Sunday, 30 September 2012

153: 2012 Prophecy

Everything that changed could be traced back to that year.  People feared 2012 because the Mayans forecast the end of the world.  They just didn’t know in what way it would end.

The Mayan disc prophesized for many years then stopped at 2012 without explanation.  Until then the prophecies had been accurate so as day in late 2012 drew close, people were scared.  They made peace with their estranged family members, did those things on the bucket list they always wanted to do.  Those rich enough went to visit remote corners of the world known for spiritual relief and prayed to gods they previously didn’t believe in, to save them from the disaster.

So when everyone woke up the next morning and found life still going on as before, a tide of euphoria swept the world.  Some hailed it as proof of God, some as the chance of a new start.  Many began the descent of man into the hellish pit of life it is today.  Perhaps not many, but certainly enough.

Celebrations continued for 20 days and 20 nights, food and wine available free to all, neighbour loving neighbour and each caring about the other.  When life began to revert to normal, some people started to believe they were special, that they had survived the foretold doom and were invincible.  These people were clever, surrounding themselves with those who were easy to control and to manipulate, and those who would guard them on the promise of future protection themselves.

Worldwide a growing movement of Invincibility took followers from amongst those least able to fight against it.  They were won over with sweet words and promises of eternal life, in return for devotion and material gifts.  Houses were signed over and monthly finances shared, but followers were encouraged to live their usual lives.  Their new mission was to win over yet more followers.  And they did, by the million.

The Invincibility movement failed to plan for the future, failed to save and failed to care about its converts.  It believed everyone was invincible, simply by association with the leaders.  So when people were cold or hungry, it offered no care or comfort, telling them they were invincible and nothing could hurt them.  The people began to die but still more joined.  Word spread that those who died hadn’t been invincible because they didn’t believe or didn’t give enough to the leaders.  So they worked harder, believed more and gave everything.

Now, not even 60 years on from the 2012 origin, mankind has no capacity to take care of itself.  The leaders and their families are very rich, the followers and their families very poor in every way thinkable.  Nobody has the strength to declare they are not invincible and to start to rebuild society as it used to be.  Perhaps the Mayans knew what they were predicting after all.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

152: Divorcing Vikings

My family chose my husband for me as is usual, but I found I actually liked their choice.  Girls tend to get used to their marriage partner and over many years, they develop a deep respect and sometimes love.  I think that’s what my parents had and it served them well all their lives.  But had I been allowed a free choice of husband, I might even have chosen him myself.

I was fourteen and he sixteen and there was an instant crackle like lightning between us.  He held my gaze, confident but not arrogant.  I looked away for the sake of what was proper, but snatched glimpses of him throughout the evening.  I thought he might have looked away but he was watching me every time.  He gave me that crooked smile of his, even raised a glass to me once.  I hoped my parents didn’t notice but they were too busy swapping tales of farming and marauding with his parents.

We moved into his family house and I brought my dowry with me, as we all do.  Mother was especially generous with the blankets and linen, so I felt quite the lady.  He treated me well, making sure there was enough food and the supplies for the fire never ran out.  I enjoyed making home for him and was so happy when I produced one, then two, then three small boys in their father’s image.  He would ruffle their hair and remark how they might look like him but they took after me in nature.

It was soon after that I started to realize what he meant.  His father was old and became too ill to work, so he took on the role as head of the family.  I think the old man found it hard to pass on the title, but he had no choice.  He didn’t survive even one winter before he died in his sleep.  My husband was now officially head of the family.  He owned all the farmlands outside our house and would take care of all our relatives if they fell on hard times.  He would be a great man and I loved him more than ever.

But he sometimes slept late and the cows would moo as if in pain, until he rolled out of bed and saw to them.  He fed the animals later and later in the day, so they too began to complain in their own way.  One day he didn’t get up all day, but yelled for food and drink to be taken to him.  His mother and I took turns in looking after him and the animals.  We couldn’t manage the land though and the crops went untended.  Perhaps one day wouldn’t matter.

He became more and more lazy.  The crops began to fail and the animals sickened, producing less milk and fewer eggs.  Some died, and my respect for him did too.  My love went soon after that.  I had our divorce witnessed at the doorstep and at the bedside.  He was still in the bed and rolled over as I said the words.  

Leaving his mother was the hardest decision, for leaving him was no choice at all.  I took our boys back to my own family and they helped me carry my blankets and linens.  My own mother welcomed me home and I knew she was sorry the choice they had made had gone badly.  I pitied the old woman and wondered what would become of her with that son the only one left to take care of her.

Friday, 28 September 2012

151: Son of the Sixties

Keith’s enduring memory of the decade of love wasn’t the glossy flowing hair intertwined with buds and blooms on boys and girls alike, it wasn’t the parties that went on all weekend with free beer and freer sex, it wasn’t the music of the Beatles and the Stones who spoke for his generation.  It wasn’t even the acres of pale thigh Karen Marmaduke showed in her plastic mini-skirt, that Keith slid his hand along in more than one cinema back row.

It was the images of fallen US troops returning from Vietnam in flag-draped coffins.  The coffins of young men maybe no older than himself.  He imagined inside clean, peaceful young faces suitable for kissing by a distraught mother and tight-jawed father.  It was better than imagining the more realistic bodies with ragged raw holes in, limbs missing, brains spilling out across the wooden insides.

No generation before had been able to question war or the government or how people were treated.  People like Keith discovered a passion in the 60s, a passion for human rights and sticking it to ‘the man’.  They marched and made banners late into the night, passing round special cakes and swapping stories of how great the world would be when they, the young people of the 60s, made it all alright.

Keith looked at his image in the mirror.  He took in hand-stitched Italian leather shoes, bespoke navy pinstripe suit with five buttons at each wrist, a monogrammed fine cotton handkerchief in his breast-pocket, the £12,000 vintage Bubbleback Oyster watch made the year Keith was born and a treat to himself when he became CEO.  There was no trace of the former glossiness to the neat gunmetal hair.  No cakes, special or otherwise, passed those lips in case they meant another 30 minutes workout in the corporate gym.

Keith looked at his image in the mirror and he saw ‘the man’ looking back.  Passion for fair treatment and equal rights had been long-since replaced by a passion for streamlined corporate management and pursuit of profit above all else.  Free love came by the way of expensive escorts on the company tab in anonymous hotel rooms across the globe, Keith’s wife unaware at home in Kent and missing him as always.

He wondered if it was too late to change, if he even could change.  His 20 year-old self would be ashamed at what he had let himself become.  Keith straightened his cuffs, removed a speck of lint from his lapel and returned to the fundraiser, pushing down the feeling of self-loathing rising in his throat.  His body edged towards a coffin which his soul had already found, one that would deserve no draping flag or any other display of honour.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

150: Tie Me Labrador Down

It wasn’t just the apples that were flying about, but the plums, the blackberries and the raspberries.  Small animals sometimes floated about and in a wind not even dogs were safe.  There was a roaring trade in rope where people had to tie all their belongings to the ground so they didn’t fly away.  Anything growing under the ground was OK until it was dug up and then catching bags for potatoes and carrots were the norm.

Then he went and spoilt it all.  Big maths genius.  Meddler more like.

The Moors family have made rope for generations.  Rope bought the palatial family home, rope paid for the local church and rope funded good works in local villages, not to mention the benefits to the people of this country who have been able to secure their possessions again floatage.  We were not unreasonable nor did we overcharge.  Certainly prices weren’t cheap but then if rope were cheaper everyone would be able to afford great lengths of it.  Not everyone has possessions to tie down in the first place.

Newton spoilt it all when he went and invented gravity.

‘Forces make everything fall towards the centre of the earth’ he said, in that squeaky voice of his.  That made it worse.  Financial ruin at the behest of one who merely squeaks.  Once people heard about gravity, they tried it out.  And when they tried it out, it worked didn’t it.  Things stayed where they were put, most of the time.  Balls rolled away and dogs could run about, but pretty much things on the ground stayed on the ground.  So what did they need Moors’ rope for?

The family was ruined almost overnight.  The big house was sold, the factory scaled down to a workshop and the village poor left to fend for themselves.  There were miles of rope unused and unsalable.  The Moors responded with what they saw as poetic justice.

Late one night a group of hooded young men broke into Newton’s rooms and covered his head with a sack.  They bound him from chest to thigh in rope so he could totter but not move his arms in any way.  He was bundled out into the darkness and tied to a stake that had been sunk in his garden.  Then they left him alone. 

At first light one returned and snatched off the sack.  He could see a dozen or more members of the Moors stood on the roof of his house.  They were armed.  They had apples.  They started to drop them on his head.  He started to squeak ‘Ow!’  Newton was only rescued by his grounds man, when he set out for the fields an hour later.  His head was bruised and swollen, his voice hoarse from crying out.

The irony of the situation was that in exacting the punishment they chose, the Moors family proved to themselves that Newton was correct about gravity.  In time they too gave up tying things down.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

149: Prairie Girl

That little prairie house girl lived nearby with her family and she went to the same school as they did.  She was an odd girl, always questioning things and getting into scrapes.  Sometimes her dress had a tear in the material and more than once her apron was stained with black marks before the day’s teaching had even started.

Miss Jackson asked Carrie to look after her when she first arrived in school and had few friends.  Carrie was pretty and clever and everyone liked her, but she really didn’t want to babysit an outsider with straggly hair and a clumpy manner.  Carrie had her own friends and she would much rather play with them.  She did contemplate ignoring the new girl in favour of her friends, but she knew Jesus would be watching.  Jesus wouldn’t like Carrie to be so mean.

The new girl was called Mary Ann and she was real polite and said please and thank you and even nearly curtseyed when Carrie went to talk to her in the school yard.  She was just so keen, like a licky puppy dog.  Carrie hated puppy dogs that licked and licked.  Mary Ann almost looked like she had a tail she was so happy to be friends.  They talked for a while, mostly Mary Ann talking non-stop about where her family had lived and what she liked to do and maybe Carrie could come to tea one Sunday, and then Carrie rose to take her leave.  Maybe she could rescue something from the day and she walked off towards her friends, giving Mary Ann a quick wave before disappearing round the side of the schoolhouse.

Mary Ann sat alone under the big tree, looking up at the branches.  Oak, she thought, from those leaves.  The shade was cool and hid her from sight of most of the children.  She drew her knees up to her chest and watched the children running and playing.  She caught a glimpse of Carrie, golden curls bouncing in the sun, skipping with two other girls.  They were all so pretty and their dresses had beautiful ribbons on.  Mary Ann had never had a dress with ribbons on, not once.  Mama said she would only catch them on a nail and rip them clean off.

A small boy headed for the tree, trying to look like he was going somewhere else and landing up under the shade was a complete accident.  “Hello,” he said.  “My name’s Jake.  I’m new too.”

“Mary Ann.  Could you climb this tree?  I could climb this tree, not that I’m allowed.  Mama says ladies don’t climb trees and I must start being a lady and Papa says I better no do it as he ain’t going to collect me from the doctor if I fall and break my neck.”  She looked up into the branches.

“Will you give me a leg up?” she said.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

148: Potato Famine

Mary shared a tiny shack with her brothers and sisters and her parents and they would soon be joined by another baby.  That would make nine mouths to feed.  They barely had a pot big enough to cook potatoes for them all as it was.  No doubt there would be more babies in time too, but it wasn’t unusual for a family to lose a child or more.  Mary’s mother had already lost two little ones during the very cold winter.

Like most Irish people, Mary and her family farmed the land.  The rent was high and the size of the land they worked on shrank each year.  Years before, when her grandfather farmed, the land was good and plots were big enough to support a family, pay the rent and make a small income.  Now it was all beef and cows got priority over ordinary people. 

Mary helped sow and plant the potato crop, working from first light until an hour before dusk.  Then she would return home to help her mother cook the family meal.  She was now ten years old and had rarely eaten anything but potatoes in her whole life.  In the fields opposite where the grass was strong and healthy, a herd of cattle grazed.  Mary had never even tried beef and wondered how those big lumbering things that ate greenery all day long could be such a delicacy that ordinary people were being thrown off their land so it could eat.  Once she had a few morsels of boiled rabbit that her father had caught because it had a bad leg. 

When the crop was ready to start harvesting, there was always a feeling of excitement went round all of the local farmers.  Once the crop started to come in, even though it was more and more often small in yield, farmers knew rents would be paid and families would eat for another season.  Mary and her father woke especially early, keen to get to work.  She woke the younger children and they got ready to leave whilst her mother stayed in with the very young ones.

In the field Mary watched as her father selected a plant to pull up.  Some looked a little weedy and short, but others were OK.  He grasped it and pulled.  Up came a few potatoes, mostly small and all blackened.  That sometimes happens, a bad plant is not unheard of.  Just a shame it was the first one.  He chose another nearby, and pulled.  Then another and another.  For an hour they pulled plant after plant.  Almost the entire crop was useless and famers across the village all had similar blackened potatoes.

And it’s not like anyone could eat those cows anyway, is it?

Monday, 24 September 2012

147: I Know Where I Was When Kennedy Was Shot

They say everyone knows where they were when Kennedy was shot.  Is that true?  I know because it was quite a big day for me too, but if I was at the mall or visiting my sisters, I’m not sure I would remember that.  But as I say, I do remember.  And I remember what I was doing every minute of the whole thing too.

On Thursday 22ndNovember, during what would turn out to be JFK’s last ever night alive, my wife Gloria started getting these tight feelings across her swollen belly.  As the day rolled on they got closer together and in the evening there was this huge gush and fluid splooshed all over the couch.  Gloria wanted to call her physician and I wanted her to try and sleep for a while.  She won of course and the doc said we should get on over to the hospital.  So as JFK was tucking into a testimonial dinner in Houston, we were loading Gloria’s hospital bag into the car and trying to remember everyone we had to call.

At the hospital they poked and prodded and fiddled about and Junior decided he might stay put in the warm after all.  By then it was too late to send Gloria home, so they settled her in a bed and told me to go home and get some rest.  Instead I headed for the waiting room and grabbed some shut-eye stretched out on 4 stained but comfy chairs with my jacket over my head to block out the all-night movement.

As JFK woke for the final time on 23rd November, my boy decided he might just be ready to show up after all.  I grabbed a coffee, dark as pitch and about as tasty, and went to find Gloria.  She was on this machine measuring the baby’s heart or something and she smiled at me looking like she hadn’t slept at all.  Good practise, I thought to myself, never daring to say such a thing out loud.  She said baby would be a few more hours, go get some breakfast, shave and shower then come back.  I decided traffic across town ahead of a presidential visit would be horrendous with road blocks and diversions, so I washed up in a basin in the washrooms.  A proper breakfast would be good though, so I found a diner nearby and sat for a while, with my thoughts.

About the time the president was landing from Fort Worth, Gloria was pushing and straining with all her might.  They didn’t let a father in to see the birth and I don’t know I would have gone if they did.  I paced the halls outside, just like in movies, and I could hear my Gloria cussing me out and swearing on her life I’d never be allowed near her again.  Why would a man want to be close to that kind of thing anyway?

When the motorcade started along its fatal route, I could hear Gloria’s breathing get all puffy and she grunted a lot.  At least the shouting at me had stopped.  There was a tension from in the room that I could feel in the hallway.  I was scared and excited at once, and worried about my lady and our little man.  I felt sure it was a little man, although I didn’t know for definite.  My boy.

As the shots were piercing the Dallas air and JFK’s brain, my son was thrust into the world.  One in, one out it was, in a weird sort of way.  As Jackie was climbing out the back of the car screaming, my boy was screaming his first cries and breathing his first as her husband breathed his last.  As she scraped brain and blood off her hands and face, the nurse washed the birthing off the body of our baby.  When the priest was giving JFK his last rites and the doctors declared him dead, I was meeting my son for the first time.  We missed the announcements on television and radio as we were so happy and caught up in our own world we didn’t find out about the shooting until later that night.

I felt a bit guilty that I was so happy when the whole nation and the first lady in particular were in mourning.  But he wouldn’t have wanted that I’m sure.  He’d say life goes on, even if his wasn’t.  We had decided to call the boy Walter after my father and Gloria’s grandfather.  In the end we made Walter his middle name and called him Johnny as a mark of respect.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

146: Marie The Head Hunter

The French Revolution almost took her life but Marie Grosholtz was given one chance to prove her allegiance to the Revolution.  She was released from the tiny prison cell she shared with her mother and put to work making death masks of the aristocracy that had been beheaded in front of her.

Marie watched as her King and Queen were beheaded, the rulers that she loved and once worked for.  Each head was removed from the basket and held aloft for the crowd to whoop and jeer at.  The heads were bundled roughly in dirty rags and tossed to Marie to take back to her workshop.  She caught both heads but dropped the Queen.  Her Majesty’s head rolled across the Guillotine floor, catching on the nose as it did.  The crowd cheered and roared as the head came to rest on one cheek, half open lids covering dull eyes.  Marie snatched up the head, wrapped it once more and rushed off with both heads in her basket.

Back at her workshop, Marie removed the heads from her basket and placed them gently, side by side, on her bench.  She unwrapped each in turn, showing the royal pair more respect than they had received in life for some time.  She took the King’s head and washed it with light strokes of a soft cloth, until all traces of blood and matter were gone.  Had it not been for the shaven head and puffy lidded eyes, he could have been sleeping.  Then she turned to the Queen and did the same, pinching the cheeks once she had finished to give at least an illusion of good health.

Placing the husband and wife beside each other in death as they would have been in life, she gave a deep curtsey in front of them.

Over the next few days Marie worked for many hours to reproduce the most faithful likenesses that she could.  She swore to their Highnesses that she would produce her finest work and restore them to their living glory in their death.  Unlike many death masks, Marie did not simply make plaster casts of the heads, but made wax meads from the casts.  She decorated the wax with delicate colours and flowing hair then mounted each head on a base for stability.

Proud of her work she displayed it for all Paris to see and Marie was greeted with delight.  So easily they could have said she was still loyal to the monarchy and condemned her to beheading as well.  But she became their darling and her work was more and more in demand.

Before long Marie would be found hunting through the debris of the Guillotine victims for each day, hunting out the most famous and the most prestigious heads, from which to make her famous wax copies.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

145: Montague and Capulet Dinosaurs

The Earth was once filled with giant lizards called dinosaurs which lumbered massively through the forests and open lands that covered the planet’s surface.  There were two types of dinosaur – the Montagues and the Capulets.  The Montagues were peace-loving, lived in huge gatherings of families that shared food and raising the young, and ate only the fruit, flowers, grass and leaves of the plants on Earth.  The Capulets were sneaky and self-centred, lived singly or in small mutually-beneficial groups, and they ate anything that wasn’t fruit and flowers and grass and leaves.

Over the years the Montagues and Capulets had existed together, if not happily then at least grudgingly.  The Capulets often wanted to eat the Montagues, but their skin was scaly, green and knobbled with a roughness similar to sandstone.  It was also rather unpalatable, useful if the activity that took up most of the day was surviving.  Most Montagues had built-in weapons like horns and heavy tails, so that Capulets who dared to get too close could be poked or speared out of the way.  The Montagues often wanted to convert the Capulets to their communal life, but they lacked the capacity for compassion herd living required.  Those who tried it were usually searching for insider-information that might identify a way to kill and eat a Montague safely and before any other Capulet could steal the carcass.

Then a Montague baby and a Capulet baby made friends at the river bank.  Both were too young to have learned how they were expected to behave towards each other.  Each saw someone to chase and run with in the meadows stretching for miles.  So they played together every day and were the happiest baby dinosaurs the Earth had ever seen.  Until their parents found out.  Capulets were sighted near the river so the Montague security came looking for the baby.  Finding him with a baby Capulet, they surrounded him and hurried him back to the group.  Baby Capulet stood alone by the water waving to his friend and Baby Montague found his view back blocked by 10 feet of scaly lizard.

And that was all it took for the simple non-negotiated truce between the Montagues and the Capulets to break down.  There were killings and retributions, hectorings and forced exorcisms.  Fury raged between the two groups and nobody felt safe.  Within their own enclaves the two babies tried to escape and meet at their playground but they each was watched too closely to getaway.  Baby Montague finally persuaded an elderly watcher to hide a note at the river bank where he hoped Baby Capulet would find it.  He pleaded with her to take him there each day and at last she agreed.  The watcher however, planned to kill Baby Capulet and took poisoned berries with them.

When they managed to slip away from the security and arrived at the water, Baby Montague was overjoyed to see Baby Capulet waiting for him.  They ran and chased each other across the meadow and back again whilst the watcher waited for her chance to poison the Capulet.  The sun beat down hot on her thick hide and she grew drowsy watching the babies racing about.  Soon she fell asleep and began to snore.

Baby Montague and Baby Capulet, hungry from their run, noticed the watcher was asleep and crept up to taste just one berry each.  They were delicious and one berry became one more berry and soon they were all gone.  The happy friends stretched in the sun then both began having cramping pains.  They began to wail and thrash about, waking up the watcher who saw instantly what had happened.  She could only watch as the poisoned babies died in front of her.

The Montagues and The Capulets were devastated, blaming each other for the loss and for starting the feud.  Missing the opportunity to unify over the double tragedy and put their quarrels aside, instead both sides determined to destroy the other.  They attacked each other at every chance, poisoned and hunted each other, destroyed the environments the others lived in and developed more barbaric weapons with which to fight.

The Earth was once filled with giant lizards called dinosaurs which were all too stupid to live together and whose fighting and hatred reached such meteoric levels that they eventually wiped themselves out.

Friday, 21 September 2012

144: Suffer The Little Children

Our brother died last night.  He was puny and only just whimpered when he was born.  He lived four hours then he just slipped away without even a final cry.  His breathing shallowed then he breathed out and never took more air in.

I had to go and find our Aunt Mamie to help with the body.  I was scared because it was dark and I’m not allowed out in the dark until I’m 11, which is not until after Christmas.  I ran as fast as I could all the way there and Aunt Mamie let me ride on the handlebars of her bike going back.  She said our Ma should have called her in to help with birthing but Ma said she didn’t want to be a bother.

Ma was poorly a lot with this baby so I’m glad she isn’t still waiting to have him.  I wish he didn’t have to die though.  My other brother died too but I was only 4 then so I don’t remember.  All my friends have had a brother or sister die, nearly.  Only Jennifer hasn’t, but her Da has a good job and so he paid for her Ma to see the doctor twice each time when she was expecting.  That means they must be very rich, I say.

Aunt Mamie washed him and put him in a blanket so he just looked like he was sleeping.  Ma came to see him and she was the quiet kind of sad.  She had a little tear in her eye, then she hugged me and said it didn’t do to wish for things we can’t never have.  Then she went back for a lie down, because she is still bleeding Aunt Mamie said.

Thomas they called the last baby that died.  I wonder if they will call this one Thomas too.  Maybe that is the special name for babies who die very soon.  I like Brian, very modern, but I suppose they won’t ask me.

We have to call him something though.  If we don’t give him his name how we will be sure he was ever here?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

143: French Landings

Edward stood on the metal deck, the bodies of the other soldiers pressed up tight to his.  Salty spray washed his face again and again as the boat rode the waves.  The June morning was beginning to warm and the early flickers of light were peeking over the horizon.  Edward stood impassive, unmoving, petrified.

He had just turned nineteen years old and he wondered every day if he would see his twenties.  There were still over 300 days to go until his next birthday and like all the young men with him, he knew any one of them could be his last day alive.  Edward tried to push thoughts like that to the back of his mind, for fear they would paralyze him into inaction at the moment of the next big push.

There were many vessels taking part in manoeuvres and they had all rendezvoused in the Channel before moving off towards the French coast.  Edward wondered how many men like him were aboard the whole flotilla.  How many would survive the attack and how many would fall, bloody and unrecognizable, into the sea?  How many families would receive the telegram they had dreaded expected as a result of this day?

Edward remembered the day his parents received the telegram saying his brother had been lost, believed killed in action.  There had been a rare streaky sun that November afternoon.  His mother had been pleased because her laundry had dried quicker than usual and the fifteen year-old Edward had helped her carry it in from the yard.  She had tried to pin a peg on him and whirled away as he chased her to do the same in return.  Her laughter had carried on but became hysterical as his father fetched the telegram in from the knock on the door.

She was never the same from that day on.  It was like something had switched off inside her, all the joy and pleasure in life.  She carried on, as the British people were expected to do, but Edward knew she was no more than half a beat from collapse.  He dreaded the day of his call-up and seeing her crumble in even further.

Edward swore to himself he would return home at the end of the war, that he would not let her lose both sons.  Stood on the deck with the French beaches looming into view, he said a prayer to his brother Tommy asking to keep him safe for one more day.

The soldiers braced themselves for landing and attack once they ran ashore.  Edward felt sad just for a second.  For him to make it safely back from today’s mission it meant he and his buddies would need to despatch many other soldiers and set in motion terrible telegrams to their families, this time in German.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

142: The Age Old Problem

Mother was right, I should have listened.  “He’s just like your father,” she said.  “Mark my words, there’ll be trouble.”  But that’s guaranteed to make a young girl, in love with her caveman of a boyfriend, go ahead and move right on into his cave.  And I idolized my father so I went ahead just to spite her, talking about my Daddy like that.

Now as I sit here stoking the embers of a fire that will be out before the sun sets, three little ones crawling and running about my ankles and another on the way, I remember that my own father was out late a lot too.  Mother was the one we saw most of the time and Daddy came and went in my memory, fetching wood for the fire and meat for food.  He was always bringing things, never the one disciplining us.  Maybe that was why he stood so lofty in my childhood.

My skin is tattered and the children have begged-for ones from the family nearby who had all their children swept away in the swollen river.  We are barely warm as winter starts to creep towards us.  Without new skins and plentiful wood supplies, we may not last the season.  Last year’s snows were harsh and we would not survive them equipped like this. 

If the rest of the local men are away hunting I expect him to be with them.  It’s when they return and he is still gone, or he goes when they are still here that I don’t understand.  The women work together when our men are gone together, but when only mine has gone, the others are too busy caring for their families to help me.  Some are embarrassed too and give me odd looks, like they suspect what I say is not true.  Like they suspect he isn’t away hunting but somewhere else.

Mother once claimed Daddy was away so much because he was hunting for two caves, but I dismissed it as her sour ravings.  True, we often had less to eat than our friends and our skins were pre-worn, but because we saw him less than other fathers the time with him was extra special.  Perhaps I was unfair to her for all those years.

As the little ones huddle to me for warmth and start to drop into sleep, I fret about the fire and whether we will have food for tomorrow.  My head hurts to think farther ahead than one day once the sun has gone down.  My heart pounds too loud and I make myself concentrate on stroking my babies’ heads to calm down.  It’ll be fine, I tell myself, all fine.

I am almost asleep too, and I promise myself tomorrow I will ask him for more wood and new skins.  If he comes to us tomorrow.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

141: Tricoteuse

There were a dozen main agitators and they all sat in exactly the same seats, every day. Celebrated so recently in the Parisian market protests, the women now found themselves locked out of the political discussion.  The cost of active opposition to the government was ostracism but they found another way of making their voices heard.

They took up knitting.

Marta had the idea of public knitting and the others agreed at once.  Marta’s husband fashioned a dozen pairs of needles from thin lengths of wood and they took a pair each.  She held lessons for a week so they could all learn the stitches.  She wanted them able to knit and heckle at the same time, no need to look down at the work and miss the show.

The first morning they arrived long before the executions started and took up their places close to the front.  At first light they took out their wool and needles and began to knit.  They didn’t say anything, just sat knitting and staring at the preparation ahead.  The executioner bundled the first victim up to the guillotine and as one, they lowered their work to their laps.

With rage and anger Marta and the women growled and yelled their disputes against the king as a murderer was beheaded in front of them.  They complained of increasing prices, the cost of food families struggled to afford.  They complained of shortages which pushed prices higher still.  Their anger at the king who presided over these difficulties was intense and the women vocalized their demands for bread and prices they could afford again and again.

As the head rolled from the wooden frame, the shouts died down.  The women, each with a face set into an implacable mask, took up their work again and began to knit.  Although they glanced around the square, at Marta and between themselves from time to time, none spoke.  Displeasure was written over each of the dozen faces.

Throughout the morning the dance of angry shouting and silent, scowling knitting played out.  When all of the prisoners had been despatched, there was no doubt in the mind of anyone in the crowd of onlookers that these women meant to draw attention to the plight of the working woman and her family.  The twelve women walked from the square, heads held high.

Buoyed by their experiences, the women arranged to return the next day and the next.  Word spread across the city and out into the suburbs of Paris.  Day by day more Martas and their friends joined the Tricoteuse, some sitting in the square with the original women and others forming small enclaves themselves.

Paris had many criminals to offer up for execution so the women had a great many opportunities to send the king their furious message.  They could last as long as the beheading would take.  Each evening, like Penelope and her tapestry, they rewound their yarn for use the next morning.  Their own Odysseus was likely to be at least as long in returning.

Inspiration - The French Guillotine was finally abandoned today in 1981 when the death penalty was abolished.

Monday, 17 September 2012

140: The Day The Dream Died

Sybil reported sick the next day and the one after that.  He was dead and she felt like her life was over too.  He had been ever-present in her world and, in her mind, she referred almost everything she said and did to him for approval.  Her go-to phrase was ‘What would Elvis do?’

Dead.  How could he be, he was supposed to go on forever.  They had never met but she always felt sure they would.  Maybe they would chat, share some wine and then, who knows?  It was a dream but that dream came true for Priscilla, didn’t it.  Why should she be any different?  Except now her dream never would come true, however unlikely it had been even just the day before.

Sybil had heard that sensational headlines screamed from the pages of a newspaper.  She just screamed at the page, screamed and screamed.  Usually she had set off for the factory by the time the paper was delivered but oversleeping that morning, she caught the paperboy as he plopped The Sun on the porch mat.  It was folded front outwards, or she would have missed it then and caught it on a billboard somewhere, perhaps at the station.  Somewhere that a 23 year old woman should not been seen screaming over the untimely death of a fading star she had never met.

She had no idea how long she screamed for on the porch before she returned inside.  Her throat was raw and raspy but when she tried to drink a glass of water she couldn’t swallow.  She tried again and gagged on the water.  Sybil vomited thin breakfast tea into the sink then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  More water, more gagging, but this time no vomiting.  Her top lip pricked with sweat and she slid to the floor, back pressed against the cupboard door.

Sybil’s mother worked mornings and came home at lunchtime.  She found Sybil still sat on the kitchen floor, staring but not seeing the tiles.  The newspaper discarded beside her was explanation enough for her mother.  She knelt down, threaded her arm through Sybil’s and led her compliant daughter up from the floor and to her room.  Sybil lay fully clothed on the top of the bed and her mother laid a crochet blanket over her.  She closed her eyes against the day.  Her mother stroked her hair, aware that whenever Sybil opened her eyes, the day would still be there.

Inspiration - The Death of Elvis Presley

Sunday, 16 September 2012

139: Blessed Wall Builders

“Blessed are the wall builders,” that’s what they say.  It’s the best job to have apparently.  Almost no openings unless you are born into a family of wall builders – or rather of approved wall builders.

That’s what we are.  Family Wang Approved Wall Builders.  My brothers and I were expected to join the family business, no consideration of what we might want.  Father and Grandfather built the business together and now it must carry on into the next generation.  And I’m not even the first-born son either.

My sisters will all make good marriages because we are an esteemed family.  We brothers would have a better choice of girls to choose a wife from, if we were ever to get time off to actually meet a girl.

The work is never-ending.  It will cross so much of China once we finish building it.  Imagine a very long bridge, battered by wind and rain so it loses its colour quickly.  But the bridge must keep its colour so men are put to work recolouring it.  And the bridge is so long that when they finish, they have to return to the beginning and start all over again.  That’s as this job.  Never-ending.

The stones are heavy and awkward.  They cut my knuckles and roughen my palms.  My nails are full of dust and painfully rip off almost daily.  I have scars and lumps covering both hands and my muscles are as developed as a prize fighters’.

We live a rich life but sometimes as I look up at the heavens, I wish I could have a different existence.  I would follow the Monkey King’s journey and travel with Buddha.  I would find immortality.

Inspiration: Building the Great Wall of China

Saturday, 15 September 2012

138: Fear of The Blob

Elizabeth had never been so frightened.  They had told her father that they were going to watch Gigi at the Regal, but instead they had watched The Blob.  It was Bobby’s idea but Elizabeth was happy to go along with the ruse.  She was 18 now and teenagers should be able to do whatever they wanted.  Why should her father always spoil her fun?

Bobby had collected her and promised they wouldn’t be late.  “I’ll have your little girl home by 10pm, Mr James.  Just like always.”  Her mother looked up from her needlepoint and smiled at them, looking as if she perhaps wished for an occasional evening out at the cinema.  Life had been so different when she had been young.

Elizabeth slipped her arm through Bobby’s and they headed for the Regal.  She thrilled with the thought of seeing her first horror film.  The lie they told her father sat awkwardly with her, but the double risk excited her even more.

Her father had always protected her from bad things and she had been very young when the war ended.  She had no idea what a horror film might be like and was unprepared for the sight she saw.  The glistening black blob filled her heart with fear as surely as if it had glooped out of the screen and absorbed her whole body like it did the doctor and the mechanic.

Elizabeth watched much of the film from behind interlaced fingers.  Often she screwed her eyes tight and wished she couldn’t hear the screams and shouts and cries.  Even the gasps of the cinema audience scared her.

Bobby had watched the whole film, never looking away once.  “I’m a man,” he told Elizabeth as he walked her home.  “We don’t get frightened easily.”  He put his arm round her shoulders to show how brave he was.  She didn’t speak all the way to her house but Bobby didn’t notice as he retold his favourite scenes and how he would have worked out freezing much earlier.

“Night Elizabeth, night Mr James,” said Bobby as he set off for his own home.

“Did you enjoy your film?” asked her father.  “I suppose you’ll be singing Gigi for a week now, won’t she Mother.  Bed, Elizabeth.  It’s late and we are tired.”

“Yes Father.  Night, Mother.” 

Elizabeth climbed the stairs, and then undressed in her room with the light still on.  She got into bed, with the light still on.  She closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but the light kept her awake.  But the dark would remind her too much of the blob.  Oh bother that Bobby.  Why had she gone along with his crazy idea?  She may never sleep properly again.  So this is what real fear is like, she thought.

Elizabeth crept out of bed, switched the light off before her father noticed the glow around the door and said her prayers for an extra long time.

Inspiration: The 1950s

Friday, 14 September 2012

137: The Lost Wedding Day

Lady Helena Davies was betrothed to marry Harold, eldest son of the Earl of Rattigan.  She had been promised in marriage shortly after her birth and she always knew her future was to be entwined with his.  It did no harm that Lord Harry possessed fair foppish hair, clipped pronunciation and a large fortune.

Helena and Harry were to be married on the day of her 18th birthday as was appropriate for a lady of her standing.  The wedding day had been set for a number of years and preparations began in earnest once she entered her teenage years.  They would marry on September 10th, 1752.

Then that Chesterfield fellow came along and brought in the law about changing to the other calendar.  And Helena’s future lay in doubt with those lost 11 days.

The Earl had been happy to contract the children together so many years before, but in the intervening time, his wealth had grown considerably, whilst the fortunes of Lady Helena’s father remained relatively more modest.  The Earl saw an opportunity to secure a richer bride for Lord Harry, and made approaches to a number of minor European royals.

June brought Lady Helena’s father a brief letter, stating the wedding was off as she would never celebrate her 18th birthday, and that the Earl considered all agreements null and void.  Lord Harry had moved to southern Europe to await his own marriage and neither Lady Helena nor her father were to attempt to contact him.

Helena was inconsolable and took to her bed.  Many petitioned the Prime Minister and rabbles gathered outside parliament to protest at the lost days.  As in so many things, some benefitted and saw the opportunity whilst many more suffered and paid many times over for the threat.

Over the months and years that followed ordinary people forgot the lost 11 days and most agreed the effect had been small after all.  Lady Helena did not share that view, however.  She entered a convent, not yet 18 years of age, and died unmarried and still 17 almost 60 years later.

Inspiration: Change to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752

Thursday, 13 September 2012

136: A Grand Day Out

If the visitors come without sticks, I supply one for a penny.  For another penny I’ll sharpen the end, to get a better reaction.  You ain’t meant to poke them hard, so a point gets in between the ribs, see.

I’ve got a deal with one of the keepers.  He snaps sticks and I share my takings with him.  We make a pretty penny with all the crowds passing through here.  There’s rumours of them stopping visits so folks want to come and look at the mad ones while they can.  Visit and poke.

There’s all kinds in there.  A real madhouse it is.  Them’s dangerous and screaming sometimes.  I can hear it at night when I can’t sleep.  Men and women, all as mad as each other.  Can’t always even tell which is which in there.

I went in, just the once.  The keeper let me in at the end of the visiting time.  The rich people with their fine clothes and gold watch chains pushed out past me, kerchiefs at their noses against the smell.  One of them turned I heard, snatched the stick poking into him and tried to drive it into a lady’s eye.  A real lady, she was.  They hurried everyone out then and I went in as the door slammed.

There was so many people, lying and sitting and some of them rocking.  The noise was so quiet and so loud at the same time.  Bad smells.  I took my stick but held it at my side and eventually let it drop.  One saw it and grabbed for it.  I got to it first, thinking about that lady’s eye and my eyes.

I did not stay long.  I stood near the wall and watched as the keepers pushed them back into the wards.  Some hit out, others stumbled and fell, some just followed the instruction and a few stayed still, unable to move without help.  I didn’t want to poke any of them.

I was glad to get outside again, out in the air and the light.  I would scream at night too.  I don’t make the sticks so sharp now.

Inspiration: Visits to 'Bedlam'

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

135: Mummy Maker

I was apprenticed to Zham-bi, the chief embalmer of the noblemen of middle Egypt.  My father paid him handsomely to take me on and I was determined to become the best embalmer Egypt had ever seen.  I hoped one day to become so accomplished even the Pharaoh would seek me to preserve the bodies of his beloved Queens.

All Egyptians know that so a person can proceed into paradise his body must be treated so as to look like it did in his years of life.  Failure would leave the soul without a home.  Demons would feast upon the soul and the body will rot away to nothing.

For many years I observed Zham-bi, in time taking on roles such as assembling the canopic jars, helping pack the body in salt and even holding the bowl to catch the brain residue that had been hooked out via the nose.  I mixed the oils together to perfume bodies and eventually was allowed to stuff a body cavity with linen soaked in resin.

Then I was allowed to embalm a body without Zham-bi’s assistance, instead just his oversight and observation.  My father was so proud that day and I was happy to live up to his expectations.  In total I took 42 days to make sure the fluids were dried out and the body looked as close to life as possible.  I wanted my first embalming to be without fault.

Overall I was very pleased with the result and Zham-bi seemed impressed too.  Exhausted from the labours and with the mummy at rest in the coffin, I retired to my quarters.  As I was slipping into sleep, I heard a noise.  Jumping out of my cot, I ran towards the workshop, fearful thieves may be trying to ransack the body and steal the charms in the linen wrapping the body.

I saw a figure bending over the coffin, lid laid beside the base.  I was right, the body was out of the casket.  I could see it was empty.  Then I realized then the figure was the body.  It had risen into life again.  No body Zham-bi had embalmed had ever risen again. 

Unsure how to proceed, I watched from inside the door.  The body lumbered towards the jars and bowls holding its organs.  It tipped over the jars before picking up the bowl containing hooked out brains.  It tried scooping the jelly into its hands then pushing it back into its nose, then its mouth.  I decided to leave but knocked a tray of tools as I moved.

The body turned to me and dropped the bowl of brains.  It started to shuffle towards me, linen pieces beginning to unravel.  With stains of its own brains around its mouth place, it tried to speak.

“Zham beee,” it said, shambling with purpose.  “Zhaammm beeee.”

Inspiration: Egyptian Mummy Embalming 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

134: Real Shakespeare

William Shakespeare put down the quill, satisfied with a good day’s work.  Three scenes, all of which needed almost no revision.  A rare feat indeed.  Shakespeare glanced towards the open window and into the garden.  Outside, Anne walked towards a rose bush and picked a bloom.  She held it to her nose and breathed in its scent, smiling.  Shakespeare called out to her and raised a hand in a wave.

Anne smiled back and turned back towards the cottage, rose in hand.  Inside, she handed it to Shakespeare.  “For you my love,” she said.  Shakespeare took it from her.  “I shall write about it and how its beauty is nothing beside you.”  Anne blushed, then brushed Shakespeare’s cheek with a light kiss.

Once the evening meal was eaten, it was their habit to sit together and by the light of a candle Shakespeare would read the day’s labours to Anne.  She would always listen, attentive, then indicate where she felt there could be amendments and more often, reply that the words flowed so well that no improvements were possible.

They retired to their bedchamber and after their lovemaking, Shakespeare held Anne close, caressing her tresses.  “Imagine,” said Anne, “what your readers would say if they knew a mere woman discussed scenes and plots with the great Shakespeare?  Would you lose them, do you think?”

Shakespeare laughed then she replied, “They would find it even more unlikely than if they were to unmask the real William Shakespeare for the Wilhelmina she really is.  One woman playwright would be implausible, two a complete impossibility to be denied at all costs.” 

Inspiration: Who was Shakespeare really??

Monday, 10 September 2012

133: You Want to be a Doctor?

The scene was disgraceful, that afternoon in Edinburgh.  It was the newspapers that stoked public feeling up to such heights but it seemed everyone had an opinion on the matter.  Most people held the same view and it was only the Edinburgh Seven, a few of their supporters and even fewer of their teachers who held the contrary view.

The public outcry was ‘Would you want a doctor like that?’

Should they be eligible to study medicine?  Should they be afforded the opportunity of clinical practice experience?  Should they even be permitted to undertake degrees of any kind?

The day after a particularly heated round of discussions in the papers, the Seven were heading across the quad to a pathological examination in the mortuary.  The medical student body had amassed there and the courage of the Seven to even pass through the group was noteworthy.  There were murmurings then an occasional shout.  “You’re not welcome here,” rang around the walls.

Next there was pushing, gentle at first but within a minute, more vulgar.  One student was knocked to the floor by the most vocal group, just before he had made it to the safety of the pathology room.  A second was tripped up and fell to the floor, tearing a hole in his trouser knee.  Papers and vegetable peelings were hurled from the rear of the crowd but missed all of them.  The pair bringing up the rear of the Seven suffered the greatest indignity.  Bluntly, they received sputum plain in the face.

Isabella Mansfield then called for quiet and handed her own monogrammed kerchief to the gentlemen.  “Are we farmyard animals or are we ladies?” she asked.  “We do not deserve to win this cause if we must fit in such an abhorrent way.  Ladies, let them pass.  We shall continue our challenge on moral and ethical ground, not resort to common thuggery.”

The Seven young men passed into the pathology rooms with little more than whispers sounding from the crowd.  Once they were inside, Isabella addressed us once more.

“Ladies, we will be victorious but we shall maintain the higher ground.  These men may be here now but fear not, I see no more joining them in future.  Who amongst you and your families would accept treatment from a male doctor?  It’s a preposterous thought.  They will not prevail.”

Inspiration: Women entering medical school for the first time