A Penguin Comes to Tea

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The Bog Man

My Grandpa’s a bog man. Hundreds of years from now some archaeologist is going to dig him up and study him and imagine all sorts of things about his life, but they won’t know for sure. I think we should write a journal about Grandpa’s life and leave it in the bog with him, but Mam says that’s enough putting things into the bog and sure it’s a terrible thing her Da is in there and the least said about it to anybody the better.
He wasn’t supposed to be in the bog. He was supposed to be buried in the family plot beside my Grandma, all proper like, but the funeral people were on strike, so we had to do it ourselves.
“It’s a terrible thing, not being able to bury my own Da, just because those people want more money,” Mam said. “And who are they going to get it from? Dying is expensive enough already.”
That worried me. When things were too expensive, you can’t afford to buy them, but if dying was too expensive then would that stop you from dying? I guess it hadn’t stopped Grandpa from dying, although technically he died before the strike, so Mam had to go and fetch him back.
“We’ll bury him ourselves,” said Da. “I’ll get a few of the lads to help, and we’ll have him in the ground in no time. You get Father to come along and say the prayers.”
So Da rounded up his friends, and they stopped in the pub for a quick drink along the way and then another for the road, so that they were quite jolly when they finally showed up to bury Grandpa.
“Seamus, bring the barrow round to the front, will you?” Da asked one of his friends, and he went inside and threw Grandpa’s body over his shoulder as if he was a rolled-up carpet.
“Be careful of my Da!” shouted Mam. “What are you doing with him? Why can’t you take him in the car?”
“Can’t get the car through the cemetery gates,” mumbled Da. “The main gate’s shut ’cause of the strike, so it’s foot access only.”
Da dumped Grandpa into the barrow, and Ma rearranged his suit, which looked way too big for him, then we all set off up the road, with Da pushing the barrow, Ma and Aunty Mary sniffling behind him, Seamus and Da’s other friends marching as if they were in a wobbly parade, and us children following in a straggly row.
“If you go via the moor, the way is shorter,” said Seamus, when we all got to the crossroads.
“Yes, but there’s a hill,” puffed Da.
“Only a small one, and we’ll all help,” said Seamus.
So Da turned the barrow towards the moor, and Seamus, Paddy and Mikey all helped to push it over the ruts in the road. They had just reached the top of the hill and had paused to wait for Ma and Aunt Mary and the rest of us to catch up, when one of the men fell over and crashed into the barrow.
The barrow overturned, and Grandpa fell out and went rolling like a sausage all the way down the hill until he landed with a smulch sort of sound in the peat bog at the bottom.
For a moment we all just stood there, then Seamus started laughing, Aunt Mary started wailing, and Ma started scolding the men at the top of her voice.
“Now look at what you’ve gone and done!”
Some of the men slid down the slope and poked in the bog, but Grandpa was either buried too deep or the bog held on to him too tightly, so they clambered back up to us, shaking their heads.
“Ach no, that’s not consecrated ground,” said the priest, who had just appeared, which set Ma off on another fit of wailing.
“Well, Father, I think we’re going to have to leave him there until the spring,” said Da, “so perhaps you could say a few prayers to comfort the wife.”
So the priest muttered something about eternal life and the end of days, and Ma threw her posy of flowers down the hill onto the bog, then Da and his friends went back to the pub while Ma and Aunt Mary and us children went home and ate the sandwiches Ma had prepared for the funeral.
Spring came and went, and nobody dug up Grandpa, so I think he’s going to be in there forever and turn into a bog man. I wonder if that makes me a bog child?

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.

Shopping

Shelley pushed the cart along the aisles of the small grocers’ store, trying to pass boring things like dog food and shampoo on her way to the items she needed, so that her son Trevor would not reach out and grab interesting-looking things from the shelves and cause trouble for her. He was getting too big to ride in the seat of the cart, but it kept him from wandering along the aisles and knocking into things. Only the previous week he had punched a packet of kitchen towels and sent the whole stack tumbling down. Shelley was sure that the staff kept a watch out for her and moved their breakable items to safety ahead of her destructive son.
“Out!” cried Trevor, bouncing up and down, rocking the cart and swaying from side to side.
Honestly, he’s just like a tornado, thought Shelley as she mentally listed off the things she still needed. She opened a packet of cookies and gave one to Trevor who stuffed half of it into his mouth and then began to cough. She would rather have given him a carrot, but they had to be weighed first, and she did not want to be accused of shoplifting, not after the last time when Trevor had grabbed a tomato from the pile and bitten into it. Shelley had been so distressed by the cascade of falling fruit that she had not noticed the bits of chewed tomato all over her son’s face, but the store manager had noticed.
Well, it was their own fault, she thought, pausing to look at the bottles of salad dressings. They should have a crèche or a play area for children so that mothers could shop in peace, like they had in the larger stores in the big malls out of town, only Shelley had no way of getting out there, so she was forced to shop in this dump, which was probably going to be torn down soon, it was so old and decrepit.
“Out!” cried Trevor again, sounding triumphant, and Shelley looked down to see him standing in the cart, reaching towards a shelf, with the cart about to roll away from underneath him.
“Trevor!” she shouted, and lifted him up just as the cart banged into a bag of flour, sending out little white puffs, like smoke signals.
“Look at what you’ve done! I told you to sit still! Now you’re going to have to hold onto the cart and walk with Mummy.”
She took one of his hands and clamped it onto the cart, then began to move forward, thinking she could probably leave some of the items from her list for next week. It was getting far too busy and noisy in the store, anyway; she could hear several people shouting up at the front.
As she reached the end of the aisle she saw somebody running past, carrying a large bag and waving something in his hand. It almost looked like a gun, which would not have surprised her, given the sort of people she often saw in the store. Thinking this, she slowed her steps and peered around the edge of the shelving, just to be sure that everything was alright.
Everything was not alright.
Three men with black hoods over their faces stood surrounding a terrified cashier who was fumbling with the till. Two of the men held guns, and the third had a large sack which he was filling with the contents of the till. The ones with guns were looking around the store, shooing the other customers away, most of whom were sobbing and rushing for the doors, except that a fourth hooded man stood at the door, and would not let them pass; instead he was waving them behind the bakery counter and making them lie on the floor.
Shelley drew her head back with a gasp and reached down to grab hold of Trevor, except that he was no longer at her side.
Her heart thumping, she looked up and down the aisle, but there was no sign of her son. Where could he have gone? Not towards the cash desk, surely?
She poked her head round the edge of the shelf again and saw that the men had pushed the cashier down to the floor and were now ransacking the second cash register. Didn’t this store have an alarm or something? Why was nobody doing anything?
Thinking that Trevor must have gone the other way, Shelley raced down the aisle to the back of the store and looked both ways, but all she saw was frightened shoppers clutching each other, sobbing and punching their phones.
“Did anybody see a little boy?” she whispered, not wanting to draw attention from the burglars, but nobody was interested in her; everybody was too concerned with their own safety.
Which way should she go—towards the candy and the front of the store, or back towards the freezer section? Where would Trevor have gone? Did he even have the mental capacity to make a decision? He usually just responded to whatever was in front of him. He could be anywhere.
Shelley could feel her chest heaving as her breath turned into sobs. She forgot about the guns and the danger to herself. The only thing that mattered was finding Trevor and keeping him safe. She doubled into the next aisle and raced towards the front of the store, reasoning that was where the greatest danger to her son lay, and thus where she should start her search. She ran past boxes and boxes of cereal—goodness, would this line never end—and then saw the hooded men shoving another quivering employee onto the floor, but she no longer cared if they saw her.
One of the masked men looked up and barked at her to stop and lie down, but she ignored him and looked around the front of the store, calling, “Trevor! Where are you?”
The masked man moved towards her, and one of the other men looked up, distracted from his loot collecting, while the man by the door turned his gun in her direction. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed her son’s familiar green t-shirt and faded brown shorts near the specials counter, and she saw his pudgy hands reaching out to grab what was in front of him. She automatically cried out.
“Trevor! Don’t touch that!”
Trevor jumped at the sound of his mother’s voice, and his hand, so close to the coloured object in front of him, shot out and pushed against the tall stack. It gave a momentary wobble, like the start of a slow dive, then a cascade of cans toppled onto the floor, rolling in all directions and setting off secondary avalanches from the nearby displays.
Shelley gasped, watching the destruction her son had caused, wondering if she would ever be able to pay for the damage, and then she noticed that one of the masked men had tripped over the rolling cans and one of the other customers had jumped on him and was struggling to take hold of his gun.
One of the men at the register fired his gun, shattering several bottles of vinegar which sprayed glass onto the floor, and made the air thick with the acrid stench of white vinegar, and the people lying on the floor began to wail. At that moment the outside door burst open and two police officers clad in protective clothing dashed into the store, sweeping their guns ahead of them.
Shelley saw nothing of the arrest, the recording of statements, the administration of first aid and the reassuring calls to friends. She just hugged her son, giving thanks that he was safe and that for once, she would not have to account for the damage.

 

What Would You Bring to a Desert Island?

“For today’s writing topic, we’re going to have a group discussion for you to brainstorm ideas, and then you’ll have half an hour to write on the topic, and if you need to, you can take it home to finish it before tomorrow’s class,” said Jess Park, writing ‘Desert Island’ on the board in large letters.
The two dozen ten-year-olds shuffled in their seats and lined up their pencils with their writing pads. Some seemed to be paying attention; others were staring out of the window, already in a world far away from Lakewood Elementary School.
“I’d like you to imagine that you know you’ll be on a desert island for six months, and you need to decide what five objects to bring with you,” continued Ms Park.
“Cool,” said Matthew. “I’d bring my Xbox and all the games—can that count as one object, ’cause the games are necessary parts?”
“Desert island, Dummy,” said Maria. “They won’t have electricity, so your game machine won’t work.”
“Well, neither will your phone.”
“Who said I’m going to bring my phone?”
“Like you’d go anywhere without it—”
“Back on topic, please, students,” said Ms Park. “We should assume there will be no power on the island, so that rules out items that need electricity.”
“What about water?” asked James.
“What about food?” shouted Alex.
“I think it’s safe to say there will be water and food,” said Ms Park, “otherwise, you wouldn’t last very long and wouldn’t need your five items. I’ll get the discussion going by saying that my first object would be a sharp long-handled knife.”
Ms Park wrote ‘knife’ on the board and noticed that she now had the attention of almost all the class.
“Dope,” said Alex. “Are you going to hunt with it?”
“I don’t know yet, as I don’t know much about the island,” said Ms Park, “but it seems like a useful thing to have for cutting fruit from a tree or cutting palm fronds to make a shelter.”
“So there won’t be a house?” asked Susie.
“If it’s a deserted island, how could there be a house?” said Maria.
“Maybe it wasn’t always deserted,” said James. “The owners could have just all gone away and left these huge mansions with saunas and swimming pools and movie theatres and games rooms and stuff.”
“Why’d you want a sauna and a pool if you’re on an island? said Matthew, “wouldn’t you just swim in the sea?”
“What about sharks?” said Susie.
“Or jellyfish?” said Alex.
“Students! Settle down!” said Ms Park. “Let’s assume there are no houses, but enough vegetation to create a shelter. Now, what objects would you want to have with you?”
A small girl at the back of the class raised her hand, and Ms Park nodded for her to speak.
“Can I bring my little brother?”
“No,” said Matthew, and the other students then began to debate the pros and cons—mostly cons—of little brothers and to declare that people did not count, so no, Mariko could not bring Taro with her, at which point the girl’s eyes welled up with tears.
“I’ve not said anything about who is on the island, with you.” said Ms Park. “You can do this exercise imagining you are alone or imagining you have a few people with you.”
This caused a lot of chatter while the students talked about bringing their best friend or their whole families, or, in some cases, a celebrity.
“OK, then my dad can come and pack all the things we’ll need,” said Alex, raising his voice above the rest. “He’s awesome at that. One time we were camping and—”
“Alex, please don’t go off topic,” said Ms Park. “We need somebody to suggest another item.”
“What about clothes?” said Maria.
“Ew! Don’t tell me we arrived on the island butt naked,” said Alex, “that’s gross!”
“Good suggestion, Maria,” said Ms Park, writing ‘clothes’ on the board in big letters. “Can anybody say why?”
“Because it’s gross being naked,” said Alex.
“Because you might get scratched or something?” said James.
“Good thought, James. What about the sun?” asked Ms Park.
“I guess it’ll be hot?” asked somebody, tentatively.
“Right,” said Ms Park. “So that means you’d need clothes to protect you against sunburn.”
“Can all your clothes count as one item?” asked Susie, “I mean it’d be unfair if your pants and shirt and underwear took up three items.”
Matthew rolled his eyes at Susie and said, “You’d have more than three items, with your socks and your double tank top, and your—”
“That’s enough,” said Ms Park. “I think we can call clothes one item, because you could wear a big long shirt that would cover you against the sun.”
“What and no underwear? That’s gross!” said Alex.
Some of the children tittered and looked around at each other.
“I’d bring my fishing rod,” said Stuart.
“Good idea, Stuart,” said Ms Park. “Then you could catch fish to eat.”
“What about sharks?” said Susie.
“Or jellyfish?” said Alex.
Ms Park wrote ‘fishing rod’ on the board and asked, “How would you cook the fish?”
“On a fire, I guess,” said Stuart, “only I’ve never done that.”
“You’d need matches or a lighter or a big magnifying glass to start the fire,” said Robby.
“Quite right, Robby,” said Ms Park. “You’ll need something to start a fire with.”
“My Dad uses firelighters,” said Alex, “I’d bring those.”
“Yeah, but you still need to light them with something, so you’re using up one of the five things with something useless,” said Stuart.
“No, I’m not!”
“Yes, you are!”
“Firelighters are not useless. I’d like to see you start a fire from nothing.”
“Okay, students, that’s enough about the fire. Let’s put ‘flint’ on the board and move on. What about water?”
“You said there’d be water,” called out a voice.
“I know; I meant how to carry it,” said Ms Park.
“You mean, like, a water bottle?”
“Yes, but maybe something bigger,” said Ms Park. “What if the water supply’s a long way away?”
“But then it’d be too heavy to carry back to the camp,” said Maria.
“Not if you had one of those big cans and put it on your head like some people do in other countries,” said James, balancing his water bottle on his head.
“I’d like to see you do that!” said Maria, just as the water bottle fell off James’ head.
“I could carry ten pounds on my head,” said James, retrieving his fallen bottle, then he flexed his arm muscles like a weightlifter. “Feel those!”
“Students, you’re going off topic again,” said Ms Park. “What else would you bring with you?”
“A boat, to get off the island,” Elspeth said.
“That’s stupid—how would you power it? Or are you going to row across the ocean?” said Alex, making rowing motions with his arms, while others laughed.
“Signal flares, for when planes go overhead,” said Lucy. “Does that count as one item? How many flares can you have?”
“My uncle has those on his boat,” said Elspeth. “They’re for emergencies.”
“But what happens when they’re all used up?” asked Stuart. “I’d write SOS on the beach in big rocks.”
“What if there are no rocks?” said Lucy.
“What if the tide comes in and covers the message when the plane goes overhead?” said Maria.
“What if no planes come?” said Robby.
“Quiet, now. Let’s get back to the items we’d like to have,” said Ms Park.
“What else would you bring, Ms Park?” asked Maria.
All faces turned to look at the teacher, and she thought for a minute.
“Shoes, I think. I’d hate to be barefoot on hot sand or sharp rocks or prickly vegetation.”
“That won’t work for my brother,” said Lucy. “His feet have grown so much in the last two months, he’s on his third pair of shoes. My mom’s really mad at him.”
Everybody laughed, and Ms Park wrote ‘shoes’ on the board.
“Can you bring some pairs of shoes to grow into and still count it as one item?” Susie asked.
“Why not just bring a ginormous pair that will fit you even if your feet grow into size fourteen or something?” said Matthew.
“How would you walk in them while your feet are still growing?” asked Lucy.
“OK. We have shoes. I think I’d also like a book to read, and a notebook and pencil to record things about the island,” said Ms Park.
“This sounds like school,” a voice groaned.
“Are notebook and pencil two separate things?” asked Lucy.
“Let’s call them luxuries and put them on a different list, said Ms Park, moving to the other side of the board and starting a new column of words.
“I’d bring a solar-powered radio, so’s I could call for help,” said Alex.
“I’d bring my dog, and I’d train him to hunt for food,” said Michael.
“Your dog wouldn’t catch anything,” said Robby.
“Yes he would; he’s a good hunter!” said Michael.
“OK class, I think we’ve had enough time now to consider the topic,” said Ms Park, clapping her hands. “Let’s see what we’ve come up with.”
She pointed at the lists on the board and said, “For survival we’ve thought of a knife, a water container, a big shirt, a flint and a pair of shoes.”
“That’s six things!” came a shout from the back of the class.
“For this task, a pair of shoes counts as one item,” said Ms Park. “Now on this other list of non-essentials we have an Xbox, a phone, more clothes, a fishing rod—”
“Hey! That’s essential,” said Stuart.
Ms Park ignored Stuart and continued writing and naming the objects. “A fishing rod, a book, a notebook and pencil, some flares and a radio. There, that should give you enough to write your essay on. You can start now, and finish it at home if you need to. I want the essays handed in tomorrow at first period. ”
Sounds of grumbling and scraping of chairs indicated that the children were staring at the blank pieces of paper in front of them, wondering what to write. Gradually the whispers turned to a hush with only the sound of many pencils scraping across many worn exercise books, and Ms Park was able to sit at her desk and look through her lesson plan for the following morning.
Ten minutes later the bell rang, signifying the end of the day, and the children leaped up, grabbed their backpacks and raced to stand in line at the door, calling a hasty goodbye as they headed off into their real lives.
One boy hovered at the edge of the teacher’s desk, his big round glasses making his eyes seem wider and more startled than normal.
“What is it, Tommy?” Ms Park asked.
“We won’t really have to go to a desert island, will we? I mean it’s not a field trip or anything, is it?”
Ms Park smiled. She was constantly amazed at how young minds leaped to conclusions.
“No, Tommy, you won’t be going on a field trip to a desert island, but it’s always good to think about what you’d do in certain situations.”
“OK. Well, I hope you have a good time on the island, then.” Tommy skipped to the door, then turned round and waved to her. “See ya!”

 

Back to Nature

The only time I ever thought my parents would get divorced was after the time we lived as cave people in the Cascade Mountains.
It was part of a reality TV show, and we agreed to do it because my sister was hoping to become a film star and my father was blown away by the amount of money we were offered. My mother was not so keen on living in a cave, and I was too young to be consulted, but if I had been, I probably would have agreed. I mean, it sounded cool—running around with a bearskin and shooting deer with bows and arrows.
Reality was different, however. The bearskin itched and was too hot and cumbersome most of the time. Plus, it smelled. Not just of bear, but of the person wearing it, and then we were supposed to smear ourselves with some plant paste, so that the animals wouldn’t know we were coming-as if they couldn’t hear us crashing through the trees, cursing every time we stubbed our toes.
“Just how long do we have to do this for?” my mother asked after the second day.
“One month,” puffed my father, who was finding he was not as fit as he had thought.
“I can’t lie on that bare rock for a month,” said my mother. “Surely cave people had some form of bedding?”
“They used moss and animal hides,” said Lisa, my sister, who had read up everything she could about cavemen and who even managed to look stylish in her bearskin.
“Well, we need to go and get some moss, then,” said my mother, “we can look for moss while we gather berries.”
Berry-gathering is not nearly as fun as it sounds. You’re probably thinking of those u-pick farms where the bushes are all in rows and the berries are dripping off the branches. Finding berries in the wild is a different matter, with the bushes jammed into clefts in the rock or hidden behind larger trees, and no bush has more than a handful of ripe berries at any one time.
“I’m hungry,” I said, after a couple of days in the mountains. I knew the others were hungry too, but they wouldn’t admit it.
“I’ll catch us a deer soon,” said my father, who had only managed to trap a rabbit so far, and that was only because he drove it into a hole it could not escape from. Dad didn’t want to admit that he was no good as a caveman, so every morning he set out with his bow and arrows, looking for deer, and every evening he came back empty handed, cursing under his breath.
Later, when we saw the video footage, we discovered that he cursed all day as well, only those words were replaced by bleeps so as not to offend the viewers.
We never knew where the cameras were, as the producers had decided that it would not be realistic if we sat around in our bearskins staring at camera men in jeans, so the cameras were hidden in the cave and around the mountain, and they managed to capture most of what we did, except for the time when Lisa fell into the swamp.
Lisa was a very enthusiastic cave woman, in spite of the lack of comforts. She was convinced an agent would spot her talent and sign her up for a Hollywood movie, so she always spoke loudly and clearly, and made a point of moving around a lot so that she looked as if she was always doing something.
One morning she and I had gone out to search for frogs or anything small that we could eat, seeing as how Dad had still not caught a deer. We hiked down the hill from our cave and walked along the banks of the river, stepping over the slimy rotting logs, searching out anything edible.
“This sucks,” I said. “I can’t believe we’re still here doing this when we could be back in our apartment eating pizza and hot dogs.”
“Oh, quit whining,” Lisa said. “Think of it as an adventure; you’ll have lots to talk about when we do go back home.”
“Not if I die of starvation first,” I muttered. It was alright for her—she was always dieting, so she didn’t care if we had no food, but my stomach was digesting itself.
We got to the point where the river forked, and I turned along the smaller stream, heading for where I knew there was a pool with some frogs in it. If the French can eat frogs, they can’t taste all that bad.
I stepped across the rocks, gripping the warm stones with my toes—one good thing about being a cave boy was that I could run around in bare feet—and squatted down to reach under the reeds when I heard a shriek from behind me. I looked up to see that Lisa had fallen into a dark pool and was waving her arms frantically at me.
“Help! Get me out of here!”
Her bearskin had slipped off her shoulder, and her hair was plastered across her face, making her look like a rag doll. I couldn’t help laughing, until she pulled off one of her slimy bearskin slippers and threw it at me, hitting my left eye. Then I grabbed a handful of mud and threw it back at her, and soon it was an outright war with mud, water, sticks and even stones flying both ways.
Who knows how it would have ended if a bear had not come into the clearing just as we were hurling logs at each other. I didn’t see the bear at first because I was busy dragging a large branch over to the river, but when I looked up to aim my projectile at Lisa I saw the bear rear up behind her, and I screamed so loudly that I nearly deafened myself. Lisa thought I was screaming at her, and she just kept thrashing in her swamp and throwing stones at me, but when she saw where I was looking she leapt out of that swamp faster than I could blink and hobbled over to me.
I think the noise and the sight of Lisa wearing a bearskin covered in mud must have scared the bear because after a moment it loped off back the way it had come. Lisa and I stood in the stream, panting, then we ran back up the hill to our cave as fast as we could, slipping and sliding on the path, me in my bare feet and Lisa in her one remaining bear moccasin.
“What happened?” asked Mum, who was shelling nuts into a piece of bark.
“I fell in the river, and then a bear came,” said Lisa, looking around the cave, no doubt worrying about how she looked in front of the hidden cameras.
“Right; I’ve had enough of this,” said Mum, pushing the bark aside and struggling to her feet. “I’ve put up with this nonsense long enough. You’ve had your chance to preen for the cameras, and your father has had ample opportunity to hit a deer. We’re going home.”
“What! No way are we going home before the thirty days are up,” said Dad, emerging from the back of the cave. So much for hunting—no wonder he doesn’t catch anything if he just sits in the cave all day.
“I’m not giving up!” said Lisa, squeezing out her hair and glaring at Mum.
I just went back outside and left them at it. It wasn’t like my opinion counted anyway. They yelled at each other all afternoon, and the end result was that we got to go home early. The TV company said they had enough footage for eight episodes, and that it was good to show people giving up, which set my parents to fighting again. Lisa locked herself in her room and refused to speak to anybody, so I just went down to the basement and logged on to my video games.
Being a caveman was cool for a while, but I’ll take civilisation any day.

My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

“Grandma’s on the roof again.”
My heart sank when I read those words. Ever since the doctor prescribed medical pot for my grandma to ease her pain, she has taken getting high to new heights, as it were. Life was fine when she was just living in the suite downstairs, with her caregiver coming every day to do whatever caregivers do, and my brother and I would visit her once or twice a week and drink watery tea, while she nodded off in the corner or told us the same story over and over again.
But then somebody prescribed weed for her. Weed—for an eighty year old woman!
I thought it would be cool, having legal weed in the house, and that maybe Grandma would let me try some, but my Mom regulates when she can have it and keeps the supply under lock and key. My brother and I keep trying to get at it; we just haven’t been successful yet.
I don’t know what the doctor thought the weed would do for Grandma, but it seems to have truly addled her brain. She began by walking around the rest of the house, picking things up and leaving them in a completely different place—I even found her in my room once, fiddling with my games console—but then she discovered the door to the roof. It’s not really a roof, just a small balcony off my parents’ room, but it’s right at the top of the house and has a view in three directions, so we call it the roof.
The problem with the view from three directions is that if you’re on the roof, you can be seen from three directions, and every time Grandma finds her way onto the roof, she can be seen by all the neighbours. In fact, Grandma’s frolics on the roof have become the talk of the neighbourhood, which means I get the brunt of it at school the next day.
“It’s her fifteen minutes of fame,” my Dad told me once, after Grandma had thrown all the potted plants off the roof, thinking that they could fly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You know, it’s what Andy Warhol said, that everybody could have at least fifteen minutes of fame in their lifetime.”
“Cool,” said my brother, “I’m going to be famous one day.”
“Yeah, well I wish Grandma had had hers when she was younger,” I said, wondering how long this stage was going to go on for.
My parents tried locking their bedroom door, but somebody always forgot and left it open, and in any case, Grandma was quite capable of hiding a key somewhere or slipping into that bedroom when nobody was noticing.
So when I rounded the corner after getting the text about my grandma, I was expecting to see her waving her arms at the sun or singing at the top of her voice, with a few of the younger neighbourhood kids giggling on the street below. I was not prepared for the large crowd that had gathered outside our house, gabbling and pointing, and the TV truck that drove up just as I drew near.
“Look, she’s totally naked,” said somebody.
“I told you she was stark, raving bonkers,” said another person, howling with laughter.
I looked up on the roof and quickly looked away again. Sure enough, Grandma was out on the balcony without a stitch of clothes on her, twirling and singing like an uninflated sprite, a flimsy scarf wrapped around her neck as if to say she was not totally naked.
I tried to sneak into my yard without being seen, but a couple of kids saw me and began to yell.
“Hey, Dylan, your nan’s at it again!”
“What’s she on? Can I have some of that stuff?”
I cringed and turned to walk away, when I saw the TV newsman coming towards me. I couldn’t tell if the camera was rolling, but the man was talking into the microphone, so I assume it was.
“Is this your house?” the man asked, when he got to me.
I nodded and mumbled something and ducked away as soon as I could, diving into the Carter’s yard and round the back to our house.
“Mom!” I yelled, once I was inside. “Go and bring Grandma inside! The whole neighbourhood is watching her dance naked on the balcony!”
There was no answer, and I went upstairs to find my mother’s clothes all over the floor of her room, as if somebody had been playing dress up. Outside on the balcony, Grandma now had a blue hat on her head and was dropping socks over the railings onto the heads of the assembled gawkers.
“Grandma!” I hissed, beckoning to her.
I don’t know if she saw me, but she just kept dropping socks down below. I needed to stop her before she began on the other underwear drawers; airing our dirty linen in public would soon have a whole new meaning for our family.
Finally I did the only thing I knew that worked. I went downstairs into Grandma’s room and got the enormous plush dog that Dad had given her several Christmases ago. The dog stank of weed, as if it had been smoking along with Grandma, but she loved it and seemed to take more notice of it than she did of us, most days.
“Here, Nana, Rufus wants you,” I said, moving over towards the balcony, hoping that the dog was obscuring me from the people below. “Come on inside and talk to Rufus.”
I waved the dog around a bit more, and Grandma finally noticed him and stepped back inside the room. As soon as she was off the balcony, I closed the sliding door and the blinds and shoved some clothes at Grandma. I mean, who wants to see an old lady naked?
After a while Grandma put on a robe and went back down to her room, taking Rufus the stuffed dog with her, and I slumped down in front of the TV. What a day, I thought, as I flipped through the channels.
And then I saw it. A news article about Grandma, with our house centre stage and Grandma flitting about the balcony like a desiccated Juliet, while I mumbled something at the camera, my face beetroot red. Already my phone was pinging with texts, and I groaned. It looked like I was having my own fifteen minutes of fame, all because of Grandma. And I still haven’t even tried any of the weed.

My Mother Was Constantly Confused

My mother was constantly confused over my brother’s business arrangements. Most of his schemes fell on the wrong side of the law so he was careful not to tell her much about his activities but he could not stop her from talking to people she met at her medical appointments, which often resulted in a hasty winding down of the current business.

It started when Norman was a teenager and he filled the shed at the back of the house with pot plants, while a constant stream of visitors called at night and at weekends, to ‘help with the horticulture’.

“My son has a gardening business,” my mother said to her doctor one day, “he has ever so many pots.”

Norman threw his weed into the river later that night, before the doctor could recount the story to the authorities, and he complained about his lost profits for weeks.

His next venture was an unofficial liquor outlet for the local youth which lasted for several months before the parents of the local youth found the source of their offspring’s frequent inebriation at weekends and paid a visit to my mother.

“Your son is selling alcohol to minors,” said one man.

“Miners? I didn’t know there was a mine around here,” said my mother, looking at the deputation on her doorstep. “My son has a business selling boots, I think, although I can’t say that I have ever seen any boots. I’ll ask him when he gets home.”

The liquor business closed after that and was replaced by a series of other shady ventures which he tried to keep a secret from our mother. I moved out once I graduated from school but Norman stayed, taking advantage of the large property and using our mother as the excuse.

“She’s old, she needs looking after,” he would say, while my mother would fuss and cook for him.

There followed a number of years when Norman dealt in stolen goods, buying them low and selling them on at a healthy profit but my mother’s mouth ended that trade also.

“My son does fencing,” she told one of the neighbours who called to talk about an actual broken fence on the property. Norman evaded that question by saying that he would get one of his men to fix it and then had to engage a real contractor to mend the fence, all the time grumbling at the cost and the fact that his activities may have been compromised.

The biggest problem came when my brother agreed to keep some cows for a friend who had been ordered to destroy them after an outbreak of disease on his farm.

“But is that safe?” I asked when I heard of the plan. “What if the disease gets into the food chain?”

“Nobody’s getting diseased,” said Norman, “and there’s no food chain if the cows are kept alive. Just think, we can have fresh milk every day and when the ban is over my friend will still have his cows, instead of being ruined, like the other farmers.”

“How long are you going to keep the cows,” I asked, “and “who’s going to milk them?”

“Only until this scare is over; a year at most” he said, “Isabel is going to milk them and maybe you’d like to come home and help?”

I snorted at the idea of going home to a barn full of illegal cows, although the sight of my brother’s girlfriend squeezing her ample behind onto a milking stool might be worth a day trip.

“And how will you stop Mum from telling anybody about them?” I asked.

“Oh, she knows. I’ve told her there are no cows here and that some film people are making a movie on our land, so there might be some noises and movements, but that she’s not to worry.”

I could not resist going to see the invisible herd so when Norman said he and Isabel had some business out of town the following weekend I drove over to the farm with my husband, Richard.

“No cows!” said my mother as soon as we came through the door. Her eyes opened wide and she shook her head to be sure that we understood.

“Yes, Mum, I know there are no cows here. We just wanted to come and see you,” I said, while Richard went into the kitchen to look for a drink.

“Have you come to be in the movies?” my mother asked, shuffling over to the kettle which was on a constant heating cycle in that house.

“No, Mum,” I don’t think I’d be any good in the movies, and Richard’s too ugly.”

Richard, who had found a beer and was looking out of the window, made a rude sign at me, which my mother did not see as she was reaching into a cupboard for the good tea cups, the ones she only used when visitors came.

“Oh, it’s just that I mentioned to that lady in the pharmacy that we had a movie set here and she said that movies often have parts for extras.”

Richard turned and looked at me, shaking his head in a way that said, “what has she done now?” while my mother set out the tea cups and saucers on the table, still chattering away.

“I told her the movie’s not a Western, as we don’t have any cows, but I don’t know much else about it.”

“Maybe it’s best not to talk about the movie, Mum,” I said, “we don’t want crowds of people coming to try and get autographs or anything.”

“But that’s just it,” she said, her hand wavering as she poured hot water into the teapot, getting almost as much water on the table. “The pharmacist says that her children want to meet the movie stars and can they come over here one day. So I said that no, they couldn’t come because Norman says we don’t have any cows and it’s all a secret.”

She looked down and noticed the spilt water on the table and reached for a cloth. “Now look what I’ve done; this movie business has me all worked up.”

I waited while she wiped the table, refusing any help, and then poured the tea into the cups, and set out the milk and sugar, all the time muttering about cows and movies. Richard, who hates tea, sat down with his beer while I added milk to my cup and stirred it, obliging my mother with the familiar ritual.

We talked of other things and soon my mother had relaxed and wanted to know about our health and our jobs and she appeared to forget about Norman and his deals until the door burst open and Norman himself came in, followed by Isabel, both of them looking very flustered.

“No cows!” said my mother at once, her hand raised to her breast, as if she were swearing in front of a judge.

“Mum! What have you been telling people?” Norman asked looking all around the room as if he expected somebody to be hiding behind the sofa. “I’ve had a call from the agriculture department who say they have been told we have cows on the property.”

“No cows! I said no cows!” my mother repeated, looking from Norman to the rest of us, becoming agitated.

“We’ll have to hide the cows,” said Norman, looking at his watch, “we have about two hours before the inspectors get here.

“Where are you going to put them?” Richard asked, “they’re not exactly small and you only have one barn.”

“We’ll have to bring them into the house,” said Norman, “we can cram them all into the parlour; nobody ever goes in there, and we’ll get Isabel to fry up some onions to cover up the smell, and Mum can be watching TV with the volume turned up due to her bad hearing.”

“You must be joking,” I said, but Norman was not listening, he had already opened the back door and was racing towards the barn.

“Come on, everybody, there’s no time to argue!”

It took us nearly two hours to move all thirteen of the cows from the barn into the parlour. We had to lay some sheets of plywood to create a ramp up to the porch as they refused to put their feet on the steps and they stood lowing on the grass while Norman kept shushing them and Richard, who was thoroughly enjoying the escapade, whacked them with a stick.

The whole house stank from the onions and garlic that Isabel was frying in the kitchen and Norman turned on the compressor to make more noise so that we had to shout instructions at each other.

“What about the movies?” I asked, “Won’t they expect to see sets and cameras?”

“No, we’ll just say they were shooting a scene with two people talking so the director didn’t need any equipment.”

An hour later, just as we had gathered around the table with plates of fried onions there was a knock at the door and an official with a clipboard came in. He nodded to us all and asked for Norman, while I held my mother’s hand, willing her not to speak, wondering why we had not taken her upstairs to her bedroom.

“I’ve had a report that there are cattle on this property, sir,” the inspector said.

“Well that’s not true; there are no cattle here,” said Norman, sweeping his arm around to point at the fields outside, “come out and have a look.”

Norman and the inspector went out to the barn and I turned to Richard and said, “did anybody clean the barn after we moved the cows out?”

He grimaced, and I could tell what he was thinking. Evidence of the cows was all over the barn. I wondered if Norman would be fined or arrested, and what would happen to the cows when they were discovered, and how we would ever get them out of the parlour. The band on the TV belted out its songs and the compressor whined while we sat in silence waiting for the verdict. After a while Norman and the inspector came back, both laughing.

“So I said to the producer that he could bring in cow manure to set the scene, but then they left it all behind after they’d finished shooting and now I’ll have to clean it up myself,” Norman shook his head as he recounted a tale to the inspector.

“I hope they paid you well to dump all that poop on your land,” said the inspector, who appeared to believe the story.

“Oh yes, we got a good deal, and they’ll mention us in the credits, too,” said Norman, and I wondered if he was going to name some big star who was appearing in the movie and further complicate our lives.

“Well, I look forward to seeing it,” said the inspector and turned towards the door. “Thank you for your time, and sorry to bother you.”

“Cows,” said my mother, who seemed to suddenly remember what we had been doing earlier.

“No Mum,” said Norman, “the man was looking for cows but there are no cows here.”

I gripped my mother’s hand and shook my head at her, while moving a plate of congealed onions in front of her.

“No cows,” I said.

“No cows,” she repeated as the door closed behind the inspector, “so who’s in the parlour then? Shall I make them tea?”

Never Again

“You’re looking very smug tonight, Harold,” said Edith, as she set the table for dinner.      
Harold took a long swig of his beer, leaned back in his favourite chair and smiled at her.      
“I’ve fixed that yapper for good,” he said.      
“What do you mean?” Edith turned and frowned at him.      
“Never again will we have to hear that constant yapping from next door,” said Harold. “Never again will we have to watch where we step in our own front yard because that mutt has done his business on our property.”      
Edith’s eyes widened as she stared at her husband.      
“What have you gone and done, Harold?”      
Harold shrugged and looked away.      
“A dog needs a good home. It needs space; not concrete paths like in this street full of houses.”      
“Harold! What have you done with their dog?”      
Edith put down the plates and marched over to Harold’s chair, standing in front of him with her arms on her hips.      
“You’d better not have done anything with their dog, or I’ll—well, I don’t know what I’ll do but I’ll be very angry.”      
“Relax, Edith, I haven’t touched the dog.”      
Harold waved her away and went back to his beer, refusing to say any more about the dog, or the neighbours, talking instead of his day at work, and by the time they had finished dinner, Edith had worked herself into a state over the dog. She kept getting up to look out of the window but she could not see all the way into the neighbours’ yard, and she did not want to look as if she were spying on them.      
“They’ll think you’ve got something to hide, if you keep poking your head around the curtains like that,” Harold said, thrusting his arm into his coat and grabbing his car keys. “I’m just going out for a bit.”
Harold disappeared into the garage and a moment later she heard the noise of the garage opening and the car reversing out. Edith busied herself with the dishes and keep looking out of the window, hoping to catch sight of the dog, but instead she saw Joanna Marley from next door coming up their driveway. Edith hurriedly wiped her hands and rushed to open the door before Joanna had even rung the bell.      
“Oh, hello, Joanna, I was, er, just, er—”      
“Edith, have you seen Charlie?” Joanna asked, peering around Edith as if she expected the dog to be hiding inside the house. “He’s been missing for several hours and I know he sometimes likes to run around in your yard.”      
“No, sorry, I haven’t seen him,” said Edith, glad that she did not have to lie about that, and wondering where Harold had gone and what he had done with the dog.      
“Will you keep an eye out for him?” asked Joanna, who had turned and was now looking around the shrubs, clenching and unclenching her fists.      
“Of course I will, and I’ll ask Harold if he’s seen him as soon as he comes home.” Edith kept the smile fixed on her face until she closed the door and then let out a big sigh. She was certain Harold had somehow got rid of the dog next door and that he would be found out and there would be a horrible fight with the Marleys. And all because the dog yapped. And left stuff in their yard. And there was the time it bit her nephew. And–      
Edith stopped thinking of the dog and began to think about Harold. What could he have done, and where had he gone?      
It was late before Harold came back and from the smell of him he had been drinking, but he was still very pleased with himself and he planted a loud,wet kiss on Edith’s cheek.      
“Nice and quiet here, isn’t it?”       
Edith pushed him away and frowned at him.      
“Harold! What have you done with that dog? Joanna was here asking if we’ve seen it and I didn’t know what to say.”      
“The dog’s gone out west,” said Harold. “There was a removal van two streets over; the people are heading out to the country and they had a big sofa in the back of the van. All I did was throw some dog treats into the van and that mutt was in there like greased lightning. I’ll bet those two young kids will be delighted to have a dog when they get to their new home.”      
Edith stood staring at Harold, her eyes wide, not sure what to say.      
“Come on Edith, you hated that dog as much as I did, with its constant barking. Think about it—the dog gets a new home, some kids are happy, the Marleys find something else to fill their time and we can walk on our grass in bare feet again.”      
Edith shook her head. She was sure there would be trouble once the dog was discovered, but at least she could truthfully say that she had no idea where the dog was. She opened the window to let in some air and for the first time noticed the quiet, and even heard the frogs croaking. Perhaps Harold had done the right thing after all.

Composting

“What have you got there?” I asked my sister as she dragged a heavy bag out of her car.
“Wood shavings, or sawdust or something. It’s for George,” she puffed, pulling the bag up the two steps to the house. I ran to help her, worried that the bag would split and leave a trail of sawdust on her carpet, while the dog bounded around us, wagging his tail in my face.
“Whatever does George want that for?” I asked, wondering what new project her husband had taken up.
“It’s for the new toilet, actually,” my sister said, pointing towards the extension on the side of the house. “He’s gone all ecological and installed a composting toilet. It’s going to save the environment and save us lots of money at the same time.”
“So you’re the one who has to haul the bags of sawdust around?”
My sister just shrugged, and looked a bit embarrassed, so I moved the furniture out of the way as she pulled the bag along the floor with the dog following closely, sniffing hard at the bag.
“The sawdust is only temporary,” my sister said, wiping her hands as she came back to get the rest of her purchases from the car. “George says he is going to make his own wood shavings once everything is finished.”
“Oh, yes?”
I looked outside to the shed, which contained partially completed furniture and enough car parts to build at least three vehicles, except that none of the parts matched. Behind the shed stood a boat covered in a tarpaulin, and, beyond that, several pieces of rusting machinery. George was never short of a project.
“So how does it work then?” I asked.
“Well, you just pour the wood shavings into the toilet in place of water and it all composts itself.”
“Good luck with that,” I said, and went home to my old fashioned plumbing, grateful that my husband was not in the least bit practical.
The next time I visited my sister I made a point of checking out the new bathroom, which smelled of fresh wood from the large bin of wood shavings next to the composting toilet. The dog followed me around, looking unusually subdued. When I asked what was wrong with him my sister pointed outside to where George was standing in front of a workbench next to a large pile of logs. George picked up a log and clamped it into the workbench, then, taking his power saw, he whittled away at the end of the log, showering wood bits onto a mound under the table.
“Wow, that’s quite a process, just for a toilet,” I said.
“It’s awful. The logs were delivered in a big truck that hit the neighbour’s gate when it reversed and now George is out there for hours making that terrible noise, and the bits of wood blow all over the place and have already blocked one drain, and the poor dog is stuck indoors, to keep him safe.”
“Why don’t you just buy more of those bags of sawdust?” I asked, “isn’t that what the manufacturers recommend?”
“George says they’re a rip off and the company is profiting at the expense of the environment,” my sister said.
As we watched the power saw slice through another log, a sliver of wood flew from the saw and broke the window of the shed, sending shards of glass all over the grass. George stopped the saw and looked at the glass, shaking his head. The dog, no doubt taking the silence as a sign that he could now go out, began to bark and scratch at the door.
“Oh dear; George will have to clean up that glass before we let the dog out.”
“Perhaps you could train the dog to use your new toilet,” I said. “Now that really would save the environment.”

Keeping a Secret

“Sit here, Mrs. Weston,” said the nurse who met Barbara at the nurses’ station. “Your husband is doing fine after his operation. He’ll be up on the ward soon and then you will be able to see him.”
Barbara sat on the hard plastic chair and clutched her coat around her neck, subconsciously fending off the germs she knew ran rampant around hospitals. The smell of disinfectant mingled with the smell of disease and unwashed bodies curled around her nostrils, taunting her. Arthur wouldn’t like it here. He would want to come home as soon as possible. Everybody knew that you only went into hospital to die.
Barbara wondered how they expected patients to rest with constant humming of machinery and the bright lights, not to mention the nurses bustling in and out of their rooms clanging metal dishes and making the poor patients swallow dozens of pills.
After about twenty minutes the doors opened at the end of the hall and two orderlies came pushing a large bed down the passageway, tubes trailing and monitors bleeping. A pale, droopy version of Arthur lay on the pillow, a large bandage across his chest, his face small and lined. Barbara choked back a tear as she stood up and followed the bed into one of the rooms where a nurse uncoiled tubes and cables, plugging them into the control panel at the head of the bed and then switched on the monitors on the table nearby. She pumped the bed up higher then reached under the bed and pulled out the bag containing Arthur’s clothes, and looked around the room for a place to put them.
“I’ll hold his clothes,” said Barbara, reaching over and taking the bag. She felt comforted clutching the familiar, worn sweater and blue shirt. She had told him to wear something decent for going into hospital but he would not hear of it.
“Why do I have to dress up if I’m going to be asleep?” he had said. “Besides, I’ll have to wear one of those awful gowns.”
The nurse left the room and Barbara opened the bag, taking out the sweater, shirt and pants which she folded properly and placed on the arm of her chair. Arthur’s shoes were also in the bag and she pulled them out and set them on the floor by the bed. She thought the bag must be empty so she was surprised to feel one more thing and she drew out a small clear bag with something pink inside it. Barbara opened it up and found a set of false teeth grinning at her.
“How disgusting,” she thought, “they’ve gone and given me somebody’s teeth and the owner is probably wondering where they are.”
She went outside to the nurse’s station and handed them the bag, saying, “I think we’ve been given somebody else’s teeth.”
Back in the room Arthur was stirring and mumbling as the effects of the anaesthetic wore off. Barbara took his hand, so thin that she could feel every bone through the mottled skin.
“Arthur? It’s me. How are you feeling?”
But Arthur only mumbled and drooled, so she began to tell him news from home: how the neighbour’s dog had scratched the fence again, and what her sister had said on the phone that morning. Soon Arthur drifted off to sleep and Barbara fussed around him, straightening the bedclothes and moving the curtain. He looked smaller, somehow, as if his face had shrunk.
Barbara sat down in the chair by the bed and she must have dozed off, for the next thing she knew the evening sunlight was reflecting off the mirror on the wall next to her and Arthur was sitting up in his bed, mumbling, and feeling around himself, as if searching for something.
“What is it, Arthur?” she asked, “how are you feeling?”
“Mrrlf,” said Arthur, his cheeks pumping like bellows. He put his hand up to his face, then turned away from her.
“What is it, love? Do you need a nurse?” Barbara looked around for the call bell, then ran out in to the passage and summoned one of the nurses who came in and checked all the tubes and monitors while Arthur waved his hands around as if conducting an orchestra. He motioned Barbara away then beckoned the nurse closer and whispered something. Barbara wondered if he needed to use a bedpan or something; she could have helped him with that, after all they had been married thirty years and had no secrets.
A moment later the nurse came back in with a tray and bent over Arthur; she must be giving him some medicine, Barbara thought. Poor man, he was probably in a lot of pain.
Whatever the nurse gave him must have done him good, for as soon as she left Arthur looked more like his old self, and he turned to Barbara with a big smile.
“Hello Barb,” he said, “come to take me home?”
Barbara stayed until the end of visiting hours, then, promising to come back first thing in the morning she headed out, stopping first at the nurses’ station to thank them for looking after Arthur.
“Bye, Mrs. Weston,” said a young nurse, “I’m glad we were able to find Mr. Weston’s dentures.”
Dentures?
The nurse smiled at Barbara who stood gaping at her.
Dentures. All these years of marriage and she had not known. What other secrets was Arthur keeping from her? Well, she would find out in the morning.