The Grey Dog

                                                              

After Lockdown The Town Moor was invaded by the hoi polloi. Muriel missed the times when she could stroll with her dachshund undisturbed except for occasional dog walkers.  Now it was a free-for-all with zealous cyclists, neon joggers and anxious families competing for social distance.  When Sammy died a year before the Pandemic she stopped going for walks.  She felt excluded from the camaraderie of the dog scene.  People looked uncomfortable when they met her, yanking their pets away as if she was the Angel of Death. She’d missed the exercise and fresh air, the gossip and the joyful sight of dogs running free.  But the Covid cloud had a silver lining and these days she could blend in with the masses, trudging the straight and narrow paths anonymous behind her face covering.

Muriel liked to sit on the bench where the paths crossed, a stout figure with red hair, wearing a tweed coat and emerald green scarf.  She would study the Newcastle skyline; the curves of Central Motorway, the Civic Centre tower, the rooftops of Spital Tongues and the amputated Chimney Mill. The cattle grazing on the Moor were incongruous against an urban backdrop.  She had scattered Sammy’s ashes at precisely this spot. 

Muriel experienced an intense grief at the loss of her dog whereas when her mother died  thirty years ago she felt only confusion. At the age of twelve she’d accepted her father’s version of events and his desire that the matter never be discussed after the funeral.  Christmas was always a difficult time of year for Muriel.  Mother had drowned herself in the River Tyne on Boxing Day after yet another marital fight.  These rows happened so often that Muriel stopped feeling upset when her mother made dramatic claims that she wanted to die before disappearing into the night.  Sometimes father and daughter drove out looking for her along the riverside.  Father would beg and grovel until his wife climbed into the car, then they would return home and go to bed as if nothing untoward had occurred.  Eventually her father despaired, gave up on these rescue missions.  He sat at the yellow kitchen table and drank vodka.  Muriel hid in her room and listened to BeeGee records. When the police called to inform them that mother’s body had been discovered under the Swing Bridge Muriel was playing How Deep is Your Love.

So on Christmas Eve, nine months after the world had changed into a dystopia. Muriel visited  her favourite bench on the Moor to think about the past and to remember happy times with Sammy.  She wasn’t looking forward to Christmas Day. Since the divorce she usually spent it alone and this year was no different.  The air was cold and crisp.  Muriel closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She could almost feel the warmth of Sammy’s body pressing against her legs, almost feel his tongue licking her outstretched hand and hear the jingle of his brass name tag.  So real. Muriel felt a shadow fall upon her and opening her eyes saw a woman silhouetted against the late afternoon sun.  She wore a diaphanous dress of pale gold despite the chill.  By her side was the biggest dog Muriel had ever seen with a thick, curly grey coat and green eyes like a wolf.

‘My dog like you’, said the woman in an Eastern European accent. ‘He see you’.

‘Those green eyes are unusual,’ said Muriel.  ‘What type of dog is he?’

The woman laughed. ‘He is special breed from Carpathian Mountains. He chooses you.  He has waited long time.  Now you take him.’ She began to quickly walk away not following the path but across the rough grass.

‘What? Hey!  hang on a minute,’ called Muriel.  ‘You can’t just leave him here.  I don’t want him.’ 

The woman kept on walking.  ‘Hey, stop!’ shouted Muriel.  She leapt up and tried to follow but the dog circled around growling.  She watched helplessly as the slim figure of the woman drifted away across the moor dissolving into dusk.

The dog stopped growling and for a long moment he and Muriel locked eyes. Then he took off at a trot in the direction of Exhibition Park.  Muriel found herself following but she wasn’t sure why. She could go home and phone the police to report the incident. The weird woman had abandoned her dog which was surely an offence. There was no way Muriel wanted him.  She tried to imagine his shaggy bulk ambling around her small flat and her brain would not compute.  Muriel had to run to keep up with the dog.  She felt ridiculous.  They passed a jogger going the opposite way and he gave her a cheery wave.  She found herself waving back.  God knows why.  He was a stranger and she didn’t like men with beards.  In her experience facial hair signified secrecy. 

By the time Muriel reached the avenue of trees in Exhibition Park the sun had set.  Large snowflakes, luminous in the lights were spinning from a deep violet sky.  They skirted the disused boating lake where a lone swan cruised. The water was turgid, ice forming at the edges. The abandoned café was boarded up and adorned with graffiti.  Apparently Elvis had fucked Tracy and Ronnie was a virgin. The dog stopped to piss on a lamp post, then started sniffing the litter under the rhododendrons.  Muriel collapsed breathless on a bench.  

Suddenly, she noticed a figure standing on the bandstand and in the same instant, the street lights began to go out, one by one.  A tide of darkness swept over the park. She turned rigid with fear.  She listened intently but all she could hear was the distant throb of motorway traffic and a faint hum from the nearest lamp as it expired.  After a while her eyes adjusted and she could see bare branches outlined against the sky and a shimmer on the lake.  No lights showed on the horizon.  Muriel remembered her mobile had a torch but when she checked it was lifeless. No signal and no torch.  She’d only charged it that morning.  Then she saw a pair of green eyes glowing from the shadows.  The grey dog was still there, watching.

Muriel wanted to call out to him but her lips refused.  Spittle frothed at the corners of her mouth and words congealed on her tongue. A weary numbness spread throughout her body.  She tried to stand but couldn’t.  Her phone dropped to the ground as her fingers weakened.  She slumped against a picnic table.  The snow continued to fall and a frosting soon covered her hair and coat. My God! Was she going to die here? She remembered her friend Bob had died in his sleep from an undiagnosed brain tumour. Muriel had difficulty breathing; a tightness in her chest. She tried to count each breath the way she’d learned in meditation class. But she couldn’t concentrate beyond number three.

Her mind flashed a jumble of images, strange faces scrolled by in a grotesque procession.  The visions coalesced into one face.  A dark bearded man wearing a hooded robe.  He had a striking, angular face with a hooked nose and brooding eyes. He towered over her.  Muriel wasn’t sure if he meant good or ill.  Then his face transformed into that of her mother, plump and youthful.  They were alone in a small red boat drifting further and further out to sea.  A dazzle of sunlight refracted on the languorous waves and Muriel felt an exquisite joy.  Her mother was struggling to row the boat back to shore with only one oar. Perspiration beaded her face.  Muriel looked back at the distant beach and saw all the people she had ever loved standing in a line.  They were waving and shouting words of encouragement. Muriel did not wave back. She trailed one hand in the warm water and gazed at the open sea.

Image by the author

When the Parties Stop


I remember the first time I was stung 
by a bee. I was six. It was my Russian 
cousin Olga’s birthday party. Suspended

in the airless dark we waited for her to blow 
the candles out. Smoothing the itchy collar
of my summer dress I felt a stab of pain.

I remember an innocent walk in the black 
rain of Chernobyl to the fun fair in town.
We joked about wet clothes, scoffed candy

and Coke, ignored the creaks and groans
of old machines. We clung white-faced
to the safety rail as we spun on the waltzer. 

Today I stare at the daffodils on my table. 
They clamour from their vase, gaudy petticoats 
flapping a can-can at a funeral. In Kyiv 

sandbags not flowers line the streets. A blast 
of golden cluster bombs, pools of pus and piss 
in field hospitals, yellow wheat fields smoulder 

a band of war on the sky blue flags of home. 
In the deserts of Mariupol, walls claw at the sky
and bones burn pale as newborns.

Servants of time, my  daffodils will shrivel, 
lose lustre like the crepe skin of an ageing chorus 
girl. The badlands will birth new blooms.  

Image by the author

Amongst the Flutterers

I’m supposed to be dead”, Amy would say to the visitors wearing plastic smiles as they edged around the door into Room 1, Ward 5. It was gratifying to see them squirm at the mention of the ‘D’ word. In bleak times a girl must get her kicks any way she can. When Amy failed to defeat her illness, stubbornly refusing to rise and sparkle from the sheets like a New Year firework the number of visitors declined until only the troubled and lonely returned. They stopped bringing cheery cards, gifts of scented soap, lip balm and chocolates. Instead some of them drank her afternoon tea, ate her biscuits and ‘borrowed’ the taxi fare home. They all needed a sympathetic ear. There was Linda who was plagued by too many happy memories, Steve who was working out why his wife left him nine years before and Carol who couldn’t decide her next holiday destination. Amy tried to remember that just because she was dying didn’t mean others weren’t entitled to their own misery. It must be a hard choice between the Trans Siberian Express and an Alaskan cruise, after all.

Amy found terminal illness hard work. The doctors, nurses and visitors must be kept happy. It was considered bad form to show pain or fear. One must be positive and grateful at all times. “When you’re smiling…the whole world smiles” and all that shit. It was indeed true that even now there were things for which she was grateful. For a start, she had a room of her own and was no longer trapped with the dementia patients in Room 8. Amy’s new room didn’t have a view unless you stood on a chair and revolved your head like the demonically possessed girl in The Exorcist. Room 1 faced a brick wall with a row of identical windows. The sky could be seen only as a reflection in their glass panes. The best time was when the sun came up and flared in the windows opposite and a solitary seagull perched on her window sill, feathers so white, so exquisitely sculpted that Amy could almost taste the ocean. She imagined the bird swooping low over turquoise waves and then spiralling up into a pure blue sky.

The other thing to be grateful for was the night. Amy loved the night. It was the only time she felt safe. During the day an endless procession of strangers burst into her room without knocking regardless of her situation or state of undress. Dignity was a lost cause. To the army of uniforms she was no longer a woman but a lump of meat to be processed. During the day, she was lost even to herself, her mind focused anywhere but in this body, in this room. She felt she was looking down at herself from a great height, her body meant nothing more than a discarded old coat, too battered even for a charity shop. But at night as the ward gradually fell silent the real Amy returned. Sometimes she would talk to herself out loud, ‘I am Amy Baxter. I was once a teacher, a daughter, a sister, a wife. I am good at baking, knitting, gardening and pub quizzes. I am a loyal friend. My favourite meal is gammon with pineapple and chips. I prefer dogs to cats….’ After the ten thirty drugs trolley had squeaked its way from room to room, the footsteps, voices, slamming doors and buzzing alarms in the corridor lessened. Occasionally Amy heard a patient crying or shouting but it was not like Room 8 where the poor sods with dementia wailed all night and she never slept at all.

It was in Room 8 that Amy first started seeing the visions. When she arrived they put her in the bed near the window. The day was stormy. The ambulance had lurched violently in the gusts of wind on the journey to the hospital. She’d kept hoping they would plunge off the road on one of the hairpin bends so her suffering could be over. No such luck. It was cold in Room 8. The old metal windows were draughty and Amy pulled the blanket up to her chin. She was glad she’d brought her favourite yellow cardigan to keep her warm. She’d knitted it herself, embroidering the cuffs with small blue spots. She closed her eyes and tried to rest. After a while a nurse brought her a cup of tea. When Amy looked up she suddenly saw a jagged white light pulsating around the edge of the window frame, where the aluminium met the wall. She rubbed her eyes and blinked hard but the light was still there.
“What’s that light?” she asked the nurse pointing at the window.
“It’s the sky outside”, said the nurse.
“I know that, I mean what’s that white light streaming around the window?”
Amy looked up at the ceiling where there was a ventilation vent. To her astonishment strange rays of light were filtering through the metal grid. It looked like a scene from Star Trek.
“And up there, look!” she said to the nurse. “Can’t you see it? It’s like the wind coming in. I can see the wind!”
“There’s nothing there pet”, the nurse said. “It’s not Christmas you know. No fairy lights for you.”
Amy heard her go out into the corridor and say “The new one’s seeing fairy lights and she hasn’t even had her morphine yet!” Then laughter.

Amy hoped the lights would go away. She didn’t like seeing things other people couldn’t see. Did it mean she was on the verge of death or insanity? The next morning she could still see the lights but more faintly, wavering like thin silver strands. She tried not to look and never mentioned it to anyone again.

After Amy moved into her single room the weird lights vanished. She squinted at the window and tried hard to see something special but no, it was all completely ordinary. But then one day she was taken downstairs on a trolley for a CT scan. The lift was crammed with people, people of various age, race and build but one thing united them. They were all illuminated. Waves of intense colour pulsed from each human body, as if they all emanated a personal aurora as spectacular as the northern lights. Blues, greens, purples, all the colours of the rainbow. Tears welled in Amy’s eyes, not from her pain but from the beauty of each translucent soul standing shoulder to shoulder in the lift. She felt their hopes, dreams and fragility as concretely as she could see the nicotine stained fingers of the porter as he pressed the button for Level 1. When the lift doors opened the scene changed. People dispersed in different directions and they were back to being dull, normal humans.

When Steve came to visit, clutching a carrier bag full of photos of his ex-wife for Amy to admire, she tried to tell him about the life-affirming experience in the lift. He interrupted her story by saying it must be her drugs and could he have some please? After that, every time he texted to say he was on his way to the hospital she replied she was too tired for visitors. One time he turned up without texting and she pretended to be asleep. He never came again.

Amy’s evenings in Room 1 became more solitary but she didn’t mind. She didn’t watch the small TV which was set so high on the wall that it hurt her neck to look. Instead she would ask the nurse to open the window. It would only open about four inches to prevent suicides but that was enough to let the scent of rain and the sounds of the street into her room. Amy loved the birds who sang at night, their song mingling with the traffic noise, sirens and raucous drunks staggering home from the pub. One night she heard a man shouting“fuck off” over and over again at seagulls who were screaming loud enough to wake the dead. She imagined him out there with his bag of chips and the birds circling around.

Every night as her room darkened Amy would switch on the small spot lamp by her bed. One by one moths drifted through the open window forming an iridescent cloud in the pool of light. She liked to watch their hypnotic dance until she fell asleep. When she woke in the morning she found moths of every hue adorning her pillow like precious jewels. The nurses complained, some of them were afraid of winged creatures and ran shrieking from the room. The ward manager said it was unhygienic and in future the window must be kept closed at night.

On Amy’s last night she begged the kind Polish nurse to open the window.

“Just one more time,” Amy pleaded.

In the morning when the nurse brought breakfast Amy had vanished, her hospital gown cast off on the bed. A kaleidoscope of moths filled the room, shimmering over the walls, the ceiling and every surface. The largest and brightest was yellow marked with tiny blue spots. She was the first to leave, leading the others and fluttering out into the fresh cold air.

Amongst the Flutterers was first published on The Purple Hermit blog about a year ago under a pseudonym and in the second issue of The Haar.

photo by the author

Hermit Cave Revamp

Together with art, poetry and ceramics one of my great passions is textiles. I just love, love, love fabric and my idea of heaven would be the haberdashery department of John Lewis. All those rolls of exquisite fabrics; satin, velvet, silk, lace, beautiful printed cottons and a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns. Better than sex I say! I sometimes regret not specialising in textiles instead of photography at art school. So when my bedroom curtains shrank in the wash recently I was secretly delighted. I’d never liked them in the first place, choosing them under pressure when my house flooded back in 2010. I’d put up with them for long enough so perhaps it was no accident I put them in the washer when they were labelled dry clean only! So now I have a good reason to choose new curtain fabric and I’ve had fun this week ordering up free samples. My choices are narrowed down to four. I’m probably going with the green but the one with the thrush and the bumble bee would look great in a picture frame. It’s just so pretty!

My mother and grandparents worked in the textile industry in West Yorkshire in the 50s, 60s and 70s. It was the only type of work available for immigrants but was well paid and allowed my family to eventually buy their own home, a tumble down terraced next to a railroad track. When the train shot out of the nearby tunnel everything in the house rattled and shook like an earthquake! But after years of living in refugee camps they were happy to have a roof over their head. For a few years my parents and grandparents lived together for financial reasons even after I was born. My mother worked in a local textile mill as a winder. This job entailed tending the winding machine for winding yarn from hanks to bobbins or from spinning bobbins to other bobbins, spools, cones, cheeses, etc. It also involved piecing together the broken ends of the yarn. My mother was an expert at knots and in later life developed arthritis in her fingers from all those years of handling yarn. I remember visiting her at work, the deafening roar of the rows of machines and the stink of grease.

To a small child it was like a vision of hell. But since the late 70s the old textile industry in the north of England has disappeared. The grand Victorian mills have been converted into luxury apartments and most of our textiles are now imported from abroad where they are produced in appalling conditions for low wages. Very few fabrics are made in the UK today. Sad.

So anyway, back to my new bedroom curtains which are probably made in China or India but I hope they will make waking up each morning a bit more pleasant. Now should I choose the green or the blossom?



Heaven or Hell?

The existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously said ‘Hell is other people’. The quote originated in his play No Exit with the scenario of hell being trapped for eternity in a room with two other people.

This quote came up in a recent Zoom conversation I had with an old friend. He immediately responded with the opposing claim that ‘Heaven is other people”. My friend is an urbanite who lives in a fashionable part of a big city and spends his days in restaurants, theatres and galleries. Although I used to enjoy that kind of lifestyle years ago I’ve since voted with my feet and moved to a village in a remote part of the UK. Here I prefer the company of wild birds and animals to people and I limit my social interactions to mostly online. I have turned into a recluse for sure!

So I kept thinking about why some of us seem to need people more than others. Which category do you fall into? Are other people hell or heaven to you or a bit of both? Is it simply a matter of introversion or extroversion or the conditions of our early childhood?

I was an only child and spent time in an isolation hospital at the age of three. So being alone feels safe to me. My happiest memories revolve around nature and my wonderful animals. Not people. My parents were unhappy dysfunctional people and I have survived two marriages to men who turned out to be abusers. This is a common experience. We often talk of humans being a social animal but just look at how many notable people became happy recluses in the later part of their lives:-

Brigitte Bardot, Carl Jung, Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Michael Jackson, Caryll Churchill, Paul Cezanne, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Scargill, Brian Wilson, Marcel Proust, Yves Saint Laurent, Harper Lee, Michelangelo, Stanley Kubrick…

So who are you? Do you prefer a mad social whirl or talking to trees?
ARE OTHER PEOPLE HEAVEN OR HELL?

Photo by the author

First Breath

The cries of curlews
hang silver in the morning
light my heart glides


Each year we have curlews nesting on the ground in the back field where cattle graze. Each year chicks are lost to predators including cats, buzzards, foxes and owls. One year the farmer ploughed up the field nest and chicks and all. The parent birds work so hard to protect their offspring. Night and day they circle around emitting a raucous warning cry. Sometimes they dive bomb me in the garden but I don’t mind although those long sharp beaks look a little scary! I worry about those chicks. But some must survive and in the spring when I first hear the beautiful curlew call I am filled with joy.

Turn Off the Lights

She longs for the refuge of dark interiors.
The Tiffany lamps and plush burgundy
of city bars, torn between Aqua Velva
and a Dirty Martini. In the gloom, eyes
gleam and lies bloom unseen on dry lips.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She dreams of peering through the gap
in the chintz curtains as his family coils,
roils in the blue flicker of a widescreen.
He sips tea from a cracked mug, The Best
Dad in the World embossed in faded gold.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She imagines the marine glow of their bed
-room, matching furniture and fluffy robes.
The green drapes smother the rumble
of traffic on Harbour Road. Newborn
light pales his face when he smiles.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She craves the murk of musty hotel rooms.
A silk scarf cast over a single lamp, sheets
and limbs tangled, the acrid taste of him
on her lips. His sleeping foot dangles,
sock still on and she sees a hole in the sole.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She recalls the tobacco heat of his BMW,
leather beneath her thighs. The dashboard
flickers like broken glass. Fireflies swirl
in the beam of headlights. Morse code.
His face turns away when he speaks.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She longs for dark interiors, not this naked
white room. Fluorescent light beats down
and she shrivels under their weight like a moth
who finally made it to the moon. She’s waiting.
She’s been here so long, she forgets why.
Brightly lit, someone will become no one.

Image by the author

The Wall

This weekend I discovered the most marvellous novel that I’d never heard of before. Its called The Wall by the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, first published in 1968. Although classified as science fiction and ecofeminist it is really a profound philosophical meditation on solitude and the relationship between humans and the natural world. It contains beautifully intense descriptions of the close bonds that we can form with animals without being sentimental. The story is set in the Alps and recounts in diary format one woman’s struggle to survive in total isolation. The mysterious transparent wall that appears over night is a metaphor for the divisions between us all in a time when we interact with screens more than other living beings. The book was ahead of its time in anticipating many social and environmental issues we struggle with today. The Wall is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read and I would absolutely recommend it particularly if you are a person with a love for animals and nature.

Photo by the author

The Ripple Effect

A metaphor for life?

Do you ever wonder why some people seem to lead charmed lives whereas others, no matter how hard they try have nothing but bad luck? Some say we make our own luck. I think this is true only up to a point. The truth is shit happens to good people. And what about the expression, to have the luck of the devil? Or the good die young? Many of the most beautiful, intelligent and kindest people still end up getting cancer or being killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. In fact the most terrifying things are beyond our control and that is why humans have invented religion. For protection.

The ripple effect takes place when one massive disaster befalls a person, eg. a serious illness, war, an abusive parent, and this leads to other negative consequences. More and more bad luck follows like a chain reaction, eg. illness – loss of job – loss of income – loss of home – loss of friends or partner who don’t want to associate with someone they label as a loser – loss of self esteem which leads to bad decision making, depression and even more bad luck.

Too often in our therapy obsessed world we end up blaming the victim. Therapists may suggest we are the ones who need to change, we have distorted perception, wrong attitudes, etc. Is this necessarily true? Or were we in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person? We employ this weird magical thinking…..did your house flood because you are a negative person or because it was built on a flood plain by an unscrupulous builder. Yes, we must take responsibility for our own lives but we are not to blame for everything. I was once told by a so-called friend that my disability must be due to my evil actions in a previous life! You’ve got to laugh! And this woman was a teacher working with disabled children!

So yes, let’s be positive and try our very best to live an honourable life but we are not responsible for all the sins of the world. Call it Fate, call it Luck or God but there are forces beyond our control.

What do you think? Do you agree?

Photo by the author

Old But Not Past It

I was whisking up eggs, sugar and cottage cheese last night to make Syrniki (a type of Ukrainian cheesy pancake) and suddenly realised the rotary whisk I was using must be nearly as old as myself. It is still going strong (unlike myself 🤣) I remember growing up in the sixties and watching my mother whip up sponge cakes using that same whisk as I waited eagerly to lick out the bowl. Ooh yummy! When I married at the age of eighteen my mother gave me that whisk along with a load of other domestic paraphernalia, a sort of perfect housewife starter kit. Obviously didn’t work as I divorced seven years later!

What vintage objects have you got in your kitchen that you still use regularly? Rotary whisks are no longer in fashion as most people have electric blenders and food mixers now. I’ve always been averse to gadgets. You spend more time cleaning them than the time you save. I like the tactile quality of a wooden spoon and the physicality of cooking. My other vintage kitchen item is a cook book from 1980 which arrived with my new oven. It contains recipes for 80s favourites such as Chicken Maryland, Cheese Soufflé and Creme Brûlée. I still refer to it often. So…what antiquities do you have lurking at the back of your kitchen cupboards?