BEELZEBUB HAS A DEVIL PUT ASIDE FOR ME

12 Jun

8. THE RECORD PLAYER

I hope you can hear me, Mr Walpole, but I’ve had a message from your lovely wife,” said the blurred but excitingly seductive voice, so close to his ear that he was sure he could feel the warmth of her breath. And maybe that was what it was, or possibly it was what he wanted it to be.

I can hear everything! That’s all I can do, hear and dream, dream and hear. Everything!

She says for me to tell you she won’t be in to visit you today. She says for me to explain that a neighbour is taking her out for the day, to the seaside seeing as the weather has turned so lovely. She says she comes here every day and you don’t so much as show any sign that you know she’s here. I can understand that, can’t you? Coming every day and it being like she’s all on her own even when she’s talking to you? Anyway, it’s that nice man who sometimes waits for her in the visitor’s room when she’s here talking to you, the one who lost his wife a few weeks back…”

Does she come and talk to me? Is that who the voice is, the one who reminds me of things I thought I’d forgotten? My wife … do I have a wife? Of course I do! He’s just a poor boy from a poor family … he’s just a poor boy from a poor family… He’s got a wife…

So if you feel the need of a little conversation, I’m always around, taking your blood pressure, washing your face, even bed-bathing you, and I’ll bet you like that, don’t you Mr Walpole, or shall I call you Bernie, like your lovely wife does? I do hope you can hear me, that you actually know what I’m saying because it makes it quite familiar, talking to you while I wash your intimate manly bits…”

So she’s off on a day trip with Toady while I’m stuck inside my head, listening to words I can barely understand, a poor boy from a poor family… where did I hear that?

Anyway, I’ll be back in a while with my flannel and my soap, so be prepared…”

There was a click as the door to his lonely side ward shut and the nurse, giggling, went to perform her nursey duties for another patient.

And in the silence his inner light came on. The stage was set. The actors ready to play their parts.

He was fourteen. He could remember that as plain as he could remember the words to Bohemian Rhapsody. And the girl from his class in Junior school, though he wasn’t there any longer, being fourteen. and neither was she, she was at the girl’s secondary school, and she was coming to his house to see him. He’d had a new record player for his birthday, which is how come he remembered he was fourteen, and he’d bought a record to go with it, Craig Douglas singing Only Sixteen… he wasn’t anywhere near sixteen, he had to wait two years to be that old, but he felt as if he might be sixteen. He was a teenager of course, and he had feelings, strange feelings, almost overpowering feelings, and his voice had dropped to a manly growl.

And other things had happened to his body. He had the start of a beard. True, only a fine silky start, barely noticeable, but he’d noticed it and dreamed of shaving it off. And the naughty bit in his trousers had started misbehaving for no obvious reason, especially when he thought of the girl coming to play records with him. Pauline Smith. And although she was no Gladys Nugent, Gladys had been stolen from him by Toady, Pauline had filled out a bit, was starting to show signs of actually having a chest and anyway she liked to wear skirts that everyone said were too short to be called decent.

Was there any such thing as a skirt too short to be called decent?

And the door was knocked.

He heard it in his head and he watched as his foruteen year-old self complete with downy whiskers walked to open the door.

Pauline asked me to come, Bernie, said the girl.

The girl, Toady’s girl, standing there in her pretty summer frock and also showing signs of developing a chest. She smiled at him so brightly and her hair, he’d always liked her hair, smelled of flowers and soap and other sweet things he didn’t know anything about.

She said she can’t come. Apparently she’s been asked to go to some concert with Tony Templeman. You know Tony? He reckons he’s my boy friend and he’s got tickets to see the Shadows in the Palace, but my mum won’t let me go, says I’m too young, which makes me hate her and I’d probably go anyway but I can’t stand the Shadows and their silly dance…

He grinned. It is daft, isn’t it? At least, I reckon it is…

He watched himself swallow. A year ago he’d thought himself in love with Gladys and now he knew he wasn’t. Or was he? Maybe Pauline, who had sworn she was coming along to listen to records on his new record player and that she’d never let him down, was going to be snatched from him by Toady Templeman in exactly the same way as Toady had snatched Gladys away from him only last year.

I’ve got a record if you want to give it a spin

That was him and it was true. He did have a record, a single, but only one. His mum was finding money hard to come by even though she’d taken a part-time job in the school kitchen. But records cost, and he was saving up what he earned from his Sunday paper round to buy more soon enough.

She smiled at him.

I’ve got a few with me, and if you like…

If he liked! He was aware that his trouser problem was threatening to return and he blushed. That was a stupid thing to do, blushing like that! But there was nothing he could do about it. The damned thing had a mind of its own!

Come in then! We’ll listen to some if you like…

It sounded as awkward as he felt. But she followed him in and he took her up to his room. Mum wouldn’t like that, a girl in his bedroom, but she was out so it didn’t matter.

Only sixteen, only sixteen, she was too young to fall in love, and he was too young to know…

She smiled at him.

So true, so true, she whispered, and she reached for his hand and squeezed it. And who’s a naughty boy, she breathed, and he knew exactly what she meant.

I don’t think I’m too young to fall in love, she breathed.

It’s time for me to try and wash you, Mr Walpole,” interrupted the nurse. “If you’re a good boy I’ll get it over and done with quickly, but if you’re even the smallest bit naughty it might take, let me see, a little bit longer… you know what I mean?

© Peter Rogerson 01.05.18

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BEELZEBUB HAS A DEVIL PUT ASIDE FOR ME

6 Jun

7. THE DANCE

You should have seen him, Bernie,” murmured Pauline as she lowered herself into the seat next to her husband’s hospital bed and stared for a moment at his motionless face, eyes shut, barely any sign of breathing before she reached in her bag for her knitting.

I’ll see him one time or other, in my own head and just when I want to see him. Anyway, who is him? And why should I see him anyway? What is the woman wittering on about?

She started clacking her needles, click clack, click clack, and somewhere in his head he knew what they were.

It was last night, and I missed Coronation street because of it, and you know how I never, absolutely never, miss Coronation Street. But it was Tony…”

The bully. The toad who stole my girl back in the fifties when I was little more than a nipper…

I mean, I couldn’t stop him popping in, could I? Him having only buried his Gladys last week, and at a loose end. And you remember that curtain rail in our bedroom, the one that keeps falling off from whatever it is that stops it falling? Well, he fixed it for me, and you were promising to fix it for ages. But, as I said to Tony, you’ve got a lot on your plate these days, what with the garden and shopping…”

I could have done it! I was only waiting for a spare moment, and I’d have fixed it. In fact, I never told you this but I planned to buy a brand new one, one of those with a fancy brass twirly bit at both ends… you’d have liked that. I’ll tell you what, when I get home I’ll do that. I’ll pop out and buy a nice new curtain rail with fancy brass bits at both ends…

He bought us a new rail, Bernie, one with ornate brass bits at the ends! And he put it up, and it’s ever so sturdy. And seeing as he was in our bedroom… I let him stretch out on our bed ‘cause his back was aching from all that lifting and working. I knew you wouldn’t mind. He looked so weary, lying there and his eyes fluttering like they used to before you and I got together…”

Him lying on our bed? How could you … how could you … what’s your name? I’ve forgotten your name!

Then he took me to the recreation centre where there’s country dancing… Every Tuesday night it is, and it took me back a bit… We danced to Sir Roger de Coverley… just like I did when I was a kiddie!”

And the light came up inside his mind as if someone had operated a dimmer switch, brightening the single spotlight that illuminated the stage of his life.

The teacher was there. He had liked Miss Primrose. All the boys did, and most of the girls. He was only little, not more than six or seven, and they were in the school hall.

Boys line up against the windows and girls against the radiators

That was Miss Primrose with her lovely cotton skirt swirling with every syllable that came out of her pretty mouth. That’s how he’d seen it back then. Every syllable … but then, her mouth was a lot prettier than mummy’s, and her teeth were whiter and her laugh never so far away, unless she got angry and then she hit you with a slipper. But that wasn’t very often, and you had to be really quite naughty, like making a blot with your pen on a nice clean page…

Now boys, go to the girls and bow like gentlemen and ask one of them if she’ll dance with you. We’re particularly lucky today because there are fifteen boys and fourteen girls in class today, so I’ll have to be one of the girls … you, Tony Templeman, you can be my partner. That evens it up. Now boys, go and find a girl to dance with and ask her ever so nicely if she’d care to dance with you…

He looked along the line of girls. There was Pauline Smith at one end, a nervous little thing with a runny nose which she couldn’t really help because runny noses were doing the rounds, but it didn’t make her look any prettier, then there was Annie Whatsit, Droopy Knickers, they called her, the boys in the playground when the girls were doing handstands against the school wall and you could see their knickers, all navy blue and Annie’s particularly droopy…

…And there, at the end, was Gladys Nugent. The pretty Gladys. The one nobody could say anything bad about because in truth there was nothing bad about her.

Would you care to dance with me, Gladys…

That was him! Brave like a warrior approaching the nicest girl who was ever born, and she smiled at him with that gorgeous little-girl smile, gap-toothed because she was getting her second teeth, and she whispered…

That would be nice, Bernie…

And he proudly led her to the two rows for the dance, facing her, and Miss Primrose left Tony Templeman for a moment while she carefully wound the gramophone up, changed the needle and placed it on the very edge of the brittle black disc before rushing back to her place opposite the Templeman boy.

Then the music began.

There could be chaos in the Sir Roger de Coverley dance. There could be unwanted mistakes and unrehearsed collisions, and everything that went wrong made the children giggle and Miss Primrose laugh out loud.

Bernie didn’t like it one bit. There was too much to remember, and if he did something wrong, went the wrong way or didn’t quite get it right, then he was on public view. The girls might laugh at him, mock him, say that he was clumsy, but the boys would be worse because he was making mistakes for them, tripping over his own legs so that they didn’t have to, and maybe even Miss Primrose with her swirling skirt would scorn him.

Thank you, Gladys, he said when the dance was over and he’d retained just about all of his dignity.

S all right she replied, smiling her loveliest gap-toothed smile and going back to line up by the radiators with all the other girls. And Bernie knew that of all the things in the world that he really, really hated, country dancing was the worst. Especially Sir Roger de Coverley.

The internal spotlight dimmed and once again Pauline’s voice came into focus.

It took me right back, to when we were kids at school? Do you remember country dancing and that ugly teacher with the long neck? We called her Goose Neck, but what was her real name? Miss Primrose, or something like that. But last night at the Recreation Centre we did the Sir Roger de Coverley, and it was so much fun! Why didn’t you and I do things like that, before your accident, Bernie? It might have added some spice to our lives!”

Not the sort of spice I’d like! If that’s what turns you on you’re welcome to go dancing with Toady Tony Templeman!

I’ll not tell you what we did after the dance, Bernie, and I really hope you can’t hear this, but I went to Tony’s for a coffee and biscuits, and he showed me the curtain pole in his bedroom and, the Lord forgive us both, quite a lot more… I hope you don’t mind, but you weren’t around and by the looks of it even if you are in the future you’ll be only half alive… A girl needs some things, you know, even an old girl like me…”

I’m easy come, easy go, little high, little low, any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me…

I’m going with him next week, Bernie, to the country dancing, it’s so much fun and even we older folks can do it… that is, if you’re not out of hospital by then. Or dead. If you’re dead… you won’t be able to care one way or the other if you’re dead…”

I’m easy come, easy go, little high, little low, any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me…

It might do both of us a good turn…”

© Peter Rogerson 30.04.18

BEELZEBUN HAS A DEVIL PUT ASIDE FOR ME

4 Jun

6.  THE AFFAIRES

There’s something I should tell you, Bernie, and I hope you can hear me,” murmured Pauline to her comatose husband as he lay on his hospital bed, giving barely a hint that he might actually be alive.

I can hear you … of course I can hear you! Do you think I’m deaf, woman,” resounded silently inside his head. He knew who she was now, suddenly, as if a veil had been lifted, but not completely.

Remember I told you,” said Pauline as she pulled her roll of needles and knitting out of an oversized handbag, “remember I told you that Gladys Templeman passed away a week or so ago? Remember I mentioned the funeral to you and that I’d go and represent both of us?”

Who in the name of everything Holy is Gladys Templeman? Do I know her? Why are you telling me this? And what does ‘passed away’ mean? Passed away where? Do you mean died? Is that what I’ve done, died? Is that why I can’t see anything any more, unless it happens in my head, like in a secret theatre?

So I went along to the funeral. A small affair it was, not many souls turned up, probably because when you reach a certain age you don’t want to be reminded of your own mortality, so unless you’re really close to a body you don’t turn up to say goodbye… Anyway, I went and said our bit, like you might have if you hadn’t been stupid enough to get mown down by that car…”

I remember Tony Templeman, when we were kids, and he married a bird called Gladys. A pretty little thing she was, all chest and bottom and happiness… you won’t know this, Pauline, but before she married Tony I had her for a while… And she was so good! Then Tony came along … I knew him from school and a dirty toad he was…”

That light, the one shining onto his inner-stage where the puppets of people lived and breathed and imitated the past with uncanny accuracy, started glowing and piercing the gloomy mush of his brain, illuminating…

…illuminating the dirty toad called Tony Templeman…

Is that you, Spermy Bernie..? cackled the lad in the smartest grey shorts in the whole school, always with tidy creases down the front, not like his that for some reason his mum thought should be creased down the side… And he had greased hair, loads of fragrant grease making it look as if he’d just buried his head in a chip pan, but it smelt girlie, the kind of greasy smell you’d expect a girl to make in a jam jar out of flowers and water…

Jane next door did that. Made flower-water out of rose petals and chrysanthemums. Then she tried to sell it to the girls down Bellamy road, but he didn’t think she ever sold any. Maybe the girls down Bellamy road made their own. It was the sort of thing girls did.

What do you want, Templeman? That was him asking, grumpily, because Templeman was a bully and they’d only end up in a fight if they occupied the same space for too long.

I’m going to shag your mother… I could, you know, Spermy, and she’d love me for it…

It sounded ridiculous from a lad too young to wear proper trousers, still in shorts even if they were the smartest around. But boys that young even beginning to think of what they might do to somebody’s mother … ridiculous! Mothers were old, weren’t they, and didn’t do that kind of thing. They were … innocent.

Well, while you’re doing that I think I’ll spend an hour with Gladys Nugent… You like her, don’t you Tony? I’ve seen you watching her, your eyes out on stalks every time she goes anywhere near you, hopscotch on the pavement, sliding her stone and hopping…

But Tony only grinned. “and flashing her knickers at me, only at me, jumping and sliding her stone and hopping up and down with her dress flying everywhere… and she does it for me. Only for me!”

That’s why we called him dirty toady Tony. Sally Nugent was a pretty girl, much too pretty for him. Everyone said so, or if they didn’t say it they thought it.

Toady Templeman wandered off, that sloppy know-it-all grin on his face, the one everyone hated. Or if it wasn’t everyone that hated it, he, Bernie Walpole, certainly did.

And the focus of that inner beam of light blurred, faded, and his ears were forced to listen to the clicking of knitting needles and the voice droning on…

So I went to Gladys’s funeral,” she was saying. “Small it was, only a few of us true friends there, and the vicar said a few wonderful things about her. How she was God-fearing… and how she’d be in Heaven by now, sitting on the right hand side, and how she’d looked after her family like loving mothers should…”

Piffle! If anyone was on anyone’s right hand side it would be me, wouldn’t it? I’m in this … what would you call it? Limbo? And there’s nobody else in my world except for puppets of things I remember from a long time ago…

Then, afterwards, when her coffin was on its way to the cemetery, Tony, you remember Tony, Bernie? Her husband and quite a handsome fellow still, really good looking and smart … I wonder if you can hear what I’m saying? Maybe not, but I’ll say it anyway. I had a fling with him once, oh, before you and I got together, and before Gladys came into his life. Did you ever wonder, Bernie, why I wasn’t a virgin that first time we did it? I don’t know whether you noticed or not, but I wasn’t because of Tony. He was good and caring back then, a lovely lad with bright sparkling eyes, and he still is…”

Gladys was too good for him! By far! She was an angel amongst people, and she didn’t half know what a lad needs when he’s nervous and young and hasn’t been with a lass before. She guided me, she did, laughing eyes and long hair, beautiful long hair, and together we promised to each other that we would… but Toady Tony came along and stole her from me. Him and his smart Alec ways, he and his aftershave and deodorants, back then when aftershave and deodorants were for sissies and not us real men!

So after Gladys, the poor soul, was lowered into the ground in her shining expensive coffin and the rest of the mourners had sipped their tea and eaten their sandwiches and gone, you’ll never guessed what happened…”

I don’t care what happened! All I care about is that the first lass I had is dead and buried, and I wasn’t there to say goodbye… And yet she was my first love, the one who stole my innocence from me, and there’s one truth above all others. A lad always remembers his first time. He always remembers that very first moment when the world stands still and then erupts… and that was Gladys … my first time… in Heaven… Then Toady Tony came along to steal her from me.

He didn’t see it, but Pauline sighed and a distant look crossed her face. He took me back to his place, just him and me, nobody else, and for a couple of hours there were just the two of us in the world. And he was the same as he’d been way back when we’d been little more than kids, the same considerate, loving, caring, gentle person. And he was gentle. So gentle that when we reached Heaven for a moment I was reminded of that first time, in my teens, with him, and all those old feelings swept over me all over again. Like a new first time. Like the first time we never had, you and me.

Pauline? My Pauline? Did you? I’m here, you know, waiting to wake up, waiting to live my life again…Open your eyes, look to the skies, I’m just a poor boy…

I’m just a poor boy…

I’m sorry, Bernie, but it was never like that for us. Not once in all the years… Maybe it’s because you always remember the first time and that makes it best even though … you understand? Anyway, I’m leaving early today. Tony’s taking me to the movies. He even mentioned the back seat!”

No! No! No! Open your eyes … open your eyes …Pauline… I’m just a poor boy…

© Peter Rogerson 29.04.18

BEELZEBUB HAS A DEVIL PUT ASIDE FOR ME

1 Jun

5 THE TRUNKS

Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality…

Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality…

The words, stripped of meaning by his lonely shadowed world, throbbed in his head as he became aware of a slight lightening of the dark grey insubstantial fluff that was the entirety of his Universe,

Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality…

But what’s a landslide? I’ve heard the words before. Land, slide, two words that make one, landslide …but what does it mean? What does anything mean? And reality … what’s that? Which plane is reality and which plane isn’t? And what’s that sound finding its way through the gloom?

Splashing?

Water splashing … if I could remember what a sink was I’d say it was water splashing into a sink, but I can and I can’t.

Maybe it’s the sea lapping onto a shore at the edge of the land, lap, lap, lap…

The light. The point of light inside his head is shining on a world he might have known, or if not on that world, on a shadow of it. Reality or non-reality.

Come on Bernie, smiles mother, the woman who never stopped smiling unless she was frowning and slapping his legs, which once in a blue moon she didCome on Bernie, wrap this towel round you and we’ll slip your nice new swimming trunks on. Nobody will see you getting undressed, and then you’ll be able to paddle in the nice warm sea water, at the edges where it splashes onto the sand…

My feet sink into the sand as if it was quick sand, but I have no idea what quick sand might be, just that my head knows that feet can sink into it like it did yesterday…

The image changes, slips back a day… Yesterday, no blue trunks, just old grey school shorts.

Mummy, I’m sinking … mummy help…

And he was sinking! His bare feet were going deeper and deeper into the sand, he could feel it, cold and damp and gritty, rising up his shins as he sunk ever deeper into it. Quicksand … so this is quicksand, it sucks a body down, right down to the bowels of the Earth, and further.

HELP! HELP! HELP!

That was him shouting, loud as he could with his young boy shrieking lungs, and a man came to help when he saw mummy was sinking too. He reached for Bernie with one hand, and he let him pull him out until he thought his arm would detach itself from the rest of his body, but after a titanic struggle he ended up standing next to the stranger, on firm sand again.

There are patches of this here and there, not many and you were plain unlucky wandering into one, he said to mummy after he’d pulled her out. And mummy, half in tears and half laughing, thanked him… you’re too kind, sir, Mr… er, too kind…

Barry never sunk in. But then, Barry wouldn’t, though it seemed to Bernie that he sneered at them for needing to be helped, as if walking on sand without sinking in was all they needed to do.

The man kissed mummy on the cheek! And her gratitude was so immense that she kissed him back, and Bernie had never seen mummy kiss a man before. It was … horrible, threatening the unity of family, of love, of togetherness, and he ran off, across the sand to where it was dry and safe, and flung himself down and cried.

They never saw that man again, though mummy was misty eyed when she mentioned him… such a nice man, so helpful…

And the image changes again, back to wear it was.

Nobody could see anything they shouldn’t as Bernie wrapped the towel round himself and pulled his school shorts off. Yes, he was on holiday, at the seaside, and wearing his grey school shorts, last year’s and not the new ones for a new term.

His scruffy grey school shorts.

Now, Bernie, slip into these, said mummy, holding out the trunks she had made specially for me, and he did as he was told. He pulled them up and grinned at her. They were comfortable and warm like trunks ought to be

They’re dead smart, mummy…

And they were. A nice navy blue, mummy always said he looked nice in shades of blue, He was her little boy blue, she often said that.… And she had knitted them. They were perfect, really, really perfect.

They’re better than your trunks Barry, he boasted.

And he ran to the edge of the sea and paddled. Mummy had said the water was nice and warm, but it wasn’t really. It was cold like ice and he shrieked about it being cold, leaping as high as he could with bent knees, and a naughty word in his head.

Don’t be a silly boy…

But he wasn’t going to let Barry know how he hated that cold water, especially as his younger brother was splashing next to him, wearing his swimming trunks from last year, the ones he’d liked back then, the ones that no longer fitted him.

So he sat down in the cold salt water, getting his body used to its chilly wetness and trying not to shiver..

And then he stood up.

I should never have stood up.

He could feel those brand new trunks sagging down his legs, wet and a little bit sandy and getting colder by the second, hanging down with all the water they’d soaked up, even threatening to slip off his waist. He wasn’t going to let that happen: no sir, not him!

So he held onto them at the waist, quite frantically, while the other end, the bit that went over his bottom, drooped further and further down as the weight of the water that had soaked into them stretched them.

Mummy! Mummy!

She looked at mhim and smiled. She actually smiled, as if what she was looking at was even the least bit funny, which you can take from Bernie it wasn’t.

Mummy, they’re falling off me!

I was desperate, and in my head, not the head wearing the trunks but the head looking on, I heard the refrain no escape from reality, no escape from reality in a powerful rock ‘n’ roll voice

Come here, Bernie, and we’ll put your grey shorts back on, and I’ll see what I can do to make your new ones fit better…

And then he was wrapped in the towel again and she was fidgeting with those horrible navy blue new trunks, trying to get them to fit properly, and they wouldn’t even though she managed to pinch his stomach as she tried to roll them up just in case that might make them fit.

Ouch!

And then, as the light in his head became a headache and faded to mush, he felt that pinch again.

Ouch!

And Bernie Walpole was being turned over by an over-enthusiastic nurse whose job it was to make sure he was both clean and had no bed sores worth worrying about, and in the sparkling world of reality she accidentally pinched him.

Ouch resonated throughout his mind and got quite close to forcing his eyes open.

Quite close, but not close enough.

© Peter Rogerson 28.04.18

BEELZEBUB HAS A DEVIL PUT ASIDE FOR ME

29 May

4. THE KNITTING.

I know you might not be able to hear me, Bernie,” said Pauline quietly, “but the doctors say it’s possible that you can. They say it helps, sometimes, to bring a man round when he’s like you are, fast asleep for ages, in a coma…”

What’s fast asleep? And what’s a coma? Is that bad? Is there something wrong with me? Have I always been like this or was there a time when the pictures in my head were real? When the little boy pissing his pants when he moved house really lived and breathed and was me? Did I really do that, run up and down the new road where our new house was in the hope that my shorts would dry out in the wind and the sun? Is this the real life…?

So I’ll sit here with you for a while. That’s what I’ll do, and to help me concentrate I’ve brought my knitting. I thought I’d knit you a woolly jumper for when you’re better so that you and I can go to the seaside and not be bothered by the cold winds that sometimes blow off the sea…”

What’s knitting? And what are cold winds? Are they just fantasy?

And suddenly he heard the click-clacking of knitting needles, click clack, click clack, knit and pearl…

And that mysterious point of light appeared inside his head, a point that grew and shone onto an inner stage, waiting for the actors to appear.

Click clack, click clack…

Mummy was sitting in her chair facing the wireless. That’s what the big wooden thing was, the wireless, and Kenneth Horne was making her laugh out loud.

Kenneth Horne often did that.

And mummy was knitting. Click clack, went her needles in between chuckles at what the funny man on the wireless was saying.

Click clack, click clack…

What are you doing, mummy?

That was him asking. He remembered that moment as if it was a mere instant ago, and he remembered the room just as it appeared on the stage inside his head, a drama being re-enacted for him to soak up and then, when it was over, maybe applaud.

I’m knitting, Bernie, a pair of swimming trunks for you to wear at the seaside. We’re going in a week or two, remember? Mummy’s booked a caravan on a caravan park near the sea, and you can wear these swimming trunks on the beach, I’ll be finished really quite soon, and you can paddle in the sea and it won’t matter if you get them wet…

He remembered those swimming trunks and the memory left a sort of bitter taste in his mouth. What had he done? Had he chewed them, tried to eat them, made himself sick by doing something silly like that?

I like that shade of blue, mummy, he heard himself say, made his puppet lips mouth.

It suits you, Bernie, my own little boy blue, smiled the knitting woman, and just then Barry came in from a game outside with the girl next door, Jane, the gangly girl who lived next door, the girl with the matchstick legs and hair so long that she sat on it when she sat down.

What about me, mummy, am I going to have some swimming trunks? asked Barry, and mummy smiled at him,

You can have Bernie’s from last year, Barry, he’s outgrown them and I haven’t really got enough wool to knit two pairs … they’re nearly new, he’s barely worn them at all and you said how much you liked them…

Then Bernie protested like he was bound to because those trunks were his and nobody else’s even if they were too small for him by now. He’d grown a lot recently, he knew he had, his grey school shorts were tight round his middle and he no longer needed the braces to hold them up, and he hated those braces, the way they pulled into his shoulders and yanked his school shorts high up until they rubbed his groin. But those swimming trunks were his, so why should Barry have them?

It’s not fair, mummy, he said, I like those trunks and you said how they looked good on me…

Mummy sighed. She had been expecting him to throw a wobbly because that was the kind of boy Bernie was.

They’re too small for you and you’ll never be able to wear them again, she said. So don’t be so selfish. You’re having new ones and Barry can have your old ones and that’s the way it’s going to be…

He stamped a foot churlishly.

But it’s not fair…

Click clack, click clack, click clack…

Old Mrs Templeman passed away last week, Bernie,” observed the click-clacking Pauline, though Bernie didn’t really know it was she who was speaking and anyway, who was old Mrs Templeman? And what did it mean, passed away?

Is that what he was doing, lying there in his mushy darkness with only the odd glimmer of light illuminating the puppets in his dreams?

Like now.

In the very early morning, waiting at the station in town for the train that would take them to the seaside. It was still almost dark! And in the distance, along the railway line, he could hear the noises of the train roaring towards them.

There was whistling and hissing and clanking and men shouting, and there it was.

Searing red and orange and yellow light flashed and flickered as coal was added to its fire by a sweating, dusty, grinning fireman.

It was exciting. More exciting than anything else anywhere in the world.

Wait until the train stops, boys, said mummy quite firmly.

And they did. They had to. The whole scene, as the mighty engine with its fire and its steam slowly trundled to a standstill was the scariest and the loveliest thing he had ever seen. He pulled closer to his mother even though all he wanted to do was jump up and down and scream his wonder at such fierce power to the dark heavens. But he didn’t do that. Instead he clung to the precious woman and then, with Barry holding his own hand, little Barry, scared Barry, he climbed onto the carriage nearest them whilst mother heaved two suitcases, old suitcases that had seen many better days, into the compartment, and they sat down and smelt the smoke and the steam and the might of human creation.

You can look out of the window when we’re on the move, but don’t open it or black smuts of soot will come in and make us all filthy…

The train was rattling along, da-da-da-dah, da-da-da-dah as it roared on its rails over points and into the great unknown. Unknown to the boys, anyway. Unknown to Bernie.

I’ll be going in a moment, Bernie,” said Pauline, putting her knitting away, “I’m getting well on with your woolly jumper and I should have it finished by the time you come round … you will come round, won’t you? There are lots of things for us to do, places to go to, miracles for us to see…”

Who are you and why are you talking to me? What things are we going to see? What miracles?

And what’s a woolly jumper?

I’ll be back tomorrow, same time, same place… try and wake up, Bernie, try and come back to us…”

Someone said kangaroo … that’s funny. Isn’t it? A woolly jumper…?

Nurse! Nurse! He smiled… I’m sure he smiled!” Pauline rushed to the door, and a pretty nurse almost ran in.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy …?

We’ve seen that before … like a real smile … maybe more like a baby with wind, you know, a windy smile …”

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy…?

It looked so real, so like him! Please God that he wakes up soon.”

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy…?

Just fantasy…?

Fantasy?

And the stage is bare at last, monochrome mush dominates all of creation, the light fades, maybe until tomorrow.

© Peter Rogerson 27.04.18

BEELZEBUB HAS A DEVIL PUT ASIDE FOR ME

26 May

3. THE FLU

It was a male voice that he heard in the maelstrom of tiny sounds that cluttered the inside of his ears. It was harsher than last night’s almost cheery goodnight, though whether anything was good or even what night might be was hard to understand in the numbing loneliness of a floating, lightless universe, the one he inhabited, the one where he was.

But last night’s goodnight had been feminine. He had cuddled up to the sounds, wanted to open eyes that wouldn’t respond, just to see who was whispering it.

Better turn him, nurse, it said, though no man can say when he’ll wake up, or if he ever does. But it would be a sad day if he did and he woke to running sores on his backside…

And then the softer voice,

I was going to do it as soon as I’ve washed his front…

Then the sound of laughter.

He’d heard laughter like that before. A pinprick of dazzling light inside his head slowly opened up and illuminated a scene that may have been memory or may have been imagination … how was he to know which, he who knew nothing?

He felt rotten.

We’ve all had it, Bernie, said his mother’s voice, laughing at him cheerily. That was the laughter, his mother, and he was nine…

How did he knew he it was his mother’s voice? How could he remember that one voice out of so many, and there he was lying on the settee in front of the fire, its heat bathing him as he shivered and then melting him as he sweated.

That settee was old and lumpy. It had to be lumpy because something had gone wrong inside it and the springs poked through in uncomfortable places.

There had been a time when he’d really believed that all settees were like that, with last week’s newspapers stuffed inside to stop those awkward springs from poking through. It had been a daft thought, really. It was only their settee that was like that, uncomfortable and likely to penetrate your flesh with a needle-pointed spring if you bounced on it. Best not to bounce, then. Best just to sit still.

I feel rotten, mummy, he heard himself whisper. And he did. He was shivering one minute and sweating buckets the next. He was being sick and then he wasn’t being sick. It was horrible.

You’ve only got a touch of flu, she had said, it’ll be gone soon enough and then you’ll be back out on the street kicking a football about with all your little friends…

He didn’t like kicking a football about! Why should he want to go out there where David What’s-his-name who was good at kicking footballs about would beat him to every goal? And David What’s-his-name wasn’t even a friend, let alone a little friend. David What’s-his-name was twelve and he was a bully…

I’m going to die, mummy…

It had almost been a belief. He was dying like a forgotten daddy had died. Hadn’t he been a pathetic little wimp? What mother could possibly have had a moment spare to love a creature like the one he had been? And hadn’t he seen the way that same mother had struggled to cook and clean when she herself had been poorly with the flu only last week? But he hadn’t cared, had he? He’d gone about his days as if everything in the world was right.

He’d even forgotten to mention her in his prayers at bed time…

Dear Jesus, he had muttered, thank you for feeding me today and thank you for the way David What’s-his-name fell and scuffed his knees till they bled, and Jesus, stop Barry from pinching my sweets when I’m not looking, I haven’t got many and I’m saving them up for summer when we’re on the train going on holiday …and Jesus, if you want to prove that you’re really, really there how about making my stuffed elephant come to life in the night so that tomorrow, when I wake up, he’s asleep next to me, and breathing like I breathe?

No mention of his mother’s illness there, then. Just his own miserable selfish hopes and dreams, and a stinking old stuffed elephant. And, come to think of it, he suddenly realised that it hadn’t been Barry pinching the sweets that he kept in a jam-jar but he himself, when nobody, not even himself, was looking.

As a kid he’d been good at self-deceit.

I’m going out to buy some medicine, Bernie, his mother had said, pulling on her coat. Had it really been as tatty as that? The kind of coat that any old bag lady and not his precious mother might wear?

The doctor gave me medicine, mummy, he had mumbled.

And she had smiled.

I know, but someone has to fetch it from the chemist’s shop. But I don’t mean that, I mean the special medicine I’m fetching from the shops, she had said, smiling reassuringly, now you stay put and don’t think of going anywhere, I won’t be long…

And off she’d popped.

Mothers did that back in those days. They left their eight year or nine year olds to themselves and went out, and nothing wrong happened, nothing nasty, no strangers came into their houses with knives and guns… The world just carried on and nobody even cared.

He remembered that lonely hour. He had started sweating as if he was about to melt. Why, he’d even wearily lowered himself off the lumpy settee onto the lino that was on the floor, nice, cold lino, and he’d rubbed himself onto its almost icy surface until, suddenly, he’d felt cold. Really cold, like the dead might feel cold.

He watched the image in the mush of his head under that one bright light as he dragged himself back onto the lumpy settee and tried to absorb all the radiant heat from the fire instead of the cold from the floor. But there wasn’t enough. There would never be enough, not now that he was so dreadfully cold, and mummy wasn’t there for him to complain to.

He actually dozed off to sleep! It was as if a witch had waved her magic wand over him and sent him into a land where things were different. Where trees were even taller, where ogres lived amongst them and where there was caves for nightmares to play themselves out in drama after drama of fear and dread.

Bernie! I’m home…!

He opened his eyes and he was neither hot not cold, neither shivering nor sweating…

And she held up a roll of sweets. Sherbet, they were, discs of solid sherbet tasting like fruit ought to taste, all sharp and sugary at the same time. He loved those sweets, the taste, the way they tingled in his mouth and especially the way they made him feel better.

I’d better wipe your face, Bernie, she had said, and she fetched a flannel that somehow smelt of dishwater and wiped his face, and then his hands where the sweets had made them sticky.

There, that’s better, and my, don’t you suddenly look well?

And he did suddenly feel well. In the dream, that is, not inside his head. That still felt as if a huge ball of cotton wool had been scrunched up and forced into his ears until his whole head was filled with the stuff.

What in the name of anyone or anything is cotton wool?

And the woman with the sweet voice was wiping him expertly as the man wrote things onto a sheet of paper. He could hear the pen scratching away, the sound of it being tapped occasionally as the writer thought about what to write next. And the gentle cleansing, wipe, wipe, wipe, while the woman whispered at him there’s a big boy, Mr Walpole…

And the male voice,

Be careful how firmly you wipe that part of him, nurse, it’s starting to look alive…

And the nurse giggling like a schoolgirl having fun.

© Peter Rogerson 26.04.18

BEELZEBUB HAS A DEVIL PUT ASIDE FOR ME

24 May

2. THE SHED

PING… PING … PING…

There was a mushy mess running through Bernie’s grey-black mind, a mess that was focussed every so often by a PING that seemed to rock his world to its very core.

PING… PING… PING….

Once, he knew, there was such a thing as light. It illuminated stuff. It drew the attention to things … but what the stuff or the things might be he was lost to even start to understand.

If it hadn’t been for the regular beating of the PING he would, he knew, have gone mad.

If only he knew what mad actually was.

Slowly everything, even the regular PING… PING… PING… swirled into a state of near silence, like tinnitus heard through a sponge.

And then he discovered light!

Not real light, of course, but a light inside his head, an illumination that shone on things he might have known and might have done, once upon a time, and they comforted him.

He was in the shed.

The shed was in the garden, the same garden that he’d known as a child, a wooden affair with a single dusty window and a few gardening tools leaning propped up against one wall, with jars of this and that on a shelf, and cobwebs here and there.

He was with his brother.

Had he really got a brother, or was this part of the confusing mush that dominated most of his life these days?

He was eight years old. At least, it felt that he was eight years old. He was in his best clothes. Yes, back then, in the post-war years of austerity, he had worn his best clothes most of the time because last year’s clothes, last year’s grey shorts and grey shirt and grey socks were tatty, too tatty to wear for the Sunday School Outing. And that’s what he was in the garden shed for, waiting for the time to walk to the Sunday School and be taken on an Outing.

His and Barry, his brother. His younger brother. He looked younger, didn’t he? And being younger he usually inherited Bernie’s outgrown clothes, those that were fit to be inherited.

Mum was a widow.

He remembered the day she had told him that his father was dead, and in all honesty he hadn’t properly understood what she meant by dead. He got the impression that he wouldn’t ever come back, but he hadn’t seen much of him anyway.

But it had meant that mum was a widow and widows had a struggle on their hands if they were going to keep up with the Joneses. Ah, those Joneses. They lived across the road in an identical house to their own council house, but it didn’t look identical because they weren’t widows. They were two ladies, sisters he thought, who both went to an office to do mysterious things like shorthand and typing and who both earned enough money for the garden to look nice, the curtains to have frills and the coalman to deliver sacks of coal ever so often, more often than most people had deliveries of coal.

Mum would love to have kept up with the Joneses, but she complained nearly every day that she’d never do it.

If you scuff your knees like that and I have to buy bandages for them when they’re bleeding I’ll never have enough money to keep up with the Joneses, she’d complain.

He hardly ever scuffed his knees after that, and neither did Barry.

And they were in the shed waiting.

Waiting for the rain to stop.

There won’t be a bus to take us on the Sunday School outing if it’s raining, complained Barry.

And he knew there wouldn’t be.

Maybe we could make magic, he had suggested, being the oldest and consequently the wisest and most intelligent. At least, that’s what he thought he was. The most intelligent.

What magic? asked Barry with a sneer in his voice. Barry couldn’t half sneer. He did it quite often and once or twice he, Bernie, had to beat him up because of it. Nobody likes being sneered at, especially when the sneerer is your younger brother. Younger by a little bit more than a year. Dad had been alive back then, to give mum whatever it was she needed from him for Barry to come along.

He’d been eight back then and hadn’t known and the sod of it was he didn’t know now. There were holes in his world and they were filled with a stuff called forgetfullness.

But the light was still shining on that old wooden shed and he could hear the pattering rain cascading on its asbestos roof.

Didn’t he know, somewhere, that asbestos was dangerous stuff? How could it be dangerous if shed roofs were made of it? It just didn’t make sense!

Then he heard himself speaking. He had a good, clear voice, a sweet innocent treble that could sing if he had to, as well as speak with the wisdom of angels.

We could recite magic, he said to Barry. You know, a spell to send the rain away…

Barry looked at him scornfully and it was good for him that he kept to scorn and didn’t sneer. He might have received a bloody nose if he’d sneered.

There’s no such thing, said Barry instead of sneering. Magic’s for little kids. It isn’t real, Bernie, you must know that seeing as you’re older than me…

Then he, Bernie, cast a spell.

Rain, rain, go away and come again another day! he chanted, and repeated it in his loud, clear angelic voice, rain, rain go away and come again another day…

And did the rain go away?

He couldn’t see out of the window, to see if the rain had stopped, that grubby window in the shed, because Barry was standing on a rickety stool and weeing out of it. He had found a broken corner of window where there wasn’t any glass, and somehow managed to aim his jet of urine straight out into the world of rain and misery. He could see him quite clearly, Barry with one leg of his shorts hitched high enough for him to wee without wetting them.

That’s dirty, he told him, being the elder and consequently the one most likely to judge.

I needed a wee and there are puddles everywhere outside, said Barry, grinning as he leapt off the rickety stool.

Then,

Bernie! Barry! it’s time to go! called mum from the kitchen door, already dressed in her overcoat and hat.

And somehow they went. Somewhere. The light in his head dimmed down and he couldn’t see what happened next. But they were leaping over puddles as they ran out of the wooden shed, him and his brother Barry.

You might think of waking up, Mr Walpole, said a sudden voice from outside his head, the sweetest of voices that filled the whole void that was everything with the kind of music he knew that he loved.

He fought against his eyelids. He needed to open his eyes and see the angel who was talking to him, but nothing happened.

Instead the shed finally flickered out of being, taking Barry with it, and he was in a muffled kingdom of barely audible tinnitus and the grey shadows of a lightless dawn.

© Peter Rogerson 25.04.18