Another bank holiday monday

Another bank holiday Monday

By bonnie meekums

It was a typical bank holiday Monday; damp, drizzly and overcast.  But the four of us were determined to make it to the coast. Ginger, whose hair was black, had just passed his test and offered to let me ride pillion. Sensing that he was hoping his magnanimous gesture would make be grateful, I resolved not to hold his waist, no matter how scared I felt.  Sandy, who really was ginger, was still learning, and so Rachel had to cadge a lift from her Dad, persuading him that he really should call in on his uncle tony in Broadstairs.  We all arranged to meet at a pub by the harbour in Whitstable, for 12 noon.

The journey down was torture.  The A2 was busy, which gave Ginger the opportunity to show off his moves, swerving in and out of the traffic while my arms ached from holding on behind me.  When we eventually arrived I dismounted, shivering with cold and fear, and made for the bar.  I eagerly gulped a pint of beer, and even the obligatory oysters slid down a treat.

The four of us had been friends for about three years, which as 16 ½ felt like an age.  We had met at a church youth club which, in 1965, was considered hip.  The rector gave his young curates free rein to be creative.  Before long, we had painted the crypt black, the vast church had had part of its high roof converted into offices and a coffee bar, and services included guitar music and drama performances on a regular basis.  The curates, Geoff and Mike, encouraged us to think deeply about the issues of the day, discussing abortion and mixed marriage in grave tones while sipping instant coffee made with boiled milk.

I remember feeling a sense of bonhomie as the beer slid into my stomach, and the grey day seemed to brighten a little.  Sandy broke into my reverie:  ‘Holy shit!’ Rachel immediately chided him for blaspheming.  ‘What?’ I asked, wondering what could have moved a regular communicant like Sandy to swear so spectacularly.  We all followed his eyes.  There, across the crowded bar, we could clearly see Geoff and Mike, oblivious to our presence in the same room.  They were sitting side by side, both men looking downwards. What made this unusual for the day, was not the pints on the table in front of two vicars – we had shared many a pint in the Mitre after church –  but the fact that Geoff had his hand resting delicately on Mike’s thigh.

‘I think I’m gonna throw up’, said Ginger, his cheeks flushing.  The hairs on the back of my neck bristled, but no words would come out of my mouth.  All I knew was that we had intruded, unwittingly, on a moment that was not meant to be shared with others.  Sandy beat his pint onto the table and declared ‘I’m leaving’.  ‘No you’re not’, corrected Rachel.  ‘I think we should go over and say hello’.  ‘What, you mean pretend we haven’t just seen the two curates from our church being pooftas in a bar in Whitstable, thinking cos they are bloody miles away from Woolwich they won’t get found out?’  Ginger spluttered, his voice cracking.  For an instant, I saw the same look in his face I had seen in Mike and Geoff’s, which bewildered me even more.  I wished I could say something to ease the tension but once again Sandy broke into my silence: ‘I agree with Rachel’. ‘You poor, hen pecked sod’, said Ginger, spitting beer through clenched teeth.  I began to wonder whether I could cadge a lift back with Rachel’s Dad.  ‘So what are you saying, Sandy?’  I asked, to detract from Ginger’s venom.  ‘I think we should go over there.  Say hi.’  ‘I can’t believe I am hearing this’, Ginger said, shaking his head.  The last thing I wanted was to side with Ginger, so I pasted a smile on my face, looked straight at Sandy then at Rachel, and said ‘let’s go over, then.’  We left Ginger fuming into his beer.

The two men were by now in earnest conversation and Mike was the first to look up as we approached.  He forced a smile onto his face.  ‘Hi, where’s Ginger?’  ‘Oh, he’s over there,’ I replied, vaguely.  ‘Fancy seeing you lot here’, offered Mike, a tinge of sadness in his voice but without embarrassment.  I ventured a question, trying to sound casual: ‘We thought it would be nice to hit the coast, though the weather is miserable. Why are you two hiding away here, then?’  I pulled up a stool, as Mike looked imploringly at Geoff.  ‘It’s OK’, Geoff said tenderly, ‘I’ll tell them.’   And then, looking at us with an air of authority: ‘But first, tell that hot-headed Ginger to join us, will you?’  I looked at Rachel, who nodded and swiftly made her way across the sticky floor towards her boyfriend.  I could see a brief exchange of words, then Ginger kicked back his stool, picked up his drink and followed her like an obedient puppy to join the family.

When we had all assembled, Geoff breathed deeply, twice, then in a measured tone he told us:  ‘I didn’t expect to see you four today, but I am glad now that I have.  I came here with Geoff because there is something I needed to tell him.’  Ginger muttered something inaudible, Rachel pressed her foot up against his, and Sandy coughed.  ‘I’m afraid I won’t be with you much longer.’  ‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised,’ blurted Ginger.  Geoff looked down, and for a moment I wondered if he would say any more.  But then he looked hp, searching for Mike’s eyes.  Mike nodded his support, and Geoff turned back to us.  ‘I’m dying,’ he said simply.  I felt a thud in my chest, my vision went red, and the ground became remote.  I gripped the table, and looked at Rachel, whose eyes held the terror I felt. Then I looked at Sandy, holding his head in his hands.  But it was Ginger who lunged and fell at Geoff’s feet, sobbing like a baby, his head on Geoff’s knee.  Geoff gently stroked Ginger’s thick black mane.  ‘It’s alright son, I know.  I did that too, when I found out.’

ENDS

March 2011

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Revelations

Revelations

By Bonnie Meekums

September 2012

Martha dipped the sponge once more into the sour wine and poppy mixture in its earthenware container to her right.  Its blood red stained her clothing as she lifted it up to her lord’s lips, now deathly white.  His eyes opened a crack, as he felt the welcome moisture of spent wine and tasted the pain relieving properties of its hidden drug, a cruel reminder of more hedonistic days.  Now, all he wanted was for it to be over.  His own frail frame hung heavy on the nails thrust through each palm, and through his feet.  Searing pain.  He lifted himself once more, fighting against asphyxia, unable to give up breathing despite his mantra:  This will not last forever.  All hope was lost.  The woman he had called his own was, he knew, performing a last act of love.  He could see, through his own mist, her tears, her body wracked with convulsions mirroring his own.  One flesh, one body.  Everyone had been speculating for years about him and Mary Magdelene.  His secret might have been taken to the grave but for his one dear love’s last devotion – that, and her swollen belly which would soon become apparent even to the most disinterested eye.  His physical pain intensified at the thought that he would no longer be able to protect her from the wrath of the masses.

This will not last forever.  He was growing weaker, and welcomed it.  Soon, the pain would not be felt.  Again, he doubted himself.  Had he imagined himself to be the Son, the Chosen One?  Were the miracles he had performed just hysteria?  Would this be oblivion?  He no longer cared.  Just.  Let.  This.  Be.  Over.  He could hear her mother chiding her:  ‘Come, child.  You have done all you can.  It is in god’s hands now.  You must think of the living, and the quickening.’

‘No, mother.  God will protect me.  I will stay with him, until I am sure he can hear and see and feel me no more.’  Her gentle reproach silenced the older woman, for she knew in her heart her words were useless.  She knew that her daughter’s love was immutable.  But as a mother, she knew she would not sleep unless she had tried to be the voice of reason.

Martha turned towards a commotion she could hear behind her.  A tall and powerful man was pushing his way through the crowd, to muted protests.  Her heart beat its way into her throat, lodging there to stop all sound from escaping.  ‘Make way, make way!’  The man’s goliath-like frame and deep, sonorous voice parted the crowd like the seas of Galilee, and there he stood before her, his eyes piercing hers and his torso blotting out both light and the crucified figure behind him.  Martha froze as Judas addressed her directly.  ‘I have come to claim my wife.’  The crowd gasped, as one voice.  Some of them had known she had a lover, but this man, who had so recently received his 30 pieces of silver?  Then, more softly so that only she and her mother could hear:  ‘I have wealth, my Lady.  I promise to take care of you and your unborn child.  I could see the way things were heading, and I have loved you from afar these past two years.  I know you love another, but I would not allow you to go to ruin along with him.  Please believe me when I say I did this for you.  In time, I hope you will learn to love me just a little.  Your child will be Iscariot, and will want for nothing.  Only, come now, without delay, before the crowd becomes restless.’

Martha looked beseechingly at her mother, who almost imperceptibly nodded her assent.  Then she moved to the right of Judas, so that she could look one more time upon her one true love, hoping for a sign from the God they had worshipped with their bodies.  His eyes opened just a fraction, closed, opened again, and closed one last time.  Then his muscle tone relaxed, his breathing became noisy and irregular.  Martha looked up at Judas.  She hated him right now more than anyone in the world. But she had seen the sign – her Lord had given his blessing.  She knew now that she must try harder than ever to be like him, to love and forgive her enemies.  It would be a long, hard, lonely road, just as he had warned in his many parables.

Martha felt a quickening in her belly, like a fish turning in water.  It was time.  Everything grew misty and far away.  She dropped her eyes, turned away from the cross, and walked.

Midnight at the oasis

Midnight at the oasis

By Bonnie Meekums

August 2012

Vera leaned her back against the caravan window, listening to the muffled sounds of laughter, gossip and music coming from next door.  She was relieved to be alone.  Earlier, she had mistakenly taken Michelle at her word when she tapped on the window and suggested Vera  ‘come round for a drink.’  She had forgotten that Michelle was a boozer, already pissed at 7 pm.  Her generosity was not shared by the others in her party, and when Vera walked through the gage she could sense it had been the wrong move. But it was too late.  She decided to brazen it out, accepted a cold beer and made her excuses as soon as the BBQ was ready.

Vera was named after Vera Lynn, the only girl in her class to bear such an old-fashioned name.  All her life she had known she was an outsider, destined to be beyond the gate, not within.  Never part of the ‘in’ crowd for long.  Oh, she had had her moments.  Until sexy Sam had come on the scene, flashing her size 32A breasts at the slightest provocation, she had been the only woman in an otherwise all-male set in her first year at university.  Years later, she heard that Sam was a Professor in charge of her own lab.  Sam had always known what she wanted and where she was going.  Unlike Vera.

She looked up, at a perfect August sunset.  Red sky at night.  Vera thought back to the reasons why she had come here.  The red sky, heralding a good day tomorrow, seemed to mock her.  Her caravan was her friend.  It had seen her trough a messy divorce, new love and new birth – ad now, it was here for her in her older age, seeing her into far less optimistic territory.  She felt a pang of guilt in the pit of her stomach, and an impulse to run.  But where to?  Visiting hours at the home where she had left David just a few hours ago were strictly controlled.  Even if she had run to him, he would have looked at her with confusion.  She found herself yearning for the days when he had long, flowing locks, taught stomach muscles, tight buttocks and an insatiable lust for her nubile body.  Now, he looked down, and drooled.  But somewhere, in the midst of it all, he was still her David.

Vera remembered their honeymoon, when they had danced together barefoot in the sand at midnight, Maria Muldaur’s voice playing in the distance, as she sung Midnight at the Oasis.  David’s strong hands had grasped her, one on her back pressing into her with a burning passion, the other guiding her steps through her right hand.  She could feel his hot body close up against her in that sultry Mediterranean night, his breath on her neck as he whispered words that even now made her blush.

In an instant, she knew what she must do.  Vera and David must dance.  There was no time to waste.  Sod visiting hours.  If she could pack up quickly, she could be at the home in two hours.  That would be midnight.  With her heart pounding like a young girl in the first flush of love, she started her car engine and turned on the radio to catch the opening song of Oldies Request Night.  She smiled knowingly as the DJ readout the first dedication.  ‘David wants Vera to hear this one.  He says you will know why.’  Vera’s eyes misted up as she heard Maria Muldaur’s voice.  Her body began to sway, gently, as she drove fast down the dark, familiar country lanes.  She was back on the beach in 1974, dancing with David.

Through the mist, she could see diffuse lights up ahead, growing rapidly brighter.  Vera jolted back from her reverie and slammed on her brakes as the truck loomed into sharp focus.  Then, there was a piercing noise and a searing, white pain hit her whole body.

Early the next day, the carers were pleasantly surprised to see David stand up out of his chair, his whole body erect as he clasped an invisible partner.  Humming a tune, he danced effortlessly across the floor.  There was a glint in his eye as he looked towards them and confided: ‘She’s back.  Maria Muldaur.  Don’t tell Vera.’

ENDS

Break one

Break One

By Bonnie Meekums

11 June 2012

‘D’you want one?’  A hand appeared in front of Nell’s eyes, holding a packet of B&H.

‘No thanks.  I don’t.  Thanks, anyway.’  Nell glanced up, aware that to continue gazing at her shoe would attract greater attention.  She knew that just being here, not smoking, left her open to questions.  She looked around.  There was only this smoking shelter.  Across the grass, she could see a wooden picnic table that, in warmer, dryer weather might offer an attractive alternative.  She shifted from one foot to the other.  Nell didn’t want to be here, but neither did she want to be back inside right now.  For six months, since leaving behind the theatre and the philandering love of her life, she had managed an anonymous lifestyle, working on the make-up counter in a large department store.  Now, for some unknown reason, this woman with the cigarettes was being nice to her.  Nell wanted to sink, slowly, into the earth.

‘You that lady with the lipstick?’  Oh god, no.  Now what?  Nell breathed in hard, shoving her hands in her dress pockets so that her shoulders raised against an imaginary sudden chill.  ‘Er – yes.  I do the make-overs.’ Damn! What in heaven induced her to give so much away?  Next she’ll be asking me where I trained.

‘Maaar-vlus,’ enthused the woman, taking a satisfied, extra-long drag on her cigarette, a smile slowly creeping across her lips.  ‘Where d’you learn to do that, then?’

Nell stood, staring straight ahead.  Oh, for pity’s sake, why not tell her?  ‘I was a make-up artist.  In the theatre.’ She replied, as blandly as she could.  ‘Oooh, wonderful!  I’d love to do summit like that.  Ow d’you get into that, then?  I bet you ‘ave ta be very clever. You got A levels, then?’

‘Yes, some,’ Answered Nell, vaguely.  She looked at her watch, then at the woman’s cigarette.  A long trail of ash hung off the end.  It had been 10 minutes.  She would have to go in soon.  She turned to her accidental companion, facing her for the first time.  ‘Look, would you mind if you don’t tell anyone I didn’t smoke out here?  You see, sometimes I just get so hot in there, under all those lights all day, doing people’s make-up.  I just need a bit of air.’

‘I know, love.  We all need a break sometimes.  Don’t worry.  Mum’s the word, ducks.’  And with that, she patted her cigarette on the grille, and dropped it into the specially provided bin.

They walked silently through the doors and onto the back stairs, their footfall echoing up five flights. Neither of them seemed in a hurry to get back to her station.  This time it was the older woman who looked straight ahead of her as she spoke: ‘I’ve seen you, making people up to look like film stars.  Whoever or whatever you left behind in that theatre, it’s their bloody loss, love, and you can share an imaginary fag with me any time you want to get away from the bright lights and the heat.  Name’s Mags.  See y’around.’

And with that, she ran down to the basement.  Kicthenware.  Nell now knew where to get a B&H, real or imaginary, and a listening ear.  Maybe anonymity wasn’t all it as cracked up to be.

ENDS

 

Riot

Riot

By Bonnie Meekums

I lay in the darkness, the sound of my breathing like crashing waves.  Chapeltown was in silence since the events of the day.  I felt a million miles away from home.  Mum would be worried by now.  I felt a pang of guilty panic knot in my belly.  I knew what I was about to do broke all the rules, especially my Mum’s.  She had tried to bring up her six boys to be good Methodists.  So far, she hadn’t succeeded with any one of us.  Apart from Winston that is.  And he was dead.

The ginnel between two shops into which i had jammed myself was so tight I had to lie half on my side.  The rifle was aimed.  I was ready.  I shifted ever so slightly and my back made contact with the cold, dank wall.  I shivered, and almost lost my nerve.  But then I thought of our Winston.  16 years old, never been in trouble with the police.  God fearing, the stupid pratt.  Never taken so much as a quick cough on weed.  Never shagged a girl despite getting a boner every time he looked at that pretty girl with the even brown skin, big black eyes and pert little breasts who always served him on his frequent trips to the supermarket.  We used to tease him for it, poor sod.  But then we never saw what was coming, did we?  Shot down by the fucking boys in blue before he even got up the nerve to ask her out.  Wrong place, wrong time, wrong skin colour.  Those stupid bastards wouldn’t be able to tell Nelson Mandela from Malcolm X if they came out with neon name badges on.

How long will I have to wait, I wondered.  I dared not light up until they came into view.  Then I would do it, to draw them nearer.  I mentally rehearsed my plan.  Aim for the balls on one copper, then try for as many as I can take out.  Assuming I get them before they get me, hide the rifle in the ginnel until I can get it into the canal.  Run home and be sitting in my mother’s kitchen drinking tea, with my A level books open before their mates come knocking house to house.

A car door shut, startling me out of my reverie.  Footsteps.  Shall I light up?  It could be a plain cop car.  I hadn’t thought of that.  I peered at the form approaching.  Wearing a hoody.  Aha!  A disguise, the cunning bastards!  Judging by the size of him, wearing a bullet-proof vest underneath.  Just one of them.  Perfect.  I drew a breath, and lit up.  His head turned in my direction.  He walked towards me, his footsteps ringing out on the Yorkshire stone pavement.  I cocked the trigger.  Then he called my name.  ‘Malcolm!’  My brain turned to jelly.  How the fuck did this copper know my name?  Who had rumbled me?  No-one knew.  I had told no-one.  Shit!  It was my uncle Moses, out looking for me.  My cover was blown.  I let out a regretful sigh, as I realised there was nothing for it.  I would have to show myself, and leave the rifle as far down the ginnel as possible.  I shifted upright and threw the rifle backwards as I emerged to the left of the opening.

The next bit happened in slo-mo.  Before the rifle hit the ground, I remembered I’d left the trigger cocked.  A thumping in my ears, I shouted to uncle Moses to get away.  But he, being the loving, forgiving pastor he was, moved closer.  The bullet whistled as it travelled straight for his knees.  I heard the sound of snapping bone as his head hit the concrete.  I rushed up to him and shook him, tears now streaming down my cheeks.  My voice was lost to me.  I cradled my uncle’s head against my chest and a warm, sticky liquid oozed onto my hands.  Time stood still.  I felt numb.  I thought of Winston.  This wasn’t meant to happen, brother.  It was meant to be for you.  I thought of my mother.  Saw her stoical, pained face.  My chest hurt, and I clutched my uncle’s body closer to me.  Blue lights flashed in the distance.  As two uniformed police officers walked towards me, I carefully lay Moses down on the cold concrete, took off my jacket, and covered him up.  Then I stood up, faced them, and held out my bloodied wrists.

ENDS

A young girl

A young girl

By Bonnie Meekums

10.3.2011

One gnarled hand reached across, her body listing as she grabbed the other wrist and brought it forward to hold her spoon.  Another battle to eat.  Was it worth it?  Why not simply stop eating?  How long would it take to die?

But then there was her daughter.  She couldn’t do that to her.  Flo’s toes pointed upward, as if reaching for her thoughts, defying the stasis to which she was condemned.

Sandy was late again.  She had promised she would be here, to help. Mustn’t be selfish, though.  There was bound to be a reason.

The door opened.  Resentment forgotten, Flo’s face lit up.  Sandy had seen Flo first and watched as Flo’s face showed all her stories of worry, laughter and tears, transformed in the instant she beheld her daughter and was 40 again, welcoming her family home.

Sandy kissed her mother, gently touching Flo’s newly set hair.  Flo stifled her inclination to chide her daughter: that cost me five quid!  I’m not made of money, you know!

Instead, Flo watched as her daughter settled into the hard seat she had brought with her from along the corridor.  I wonder what she has brought for me today?  Sandy produced a photograph from her capacious handbag and handed it to her mother.  Flo’s hands trembled a little more than usual as she looked through hazy eyes, at the young girl sitting on the hillside with her beau.  Oh George, if you could see me now.  I bet you never thought I’d come to this.

‘Eat your pudding, Mum.  It’s getting cold’.  Flo obediently lifted a piece of pie to her mouth.  Damn this pie, it’s always falling to bits.  She dabbed at her mouth, just too late, with the tissue she clenched in her one good fist.

Later, as she negotiated her way to the bathroom like a novice on a rope bridge, Flo tried to tell her daughter the story of the photograph, sensing the urgent need to tell her all there was to tell about this man, her father.  As she opened her mouth to speak, Sandy wrenched her back to reality:  ‘don’t talk, Mum. Concentrate on walking’.

ENDS

Last chance saloon

Sally sat poised on a high bar stool, her third cocktail in her right hand.  No point in staying sober tonight.  She looked around her at the odd mix of people, thrown together by a confluence of natural disaster and human design.

Two men in their thirties sat playing cards at a low table, each sitting forwards as if ready for action.  They looked as if they had passed time this way many times.  One wore a light sweater with the sleeves pushed up to expose dark hairs on his forearms.  The other wore an open checked shirt over a simple white T, suggesting downplayed affluence.  Their short haircuts betrayed them as soldiers.  Army medics, Sally guessed.

In a corner, one portly man leaned against a wall with a glass of whiskey in one hand and a kindle in the other.  Sally wondered what he was reading.  A novel?  Or government documents, perhaps?

She had got the call just 12 hours ago.  Given two hours to pack her most needed possessions and forbidden to say good-bye to anyone, she had made her way shaking and tearful to the airport.  She had been warned that airport security would be even slower than usual, and instructed to arrive several hours before her flight.  A ticket would be waiting for her.

The flight took off at 4 pm, just as it was beginning to get dark on the ground, but as they rose above the clouds heading North, the sun lit up the sky to her left, red blood rising to orange, then blue.  The flight from Manchester to Edinburgh was all too short, and soon they descended into blackness.  An anonymous man met her at Edinburgh airport, with a placard bearing her name.  Sally noticed that she was the only one being met, and slowly it dawned on her that her fellow travellers were innocent of the fate that awaited them.

They drove silently through the dark, foreboding Scottish countryside for what seemed hours.  Hills and then mountains loomed like giants, obscuring the moon.  Her eyes smarted, but Sally resisted sleep.  Finally, the car stopped, her door opened, and she emerged to see her small case before her.  In an instant, the man who had just saved her life was gone, presumably to pick up more travellers.  She hoped she would see him again, safe and sound, this angel of the night.

It did not take Sally long to work out why she had been chosen.  They must have started with lists of people who excelled in areas that might be useful for the building of a post-apocalyptic Britain.  Team GB winners, people on the New Years Honours lists and so on.  She had been awarded the MBE for services to art therapy in the previous year’s Honours List.  The idiots at the top would have thought that somehow she could deal with unprecedented psychological trauma on a massive scale.  She wondered how many people would be kept in bunkers, and how many therapists to a bunker.  She hoped she was not the only one here.  Sally felt an urgent need to find a colleague, as the panic began to rise in her throat.  She did not want to have to deal with other people’s trauma right now.  She would have enough of her own.  True, she had few personal losses to face, unlike some people here she supposed.  She had one younger brother somewhere, she knew not where.  He had been a talented runner at the age of 11 when their parents split up acrimoniously.  He had gone to live with his Dad, and Sally had taken her mother’s side against the two of them, angrily rejecting her little brother for wanting his misogynistic father’s love, not realising at the tender age of 14 that this would mean she never saw him again.  Sally never knew what happened to her father.  She had watched, helplessly just 18 months ago as first her mother, then her own lover died of cancer within two weeks of each other, and then while still in the grip of grief she had watched her brother win Olympic gold on her tiny TV, with a mixture of pride and regret, tears streaming down her face.

Sally visibly pulled herself upright on her stool.  At least she had never been able to have children, and so now did not have to face the unthinkable pain of leaving them behind, or coping with their boredom and then horror in this underground bunker, for months or maybe years.  Still, she wished she had someone here, with her.  Maybe her old Professor would turn up.  He was always in the news, and so was bound to wangle a place in one of the bunkers.  She had always fancied him, and this time he would be unlikely to refuse her.  Desperate times, she knew, made people behave in ways that under different circumstances would be taboo.

She looked towards the door, where a tall, athletic man was being shown in.  Then her heart missed a beat as she recognised Miles, older than when she had last seen him in the flesh but with the same brown eyes and shock of blond hair falling over his face.  He pushed it back with a characteristic casual gesture as he stood, scanning the room.  Then his eyes fell on her, and his face broadened into a smile as he walked confidently towards her.  Sally’s own legs turned to jelly as he greeted her with a peck on one cheek, then the other.  ‘Sals,’ he murmured into her hear.  Then, pulling away, he looked straight into her eyes, piercing her very being.  ‘I’ve missed you.  Looks like we will be seeing a fair bit of each other for a while.  Can you bear it?’  Sally wanted to shout ‘No, I can’t bear it.  A mile wide asteroid is about to hit Britain and the world as we know it is about to end!’ But instead, she remembered what she had read in some trashy women’s magazine and, hoping she had got it right she turned to the barman and said ‘Bourbon and soda on the rocks for the gentleman please, Frank.’  Then she turned back to meet the eyes of her little brother.

ENDS

Name calling

Frankie slumped, breathless, with her back against the Douglas fir tree.  It had been an effort to get even this far up Queenstown Hill, but right now she needed to get up high, to be able to find a new perspective on the news she had just heard.  She was determined to reach the Basket of Dreams, a sculpture she had heard you could sit in, with a wide view down into the valley below and over towards the Remarkable mountains.

She felt a kick just to the right above her navel. Instinctively, her hand reached down to meet it.  Another kick, like a call and response, an unsung song between her and her unborn child.  Her breathing eased and her shoulders dropped.  She could see the sun, pressing between the trees.  She felt her whole body reach out towards its warmth.

Since she had known her mother had been adopted from New Zealand, Frankie had found herself wishing she could ask her so many questions.  The pain of never now being able to ask brought hot stinging tears to her eyes.  Was this why Frankie could never be a good enough daughter?  Because her mother could never know what it felt like to have her own birth mother to love, to be any kind of daughter to?  But this morning, she had discovered that her mother was Maori.  How could it be that a Maori kid ended up in the UK, in the 1930s, adopted by white Europeans?  Barbara was not even her real name, she now knew.  It was Ahurewa.  The irony only now struck her in its meaning – ‘sacred place’.

This morning, before the phone call from a newspaper journalist who had been helping them trace her New Zealand relatives, she had no idea that her mother was Maori, nor that she, Frankie, had Maori cousins right here in Queenstown.  In such a small town, there was a good chance she had already bumped into one or more of them, without knowing.  The news made her head spin, and even without the pregnancy it was enough to make her breathless.  Did she want to meet them?  How would they feel to find this Pākehā with a British accent at their door?

The past began to rearrange itself into a new order of meaning, and with it came new thoughts about her own identity – and that of her unborn child.  This new version of herself explained why Frankie was always so much darker than the other girls at school, a fact that had puzzled her all her life and during childhood had given her peers an excuse to call her despicable names.  Names that must not be called.  How had her mother felt, hearing about the name calling?  She never seemed to know what to do, whereas in all other things she was profoundly wise.  She could heal a grazed knee, discern Frankie’s deepest thoughts, and predict the weather.  But she was not dark like Frankie, and so had no coping strategies to pass on to her beloved little girl.

Frankie now knew for sure that her mother had a white father.  She had, mercifully for her in racist 1930s Britain, inherited her father’s blue eyes and fair skin.  But now that she knew her mother’s true identity Frankie understood that she must have hurt so deeply inside to see Frankie’s lovely Maori face to remind her of her own childhood and of her longing for the land she was born in.  She must also have been terrified til the day she died, that she might be found out to be who she really was; it would not have been comprehended in the Yorkshire she grew up in.

When Frankie had discovered a month ago that her mother was adopted from New Zealand, she used her contacts in the world of journalism to trace her heritage, and once she had narrowed the search she  booked a plane to Queenstown.  The news of the adoption had been a disappointment to both her and her partner, Rachel.  Rachel had not wanted a baby, being a career academic, but had been persuaded by Frankie to give it a try.  After one failed pregnancy, Rachel had been visibly relieved.  But after Barbara died, it was Rachel that decided to get into genealogy.  She meticulously plotted each of their family trees, and discovered that she and Rachel were third cousins, through the lines of Frankie’s Mum and Rachel’s Dad.  Each of them had come from large families and, while they had known some of their first cousins as kids they had not known any of their extended families beyond that.  The discovery was enough to motivate Rachel to support Frankie in a second round of AID.  The second pregnancy became a source of excitement for them both.  But then they discovered that Barbara had been adopted, and since then Rachel had seemed more detached.  Frankie felt very alone now, in this strange and upside-down world.

Frankie was struggling to take in so much information in the space of one month: her mother was adopted, the child she was carrying was not Rachel’s flesh and blood after all, and now she herself was half Maori.  Frankie looked at her watch.  It was now 1 pm.  The middle of the night in the UK.  The news would wait; she would tell Rachel tomorrow.  First, Frankie had to get her head round it all.

Time to move on.  To reach the basket of dreams.  Her centre of gravity tipped as she hauled herself up.  Such an easy thing to do just a few weeks ago, but now it felt as if she was an old woman, carrying hidden stories of the past in her cumbersome body.  Once on her feet though, the going was easier.  On the steep ascents, she could feel her womb tighten, but it was not an unpleasant feeling.  She was glad of the walking poles she had invested in.  One good feature of Queenstown was the plethora of walking shops.  That, and the stunning views all around.  She was glad now to be alone with her thoughts, to have time to absorb the news before sharing it with Rachel.  But she also felt unsettled in her bones.  Where did she belong?  She tried to picture Ahurewa’s face – to conjure her up.  What song would her mother sing to her daughter, now?  Would it call her to home?  Her mother had always sung to Frankie at bedtime, and told stories of far away places with names that Frankie did not understand.  Now she knew, her hand reaching instinctively down to protect her own baby, that her mother’s stories had linked to her own lost mother, to her land, her sacred place.  She had been six years old when she was taken away from her home.  Frankie remembered when she herself was six years old, losing her mother in a shop that had one way in and one way out.  Her mother had told her to wait outside, because the aisles were narrow and she did not intend to be long.  But to the six year old Frankie, a few minutes without her mother was more than she could bear and she went in to search for her mother.  Unbeknown to her, as she entered the shop her mother was paying near to the exit.  By the time Barbara emerged, her daughter had disappeared.  She began searching frantically, up and down the street.  In the meantime, Frankie was searching inside, the panic rising inside her as she bit her lip to quell the tears.  She ran out just as her mother went back in, and instead of now staying put she ran down the busy road, crying openly, lost and desperate.  Mother and daughter were eventually reunited in the police station, where Barbara found Frankie tucking into orange squash and chocolate donated by doting police officers.  Both wept with relief once they saw each other.

Now that she had remembered how terrified she had been to lose her mother for just an hour, Frankie felt she could touch the edges of how her mother felt, separated forever and sent out of her land and her culture.  Frankie felt a hot tear of compassion for her often difficult mother, burning into her cheek like an open wound.

Still lost in thought, Frankie emerged into a clearing.  There before her was a metal spiralic structure, shaped like a flattened basket.  The legend beside it told her she had found the basket of dreams.  She sat on the edge, untied her boots, then flung her coat onto the rails to make a soft mattress.  She lay down, and drank in the sky above her.  A bird floated high above, like a winged messenger carrying her dreams for her unborn child.  The sky was clear and as blue as the lake below.  Her breath came easy now.  The baby kicked.  She reached down with both hands and touched her belly.  If Barbara’s adoptive mother could love her enough to raise her, maybe Rachel could do the same with their baby.  After all, she and Rachel had already got past her initial misgivings about becoming parents.  Frankie whispered softly as she caressed her belly:  ‘Hello baby.  I’m here.  I am your mother.  And together, Rachel and I will give you your name.  We will choose a name that will sing on the winds to your ancestors, Maori and Pākehā.  A name that must be called.

The Divide

I have dreamed on this mountain

Since I was first my mother’s daughter

And you can’t just take my dreams away

                        (Holly Near)

 

‘Come on Mum, I want to get ahead of the others’, pleaded Jo. Martha felt her stomach knot.  Aware of a prickling heat in her cheeks she felt a need to check once more to make sure she had everything for her three day tramp on the famous New Zealand Routeburn track.  She smiled at how ill-prepared she had been forty years earlier in the Canadian rockies.  This time, after much deliberation, she had achieved a compromise between girl guide-like preparedness and sensible economy.  She contemplated the track and her breath quickened in anticipation of the long climb ahead.  She looked at her watch.  The coach had taken longer than anticipated.  Better get going.  Martha donned her rainbow sun hat, defying the autumn gloom, then put her best foot forward, fiercely determined to lead the way.  She had travelled across the world to make her dream come true; to share this special time with her daughter.  She was damned well going to savour every step.

About an hour later, Martha and Jo reached their first swing bridge.  Jo bounded off.  Martha reached for her camcorder as the bridge rippled and swayed precariously, and Jo obligingly turned to wave.  As they crossed the bridge, both mother and daughter were transfixed by the cobalt blue water far below.  Once safely on terra firma, a bell bird sang its congratulations and  Martha decided to celebrate their minor achievement by sharing some trail mix with Jo.  She had learned the value of such slow-release food many years earlier, from a young Canadian.

As they continued their clammy ascent, the women fell into step in silent contemplation.  Martha wondered what Jo was thinking, as her own daydreams led once more to the Canadian hike.  She longed for an alpine lake like the one she had skinny dipped in then, remembering how the still blue water had eased her blistered feet and caressed her skin.  When she had emerged in the sun, skin tingling, she had dried out sitting on a large tree root, her feet resting on a smaller one in front.  Martha shuddered as she remembered looking down to see a rattler moving in slowmo under the root on which her feet rested.  Despite her gratitude now for New Zealand’s viper-free wilderness, Martha’s body felt the impulse to freeze, and walking became a superhuman effort.

That night, lightened temporarily of their loads, mother and daughter wearily laid out their sleeping bags side by side.  As they ate their freeze-dried meal, they laughed with the relief of initiates.  Later, Martha looked out  from the track hut’s wooden balcony. Shrouded in mist, themountains seemed like brooding Gods, enveloping her.

On the second day, they hit rain, and visibility was low.  The track became a stream, snaking its way down the mountainside.  Martha’s feet squelched with every step.  Once in sight, it took a long winding hour to reach their hut.  By the time the pair arrived the light was failing as they rummaged for dry clothes.  Unwilling to carry wet socks, Martha singed hers on the wood- burning stove.  In the half light, they silently drank the last drops of whiskey from Martha’s hip flask.

Shortly after setting off at first light, Martha realised she had lost her camcorder.  She felt a pull to go back, but forced herself to keep up as Jo walked resolutely forwards.   As the light grew, so did Martha’s spirits as she drank in the sight of a vibrant rainbow, sitting like a hat on an unseen head between emerald mountains.  Today they would reach the Divide, and the end of their walk.

Several hours passed, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silent awe at the landscape.  As they neared the Divide, Martha heard a shout: ‘Jo!’ She looked up to see a young man with sunkissed hair and smiling blue eyes, his arms outstretched towards her daughter.  ‘Ben told me you were coming through the Divide today.  I’ve been working nearby, so I thought I would meet you’.  Martha felt a pang of emptiness in her belly as she watched him embrace her daughter, oblivious to all around them.  She stood at a respectful distance, watching as they exchanged animated conversation.  After a couple of minutes, the young man seemed to notice Martha for the first time, and walked confidently towards her, his eyes sparkling as he stole glances towards Jo.  ‘I’m Mark’, he beamed, as Jo slid her arm inside the gap left by his side.  After a few pleasantries, Jo smiled warmly at her mother and gently pulled Mark away, turning to walk towards the Divide.  Martha watched them, perfectly in step with each other.  Her daughter was where she belonged. Martha felt the deep contentment of a job well done, battling against her visceral need for her daughter.  Their time together in the wilderness was over too soon.  She followed on, a few paces behind.

As she watched Jo and Mark, Martha felt a spot of something cold on her cheek.  Then another.  It was beginning to snow.  She could see the two young people ahead, deep in conversation.  They seemed unaware of an increasing gulf between them and Martha, despite her attempts to keep up.  The snow began to fall more heavily, making a white frame.  Martha seemed to be looking through a camera obscura, as hot tears misted her vision further.  Aware of her heartbeat, she swallowed hard and tried to call Jo, but no sound emerged from her lips.

Then Jo, still holding onto Mark, looked back and smiled.  She was now a very long way away, yet her voice was like a whisper in Martha’s ear: ‘It’s OK, Mum.  I’m OK.  You can let go now.  Time to go home.’  Martha did not want to go.  She wanted to stay.  She tried to say so, but even as she did she felt a pull towards the earth.  Her eyelids grew heavy.  A warmth infused Martha’s body, despite the snow.  She lay down, and the white enveloped her.

ENDS