Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Part Two

cab white cat

Tiny and dirty and abandoned,

Deep and intricate and beautiful,

Lightness and strength.

Your bird has a new white feather.

I thank you for letting me see you.

The earth will take you back,

as it will all of us in time.

 

‘Dave, you coming down, love? Tea’s ready. It’ll go cold.’ He looked up at the screen. It wasn’t good. Time for a break. He needed it. He’d come back later. ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Stuck.’ ‘Just leave it then for a while, see what happens.’ ‘What’s for tea?’ ‘Your favourite, pie, mash and peas with onion gravy.’ ‘Yum, yum, pass me the tom sauce. I’ll be right there.’

’How was work today?’ ‘You know, I really enjoyed it. We looked at the new range of clothing coming out for the spring. The clothes are just brilliant. And Paul says I can go with him on his next trip to Paris. Paris! Can you believe it?’ ‘Oh, when’s that?’ ‘Sometime later this month’, he said. ‘That’s great, Ange, it really is. All I need to do is finish my script and find someone to put it on for me.’

 

George held her down on the floor by her hair. He was so mad. ‘George, George, what are you doing? Let me go, let go of me, George. What are you doing?’ He held her head down hard on the floor.

 

Ruth was gone. ‘I’m going away. I don’t know when I’ll be back or if.’ ‘I’m sorry, Ruth. I know I shouldn’t have done it. I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t hit you. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.’ ‘I need time. Don’t try and call me. I just want you to know I’m leaving you.’ ‘But you will be back in a couple of days, yeah? Once you’ve calmed down. I don’t know what came over me, Ruth.  I’m sorry, it won’t happen again. Please, Ruth, please.’ ‘I’m going, George. I need time. I’ll be in touch. Bye.’ And with that, she picked up her case and vanished. George went out, used his credit card to buy a case of Stella and got hammered.

It was dark. I was looking down over an island. It was New Zealand.  And that must be Christchurch? Someone was calling me, pointing out the cathedral made of cardboard, pointing towards where I was heading; somewhere on the other island. Everywhere looked lush and verdant. Suddenly, I was on a playing field, taking my jumper off. I placed it carefully on the floor, marking the spot so I could find it again. My friends were playing football on the far side of the field, so I started running, only to find myself outside a house I used to live in. The front door was open. I haven’t been here for years. What was it like inside? I remembered the story of the old woman who lived here before us. Her bed was in the front room under the window.

I could hear two people talking inside and knocked on the door. The voices stopped. A woman came to the door, half-dressed, drying her hair with a towel. There was a man standing behind her. He was grinning. I backed out, racing back to the field. I stripped to the waist and started running madly, eyes closed, at full tilt. I ran and ran and ran. Where were my friends? Surely I must be getting close now. Still with my eyes closed, I collapsed panting on the grass and time passed.

When I opened my eyes, I was looking up at blue sky. I had no idea where I was. It wasn’t the field, anyway. I was lying in front of a tall hedge. Voices were coming. I wanted to run. Suddenly, I realised this was Aintree racecourse. I was lying in front of a fence. Better get up before they find me. I stumbled to my feet and soon found myself walking in-between high, white columns, each one topped by a pennant or flag blowing in the wind.

I noticed a small mound with stone tablets sticking out and moved closer before realising they were headstones with the same name inscribed. ‘Henk.’ One of them had ‘Henk Henk’ on. There were dates in a script I couldn’t read.

There was an opening into the mound, like a chute descending, the colour of speckled vanilla. I stooped low and slid down. It opened out into a small chamber, empty save for a round hummock, on the left. The chute continued downwards behind. I knew it was stupid to carry on but…

George groaned and partially opened one eye. He swept a hand across the bed but there was no-one there. He took in it was still dark and closed his eye again.

Three slim trunks rose upwards from the same boll. I was sat in a hole, facing the roots. The tree started talking to me. ‘You fuck up! You complete fuck up. Sort your fucking self out.’ I had expected something a bit kinder, not these words. Before I could answer, I was back running in the field. Where was my jumper?

 

‘Can you not put plates in with the glasses? I don’t know how many times I’ve told you. ‘Would you like to do it?’ ‘I can’t. You know full well I‘ve got my thesis to finish. I can’t let it go on any longer.’ George looked down at the suds. He held the stem of a wine glass firmly in his fingers. ‘Crack.’ ‘Oh, you stupid idiot, give it here, let me do it. Go on, out of my way. Go and watch the telly.’ George stepped back as Ruth started to put gloves on. He reached out an arm and watched it extending towards the back of Ruth’s head. He took a handful of hair and yanked her head backwards and down. She let out a scream as her body twisted and fell. George held her down. She watched the soapy water slide down the cupboard door. She felt like crying but stopped herself. She could feel his breath over her- like cabbage – and waited for the punch to come…and waited for the punch.

 

‘Hi, Barry!’, Ruth called out. He was out in the entry sweeping up. ‘Tilly coming round?’ ‘Yes, she’s just watching telly. She’ll be out in a minute. How are you, Ruth?’ ‘I’m fine, thanks, Barry. How about you?’ ‘O, you know, so-so, it’s good to have Tilly round. How’s your new floor?’ ‘It’s brilliant, Barry. Thank you so much. No more puddles. Able to sleep at night.’ ‘I’m glad, Ruth. It only needed a bit of aggregate in the right places. No big deal, really.’ ‘Well, we think it’s a big deal and really appreciate what you did for us.’ ‘Glad it’s worked out. Tell you one thing though, I‘ve seen an advert in the paper for a handy man. Four days a week. Money not great but it’s a job.’ ‘You don’t sound so keen. What the matter?’ ‘Well, nothing, only it’s at a Carmelite monastery.’ He looked at her. ‘Never been overly religious myself. Do you think you have to be?’ ‘Well, do they want you to say mass?’, and  Barry started laughing. ‘Well, there’s your answer. They want someone to fix the pipes and mend the doors. I’d say go for it.’ ‘Well, I have, sent a letter off yesterday, see what happens. It looks a nice place too, just up the road. I’ve been and had a look. Lots of trees and birds and shrubbery. Make a change from a building site.’ ‘Good luck, then, Barry. I hope you get it if it’s what you want.’

‘How’s George? I haven’t seen him for a while.’ ‘Oh, he’s ok, a bit down since he lost his job. He knew it was coming but it’s still hard to take. He’s never been out of work since he left school.’ ‘Ah, he’s young, Ruth. Things will get better, you’ll see. Got to. Ask him if he wants  to baby sit our Tilly. That’ll soon buck him up. Is he in now?’ ‘No, he’s just gone to sign on. Why? Did you want him for anything? He shouldn’t be long. I’ll tell him to call round later, if you like.’ ‘No, no, it’s ok. I was just thinking about that idea of his, the one about painting the wall here and putting in some plants. I’ve been thinking about it. I think I’d like to help. Maybe, we could fit a bench in..?’

‘His idea! My idea, you mean. It would be great if you could. I look out from our study window at that brick wall and I think to myself we could have grass and trees growing and even a stream running there.’ ‘George wants a sunrise to keep us warm on a windy, cold day, just like today.’ ‘Well, all I’m saying is…I’ll lend you a hand. I’m not an artist or anything but I know how to use a paintbrush.’ ‘Really, Barry, that’s fantastic.  I’ll tell George.’ ‘There’s only one problem, it’s not our wall.’ They were looking at a recess along the wall, making a triangle, just big enough for a small bench and a couple of planters. ‘Yeh, I’ve been thinking..’ ‘Thinking…?’ ‘Yeh…’ and she pushed at the door to the back of the house it belonged to and it opened. ‘You coming in..?’

 

Jane was putting the finishing touches to a child’s top she’d made from a piece of pink crinoline. She’d had three more orders in the past week, one from someone in Cornwall. Where was this heading? ‘They must like their crinoline down there,’ she mused. On average, she was getting one order every couple of weeks. A few more months like this and she’d be able to go half-time at work. She smiled to herself, spinning the last silken threads through the seam and sat back to admire her handiwork. ‘I did that.’ She glanced at the pile of flyers on the table. “Jane Porter, fashion designer, invites you to my first showing of my new spring collection of clothes for all ages. A glass of wine and nibbles provided (or bring a bottle!).” Would anyone come? Well, not if she didn’t get them out. She’d go up the lane after and down the avenue. If she got one or two, that would be great. She could always finish the wine off by herself. She’d need it.

She sat back looking out of the window at the grim weather. Maybe, it was not the right time of year for it. ‘Battered Britain – thousands without power for days’. ‘This can’t go on forever,’ she thought. ‘And people need something to look forward to. And these are great clothes. I think so.’ The fierce wind drove the dark clouds across her window view. A lot had happened since November. She’d started an eBay course, then discovered etsy. That was a stroke of luck. It was a bit of a bus ride to the local community centre on Monday night but she loved it. She’d even asked at her local college   for a City and Guilds course in dress design. She couldn’t believe they didn’t do one. The nearest one was Preston, they said. She’d told them to sod off. She wasn’t going to Preston for a course. I think I’ll write to them to find out why, see if they’ll start one. I’ll get the numbers.’ Carefully, she folded the top, wrapped in tissue paper and placed it carefully in its box. She put the lid on and tied the ribbon in a bow. She’d been practising her knots. Finally, she tucked her card inside the ribbon. It bore the legend, ‘An Original Jane Porter Design’.

‘Right, now…’, she got her hat and coat on and picked up the box to take to the post office . ‘Oh, and I’d better take those leaflets as well.’ She opened the front door, remembering the earlier news headlines, ’Britain shivers: temperatures could reach -10C’ and stepped out into the gale.

 

Ruth led Barry, lagging behind, down the path. She noticed a brick oven to her left…was that a kiln…and knocked on the back door. Moments later, a shape appeared inside the frosted glass panel and the door opened. ‘Allo, who are you? Is it about the dog? It belongs to my sister. I mind it for her while she away’. Two small children came running out into the kitchen. ‘Dogs bark. I do my best but she misses her mum, no?’ ‘Er, no, it’s not about the dog’, began Ruth, ‘we wondered if you would like to help us paint a mural on the outside of your wall in the entry?’

The man leaned forward, puzzled and Ruth went on. ‘We have this idea, you see, to brighten up the alley and make a space somewhere for people to sit out in. Would you be interested?’ The man looked at Ruth to Barry. ‘See, I’ve made a sketch of what it might look like.’ She held out a piece of paper. The whole place was swimming with roses. There were wild mountains and the sea and waves rushing. Fields of oats and wheat of all kinds and cattle standing. There were rivers and lakes and flowers of every shape and scent and colour and ditches filled with primroses and violets. ‘You are serious, no? This is no joke?’ ‘No, we’re really serious. My granddaughter plays out in the alley. You may have heard her running up and down and we thought it would be a nice thing to do…’

The man paused for a while before saying, ‘Please, come in, come in. Show me your drawing again. Children, look at the sunflowers. Do you like sunflowers? Come in, come in. My name is Dino, Dino Altobelli and these are my boys, Marco i Gianni.’

 

‘Where is God, Mrs Harris, I mean, Gwen?’ George still wasn’t used to using her first name. He was extending both arms out in front of him, holding a skein of wool. I mean, you’re a religious person, aren’t you? You go to Quakers, you said. ‘Well, yes, I do but depends what you mean by ‘religious’.’ Mrs Harris looked at him, searching his face. He looked tired. There were bags under his eyes. ‘Why do you ask, George? Has something happened?’ ‘I’ve done something really stupid, Mrs Harris. I didn’t mean to. I had an argument with Ruth over the washing up. I don’t know what came over me. I grabbed her hair and pulled her back. I didn’t hit her. I’d never do that. But she’s gone. She’s gone and I don’t now when or if she’ll ever be back. She’d said she’d call me but she hasn’t. I don’t know what to do.’

‘Poor boy, tell me what happened.’ ‘I got angry and lost it. Usually, when I feel myself getting uptight, I get out, go for a run somewhere but there was nowhere for me to run to this time. I had this feeling, building up inside of me. It just exploded. I think I’ve blown it, Mrs Harris. She’ll never trust me again.’ Mrs Harris sat quietly, listening. She seemed to be looking at her husband’s photo. George was looking down at his hands. The clock was ticking in the living room.  After a while, she said, ‘Are you religious, George? What about you?’ He shrugged. ‘Not really.’ ‘Have you come across a poet called Rumi? He was writing in what’s now Afghanistan in the 1200s, a long time ago, even before me. When someone asked him the same question, his answer was, ‘Lo, when you look for God, God is in the look of your eyes, in the thought of looking, closer to you than yourself, or things that have happened to you. There’s no need to go outside. Be like melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself.’ She looked at the young man in front of her. ‘Perhaps, you just need to wait, George, learn to wait. Sit with the question and see what happens. Now what about holding up that wool again?’

 

‘Barry, would you come with me a moment, please?’ ‘Yes, Sister Clare.’ He’d get used to the names and titles in time, he thought. ‘I have a task for you.’ She led him round the corner to one of the outbuildings and unlocked the door. The light inside was gloomy. His eyes took a few seconds to adjust. He started to make out a tall figure of a man facing him at the far end. The arms were held out, as if in greeting. They took a few steps further in and Barry started. He was looking at a figure of Jesus, carved from wood, on a cross. The figure was naked, except for a sheet covering his middle.

‘We’ve brought him in here out of the chapel. He needs restoring, repainting, some tlc and I’d like you to do it. Would you mind?’ Barry nodded. He’d never painted Jesus before. What was going on? First, flowers on walls and now Jesus. I’ll be wearing long, flowing robes and saying ‘Peace’ to everyone next. Jane will think I’m barmy. Mind you, she does anyway.’ ‘Could we have him back in time for our concert in July? Just fit it in alongside your other tasks. Well, good. Everything you need is here, I hope, but do let me know if there’s anything else you need. I’ll pop by from time to time to see how you’re getting on. Thank you, Barry. I’ll be off then. See you later.’ Sister Clare turned and left him on his own with the statue looking down on him, hanging from the cross. ‘Well, hello, Jesus, how are yer? My name’s Barry.

 

‘Dave, are you sure you don’t mind?’, Ange asked him. ‘Travelling’s part of the job. I’m still pinching myself. Paul says we’ll get to see some of the best designers in the country. ‘No worries, Ange, you go. This one’s for you. You’ve earned it. While there are crisps in the cupboard and beer in the fridge, I am happy. Only kidding. Me and Tilly will be fine. ‘Well, if you’re sure..?’ ‘Go on, get out of here. Your taxi’s waiting.’ ‘Thanks, Dave, I’ll ring you soon as I get there.’ ‘Go on, off with you. I’ve got Tilly to get to school.’ ‘I’ve left her packed lunch on the table in the kitchen. Remember she’s got swimming tomorrow and Owls on Thursday. I’ve written it all down. It’s on the board.’ She gave them both a big hug and a kiss and jumped into the taxi. The pair of them waved her off down the road as far as they could till Ange’s face disappeared round the corner. ‘Come on, Till, let’s get your things and get going.’ He turned the kitchen radio off just as the newsreader was saying ‘Britain – only 1½ days of gas left.’

 

Barry and Ruth sat on Dino’s couch. They were surrounded by thousands of Lego pieces all over the floor. ‘Is a crazy idea, is what I think. Is freezing cold outside and you want to paint pictures on walls. You crazy people, no?’  ‘It’s not only about the wall picture,’ Ruth started. ‘We want to make the alley a place to live in…it’s making space for our kids to play out in. Have you heard of the saying, it takes a village to raise a child? Well, we need to make a village!’ ‘I know this,’ Dino said. ‘My village in Italy, is the same. But here is not Italy. Here very different. I don’t know people…’ ‘…and that’s why we’re doing it, isn’t it, Ruth?’, jumped in Barry. ‘See, I only met Ruth when Tilly, that’s my granddaughter…she’s about the same age as Marco there…was out running about in the alley and Ruth came out and we got talking. She is crazy but I think it’s a good idea. I’ve got a bit of time in the evenings and at weekends. It wouldn’t take that long to do, especially if we all do a bit. We can put a small bench for people to sit out on in the afternoon sun. Tell me what’s wrong with that?’

Dino started to say something, then thought better of it. ‘Ok, ok, let me think. Only the outside wall, yes? Bene, well, you answer me three questions and, you get them right, I say yes, no?’ Ruth and Barry looked at each other. Who was the crazy one here? ‘Agreed?’ ‘Ok, yeah, go on.’ ‘Allora, first question then – where does catarrh come from?’ Strange question, Ruth was thinking of her A-level biology when Barry spoke first, ‘That’s easy. It comes from Qatar…’ ‘…is the right answer! Lucky, you. Now then, second question – tell me why do my noisy neighbours stomp around at four in the morning and let their son bang around in his room at six?’ ‘I’ll take this one, ‘Barry said. ‘It’s because four and six is the price of noise in old money.’ Dino looked long at Barry. ‘I like it. Now, final question. Why do the drunks stand outside my front door, talking till late at night when I’m trying to sleep?’ Barry was scratching his head. Dino looked pleased with himself but Ruth answered. ‘…because you are the only person who’ll listen to them, who hears what they’re really saying. Well, what do you say? Am I right? Have we passed?’ ‘I say…I like your answer. Ok, it’s a deal. Only don’t ask me to paint. I make pizza, yes but paint, no.’ ‘Is that a pizza oven in the garden?’ ‘Of course, I am waiting for warmer weather to come to use it.’ ‘Aren’t we all?’ thought Barry, chattering.

 

‘You must come again, Tilly. It’s been lovely to have you. There, take a biscuit with you. That’s alright, Barry, isn’t it?’ ‘Thank you, Mrs Harris, I’ll save it for later.’ They made their way towards the back door. ‘Bye, come again.’ She closed the gate behind them and went back in. Tilly was fun, tiring but fun. She reminded her of her own children when they were little. She sat down in her armchair. ‘What to do now?’, she thought. The Sudoku and quick crossword were all done as was the washing up. She picked up the flyer which had fell through the letter box. You are invited to an evening of fashion – clothes for kids and party frocks and dresses for adults. It was at Jane’s. ‘Maybe, I’ll just go for an hour. Yes, I think I will. I’ll ring her tomorrow to let her know I’m coming.’ The room was warmed by the gas fire. The icey wind was rattling about outside. She longed for this winter to end and pulled the blanket up over her legs and started to read her book again…

What am I doing in Coventry? I didn’t know I was going to Coventry… for meeting for worship? Such a lovely summer’s day too. I looked round the people at meeting but didn’t recognise anyone. Is Coventry meeting house like this? It’s very nice, just a normal house. We’d driven along a broad, tree-lined avenue, stopping outside a large, detached house. A grass verge lay in front. Everything looked green and fresh. The sunlight glittered off the windows and leaves caught in the breeze. A well mown lawn ran up to the front door of the house.

It was too warm to hold meeting for worship inside, so they passed through the house and out into the garden at the back. Someone had kindly placed benches and chairs in rectangles for them to sit on. I looked around for somewhere to sit and sat down on the nearest bench, placing a soft cushion behind my back. It was 10.30 and meeting was just about to begin. The benches were filled by friends of all ages, including some clearly weighty friends.

What happened next took me by surprise. A man stood up to minister but almost at once, before he had barely spoken, someone else stood up, talking over him and carrying on. This became the pattern. Friends present were speaking simultaneously, sometimes two or three at a time. One woman raised a finger, wishing to minister but to no avail. No-one was listening here.

As if that wasn’t enough, music started playing from a small radio.  A small group of people were gathering outside the French windows for tea and conversation. ‘It’s ok’, one of them said, ‘we’ll keep the noise down. You carry on.’ I somehow got the message that we were leaving before the hour was up and followed my companions back to the car. One last look back at the house with its roof part red tiled, part thatched and, below, mullioned windows. ‘Bye, Coventry Meeting‘, I said, ‘how strange!’ and was whisked away.

 

‘Can I come and play with you?’ asked Tilly . They were standing outside in the alley. ‘No, Till, Mrs Harris is busy. She can’t be looking after you today.’ ‘But I want to. Can I? Can I, granddad ? Please, granddad, just for a bit?’ ‘It’s ok, Barry. I’ll do it. It’ll be nice to have Tilly with me for a while.’ ‘Are you sure? I suppose it would give me a bit of time to sort out one or two things that need doing. Just for an hour, then?’ ’That’s fine, you go ahead. I can always ring you, if I need you.’

Mrs Harris, Barry and Tilly had been admiring the outline of the new mural coming along. ‘Whose idea was the bonfire?’, asked Mrs Harris. ‘That was Tilly’s idea. She saw a programme on telly showing a group of people sitting round a bonfire, telling stories and she thought it was great.’ ‘Really and is that a camellia..?’ ‘I’m discovering talents I never knew I had, Mrs H., I really am. Anyway, so shall I call round later for Tilly in about an hour then? You sure?’ And Mrs Harris nodded. ‘See you later, then. Be good for Mrs Harris, Tilly.’ ‘I will…see you later, granddad.’

Tilly took hold of Mrs Harris’ hand as they walked back into her house and into the living room. ‘Now, then, what shall we do?’ ‘What was it like when you were a little girl?’, Tilly asked. ‘When I was little, oh, that’s so long ago. I can hardly remember. We had treats. I can tell you that. Dad used to bring us home a stick of liquorice each. He was a bobby on the beat. Do you know what that is? A policeman,  dear. He wore one of those old fashioned capes to direct the traffic down by the Pier Head and he had a whistle. He used to stand on a box in the middle of an island of all those cars and carts.’ Tilly cocked her head on one side. ‘Of course, there weren’t so many cars then. Lots of horses still about too. Horse dung everywhere. Poo, Tilly, poo. Tilly scrumpled up her nose at the thought of it. ‘And none of it wasted either. A man used to come along with a barrow and shovel, scoop it all up and take it away to put on the allotments to grow our vegetables.’ Tilly looked at the carrot stick in her hand and pulled a face. ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’ve washed those. Would you rather have a stick of liquorice? I think I’ve got some somewhere.’

They settled again around the fire, Mrs Harris in her armchair and Tilly on the couch. ‘Mum and dad didn’t really have much but we didn’t go hungry. We just didn’t have many luxuries, like liquorice. No telly and definitely no computers or mobile phones in those days. They hadn’t been invented then.’

‘But how did you live?’ Tilly asked. ‘Oh, we managed.  People knew each other better back then. And we were less frightened of each other, it seems to me. People seem to worry too much about losing the things they have.’ ‘They should be glad with what they’ve got.’ ‘Quite right, Tilly.’

‘And what about you? What’s your news?’ ‘Oh, it’s good. You know, we’re doing a music project at school and I want to be a dancer when I grow up.’ ‘A dancer, really? So did I. Me and Bob, my husband, that’s him there, we used to go dancing every Friday night at the Rialto. That was in the ‘50s. Yes, Tilly, people did enjoy themselves in those days too. Where do you think we come from?’ ‘Dad says I come from fishes and wishes.’ ‘Does he now? He’s very good with words is your father.’

‘Mrs Harris, did your mum and dad fight when you were little?’ Gwen looked at Tilly. ‘Why do you ask, dear? Well, yes, they did, of course they did. Show me a couple who doesn’t have fights and arguments! Is everything ok at home? Mum and dad had their rows. Dad would go off for days on end to his shed without speaking a word to mum. They found a way and always seemed to make it up in the end.’

‘It’s just they’re fighting a lot about money. They try to do it when they think I can’t hear them. Mum shouts and cries and dad gets all angry and goes off. I try to help. I tidy my room and I always put my shoes back on the rack now. Do you think they will get divorced?’ ‘No, Tilly, of course not. I’m sure they’re just going through a difficult patch. All couples have them. They’ll be fine, you’ll see. And it’s nothing to do with you, dear.’

 

‘Listen, I’ve been thinking about this mural. It needs something extra if we’re going to sit out here, especially on a cool evening. Barry was looking at the sun’s rays over the water while George was brushing up. ‘It needs a bonfire somewhere, here in the corner, I’d say. Just a small one, don’t want to set the neighbourhood on fire, do we? What do you think?’ George carried on brushing. ‘George, you listening to me?’

Despite the weather, they’d spent hours preparing the wall for painting and sketching in the outlines. ‘George, what’s up? If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look so good.’ ‘You could say that,’ George said. ‘Is everything ok? We ought to get Ruth out here. See what she thinks. When’s she coming back?’ George let out a long sigh. ‘I don’t think she will be coming back. Not today or tomorrow or ever. We had a bust up. I don’t know where she is. She doesn’t answer her phone or emails. I’ve not heard from her for two weeks.’

‘Bloody, ‘ell, George, you never said. What happened? Oh, none of my business, I know, but you and Ruth looked made for each other. We thought that from the first time we met you, me and Jane.’ ‘It’s not easy, Barry. We had a fight.’ ‘You hit her? Ruth? Don’t tell me you hit Ruth, George?’ ‘No, no, I didn’t. I just grabbed her by the hair and held her down. I didn’t hit her. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. It just happened. I don’t even remember how. I was doing the washing up and she said something and I just blew up. Stupid or what? I can’t believe how stupid I’ve been.’ ‘And you say you’ve not heard from her since?’ ‘Nothing and it’s killing me, Barry. I’ve left messages on her mobile. I’ve rang her parents’ house but they won’t tell me anything. They just say she’s not there and they won’t tell me where she is. Everything’s shit, Barry, just shit.’

Barry looked at him. And all the time we’ve been working on the wall together, Ruth’s been gone?’ George nodded. ‘Bloody hell, George, you’d better get a hold of yourself. I always thought you were a nice lad. You and Ruth talked about things, not fighting.’ ‘Well, that’s right, we do…we did but I just couldn’t help myself.’

‘Fuck’s sake, George, you’re in a right mess. If she won’t talk to you, what are you going to do? Send her a letter?’ George looked doubtful. ‘You do know how to write, don’t you?’ ‘Yes,  course I do. I just wouldn’t know what to say.’ ‘Well, don’t look at me. I’m hopeless with words. But do something, George, try something, if you want her back.’

George had sat down on the bench, head in hands. ‘Look, these things happen …I shouldn’t tell you this but…I got into trouble once…with the police. I was about your age. I was out with my mates one night. We’d had a few beers and were waiting for a taxi. One pulls up and we’re just about to get in when some fella jumps in ahead of us. Well, I pulled him right back out, didn’t I, and belted him one. I battered him, actually. He had black eyes and a broken nose and was in hospital for a week. I didn’t know what I was doing either. It was all over in a few seconds but it got me a criminal record. George looked at him. ‘Anyway, I knew after that I needed to do something. My solicitor sent me on this workshop, see, called alternatives to violence or something like that. I thought it would be stupid but it was full of other fellas like me and even some women who’d been hit. It did make me stop and think. I was young in those days, a bit of a hot head. Jane was livid too with me. We’ve had our off days, same as everyone else, but she said if I ever hit her, that’d be it for me. She’d be off. I never doubted it and never have.’

‘Really pleased for you, Barry.’ ‘Look, George, I made a mistake. We all do. We’re only human. Find out what’s bugging you and let it go, young man. I remember one time we were talking about what’s hidden under our iceberg! Nice people but what’s that all about? Sort yourself out, George, and write to Ruth or do something…if only to finish the mural.’

 

Barry took one step back from Jesus and looked at him from head to toe. The skin was olive brown. His legs were thin, like an old man’s. The shins stuck out and he could see the tendons and wasted muscles in the legs stretching through the skin. Barry tried not to look at the feet, nailed together. ‘That is some nail’, he thought. ‘A big hammer? And look at those toes…each one drawn out. You’ve got big feet, Jesus, if you don’t mind me saying.’

He could see the rib cage clearly through the chest and trace the curve of each rib with a finger. Barry took another half step back. Jesus’ beard and long hair were matted with dirt. And with a   nose like that, you could be Jewish, man. Well, you are Jewish, aren’t you? It was hard to see the thorns in his hair at first. ‘Oh, you poor bugger, someone’s given you a right beating. Who did this to you?’

It was a long time since he’d read the bible and he wasn’t about to start now. But he thought about the stories. Images and words flickered on and off in his mind in the stillness of the room. His eyes followed the lines of the arms, stretched outwards, thin and wasted. He gazed at the length of the nails driven through both palms and shook. ‘It’s just a story, mustn’t get the jitters. Come on, let’s gets started…you’re in a bad way, fella, let’s see what we can do. Come on…‘cept you’re not that old, are you? You’re about the same age as our Ange is now, I reckon, poor bastard. Let’s get going, come on.’

 

He found a place and dropped some sticks. She came and stayed. He fussed around her and brought more sticks. They built a place carefully for her to rest and give birth. She sat there a long time. There’s someone there, looking at us. Danger. There’s someone there who doesn’t like us. Should we go? Where to? We’ve made our bed now and I feel the first one coming. I can’t go. It’s here again, opening the window. I tried not to look scared but I don’t like it being so close. Maybe, it won’t do anything? I’m losing feathers but putting on weight. I’m losing feathers and putting on weight and I have my egg. I must keep it warm. No moving now. I feel free. It is a good place here, save for the shape at the window. It opens the window again. The sun is shining. Still nothing happens. Good. There is a crackling. There you are, my little one. Stay under there. Don’t wriggle about so much. Something will see you and snatch you, eat you. It is at the window again. It saw you. I’m sure it saw you. It wants to eat you, kill you. You must eat, little one. We must go soon. It’s time. Come, we must fly. I can’t. Look, there is another. Leave it, the thing is at the window again. It’s not safe here. It will kill us. The little one wobbled on the sticks. Let’s go. The sun was just rising as they flew towards the light. Later, it came back to the window. The bed was empty.

 

‘Would you like a glass of wine, Mrs Harris?’ ‘Oh, just a small one, please, Jane…that would be very nice…and please, call me Gwen, why don’t you.’ Jane showed her into the living room. ‘Rightyo, Mrs Ha.., I mean Gwen. Sit yourself down and I’ll be right back with your wine. Have you met Molly and Susan? They live a few doors down from me.’

Jane had laid samples and patterns out on the table. She’d been working hard. Gwen noticed the good quality of the material before Jane came back in, holding a tray of glasses. Music was playing softly in the background. ‘Here you are, Gwen and one for you, Molly and you, Sue.’  Molly and Sue live next door to each other by the sorting office. ‘Hiya, nice to meet you,’ they said. ‘Oha, there’s the door again. I’ll be back. Don’t go away.’

Sue asked, ‘What brought you here?’ ‘Oh, curiosity, I suppose. I used to make things myself, all my children’s clothes. Of course, that was a long time ago now but I’ve kept an interest. And I’ve got to know Barry. He fixed my rattley window. And Tilly too. I thought it would be nice to come over and find something for the grandkids…’ ‘Well, I came,’ said Sue, ‘cos Molly here dragged me along.’ ‘Where there’s booze and a good time, that’s where I wanna be,’ said Molly laughing, arms raised to the heavens. ‘And it does you good to get away from your screaming kids for an hour or so.’

Jane showed two more women in and a man. He hovered a little nervously in the doorway. ‘Come in and sit down.’ said Molly, patting a cushion on the sofa next to her. ‘Right, then,’ Jane said, ‘I think that’s everyone who said they’re coming.’ ‘What would you like? We’ve got white and red wine, spritzer, or tea, coffee , Bovril…what would you like? We’ve got the lot! Wine, it is then. Won’t be a minute. Help yourself to crisps and nibbles.’

Gwen said, ‘These babygrows are beautiful, Jane. However do you do the stitching?’ ‘I’m glad you like them. They took me ages. I finish them off by hand. Now, then, I want everything to go and no reasonable offer refused. All the clothes have got labels on and there’s more where they came from in the other room. Welcome to my first show. It’s nice to see you all here. Next year, Milan, ay? But before we all go mad and start spending a fortune…I wish…does everybody know each other? No? Well, I’m Jane and I’ve had this idea to make things. I’ve always loved making clothes for myself and me family, so, I thought, I’d give it a go. Why not branch out a little? I hope you like them. I’ve got a little presentation to show you first. Our Ange has helped me put it together to show you in a minute but…let’s do names…’ and she looked at Mrs Harris. ‘Oh, I’m Mrs Harris but call me Gwen. I live the other side of the alleyway on the Lane and I’ve come to lend moral support to Jane and maybe pick up a bargain as well.’

‘And I’m Molly. I live on the avenue by the sorting office, next door to Sue. I’m here because she dragged me along with the promise of fine wine and clothes. Who wouldn’t be seduced by all this? And so far,’ and she looked at the man next to her, ‘I’ve not been disappointed!’ and patted his knee! ‘Sue, I’m Sue, I saw your leaflet, wasn’t doing anything tonight and fancied a glass of wine and some good company, so here I am.’

Then, the two other women, Christine and Marie, introduced themselves. ‘Like’s been said, a nice glass of wine, a chance to get you out of the house for a bit and look at some nice clothes….’ ‘…and I thought it might be a laugh. We only live a few doors down, so if it’s no good, a trip to the loo and a shinny down the drain pipe and we’re home…’ ‘Oh, yes’, said Mrs Harris, ‘I remember you now. I’ve seen you before. Good to put a name to a face.’ They were all eyes on the man. He cleared his throat before speaking. ‘’Allo, my name is Dino. I live on the avenue now since one year. I come from Milano. I like clothes. And so, here I am…’ ‘Great,’ said Jane, ‘now we all know each other, let’s start the show.’ She pressed the play button on the laptop and the slide show began. Each picture showed off a garment or a style. One in an embroidered flannelling with mother of pearl inlay. ‘That one took me ages to finish but it’s one of my favourites.’ ‘Ah, that reminds me of when I got married to my first husband,’ Molly said, lifting her hand for a moment off Dino’s leg. The next one showed a black chiffon skirt with red taffeta bows. ‘That would be lovely on our Hayley,’ Sue said. ‘Really nice, yeah’,  both Christine and Marie nodded and Gwen smiled. She was warming to the evening and to the people and it wasn’t just from the wine.

 

‘Look at me, Dave. Look at me!’ His chin drooped over his chest. ‘What’s going on? The bank rang today. We’re over our limit and they’re capping our overdraft.’ Dave looked at the swirls on the carpet. ‘Where’s the money gone? I’m working hard so we can live and all you can do is sit here and say nothing. Tell me what’s going on. I want to know. Just tell me…’

‘I can’t, Ange. I can’t.’ ‘Yes, you can. Give it a go. I need to trust you, Dave. Tell me what’s been going on?’ There was a shuffling on the stairs and Ange went out into the hallway. ‘Tilly, off to bed, love. Me and your dad are just talking. I’ll be up in a minute. Everything’s ok. Now, off you go. Bed, Tilly.’ Tilly turned, holding Polie and Penga in her hands and climbed back up the stairs. Ange waited for her to close her bedroom door and then came back into the living room. ‘You’ve upset Tilly now. What’s going on, Dave? Tell me. How come we don’t have any money in the bank, anymore?’ Dave’s breath smelt of whisky. ‘Is it the booze? It can’t be. We’re nearly £3000 overdrawn!’

‘I didn’t mean to…I just started when I couldn’t get writing, only it happened more and more. I’d put a bet on. Just a few quid at first, then it got worse. I’d win a bit and lose a bit, so I’d try to win it back with a bit more. It’s really easy, just the click of a button and it helped when you were away with Paul…’ ‘With Paul? Yes, of course, I was away with Paul. He’s my boss. You don’t think me and him were…Dave, Paul’s gay. He’s all sorted and I thought I was too till I came home today.’ ‘I’m sorry, Ange, I ‘m sorry. I didn’t know what to do…’ And tears started flowing quietly down his cheeks. ‘I’m sorry, so sorry…I…’ Ange looked at him and sat down on the arm of the chair. She leaned over and put her arm round him. ‘Come here, you idiot, come here. Oh, Dave, you stupid… I could kill you sometimes. Do you know that? Come here…’

 

‘That’s our Tina sorted out for her birthday,’ said Sue. ‘It’s been a great night, Jane. Thanks very much, I’ve really enjoyed it.’ ‘Me too,’ said Molly, ‘you ought to do them more often.’ ‘Not too often,’ said Marie, clutching her parcel of clothes. Frank will kill me when he finds out how much I’ve spent. ‘It’s all in a good cause – supporting local businesses and helping me get me off the ground,‘ said Jane. ‘Here, take one of my cards and pass it on to a friend. Next one won’t be for a while, though. I’ve got to make some more clothes first.’

‘You happy with your Onesey, Dino?’, Molly asked. ‘It’s a big one, isn’t it? ‘Ah, yes, see, not for me.’ And he started smiling. ‘Go on, tell me more…’ ‘No, no, it a surprise for someone. I can’t say more.’ ‘Mr Mystery Man? Ay, well, come again, Dino. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.’ Jane held out her hand and led them out into the hallway. Christine asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas from, Jane?’ ‘Oh, I’m always looking and there’s nothing new, is there? And there’ll always be kapok, won’t there, Dino? ‘Kapok, of course. My onesey in kapok is fantastic, no?’ ‘It never goes away. And our Ange brings home lots of ideas from the shows. Shush, though, that’s just between us.’

Right, everyone got their coat? Yeah, then I’ll show you out the back way. The snow’s stopped at last. Did you hear them say on the news that we’ve only got one and a half more days of gas..?’ They all piled out of the back door and went down the garden path, arm in arm. Christine and Marie went one way. Dino, Molly and Sue went the other, down the alley, pausing outside Dino’s gate. ‘What’s that?’ Molly asked. ‘Oh, is just some crazy idea some crazy people have. They want to paint wild thyme and strawberries and running streams…is nice place to sit here, I think. They’re crazy. I’m crazy too. Buona notte, signore, a presto! Dino bowed gallantly and opened his door, a little tipsily. He was careful not to let his onesey trail in the snow. ‘Buona Notte to you too, Dino!’ Molly and Sue called before carrying on home to their own back gates.

Jane took Gwen back to her house and saw her safely up the backsteps and inside into the warm. ‘Night, Gwen, thanks for coming.’ ‘Thank you, Jane, I really enjoyed it. It’s brought out the young girl in me again! See you soon.’ Jane let her feet slide over the snowy flagstones. Alone in the alley, she paused, cold though it was. It felt so peaceful. Something made her lookup. The stars were shining and she laughed out loud. Big Bear was smiling down right on her. She was sure of it. What a night!

Big Bear looked down on the alley. The lines of footprints had made a star pattern. A brown tabby cat squeezed out from under a doorway and strolled across the path, passing over one of the lines…miaow… before disappearing again round the corner.

 

Barry was alone again with Jesus. It was cool in the room with just a single radiator for warmth. ‘I’ll give it an hour or so…’ He placed his hand in the warm bucket of soapy water, feeling for the cloth. ‘You need a good wash, mate. Now, where to start? Feet first, ay.’ And Barry started to wash away the grime and dust from the toes. ‘Blimey, whoever made you knew what they were doing. You’ve got great tarsals. You haven’t broken one, have you?’

He used a firm brush to take off the edges of flaking paint. Working steadily up the legs, he started peeling and rubbing off layers of grime. Slowly, he began to see the natural wood underneath. It was quiet in the room. ‘Who’d have thought it? Sister Clare is lovely. I’ll have to watch her. She’s got a real twinkle in her eye. She’ll have me doing all sorts of things, if I’m not careful.’ The belly button stuck out. ‘When did you last have something to eat, Jesus? You look starved. I’d let you have one of my butties but I think you’re probably past caring now.’

He scrubbed away. The waist was covered by a cloth. ‘How can anyone carve a sheet like that in one piece?’ He couldn’t see any joints. ‘You know, this looks like a single piece of timber. It can’t be, surely not.’ He stood up and walked around the body, looking carefully at the sheet wrapped round Jesus’s midriff. He rubbed some muck off with his cloth but still couldn’t see a join. It seemed to be a single piece of wood. He looked at the arms. ‘These must be branches then. That’s some tree. What kind of tree was this? Must ask Sister Clare when I see her. That’s amazing.’

‘I hope you don’t mind me doing this to you, old fella, I mean, young fella. You look old but you’re not. You’re younger than me anyway. He took care over the chest, fearing to crack a rib. The torso looked so delicate. ‘Whatever happened to you, I hope it was worth it?’

He pressed more firmly and rapidly across the blackened stomach. One spot in particular resisted removing, despite his best efforts. ‘It won’t come off. Best leave it for now.’

He worked steadily front and back till he was able to stand. He could feel the eyes looking down at him. Barry tried to imagine who he was looking at. ‘Not much, I’ll bet. You’ll be in some pain.’ He washed his face, taking it easy in case the nose broke or an eye brow came away. It was so quiet, he saw his breath in front of him. ‘Don’t you breathe, Jesus. One breath out of you and I’m out of here.’

As he washed his hair, using a soft brush, the thorns started to reveal themselves, one after another. ’Is this what they did to people back then? Why didn’t you save yourself, man? What did you go through this for? It beggars belief.’

He stepped back to admire his work. The hour was up. Barry took a beach towel and dried the body, as best he could. ‘There, that’ll have to do yer. You scrub up well, Jesus, I’ll say that for you, even if you are in excruciating pain. See you tomorrow.’

He switched the heater off, picked up his bag and walked to the door. ‘Someone definitely put you through it, you poor man.’ He shook himself as he turned out the light and locked the door behind him.

 

‘Sister Clare, can I ask you a question?’ ‘Of course, you can, Barry, please do.’ ‘What is it they’re singing? From the chapel, I mean..?’ ‘Oh, that’s our choir under Mother Gregoriana. They’re rehearsing for their next concert. Ah, that bit sounds like the Credo from the C Minor mass, Mozart, and, ooh…that sounds like Sister Flagshtaffa, slightly off the high end, by the sound of it. But she’ll get it back. She always does. She has a tendency to belt it out. Never mind, Mother Gregoriana and the others will soon bring her back in. Do you sing? Do you like Mozart, Barry? I could get you a couple of tickets, if you like.’

‘I don’t think so, sister. I’m strictly a Dylan and Neil Young man myself. ‘Ah, Dylan, what a star! Yes, he’s one of my favourites too. Do you fancy a cup of tea? I believe they have just made fresh scones in the bakery. Now, what’s Dylan’s best album? For me, it has to be Blood on the Tracks. What do you think..?’

 

Dear Ruth,

It’s me, George. I know you don’t want to speak to me right now. Hopefully, that will change. I would like us to get back together again, if we can. So, I’m writing. You know I don’t like writing – you always said it hurts my brain – well, it does and it is. But I have to try.

What can I say? Sorry? Yes, I can say sorry but it’s more than that. I’m hurting, Ruth. It’s like a piece of me is missing. And yet, I’m scared. You did something to me. It made me so angry I cracked. I lost it, like a film, except it was real. It felt like I was someone else, reaching out to you, pulling you down. I don’t want to go through that again. It scares me, Ruth.

Will you come back to a nutter? I wouldn’t. Why take the chance? It happened once. It can happen again, all over again. I felt like it wasn’t me. Something horrible was inside me, controlling me, making me do it. I can smile at that. But it’s not funny.

What I’m telling you is that I don’t want to do that to you or anyone ever again. I love you, Ruth. Why would I hurt you? Deep down, I know there wasn’t anything controlling me. It was me. I did it. I’m ashamed. And I’m going to do something about it. Barry’s told me about a workshop he’s heard of. He said it was like having your innards put on full cycle in the washing machine on fast spin. He’s had similar issues in the past, he told me. He hit someone once, not Jane, least I don’t think so. Anyway, I’m booked on one. It’s a whole weekend and, guess where it is, it’s at the Quaker meeting house where Mrs Harris goes. I might even bump into her.

Sorry, getting off the point. Can we talk? Please…I’d like to see you. When I hit you, it was like hitting me. I felt numb. I don’t know where that came from. You niggled me and I felt riled but over a broken glass…what was all that about? I want to find out, even if you come back or not.

Please ring me, please ring me, please ring me, please ring me, ring me, please – I am so sorry about what I did.  I can’t bottle it up no more. It needs to come out. I need to find ways of letting it out.  I want to be able to have a row with you without you walking out or me hitting you over the head. Not good…Anyway, life goes on, despite the freezing weather. Me and Barry and another neighbour, Dino – he’s Italian and a bit crazy – have been working on the mural. Barry knows someone who works with adults with learning disabilities who make garden benches for sale, so that’s looking good too. He says hello, by the way.

The place is tidy. All the glasses are put away. My old lecturer at Uni has emailed me. There’s someone I’ve got to go and see next week at the cricket club. Maybe, some work going.  We’ll see.

The study’s just the way you left it. All of your things are there on the desk. I don’t go in there much but I’m here now, writing this. Can we talk? I just need to know what’s happening. Whether you’re coming back or not? Or not? I miss you and want you to see you. Please ring, Ruth. Let’s talk. I would like you to ring me because I love you and miss you very much.

Yours,

George

 

‘I’ve got two tickets for a concert.’ ‘You have? Great! You didn’t tell me. When is it? What is it?’ ‘It’s Mozart’s C Minor Mass.’ ‘It’s what! You’re kidding me, yeh? The C Minor Mass, what’s that when it’s alive?’ ‘Sister Clare gave us two tickets. I couldn’t say no. All I said was the singing sounded nice, that’s all. Next thing, she gives me this envelope with two tickets inside. Bring your wife. I’m not sure she didn’t wink at me. It’s hard to tell under her wimplethingummyjig.’ ‘Barry, are you going soft in your old age! You’ve only been there five minutes and we’re off to mass already. What would me mum and dad say? I can’t go. You’ll just have to give them back. I’ll get a cold.’ ‘I can’t do that. She was so nice to me. And it wasn’t so bad, you know. There was a bit sounded like ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’ Do you think he may have copied it?’ ‘Who, Mozart? He’s been dead, you pillock, hundreds of years. I don’t  know, what are we going to do? Do you think it will be like Amadeus? I could make a frock. And you could wear a wig and make-up…all the fellas wore makeup in those days. Well, don’t look at me like that. You got us into this, Barry Porter, I’m getting us out. So, we’re going. You never know, this could be a whole new line in men’s fashion for me. Pity about the model…’

‘I’m glad you’ve come round to the idea. I thought it was going to be harder and you’d come up with three reasons why we’re busy that night. Where are you off to?’ ‘I’m off to look at my silks and taffetas and then I’m coming for your inside leg measurement, young Barry.’ ‘You’re not serious about the costumes, are you? You’re not, tell me you’re not. You are…’ ‘You will just have to wait and see, Mr Porter…la, la, la, la, la…what was it you said…credo…ladiladilaaa.’

 

‘Jesus, can I ask you a question?’ ‘Sure, go ahead, Barry.’ ‘It’s…if you’re God, right, or the son of God, why do you let us beat the shit out of each other?’ ‘If I could change anything, how would that make a difference?’ ‘How would it make a difference? Well, we’d have no more wars, for starters. And I’d have me job back on the building and we’d all be happier…’ ‘…And for how long?’ ‘How long’s forever? Well, my life time, and our Ange’s, and then there’s our Tilly. Make it three generations. Just a sec…better make that four, add another one after that…’ ‘And how long would it be before I have to step in again to sort you all out?’ ‘Good point, I see your problem. It’s a bit like me and Jane. If we have a problem – like there’s no way I’m dressing up for that concert – she can go to hell, oh, excuse me, Jesus, I didn’t mean to swear.’ ‘It’s not a problem…I was in the trade myself for a time, carpenter, just like me dad. You don’t forget it…’ ‘Well, we do talk about things. And she’s pretty good at giving me space when I need it. I do the same for her as well. And it seems to work. I usually come round in the end. It’s only sometimes I feel like a mouse. I know that sounds daft but…’ Barry stirred his linseed oil. ‘…only sometimes I don’t think anyone is listening to me. It’s like there’s a room full of people, all talking at the same time and nobody’s listening to me…’ ‘I know…me too…’   Barry looked at him. ‘What do you mean…you too?! But you’re God. How can you feel like a mouse?’ ‘Yeh, I know…’

 

‘Quiet! You two be quiet.’ Tilly shouted at her cuddlies. ‘I said no talking!’ She gave Penga and Polie another clout across the head. ‘Say sorry or go stand in the corner. You won’t say sorry? You won’t? I won’t have it. I won’t. I won’t have it. Stop hitting each other. Stop it or I’ll really hit you.’