A View of the Sea

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The sea is roiling and a grey essence runs through the turbid water. Leaden clouds hasten across the clash and froth below.

Sheila is having a cigarette on the path leading down to the small harbour beach. She is outside the café set inside the old Harbourmaster’s House. The Sunday shift is busy as people and some tourists come off the coastal path walking along the seashore of Fife; they are in for a coffee and what there is of their small selection of soup, sandwiches and cakes.

Brenda, is in charge is in a bad mood as the sandwiches due for delivery have not arrived. There have been a lot of apologies to customers and some hurried work with baguettes and some bread she had bought to fill in the ‘Soup with a Sandwich’ gap.

She has about five minutes for her break. It’s only three-and they always get a rush before they shut at 4.30pm. The old dears, the old ladies are the worst. Most are widowers. They’ve come out for a Sunday drive and they mean to milk every last tea drop from their time. Most are fine, some show what they would have been like thirty years before. Still sour.

Sheila’s thoughts got to funerals and black again. So would I if I was on the wrong end of the Grim Reaper’s shopping list; Eddie’s anger now depression was getting to her.

Christ, that’s her back to death again. Eddie’s bed in the Victoria Hospital came into view. He was due the move to the hospice next week; they would have room then for him to get a bed.

Like a tree felled. Never a heavy drinker and smoker he was shrinking before her eyes. Diane would greet for an hour at the house after she had visited her father. Chatted him no problem-big smiles and everything while she was there.

One minute. She had better go in.

**

The old harbour where Sheila works saw boats go across to Holland and beyond even before the old Scottish Parliament shut up, she thinks. And now they-those that have riches want a change. And yet it seems the poor get it in the neck. His army pension and army pension should be enough but Diane’s wee one has that hip problem and needs extra.

‘C’mon Sheila get the lady the latte, now. And the coffee cake too, mind.’

The customer in question looks at the outstanding bully that has matched the ancient surroundings with a distinctly historical foul presence.

Her dark hair and calm eyes take Sheila’s attention as she wrestles with the coffee maker and watches a noisy family of four enter the arena.

The lady’s raven black hair is tied back in bunch behind a green and yellow blouse that has songbirds arranged on it.

The coffee is finished and the unsmiling Brenda-with that long boned drip of a face looks to tend to the ménage that has just entered.

Sheila gets the things arranged on the plain tray at the till. A small creel boat leaves the gnarled maw of the harbour and heads into the Firth of Forth waters.

Taking the ten pounds without looking into the woman’s face she feels the warmth first. Then she speaks as her wrist is held.

‘He will be fine. Your husband is a good man. Don’t worry.’

The tone, is mellifluous like the surge of water left by the seals she sometimes see come into the harbour’s mouth.

The lady sits at the window seat in the corner but two metres from the till.

At the counter there is a metallic English voice talking about rabbits. It comes from the pram wedged between father and the older son. The device talking to the toddler is lodged, a sliver of silver between his arms. The buggy he sits in is being tipped up now by the older brother.

It keeps Brenda and her words busy.

Still stunned but not really surprised she takes over the change the lady undoubtedly left for her. The nearly four pounds rests lightly in her hand. The April sun bounces of the waters that still seem stirred by an underground wrath.

Sheila pauses, still sweating and looks into her eyes. A family with a beautiful brown spaniel walk by. Less chaotic than the present inmates.

‘Here’s your change. And what you said…’ Sheila uttered as she made sure her back was toward Brenda whose face was showing the strain as a small orange was dumped on the tray by the elder boy.

‘It’s the truth. I know. And you’ll see it is,’ the lady said with a reassurance that no doctor intent on getting on to the next job had ever shown her in the last six months.

Sheila says, ‘Thanks. Enjoy. Still rough out there’

Going back to the kitchen. Sheila noticed the two ladies in the other corner but six metres away from the lady who had taken off her scarf like she was walking the carpet to the Monte Carlo casino.

The two old ladies smiled at her. One took a sip from her tea and nodded. Sheila gathered the detritus from the one table that was now free. The pieces of cake that even the seagulls might have left unharvested drew Brenda’s eye.

She tutted and nodded toward it.

‘I have to go now,’ and Sheila turned to get her coat from the back, ‘I told you I had to be at the hospital. You’ll have to get it. Or sweep it later.’

The open mouth and wrinkled bony brow was a fleeting enjoyment.

**

A week later. He died. Just went. He’d been at peace. Just a day in the hospice where the nurses had been great.

She would phone Diane and his remaining family later.

On the way back in the bus the streaming rain sends rivulets sliding down over the window. They seem warming, like a small sea.

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Petrol Station

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Once it was all over he did remember.

Justine had just been born and he had been trying to make that monthly selling target at the garage. The new area manager had been on him. A smart arsehole from Stonehaven, up North who had served in the first Gulf War. He didn’t like him. His infantry experience in Iraq and his mention in Despatches (admitted under his sarcastic probing) meant the lanky bastard fed that childhood memory of him being called ‘stick insect’. Break time was his favourite for baiting him.

‘You must have looked like a twig with a rifle in basic training, mate.’

Or gems like, ‘You good pals with the officer class to get the mention in Despatches.’

 

They had warned him-and seemingly they had done it about a year before that too.

‘Please don’t use a mobile on the forecourt of the petrol station.’

The fire that engulfed the front of the engine was caused by the signal and the small pool left by the tanker that had re-fuelled the petrol station. A freak and unique accident. How lucky.

The severe burns on his legs meant they had him in a coma for five days. And now several weeks afterwards he was still over the bridge in Edinburgh. The physio and painkillers filled his days and the slow turn of time was marked by the nurses who came and went according to the shift pattern.

One, Nicola had been in Iraq with the Territorial Army. She had seen some sights and would come and ask him if it was okay to speak about events which were now more than a decade old.

Peace was sometime shit, he thought. His father was helping with the mortgage. He wondered about how they would cope. And the job. What job, more like torture.

**

 Today his work colleagues were coming in to visit. The cheek of the man. Brian was coming in too. Not able to make an excuse-like taking the blessed twins (both boys) to their swimming. No, he had to come.

Tottering to the toilet. He passed a picture of a surgeon. There were art pieces of different medical staff all around the wards, he had found out. The background to the male figure was black and the poise of the man in scrubs was that of a warrior. The eyes focused and ready reminded of the snipers. They were a solitary bunch and always kept a focus despite their calm demeanour. He felt the pain in his legs etch out runes and markings in that internal landscape only himself was at large in.

 

The flowers and massive card appeared first as they came past the ward window. Pete was first to just look at his legs lifted up just above the bed sheets. He then looked at Nick’s face. After him Sue, the receptionist came in next to his bed as well as Max and then him.

There was banter about the effect on the five-a-side they always did each Thursday and the annual pub crawls in Prague or Barcelona.

It took about twenty minutes for Brian to speak.

‘I hope you’re no wanting you’re spot on the Target Chart kept now?’

The face of the Iraq soldier with his stomach blown open came to him before he spoke. The man had spoken and blessed Nick as he held his hand before death. Brian had been in and no doubt bullied and dominated his way around including the tours in Norther Ireland.

Next he saw Michelle’s face no doubt in tears when he would tell her about quitting his job tonight.

‘You’ve just got to share the crap you are inside with those outside, eh Brian?’

He said this and pulled himself up slightly on the bed as the others held their breath-or so it seemed.

He left putting down the card he was scanning while barely lifting it from the unit at the end of the short ward.

The hiatus ended as Max, ever the idiot asked if social skills were on the menu for tonight’s menu. And what were the nurses like.

 

Michelle cried but she was happy. She hadn’t wanted to say but it was killing her how unhappy he had been these past five years. The hours he had put in for little thanks.

He could re-train. Anything. It just wasn’t worth it.

For Steven

A Different Ending

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Her mother in Kolkata always used to look at the sky, rainy season or not and dictate what the family had to wear for university or school. When they went to the Botanical Gardens in the city near the Hugli River the necessity of cooking the right foods and correct shoes was a must. And her Grandma’s samosas were just perfection.

Daksha is out for a walk. It is an expedition for her. When the weather is right, here in Fife she will venture from their bungalow round to the small row of shops that are on the edge of the industrial estate. The expanse of window factories and workshops starts as their small town finishes.

The covering of the sari across her head will do. It is December but mild. The wild misery of the rain whipping across the country and kingdom have stopped. Today, Sunday it is quiet. The boys-their grown-up sons are busy with the cars in the driveway and her husband is working in Edinburgh. The animal laboratory has an important-and rushed job for the Department of Agriculture.

The small field near the roundabout that she walks near to get round for her walk sometimes has deer in it. Once a kestrel sat making its own film while young rabbits ventured beyond their mother’s control. She thought it must be young as the beak was overly yellow, she thought so anyway. A biologist, she was not an ornithologist.

‘Was.’ It is the past tense, she thought, as she carefully crosses over the road that bent round toward the first corner in the estate.

A stint in Penn State University teaching and the lectureship in Poland. Yes, she thinks she has been luck. And family. Above all, family.

The anomaly of an atypical carcinoid, this would kill her. Not a benign tumour but one as aggressive as the fighting at Partition that had killed her army father.

The twilight of this unusually warm December could allow her to walk slowly. Though sometimes she still got a strange look from the various garbed gym visitors who jogged, ran or drove past her as she went on the walk.

One time a nice young girl had asked if she was okay. The pain that day had been terrible. The operation had been a total failure. Private hospital or not. The operation had taken place in Edinburgh. Proficient-they had not been. Like cancer, respect and reality sometimes did not go hand in hand.

 

**

The circuit has been completed. Daksha is tired and her elegant movement is more stilted and almost a limp might be seen if someone was watching her.

The walk back into Coaltown is a short one. The wall of their garden can be seen as she turns the corner onto the straight road into the village.

Two women-obviously ‘Power Walking’ come toward her and pass vigourously without talking.

The gritty surface of the old pavement sounds out her steps back to home. In the field she sees the wild cherry tree at the back. It is heavy with berries. The sodden earth in the field beyond is churned by the small Shetland ponies.

Her sons moan every time she mentions the ‘poor wee ponies’.

The street lamps are lit by an invisible hand as she is some twenty metres from her gate.

Three Months Later-a Short Story

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Warsaw

‘Her name was Mariatta. Thin, always in a floral dress. And she always smells like heaven. Ah wished I hadn’t met her but I did.

The job that started it all was in Linlithgow and we had to through most of Edinburgh first. There was a whole lot of pipes to pick up for the job.’

Big Tam, the joker, the centre-half, the reliable eldest brother was in tears. His boss didn’t know what to do.

It was Saturday and his best friend, had met him, here in the pub.

‘I went into the deli-first Polish one I’d been in to grab something to eat. Well, it was something went inside. I felt a queer feeling in ma gut. When I got back from the Polish deli Wee Davie went fucking mental in the van. We were late and this was a big job. He had promised the Boss there would be no messing about. Like the time they had a five-a-side with the French tourists near the Salisbury Crags. The restaurant we were refurbishing was paying a lot to get us here all weekend.

“What were you bloody daein for twenty minutes in there-rewriting the New fucking Testament?” Wee Davie said to me.’

Tam’s boss had one hand on his shoulder. The sunlight in the empty bar caught some dust as the barman gave the tables a clean and polish. The vacuous drivel of some football commentators gave out to the empty pub.

 

‘Three months later I made an excuse to myself to go back. I couldn’t get her smile and smell away from me.’ Tam continued his story.

‘Dot was wondering what was wrong with me. I wasn’t touching her. She thinks I’m going through something like when my wee brother got killed in Spain on holiday.

Her father-Mariatta’s father had died in Warsaw. His physiotherapy business had only been sold a year before he got bowel cancer. She’s was an only child and she got a lot in his will. So she came her-invested in the delicatessen in Portobello.’

Tam’s friend wondered where this was going to end. He kent Dot well and the wee one was his Godson. The tearing inside Big Tam seemed to draw the sadness of the wind swept November street through from the walls.

‘I just don’t know, Martin-I don’t’ Tam’s massive right hand fore-knuckle dabbed lightly at the side of his eyes.

Address

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This was years ago. The blood on the pub carpet will have long dried. The broken cues will have been binned and Martin (not his real name) is maybe happy somewhere in the world.

**

The holidays offered the pretence of more pay and perhaps some tips. The Grassmarket, back then, was not yet part-gentrified or given to continental style outdoor cafes. The return of the Scottish Parliament was but an ember in a devout heather-hugging Nationalist’s heart-fire while Thatcher, the Prime Minister of Greater England had from Imperial Westminster taken to imposing the Poll Tax.

We: Martin and I worked in the Grassmarket part of Edinburgh’s smoke-filled bars and sometimes worked in the same one. The businessman, (later) politician and small-time crime boss had two pubs. The one further away from Princes’ Street was nearer the Men’s Hostel. Sometime there were problems with men who had the drinking disease.

My pub was small and songs like the Highland Drover or Wha’ll Be King But Charlie would be belted out while barrack troops from the Castle or weary office workers would drink on or up.

The customers seemed to be hated. The small man who was the owner was only interested in the large folded sentries of money in his pocket.

This one time a customer got paint on a new leather jacket. There were no signs put out; his protests were halted as the manager threw him onto the pavement. The owner-Robert or Rab, as staff and minions called him, watched with a smile that was nothing to do with humour. The crease of it happened below the pale, chubby cheeks.

A thin trickle of blood started running down from the customer’s fringe as got up from the greasy rain covering the pavement outside. Easily done. He was on his own and the small girl friend his money had ensured this Friday night stood behind as he banged on the window and headed down the road that headed past the bottom of the castle.

**

Only later would Martin fill me in about the scams, relationships and dodgy deals that the owner would be up to. While the manager, John, who ran both pubs was a thin wasp of a man whose sneer never seemed to put off the determined drinkers of Edinburgh. Busy arranging the storing of smuggled cigarettes and booze along with the more high-tariff items he would snap and hurl abuse at us or whoever was on. Even on a quiet evening it was the same drill.

John, with his pale features and thin lips, forever in a snake-like line at the end of his narrow head would ghost up behind you as you grabbed change for a round of twelve drinks-knowing you were at least two pence off your actual total. This as the pools of Special and orchestra of glasses built up on the bar itself and the small wooden tables in the bar.

Too close. He would ask why you weren’t smiling or happy as a line of customers waved notes or swore at the pushing in this, one of the smallest pubs on the Grassmarket.

**

The Christmas rush of parties and drunk workers building up to Christmas Eve was a chance for at least some tips we could pocket as our wages would be docked for spilling drinks or customer ‘complaints’.

Martin who had been in rugby before his knee got smashed got away with a lot. He could come in late or hung over and ride the crap that would come at him when cleaning the classes or the beer lines.

It was then that it happened and it was when he was in the other pub. It’s a Mexican or whatever now while my pub is still there minus the cloud of smoke killing the customers over Snake Bite or their chosen poison.

It was late and it was just into the day of Christmas Eve when he ran in. The detritus of the night was being collected into one stinking pile while the stale smell was slowly going as the chill air came in from the wedged open door.

‘It’s a mess. They came in and hell..Not a table left up and they, they left him…’ Martin had said as he barged in the door with a face that looked like I did when I cut open my foot.

No one was about, Don, the old bartender was in the cellar. A close friend of the manager and owner he was best left alone.

We ran back and the blood, glass and body of the man were all there. About half a cue was on the road while the rest-broken in bits were inside.

‘I’ll call the police-see to him but dinnae move his head.’ Martin said as he went to the end of the bar.

The man was breathing so slowly and the cut on his head seemed unreal but for the smell and run of blood that soaked into his jumper and jeans. The bent shape of him would have been comical in another life.

A mirror advertising the McEwan beer was cracked into slivers radiating out from a silver bruised heart.

**

Later when we could speak and after the statements had been taken we had a whisky and the sun would be up soon. Rolls at the Leith bakery were an option.

After a week at university it was the weekend shift.

‘Flying solo, mate.’ Martin said as I wandered in, freezing; it was safer not bring a coat.

‘I got a visit, same guys and it was the next night.’ He said.

He had withdrawn his statement from the police. It was simple. They knew. His address. His name.

A few weeks later I was out. Daft how only later you wonder. And that snivelling shape of a manager. I was lucky as the customer who lost a £200 pound coat was in some ways.

Hot Bubbling Road

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Hot Bubbling Road

I remember seeing the water boiling as the lakes of Yellowstone were a stone’s throw away. And soon death would take us to all ends, create a murmur of a black shadow and speaking that would follow us. The three of us.

                                             **

The roads became longer once we got out to the eastern states beyond New York State itself. The Cherokee jeep we had was full. Jan and I had filled it with Chicken Ravioli tins from the American summer camp we had both been working in. Two guys from London and Oxford had joined us. New York State had coped well with the Dutch and Scottish student single figure invasion.

We had contacted the student organisation that we had got the jobs through and they had put us in touch with them. That made one Scotsman, one Dutchman and two others from Great Britain. Accordingly assembled this smattering of nationalities were a European contingent about to go across the continental United States.

The time zones that we went into before we reached Mountain Time, Arizona, I think were punctuated by hundreds of miles of road. We: Jan and I couldn’t drive the car so the others would drive.

Driving before Montana:

‘Did you pay the bill, Jan? ‘Tim said as the long lock of the Kansas highway opened up again and again before us.

‘No, I did not. I presumed Alex or Martin had.’ Jan replied, exhausted as the rest of us after the many hours of driving from New York.

Thereafter, Tim-a psychology student fretted and whined about the possibility of State Troopers giving us forced board in a town’s cells.

The sarcastic humour that Jan got was wasted on the other two who seemed as humourless as the gas station attendants we would meet across the miles and states we had been through before Wyoming.

Wyoming and Montana-this is what we had been looking forward to. The miles of forest containing bear, moose and buffalos and the famed volcanic geysers and springs including Old Faithful.

 

                                               **

The Ranger at the Park entrance was surly beyond belief and warned us on no account to go camping beyond the allocated sites without a rifle.

It was getting dark as came to a pretty much deserted stop next to the pools of water that were the colours of the nebulae and supernova of NASA photographs. The bacteria in the super-heated water made them that way, we learnt from a quick scan on the tourist information boards.

We ran down to them as the light faded and could still see dust coming off the wooden walkways across the living, molten earth below; belching hot mud pools were all around.

‘We can get a photo, down near that really blueish one.’ Tim said.

We were all over the fence and walking on the bare and dry skin around the hot mud or water pools. A thousand myriad tones of blue and clear light mixed in the bright August sunlight.

A loud crack. This was from the split in the top layer of mud or rock.

Then Tim’s comic position with one hand and one leg wickedly bent.

Screaming, then more screaming. And all time and belief in solidity, God and mothers descended into movement and panic.

Jan, Mike and I backtracked onto the wooden walkway for tourists. We were gallus after walking for a quarter of an hour on the surfaces near the pools.

What and how-the concepts and panic all mixed as screams got louder yet thinner.

Kicking the wood from the walkway then getting the tallest of us to lie down and reach in.

And Jan bears the burns still up to his shoulder.

              **

A month. A month before we returned to university in our own countries.

 

Later, even when sleep and work drew you down I always read any signs, watched for a problem when the kids were out or on holiday.

At least it was something to honour him.

Summer Spot

Maddy has just completed her drama course. The graduation ceremony with parents and grandparent has come and gone.

The reality of jobs and income hasn’t been forgotten but the numbers don’t lie. As the last bit of rent in Glasgow is paid and the money for the mad week in Spain (with all five friends) has registered fully on card and account she feels it.

They are here for two weeks. In a shopping centre that makes Kafka’s dreams look like paradise. Brutal, grey concrete with pound shops and empty units in the lower end like decayed teeth in a shopping mall’s wide mouth.

She is the foil to Andy’s ‘Game Master’ as they entice families and shoppers with families to join in their madcap competitions and sketches next to the small café (closed) platform and its open space.

They have an inflatable ‘ring’ and welcome arch as well as real sand for their stage.

Andy is brilliant. He was a car mechanic in the East End of Glasgow before hearing the call of thespian angels. Tall, lanky and from an Indian family he is fun, protective and can reel the punters in.

**

 

The third day a young mother with a one year old and a three old comes down. Her long black hair seems more lively and voluminous than herself. Her lovely edge of the hand floral tattoo contrasts with the drawn face and tired green eyes. Her mouth never wavers upwards.

Maddy takes both away-pushing buggy and holding the other’s hand while Andy orchestrates the ordered chaos.

As they hush and freeze for the punchline (and loud bang) to happen her phone goes.

‘Ay, tonight…I can phone. I will have to get some credit on the phone. And my mum has promised to give a bit toward some bits for Natalie’s starting the Nursery.’

The finale and bow-relayed on a wee screen to the audience outside causes a small ripple of applause. Children are reunited and some parents look both relieved and happier than when they started.

Maddy listens to what Mummy says as she clears the sweat on this hot, hot day which is so un-Scottish as to be positively alien.

‘…Daddy is still away for that work for a long time, now. We can phone him later and tell him what a wee star you were,’ she says.

The young mother turns and with a thin arm and very slender wrist takes Natalie’s hand.

Maddie wonders if they will see them tomorrow or another day and heads to the Newsagent for something to drink. She passes the jewellers shop and the stall in the walkway selling mobile phone covers.