The Tree

He frightened me. There was nothing cruel about him, not like some of the other masters. He didn’t cut you down to size with a sarcastic comment. He didn’t take a run-up when beating boys. He didn’t lose his temper and throw things at us, or come to within inches of us, veins bulging and spit hitting our faces. It was what he didn’t do, or say, that scared me. He’d sit there, behind his desk, in his immaculate suit, his hair perfectly combed and oiled, his glasses glinting at me, and he would just look at me. Into me.

The old man only taught me once or twice, standing in for our form master. We’d see a flash of who he’d been before the war, before whatever had happened. He even smiled, telling us about the milk cart coming down his street, the clattering sound of the horse’s hooves on the cobbles, the clank of metal as the milkman took the lid off his pail and filled this once-young boy’s jug. And then the door closed. His face went back to its impregnable mask.

We made up all sorts of stories about the old man’s war. Four years in Changi prison. Fighting in the Burmese jungle. And as for the right arm that hung uselessly from his shoulder, we put that down to the desert campaign in North Africa. None of the old men who taught us talked about their war. Only the young masters chattered about their lives, their likes and their dislikes. We listened and laughed when the young men told us their stories, but we also waited for the weather to change, braced ourselves to be shouted at or beaten.

He was different. One Sunday afternoon, soon after I’d come to the school, when I’d stood, shaking, in his study, knowing I’d done something wrong, he didn’t shout or threaten me. He asked me what I had done and why. He listened to me while I told him that I’d found the knife and didn’t think it was wrong to keep it. And then he said nothing for the longest time. He looked at me from behind the glitter of his spectacles, while his left hand scratched out notes in the strange script he’d learnt to use after whatever had happened to his right arm. The clock above the fireplace sounded impossibly loud. I could hear distant shouts of boys somewhere else in the boarding house. The floor above us thudded.

And then he spoke. His eyes didn’t move from mine for a moment. “You may have been brought up to believe that what you did was acceptable. But it is not. You stole that knife. It is called stealing by finding.” He paused. “You will never do anything like this again.” I felt shame surge through me. Tears fell down my cheeks and I stood there, shaking. His eyes remained on me, clear, blue, unblinking. Then they snapped down to his notes. “Go back to your dormitory.” It was over.

Other boys had stories about the canings they’d had from him, about purple stripes that he’d inflicted on their legs with his clumsy left arm. I would rather have had that than the way he’d seen into me that day.

Months passed and I found my place in the strange society of a preparatory school boarding house in the early seventies. I knew who I could and couldn’t play with, and accepted that I came at the back of the line in games. It is difficult now to explain how long time felt before children had computer games or smart phones or the internet. That particular Sunday stretched almost limitlessly ahead of us, once chapel and lunch were out of the way. So we resorted to savage, reckless games. In the middle of the playing fields, there was an oak, as old as the school, immense and dense. With a little help from one another, we could climb up into its lower branches. Once there, the tree was ours for a game of ‘It’. I’ve not heard of this version anywhere else: the game involved finding a place where you couldn’t be caught. Whoever was ‘it’ stayed on the ground, took off his shoe and threw it into the branches above him. If you were hit by the shoe, you had to climb down, replace the boy and take off your own shoe.

I hated the game. I wasn’t built for it, as I was shorter and weaker than most of the other boys. And I was terrified of the tree. The boys would laugh at me as my legs shook uncontrollably on even the lowest branches. I fought back both fear and my unwanted, humiliating tears every time I climbed and clung to the tree. So why did I play this game? Why didn’t I just stay in the boarding house’s library and flip through tattered copies of National Geographic magazines? I played the game because I needed to be someone. I needed to be accepted.

It was getting late on that summer afternoon. The sun was still strong but we knew we only had time for one more game. My throwing was even worse than my climbing, so I didn’t mind too much that someone else was ‘it’. I clambered up the boy’s body, stood uneasily on his shoulders and pulled myself onto the branch. Looking around, I could see that the best places were taken. And the other boys all knew it. They jeered at me as I clung on and searched for somewhere safe to hide.

Today was different. Normally, I’d accept a place near the trunk and silently take the sneering comments about my cowardice. Today, I saw red. I’d had enough of being at the bottom of everything, of being the butt of everyone’s jokes. So I climbed. I surprised myself, finding an energy in my anger that propelled me further and further up the tree. I was oblivious to the cuts and scratches that the branches inflicted on my legs and forearms. Higher and higher I went. The other boys’ voices became quieter and the canopy above me became lighter. I was on the top of the world, swaying in the highest branches. This was heaven. I found myself as secure a place as possible to sit, and I waited.

The game went on beneath me. Every now and then, there would be a cry when a boy was hit by a shoe – I wasn’t sure if it was pain or disappointment and I didn’t care. I was unreachable up here. For the first time, I was a winner. I closed my eyes and drifted off.

The first thing that struck me when I came out of my daydream was the silence. Not just in the tree; it was the whole field. I searched around for the other boys but couldn’t see anyone. I tried to look beyond the tree but all I could see was sky and leaves. I looked for my watch but realised that it must have come off at some point during the climb. I had no idea what time it was and I hadn’t a clue about how I was going to get down.

So I shouted. I shouted and screamed until my voice gave way and my throat was raw. While I know, from my visits to the school in more recent years, that the playing fields are nothing like as vast as they had seemed to me when I was ten, they were still large enough to have swallowed my cries for help. No one heard me. I tried to get down, but the courage and clarity of mind that had propelled me up here had now left me. I could hardly move. Every attempt to find a lower place made my legs shake and the branches tremble. I imagined that every creak or crack was a branch about to break. The strength in my arms also failed me. All I could do was cling to my place and cry.

Looking back now, I know that no child would be left forever in the topmost branches of a tree. I know that even if no one had noticed my absence at supper or afterwards, my empty bed would have alerted an adult. But I was only ten, and time didn’t have the same reality that it does now. I was terrified.

The light was beginning to fade when I heard his voice. “Are you up there?” he called from the ground below. At first, I said nothing. I’m not sure if it was fear or shame, but I couldn’t bring myself to reply. “Are you up there?” he asked again.

This time I spoke. “Yes.” My voice was so faint that I am surprised that he heard me.

“Can you climb down?”

“I can’t. I’m stuck,” I replied. And then, breaking into sobbing, messy tears, I said, “I’m too scared.”

“Look around you,” he told me. “Is there anything below you that could take your foot?” I looked through the blur of my tears and saw something. Already, his voice was giving me a better sense of how to get down. “Find something secure for your hands and then put one of your feet on the branch. Three points of contact at all times and you’ll be fine.” And for that moment, everything did seem fine. His voice would get me down. I would be safe. I followed his instructions and made it to the next branch. Again, he asked me if there was somewhere for my foot and a branch to hold on to. There was, and I found another secure place.

But this time, when I looked around, the drop to the next branch was too far. I tried it out, dangling down to it, but I realised that I would have to drop onto it and risk losing my grip. My hands and arms were shaking and had lost a lot of their strength. Beneath the branch, I could now see him. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He was looking up at me, though all I could see was the light on his lenses. I burst into tears again. “I can’t do it. It’s too far. I’m scared.” Even at that distance, I could see a look on his face that I’d not seen before. He was worried about me. Frightened though I was, in that moment, this mattered to me. He tried again and again to coax me out of my place, but I just couldn’t move.

And then he did something extraordinary. He began to climb. His left arm must have acquired a strength to compensate for his right arm, because he pulled himself up onto the lowest branch with some ease. His right arm, though his hand was incapable of grip, was no longer quite so lifeless. Looking all the time at me, and struggling from branch to branch, he made his way up towards me. Soon he was immediately beneath me. His hair was tangled, the long forelock hanging across his face. At some point, his glasses must have fallen because I could now see his eyes.

“I can’t see you clearly and I cannot climb any higher,” he told me. “The branches above me won’t take my weight.” So it seemed that we were both stuck. Then he said, “I need you to be very brave and to climb down onto me.” I saw now that he had made a firm shape with his body, his feet in a strong position and his right arm jammed into the fork of a branch. And I looked at his left hand, which reached up to me. I put my hand in his and, for a few seconds, he held it. That made me feel better. Then he released his grip and said, “I will have to hold on here and you must use me as a branch. First wrap your legs around me and then put your arms onto my shoulders. Like a monkey.” That sounded so ridiculous that I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. He smiled. “That’s better. You’ll be down soon.” I did as he told me, and soon I found myself clinging to his back. He was warm and his body felt strong, not what I had expected for an old man. In front of me, I saw the nape of his neck and the small tail of his hair, tracing a path down towards his collar. I smelt limes and hair oil and then I was down onto the branch beside him.

I made my way to the trunk and sat down, holding onto it tightly. He looked over at me and smiled again. “You okay the rest of the way?” I just nodded and began to turn myself around for the next step. He waited for me to find my footing, them walked along the branch to the trunk. I looked up at him. He wasn’t frightening any more. He’d cared about me and he had come looking for me.

And then I slipped. I still don’t know what happened; I must have lost concentration in that moment. I fell and landed on my feet, awkwardly. They bent in a way that they weren’t meant to. Sharp bolts of pain went up my legs and I felt a numb ‘thunk’ in both feet. I collapsed onto the ground and lay there as he completed his descent, pulled on his jacket and found his glasses.

“Stay still,” he told me. “Let me take a look at your feet.” He knelt down and lifted one of my shoes, unlaced it and took it off. He pressed gently into my ankle. His hands, however careful their movement, made me cry out in pain. “They’re sprained,” he said. “You’ve sprained both of your ankles.” I felt stupid and began to cry again. “No need for that,” he told me, speaking quietly, “you’re safe and you’ve a bed waiting for you.” And without another word, he gathered me up in his arms and began to carry me back towards the boarding house.

I will never know the truth about his war. He died soon after this, shockingly, during term time. But somewhere, in that Sunday afternoon, I saw him for who he was.

The Brahan Stone

For Ali Smith, through whose perfectly formed prose I caught a glimpse of this story.

“He … flung his stone into the sea with the prediction that only a strange and misshaped child of the far future would ever find it again.”

Ali Smith, ‘Bookshop Time’,
from Browse, edited by Henry Hitchings

First Present

My hair whips my face, like snakes. The sand stings my eyes, it’s in my teeth and it hisses across my boots.

I turn round for a moment to clear my eyes and see my footsteps disappearing in the wind. And there’s that pattern: one full footprint and one on the left where it’s just my toes. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as I can see.

I hunch my shoulders as close as I can get them to my neck and wrap my arms tightly around my shivering body. “It’s a lazy wind up here,” Dad once told me. “It doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”

Even with the layers I dragged on before I came out here this morning – my vest, my pyjama jacket, dad’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that still smells of him, mum’s oilskin coat – the North Easterly finds its way through to my skin and bones.

If my body is cold, my legs are far worse. The jeans that I pulled on over my pyjama trousers are now soaked through after that squall hit the beach a few minutes ago. And the two pairs of socks inside my boots are doing nothing to keep the chill out of my toes.

My toes. One lot just as God meant them to be, long like dad’s, as slim as mum’s. And the other ones, just a clenched claw. Those toes feel the cold much more than the good ones. My left hand isn’t any better. The fingers are half the size of my right hand and they’re pointing down at the sand, where the tendons in my wrist stop my hand from cradling my shaking body. The fingers are fidgeting around inside my sealskin mitten, but that has nothing to do with the cold. Even when I’m warm in my bedroom or next to the kitchen fire, my left hand, arm and leg have a dance of their own. When I’m feeling strong and not so tired, I can control the twitching and trembling. But out here, with the white foam in my face, and the screaming wind, and the crash of the North Sea, I don’t have any say in what my left side does.

I walk on, into the wind, up the beach, away from mum, away from home. It’s barely six in the morning. Mum won’t miss me for at least another hour.

At last there’s a break in the endless sand. The tide has cut a channel on its way out and the water has uncovered a bed of stones, glistening, dark and smooth. I bend down, catch myself, stand up again, take off my right mitten, tuck it into the side pocket of my oilskin and crouch down again. I’m looking for the perfect skimmer.

I don’t notice the cold now – not the weather and not the water that’s running through my fingers. I finger the stones aside, flick this one and pick up that one, then turn it over and chuck it away. The skimmer has to be here, the one that will skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever Dad is. Twelve is my furthest, a skip for each year of my life. It’s no distance at all, but it’s further than I’ve ever dared to go into the sea.

A perfect skimmer has to be longer than it is wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into my palm. It has to be here. This is my last chance. There will be no stone skimming here tomorrow or ever again. Today, we’re leaving for good.

There are a few likely skimmers but I spot an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, not at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. I can’t tell you why I pick it up. By this point, my fingers have lost almost all feeling but they’re clutching this stone tightly. I stand up, any thought of skimming washed out of my mind. I look down at my clenched hand and it opens. There, in my palm, surrounded by my white, pink and purple fingers, is a very ordinary blue and black stone.

Something’s odd. The stone has a hole in the middle. And I know that the hole runs all the way through it. The stone didn’t hold any water when I picked it up out of the sea. But now I’m looking through the hole and I can’t see the skin of my palm, which I should do. Instead, there’s darkness. And there’s movement. I blink and rub my eyes with my claw of a left hand. The sand on my mitten makes it even harder to see clearly. So I palm the stone in the mitten and use my right hand to wipe my eyes again. The hand is still wet, and the salt and the sand sting, but at least the blurring clears. I put the stone in my bare right hand and look at the hole. Darkness and movement, not my prune-wrinkled skin. I shake my head, to rock some sense into place. I blink again and give the hole a closer look. There’s definitely something moving in the darkness.

The sun is properly up now. It’s trying its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, I take the stone between my forefinger and thumb, hold it up to the sky and stare at the hole. With my arm held out, all I can see is the same darkness and the same movement. This doesn’t make any sense. I bring the stone closer to me. The movement in the hole looks more like something I recognise, like a tiny creature inside the stone. Perhaps that’s it. Something like a hermit crab, that lets the water through but stops me seeing what’s on the other side.

My curiosity engulfs me. I hold the stone up to my face, screw my left eye shut and peer at the hole with my right eye. Nothing. Not even the little movement I saw before. I switch to my left eye, which won’t stay still or focus. But now, looking closely with my left eye, I can see a figure, a long way away, much further up the beach, walking towards me. I open both my eyes and look where the figure should actually be. But there’s nothing. No one. This is a trick of the light. I’m tired. It’s time to head home again.

Before I throw away this disappointing, misshaped stone, I give it one more go with my left eye, looking along the beach. The figure is much closer. It’s a man – I can tell from his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders. He’s still too far away to make out. I looked again past the stone, with both eyes. Again there’s nothing. One last time, I put the stone to my left eye. Now he’s standing right in front of me. My eyes – both of them – fill with tears. The man is smiling at me. He has his arms out. But I just stand where I am, because I’m certain that if I move my hand away from my face, if I take the stone away from my left eye, he will disappear. And I couldn’t bear that.

There’s a voice behind me. It’s faint, almost lost in the noise of the storm. I hear my name. Joanie. Mum must have noticed that I’m not in my bed and come out to find me. And I don’t move a muscle. There’s no twitch, no tremor. I just gaze at him through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.

Soon, there’s mum beside me, wrapped in a shawl and wearing her long, billowing skirt and boots. And before she can say anything to me, I turn and tell her that he’s coming back. Dad is coming back. But the moment has gone. I quickly pocket the stone and fall in beside her as we walk home, our backs to the wind.

On the higher ground beside us, far away, I see an old man looking out at us. Or is it just the sand and the spray in my tired eyes?


Second Future

Your hair will whip your face, like snakes. The sand will sting your eyes, it will grate between your teeth and it will hiss across your boots.

You will turn around for a moment to clear your eyes and see your footsteps disappearing in the wind. And you will notice that pattern: one full footprint and one on the left where it’s just your toes. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as you can see.

You will hunch your shoulders as close as you can get them to your neck and wrap your arms tightly around your shivering body. You will recall your father telling you, “It’s a lazy wind up here, it doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”

Even with the layers you will drag on before you come out here on this particular morning – your vest, your pyjama jacket, your father’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that will still smell of him, your mother’s oilskin coat – the North Easterly will find its way through to your skin and bones.

If your body is cold, your legs will be far worse. The jeans that you will pull on over your pyjama trousers will be soaked through after the squall that will hit the beach while you are out there. And the two pairs of socks inside your boots will do nothing to keep the chill out of your toes.

Your toes. One lot will be just as God meant them to be, long like your father’s, as slim as your mother’s. And the other ones will appear like a clenched claw. Those toes will feel the cold much more than the good ones. Your left hand will be no better. The fingers will be half the size of your right hand and they will point down at the sand, where the tendons in your wrist will stop your hand from cradling your shaking body. The fingers will fidget around inside your sealskin mitten, but that will have nothing to do with the cold. Even when you are warm in your bedroom or next to the kitchen fire, your left hand, arm and leg will have a dance of their own. When you feel strong and not so tired, you will be able to control the twitching and trembling. But out here, with the white foam in your face, and the screaming wind, and the crash of the North Sea, you won’t have any say in what your left side does.
You will walk on, into the wind, up the beach, away from your mother, away from your home. It will be a little after six o’clock in the morning. You won’t expect your mother to miss you for at least another hour.

At last you will see a break in the endless sand, where the tide has cut a channel on its way out and the water has uncovered a bed of stones, glistening, dark and smooth. You will bend down, catch yourself, stand up again, take off your right mitten, tuck it into the side pocket of your oilskin and crouch down again. You’ll be looking for the perfect skimmer.

You won’t notice the cold now – neither the weather nor the water that will run through your fingers. You will finger the stones aside, flick this one and pick up that one, then turn it over and chuck it away. The skimmer will have to be there, the one that will skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever you think your father is. You will have managed no more that twelve skips, one for each year of your life so far. That’s no distance at all, but it will be further than you’ll have ever dared to go into the sea.

You will picture the perfect skimmer: longer than it is wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into your palm. You’ll say to yourself that it has to be there, that this is your last chance, that there will be no stone skimming here the next day or ever again. Because, on this particular day, you believe that you’re leaving for good.

There will be skimmers to choose from, but you will spot an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, not at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. You won’t be able to explain why you pick it up. By this point, your fingers will have lost almost all feeling but they will clutch this stone tightly. You will stand up, any thought of skimming washed out of your mind. You will look down at your clenched hand and it will open. There, in your palm, surrounded by your white, pink and purple fingers, will be a very ordinary blue and black stone.

Something will strike you as odd. The stone has a hole in the middle. And you know that the hole runs all the way through it. The stone won’t hold any water when you pick it up out of the sea. But when you look through the hole, you won’t be able to see the skin of your palm, which you should do. Instead, there will be darkness. And there will be movement. You will blink and rub your eyes with your claw of a left hand. The sand on your mitten will make it even harder to see clearly. So you will palm the stone in the mitten and use your right hand to wipe your eyes again. The hand will still be wet, and the salt and the sand will sting, but at least the blurring will clear. You will put the stone in your bare right hand and look at the hole. And you will see darkness and movement, not your prune-wrinkled skin. You will shake your head, to rock some sense into place. You will blink again and give the hole a closer look. There will definitely be something moving in the darkness.

The sun will be out by this time. It will try its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, you will take the stone between your forefinger and thumb, hold it up to the sky and stare at the hole. With your arm held out, all you will see is the same darkness and the same movement. This won’t make any sense. You will bring the stone closer to you. The movement in the hole will looks more like something you recognise, like a tiny creature inside the stone. Perhaps that’s it, you will think, something like a hermit crab, that lets the water through but stops you seeing what’s on the other side.

Your curiosity will engulf you. You will hold the stone up to your face, screw your left eye shut and peer at the hole with your right eye. And you will see nothing. Not even the little movement you saw before. You will switch to your left eye, which won’t stay still or focus. But now, looking closely with your left eye, you will see a figure, a long way away, much further up the beach, walking towards you. You will open both your eyes and look where the figure should actually be. But there will be nothing. No one. This is a trick of the light, you will suppose. You will notice how tired you are and decide that it’s time to head home again.

Before you throw away this disappointing, misshaped stone, you will give it one more go with your left eye, looking along the beach. The figure will be much closer. It will be a man – you will now be able to tell from his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders. He will still be too far away to make out. You will look again past the stone, with both eyes. Again, you will see nothing. One last time, you will put the stone to your left eye. Now he will be standing right in front of you. Your eyes – both of them – will fill with tears, just as mine are now. The man will smile at you. He will reach out with his arms. But you will just stand where you are, because you will be certain that if you move your hand away from your face, if you take the stone away from your left eye, he will disappear. And you will not be able to bear that.

You will hear a voice behind you. It will be faint, almost lost in the noise of the storm. You will hear your name. Joanie. Your mother will notice that you’re not in your bed and will come out to find you. And you won’t move a muscle. There will be no twitch, no tremor. You will just gaze at him through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.

Soon, your mother will be beside you, wrapped in a shawl and wearing her long, billowing skirt and boots. And before she can say anything to you, you will turn and tell her that he’s coming back. Your father is coming back. But the moment will have gone. You will quickly pocket the stone and fall in beside her as you walk home, your backs to the wind.

Here on the higher ground beside you, far away and centuries before, I stand and look out to where I am about to throw this strange stone, knowing that you, my dear strange and misshaped child, will one day find it and will one day see your father again. Or will I just be the sand and the spray in your tired eyes?


Third Past

Joanie’s hair whipped her face, a snake attacking its prey. The sand stung her eyes, grated between her teeth and hissed across her feet as she walked along the spit.

Behind her, the trail of footsteps was disappearing in the wind. But the pattern persisted: one full footprint and just the toes of the other foot following it. Foot, toes, foot, toes, foot, toes, as far as the eye could trace them.

Joanie’s shoulders hunched as close as they could to her neck and her arms wrapped themselves tightly around her shivering body. “There’s a lazy wind up here,” her father had told her. “It doesn’t bother to travel past you, just runs straight through your ribs.”

Even with the layers she’d dragged on before leaving the cottage that morning – the vest, her pyjama jacket, her father’s thick, checked shirt, his rough woollen sweater that still smelled of him, her mother’s oilskin coat – the North East wind found a way through to her pale skin and the bones that had barely enough flesh to cover them.

If her body was cold, her legs were far worse. The jeans that she’d pulled on over her pyjama trousers were now soaked through after a squall had hit the beach minutes before. And the two pairs of socks inside her boots did little to stop the seeping chill from stealing the life from her toes.

Her toes. One set just as God had intended them, long like her father’s, as slim as her mother’s. And the other no more than a clenched claw. The toes on that misshaped foot felt the cold more keenly than the others. And the hand on that side of her, the left, was little better. The fingers were half the size of their stronger twin. Even as Joanie hugged herself tightly, the fingers pointed down at the sand, the tendons in her wrist preventing the hand from finding an easier, more comfortable grip on her shaking body. The tremor that caused the fingers to fidget this way and that inside her sealskin mitten had nothing to do with the cold, the wet or the wind. Even in the warmth of her bedroom, or beside the coal fire in the kitchen, Joanie’s left hand, arm and leg danced to a tune of their own. When she was feeling strong and rested, she could control the twitching and trembling. Out here, with the white foam flying at her face, with the air full of the scream of the wind and the crash of the North Sea, Joanie had no say at all in what her left side was up to.

She walked on, into the wind, up the beach, away from her mother and home. It was barely six in the morning. She’d not be missed for at least another hour.

At last she came to a break in the seemingly endless sand, where a channel had been cut by the retreating tide. The outgoing water had laid bare a bed of glistening stones, dark and smooth. Joanie bent down, caught herself, stood up again, took off her right mitten, tucked it into the side pocket of her oilskin and returned to her crouch. She was looking for the perfect skimmer.

Oblivious now to the cold – from the weather around her or the water that ran through her fingers – Joanie teased the stones aside, flicking this one, picking up that one, then turning it over and discarding it. The skimmer had to be there, the one that would skip over wave after wave and maybe find its way out to wherever her father was. Twelve was her furthest, a pitiful distance from the shore but further than she’d ever dare to venture into the surge.

The skimmer had to be longer than it was wide, flat but with some weight behind it, preferably pointed at one end, the other end round enough to fit into her palm. It had to be there. This was her last chance. There would be no stone skimming here tomorrow or ever again. Today they were leaving for good.

Among the likely candidates, Joanie saw an ugly one. Not smooth, not rounded, not flat, nor at all symmetrical. Rough and ragged, with a hole at its heart. Long after, Joanie could not explain why she had picked it up. By this point, her fingers had lost almost all of their feeling. But they clutched this stone tightly. Joanie stood up, any thought of skimming washed from her mind. She looked down at her clenched hand and it opened, her mottled white, pink and purple fingers revealing a quite ordinary blue and black stone in her palm.

Something struck her as odd. The stone had a hole at its centre. And the hole, she knew, ran all the way through it. The stone had held no water when she had picked it up out of the sea. But as she looked at the stone, through the hole, she couldn’t see the skin of her palm as she ought to have done. Instead, there was darkness. And there was movement. Joanie blinked and rubbed her eyes with the claw of her left hand, the sand on her mitten doing little to help with her vision. Then she palmed the stone in her left mitten and used her still-wet right hand to wipe her eyes again. The salt and the sand stung them but at least the blurring had cleared. Once again she placed the stone in her bare right hand and looked at the hole. Darkness and movement, not a twelve year-old’s water-wrinkled skin. Joanie shook her head, as if to rock some sense into place. Blinking again, she gave the hole a closer look. There was definitely something moving in what seemed to be bottomless darkness.

The sun was properly up now, trying its hardest to peer through the rapidly moving grey, black and white rags of cloud. In a bright moment, Joanie took the stone between her forefinger and thumb, held it up to the sky and stared at the hole. With her arm held out, all she could see was the same darkness and the same movement. This didn’t make any sense. Joanie brought the stone closer to her. The movement within the hole became more like something she recognised, like a tiny creature caught inside the stone. Perhaps that was it. Something like a hermit crab, that let the water through but stopped her seeing what lay on the other side.

Joanie’s curiosity engulfed her. She held the stone up to her face, screwed her left eye shut and peered at the hole with her right eye. Nothing. Not even the little movement she’d seen before. She switched to her left eye, which struggled to keep its direction and focus. But now, looking closely, and only with her left eye, Joanie could see a figure, a long way away, far further up the beach, walking towards her. Joanie opened both her eyes and looked in the direction of the figure – not through the stone, but where he or she should actually be. But there was nothing. No one. This was a trick of the light. She was tired. It was time to head home again.

Before she disposed of the disappointing, misshaped stone, she looked once more with her left eye through the stone, along the beach. The figure was much closer. It was a man – his height, his hair and the build of his shoulders told her so. He was still too far away to make out. Joanie looked again past the stone, with both eyes, expectantly. Once again there was nothing. For one final time, she put the stone to her left eye. Now he was standing right in front of her. Joanie’s eyes – both of them – filled at once with tears. The man smiled at her. He put his arms out. But Joanie stood just as she was, certain now that if she moved her hand away from her face, took the stone away from her left eye, he would disappear.

A voice called out from behind her, a keening, faint sound, almost lost in the noise of the storm. Joanie heard her name. Her mother must have noticed that she wasn’t in her bed and come out to find her. Still Joanie stood where she was, unwilling to move, gazing at the man through the hole in the stone, smiling back at him.

Soon, a woman wrapped in a shawl and wearing a long, billowing skirt and boots came to stand behind Joanie. And before the woman could say anything to the girl in front of her, Joanie said, “He’s coming back. Dad is coming back.”

On the higher ground behind them, I stood and looked out, from far in the past, to where I threw that stone, knowing that the strange and misshaped child would one day find it and would one day see her father again.

If you are interested in the old man on the high ground
and want to know more about him, look for Coinneach Odhar.


Unless you’ve stood where he has stood

snowdonia 02

Next week, I will be speaking at a memorial service for a friend and a relative who succumbed to the effects of his alcoholism and died, aged sixty.

He and I had an outdoor relationship from the beginning, almost thirty years ago.

I invited him on my stag weekend in Snowdonia so that I could get know him. And I think I truly did. He walked hard and talked just as hard, all the way up and all the way down the mountain. He got on well with my friends – better, I think, than I did that night.

But when they crept into my hotel room in the early hours, intent on doing mischief to me, he was the one whose nose I broke. It was quite a struggle, and I think a few of my friends were ready to leave the hotel early the next morning. Then, as I sat in silence at breakfast, in he walked. He grabbed a coffee and sat down opposite me, wearing his big, sunny grin. “That was quite a night, wasn’t it?” We were friends from then on.

I saw the best of him when he worked tirelessly to organise the team for the Three Peaks Challenge, in aid of children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. We had many long conversations before it, and spoke at length as he drove us between mountains. He was driven by something. I’m not sure if I ever found out what it was.

I saw a gentle side to him with his children when they were little, but also towards the end, when I walked beside him through the lanes around his home town. He counted on me as a friend and was never anything but kind and polite to me. That is the man I will choose to remember and celebrate.

I have a photograph of him from my stag weekend. He’s standing on Adam, a rock more than two metres in height and a little more than a step away from another rock, known as Eve. They are at the top of a mountain called Tryfan. Unless you’ve stood on the top, you don’t know how dangerous it feels to step from one to the other. If you get it wrong, there seems to be nothing between you and a thousand foot drop. He got up onto the rock and then stood there, unable to step across. He agonised for a very long time, pacing around the top of that rock, oblivious to the encouragement and impatient shouts from those around him. And finally he climbed down from the rock. It was brave to get up there in the first place. It was perhaps just as brave not to take the risk and to get down again.

Unless you’ve stood where he has stood, you cannot know how it feels.

The First Week

I’ve just found these accounts of my first days of teaching.

Day One

Well, yesterday doesn’t count because it was just an Inset Day. All meetings and preparation.

I slept extraordinarily well last night, and only woke when my alarm went off at six. I dozed for half an hour, knowing that I had a five minute commute to work (five minutes!)

Arriving at half past seven, I set about the final touches to my classroom: the notice on the whiteboard, the labels on the book boxes, the presentations on the smart board.

And at ten to nine I was walking out to greet my new class. I had plans to have them troop into the classroom in alphabetical order. A worried glance from the head teacher said don’t, and I didn’t. Good advice without a word.

In fact, they just quietly walked into the room, sorted their bags out, lined up as I had asked them and then went to sit down in their home places. And that’s how the morning went on. Not sullen, silence (there was a fizz of misbehaviour that reassured me they were normal children). They labelled all their books, got up, transitioned, sat down, labelled more books and all without a mishap.

For English, I had shot a video in a local wood. It showed a ruined nissen hut and the adjacent outhouse. My camera style was quite Blair Witch, and the children had to imagine what had happened in this strange and slightly scary place. They exceeded my hopes with their ideas. We chatted, planned and wrote our hearts out.

I had lunch with a few of them, including a new boy. I said, “I am assuming that you would like me not to come on with the embarrassing adult bit and that you’ll shout if you need help.” He smiled and nodded.

The afternoon is a slog. Two hours without a break. I’d prepared a different maths lesson for them, based on the first chapter of David Eagleman’s book ‘Sum’. In the chapter, he imagines that the afterlife is simply this life repeated, except with all similar activities collated. So you spend weeks eating, years sleeping, days in excruciating pain – you get the idea. The lesson was an exercise in estimation and calculation. One of the children would, of course, be estimating how long she spent on the toilet just as the Head appeared. “Well, we all have to” was his reassuring response. The activity dragged on a bit, and they didn’t all get how to do it, but it was a reasonable session. They became quite boisterous, but responded well to a hotel reception bell (rung by children on the best behaved table) and some quiet counting down to five.

I finished off the day with a somewhat desultory exercise in work for a display – what they aimed to do in the year. And, with a little homework to take away (just flipping through a book) they were off home.

I walked out and met the eyes of parents for a while, then returned to sit in my class for an hour’s marking. Goodness, some of those stories were good! At six, after a little more prep, I was off home.

Day Two

“So how was today?” the Deputy Head asked me after school. I laughed.

“It’s hard.”

“You knew that before you started, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but I keep finding more things to do.”

Today’s “Oh Sh*t” moments were Guided Reading. It had slipped under my radar as it hadn’t appeared in any planning document or timetable. Apparently I need to hear every child read every week. Or a TA does (a significant “or”). And apparently I will be teaching hockey on Friday. HOCKEY! ME? I can’t hit a big ball with a big stick, let alone a teeny little one with a narrow-necked, tiny-headed stick. And I am largely clueless about it. I spent the afternoon frantically foraging around for lesson plans…

Today’s lovely moments:

The laughs we had in the book groups I convened today, for example. I’d asked the children to bring along a book they particularly liked and tell five of their peers what they liked and why. They (mostly) worked hard at the discussions.

The magic squares in maths. Take a three by three square and arrange the integers 1 to 9 so that each vertical, horizontal and diagonal line adds up to the same number (a clue: it’s 15). One boy found the answer in ten of the twenty minutes allocated to this brain-teaser. And he had such a simple way of working it out: the integers together make 45, there are three rows and/or three columns, so each row and/or column will be 15, and so on… The joy of the lesson was the co-operation.

The wide-ranging discussion on time and its bendiness and subjectivity, then our ‘pin the date on the timeline’ game.

Hearing that my mentor’s son, who is in my class, had gone home yesterday so excited by our writing exercise that he had told his father all about it (unheard of) and remembered what he’d written (unusual).

Hearing about my mentor’s lesson this afternoon (she covers my PPA) in which she turned my plan and resources into a brilliant dressing-up session complete with mullet wig, eighties stretchy tops, seventies shirts and hats and Alexis Colby-Carrington shoulder pads. I love teaching in a team with her.

I am still very shaky in my teaching, and sometimes narrowly miss boring or disappointing the children. I will become good at this, but it’ll take a while yet. I have spent far too long this evening preparing six excerpts from WWII-themed novels for the children to dissect grammatically tomorrow, and preparing for the measuring lesson. I suspect that my French lesson will be a little sketchy…

I have my planning afternoon with my mentor tomorrow. I am a little apprehensive but know I needn’t be.

Day Three

Tonight is the first bedtime when I haven’t felt a knot of panic in my stomach. I feel prepared for tomorrow and, after two hours this afternoon with my mentor, I feel less panicky about my limitations.

I have found the Quick Sticks lesson plans and now have a fun lesson in sight tomorrow afternoon. I have cased the area of Tarmac I’ll be using tomorrow, ensured I know what (little) equipment I have and spoken to the deputy head, who’s teaching Quick Sticks to the younger ones just before me.

We had a great deal of enjoyment in today’s maths challenge. The higher attainers took a while to get the solution and then set about teaching some of the other groups. My maths genius (she’s ten going on forty, quite seriously) did a double act with me up at the white board – she explained and I scribbled, for the benefit of the class. I worked with the lower attainers on a simpler capacity problem with water and the jugs and plastic beakers I’d had to nip out and buy the day before. To my joy, they got it. The middlies struggled with the task – I think I’ll have to spend some more time with them.

Our grammar and punctuation lesson was a kind of catch-all gallop through everything they could list. Once they’d told me what they knew, and we’d shared it with those who didn’t, I gave out the opening five pages to five different Topic-related novels. “Go hunt some grammar and show me,” I said. And I drove them like an enthusiastic swimming coach – if they were dabbling in the shallows of nouns and adjectives, I encouraged them out into adverbs and conjunctions. If they were coasting along with these, I lured them out into clauses and phrases. And all with a manic prancing about (I pranced in order to illustrate this verb, deliberately suggested by one of my cheeky boys). One of more complacent boys asked about ‘procrastinate’ and suddenly we were off on an etymological jaunt around Roman generals and the word ‘crastino’.

French was the high point for me. I almost danced into the staff room after the lesson, so overjoyed was I to have been able to speak in fairly joined-up French without feeling the shame I used to experience when I lived in Paris. I have a half decent vocabulary, a reasonable pronunciation and the ability to string simple sentences together. I was grateful for the modern languages session at college, as I was able to model the style and tactics of teaching we’d been shown. And the children seemed to like it a lot too.

I need to collect my thoughts and work out if I’m getting more from this than the children are. Next week, when the more formal teaching, learning and assessment kick in, I’ll see if it’s just been a honeymoon.

Day Four

…my first proper week of teaching.

I walked in today, as I had promised myself I would do every day. It’s such a joy not to be commuting, and it’s payback time for the environment after a few too many years of conspicuous consumption. But it’s an easy payback: a twenty minute walk across a beautiful common on an Indian Summer’s day.

I had stayed in bed for a little longer, as our family begins the day together, all three of us, two dogs and lots of tea. It was hard to get out: this teaching lark is bloody tiring!

So I had to scurry around, preparing the lessons for the day. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like a master of ceremonies, choreographing all sorts of entertainment for my children. I was (you may have gathered) particularly worried about Quick Sticks in the afternoon. And suddenly out popped a full-blown lesson plan with timings, resources, layout and learning objectives. It’s getting easier. Today is, sadly, the last day of our team challenges. We have looked at number, calculation and capacity. Today we were looking at shape. This was a problem we’d been given as students, and I’d really enjoyed it. I hoped the children would too. I had the briefs, the cribs, the cubes and the interactive “work it out” sheet for later.

We have to work on the children’s spelling each week, so I had used the stories they’d written earlier in the week as a starting point. I picked out the words they’d used and struggled with, then divvied them up, five to a table. Each table had to look the words up, present a definition to the rest of the class and explain how to spell it. I wanted to gain a sense of whole-class involvement, even though the words were differentiated.

This Year’s RE topic is Buddhism, and I wanted to put on a bit of a show. So I’d found a couple of bits of material, one a cloth of gold and the other a cerise gauze, and I used these to create the backdrop to my display. It could be quite a dry topic, so I used my predecessor’s plan in the hope that I’d avoid death by boredom.

So, with all my plans, props and presentations ready, I went out to meet the children. I was on duty today, so I had to amble around in the sunshine, preventing the children from dying on school premises.

The long and the short of it (I am tiring of typing on the ground outside the pub) is that today was actually quite successful.

The cubes foxed almost all the children but enabled ALL the children to achieve something. And there were plastic cubes to play with, so everyone was entertained.

The approach to spelling seemed to work: it engaged everyone in the endeavour. And my TA is brilliant at ensuring that those who think they’re no-hopers actually DO contribute on an equal footing. They were terrified that they’d have to learn all twenty-five words: I reassured them later by only setting an appropriate ten (five achievable and five stretch).

Buddhism began with a big discussion about each table’s five most famous world figures. Mr Bean featured, as did Ronaldo, Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis, the Beatles, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Queen and (to many jeers) Stephen Hawking. Bless the boy who mentioned him! The presentation on the early life of the Buddha was necessary and not that interesting, but the lesson lifted a little when I handed around artefacts and asked the children to guess what they were. The prayer wheel was a toy, or a musical instrument. The alms bowls were for putting on your head, or musical instruments. The prayer beads a present after a party. Only the incense burner was correctly identified by one of the two Indian boys in the class. And it didn’t matter a jot: their views were valid and our discussion got where it needed to.

I have been having lunch with the children: yesterday’s golden bean pie (baked beans, stuffing and puff pastry for those of you who fancy it) was surpassed by cheesy pizza and a lovely chat with four Year Two boys. They are guileless, curious, garrulous and delightful.

After that, I got to blow my whistle for the first time. “Stand still,” I shouted. And they actually did! Oh, the power…

I had planned in a ‘float’ lesson for after lunch. By that stage of the day and the week, they’re up for very little, so I had them change for games, gave them their homework and, once they’d settled down, read to them for twenty minutes. What a mistake. I love ‘His Dark Materials’ to death; they were bored almost to death by it. I could feel the energy sapping out of them as I read it. The book’s moment may have passed, and I will have to find something more engaging.

The children shot out of the classroom, and Quick Sticks were upon me. I don’t know why I had worried: they knew what they were doing, they wanted to have fun, they liked doing the activities I’d found and all I had to do was facilitate it all. I don’t know how much they learnt, but they thanked me for it afterwards.

I retired to my classroom with a stupid smile. I had made it! After an hour and a half of preparing stuff for my parents information evening next week, I walked home, happy.

Planning can wait for tomorrow… 

On Grief

How it is for me

I’d been putting off my return to meeting for worship because I sensed that the time spent in reflection would open the floodgates. I needn’t have worried: yes, I did cry and yes, that was good.

My mum died at around 1:30pm on Tuesday 4th June. Almost two months later, I’m finally getting around to making some sense of my bereavement.

As I was waiting for mum to die, I texted someone to let her know that I’d be back to teach the class as soon as I could. She sent me this wise and comforting message:

“It’s like waves. At the beginning the waves are so huge and relentless, it’s difficult to breathe. Over time the waves become smaller and less frequent but I don’t think they ever go away.

My dad died of early onset dementia so we lost him a year before his death when he no longer knew who we were. That’s when I started to grieve. He was only 68 and it was awful seeing him so frightened and confused. But I still feel like he is with us. There’s nothing much anyone can say to help you at this time other than reassure you that you will get through this, you have the strength. And your mum will never leave you.”

Today, as I settled into meeting, I read two texts from Quaker Faith and Practice. Here is what Ruth Fawell said in 1987:

“Maybe we face the fact of death for the first time when someone near and precious to us dies, and we then wake up to wrestle spiritually with the feelings of anger, dismay and acute deprivation that take us by surprise and question our hard-won faith. Or we may be called upon to stand by another person suffering great grief in bereavement. It is through such experiences that we struggle towards an attitude of our own towards death, so that we can speak from where we stand, and from the acceptance of the strange and paradoxical nature of death as of life.”

And here is what Margery Still said in 1990:

“And so the first and greatest step out of the dark place becomes recognisable: self-absorption begins to give way to empathy with a world of suffering you previously didn’t know existed. People in the first shock of grief will be drawn to you, and you, no longer a newcomer to that world, will have found your listening skills.

As to that delicious and sustaining food you were accustomed in happier times to peck at, why, there it is again, and you haven’t recognised it. The former sustenance was only fit for children, and has been replaced by helpings of insight appropriate to your increased maturity.”

I don’t believe in life after death, but mum is with me. I’m a chip off her old block; I was shaped by her. And I am shaped by her death: until now, I was sleepwalking through life, with little idea what it felt like to lose someone and no idea what it would be like to die.

Now I better understand, and find myself surrounded by friends, colleagues who have lost or are losing their mothers, their fathers, their partners. I better understand what to look out for, what to ask, how to listen and what to say in response. And now we better understand each other, and look out for one another.

How it is for others

Soon after she died, I asked,

“When does one stop seeing or hearing something and thinking, ‘I must tell mum about it’? Does it ever end?”

Here are the responses:

“No, but the way you feel about it changes. It goes from being a sharp gasping shock each time to eventually becoming a welcome comfort. Sometimes a sad comfort of loss, sometimes a happy grateful comfort of what you had.”

“My mum died 21 years ago and I still think it almost daily!”

I asked her how it felt and she said,

“Strangely comforting as it shows how much I still love her.”

“I still do that about my Dad and lost him 4 years ago.”

“Several years at least. At the moment I’m getting it several times a week.”

“Not really, but you cope with it all better over time. The pain is, initially, unbearable. You wonder if you’ll ever stop feeling so utterly sad. But you will. Please do allow yourself to cry. I didn’t and suffered for it.”

I said that I’d had some of the unbearable feelings, and had had a good howl on my own in the car. I never want that sense of connection, painful or otherwise, to go. She replied,

“It won’t. Grief comes over you in waves, and at times that you cannot predict. Also, everyone grieves uniquely- there is no ‘right’ way to grieve. You won’t forget – even though, in the early stages – that is a big fear (well it was for me).”

“Heck no! Never stops!”

“My other half still regularly gets the impulse to show/tell his dad stuff and he died in 2004. It becomes a comfort really. It keeps the memories and closeness alive.”

“You don’t want to forget that feeing. My Dad is still in my phone contacts, etc and I like that.”

“I lost mum when I was 18. I’m 52 now. I still want to tell her about the stuff I know no one else will care about (even if they pretend they do, bless ‘em). The memories are alive but time and nature sort it out so your life moves forward and around those you love and lose.”

“Nope – not for me anyway – and it’s been a few years now.  Often when driving and think, ‘Oh dad will know that.’ Even get to the phone before I remember. More smiles than tears now.”

“No, but in time it becomes bearable. I always think of grief like waves rolling onto the shore…. sometimes slow and gentle and other times wild and unforgiving. When an unexpected wave breaks, knocking you for six; know that it will not pummel you forever and calmer times will come.”

“It won’t end but likely will be less frequent and less raw than it does now. Eventually you will think, ‘Oh she would have loved to hear that.’ And you’ll smile. Be patient.”

“Not in my experience so far.”

“I’d be devastated if it did stop. It’s one way of remembering Daddy, remembering how close we were, remembering our conversations and the laughter.”

“Mum went in 1985 and I still do that or reach for the phone when something nice happens, Christmas and her birthday I’m looking at fluffy slippers or cards. Now it makes me smile. Don’t let it make you sad, it’s comforting.”

“No it doesn’t, in my experience. ‘Oh, Mum would love that… be so cross…’ It’s a tender sweet moment.”

“Never. I still see jumpers ‘my Dad would like’ almost 15 years on.  Still would have loved to go to the new Laurel and Hardy together.”

“No. I still think that at times. 23 years on.”

“For me it stopped about a year after mum died. It’s lovely seeing others say they still do it years after losing them. But that wasn’t my experience and I’m okay with that.”

“Not yet. it’s been 16 months.  the amount of presents I’ve picked up and put back down for mum’s birthday in a few weeks is ridiculous.  Some days are harder than others for no apparent reason, but not as sharp as this time last year.”

“No, I don’t think so, not for me anyway. I tell her anyway, in my head and in a funny way it helps.”

“Never, even when she is long dead.”

Lauren Herschel has written about her grief, using the metaphor of a ball and a box. That works for me too.



I have added days and dates because my memory is already fading and I don’t want to forget a thing.

Thursday 6th June 2019

It’s just gone three on the 6th of June 2019. My mum is being cremated as I begin to write. We are not there because that’s how she wanted it. We will be given her ashes afterwards.

Monday 4th November 2013

This has come about so quickly but she knew it would happen six years ago. In 2013, Mum was diagnosed with MDS. Here’s what she said to me, and to all her Facebook friends, on the 4th of November:

It appears that my sell by date is fast approaching and in an attempt to delay it I will be starting a few cycles of Vidaza, a mild form of chemotherapy, next week.

For the last three years I have been having regular checkups at the haematology clinic in CHRU Limoges. I never quite knew why I had been referred to the unit as I felt that there was nothing wrong with me apart from low blood counts. I was repeatedly asked if I was tired; was I losing weight; did I have infections or repeated colds. The answer was no! I had regular blood tests and annual bone marrow biopsies and after two years I was told that I had myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS or SMD in French). I had a diagnosis and it was just a syndrome! I was given a booklet to read and we drove home happily in the July sunshine. The relief was short lived as I read more about the syndrome but, hey, she said I was low risk so life went on as usual.

MDS used to be called pre leukaemia until more was known about this complicated condition. The bone marrow produces stem cells that normally mature into blood cells. In MDS this function is impaired resulting in a compromised immune system and a reduction in clotting capabilities.

This year, in August, I was told that it had progressed to RAEB 2. The only cure is a bone marrow transplant but the cut off age is 65. As I was leaving the appointment I asked what the prognosis was as I am too old for the transplant – 3 1/2 years.

We now plan to sell our house (and beloved garden) and rent a small cottage in the same hamlet.

In the meantime, please feel free to comment on this and ask questions. Black humour helps me cope…… I won’t be troubled by Alzheimer’s or more wrinkles from sun damage!

Monday 21st January 2019

The story of her illness and how it progressed is long. She seemed to be stable but always knew that at some time it would catch up with her. At the beginning of this year, she had some good news: there was a clinical trial and she could put her name forward for it. But on Monday 21st January, she told me she’d lost out: instead of the trial drug or intensive chemotherapy, she was to be given best supportive care. This meant weekly monitoring, transfusions of blood and platelets as and when she needed them, supplemented by oral chemotherapy. How did she feel, I asked her. “Fine,” she replied, “but shit scared.”


My sister went out to France at the end of February. She called me afterwards. “I think you need to go soon, while she’s still well.” I was in the middle of a lucrative break from teaching, working at Network Rail. I dropped everything and booked my tickets. My client and employer were utterly understanding.

Friday 8th March – Monday 11th March 2019

I visited Mum and Dad in March, for a long weekend. Though she’d been in hospital for a short stay, Mum was out and on good form. That’s the odd thing about acute myeloid leukaemia: so long as you have the treatments, you can appear reasonably well. We held each other for a long time before I left, and we both knew why. That was the last time I had a hug from my mother, and the last time that I was able to put my arms around her properly.

I returned to full-time teaching, making it clear that at some point I would have to break off and be with my mum. I was one of four staff working there who’d lost or who were about to lose parents, and the Head had lost his Dad as a child: everyone understood. It seemed so theoretical, a necessary precaution for a remote eventuality.

I’d already bought Mum and Dad an Amazon Echo, in order to make the time we had left full of idle chatter. Next I decided that Dad needed decent hearing aids, so that we could talk and so that he could be in control when the worst happened. My sister and I bought them for his eightieth birthday. I also acquired a pair of airpods, so that I could make even more use of any spare time that I had. From then on, I’d pester Mum with calls in the car, in the garden, on walks. Anywhere. I wanted to have her voice with me for as much and as long as possible. The chat was easy and frequent, better than it had ever been. We exchanged countless pictures of anything and everything. I was lulled into believing that we could keep it up forever.

Thursday 30th May 2019

Then, on my Dad’s eightieth birthday, just last week, he called me. When I saw my wife’s face as she carried the phone to me, I knew. Mum was in hospital again, and the consultant had taken Dad aside to tell him that she didn’t have much time left. The life-saving transfusions were causing such terrible convulsions, and their efficacy was diminishing at such a rate, that there was no point in continuing them. My first instinct was to fly out immediately, but Dad and I agreed that this would only worry Mum, who hadn’t been told. I spent the day at school, unable to write the reports I’d gone in to complete. All I could do was wait and worry. I texted school to warn them.

Friday 31st May 2019

We had a few conversations on Friday, mostly about the rubbish food and the very handy fridge and built-in chopping board beside her bed. She’d begun the day by saying, “Morning and I’m feeling fine!” I’d replied with a link to Nina Simone singing ‘Feeling Good’, knowing all the time how brief this would be. “Oh yes, exactly!” she said. The irony hurt.

Saturday 1st June 2019

Mum phoned on Saturday 1st June, at around 11am. She’d been told, and she wanted to let me know. I was the first person she had spoken to. I sat there, caught in a necessary lie, as if hearing this news for the first time. She was calm. I said I would come as soon as I could. And I asked what I could do. “Look after Dad,” she said. “Be kind. Don’t piss him off.” That’s what I have done and will continue to do, so long as he needs me.

My sister and I agreed to fly out together the next day. I asked Mum where we should go when we arrived: to the hospital or to the house. “To our house,” she replied. “Much better.” On Saturday night, she texted me: “The poem that keeps coming into my mind today is ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’…” And all I could do was prattle on about it being a villanelle. I wanted to write my own, an invocation of quite the opposite, willing a gentle and peaceful end for her.

Sunday 2nd June 2019

It breaks my heart to look at Mum’s iPad and see that she was tracking our flight as it approached Limoges, something she always did. I picked up the hire car and we drove home. Mum was still in good form, firing off instructions from the hospital about what needed eating and doing. Dad hadn’t been eating properly, and there were four packs of big fresh prawns that needed eating up. I made a huge Pad Thai and we encouraged Dad to eat as much of it as he could. It was a reasonably calm evening, though both my sister and I called our children and asked if they wanted to come out. My nephew said he did, as did my daughter. She’d not wanted to ask, as she thought it would be selfish. We booked tickets for both of them and I agreed to pick them up from the airport the next day. We went to bed, hopeful for the next day.

I spoke to Mum that night. She told me about tracking the flights, and how she liked to think of me in the air, like her father had been. “And now I will be joining him,” she said, her voice almost inaudible through the tears.

Monday 3rd June 2019

I was woken by my Dad, who’d had a text at around 2:15am. Mum was in agony and wanted him to come as soon as he could. He dressed and drove off with my sister. I stayed for a few minutes to sort out the house and the pets, then set off after them. For a moment, as the car refused to start, I sat in their drive and cried in my panic. What if I couldn’t get there in time? Seconds later, it came to life.

When I reached the hospital room, I met the consultant and his team: they ushered me into the room, faces and voices gravely serious. The first thing I saw was Mum’s legs, moving on the bed. I was in time. But I was shocked when I came in. Her arms were mottled with many, many small haemorrhages, livid purple bruises. The corners of her mouth were encrusted with a small trace of blood. And, as I looked into her mouth, I could see that her gums were bleeding. I maintained my smile, then and throughout my remaining time with her; not a fake smile: one formed from the surge of unconditional love I felt for her. But it was hard to keep my composure. She was writhing in pain, struggling to find any way of getting herself comfortable. She was too weak to haul herself properly with the handle above her, but managed to roll onto her side. I came round behind her, put my arm as much as I could around her and kissed her, lingering for as long as I could. I’d rushed out of the house and now regretted my haste as my unshaven chin rasped against her cheek.

Though the pain was like a pervasive cloud, preventing her from adopting her usual bossy, dark-humoured conversation, Mum was lucid. I explained that I’d be in and out, picking up the kids during the day and going back to feed the pets in the evening. To the extent that she could, she continued to take an interest in everything we had to tell her. She was also growing impatient with the wait for someone to take away her pain. Mum is. Was. Mum was a great complainer: as she’d grown more ill, I longed to hear her small complaints, signs that she was still alive and well and with us. Her carers came in to help her shower. Though frail, she was taken gently to the shower room and came back looking more like herself. But the pain was still strong.

At around 9:45 a doctor came in, flanked by her juniors. Doctor Julie Abraham’s treatment of my mother will stay with me for as long as I have memory. She was so quiet. She examined Mum, softly asked her questions and then, stroking her arm, her leg, her hand, she told Mum what was going to happen. Mum would be given painkillers that would make her as comfortable as possible. There was no talk of hope; just of comfort. And that was perfect, said and done with such tenderness.

Mum settled down and was first given a small dose of morphine through her canula. It didn’t seem to be having much effect, so she was given a pill for her to keep under her tongue. Mum hadn’t had morphine before and was concerned that it wasn’t working. When they gave her a morphine pump, I explained how good morphine could feel. The surge of wellbeing, the not caring about pain any more, the pleasure of the next time you press the button. I willed its effects to start. And they did. She had initially registered pain at 10 out of 10; gradually it fell to 8, then 5 and finally she was able to say that it no longer hurt.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps when she was being showered or changed again, after a bleed, Dad, my sister and I were ushered into the consultant’s room. We were almost comically crammed in. He told us that Mum had very little time left, that he was shocked at how much she had changed from the day before. He explained that the white cells were now multiplying so fast that there was nothing they could do to treat her. The pain, he said, was in her spine and pelvis because the cells were crowding the space within the bones. Eventually, he said, they would so fill her blood that even extra oxygen wouldn’t allow her to breathe. No gas would be able to pass through her capillaries. At the back of my mind, I rehearsed the science lessons I’d taught a few months earlier, while I focused all my attention on what he was telling us. The aim of Mum’s remaining treatment was to ensure that she felt no pain. No. Pain. He repeated this at least once: it was clear what would now happen. We nodded and agreed with what he told us, whatever he asked us. And we went back to Mum.

The three of us sat around her: my sister and I sat in front, while Dad moved his chair close to her on the other side. For as long as I could, I just fixed my eyes on her, set my smile and ate up every second I had left to see her. She slipped into sleep.

I went to pick up my nephew and daughter from the airport. Though the situation was clearly grave and final, I tried to be as cheerful as I could. In the jumble of the afternoon, we bought food and ate it, sat and talked. And somewhere along the way, my daughter sat close to Mum and stroked her. Our love – from all of us – surrounded Mum that afternoon.

I had to go home to feed the pets and didn’t want to tear my daughter or nephew away from Mum. So I made a two-hour round trip and came back to find them in conversation with my sister and father, around Mum. She was sleeping, her breaths short and clutched at, her chest rising in jerks, but she was in peace.

At some point, they all left me alone in the room with Mum. A deliberate act, I presume, to allow me to say all that I had left to say. I moved closer to her left-hand side and held her hand. It was hot and sweat-drenched. I gently clutched it, leant forward and spoke into her ear.

I’ve just tried to type what I said to her. But it looks crass and awkward. Eloquence failed me as my feelings flooded out. I kissed her forehead and her cheek, time and again, softly, as I had done countless times to my daughter as she slept. I massaged her temples and stroked her forehead. She was, at one and the same moment, my mother, my wife and my child. I wanted that moment to be endless; it wasn’t.

Before we went home for the night, we helped Dad set up the bed where he’d spent the night next to Mum. It still didn’t seem real. On our journey back, it didn’t seem as if we’d never see Mum alive again. We sat at home, we talked, we ate snacks, we slept.

Tuesday 4th June 2019

The next morning, I drove back to the hospital with Dad’s medication. On the way into the hospital, I spoke to my aunt, Mum’s sister. We talked for ages, as we always did, and I told her everything I could. It calmed me down, ready to go up to see Dad. But I then called Mum’s friend, as she seemed the closest to her. We’d never spoken before, but Mum’s last message to me had been about her: Mum’s dying action and intent had been to connect us. Over a crackling phone line, I heard her. And, hardly able to talk for gasping sobs, I told her that Mum was in her last hours. She thanked me, we said goodbye, I composed myself and I went up to the room.

Mum was still breathing in that short, urgent way, but otherwise in peace. Dad had managed some sleep. He said that Mum had occasionally coughed, as if to clear her throat, and had even lifted her hand towards her mouth, but had otherwise been still. I returned to the house. My nephew, my daughter and I went food shopping and I made lunch for us all. At around 1pm we set off again for the hospital. It was just before 2pm when we walked along the corridor towards Mum’s room.

I was a few metres back. I could see something in the faces of the staff we passed. And then I spotted Dad. He had his arms out, his hands open wide. I couldn’t make out the expression on his face, but I could see by the way that he moved and stood that Mum was dead. My sister and I joined him in the room where Mum’s body lay. Her breathing had become softer, Dad said, at around 1pm. Then, as he busied himself beside her, she stopped breathing. He only noticed when he turned to look at her. It could not have been more peaceful.

We were asked what was going to happen to Mum’s body. When would the ceremony be? What arrangements should be made? Overwhelmed with calm, and speaking for Dad, who’d become speechless with grief, I told them what Mum had texted me that last Sunday morning: “I’ve arranged for my body to go straight to the crematorium. It’s decided now. It really is best for me.” To her words I added, “Elle n’est pas lá.” That is my absolute belief. This frail shell wasn’t Mum. She no longer had any need of it.

I won’t speak any more about Dad’s grief: that is his to express. My sister eventually led him from the room and, with my nephew at his other side, took him back to his car. My daughter agreed to stay with me and help clear the room. We spoke quietly and calmly to one another, as equals. I will always remember my daughter’s care and composure, and will always be so proud of her and grateful to her for it. She is her mother’s strong, practical daughter, as much as we both take so obviously after Mum. She left me alone for a moment; I kissed Mum’s forehead again, I held her hand one last time and I left.

He Seems To Me


he seems to me

“I’m sick of having to say nothing every time your mother makes some stupid comment about me. I hate her and I hate you for letting her do it to me. And no, I wouldn’t care if she died!”

The movement in Sarah’s angry hands and face had attracted little interest, but her voice had stilled everyone in the restaurant. Her shout was all the more shocking for the silence that surrounded it. While Sarah could hear neither the noise she had made, nor the space that she had created in the chaotic clatter and chatter of Pizza Express, she could all too easily see the effects of her outburst. Every eye around seemed to be on the two of them, waiting to see what would follow. And as soon as she had said it, she realised that she really did care. In front of her, Alison sat completely still for a moment, just staring at her. Looking at Sarah as if she were a stranger who she’d never met before – and whom she didn’t ever want to meet again. Then Alison’s stare turned into furious tears as she quickly picked up her bag, pulled out her purse and shoved a twenty pound note onto the table. The chair moved with an angry screech as Alison stood up.

Sarah’s open hand went to her chin and out to Alison. Please. Again, her hand to her chin and then her hands came to rest on each other before falling to the table. Please sit down. Her fist circled her chest and then came up to her face. I’m sorry. That was stupid. By this stage, Alison was pulling her jacket on and looking away to the street. As she turned, shaking her head, Alison’s open hand came up to cover her face. I’m ashamed. Alison walked out.

All eyes turned back to their conversations. Sarah stayed where she was, looking at the half-eaten pizza in front of her. Her hands and mouth worked mechanically until the pizza disappeared. A woman’s hands removed plates, glasses and cutlery. Looking at no one, Sarah put a matching note on the table and left.

The air outside was a cold slap across her face. It brought her to her senses, and she realised that Sunday’s last tube train had already left Warren Street. Alison was probably halfway home, probably wondering what on earth they had in common, probably… Sarah’s walk quickened and then turned into a run. A bus wouldn’t get her home as quickly, but she had to sort things out soon. Her run took on a panic as she imagined Alison deciding that enough was enough. The street on a Sunday night was nowhere near as crowded as on other nights, but she still managed to bump into two or three people as she ran. She saw the angry shouts and the reproach in their faces as she turned, still running, to apologise. The run turned into a sprint, and either the cold or her remorse made a watery blur of the street before her.

She came round the corner to see two figures at the bus stop. A sickening mixture of relief and dread brought her to a halt just short of the stop. Alison was there. She must have missed the train as well. But this was too soon: Sarah hadn’t yet worked out what to say, or how to say it. And as she looked harder, beyond Alison to the man who sat on the edge of his rucksack, she saw that they were talking. Judging by the look on the man’s face and the way he leant into the conversation, they were getting on well. He was about their age, she thought: thirty-ish. He had short, dark hair, strong, expressive hands and a quirky face that was alight with a smile.

Without speaking to Alison, Sarah walked past the two of them to the far corner of the bus shelter, crouched against its side and slowly began to recover from her sprint. Sick and breathless, she could only sit and watch the stranger work his magic on Alison. He sat with his head turned away from her and towards Alison. Now, instead of sorting out the unforgivable scene she’d caused in the restaurant, Sarah would have to wait and worry in silence. And from her one-sided view of this conversation, all she could see was Alison speaking and the laughter that threatened to fill her face.

Sarah’s legs shook, the movement pulsing through her heaving body. Her lungs cried out for rest and air. She could feel the contents of her stomach fighting up into her chest and she struggled against the urge to retch. In front of her stretched the Euston Road and the eastern night sky. And against the orange and black backdrop were Alison and this man. He was called Ben, she’d gathered. She saw Alison repeat the name back to him. From behind his back, Sarah saw the muscles on Ben’s jaw move as he talked, and every now and then his head would incline to listen.

Sarah had missed Ben’s faltering introduction and would now miss his full flow. “Anyway, what I was trying to say was this,” he shouted, against the sound of the traffic. “Have you ever felt a sort of panic when you get close, really close to what you want and what you might miss?” His words fought against the roar of tyres. “Because I had that feeling just now.”

Alison had noticed Sarah: her eyes flicked between the two of them and pointedly settled back on Ben with a smile. Sarah was looking down at the pavement as Alison replied. “Sorry, that just sounds weird. What are you talking about?”

“The bus, I mean. Just before you came along. I walked round that corner and saw the bus and realised that I was going to miss it when it was only yards away, and that running was too late. You only start to worry and run when you’re almost in range. And it was the same on the plane, earlier today. This sounds so stupid, but looking down at the ground as we landed, all I could think was that we’d never make it and that I should take in as much as I could of the view before it all went. You do think it’s stupid, don’t you? I can see. Or is it because a complete stranger has just started telling you what a neurotic idiot he is?”

“A bit of both.”

Alison’s brief response was all that Sarah caught of this exchange. Alison appeared to be fighting the urge to laugh at what this man was saying. It wasn’t unusual for Alison to talk to strangers, but this felt different. Was Alison making a point?

Ben managed both a grin and a grimace. “And I couldn’t even run for the bloody thing – you must have seen me passing you. My left leg doesn’t work as well as my right. So my run is more of a hop, a skip and a jump, and with this thing on my back it’s as painful as it is comical.”

Sarah saw his head bow down towards his rucksack, taking Alison’s eyes with him. Alison’s glance then snapped up towards Sarah and stayed there. Another long, angry stare. So nothing had changed since the restaurant.

Ben’s head followed Alison’s glare and traced it back to her eyes. “You two know each other?” Alison’s head turned away towards an approaching bus. It had the wrong number on its front. Gazing into the distance, her face grew irritated and impatient. Turning back, she said yes and smiled politely.

Something more than the exertion of catching up with Alison now made Sarah’s heart work harder in her chest. What had Alison agreed to?

“Your friend says even less than you do.” Ben was still soldiering on with his line of conversation. Alison turned again to look at the trickle of oncoming traffic, her face now looking even more desperate to escape from this bus stop. She turned back to look coldly at Sarah and with a forced friendliness towards Ben.

“Sarah’s deaf.”

Ben nodded his interest at what Alison had said and began to talk. “That’s fascinating. So are you – ? No that’s stupid. You’re talking to me. Well, that must make it interesting – sorry, I’m coming across as an even bigger idiot.”

“Yes, now you mention it.”

Sarah knew that they were talking about her: she’d seen Alison’s short replies. But she couldn’t bring herself to stand, to join in, to make a noise. Either the effort of running, or the awkwardness that she now felt, left her dumbstruck.

Ben, apparently emboldened rather than abashed by her blunt reply, tried another approach. “Tell you what, I’ll prattle on until the bus arrives and you can decide – on the basis of whatever I manage to get in edgeways – whether I’m an axe murderer or a nice guy. Sorry. That’s stupid for a start. Forget the axe. The police have.” His voice trailed away. It seemed as if his own line of conversation and failing attempts at humour had been a more effective dampener than anything Alison could have said.

Alison mustered another strained smile and looked down to scratch away an encrusted smear on her jacket. Another bus driver slowed, saw that no one was flagging him down, and drove past.

Sarah couldn’t work out from Alison’s face alone what they were talking about. Ben had said quite a bit, but Alison had stayed silent. What was going on? She felt a hot fire of shame and anger run across the skin of her face, neck and chest. Frustrated tears blurred her view of the conversation and a heavy pulse drummed inside her head, but still she could say nothing.

Ben’s voice displayed an enthusiasm in his subject. “I’m a television producer – still quite new. I’m just finishing my first really serious project, a series about forensic science. Not that original, but it’s not been looked at from this angle before. Well, I’ve managed to persuade the commissioning editors at Channel 4 that it’s new. Am I boring you?”

Without knowing the question that Alison was answering, Sarah saw yes in her eyes. But with another quick glance towards Sarah, Alison shook her head. She was still listening, so Ben went on. “I got into this line of work after college years ago, starting with freelance DTP work – sorry, that’s desktop publishing. Mostly menial but they gave me a chance to work as assistant to an experienced producer. I worked all hours, kept my mouth shut and my ears open and learnt. And waited. I got blooded on some shorts – video diaries – that raised my profile. But then I made the mistake of mixing work and love.”

Ben’s voice died. Alison’s eyes seemed to say stop now but her head nodded encouragement. “Go on,” she said. Now Sarah felt as though she were dying. Alison was slipping away and there was nothing she could do. The cold sweat clinging to her chest and arms seemed suddenly colder still. The shaking that had subsided in her legs now ran through her whole body. Still she could say nothing.

Ben continued. “I’d been working with a director who’d quickly become more than that. We’d sparked off each other professionally and we sort of slipped in together. ‘I’ turned into ‘we’ and then I couldn’t imagine being anything else. Then ‘you’ forced its way in. ‘You always … you never … you should … you shouldn’t’ and two months ago it was back to ‘me, myself, I’. So that’s me. That’s why I’m Nigel No Friends at midnight in Euston Road. What about you? What about Sarah?”

He fumbled to pull out a piece of paper and a biro from his pocket. “Look, this isn’t the time or the place to be getting to know someone, but I’d really like to try again. In daylight.” As he scribbled, Alison glanced over at Sarah. Sarah just sat and looked back. With her attention once again on Ben, Alison’s eyes widened and her head shook, but he continued to write, his head bent over his task. “Here. This is my address and here’s my mobile number.”

Sarah’s mind pulled together what she’d seen and leapt to what it must mean. This was the end: if not with him, it would be with someone else. Alison had been married before, so why shouldn’t she want something more solid and sensible again? That’s what her mother would want. That’s what would be better for work. And perhaps it would be better for Sarah. She’d be alright. She’d lived alone for long enough and she could rely on her Deaf friends. They’d never been too keen on Alison. More than once they’d said, what do you have in common with her anyway? But turning to look into the glass of the shelter, Sarah saw her own reflected face and Alison’s shaking head. Very different, but a pair all the same. They belonged together, whatever they said or did. It didn’t make sense any other way.

As Alison turned again to look along the Euston Road, Sarah followed her gaze and together they noticed the approaching bus. Still two sets of lights away but the right number this time. Sarah, finally sensing that she had nothing to lose, jumped to her feet. She wouldn’t let it end in this stupid place, with this ridiculous drama. With her hands and face, she spoke to Alison, calmly but insistently. Time and again, her fist circled on her chest. Sorry. I’m sorry. I’ve been so stupid. Please don’t leave me. And for the final time, Sarah’s open hand moved down from her mouth and into a thumbs up. Please.

Alison looked hard at her with questioning eyes. The silence seemed to last for minutes. Then she looked at Ben and back at Sarah and laughed. Her laugh lit up her face. “Oh Sarah, you daft muppet!” Using her forefinger, Alison pointed at Sarah then towards herself and finally down at the ground in front of her. Come here.

As the doors of the bus opened, so did Ben’s eyes. He didn’t move, he couldn’t speak. The paper blew from his fingers, away towards Great Portland Street. While Alison and Sarah walked towards the driver, embarrassment ran like a bushfire across his face and realisation stared out of his eyes. He’d missed the point and was about to miss the bus. Behind the closing doors, the signs needed no interpretation. Ben watched Sarah’s hand move from frantic apology to Alison’s shoulder and saw Alison’s fingers stilling Sarah’s lips. They turned and stared back at him. Sarah waved. Goodbye.

The roar of the Euston Road engulfed the words that Ben shouted at the disappearing bus. No one heard. No one was listening.

A short story that I wrote in 2007. It uses Sappho’s poem, O Fainetai Moi, as a starting point and draws on my experiences of misunderstandings and late-night bus stops in London.


He smiled at me. That’s the thing I remember most clearly. And the pain and the blood.

It was a Saturday afternoon. We can’t have had rugby that day because I was out in my school uniform. It must have been Saturday because the town was rammed with boys our age, after a fight. Or that’s the way it seemed as we walked through the shopping centre, trying to look nowhere in particular but noticing the groups of white kids and black kids. None of them wore the navy blue and white that marked us out.

No one I knew had ever actually had any trouble with these boys. And for all I knew, the opposing lines were more likely to attack each other. But it felt dangerous. Once inside the department store, I became braver, knocked a cigarette out of the pack and placed it to my lips. No one here to see me or stop me. I sat for a while with my friends, passing the time with a cup of tea and a game of brag. Then it was time to get back.

I wanted something special to wear that weekend. A sharp suit with narrow lapels, narrow legs. There was a charity shop on the way back to the boarding house, so I slipped in among the rows of clothes. I hadn’t really noticed anyone else in the shop; they were just other bodies. But as I browsed a rail near the front door, I felt a figure standing next to me. I turned to look at him. He was about my age, my height, white, with closely cropped brown hair. I was able to recall this much when the police interviewed me later that day.

And he smiled at me. I hadn’t expected that, nor had I anticipated the hands on my shoulders. For a moment, he seemed friendly. I have little or no recollection of how his forehead came into contact with my nose, but it was quick and sharply painful. I’d had my nose broken before, in fights. This was different. Pain pulsed through my cheekbones and blood gushed onto the floor. I had expected the two elderly ladies who converged on me to help me; instead, they pushed me to the open door and out of their shop. It was the blood, I suppose.

My attacker had gone. Two police officers were helping me to staunch the blood and clean myself up. They told me that they’d take me to the hospital. That was reassuring because I knew the break was a serious one. While everything was numb, the view from each of my eyes was now different: my nose was skewed to one side. I was shaking. I felt colder than the day.

“Before we take you to the hospital, we’d just like to take some details about the attacker,” one of the officers said. I told them all I could remember. They said nothing for a moment. Then one of them replied, “You’re sure about that? You said he had short, brown hair. Could he have been black?  Take your time.”

Fifteen years later

“Hello,” he said, sniggering. His eyes were empty; this was the drink talking. The room was dark, though light leaked in around the crowd of men at the open door. Roused from sleep, I sat up and clutched the bedding to my naked body.

This was my weekend away. My stag weekend, on my terms. We’d walked, we’d talked, we’d eaten and we’d drunk. It was late, I’d had my fill and I had made my excuses before climbing the stairs to my hotel room. This wasn’t what my best man wanted. He wanted me blind drunk, a figure of fun for the group. He’d made this clear before I’d gone up. But I’d had enough of binge drinking when younger and had no wish to be humiliated.

The figure towering over my bed was my fiancée’s cousin. A group of my friends, family and colleagues stood beside him, complicit. I looked from the vacant eyes and stupid smile to his hands. In one, he had a razor; in the other, there was a can of shaving cream. It was now obvious what they wanted to do. Time slipped back to when I was 10, stripped and scared in a darkened room at my boarding house. Then it was 12 and 13 year-olds tormenting me; now this was grown-up.

Back in the present, I remained calm and said, “Go to bed.” The figures looked at one another, smiling. “We just want a bit of fun,” replied my fiancée’s cousin. “Leave me alone,” I said. Putting down the shaving cream, he pulled at the bottom of my bedding. It came away, revealing my legs. “Just go to bed,” I repeated. He said nothing in reply, but pulled the bedding further off me. My crotch was now exposed.

By far the most sober person in the room, I knew I had to be adult about this. “Don’t do that,” I said, as clearly as I could. “Or what?” he asked, the drunken smile still visible. “Or I’ll have to hurt you,” I replied. He either didn’t believe me or didn’t care, because he bent forward and brought the razor down to my groin.

Without hesitating, I swung my right fist into his face. Hard, to make him stop. He fell back, clutching his nose. Then, with a roar, he tried to throw himself onto me. The others held him as he lurched at me, shouting, “I’m going to kill you!” There was another bed beside mine: I held the sheet to myself and jumped onto it. He tried to follow but was now pinned down. The lights came on: there was blood everywhere and my bed had collapsed. They left the room, their arms around him. My room-mate helped me clear up.

The next morning, the stag party gathered in the hotel dining room for breakfast. No one said anything. As we sat and drank tea, he walked in. His nose was at an angle and his face was bruised. He looked at me and smiled. “Hell of a night, that was,” he said, then sat down beside me and ordered a coffee.


I assume that they were brothers. They sat beside each other in the church hall, biding their time while their mother waited to give blood.

I was to one side, close enough to see what was going on; but at an angle, so I could take in the whole scene. I can only imagine that their mother, lost in the columns of her magazine, was either oblivious or blind to what was going on.

The boys were, I’d estimate, around 10 and 13 years old. They were intent on their games, eyes fixed to the screens while their thumbs fidgeted on the glassy surface. Their seats were uncomfortably close, it seemed, as one boy nudged the other. The other said nothing, in fact did nothing for a minute. And then he silently turned to his brother and punched him on the arm. Not a light, reproving punch, a warning blow. This was punishingly hard. Saying nothing, he returned to his game. His brother didn’t look up; indeed, he seemed even more focused on his game. Then, without warning, he twisted round and hit his brother’s arm. Hard, at least as hard as the blow he’d received. His hand returned to the smart phone and his attention to the game.  Once again, neither brother said a word. Just looked down at their games and absorbed the pain and pent-up fury.

This bout continued for the ten minutes that they spent together in the waiting room. Neither speaking; neither, except for a furrowing of the brow and a twitch of the jaw, betraying any sign that the other had hurt him.

I’d love to know if the mother’s article was so engrossing as to render her sons’ silent combat invisible; or if she’d seen it too often to say a word.