The Old Man Who Shouted

old-man-cryingShe found a seat at the top of the ramp leading up from the beach, looking out to sea and across the bay back across the three miles of sands they’d just walked. Slipping Bodie’s lead through the arm of the bench, she stretched her legs, lifted her face to the warm sunshine and smiled. Phil was seeing Filey now in all its full late-summer glory and he’d remember it like this and not wet, windy and cold as it had been for the last three days. So he couldn’t go on about the ‘grim, grotty Northern seaside’ as he was wont to do.

“You’re looking very smug, missy”, he said, returning with ice-creams.

“Just enjoying the sun. Bodie, don’t get any ideas, mate!”

“How can you resist those eyes?” he laughed and tousled the spaniel’s long ears.

“Quite easily when it’s stuff that’s bad for him”.

“See the fat lady over there?”

“Phil!” she reprimanded him, “that isn’t kind”.

“Whatever. Anyway, she’s feeding that bloody poodle chips, for heaven’s sake! It can hardly waddle along as it is”.

“People treat their dogs like kids. It’s not fair on them”. She sat up to enjoy the cornet better. Somehow, just like fish and chips, these things tasted better eaten in the open air by the sea.

“Have you noticed how some people get to look their dogs?” He mused, as he licked away.

“I don’t have long ears, do I?”

“Not you. Although you both like your belly tickled’ he winked at her, “But take the fat woman and her fat poodle. They both have similar hairstyles. The shaggy mop look. And that guy”, he nodded over at a young man with tattoos holding the chain lead of a Boxer dog, “see the facial features?”

Laughing, she had to agree. “Oh and how about him? The little old fellow with the Jack Russell?”

“Exactly! Both small, wiry with spindly legs and the grumpiest of faces”

“I think they’re both just hot.” She felt mean now for drawing attention to him. He was clearly exhausted; leaning on the railings while the little dog drank thirstily. She’d seen him yesterday, this tiny ancient, when she’d walked here in the pouring rain. He’d been huddled into his coat, the same one he was wearing today. Why, when it was so warm? He’d come down the hill, past the glen, the old terrier trundling alongside him, and had stood in the same place, at the far end of the walkway, looking out to sea, gripping the railings. Maybe it was his daily constitutional? He looked so weary and, not so much grumpy, as Phil had said, but addled (she loved that word!), as if he had lots on his mind and couldn’t clear it. Maybe he stood here in this spot every day to try and blow the clutter that crowded his thinking space away and out to sea?

“Yummy, eh? Don’t tell your mother” Phil had finished his ice-cream and was feeding the end of the cone to Bodie, while she’d been distractedly musing. He grinned and gave her that ‘What am I doing so wrong?’ expression that he did so well. Shaking her head, she brushed crumbs from her shorts and stood to stretch. Bodie was on his feet, ready to go and as she turned to her dog, she heard the old man shout out,

“You can’t take dogs on that side of the beach!”

A young man, twenty-something, blond, good-looking, with naked, bronzed upper torso, was about to walk down the ramp at the other end of the walkway from where they were sitting, with his black Labrador. He halted for a second and looked back at the old man.

“Says who?” he demanded, in a mocking tone.

The man pointed at the notice ‘Dogs must not be exercised on this part of the beach’. “You can walk on that side of the beach” and he pointed to the bay, where they had walked from the holiday village.

“Huh! I’ll walk where I damned well like!”  he fired back, laughed, swore again and proceeded to stride down the ramp.

There were a few people who heard the exchange, of course, it being a warm Sunday in late September. There were tuts of disapproval but no-one made a move to stop him or say more. Except for the little old man. He sprang into action, finding a sprightliness that Sarah couldn’t quite believe, let go of his own dog, and ran after the fellow, catching him and tapping him on the shoulder (which actually took some reaching up on his part, given that the younger guy was around six foot and the older barely five).

“I said, you can’t walk your dog here! It’s prohibited!”

Sarah found herself taking a sharp intake of breath and stepping forward.

“And I said I’ll walk where I like. Now piss off, you old tosser!” and he shook the older man off him and walked off down the ramp laughing to himself. “Silly old sod” He called back when he’d reached the beach and laughed again.

“Don’t you dare laugh at me! Do you hear me? I say! Don’t you laugh at me!”

Sarah was afraid the old man would give chase and she realised that she was still holding her breath, but instead he stayed at the top of the ramp, glaring down as the young fellow strode out, in all his vigorous vitality, laughing as he went. His dog now off the lead and frolicking happily on the forbidden part of the beach. The families down there were packing up their deck-chairs, wind-screens and blankets and, apart from a few who glanced disapprovingly at that rule-breaker, no-one took much notice of him and his dog. Their nonchalance seemed to enrage the old man still more.

“Stop that blighter! Stop him! Wretched devil! I tell you, he’s a demon. A devil, I say!” he roared.

“Oh Lord” muttered Phil, “come on, let’s get out of here. Nutters out in force today”.

Sarah didn’t move. She went on watching the old man who continued to shout down the beach. The couples at the tables stopped eating their burgers and chips, laughing with each other, at him. Children ran up to where he was, giggling and pointing, nudging each other The little dog sat faithfully by the railings, not at all disturbed by this odd behaviour, as if he had seen it all before. Still the man went on shouting; much the same things, in that strange, old-fashioned language:

“Come back, you terrible demon! You should be whipped! Whipped, I tell you. Wretch! Devil!”

Sarah could just about see the black Labrador, jumping around in the incoming waves, but the young man was almost out of sight. He hadn’t looked back once. For him, the whole hilarious episode was done with. So trivial he probably wouldn’t even mention it to his friends. Still the old man went on shouting.

“Swine! Devil! Come back here! How dare you laugh at me! I tell you, how dare you!”

Quite a crowd had gathered on the walkway now. The laughter had faded and most were simply watching. Phil had hold of Bodie’s lead, seeing as how it looked as if Sarah wasn’t going to untie him, and was urging her to go.

“I can’t just leave him”

“Sarah, for crying out loud! You don’t even know him! I hate this sort of thing. Come on, please”

The old man’s face was crimson and tears were coursing down his cheeks.

“He’s crying” Sarah pulled her arm away from Phil.

“It’s nothing to do with us. There’s nothing we can do”

The old man had stopped shouting now. He fell down on to his knees and was sobbing. Really sobbing. Great big sobs that shook his body. Head in his hands. No one in the small crowd was laughing any more, but neither did anyone move.

“‘There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. No one can stop him’” She whispered the words and turned and repeated them to Phil, looking at him, longing him to understand.

“What?” he was mystified and aghast that she wouldn’t just come with him.

“A poem. Les Murray, I think. No one could stop him crying. But it wasn’t like this.” She turned back and looked at the old man.  “I can’t do nothing. He could be…someone’s” Without looking at Phil again, she gives him the lead “Hold on to Bodie.”

She pushes through those staring at the old man, watching as his dignity lay in tatters on the concrete around him. Kneeling by him, she gently touches his sleeve. She smells that musty odour; of clothes that’ve been soaked and then dried out too slowly in airless conditions. But they’re good clothes; he’ll have been a smart man once, she thinks. She hasn’t thought what to say or do, she acts on her instincts, what feels right.

Putting her mouth close to his ear, she murmurs, “Come on, now. There’s nothing more to do.”

He turns his tear-streaked face to her; eyes glazed and uncomprehending.

“We need to go now” Her right arm around his shoulders now

She touches his face with her free hand; strokes his cheek; realises then, she too, is crying, but quietly, softly. He peers into her face, beginning to focus now, as his sobs subside. He lifts his hand and his thumb traces a tear from her cheek to her chin. He has snot on his upper lip. They look at each other, saying nothing. She tries a smile. Then a woman touches her shoulder, as she kneels there on the concrete beside the old man, and gives her a handkerchief. It’s a man’s, blue-striped, fresh and pressed. Sarah looks at it and feels she may cry more, but she takes it, wipes his face and gives it to him and he blows his nose noisily, crumples it in a ball and wipes his eyes. A man has appeared on his other side and he takes his arm, helping him into a standing position. Sarah has her arm linked through his and she and the other man lead him to a bench.  Another woman (from the café perhaps? She’s wearing an apron anyway) appears and places a cup of tea on the wooden table in front of him. He takes it, drinks it greedily. A boy brings his dog to him and smilingly holds out the lead. The old man pours some of his tea into the saucer, bends to his dog, strokes him and gives him the tea, which is lapped up.

The crowd has more or less dispersed. The warmth of a full day’s sunshine can still be felt, but the shadows are lengthening as people drift away, back to campsites or to pack up their cars. The shutters on the café are closed and young girls are clearing away rubbish and collecting up cups. Sarah stands, places a hand on the old man’s shoulder; he squeezes it, looks up and nods. She bends to the dog, ruffles its fur and walks down the ramp to where Phil is waiting on the beach. Her own dog greets her as if she has been away for months, as dogs always do and there is no recriminations or questions, just that joy at seeing his mistress return. They walk back along the sands to the holiday village and there are no words. Later, they will pack their bags and she will drive them home. They will chat about all sorts of things on the journey but not the things that really matter. But she will know, as he must surely know now, that they will go their separate ways from this point, because, even though he appreciates that the sun does shine in the North, this, whatever this was, just will not do.

 

Desperately Seeking Wellingtons

child-in-welliesThere’s always a story tucked away behind those little Ads you see in magazines or newspapers, and, more commonly nowadays, on social media pages. Here’s my story based on one I saw recently:

“Can you help? Looking for child’s size 9 in these wellingtons (see photo). Daughter has grown out of her size 7’s and really want to replace them for her”

 

She was still sitting on the window-ledge. Watching the road. Two hours it had been now. Julia waved up to her from the garden, smiling, but knowing she looked falsely cheerful. Emily wasn’t fooled. She didn’t even lift her hand; just stared back at her; thumb firmly in mouth.

Back inside she checked her phone again – no text, no voicemail.

“Bloody hell”

“You shouldn’t say that. It’s swearing”

There was something about being told off by her 10-year-old that always made her blush.

“I know that. Sorry. I’m cross, but you’re right, I shouldn’t swear”

She hadn’t seen him at the table (and why was he eating cornflakes at 11am anyway?) He’d been in his room on the wretched X-box when she last checked.

“Are you hungry? You had bacon for breakfast, didn’t you?” A cooked breakfast for all of them this morning: a rare treat, thinking they’d need the ‘fuel’ for the long journey down to Rugby.

“Just fancied them. I wanted a glass of milk, but it actually tastes nicer in a dish with something crunchy” and he filled his mouth again, clearly relishing his mini-feast. Matt didn’t look at all upset. He seemed to be able to cope with these disappointments better than Emily. James was notorious for being late and they’d both grown used to that, but he hadn’t even turned up at all for the last three arranged weekends. Of course, there was always a good reason, according to James.

“I’ll text him again”

“No point. Anyway, I’m going round to Sam’s in a minute.”

“Why did you arrange to go to Sam’s when you knew your dad was picking you up?”

“Or not!” he dropped his bowl in the sink. She hadn’t the heart to make a fuss about soggy cereal that would be floating in the dishwater. He was out the door anyway.

He was back a few minutes later. Placing a hand on her shoulder as she composed yet another text to James.

“Em was crying you know. I’m not bothered, but he shouldn’t let her down. She’s only little”

She grabbed his hand. Such wisdom! Underneath his calm façade though, she thought he probably did mind.

“You’re a lovely big brother”

“I didn’t do anything. I helped her find her wellies though”

“Matt! They’re too small!”

“Well she really likes them, Mum.  She stopped crying anyway”

“Has she got them on now?”

“Yep” He was gone again before she could say more.

“Be back at 5 please! No later”

Her phone buzzed and she swore again as she read the text. Good thing Matt had rushed off.

 

Upstairs, in the doorway of Emily’s room, she watched her as she clutched the little orange rucksack they had packed together last night, ready for what should have been a Saturday night sleep-over at Daddy and Claire’s. Seeing that sad, little face now, she’d happily have punched him but, putting that thought aside, she braced herself to relay the message. There was never a good way to share the bad news, but there was a way to not make it any worse than it already was.

“Hey sweetie”, she knew it was lame, starting with that, but surely your child had to know she was still treasured, that mummy still felt the same; that hadn’t changed.

“Daddy just sent me a text” Emily’s face turned to her. Oh God, don’t show me that hope in your eyes, baby!

“He is so, so sorry, but he can’t come and get you today. Claire has been very poorly in the night”. Bogging poorly, my foot! Claire just wasn’t doing pregnancy very well. In fact, Claire was making a humongous fuss about every aspect of this pregnancy and James was being let off his lead even less than he had been since they’d married two years ago.

He hadn’t left her for Claire, or for anyone else, and in fact he’d been single again for well over a year when he met Claire. No, there had not been anyone else involved for either of them; just a growing realization that they’d fallen out of love. She would look at him and wonder who he was. How did we get here? It was mutual and he’d moved out a week after Emily’s first birthday. Sad, but in a way it was all so much easier doing the parent stuff on her own. James could do all the fooling around, the funny voices, running about in a park, teaching them to climb trees with great panache and flair. It was the up-in-the-night business, the not-being-able-to-reason-with-them stuff and the endless round of washing, cleaning, feeding, fetching and carrying that he found wearing. They’d never tied the knot themselves, her knowing always deep down that he really wasn’t the commitment type. The kids had been her idea to be fair and she’d always accepted they wouldn’t tie him to her. Weird that now he was married to a woman ten years older than him, who’d been so desperate for a baby that they’d paid for three rounds of IVF. He’d proudly shown them all the scan pictures the last time he’d collected the children. (Three months ago!) Oh the irony of it!

“Has the baby come?”

“No, no, he’s still in her tummy. It’s just, well, sometimes when you’re having a baby it can make you feel not very well”.

“Well, can’t daddy take her to hospital and then come and get us?”

Julia could see the tears threatening to spill. She scooped Emily up into a hug.

“It doesn’t work like that. Daddy needs to stay with her”. I have to move this conversation on, she was thinking, because I can feel myself getting angry again. “Em, these wellies. They don’t fit any more. Didn’t we talk about this? They’re going to hurt your feet.”

“Daddy’s going to buy me some more. Just like these” She pulled at them fiercely, with the little handles, especially made for little hands to pull up over little feet.

“Yes, he did say that, but he can’t. The people don’t make them anymore. He did try”. Bother! This was not a good diversion subject!

True, he had tried. Well, when she’d told him three months ago that Emily had grown out of them he’d had a think about where he’d got them. That was as good as trying hard really, for James.

“A street market in Leamington Spa. One of these fancy ones. They’re designer, you know”

They were lovely. Deep purple, with a repeating pattern of three stripes of pink, green and a gorgeous sparkly gold. What child wouldn’t be delighted? Not much caused as much joy as splashing in deep puddles with your crazy, beloved daddy in beautiful wellington boots that you could even pull on yourself and that he, prince of all fathers, had bought specially for her. Trouble was, it was a make she had never come across and couldn’t find anywhere in Manchester. After tramping around some of the independent shoe shops she’d turned to social media. Surely someone, somewhere would have a pair in the next size up? Please!! If she could just prolong this wellie-joy for a few more months….

Later, over tea, Emily was smearing chocolate spread over her potato waffles. (There are times when the option of an argument about sweet and savoury mix and healthy eating is not worth having!) While she watched her, feeling a mixture of disgust in herself for allowing this concoction and awe that it could help the healing process, she listened as Matt told them about Sam’s brother falling in the canal that afternoon.

“He didn’t even cry, even though he was full of slime and gunk all over! He just started wiping it all off with some leaves and he was laughing about it”

Julia was horrified. “He’s only six! Where was their dad when he fell in?”

“Honestly mum, he hasn’t got eyes in the back of his head” Now where had she heard that before? “He was on the boat. They fished him out with the pole really quickly”.

Sam and Dominic’s parents were narrow boat enthusiasts and their house had its own mooring. It was a great adventure for the boys learning how to steer the boat, help with the locks and generally get messy.

I shouldn’t make a big deal, she thought. David and Jess know what they’re doing and he would have had a life-jacket on.

“I want to come on the boat please”.

Matt looked at Emily “Your face is covered in chocolate. That is really gross, Em. You can come tomorrow if you like. Seeing as how we’re not going to dad’s now”

“Don’t tell her that, Matt. She won’t be allowed”

“No, it’s okay really. David and Jess said she can.”

And it was okay, Jess reassured her later when they spoke. She’d love to have a girl along for company and Dominic would enjoy having someone nearer to his own age. They intended to sail down to Whaley Bridge and back, probably a three-hour round trip. Emily would be quite safe; she’d have her own life-jacket and she was sure she’d love it.

 

Four o’clock the next day, Julia thought the text might be from Matt, updating her when they expected David to drop them off. She’d spoken to them both at lunchtime and clearly Emily was having a wonderful time.

“Dom’s so funny, mummy. He really makes me laugh. He can make Rollo do loads of tricks.” Rollo being the family spaniel. No mention of daddy and the missed weekend. Julia was relieved and thanked God for boats, giddy boys and clever dogs.

The text was from James though. Puzzled, she read it. “Need to be in Liverpool in morning. Staying over. Will stop by to see kids about 7” Maybe her reply yesterday had got to him. “Sorry you can’t make it. Matt cool but Em in tears – yet again:(  Don’t fret though. Can’t be helped” Okay, so she was actually trowelling on the guilt and she’d promised herself never to do that, but sometimes, well he deserved it. You can’t mess about with the hopes and expectations of a five-year old and not expect some backlash.

Matt and Em arrived back just as James was parking his car.

“Daddy!” Her little legs carried her across the gravel drive at full speed into his arms. She was soon up in the air and laughing. I guess it’s all forgiven now, Julia was thinking. He’s got off with it again,

“Look what I’ve got for you” James proudly held up a bag to show his daughter as he placed her down. She opened it and pulled out a dazzling pair of pink wellingtons; sparkly and bright, with stripes of gold and silver. They even more wondrous than the purple ones. Julia smiled wryly and waited for the inevitable squeals of joy. Except … they didn’t happen.

Emily sighed deeply. Her face was very serious as she spoke. “Daddy, these are lovely, but I have some real wellingtons now.” She lifted her foot to show off the dark green, mud-encrusted pair she was wearing.

James looked confused and not a little disconcerted. His adoring daughter was turning down a gift from him? “Real ones?”

“These were Dominic’s” Ah, Julia thought, the ‘very funny Dom’. Sorry, James, you’ve rather been upstaged, old bean! “And his mummy says you need tough boots on the boat so you don’t slip so easy. Sparkly ones are a bit impractical, she says”

Good job, Jess, you and I could be great friends, Julia thought. James stood and watched as his daughter ran back to their host’s car to say her goodbyes. More giggling was heard as ‘funny Dom’ said something to her and Julia couldn’t help but feel sorry for her ex as Emily’s attention was fixed on her new hero. She skipped up the drive in her muddy wellies and it looked as if she had quite forgotten her dad was there for a moment. Then she stopped, turned and gave him her most dazzling smile.

“Come on, daddy. Come and see my new reading book. Can daddy stay and do my bath, mum?” He meekly follows her inside, embarrassedly still clutching the sparkly wellies, happy to settle for these carelessly thrown crumbs, having learned that even five-year-olds can sometimes get themselves better offers.

(©) Beverley Jepson-Playle 12.09.2016

Yearning for Cheerleaders

I could do with some encouraging words right now. For a whole variety of reasons, my writing has almost ground to a halt in the past twelve months. What happens to turn something that brought so much joy, that seemed so easy to do, turn into something you almost fear doing, or at best, use every possible excuse not to do? I’m wondering if, in my case, it’s fear of failure.

I am my own worst enemy.  I don’t need anyone else to offer me criticism. I have perfected the art of doing it for myself, thank you very much. The problem being that my criticism is often rather irrational. Voices in my own head drown out others in the ‘real world’ with cries of “There’s no point, you know, it’s never going to get you anywhere”; “You’re too old to try something new”; “Who’s interested in what you’ve got to say?” Of course, sitting at the computer, hearing these words, when there is important stuff to do like walking the dog, washing, gardening, shopping or even (I must be desperate to escape!) ironing! – it’s easy to take them on and walk away. Just today, I tell myself – then the day become several, then a week, a month and suddenly a year is slipping by. And they do go by faster as you get older, don’t let anyone tell you differently! Time speeds up with age.

I was checked by an invoice for the annual payment on my website. Should I continue with this futile enterprise? Then, I hear another voice of my own – one that has been listening to words of truth. Words from the Big Book, words from the Father:

I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me

(Philippians 4:13, NKJV)

You see, I’m not alone and I don’t need to battle on in my own strength. I have my ‘great encourager’ by my side always and he is my source of strength; I don’t have resources of my own, they come from him. I’m still not sure why it took so long for me to tune into that voice and those words, which I know so well, but I’m glad I did. So here I am – back at the computer. Heeding also the helpful words of husband John, “Just go and write”

“But what if I can’t?”

“Then pray”

Oh yes, of course! Silly me! I forgot I could do that. Sarcastic jest apart, and don’t let him know this, but he is right. Talking things over with Jesus is so very necessary. He does understand what it’s like to be in a quandary and knows we often feel useless.

On the way to my study I pick up a book I’ve read over the summer. By Anita Shreve, “A Wedding in December”. Flicking through the pages I read this:

Melissa looked away. There would always be, Bridget knew, a fierce loyalty to the mother that Bridget would not interfere with. A quality one could only admire……..”How are you feeling?” the girl asked.

Bridget thought a minute. She took a sip of coffee. She decided to tell Melissa the truth, unedited.

She worried about the tentacles of the star shape, she told the girl. She had a 50 percent chance of a recurrence, the correct term for the cancer’s return. If it did return, it would show up in the bones or the brain or the liver. She hoped to make it until Matt was Melissa’s age. This was the bargain she had more or less made with God: let Matt get to twenty, and  then you can do whatever you want with me. One could never really use the word “cure. One had to think of oneself as “a work in progress”

All this she told Melissa, who seemed startled at times by some of the revelations, but who appeared to take it in with some concern. She was, Bridget thought, the perfect person in whom to confide. A woman who might want the information but who would remain essentially detached.

“That answer you gave last night at dinner,” Bridget said, “about the Arab men on the plane. I thought it was the best at the table”

Melissa tilted her head. She would know, Bridget thought, that Bridget meant what she said, that she was not pandering, that a woman who had confessed being afraid of a recurrence in the bones might be expected to tell the truth.

We all of us need people in our lives who will speak the truth, but do so kindly and we need those who will listen to our stories, our pains our fears, who show concern but don’t flinch away from what we share, be it irrational or totally credible.Facebook-20150916-024821

We need people to speak words of encouragement to us and to cheer us on. Like our wonderful husbands did for us when we took on 100k across the Yorkshire Dales! For our part, we should desire to be people who use words to edify others. There are enough  in the world  already who will use words to destroy confidence and bring others down, let’s use ours to show grace and and bring joy.

 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)

Now, where was I up to with that book?

(©) Beverley Jepson-Playle 02/09/2016