Image courtesy of the Old Design Shop, a vintage image treasury. This image of bicycle and bicycling outfits is from a page in The Delineator magazine, April 1895 issue.

Image courtesy of the Old Design Shop, a vintage image treasury. This image of bicycles and bicycling outfits is from a page in the April 1895 issue of The Delineator magazine.

How’s the poetry going?
Is a giveaway question
on the pavement.
It signals you
have not read
anything much
the poet
might have
written recently.
Or otherwise you have,
and now on meeting
the poet
on the pavement
you wonder, this
that the poet
has written recently,
is any of it about me?


There is a post often shared on social media among the writing community that reads something to the effect of, “Do not upset a writer or they will kill you off.” Whenever I re-read it, I chuckle a little.

Of course, writers are not without fault and many (of greater wisdom than I possess) certainly look to their own foibles to create villains or draw inspiration for their work’s darkness. However, inspiration also comes from circumstances and experiences lived. Yes, for me there are some people’s comments and actions that have spurred particular imaginative turns. This works best when the initial situation proves a spark for an augmented parallel vista, such as in my recent series of short stories (see
Gone are the cars
Running in the wood
Hand-tie
Fenstone’s Flower).

I don’t expect most of the people who engage in daily small talk with me to be avid followers of these blog updates, though I do suspect (and can attest, from being asked) that when they do read my work, there is curiosity as to whom or what it might reference.

So here’s a clue: there just might be something I’ve written ‘about’ you.

I have also written about small talk before.

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Cape blue waterlily (Nymphaea capensis var. zanzibariensis) (8103217895)

By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Another short story from the hip.

Fenstone’s Flower

Fenstone was in his favourite pottering spot for a not quite warm, though there be some sunlight day. He had finished washing the Saturday breakfast crockery and cutlery, scraping down the plates of scrambled egg residue and croissant crumbs. This was Peggy and Fenstone’s Saturday morning treat and it had been for the last 15 years since they moved into this house with the garden.

The garden had at first proved a novelty after the small patch of grass behind their starter house. The patch of grass had seemed a social upgrade on the balcony of potted tomato plants he had nurtured in the flat preceding the starter house. Part of the novelty of the full garden was its spaciousness and the two fully grown trees that had established themselves on the plot. Further novelty was the weekends spent idling in garden centres, picking out shrubs and plants. Peggy soon wearied of these outings. They took her away from chattering sessions with her friends. Fenstone was quite happy to continue the trips on his own. He went more often than was needed to replace the seasonal annuals or seek out vegetable seeds for fresh sowing.

Fenstone’s garden centre escapes were as regularly scheduled as his public garden visits. Botanical gardens, country house gardens, stately home gardens of all sizes, near and abroad either featured on Fenstone’s travel wish list or welcomed him as an eager visitor. But all these other places could not replace his favourite corner, his own garden.

Over the decade and a half they had lived in the house, it had become Fenstone’s garden. In the early days, he had employed the garden maintenance firm, a group of reliable Spanish men, all related they claimed, who had worked wonders at giving the space character and depth. What had been a square of grass, sided by two beds and sentried by the two established trees was transformed into a wonderland entered into by a curving path. The fish pond with a few blue water lilies, a delightful addition for many years, had recently been filled in at Peggy’s request. With small grandchildren around, the open water was now a hazard. Fenstone had salvaged the bulbs from the water lily plants and had promised them to another gardening friend.

After the Spaniards had returned home to retire, Fenstone had employed whichever young lad in the suburb felt inclined to earn some money sweeping, mowing, weeding or planting.The garden was now established and in his own retirement Fenstone had the time, and fortunately, the physical strength to continue with much of the maintenance himself. And nothing brought him more joy than the thought of a half or full day in his garden, and especially pottering in his potting shed.

In the potting shed Fenstone had coaxed all manner of vegetables, soft fruits and flowers through the cold and overcast winters. Last season’s strawberries were a great success and this year he planned to nurture a rainbow of fragrant hyacinths that would be planted at intervals in the wonderland. The bulbs had arrived the day before, so on this Saturday, Fenston had set the day aside to prepare the pots with nourished soil and plant the bulbs. Fenstone had spent many autumns preparing pots for not yet germinated seeds and bulbs, as well as fledgling seedlings. The potting shed was the preparation shed for Fenstone’s vision for the coming flowering season.

Fenstone pushed the water lily bulbs that he was drying out aside. He opened the bad of hyacinth bulbs and spread them out on his workshelf. The potting began.


It was not until six months later, in May, that Peggy went into the potting shed. Rotting plants, soil and spiders were not to her liking, but once spring arrived and it felt as though the world was brightening, she ventured out into the garden and into Fenstone’s old hideaway. She looked around and sighed. He had been such a stickler for order and it was evident even here, even six months later. The compost bags piled according to type, the garden soil and potting soil separated, not a cracked or grossly chipped pot in sight. Even the spider webs hung from their proper places in the roof corners.

The most orderly sight of all was Fenstone’s ranks of flowering hyacinths. Their scent was too strong for Peggy and she started to sneeze. This was not enough to put her off, today she had to clear out the shed because the movers would be arriving in four weeks. She did not have time to dawdle. She called out to her daughter in the kitchen, “Helen, sorry to trouble you, my hayfever’s playing up. Would you mind giving me a hand down here?”

Helen came down the winding path to the potting shed, “Wow! They are spectacular! Such a pity Dad isn’t here to see the results. And what’s the blue one over there? It looks like a water lily flower? I’m pretty sure they grow and survive potted in soil.”

Peggy and Helen stepped over to the opened flower, “Let’s take it up to the house and give some of Fenstone’s gardening friends a call. This calls for an expert’s opinion.”

Helen placed the pot on the kitchen windowsill. At dusk, the flower closed up. Peggy asked two of Fenstone’s gardening friends to come over the next day to confirm what they had witnessed.

The next morning Helen went down to put on the kettle. She scanned the windowsill for the opened flower. All that was left in the pot was a shrivelled stem.

Corridors

By Fielsvd (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the corridor

Along the walls,
a green of mint ice-cream,
are plastic chairs
moulded grey for sitting
in the moment before
the cold night coming.

Not wanting contact,
she slips a piece of paper
through the door.


I had an appointment with the renal specialist today. In the hospital corridor I sat with the bulky gel pen and budget A4 writing pad I bought last week in Poundland.

The corridor was painted in the mint green described. The chairs were moulded in grey plastic. I was waiting and also watching and scribbling. Patients and nurses passed down the corridor with pieces of A4 paper, probably print-outs of requests for particular blood tests. Even though these are routine check-up clinics, many people wait with anxiety in those hospital chairs or the consulting rooms. A nurse opened the door of a consulting room and slipped through a printed sheet.

Back at home, to one of Spotify’s Grime soundtracks,  I have been fiddling with my notes. The poem above is a neat example of moments observed now morphed into fiction.

Indirana semipalmata tadpole

By mvbhaktha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Conversations

Word amphibians hold the real treasures
felt in the veins. But we talk more, more.
Make more words known to each other.
Chime this topic. Ring out that story.
Wring out absolutely the whole truth.
While the word amphibians live in those tones;
they also swim in the extract of transmission.


I wrote the usual mini-essay to accompany this poem and on re-reading decided to leave it out. I am quite certain you have had your own experiences of word amphibians.

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Congratulations Balloon Image

ScrapsYard.com | Congratulations | Forward this Picture

Here is another short story completed for the exercise of completion. This tale developed in response to a balloon in a florist’s van.
I’m also love to hear your ideas for story prompts. Please share them with me by dropping a line below.

Hand-tie

Harry arrives at 11am to pack the orders for afternoon delivery. His daughter, Sam, now owns and runs the florist’s shop, but he still goes in Monday to Saturday to fill the van with hand-ties and bouquets. It gives him a reason to be out and about during the week and handing over people’s greetings and wishes have always been his favourite part of working in the business. The daily deliveries allow him to still be part of this.

It is a Thursday morning like many others, with the exception that this promises to be the first warm day when spring turns toward summer.

Sam puts down the ‘phone.
“Liz, we have an add an extra hand-tie plus balloon order for late-morning delivery. Do you have time, or should I arrange it?” The ‘phone rings again. At the same moment a customer steps in with a pot of ornamental tomatoes from the display outside.

“Seraphine’s Flowers. How may I help?” Sam answers the ‘phone and smiles in acknowledgement at the customer. At that moment, Liz steps forward from the arranging counter to handle the plant sale. In a day there would be long lulls and then a cluster of requests and sales would occur at once. Between 9.30 and 10am is one such busy time.

The customer leaves with her ornamental tomato wrapped in bright red paper and tied with raffia. Liz turns back to the arranging counter. Sam tears off the receipt for the card sale over the ‘phone.

Liz picks up on their interrupted conversation, “The hand-tie. I can do it.”
“Thank you. And I’ll start this new order.”

They have three new arrangements to prepare, and two from the day before are waiting in the cool back room. When the weather is cooler they line the bouquets at the shop front, where they serve the double purpose of sales temptation and decoration. But the temperatures have been rising this week and last night they set the arrangements under a shelf in the back to keep them fresh. No-one wants to receive wilted, half-dead flowers.

“Hello, hello.” Harry saunters in, jangling his keys and sipping on his take-away coffee from the chain next door, “How many and where are we going today?”
Sam looks over the clipboard, “Two for Terra’s, two residential and an office delivery, Staffield.”
“Let’s get ’em packed in.”
He starts by carrying the first of the two back-room arrangements to Seraphine’s van. Harry’s seasoned. He started here when his mother, Seraphine, opened the store. He knows not to risk carrying arrangements by the strings of the colourful brand-name paper bags. In his early days delivering, he had done so. It only took two or three tumbles of carnations, roses and tulips across the shop floor before he realised the danger of seeming convenience. Carrying two or three arrangements also seems another convenience. Usually two is do-able, but three – again, hardly worth the risk, both of stock and in terms of the time it would take to re-do the bouquet. With great care, he carried the second bunch from the back-room. Sam and Liz bring the other flowers through.
“If that’s it, I’m off.”
“Take care, Dad.” Sam calls out to him.
“I will. And bye Liz. See you tomorrow. ”

Harry has until 3pm to deliver the flowers. That is the goal he sets himself and he usually manages it with ease. If the orders are local and there is someone to sign for each, he can complete the day’s route by lunchtime. He estimates that today might take a little longer. With the roadworks near the hospital, he may be caught up for an extra half-an hour at least.

In the roadworks traffic, Harry entertains himself by tapping on his steering wheel to the radio. The signal changes. He needs to move into the far left lane. And from there he will turn right into Terra Hospital’s parking area. Check, indicate, check, prepare to change lanes. Harry thinks about lunch waiting at home and a gentle round of golf he might enjoy on this sunny afternoon.

Almost everybody in the city is distracted by the warm, clear weather. The driver in the lane alongside Harry receives a text, ‘Beautiful sunny day. All good.’

Playing the messenger had always been Harry’s favourite part of the business. Doing the deliveries still gave him great pleasure, which is why Sam had not employed someone else. She loved seeing her Dad every day and he enjoyed being connected to shop.

Today promises to be the when spring finally thaws. The ‘phone rings. Sam answers, “Seraphine’s Flowers. Good morning.”

“One pretty pink hand-tie, plus a matching balloon to be delivered to Terra’s Hospital Maternity Ward. We’ll have it delivered early this afternoon. Our pleasure.” Sam turns to her assistant, Liz.

The driver in the lane alongside Harry receives a text, ‘Beautiful sunny day. All good.’ He decides to reply to the text; loses attention for a split second. The car catches the florist van’s sliding door and plunges into the flower arrangements. The helium-balloon detaches from the pretty pink hand-tie and floats off over Terra Hospital, taking CONGRATULATIONS into the sky. On impact, Harry’s body suffers such shock that he has a heart attack.

Livelihood

If you were a beast and it was May,
I would say

Listen to me, you golden beauty,
we must walk through those flames.
Do not fear. Shhh, calm,
calm your hooves. Calm your trample, trampling.
Look at me.

With my hands to the muzzle
I lead the prosperity of my summer yield,
garlanded in cowslips, buttercups and wild daffodils,
through the Beltane flames.

Afterwards, I sweep up cold ash and protection for you,
cold ash for me and mark: here, our foreheads are signed
to welcome prosperity.

It is May, and livelihood is not a golden beast with deep eyes
left to summer fields and prophecies. The bonfire –
a stupid superstition swept away.

It is May, we step through cables, then through screens
and the unseen marks our foreheads.

Out of curiosity, over the bank holiday weekend I looked up details about May Day festivities. I wanted to unravel the relationship between pagan May 1st festivities and the International Workers’ Day association. The latter stems from the Haymarket Riots, confrontations between labourers and police in Chicago during May 1886. These pivotal events led to the institution of International Workers’ Day (for more details read here). However, it was the descriptions of the pagan, Gaelic, Celtic Beltane festivals  that captured my imagination. I have relayed the captivating information (i.e. vivid scenes) to almost every friend, associate and family member with whom I have had a conversation during the last couple of days. Now, dear reader, I have incorporated the fascination into a poem for you.

One of the practices during Beltane was to usher cattle, beasts that provided the livelihood for the people of the settlement, between two large bonfires. The beasts were sometimes garlanded in yellow May flowers. Ash from the bonfires was considered sacred, so it was swept up and used to mark the cattle. In some instances, it was cooked into food (such as oatcakes).

The difference between our present and times past is a recurring theme at the moment. It surfaced in the recent poem ‘Beacons for the utterly lost‘ and my dystopian short-story ‘Gone are the cars‘. Admittedly in ‘Livelihood’ the ‘past’ is a constructed and sanitized pastoral one. It is possibly more like the mythical pastoral that crops up in Friday’s short story, ‘Running in the wood‘. Furthermore, I am also aware that not everyone in our current times is beholden to cables, screens and whatever those ‘unseen marks’ on the foreheads might be.

However, the screen-bound, desk-bound condition is for many the locus and source of a contemporary livelihood. As an artist, the fascination is in the stories that are to be found in the workplace experience, including, as this poem explores, how own might coax a livelihood through flames, or mark it for prosperity. The Beltane acts might strike sceptical office workers as ritualistic hooey, yet there are contemporary equivalents. Organisational targets and projections, meetings and elaborate strategies – all those documents, spreadsheets, published reports – make rational, tangible sense today. In seven hundred years’ time, will Trello boards look like the wild flower garlands on a dairy cow? This may seem an outrageous comparison, for current office methods underpin efficiency and the measurable results prove as much. The movement of money proves as much.

In the days of Beltane festivals, there were fewer bank accounts. Instead there were hungry stomachs to fill. The marked dairy cows provided for the celebrants and then their children’s children, who went on to produce more children whose descendants perhaps send emails and hit targets in this contemporary age.

It bothers me a great deal that all that might be left of my writing output will be a couple of filed applications, some reports and a virtual mound of emails. All this will be destroyed when my workplace footprint has run its course. Whenever I have produced written content for job purposes, it has served such a small audience. Sometimes it has served barely any audience at all. While the same may be said for my posts (and the growing pile of miscellaneous unseen material), it is my hope that eventually my writing will be of substance such that it will endure. It is my hope that writing I produce will touch people in the future and that something endures as good, worthwhile craft. It is my hope that I shall be able to send meaningful work of beauty and value into a realm beyond my present time.

In the interim, practicalities require that I must also earn my livelihood. May rent must be paid, groceries need to be topped up and my cracked tooth needs to be seen by a dentist. I am on the search for a new position of paid employment and watching the bank balance decrease. Once again, the tension between desk-bound livelihood jobs and having head space to create gnaws at me. I am both grateful for the creative bonfire and terrified by the prospect of a summer devoid of a harvest, so my next writing task is to revive my CV.

P.S. If you enjoyed the mash-up of Beltane bonfire and office job, you may enjoy my poem about El Dorado’s operations meeting.

With appreciation to Val Ghose for use of the photograph. Original image to view on Wikimedia Commons.

With appreciation to Val Ghose for use of the photograph. Original image to view on Wikimedia Commons.

Another short story written from the hip. (And, lest anyone forget, copyright of the writing on this blog is retained by me, even though there may be some echoes of ancient myth in this tale.)

Running in the wood

Keys, I mustn’t forget to take my keys. They’re right there on the counter-top in front of me. I start lacing up my running shoes. Focus on one thing at a time, Larry. Laces, then keys. Then make your way across the road to the entrance of the wood, away from this white kitchen, so bright with the light from above. It seemed such a wonderful idea when we ‘opened up’ the house to enclose the extension in glass doors and fit the skylight. Now nothing grates like bright light when the children kick off, when I stumble into the kitchen after too many glasses of wine the night before or when Mel starts.

“Larry, sweetheart, L.” Yes, there’s her song from the tv room. Dash, why can’t I get loop over a double tie of this lace. It’s really simple. I’ll just start again. Measure the lengths, right under left, left over right.
“Larry, Laarriee,” that’s the summoning tone.
“Coming, love. Just tying a lace.”

It is true. She doesn’t look herself at the moment. There’s that grey pallor under her eyes. Huddled on the couch, under a brown blanket, you can’t see her bloated stomach. For months, she had masked this under her flowing blouses, laughing it off as late-onset gluten intolerance. But her face is gaunt and her arms and legs are all bone. Without the armour of blanket and couch cushions, she might end up crushed by today, by the world. The bright light of the kitchen would probably incinerate her in a strike.

“You will be back in time for the call.”
“Yes. 11:30 you said.”
“You promise?”
“I promise.”
“It’s already 10:45. How long are you planning to go running for?”
“I’ll be back by 11.30.”
“Take your phone, just in case.”
“Honey, I’m not taking my phone. I just need some fresh air. You won’t need to call me, I’ll be back in time.”
“I’m not sure. You say you promise, but it takes ten minutes to get from the house to the wood, another ten back. Are you telling me you’re only going to run for, I don’t know, fifteen minutes?”
I try to keep it light. This is no time for whipping up a disagreement and the best avoidance method is to avoid any direct eye contact. “Let me be off and I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Please, don’t go. Just stay here, with me. We can find something to watch. Something funny.” She starts up a chuckle, “Funny. Laughter is the best medicine! Best!”
I really need the fresh air and to feel my body pound. “Mel, I’ll be back before you know it.”

The Spanish au pairs and Polish nannies cluster outside the playgroup at the end of the road. They are helping each other fold-up the empty buggies to leave in the buggy shed until they will fetch their charges at the end of the playgroup day. There are a two older siblings, perhaps the ones with colds or chicken pox (it always does its rounds), hovering. One is absorbed by a screen, playing a game or watching a video. The other is in mid-meltdown. The yell is bound to decrescendo to a whimper soon. At least, as a dad of two, that’s my pennies’ worth.

At last, the gate to the wood. Oh, but a moment from the twitter of birdsong and rustling green! Oh, secret idyll! A large, black dog pushes through the gate, followed by
“Sorry, excuse me.” A squat and portly woman dressed head to toe in white pushes past, followed by a second large, black dog.
“Not to worry,” I smile and continue with my run.
Wearing white, with a white rose stuck behind her ear, in a wood while walking her dogs. She must be a little bit crackers.

Kat, my younger daughter would call me up at this moment. Dad, she would point out, you are not to make unkind observations about people’s appearances, physique or dress. You definitely should not be judging any woman. But there’s a particular buzz word Kat uses. I’ve heard it around. Ah yes, shaming.

Now step up the pace along what I call the warm-up incline. I pass two women in their mid-forties, power-walking. They’re discussing the most prestigious local schools and their entrance exams.
“I can’t believe how much testing these children have to go through!”
“My dear Persephone has done so well. I’m so proud of her, coming through it all. I think she may have made it to the next round.”
“What a relief for you! I’m not sure it’s been so easy for Hephaestus.”
Trust parents in this neighbourhood to give their child such a name.

I turn a corner onto a secluded, unpaved path that cuts through the trees. Half-way, and I know this because I have so often run this track, is a bench in memory of a Lissa Harrison. She had grown up with us in the neighbourhood. I had been in the same circle of friends at university. I know I was at her twenty-first and wedding, I might have been at her thirtieth, but my memory of all is a blur after 28. We had one child and were expecting a second by then. Lissa was 36 when she passed away unexpectedly. It was such a shock to her family, especially her mother who used to live near mine. At the turn of every season, the surviving daughters and Lissa’s mum attach a bunch of flowers and a letter to the bench. When I see it I stop to read the update. The last I read, the daughters had started at university.

Here, at the end of the secluded stretch, I step back onto a concrete path and I kick into what looks like a black sheep. It whimpers at the near sacrifice. It’s a thick-set, curly haired terrier of some sort chewing on stick. I avert my route and hope no-one can identify face. From within the trees a whistle blows and an elderly voice calls, “Oona, my little pet, where are you? Time to get going.”

Here at the second incline, the steep test. At the top of this section is an information board, which marks the turning point for my self-determined route. Sometimes I’ll stop and stare at the board while I catch my breath. On it there’s a map of the wood and a brief history. Apparently, this remaining section is part of an ancient woodland that extended across neighbourhood. As I make my way towards the board, I count down my steps from a hundred. Ninety-eight, the birds are in song. Ninety-seven, from my raised viewpoint I spy the top of a bus as it slows at the stop. That would usually be me, on my commute into the office, a good four hours earlier, of course. But these last few weeks have been a bit different.

Here is the board. I turn. These changes might continue. I’ll find out soon enough. But now, as I run, is no time to think about such things. I return to my counting. Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, my heartbeat matches my empty enumeration. All I’m counting are the thoughts out of my head, ninety-five, ninety-four. I follow my route now reverse: down the steep incline, the medium incline. I pass the elderly hunchbacked man with his trio of hounds. He greets everyone and I get a “morning.” I nod a “morning” in reply. The children used to call him Old Father Time, for even when they were little he was walking his dogs in this wood. It does occur to me that there are a number of elderly people in the wood today. Because the able-bodied are being bussed into their day-jobs, or if they have stepped out of their working routine, they are waiting in limbo for news. More accurately, waiting in purgatory. At the entrance gate, which is now my exit, I cross the road for my final leg home.

I pull out my keys, turn the lock. Mel is standing in the corridor, the bright light from the kitchen catches around her hair. She’s half-wrapped in the blanket, as if it is a toga or a brown chrysalis. She’s sucking on a pomegranate.

“You’re late,” she whispers.
I step closer. She’s been crying. “Surely not. I’ve only been gone half-an-hour at most.”
“The call came hours ago. What took you so long? I’ve been dying here.”
“No.” It’s not meant to be like this, “Please. I’m so sorry, Mel. Please. No.” I can hardly form an apology, a consolation. What am I trying to say? She turns. “ Mel, wait. What did the doctors say?”

She drops the pomegranate and shuffles in her chrysalis into the kitchen. I follow her, pick up the fruit.


“Dad, what are you doing?”
“Huh?” Larry blinks, comes to. His daughter Kat is standing next to him.
“Dad, why are you holding a half-chewed tennis ball and staring at the skylight?”

Kat holds up a bunch of flowers, “We’re going with grandma to lay these at the bench. Neave and I have chosen a mixture of daffodils, narcissus and baby’s breath because it’s spring. I really think mum would’ve have liked them, don’t you? Oh yes, and the dogs are coming. Are you? Because you’ll have to put some shoes on if you are.”


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The image used for this post was originally used to illustrate the poem ‘trees‘ that was inspired by my many wood walks. In an even more uncanny resonance, the cropped trees of this image are from a photograph of an old altar of St Luke’s, the patron saint of doctors and physicians.

Allegiance

When others mocked you I stood firm and said,
Your vision would be for our betterment.
In happy fealty I volunteered,
Believing your requests would teach a path
Worthwhile for more than monetary gain;
I thought it my apprenticeship’s terrain.
Your fair-minded way inspired me.
I trusted the value of your guarantee.
This confidence in words proved error, mine.
Onward, I’ll loyalty with care assign.


Towards the end of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, there is a scene in which the draconian and exacting fashion magazine editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly, passes over one of her dedicated Runway employees for a recommendation. Nigel, the employee, has served many years in the hope that his efforts at Runway will be noticed by Miranda and provide a stepping stone to another opportunity. I reverted to a Wiki synopsis for these full plot details, for it is Nigel’s comment to Andy (the protagonist of the film) that has long played in my mind. Although disappointed, Nigel declares that his loyalty to Miranda will one day pay off.

Perhaps Nigel was raised, as I was, by a mother whose cue at such moments was, “Everything comes to those who wait.” It is not surprising that sanguine expectation has filtered into my consciousness. For some reason, I have paired this with the view that loyalty will be rewarded. (Can you tell that my ancestors were possibly the peasants rather than the overlords?) Perhaps allegiance should be its own reward. I have not evolved to that level of enhanced consciousness. I still dedicate my time, energy, working hours, money, talents and intention in the hope that there will be outcomes and that these outcomes will advance towards grand triumphs. If not immediate successes, at least the next opportune stepping-stone.

On too many occasions (and I recognise at least two in my life currently), I have held quiet admiration for someone with whom I have had a working relationship. Let me qualify that these working contexts span more than the workplace; they have included my days as a student and aspiring academic, groups and organisations where I have been involved because of a conviction or interest, even interesting people I have met who I hoped would notice me. I have wished, yes sometimes as desperately as a preteen with a crush, that some of these more experienced war-horses would offer to mentor me. Or, at the very least, my dedication would be acknowledged. In more than one instance, I believed that I offered a great deal of myself: unpaid time, tactful allegiance, trust rather than explicit demands. My view of my efforts may be biased, but the devotion was true. And then circumstances unravelled. I am prone to idealism and intense commitment, so it is not surprising that I have found myself in similar situations at recurring intervals in my life. It would seem I have yet to learn those last words of my own poem, “Onward, I’ll loyalty with care assign.”

In one of the working versions of the poem the last line read, “Shall I loyalty with more care assign?” The construction touched me as self-doubting. Why address the reader with this question? Was this the speaker’s call for confirmation, yet again? Right now, onward, I need to weed out self-doubt. I started by cutting it out of the poem.

The connection between ardent fealty and self-doubt is not abstruse. Certain narratives of our contemporary society suggest that we can all do whatever we want, right now, and we should not doubt ourselves. Expecting someone else to hold the banner for your cause demeans your agency.

I prefer to convince myself that my expressions of sanguine loyalty were in support of a learning endeavour. For there is another narrative that advises you to follow in the footsteps of the peer, superior or colleague you admire, and you will learn the ropes. These are also the movers and shakers who will be able to recommend you and open doors. (This view may once again betray the residual foot-soldier, serf mentality.) The promise of such open doors trap Andy, the protagonist in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. After a year working for Runway’s editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, Andy will be able to work at any magazine she desires. In the movie the trap plays out as the old Faustian deal in which you sublimates your own seemingly noble goal for someone else’s morally ambiguous agenda.

Andy rejects the Runway world and is eventually hired by another publication. I wonder if Nigel receives his opportunity. Does Miranda eventually reward his devotion? Or does he find the courage to strike out on his own, risking the withdrawal of Miranda’s endorsement and professional connections?

Re-watching TDWP clips on Youtube, especially the wonderful ‘Cerulean top’ scene, I realise how many lumpy sweaters I own. They make up a motley rainbow of grey, brown, pink and teal. While TDWP explores the ambivalence of someone caught in a Faustian deal, it drives home the point that the clothes make the character. If you want The Job, you must dress The Part. I, the character writing, am sitting in a pair of jeans, two sizes too large, and a black pullover, all pre-owned pass-ons from friends (and I’ll spare you how exactly my underwear has been re-stitched at its fraying seams). Rather than finish writing this post, I am tempted to tear through my drawers and closet and plan a wardrobe-revival shop tomorrow on Regent’s Street. Real-life enactment of this plan extends as far as googling interview outfits, work wardrobes and Banana Republic office-skirts (I locate the Regent’s Street store on Google Maps). But sense prevails, my emergency survival fund is not a wardrobe allocation for a life I do not have at present. For this brief time, while I search for the next Faustian contract, my time, money and talents are mine. My allegiance is to this craft; my loyalty is to myself. And my work wardrobe will be a pair of oversized jeans and a motley rainbow of lumpy sweaters.

Auto scrapyard 1

Image courtesy and work of IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A short story, written in one sitting this afternoon (and I confess, not yet thoroughly proofed). This post is offered in the spirit of completion energy and is inspired by my current read, Jurgen Wolff’s “Your Creative Writing Masterclass” (Nicholas Brealey, 2012). The poem weaves together last night’s dream, some thoughts spurred by Earth Day and a futuristic location based loosely on a suburb of San Diego, CA.

Gone are the cars

I used to worry that I would be found out. But I have come to this conclusion, since everything is so carefully monitored, either someone is protecting me or the authorities are waiting for the right moment to take me down. I have come with my camera and a commission. I am to photograph the fading world of parked cars. Officially, I use a digital device for my work, but after finding a memory card mysteriously wiped after an assignment, I now carry two cameras. The other is based on pre-screen methods of image-capturing, with negatives and processed photographs. This is deemed intensely wasteful, which is why the practice was outlawed ages ago, but in my experience, these are the only photographs that no-one else can intercept. It is only through my own negligence that my physical negatives might be destroyed.

Tarmac roads are still in use in these outer neighbourhoods. The authorities feel no need to update the paving and roads, especially as these are still the areas in which cars are used for transport. I spot one a manhole cover. This is unusual. Even though they are unwieldy to move and heavy to carry, few remain. At metal recycling plants they fetch a hefty price as black-market items.

Of course, everyone is encouraged to recycle. The fines are hefty for the ‘lazy’ and ‘unconscious’ who neglect to put their trash out in the correct containers, on the designated day. Rules about which items may be mixed, which may be separated, what should be cleaned and what may be thrown in as is, change so often. For those who are able to afford it, specialist services will manage your trash separation. The services range from brand-mark companies, with symbiotic shares in the waste management and recycling sectors, to small-timers, individuals who will come to your house before collection to sort through items. Those who run these services, keep themselves updated about the changes, often by paying for the information from the authorities’ Environmental Support Departments.

“This here is the house of a ‘lazy’. You will see for yourself.” J knocks on the door.
“Coming,” wobbles a voice from within. A chain is removed. The door opens.
“Oh, so good to see you. Come in.”
“This is an old friend of mine. May…?”
“No need to ask. Come in. How lovely, my dear.” Two wrinkled hands clasp at our arms in greeting and drag us out of the sooty air into the dark corridor.
“Mrs B, shall we take your trash out while we’re here?”
“Please.”
“Mrs B has lived here, alone, for six years. Her family lives further North, in the New Town. She regularly forgets to sort her trash. She seldom remembers that items must be separated. When she does manage the sorting, she forgets to put the bins out.”
In the kitchen, we are confronted with piles of tins, empty plastic milk bottles, egg containers and the stench of food waste decomposing in a brown bin. A few fruit flies disappear up my nose. My sinuses inflame at the mould spores. I respond on instinct to these triggers. I pull up my lens.

After helping Mrs B with her trash for this week, J and I continue down the street. “It’s a losing battle. She’ll forget something next week and there will be another fine of 150 in addition to the 2570 already black-marked next to her name. We have been appealing, but the courts are delaying it in the hope that she will pass before the case is heard. The authorities will deduct the owed from her estate.”
“Don’t her children care?”
“They’re well established and it is not worth their while to have their names associated officially with a ‘lazy’. They have tried to send assistance, but Mrs B does not like strangers in her home. When they visit, they do what they can. If they take her into any of their households, Mrs B’s listed misdemeanours will follow. This will compromise the environmental points on their property.”

“And the unconscious? What’s the story there?”
“You’re smart. What do you think?”
“I’m guessing it’s the overworked, the other half. And the child-headed households.”

Two rusting beauties with fresh, pumped up tires are parked along the curbside. I walk around them, snapping close-ups. I stand back to capture the full bodies against the board houses and withered grass verges behind them. A few rats appear from the gutter-grilles, but when I step forward to include them in a shot, they’ve skimmed off. I turn to my host, “I can’t believe it’s been thirty years since I was last here. That exchange year made such an impact one me. I always thought I’d come back, but this place – it has changed. Even in those days, I knew it was desert country, but back then it was green, blue and sunny. Remember how from our campus cafeteria, over the suburban roofs, you could see a thin strip of the Ocean as it met the sky. All around the library were those glades of cooling trees. And remember our newly built residences? I remember the landscaping: neat green shrubs and bird of paradise flowers added for colour.”

“My parents had a spectacular bird of paradise outside the front door. Every year it shot out those spiked orange blooms. Eventually the authorities sent removers from the Water Management Department, claiming that it was a classified ‘indulgent plant’ requiring excessive watering. I now have a feeling it is now the abundant plant that now flourishes outside the Department’s own entrance. But that’s just a suspicion. Hey, look here.”

J points and we left into a street. Ahead of us is a vast, multi-level parking lot. “That should give you lots of photographs.”

I look at the shelves of grey concrete, the abandoned cars silenced while they chalked up monthly payments in storage for their nostalgic owners. These were not the luxury relics of high-end collectors. These were the beloveds that owners had lovingly kept on despite the rising rates and repaired in the most ingenious Heath Robinson ways. These were the defiant beauties that had been coaxed along, even during the decade’s recurring fuel shortages, to rallies at parking areas along the sea promenade, near the mountain park, even along the highway. Those had caused the greatest ruckus, but did not disrupt much traffic. Even in those days, it was only the trucks that really used major roads. For most of us, our circumference of movement was already limited to the daily, public transport commute or flights. Those were the days when driving a car seemed a political act declaring our freedom of movement.

I felt a constriction. Pulled out my pump. “How much time do we have?”
“Just under an hour. The collection bus will be expecting us, so we must still walk back to the collection point. The route that avoids the cameras will take at least thirty minutes.”

Photographing cars is conspiracy enough. Anyone caught out of their allocated carbon-neutral zone faced not only fines, but sentencing. I already had listings in two international locations. I could not afford, either for my professional freedom or for my family’s environmental rating, to be caught out of line in a third.

Where I now live, only luxury cars held in private collections may be seen by the people. They are on display in two national museums, as people once exhibited paintings. A mock-up automobile, powered by renewable energy, drives along a reconstructed road. It costs a lot of money to take this novelty ride. From what I remember, it is a fine replica of a luxury vehicle. It certainly is nothing like the rickety old moto my parents constantly tried to keep going. Traces of those ordinary vehicles have disappeared. First, through government intervention manufacture came to an almost standstill through, although limited edition models were still available for a price. Slowly, they disappeared from popular culture. No mention in songs, no longer screened in programmes, gone from billboards.

It was the disappearance from advertisements that affected me most, for I used to earn my salary photographing vehicles and then constructing scenes of affluent families with their latest upgrade. When those assignments became fewer, I noticed the larger obliteration. My children were nearing adolescence and I recalled how when I was a teenager, a car was your ticket to independence. Once everyone started interacting via screens and blocking out the world with headphones, meeting up was no longer as important. Initially, young people no longer needed a car to meet up somewhere. Then, the cost of obtaining a license and a car was prohibitive. Finally, cars themselves disappeared. I have been told there are mountains of rusting bodies in the rubble regions, those areas that accept waste for compensation. I would like to photograph this, but that would be a very dangerous mission. Cars have entered public consciousness as demonic vessels that brought down the industrial world. Designing carbon-neutral and environmentally conscious democracies has depended on this narrative. We now live lives circumscribed by monitoring cameras, restricted travel, carefully allocated food and entertainment resources.

The air is heavy. I struggle to breath and clutch at the asthma pump in my pocket with more urgency than my camera, and my camera is for me my everything, my life. Overhead, the sky is pale grey. In times past, people may have called this an ‘overcast’ day. This meant that clouds were gathering, possibly for a bout of rain, or perhaps to blown with the rain elsewhere. That was in the time when rain was more frequent and did not burn the skin as much.

“J, do you feel that? J?” It doesn’t make sense that it should be raining inside a covered parking lot. Perhaps it’s slanting in from outside, like in the days when wind used to blow rain in directions.
“Yeah. Just here.”
I carry on snapping, “It’s not going to be great walking back in this rain.”
I’m also worried about my equipment. It’s more difficult to hide and juggle under difficult conditions. I start packing up. “Hey, let’s head out now.”
“Are you sure? How about another ten minutes, at least? Come on. When will you get a chance like this? I mean… It’s not every day that you fall across a parking lot… Not even ten minutes?”
“Nah, I’d rather be on the safe side.”
“Are you sure?”
I’m ready to go. J is stalling. If also soaked to the bone, J will be under as much suspicion. No ordinary spends too much time in rain, as we all know every drop that doesn’t sting is needed for the dams, the water supplies, the plants. I start moving. I have to pass down three storeys back to street level. My pace has a regular tempo. J’s is laid back. Of the two of us I’m the one who usually stops to admire the scenery; J’s definitely the one who’s destination orientated.
“Stop dragging your heels. Come on.”

We arrive at street level. This isn’t my home turf, so I need J to navigate back to the collection point, avoiding those cameras. It’s raining pretty hard now. I hide my hands in my sleeves, but the drops are stinging my face. A car starts up in the parking lot, drives out and stops in front of us. The driver is panting, but offers us a ride. I take a cue from J who acknowledges, “Sure. Thanks.” We get in.

“It’s very generous of you to help out some strangers like this,” I say.
“Oh, we haven’t met,” replies the driver, “but we’re not strangers. And I’d like our photographs.”

Song bird perched on asphalt shingle roof

TriviaKing at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

After the storm

The scenes and sentences dislodged,
brought the ring and rat-a-tat.
The ladder walked past, did not stop
to receive the repairman.
There was a ready welcome,
prepared since the disturbance,
to re-set three tiles.
The blue door climbed the roof.


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