This morning we walked from the glacial boulder near Brocton down into Sherbrook valley. Ice lingered wafer-thin in puddles and the dog left plumes of white breath in the air as he scampered up gravel banks.
This shot was taken at the second set of stepping stones, further up the valley from the better known ones. Sadly this set seems to have been moved. It is shallow here, sandy and pebbly before the brook meanders through silver birch and drenched clods of turf.
It’s a beautiful spot. Sometimes if you are lucky it is yours for ten or fifteen minutes. Or a mountain biker may rush through the shallows or a horse clop through…..this morning for a few moments the water was almost perfectly still, just a thread of silt spilling into where it had widened and pooled and a wisp of vapour clinging to the surface.
I draped a tea towel over his head. Best I could do, considering. I’d thought about taking the shade from his reading lamp and forcing that down over his fizzog, but the thread of the bulb was stuck with rust and I couldn’t get it free. Fizzog. That was one of his words. You can wipe that look off your fizzog for starters. Herbert got descriptive with his insults. Shut your bleeding cakehole Chrissy. Shut your bloody noise, face-ache.
I didn’t want his eyes following me. They’d gone all gummy like salt glaze. I should’ve closed them, drawn his eyelids down with my fingertips the way they did with soldiers in war films, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch his cold, clammy skin. His mouth was hanging open, catching flies. I tugged the tea towel down, so it covered his pink gums and stained teeth. I’d missed stubble at the corners of his mouth with his last shave. The batteries had given up on his ancient Braun. Can’t even get the shopping right. Useless cow. Egg yolk and sticky ketchup clung to his whiskers.
First thing I’d done when I’d found him was to turn the TV off and kick his bloody pouffe down the cellar steps. Television was on night and day with Herbert: Cops with Dogs, Cops in Cars, Cops in Copters, Cops on Roller Skates, probably. When he wasn’t glued to wailing sirens and car chases he’d stare at the horse-racing and football and boxing and God-knows-what. And he’d stare at it twenty-four-seven. If they’d televised bluebottles landing on windows he’d have watched it. He was moulded to that filthy, stinking, tapestry reclining chair. He’d have to be carried out in it.
No more Herbert. I clapped my hands and whistled as I filled the kettle. I took a seat as it chugged to the boil, so I could watch him through a crack in the door. Herbert was dead. Dead as a doornail. Life begins for Chrissy! I let the teabag steep, so it was strong and orange and flipped open my notebook as I sipped. I wrote ‘plans’ and underlined it three times. There’d need to be a funeral, a wake. I’d need to phone police or ambulance or doctor or something. Didn’t you go to jail for not reporting someone was dead? And he’d attract flies and rats and all sorts. Yah, all that stuff could wait. ‘Plans’ was about me, not him.
Christ alone knows I’d waited for long enough for him to croak. I got out a posh gel pen I’d pinched from work and scribbled: London, beach, hairdo, leather jacket, vino, phone. The order didn’t matter. I peeked through the crack in the door. Herbert hadn’t budged nor the tea towel. I’d seen them use mirrors in cop shows, holding it to their mouth in case their breath fogged it. There was a broken shard of mirror from the bathroom cabinet. I’d put it on the bathroom windowsill, but that would have meant going upstairs. I’d got more important things to do. I crouched beside the bookcase to turn off the radiator in the lounge. I unplugged the electric fire, taking no chances, and I opened the lounge window. Herbert would be ripe before long.
‘And you think I don’t know where, don’t you?’
He didn’t answer. I crouched down and swept the bottles of sherry, brandy and ginger wine out of the sideboard cupboard onto the Turkish rug. Dregs of Christmases past, before Herbert had been frightened off the drink by Doc Tupper. He was five stone overweight, moaning I was using too hot a wash for his cords and shirts and that they kept shrinking. He was diabetic, legs like a knackered racehorse, getting housebound. His joints were swollen and his temper, which had never been good, got fouler. He kept a walking stick propped against his chair. It had a brass goat’s head as a handle with creepy staring eyes.
He’d not let me touch the booze. He had the idea ladies didn’t drink. But I was only a lady when it suited. He’d tried to fix me up with his mates, offered me as a prize to clear up his losses at poker. I didn’t know that till later and then I understood why they grinned and leered at me and tried to grope and catch hold of me as I topped up their lagers and fetched crisps and peanuts.
I unscrewed a half bottle of J&B, sniffed it and swigged. It was in a duty-free bag from Manchester Airport, so had to be from his beano to Marbella twenty-odd years back. It burnt my throat, making me gasp. I downed the rest for Dutch courage and waited for the warm feel in my gut. Old games were stacked at the back of the cupboard – Mastermind, Connect4, Monopoly and Buck-a-Roo – their perished cardboard corners taped up. I dragged them out, resisting the temptation to open them and fiddle. Behind them, under an old daisy-patterned tablecloth was a Bluebird toffee tin. My heart fluttered. I took a deep breath and got my fingernails under the lid. It grated but it came free. My shoulders slumped. Nothing.
‘I bet you think you’ve got one over on me don’t you, Herbert?’
I flung the tin across the room, scattering his dominoes across the carpet. It would be his idea of a joke. You won’t even call the ambulance. You’ll be too busy scouting for baubles, girl. Girl! If only. I was forty-two, greying roots, saggy arse, weak chin. All these years you’ve been in the shop window and no one’s even browsed. As there’s no prince coming, unless he’s effing blind things are going to have to change round here. He’d priced up what it cost to keep me. He made a list of food I ate (estimated weight), the toilet roll I used (measured to the inch) and my exact share of the house insurance (I later found out we didn’t have any), heating and council tax. He pinned it to the cork noticeboard in the kitchen, next to the ‘Rules of the House.’ His meagre pension went on booze. My wages paid for the rest. If I tried complaining Herbert would point at the house and grumble, ‘Who do you think paid for all this? The bleeding tooth fairy?’ At those times he chose not to see the damp, the peeling wallpaper, the busted gutters, the clanking pipes. And he was always blind to the washing, cleaning, ironing, painting, shopping.
I picked up two counters from Connect4 and a domino. I stood over him and, as delicately as I could, I dropped a red counter onto the tea towel for each eye and gave him a domino mouth. Mouth like a slit. Red eyes. Perfect for Herbert, a hateful and heavy drinker if ever there was one. ‘Ha. Now look at your stupid bloody fizzog.’ I leaned on the door, watching him. ‘Think you’ve got one over on me, don’t you?’ I said. ‘Well you’ve got to get up a bit earlier in the morning if you’re going to put one over on Chrissy here.’ I took the stairs two at a time, yanking myself up with the aid of the banister. I was breathless and a little light-headed with the exertion, as I barged into the back room. I dropped to my knees, rolling back the threadbare carpet. Mushroom-coloured foam broke away from the back. Yellowed, brittle sports pages had been pressed to the floorboards. I peeled a loose sheet back and lifted an old board. It was warped and knobbly, painted thick with a treacly shade of varnish.
‘Thought I didn’t know, didn’t you?’
Herbert kept his jazz mags under this wonky floorboard. Vintage copies of women with frizzy seventies hair or sporting eighties-style headbands as they touched their toes or splayed their legs in fake offices or on sheepskin rugs beside roaring log fires. I got a tennis racket from on top of the wardrobe and pushed them away, not wanting to touch them. I got the wire coat hanger I’d twisted and shaped, so I’d extended the hook and I reached as far as I could beneath the boards, but I couldn’t snag it. I lay down and pressed my cheek hard against the boards and pushed and looped the hook till it caught the plastic. I had to stab it in, so it’d catch, and I dragged it till I could get fingertips to it and turn it and lift it out. Droplets of sweat fell on the dusty boards and I had to wipe my brow with my sleeve as I set down the parcel. Something creaked on the stairs. I got to my feet and crept across to the landing. A pizza leaflet and two brown envelopes were being shoved through the letterbox. I waited for the postie’s silhouette to move from the door, grabbed the parcel and ran down the stairs. I glanced through the crack in the door where Herbert sat, unmoved beneath the tea towel.
I dropped the parcel on the kitchen table, dragged up a chair, and cussed as I slumped down. It was bound up with brown tape and string. How was I going to get into it? I got one of Herbert’s steak knives from the block and cut into the plastic with the tip. I didn’t want to damage the contents, so ran a thin, shallow slit down the side where it was bound up with tape. I got my fingers in and pulled it apart, squealing as the contents spilled onto the table. Stacked fifties bound in elastic bands. ‘Jesus wept,’ I said.
I was stacking and counting, when I sensed a shadow, a scrape on the tiles. I tensed, then snatched at the knife as a hand grabbed a fistful of my hair yanking my head back. He jerked my head forward, smacking it against the table. I tried to shout, but the force stunned me. Blood dripped from my nose and I was blinking away tears. He pulled on my hair, so it tore from the roots and I screamed as he drew back a fist. I twisted and I screamed as loud as I could and drove the knife straight into his ribs. Metal hit bone and I drove it in again, into his gut. He sunk to his knees and fell back against the cupboard where we kept the saucepans. His eyes narrowed, as if trying to understand what had happened, and then his head lolled forward, resting on his chest. Blood began to pool in the cracks between the red floor tiles. I got the tin from the front room, sluiced my hands under the tap, watching Herbert’s blood spiral down the plughole. I shoved the fifties in the tin, taking a hundred out for a float. I called a cab firm on one of the leaflets that’d been stuffed through the door. I stuffed the tin in the bottom of my rucksack, chucking in some knickers, soap, T-shirts, pyjamas, jeans and sweaters, toothpaste and a brush.
The taxi honked at the gate at the bottom of the drive. Herbert’s saggy slacks were drenched in blood. He’d stuffed the tea towel in his collar the way he did when he ate soup, like a baby’s bib. ‘Goodbye Herbert,’ I said, and I slammed the door and ran through the puddles.
I thought something about me must be screaming ‘murderer’ or that there might be blood on my face or my hands, but the taxi driver just hummed ‘Copa Cabana’ and dropped an extra-strong mint onto his tongue.
The woman in the little glass window muttered something. ‘Anywhere,’ I said. She rolled her eyes. ‘We got nowhere called that.’
‘I was joking, thinking aloud.’
She did that thing where people eye you the whole time like you’re just a bit cuckoo. ‘There’s a queue forming, petal. Where’re you going?’
I told her London Houston and she grinned, like I’d said something funny. She frowned when I said first class and then I peeled four fifties from the roll in my jacket pocket and she saw I was serious. ‘Going to London to see the Queen,’ I sang. She gave me an odd look and handed me the tickets. The train was on time, despite all the moaning I’d heard on the platform. I got aboard and got my rucksack stowed above me.
I watched a narrowboat chug up to a lock and cows follow a dog-walker across as a field as we pulled out of town. When I trust someone enough to talk, when I don’t feel ashamed I let him rob twenty-three years of my life, I might tell my story. Seventeen is an awkward age. Old enough to know better, but too young and too innocent. Not cute anymore, nowhere to go. I’d been fostered, and it hadn’t worked out. That day, I’d been waiting for a bus that never arrived. I’d kipped in a shop doorway and woken with a blade in my face and a hand in my sleeping bag. I got up and walked after that, numbed at what’d been done to me. I don’t know how long I walked. I found a bus stop when my legs gave out, a rickety old shed that stank of piss and creosote. I’d sat hugging my knees to my chest for hours Herbert pulled up in his battered old Saab. I’d known old fellas like him before, wanting me to do things to them, but I’d nowhere else to go. He gave me a warm, comfortable bed of my own. He fed me. He got me a job. I was grateful. It took me months to work out he’d taken in a slave.
I pressed my head back against the seat and stared up at the rucksack. I hadn’t got as far as counting it all. Twenty-three years I’d grafted and been treated like a dog. It wouldn’t come close to what I was owed. Tomorrow, I’d call in sick at work. Apart from the postie, the scrap-metal fella, no one ever visited us. I reckoned I had a week at least before anyone found Herbert or missed him. A week in London, all expenses paid. I ordered a bottle of lager to go with my egg and cress. We shot past golden fields and pastel-coloured hills at a tilt. I dinked the glass neck of the bottle on the window, clocked my fizzog in the reflection, smiling at last, and said: ‘Cheers Herbert.’
When we pulled into London I saw a sign for the ‘Underground’ and that thought that’d do me just fine.
Perhaps the kind of marital woes you’d find in a 1970s sitcom have always been a part of British society. But rather than being captured on ITV4 afternoons a wood carving in oak is left to tell the tale.
I was wandering through the V&A Museum in Kensington when I spotted Finney’s Post. I was drawn to it, noting it was from my home county of Staffordshire.
The post came from a building in Burton-on-Trent market place and is named after a merchant called Finney.
Finney’s wife had the reputation of being a scold – someone who nags or argues constantly. One day she fell into a trance and died, but while her funeral bier was being carried toward the church it struck this post, waking her. She regained consciousness and lived for several years afterwards much to Finney’s disgust!
George and Mildred’s ancestors were alive and well in Staffordshire in 1400.
The curator notes that, at some time between 1800 and 1850, a brass plate was fixed to the post, engraved with:
This Post, as Finney’s Legend saith,
Awoke a Scolding Wife from Death;
But when at length she ceas’d to breathe,
And honest Finney ceased to grieve,
‘oh shun’ he said, as borne along,
With solemn dirge and funeral song.
‘Oh shun, my friends, that cruel Stump
That gave my dear so hard a Bump.
I hope it’s a better year but I also believe one good thing that has come out of 2020 is an appreciation for those things we might take for granted. They’ll be different for all of us but I’d randomly list: family time watching films, listening to our record player, reading poems, walloping a heavy punchbag, writing.
It’s been a hard time and I’m grateful to have continued working through it. I have friends less fortunate who have the uncertainty of trying to find work during this pandemic.
Reading Beetley Pete’s blog it’s clear that others are finding it hard to adjust to this strange new world. It’s affecting every day lives with distancing and masks of course, but it is also having an impact on our sleep, our mental health and how we behave.
Pete has discussed his inability to complete novels he wishes to read. Apart from my annual delve into Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus novel I’ve had the same problem – I can’t focus on novels. I can just about cope with non-fiction. Why are facts easier to absorb than stories?
These strange days have also affected my output. A few years ago I wrote a novel, and had an agent for a time, but it didn’t come to anything sadly. Without going into detail we’ve had a lot of bereavement and other issues to deal with and work has been demanding too, so my writing began to become a burden. I no longer enjoyed it and, what was meant to be an escape from work became an extension of it. I’m still getting published but not really progressing.
Creativity became a grind of tortuous plotting and measuring out word count every day. If I didn’t hit those levels of, say 700 or 1,000 words, I was besieged with the guilt of the January dieter whose resolutions of good eating habits come crashing down with a tray of Krusty Kreme. I wasn’t brought up Catholic but I’m adept at suffering guilt and torturing myself.
I work full time in a mentally demanding role so available time can be limited as it is for most part time writers. The question to many part-time writers – especially if they win prizes or secure representation – is can they make a living? And, similarly to anyone in a band or starting a business, or trying to make the cut as a golf pro….how badly do they want it?
It wasn’t just Covid19’s impact on 2020. I understood that for some time I had lost the joy.
So, how to get it back? I’m trying a few methods but in short I’m doing new and different things and I’m diversifying. I don’t want to attempt a novel right now. I’m a little burnt out with short stories having published many.
The demands on my life mean I want something snappy, creative, instant and fun. Something that hopefully gets a response on here.
So, I shall be writing poems and recording readings of them on here.
I’ll also be drawing cartoons and publishing them.
I don’t rule out dives back into writing articles of non-fiction but for now I just want to get my mojo back and have some fun.
I may completely change my mind but this is how I’ll start out. I’m interested to see how others are coping and if they’ve changed their patterns or want to share any ideas.
Enjoy 2021. Be grateful and be kind. Whichever path you take……