Two Friends Meet

This short story is a little over 300 words long, and is more or less true…

Nafplio concert 180703

Two friends meet

We were waiting for the concert to begin. It was an open-air recital of music performed by an ensemble of violinist, cellist, flautist and pianist. A faint savour of cooking permeated the air from the nearby tavernas. Swifts swooped and shrilled their thin song, accompanied by the obsessive rattle of cicadas.

Although it was past the advertised starting time, half the seats were still empty and there was no sign of the performers. We laughed, quietly; late starts seemed to be a feature of Greek performances. “People watching” is a very Greek thing to do, so, like the other eighty or so people making up the audience, we looked around.

There was a woman in a green dress sitting in the row in front of us. Her skin resembled a peach that had dried just a little, losing moisture until fine wrinkles had appeared. The wrinkles spoke of smiles, laughter, and love, and the set of her eyes and mouth confirmed them.

Her hair, unambiguously grey without hint of white, was short, straight, and beautifully cut. She sat upright, making the most of her height, projecting confidence. She was on her own but seemed completely untroubled by this. Nevertheless, had my Greek been adequate to sustain a conversation I would have greeted her; there was a warmth about her that invited friendship.

As the remainder of the audience straggled in, the woman looked around. She glanced to her right and her eyes widened. Her face glowed with delight. She reached out with both arms to embrace a woman who was threading her way between the seats. The two women hugged, exchanged greetings and sat down side by side.

They didn’t chatter; occasionally one would make a comment to the other, who would nod, or say something brief in reply. They just sat, relaxed, companionable, enjoying the occasion together, plainly friends of many years standing.

Shortly afterwards the musicians entered, and chased away the sounds of swifts and cicadas with the music of Smetana.

 

Advertisements

The Dove on the Pergola – 18th June 2018

The Dove on the Pergola – progress 180618

This is my weekly blog post about the progress of my novel “The Dove on the Pergola”. The novel is about a young Indian woman, Makshirani, who has lived until she was sixteen years old in a village in Bengal, and who then moves to the big city of Kolkata.

The dove on the pergola 180618

Character and plot

I’ve been working on the storyboard this week.

One of the things I’ve learned from writing my previous novels is that it’s difficult to introduce substantive material at a late stage. The new material can create conflicts with previous material and putting them right causes further problems and – oh! (Throws up hands in despair!)

So, I want to complete the storyboard comprehensively before I start to write the novel itself. I have 900 words on the storyboard, and that takes me about a third of the way through the novel.

Mind you, I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression. Side by side with the storyboard I’m recording my insights into the characters and the way they interact to form the plot. There’s many more words here – about 3,000 so far. It’s leading to some interesting progress. Most notably, I’m finding that characters are starting to show that they have multiple roles to play.

For example, when Makshirani flees from her village to Kolkata, she turns to her Aunt Abhilasha for support and accommodation. It’s obvious that Abhilasha will influence the plot after Makshirani joins her – but how about earlier than that? Why does she live in Kolkata? Suppose she plays a crucial role at Makshirani’s birth? Her experiences then would help shape who she is, and therefore affect Makshirani later. And that’s one of the reasons why late additions of substantive content are so difficult; action and character are totally interlinked.

Despite my good intentions, though, I must confess that I have started writing the opening scene! I’m trying to achieve the intensity and focus of flash fiction in an extended piece of several thousand words. At the end of the opening chapter, I want the reader to feel emotionally exhausted – but eager to carry on reading!

If you have any thoughts on the way I’m tackling this, I would be delighted to hear from you. I will answer every comment.

 

The Dove on the Pergola – 11th June 2018

The Dove on the Pergola – Progress 180611

This is my weekly blog post about the progress of my novel “The Dove on the Pergola”. The novel is about a young Indian woman who has lived until she was sixteen years old in a village in Bengal, and who then moves to the big city of Kolkata. 

The Dove on the Pergola 180611

If a reader is to keep turning the pages of a novel, it helps if the novel has a strong sense of direction. Some writers achieve this by planning. Others construct lively characters, put them into an intriguing situation and discover what happens as they write.

Stephen King, in his book “On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft” advocates ‘excavating’ the story. This seems to mean having an outline and then just writing, allowing the characters and plot to emerge naturally. He gives the outline of a horror story in his book, and suggests it can be used as a writing exercise.

I tried it, and it definitely freed up my story. I wrote things that I would not otherwise have imagined – I had to really, as it was a horror story, and I don’t ‘do’ horror. Just in case you’re interested, you can find the story – ‘Maureen’ – here.

‘The Dove on the Pergola’ has several storylines.

There is the story of how Makshirani gradually starts to understand the nature of love that leads to a happy marriage. This includes romantic adventures – and, of course, misadventures – that bring her to the point of betrothal. Will she? Won’t she? Not telling you! Maybe I don’t even know myself yet!

Another storyline involves Makshirani’s growing sense of personal autonomy. The subservience of women that was the rule in her village is fast disappearing in Kolkata, where she lives during the period of the novel. Fast disappearing, but not yet eliminated. Makshirani will want to be sure that she won’t become a prisoner of her husband’s family. Will this cause her to walk away from the man she loves passionately?

And then there is the story of Makshirani’s family, left behind in the village. Her departure had consequences and evoked the enmity of the richest man in the village. She sends money home, which makes enough difference to prevent the family from becoming destitute. As she makes progress, she is able to send more home, indeed, her money can support the family. But how do they feel about this? Her father has lived all his life in a culture where it is the man, the husband, the father, who provides. Is he now useless, redundant? How does his wife, Makshirani’s mother feel about the impact on her husband?

There are other storylines, too, and an unexpected revelation about identity, but these are the main ones. And I want to bring them all to the boil simultaneously for the climax of the novel.

So, this is where I’m starting the serious work on this novel; with the climax. I’m planning to use Stephen King’s technique of excavating the story, and in the process I expect to learn much more about the characters. I wonder whether Makshirani will marry? I’m really looking forward to finding out!

Hands up anybody who thinks this is over-ambitious? Okay, well that’s what the comments box is for! Write and let me know what you think!

The dove on the pergola – an invitation

The girl who went to Kolkata 180417

“The dove on the pergola” – an invitation

In Kolkata, extreme wealth and abject poverty co-exist side by side. Modern thinking conflicts with traditional beliefs, and yet people remain subtly influenced by the old ways. There are people with devout religious faith rubbing shoulders with those who acknowledge no god.

In rural Bengal, by contrast, traditional values still hold sway, and family interests come before almost everything.

What would it be like, I wonder, for a young Indian woman who has grown up in a village in Bengal, to move to the big city of Kolkata?

And that is the starting point for the novel I have just started to write – “The dove on the pergola”.

Makshirani, the heroine of the novel, has to find a way to build her life in Kolkata. How will her traditional upbringing influence her choices? Will her beliefs and background give her sufficient flexibility to survive and prosper in the city?

The starkness of these questions and the consequences of failure seem to me to be much greater in India than in the Western world. That’s exciting, and it’s why I’m writing this novel.

So here’s an invitation.

Once a week, every Monday, I shall post about the progress I’m making. For obvious reasons I shall not divulge much of the plot, rather I shall be writing about the process of constructing the novel. If you’re interested in that, please follow me. And if you want to ask questions about what I have posted via the comments section, I shall do my best to provide satisfactory answers. Constructive criticism is welcomed with open arms!

Just a footnote about the writing I’ve done previously. I have written two novels, neither of which has been published. I have written well over 100 short stories, (mostly flash fiction of 100 or 150 words) that have all appeared on this blog. If you’re interested, you can find them in the archives.

City Life – Part 2

A few weeks ago in ‘Friday Fictioneers’, I posted “City Life”, a story about a young girl who has grown up in rural India, and comes to Kolkata to live with her Aunt. As I wrote, I realised that the material from which I was drawing had huge potential. So when several people commented that they would like to read more, I was only too pleased to promise a fuller version. I posted the first part on April 17th – you can read it here if you wish.

Here is Part 2. It’s 3,300 words long, and will probably take about fifteen minutes to read

I hope you enjoy it!

City Life Kolkata Pixabay 180507

City life – long version Part 2

The goat bleated noisily, disturbed by the unusual activity before dawn. Makshirani stirred as her mother, Joti, shook her vigorously.

“I never knew anybody so hard to wake up,” she grumbled.

Makshirani opened her eyes. Today was the day! She rose quickly, splashed water on her face and dressed. She could hardly see her mother in the shadows. She could hear her father, Binoba, moving about outside.

“Here – eat this. You might not have any more before you reach Aunt Abhilasha.”

She handed Makshirani a beaker of milk and a piece of roti bread. Makshirani found it hard to swallow the bread. She was still half asleep, and not hungry at all. But mami was right; she would be travelling all day and needed to eat.

“Thank you, Mami. Is there some left for little brother Sahadar?”

Joti smiled to herself.

“Yes, there’s some for Sahadar. Quickly now – your papa’s waiting for you.”

Makshirani embraced her mother. She wept quietly as the moment of parting came close. When would she see her mami again? Joti hugged her tight, then pushed her away.

“Here’s your case. Go on now, little honey bee. I’m so proud of you!”

Clutching her small case, Makshirani slipped outside.

“Remember. Stay silent until we’re well outside the village,” said Binoba.

It was very dark. There was no moon, but a great scattering of stars sparkled above them. Makshirani stepped lightly on the dusty track. She could hear rustling from the trees at the side of the path as the leaves blew in the wind. She could smell the rice paddies beyond. Soon they had reached the main street of the village. Somewhere a hen clucked gently. Makshirani heard an ox mutter and grumble as it chewed and chewed on its cud. The world was awakening.

By the time they reached the end of the village, the sky in the east was pale. A cockerel crowed triumphantly.

“Hurry, now, these are Pralay’s fields,” said Binoba. Even as he spoke, Makshirani heard the distant racket of a diesel engine starting; only Pralay had a tractor. She walked more quickly until they were past his fields. The road curved round, and they were hidden by the scrubby trees at the roadside.

It was a long walk, several miles to the metalled highway, and then twice as many again. The day was hot, the air heavy. By now, the road was busy with cars, buses belching dark exhaust, and, everywhere, small motorcycles. In the distance Makshirani could see a hill, abrupt and conical in the otherwise gentle landscape.

“Isn’t that where Aunt Abhilasha took us for holiday when she came to visit?” asked Makshirani.

“You have a good memory, girl. That was many years ago. Yes, that is Joychandi Pahar. We walked up to the temple right at the top.”

“I remember the taxi ride,” said Makshirani. “What luxury!”

“It would be nice to be rich, true,” admitted Binoba. “But you enjoy many blessings, girl.”

“I know, and I am grateful for them, Father. I am very grateful that you should walk all this way to make sure that I am safe.”

“And I must walk home, too. I hope there is no storm today.” He looked uneasily at the sky.

“Oh, look at that palace,” exclaimed Makshirani. “Who lives there, Papa?”

“That is the station, my dear. Joychandi Pahar. And we are in time for your train.” He dug into his small pack and drew out an envelope. “Here are the tickets Aunt Abhilasha sent.”

“Do you know which I use?” asked Makshirani.

Her father nodded.

“No. I have travelled by train only twice, and your mother dealt with the tickets. You will have to read them or ask the woman at the counter.” He looked doubtfully at his daughter.

Makshirani looked at the tickets. She was pleased to find that she understood them easily and said a silent prayer of thanks for her mother’s generosity in arranging reading lessons.

The station was filling up. Traffic noise reverberated through the concourse whenever the automatic door slid open. There was the sound of a tractor. Makshirani wondered who would come to a train station by tractor.

Binoba shuffled his feet.

“I must be going,” he said. “I do not wish to be caught out on the highway in a storm.”

“But I don’t know where I catch the train, or…or anything!”

“You see the man over there?” Binoba pointed to a man in the uniform of the West Bengal Railway. “Without doubt he can help you. Ask him.”

A large man next to them cleared his throat.

“Good morning,” he said.

Makshirani jumped. It was the voice she loathed.

“Pralay!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, my dear.”

Makshirani dropped her gaze.

“And where is our little honey bee travelling today?” purred Pralay.

“She’s going to Kolkata. A visit to her Aunt.” Binoba muttered, his manner a curious mixture of defiance and deference.

“And you didn’t think to tell me, her steadfast suitor? I hope she will not be gone long? There is the betrothal to celebrate after all.”

“Well, there is nothing formal yet.”

“Nothing formal, no, but we have an understanding, neighbour, do we not? We agree that this union could bring great benefits to both our families, don’t we?”

Pralay looked from one to the other.

“Perhaps you have had a better offer through her Aunt? Hmm, hmm…yes, I can see that might be tempting. Well, I must wait and see whether my neighbour’s word is his bond. And you…” he jabbed his middle finger viciously towards Binoba, “might wish to reflect on the consequences to a man who breaks his word in so serious a matter.”

He took Makshirani’s tickets and glanced at them.

“Second class. Your Aunt is hardly generous. You will be hot. I, myself, always travel in an air-conditioned compartment. Now, come with me. I will show you where to wait. When the train arrives, climb aboard as quickly as you can, otherwise you’ll be standing all the way.”

Binoba fidgeted. Pralay made a gesture of dismissal.

“You can go. I will take good care of our Makshirani, and she will produce the sweetest honey for me.”

Makshirani shuddered.

But Pralay was as good as his word. He told Makshirani how many stations she had to count before changing at Asansol, and then how many stops the express would make before her journey’s end.

“Now remember,” he said, “The city of Kolkata has several train stations. The station where you will arrive is not called Kolkata, it is called Sealdah.”

He pulled out his mobile phone with a flourish. “The only one in the village,” he said, with obvious satisfaction. He smiled at Makshirani. “When you are my wife, I will buy you an iPhone.”

“You are very generous,” she murmured.

“10:53” proclaimed Pralay, looking at his phone rather than the station clock. “Your train will be here very soon. Let us go out onto the platform.”

Makshirani followed meekly.

The train rumbled slowly into the station, squeaking and groaning as it slowly halted.

The instant it was stationary, Pralay was by the door holding it open.

“In! In! Quickly!”

Makshirani was just in time to squeeze onto a bench seat. True, there were five of them perched on a bench for three; true, the plump lady on Makshirani’s left had no compunction about pushing her when she wanted more space, and the skinny old farmer on her right was all elbows and knees; but she had a seat, and as the express rolled noisily from station to station and more and more people climbed aboard, Makshirani was grateful for the crumbs of comfort it afforded.

She had never seen so many people. The corridor between the seats was crammed with standing passengers. Many packed themselves into the spaces by the doors, where the windows were wide open and the breeze from the train’s motion provided a little coolness to ameliorate the stifling heat. Makshirani’s head swam.

And the noise! The bench opposite was occupied by a family. The mother had a harsh voice, and to judge by her remonstrances her children were the naughtiest in the world. The smallest child, about three years old, glanced shyly at Makshirani, who smiled encouragingly at him. The little boy reached across and stroked the fabric of Makshirani’s sari.

“Pretty lady,” he said.

His mother pulled him away roughly. What must Makshirani think of them, how could he be so rude, what would his papa say when she told him? The little boy’s face puckered, and he added his wails to the cacophony.

“I don’t mind, honestly,” said Makshirani. “My name is Makshirani. What are your children’s names? You must be very proud of them all!”

“I am Mishti,” she replied and introduced her children, then sighed. “What a handful they are! If my mother hadn’t summoned us to Kolkata I would never have brought them on the train. But they are beautiful, aren’t they?”

“They are lovely. You are going to Kolkata? Have you been before?”

“Oh, yes. I was born there, but my father grew up near Joychandi Pahar and I was married to a man whose family lives there. Such is life. Not that I’m complaining.”

“Perhaps I could hold your little boy, your little Jayaketan?”

Of course, now that he was allowed to go to the pretty lady, Jayaketan only wanted his mother. She smiled and cuddled him. He put his thumb in his mouth, and his eyelids drooped.

“You are also going to Kolkata?” asked Mishti.

“Yes. I am going to stay with my aunt.”

“Would you like to sit with us on the express to Kolkata?”

Makshirani beamed.

“That would be most kind. Now I won’t get lost and miss my train.”

The express was less crowded, and Mishti encouraged her children to lie quietly.

Makshirani settled back in her seat. She hoped city life wasn’t like this, cramped, crowded, and stiflingly hot. Despite the novelty of the journey her eyelids closed and she slept.

She dreamed.

She and her best friend Shama were standing by the well in the village. She was trying to read a letter, but it was written in English and was too difficult for her to understand. She could see from the signature that it was from Shama’s brother, Abhoy, but that was all. She could feel Shama’s desperation to know what it said.

She made out a word here, and a word there, and suddenly Abhoy himself was with them reading from his letter. He looked taller than she remembered, and even more handsome. His smile delighted her. He reached out and took her hand, and she shivered with the exquisite pleasure.

‘And so I have come back from Kolkata to claim my bride,’ he read.

But there was a noise, a loud noise, the noise of a tractor.

The three friends turned to see Pralay driving full tilt towards Abhoy.

“No!” screamed Makshirani but it was too late…

She jolted awake.

It was even hotter. The carriage was quiet; the heat left people no energy for talking. Mishti fanned herself constantly. Her children were asleep, piled in a heap like a litter of puppies.

White clouds were forming, racing skywards, boiling outwards, darkening, darkening. The light was fading fast. A few heavy raindrops fell and then it was dry again. Makshirani listened to the noise of the carriage on the railway track. Rackety-clack, rackety-clack. Suddenly the daylight faded almost completely and the rain started in earnest.

It came down in torrents. Swirling winds drove it in through the open windows of the carriage, drenching those close to them. A small group of young men took off their tee shirts and luxuriated in the cool water showering them. They hooted and cackled, showing off. Makshirani shrank back in her seat as far as she could.

The rain poured like a waterfall off the roof of the train. Makshirani could see nothing outside except for the flashes of lightning. The noise of the train was drowned by the battering of the rain and the explosions of thunder. Despite the noise, in the dimness and feeling the relief of the cooler air, Makshirani dozed again.

It was the pushing that woke her. She found herself snuggled up to the woman next to her, her head on the woman’s ample shoulder.

“Wake up, girl. What are you doing? You’re not a child to rest yourself against a stranger.”

Yawning, Makshirani apologised.

“Besides, we are nearly at my stop. I need to get ready.” The woman gathered up her things, shoving them into a jute bag. As soon as she moved away from her seat, Makshirani slid across and sat next to the window. She stretched her cramped muscles; the relief was delightful.

As the train jolted away, she tried to catch sight of a sign that would tell her which station it was, but the crowds jostling on the platform were too thick. She looked at the woman opposite who was cuddling Jayaketan, trying to persuade him to go back to sleep. Perhaps she could ask her which station it was? No, it would disturb the little boy.

Rackety-clack, rackety-clack.

The sound was louder, and Makshirani glanced out of the window. The train was on a bridge over a wide, muddy brown-grey river. As she gazed at the structure, eyes wide with astonishment, a young man came over to her.

“It’s the new Jubilee Bridge, the Sampreeti Setu,” he said. “It’s a magnificent construction, isn’t it?”

Mishti glared at the youth.

“Leave her alone. Her family will be meeting her at Sealdah; they won’t want you in tow.”

She confronted him ferociously. He gestured with his head.

“If you say so.”

He walked away.

“You must take care in the city,” said Mishti. “There are men who will attack women, especially at night. It is not safe to go unescorted after about seven o’clock.”

“But he seemed a nice young man. He was telling me about the bridge.”

“Ah! You never can tell with men. Some of them are devils.” She patted Makshirani’s arm. “You are a lovely girl. It would be a tragedy if you were hurt.” Her face was thoughtful, pained. “Still we are nearly there now. I must pack my stuff and wake up my tribe of children!”

Rackety-clack, rackety-clack.

Suddenly Makshirani opened her eyes wide. “There are people on the tracks!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, of course. They are poor. They have nowhere else to live.”

Mishti looked at Makshirani with concern.

“Here,” she said, “if you have any trouble you can come and find me. I will write down my address.” She pulled out a scruffy fragment of paper, and a much-chewed pencil and wrote slowly and painstakingly in English.

Makshirani looked at the paper, and back to Mishti.

“Thank you,” she said

“Take care of yourself,” said Mishti, “we’re pulling into Sealdah now. Farewell!”

Makshirani hung back as the crowds jostled to be quickly off the train. She didn’t want to miss seeing cousin Dayasara in the crush. She walked slowly along the platform, looking out carefully all the way. No sign of him. She hoped she hadn’t missed him; she was near the end of the platform.

She stopped, looked all around. What would he look like now? She hadn’t seen him for nearly nine years. ‘He must be very different,’ she mused.

There was a sound of running footsteps, and shouting voices, and a young man sprinted across the concourse towards her. He held up a piece of white card with her name on it. There was a huge grin on his face.

Makshirani peered at him. His complexion was dark, and he sported a short, neatly trimmed black beard. But under the beard – yes, it was the same Dayasara; she’d forgotten that mischievous smile, but it came to mind immediately she saw him. He was altogether a nice looking young man, she decided.

“Cousin Makshirani,” he said. “Namaste! Aunt Abhilasha has sent me to collect you.”

Makshirani placed her hands together before her and bowed. “Namaste, Cousin Dayasara.”

“Come, I have a motorbike. Have you ever been on one?”

Makshirani nodded.

“No, never. What do I have to do?”

Dayasara laughed.

“Nothing at all. Just sit still and I will do it all.”

He took her case. “Why, how light it is!” He strapped it onto the pannier of a small motorbike.

“Sit behind me and hold tight. Oh, and pull your sari up to your knees so it doesn’t touch the exhaust pipe and scorch!”

He kicked the starter. The engine fired and died. He kicked again, and with a gust of blue smoke and several loud reports like gunfire, the engine started. It was noisy. The whole bike shook as though with a fever.

“Dayasara, I want to get off,” gasped Makshirani in a panic. “I don’t want to be blown up!”

“Ah, it’s fine, you’ll be fine. Hold on!” And they were off.

The little bike buzzed and banged its way slowly across the car park, gradually accelerating and becoming smoother as the engine warmed up.

“You see?” yelled Dayasara. “It’s better already! By the time we get home it’ll be purring like a sewing machine.” He swung out into the main traffic stream. Makshirani shrieked.

Dayasara zigzagged along the road past cyclists and one or two very slow lorries. Gradually they gained on a bus.

“Whee, let’s go!” Dayasara gunned the throttle and started to overtake. The bus driver shrugged, cynically. The little bike crept up beside the bus. Now it had reached the rear wheel. Now the middle of the vehicle. A large articulated lorry approached from the opposite direction. Dayasara twisted the throttle to its maximum and they gained another one mile per hour.

Makshirani closed her eyes. “I shall die here,” she thought, “and I haven’t been in the city an hour yet.” Tears of fright trickled down her cheeks. She heard the lorry’s klaxon, very near, and then the bike swerved left. The bus driver sounded his horn behind her, and she almost jumped off with surprise. The bike’s engine whined like a hornet.

Dayasara went left, off the main highway, then right, then left again. Each time the road became narrower. Shops, hardly more than stalls really, encroached into the carriageway, and people wandered across heedless of the traffic. There were flies everywhere, and the streets stank of rotting vegetables.

Makshirani clung on. She felt as though she was vibrating in every part. Her legs felt as if they were roasting, and she suddenly remembered the exhaust pipe, and tried to edge her ankles a little further away from it.

Dayasar turned left one last time, into a tree-lined street of old buildings from the colonial period, drove about a hundred yards down it and pulled up in the small front garden.

“Here we are!” he announced grandly. “Home! I’ll take you in to mother.”

Makshirani climbed off the bike. Her legs felt wobbly.

“Thank you for the lovely ride, Dayasara. It was…it was…” She couldn’t think of an appropriate ending for her sentence, so she just smiled which seemed to satisfy Dayasara.

“Perhaps you would let me show you some of Kolkata when you’ve spoken to mother?”

Makshirani looked down modestly. Dayasara was a nice boy, but Aunt Abhilasha might well have other plans for her – and, indeed, for him. Her whole future was now in her Aunt’s hands, and her only priority now must be to please her.

“Only if Aunt says we may,” she murmured.

Dayasara made a gesture of approval.

“You are wise. I will take you up to her room now.”

Makshirani took a deep breath and followed him into the house.

 

 

 

 

Some you win

One of the blessings of maturity is that you realise that winning is not the be-all and end-all of life. Sometimes trying too hard to win can cost you a high price. This short story tells how Damien and Gill, Sue and Tim, compete in the College tennis tournament. The prize for winning is a trophy. But what might you lose if you pursue it ruthlessly?

Tennis player 02 170506

“Did you manage those problems for our physics tutorial next Monday?”

Sue and Gill had brought folding chairs into the quad so they could enjoy the sunshine of a glorious early June morning while they studied. Gill nodded.

“Yes, I think so.”

“I suppose you couldn’t go through them with me? I’m struggling to do even one of them.”

Gill looked up from her book. “Do you mind if I just finish this section?”

“No, of course not. I’ll go and fetch the work I’ve done so far.” Sue jumped to her feet and bounded up three flights of stairs to her room, gathered an untidy armful of papers from her desk, and scuttled back down.

Gill looked through the assortment of pages until she found the first problem.

“Look!” she said. “You’ve almost finished this. You’re using the right equations, you’ve just made a mistake in the arithmetic.”

Sue scanned the paper.

“Oh, yes!” She took the paper from Gill and corrected the error. It didn’t take her many minutes to finish the problem. Meanwhile, Gill glanced through the others. ‘Sue seems to have completely misunderstood the concept’ she thought. Carefully she talked her friend through the work.

“Oh, wow! Thank you so much, Gill!” Sue hugged Gill warmly.

“Is this a private hugfest, or can anyone join in?” Gill jumped. Sue laughed.

“Hi, Tim!”

He leaned forward, and she kissed him tenderly. They’d been dating for a couple of months, and she could still hardly believe her luck. She gazed at him, eyes shining. Smiling he took both her hands in his, moving even closer. “Tim! Look out! You’ll have the chair over!”

“I’d better be off,” said Gill. “I must take this book back to the library.”

“Get off, Tim!” Sue pushed him away. “Gill, I’m really grateful for your help. Would you like to join a few of us punting on Saturday? We’re going up to Grantchester.”

“For a liquid lunch,” added Tim. “You’d be very welcome. Bring a friend if you like; there’s room for another one in the punt.”

“Yes, I’d love to join you.”

On her way to the library, Gill paused at the College notice board. The advertisement for the College tennis tournament was still there, and she looked to see whether Sue had signed it yet. She’d been talking about it for ages.

“How about teaming up for the tennis this afternoon?” Gill jumped. She hadn’t heard Damien approach.

“I’m not very good,” she said.

“No problem. I’m no good either. But I expect it will be fun!”

Gill smiled shyly at him. “As long as you’re sure you don’t mind if I’m useless.” Her blue eyes, with their long dark lashes, peered up at him from beneath a heavy fringe of blonde hair.

Damien fished a biro out of his pocket. “Damien and Gill”. His handwriting was neat, even on the vertical surface of the notice board. He grinned, teeth creamy against his short, curly beard. “Got a lecture now. See you at the tennis courts at a quarter to two!” Gill looked again at their two names, paired on the notice board. She stared at them for several long seconds.

Sue came panting up.

“Phew! Just as well the notice is still there. Tim would have killed me if we weren’t in the tourney. I said I’d sign us up last week!”

Hastily, she scrawled “Sue and Tim” onto the notice.

“Damien’s partnering you? Wow! Lucky you! What a hunk!”

“I just hope I don’t let him down.”

“Don’t worry. It won’t matter how badly you play. It’s not the tennis court where he hopes you’ll be brilliant!” Thus, the wisdom of a twenty-one year old to a nineteen year old. Gill blushed crimson.

As luck would have it, Damien and Gill were drawn against Sue and Tim in the first round. They were on Court 3, a pretty court a little distance from the pavilion. The grass was smooth, short, and scarcely worn. The lines were fresh and bright white. There were birch trees to shelter it from the prevailing wind.

Damien tossed the ball high and opened the match with a clean ace. Fifteen-love. Tim shook his head. He should at least have laid a racket on the service. Sue moved from the net to receive Damien’s next delivery.

“Go back a pace,” suggested Tim. “The ball came high off the ground.”

Sue retreated well behind the baseline. The service was fast. She poked at it, connected, and the ball plopped invitingly over the net, ideally placed for Gill to hit a winner. Gill swung hard, and despatched the ball heavily into the net. Fifteen all.

Tim was ready for the speed of Damien’s next service, but not for its direction. The ball swung fiercely and landed just the right side of the centre line. Tim’s attempt at a backhand return missed completely. Thirty-fifteen.

Sue stood well back again. Damien slightly mishit his serve, and Sue returned it straight down the line. Damien was left flat-footed. Thirty all.

Tim grinned. “Nice shot.”

A double-fault. Thirty-forty.

Damien’s next service was gentler, as he sought to recover his accuracy. Sue stepped in and hit the ball hard towards Gill, who squealed and dodged. Damien ran across court behind her and just retrieved the ball. Hit at full stretch, his shot rocketed down the line leaving Sue stranded. Deuce.

Damien’s next service was fast and accurate, but Tim returned it.

“Yours!” yelled Damien to Gill, inviting her to take the volley.

Gill turned. “What?” she asked. The ball bounced between them, neither of them touching it. Advantage Tim and Sue.

Trying to conceal his exasperation, Damien walked across to Gill.

“I’m sorry I distracted you,” he said. “When there’s a ball that either of us could hit, I’ll shout “Yours” if I want you to play the shot. And will you do the same for me, please?”

“Yes. Silly of me. Sorry.” She felt as though her blush extended right up to her hairline.

Damien double-faulted, and the game was lost.

After a while, Damien stopped trying to coach Gill. He tried to cover her, so that when she missed a shot he was able to keep the ball in play. For a while the strategy succeeded. They were ahead three games to two after Damien’s second service game.

Tim was next to serve. Damien won the first point with a blistering return. Tim served to Gill. The sun was in his eyes, and the ball went into the net. His second service was slightly mishit, and bounced well for Gill. She gritted her teeth, opened her shoulders, and swung with venom and frustration. The ball flew between Tim and Sue, bouncing just inside the baseline.

Tim put down his racket and applauded. “Good shot!” he called. Sue ran up to the net, beckoning to Gill to come close.

“Don’t let Damien get you down,” she whispered. “Play for yourself, not for him.”

Gill tried to take the advice, and she did, indeed, play a few more good shots. But all the time she felt that Damien was watching her, covering for her, trying to win the match for both of them by his own efforts. Her shoulders slumped, and the corners of her mouth turned down. She trudged from place to place on the court, wondering what she was doing there, and longing for the ordeal to be over.

Slowly the first set slipped away from Damien and Gill.

Sue and Tim were starting to show their quality. Tim played hard. ‘The quicker we win, the less embarrassing it will be for Gill,’ he thought.

Sue became very cross at her friend’s humiliation. When one of her shots hit Damien in the face, she was hard pressed not to show her delight. Sue and Tim won the second set six-one, and with it the match.

As soon as they’d all shaken hands, Sue grabbed Gill, and walked back to the pavilion with her. Damien watched them go. He’d begun to half-realise that Gill was upset. He watched as Sue passed Gill a tissue to wipe her eyes.

‘Shit!’ he thought. ‘You stupid so-and-so. You’ve totally blown it!’

He looked at Tim, who shrugged. “Not clever, Damien. Not clever at all.”

Damien looked towards the pavilion. Would it be worth trying to apologise? No. That would just make matters worse. He chucked his racket into his bag and slunk away to sit and sulk in his room.

Tim sauntered back to the pavilion. Perhaps tomorrow he would invite Damien to the punting party, give him a chance to recover his position with Gill. He’d better check that with Sue first, though. He couldn’t be completely sure, but he thought she’d deliberately tried to hurt Damien in that second set…

A walk on the moor

Those who venture on foot onto Dartmoor fall into one of two categories; walkers – and ramblers. I am unashamedly in the latter category. My rucksack rarely holds more than my lunch, a map and some waterproofs, and I set out only when the weather forecast is favourable. I do not yomp.

DSC00052 2

Today is September 9th. The sky is that very clear mid-blue of early autumn and there is just a hint of coolness in the breeze. I feel invigorated. The weather refreshes my spirit as a sorbet cleanses the palate. As I descend from the bus I experience a glow of anticipation for the solitude and purity of the open space.

I haven’t reached it yet, though. The first mile is along a lane between two high Devon hedges; pleasant enough walking, but asphalt underfoot and only the occasional glimpse of the moor proper. Mixed with my enjoyment is a little tension. This is the big one, the walk I’ve been building up to over the summer, seventeen miles during which time I shall be as isolated as it’s readily possible to be in England. I’ve left details of my route at the shop by the bus stop, and with friends at home. I have my mobile phone with me. There’s no real danger.

Gradually the stone walls peter out. The road is flanked by grass, and water hurries in the leat on my left. The scenery is beautiful but very familiar to me, and my daily concerns, unprompted and unwelcome, insinuate their way back into my consciousness.

What am I going to do about my mother? I must face facts; she’s definitely gaga. I could see it start during those horrible last days of my dad’s cancer. We were all distraught, but she – well, she seemed to retreat from reality. One evening she spoke about going on holiday. Dad was next door, choking on his own flesh as the tumour in his throat swelled, and she was inviting me to join them in Como in a few months time. I’m afraid I yelled at her. I feel so bad about it now, but I was half mad with the strain of the death-watch. She looked at me, and then began sobbing softly. I think that was last time that she really understood what was going on around her.

I can safely leave her at home during the day while I go to work, but for how much longer? I try to avoid overnight business trips as much as possible because she worries so much. When I can’t avoid going away, I ring her early in the evening and talk for at least half an hour, but even then I feel guilty. Last time, every five minutes she was saying, “I don’t like it when you’re not here, Patricia. I get all in a tizz.”

This is not what I came out here for. I look around, to appreciate consciously where I am and what I am doing. The road bends in a slow curve around the tor. Skylarks pipe their magical songs at the limit of human hearing. It is easy to imagine that they are merely the mortal manifestation of an unheard symphony of surpassing loveliness. And there ahead of me is a patch of moorland that is sometimes a passport to the immortal; the mires. How deceptive that verdant green! What a trap for the unwary that level land! An incautious step and you can be caught and held, sucked down, your struggles only causing you to sink more quickly.

Still, it’s safe enough as long as you stay on the track, which picks its way through the treacherous ground. Never, never try a shortcut here! At least I’m now off the tarmac and onto the moorland proper.

Past the mires the path climbs steeply, and at ten o’clock in the morning it’s in the shadow of the tor. Out of the sunshine the breeze feels noticeably cold, but my exertions are keeping me warm enough. I don’t need to put on a jacket; I’d only have to take it off at the top.

And what am I going to do about that job offer? My employer wants me to do a two year secondment in London. It’s a very generous package. In fact I could hardly believe the proposal. As well as a substantial salary increase, they’re prepared to pay the rent on a flat there for the whole period. My boss explained, “We need your lobbying skills there, Trish, but you’ve got to be on the spot; you can’t do this one at a distance.”

He’s absolutely right, of course. You have to be there to take advantage of every opportunity to make your case to the people who matter. And that’s usually in the evening over dinner and a drink; or in the early morning at a ‘power breakfast’; or even at lunchtime in the gym. No question about it, working from Devon I couldn’t accomplish even a tenth of what’s needed. If I’d imagined that sort of lifestyle when I was a student, I’d have gawped and said “No way, José.” Now, I’d love the assignment. What could be more intoxicating than to influence policy at the highest level? But what am I going to do about Mum?

My brother Tom says that she should go into a home. “She’s got pots of money since she sold her house and moved in with you,” he says. “That’ll be more than enough to cover the costs. She could afford excellent residential care from the proceeds.” Residential care; a nice euphemism.

It’s not that Tom is heartless. He’s an excellent dad, and he and his wife Mary have been happily married for two decades. He just lacks imagination. Of course, he hasn’t been close to Mum over the last two years, as I have.

“Promise me you’ll never put me into a home, dear.” It’s been a constant refrain. I never promise, naturally, but the weasel words to avoid the commitment sometimes stick in my throat. She plays on my feelings of guilt, but like a child would. It’s deliberate, but almost as though it’s no longer under her control. I can’t imagine the strong woman who brought me up being anything other than scrupulous in leaving others to make their own decisions. Perhaps this should tell me how terrifying she finds the idea of dependency?

The path has passed its apex and swung around to run almost directly due south while I have been musing. South, into the sun. The golden bracken flames in the noonday brightness. A buzzard hovers, and then stoops. It’s too distant for me to see whether it catches its prey. The walking is easy, and I swing along. I remember a performance of Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’ that I heard a year ago in St Martin in the Fields church. Walking through this landscape feels like that music, exuberant, embellished, affirmed. Life snatches me up, lifting me high, soaring joyfully. The path runs down, down to a stream, and when I reach it I leave the track to splash the chill water on my head, as much for exhilaration as the need to cool myself.

About halfway there. The way climbs again, but gently and I’m heading eastward. I cross the brook on the stone clam bridge, marvelling that this primitive human structure should have stood since before history. Up the hill I go, to join the old trackway along which the miners’ railway once ran. Gravel crunches under foot, until I decide that it’s pleasanter to walk on the grass beside the way.

It’s lunchtime, and I’m feeling strong. I leave the track and climb steeply until I’m standing at the very top of the tor. Looking to the south-east I can see right down the valley, clear to the edge of the moor and beyond, to the rich, rolling South Hams. I open my pack and pull out the food. Sandwiches. A round of prawn with mayonnaise in granary bread. Half a round of rough paté and lettuce. Is there any pleasure more visceral and intense than the pleasure of food?

Over my head there is a deafening buzzing of insects. It’s as though I’ve sat myself under their equivalent of Spaghetti Junction. Where are they all going, so busy, expending such energy in getting there? The horizon looks a bit misty. Nothing to worry about, though. The weather forecast was unambiguous. “A glorious day over the whole of Devon and Cornwall” was what the man said. No problem. I set the alarm on my phone and doze for twenty minutes.

It’s such a pleasant dream that I don’t really want to wake up, but I suppose that I must. There’s still eight miles before I reach the end of the route. Yawning, I sit up, take out the vacuum flask, pour myself a coffee and look down from my perch on the tor. It’s much mistier below, and I can’t see more than a hundred metres or so; I’d better get moving.

I pack my bits and pieces into the rucksack, pull on my jacket and trudge down the slope. Sleep has enervated me and my limbs lack strength. Never mind. The coffee and the movement will soon revive me.

Walking into the mist is sinister, stepping into a shadow world. My senses feel more acute but perceive less. At first I can make out the sun as a bright patch against the grey, but as I descend it disappears and colour drains from the landscape. The grass is dull, the bracken mud-brown and dripping damp. It’s cold, colder than I’d expected. Lucky I have my waterproof over-trousers in the rucksack; I may need them.

All I need to do now is climb over this mound and descend the far side and I’ll rejoin the track. Then it’s just follow the path all the way to journey’s end.

My feet skid on the grass and I slip onto my bum. There’s no harm done apart from a damp patch on my trousers but I need to be careful. It wouldn’t be funny if I were to turn an ankle. It’s quite eerie in the fog.

I keep descending. The downward slope is gentler than I remember, and I haven’t struck the track yet. I’m walking fast, getting hot. Is that sweat on my face or moisture from the fog? Slow down, girl! Panicking will not get you anywhere.

“I’m not panicking.” I say the words out loud, annoyed with myself, and moderate my pace. All I have to do is go downhill until I reach the path, turn left, and keep walking. The miners’ track will see me home.

But where is the track? Surely I set out in the right direction? And I’ve kept pretty straight, haven’t I?

I steer well clear of a pond on my left; the ground around it looks wet and treacherous. As I turn away from it, a gentle breeze rolls thick fog up the valley, engulfing me. It’s cold. I pull on my waterproof trousers.

The pause gives me a chance to pull myself together. When I left the top of the tor I could still just see the sun through the mist, and I walked slightly to the left of it. The time is 14:45, so the sun would have been almost south-west, and I would have been moving more or less south. I look at the map and see the pond I’ve just avoided. There should be a path to the west of me. I need to cross that and keep walking downhill. Where’s my compass?

Once more, I delve into my backpack, feeling for the familiar plastic rectangle that houses the compass. I can’t feel it. I unpack everything from the bag. It’s not there.

“Come on, Trish! What kind of halfwit walks on Dartmoor without a compass?”

I check my pockets. Not there. I’ll just have to wing it. If I walk away from the pond, I’ll cross the path and strike the miners’ track. Where’s the pond? I can’t see it; it’s hidden in the fog. I think it’s over there.

I’m filled with doubt about my exact orientation. It takes an effort of will to turn ninety degrees to my right and walk forward. I move carefully, because I can’t see more than about five metres. “So much for the weather forecast,” I think. I try to relax, because I can feel tension in my legs and that will tire me quickly.

The ground is rough, tussocky. I must have walked several hundred metres and I still haven’t crossed the path shown on the map. Is it approaching the time to phone for help? I check my mobile. No signal. “You’re on your own, girl,” I tell myself, firmly.

Aha! What’s this? A path, as I live and breathe. Unless it’s a sheep track… I shall define it as the path I’ve been looking for. I don’t want to follow it, because it bends around to take me in the wrong direction. I must cross it.

It feels wrong to leave the relative security of the little track, and plough my way across lumps of grass and reeds, but that’s what I must do. I acknowledge to myself that I’m frightened. It helps to admit the feeling.

It’s soggy under foot. Every step squeezes water out of the ground. I must be careful not to step into a bog. According to the map there shouldn’t be one, but am I where I think I am? I squelch onwards. Thank goodness for proper equipment; at least I’m dry, and not cold. I wish I’d remembered to check I had the compass, though. What a stupid thing to forget!

I think of my mother, and hope that Tom is coping alright with her. I said I’d be back by six o’clock at the latest. It’s now half past three.

At last! A grassy ditch full of water, and beyond it a stony track. This is the miners’ track! I’m safe!

I hitch my backpack into a more comfortable position, relax my muscles and stride out.

Now that I’m confident of where I am, it seems lighter. In fact, it actually is lighter; there is a patch of brightness in the sky. I walk about eight hundred metres and the sun is warm on my right cheek. The moor is familiar; I’ve walked this stretch several times. I’m tired, more tired than I should be after the distance, but I suppose that’s down to the tension when I thought I was lost.

The walk is no longer the intense pleasure that it was when I set out, but I feel satisfaction at being within sight of completing it. I follow the track, putting one foot in front of the other, ignoring the fatigue.

So, what am I to do about Mum?

She’s lost in a worse fog than I was, and she doesn’t have any way of helping herself. I would have been mightily relieved to have had someone alongside me when I was lost, even if they were only saying “Yes, you’re heading in the right direction, you don’t need to worry.”

I’m going to have to turn down that job offer.

It’s after five. I can see the gate at the edge of the moor. Is there a signal yet for my mobile phone?

I call Tom. Back in thirty minutes, I tell him. Put the kettle on – I need coffee!

 

 

Â