Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Part 3

Barry stepped back to look at the wallpainting. ‘If you’d told me seven months ago, I’d be standing here looking through my fingers like Michael Angelo at a painting on a wall, I’d have laughed at you. And we painted it…that’s the amazing thing, George, we did it!’ ‘You’re right. It is amazing. I can hardly believe it myself.’ They’d just finished putting the finishing touches to the third butterfly, a cabbage white; this one, on Tilly’s orders. The white paint gleamed in the morning sunshine. ‘We’ve got the right weather for it, that’s for sure. Let’s hope we see some of these back doors opening later on.’ ‘Oh, I think we will. Jane’s been round with her mates, the organising committee, and talked to everyone. Speaking of which, heard anything from Ruth yet?’ ‘Ah, yeah, we spoke on the phone yesterday. She’s coming. She says she’s dying to see what kind of a job we’ve made of it.’ ‘I don’t know how we managed to fit that stream in between the strawberries and the wild thyme? That’s pretty good. I like that.’

‘I love the apple tree. We used to have one in our back garden when I was a kid. Me and my brother used to climb up to the apples right at the top and throw them down for mum to catch in her pinny.’ ‘So, you’ve not seen her since she moved away then? She’s definitely off to Canada?’ ‘Looks like it. She’s been offered some research post over there. It pay’s a lot better than here and she’ll be able to work with some professor she thinks is great.’ ‘So, where does that leave the pair of you?’ ‘Oh, somewhere and nowhere…a year isn’t that long, is it? I’ve even wondered about going over there in the holidays…Canada’s not that far, is it? Not anymore, not nowadays. I don’t know, wait and see. There’s so much stuff going on just now…’

‘Well, good luck to both of you…I suppose we’d better put this cover back on. Save the great surprise till later. I really like this bench in front of the roaring fire.’ ‘That’s the best bit, Barry. Your mates at the monastery did a really good job there. I hope for your sake the wood’s from renewable sources, with Ruth coming!’ ‘Oh, it is, George. First thing I checked.  And did I tell you we’re getting solar panels fitted on the roof? We looked into it. The council’s running a green scheme and we can pay it back in instalments. We reckon after ten years we’ll have paid it off and it will start paying us. I wish we’d done it years ago…’

‘Well, good for you. I’m really pleased to hear it…what about this stage?’ ‘You mean where’s it going? It’s fine where it is, don’t you think?’ ‘I suppose so. Who’s playing, anyway?’ ‘That’s Jane’s department. You’ll have to ask her.’

 

Jane was in her counting house, her kitchen and Dino was just leaving. ‘I make 100 pizza bases today with special flour I fly straight from Milano.’ ‘Really..?’ ‘No, of course not, I go to Windmill shop and buy enough for whole street. Tomorrow, I give you bill, ha!’ ‘Get that, will you, please, Dino?’ ‘Christina, Maria, come in, please, come in. Jane is in there…I go home now. Many, many pizzas to make. Ciao, belle, ciao!’

‘Ignore him, come on in, girls. I’ll put the kettle on.’ ‘Who’ve we got coming today? Is the mayor coming or not?, Christina asked. ‘I don’t think so but one of the local councillors is.’ ‘Is that with a ‘c’ or an ‘s’?’ ‘I’ll need counselling after this.’ ‘Now, don’t you start, Marie. It’s all for a good cause, my holiday fund. No, no, only kiddin’! The councillor will unveil the wall painting and open the show. Make sure she keeps to her five minutes and not run over or we’ll have everyone leaving before we’ve even got started.’ ‘Well, hopefully, the sun will keep shining.’ ‘Let’s hope so, fingers crossed, ay.’ ‘Ruth wants to say a few words about climate change and about how the mural came about. Then, it takes off. Mother Gregoriana and her choir are singing Beatle’s songs. Heaven forfend! I got that from Sister Clare. Not bad, ay?’ ‘Sounds good.’ Then, we have our Fool – that’s my Barry – he’s the MC for the day.’ ‘What does he look like in his get up? I can’t wait to see him.’ ‘Great, he looks really great. He moaned a bit about the wig, said it was itchy but he’s well into the satin breaches and silk waistcoat. Only thing I can’t get him to put on is the white face powder but I’m working on it…just a matter of time…I have a plan, you see. Then, there’s The Bandnighters for their ten minute slot. They’re really not that bad, you know. We made them audition and, ok, they moidered a song or two but they’re ok, really. I liked them anyway. They try hard and they live local.’  ‘Gotta give the boys a break.’ ‘Three lads who shook’, it says on their poster. I don’t get it but who cares..?’

‘And we’ve got one or two surprise guests booked in. How are things looking out in the alley, Marie?’ ‘Things were starting to buzz as we were coming over. Dino’s oven smells great.’ ‘Yeah, and you could hear people putting their tables out in the back gardens. It should be a good day. I’m  looking forward to it.’ ‘So, it should be, the hours we’ve put into it. Anyway, look at the time. Upstairs, girls, come on. Time to put our gladrags on. Let’s go!’

 

‘Ugh, I think I probably overdid the red wine last night, Ange.’ ‘I think you did.’ ‘Least, I kept away from the computer. That’s been over two months now. I think the group’s really helping me.’ ‘That’s good to hear, Dave. Er, listen, I’ve got something to tell you.’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘Well, it’s just that I’ve not had my period for two months now. I thought it might be a blip but I went to the chemist’s after the second one and did a check. It was blue, Dave, blue.’ ‘Blue? So you mean…’ ‘I’m going to have a baby, yes, looks like it.’ Dave blew out his cheeks. ‘I, er…well, that’s great, Ange, great…isn’t it?’ ‘I don’t know, Dave. Is it?’

 

‘At last, here’s the councillor…Councillor Rush, so glad you’re here. No…right on time.’ There were plenty of people standing round in front of the narrow wooden stage in the alley. Lots of neighbours were talking to each other, many of them for the first time. Children were running up and down, in and out of back gardens, playing lally-o and kicking footballs. One of the balls landed at Mrs Harris’ feet. She swung a left boot at it and kicked it high into the imaginary net. ‘Goal!’ and a few people nearby cheered.

George had saved her a seat on the bench and she made her way over, trying not to trip over the dogs and cats. ‘Made it!’, and sat down beside him, just in time as the councillor began to speak, ‘We have many spaces in our city like this one. It is so good to see them being brought back to life by all of you here today. And no better way to celebrate this lovely sunshine than with a party. I’ve been told to keep it brief…’ Loud cheers from the back. ‘Oh, hello, that must be the Green voter! There’s always one. So now, I believe behind this awning is…let me see…if I pull here, what happens..?’ And she pulled the curtains apart to reveal the painting on the wall. Everyone cheered and smiled. Barry and George grinned at each other. ‘Manhug, George!’. ‘Manhug, Barry!’ Over his shoulder, George saw a woman approaching. ‘Ruth, good to see you again!’

‘You’re looking well, George.’ ‘Thanks, I’m volunteering down at the local sports centre, helps keep me in shape. You’re looking good too.’ He felt her looking at him with those big brown eyes of hers. ‘Would you like to talk, George?’, she asked him. ‘We may not have time later and I have things to tell you. I feel I owe you.’ ‘You owe me? Don’t be soft, Ruth. It’s me who owes you.’ No, George…no point in going over all that again. I read your letter. It meant a lot to me. Can we go in?’

 

Mrs Harris had offered to go on the sweet stall for an hour, selling old fashioned ‘penny’ sweets, like mint humbugs and gobstoppers and sherbet dips and flying saucers. ‘I didn’t know you can still buy them,’ she was heard to say. A couple of youngsters handed over their coins and moved away with a bar of rock each. Tilly was waiting patiently behind them. ‘Hello, Till, I didn’t see you there. What can I get you?’ ‘Nothing, thank you, Mrs Harris. Nan sent me over to ask if you’d like a cup of tea.’ ‘Oh, yes, that would be very nice, Tilly, and then what about helping me on the stall for a bit? You will, yes? Great, see you back here then with the tea. Make sure they put a lid on it for you, won’t you.’ But Tilly was already skipping away, leaving Poley and Pengu on the table. Gwen looked down at them. ‘You two will help me, won’t you?’ and she turned them round to face the customers.

 

‘The house looks just the same.’ ‘Yea, well, it’s easier to look after with only one of us making a mess. And I thought you might call in, so I gave it a bit of a hoovering, just in case. It felt good.’ ‘You never used to…’ ‘Well, true, ok but things change. Can I get you a cup of tea or something? Peppermint tea would be nice, if you’ve got one?’ ‘Let me see. There’s one left. Still smells alright. You’re in luck. Do you want to go on through and I’ll bring it in.’

‘So, what is it you want to tell me?’ ‘Well, it’s just that…it’s just…I…wanted to tell you how sorry I am for what happened too.’ ‘You’re sorry but it was me…I…hit you.’ ‘I know. I don’t mean it that way. I’ve been doing some thinking about it since I’ve been away. Things hadn’t been brilliant between us for a while, if we’re honest…had they? We barely spent any time together, not like we used to. And when we did, we argued over trivial things.’ ‘…isn’t that what couples do and make up afterwards? It wasn’t that bad? Not that I remember.’ ‘No, it wasn’t, not all the time and I do love you, you know. It just felt like things were getting worse, not better. I’m not saying what you did to me was a good thing. It wasn’t. But I’ve been thinking. I was harsh on you. I really wish I’d given you more space and I’ve been wondering why I didn’t. It made me think about my mum and dad. Mum pretty much dominated dad when I was growing up. He couldn’t do anything without her say-so. And I didn’t want that to be us. I thought we’d talk about stuff and decide together what we’d do. But I slowly found myself turning into my mum and I hated her…me. So, that’s why I didn’t come back and that’s why I’m going away to Canada. It’s not just the job. I want to go somewhere, get away from here with a fresh challenge; something to take me way out of my comfort zone…find out who I am, George?’ ‘And you think you’re more likely to do that in Canada than here? Really..?’

‘I don’t know. I think so, I’ll just have to see.’ ‘You didn’t control me, Ruth. I don’t want you to think you did. We shared a lot of things together. It was never, like, you do this or else…’ ‘Maybe not but I think it would have been…in time…I see myself in the mirror in the mornings and see my mother looking back at me.’ George studied the pattern of the rug. ‘And you? What about you? What will you do?’

‘I won’t be able to stay here much longer…can’t afford to. I don’t think housing benefit will cover it or whatever it is these days, universal benefit. Not much that’s universal about it.’ ‘Something will come up. It will. You’re too talented to be down for long.’ George found himself smiling at her. ‘I knew you’d say that. Ever the optimist, aren’t you. It’s a good job the earth has you on its side. Well, then, if there’s nothing else…you’d better go and make your speech. I wouldn’t say no to a hug though…one last one before you go?’ ‘Come here!’ ‘Uff, that’s two hugs already I’ve had today. They say four a day is survival, sixteen and you’re in heaven.’ ‘And who’ve you been hugging already today, ay?’ ‘Ah, that would be telling…and it’s none of your business now, is it? Go on, off with you. Jane will be looking for you. If you miss your slot, you’ve had it. ‘Aren’t you coming?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll be right over. I’ve probably heard it a hundred times by now, anyway,’ ‘Well, ok, then, thanks for the peppermint tea…see you later then.’ ‘See you later, Ruth. Bye, bye!’ She picked up her jacket, made her way to the back door and, with one look over her shoulder, left.

 

‘So, you see, we’ve been living in a 250 year-old energy bubble which comes to an end around 2050. Young Tilly there might have kids of her own by then. Ask yourself what’ll we do when all the nuclear power stations are turned off. You can have a plan or you can trust the market. At least, think about it. If we use less energy than we do now, let’s say just use our fair share, then we give ourselves a chance. More’s the point, we give the earth a breather. How much longer can it keep on giving? And who knows, with a little bit less, we may get a whole lot more. Like today. Well, there you go, I’ve had my say. I hope when you stop by this painting, it makes you think about all the good stuff we have which doesn’t cost the earth and of how much we’re in danger of losing, lost already even. Thank you, friends, thank you.’ There was a polite ripple of applause.

 

‘Madam Lavinia, fortune teller, I’d like you to tell me my future.’ ‘Pass me your cup, then, love, and take a seat.’ Dave sat down across the table while she stared at the leaves at the bottom. ‘I’d say you were in a pretty pickle.’ Dave guffawed. ‘You could say that.’ ‘But there is light at the end of the road…what brought you here?’ ‘You tell me, you’re the fortune teller.’ ‘I can see that you’re good with words. You could be a writer or a teacher? And that you have money worries…‘ ‘Who hasn’t these days? What was that about the light you mentioned, at the end of the road?’ ‘Patience, chuck, patience…interesting…were you an only child? Spend a lot of time on our own, have we? There are a lot of words in your head. A big reader…’ ‘Well done, the reading thing’s right but that’s about it. From a family of six, me.’ ‘Oh, well, can’t get it right, all the time, can I, not first time, anyway.’ ‘And the light?’ ‘Oh, yes, that’s simple. When you wake up in the morning, you have blue sky above and the earth below and all is well. Another day for you. Take my card, if you want to come back, reasonable rates.’ Dave smiled at her, put the card in his pocket and walked away.

 

‘Till, can you mind the stall for a minute? We need more lollipops and I need a cup of tea. I’ll go and find your nan. Will you be ok on your own for a while?’ ‘I’ll be fine, Mrs Harris. You take your time.’ ‘Thank you, Till, I won’t be long.’ She made her way past the people in the alley over to Jane’s. The gate was open and she sat down on a bench in the garden to rest her leg. Someone brought her over a cup of tea and a biscuit. And a young man came and sat down next to her. She looked at him. ‘Dave, isn’t it? Tilly’s dad? I’m Mrs Harris.’ ‘Oh, I know. Tilly’s mentions you a lot. Nice to meet you finally.  ‘Does she now?’ ‘Would you like more tea and a piece of chocolate cake, Mrs Harris?’ ‘I think I would, Dave.’

‘What do you think of the band?’ ‘Well, I’m sure they’re trying their best. What is it they’re singing?’ ‘Well, I think that last one was supposed to be “Lean on Me” that they’ve just moidered it. The singer missed out half the verses.’ ‘Not a bad voice though. He just needs to practise.’ ‘Oh, you know about these things, do you?’ ‘Oh, no, only from my own experience, you know, while growing up. We always had music in our house when me and my brother were little. Mum and dad both used to sing in the choir, you see. And we always listened to music on a crackly old radio in front of the fire on a Sunday night, straight after our bath…before mum packed us off to bed. I’ve not got much of a voice myself left but I still enjoy humming a tune, pottering around the garden.’

The music carried over from next door. ‘Sounds like they’re all having a good time. Listen, they’re off climbing ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ now or trying to.’ ‘What about the nun’s choir before? Did you hear them? Good, weren’t they? I think they should go on Britain’s Got Talent.’ ‘But they won’t though, will they?’ ‘No, I don’t think they will.’ ‘And how are things with you?’, Gwen asked.

‘They’re fine, everything’s fine…’ Dave suddenly saw the dragonfly they’d painted on the tree and imagined it flying along the allley…actually, things aren’t that brilliant at the minute.’ ‘At home, you mean, or at work?’ ‘A bit of both, really.’ ‘Well, if you’d like to talk about it…I have time.’ ‘Oh, no, it’s ok. Thanks, anyway, Mrs Harris, I mean, Gwen. I’m sure it’ll all work out fine, one way or another.’ ‘I hope so, David. You really have a wonderful daughter there.  And I know she’s worried about you and Ange…’ ‘Tilly? Really? Why, what’s she been saying?’ ‘Oh, nothing much. Just that things aren’t so easy for you all, right now. I told her the same is true for lots of people. I had my own ups and downs during my marriage but we always managed to keep talking somehow. It’s important you stay talking…things aren’t always as good as you think they are.’

A big booming bass note rang out from over the wall. ‘That’s Hoochie Coochie Man, finishing on an ‘E’. They certainly enjoyed that. And listen to Barry introducing the next act. He’s really into it. I’ll have to get a picture of him in those clothes. He’s got some bottle…’ ‘Yes, he’s changed over the last few months, I’ve noticed. His work at the monastery has helped him, I think, and he’s thrown himself into the wall painting with George and Dino.’ ‘Maybe, that was just what he needed. Something to give him a ‘wee lift’, as they say.’  ‘And what about you, Dave? Could you do with a wee lift of your own? What would help you right now?’

‘Oh, Angie not being pregnant for a start would do right now .’ ‘What?! You’re having another baby? That’s wonderful, Dave!’ ‘Don’t say anything, Mrs Harris, will you. I only found out myself this morning…I don’t know. They say not to kick a man when he’s down…but phewwww.’ ‘And are you feeling down? You have a nice home, a lovely daughter who loves you and needs you very much; a lovely wife and a new brother or sister for her on the way…some people would say you have all the love you need. Is it not enough for you?’

Dave let out another long breath. ‘…it’s not that simple, see…’ ‘I don’t suppose it is. Look at the roses in the painting. Life isn’t like that all the time. Mine isn’t. Nobody I know’s is. Dave, can I ask you when was the last time you went to bed happy, thinking “that was a really good day”?’

‘It’s been a while…I used to enjoy my teaching and reading bedtime stories to Tilly was good…I feel fed up about the whole thing now. Everything’s a bit of a mess.’ ‘Have you thought about going to see your GP?’ ‘The GP..! Don’t be daft…why? Do you think I’m depressed or something?’ ‘Well, you could be. It’s possible. You’ve got a lot on your plate. And things might get worse before they get better, you know. How will you manage?’

‘I’ll deal with it, Mrs Harris, same as I’ve always done. Funny thing is, I am a writer. I find it easier to get inside somebody else’s head than be in my own. It’s a bit scary in there…Maybe, you’ve got a point. I suppose I could talk to someone…not sure it will help, though. I don’t come from a family of great talkers, Mrs Harris. We bottled everything up in our house. Never even talked about the empties in the cupboard, or meeting me dad after work on a Friday to get his pay packet off him before he spent it all in the pub…and dreading him coming home later, full of ale. Poor mum was on tranquillisers for her nerves…no wonder she ended up in the Pavilion. No-one ever talked about anything back then…Dad drunk himself to death. He was only 69, nothing these days.  And do you know what, Mrs Harris? I was glad…’

‘A child needs a father, Dave…’ ‘Hmmm, well, you may be right about that but answer me this. What if you get the father you don’t want?’ ‘Maybe, that’s where you start talking…start right there..?’ ‘I can’t, Mrs Harris. I can’t. It’s too… ‘…raw, painful…? It won’t go away until you do, Dave.’ ‘I can’t…I’d like to but…you talk a lot of sense, I know, but I can’t. I just can’t.’

The Fool’s voice carried over the wall. ‘What’s he talking about now?’ Mrs Harris asked. ‘Did I hear him say Reidermeister Knots?’ ‘Yes , something like that.’ ‘My husband used to tell me all about Reidermeister knots… he called them Reidermeister Moves – the key to unlocking the universe’s secrets, he said. Listen…’ The Fool’s voice carried. ‘…and loop one end of the string over the other…’ ‘That’s Reidermeister Move One! Memories, Dave, memories, try and get as many good ones as you can…they may be all you have left when you get to my age!’ Whoops of delight rose above the clematis, not all of it sincere…

‘It’s up to you, Dave. If you don’t, you may find it’s too late.’ ‘I know that. It’s what I write about. I think of nothing else…it’s chewing me up, Mrs Harris. I don’t know what to do.’ Dave leant forward, his head in his hands. In between the tufts of grass growing in the cracks in the pavement, he noticed a small, dirty white feather.

Tilly came rushing up. ‘Dad, come quick, mum wants you. She says she’s got you some pizza and you’re to come back with me right away…come on! She said now, Dad. And she wants you to meet her new boss, Paul. He’s come with his boyfriend. She said to hurry up and not talk to anyone on the way. Come on, dad!’ ‘OK, ok, Till, tell mum I’ll be right there.’ ‘You’d better! Or else…’ and she raced back out of the gate.

‘Will you talk to Angela, Dave? Tell her how you’re feeling? She won’t think you’re weak, you know, if that’s bothering you. Men always feel shame at showing any signs of weakness. When will you realise that is when you are at your strongest?’

‘I’ll think about it. Thanks, Mrs H. It’s been good talking with you…helpful. I’m a bit of a headcase, aren’t I?’ ‘Dave, what are you telling me…that you’re human? Be gentle with yourself and with Angela and Tilly. I’ve enjoyed talking with you too. It’s made me feel useful again, not such a silly, old woman.’

‘You’re certainly not that, Mrs Harris. Well, thanks, you’ve helped. I’d better go. My pizza’s going cold.’ He stood up and, glancing down, took care not to tread on the white feather. ‘See you later.’ ‘Bye, David, and good luck…I will hold you in the light, young man…’ And she watched him walk away. She picked up the last few crumbs in her fingers and put them into her mouth. ‘You can never underestimate the transforming power of cake…’

 

As Dave wove his way between his neighbours, he thought of some lyrics from an Eels’ song…“Peculiar, I guess, Everything seems to go my way, So why am I such a fuckin’ mess..?” ‘ Yeah, good question, you goddamn right, beautiful day. Good question!’.

 

‘Where have you been? You’ve been gone ages. And your pizza’s cold.’ ‘I’ve just been talking to Mrs Harris, that’s all. I didn’t realise the time.’ ‘I don’t know what’s the matter with you, Dave. You just do what you want to.’ ‘That’s not fair, Ange.’ ‘You are an idiot, Dave, a complete fool. I’m going…here, take your pizza, do what you like with it. Just don’t come anywhere near me. Do you hear me? Stay away from me!’

The others sitting round fell silent at this, till one of them spoke up, ‘Get that down yer, fella. She’ll be alright once she’s had time to calm down. Women, ay? Go on, drink up, do you good. Works for me, ha!’

 

‘Mrs Harris, can I ask you a question?’ ‘Yes, of course, you can, Tilly. What is it?’ ‘Don’t you mind living on your own?’ ‘Well, I’ve been on my own for ever such a long time now, ever since my husband died. I’ve got used to it. I still keep busy with my daily puzzles and Sudoku. And I read lots of books. I’ve even made new friends this year, like your nan. And I’ve got some new clothes too. Why do you ask?’ ‘I wouldn’t like to. I like being with mum and dad and I’ve got my cuddlies.’ ‘Well, yes, I do miss a cuddle…it’s nice to have a shoulder to cry on when you need one, someone to help pick you up when you’re feeling low, to make you laugh. I have friends who fill the gap for me. I have lived a very long and full life, Tilly but you’re right, where would we be without our friends and family and cuddlies?’

‘I was wondering…are you afraid of dying?’ ‘What a strange question. Why do you ask that?’ ‘Well, you’re very old, Mrs Harris. You can’t have long to go.’ ‘Well, thank you, Tilly, I’m glad you asked. I will be eighty-four next birthday. They say that’s the new sixty-four and, no, I’m not afraid of dying, not any more. In fact, I’m rather looking forward to it. I’ll happily go tomorrow if God wants me.’ ‘Oh no, Mrs Harris, don’t go. I don’t want you to go. I like talking with you. You’re kind. You listen to me. I think you are a really nice person.’ ‘Well, that’s very nice of you to say so, dear. I expect I’ll be around a little while longer…’ And she smiled down at the young girl, ‘Do you think we could serve our two customers now?’ ‘Oh, yes, what can I get you?’ ‘Erm, a sherbet dab for me.’ ‘And I’ll have a gobstopper.’ ‘Right, here you are. That’ll be £1, please.’

 

‘Do you know Norman? Married to Ada..? I’ve just been into their back garden and seen the parrots.’ ‘The parrots? Where are they?’ ‘I don’t know. Three, four doors down…the blue one…’ and he pointed down the alley. ‘Go and have a look. He and his missus are showing off their birds. He said they’d got an Appalachian, an Alaskan something and a Norwegian Blue…’ ‘You’re kiddin’ me? A Norwegian Blue..? They don’t….’ ‘That’s right, a Norwegian Blue and, d’you know what? It barely moved. He said it was because it was sleeping.’ ‘Sleeping! With all this going on?’ ‘Ay, he said. It is most active during the night and rests during the day.’ ‘Well, that explains the screeching noises coming out of their house, right, in the middle of the night !’ And they fell about laughing. ‘More beers, fellas?’

 

Dave had walked over to join the queue for more pizza. He found himself standing next to a woman in a black habit. ‘You’re not sister Clare, by any chance, are you?’ ‘Yes, I am and who might you be?’ ‘My name’s Dave. You know Barry, my father-in-law.’ ‘Oh, yes, I know Barry. Very nice to meet you.’ ‘You too. He talks about you a lot, especially about you being a big Dylan fan.’ ‘Oh, yes, he seems very taken by that. And why ever not? Do you like Dylan?’ ‘He’s ok but I’m more of a Springsteen fan myself…and Mozart. He’s pretty cool too.’ ‘I agree…I love Springsteen and Mozart and Dylan, usually not played all together though. Are you doing anything now? Would you like to join me at that table and we can continue our talk?’ ‘Er, ok, yeah. I’ll just fetch my beer. Can I get you one?’ ‘Thank you, no, but a cup of tea would be welcome.’ ‘Oh, yeah, sorry. I won’t be long. Grab those chairs quick.’

Dave soon returned with two mugs of tea and they sat down together, watching all the activity going on around them. Children were running in and out of the garden. The sun was arcing over the rooftops in the late afternoon. ‘Sometimes, people want to talk, it seems, because I wear this habit….’ ‘They do?’ ‘Well, sometimes, yes…and what about you?’ She bit into her margarita, tomato juice dribbling down her chin. She wiped it away with a napkin. ‘Er, no…well, yes, there is something… I was wondering…would it be ok…I mean, could I ask you about love?’ ‘Love? Well, what about love?’’ ‘It’s just that I think I may be losing my wife. It’s just a feeling…only I’m not sure what to do about it. We argue about everything these days, usually over small, petty things. I feel like giving up.’

‘Well, what would you like?’ ‘I’d like…to get ourselves out of this mess of going round in circles and never getting anywhere. There are times when everything seems fine, then it all goes pear-shaped…it could be I leave too much for Ange to do on her own.’ ‘And the opposite is also true. What if you suddenly found you wanted to make all the decisions, what then?’ ‘Unlikely but I see your point. I find this relationship-friendship stuff really hard.’ ‘It’s not just you but there are many couples whose marriages run into problems; all of them probably at some stage or other. Just look around you. There are couples here who have come through difficult times and are in healthy, positive relationships.’ ‘I think I finally arrived at one with my dad before he died.’ ‘Did you..? Good. That shows you can learn. Relationships with our parents need acknowledging. They are the most powerful and long lasting ones we have. But you were telling me about not taking responsibility…what happens then?’

‘Well, decisions are taken, I suppose. What furniture to buy, where we go on holiday…’ ‘Are you being honest with yourself, Dave?’ ‘…mostly, I think, I am. We discuss where we’re going, Wales usually – lovely sunshine, mist and rain. I can’t help feeling there’s a lost opportunity, a strain of something…. I think I have an underlying tendency towards misery. That’s my problem.’

‘I’ve noticed. Maybe, you spend too much time in your head?’ ‘But I’m a writer. That’s how I make my living. I have to be in my head…don’t I?’ ‘Yes, you do but not only in your head. Where’s your heart in all this? And your hands…what are they telling you?’ ‘I don’t know what you mean?’

‘Well, I asked you about your cycle, how you deal with your problems. And you have described to me at least half of it, I think, but what comes next?  Frustration, anger, resentment at the lack of understanding, bitterness, even blows? What will you do to break that cycle? Ask yourself this question, what are your unmet needs?’

‘My unmet needs? No-one’s ever asked me that before. Well, I suppose I could do with a little more TLC in my life right now, a little more love …’ ‘Maybe, you have that already?’ ‘I have? I know I have Tilly and friends and family and Ange…’ ‘And that is love. Start there, my friend. Start with what you already have, the love in your life. Appreciate it and care for it.’ Dave looked across the table at Sister Clare. ‘It can’t be that simple, can it? Thanks, anyway, Sister Clare, you’ve given me much to think about…I feel better for talking to you now…thanks. You’ve been a great help to me.‘ And thank you too. I’ve enjoyed meeting you. Now, go and attend to what is important to you and stop writing.’

 

‘Get him down, someone. Barry, you get down here right now. Barry Porter, do you hear me?’ ‘He can’t hear you, mum. How did you get him to put that red nose on?’ ‘My special powers…’ ‘And he believed you..?’ ‘He always believes me. He’s your dad. Oh, my God, what’s he doing now? Somebody stop him. Oh, no, I feel ashamed. Disco granddad…look at him, oh, no…’ “…having the time of your life, you can dance, you can sing, you are the dancing Queen, ooh, ooh…ooh.” ‘Look at him…take a picture someone…’ ‘It’s ok, mum. I’ve got it all on camera.’ ‘Oh, no, he’s doing the actions…’ ‘They all are, mum.’ ‘Barry, Barry, do you hear me? You are bringing shame on the whole family.’ ‘Jane, Jane, up here, Jane, come on! Come and have a bop up here.’ ‘Oh, ok then. Hold my drink, Ange, will you …’ ‘Mum, you can’t!’ ‘Yes, I can. Back in a minute.’ ‘Boogie woogie, Barry, “Let’s Dance.”

 

“I get knocked down, and I get up again, no-one’s ever gonna keep me down, I get knocked down…” ‘You ready for home, Ange? I’m knackered. Time to go home. Bath and bed.’ ‘Yeah, come on. Fetch Tilly, wherever she is.’  ‘You know, Ange, I’ve been thinking. I’d like us to go for a walk tomorrow. We’ve got a lot of stuff to talk about.’ ‘You serious?’ ‘Yeah, I am.’ ‘Walking..! I’m not going anywhere, unless it’s in a carriage with gold-rimmed wheels on. Walking seriously tires me out!’ ‘Just to the park, I mean, get a cuppa, a piece of cake. I don’t want us to go on the way we have been but I’m not sure of what to do to get us out of it.’ ‘And you think walking will help?’ ‘I think it might be a start. Walk and talk. What do you say?’ ‘Well, I say…ok, if you’re serious. A walk sounds good. Mum’ll take Tilly for a couple of hours.’ ‘She might not need to. Look over there, looks like she’s made some new friends. Till, come on, Till, we’re off now.’ ‘Ah, Dad, do we have to…?’ ‘Yes, we have to. You need a bath.’ ‘But it’s too early.’ ‘Say goodnight to your friends, Tilly. You can see them tomorrow.’ ‘Ah, mum…?’ ‘Tilly, come on, we’ve had a lovely day and it’s well past your bedtime.’ ‘On my shoulders, Till…I’ll give you a carry.’ ‘Dad, I’m too old for a carry…but I will have a piggyback. Bend down, dad.’ Dave knelt down and Tilly jumped on his back, ‘Uppah!’ he rose and off they went, singing and dancing, ‘We get knocked down and we get up again…’

Her new friends called out to her, ‘Night, Tilly.’ ‘Night, Mina. Night, Michael. See you tomorrow!’

Gwen was standing by her gate, chatting to her neighbour. Dave called out, ‘Night, Mrs Harris. Be good!’ ‘Why..?’, she laughed back at them, eyes twinkling. ‘And good night to both of you two too.’

 

Back at the bench, two neighbours were deep in conversation. One of them was saying to the other, ‘I’ve not fully appreciated before the link between the early Bonhoeffer and the Anabaptists…ah, love this one, “99 Red Balloons Go High…”, back in a mo…gotta get up for this one!’

 

‘Where is everyone, love?’ ‘Where d’you think? They’re all in their beds. It’s time we were too.’ ‘Yes, love, I suppose you’re right. It’s been a good day, hasn’t it? I’ve really enjoyed myself.’ ‘I can see that. Come here, you big gallut and give us a big kiss!’ ‘Uff, take your nose off first, will yer, Scratchy.’ ‘Give me a hug.’ ‘I love you, Barry Porter.’ ‘You do? And I love you too, lovely woman.’ ‘What’s that..?’ ‘I said I love you too.’ ‘I know and it’s nice to hear it occasionally. Come on, then, lovely man, bed. We can do no more here now. Our work is done. And it’s getting dark.’

 

George sat outside on his back step, leaning back against the edge, looking down the slope towards his gate. ‘Wherever you are, Ruth, and wherever you’re heading, I’ve loved knowing you. I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing… and I hope it works out for you, my lovely Ruth.’ A moonbeam glanced across the red brickwork. He looked up to see Big Bear looking back down at him. ‘It feels better’, he thought. ‘I’m holding you with love, Ruth. Fare well, my friend.’ And his shoulders heaved and cracked. His big frame shook and drops started falling down his face. He had found his tears.

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