Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Itch - a story

Martin couldn't say for sure when the itching had started. There'd been a warm tingling sensation in his left arm most of the day, but he'd put that down to too many hours sat awkwardly in front of the computer, fingers hovering over the mouse. He remembered feeling more uncomfortable than usual during the Monday afternoon team meeting; he was used to the aches and pains that came with age, but as he'd sat there with the edge of the chair digging into his back, he'd felt an almost irresistible urge to writhe against the hard plastic like a horse on a rubbing post.

By the time he got home he felt hot, and the tingling had intensified to a pricking sensation as though he were being hit with a wire-brush. He took an antihistamine, just in case it had been an allergic reaction, and headed upstairs for a cool shower. In the bathroom, he twisted in front of the mirror and was surprised to see the rash that had formed between his shoulder blades and down his spine, the skin almost raw.

He didn't sleep well that night, couldn't quite get comfortable, and more than once he woke to find himself scratching furiously. In the morning he sat at the foot of the bed, slowly examining different areas of his body. It was no longer just a rash; pink angry circles had appeared on his legs, as though he'd been branded. He washed and dried as gently as he could, scared of either spreading what seemed to be an infection, or worse, rubbing it too hard and taking the skin away.

At work, Martin felt the skin on his arms tightening. Dreading what that might mean, and keen to avoid the judging stares of his colleagues, he kept the long sleeves of his shirt buttoned, and resisted the urge to inspect the skin beneath. As soon as he reached home again, he rushed upstairs and carefully peeled off his clothes. It had got worse; the rash had spread across his chest and up towards his chin, the circular marks had multiplied. He felt that if he stood there long enough, he'd see more and more erupting. And oh, the desire to scratch was so hard to overcome. He searched for some nail scissors in the drawer of the bedside table, and cut his fingernails as low as he could, carefully removing any jagged edges that might snag and tear his skin.

He was miserable. He felt dirty, almost seedy, as though the soreness was his own fault. He hated the idea that people might think he didn't wash properly, that he'd become one of those old men that people moved away from with a look of pity. He couldn't eat, he couldn't sit still. He found a pot of moisturising cream and rubbed handfuls into his arms and legs, reaching as far as he could across his back and chest. It eased the itching but the relief was only momentary, and as Martin lay down on the bed, he promised himself he'd visit the doctor the next day.

When he woke, he was surprised to find the room still dark. He looked towards the window, where the early morning light should have been starting to show through the curtains, but there was nothing; no daylight, only darkness.

He tried to reach out and lift the clock from the bedside table, but he couldn't lift his arm, it felt as though it was somehow tied to his side. Perhaps it was still night, maybe he was dreaming. Martin thought he'd get up and go to the toilet and then try to get some more sleep. He strained to swing his legs over the side of the bed, struggled to manoeuvre into a sitting position, but found he couldn't. His skin had a new tightness that was holding his joints stiff. Like rigor mortis, or maybe like a chrysalis, he thought, perhaps I’ll turn into a butterfly. The idea made him want to smile, but he realised he couldn't.

The constriction of his skin was holding him to the bed and then he realised, that the darkness wasn't the night; it was the skin that had closed over his eyes, blocking the light, holding his eyelids shut. He lay there in the darkness, listening for the birds outside, but nothing. Had his ears closed over as well?

Martin started to panic. He was finding it harder to breathe, his mouth was already closed, and now it seemed as though his nose was beginning to fill.

All alone in the house, there was no one to call and even if there had been, he didn't seem able to make any sound that could be heard. Like a mummy in a coffin, he could die lying there, unable to move, to eat or drink. He had no idea how long it might be before anyone would come looking for him. He fought back the idea that nobody would.

As he willed himself to move, to break free from the skin, he tried to understand what had happened. He'd never heard of a skin disease like this, something that could spread so quickly, so completely. He went back over the events of the last few days, wondered how and when he'd caught it. No one at work had seemed ill or in discomfort; and he hadn't really been near enough to anyone else to pick up an infection, well unless you counted other passengers on the journey to and from work.

He thought of the woman who'd sat next to him on the tube two days ago, before all the trouble with his skin had begun. She’d been properly beautiful, with long red hair, and clear grey eyes. She'd made her way towards the empty seat next to him with a graceful elegance, that made him feel clumsy and old. But as the tube picked up speed she'd lost her balance, then she'd reached out, gripping his arm until she regained her footing. He remembered that touch on his arm, the warm tingling feeling her fingers had left.

Martin felt a surge of self-pity. He tried to move again, but couldn't. It was pathetic, he was pathetic. And then he began to cry. He wondered what would happen to his tears; he could feel their dampness, caught inside the mask across his face. Perhaps he’d end up drowning in his own salt-water pool. But then, as quickly as the panic had come, it was gone. The tears seemed to be melting the covering on his eyes, he could blink again, he could almost see. Martin began to gather saliva in his mouth. He spat it forward, suddenly knowing there was a way out of the imprisonment of his skin.

He spat and licked, spat and licked, until his face and then an arm were free. There was a glass of water on his bedside table, he reached out and lifted it carefully, anxious not to waste a single drop, then he poured the contents over his legs and body until he had enough freedom of movement to stand.

The journey to the bathroom was difficult, he banged his hip on the doorway, but he’d never been happier to know there was a walk-in shower just a few steps away and soon he was standing under the warm liquid, hearing the sounds of water, sensing everything falling away.

Martin was suddenly keen to be in the world outside. As he pulled on his clothes, he could feel the energy rushing through him. It had been a long time since he’d moved with a spring in his step, now he wanted to hear London coming to life and feel the air on his skin. He set off, looking around, determined to miss nothing.

A group of teenagers stood at the bus-stop, as they did most days. He’d heard the snarling sarcastic way they talked to each other; normally he’d avoid making any eye contact, but today he chose to look. The tallest one stood watching him, then nudged one of the girls, and whispered in her ear. She turned to look at Martin, and then one by one each of the group turned to stare.

On any other day, Martin would have told himself to just keep walking; head down, keep walking, they won’t bother with an old man, you’ll be ok. But today wasn't any other day and so, as he passed the group he looked at them and smiled and the strangest thing happened, they each smiled back. Not a taunting dangerous grin, nor a sly grimace, these were real smiles, broad grins, sparkling eyes. ‘Hey’ said the tallest one. Martin nodded and walked on.

As he took the escalator down into the tube, he looked across at the people riding up. Some seemed to be looking towards him from the very bottom, others turned towards him as they drew near. And as they passed, they too began to smile. Absorbed in wondering why, Martin didn't notice that people made room for him to board the tube, he didn't see how they hung back until they were sure he'd got a seat, as though it was something he deserved. He didn't spot his reflection in the dark window opposite, the mirror image of a beautiful, smiling young man.

As the train pulled into his station, Martin stood to get off. The train was crowded now and in front of him an old lady was struggling to make her way through the other passengers. Her quiet ‘excuse me please’ ignored by the standing commuters. The doors were already open and if she wasn't a bit quicker the train would move off before either of them got there. ‘Lady coming through,’ shouted Martin ‘let the lady off please.’ He expected someone to complain, to moan about pensioners getting in the way of people who needed to get to work, but at the sound of his voice, the passengers stepped back, leaving a clear pathway to the door.

‘Better get going then,’ he said and grasped the old lady’s arm to steer her towards the exit. As he walked through the carriage and looked at the smiling faces of the other travellers, he didn't pause to wonder how he’d suddenly become so effective; there was something else beginning to disturb him. His fingers were touching the thin loose skin of the old lady’s left arm, and he could feel a warm tingling sensation spreading through his hand. As they stepped onto the platform, he let go quickly, wondering if she'd felt it, but hoping she hadn't noticed. ‘Thank you my dear,’ she smiled up at him and turned to walk away. 

As Martin stood and watched her go, he realised that she was scratching her arm, just where his fingers had been.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Strawberry Fields Forever

Strawberry Fields Forever is a play about the small things and the important things, about taking your chances, not missing the moment.

As the title suggests, the play, written by Bobby Stevenson, has a strong link to the Beatles. The story is based around a chance encounter with John Lennon in the 1960s and his death in New York some twenty years later. As you might expect, it's a story about living and dying, but more importantly, it's about people in a small village who grow and learn to see the value in keeping promises and making others happy. Built on the idea that 'everything matters' there is something inherently right about the very first performance taking place in Shoreham, not just because Bobby lives in the village, but because Shoreham itself is a place where things matter.

As I watched my fellow cast members getting into costume, looking at their lines for a final time, and pacing up and down waiting for their cues, I thought about how important  the Shoreham Village Players have become to me, since the very first time Philip and I encountered them at a Cabaret night in March 2007. As we sat backstage last night, chatting about old performances and players, catching up on family stories, sharing memories and hopes for the future, I remembered once again how the village takes people into its heart, and holds them there. And that was never more obvious than last night.

On a first night, no matter how hard you've rehearsed, there's always a worry that it won't go well and a recognition that some things won't go entirely to plan. The nerves back-stage were palpable, but out front, the hall was filling with family, friends and village residents, all willing to come out on a cold Thursday night in November, all willing the play to be a success. And while there may have been a line or two that went missing, and a few props that didn't quite make it onto stage, none of that mattered as I listened to the audience laughing and falling silent in all the right places and heard them cheering at the curtain call.

Last night I remembered once again that the people of Shoreham know all about the small things and the important things, and my thanks go to Bobby Stevenson, Sheila Webb, and all the cast and crew of Strawberry Fields Forever, for giving me another chance to experience that.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Radio times

There’s almost always a radio playing, though it’s very rarely me who turns it on. Over the years I've got used to walking from room to room, following the sounds around. Often, there’ll be something from his laptop playing through the speakers. Now and then, he’ll fetch a record from the big white cabinet upstairs, place it on the turntable and carefully lower the needle until the old familiar music fills the house, with its gentle background crackles that sound like rainfall.

As I write this, he’s in the kitchen. I hear the sounds of the freezer opening and closing, the chopping board placed down on the worktop, the opening and closing of cupboards and drawers, all to the sound of Shirley Bassey belting out Goldfinger. She’s quickly followed by the sharp drumming of Django Django's Life’s a Beach. There's no way of predicting what will come next; his musical taste is as varied as the books he reads, as the people he talks to, as the things he knows.

When we go for a drive he'll choose the music to come with us. The very first present he ever gave me was a mixed tape, and now every year at Christmas, we’ll each get a CD; something he’s spent hours putting together, picking the tunes that he knows we’ll appreciate, making sure to include something we've never heard before, that he’s decided we should like.

Every so often, I wonder why I live my life to someone else's soundtrack, why he's the one who always decides what we listen to. But then I find myself singing along and see him smiling, or I walk into the room and he plays a track just because he knows it will make me dance.

I sometimes talk about the music that will be played at my funeral; depending on my mood, I imagine the mourners shaking their heads in despair, sobbing their hearts out, grinning at a memory. It doesn't really matter anyway; I know he’ll pick the music he thinks I should have chosen. I don't talk about the songs I'd play for him, not because I'm frightened of choosing and getting it wrong, just because without him, there really is no music.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

After the clocks go back

I could use the extra hour to write a story,
or pass it penning lyrics for a song.
I might count each of the seconds very slowly,
to make the minutes linger on and on.

I could view the extra hour as a bonus,
as added time to read and think and be.
Three thousand and six hundred extra moments
a gift that comes from nowhere, burden-free.

But I look out at the slowly lightening morning,
at the windows of the houses down the street,
and wonder if behind those tight-drawn curtains
sits another woman wishing she could sleep.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Nobody knows what Penny-Rose knows*

Nobody knows what Penny-Rose knows.
But everyone knows that Penny-Rose shows
a remarkable knowing as each day she grows,
as her head stretches further away from her toes.
And the grown-ups all tap on the sides of their nose
to say to each other that Penny-Rose knows.

But nobody sees what Penny-Rose sees
when she gazes outside at the sky and the trees.
There she sits, chin on hands, with elbows on knees
and peers through the branches that dance in the breeze.
They’re getting a sense of her growing unease,
but no-one can picture what Penny-Rose sees

And nobody hears what Penny-Rose hears,
or knows why she’s frowning and holding her ears.
They can’t hear the noises that started her fears
or understand what makes her eyes fill with tears.
They marvel at how she seems old for her years,
but nobody hears what Penny-Rose hears.

And nobody thinks to ask Penny-Rose why
she sits there and gazes up into the sky,
and watches the sparrows and pigeons pass by,
and peers at the aeroplane roaring on high.
They don’t think to ask her the cause of her sigh.
So she never tells them.
                                       She knows she can’t fly.

*last weekend I visited my grandchildren. While Eddie always runs to hug his Nana and is happy to sit and read books or play games, Penny-Rose always hangs back. Sometimes when I talk to her, she cries, and often when I look at her, she's just sitting there staring at me. One day, I hope she'll tell me why.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Two sides of the moon

Another fitful night. Awake at 2.07, again at 3.00am. And then again. And again.

I flip from side to side and back. I get too hot and throw aside the quilt, then turn the pillow to find its cooler face. I lie back down for what seems only minutes, before I’m up again to shed my clothes. Yet seconds later, I'm cold again and reaching for the quilt.

I look at you, lying there unconscious. I want to wake you, shake you, haul you from your dreams. How dare you lie there, deep in sleep and peaceful?

I listen to your breathing, try to time mine to the ins and outs. But I can’t find the rhythm,  I only feel discomfort as I hold my breath too long, or can’t take in enough to fill my lungs.

Then as I watch and listen, your gentle inhalation becomes a rasping snore. I tap you lightly on the shoulder, hoping that might be enough to bring me peace. But no, the grating sound continues. My push is harder, and still you don’t wake up, yet somewhere in your deep unconsciousness you hear or sense me, then you turn away.

And I am still awake, and lying there, and helpless, as all the crowding, rushing, scaring thoughts roll in. 

It’s 2am and I am here awake. The room is dark but warm and reassuring; it holds me safely in the arms of night and peace. From a distance comes the faint drone of the motorway, beside me, the slightest sighing of your breath.

My eyes adjust and focus in the darkness, the shapes become the furniture I know. Their solidity a comforting reminder, of who and where I am, that I am home. I know that, until tomorrow, there’s no harm can come to me, or you, nothing I must do or say, no solutions to be found or problems fixed.

So I lie here and begin to count my blessings. The firm mattress that supports my back, the pillow that cradles my head. The man I love, sleeping at my side, and the night-time hours that are mine alone.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

From Charing Cross to Sevenoaks

It's late afternoon, the end of a summer Sunday and the train is full. We sit quietly, each a little tired, each perhaps thinking about the film we've just seen.

I look out of the window, watching the jumble of office blocks give way to the backs of houses, seeing the concrete yards become gardens that gradually get longer and greener. I wonder about all the people who work in those offices, live in those houses and play in those gardens. I think about the girl from the film. So many different lives; chances taken and missed, opportunities grasped and squandered, promises made, words spoken and regretted.

A woman sits opposite me, leaning against the window. Her arm is loosely draped around the daughter who's half sitting, half lying across her mother's lap . Next to the girl is a young boy, maybe six years old. He sits cross-legged, tidy, taking up hardly any space. I imagine him sitting on the carpet at school, listening closely as his teacher reads a story, trying hard not to miss a word. He's holding a small bag of sweets, slowly licking and nibbling at each one, as though trying to make them last the whole journey home.

Across the aisle are three teenage boys, each wearing the football strip that betrays how they've spent their afternoon. They're talking at each other, across each other. One bites into a burger, another shovels in a fistful of thin chips. The third takes his shoes off, and rests his bare feet on the empty seat opposite. I try not to think about the trace of adolescent sweat they'll leave behind.

"I want Mummy to sit in the middle" says the six-year-old, pulling my attention back to our side of the train carriage. "Then I can have a cuddle."

"You can have a cuddle when we get home" his mum offers. "And I'll read you a story."

She looks across at me and smiles, and I wonder if she realises how lucky she is.  I glance again at the football fans, their shirts tell me they support the same team as my sons. I try to remember the last time I sat on a train with my boys, or walked along the street holding a small hand in mine.

And I want to tell her to cuddle him now. I want her to know that all too soon, her tidy little boy will be six foot tall and too embarrassed to hug. I want to urge her not to miss her chances, but I don't. Instead, I look at the boy, who gives me a huge grin, and then I smile right back.