Short story – The trouble with heaven

Every Saturday I have been posting an episode of ‘At first sight’, and last Saturday was episode 5. There are (probably) three more to go. I suddenly realised that I’m missing writing other stuff, and some of my readers might prefer more variety too. So here is a whimsical piece of flash fiction that I hope you’ll enjoy!

Trouble with heaven 170628

“The trouble with heaven,” thought Edwin, “is the singing.” It was all very well if you had a wonderful voice like his best mate, Luciano. Or if you were a rock god (oops, sorry, he thought) like his other best mate, Brian. You could sing your heart out, as though you were headlining at Glastonbury. Very satisfying, no doubt, only he was tone-deaf with a sense of rhythm that stuttered like a car running out of fuel.

Other people told him how lucky he was to stand between Luciano and Brian. Edwin, though, felt it was probably a ruse by Saint Peter to ensure that he didn’t spoil the ensemble of the heavenly host.

Then he was handed the microphone for a solo.

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In the moment – change the world

In the moment – change the world

When I was young, I wanted to change the world. Probably you did too. Young people do, don’t they?

In the moment - Gandhi 170626

A few people do indeed grow up and change, if not the world, at least some part of it. Nelson Mandela comes to mind. What a wonderful man! Twenty seven years of brutal imprisonment borne with courage and without bitterness, after which he became an inspirational leader to his nation.

One of the most notable of those who changed the world was Mahatma Gandhi, the architect of India’s independence, and a thinker who wrote many books. He said this:

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

This teaches us several things.

  • It is a call to action. If you want something to happen, play your part in bringing it about. For example, while few people can go to Syria to help people suffering in the civil war, we can all donate to Médécins sans Frontières, whose brave volunteers risk their lives to provide medical care.
  • It is a call to set an example. If you want a world that is free of war, live a life that promotes peace within your own community. Take every opportunity of showing caring love to those around you. The effect of a good example is very powerful.
  • It is a guide to good mental health. To have good mental health we must accept the nature of the world as it is. If we don’t, we will always feel conflict. We will feel that the rules by which we live our lives are being broken by other people.

We need to accept the world as it is, and people as they are, and that can be difficult. When I was being treated for anxiety, I was encouraged to develop a mantra that was specific to my needs. After much thought, I chose “I will live my life with joy.” I repeat that and reflect upon it several times a day, and it’s made a big difference.

The world is flawed, yes; mankind struggles to live together in harmony, certainly; but it’s such a beautiful world, and many, many people are good, and loving, and courageous.

For those billions of us who are little people, whose actions will never have a dramatic effect, Gandhi had an encouraging piece of teaching:

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Nobody else can do it. It’s our task. We are each uniquely qualified to care, to nurture, to love those around us. Even if it’s as small a thing as a hug for someone we can see feels troubled, it’s our hug that’s needed, and our hug that will make a difference.

And, finally, as we live like this, in the realisation and acceptance of our own uniqueness, our own weakness, our insignificance for the world at large but our significance for those around us, we will know the truth of this saying by Gandhi:

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

At first sight – part V

Jon and Vikki fell for each other at a party in London – the day before Vikki returned home to Australia. They have been writing to each other, and Jon has arranged to visit Vikki in Melbourne within the next few months. But Vikki is settling back into her familiar life, and renewing old friendships. Meanwhile, her abusive ex-partner, Guy, is trying to trace her…

At first sight - Qantas plane 170624

If you’ve missed the earlier chapters,  you can read them here

At first sight

At first sight – part 2

Short Story – At first sight – part III

At first sight – part IV

It was the second morning in a row that the postie had let her down. There was no letter from Jon. It was windy, cold and raining. She shook herself. “Come on, woman! Pull yourself together!”

“Hi, Vikki! Fancy a movie this evening?”

“Dan! I didn’t hear you come in.”

Dan grinned. He and Vikki had been in and out of each other’s houses all the time as kids.

“Sorry! I should have knocked. Anyway, what about this movie? La La Land!”

“Sure, yeah, I’d like that.”

On the way home from the cinema, Dan stopped his car at the kerbside a few streets short of Vikki’s home. She turned to him, ready to tease him, ready to defuse any threat of intimacy with humour. His face, though, was too serious.

“What is it, Dan? What’s the matter?”

“Can we talk, Vikki? I mean talk properly, not joking.”

“Go ahead.” She still sounded flippant.

She saw the fine lines deepen on his forehead. There was pain in his grey-blue eyes. She had always liked his eyes. As a teenager she used to imagine him as a Viking, facing the terrors of land and sea without fear.

“I’ve got to say this, Vikki, or I won’t be able to live with myself. I love you. Will you…will you marry me?”

Marry you, Dan?” There was a little quiver in her voice.

“Don’t bloody make fun of me, Vikki. You don’t owe me much, but you owe me the respect of taking me seriously.”

“I am taking you seriously, Dan. I’m just flabbergasted, I guess. I hadn’t expected this.”

They sat together in silence for a few minutes.

“You haven’t said no, at least.”

Vikki turned to him. She put one hand on his shoulder, and with the other, stroked his blond hair across his forehead.

“No, I haven’t. And I haven’t said yes either. Oh, Dan, this is just so difficult. Because I’ve loved you as a friend for years, and I find you sexy as hell, but…well, there’s somebody in England who’s special to me.”

“Not that Guy fellow, I hope?”

“As if!” Vikki stopped stroking Dan’s hair. She took hold of his right hand with both of hers, and squeezed it, as though to convince him of her earnestness. “He’s called Jon. I can’t explain it, Dan. It’s a mystery, but it’s very wonderful. I’m so sorry.”

Gently, Dan removed his hand from hers.

“I don’t want your pity, Vikki. If you won’t have me, I reckon I’ll have to go away.”

“I haven’t said no, Dan. But I’m not saying yes either, not yet.”

“So, what the hell are you saying then?”

“Don’t be angry, Dan. I know it must look like I want to have my cake and eat it, but it really isn’t that. Can you give me a minute just to think how to help you understand?”

Dan nodded.

Vikki gestured at the two of them sitting in the car.

“This is kind of reality, Dan. The two of us sitting here; you loving me; you asking me to marry you; and me sitting here wanting to say yes, because I love you too, Dan, I do truly. But then there’s this thing like magic that happened the day before I set off home; this – connection I suppose you’d call it – between me and Jon.

Look, he’s coming out here soon. Next letter I get, I’m expecting him to say when he’s coming. Suppose I said yes to you tonight? And then saw him, and this thing between us boils up and I change my mind about what I said? That wouldn’t be fair for either of us, would it?”

“I don’t think you’re being honest, Vikki, not with me, not with yourself.” There was an angry edge to Dan’s voice. “You want to keep me in reserve in case it falls through with this – Jon. Well, that’s not going to happen. What kind of basis would that be for a marriage?”

Vikki took both Dan’s hands in hers, and looked him full in the face. In the moonlight, her amber eyes were dark, almost black, and luminous with unshed tears.

“Dan. If you want me to – if you want me to – I’ll say yes to you now. I’ll say yes, and I’ll stick to it. I’m sure we could make it work, be happy together. I’ll write to Jon and tell him –  it was just – it was just a… beautiful dream. And not to come.” A single tear escaped, glinting, and leaving a silvery track as it trickled down her cheek.

Dan shook his head gently.

“No, not now, not tonight, Vikki. But I will ask again, and then I’ll insist on an answer.”

He turned away from her, and started the engine. Neither of them spoke for the remainder of the short journey home.


“Dear Jon,

I’m thrilled that you’re going to be here next week! I can’t wait! I’d thought it wasn’t going to be until September!

I know we’ve written before about this in our letters, but you’d be more than welcome to come and stay with us. My mum thinks you must be “A real, old-fashioned English gentleman” because you’re planning to stay in a hotel for at least the first few days!

Now, there’s something I must tell you.

When I was little, I was a bit of a tomboy, and my best friend was a boy called Dan. He’s still my best friend now, Jon, and he’s very dear to me. You’re the person I cleave to, but Dan is close too.

The problem is, he proposed marriage to me this evening. I didn’t say yes, but I couldn’t make myself say no.

I must be completely honest with you, Jonathan. It feels to me that the bond between you and me is so special that it demands honesty, perfect honesty, or at least as close to it as I can manage. So – if I hadn’t met you, Jon, I would have accepted Dan’s proposal, and been very happy.

There. I’ve said it. If that changes your mind about coming, then I accept that. Oh, but I so hope it doesn’t! I just want to be close to you!

With much love

Vikki xxx”

Jon read the letter, frowned, and read it again. Then he picked up his pen and wrote.

“Dear Vikki,

Thank you for your honesty in telling me about Dan. I shall see you at Melbourne Airport at about 5 p.m. on July 10th. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it. I love you more than I can say.

With my whole heart.

Jon

xxx”

He took the letter to the post straightaway. It would, with luck, arrive before he did.


Jon was smiling as he tugged his suitcase into the Arrivals area. Where was she? He scanned the waiting faces, the family groups, husbands, wives; the people greeting men in suits who’d flown from England with only a briefcase and laptop; the taxi drivers displaying handwritten signs. There was no Vikki.

Jon frowned. Surely Vikki hadn’t stood him up? She must have been delayed. Perhaps her car had broken down?

He noticed a tall fair-haired man, who appeared to be waving to him. When Jon acknowledged the wave, the man beckoned to him. Stiff-legged, frozen-faced, Jon complied.

“Jonathan Hall?”

Jon nodded, curtly.

The tall man stuck out a hand.

“I’m Dan,” he said. “We have an emergency. Vikki’s disappeared.”

Intrusive Thoughts

My guest post today is a piece of humorous flash fiction titled “Intrusive thoughts”. The writer’s name “Flash 365” comes from a challenge he set himself to publish a piece of fiction every day for a year. I like his writing because it shows a wry sense of humour, a keen eye for the everyday absurd, and a beautiful ear for dialogue and its associated subtext. Plus, it makes me laugh!

Flash 365

thoughts

I reach for a cigarette, almost burning myself on my already lit cigarette. I am bored. With murderous frustration, I snuff out the lit one and stand up.

“I’m going to get a coffee!” I call to N.

“You just got back from getting a coffee,” he reminds me.

I pretend not to hear him. The shop isn’t far. I smoke half a cigarette on the way. The sun is bitchy today. I forgot my sunglasses. The shop is small. A woman–no, girl–is the only one in line. I wait. The barista chats away to her as she swirls cappuccino foam artfully atop a bit of harsh coffee.

I scratch one finger with another.

Finally, the coffee is placed in front of the not-woman. She says thank you. I open my mouth in preparation. Only to find, they are still chatting. The not-woman is opening a packet of sugar with…

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In the moment – barbecue time!

Living in the moment is when we pay attention to reality. We stop dwelling on the past, we stop planning for the future, and we allow ourselves to experience the present, the now. By the way, those of you who know me personally will realise that my wife Daphne was equally involved in the barbecue I tell about.

In the moment - barbecue 170620

Yesterday morning I cleaned the barbecue ready to entertain some friends. The weather here was glorious, so I took a bowlful of hot water and detergent into the garden, found a convenient shady spot, and sat down to wash the grill. I enjoyed being consciously aware of the warm breeze, the bright colours of the flowers, the sound of bees. I enjoyed seeing the grill start to shine as I scrubbed it.

It wasn’t perfectly clean – there were some burned on deposits that weren’t going to come off whatever I did.

Some other things that weren’t perfect for the barbecue last night; the patio had been brushed but not pressure washed; the water in the pond was rather murky; the flowers in pots had not been dead-headed; and, worst of all, I’m not particularly skilled at cooking on a barbecue (I started by dropping an uncooked beef-burger onto the ground! And I forgot about the sweetcorn, which is still in the fridge along with a few burgers and sausages that were too charred to serve…).

I would have loved everything to be perfect, but the fact that it wasn’t didn’t spoil my pleasure in the evening at all, nor did it affect my guests’ enjoyment.

Perfection was not necessary!

It’s the same in life, too.

Now, I would be the first to agree that there are some circumstances where we need to do a task to the very best of our ability, and where a mistake can be extremely serious. Driving a car is an obvious example.

But for most of us, most of the time, is perfection necessary? If ‘good enough’ is all you have time or energy to achieve, isn’t that sufficient?

Personally, I find that I am more relaxed and happier by living ‘in the moment’. I enjoy what I am actually doing rather than wishing I’d done better. I enjoy today!

 

From a liberal point of view – June 2017

The tragedy of Grenfell House is unbearable. I don’t propose to write about the event itself, because there’s nothing I can add to the testimony of those who were there, and those who survived.

However, there is an angle to the disaster that I have not heard mentioned, and it holds some pointers towards minimising the risk of similar events.

The Civil Contingencies Act (2004) places a duty on all Local Authorities to develop and implement a Local Emergency Plan.

That is to say, every Local Authority must carry out a comprehensive risk assessment of possible events that could lead to loss of life or serious civil disruption, and put plans in place to mitigate those risks. They must do this in partnership with other Category 1 responders, who include the Police, the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service, and the Environment Agency.

Planning to mitigate the risks involves training and exercises designed to identify weaknesses in emergency response.

During my time working for the Environment Agency, I took part in training sessions and exercises in emergency response. Feedback from participants after the exercises showed how effective they had been at identifying problems. These problems were then resolved.

Now, I was just about to type “It’s obvious that a good risk assessment leading to an emergency plan that you practise must lead to a better result when a disaster happens.” But then I thought “No, it clearly isn’t obvious, or all Local Authorities would be doing it diligently”

So let me give you a (fictional) example to consider.

A tanker driver is suffering from Type 2 diabetes. He doesn’t realise it, and during his journey he feels progressively more unwell. He drives onto the industrial site which is his destination, and blacks out at the wheel. The tanker ploughs through the concrete wall around a tank containing a highly toxic chemical, and splits the tank. The tanker itself starts to smoulder, as diesel and oil from the damaged engine contact the exhaust.

You have a man slumped over the tanker’s steering wheel, a tanker which could go up in flames any moment and a tank slowly leaking a highly toxic chemical. What do you do first?

It doesn’t take Einstein to realise that if you’ve planned for an event like this, you’re more likely to respond correctly than if you just wing it.

So it’s extremely important that every Local Authority takes their duty under the Civil Contingencies Act very seriously, and does a proper risk assessment, and ensures that all responders have trained together.

I hope that post-Grenfell, every Local Authority in the country revisits its risk assessment and its emergency plan, and renews and intensifies its training and exercises to ensure that the plan will be effective.

At first sight – part IV

What do you do when you first meet your true love the day before she flies back to Australia? For Jon, the answer was simple; you follow her as soon as possible. One small problem – PhD students like Jon have very little money. For Vikki, his beloved, the answer was more difficult; handsome, clever, surf-hero Dan has carried a torch for her for years…

Jon rang his mum and chatted; about his work, her work, and the latest news from his dad’s parish; before raising the subject that was uppermost in his thoughts.

“Mum, I need to borrow some money. It’s rather a lot, I’m afraid.”

Carolyn Hall thought for a moment. It wasn’t like Jon to ask for money. He’d managed on his own since his first term at university.

“How much do you need, love?”

“About two thousand pounds, I’m afraid.”

“You’re not in any trouble, are you?”

“No, and I should be able to pay you back quite soon; within about six months, I think.”

“I’ll have to talk to Dad first.” She hesitated for a moment, and then added, “I know it’s none of my business, but Dad will want to know why you need it.”

She waited for the explosion. Jon had always made it very clear that he needed to be independent; that he was going to live his life without interference from his parents. She sighed. It must be difficult for him, being James’s son.

“It’s a bit tricky. And it sounds as though I’m going bonkers. All I can say is that it’s very real to me. I’ve met this girl.”

“Oh, Jon, I am pleased for you!”

“The trouble is, she lives in Australia. I met her just before she went home, and now she’s there and I’m here.”

“What’s her name? What’s she like?”

“Vikki; that’s with two kays and an i. She’s beautiful, Mum, just beautiful. And clever; she’s just finished a master’s degree in education at Cambridge. I knew the instant I saw her that she was the right girl…” His voice trailed away as he relived the moment.

“Oh, Jon, you’ve got it bad, haven’t you?”

Jon tensed, and then relaxed. He laughed.

“Yes, I suppose I have! But that doesn’t make the feeling less real, you know?”

“I know, Jon, I know. That was how I felt about Dad when we first met. It’s worked for us so far! I still feel the same about him. But it wasn’t the way he fell in love with me, if you follow me?”

“Thank you, Mum. For telling me about you and Dad, I mean. Do you think it would be better for me to ring him and ask about a loan?”

“I think Dad would appreciate that, yes. Man to man, you know.”

“Okay, I’ll do that. Thanks for the advice.”

Dressing table 170617 (2)

Vikki scooped up the letter from the mat, and raced to her room. The sun struck obliquely through the window, making the wall at her bedhead dazzlingly white. The petals of the posy on her dressing table glowed translucent in the reflected light.

Vikki looked at Jon’s handwriting, with its firm downstrokes, its well-formed letters, its fluidity. Her heart sang. His voice was vivid in her memory, and she imagined him sitting beside her on the bed reading the letter to her.

“Dear Vikki,

Thank you so much for writing. You made me really happy when I read that you had ‘danced with delight’ because I planned to visit!

You’re right; we don’t know each other very well. You say that matters to you, and that you guess it matters to me. Be reassured; it does. I want to know everything about you, the big things and the little things, the essential and the trivial. It will be such a joy learning about all these from you!

Or do you mean that you have doubts about whether what we felt that magical night will prove ephemeral? Is that why you say, “We mustn’t be carried away”?

Let me tell you how I feel. I love you. You have changed me. In the past, I’ve always thought carefully before doing anything, but you make me feel so certain that we belong together that I don’t need to think about it, I just know it.

I want you to know this, Vikki. The thing I want more than anything in the world is that you should be happy. If, in the future, my love for you becomes an obstacle to your happiness, I shall let you go. It would break my heart – I can hardly bear even thinking about it – but I would do it.

By the way, there is something more practical that I need to tell you. I had another run-in with Guy. He was after your address in Australia. I didn’t tell him, of course, but yesterday somebody broke into my flat. They didn’t take anything – and there was quite an expensive laptop on the desk in full view – so I suppose Guy might have been the burglar. Take care, my dearest.

I hope so much that I shall soon see you in Australia; I should be able to suggest some dates next time I write in a few days. How I wish I was with you now!

With all my love

Jon”

Vikki held the letter against her lips, smiling.

At first sight - letter and phone 170617

“Jonathan! This is an unexpected pleasure. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Dad. How are you? And the parish, of course?”

“We’re doing nicely, thank you. The occasional hiccup. If you want the latest news, the organist has just quit. I don’t suppose you want to hear about that, though?”

They chatted casually for a few minutes, until Jon said, “Actually, Dad, I had an ulterior motive in ringing you.”

“I thought you might have.”

Jon winced. That accomplished, cultured, know-it-all, self-satisfied tone of voice had haunted his childhood.

“Would you lend me two thousand pounds, please.”

There was a short silence. James Hall waited for the explanation to be offered. Jon struggled with his pride.

“I’m in love with a woman who lives in Australia. I need to go and see her.”

There was a longer silence.

“That’s a fair sum, Jon.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think I needed it.”

“There may be a difference between what you think you need and what you actually need.”

Jon struggled to relax, to remain calm, to remain courteous. This constant assumption that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he would screw up if left to himself…

“Dad, if you hang on a minute, I’ll explain. I met Vikki the day before she was due to fly home. It was – astonishing – stunning. I just knew immediately that she’s the one. She seems to feel the same way. I want to go to Australia to confirm what we feel.

You may think it’s a gamble. Maybe you’re right. But it’s my gamble. Your money will be safe, whatever the outcome.”

“Oh, for goodness sake, Jonathan, it’s not the safety of my money that concerns me. It’s your future, your studies, putting all that at risk just because you’ve met an attractive girl who’s bowled you over. What about your studies, anyway?”

“My professor is happy. In fact, he’s asked me to go into the University of Melbourne to establish personal links with the staff there. It’s a great chance to network.”

“I just don’t want to see you hurt, Jon.”

“Not going to Australia and losing her would hurt me more than anything I can imagine.”

“Mm. Yes, I can see that might be so.”

Jon waited.

“All right. You may have the money. I’ll transfer it to your account this afternoon. Would you be happy to repay it in twelve months?”

“I’m taking on some more tutoring. Can I pay it back monthly over six months starting in October, please?”

“Yes, that’ll be okay. Take care of yourself, Jon. I’m proud of you, son. You’re growing up into a fine man.”

Jon almost dropped the phone. He stammered goodbye.

James Hall replaced his receiver. Two thousand pounds was almost his entire savings. He would just have to hope that there was no emergency in the next ten months.

After the call, Jon put his phone on the desk and stared out of the window.

Right. Time to check availability of those cheap flights he’d found!