Day 27 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Quite an important topic, this one.

Shiny Happy People

Laura had always heard the voices, even when no one else thought they were real.

It must have started as early as two or three, because she had a vague memory of getting into trouble when Harry whispered to her to take the chocolate bar from the cupboard. She didn’t want to do anything naughty, but Harry had been so angry when she’d refused that in the end she gave in.

Mum had shouted and Laura had tried to explain that she’d taken the chocolate for Henry, not for herself, but it hadn’t made any difference – not even when Henry had stood up for her by shouting back at Mum and calling her a selfish cow. That was when she realised that no one else could see or hear Henry; and, over the years, she discovered that most of her friends simply weren’t visible or audible to anyone else but her.

She tried explaining to Mum countless times, but Mum either thought she was making up excuses for doing something wrong, or else she just laughed and told her what a wonderful imagination she had. It was very frustrating.

Once Laura started school, her friends became even more important to her. Belfield Primary was an old-fashioned school in a run-down building that boasted genuine Victorian gargoyles on the roof and huge, draughty classrooms inside. Waiting in the playground every day for school to start was a nightmare for Laura: the gargoyles used to pull faces at her, winking suggestively or licking their lips in a lascivious manner. Henry offered to knock them down for her, but Laura felt safer when they were high up, out of the way. If she closed her eyes and put her fingers in her ears, she could pretend they weren’t there.

“But if you do that, you won’t see us,” said Sabrina, sounding offended.

Sabrina was a unicorn with a glittery horn that sprinkled rainbow dust everywhere. Laura was getting fed up with finding her schoolbag permanently full of Sabrina’s glitter, and Mrs Jackson, the Reception teacher, wasn’t impressed either.

Glitter wasn’t the only thing that got Laura into trouble during that first year in school. Henry had a brother – a huge, eight feet tall gorilla-like creature with shaggy red fur and mean yellow eyes. He had a tendency to swipe other children’s lunchboxes when they weren’t looking, and Laura always got the blame.

*

As time went by, Laura’s strange assortment of friends grew. By the time she started secondary school, there was a mouse called Marvin who used to pull people’s shoelaces undone on the bus, a duck with orange feathers and a penchant for singing loudly in Maths lessons, and a rather nervous gnome named Nigel who had a problem with personal hygiene – it was really quite embarrassing when he broke wind loudly in public places and people assumed it was Laura.

Luckily, when she left school, her friends were very supportive when it came to job interviews: Henry used to stand behind her, whispering encouraging words in her ear every time she was asked a question; and Sabrina and Marvin used to take a sneaky look at the other candidates in the waiting room and try to make sure that their flies were undone or their skirts tucked into their knickers when it was their turn to be interviewed. It was a pity that Nigel often tagged along too and added his own noisome contribution just as she was making a good impression, but that couldn’t be helped.

Once she had managed to land the job working as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery, Laura was able to rent a tiny flat within walking distance of her place of work. It was lovely to begin with: newly decorated, it had a recently refitted kitchen with gleaming white tiles and a smart wet-room. She was confident that she would be able to keep everything in order.

She’d reckoned without the monsters though. It began quite surreptitiously with strange noises when she was there alone at night. She would lie in bed, the duvet pulled over her head, heart beating wildly, waiting for the terror to pass. There was never any sign of them in the morning – but monsters are sneaky. For a moment, she would be reminded of the school gargoyles and wonder whether they had a hand in all of this.

Henry helpfully told her an important secret: “They come in by the portal in the kitchen floor,” he said, his eyes wide and truthful.

Laura had no reason not to believe him.

Avoiding the kitchen was problematic at first, but once she’d realised she could exist on takeaway pizzas and curries, or sandwiches from the local supermarket – which also had a Costa coffee machine – Laura found it was quite easy to keep the door closed. She wasn’t sure what to do with all the rubbish – the half-empty foil containers were beginning to smell in the heat of summer – because the wheelie bin was just outside the back door that opened off the kitchen; but then Sabrina scornfully shook her horn over a pile of black bin liners and Laura understood that she could just collect the rubbish and pile the bags neatly by the forbidden door to hell. She had to stand on a chair once the pile passed five feet high, but she was resourceful and methodical, stacking them neatly into a black polythene wall.

“Extra reinforcements to keep the monsters out!” Marvin whispered comfortingly.

*

Laura’s mother hadn’t realised that there was anything wrong with her daughter until she popped round unexpectedly and found the living room full of flies. Once she’d dismantled the makeshift wall, she nearly gagged when she entered the kitchen. The fridge was full of decidedly green yoghurt that had once been milk, and the shelves were decorated with mould. Rotting fruit had oozed into fetid puddles on the worktops and there was a whole new species of something growing on months old meat.

Laura had been almost hysterical when her mother had insisted on opening the kitchen door. That, coupled with the nest she’d made herself on the living room floor and the broken mirror in the bathroom – “Henry did it,” Laura said simply. “He didn’t want my refection to come out and steal my body while I slept.” –  convinced her mother that Laura needed help. She was sectioned immediately.

*

The hospital was the loneliest place Laura had ever stayed in. Her friends weren’t allowed to visit: the ‘happy pills’ saw to that. Cocooned in a warm, medicated fog, she was no longer aware of the monsters – but that didn’t mean they weren’t hiding somewhere else, lying in wait until she was released. She wished the others were there. Even Nigel’s flatulence would have made her feel at home.

*

A month later, Laura left the hospital, her handbag rattling with the medication she would be taking for the rest of her life. After the first few days, before the tablets kicked in and when she’d told her startled mother that yellow and orange were devious colours who were out to get her, she’d settled down and seemed to have forgotten all her previous psychotic episodes. Her mother had spent days cleaning the flat for her; and the doctor’s surgery was willing to give her another chance now that she was displaying drug-induced ‘normal’ behaviour.

For the first week or so, Laura dutifully took her tablets – she had to: her mother doled them out every morning when she came round to check up on her. Satisfied that her daughter had turned a corner, her mother then handed over the tablets, confident that Laura was now in the routine of taking them.

The following morning, Laura popped the pills in the waste bin. It took a couple of days before her friends were convinced that she really wasn’t going to take any more of the little capsules, but they soon came creeping out of their hiding places and gave her a hug.

“What about the monsters?” Laura asked, troubled by the fact that there was now nothing to keep them at bay.

Henry shrugged. “Your mum had the exterminators in. You should be safe now.”

Laura relaxed instantly. Henry never lied.

She lay in bed that evening, basking in the comforting voices she had heard since childhood.

Day 26 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Back in August 1993, I was lucky enough to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see Seurat’s famous painting close up. When I realised I had to write about a painting for my next challenge, I began to imagine what the artist might have been thinking as he worked on his masterpiece.

L’Après-Midi sur la Grande Jatte

The painter regarded the scene before him carefully, wanting to capture modern Paris in all its infinite variations.

Paris in the summer of 1885 was suffocating under a stifling heat and the island in the middle of the Seine was a perfect place to escape the sultriness of the city and take refuge under the shade of the trees, enjoying the cool breeze that came from the river. Fashionable couples strolled along, taking their Sunday constitutional. This was the place to be seen and admired: Paris had never worked harder at appearing relaxed. Shafts of sunlight dappled the grass with interesting shades – could he recreate this with his new technique? he wondered. He had decided to layer his painting this time, beginning with sombre tones of ochre and sepia, to represent the murky undertones that hid beneath the respectability of city life, but he would add spots of  bright yellow zinc and emerald green to achieve a suggestion of light on grass. He couldn’t possibly know at the time that the brilliant yellow would fade over the years to a muddy brown; but, had he been aware of it, he would have interpreted it as a foreshadowing of the capital’s fading gaiety.

As the summer continued to melt away, the flowers in the public gardens only a short distance from the riverbank were a blaze of riotous colour – scarlet peonies, fiery orange lilies and sunshine yellow marigolds jostled for attention in their ordered rows – but he chose more muted shades for the grey top hat, the pastel pink skirt, the burnt umber umbrella. Mixing his palette carefully, he dotted the paint with almost mathematical precision, letting the light blue of the river darken into the cobalt shadows of sailboats here and there on the water. He had a whole collection of sketches by now – he’d faithfully recorded every angle of the park, each possible permutation of light and shade – and would refer to these constantly, ensuring that the vivid emerald green of the grass closest to the river was thrown into contrast by the darker tones representing its colour beneath the trees. Adding blobs of chartreuse here and there served to break up the emerald in a way reminiscent of sunlight falling on the verdant greenery.

He supposed he should let some of the others see his work at some point, but he was reluctant to expose himself to any further criticism after the Grand Salon’s rejection of Une Baignade, Asnières the previous year. Even now, his contemporaries claimed to be, at best, puzzled by his work and, at worst, dismissive. Not that he cared: Impressionism might be all the rage in Paris at the moment but, personally, he’d always found Renoir too sentimental – the way the older man had used his current lover, Aline, as a model for his Le déjeuner des canotiers, for example, centring the painting on her as if to draw attention to the fact that he had a beautiful mistress. Even his Les parapluies, despite being set in the rain, failed to capture the misery of the wet Parisian streets and instead gave a romanticised view of fresh-faced women and rosy-cheeked children, as if the city were actually full of such delectable creatures!

People were still milling around: he needed to capture them all before the light began to fade. When he had painted the swimmers on the opposite bank of the Seine, the year before, he had concentrated on light, trying to create an almost ethereal effect, as if the bathers were beckoning to the observer to join them in their strange, modern world. Now, however, he focussed on shadow, attempting to hint at the less salubrious activities that were whispered to take place along the Right Bank. The woman with a fishing rod, for example, was an allusion to the rumoured trade of prostitutes, advertising their availability through their handling of the symbolic pole. The small man beside her, with a black hat and thin cane, was a potential customer. Elsewhere, a much more respectable lady sat with her knitting, her needles flashing in and out as she fashioned wool into some kind of garment for an absent child. Two soldiers stood to attention as a third man played a horn – how would he capture the sounds of a Sunday afternoon? he mused. Was it possible to evoke an impression of music and conversation simply with the strokes of his brush?

Gazing about him, he realised that the whole microcosm of Parisian life was spread before him. The man with a pipe represented old age and wisdom; the couple admiring their infant child were a symbol of new life, new beginnings. On the river, a woman with a parasol lounged in a boat, surrounded by rowers: were they would-be suitors?  brothers? complete strangers? He deftly added the curious sight of a woman with a pet monkey, its wizened face not unlike that of the pipe-smoking man. Turning his gaze to ascertain whether he had missed anyone, his eye fell on a young girl in a white dress: a perfect allegory of light and innocence. He would place her in the centre of his painting; that way, he would suggest that there was still hope, despite the rest of the figures in the shadows, cloaked by a suspicion of sin.

The hum of distant conversation flowed past him like the river as he focussed once again on the elusive light, working almost mechanically to replicate the shifting colours by means of his multitudinous dots. In years to come, he would be known as a neo-Impressionist; but for now, he was just a young artist, struggling to make a name for himself amidst the snobbish coterie of established names. Squeezing a little vermilion onto his palette and mixing it carefully with enough lead white to achieve a decent flesh tone, he carefully painted the blobs that would represent faces. They would remain featureless to represent the timelessness of Paris and of art.

He regarded his painting once more, satisfied that he had recorded ‘L’Après-Midi sur la Grande Jatte’ for posterity.

Day 25 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

YA fiction today – as a writer of YA fiction (amongst other things) I should be feeling pretty confident, but being snowed under with important things I have to write for work means that today’s piece feels rather rushed. Maybe someday I’ll rework it into something I’m happier with …

Caught Out

It all started with a stupid picture on Instagram.

Not many people know this, but I’ve got really curly hair. I spend ages straightening it every morning before school. I mean, when you’re in Year Eleven, you want to look your best, right? So I’m sometimes late for registration because my hair just wasn’t being co-operative.

Anyway, last weekend, I was messing around with Tania – we’ve been best friends forever, ever since primary school when another girl nicked my skipping rope and Tania just waltzed up to her in the playground and thumped her – and she took a photo of me with my ‘normal’ curly hair and posted it on her Insta page. She stuck it on WhatsApp too – we’ve got a page for all the kids in our year – which was really annoying. I didn’t let her know, though – just reposted it with a picture of the straight-haired version and a comment that said, “What do you think? Straight or curly?” I reckoned it was better to get all the bitchy comments out of the way so I could forget the whole thing.

A message pinged up instantly from Steve. “You look adorable no matter what. Love you, Babe.”

Steve’s my boyfriend – has been for the last three or four months. You know how it is when you’re really good friends with someone and then suddenly find you’ve sort of drifted into being more than friends? Well, that’s how it was with Steve and me. We’ve known each other since Year Seven – same tutor group for five years but different teaching sets until we started our GCSEs and found we were both doing Geography together. I ended up sitting with him when Miss Blake redid her seating plan, and things sort of progressed from there. He’s a lovely guy, although he can be a bit nerdy at times; but he always knows the right thing to say, like his comment now, for example.

It must have been half an hour later when another message appeared on my phone. “Definitely the curls. Very sexy.” Winky face.

I was intrigued – and also a little sceptical. Someone thought my curls were sexy?

I looked at the name next to the number at the top of the comment: Mark. I only knew one Mark, Mark Jones in my year group, and for a moment I couldn’t understand why he’d be commenting on my photo; then another comment flashed up: “We curly-haired people have to stick together.” Another winky face.

I know I shouldn’t have, but I messaged him back – not on the group chat, but privately. He was the coolest kid in our year, you see – every boy wanted to be him; every girl wanted to be with him. He was always getting suspended – for smoking; for drugs; for basically just not bothering – but no one cared. He was the hottest boy in school and he thought my curls were sexy.

By the time I got to school on Monday, Mark and I had exchanged about ten flirty messages, starting with “Maybe our curls should get together sometime then?” (me) and then progressing rapidly to some decidedly dodgy suggestions about what other parts of our anatomies should get together as well. I knew Steve would be devastated if he found out, but I found it hard to care. This was just flirting, for heaven’s sake – it’s not as if we were actually going to do anything about it.

Only, it seemed Mark had other ideas. My phone vibrated in registration, alerting me to a message. “Back of the Sports Hall, period one.” It would mean skiving off English, but I was pretty confident I could do that – after all, I wasn’t the sort of girl who normally missed lessons. If I made up a good enough reason, I was sure I could get away with it.

It was easy to tell Tania I had to go to see the French teacher for a Speaking and Listening practice. Easier still to reach the back of the sports Hall without anyone seeing me. Mark was there, casually smoking a cigarette. I wondered if his teachers ever smelled it on his clothes when he went back into lessons.

“So, Curly Girl …” he said lazily, eying me up and down, “what’s happened to your hair today?”

I’d straightened it as usual. I could have kicked myself.

Without waiting for an answer, he went on, “Let’s see if you’re all talk.”

His kiss took me by surprise. He tasted of cigarettes and of danger – and I was instantly addicted.

It was only when his hands started wandering that I came to my senses and pulled back. “Not here – what if we get caught?”

He winked at me. “That’s part of the thrill.”

I shook my head. It was all too risky. Besides, I wasn’t sure exactly how far I wanted this to go. I liked being Steve’s girlfriend; but this was Mark Jones – Tania would be so jealous if I told her.

He was losing interest.

“We could always meet up somewhere after school,” I said slowly.

His eyes lit up at the suggestion. “Where do you wanna go?”

In the end, we decided to meet in the park at half four – he was in detention until then. “Plenty of bushes …” Mark said suggestively. I let that comment pass.

I walked back to my English lesson, feeling a strange mixture of guilt and confidence. I’d just kissed Mark Jones behind Steve’s back. I’d just kissed Mark Jones!

Tania looked at me curiously as I slid into my seat. “What have you been doing?” she whispered. “You look all hot and bothered.”

I wanted to tell her, I really did, but I couldn’t run the risk of her saying something to Steve. Instead, I just smiled and asked if I could copy some of her notes on Macbeth.

I felt really mean when Steve walked me home after school. Usually, I’d ask him in and we’d hang out together until my mum came home from work and chucked him out. Tonight, though, I turned him away at the doorstep. “Sorry, Steve. I’ve got loads of homework.”

His face fell momentarily. “See you tomorrow, then.”

“Yeh,” I agreed, trying to ignore the niggling feeling in my conscience, “see you tomorrow.”

It only took me a few minutes to get changed and another ten to put on some makeup, ready to meet Mark. By now, my hair had almost regained its pre-straightened kink, so I shook my head and trusted that the wind would do the rest on my way to the park.

I set off, trying to work out why I was doing this. Maybe it was because I was tired of being a ‘good girl’ and I just needed to experiment; maybe it was because no one had ever called me sexy before and I liked the feeling now; or perhaps it was simply because it was Mark Jones: tall, with dark, curly hair, chiselled features and an air of laidback defiance, he somehow managed to look good even in  school uniform – although he always wore it without the tie, with his shirt left casually open in a Byronic way. (Our English teacher was really into Byron, and that quote she’d told us about him – “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – summed up Mark perfectly.)

When I reached the park, I began wondering whether this was really a good idea. It had all seemed a bit surreal up until now, me having this secret thing going on with Mark when I was supposed to be Steve’s girlfriend. Whatever happened, it would have to be a one-off – I liked Steve too much to keep on seeing someone else behind his back. I suppose I was feeling guilty: I’d never cheated on anyone before today.

As I sat and waited, I thought again about Steve and me. Three months is a long time when you’re sixteen – surely that meant something, if we’d stayed together that long? What was I doing, risking throwing it all away for a quick fumble with Mark Jones?

And then I thought about Tania and how she’d seemed funny with me all day, ever since I’d got back into the English lesson. It was as if she suspected something. Had she read Mark’s comments on WhatsApp – the public ones: there’s no way she could have seen our private messages – and put two and two together?

I sighed as I tried to work out what to do next. I liked Steve, I really did, but I liked feeling wanted by Mark. If it came down to looks and pure ‘phwoar’ factor, Mark would always win; but I knew he wouldn’t be the sort of guy to walk me home every night, the way Steve did, or to send me links to things he thought I might like on YouTube, or to sit and help me revise for a test.

I was still trying to decide what to do when I saw them both: Tania and Steve, coming out of the bushes, adjusting their clothing. They were both still in school uniform – he must have messaged her straightaway when I told him I had homework. As I watched in frozen horror, he turned and kissed her – the sort of kiss that suggested this wasn’t the first time they’d got together.

Behind me, on the path, the sound of footsteps. I turned slightly to see Mark, but it was too late now. Walking past my ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend, I headed for home, still in a state of shock.

It was definitely over.

Day 24 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

How do you build a story around a single object? Maybe you wonder where it came from, what its life was like in a former existence. Maybe you wonder what it will become. Perhaps you think about how it has been a part of your own life. And maybe, just maybe, you want others to appreciate it the way you do.

Great oaks from little acorns

This bedframe is saturated with life.

It is a beautiful piece of artistry, this solid oak bedframe. Substantial sides hold a deep mattress in place; wooden posts, smoothed with time, stand sentinel at the foot, a beautifully carved bedrail joining them together. It is as sensorily satisfactory as it is aesthetically pleasing: her fingers trace the curves where straight rail swells slightly into a more rounded shape, the carpenter’s craftsmanship, his love of working with wood, plainly evident in these moulded details and in the carefully sculpted finials that adorn each post. Perhaps, though, it is the headboard most of all that calls to her soul: the gentle curves and undulations of the solid piece of wood are thrown into relief by the carved wooden acorn and oak leaves that adorn its centre – a reminder of what it has come from.

The wood sings of its time in the forest, before it was cut down. Every knothole whispers secrets; each imperfection has a story to tell. The pattern of the woodgrain flows like time itself: not in a straight line but diverging then converging once more until the map of the tree’s life is interwoven into the piece of furniture it has become. Gone is the rough bark that clothed it then: instead, satiny smooth timber has been planed and honed, carved and joined, with care and precision to produce something that is like and yet unlike a tree. Where once birds rested in the branches overhead, soft toys now curl up in slumbering positions amidst the cushions and covers that have replaced twigs and leaves. It is a metamorphosis worthy of a Greek legend, except instead of a hapless damsel becoming a laurel, or a foolish shepherd being transformed into an olive tree, this once mighty oak has become a sanctuary for weary human bodies and indolent felines. It still shelters, still protects, but it is now firmly rooted indoors, not out.   

This former tree has outlasted nine house moves, three children and one failed marriage. Although worn by life, it is not worn out. Its original mattress is long since dead and gone but all the bedslats are still intact – despite the number of times the bed has been dismantled and reassembled. Its first home was in leafy Surrey, then it travelled to a much smaller bedroom in Kent, where its king-sized five feet width seemed to fill every inch of space. Somehow, a Moses basket managed to squeeze in beside it: a poor shadow of the bed’s magnificent splendour and lasting only a few months. Any number of other beds have come and gone in this family unit – bunk beds; metal single bedframes; even a six feet wide imposter, upholstered in cream leather but lacking a comforting presence at the foot – but she has remained constant to her first love, to the bed in which her children were conceived, fed and read to; the bed from whose posts she hung Christmas stockings – gloriously large, fat things in felt and appliqué, whose contents produced squeals of laughter and delight for a decade of childhood.

She kept the bed when she ditched the husband: it was far more welcoming than he ever was – and more reliable. It travelled with her to a tiny rented house where, by dint of sheer stubbornness, she managed to reassemble it single handed. For a while she almost lived in it, choosing to curl up in it in the evenings as if it were her nest, finding it preferable to sofas or armchairs.

Twenty-two years after it was first bought, it retains its original beauty. The wood still glows with the memory of life; the minor scuffs and scratches cannot detract from its charm. The carved acorn, she realises, is symbolic: reminding us of what we have come from; looking forward to what we will become. She wonders now if her grandchildren will one day curl up there with her; if her twilight years will be spent nesting once more in the sanctuary of her wooden cradle.

This bedframe is saturated with her life.

Day 23 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Today’s offering is a philosophical one.

Intensive Thoughts

The tiny form in the see-through Perspex crib breathes in and out with the respirator, dangling wires monitoring the new-born heartbeat.

When you are faced with something as unexpected as your just-delivered baby being diagnosed with a fatal heart condition, you begin to question everything you previously knew, or thought you knew. You gaze at the scrap of humanity in front of you – flesh of your flesh; bone of your bone – and instinctively you wonder why you had to go through eight hours of agony (no drugs) if the child you pushed into the world is going to leave it in just a few short hours. You ask yourself why this should happen to your child – why everyone else you know has had a straightforward experience of birth, able to hold their babies, cuddle them, feed them. You took it for granted that you would do that too; instead, you have a mass of wires and a beeping machine separating you from your baby as effectively as any six-foot high wall.

You want to know where God is in all of this, how a loving God can allow a helpless, innocent baby to be born with his arteries the wrong way round and require open-heart surgery within the first week of his life. And then this thought opens up the floodgates for a whole stream of questions to come pouring forth: Why does God allow suffering? Hunger? War?

The problem of pain is one that has baffled us for centuries – if not millennia. We want an ordered world that makes sense, one in which – to quote Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s famous play, ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ – “the good end[ ] happily and the bad unhappily”. Instead, we are faced with any number of senseless horrors: children blown apart by landmines; thousands dying every day because they have no access to clean water; lives lost due to car accidents, terminal disease or freak ‘acts of nature’.

 C S Lewis, the author and Christian apologist, struggled to make sense of life when he lost his wife to cancer. In his heartfelt book, ‘The Problem of Pain’, he wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures … but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

But do we need a megaphone such as this? Is Lewis suggesting that without the experience of suffering we are less than human? Surely it is not suffering that distinguishes us from other animals but rather our response to it: why else would thinkers, theologians and philosophers have spent hundreds and thousands of years trying to establish why some people suffer and others do not?

You are still pondering the question as you sit by your baby’s bedside, hour after hour. At first, his arms and legs sprouted needles – it was the only way to ensure he was topped up with the sugar and water mixture dubbed ‘maintenance’ by the hospital staff. After the first twelve hours, his tiny veins were exhausted and so now a cannula has been inserted into the top of his head, an image reminiscent of some bizarre experiment by Doctor Frankenstein. Your heart breaks; your mother’s instinct is to hold him close, but all you can do is sit and watch as one hour slowly slides into the next, as the world outside darkens and midnight approaches once more.

Is he aware of what’s going on? you wonder. Does he know his life hangs in the balance, that the next twenty-four hours and then the next could determine whether he lives or dies?

Through it all, your son sleeps peacefully, a perfect baby apart from the transposed greater arteries which render him incapable of surviving without a ventilator. When he wakes, he is quiet and placid, despite the needles inserted in his flesh, despite the allergic reaction to his medication which has made one of his legs swell to an elephantine size. You marvel at his composure, amazed that someone so tiny can remain so philosophical in the midst of pain, in the shadow of impending death. You, on the other hand, are a quivering wreck – the Perspex crib too similar to a tiny coffin on wheels to allow you much hope for the future.

By morning, you are utterly exhausted. The “dark night of the soul” has forced you to confront all your untried and untested theories about life, about death. Your body wants to sleep, but you refuse to move, not wanting to miss any of his waking moments in case this one is the last.

That’s when your philosophy is reborn. Pain is not a megaphone but a handbrake: it’s God’s way of forcing us to slow down as we hurtle through life, constantly seeking a better job, a bigger house, a perfect partner. If we were truly aware of the transience of life – if we knew in advance exactly how our days were numbered – surely we would prioritise our time differently, ensuring that we appreciate each moment spent with loved ones instead of erroneously thinking that we can ‘always see them tomorrow’.

Time slows with this new approach. Each minute your child is awake is suddenly more precious, a time to be savoured. Finally, you are allowed to pick him up – still attached to all his wires and leads – and hold him next to your heart. He’s as light as air, as fragile as a flower, his life as transitory as a feather on the breeze. Flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone – you hold him close, knowing that, in a world of suffering, love reminds us that we are still human.

Day 22 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The prose

Something a little more lighthearted than yesterday – have fun spotting all the allusions to a famous nonsensical story!

Ellie’s in Wonderland

Ellie stared at her grandmother with exasperation. She had travelled almost a hundred miles to come and visit her in the care home – sitting for almost forty minutes in non-moving traffic whilst muttering to herself, “Oh dear! I shall be late!” – and now Violet seemed to be asleep.

She looked once more at the slumbering form, slumped in an armchair and surrounded by other, equally dotty, old people. Should she try to wake her? Was it like waking a sleeping baby who would cry for hours on end once its dreams were disturbed?

“She’ll be out for ages,” a kindly, white haired biddy commented. “She had a hysterectomy this morning.”

Ellie was quite sure that no such thing had happened. The good Samaritan put down her knitting and continued, “She normally has them in the evening, but last night they forgot, so they gave her one this morning instead.”

Curiouser and curiouser, thought Ellie, who was beginning to wonder if all the residents were certifiably mad.

Across the room, a distinguished looking gentleman was enjoying a conversation with himself. “… of course, she was an exotic dancer … did incredible things with a ball of wool …”

“Who’s that?” Ellie hissed, nodding in the requisite direction.

The stranger sniffed contemptuously. “That’s Mr Hatter. Completely off his head. OFF HIS HEAD!” she suddenly screeched at full volume, making Ellie jump.

“Oh, I see.” Ellie didn’t, but then nothing made sense in this strange reality.

“… and then we all had a glass of brandy,” the gentleman continued, “and I suddenly realised that I’d completely lost my trousers!” He threw back his head and laughed uproariously. Ellie began to feel uncomfortable.

“That’s Mr Hatter,” the lady whispered, taking up her knitting once more. “Quite mad, you know. Off his head.”

Feeling desperate now, Ellie looked once more at Violet. Should she try to wake her?

“She’s out for the count,” the other woman confided. “She had a hysterectomy this morning.” Beckoning Ellie over, she held out her knitting bag. “I didn’t take mine. Look.”

Ellie stared at the tiny white tablet, nestled snugly on a ball of pale pink wool. She half expected it to bear a label that said, ‘Eat me.’

“They make me drowsy,” the woman whispered.

Ellie nodded sympathetically.

“You can have it if you want.”

Against her will, Ellie felt something being pressed into her palm.

The old lady’s eyes twinkled. “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

“Er, thanks.” She didn’t really know what else to say.

“And then …” Mr Hatter was laughing so hard he could barely get the words out. “And then, old Pongo set his hair on fire!”

“He’s off his head, you know.” The old lady was gesturing at Mr Hatter.

“Yes,” Ellie said awkwardly. “You told me.”

“OFF HIS HEAD!” the woman shrieked again. Then, gesturing to Ellie to lean closer, she pointed towards a pair who were sitting side by side in the far corner of the lounge. “Mabel and Gladys,” she confided. “Twins, you know – but they had a terrible falling out last week.”

“Yes?” Ellie feigned interest.

“Mabel lost her false teeth,” the unknown woman uttered dramatically, “and she thought Gladys had stolen them. Accused her of taking them out of her mouth while she slept.”

By now, Ellie was beginning to feel faint. Was the residents’ lounge really supposed to be so hot? she wondered.

“…pigeons …” Mr Hatter said earnestly. “She was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.”

“And then Gladys lost her teeth,” the story droned on, “and said she’d found them in Mabel’s handbag. They nearly came to blows …”

Ellie closed her eyes, letting the sound of the teeth anecdote, interspersed with Mr Hatter’s rumbling voice, drift over her head. “… well, she said she’d given them to the  Duke of Norbury but Mabel completely lost my trousers and then Gladys was an exotic dancer and she couldn’t find her pigeons …” She was sure she’d heard these stories many times before. “Of course,” Mr Hatter murmured absently, “I was very, VERY drunk …”

As the voices continued to swirl about her, Ellie found herself falling down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world where a giant pigeon did an exotic dance with a pair of trousers, then turned into a ball of wool and set fire to itself. Meanwhile, Gladys and Mabel fused into Siamese twins, gradually becoming an enormous pair of false teeth which grew wings and fluttered away.

She came to with a start to find a white uniformed girl bending over her. “Are you okay?”

Ellie blushed with embarrassment. “Yes, I … I just dozed off. I expect it was the heat.”

The girl regarded Ellie’s anonymous companion sternly. “Queenie! Have you been giving people anti-histamine again?”

Queenie wouldn’t meet the girl’s eyes.

“You’ve got to stop doling them out like sweets,” the carer told her. “They’re supposed to be for you – not other people. Now, hand them over.”

She waited until Queenie had entirely emptied her knitting bag.

“As for you,” the carer now turned her attention back to Ellie, “I think it’s time we got you back to your room.”

Without protesting, Ellie let herself be led back to her bedroom, hearing, as she shuffled down the corridor, the joyful voice of Mr Hatter proclaiming, “I was very, VERY drunk.”

Day 21 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This time the challenge was to write in a different style to normal – as well as writing on the theme of the Summer Solstice. All feedback gratefully received.

Summer Solstice

From now on, the days would be getting darker.

Daylight was still strutting round as I drove my car through the large iron gates and rolled along the driveway. The building shrugged, as if it recognised me and felt sorry. Its doors stood open to let in the breeze; memories of the day’s heat still lingered.

Hurrying past the deserted Reception, I made my way to her room. Jenny was awake, propped up by pillows, a tiny speck in the sea of sheets and blankets.

She looked up as I entered. “Is it time?”

I nodded.

The nurse on duty in her room helped me lift her out of bed. Six months ago, my wife had been a strong, athletic woman who ran fifteen miles a week and visited the gym every other day; now she was a ragdoll in my arms, her paper thin skin stretched over pitifully protruding bones. To me, she had never looked so beautiful.

I placed her gently in the waiting wheelchair. The nurse handed me a blanket, her eyes expressing the sympathy I so often encountered these days. Carefully, I covered Jenny’s frail frame, not wanting her to be cold as we sat outside to share the summer solstice.

“Any time within the next few hours, Mr Jones.” The nurse spoke quietly, but it was unnecessary: we all knew Jenny was dying.

Once we’d had the official diagnosis, realised that it was too late for any effective treatment, we’d deliberately discussed the things that no one else wanted to talk about. Jenny wanted to spend her last months out in the country, where she could see trees and fields from her window and hear birdsong instead of traffic. The lake in the grounds was an added bonus: when she was stronger, we’d spent hours sitting by the water, soaking in the serene atmosphere. It was fitting that this would be the place where we would say goodbye. 

Slowly, I pushed her wheelchair to the bench that was impregnated with us. Our tears had soaked into the wood as we’d ranted and railed against doctors, against disease, against God. Tonight, though, there would be no talk of cancer or funerals, just the conversation of two people in love. As I placed her on the bench, her fingers stole around mine, a gesture so intimate that my breath caught in my throat.

Gradually, the day faded. The last vestiges of sunlight glimmered on the surface of the water, like memories. In the background, the faint sounds of summer insects were not enough to disturb us.

As the sun finally began its descent, I found I was strangely grateful: grateful for the gift of four years with this amazing woman; grateful that she had enriched my life; grateful to the hospice who had looked after her so well, who had allowed us to say goodbye surrounded by the nature Jenny loved.

My wife slipped away as gently as the sun disappearing behind the trees. I sat and held her for a while, reluctant to let go of the past. Then, as the cold began to seep into my veins, I placed her once more in her chair, ready to take her home.

From now on, my life would be getting darker.