The Cat Under the Stairs

He’d not long turned four when he first mentioned the cat under the stairs.  He’d taken to playing in the space, in spite of how dark it was and the fact that there always seemed to be a pile of coats that littered the floor because they wouldn’t stay on their hooks.  It was a rainy afternoon during the autumn half term, so all the children were in the house and the noise level was reaching critical mass.

I’d taken the fresh laundry from the dryer and as I stood holding the warm bundle in the kitchen, even above the childish din, I heard an almighty yell from upstairs; dropping everything, I ran!  In the room shared by the two younger girls was a horrible mess caused by what looked like paint but smelled like soap.  “He’s ruined everything!” wailed one, “On purpose!” chimed in another!  And I had to agree; quite a few things were definitely ruined!  Their carefully constructed Lego models and a beautiful lamp were now covered in purplish-blue gunk, which was running across the shelf and falling onto the books and toys on the shelves below.  He was standing in the corner of the room, still holding the dripping bucket that usually only saw the light of day during trips to the beach; his hands, T-shirt and some of his hair bearing the tell-tale signs of his guilt but his face the picture of innocence.  “The cat said I should do it!” he stated, quietly and unphased by the commotion still raging.  “We don’t have a cat!” I replied, baffled.  “We do!” he insisted!  “The cat under the stairs.”

Almost without fail, from that day, every misdemeanour, every indiscretion he committed – and there were very many – was blamed on the cat.  He never gave it a name, as many do with imaginary friends, nor could he describe it, even when pressed, yet referred to it as ‘he’ in conversation.  He refused to accept that the cat wasn’t real, although we reasoned with him, emptied the space so he could see there was no cat and did everything in our power to distract him and find him real human friends to play with.

On his eighth birthday, we bought a kitten; a tiny tabby speck with a sweet nature and soft fur.  He refused to name it or have anything to do with its care, claiming that the cat under the stairs didn’t like it and wanted it to go.  Indeed, the kitten seemed to take great pains to avoid the area under the stairs, walking a curious path whenever it neared the space.  Occasionally, she would hiss and bristle at the staircase.  It was unnerving, to say the least.  After only two months, the kitten slipped out unnoticed and, in spite of circulating posters, she was never returned to us.  We decided not to buy another pet.

As the years passed, the imaginary cat remained part of our lives, to the point that he would insist on adding ‘and the cat’ to cards and gift tags and we could see the knowing glances that would pass between relatives at gatherings.  He’d vanish under the stairs, from where we could hear low muttering and long pauses.  We took him to see a child psychologist, who suggested that being a lone boy among several sisters may be behind his wish to have a male companion to himself, even an imaginary one.  It seemed unlikely to me but with no other explanation forthcoming and no other real behavioural problems that couldn’t be accounted for by being the spoilt youngest child, we didn’t pursue the matter.  We simply waited for him to grow out of it.

When he was fourteen, we began to feel very squashed in the house that had been fine for two adults and five children but was less accommodating for seven adult-sized people.  As soon as we began to look for another house, he became almost inconsolable; he barely slept, he spent more and more time under the stairs, even doing homework in there, albeit of very poor quality.  We reassured him that we were only looking locally, that he would still go to the same school and see the same school friends, not that he had many.  He didn’t care; he just wanted to stay with the cat under the stairs.

Before too long, we managed to find somewhere bigger and within our price range so, after a couple of frantic months, we were standing in the new house, surrounded by boxes.  I saw him looking toward the door that formed a cupboard of the space under the stairs; I watched him as he tentatively opened the door, flicked on the light and looked inside.  A strange look passed over his face: relief?  “Is there space for your cat?” I joked, trying to lighten the mood.  “There never was a cat.” He said, looking very, very young, all of a sudden.  I felt my breath catch in my chest at this long-awaited admission.   “But he said you’d worry if I told you he was a goat.”

 

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Getting lost

Somebody told me, today, that I’m the image of my mother; apparently, they think he’ll be out of the cast by March. Don’t judge me! Unless your mother is Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron, it’s not what a woman wants to hear. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that and I have to grudgingly admit that it’s true. I have her blonde hair and her blue eyes; I should give them back really – she’s scaring the kids. We do look alike, though, and I’ve inherited other things from her: a love of reading, a memory that seems hardwired to store poetry, dates, useless facts and phone numbers, a virtual addiction to olives and big feet.

It’s harder to say what I’ve inherited from my dad. Perhaps when all my hair drops out, it’ll be easier to spot any resemblance but, looks-wise, it’s difficult to see any similarities. My squidgy nose is nothing like his Roman one and in spite of his brown eyes, a recessive blue-eyed gene obviously allowed me to take after Mammy. I also have excessively long femurs as opposed to his tiny ones that meant I’d have to push the car seat back a foot if I drove his car.

Looks aren’t everything though and I take after him in other ways: I don’t like to spend money unnecessarily, so I’ll have the washing machine in pieces year after year rather than buy another; I love a good detective programme and have shared many a happy hour with him, watching Columbo or the Rockford Files, and I have one of the most appalling senses of direction ever seen in a person who hasn’t been blindfolded and spun for an hour on the Waltzers. My brother-in-law nicknamed my dad ‘Pathfinder’ and it wasn’t a tribute. All who have ever had a lift from him have come to dread the tell-tale signs that a ‘short-cut’ was imminent: the turn down an apparently innocuous side road, the inevitable three-point turn when we would meet the dead end, followed by the attempt to retrace some or all of the turns that had led to us being hopelessly lost and, often, irretrievably late for an appointment. Similarly, I have been known to get lost in my own work building – although I must point out that this was before I worked from home – and after a drive through Aintree, I caused hilarity in the office by asking the question “What racecourse?” Yes, truly, I am ‘Daughter of Pathfinder’.

So, I know that I am in some way ‘a chip off the old block’ and this is a comfort because, earlier this month, he died. At the age of 91, after a lifetime of working hard and being daft and funny when it was right to be daft and funny and being serious when it was right to be serious and being the western world’s foremost advocate for the eating of bananas, he collapsed in the house with my mum, for whom he had long been a carer, and there was nothing anybody could do for him. After being lost with my dad or on my own so often, in many ways now, I think I’ll always be lost.

Little

When the world was bigger,

When the days were long,

When the night came quickly,

When my legs were strong,

I would climb the lamppost,

Right up to the light,

Swing upon the cross bar,

Holding really tight.

 

When the nights were lighter,

When we were out all day,

When a pound was riches,

When all we did was play,

Then I would write out numbers

In chalk upon the ground

And hop and jump for hours

Until the night came round.

 

When all my friends were little,

When I was little too,

When adults were like giants,

When there was lots to do,

I’d pull the blankets round me,

The world would fade from sight,

I’d lose myself in stories,

‘Til late into the night.

Growing Up

Such a long road to walk for such short legs,

We’d stop to read the numbers on the doors;

Testing you on your counting as we strolled,

My big hand wrapped completely around yours.

 

We’d play the games that spring up at such times:

‘Twenty Questions!’, ‘I-Spy’ or we’d chat

About the things we’d do once school was done,

About your thoughts on life: on this or that.

 

But now, your hand’s at least as big as mine,

And you are taller by an inch or two.

So, soon you’ll leave to start another life

And part of mine will finish when you do.

My Mother’s House

My mother’s house is packed with books
The paper garden of my thought.
Mysteries, crime, adventure tales,
Poetic tomes, the facts of war.

I know them like a loved friend’s face,
Their covers and each lettered line.
I know the stains, the tears, the wear,
The marks that take me back in time.

So long ago I picked them up,
Devoured each chapter, phrase and word,
Cocooned within that special place,
My private and imagined world.

Quite deaf to any outside sound,
Unknowing of the turn of tide.
Entranced by other people’s words,
Inspiring me to try to write.

Those stories now are written large,
A part of me, beyond all doubt.
My story too is written there,
On pages in my mother’s house.

Down by the river

The bench felt cold against his back; his thin jacket serving little purpose beyond modesty.  In the bag at his feet there was a rug: threadbare, damp, filthy.  When the weather grew colder, he would wear it as a coat, but for now it was just his bed, coming out after dark, if he could find somewhere safe enough to close his eyes.

He watched the river spread its arms to touch both towns with rippling fingers, joining and separating in one bold sweep.  He’d loved the river for as long as he could remember; all his important moments seemed connected to it, somehow.  As a tiny boy, he’d come here with his mum and his sister so often that it felt as though this had been their real home.  If there was any money, they’d all go on the ferry and rush straight up the stairs to the top deck, hoping to find a seat where they could see the important sights as the ferry followed its timeless course, and eat the sandwiches and the inevitable bananas that their mum would have packed.  They seldom stayed in the hard-won seats once the food was finished, preferring to play among the benches and ropes, rushing in and out of the warm, inner area, tripping over bags and prams belonging to the nesh passengers who’d claimed a comfy seat out of the wind, sticking their heads through the holes to look at the foamy water below.

When there was no money, they’d walk along the prom, standing on the rails to see into the grey depths, with their mother’s concerned warnings bouncing straight off them.  One time, he’d climbed through the gap to see better and his mum’s shrieks had scattered the hopeful gull clan that had thronged behind them.  All he’d seen, for the pain of the slap that waited, was the green slime, climbing the bricks and chains and some rubbish, floating on the top of the water.

As he’d reached his teens, he’d started to come down to the Pier Head with his friends, staying on the bus until it reached the terminus, then hanging around in front of Mann Island, shouting at girls, laughing when they shouted back, terrified in case they came over.  The inspectors and drivers from the MPTE would sometimes tell them to clear off, but not in such polite terms and they’d move ten yards if they could be bothered or argue the toss, if they couldn’t.

He’d met his wife down here.  She’d worked at the insurance company that was in the main building: the one with the birds.  He’d been working at a local paper, further up into town and coming down to eat his lunch by the river and he’d spotted her.  She’d made the mistake of throwing a crust to try to get rid of them and now the greedy birds wouldn’t leave her alone, so she kept flapping her coat at them and saying “Shoo!”  They’d back off a few feet for a minute, then pour back in like treacle or like teenage boys sent packing by the bus drivers.  He’d laughed and she’d looked up and seen him.  He felt bad, but then she’d laughed too and that was that; he was hooked!

Although he hadn’t spoken to her that day, he’d placed himself nearer to where she had been sitting so that when she’d turned up the next day, he was close enough to ask “No pet seagulls today?” and from then on, they’d had their food together there every work day for the next year and a half, going to the pictures and to see local bands at weekends.  They married on a Saturday afternoon at her church and had their reception in a pub close enough to the river to hear and smell it.  They’d been happy for eighteen years.  When she’d died at the age of forty-two, he’d taken her ashes to the river and scattered them in the dead of night, barely stopping himself from following her into the hypnotic ink.

Slowly, at first, and then more and more quickly, his routines had fallen apart.  Without her, he didn’t care about work or talking to people or leaving the house and it didn’t take long for the knock at the door.  No work, no rent money, no home.  Family members tried to talk him into staying with them, as he shrank before their eyes; a youngish man, ageing like an apple before their eyes, drinking to keep the memories at bay.  Falling.

Trouble followed him like a predator, ripping the last pieces of his life to shreds.  Arrests, fights, hospital wards.  And always, the only peace he could ever find was at the river.  Until today, as he clung to the cold comfort of the Mersey, he heard a laugh that had been absent for years and he turned his head to look for his wife.  She wasn’t there.  There was just a group of office workers, protecting their food from the gulls.  She would never be there again, but he understood in that moment how much it would hurt her to see him so beaten.  He pulled himself to his feet and looked at the crowd around his feet.  He flapped his hands … “Shoo!” 

The girl.

The first time I remember seeing her, I was probably about four or five.  I was playing in the hallway, tracing the Greek key patterns of the carpet with my toes; I was so engrossed in this game that I didn’t even notice her until she was halfway up the stairs.  I thought she was my little sister.  She was small and her blonde hair was straight and long, just like my sister’s.  Much as I had been enjoying my obsessive pattern tracing, I liked the idea of playing with somebody else, so I followed her. 

She walked into the bedroom I shared with my younger sister and an older one; we weren’t rich and as we were still relatively small, two of us shared a bed, sleeping top to toe in surprising harmony.  I wasn’t far behind the girl so I entered the room a few seconds after she did.  She was gone.  Of course, thinking she was my little sister, I presumed she was hiding and began to search, calling her name in case she would do me a favour and come out.  My sister was great at hiding because she was really small; not just ‘young small’, she was ‘small small’.  With very little between us in age, I towered over her and she could fit into places I wouldn’t even attempt to get into.  One time, she hid behind a sewing machine and it took me ten minutes to find her – that’s how good she was … and how little.

But she wasn’t hiding, because two or three minutes into my exhaustive search, she came up the stairs and asked ‘What?’  She had heard me saying her name and come to find out what I wanted.  I told everybody about the girl: what she looked like, where I had seen her, how she had just vanished.  Mostly that!  How she’d just vanished. 

I watched out for her for ages and didn’t see her, but my bedroom didn’t feel like a good place to be in anymore and I couldn’t get to sleep if I faced the wall.  I would read for hours using the light from the landing to avoid the darkness of closed eyes.  My reading improved in leaps and bounds; my ability to sleep soundly was destroyed permanently.

Yet there had been nothing sinister about the little girl, other than the mysterious vanishing act.  If I hadn’t followed her, I probably would always have assumed she was my sister and just forgotten seeing her go up the stairs.  As it is, I know I’ll never forget her.

Years later, perhaps when I was 10 or 11, I was sleeping in a different room, with two different sisters.  One night we heard the unmistakeable sound of a ball bouncing against the wall.  It was the adjoining wall to our new neighbours, who had a young boy and girl.  They were younger than me by a little and didn’t play out.  Certainly not with us, at any rate.  The noise kept us awake for ages and sounded really loud, with the hollow of the chimney breast magnifying every bounce and we grumbled about the terrible mother who couldn’t get her children to go to bed and sleep when they were of no age at all.  We had no room to talk, since we were more likely to read or secretly listen to a tiny portable radio that one of my big sisters had smuggled into the bedroom than we were to go to sleep at a reasonable hour.  Still!  At least we weren’t actually out of bed playing ball.

The bouncing went on for days and seemed louder than ever.  Our parents heard it and also grumbled about the new kids next door, right up until the day they were leaving the house for work at the same time as the woman next door had come out to do the school run.  She asked my mum if she could have a word with us, because the ball games were keeping her awake.  The bouncing sound was actually coming from our room.  To bounce a ball against that wall, someone would have to be standing at the end of the bed, just next to where my head would be.

The bouncing didn’t stop, but it didn’t happen all the time and sometimes it came from different places in the house but always upstairs. 

Still, I didn’t see the girl again until one night when I was about 15.  Only me and my little sister were in the house.  She was watching the telly and I was in another room, drawing.  The door to the hallway was open and something made me look up, just in time to see the girl walk past, as though she were heading for the stairs or for the room where my sister was laughing at some comedy programme.  She still looked like my sister, but she had aged.  I didn’t know what to do.  I actually felt too scared to look where she had gone; I couldn’t even get out of my seat.  She was just a girl, who’d never so much as looked at me or said a word.  Maybe she’d kept me awake with her ball games, maybe not.  Eventually I got up the courage to look out of the room and was very relieved to see nobody.  I went and spent the rest of the evening in the same room as my sister, leaving every light lit up and casting little glances to the hall every couple of minutes.

I saw her one more time.  I was an adult, with three children and fast asleep in my bed.  The insomnia she had caused had continued to plague me, but I’d had a busy day, visiting my sick brother amongst other things, and had fallen into bed, exhausted.  A single word woke me up.  Just my name in a voice that sounded like family, but I knew I’d never heard it before.  I knew it was her even before I saw her.  Still blonde, still looking as though she could be my sister, but grown up.  She didn’t say another word, but I knew that she had come to bring me bad news about my brother and she had.  The news came by phone in the morning, but it was just confirmation.  I don’t know how she told me, but she did.

I think I’ll see her again.  I don’t know when or where and I don’t look out for her, but I know it will happen.  One day … and I wonder if she’ll still be blonde or will she be grey, like I am, like my sister is.  I’m not afraid any more, but I am curious.  I just want to know who she is.

Birthday madness and the aisle of many cheeses

I had to go to the supermarket – the kids had gone and eaten the food again – and I decided to get some cheese to go with our spaghetti dinner.  When you want a particular cheese, you really notice how many there are on offer, ranging from the absolutely inedible ‘plastic’ cheeses specifically designed to adorn burgers to rustically packaged Camembert that shows up with almost clockwork regularity on Come Dine With Me, accompanied by crusty bread they have bunged in the oven and pretended to bake.  There were about 20 different types of Cheddar alone and I found it mildly intimidating, to be honest.  And then there was the Quark.  Before today, I thought that was just something I’d heard Brian Cox wittering about – the trendy physicist, rather than the versatile actor – or even an avaricious character from Star Trek.  But now I know that it’s also pretend cheese.

There’s a back story to this cheese hunt.  Recently, our household has been experiencing ‘birthday fortnight’; it’s like Wimbledon fortnight, in as much as it happens every summer, is ridiculously expensive and invariably ends in sweaty exhaustion.  Sadly, there are no generous sponsors, no trophies and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe, but on the plus side, I don’t have to entertain any members of the royal family or maintain a pristine lawn and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe.

It isn’t really a fortnight, to be honest – it’s very nearly three weeks – but the structure is this: my birthday happens first and is ‘celebrated’ in an understated way with shop-bought cake and the possibility of takeaway food so I don’t have to cook.  When I don’t cook, that’s a treat for everyone.  Ten days later, it’s my daughter’s birthday and this is taken seriously.

There are birthday traditions in this house:

  • I make a cake, based on something they like at the moment and the design is a surprise, which involves me making the cake two days before the birthday so I can decorate it the following day.  This also means that once the decorating starts, the birthday child has to be kept out of the kitchen, which is an extra gift to them because it absolves them of tea-making duties.
  • I make a card, based on something they like at the moment and featuring the birthday person somehow in the design.  The acquisition of photo-editing software made this much easier than when I used to do it using scissors and paint.  This also remains a secret from the birthday person, so they aren’t allowed within sight of my laptop screen.
  • I make a poster, featuring them doing something odd-looking and with a ‘humorous’ caption.  This goes on the living-room wall for them to see when they get up in the morning.
  • I draw and write on a couple of balloons and hang them near the bed of the person in question once they’ve gone to sleep.

They seem to like these traditions.  The youngest, who has just turned 13, certainly does, although the others may be humouring me on the last one.

So, as I said, it goes: my birthday, ten days later – elder daughter’s birthday.  Three days after that is my father-in-law’s birthday, for which I don’t have to do anything except buy the present and the card, then wrap the present and tell my husband what we bought, so he won’t look surprised when it’s unwrapped.  Since it’s almost always some DVDs, he’s unlikely to look surprised, but better safe than sorry.  Four days after that, so one week after my elder daughter’s birthday, it’s my elder son’s birthday AND my younger daughter’s birthday.  They are not twins.  There is, in fact, 11 years between them and they were both born on a Monday.  I’m considering hiring them out as proof that astrology is nonsense, since they’re very different people apart from the dry sarcasm that my children all, inexplicably, share.

You may have realised by now that the birthday traditions, as outlined above, become quite complicated when two of your offspring share a birthday, but are 11 years apart and don’t like the same things.  I start making their cards and posters early so that the two days I spend, entirely in the kitchen, making and decorating cakes are not fraught with the added stress of knowing I have those jobs hanging over me as well.

But that’s not all.  Two days after the double birthday is my father’s birthday.  This year, he turned 90, which is quite special, so I made him a cake and a card.  I didn’t sneak into his house and hang balloons by his bed, because I don’t think killing him with a heart attack is the ideal way to start his 90th birthday.

So … back to the cheese.  I decided to make a cheese board, which isn’t a group of people who sit around making decisions about cheese as you might suppose, but a small selection of cheeses, arranged on a board – or a fancy tray that came with a garden candle – and accompanied by some crackers.  Amongst these cheeses was a garlic roulade, which absolutely nobody wanted to eat, so I ended up sticking it in the pasta and it tasted quite nice.  So that’s why I ended up in the supermarket, looking for cheese for the pasta.  Which reminds me of the final birthday tradition – living on leftovers.

Blacklight

“What just happened?” she asked, looking at the lamp.  There was no answer.

“What just happened to the light?” she said, louder.

“Nothing.  What are you talking about?”  She looked at her husband: his head barely visible behind his laptop.

“The light did something.  It went out.  Or something went in front of it.  The room went black for a moment; didn’t you see?”  He looked up at the lamp and then at her.

“It didn’t do anything.  I would have noticed if the room had gone black.  You probably blinked or something.”

“For God’s sake, Ben, I blink all the time.  Do you think I don’t know what blinking is like?  You don’t even notice a blink!”  Frustrated, she threw the newspaper onto the couch beside her and got up.  She went over to the light and poked the bulb.  “Ow!” she breathed.  She shook the base.

“It’s gone a bit black now your fat arse is in the way!” laughed Ben.  She spun around and frowned at him.

“I’m going to bed!”  She strode to the bathroom, slammed the door and sat on the closed lid of the toilet.  She realised her hands were shaking a little.  Fury?  Fear?  Something else?  If the light didn’t do anything, perhaps she had a brain tumour.  Perhaps there was something pressing on the back of her eye, creating vision problems and making her temper short.  No.  Not the temper thing.  That was all Ben!!  No …something had got in the way of the light; he didn’t notice because he was looking at a brightly lit laptop screen.  He wouldn’t have noticed if she’d done a fan dance in front of the lamp.  He never noticed anything she did.

As the water ran into the sink, she watched her reflection blur and fade in the bathroom mirror.  She looked better in the steam.  The water was a little too hot as she stood with her hands pressed flat and her wrists smarting.  They didn’t look like her hands in the water; they looked like a stranger’s hands.

By the time Ben came up to bed, she’d been asleep for an hour, but he turned on the light, walked over to his side of the bed, turned on his lamp and yawned, “Turn that light off for me!”.  She did.  Then she lay on her side with her back to him as he opened a book and began to read.  The flowers on the wallpaper looked like giant moths in the gloom, and the shadow cast by her own body made it seem as though they were struggling to crawl from the earth, to free themselves from a two dimensional chrysalis: but failing!

When she woke, it was as though she had been shaken and for a moment she thought one of the children had come into the room.  Her head was fuzzy and her tongue so dry it clicked as she tried to swallow.  “What’s up?” she heard herself mumble before realising there was nobody there.  Her head felt so much heavier than it should, but even so, the last of their children had left 2 years before and had already been long past the age when you come looking for your mum after a bad dream.  According to the clock, it was 04:11, but it wasn’t reliable.  She felt for her phone and checked the time on that.  04:11. Holding her breath, she listened for anything that might have woken her, knowing that it wouldn’t take much: the sounds of the fridge, the central-heating turning on or off or just being old, a rattling door, nothing at all.  There was nothing to be heard, but she couldn’t get over the feeling that she had been shaken.  She shuddered and her breath came in a burst and shocked her with its loudness.  It took more than an hour for her to get back to sleep and when the alarm rang at 7, she felt as though she hadn’t slept at all.

In work, the hum of the library was a comfort for her twanging nerves.  Her back hurt as she pushed the trolley to the far end, where she would begin the ritual of replacement: checking the other books on the shelves as she went, using a sixth-sense to find out-of-place books, carelessly used by people who didn’t have respect for the knowledge stored here.

It was while she was moving a copy of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ from ‘J’ to ‘P’ that the lights went out at the end of the stack …for a moment.  She felt so vulnerable.  She turned to one end and then to the other, then pushed her back against the shelf, her hands shaking wildly and her chest feeling so tight it could have been encircled by invisible arms.  She forced herself to walk to the end of the stack.  To where she could see other people.  It calmed her a little and she walked to the desk.

“Did you have a problem with the lights over here?”  She tried to keep her voice casual but wasn’t sure if she had managed.  Laura looked at her with a frown.

“Are you alright?  You don’t look well.  Sit down before you fall down!”  She did.  “You’re a funny colour!  Do you want a drink of water?”

“I’m alright.  I didn’t sleep well.  I just wondered if you saw the lights flicker.  They did up by the children’s stacks.  Just for a second.”

“No.  They were alright down here.”

She realised she still had ‘Peter Rabbit’ in her hand but she gave it to Laura.  She didn’t want to go back into the stacks.

As she ate her dinner that night she watched a programme about why the bees are vanishing.  She had the main light on and the lamp as well as the hall light.  She felt uneasy alone here now, and Ben had texted to say he would be going straight to the club after work.  She wished they had a dog.  Or a cat.  Or a budgie.  Something with a heartbeat, however small.  The bee programme was over and somebody was explaining how Stonehenge had been built.  And why, apparently!  She pushed a piece of cold fish across her plate with the point of her knife and realised she’d sat for an hour and had barely eaten a mouthful.  She had tasted none of it.

Scraping the food into the bin, she felt as though she had somehow lost a chunk of time and wondered if she should see a doctor.  Maybe, in the morning, she could make an appointment to put her mind at rest …or not.  That’s what she’d do.  Making the decision helped her to relax a little and she decided a warm bath and an early night might start making up for lack of sleep and stress.

In the bathroom cupboard she found some bubble bath that had been a Christmas present and poured it onto the torrent of hot water, filling the bath.  The smell of strawberries filled the room and for a moment she was 7 again and sitting, surrounded by bubbles and playing with her dolls.  Washing their hair.  Making them swim.  She shook her head and straightened up, withdrawing her hand from the swirling water.  Something was pushing for attention.

“What?”  The stark, sudden question made her jump, even though it was her own voice.

She stepped into the bath; the hot water turning her leg lobster coloured in seconds.  She sat down and leant back into the crackling bubbles, relishing the borderline pain.  She closed her eyes and the dolls came back into her mind; they had been called Jenny and Lulu and she couldn’t remember what had happened to them.  They had been there all the time for years and then …where?  She was 7 again.  In the bath.  Playing.  With the dolls.  And then …then …the light had gone out.  No, not gone out …was blocked.  Mum’s friend, Joe was there.

Back in the present, she pulled her knees into her chest and began to sob.

My brood

Aside

My little boy no longer, but a man,

I wonder at his strength, of many kinds,

Such as the gift of writing that he can

Use subtly to capture people’s minds.

His songs, his tales, his poetry just soars

And frees me from the mundane and the dull,

He turns a laughing eye upon my flaws

And makes my glass perpetually full.

 

So many times I look at him and see

The tiny child that clung onto my hand

Who’s still inside the man in front of me,

To whom I tilt my head up as I stand.

I see his skills and know he will achieve

Those things that form the substance of his dreams,

And all who watch him work also believe

That he will be the master of life’s schemes.

 

She’s full of life and promise, on her way

To a future of her own unbound design.

She says things I would never think to say

I don’t know how I dare to call her mine.

She makes me laugh too often to recall

The words she twists and turns to make her own.

She leaps with style although she  fears the fall.

She’s not a sheep, It’s she who sets her tone.

 

My little one, the baby of my four,

Displays to all the world a certain grace.

A dancer who can halt the room before

Her as she sets a sweet and measured pace.

She’s finding where she fits as time goes by

By trying every chance that wanders in,

By asking what and when and where and why

And when it’s time she lets the song begin.