it’s there for. Barry had grown up with this. He’d listened to his grandparents’ stories of what it had been like back then before the NHS. Men in paddocks, hoping to be picked for a day’s work, having to spend much of it on buying beers for the foreman. Only sending for a doctor if you absolutely had to, knowing you had to pay for each visit. He knew what a struggle it had been to get the NHS. Some people had short memories or didn’t know what it had been like before. The welfare state was a safety net, there to keep people like him from being flung out onto the streets. That’s why he paid his taxes and bought into it, or so he thought. You heard so many scare stories these days. Everything seems to be changing – for the worst.

The door bell rang. ‘Ange and Tilly’, he thought. He threw on a jumper and picked up his comb, giving his hair a quick parting to the left, as he had done for years, before rushing downstairs to open the front door as the chime faded away.

‘Tilly!’, he cried, ‘…Hello, Angie, love.’ ‘Granddad!’ cried Tilly, all smiles. She grabbed his knees and squeezed between his legs, running off into the kitchen. ‘Sorry, dad, I can’t stay’, Ange explained. ‘I’ve got an interview in town. Wish me luck.’ She gave her dad a kiss and a hug and dropped a bag of clothes and toys on the floor. ‘I’ll pick her up fourish, ok?. I’ll see you later. And don’t let her have too many biscuits! You mustn’t be be soft with her.’ Next thing, she was off, banging the gate shut behind her before driving away in her car.

Barry shook his head and went into the kitchen. Tilly was already standing on a stool, trying to reach the biscuit barrel. It was made in the shape of a New York cop’s head, complete with blue hat and badge. She loved it because every time you opened the lid, a big voice cried out, ‘Move away from the cookie jar! I repeat, move away from…’ or else Tilly gets it.

The radio was on and he just caught the headlines. “Qatar makes most of its money – £10bn a year – from selling oil and gas.” ‘Then why on earth was it hosting climate change talks?’, he wondered before turning his attention to Tilly. ‘Come on, Tilly Mint, we have work to do. There’d be time enough for cookies later.’

He had prepared well, cutting the shapes out the night before. Tilly had asked for a donkey, two elephants, a man and a woman, a child, a polar bear and a whale. Oh, and a couple of penguins. He’d divided the body parts up for each one. A lick of paint. Tilly was the expert here, with just a little word from granddad and they waited for them to dry. All they had to do now was join them together with pins, pushed through the small holes and they moved. Stick a lolly ice stick on the back and, hey presto, they stood up. ‘I must have missed my vocation here’, Barry thought. As if by magic, Tilly now had her troupe of actors and animals and the real drama could begin.

They made a stage out of a big box, using photograhs from magazines to create the backdrops – a snow-topped mountain morning, a blisteringly hot desert day. Tilly’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. He wondered where she got it from? It tired him out just watching her but he tried hard not to show any signs of irritation. He loved Tilly. She lit up his life. But it was time for a cup of tea and a let’s see what’s on the tele moment. Ffetch that biscuit barrel.

‘Do you take sugar?’, Mrs Harris asked George. ‘No thanks, just milk, please.’ She took him through to the living room. ‘Sit down, I won’t be a minute.‘ He looked around him. Family photos adorned the mantelpiece and walls.  One showed a woman in a wedding dress, standing next to a handsome, clean-shaven man in uniform.  And photos of children and grandchildren. He wondered if there was still a ‘Mr Harris’? He could hear the kettle whistling and water pouring into the pot.

He was half out of the chair to take the tray from her. ‘Do you like your milk in first or last?’ ‘Oh, last, definitely, ‘ said George, smiling at her. ‘Yes, me too,’ smiling back at him, ‘would you like to do the honours and pour? I’ve got a pain in my back.’ ‘Happy to.’ He gave the tea bags a good stir in the pot before pouring into the white china cups. He added the milk last for both of them and passed a cup and saucer to Mrs Harris. He took his and leaned back in the settee. There was silence between them. This would normally unsettle him but it didn’t this time for some reason. Mrs Harris spoke first, ‘That’s Bob, my husband’, nodding towards the man in uniform. We were married during the war. He was in the RAF. Dead now…had a bad chest. Lots did in those days. How about you…George, did you say?’

‘That’s right, I live with my girlfriend, Ruth, next to the old sports shop. We’ve only been here a few months…we quite like it here. It’s nice and quiet.’ ‘Oh, it’s still nice,’ said Mrs Harris, ‘but not the way it used to be.’ I used to know everyone here. Nearly 45 years I’ve lived here. But it’s all changed now. There’s not many of us left.’

George was starting to think, ‘Here we go. Everything was always better years ago. No help to him these days. And not sure the world war was anything that great to shout about. ‘It’s not all bad today!’, he started. ‘People still say hello, even if you don’t know them. She studied him. ‘And what do you do?’ ‘Me? I’m a personal fitness coach and trainer. I’m studying to become a life coach too at the moment.’ ‘A life coach!’, exclaimed Mrs Harris. ‘…and what’s a life coach?’ ‘Oh, you know, helping people make up their minds about important decisions…crossroad moments like whether to change jobs or move house, that sort of thing.’ ‘Is that so? Life coaches do that, do they? We used to call people like that friends, in my day. A cup of tea and a biscuit soon put the world to rights…even if it doesn’t always last. Still, the world’s changed since my day…you must like people? So many of them are horrible nowadays. You read about such terrible things in the paper. I used to get the evening paper but I don’t bother anymore…too scared to leave my own home with all the shootings and murders going on.’

‘But it’s never been safer to live here in the city’ started George. ‘Crime levels are lower than ever. It’s just people think something’s going to happen.’ ‘Ah, well, you’re ok. You’re young and strong. You would say that, wouldn’t you!’ There was a pause while they looked at each other and George shifted his gaze to the other photographs on the walls. ‘Are they your children?’, he asked. ‘Yes, a boy and a girl and grandchildren, four of them. They all live away now but come to visit me as often as they can. My son’s a good boy. He rings every Sunday evening, right after tea and we have a good chat. He knows he doesn’t have to. I’ve told him that. But he does, anyway.’

George felt guilty about his own mum. He must give her a ring. How long had it been..? Quite a while. She only lived ten miles down the road. He told himself, finishing his tea, he’d go see her this week. ‘Well, thank you, Mrs Harris. It’s been really nice talking with you but it’s time I was going.’ ‘You’re welcome, young man. It’s been nice meeting you too and, please, call me Gwen. I hope you’ll come again, now that we’ve broken the ice…it was very kind of you to help me with the rubbish.’ ’No problem at all, Mrs Harris, er, Gwen. And I will, I will, that’d be lovely’.

At that moment, there was a knock at the back door. ‘Oh, that’ll be Barry come to take a look at my rattling window. He said he’d call round. He says it only needs a bit of wadding. I like Barry. He’s a good man. ‘ She opened the back door. ‘Come in, Barry. Do you know George, our new neighbour. We’ve just been having a cup of tea and a natter. He’s just off.’ ‘Nice to meet you, Barry. Well, thanks again, Mrs Harris. I’ll leave you two to sort your window out.’

The two men shook hands. ‘I hardly ever shake hands’, George thought flittingly. ’Pleased to meet you too, George. Is Ruth your girlfriend?’ George looked surprised. ‘I met her earlier in the alley. She mentioned your backyard. Have you found someone to sort it out yet? No? Well, I can call round later, if you like, and have a look at it? No obligation, just a look.’ George’s spirits lifted and he felt like he’d won the Olympics. ‘That would be great, Barry, really great. Much appreciated. We’ll be in later. Just call round…come in the back way. It’ll be open…and you can see what the problem is…’

Jane called, ‘I’m home’, closing the front door behind her. ‘Town was heaving. I got this lovely curtain material, though. It was a real bargain, half price for our Ange’s living room. Put the kettle on, will you, love. Make us a cup of tea. I’m dying of thirst.’ She moved past the open door into the living room. ‘Wow, what have you two been up to? This looks amazing.’ ‘Nanna, me and granddad have been making our animals. We painted the giraffes and penguins and went on a journey to the south pole together. The penguins met the giraffes on the iceberg but it got melted by the sun. So, they had a nice cup of tea together and a biscuit – granddad let us – and then the giraffes called their friend, the whale, to come and take the penguins home. But now whale’s got toothache and has had to go to the dentist’s.’ ‘Really?’, said Jane. ‘Ah, poor whale. You two have been busy, haven’t you? Have you been acting this out, Barry?’ Barry blushed. ‘You’ve got hidden talents there, my man, for sure. Now, where’s that cup of tea? Have you made it yet?’ She took off her red cloak – the one she’d made herself out of kapok – and flung it over the bannister. ‘It’s Tilly’s World today’, throwing herself down on the couch. ‘Go on, Till, tell me what’s on Tilly’s world today?’

‘Welcome to Tilly’s World. Today, I am at the South Pole, talking to the polar bears and the penguins. Nice to meet you, Mr Polar Bear and Mrs Penguin. My name is Tilly and I’ve come to ask you what it’s like living here.’ ’It’s cold’, said the bear. ‘Not as cold as it usually is,’ piped the penguin.’ ‘Well, it seems pretty cold to me’, said Tilly. ‘I do like your warm coats…’

Barry brought a tray in with a teapot and two mugs. ‘It’s brewing’, he said. ‘A proper pot of tea takes time and creativity. It can’t be rushed. ‘Clever, isn’t she? Wherever does she get it from?’ ‘Don’t look at me. Your side’s the chatty lot. I come from a long line of doers and deep thinkers, my mum used to say.’ ‘Yeah, she also said it’d skipped a generation in your case!’ ‘You cheeky monkey! Come here.’ And Barry fell down on the couch next to her and gave her a cuddle. ‘Get off me, you big lummocks’, she said laughing. He gave her another squeeze for good luck and poured the tea. ‘One lump or two, your ladyship?’

They sat back holding their mugs, watching Tilly interviewing her animals. ‘I’m glad you’re back. I was running out of things to say. It’s not easy being a polar bear, you know. I kept wanting to eat the penguins but Tilly kept stopping me. ‘We must all get along nicely, granddad’, she said.

Jane’s smiled faded. ‘I’ve been thinking. I’m going to see if I can sell some of my cushion covers and kids’ clothes on eBay. See how it goes. What do you think? It could bring us a few bob. And it’s practice. I’m more worried about you.’ Barry shifted and tried to force a smile, ‘Well, you needn’t be. I’m fine. And I’ve had a great time with Tilly this morning. Maybe, I missed my vocation and should work with kids…’ ‘..and animals!’, cried Jane, ‘You could be a polar bear trainer.’

She looked at him. They’d been together nearly 30 years, childhood sweethearts almost. They’d met at the school disco. Barry had just won the 1978 Disco Dancing title for the first time. What a good dancer he was, she’d forgotten, and what a catch. Everyone thought so. All her mates wanted to go out with him but she had picked him. He’d really aged though in the past year. Lost so much of his zip and humour. It made her angry at times but she took it out on the cushions rather that let it show.

‘Give us a cuddle’, Barry said. ‘That’ll make it alright.’ ‘Come here, Barry Porter, you big softie!’ They hugged till Tilly said, ‘Nanna, is granddad ok?’ ‘Of course, he is, Tilly, why d’you ask?’ ‘Because you keep giving him lots of hugs. Can I give him a hug too?’ ‘Of course, you can, Till, come here.’ And she climbed up over them and they all had a great, big hug.

‘Right, that’ll do’, said Barry. ‘I promised I’d have a look at Mrs Harris’ window. It won’t take a minute. You ok with Tilly?’ ‘Of course, we are, aren’t we, love? We can do some sewing together. I know, I’ll show you how to do a running stitch.’ ‘But I want to go with granddad. I want to fix windows too.’ ‘Not this time,Till. Granddad can’t work and watch you at the same time. Mrs Harris isn’t used to small kids running around. Best not to, not this time, anyway. Granddad will take you another time, won’t you, Barry, and show you what he’s done. He’s very clever with his hands is your granddad.’ He nodded, checked everything he needed was in the tool box. ‘See you later.’

When George got back to the flat, he could hear Ruth typing on the computer. He went up to see her. She was working in the small bedroom they shared as a study. He coughed and went up behind her, folding her in his arms. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to shout. I just felt ..I just…stupid. I don’t know, Stupid, frustrated… That floor…I wish…’ ‘I know, come here, I didn’t mean to upset you either. She chuckled, ‘Look, I’m just getting to the bit about your favourite subject, the surface albedo.’ He hugged her more tightly and rubbed his stubbly chin against her soft cheek. ‘I’m suddenly interested. What is the surface albedo, anyway?’ She started to explain, ‘Surface albedo occurs when…’

‘Do you know what? I never knew surface albedo could be so interesting.’ They were lying in bed and Ruth started laughing, ‘You can tell me all about El Nino, if you want’, and he poked a tongue down her exposed ear. Her ginger hair lay messed on the pillow. ’Stop it, you!’, Ruth digged him in the ribs. There came a tapping sound from downstairs. ‘What was that?’ Someone’s outside. ‘Flippin’ heck, it’s Barry. I told him to come round to look at the drains. I meant to tell you’. He leapt out of bed, hopping on one leg, trying to get into his boxies. ‘I met him at Mrs Harris’. He’s a builder. He said he’d have a look at our yard and let us have a quote. Mrs Harris thinks he’s wonderful.’

Tee-shirt on and trackie bots, no time for socks. ‘Slippers?’ ‘Under the bed’ and he banged his head. ‘Why on earth did you tell him to call round now…? And who’s Mrs Harris?’, Ruth began…George was already half way down the stairs. ‘Hi, Barry, yes, sorry, I was just, er, just about to have a quick shower…’ She could hear them outside in the yard. ‘If it’s not a good time…’ Barry started, ‘No, no, it’s fine, it really is. Fine. Thanks for coming. I, er, I mean, we really appreciate it. Now, the problem with the drains is when it rains…’

That must be our Ange’, Jane thought, hearing the front doorbell ring. She opened the door with Tilly Mint standing behind her. ‘Hello there, young lady. Have you had a nice day with gran and granddad?’ Tilly nodded. ‘Come in, love, have you got time for a quick cup of tea? Yea? Great, I’ll put the kettle on. Won’t take a minute.’ They went into the kitchen. ‘Any luck with the job?’ ‘They said they’ve got some more people to interview over the next couple of days and they’d let me know by Wednesday, if I was one of the lucky ones.  They’ve had over 500 applications for two jobs.’ There was a new fashion store opening in town and she’d been for an interview as a merchandiser. ‘How did it go?’ ‘I thought it went alright but you can’t tell.’ ‘Well, I hope you get it, if that’s what you want.’ They both looked at their tea, brown-edged, reflecting light. ‘How’s Dave? I’ve not seen him for a while. Where’s he hiding?’ ‘Oh, he’s ok, mum, his usual self, you know. He’s fine, really.’

Ange had met Dave ten years earlier. He was a creative writing tutor and she’d been one of his students. They’d stayed in touch after the course. She’d emailed him the odd piece of writing now and again to see what he thought. They’d started meeting for a drink once in a while and it had gone on from there. Sometimes, his work was well paid but there were spells when nothing came in. The teaching helped but they were never going to be rich, they knew that, not from writing. ‘Well, give him my love and tell him to call in. It’d be nice to see him. What’s he doing with himself these days?’ ‘You know Dave, mum. He’s working on his ‘opus maximus’ or whatever you call it!’ ‘You two are in your own opus maxifissus, me dears. Drink your tea before it goes cold’. ‘Thanks, mum’ and the two women went and sat down in the living room.

Mrs Harris had just sat down in front of the tele with her dinner on a tray on her lap. A grilled lamb chop she’d got from the butcher’s up the road with spuds, veg and gravy. The six o’clock news was on. “Seven reasons why you should be bothered about climate change talks.” ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered with all that. I’m too old. It’s all baloney, anyway’ and turned over the station to a quiz programme.

She looked at Bob’s photo on the mantelpiece. He’d been gone over 20 years now but she missed him more than ever. They’d been married for 40 years. She thought of George and his girlfriend starting out now. How hard had it been for her and Bob at the beginning? Sharing a house with the in-laws hadn’t been easy. There just weren’t enough houses to go round after the war. They’d met while they were serving in the RAF. She was a WAAF, working as a secretary in the office at the base. He’d had arrived for a three-day secondment and, having got ‘misplaced’, as they called it, stayed for three months. By the time they remembered him, they’d started going to the pictures and become engaged. He proposed to her after a visit to the swimming baths. She looked particularly fetching in a swim suit.

She shivered and sighed. She was wondering what to do about Meeting for Worship the next day. ‘I’ll go If the weather’s ok,’ she thought. She’d only recently had an operation on her leg after a fall but she wasn’t going to let that keep her house bound. ‘You have to get out and do your bit, don’t you? No point in sitting at home all day, doing nothing, if you can help it.’

She looked at the knitting in the basket. Roger from meeting had asked her if she would teach him how to darn a pair of socks? What a funny question! People don’t darn socks any more…or do they? You can’t even buy darning wool, nowadays. ‘Why not throw them away and buy a new pair?’, she’d said. ‘They’re good socks, good walking socks. Only once a week or even once a month, whatever she could manage..?’, he’d said. Sewing lessons, umm…could she teach? She remembered showing her daughter, Elizabeth, how to knit socks. How quickly she’d ended up losing her temper. Very unusual for her. Elizabeth had been shocked but they’d managed it in the end. She made a pair of woolly socks, albeit small ones, and was chuffed to bits, even if it did take the whole weekend. ‘What about leading a small group?’, Roger had asked her. She wasn’t sure. At her age, things were more difficult.They take longer but…on the other hand, it would be company. He’d said it wasn’t all about the sewing. It’s just as much about spending time together too. She’d offered to think about it and they left it at that.

She took her tray back out to the kitchen and did the washing up. There were a few dishes left over from tea time. She looked round her. She had a choice between the socks she was knitting for Sophie, her granddaughter or her book, ‘The Girl with the DragonTattoo’. She picked up the book and drew closer to the fire.

Ruth was just finishing off the last slide. ‘There is hope but let’s not wait for governments to do something. It will be definitely be too late by then. We need to start now, all of us, right where we are and see where it takes us.’ She saved the file to her pen drive. All her young life, she’d cared about people and animals and the whole tiny planet we live on. The photos from space are breathtakingly beautiful, aren’t they? Life on earth is just too important to leave to others! Yet, she often felt she was banging her head against a wall of blank faces. ‘Don’t lose heart’, she told herself. There are plenty of people out there doing stuff, really valuable stuff. And it wasn’t as if she was idle herself. She gave talks most weeks, like the one coming up. ‘What does the climate change science tell us?’. People thought, well, it won’t happen here, so why worry? And what can I do about it anyway? I’m just me. But it will happen here, is already happening here. She caught her reflection in the mirror. Still girlish. Were those bags under her eyes? And lines too? She rubbed her forehead. We’ll not escape and not only from changing weather patterns either. People will lose their homes under water or sewage or both or watch it fall off a coastal path or under an incoming tide. We need to take better care but if we only look after ourselves, then what are we?

She studied the photograph of George and herself on the desk. The two of them were smiling. That was a surfing holiday in Cornwall. How long ago was that? Last summer, the one before, no, surely not? ‘When was it we last went on holiday together? Both of us have been doing so much lately…what’s happening…?

She left the thought there, suspended, looking at it from all sides, like one of her scientific models. ‘I’m not sure but it feels hopeful just to be looking.’ Time passed when, suddenly, she said to herself, ‘Right, I fancy eating out tonight for a change. George, George’, she called downstairs. ‘…George, do you fancy going out tonight to eat? I fancy a pie and a pint? What do you say?’ She noticed the headline as her computer was closing down, ‘Large CO2 rise sounds climate change alarm’.

George was at the sink, doing the washing up, listening to Sonic Youth on 6 Radio. ‘A life without music is no life at all’, he thought, as he scrubbed the pans left over from breakfast and the night before. Have you ever tried getting porridge off a pan? Yuck but he stuck at it. Something to do, his mind wouldn’t settle. He’d go for a run after this. Let off some steam, some energy. Anger, anger? What was it? Why was he angry? It certainly looked like it the way he was tackling the pans. Better go easy on the glasses.

He looked out the window at the yard. ‘That was a stroke of luck meeting Barry.’ He was going to give them an estimate for the work, which shouldn’t be too bad, he hoped, seeing as he was going to help him do the job. They’d agreed to work evenings and the weekend. ‘That ought to do it. Should be good fun too, if it ever stops raining. A knowledgeable chap, that Barry is. Very impressed by him. He’s had some bad luck too, by the sound of it. And Mrs Harris? She seems like a nice lady. 90 years old, that is some age. When was she born?’ George did a quick calculation and let out a long sigh. She’s lived through some times.

He started to think about tea, getting hungry and looked in the cupboard. There were lots of sardines. On toast, in tomato sauce. ‘Something’s got to change’, he found himself saying. ‘Something’s got to change’, almost like a little prayer but it was less a prayer, more a wish or a hope. He saw his reflection in the window. That frown, was that him these days? When had it started? He needed to keep smiling. ‘Sod the sardines. Let’s go out.’ Just at that moment, he heard Ruth calling him from upstairs, ‘George, George…’

Jane was sitting at her sewing machine, making up new curtains for Ange. She’d been made up with the material. As the machine hummed and whirred, she skilfully wove the material and thread in and out. She loved the touch of the material and the process of creating something beautiful. The best bit was seeing the look on people’s faces when she showed them the finished product.

Wasn’t this what she wanted to do? She could keep the office job on while she set out on her own? Maybe, she could look and see if there were any courses. She’d get some publicity done – cards, that sort of thing. ‘Fancy that, Jane Porter, pattern maker to the stars.’ I’ll start first thing tomorrow. She smiled to herself at her own dreaming. It wouldn’t be so easy. She’d be lucky to sell a pair of curtains these days. She knew that. But it wasn’t just about the money. ‘It’s about me. Let’s give it a go. I’m already doing it. Just need to crack on, get a bit more organised and, well, business-like, like Barry. He can help me. I’ve helped him enough. She sighed, ‘Dreams, if only…’ and smiling, went back to her running stitches.

Barry was stretched out on the couch, watching an old episode of Morse. He’d seen it before but somehow could never remember the ending. ‘Oh, that’s who did it.’ His mind whirred over what he needed for George’s yard tomorrow. He still had his account at TPK and George was giving him 50% upfront, 50% on completion. ‘Trust’, he said. He’d never overcharged anyone, always gave a good day’s work for a fair return and look where it had got him. He knew some cowboys he wouldn’t let change a washer. Yet they seemed to be doing alright. He grimaced. He wouldn’t change, couldn’t. That was the way he was made. He watched as Morse banged his knee on the edge of the desk, upsetting a pile of papers. He stooped to pick them up, stopping to read one in particular. ’That’s it, of course. How could I have been so…Lewis, Lewis! Come on, get your coat on, we’re going…’

Tilly was in her bed. Dave was sitting on the floor, telling her a bedtime story. Cuddlies were scattered all around but she held penguin, bear and dolphin close. Dave was telling her the story of two islands, joined by a rainbow. It was one of her favourites. He watched her out the corner of his eye. Were her lids drooping? Dave’s certainly were. He started to ease himself up. Maybe, he could just catch the end of Morse..? ‘Keep talking’, mumbled Tilly. He looked at her. She’d barely moved. He carried on…‘The Laphaa people catch fish and make nets and paint cockle shells. They make music together and like dancing. The Kentish people on the other island live in houses made of brick. They have cars and TVs and go to work, come home, sleep, go to work..’ Tilly felt enchanted, passing between the two islands over the rainbow, scooped up in a shell, filled with whispers. Her breathing grew deeper and Dave rose as quietly as he could, watching Tilly, checking she was really asleep. He made his way out the room as best he could, trying not to step on any of her toys, scattered all over the floor. Back out on the landing, he let out a sigh, leaving Tilly’s door just ajar enough for the light to get in. ‘Sleep well, princess, see you in the morning.’ As he went downstairs, he heard his bones.

5 thoughts on “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Part One

  1. Hi Bernie, I enjoyed it very much but wish the world were as ‘nice’ as these people. Perhaps next time you’ll write about the people with the dog that barks all day and the kids out of control and the angry man with a chip on the shoulder and the woman who cannot stop talking – about herself!!!! Sorry that sounds very negative – just an attempt at balance. But really idealism is great to read. It lifts the spirits! Cheers, Marion

  2. Brave and kind Bernie thank you. I enjoyed and want to know where things go next. I have responded as you asked, please accept comments in this spirit

    Things that made me want to read more – I enjoyed and identified with the initial protagonists capacity to be distracted from their writing, liked the way you explored differing levels of engagement with the climate change debate and the way you tried to develop characters by drip feeding us things from their past. I was also drawn to the physical location which I think you painted a clear and helpful picture of.

    Things that got in the way of my enjoyment – sometimes cut and shift from character scene to scene became confusing, an authorial voice that told me a little more than I think was needed – could you have allowed the readers to discern through the plot a little more?

    Thank you

  3. Pingback: the day of small things | spiritoso

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