Short Story: The Adoption.

It had been the usual quiet, airless afternoon in Brenda’s sitting room; tea and chocolate digestives set out on a tiny side table, the television blinking silently and the fresh air of the outside world held at bay by window locks and net curtains. Joan had pottered her way across the road, as she did every Thursday, with her nice scarf and her best skirt on and they were sitting together in comfort, rehearsing the same conversation, until “their” programme came on at four o’clock. That was the part they looked forward to most, when they could sit up straight and give opinions about the contestants. You were supposed to want everybody to win, but they didn’t. Not always. That was what happened on Thursday afternoons and that was exactly how they liked it. Familiarity was something to cling to, a comfort late in life, when the world was filled with loss and change, but this afternoon was going to be different. Joan had been thinking, and she had decided it was time to come out with her secret.
“Did I ever tell you I was adopted?”
Brenda blinked anxiously. The truth was she couldn’t remember whether Joan had told her that or not, but if she said so that would be rude. She forgot all sorts of things these days but surely not something like that. What if Joan had already told her about it? It often happened. They both liked to repeat themselves and if Joan had told her before it was not the sort of thing you were supposed to forget. That would be rude. It would look as though she wasn’t bothered……… or senile.
“Adopted? I don’t think so.”
Joan nodded.
“I thought not. Yes, adopted.”
There was a silence. The china dogs on the fireplace stared.
“Go on then.”
“I was in Dr Barnado’s to start with, until just before I was four, then after that I was fostered with Aunty Margaret and Uncle Fred. Then this one morning they fetched me into the front room- where we never usually went- and there were these two women there. It was the day before my sixth birthday so I thought it was something to do with that. A surprise. Well I got a surprise all right. I’d never seen either of them before but they knew all sorts about me. They knew my name, Millicent-”
“Yes, that’s who I am really- Millicent. They told me I had to be Joan. So that’s what I’ve been all these years- Joan.”
The last word was spat out.
“You’d rather have been Millicent then?”
Joan took no notice. Of course she would rather have been who she really was. Wasn’t that obvious? Her voice grew in confidence as she carried on talking, using a quite different tone to the one she used when she was talking about the shortcomings of the neighbours. When she had mentioned being adopted to her other friend, three doors down, she had been told to “put it behind her” and that wasn’t right. Sixty five years was nothing. Nothing at all. She wasn’t going to let Brenda do the same thing. She had something to say and she was going to say it.
“Anyway these two women were there and one of them turned out to be my mam-
“Your mam?”
“Well not my real mam, the woman who I ended up calling mam and my Auntie Jean. They took me away on a bus. We went ever so far. My things had all been packed without telling me- my teddy and everything. They showed him to me so I knew where he was. The bus windows were mucky and I tried to look out but I couldn’t see where we were properly, then it started to rain. Eventually the bus stopped at the bottom of a big hill, Weathersley hill in Stanshaw-”
“I know where that is.”
“You would do. Right next to where I was going to go to school only I didn’t know that then- I walked up and down that hill every day for years. We got off the bus. I just held on tight to her hand- the one with the nice hat on, in case I got lost and the one I called mam later on carried my bag. I didn’t even know I was stopping for good. Not till later on.
We went in the front door of number thirty six and straight into the kitchen. There was this man standing there. I can tell you just where he was standing. You remember those kitchen units with sliding doors and table parts you could pull down?”
Brenda did remember.
“We had one of those. Light blue it was.”
“Well this one was pale yellow and he was standing right next to it. The table part was pulled down and he was standing there with his cap on inside the house. Just looking at me. Then he held out his hand and gave me half a crown. they made me walk towards him like a little dog and say thank you. It was the only time he ever gave me money. I only found out he was my real dad years later. I don’t know if anybody else even knew that to start with. There was nothing on the birth certificate.”
Brenda looked down and shook her head. How could you not know your real dad when he was standing in front of you? What would it be like to be right next to him without knowing? She wondered whether to offer another cup of tea. The clock ticked. Joan went on talking.
“I had to give all my wages to my mam right up until I was eighteen. When I wanted to get married they said I couldn’t because they needed my wages. All those years paying for my keep and more. As if they were doing me a favour. I didn’t ask to be there. I kept wanting to go back home.”
“You did get married though. You married Jack.”
“Well they couldn’t stop me in the end. Not once I was twenty one. It was when I was fourteen I found the letter.”
“What letter?”
“One from Aunty Margaret asking me how I was.”
“That’s nice.”
“They’d told me they were both dead.”
“To shut me up I suppose. He came in and saw me with the letter. Grabbed it off me and said it would go straight into my adoption file.”
It was addressed to me.”
This was wrong. They were both big believers in the royal mail and liked to talk about the post even though they hardly got any, so they knew that. Brenda shook her head.
“Course they’ll all be dead now.”
Neither of them could quite bring themselves to say out loud that this was a very good thing but they both thought it.
“They never hit me.”
Brenda’s father had hit her but only when she deserved it. She had been loved. Not the way that kids got loved- spoiled- nowadays. Endless treats, dressing up as princesses, having their photograph taken every time they came back in the room. She frowned.
“I should think not!”
“Anyway it didn’t matter. I’d taken note of the address while I was standing there. I got my friend to go with me and when we got there I remembered it all- I took her straight there. Just knocked on the door. This strange woman answered it, looked straight at me and said, “you’re Millicent aren’t you?” I said “yes”. Nobody had called me that for years. I’d only seen it written down.”
“Your Auntie Margaret.”
“No, I never did find out who that woman was or how she knew. Aunty Margaret must have talked about me. They’d moved three doors down. They were that pleased to see me.”
“They would be.”
“I used to go back and see them every so often after that. I never told anybody- not even years later.”
Joan was staring straight at her and Brenda knew that she was waiting for her to say something, but what could she say? She had a feeling that this was a conversation that was only going to happen once- unlike most of what they said to each other- and she had to be sure to say the right thing. Margaret had brought all the sadness and anger that she had held in from years back and placed it squarely in the middle of her sitting room. The hurt was seeping out, souring the still air and spoiling everything. It made her feel like opening a window to let it out. Of course it wasn’t Joan’s fault and she couldn’t ask her to go home, certainly not just before their programme.
“That’s nice that you kept in touch.”
Joan wondered if Brenda had really listened. Never mind. It had been said.
“Are you going to switch the sound up?”
Brenda smiled.
“Right you are, Millicent.”


The Dark Self. Susan Aldworth at York St Mary’s.

Sleep is a great subject for Art. Mysterious, unknowable but vital to our health and well being sleep is an experience which we all share. It is the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. We ask each other about it, talk about it, worry about it and attempt to find meaning in our dreams. It is a central part of our lives which we have no control over, our secret self, or as Susan Aldworth calls it in in her exhibition at York St Mary’s this summer, The Dark Self.

St Mary’s is an atmospheric space, a decommissioned church, which responds to beauty and mystery and this exhibition fills the space with both. The soundscape provided by composer Barney Quinton for the film installation, Dormez Vouz, unifies the whole space into a single experience as you walk around and makes it into a place for dreams. The film is both haunting and surreal- much like sleep itself- and you find yourself pulled into a slower, meditative way of being as you look at it, taken down into different world.

Susan Aldworth’s monoprints are both gentle and beautiful and the pillowcases, embroidered by 414 individual embroiderers from all over the country which hang in the central space and form the work 1001 Nights have dignity and presence. They are old pillowcases, with a history, used and slept on, and each person has made a kind of testimony as they sewed. They are all different, all unique to the person who made them and together they make a statement about our common experience and how we see it. It’s a fascinating piece which is both a piece of community Art and a work particular to the artist whose vision brings them together and allows them to speak with one voice.

I think the piece I loved most was the sculpture Evidence of Sleep III, five white porcelain pillowcases which rested calmly in a sunlit corner under a mullioned window. They were not quite what they seemed, hard porcelain masquerading as softness and comfort, and that deception and sense of mystery seemed exactly right.

This exhibition is a beautiful breathing space in the centre of the city for the whole summer while is is thronged with visitors and I shall make sure that I get back to it whenever I can.

Short Story: Pretty Ladies.

Hannah waited for the surprise that always remained a surprise no matter how many times you drove down the driveway to her favourite house. Speke Hall comes at you when you least expect it. A glorious Tudor manor house left behind by time on the edge of Liverpool, stranded in the middle of an urban landscape right next to an airport. Hannah had been there plenty of times but her daughter had only just turned six and it was the first time she had risked bringing her. She was old enough now to build a den in the woods next to the hall if she got bored and sit at a table in the little cafe properly to have some cake.
“Shall we have some cake later on?”
Keira wrinkled her nose.
“What sort?”
“Whatever you like. There’s one called Wet Nelly.”
There was a snort from the back seat.
“There is not.”
“There is too. I’ll show you. You can eat some.”
“Wet Nelly. Urgghhh.”
“It’s yummy. I promise.”
This was a lie. Her daughter would definitely not like it, Keira hated fruit cake but she might not realise what it was until it was in her mouth.
“You can have a bite of mine.”
The car filled with laughter as they swung into a parking space. This was going to be a good day.

It was touch and go getting Keira to walk straight to the house when she saw the piles of sticks and logs, all ready to play with, as they made their way through the woods but they finally stood in the little queue at the front door ready to be allowed in and she was happy. She allowed her mother to tell her how the house was built and nodded wisely.
“It’s a Hansel and Gretel house, only it’s wood not gingerbread. Made from sticks.”
Hannah smiled. Speke hall was like something from a fairytale, a carefully constructed pile of interlocking patterns, sloping eaves, high chimneys and dark mullioned windows. It was a house built with flair, imagination and love. A confident house for people who knew their worth.
Keira was thrilled that only a little part in the corner of the huge heavy front door was opened up and the grown ups had to duck their heads. She bounced through into the central courtyard straight away and stood there jumping up and down.
“There are trees mummy- big trees. And more house!”
Hannah followed her quickly. She didn’t want any trouble. Sometimes people who began by thinking that Keira was cute could change their minds very quickly.
“Don’t start pulling at the trees.”
Keira looked at her mother in disgust, as though she had never been known to do anything like that.
They walked around the trees, peering into the windows and finding patterns in the house walls.
“The trees would have been a lot smaller when they were planted.”
Keira rolled her eyes.
“I know that.”
“They have names.”
“I don’t know one’s like these.”
“Not just what kind of tree they are. They are yew trees but they have their own names as well. Can you guess what?”
“Like people?”
“Boys or girls?”
“One of each.”
Keira bit her lip and pointed.
“That one is called Jack and the one over there is called Sarah.”
“Nearly. They are called Adam and Eve.”
“Which is which?”
“I don’t know.
“That’s no good.”
“But I do know how old they are.”
“Older than you?”
“Much older. Five hundred years old.”
“That’s a lot of years.”
“There’s something else to show you- over here.”
Hannah took Keira’s hand, ignoring the pull away, and led her to the other side of the courtyard.
“See up there? Can you see a spyhole?”
It took a while but finally Keira did. She jumped up and down on the spot shouting. People stared.
When you first came to the house in the olden days they had a special man inside the house and he looked through that to see if you were allowed in.”
“Are we allowed in?”
“Well we paid, so yes. You can look through it yourself later on.”
“Oh wow!”

Now that she knew about the spy hole Keira had completely lost interest in the courtyard and the trees so there was no alternative but to take her straight on into the house itself. Hannah had been dreading this part. There were a million and one things that her daughter might pick up and wave around, bounce on, or sit on without permission.
“Be good. You mustn’t touch anything- all right?”
She always said that to start with. Before she got bored.
The beds were the biggest hit- except for the fact that she couldn’t crawl up and bounce on them. She looked at the faces in the carved wood and the flowers on the counterpanes and announced that her bed was boring in comparison but that she liked her Moanna duvet cover better.
“I wish I had a roof on my bed.”
“When this house was built a lot of people didn’t have a proper bed at all.”
“Homeless, ” Keira said instantly, without really understanding what that meant.
“Not homeless- just without a bed.”
“That’s stupid.”
Keira ran on ahead and her mum sped up to keep her in sight.

By the time they reached the billiard room Keira was in full flow and Hannah’s patience was wearing thin. The kitchen had been pronounced “boring” and there had been too many rooms, too many “brown paintings”. She was thankful there was nobody else in there. The row of settees at the end of the room were empty. The house guide who was guarding the billiard table smiled at them. He was having a slow day.
“Would you like to play a game?”
Keira frowned at him, used to being told no.
“Am I allowed?”
“Of course you are. I’ll show you.”
She darted a look of triumph at her mum and Hannah sat down wearily to watch, thankful to be given a few minutes off. He fetched a step stool for Keira to stand on and showed her what to do, allowing her to roll the balls towards the pockets by hand when the cue proved too unwieldy and giving her a round of applause each time one went in. By the time ten minutes had gone by he knew Keira’s name, how old she was, where she lived, how often she saw her dad, what she was having for her tea, that bananas were yucky and more about Disney princesses than he probably wanted to- especially Moanna. It was the undivided attention that Keira needed and couldn’t always get and both of them were enjoying themselves. He smiled at her mother.
“It’s a lovely age, six. I have a granddaughter the same age.”
Hannah smiled back, it was good to be envied rather than pitied. When she was with other mothers she so often seemed to be kept on the back foot, sneered at without words.
“Thank you for being patient. She’s very full on. Let me know when you’ve had enough.”
Hannah amused herself by looking at the information sheet for the room. It had been very elegant in its day. There was a painting by Whistler on it showing the room full of wealthy, fashionable people whiling away the time in elegant clothes after dinner, sitting around watching the game, flirting and gossiping. Lots of flirting. The billiard table had been made by Gillows of Lancaster- it would have cost a small fortune and no novices would ever have been allowed to risk that baize top back then- let alone children. They would find it strange now to see a parade of strangers coming through the room to gawp at what remained of their lives, allowed to poke around a delicate skeleton which had once been fleshed out with their hopes and dreams, now emptied of warmth and joy. It was just as well that they couldn’t see the room now, however beautiful it still was.
The last ball slipped down into a pocket and Keira straightened up to receive her final round of applause. It was time to move on- quit while you are ahead. He had been very patient.
“There- you enjoyed that didn’t you?”
Keira jumped down from the stool.
“Say thank you.”
“Thank you.”
“My pleasure.”
She pulled at her mum’s arm.
“Can I build dens now?”
“What about cake?”
So dens it was. Hannah sat deep in thought, and very hungry, while her daughter made herself thoroughly hot and grubby, dragging branches around and putting them in piles. By the time they were ready to eat cake the cafe was almost closing.
Keira could recognise fruit cake whatever name it had been given so they shared a large piece of chocolate cake and both had some lemonade while Keira chattered happily about what she had seen.
“Who were the pretty ladies?”
“Which pretty ladies?”
Keira frowned.
“The ones watching me play on the big table. In the long dresses. They wouldn’t smile at me.”
Keira had a vivid imagination and Hannah had learned not to contradict her when she made things up. It was best to play along, humour her.
“I don’t know sweetheart.”
Keira took a big bite of cake.
“Maybe they were fed up.”
“A bit bored maybe, just watching.”
Then Hannah remembered the painting on the fact sheet. Perhaps there was nothing to contradict.

Whistler and the Leyland Family in the Billiard Room, Speke Hall by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Every childhood lasts a lifetime.

Every childhood lasts a lifetime.
The cuts, the stings, the bites, the bruises,
the hand held tight, the fears, the laughter.
A search for self knowledge,
forged in the white heat
of other people’s prejudices.

Making choices, reaching out,
trying on other lives for size.
Growing into ourselves.
We look, we watch, we wonder,
searching for a place to call our own,
lost among people who are not like us.

There is only the future, no death, no endings,
limitless dreams to explore or waste.
A soft path beckoning us on.
Grass covered, made for running,
stretching out into a haze
of possibilities we cannot see.

Later, much later, we return, battle hardened,
to find the home that we always knew,
and within it an eager heart still beating,
wings outstretched, beak open,
an empty throat, straining to be fed.
Our wisest, truest self.

Cow Parsley.

It’s the scent I notice first.
I have walked among it all my life
without thinking.
Still air, loaded with summer.
Long stalks shoot up,
fast growing, opportunist,
searching for light.
Tiny sprays of white
in a shambles of dull green
which fill every hedgerow.
Every piece of waste ground
teems with them.
There is nothing special here,
nothing to draw the eye,
yet each year they come,
claiming their space.
Their delicate beauty
is easy to walk past-
easy to condemn,
strim, scythe, behead,
but still they break into flower,
seizing their chance,
growing fast in the warm rain,
keeping faith,
being alive.
They seize their moment,
finding comfort in numbers,
shivering nervously
as they wait in hope.

Fifteen Minutes.

The click of a door.
Heads turn.
A smiling face,
here to do a simple thing well.
Here to heat up chicken soup.
Make tea.
Bring life.
Here to give fifteen minutes
of his youth and eagerness
to two people whose youth is kept
locked away in a faded wedding photograph.
His own needs remain elsewhere.
His name is Joe.

He is here to do a simple thing
which has been taken out of their reach
by the ravages of time.
A ring pull too strong
for a fragile wrist.
A hot pan
too heavy to lift.
An empty kettle
with a lid that sticks.
There is no illness here,
just a slow ebbing away.
A failing.
A loss.

He has looked in the bread bin
and he is worried.
There is bread,
almost a whole loaf,
but it is out of date.
Over a week out of date.
They ask for bread.
They tell him it will be fine.
He is not sure.
He brings the soup without it
and they eat it silently
without asking where the bread is.
He is relieved.

A breezy, “is there anything else you need?”
A scattering of gratitude,
a door clicking shut.
He is gone,
and the life in the room leaves with him.
Empty faces turn back to the quiz show
which glitters and flashes
across the television screen.
She points at the contestant.
“I don’t like him.”
He nods.
No questions are answered.

On the cliff top.

Lay out your thoughts gently,
across a haze of misty blue.
Allow the sea to speak-
to be is not always to do.
You are not what you have earned.

Up sticks and take stock-
there are secrets to find,
new discoveries waiting,
hidden at the back of your mind.
See what you know.

Our striving is just waves on water,
driven by the winds of chance.
Waves sweep across our surface,
rolling, repeating, remembering,
hiding hidden currents of fear.

Breathe in deeply.
Relish the fresh clear air.
Put your life on hold.
Be here- now!