Big People Talk #Timesup

Big People Talk

WI front room

When I was a child I remember my parents used to go into the sacred ‘front room’ and close the door when we had certain visitors. Well, I mean when they had visitors. Their friends and relatives would be shown into the best room and we, as children would be left outside.

If we dared to venture in to the room while they were talking we would be shooed out again especially if we dared to speak. It paid to be like the embossed flowery wallpaper – obviously there, but after a while unnoticed.

When we spoke it was like being at a tennis match, all heads turned to us and a chorus of dissent reached our ears. This was sometime accompanied by a slap if the interruption was way out of place.

The words that were slapped into our bare legs were invariably some variation of, “Big people are talking!”

As we retreated to the dining room or garden I think we children wondered how the ‘big people’ always got their own way and got to make all the decisions.

It came to me the other day that all those people are now gone or going. A friend was talking about the death of her father’s best friend. I recently attended the funeral of another friend’s father, there is death all around and it has sadly become an intimate associate in recent times. All the ‘big people’ I knew have gone or are currently going.

It hurts. It really hurts.

The most recent departure of a loved one has made me realise that we are the big people now. We have to support and comfort each other as we journey on. We have to make the decisions.

It does hurt, but we will make it through. Together.

*

At social family gatherings there are natural divisions between the youngest and the more mature folk. I now fall above the division line, and it reinforces the fact that I am seen as an adult who has to do adult things. This is a responsibility I was hidden from as a child. I did not have a rite of passage where I was inducted into adulthood by my parents.

My mother left abruptly, as death snatched her from my teenage life. My father lived a secluded existence in the remnants of the family where he limited his communications to directions and corrections.

As with most of my siblings growing up was a DIY affair, we didn’t have the assistance of self help manuals from books stores, we were tutored by the scars of our own mistakes. Our aunts and uncles faded away from our lives when their visits were frequently curtailed by the cold front erected by my father.

The coin has now flipped, I am on the other side and I see things I didn’t notice or have the words to speak about when I was younger, and so it’s time for this big person to talk.

That uncle who drinks too much and still has wandering hands, that aunt who wears too much perfume, always gets a food hangover after a party and exposes herself on purpose, these are the people we need to talk about, these are the people I need to talk about and thereby smooth the path for the new big people who are in line behind me.

I am responsible for what I see, I have a responsibility to talk now and not to bury the family secrets for another generation, for the next group people to personally and painfully uncover.

#Timesup

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

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After … ’til death

(100 words story)

Not many people embrace death like Joan did. Andrew’s passing started her simultaneous love and fear affair with it.

Three months following Andrew’s burial, Joan made her first new friend; friends were not previously welcomed in the marital home.  After forty-six years of solitude she was rusty at small talk, especially with other men. Fortunately Simon was patient. However, Joan was impatient with herself and surprised Simon after six months with a lingering kiss that ended in morning coffee.

Loving life Joan didn’t want to die, her children wouldn’t understand her need for a separate grave from their father.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

Best Friends

 

Best Friends

Allen was scared. It was not the type of fear that resulted in an immediate desire to run for his life – although he had experienced that – this was an old, familiar fear that he thought he had left in his teenage years. This ancient, buried dread crawled up out of the ground and grasped his ankles without warning. All the fight had departed from him, so he just gave in and accepted it.

The message he received was the touch paper to this episode. That morning his own reaction surprised him. In fact for the past five years, he had believed that he’d stopped caring about other people’s opinions, then that name from the past appeared on his screen and had jolted him back in time, and he was newly confused and as nervous as a teenager about to go on a first date.

His sister had text him that she’d seen a friend of his in their home town. George.

George was not just any friend, George was his best friend. They were like two sides of a coin – always together. But it was obvious that they weren’t related because they looked so different, but they were still like twins with their behaviour, emerging teenage style and strong opinions about everything from what real music was, the best drugs and everything about sex. George’s unruly ginger hair was almost equal in size to Allen’s neatly trimmed afro, they also somehow managed to end up with similar clothes as well – probably due to the few shopping options in their small town, and the fact that their mothers often met in the High Street.

‘George,’ Allen said.

‘Yeah, mate.’ The reply was absentminded, easy and casual like everything between them.

‘D’you wanna go fishing tomorrow?’

‘Yeah. Why not? Got nothing else on.’

‘Cool. I’ll get the stuff ready tonight – we’ll have to go early like, alright?’

‘Sure. Whatever.’ George paused and looked up from the games console, ‘You’re so serious about fishing and I always get the best catch – every time! I don’t know why you keep trying so hard. I’m always gonna beat you.’

They laughed together, and Allen smiled because he knew George was right, as usual, he did get the biggest fish, but Allen didn’t care, he just like hanging out with George.

‘It’s funny!’ George observed, suddenly being unusually serious for his teenage self, ‘I’m better at things that you like doing, and you’re better at things that I like. We’re a right pair of wally’s!’ The statement was accompanied with his usual laughter aimed at Allen –  but not spitefully. They messed around, but not to permanently hurt each other. They never fell out for more than a day. That’s not what they did, not who they were.

They had left school with duplicate Technical Certificates and went into similar  apprenticeship jobs, so it was not unusual to see them together, at either parents’ house. They knew that they would have a meal saved for them every night whichever house they ended up in;  both sets of parents had informally adopted the other boy. The boys themselves hadn’t questioned it or expected anything else. They just continued the friendship that they had started when they met in the first term of secondary school.

As close as they were, they did have time apart when puberty and girlfriends appeared on the scene, but never more than a few evenings without seeing each other. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

‘Oh! Morning George,’ said Mrs Mason bumping into him outside the bathroom.

‘Morning, Mrs Mason.’ His slow response reflected his desire to still be asleep but he knew he couldn’t miss any more days at work, his attendance record was not as good as Allen’s who never missed a day.

‘I didn’t know you stayed over last night. You two must have got back late. Did you ring your mother?’

‘Yes, of course. Allen made me!’

‘Good. Don’t be late to work – that’s both of you! Best you both get up and get out quickly, it’s nearly 8 o’clock. See you two later?’

‘’Spect so. Bye.’

The conversations were reversed when Allen stayed at George’s house, with the exception that he didn’t have to be asked if he called home – he always did. He was always conscientious of other people’s feelings. At George’s he used the spare sleeping bag on the floor and George would use the pull out bed when he was at the Mason’s house.

Initially when Allen moved away for work they called and met up at weekends or went on holidays together and with other friends. They remained tight for years until Allen’s 25th birthday party in Birmingham.

After that George started calling Allen ‘Jester’ whenever he went home for the weekend, and then they started slipping out of each other’s lives without fanfare.

It was at a surprise encounter after three years before George suddenly said, ‘So, what’s this Jester’s bar you’re always at?’ It was like he was jabbing a knife at Allen’s chest.

‘What you talking about?’ Allen was surprised and confused.

‘The Jester, you plonker! Don’t act thick’

Everything was strained between them. There was no friendly greeting, just the verbal assault. George knew why things had changed, he had seen something new and found out a secret, but he never said anything before that Sunday years later.

Allen flushed. It was difficult for most people to see when he was embarrassed because of his dark complexion, but George knew him. He knew he’d hit a nerve, so he jabbed again.

‘At your 25th. When you were first in Brum, The Jester.’

Allen felt like a boxer suddenly on the ropes. He floundered.

What did George think? What did he really know? What did this mean to them?

Immediately Allen fully understood the silence that had grown between them.

‘One of your mates, from your work you said, the one with the pink shirt and way too neat hair, him, he said he’d see you at the ‘Jester as usual’. You didn’t know that I’d heard? Obviously …’

‘George … mate,’ Allen faltered to find the words he needed. But they evaporated from his throat before he could form them, and George threw his final combination blows that further winded Allen.

‘You could have told me! I thought I was your best mate. How could you?!’

‘George, I wanted to … I mean, I tried to … you know, say something, but …’

‘But what, Allen?! You couldn’t find the right time? Is that the excuse you’re going with?’

‘Well, yeah. But it’s not an excu …’

‘Oh, shut up!’ George’s face had reddened to complement the colour of his hair. He was shouting now. Allen was both sad and happy that he was with George and they were talking, well shouting at that exact moment, but it was a connection and he’d missed the familiar feel of being around someone who knew him before he’d started to discover himself. Of course he’d made new friends since moving to Birmingham, but they weren’t the right shape to fit into the best friend gap he held carefully in his chest.

‘It’s the weakest shitting excuse ever,’ George fumed. He had held his sadness quietly for years, and now he released it like a tornado. He wanted to explain how he’d missed Allen, but he had no-one to tell. His new mates didn’t understand people like Allen. They didn’t know he was … just Allen. Nothing else. Just Allen. His mate.

‘You just pissed off and said nothing. Like fucking blue mist! What was I supposed to think? What was I supposed to do?’

Allen realised he had been too busy looking from his cloudy side of life’s mirror to notice that George had been on the other side trying to get to him. Allen felt the tears on his face but didn’t know when they had started. He didn’t care. He was shaking on the inside and was afraid his organs were going to react to the disturbance and relocate in his body. Everything hurt like he’d been in a vehicle collision. ‘So, this is sadness,’ he mused. ‘It sucks.’

He instinctively knew he had just encountered a different kind of heart break to the one he had imagined would destroy him or the kind he felt when he broke up his short relationships. This new type of pain was core deep and one that even welding did not seem able to address. All he wanted to do was get back on the train and go to his flat in Birmingham, and close the door. His friendship had cracked into hundreds of splinter sharp pieces of honeycomb because he’d been distracted by himself.

Then, like a sudden break in the clouds, George’s face reverted to the face of his seventeen year old self and Allen felt a serge of hope and wiping his face awkwardly, he offered, ‘I didn’t know what you’d think if I told you the …’

George unexpectedly hardened his face immediately and scowled at his one-time friend, then he turned smartly on his heel and walked off throwing a parting comment over his shoulder, ‘You didn’t know? You didn’t know?! Like I said. Fucking excuses. All that time we spent together – for fuck’s sake, Allen! You’re a wanker! I though … I thought we were friends. How wrong was I?’

Allen again looked at the text  from his sister, ‘You never guess who I saw last week?! George. Your friend George from school. He’s back in town. He asked about you. I said you were fine, but said he should call you himself. He said he didn’t have your number (why???!), but gave me his for you to contact him. Here it is …’

So, Allen stared at his phone, and the words and numbers became hieroglyphics and cave paintings in his hand as he regressed to the nascent fear that pervaded his everyday decisions and routine self-presentation. He had finally chosen to be honest with himself in his third decade, but – like a teenager – he still cared what George thought of him. George who he had shared so many secrets with, George who was the brother he never had, the same George who had disappeared and taken a whole portion of Allen’s life with him. That George wanted to get in touch with him again.

Allen wondered if best friends remained best friends for life, and concluded that calling the number would answer that question for George, because Allen, the grown man with the sensitive teenager’s heart, had never removed the ‘best friend’ label from George’s name even when he was suffocating in fear.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

The Truth

 

They look satisfied with themselves. They have every reason to. They have done this before and the results are always the same. They get what they want and how they want it. They all wear smugness before they have even begun.

She looks calm. But inside she is more scared that she’d ever admit. This is not something that they need to know. She has decided to be brave for as long as possible.

Nobody knows just how long this will last but each of them agrees that the outcome will be the same. Even she agrees with them, but they don’t know that. She just wants it all to be over and for things to go back to the way they were before. But she knows that won’t happen. Her immediate concern is how things will change now.

There is a long table that splits the room in two and she is the only one on one side. They all enter the room after her and choose seats away from her. Each of them puts a bag or briefcase on the table. Only one man, sat at the far end of the table, brings nothing with him apart from a pen that he presses off and on nervously. He was never any good at confrontation. She thinks that he is only there to make up the numbers.

Seven of them against just her.

Nobody speaks. They all know why they are there. One of the group looks up at her, she catches his eye and he quickly looks away. She is not sure if he gave a look of sympathy or just curiosity. Shaking away the possibility of more deception she looks down at her brief before her. She knows she cannot afford to be sidetracked from her focus by wondering if she has a silent ally in the group.

It has been months now and not one of them has spoken a word to her since they had arranged the meeting. They had taken the time to prepare their case against her. They are convinced that it is a tight case. There have been no more invites to dinner, no casual encounters in the shopping centre or the park. She feels as if she had been living on a different continent since they openly accused her. This was the first time she had seen them in months and she realises that she has missed them.

Thinking about them as adversaries does not diminish the fact that she has memories of happy times with many of them. They had grown up together. They were as close as family. They had been her only family since she had begun her studies at the university.

The tall man speaks first. He has opened his case and taken out two items that he places one on top of the other directly in front of him. His long fingers caress the black leather cover and the gold edges. She watched him press his curved thumb into the middle of the front cover then taking half of the pages in his hand he repeatedly flicks them downwards. It is now she realises that he is nervous.

“Shall we begin?” He looks at his watch, “I know we are all busy people, so I thank you all for taking the time to meet here to discuss a way forward.” He pauses and stares at her across the table. One by one they all look at her, with unblinking eyes.

“We were all disappointed to hear of this … deceit in our midst. But we are here today to follow the correct procedure to resolve this matter.”

“Let’s pray.” He bends his head expecting total compliance.

“I’d rather you didn’t pray for me,” her voice breaks the silence and heads snap back upwards. They all stare at her for a few seconds before looking curiously at their leader.
“It’s for all of us,” he replies and proceeds in his special intoning voice. She is the only one who does not bow her head. She takes the opportunity to listen to his deep smooth voice and looks at the other six heads bowed like a row of ants each side of him. He is sat slightly to one side of her position. She wonders why he didn’t sit opposite her.
The assault begins as soon as the seven of them chorus “Amen!”

“It has been brought to my attention …” he begins. They all nod, murmur and glare at her for the next hour. He leafs through his book and his notepad as he proceeds. She is silent all the way through. He appears more uncomfortable than he should be, everybody notices but nobody knows why.
It is her turn to speak and she does. She refutes every point he made. Some of them look to him for assurance. He says nothing. He didn’t think she’d do this. He thought he knew her better.

“How dare you think you can do this to me and expect I’d have nothing to say. Did you think I’d be the same as all the others you have successfully bulldozed into silent submission?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but ‘newsflash’, I am different because I have the truth.”
“Truth! Uh?! You disgust me!” One by one they begin to object to her.
“How dare you speak to us like that?”
“You have no idea what truth is, you live in perversion.”

The pastor raises his hand for silence as some of the elders also angrily motion their intention to leave. There is a noisy dragging of wood on wood as the chairs are returned to the table. They all lean on their closed briefcases and glare, with open hostility, across the table at her.

“I know that it’s the people you have been mixing with that have corrupted you in this way.” He shakes his head slowly as he speaks. He seems genuinely saddened by the words that have been shared in anger in the previous hours. “I will pray for you, Mags. You are still a child of God.”

“My name is Magdiel. Only my friends call me Mags.” Her eyes spark with anger. “I’ve told you before not to call me that. You’re not my friend. You’ve never been my friend.”

“I’m still your pastor.” He speaks calmly and the authority and assurance in his voice is soothing to those on the other side of the table. They nod and murmur in the right places. “I am trying to help you.” He looks to his left then to his right with an inclusive glance. “We are all trying to help you. You’d believe if you were also looking for the truth. There is no other way. You know that.”

Nobody spoke for a few seconds. One of the two women who were sat opposite Magdiel shot a look of pure hatred across to her; it hurt. They had been friends for a long time. Magdiel had often stayed at Sylvia’s home and her children had called her ‘Aunty Mags’, they had all loved each other. Then the rumours started and the friends slipped into enemy colours.

“We have no alternative but to inform you that as long as you continue to live a life of sin you are no longer welcome to meet with us.” He closed his bible and pushed his chair back.
“This meeting is now closed.” He stood up and walked around the chair.

“I will make your secrets known,” she speaks clearly, looking directly at him. None of them on the other side of the table needed any legal interpreter to explain her promise. Her law career had once been a source of pride for the church as they congratulated her on each milestone she achieved; she was one of them. She specialised in child law, protecting vulnerable children from abusive relationships. “You’re all living the same illusion, you think that detesting me is logical.”

Now they were faced off against the skill they once admired.

Unused to being defeated they started to shuffle away from the table wearing nervous mystified looks.

Magdiel also stood up, “I haven’t finished speaking yet,” she said loudly. “There is something else you should know as you consider the righteousness of your positions and the so-called truth that you think only you have access to.”

Reluctantly some of them turned back. No matter how they despised her they were enthralled by her knowledge and surprised that she had suddenly confounded them. They wondered, as with one mind, what else she had to say.
She didn’t keep them waiting long.

The internal shaking had begun again but Magdiel forced it into one corner of her heart. She remained standing as six of them resumed their seats. The pastor alone stood, opposite her. He didn’t want her to speak any more. He wanted his group to leave.

“Brethren,” he used his preaching voice to project around the room, “I think we have heard enough of this. No more can be gained here.” Again he had their attention, but not completely.

“While you can believe anything you want to about me – and I know you have already formed your opinions with the false information you have made up or heard – know this, I don’t care what you do any more. I am free from your lies and hold on my life. I know my own truth. I don’t need any of you to fulfil my dreams or my destiny. I have a separate purpose.”

She paused to look at each of them. They exuded impatience. What they wanted was to be out of the board room and back in their familiar lives. They knew she would remain misguided while they remained righteous.

“This man who leads you, the new shepherd to your flock, this … man of God,” she could no longer keep the sarcasm at bay as all eyes turned to their pastor. They were prepared to defend him at a moment’s notice. Righteous indignation was already being manufactured in their guts and they were primed to spew it all over her, if only they had permission.

Five of them had already decided that they didn’t need permission to say their piece. Each of them would take the first opportunity to speak to Magdiel without holding back on their true thoughts. It would be the truth, not this watered down politically correct way of speaking at this meeting. They were just biding their time. This meeting first, then their time.

“Several years ago when I was just a child really, I was feeling very low, I was at the beginning of my journey to the truth. I knew I was different so I sought help. I didn’t live around here then, as you know, but I came to the church and pastor, yes this same pastor you see standing before you …”

“We’re done here!” He thundered. “Come on brethren, we can do nothing else for this wicked child. God loves the sinner but not the sin. We must go before she corrupts our minds with her filth.”

Magdiel laughed for the first time that day. His fear had a shape. It was her.

Three people got up again and began to move towards the door. The others lingered, not quite knowing why their loyalty was being tested by her.

Before the pastor reached the door Magdiel continued to speak and several heads turned back to listen.

“Pastor Precious here, has been putting his persuasive skills to what he considers good use.”

“Let’s leave now!” He bellowed from the doorway.

They had many reasons to leave but they stayed. Even those who had stepped out of the room came back and hovered in the doorway. Their curiosity was awake now. He hoped she would stop. Reading their faces Magdiel saw the hope some of them carried was that she would crucify herself with her words. They did not expect the truth.

“Pastor William Johns, this highly educated leader of three churches in this area, used his psychological training to identify the weakness in a vulnerable questioning person and he forced her to have sex with him.”

The gasps were accompanied by cries of “Lies”, “Disgusting” and “Not true”, but when they looked at the pastor their protests fell silent.

“More than once as well.” She shudders and looks at his head because his eyes are downcast.

“His lie to me on those many occasions was ‘I’m doing you a favour’. I’m sure his wife will not look on it in quite the same way when she knows that I was just one of many young girls he’s ‘favoured’. Not one of you can judge me – I’m not perfect but I’m not corrupt. I live the truth, openly. I live for equality and justice, as you all know. Can any of you say the same thing? Can you, Pastor?”

His arrogance has been replaced by shock and shame.

She leaves the room and fluidly closes the door behind her.
She knows that now everything has changed for everyone that was in that room.

She does not see how they look now they have her truth.

Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

Ego

“Come on!” Her voice was on the edge of shouting. I could see a touch of anger building in her eyes as she stared at me. Exasperation was written all over her brow. “Really? Come on!” This time the statement was heavy with her frustration.

“You can’t be serious?” Again her insistence pushed me backwards as if she had placed her hands on my shoulders and shoved me.

I tried to speak but all that was coming out of me was a broken string of stuttering. My eyelids were weighed down with an unexpected sense of shame but somehow I managed to look at her as the words fought with my tongue to be free.

“I … I … what I mean is … I’m not sure what I want to do. I … I feel a bit lost, I guess…” I trailed off without really knowing what I was trying to say. My eyes fell from her face and found a spot just in front of my feet to focus on. I knew, without even looking at her, what she was going to say. I could feel the disappointment shining from eyes that were like searchlights across my body. I was totally exposed but there was nothing she could find. Her sigh was loud.

“I don’t understand what’s wrong with you,” she started to speak rapidly, “what you need is … I really don’t even know what to say to you right now. All I know is that you need something!” She paused and looked at me. I could still feel her eyes scanning my face and, like a magnet, she forced me to raise my own gaze to meet hers.

Immediately our eyes joined I felt sad. Sadder than when I was just carrying my own disappointment; now I had hers as well. Then I knew that I would agree with anything that she said next because it was going to be the truth. I wanted to be different – if only to make her happy again. What I couldn’t quite decide in that moment was whether her sadness was with me or for me.

“What you really need,” she spoke quickly following a pull on her roll up, “what you’ve got to get in your life, is some oomph.”

Anger coursed through me but I knew it was the truth. How dare she know me so well and I hadn’t begun to tell her anything about myself.

I flushed as I stared at her. She sat across the table from me and waited for my reaction. The cigarette was loosely held between her fingers and I watched as she brought it to her beautiful lips and pulled on it. The swirls of smoke leaving her mouth were mesmerising. They made my mind relax.

Then she stubbed out the rollup in the ashtray that she had brought out onto the terrace with us.

Shifting my focus I looked out across the garden wall and continued to follow an imaginary line all the way to the invisible sea that I could hear. I knew I’d have to speak soon.

“Um, well … I think you’re probably right,” I admitted. My voice was quiet as I accepted her assessment of my weak existence. “But I do do some things with fervour,” I countered my first statement with the hope of convincing us both. “I do! Really.” I stole a sideways glance at her. I was desperate to persuade her that I was not boring or useless.

Surely, I thought to myself, there is something exciting in my life that I can tell her about. The more I tried to think of something, the more I felt deflated and my heart developed a pain because I knew I didn’t have an answer for her and she wouldn’t stand for that for long. My opportunity was disappearing like a taper burning at both ends.

But she was right. I did need some oomph. How was I going to change it so that she would like me more? I needed to take this chance.

I stood up and took a few steps away from the table towards the balustrades. I noticed that the pain was peeling from them and made a mental note to talk about it later. Feeling physically drained I leant on the rail. My back was towards her and I was still not convinced that I had anything to offer her – or myself. I felt bad. It showed. My face dropped but she could not see it. Where could I go from here? I leaned forwards and took a deep breath.

While I was still searching for the right words to say, she got up and walked to stand near me.

I straightened up. She touched my arm.

“See,” she started gently, “I know you agree with me.” This time her eyes did not unravel me but there was serious intent behind her look. Encouraged, I opened my mouth to speak but no words or sounds came out.

“What are you going to do about it?” She prompted, her voice was still soft, as she caressed my arm.

“Give me a chance!” I exploded and shook her hand off my arm. I surprised us both. I was started to get annoyed with her. I didn’t want to but I also didn’t want to be told what to do or when to do anything.

Right then I experienced, for the first – but not the last time – a balance of perfect hatred and love for her. I was dumbfounded by her arrogance and my fear of us both. I wanted to be as strong as her and yet in that moment I hated her for my own desires.

Two days later I was still caught between love and hatred. This time it had nothing to do with her.

I had discovered fresh reasons to hate myself. I had thought that I had all the reasons possible before this trip, but now I knew there were more. My mind briefly visited my family at home. They had no idea where I really was. I couldn’t tell them. With the drink in hand I sat at the table and waited quietly as she ordered my meal for me. I had no idea why she was doing it, I was perfectly capable of speaking for myself but, like some deflated balloon, I sat there and sipped the cool liquid away. Although I never liked ice in my drinks I had the desire to have a freezing, numbing feeling spread throughout my body like a sudden frost.

I was afraid of what I was feeling because the last time it was that intense I lost a complete week of conscious thought.

Snapping back to alertness I realised that the waitress was still standing by the table, I weakly smile up at her.

“Thank you,” I murmured to them both, and then the order disappeared into the kitchen. I continued to absentmindedly play with the cutlery, and suddenly I was tempted to … be strong.

Instead, I realigned the beautifully shaped pieces into perfect symmetrical order. Taking the napkin from the table I smile across at her and placed it on my shaking lap.

“Bread?” I offered with the basket in hand. She took some and broke it carelessly. Several pieces of the fresh crust flew across the immaculately ironed white table cloth but she took no notice. We mirrored each other as we tore chunks of the bread and dipped it into the herb infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The strong exciting combination of flavours made us lick our lips to catch the falling crumbs and we laughed together as we both reached for the last piece of bread. With raised eyebrows and smiles our fingers tingled with anticipation of what would happen later.

The buzz of the other diners reached our ears when we were lost in each other. I knew that I would have to leave soon, but I didn’t know how to say goodbye. She knew when I was leaving; she never made a secret about how she felt. I envied her. I wanted to keep believing that she would miss me. I had to believe that she wanted to see me again.

That’s what I wanted. I was not sure that I had managed to let her know that yet. I silently swallowed the last mouthful of bread that seemed to stick in my rapidly drying throat on the way down.

“Take this with you,” she whispered as she reached across the table and pressed the champagne cork into my hand. “Remember me, won’t you?”

Did she doubt me? I though she knew that she was already sewn into my heart for life, but when her fingers lingered across mine I sensed uncertainty.

With the other hand she attracted the attention of the waitress and requested the bill.

“I’ll get it,” she said as I reached for my cards.

“No, let me.” I insisted, “It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done for me whilst I’ve been here.”

“Don’t be silly,” she laughed. “I’m so glad you came. I waited for you, you know.” She paused and looked directly at me. Her eyes were changing colour again; they were going from blue to green. As they locked and held mine they pierced into me while they seemed to fill with water, but then she blinked quickly and raised her hand as if to brush a falling feather away from her cheek and everything was back to normal.

“Thank you,” I murmured, “you’ll probably never know how much this time with you means to me.”

Back in the car we drove along the coast wall and stopped to take pictures of the sun setting and local people relaxing on their boats along the jagged waterline.

Torn between what I wanted and what would happen, my sunset smiles were tinged with fresh lemon bitterness. Inside I was dying as I knew what I had to do. She had no idea of my sadness and I think she had started to trust me at last. In the car she sang along to our specially mixed CD, her feet placed on the dashboard, when she turned and smiled at me my heart melted all over again. It was just like the first time I knew she’d even liked me. I felt like a free flying balloon – that didn’t see the archer’s arrow approaching from the opposite direction. From my point of view it was perfect.

I couldn’t believe it then, I didn’t fully believe it now. But I believed enough to make my way there. Still, the question that furrowed my brow behind my redundant sunglasses was ‘What was I really going to do next?’

A business like exchange was taking place. I was part of it but I was so lost inside myself I didn’t notice the cold formality of it all. All I could hear was a level pitch of screaming – right there inside my head as I imagined myself slipping over a cliff, losing my grip; it was a perfect middle C – it had no end. I felt as if the previous five months were a dream. But that ache from my spine to my toes refuted those thoughts; it was too real. I silently wished I was sleeping and this was not happening. But we were both wide awake. We said goodbye amidst a crowd of people while the air conditioning whirled relaxation around everybody else.

“I know you’ll cry,” she said as she turned and started to walk away.

“No, I won’t.” I had shut down already so that wasn’t an option. But her voice made me waver. This was my parting gift to her, my strength. “We’ll be alright,” I added, “because we want to be.”

“I hope so,” were the last word we spoke as she left me standing there. I watched her back until she disappeared through the sliding airport doors into the heat and the everlasting sunshine.

I was numb.

I felt as if I had cut off my own arm.

I sat in the waiting area and allowed the loud chatter of my fellow passengers to envelop me.

But still I could think of nothing else but her. Towards the end I had ensured that some of the times we were together felt like a constant bullfight, and I knew there wouldn’t be any winners. So I lay down on my sword.

The final poison was in the letter that I wrote to her while I sat there waiting to leave, I knew it then, she had to wait three weeks for it to arrive at her heart.

We met too late.

© Marjorie H Morgan

Sticks and Stones

Endings.
‘Mummy, what did she mean when she said I was different? What’s wrong with my nose? Mummy? Mummy? Why are you crying?’

‘Mummy? Talk to me Mummy!
You’re walking too fast Mummy, I can’t keep up… Mummy?’

As the years passed me by in the village so the questions dried up. They were never answered anyway. I knew but didn’t know all of it. But I would. Oh yes, I would know. They wanted me to know. And the others didn’t want me to know. I wanted to know and at the same time I didn’t want to know. So this is how I found out with my clumsy discovery. Some people were happy and some were sadder than a farmer in a drought when they knew I really knew.

Rachel Stitch. That was the girl that first spoke out. We were playing Poo Sticks at the bridge near the barley field by Milk Lane Cottage. Rachel was older than me, she was seven and I was only six, but we were best friends. How long do best friends stay best friends? Why are best friends only best for a while? What comes after best? I found out that Sunday morning.

We were on our way home from church, it was a normal Sunday morning; a bright, but cold, spring day, we were wearing hand-knitted hats, scarves and gloves as we crunched through the lanes on the way home.
Rachel and I ran to the bridge, we always did this, it was our routine every week. We hurried ahead missing the puddles, while our mothers talked and walked at a slower pace. At the usual point we grabbed sticks from the hedges at the side of the lane and raced back to the middle of the small stone bridge.

‘Ready, steady, go!’ We shouted together as we dropped the sticks into the fast flowing water. It was fun. This was like the stories we had read together, but it was our special game. Me and Rachel together in our easy intimacy. We had a common past: this was our world. Suddenly a dark shadow made me turn to my right and I looked up; it was nothing more than an old bird, a big old bird. I laughed as a blackbird swooped across the path in front of us. That was when Rachel said it. That was when my world cracked and the fissure never healed. The San Andreas fault originated in my chest after the beautiful music from the church organ had not yet gone to sleep for another week. Songs of the world at one rang in my mind: la la la lah la la la lah. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…

‘You look like that bird,’ she skipped along at my side as we turned to run to the other side of the bridge to watch the sticks appear, ‘but your nose is different. Your nose is too big for a bird. You have the biggest nose I’ve ever seen in my life.’
Suddenly she stopped and looked directly at me. We had looked at each other hundreds of times before, all the days of all the years that were my short childhood, but today Rachel’s eyes were like dead fish eyes to me, they were flat and cold. There was a glaze of distance behind her lids as she blinked. She was somebody else, so was I. We stood two feet apart but thousands of miles away. I did not know what a mile was. It was further than I had ever been. But I felt far away without moving an inch. I was in my dream again. The dream I had before I was here. I was in that dream.
‘Why is your nose so big and why are you so black?’ those were her words. Were they a question or something bigger than a question can ever be? The sticks floating beneath us did not pause except to navigate a rock or clump of reeds.

I thought it was a game and I looked at her with a puzzled frown, I was trying to remember what I was supposed to say next. We always played games together. We read each other’s minds. I was surprised because suddenly all I felt was an ancient yearning for someone I did not know. I moved my eyes to look for the answer. There was nothing in my head. I was lost.
Since she was my best friend, and since that was the last day that she was going to be my best friend, Rachel just carried on talking. She must have been trying to help me out with the game. I smiled at her as I stood opposite her on the cold stone bridge. Our parents had been walking behind us and they were now within earshot of us.

‘You are as black as soot – that’s what my dad says and Mum tells him to be careful in case walls have ears, do wall have ears? And you have a nose like a monkey because you’re the monkey’s cousin…. Is that true that you came from a mud hut in the jungle?’ Paralysed by the absence of joy the gloom of the moment clung to me, it seeped into me like clothes that have taken on the smell of cooking or burning. Unbidden voices told me that I wouldn’t forget this moment in a long while.

‘Look! You won!’ Rachel turned and hugged me. She didn’t know. I wasn’t sure but I felt the change moving in on me and I couldn’t stop it. The tornado of difference lifted me up, flung me around into the star filled night on the other side of the world and then set me back down in the same place as if nothing had happened. The second inside the second that it took for my travels made my feet burn as if I was a Buddhist monk walking across hot coals. I reached a new age but I was harmed.
‘My turn to win next,’ Rachel bubbled as she ran to get more sticks.

I stood leaning on the cold stone bridge afraid to move. I knew I would break into a thousand pieces of dust if I breathed or flinched. My gloves offered me no protection and my coat was like a silk sheet against a blizzard. I stood on the bridge totally exposed: to myself and to Rachel.
My ears were hurting with the words. I didn’t understand. My world was now unstable. I missed what I didn’t know. I understood nothing.
I was startled when I thought I was safe; before I knew what unsafe was I felt it.
I remained fixed to the spot afraid the bridge would buckle if I moved and my mother had to grab me hard to dislocate me. I was torn from the bridge, separated from the skipping child that was me who had run on to it.
I was deaf to my mother’s voice, the only sound available to me was my blood as it exploded and collided inside of me as I experienced the aftershock of seeing myself from outside of myself for the first time. I was using Mr Stitch’s eyes. I was no longer as black as Rachel had said I had turned an ashen grey because I was confused and still only six. I looked up at Mummy and asked her the said questions. Adding ‘Is is true what Rachel says Mummy?’ she never answered me, but held my hand firmly and with a curt nod to Mrs Stitch she pulled me quickly along the lane mumbling something about eggs. That was all she said. Nothing about being black, or having a big nose, or living in the jungle with monkey cousins, all Mummy spoke about was eggs. Got to get to the shop to get eggs. All the way to the shop to get eggs that we didn’t need. We had eggs at home. I knew that, Mummy knew that, but eggs were the first thing she said so off we went, back the opposite way from Rachel and her Mum to get the unneeded eggs. My legs were tired when we got home because we had to walk too fast and Mummy would not let go of my hand. She held it so tight that it hurt a lot but I didn’t say anything else after we passed the church because Mummy was quiet and her eyes had changed to the colour of cold metal.
Mummy was scared, I saw it in her claret cheeks and felt it in her abnormally long strides as I flew along beside her.

Mummy and Mrs Stitch were good friends as well as me and Rachel. But after that day they didn’t like to talk for too long. A whole life of shared memories stopped for all of us after the blackbird. Mummy and Mrs Stitch had longer lives and memories than me and Rachel, but the big people grew as frosty as a winter’s day to each other. They usually only nodded and rushed in different directions. Time made people walk faster. Away, away, away from me. This happened a lot when Mummy and Mrs Stitch were in the High Street. There were only four shops in our village and everybody knew everything about everybody else. But after the Sunday when me and Rachel stopped being best friends, after that day, they, all the people in the village started looking different. They looked whiter and longer than they had before. I felt shorter and darker. I felt black. I was different and I didn’t know what different was. But once I felt it, once the words were out from the plaster on the walls with ears, once everybody knew that I knew, then the sheen of kindness vanished like vapour from an extinct volcano.

I was in a castle all alone. The walls were erected instinctively. I hadn’t been taught.

At six years old I had no insulation against raw hatred for just being me.
I was outside. I was marked from the outside. In my village I was out of place because I fitted better in another country that I didn’t know.

When was I old enough to know that I was not seen as the same and that the grey and blue eyes that saw me didn’t want to see me so close to them? It was on that Sunday when Rachel and I dropped the sticks into the water and after the blackbird eclipsed the light in front of me. I hate Sundays. I hate blackbirds.

Alchemy.
‘Marilyn, it won’t work,’ I could hear the exasperation in his voice, ‘just think about it. It’s the same with the animals, they’ll isolate her.’
I remember when Jeff said that to me but Molly looked so cute that I couldn’t hear reason, I believed that love and understanding are stronger than bad reason so I went ahead. I brought her home. And I was right. And I was wrong.
And Jeff was right and Jeff was wrong.

The first four years were bliss. Nothing better on this earth than being in Flax Cottage with Jeff and Molly. I had friends then. I thought I had friends anyhow. When do you know if a friendship is real? Is there always a litmus test moment? I would have told Molly to look out for it if I had known what I know now. Hindsight is always clear vision. But I had lived in the village as long as I had life. It was my home and now it was Molly’s as well. My little darling, Molly. I called her Molly because she looked fragile like a small doll and she gurgled for hours, content in my arms. Her fat little fingers explored my face with gentleness. I had never had such a smooth innocent touch on my skin before. Molly my angel, my gift from God.

I prayed for a baby and Molly came. God gave me Molly but He didn’t warn me that the bliss could shake after a few years. She was in the paper. Somebody needed me to take care of her. I cried for a week after I first saw her. I didn’t think she would ever be mine. And she isn’t. But I thought she was mine and I sometimes tell myself she is mine even though I know the same as they know. And now, now, even Molly knows, but once she did love me as if she was mine and I was hers. We loved each other without explanation from our first meeting.

I told Jeff that Molly was special and nothing could break the love shield around us three. I was wrong, again. I believed in good. I was too young to know any better. I see that now but I still believe that it is wrong that I could be wrong. I should have been right, love said so. Maybe I didn’t love enough? Maybe it’s my fault … if I had more love then Molly would be safe, not alone, without me, without … anybody.
Molly told me that I lied to her. She said, ‘It’s not true you know, they hurt…’
‘What hurts, darling?’ I knew the answer but as I played for time with my useless question I was searching for another bigger truth to absolve her pain.
‘Sticks and stones do break bones… and names, yes, names always hurt you. I’m sorry Mum,’ she raced on not giving me a chance to speak. I had no words anyway so I was glad for her need to express her anger, ‘But they hurt too bad…’ Her tears and my tears were the same colour. As they flowed they prevented us from speaking or hearing any more. But I could never cry enough to wash away all her pain. She has been gone for fifteen years. Just a phone call at Christmas and on my birthday. She never let me call her on her birthday, but I always sent her cards, for the first years at least. The tradition stopped when the past swooped down and eclipsed the present.
‘It reminds me of what I haven’t got to get a card from you, Mum’. From 1979 I kept the unsent cards that I persisted in buying for her; maybe one day she will see them. My only way through is to look at the same moon and feel her absence. I know I am missing part of me – without Molly there is no point.

Existing in my current lack of her I know I love her more that I did when she was one and I could feel her warm breath on my cheeks. I knew that love got bigger. I was right about that. I grew my love to cover her, and me, and Jeff. But it was not enough.

Molly was nineteen when she first told me how much she loved me and hated me at the same time.

‘You are the first one in the family to ever go to university,’ I proudly stated as I sat at the bottom of her bed and watched her pack to leave home.
‘What family?’
My smile fell like a parachutist without a chute.
‘Who do I belong to … really?’
The pause was longer than my life.
‘I feel… incomplete…’ she faded away with her words.
All the little questions were there. All the protection was blown away. I was exposed as a fraud. My love was ersatz.

I looked at her and remembered the lies that I had told her. They were to protect her not to harm her, but they took hold of our lives and it’s now impossible to go back to where we came from. The truth is back there, the truth is in the past that is a foreign place; it’s here too.
I told myself lies as well, lies to make the truth go away. The truth about myself and about Molly’s other mother. I didn’t want Molly to ever leave me so I made this new world the best place for her to be, with me, with me and not with them. I needed Molly as much as she needed me. We were right for each other, are right for each other. How do I tell her that they did want her back but I couldn’t let her go because I would cease to live without her?
It’s not true that if you love something enough you will let it go because I was afraid that Molly would not ever come back to me. For years I remembered the lies and watched for a word from her world. It only ever came in my dreams.

‘Nothing has ever reflected me here in the village… how do I reconstruct myself from nothing?’ What answers were possible to the unknown? My lips trembled as she lowered her head and allowed herself to sag onto the bed. The folded clothes spewed onto the floor as her leg dangled over the edge of the loaded bed.
‘Sorry, Mum. I’m not saying this to hurt you, I know you love me, and have done your best, but I don’t know who I am.’
I was silent. Not even tears helped me through that valley of solitude. I was between the question and the piercing look that was travelling over my face like a solitary searchlight for a lost child in a forest.
‘I’m glad I’ve had you, no, what I mean is that I’m glad you had me, but I have to wonder what was the rest of my past like. Do they think of me any more? Am I missed or loved?… you never told me why Grandma stopped coming. I’m old enough now, tell me today, please. Tell me now. I need to know if I should bother to look for them, if I should bother to expect them to come back again.’
Her call to me receives a sad response. I echo her grief. I know it is no longer hidden.
‘Molly,’ her name came easily to my lips, however, I stuttered on the next word for a long hot moment and eventually gave it up; it was not to be mine. I was grasping for solutions to fix her life. I knew this day was due but it is always too soon when you are not ready.

I had practised this moment for years and never wanted to have to act it out. I started again.
‘You are really special to me…’
‘You are my daughter, Molly…’
It all sounded lame. I couldn’t finish a sentence. Speech was heavy and as sharp as flames.
It was then that I knew there were no words, in any language, in any world, to explain. My memories have found me wanting. They were suddenly upon me like an overtaking car on a hairpin bend.
I felt the greatness of my gift from God was now pure bitter herbs.

We sat in the tense room. The bags remained unpacked.

‘They hated me too you know? That’s why your dad left because he couldn’t stand the ridicule any more. They said you were really mine, for that I couldn’t be angry, but they said that Jeff was a fool to keep us both under his roof and that hurt him more.’
‘Molly, I didn’t know. I can’t be blamed for not knowing people had flint words held in their hearts to throw at us, to throw at you. I did try to stop them, Molly. I tried to keep you safe, but the world is bigger than my heart can reach. I’m sorry I failed you, darling, I’m sorry. I only wanted to continue loving you. That’s what I did, that’s what I will always do, keep on loving you. I did my best and tried to make love grow here in the village; it did for a while then the storm of unpleasantness came and nothing was upright any more.’
‘Was that when we stopped going to church? When all this ‘unpleasantness’ started?’ I tried not to notice the sarcasm in her voice, the dam of her indignation was opened.
‘Yes. That was it. I wanted you to learn from me and not them. It was the best I could think of at the time. I’m sorry, darling.’ Even to me the words sounded empty. I looked towards her with empty hope. Molly rose from the bed and came towards me.
‘Oh, Mum!’ With her arms around my neck I felt able to move again. Thank God it was not all lost, I still had my gift.
‘Sorry is too small for this,’ her voice was low and I realised that she was in the past. I had hoped too soon. She sighed and shook then spoke slowly, ‘you’ll never know how I really feel, no matter how sad you are for me, it never happens to you, the look, the pressure on the word, the loose laugh, it’s not meant for you. Mum, you’ll never know.’
Another long life pause was placed between us.
‘Did you know that the look from a stranger, one who is strange for a multitude of reasons, often by choice like personal estrangement, that look, did you know that it lacks the kindness contained in the look from a friend?’ Her eyes did not meet mine. But her question was like a dagger in my heart: I could not ignore it.
Unknown to me her resolve was already set in stone. She was lost to me and that day Molly let me go to find the missing truths. I was abandoned with my lies and my lonely love as company. I was bereft but I saw that it was Molly who was shipwrecked.
I couldn’t reach her because it was then she turned away from me.
‘I still had to go to school on my own Mum, everyday. I was not OK all the time. There are some things you can’t keep away from me, some things you can never feel. You see, Mum, you are different to me too.’

She let go, and I let go too.
I had to wait from then on. I had to wait and watch for a change. Molly left me. I was alone, with my rock heart.

Beginnings.
My name is… I don’t know the answer to that simple truth. I don’t know who I am. I have a name, in fact I have several names, but they don’t relate to anything I know or knew. I am ignorant of myself.

What is the shape of wisdom?
I knew everything when I was six, or so I thought, then I was emptied of light. I was on a bridge and although I wanted to fly into my dreams I couldn’t move. It was a crisp Sunday. I had started my journey to the underground city of refuge as a creature newly born and blind. It’s hard to find the answer when you never knew the question. Inches of discovery took years as I learned the language of warm stone. I folded up inside of myself on the bridge, like origami I kept folding.
Suspense had hung over me for years. I strained my neck trying to see what was there but it never revealed itself to me in any form and neither would it remove its claws from my back.
I remember standing on the bridge, I remember being ignorant and invalid; I had no capability to alter anything but I was in the last moment of my childhood and I clung on to it; I was unfit for the journey ahead. Are we all unprepared for the wall that slams into us? Suddenly I was in a different land, I had not blinked but I had travelled, there was no going back. In this land I was ignorant of any of the rules. Mum couldn’t help me. The blank times were the most frightening. I tried to map my own facts but had no honesty to work with. My memory was blank. It was that simple. My co-ordinates were lost.

A few times I saw strangers that looked as lost as me on the television, no one similar came to the village after I was nine. The old lady with the skin like wrinkled leather who used to come, she unsettled me with her truth, her tight squeezes and her long bright clothes.
She wanted me to go back with her, but I didn’t know where back was. Rachel could have been right. I was afraid. I had to stay where I was confined and visible. She was my family but still a stranger. I didn’t know what to do, I was a child. But I had to take each step alone.
School was the concentration of terror and loneliness. No more best friends. Even Rachel became distant. But most of all I became distant from myself. I didn’t trust myself to know them. I became a watcher and a seeker.

I grew up as resistant as mountains although I still responded to the yearning in my mother’s eyes because she wore her jagged fear there. When I was at school or in the garden the instant she next saw me she would quest my face to see if copies of Rachel’s words had built a way into my life. I hid the fences filled with poisonous darts away from her gaze.
I kept my face fitted out with clean and simple acts of deceit to salve her desire for normality. We never spoke of the heavy words on the bridge, or in the playground, or those words that hung in the air like slaughtered beasts in the barns. We never shared things she didn’t want to know.
The Jesus who we sang about was absent in our house. Mummy cried but didn’t go to visit Him.
Daddy scowled and repeated ‘I told you so, I warned you!’
Life was reborn each day in a clean and simple smock of innocence. I was six years old and Sunday had not yet come. Then I would open my eyes and the dream would vanish.
When I entered a room too quickly and surprised Mummy I would recognise the same old shadow slipping from her eyes as she remembered and tried to understand where I, the child, was buried.

Even her best will could not protect me from my life. My portion of it was due, due to me alone. She was not a filter to my safety.
I was not in a position to forget the clear Sunday adventure into my new world. The record was in my face, in my father’s face, in my mother’s face from then until I stopped looking. Even then, when my eyes closed to the brightness of spring’s cruel birth, even then after the sharp shock had stopped stinging my face, I had no luxury. I was not in a position to forget.

I am so tired, so tired of feeling the weight of every second. It’s time to disappear.

I hid myself within myself within myself within myself like a Russian doll. I am successful at hiding from myself. I don’t recognise my true self now; I have gone so deep within.

I am to be found in the centre of granite. I leave the map to me.

My birth certificate says Mariama Nwakwaluzo. Who is she? I know Molly. I see Molly everyday but I am told that Mariama means a gift from God – to who? I ask if I can be a gift to myself. Who do I belong to? Who owns me as theirs? Who do I claim as mine? Will I ever discover myself? Without me my past was invented. I can find my meaning there or make my own here in the centre of this granite.
I have missed the pleasure of belonging to someone. The advantage of ownership was stolen from me. The day will not be created that makes me understand this theft.

Childhood passed years ago but still I cannot decipher the elusive record of my past for I am still blind. Could any missing information have saved me from now?

It took five years of living as a shadow among shadows in the university to realise that I can’t just burn my past away I must salvage it and claim the finders fee to move forwards. My training as an archaeologist proves mysteries remain in stone for centuries. I search deeply to uncover time and remove ancient power from the stones. The silence of now helps to carry the true memory forward. The mystery of myself is less of a mystery now. I am a stoneshaper.
Gently brushing the dust away I sit back on my heels and reflect; the scars from the stones look like tribal signs. We have all been in a battle and are marked.

It’s not what was meant that matters, it’s what was done – that’s what matters. There is no greater truth than appearance; I wonder if Oscar Wilde knew this truth as he was set in his harbour of stones.

My whole existence is like a watermark, visible and distinguished. I feel right, not wrong.

I have sat at the desk and I watch the Sunday morning grow before me. In front of me lie the doodles of my black ink, they are instructions to myself, to be deciphered from within; they are directions from myself before I knew myself.
Rocks and branches populate the paper giving it a black edge.

It’s time to write a letter to my mother.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

This will hurt …

My partner, Sue, she loves museums. She says it’s educational. So we often walk around the exhibits at weekends, or when we are on holiday. There was one exhibition that she took us all to a few weeks ago, it was a history of dentistry. It was more like a horror show that an informative journey into the past. I only managed to stay in there for about ten minutes. Then I felt sick and had to leave. Sue found me sitting on the wall outside an hour later when they had finished walking around the entire exhibition. The boys were laughing at me again. They know that the strangest things make me feel odd.

It was after that visit that my toothache started. A coincidence? I don’t think so.

Sue says it’s the sweets that I eat everyday but I don’t agree. Yes, I do have a sweet tooth, but if the dentists’ have their way I won’t have any teeth at all!

The pain all kicked off a few days ago. A little at first, then it got worse, quickly.

I felt an ache in my jaw. Let me just tell you that I hate the dentist. Absolutely hate them. And I’ve been to enough of them to make that statement. Maybe that’s why I hate them, because none of them make me feel any better and the pain is always there.

This new pain, the one that started a few days ago, is in my lower right jaw. Where my molars are. I think they’re called molars. I wish I paid more attention when I was at school. Those biology lessons were boring. Maybe because the teachers were as bored as us. The only lesson that had people pretending to pay even a little bit of attention was the one about sex education. And they didn’t really tell you anything you didn’t already know.

The worse thing was that they separated the boys and the girls for these lessons. But we meet in the playgrounds afterward to swap notes, as well as saliva. That’s our practical lessons.

The teachers talked about pollination and plant reproduction and we could never figure why that was in a human biology lesson and how that helped us to understand our own bodies. That’s why we experimented for ourselves behind the bike sheds. Knowing what trees and rabbit do to reproduce was not interesting. Feeling the girls up was much more fun. I wanted them to feel me, too. What 15 year old boy doesn’t. But that’s another story. I digress.

My point is that I can’t remember anything much about teeth and looking after them. I ate what I liked, drank what I like and only really started brushing my teeth once girls started responding to my advances. I know my mum had told me for years to brush my teeth properly, and I suppose I did when I was in primary school when she had more control over me, but when I was a teenager I didn’t have time to spend in the bathroom brushing my teeth. Bed was my favourite thing – especially in the school week. I hated school and so I left everything to the last minute – eating, dressing, and getting to school. Most mornings I washed my mouth out with orange juice before I dragged myself to school. I would grab a piece of toast and jump on my blue and red chopper bike and get there just as the bell rang, or just after. Chewing gum was my tooth care and breath freshener all in one. Wrigley juicy fruit five stick packs were essential, especially because we liked to smoke at break times as well. I seem to remember one of their adverts said something about being able to ‘kiss a little longer’ – in those days all I wanted was at least one decent snog, and a french kiss would have been good, too.

So, although I did eventually have my fair share of snogs and feels before I left school I have been a bit remiss with my dental hygiene, so I wasn’t surprised that my teeth were aching again. In fact, I could be one of those under cover mystery shoppers who do surveys on dental practices because I visit so many with my problems. I don’t trust them. None of them. They seem to get off on causing me pain. It’s not that I haven’t had a fair share of pain in my time because I’ve been big on rugby and martial arts for years, but this pain, the throbbing ache in my mouth, it’s like having a nail in my shoe while going for a run. If there was a secret dental society, like the Freemasons, they would probably have my name on a list of people to avoid. All I want is someone to fix the pain, it’s not too much to ask, is it?

“Do you want me to call them for you?” Sue is exasperated with me, but tries not to show it. I’ve been rolling around in bed all night and even the pain killers she got for me around three in the morning didn’t help. I didn’t sleep much. I guess she didn’t either.

She has the list of new surgeries up on the computer screen.

“How about this one?” she asks pointing at a photo she has enlarged.

“They look OK.” I admit.

“How long have they been open?”

“Three years.”

“How come I’ve never heard of them before?”

“Well, you’ve never needed them before now.” I married her because she loves me – despite myself – she is also gorgeous, kind and has the patience of a saint with both me and our boys; she is showing that now, even through her tiredness. I’m glad it’s the weekend, at least she can rest for a little today while I sort out the dentist. We don’t have anything special planned for the weekend, apart from my final fitting for a suit that afternoon.

“OK. I’ll give them a call. What’s the number?”

“Here …”

“The name sounds dodgy. Are you sure they’re proper?”

“Seems OK from these top reviews under here.” Sue points out some five star reviews and scrolls through them. Although they are dated are few months ago I’m impressed, I relax and start to dial the number.

“Hello?”

“Good morning, Bright Smile Dental Hub, how can I help you?”

“Oh, hello. I was wondering if you had any appointments?”

“Are you registered with us already?”

“No, not yet. I just wanted a check up. I’ve got a really bad toothache. It’s been hurting for a few days now.”

“Well, we could fit you in later today if you can make it to the surgery between three and four this afternoon or …”

“Oh, that’s quick. I was expecting something later in the week. I’ve got an appointment this afternoon that I can’t cancel, can you do anything another day?”

“We have appointments tomorrow morning …”

“Oh, OK. That’s great. What time?”

“Anytime from 10.30.”

“”Great, thanks. Can I just check the address?”

“Yes, we’re on the corner of Abbey Street and Long Lane. If you give me your number I’ll text the address to you for your SatNav.”

“Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Stacey.”

“Thank you, Stacey.”

“Can I take your name as well, please? For our appointment records.”

“Dennis, with two n’s, Dennis Young.”

“OK then Dennis, we’ll see you tomorrow at 10.30. Just come into the reception area and let the receptionist on duty know you’ve arrived and the dentist will see you as soon as possible. Thank you for calling Bright Smile. Bye now.”

“Thank you. See you tomorrow.”

“Bye.”

“I don’t believe that,” I turn to Sue who has heard my half of the conversation, “They’re open on a Sunday! I can get this pain sorted out quicker than expected.”

Sue smiled at me with a look of relief on her face. She did look a bit tired, but then it was the weekend and she didn’t have her full face of warpaint on, so she looked different anyway. I preferred the natural look on her, but she insisted on ‘putting her face on’ when she went to work. Not that I objected to her glam look – it was a bit of a turn on, especially when she had the ‘face’ on and hardly anything else except for that red and black basque with black fishnet stockings and high heels. That only comes out when the boys are staying over with one of the sets of grandparents. But, I digress. Again.

So, here I am at the dentist. Sunday morning. 10.30 on the dot – I like being punctual now. It’s probably because my dad beat it into me after I missed so much of school and then one of my final exams. I mean, he literally beat it into me, but that’s another story.

I eventually get to see the dentist at 11.45. He is a tall man, probably about three or four inches taller than me, and I’m nearly six foot. But he’s not the only one in this tiny room that I enter. It’s a bit like a reverse Tardis. The building is big, but this surgery is like a cupboard, and there are already four people in there when I go in.

I’m frustrated at the long wait, but I also may be a bit nervous because I quip, “Oh, is there a party that I didn’t know about?”

Nobody smiles. I couldn’t see the dentist’s mouth anyway as he already had his mask on.

“Hello,” he turns to look at the notes, “Dennis. Hello. Take a seat here, please.”

I oblige.

“First time here?”

The chair goes back without warning.

“I understand you are emergency,” he says from behind the mask.

I always forget how disconcerting it is to talk to people face to face when I can’t see their mouths. They remind me of bank robbers, or some other unsavoury characters. But I’m sure you know what I mean when I say they look like they are up to no good, because they usually are when they are looking into my mouth.

“No.” I respond with a confused look. “I’m just here for a check up because I have a toothache.”

“It say here,” English is obviously not his first language. The fact that he speaks more than one language and is trained as a dentist should make me feel comfortable. It doesn’t.

“No, it say emergency appointment on notes.”

The four people look at me. I feel small, the same way I did when I had to have braces fitted when I was at junior school and ended up kicking the dentist, wrestling with the nurse and running out of the surgery hotly pursued by my mum.

One of them, who is not wearing a mask, is sat on a stool right by the door – everything is right by the door in here – and she is making notes. I wonder what she is writing because nothing has happened as far as I can see.

“Where is your pain?” the dentist asks.

“Put your head back and open, please.”

I point to my jaw and start to speak when he prods around with the sharp silver instrument he has inserted into my mouth.

“Ow!” I exclaim as he jabs at the area that is causing me the most pain. I just miss clamping his gloved hand in between my front teeth.

“We need X-ray. OK?”

“Yes, OK.” I agree.

I’m already uncomfortable with this Bright Smile Dental Hub, but I’m in the chair, surrounded on all sides and I seem to have lost my voice.

I have the x-ray. In fact I have two because they say they need them.

“What are you looking for?” I query.

“Standard emergency appointment procedure,” that’s all he says to me. I’m not satisfied. I try to get an answer again. “Excuse me,” I attempt to inject the usual British politeness into the proceedings, I am hoping that it will get me some answers from one of the four people who are now back to their standing positions around me. “Excuse me,” I say again looking up into his dark beady eyes. He glances down at me and then resumes his conversation over my head with a dismissive, “Have to check X-rays. Nurse will explain later.”

I’m not use to this, I don’t like it at all. I force the upper part of my body upwards, it’s awkward because the leg section of the chair is still raised and my knees are now at the same height as my chest. I feel like I’m in the middle section of an accordion.

I pull the torn blue paper towel from my neck and swing my legs to the side.

“No,” I insist.”I need someone to explain this to me now. What’s going on? You’ve been prodding around in my mouth for ages mumbling about gum disease and abscesses but I still haven’t had any clear indication about what you’ve found. About what’s causing this pain. Can you even do anything to help me? Can anyone please,” I look at each of them in turn, “please tell me what’s going on!”

I am firmer than I anticipated, it sounds like I’m shouting. Maybe I am. So I continue. My voice is naturally deep – it would make a good singing bass I’ve been told – and now it is extremely loud. It sounds like a rumble of thunder.

“Look,” I’m on a roll now, so I go for it, “I want to talk to the practice manager. This is ridiculous. There are four of you in here and I can’t get one clear answer. All you do is push these pieces of card in front of me, they don’t explain anything. I just want an answer – preferable in plain English (I immediately regret that part of my rant in case I’m viewed as racist but that doesn’t stop me) – just tell me what the f… Sorry. I mean, what the hell is going on!”

“Hold on, sir. Sorry. We are just discussing your treatment plan,” this is the dental nurse speaking directly to me. The only other things she has done since I’ve been in this box-like room is to tie what looks like blue kitchen towel around my neck and push laminated information cards in front of my previously reclined head.

The person with the notebook suddenly leaves the room and within a few minutes – that consists only of strained silence and unnecessary rearrangement of dental tools – she returns behind another man in a mask. I feel like I’m beginning to develop claustrophobia as they all stand around me. The notebook girl stands with her hand on the handle of the open door. That’s some relief.

The person who is now in front of me and extends his hand. His glove looks like it’s been submerged in water, it is stuck to his thick hairy hands.

“Mr Young?” he asks after looking at the notes. 

“Yes, that’s me. Who are you?”

“I’m Arthur Franklin, the Practice Manager. Now, what’s happened here is …”

“I have questions,” I interject.

“Please let me explain our emergency appointment procedure to you.”

“You know what?” I interrupt again.

I’m annoyed now and I’m no longer hiding it, “I’m just here for a check up, NOT an emergency appointment.”

“We only do emergency appointments on Sunday’s,” Arthur Franklin states. “That would have been fully explained to you before you came here today – that’s our normal procedure.”

“No, nobody told me that. I asked for a check up. I am not an emergency. I have pain, yes, but it’s not an emergency it’s just painful. I spoke with Tracy, no Stacey, yesterday. I told her what I wanted. Check. Go on, check your records. She took my number and sent me a confirmation message of my check up appointment with your post code for directions.”

“Let me see,” Arthur Franklin squeezes himself to stand between the chair and the computer screen again. “Ah yes,” he says, “there’s been a mistake.”

He moves away a few steps and stands in front of the window which has Bright Smile Dental Hub etched across it. Of course, I’m looking at it backwards now but I’m trying to calm myself down so that’s what I focus on, something that’s not staring at me.

Eventually, although it’s only a mere 30 seconds later, I look him up and down. I say up and down, but there isn’t much of him. He’s a small man, in height at least. He may be 5ft 1” or 5ft 2” at the most, and nearly the same in width. Well, maybe not quite that wide but he has unusual proportions and a terrible dress sense.

I only notice this because I’m a tailor, and clothes are my business. He is the only one, apart from the note-taker, who doesn’t have green or blue scrubs on, his mask is around his neck. His brown leather shoes are scuffed and worn down on the outsides and he has bright red socks on under his baggy blue serge trousers which have at least a two inch gap between the top of his shoes and his trouser hem. I can also see the hair on his sweaty chest because his shirt is a few sizes too small and missing an essential closure where his belly button should be.

“Come with me,” he says, “to reception. We’ll sort this out there.”

“When the x-rays are back,” he says talking to the beady-eyed dentist, “we’ll revisit this, Jakub. In the meantime maybe you can see the next patient while I talk with Mr Young …”

“Yes, good idea Artur.” He says. His eyes seem to have hardened and he looks glad to see the back of me.

“While we are waiting for the X-rays,” Arthur Franklin says to me, he is propped up against the receptionists’ desk just looking over the top at the seated heads of the two women there, “I’d suggest you make the payment for the complete treatment. The initial examination that Jakub undertook suggests that you have progressive gum disease, and you also need a replacement filling and treatment for that abscess. So that will be, let me see … Janice, can you do a bill for Mr Young? And can you make an appointment for … sorry, can you turn the screen around, thank you. Yes, this afternoon at three. Everything will be clear and ready to proceed by then.”

I am towering above him but I still feel small. I don’t like talking to the top of his head, so I take a step backwards.

“Yes, that’s fine. How much is it? I’ll pay now and you’ll finish the treatment this afternoon? Is that right?”

“Yes, yes. That’s right.”

“Thank you, Janice.”

“There you go, Mr Young, your bill.” He hands me the information.

I look at the piece of paper and reach for my wallet. It seems a bit steep but I’m afraid to talk anymore.

“Do you take cards?” I say this to the woman with the name tag ‘Janice’.

“Yes, of course.”

She charges my card after I punch my number in, reminds me of my later appointment and then says brightly, “See you this afternoon at three.” I take my receipt and leave.

I have just over two hours to calm down.

I call Sue as soon as I’m outside.

She listens without comment, then says, “Denny, it sounds rough, but looks like you’re going to get it sorted. I’m sorry that they didn’t make the whole process clear at first.” She pauses for me to respond, I grunt.

“I’m going to the shop to get a drink.”

“Do you think having a Coke is the best thing between dental appointments?”

“No.”

“But you’re going to do it anyway?”

“Yes.”

“OK. Will you be home for lunch or shall we start without you?”

“Aw, Sue. Can you leave mine in the oven? I’m just going to go to the shop and come back here to get this over and done with. I’ll eat later. Can you tell the boys I’ll be back soon? Please don’t tell them that I’m behaving like a wuss. This pain is no joke! I’l take them out for football in the park later. Promise.”

“OK, love.” She hesitated, I knew she hadn’t finished speaking.

“Yeah?” I said.

“I was just wondering if it didn’t make sense to come back and eat now because you might be in pain later if you have a filling and an injection. Just a thought …”

“You’re right. It does make sense, but when did I ever make sense about seemingly logical things? You married the wrong man if you’re looking for sense!” I laughed even though I didn’t feel like it.

“No, Sue. Thanks for the thought, love. I’ll be back as soon as they’ve finished. If I left now by the time I get home and quickly throw some food down my throat, I’ll have to be back across here and the traffic is heavy today because of the match.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot. OK darling, see you later. Keep me updated. Love you.”

“Love you back,” I smiled. Sue had the ability to find some joy in me even when I was at my grumpiest. And the dentist made me feel like all the photos of Grumpy Cat that have ever been seen.

I was back at the dentist at 2.45 because I ran out of things to do around that area, and I didn’t want to do any impulse shopping because I’m always telling Sue not to do that, and I would have to think of a good excuse for whatever I bought. I sat with my phone and watched the match. I had my headphones in so I didn’t hear them when they called me at first. They called me in exactly at three o’clock.

Once I was back in the chair I noticed that the room was strangely empty. There was only me and the dental nurse. She was in the same green scrubs that she had on earlier in the day. Her hair was now tied up in a neat knot behind her head.

“The dentist will be a few more minutes, Mr Young. Sorry he’s been delayed.”

“I noticed there were a lot more people in reception,” I tried to make conversation but I felt the sarcasm was starting to build already. “Did you have a lot of emergencies come in today?” There was no way I could make it sound neutral. I’m sure that she remembered the earlier conversation.

“We’re usually busy on Sunday’s,” was her diplomatic answer.

“Oh.”

Three quiet minutes passed and we both shifted uncomfortably because there was nothing to look at, apart from the ceiling tiles and the radio was playing too low to hear either music or conversation.

I felt I should ask her her name but she spoke before I could, “It say’s here you’re a tailor.” She was obviously looking at my records on the computer. I had filled the new patient form in when I was waiting the first time I was in reception.

“Yes,” I responded.

“That must be interesting.”

“It is. I love it. It was an unexpected career choice – it even surprised me! But, I really love what I get to do every day. I make people look their best. I mean, just the other day I got to measure up a suit for …”

The door flew open and Jakob burst in, I stopped mid sentence.

He looked like he had been swimming or had just got out of the shower. His blue scrubs were two different shades: dark and wet and light and dry. The wet sections were winning. There were droplets of water all over his face and his forearms. The blond hairs on his arms glistened with sweat. It reminded me of being in a scrum – the only thing missing was the mud.

“Sorry to keep you,” he panted. “Hard case – emergency. Now, let me see.”

He paused as he looked at the screen.

“Oh yes. Mr Young.” He sat down on the stool beside me and reached for his tools. Then he used his forearm to wipe away some of the sweat from his head. His success rate at removing the moisture was poor. I saw more drops forming on his brow above the plastic glasses that he had now placed there.

I sat up.

“Sit back, please.”

“What? What do you think you’re doing?” My voice returned to the volume it was before I left the box room surgery earlier.

“We are late, we need to do injection for filling.” He said. “It will hurt without …”

Turning to the dental assistant, he said something technical and she started preparing the treatment somewhere behind my head.

“No! No!” I repeated.

“You’re not working on me. Look at the state of you! My God … you’ve got to be joking, right? Is this one of those candid camera shows? The next thing would be you drip your dirty sweat into my mouth!”

I was standing up by now.

The thoughts running through my head were a mixture of both horror and fear. The sight of him as he’d entered made me wonder if I was in the right place. I instinctively knew I wasn’t. My adrenalin kicked in. The fight or flight response that I experienced told me to question what sort of dental procedure he could have just undertaken in another, possibly also tiny, room that necessitated the physical exertion obviously required to create that much sweat. I was worried for the person he had just seen, but most of all I was worried for me – his next potential victim.

The images from the recent museum visit started to crowd my mind. I felt nausea rising up in me again.

“I can’t believe this. I’m leaving. There is no way you are working on me looking like that. This is so unprofessional.”

Jakob used his arm to wipe his head again and removed his plastic glasses to stare at me.

“Please,” he said, “please sit and we continue.”

“Can’t you hear me? Can you understand me?” I was still shouting.

“Get me that bloke from this morning. The Practice Manager. Whatshisname Franklin. I want my money back. I’m not paying for this mis-treatment. You’re ridiculous. The whole lot of you. This is stupid. I really can’t believe you plan to work on me looking … and smelling like that!”

Arthur Franklin returns to the reception area. He looks at me with tired eyes. He has the same crumpled and soiled mask around his neck, and the gloves he is wearing have puffed up with the increased amount of moisture between him and the plastic material. That should have been a sign to me earlier. The pain that I’ve been feeling has obviously stopped my perception skills.

“I want my money back.” I demand. “I’m not paying for this – did you see that man? He was sweating … I mean, literally sweating on to me  as I sat in the chair!”

This bit is not strictly true, but it would have been if I had stayed in the chair for even a minute longer. I had a lucky escape. So did he. I didn’t get my black belt in Taekwondo without knowing how to use my feet and fists.

There is silence in the packed waiting room. I’ve had my say, and all the other people have heard me. I could say more, but I won’t, not today. It’s time for me to go before I do something I regret.

Before I left they insisted that I pay for the X-rays, but they gave me back the rest of the nearly £200 I had signed over a few hours earlier. So I was £25 lighter, I had lost half of my Sunday and I still had a horrible toothache.

Sue laughed when I told her. She said I was exaggerating, but I’m not. I tell you, I would have hurt him if he dropped his smelly sweat into my mouth. It really would have hurt. I don’t know how they get away with it.

I’m going to write a review about them now. Where do I start …

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017