Thursday, 6 December 2018

Yule Tale 2018

Shelf-Elf Barry And The Ugly Christmas Jumper Situation

Shelf-Elf Barry wished he worked on the Christmas production line. Okay the hours were long - September through to December, and you had to be ambidextrous to avoid serious repetitive strain injury, but once you got to that Christmas Eve deadline it was sherry and mince pies and eight months holiday. And no thinking required!

Most production elves would look at the shelf-elf hours and scoff, of course. A mere 25 days! But they never once had to think about work, they could just do it.
Barry worked all year to storyboard 25 unique scenarios, and how to get in and out of each one without being seen, and then there were the incessant training drills and fitness routines that were a core part of being on special forces shelf-elf detail. He felt like he was getting too old for this nonsense. Retirement, alas, was hundreds of years away, and Santa never sacked an elf without also turning them into stuffed toys, which wasn’t how Barry wanted to end up.
(Santa hadn’t actually ever sacked an elf: that was because he’d made that rule and it worked.)

Barry sighed, checked his survival kit, checked it again, cross-referenced it with Larry’s.
Part of the problem was that he couldn’t decide what his Christmas Eve finale would be. He’d just copied last year’s onto his storyboard and somehow got away with that, but the family would know. Mum, Dad, Little Lily, Little Bertie: they would be let down if he spelled FARTY SPROUT PANTS in the tinsel again. Barry was extra-checking his kit to take his mind off what a disaster his mission was going to be. No shelf-elf ever wants to be winging it. Meticulous planning is everything.

Larry had all his ideas but his pack was missing a sugar ration, so he had to go down to stores and argue about that. Store Elves were jealous guardians of sugar in particular.
It was in ample supply, they reasoned, so there shouldn’t be any need for more.
It was ample in the supply house, Larry would tell them, mainly because they never gave any to anyone.
Luckily he had the correct paperwork so they had to sign over a ration for him.
‘May Rudolph’s blessed nose shine upon you,’ he told Barry what he’d said to the Head Store Elf, ‘then when I was walking away I went, like, and may he fly over and poop on your head! I know he heard - I kept walking!’
Barry chuckled. ‘I hope their ugly Christmas jumpers come alive and- hey, that’s the idea I was missing!’
‘Oh yeah.’ Larry packed his sugar safely in his case. ‘That’s a good one!’

Everything was going well now. Shelf-Elf Barry was enjoying his mission. He’d signed a pledge against plastic so no clingfilm across the toilet this year but he’d excelled himself unravelling toilet paper into a giant snowflake that blocked off the shower. He thought he might have gone too far when he drew an ugly portrait of Mum on the mirror using the last of the toothpaste, as Little Bertie had woken her up in the night and she was all tired and teasy; she had burst out laughing and stuck her fingers in it, and cleverly made it into a most unflattering picture of Dad instead. Phew!

The children loved the reindeer poop cookies, and the dolls’ skinny dipping in the goldfish tank, and all of his danglings from lampshades and baubles, and every bit of mess he made: and lo and behold on Christmas Eve it began to snow! And he had his best trick yet to pull!!
(In shelf-elf training they warn you about the smugness. In retrospect Barry could see where it had begun to go wrong.)

Shelf-Elf Barry dragged the jumpers out onto the sofa. There were four of them, as expected.
Dad’s, featuring a padded stuffed turkey.
Mum’s, featuring a tree with real fairy lights.
Little Lily’s, featuring a shark called Santa Jaws.
Little Bertie’s, featuring... a cactus? Well, it was red and green.
Barry climbed up the back of the sofa. He took out and shook up his bag of fairy dust, intent on checking for lumps, then opened it and sprinkled just enough. He didn’t see the loose paperchain slip down from the ceiling until it hit the bag from his hands and all of the dust went Poof over the jumpers.
‘Oh- Great Rudolph’s butt!!!’ Barry watched helplessly at first as the sparkles intensified, then his training kicked in and he ran for cover.

The knitted turkey was first to its feet, and its head reached the ceiling. Barry kept very still. Next was the tree, with glowing eyes, and fir fronds that stuck out into claws. The shark was a bit wobbly, walking on its tail, but soon snapping around happily. Then the cactus got up, with its gigantic spikes. ‘Hug me,’ it said, in a sickly cute voice. ‘It’s Kwismuss.’
Barry didn’t answer. He didn’t move. This will be good practice for when I’m stuffed, he thought. He was certain he’d be sacked.

The turkey was pecking at presents, putting holes in boxes, wrecking the wrapping. Then it began to attack the wallpaper. The jumper tree knocked over the real tree and tore the curtains to shreds. The shark ate the goldfish in one snap and began chasing the cat. The cactus was headed for the front door, slashing everything in its path with deadly thorns.
‘Hug me!’ It demanded as it stepped out onto the street, leaving the door wide open.
It must have been a Christmas cactus as it instinctively picked up snow in its spiny hands and made a snowball, which it hurled through next-door’s window - and that’s when everybody began to wake up. They noticed the snow, which they were thrilled about, and then the cactus, followed by the turkey, the evil-eyed tree and the walking shark, which were kind of thrilling too but not in a good way.
(Mrs Trope at number 30 simply poured her sherry away and went to bed with her earplugs in, but the rest of the street was up and horrified.)

Barry scrambled to the windowsill and peeked out. The turkey was stomping on a car, jumping up and down on its bonnet. The tree was ripping up a shrubbery, shrieking with glee. The shark was smashing ice off a pond and swallowing a plastic flamingo. The cactus was throwing rock hard snowballs through every window, demanding hugs. It was Christmas Eve, and Santa was going to know about this very soon. Barry was going to have to call it in.

He slumped down from the sill and dragged out his radio.
‘Shelf-Elf Barry, Bravo-Alpha-Romeo-Romeo-Yankee, code red.’
‘How red, Shelf-Elf?’
‘Makes Rudolph’s nose look pink… Four Christmas jumpers gone rogue on fairy dust.’
‘Right. Stay tight, we’re coming in.’

Barry wasn’t expecting Santa himself to arrive. He heard the jingling bells before he saw the shadow of the sleigh appear on the road.
‘Oh… mistletoe and wine!’
Barry shook his head in shame. He couldn’t help feeling relieved though, especially as the jumpers shrank and fell harmlessly to the ground, and every broken thing was mended, and the goldfish and the cat reappeared uneaten. He figured he was stuffed, though, and there was no escaping the Santa magic. He picked up his pack, smartened himself up, and went to meet his fate as bravely as he could.

Santa picked him up and sat him on his big fat knee.
‘Shelf-Elf Barry,’ he rumbled, ‘this is your pre-debrief.’
‘With respect, Santa, it is Christmas Eve and I’ve taken up your time already so I can wait.’
‘Time!’ Santa roared laughing. ‘I’ve got that under control. I’ve just wound it back. There’s more than one reason I’ve never had to sack an elf. First, you’re all terrified of being stuffed. Second, I can rewind time and we can put everything back - but just Christmas and elfish stuff, so I can’t intervene in human history, unfortunately.’
‘Oh.’ Barry was stumped for words.
‘And there is something you didn’t know, Shelf-Elf Barry. The sad truth.’
‘Oh, Santa?’
‘Sometimes, Shelf-Elf Barry, Christmas jumpers are ugly on the inside. That’s the sad truth. Good people buy them, sometimes they add tinsel, but, ugly is as ugly does. Especially when they’re all puffed up with fairy dust… Now, get off my lap and finish your detail!’
‘Yes Santa!’

Shelf-Elf Barry went back to the house where the jumpers were lying as they had been before the sparkle-storm of fairy dust. He was so happy to be back at work! He shoved a  cushion inside each jumper and gave them tiny bauble heads before climbing to the top of the Christmas tree. He almost got smug again, but then he kicked himself and set up his hammock for a quick kip before the chocolate-fuelled children came powering downstairs.
‘Happy Christmas.’ He said, just talking to himself. ‘Happy enough to hug a cactus right now!’

He gave the jumpers a nervous glance. Fairy lights twinkled and snow fell, the jumpers were just funny festive clothes. He heard the echo of a Ho Ho Ho overhead: and then, not a creature was stirring, not even a shark.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Penguins Bring Good Cheer

On Monday the first thing I take note of is a waning gibbous moon. A blue-silver bloom floating in pale morning sky. Two cloud tufts make eyes, the moon makes a button nose, a face more awake than mine. Cold takes hold of my fingertips, brings attention to frosted car windows. A visible sigh in the beautiful air. It’s Monday and I need to drive. Blow a kiss to the mouthless moonface, grab the ice scraper. (Call yourself petal out loud, no else is awake to know about it. List the things to be done: do this, do the next thing. Get it done, petal.)
Yesterday we trailed to Exmouth, piled the little car high with boys and dogs, took them to the beach. Grandchild 1, Grandchild 4. Two of our counted blessings. One football, a few squabbles: the usual brother-banter. A slimmed down Fat Beagle, a springy Dog who would ache later. A dog’s ball for throw and fetch. (For spaniel Dog, for this is her vital work. Beagle is more about the scents and the schmooze.)
No sooner do we tread the sands than the miracles begin. Penguins, Grandchild 4 shows us (they look much like crows) PENGUINS THAT FLY!! But they are birds, he further reasons, so of course birds will fly. On no account are they not penguins. Grandchild 1 chuckles. Agrees. Joins our conspiracy of cuteness. Penguins!
We go in search of caves but the tide is closing and the sky drops its colour and the little one tells us that the the sunrise is going down. Yes, we say, how lucky we are to see this. A sunrise that goes down! Look - more penguins!
They both get wet feet. They share throwing the ball for Dog. Five goes each: a challenge to get the ball to the sea before Dog grabs it. Fat Beagle grunts at smells. A girl asks to pet him; he has such soft ears. Return the boys to warm up, eat home-cooked food, lie on sofas, lamp-lit and overtired and watching Christmas films - because this year more than ever we’re all in it for the feels, not the stuff. (Though we bought birthday presents for Grandchild 4: he wanted glue for making things and seeds to grow. They’ll be peas and broad beans and purple carrots and, if tended right, the world’s biggest pumpkin grown by a five year old.) And here I am on a Monday, under the nose of the moon- and look, a penguin!

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Sense We Make

Laura Denaire Harris, oncology nurse, cancer warrior

Dedicated to the memory of Laura Denaire Harris
19th May 1975 ~ 31 October 2018

We travel a road copper-edged in dropped leaf.
Under crooked branches a filigree of gold and shade falls upon us.
A burst of starlings, as though blown from the boughs: silhouettes swooping through blue, in a bloom of sunlight.
We cross a shining river on a sturdy bridge, each arch has a shadow-shimmer on the water below.
Pass a thatched cottage where a rose shakes in the bite of the breeze.
The air has no warmth beyond the sun’s reach.

We walk through the town to find the right church; pass paramedics kneeling by a man who is prone on the street in a sleeping bag. There are people at a cashpoint queuing, subdued. Passersby viewing with concern. A busker without a coat, his face pinched pink. Shops open, some lit for Christmas. In a gilded doorway, a couple ask directions from a lady who points as she speaks.

We find the church, the hearse - this is just part of life, the big picture of everyday life, this gloss black transport, this crumbled red brick - we remind ourselves. A lady with a pen waits patiently for names to be spelt; each letter stumbles out, however normal we know this to be.
I never saw a wicker coffin before - the prettiness of it, unexpected.
Blindsided by something cute: a detail.

Hush in the congregation save for the pipings of young children.
Murmurs. Tissues pulled from pockets. The church organ plays.
To shoulder a casket is an honourable thing; a piercing bravery, a bond between worlds.
They carry her in that pretty wicker, her family, her friends.
Place her at the head of us, to be celebrated.

People drawing strength from need stand to give tribute.
We see a life - a grand adventure, devotion, mischief, achievements - it is what has passed and will be missed and to be grateful for. How proud she was of her family, of her friends, of her calling to be an oncology nurse: her uniform was her going out dress, today.
(Collectively we are not going to win any choir prizes; it is sweet that we try. There’s a warmth in that.)
Hands press into neighbouring hands, by thoughtful request. Literally, a nice touch.
Each speaker given applause for what they share, and for the sharing itself.
We look after each other, today.
Hands in hands. Arms open: comfort in proximity.
Comfort in the petting of dogs, in memories of kindness and fun. Hot release of weeping, and slow fond tears.
This beautiful mess of grief that can only be made with love - for which we can and cannot be sad - this connection is the joy of sorrow.

Night brought with it the image of a half moon. Leaves blew, colours unseen.
This wonderment of mess!
These details!
Moments, fragments - they become our whole stories: yes, a life is made of moments, yes: it is how we bring our attention to them that makes the composition work.
The sense we make.

Laura Denaire marries Paul Harris, celebrating life

Friday, 9 November 2018

How To Catch A Cold Without Regret

One good skimming stone, one limpet shell saying 'O'

If I wash my hair today, tomorrow I could schedule in some combing. 
Not to glorify busy, if messy hair is a glorification. I forget. It could be fashionable, if that word still exists.
Anyway, here I am babbling: poor time management; though most things seem to be getting done; the big picture is a body of water - me and my task list are bouncing over it, skimmed stones – I'm not at all sure if I know what I’m doing but I’m doing it. 
 There’s a destination which we may or may not reach.
Even r
est time is skittish: yet this fear is relished – if only all fear were like this!  

Doubt is less popular. The work ahead is a weight I haven’t fully figured how to shoulder.   Did I ever figure out any previous burdens?  
Luckily, no! An encouraging precedent!  

 When I am standing on the shore, a real shore, and the air is gathering chill and the water is silky-dark, I doubt my ability to get in and swim. But then I am swimming. Gulls wheel and cry, yacht ropes clank. I’m a giant in a bladder-wrack forest. Perfect twists of wood drift by.  The sky can be anything – bursting golds, dissolving greys, lashing rain - it cannot be wrong.  

 Later again I am curled in blankets, brimming with symptoms, reminding myself that plenty of folk have this same virus without braving the swim: busy without the bounce.

A beach at twilight encourages adventures

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Halloween Tale 2018

A Midnight Mermaid

One eye opens. Lines of light drop between each beam’s shadow.
That repetitive shoosh becomes sand dragging under waves.
This is the beach house.

Beyond the conservatory roof is the moon, it has pulled the tide high.

Your feet want to be on the sand, it’s all you think of - that beach, that light, how it catches the tilt of the sea. The salt tang. The feel of sand under bare feet.
So your feet go to the floor, your arms pull into a gown, your palm presses the door handle.

Outside is exactly right. Silvered, doused in magic.
Shoosh, shoosh.
A warm press from the air. The press of your feet in cooling sand.
There in the white break something rolls, fluid as the water, shining.
A hand spills from the wave, a shining hand.
The shock is a thrill. This is night magic, you are sure of it.
You crouch; creep closer.

Strands of hair flow in, flow out.
A figure slender, dense with muscle.
Arms, shoulders, skin taut over ribs, a waist that morphs into fish.
Is it?
You reach your fingers out to touch fine scales on an upper arm.
Fish skin, part human; the body rolls.
All the light is outside, it glints off.
This face is configured as yours is: eyes, nose, mouth. Eyelashes, eyebrows. Lips, bow shaped.
Glassy eyes, unseeing, with some unhuman tint.
Teeth thin, sharp: fish teeth.
Not bones, these ribs, the roll is too light - they are.. cartilage?
Gill slits under each ear. Ears close to the head, small like they would close up underwater.
In the tail nothing resembles legs - this, this is all piscine, pristine, some kind of emerald that lived and swam and even the cloaca is placed like a gem.
Strands of hair flow everywhere, mesmerising, swirling over blurring edges.
Yes: the edges are coming undone - coming from flesh to flecks, bioluminescent flickers that slick back out over the waves.
The skin is all gone, just like that.
Muscles twist, foam, slick out.
Skeletal structure reveals, disappears.
Slippery innards just the same.
Each piece of it amazing - weird - gone.
Your knees hurt. You stand up.
Rainbow colours shimmer out, flow like hair, slowly, slowly, shift, disperse.
You turn your palms up. A fleck of scale on your fingertip.
Deeply breathing an oily-seaweed scent.
Slow-heavy repeat of the surf.
So tired.

And when the sun later spears into your dreams?
You can feel that there is sand on your feet, you can see that the fine scale has gone from your touch, and that is all you can know.