A Penguin Comes to Tea

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Christmas Relations

“I think we should invite my mother for Christmas this year,” my husband said last August. “Everybody else is busy, and she might end up spending Christmas on her own, which would be awful.”
“You mean we’d never hear the end of it,” I muttered under my breath.
“Maybe, but it still would be awful to be alone at Christmas, while everybody else is off celebrating.”
So I agreed, but I had no illusions that it would be an easy visit. My mother-in-law likes things done her way, and has multiple ways to remind you of it. I remember her last visit, two summers ago, and the day I was trying to prepare dinner in a hurry, so that my son could go off to his soccer practice.
“Would you like me to warm the plates?” she had asked, even though it was the middle of summer and we were only having pasta.
“No, don’t worry; they’ll be fine once the food is on them,” I said.
“Well, the food stays warmer longer if the plates are heated,” she said.” You don’t have a warming cupboard do you? They are so useful.”
I looked around my crowded kitchen at the piles of schoolwork and cookbooks, the lunch bags that still needed emptying and the dirty dishes from the afternoon snack and vaguely waved a hand to show that I did not know where a warming cupboard would go, hoping she would understand that it was number nine thousand and something on my wish list.
“I use my warming cupboard all the time,” she continued. “It’s a pity you don’t have room for one.”
I smiled and warmed the plates in the microwave, showing her that I could manage perfectly well with what I had.
So, in the weeks before Christmas I made lists of all the things she could possibly want that I would have to procure: napkin rings for the table, even though we never used napkins unless she was visiting; mince pies from a bake table, so that I could pretend I had made them; eggnog and champagne; ingredients for mulled wine; two varieties of cheese and fair trade coffee beans.
“Yay, Granny’s coming for Christmas,” the children sang.
“Is she going to come to my concert?”
“No, she’s coming to my ballet recital.”
“Will Santa bring her a present to this house?”
And they bounced on the guest bed to soften it up, leaving muddy footprints on the carpet.
The dragon arrived on the appointed day and complained about the journey and the other travellers, then she produced small gifts for the children which turned them into whirling dervishes, a book for my husband, a box of chocolates for me and a fruitcake for Christmas.
“I made it myself,” she said, “as I knew you wouldn’t have time to make one. It’s very rich, as it has a lot of brandy in it.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the cake which was heavier than a brick. “That’s very kind of you. The children are full of gingerbread at the moment.”
“Hmm, well of course they do new things at school these days, but a Christmas cake is traditional, so I thought they should have one.”
I smiled and nodded and took her to her room, then raced to hide the sponge cake which the children had begged me to buy.
The next couple of days passed in a blur as Granny was dragged from one performance or sports game to the next, while my husband suddenly found lots of extra work to do. Finally Christmas Eve arrived, and the children sat before the fire, faces scrubbed, stockings in hand, discussing the best way for Santa to come down the chimney.
“What day do you normally have the ham?” Granny asked.
Ham? My mind went blank. Had I bought a ham? If so, where had I put it? Not at the bottom of the closet with the secret gifts, please, I hoped. Well, at worst I could buy one on Boxing Day, when surely they would all be marked down.
“Oh, after Christmas,” I said, “there’s way too much food to get through first, especially with the wonderful gifts you brought.”
My mother-in-law sniffed, and took another sip of her wine. I ushered the children upstairs, assuring them that the chimney would soon be ready for Santa, then I bade my mother-in-law a goodnight.
“Yes, you should go to bed now, you’ll want to be up early to stuff the turkey,” she said.
I did not point out that we’d all be up early once the children woke and found their stockings, and instead I went to the kitchen and lined up a few baking trays on the oven to show that I knew what I was doing.
I survived the early morning bed romp with children already high on sugar from their stockings, I remembered to put the turkey in the oven on time, I hid the packaging from the store-bought stuffing, and I was washing the vegetables when disaster struck.
“Have you made the brandy butter?” my mother-in-law asked.
“No, we don’t bother; it’s too rich for the children, so we just usually have cream,” I said.
“What? No brandy butter? That’s a tradition with the Christmas pudding. Here, let me make some; it won’t take long at all, and then the children can have a little taste.”
I mentally rolled my eyes, but graciously accepted and found some butter and a dish. It was only when I returned to the sink that the realisation hit me. I had forgotten to buy the Christmas pudding. I stood in horror looking down at the half-peeled potato wondering how I could get out of this disaster. Should I cut a large slice of her cake and squash it into an old pudding bowl? Should I own up to the fact that nobody liked Christmas pudding, or should I pretend I had left it in the pantry and the dog had eaten it?
I looked over at the dog lying on his bed and decided he would not make a good villain.
There was nothing for it. I would have to improvise.
Once the potatoes were in the oven, I gathered the ingredients for a skillet cookie, made up the dough and put it in the fridge. There would be time to put it in the oven once the turkey had come out, and brandy butter would melt nicely on a warm cookie.
“That’s an interesting way to carve a turkey,” my mother-in-law said, as I cut half the breast off and quickly sliced chunks onto the children’s plates. “Don’t you carve thin slices from the top?”
“No time,” I said, “we don’t want the plates to go cold.”
She felt her warm plate and nodded; finally I had got something right.
The children’s chattering drowned out any other comments, and I was able to slip the skillet cookie into the oven while they argued about the cracker prizes. When the turkey plates had been cleaned away, I looked at them and said, “And what do think we’re having next? It’s a skillet cookie!”
“Hooray!” they shouted. “Really? You’re the best, Mum. I hate that fruity pudding thing we usually have. Granny, you’re going to love this!”
“Brandy butter will go perfectly with the cookie,” I said, and smiled at my mother-in-law.

100 word sentence

An assignment from a lecture series I watched a while ago was to create a 100 word sentence, to demonstrate that long sentences can build tension and be interesting. So here are my first three attempts.

With a cigarette clamped firmly between his teeth, a red scarf tied around his neck and his blue and white striped shirt, the gondolier, an image from the classic Italian tourist postcard, poled effortlessly along the winding waterways of the Grand Canal, pausing between each stroke to shout some historical, or, more often, anecdotal fact about the houses or glass factories slipping past on either side, all the time deftly maneuvering the gondola past barges laden with industrial goods and over the wake of faster craft buzzing about their business, slipping silently under the endless succession of bridges or pontes, which link the many piazzas and churches of Venice.

(109 words)

With his cutlass clamped tightly between his teeth and two primed pistols tucked into his waist the pirate vaulted from the forecastle, avoiding the sword fight that was engaging most of the crew and scaled the rigging like a monkey, hand over hand, pulling himself up to the topmost spar and heaving the terrified lookout from the crow’s nest, barely pausing before launching himself on a rope across the deck, swinging like a pendulum over the heads of the struggling soldiers, from where he was able to pick off the ringleaders, one by one, with a few carefully aimed shots.

(100 words)

The sun rose slowly, majestically, almost unnoticed, sending out fingers of light, tentative at first, soft pink hues as if testing the terrain and then longer, more definite rays, broken only by puffs of clouds, which reached to the farthest corner of the meadow, turning each blade of grass and each leaf a brilliant green, where once they had appeared black and sombre, and dispatching the morning dew into a gentle mist that rose to the heavens in the endless cycle of water and cloud.

(85 words)

A Gift As Yet Unopened

Tracy helped her mother into the car and wrapped a blanket around her legs, placing the worn brown purse where her mother could see it.
“Where are we going?” asked the old lady, looking out the window.
“We’re going to visit Bob and his family.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Who’s Bob?”
“Bob is my brother,” Tracy said.
She could have added ‘and your son, whom you raised and looked after for twenty-three years; who was the favourite, blue-eyed boy,’ but she did not. She was beyond that stage now.
At first, Tracy and Bob had teased their mother about her memory. The car keys were always going missing and she could never find her glasses, but nor can most people over 50. But then it began to get worse. One day, her mother walked to the post box without shoes on and could not remember why she had gone out in the first place. Another day, Tracy came to visit to find her mother making tea; half the packet lay strewn all over the floor and the kettle was nearly boiled dry, but it was the sight of her mother counting out sugar lumps into the sink that made her realise that something was not right.
“Alzheimer’s disease,” they said. Nothing to be done.
“I’m not putting Mum into one of those homes,” Tracy said, “I’ll look after her myself.”
“Are you sure?” said Bob, “it would be so much easier, and if we sell her house she could afford to be looked after in a home. They know how to deal with this stuff.”
But Tracy was adamant. So her mother moved in with Tracy and her husband Matthew and their daughter.
“Grandma can read to us every day!” said Elizabeth.
But Grandma soon tired of reading, and forgot who Elizabeth was, so the little girl withdrew into her world of play.
“Grandma’s getting old, dear,” said Tracy, “and old people like to sleep a lot. They forget things because they have so many memories to look after. They have memories of when they were little children, just like you, running around with their friends, having tea parties, and all the things little girls did back in those days. Grandma has memories of getting married and having her own children and of course she has memories of you.”
But those memories were fading, disappearing from the old lady’s head until soon she was just a shell, a total stranger. It was hard for Tracy, having to show her mother how to button the same sweater over and over. Having to check her room to make sure she did not leave forgotten food lying around for the cats and the spiders to find. Having to start every morning with, “hello, I’m Tracy; I’m going to bring you breakfast.”
“I don’t know why you don’t just move her out,” said Bob, after lunch that afternoon, when their mother had fallen asleep on the porch, “she’d never know the difference; she doesn’t even recognise us anyway.”
But Tracy just shook her head.
“I can’t do that, not to Mum. She looked after us when we were sick, when we were grouchy and ungrateful. She came to nearly all my dance recitals and all of your soccer games. She went back to work so that we could have extra money for vacations after Dad died. She was there for me when Elizabeth was born. No, Bob, we owe her so much, I have to do this for her.”
“But she doesn’t even know what’s going on – you’re throwing your life away and she’ll never notice. Get on with the future, Tracy.”
A single tear rolled down Tracy’s cheek as she looked over at her mother’s shrunken form huddled under the blankets. Beyond, in the garden, Elizabeth and her cousins chased each other round the maple tree, whooping like savages. She sighed. Bob was right; she was putting all her energy into her mother, who was totally unresponsive, at the expense of her own family. What was it somebody had told her once?
“The debts we owe our parents we repay to our children.”
But in her case it was different. Her mother had become a child again. It did not matter that her mother would never know the love that Tracy was showing to her; the important thing was in the giving.

A Murder

I have never written a murder scene, so I decided to try one, but I could not bring myself to describe a detailed gory act, like plunging a knife into somebody, so I decided to focus on the state of mind of the murderer.

Robert had never so much as been late for class and now he was a thief and a murderer. Well, he was not a murderer yet, but he would be as soon as his stepfather came home. He lifted the gun one more time and pointed it at the door, trying to remember how tall his stepfather was. His heart would probably line up with the second hinge. Robert nodded then put the gun down on the table and took up his lonely vigil.
It had been easier than he expected to steal the gun. Getting the weapon had seemed the hardest part of the plan, but once he began to investigate the local gun club and discovered how many people owned guns it became merely a matter of deciding who to steal one from. Not that breaking into a house, finding the keys to the gun cupboard, selecting the right weapon and the ammunition to match had been a piece of cake, but at least he had not been caught. Yet.
Robert did not care that he would probably end up in jail and that scared him. He planned to run out the back door and drive as far away as possible after the deed was done, but that was more from a wish to get away from what would probably be an ugly sight than because he expected to be able to evade the law for long.
How would his friends see him, he wondered, and also his sister and his mother. It was for them he was doing this, to stop that monster from doing what he did to them, but would they want Robert to become a murderer in exchange?
Robert noticed that he was pacing up and down the hall and he willed himself to be still, but he was too nervous; his left foot took up a tapping rhythm on the floor, getting louder and louder until he could stand it no longer and resumed his pacing.
Where was his stepfather, anyway? He always came home around this time, so why should today be different? Did he know that Robert had sent his mother and sister on a false errand across the city?
Robert lifted the gun again, checked it was loaded and lined it up with the door, squinting, watching the line of sight shift slightly as he aimed with first one eye then the other. Which should he use? He knew one eye was the shooting eye, but surely he should use the eye that saw better?
His eyes watered and he put the gun down. His hands felt sweaty inside the rubber gloves but he dared not pull them off and get a new pair in case his stepfather came. He sat on the foot of the stair with the gun next to him and began to count, slowly and steadily.
By the time he reached two thousand the counting had become a mantra and Robert felt calm, and ready for whatever was to come but the sound of a key in the door jolted him back to the present. Leaping to his feet he grabbed the gun with both hands and pointed it at the door, aiming it at the centre panel in line with the second hinge.
He heard the sound of boots scraping on the doorstep, then the door swung open and Robert fired. A loud explosion deafened him leaving a ringing that throbbed in his ears like a second pulse. He staggered backwards, more from fright than from the slight recoil from the gun and closed his eyes to shut out the scene in front of him. Now he really was a murderer.

Hegemony, Hedonism and Hubris

The three sins; that is what my father called them: Hegemony, Hedonism and Hubris. My mother used to laugh and say that it could not be a sin if you could not pronounce it, at which point my uncle Franz would slap his hand on his leg and shout a stream of words in French or German, winking all the time, so that my brother and I would know that he knew of plenty of sins we could not pronounce.
My father kept three tankards up on a ledge, one for each of the sins, and every time my brother or I committed an offence he would drop a coloured stone into the tankard: blue for me, green for William. When we were younger the tankards were almost empty but when we entered our teens the tankard for Hedonism started to fill up with green stones at an alarming rate.
William was not a bad person, just a self-centered one. He took up with a crowd in college who spent all their Saturdays driving around and drinking – at least, I hope it was in that order. After a few weekends where he puked on the carpet my mother banned him from going out, and he turned his interest to music instead. Not classical, and not the modern music that you can dance to, but loud, banging noises that made your head pound.
It was at this time that he stopped going to classes too, telling us that he knew all the stuff anyway, and it was boring. My father added some green stones to the tankard marked Hubris during this phase, and still I did not think anything of it.
I was busy myself. I wanted to go away to college and knew that the only way to afford to live away from home was to earn enough money to see me through two years of rent and classes. I took jobs everywhere I could, delivering papers, working night shifts at the local store, doing yard work. My uncle Franz used to mutter that I was working too hard when he came over for a visit but I took no notice.
One day he dropped a black stone into the Hegemony tankard and pointed at my father. My father looked up, saw what Uncle Franz had done and shouted that he had no right to interfere with another person’s property and his ornaments. Franz sat through it all with a big grin on his face, then answered in German, which of course we could not understand, and which made my father really mad. Dad shouted in English, and Uncle Franz replied in German, with each of them getting louder and more animated. Then, just when my father had slammed his fist onto the table, Uncle Franz got up, dropped a black stone in the Hubris tankard, took his coat from the peg by the door, bowed elegantly to my mother and left.
We never saw Uncle Franz in our house again. I know my mother used to visit him, and she would sometimes bring us packages from him, but they were never very interesting, once opened, and I sometimes wondered if Uncle Franz had forgotten we were grown up, and not the six and eight-year olds he used to buy candy for. To my relief, the tankards were never touched again, after that day, because somehow, William came to his senses and finished college and got a job in an insurance broker’s office, although I know he continued drinking.
I finally finished my degree, met somebody and we lived together for three years, saving money for a house. My father was not happy with the arrangement, but then, he did not offer to pay the rent, either. I know my mother disapproved, but she said to me one day that Uncle Franz had told her not to worry, that we would turn out all right in the end.
And so we did. Jim and I got married, holding the big, family wedding which the family loved, and we hated. Dad gave a big speech, full of long words, and knowing looks at various family members. I do not remember too much of it because the champagne made me a bit dizzy and my dress was too tight, but I know he mentioned Hegemony, Hedonism and Hubris because he had the three tankards in front of him while he made the speech, and they were all full of blue stones.
Afterwards, when we opened our gifts, we found the usual collection of toasters and candlesticks and one large heavy box, labelled ‘the sins of marriage’. Jim and I looked at each other in surprise, then tore off the wrapping. Inside were three tankards, each with a blank plaque, not yet engraved, and two bags, one with red stones, the other with yellow. At the bottom of the box was a note.
“Choose your own. Uncle Franz.”

Lie or Lay? All Lies, I Say

I wrote this piece in response to a friend’s confusion over when to use “lie” and when to use “lay”

I had lain in my bed for two days before my friend Ashley came to see me. She opened the door, laid her bag on the chair and came over to the bed, where she lay down beside me and gave me a big hug.
“How long have you been lying in bed?” she asked.
“Two days,” I replied. “The doctor says I must lie absolutely still, but it is so boring; I don’t think I can bear another day of just lying here.”
“That reminds me of a song,” Ashley said, “that one about the two people who want to lie on a mountain forever.”
“That’s different,” I said, “they were in love so they didn’t mind. My mum hates that song.”
“Why, because it’s not Mozart?”
“No, because of the grammar. The person says ‘I want to lay like this forever’ and my mum says it should be ‘I want to lie like this forever’ so she turns the radio off every time the song plays.”
“That’s funny,” said Ashley. “Here, I’ve brought you some flowers.”
Ashley reached for her bag and pulled out some flowers which she propped up in my coffee cup. They drooped over the edge but at least they brightened the room. The bag lay on the floor where she dropped it and I could see more flowers crumpled inside.
“I got some extra flowers,” said Ashley. “I am going to lay them on Grandpa’s grave later this afternoon. We’re going out to my Uncle Dan’s farm; apparently he has a new hen that only lays brown eggs.”
“Cool,” I said, not really caring that she had lied to me. I know Ashley only goes out to the farm to see her cousin Josh.
“Here, pass me the comb, will you? When my head lies on the pillow for a long time my hair gets all messed up.”
“Doesn’t Ben like it that way?” she waved the comb just out of my reach and grinned at me. “I heard you two are together now.”
“That’s a complete lie, Ashley, and you know it.”
We lay, the two of us, side by side in silence while I struggled with the comb. Then she went off to the farm and I was left alone, laid out as if for a wake, my body lying in state, waiting to be revered by the masses. I giggled at the thought of all my friends parading past, while I lay on the bed, still as a statue, winking occasionally to break the monotony.
Oh, how I hate being ill!

The Loyalty Card

I wrote this story for a postcard competition where the limit was 300 words

Lorna pushed the tub of ice cream along the checkout, fingers crossed that she had not used up her allowance for this month. She placed her loyalty card next to the milk and vegetables, to lessen the effect, but then, she thought, computers don’t have feelings.
Beep, beep, Beeep. The sound was so loud Lorna was sure the whole shopping centre had heard her purchase being rejected.
“You have exceeded your monthly limit for ice cream,” said the associate, in a bored drawl.
Lorna wondered how many times a day she said this. People were lining up behind her, and Lorna just wanted to get out quickly, to spare the humiliation of the whole world knowing she had pigged out on ice cream.
Damn those customer cards and their hidden information. If only there were some way to fool the computer into allowing her more calories. The associate placed the ice cream in a basket with other rejected items: chips, sugared drinks, chocolate. Outside a lonely dog whined.
“Oh, I forgot something!” Lorna squeezed past the people waiting behind her and grabbed a packet of dog food. The computer accepted the purchase this time, generating a printed notice along with the receipt.
“You have not previously registered as a dog owner,” droned the associate, “you have one week to complete registration before purchases will be rejected.”
Lorna did not mind; she did not have a dog, but she intended to find someone who did; someone who would trade her dog food for some ice cream. Ha! She would fool the computer yet.
“Have a nice day,” intoned the associate, slapping a ‘sold’ sticker on the dog food packet.
Outside the store Lorna laughed.
A tiny lens inside the ‘o’ of ‘sold’ clicked open and began recording her every move.

The T.S. Eliot/John Gardner Killer Exercise

The late John Gardner, recognized in his lifetime as the leading creative writing teacher in the United States, developed the following exercise for students:

A middle-age man is waiting at a bus stop. He has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe the setting from the man’s point of view WITHOUT telling your reader what has happened. How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds? Odours? Colours? That this man will notice? What will his clothes feel like? Write a 250 word description.

The rain, falling first on his bare head, poured off his coat and into a puddle by his feet, bounced off the pooled water and spattered back onto the legs of his pants. He looked down at the spots on his pants and observed the pattern forming on the thick linen, and how the dark patches were growing bigger. He had never noticed it before but now he marvelled at the little flecks of thread, woven together creating the fabric. Beyond the sidewalk the hum of traffic rose and fell as vehicles sped past, a blur of colour and splashes occasionally solidifying into a car or a bus. Each time a bus stopped people got on and others got off; young people, old people, some walking slowly, some in a hurry. The man looked at the passengers as they stepped around him and wondered what they were thinking and where they were going, whether they noticed the rain, whether they noticed him. He fingered the change in his pocket; hard, round coins to pay his fare, and thought about getting on a bus, any bus, it did not matter which one, so long as it took him away, far away, but his feet were rooted in the puddle and would not obey his instructions. He knew he should be going somewhere, but so long as he stood in the road, watching the rain, he could hold this moment still for as long as he wanted.