(a story in the 'Grandmama' series)
It was going to be Hugo's birthday and all he wanted was a magician. So far there was no knowing if his wish would come true. Daddy said he was not sure magic in the house was a good idea and it was 'a bit much' if Hugo expected hired entertainment. The library had good books on magic, Grandmama said and suggested the children put their tickets together and borrow as many books as possible. Jupp. Hugo's younger brother, suggested he might be able to dress as a magician so long as they had enough crepe paper and old sheets, and a suitable hat. Gretel, their sister, suggested she might like to be the magician's rabbit.
Hugo decided he better get into a deep and proper sulk if there was going to be any chance of having a real-life magician at his eleventh birthday party. He had invited a few kids from down the street, boys he did not usually have much to say to but he wanted them to have a good lasting memory. He wished with all his heart for magic. Mumski found Hugo sitting on the kitchen doorstep and asked him what kind of cake he would like, so long as it was vanilla.
'I could try making a hat-shaped cake,' Mumski said, looking out into the garden and the washing on the line getting wetter in the drizzle, 'I could try that.'
'Never mind,' Hugo said, attempting an older, bitter tone.
'I could try a hat shape but I'm not sure about black icing. I suppose if one mixes all the food colouring colours together, one might get toward black,' Mumski said. 'Actually I might like to try. It makes a change from blue icing for a boy and pink for a girl. And you know how your Daddy hates stereotypes and so on. He's not sure about magicians either. I think he has a problem with men who yield power.'
Hugo shrugged but Mumski had already gone back into the kitchen and was making clattering noises, finding cake tins. He stroked his right index finger across his left palm, writing his own secret language, a note to himself: we regret to inform you that you will have no magic unless unless unless.
It was Hugo's birthday and party. He was sure the kids down the street were not going to come. No one had replied to his invitations. Perhaps it had been a mistake to decorate them with cake sprinkles mixed with glue, but Mumski had insisted. If only Grandmama was well enough to be out of bed but since coming down with a chesty cold she had disappeared.
Hugo went into the living room to find it rearranged with a small semi circle of dining chairs and his father with a very tall man looking coldly at one another. Daddy explained that the tall man was named Neatham, Peter Neatham but everyone apparently called him just Neatham. He was Mumski's 'old friend' from somewhere and had come to stay.
'Just in time for my birthday disaster,' Hugo whispered and shook hands with Neathan. The man's hand felt cold and damp. Everything about him was long and yellowish. He had a large nose and yellow hair, a big smile.
When Mumski came into the room with a tray of coffee things she seemed too pleased to be seeing Neatham and started talking about people they knew and people who had books out including herself, talking in her loud poetess voice. 'You know, I was going to dedicate my book to you,' Mumski said to Neatham and Daddy coughed. 'But Roger feels dedications are crass, don't you Roger.'
Daddy turned his back and looked at the stereo, started to sort through records. 'I didn't say that exactly,' Daddy said in a quiet voice.
'Happy Birthday, by the way,' Neatham said to Hugo, 'it is you that's got the birthday?' Hugo nodded. 'I'll write you a cheque, give you something to put in the bank for a rainy day, eh?' Neatham laughed.
'You really shouldn't joke about money,' Daddy said, 'especially with a child. A child who has been raised to understand very little about it.' He turned toward Neatham and gave him such a dark look it made Mumski laugh. 'Shouldn't we be blowing up balloons, Mumski?' Daddy said and then it was that Mumski explained how she could not find the thingy for blowing up the balloons or the balloons themselves, and wasn't it terrible that Grandmama was so poorly and really Hugo was too old for a party.
Hugo went to his room and blew up balloons, one balloon after another, until his bed was covered with blue and orange and pink. He attempted to lay himself over the balloons but it was an impossible, wobbly challenge and he was scared to laugh. He could hear Daddy's record player on a high volume, playing Bach. That was the music Daddy always put on to 'warm things up' when a party was about to begin. Hugo decided to check on Grandmama and opened her bedroom door just a little to see the room was dark and he could not hear her breathing. He held his own breath and felt a little afraid, but he could smell her rose perfume and could hear something like a scratching sound. When he tiptoed further into the room he realised the scratching was her breathing and that Grandmama was sleeping bolt upright with her hands clasped in her lap as if waiting patiently to die. He stroked a sleeve of her nightdress and did not want her to die, not on his birthday.
As he resolved to put the balloons in a sheet and drag them downstairs to his party, Hugo had a flash of things to come: he saw the tall man Neatham dressed in a black suit waving a top hat. His sister Gretel dressed in a white leotard was doing her best rabbit, whilst Mumski was laying across three chairs waiting to be levitated. But when Hugo got to the living room he realised how this was not to be. There were two kids from down the road, in smart shirts and with their hair pressed down, and holding wrapped presents. They turned toward him and almost smiled. Hugo flung the balloons into the room and they sprung about, bounced off chairs, bounced on Daddy's head, Neatham's back. Gretel, dressed in a tatty summer dress, grabbed a pink balloon and squeezed it between her legs so that it popped.
'Wow, your sister's common!' one of the boy's from down the road said and shoved a present into Hugo's hands.
Hugo realised with a sudden pain to his chest that this was the first wrapped gift he had received today. His birthday present from Daddy and Mumski had been a new rope swing and that was in the garden waiting to be rigged up. It was really just a piece of knotted rope but he knew his father would have tied the knots thoughtfully and agonized over the design for days. Hugo ripped at this parcel from the boy with a striped shirt on and found inside an identical striped shirt. They laughed but it was a cruel kind of sharing. Clothes were not really gifts, were they? Mumski said it was a lovely thing to have a new shirt and held it up to see the price tag still attached. Hugo accepted the other boy's gift and hoped for anything else. In this package was a set of felt tipped pens and a bar of chocolate, the sort of gift he had always liked to receive but now felt rather childish. He thanked the boy and felt a bit tearful. 'Some of the pens might not work,' the boy said.
The doorbell rang and Mumski fled the room, and Daddy coughed as if giving a cue and Neatham closed the curtains. 'Children please sit down,' Daddy instructed and Hugo felt this might be like school, having never been, he could only imagine his father might be like a strict teacher. All the children sat down. There were not many guests at the party but that did not seem to matter just now, it was happening and Daddy put Elgar on the record player and then changed it quickly to some kind of morris dancing music, then Frank Sinatra. Just then a burly man dressed in a black suit and carrying a silver case came into the living room. A magician, from head to toe, the real deal. There was a strange odour about the greying distinguished gentleman magician, like gunpowder might smell, Hugo decided and he pinched himself to stop crying. The magician turned to Hugo and gave a bow and a small grey dove flew out from his jacket pocket.
It seemed to be over in a flash, but Hugo would never mind. The magician did several card tricks, pulled handkerchiefs from Neatham's trouser pocket, swallowed his own grey dove and then put the dove inside a magic box never to be seen again. The man had small sharp blue eyes and was very sweaty and Hugo would always remember him as someone so different and with a strange almost-American accent. At the end of the routine his hat filled with chewy sweets and everyone got at least three, including the grown-ups. And then the magician was gone.
Now everyone had to go into the kitchen to eat something but with all the excitement of the magician no one felt hungry. Neatham and Daddy went into the garden to have a smoke. Hugo could barely speak let alone blow out his birthday candles. Mumski said she was very pleased with the cake, even if it looked like a brown ship and not a black hat. She filled her tea cup with sherry and made a toast: 'To Hugo with my love, to my best eldest boy!'
'She's not really your Mum though,' a pale girl sat next to Hugo said. 'Is she?'
Hugo had never seen this pale girl before. It was like a ghost had suddenly shown up to spoil things. 'She is my stepmother and that's close enough,' Hugo said and felt like punching the ghost. He wished he could have sherry. He wished he was eighteen already and could leave home.
'What happened to your real mum?' the girl asked.
Hugo felt his hand make a fist but at that moment heard a voice: 'Is it too much to ask for a cup of tea?' He turned to see Grandmama, dressed in her best evening frock, all black with the black crystals sewn around the neckline. She was like a strange lump of coal. She smiled at Hugo. 'I'm feeling a little better now. How was the entertainment?'
'Oh mother you really should be in bed,' Mumski said but Grandmama insisted on taking a chair at the table and helped herself to a large slab of cake, complaining to the boy in the striped shirt that no one had fed her for the last two days. She drank her tea loudly and coughed. Daddy and Neatham came in from the garden and it seemed that Neatham had already met Grandmama several years ago and it seemed that Grandmama did not have much to say to him, not even a hello.
'She's not really your Grandma, is she?' the pale girl asked Hugo. Hugo kicked the girl and the girl kicked him back, twice as hard.
'No one is really anyone,' Hugo said.
Saturday, 5 April 2014
Without intending to I have stayed
put within a small circle of home and trees
for at least two weeks. The trees are growing.
They are beginning to hide things,
I consider they may even be taking objects
that belong inside and later this summer
I will go into the garden to retrieve
a certain book, a scarf, a tiny photograph
traced with snail-like embroidery.
The garden is small and not my own.
I tend to it as if babysitting, or caring
for a lovely aunt's kitchen garden
though she has forgotten to plant anything
again and we all just remember
how things used to be.
Distracted by a certain chink of blue
I kneel to give the flowers a name.
They have happened overnight.
They are tiny and a grey-aqua. They are not
forget-me-nots but seem to want to be forgotten
and have regrets of yellow eyes
but do know how to gang up and hold
themselves in shade, they know survival.
I shall call them: something else.
They know this periphery
like the back of their petals, periphery -
which is a word that has an almost religious
look but such an extended whisper of loneliness.
Sunday, 30 March 2014
Almost giving up on ever seeing it again,
she finds the tiny trunk and snaps it open.
In all the layers of old sepia-to-pink photos
and antiquated postcards, mildly boring love letters,
she finds a parcel tag with the words:
'Please look after Tuppence'.
She cannot and no else can remember a Tuppence.
She thinks and thinks, gardens in the rain
in a bid to get her mind working but no no.
Was this Tuppence a pet, a thing, a nickname.
Was this all part of a game but why keep the label?
It beats her. She does the thing she has forbidden
herself to do for years - she sits in half-darkness
alone in the room writing a list of the past,
the past and its names, not such a jolly thing
when she gets down a few pages. The past
and its wrangles and bitter remainders. (Why
did she have to find the trunk, except that it
was small and might contain a lost photograph
of an uncle who might not have been an uncle).
Oh Tuppence, she writes the name and still
it says nothing back, it does not yowl or mew,
it does not speak, take off its mask.
Only weeks later, sitting on a packed train,
dozing rather than be offended by the man
sat next to her eating bacon sandwiches
does she once again ask: who was Tuppence?
And it comes, in a shake, she shivers
as if feeling the fever of that spring all over again.
It was me! She shouts and clasps a hand over
her own mouth before letting herself say it
again: It was me! And everyone in the train nods,
gently. Reassuring her of her insanity.
I was Tuppence, she tells no one.
She tells no one that she wrote the label herself.
How she put herself in a wheelbarrow and parked it
at the end of the road and waited. How one day
after waiting for hours an elderly gentleman
came walking by and stopped and read the label aloud:
Please look after Tuppence? And he squinted
at her with eyes without eyes
and his whiskers quivered with anger
and she made a tiny noise like a kitten
but not on purpose. And then he moved on.
There was a moment, just before that day turned dark,
when she thought perhaps a car might pull up
and a group of people would tip her out the barrow
and steal her like a sack of potatoes, or a doll.
But nothing bad ever happened to her,
nothing bad ever happened to her when she was Tuppence.