Sunday, 28 November 2010

Im Keller der Hölle

The neon sign above the entrance had only a feeble glow in the daylight. Marie barely noticed it as she rushed through the opening and down the steps. She pushed past the silent, staring men and picked her way round and over the bodies entwined at the edges of the steep stairwell. Descending lower and lower into what seemed like the very core of the earth, she came to the underground cellar room.

Marie was sure she’d seen him come in here, but she couldn’t spot him now in the groups of people clustered around the bar. She elbowed her way through, and mouthed ‘vodka – tonik’ to the barman, hoping to be understood over the music. She needed a drink, but not another confusing exchange in English-Austro-German.

Taking the tall clear glass, she headed for an empty table in the corner and sank down on the scratched leather-covered bench beside it. She leaned back against the brick wall, its black emulsion shiny from the sweat and grease of a hundred other heads, then closed her eyes and exhaled slowly.

This was her first visit to Vienna. The first time she’d flown out to see Evan since he’d taken up the offer of a European placement. There’d been no rows or recriminations before he left, just resentful grudging silences of disappointment. And now, although she’d travelled eight hundred miles to see him, she didn’t feel any closer.

Vienna. She’d thought perhaps the mixture of culture and history would provide a distraction; that her visit could build some shared memories, things to look back on when he finally came home. So she’d agreed to spend the day exploring the city.

As they’d criss-crossed the narrow streets, Marie and Evan had found themselves caught up in the route of a protest march. She didn’t understand all the words on the photo-shopped placards, but she could imagine the demonstrators were dissenting students, griping about cuts in funding.

Marie remembered the huge marches she’d joined in London, naively thinking they could somehow stop the invasion of Iraq. She and Evan both knew that sense of hopeless frustration. They understood that a demo could turn, suddenly and without warning, from a peaceful protest to a brawling scene of destruction. This time though, they were just bystanders, bemused foreigners.

Though the shouts of the protesters had got louder they hadn’t sensed the change in tone. Then they’d turned the corner at Stephansplatz and seen the Bundespolizei, the Federal Police, lined up across the road, machine guns held across their chests. She’d been shocked to see the armed security guards at the airport when she’d arrived, she hadn’t realised it was routine practice here for the police to carry weapons. Now their silent menacing presence on the city streets was enough to make Marie and Evan turn in their tracks, persuade them to find a quiet route away from the marchers.

When the first screams rang out Evan had started to run, yelling at her to follow. She’d tried to keep up with him, stay close, as the panicked crowds behind them sought an escape. She’d lost sight of him for a while when the crowd surged past. She thought perhaps she’d heard shots.

Then, with relief, she’d seen his ridiculous hat up ahead. A baker-boy cap he’d called it. She hadn’t wanted him to wear it, thought the misshapen black suede made him look like an old singer from the eighties; someone her mother had liked. But now she was glad he’d ignored her and worn it anyway. Moving faster, she pushed through the crowd to get closer, near enough to see him enter the bar.

Marie opened her eyes. There was a single spotlight hanging from the centre of the ceiling, she watched it spinning slowly around the cellar, casting a harsh white light, then moving on. No wonder this seat had been empty, it was in just the right place to be caught by the spotlight beam. There’d be no private moments here; whoever sat at this table would be lit up like a tableau for the rest of the bar. Marie looked down to avoid the light’s painful imprint on her eyes.

In front of her was a scarred and battered table. Ludicrously, it reminded her of the old science lab at school. The benches, with their thick varnish had always been irresistible – a place to leave your mark, your autograph if you were brave, an anonymous insult if you weren’t. They’d all carved their names, using the tip of an ink-pen or the sharp point of a protractor, seeing the edges of the varnish turn from clear to opaque as it was cut.

This table looked as if it had been collecting names for years; jumbled up, scratched at different angles, some newer ones across the letters of the older names, like words on a scrabble board. Just names; no political statements, no arrow-broken hearts, not even an insult. It was more like a visitors’ book, a record of all the men and women who’d visited this bar, sat at this table and left their mark. Always in capital letters, as though to make a firmer statement. Someone called CHRIS had really wanted his name to endure, the letters had been deeply gouged into the wood and coloured in with black ink.

She leaned forward, her fingers tracing the indentation of the letters, the curves of the ‘C’ and the ‘S’. Then she saw it. No soft curves to this name, but the straight parallel lines of an ‘E’ and the sharp points on each of the other letters. She didn’t think it was the sort of name you’d often find in Austria. The white edges gave it away as one of the newer engravings: EVAN. So he had been there. She looked up, hoping he might still be in the room, watching her.

If he wasn’t here she needed to get out and look for him. She didn’t know where to start. She wasn’t even sure what street this was. Would he go back to the apartment, assume she’d made her way there? Would he retrace their steps back to the Cathedral Square? Relief turning to irritation, she wondered why he’d been so quick to run away. Why hadn’t he taken her hand, tried harder to stay with her? Why had he let her fall so far behind? He knew this city far better than she did, he should have stuck close, made sure she was alright. She wrapped the long grey edges of her cardigan tightly around her. She thought of all the steps she’d walked down to the cellar. It seemed a long way back up to the street.

The music pulsed. The chanting English lyrics, clumsily translated and repetitive, echoed around the black walls, bounced off the vaulted ceiling.

This wasn’t the Vienna she’d pictured. The city of palaces and opera houses, art galleries and Lipizzaner horses. This underground bar couldn’t be more different to the cafés they’d passed today, with their high white ceilings and sparkling glass chandeliers, their great gold-framed mirrors, with carved cherubs peeping round horns of plenty. She’d read about these coffee houses; their history as the meeting places of philosophers, writers and politicians. Today they’d been full of grey-haired, fur-coated Viennese ladies and elderly men in camel-hair coats, who’d made her think of Hercules Poirot. Old couples barely speaking, carefully picking at the sickly sweet gateaux served on thin china plates. Marie and Evan had stood together outside, peering in through the steamed-up windows, watching the immaculately dressed waiters manoeuvring round the tables, their trays balanced high on one hand. They’d seen the sparkle and glint of gold and glass, listened to the sound of spoons and pastry forks clinking on china. They hadn’t wanted to go in.

Despite the music, and its constant rhythmic beat, nobody here in the bar was dancing. She watched the people around her. Some stood alone, staring at the flaking posters that were pasted one over another around the walls. Others sat grouped around tables, heads bent together. In the coffee houses it had been white fur coats and blue-rinsed hair. Here in the cellar, everyone was dressed in black: oversized T-shirts, tight skinny jeans, long pointed shoes, all in shades from charcoal to jet. Even on bare arms, the patterns of black-inked tattoos snaked their way around and up, covering the skin. How odd she must look, sitting on her own, in the grey cardigan and linen trousers that had seemed so right for walking round the city.

As the spotlight continued to rotate, she saw the pallor of the men’s faces, made more striking by the smudged kohl lines round their eyes, their dark hair flopping forward. So many men, looking so similar, but none of them Evan.

She hadn’t tried to listen to the conversations around her, the music was too loud for that and she wouldn’t have understood anyway. But as she sat there, mulling over what to do next, she suddenly realised that the sound of voices had stopped. No-one was speaking. One by one the people of the cellar bar turned to look at her. Under the spotlight, their pinched white faces were expressionless, their dark eyes unblinking.

She needed to leave. She wanted to find Evan. Now.

Marie grabbed at her bag. To her right, she saw a girl stand up and step towards her. She was petite, almost waif-like, but Marie felt somehow intimidated by her bony-ness, and her hesitating, awkward movements. She didn’t need this; she just wanted to get out, to find her way back to the apartment.

The music faded as the girl stopped in front of her. There was nothing to distinguish her from the others, to mark her out as their spokesperson, but that was what she appeared to be.

‘You are the English woman – is that so?’ she enunciated the words in a slow monotone.

‘Yes, but how…’

‘You should not be here. This is not the right time for you.’

‘I’m sorry… I was looking for… I made a mistake …’

‘Yes, there has been a mistake. You must leave now. Go back up the stairs. I cannot come with you, but when you get to the top you will be shown the way.’

Something wasn’t quite right in the words; Marie didn’t understand what the girl meant about time, or how she knew about the mistake.

It didn’t matter, she’d be fine when she got outside, and she’d get back to the apartment somehow. As she headed for the stairs, people stepped away, making room for her to pass. She didn’t look back at the girl, a mixture of confusion, embarrassment and fear hurrying her on her way.

She was surprised to find it was still light outside. Looking up Marie could see the sharp point of the Cathedral spire above the top of the buildings opposite. If she could just get back to the square, she was sure she’d find her way from there to the apartment.

Turning left, she saw a large crowd gathered on the pavement at the end of the street. Were the demonstrators still around? Surely they should be gone by now, scattered back to the student halls and bars across the city. She pushed her way through to the roadside, just in time to see a man closing the doors of an ambulance. There was no urgency about his movements as he climbed into the driver’s seat, shaking his head. The vehicle pulled away - no lights flashing, no sirens or claxons ringing.

Inside the Hölle Keller, the music got louder. The regular beat pulsed and the white spotlight rotated. As its light fell on the leather-covered bench, a slim dark figure slipped out of the shadows and sat down. He carefully placed a black suede hat on the table, then took a pen from his pocket. Leaning forward over the carved letters, the man slowly and methodically filled in the parallel lines and sharp pointed characters with dark black ink.

Friday, 26 November 2010

A measure of wellbeing?

Sometimes the idiocy of those in power outweighs my intent to keep my politics to myself.
Either that, or it would be a shame to waste a good prompt for a poem...

A Measure of Wellbeing
Can you legislate for happiness,
performance manage hope,
set a target for wellbeing
to manipulate my soul?

Can you define what makes life worthy
from your Ivory Tory Tower,
with patronising tactics
to maintain your worthless power?

Don’t you see that being happy
isn’t in the hand of state?
That your smug desire to lift our hearts
might burnish them with hate.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Every picture tells a story

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I recently changed the look of my blog. Some of you may even have spotted that I've put a new picture at the top. I'd like to think that one or two of you might even have paused to wonder what the picture was, or where and when it was taken.

Well, hey I can answer all of those questions.

It was taken at precisely 9.55 am on 29th August this year. I know that because I took it, and for those of you who haven't already worked it out, it's a picture of the front room in our house in Shoreham. I took it on the day we decided to move the furniture around and swap our dining room for our living room. I wanted a reminder of how the room had looked before we changed it.

I liked how it looked - a bit old-fashioned, a bit friendly and a bit sunny and bright, so I added it to the blog.  Then I took another, closer, look and I realised why it was so right to have this as my blog picture. There are one or two things pictured here that might seem a little bit familiar, and so with your kind indulgence, I'd like to take you on a walk around our front room.

The table is where we do all our writing. It's where Philip and I sit, laptop to laptop when we're blogging and tweeting and reading and commenting. If you look closely, you'll see a shiny bulldog clip - I manage to leave one lying around every time I work from home. It drives Philip mad. For once we've tidied away the laptops, but the piled up notebooks are a clue to what goes on and the scattered place-mats are my indispensable writing aids - there's very little I can do without regular cups of tea. I have absolutely no idea why there is a wooden clothes peg on the table.

The chairs don't match. We don't have any that do, just a penchant for collecting odd bentwood chairs from other people's houses. Philip's rucksack sits on the nearest one. It's been on a few journeys with us, most recently to Paris. Behind the other chair you can see a grey lever-arched file, stuffed full of papers. That's my mum's letters - I've mentioned them here before.

Just above the file of letters, there's a hook on the wall. It's supposed to hold tie-backs for the curtains. What it's actually holding is a string of red onions from our allotment. It's not easy, in a very small house, to find places to hang your onions...
If you could see out of the window, there's a beautiful white weather-boarded house just across the road, and behind that are the allotments, just a stone's throw away, close enough to nip home and collect a couple of mugs of tea to take back, reward for a hard hour's digging and weeding.

In the corner of the room is a white cupboard. It's where the electricity meter and the fuse box live, the place we go to, groping through the dark, when a light bulb blows and trips the safety switch. It's the 'safe place' where we pile up all our important papers, and it doubles up as the games cupboard - where the scrabble set is piled up with the old jigsaws and my dad's electronic chess game.

There are a number of pictures on top of the cupboard - one of me and Philip sitting on a bench on our wedding day, another of me with my daughters. Hanging on the wall above is a picture of a washing line. It's a photo Philip took in the garden of our last house - It was a strange place to live, an old gatekeepers lodge, which was awkwardly shaped and always freezing cold, but it was the house where Philip and I first lived together, so this photo is a fondly kept reminder. In the corner of the cupboard on the right-hand side is a small picture, taken over 20 years ago when Megan was a baby. It's too small for anyone to make anything out in it - but that's ok - I know how  adorable Megan was and how very long my hair was then...

If you squint a bit you might be able to make out a shiny silver cup - that's the trophy we won last year from the Shoreham Allotments Association for 'most improved plot'. It's the only time in my life that my name has been engraved on a trophy. Behind that there's a small kettle. You might well ask why there's a kettle sitting among the wedding photo's and next to the allotment trophy. Well it's almost a trophy too. We found it while walking through the woods up on the hill. It was more than a bit black and dirty then, but we brought it home like treasure trove and it cleaned up a treat.

To the left of the white cupboard is the fireplace. On top of it you might just be able to make out some small white stones. Whenever we go to a beach I like to bring back a pebble or two - these were from our trip to Cyprus last year.  I love that we can have real fires. The central heating is great when you get up for work in the morning, but the red glowing warmth, and the crackle and hiss of a log fire take some beating. Philip prides himself on the quality of his fire-making, a skill he learned from his Grandda, and I've been grateful for that skill many times.

There's probably not much else to tell you about the picture. We didn't choose the curtains, or the mirror above the fire - they came with the house, which we rent, but they are also very much part of the room and the house that we've grown to love.  And of course, at the top of my blog you can only see half of the room.  Until we swapped the rooms around, the opposite wall was the place for Philip's record cupboard - but that's another story all of its own.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Growing my hair

Some people have a thing about their weight - it's never right and they spend half their lives dieting then giving up. I'm far too undisciplined and self-indulgent to diet. For me, the thing I always want to get right, but never quite manage is my hair.

Of course, I blame my mother.

When I was at primary school, I had long dark brown hair. Mum liked to 'experiment' with it. One day I'd go to school with Heidi plaits across the top of my head. The next day it would be Princess Leia loops around my ears (and this was in the days long before Princess Leia was a twinkle in George Lucas' eye, so I couldn't even pretend it was an intentional choice on my part).

When I decided I'd had enough, Mum took me to the hairdressers, where between them they came up with the idea of a 'pixie cut' - yes, that's right, my own mother agreed with the hairdresser that I should look like a pixie. A pixie!

That left me entering my teenage years with no credibility and a longing to grow my hair. And it's been pretty much the same ever since.

I managed it for a while, when the kids were growing up - it was easy to find an excuse for avoiding the scissors - no money, no time, no self-image.

But once I'd gone back to work, I fell for the notion that I should attempt to look stylish / smart / sexy /sleek;  and so off I went for a cut. As soon as the tresses hit the floor I regretted it, and ever since I've been telling everyone that I'm going to grow it out.

This has largely been just an idle threat - I've been far too scared of my hairdresser to risk offending him by suggesting that a) I could decide how I wanted my hair to look or b) it really didn't need cutting quite so often. But things finally came to a head (sorry - unforgivable pun) last year, when I was asked to play a man in our village production of Much Ado About Nothing. In my imagination I was the beautiful Beatrice; in the eyes of the village I was the evil bastard Don John.

And so, the last great hair-growing adventure began.

I think, perhaps, hair doesn't grow quite as quickly as you get older. It seemed to take forever to grow down past my ears. Many times I tried to scrape a few stray strands into an elastic band, only to be ridiculed by those I thought I loved.

But I've stuck with it. It's gradually crept longer and longer. I can make a little pony tail of it now. I can even sweep it up in a faux-elegant clip.

And I'm generally quite pleased. Except....

When is that you become 'too old' for long hair? Have I already reached and gone past it without realising? Will my final ignominy be when I'm cast as the mad old witch in the next village panto?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Almost a poet...

Ok. I know it's not the Forward Poetry Prize and I know there is absolutely no excuse for blowing my own trumpet, but...

A few weeks ago, for the first time ever, I submitted something to a poetry competition - the inaugural Royal Berkshire Poetry competition, supported by Beat Magazine The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Library Services, and the Firestation Centre for Arts & Culture

I couldn't get to the awards event last night, which was a real shame, and I didn't win first prize, but I'm as pleased as punch that my poem was awarded second place.

For those of you on Facebook who would like to read the winning, third placed and commended entries - there is a page dedicated to the competition here -

For any of you who want to read my entry (I know I've shared it with some of you already) here it is -

These Boots Are Made For Walking

You force yourself inside me
dead weight upon my sole.
Leather stretched by bones and flesh,
sharp nails against my toes.

Your fingers grasp my laces,
tie them, tight, across my tongue.
Double bows to hold me in,
trapped, yet soon undone.

My skin is cracked, unpolished,
worn out by rain and sleet,
broken down by years, and miles,
of service at your feet.

But as we move together
with your light-stepped rhythmic pace
I feel your warmth spread through me
I am moulded by your grace.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Five days in Paris

What is there to say of Paris that hasn't already been written, painted or sung?

If I were a musician I'd recreate the sounds - of the traffic rushing through the Grands Boulevards; the horns blaring as a delivery van blocks a tight corner; the pigeons softly whistling from a zinc-roofed  attic high above the street; the drunken shout at three in the morning; or the joyous mix of saxophone and double-bass that lifts the hearts and heads of the rain-soaked tourists winding their way past the artists' studios of Montmartre.

Were I an artist, I'd sketch the skeletal trees clinging on to their last golden leaves against a blue November sky. With a palette of silver and grey, I'd paint the city skyline seen from the top of the Pompidou Centre, with glistening drops of rain falling all around. I'd draw the lined but knowing eyes of the maitre d' who's seen it all and said so little.

With the skill of a poet, I might scribe a sonnet to the chic and beautiful, or perhaps the dirty and shoeless. I'd type a page on the old red typewriter at Shakespeare and Co., to add to the words upon words that line its walls. I'd find the lines to question why churches that should inspire love and hope are built so fearsome, dark and brooding.

But for five days in Paris we weren't painters, singers or writers. Instead, we walked. We walked and walked. We strolled and marched, rushed and dallied, paused and paced; through the streets, beside the Seine, around the gardens. As we walked and talked, we breathed and sensed the city, and somehow felt we came to know it just a little bit more.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A short story - any old iron

Harry scuffed along the street. He knew he had no business messing about; he should get there as fast as he could. But with shoulders slouched and hands in pockets, he still kicked at imaginary stones as he headed towards his childhood playground.
Coming closer, he lifted his eyes to see the well-known, well-worn, gates to the scrapyard. The once royal blue paint was peeling off in places. The wood was cracked and damaged where wind, rain and the occasional kick or knock had taken their toll. The huge hinges were rusting and one side of the gate was out of kilter, hanging down and leaning on the other. At one time there’d been lettering across the tops of the gates; black, outlined in gold. Not much left of that now. Even the  ‘For Sale or Lease’ sign was starting to fade.
He could see the gates were locked, the great black padlock still firmly in place, but set within one of them was a smaller, man-sized door. ‘The punters’ entrance’ his dad had always called it. Harry swallowed hard, then tried the old iron door handle. It felt smooth but strong in his grasp. Turning it, he pushed at the door with his shoulder. The wood had swollen, but it gave way easily enough. He ducked his head, lifted his foot over the bottom panel and stepped inside.
The battered gates might suggest something different, but this was no scrap heap. Though his dad hadn’t worked for over a year, this was still a well-ordered scrap merchant’s yard. Each pile sorted and stacked professionally. He could almost hear his dad’s proud declaration, ‘there’s no bugger gonna lose a leg to a loose Fiat door – not while I’ve got something to do with it’.
Ahead of him were the car stacks. Whole cars, squashed cars, doors, wings, bonnets and bumpers. To the right of those, the old household goods; washing machines, vacuums, tumble driers. Still and silent now, but created from parts that had once rotated and whirred, throbbed and hummed.
A less orderly pile to his left held all the ‘bits’. A nest of pipes, connectors, belts and wires, snaking in and out of each other. The screws, bolts and nails were held separately; his first after-school job at the yard had been to carefully sort, grade and store them in a multi-drawered cabinet.
Harry stood, rooted to the spot. He breathed in the smell and taste of the yard, felt it seeping into his hair and skin. Dust, rust, oil and rubber; the combination once so familiar but now almost forgotten. Washed away by his teenage years.
He’d loved that smell once. It was his dad and adventure rolled into one. And as he stood there, he could almost hear his father singing the song he’d claimed as his own anthem.
‘Any old iron, any old iron, any, any, any old iron.
You look sweet, talk abaht a treat.
You look dapper from yer napper to yer feet.
Dressed in style, brand new tile and your father’s old green tie on.
But I wouldn’t give you tuppence for yer old watch chain - old iron, old iron.’
He’d never really known what a napper or a tile were, but he’d loved singing the song to his friends. And he’d loved bringing them back to the adventure playground of the yard, where a pile of wooden pallets could be turned into a lion’s cage, and an old tin bath could become a pirate’s ship, setting out on the trail of Spanish gold.
Harry shook himself from his reverie. No point remembering what had been. It was the here and now that mattered and had to be dealt with; the reason he was here at the yard today.
He looked across to the old stables, one-time home for the succession of carthorses who’d pulled and dragged the scrap-cart when his dad first set up the business. The horses had long since been replaced by a flat-bed truck, but the stables remained. Harry approached them; half knowing, half dreading to know what they now held.
There in the deep gloom he could make out a shrunken and crumpled figure, like a puppet whose strings have been cut. His father looked up from his task of repeatedly buckling and un-buckling an old girdle. A worried, confused look crossed his face and halted his tuneless humming.
Harry stepped forward. Cupping his hand gently round his father’s elbow, he helped him to his feet.
‘Come on dad, time to come home.’