Friday, 16 November 2007

The Stick Ape - A short story

It was still daylight and she was in bed. It felt odd. She heard talking in the garden outside the room and thought of those long afternoons when, wilful and cheeky, she had been sent to bed long before her sisters. That was a while ago, in another life. Her mind wandered to other high summer evenings, when she’d tossed, hot and sleepless, listening to the click of her father’s spade as he worked outside in the garden. It was on one of those evenings that, in the oak tree just beyond the garden hedge, she had first seen the outline of an ape.

Her stick ape had loomed larger and larger every day until it dominated her waking hours. Even in snow the ape was there, looking down, its stick arms stiff with cold. On frosty nights she thought she heard it scraping and tap tapping on the window. In the summer it hid behind the leaves, ready to swing across the gap between tree and hedge and into her bedroom. Then she grew afraid that her thoughts might let it in.

Her sisters said they couldn’t see it and laughed at her, saying she was daft. They told their mum she was silly. Her mum smiled at her fondly, looked in the wrong place and said abstractedly that it was probably an angel watching to see if she was good. She knew it wasn’t an angel. It’s stick like frame hung over her waking hours, threatening and gleeful that no one else in her family really knew the truth.

To start with she tried pulling the curtains more tightly, but that only made the ape more real, its presence more imminent, so she slept with the curtains undrawn. Each morning, on waking, she needed to see out of the corner of her eye that it was there, just to make sure it was still safely imprisoned in the tree.

One day the urge to watch grew so strong she moved her bed directly opposite the window. That night there was a terrible storm. The sort of storm that pulled down telephone wires and tore birds out of the trees, dashing them and their nests onto the ground.

She had never heard such a storm before. She lay alone in her little bed, looking out as the darkness suddenly lit up like fireworks. Huge jagged streaks ripped across the sky. Slashes of light shone behind her eyes long after the lightening had gone.

The wind tore the noise of the thunder away and rolled it around the wood. She heard the tufted leaves on the ends of the branches slashing together and the whole wood hissed with distress.

Again and again rain hit her window like hailstones on a cold tin roof. Wind gusted down the chimney, leaving patches of sooty grime in the hearth. As the latch rattled and the backdoor opened, the lino lifted as the wind came under her bedroom door.

She relaxed when she heard her father’s voice, back from the pub. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but knew he talked of the wind. Her mother’s lighter tone answered in agreement, then their footsteps came in unison up the stairs. They whispered briefly at her door, then there was silence in the house. A silence more acute because of the tearing noise outside.

She thought of her stick ape. In her mind she saw his body lean forward, changing shape as it moved in the wind, springing back and forward, back and forward. She strained to see the tops of the trees from her bed, waiting for the next lightening flash, needing to make sure he was still there. When it came the brightness burnt strange patterns on her eyes, blinding her to what was going on outside.

She shivered as she heard the crack of a bough splitting, then ripping sounds as it fell, twisting through smaller branches, down into the undergrowth. From her bed she felt sorrow for all the animals out in the wind. She pulled the covers up to her chin but still peered out into the blackness, not sleeping until the storm eventually stilled.

In the morning washed sun streamed in her window. She lay dazed, watching the dust fairies dance in a beam of light. As she moved her legs in the bed, the dust fairies swirled and climbed. She tried sleepily to recall the night before. On remembering the storm, she sat up in bed with a start. Once out of bed she staggered, and the light coming in blinded her for a moment. Then, running to the window, she looked outside. Down in the garden tall blue flowers lay flat and battered across her mother’s once neat borders. Her cat picked his way cautiously among the debris. Tufted bunches of oak leaves lay mangled on the path and lawn. Larger twigs straddled the hedge. Beyond the hedge the tree was still standing, but the ape was gone. Where it had once loomed down at her was just a gap, a space of blue washed sky. She could see the track it had made as it leapt through the trees and bushes. She imagined it running along a road made by the fallen branches. As she stared at the path its retreating form had made, she was engulfed by loss. Loss so profound that it clutched her chest and squeezed her throat. The stick ape was gone forever.

How she missed its looming branches and its sketchy shape. From now on she would sleep with the curtains tightly closed, not bearing to open her eyes onto the space it had left so empty. For a long time she told herself it was freedom, but mostly she knew it was loss.

Now, years later she was in another narrow bed, looking at another sky through open curtains, with her thoughts flitting back to that childhood room and the stick ape that had waited beyond the window.

Outside the garden had grown silent in the dusk. Evening was rapidly approaching and, as the light dimmed, she began to feel an old familiar presence. Had her thoughts called it? Was it coming for her? Was it there outside the window? She thought she saw a movement from the corner of her eye but her head was heavy and hard to turn. The room was getting darker now and finally she was sure what crouched beyond the window. There was comfort and dread in its return. Slowly she turned her face towards the dying light. Just before the final dark she felt it close by, looking down on her again and this time she realised there would be no storm. It was there and she knew this time they would go together.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

On Presents Past

Apparently Cath Kidson is selling wool tam o’shanters at £25 a throw. I wish I’d saved mine from when I was a kid. I’d have made a fortune. I wonder what’s the going rate on eBay for a vintage tam? Unfortunately mine all met sticky ends.

My Caithness Granny must have spent most of the year knitting and sewing as around Christmas, a bulging parcel would arrive. Along with a blackbun, some oatcakes and sometimes a very dead black hen, (she was convinced we couldn’t get wholesome food in the wicked south) would be several individual parcels. Usually my Mum’s contained a tartan pinny, for wearing on a Sunday, instead of her week day floral overall. My Dad, a son in exile down south, had the most beautiful hand knitted stockings, complete with knitted garters.

My father always wore tweed plus fours. This caused huge embarrassment to us girls, but Caithness Granny made sure he had proper wool stockings, so he‘d look really smart. In fawn or lovat green, those stockings were the work of a superb craftswoman and looked well with his ‘tackety’ boots. It was an unusual outfit for a father to wear in Surrey, in the late fifties and swinging sixties. If we begged him not to wear them, a threat to wear his kilt was enough to bring us to heel.

I can’t remember what came for my big sisters in that parcel, but I often had a fairisle tam o’shanter and once a fancy pixie hood and mittens. Though I seldom saw her, I loved my Caithness Granny but I hated every scratchy stitch she made for me, even if her knitted presents were works of art.

A visit to see her meant huge expense, at two day train ride to Inverness, hours in a rickety red bus and a bumpy ride in the back of my Uncle’s van, before we reached her isolated house, out in the hills by the Grey Cairns of Camster. I now realise those presents were acts of love to granddaughters she seldom saw, the daughters of a son she missed so badly, but to me they were an embarrassment. No one else had to wear hats like mine and worse still, they were physical torture.

To this day I can’t bear wool anywhere near my skin, but off I’d go to school with my Granny’s headgear pulled hard down over my ears, my head itching like it was on fire. I didn’t dare scratch for fear of a,

“You’ve got nits”, taunt from my sisters.

I lost those lovely tam o’shanters. I left them on the school bus, dropped them in puddles, abandoned them to hang lonely and unloved on school pegs in draughty cloakrooms. The pixie hood was quietly hung up a tree. I wouldn’t be so thoughtless now. I think they’re rather smart and I’m quite tempted by a Cath Kidson’s snazzy little number, but the thought of what my thrifty Granny would have said keeps that £25 firmly in my purse. I’m sure she’d have approved of my thrift or may be she’d just be dismayed that I couldn’t knit one myself.

( The pictures are of my Dad as a young man wearing his plus fours and my Caithness Granny and Grandad)