Friday, 30 December 2011

Packing up

And then, almost before we knew it, there was nothing left but a half-full tub of pistachio nuts and the unclaimed contents of a Christmas cracker.

The empty bottles had been rinsed and put out for recycling, the left-over cheeses packed into a cool-bag for the journey home, the still gift-wrapped panettone was stowed in a box alongside a half-full pack of lentils, and an unused Christmas pudding generously offered up to the ones most likely to eat it.

The dishwasher was emptied for the very last time, and the neat white crockery lined up once again on the kitchen shelves. One of us unplugged the twinkling white lights, while someone else crammed the carefully ironed tablecloth and napkins back into a bag, making a safe nest for the still-new candlesticks and their half-burnt candles.

As I gave the lounge one last tidy-round, plumped up the cushions on the striped grey and white armchairs, straightened the back of the cosy sofa, I realised just how quickly we'd each claimed our own seat, and stuck to it for the whole week. I thought about how many times we'd sat there and chinked together our glasses of sherry, how we'd sipped at gaudy yellow snowballs, and relished our fruit-filled gin and tonics. I remembered how we'd tried to find new words to describe the deep red wines and smooth dark chocolates, and how we'd sat there watching our favourite Christmas films; sobbing for tiny Tim Cratchit in the Muppets' Christmas Carol, smiling at the recovery of Zuzu's petals in It's a Wonderful Life.

Upstairs, the wardrobes and chests were clear, and the clean white bed-linen looked as good as new. Our individual shampoos and gels were removed from their corners of the shower, our toothbrushes and wash-bags packed away for another trip. The huge white bath remained unused, but the enormous towel rail and industrial strength radiator continued to pump out enough heat to warm a castle.

Back in the kitchen, the dining table was wiped clean, and the chairs arranged neatly around it. There was no sign now of the shared meals, or the cups of tea we'd learned to make, just how we each liked it - sweet and milky for some, strong and dark for others. Who would have known that we'd sit here for hours, playing at being despotic dictators in a board game, or scrabbling for letter tiles to form interlocking words? Who could have foreseen the unexpected pleasure, or predicted the level of ferocious competitiveness, that came with learning to play Canasta?

The last of the boxes and bags was carried out to the car, then we pulled the door closed tight behind us and stowed the key away in its wall-safe. We tried to leave it just as we'd found it, and on the surface, you'd never know we'd been there. But, as I started the car, then turned to take one last look, I felt pretty sure that when the next guests arrived, they might still catch the faint echo of an often-told joke and a fading ripple of laughter.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Cutting it close

If I'd walked through a different door that day, we might never have met. If we hadn't hit it off straight away, I might never have seen him again. It was 1996 and he arrived just a few months before I left. He's one of the few people I still know from those days, the only one I still know from the town I lived in then, the only reason I go back there now.

A lot has happened in the intervening years, but as I sit in the black leather chair, sipping on a mug of too hot, too strong coffee, it's as though no time at all has passed, though everything and nothing has changed.

He still remembers the day I dropped by on my way to a night out, wearing a sixties-style black and white dress. Every now and then he reminds me of how I looked and just for a moment we both stop and remember; and I feel as good as I ever did.

My hair was long in those days, and I could have played for Britain in the hair-flicking world championships. I'd got it down to a fine art, but that never impressed him - he never liked my hair long, never missed a chance to suggest it would look better short. And strangely, after a while I began to realise that he was right.

It was a huge leap of faith to trust him enough to go from long and girly, to short and sleek; but that's the thing about friends, you trust them. And so I did. I might have felt like crying as I watched my hair falling to the floor, but his confident assurance kept me from running out the door.

Last year, I tried growing it again; it got long enough to tie back and put up, but I knew he wouldn't approve, so I avoided him for months, until I'd got tired of it and knew it needed some drastic action. And like any proper friend, he didn't tell me I was stupid, moan about my neglect, or try to persuade me to do something I didn't want to. He just took control, as he always has and always will, and turned me back into the person I'd rather be.

I may only see him every six weeks or so, but I always feel better when I do, and that's not just because he tells the worst jokes in the world. He'll talk to me about my family, ask if Philip is still playing the banjo, tell me how my daughter has turned out a fine young lady and a credit to her mother; he'll let me know how protective he felt when one of his colleagues showed too keen an interest in her.

He'll untangle the knots in my neck and the tension in my brain with the most skilful of head massages, then he'll switch his attention to considering how my hair should be cut. It doesn't matter what I think, or want, he'll simply decide what I should look like next - and whatever he decides, I know I'll feel more able to face the world, more confident in who I am. And who could ask for more - from a hairdresser or a friend?

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Hedera Helix - a story

It was a beautiful garden. 

The deep borders were filled with scented bushes and tall arching roses, each carefully placed by the old couple who’d lived there before; people who knew about soil types and seasonal planting. 

When Jack and Pamela had first moved in, they’d been happy to leave the garden alone, waiting to see the succession of flowers bringing new shades and shapes to the borders as the seasons passed. They’d welcomed the dark green foliage of the ivy snaking its way up the fence panels, pleased that it softened the long straight lines, noting how its dark leaves made a fine contrast to the emerald-green brightness of the curving lawn.

But it had grown so quickly. And now it covered the fences, its pointed leaves intermingling to block out any colour, any sign of what was beneath; the stems stretching and snaking up the wood, with their tiny, hairy shoots clinging and grasping onto anything and everything.

Last night Pam had dreamt of it, pictured the ivy spreading and creeping towards the house, reaching out for the kitchen wall. She’d seen herself standing at the kitchen sink, watching the tendrils snake in under the window sill, pulling the window open, crawling towards her. The images had frightened her and disturbed her sleep, perhaps that’s why Jack had left her dozing in bed this morning, why he’d gone off to visit his brother without saying goodbye.

And now she stood on the back door step, wishing there was a little more warmth in the wintery sun. As her fingers curled tightly round a mug of tea, she shuddered at the memory of her dream, the thought of those dark green leaves sliding over the bright red and orange tiles that gave such brightness to the kitchen.

Jack had promised to make a start on trimming the ivy before he went out, but she could see no sign of his efforts. True, the wheelbarrow was parked halfway up the garden, where the ivy grew thickest, but the fence post was still leaning precariously, covered by leaves. She wasn’t sure whether the ivy’s tendrils were pulling it down, or holding it back from falling; she’d warned Jack to be careful when he cleared it, sure that the wood underneath would be splintered and cracked.

Pam looked up at the tall elm trees. At this time of year they should be bare skeletal structures, clear against the pale grey sky. But the ivy had taken them over too, so their trunks were now a dark bushy mass. Their branches had been wrapped round and round, until only a few twigs remained uncovered at the ends, reaching out like beseeching fingers from a swamp, begging to be freed from the enveloping greenness.

She knew Jack wouldn’t be back for hours, perhaps she could surprise him; let him see how much she could get done without him. He’d been moaning about the ivy for weeks now, railing against its gradual encroachment. He’d seemed almost threatened by it, offended by this greenery that had arrived unwelcome and uninvited into the garden, his garden.

Decision made, Pam started to look for the garden tools. She found the thick gloves quickly, knew she’d be glad of their protection from the damp glossiness of the leaves. Then she searched for the shears and secateurs, but there was no sign of them anywhere. She couldn’t find them in the garden shed, they weren’t in the cupboard under the stairs either, nor hastily thrown in with all the bags and rubbish under the kitchen sink.

She’d really need something sharp to cut through the snaking tendrils, to ease them away from their anchor points, but perhaps she could just begin by clearing a way through the outermost leaves, pulling away the looser sections of growth. She wasn’t sure how hard to tug, worried that the fence would sway and topple, but gradually she made progress. She tried to ignore the rustling and creaking sounds that seemed to increase as she worked, focusing on the other sounds of the garden, the hum of motorway traffic a couple of miles away, the cawing of a crow from the top of the elms.

She could hear none of the usual Sunday garden sounds, no shrieking children, no droning lawnmowers, but it was late in the year; perhaps her neighbours were all inside their warm houses, preparing a weekly roast lunch while she worked out here alone.

Pam wished she’d found the shears; their long sharp blades would have given her a much longer reach through the tangled growth. The secateurs would have been great for those thick trunk-like stems at the bottom; cutting through them would ensure the ivy didn’t grow back. Instead, she pulled and pulled, grabbing at handfuls of leaves, throwing them over her shoulder towards the wheelbarrow. As the light slowly began to penetrate through the green gloom, she saw something glinting on the ground just ahead, something long and metallic.

“Oh for goodness sake Jack” she muttered “you always make such a fuss when I leave the tools outside. All that moaning about bluntness and rust, and you go and leave our new shears here in the bushes; just wait ‘til you get home, I’m gonna love teasing you about this one.”

She reached forward for the shears. At first she thought they’d just fallen into the ivy, but then she saw how the leaves seemed to have twisted and entwined round the handles, just like the tree branches, curling and wrapping. She moved closer, treading carelessly on the ivy tendrils that reached out towards the lawn, brushing away the pointed leaves that grazed her face.

As she tugged at the shears they seemed to move slightly, but when she pulled again, she realised there was something else holding them back. It was funny how it almost looked like an ivy-covered hand, with an ivy-covered, arm-shaped branch behind it. It was strange how, in the gloomy depths of the bushes, the ivy-arm looked like it was wearing a checked shirt, one of those brushed-cotton ones Jack was so fond of. Just like the one she’d washed and dried yesterday for him to wear to his brother’s today.

As she crept closer, Pam realised that the shears were indeed being held by an ivy-covered hand, on the end of a checked-shirted, ivy-twisted arm. As she turned to run, the tendrils from the grass crept over her shoes and curled around her ankles. Slowly, slowly, as she tried to scream, the leaves that had brushed her face and hair slithered into her mouth and silenced her.

It was a beautiful garden.