Thursday, 30 August 2012

Image Problem

‘Let's face it, we've always had an image problem. Ever since the Black Death we've known all about our situation in the greater scheme of things.
‘Yes, yes...’
‘But it was the fleas – not us.’
‘The fleas - the fleas...’
‘But we weren’t to blame.’
‘No, no.’
‘But what good did that do? What was the point of our pristine innocence? The question I want you to consider is this: why do things have to be as they are? Why can’t we change the status quo?’ The big brown rat broke off his speech for a moment to sniff appreciatively at a piece of excrement which floated past, bobbing around in swirling grey sewage.
‘Tell us, tell us. Tell us why we have an image problem,’ clamoured the other rats who had crowded round the brown rat to listen to his speech.
‘In a word....’ Nigel, which was the big rat's name, paused for effect and gazed around at rows of beady eyes in the semi-darkness of the sewer. ‘In a word - it's media bias.’
‘Media bias - media bias.’ The words seemed to rustle and whisper round the assembled rats in a constant jingle of excited squeaks. There was a false note though - somewhere. Nigel was pretty sure someone had said that's two words, but perhaps he'd imagined it.
‘It has been said that no publicity is bad publicity,’ Nigel shouted. He waited until the echoes of his voice had died away, bouncing round inside the pipe, fading off in the direction of the sewage works. When he had their attention again, when every last squeak and rustle had ceased, Nigel continued.
‘It has been said that no publicity is bad publicity, but I say this...’ He paused for dramatic effect. ‘I say try telling it to a rat.’
‘Yes yes, try telling it to a rat, tell it to a rat, a rat....’ Gradually the murmur of ratty voices faded again and Nigel waited patiently for silence to descend on the sewer. It took a little longer than before due to the fights which broke out over a dead starling which drifted down on the sewage flow, but eventually order was restored.
‘So....’ Nigel swallowed his morsel of starling and once again he fixed the assembly with his hypnotic eye. ‘We know the source of the problem, but what is the answer?’
‘What is the answer? The answer... the answer?’ Again the rustle of rodent voices rose then fell as they all digested the dramatic power of Nigel's rhetoric along with some of the starling's chewier bits.
‘Because there is an answer my friends – oh yes.’ An expectant silence spread out again across the sleek, furry multitude. As he gazed at their upturned faces, Nigel wondered briefly if some kind of salute would be appropriate, to capture and symbolise the mood of the moment. The right paw raised just above the whiskers perhaps -
‘Start an internet blog.’ The voice came from somewhere near the back and there was an instant babble of sound as each rat looked at its neighbour then glanced behind to see who had dared to speak out.
‘What was that?’ Nigel glared contemptuously out over his audience, searching out the rat who had dared interrupt him.
‘Start a rat blog and get tweeting. Get some media attention.’ The voice came from the same place as before.
‘Start a blog and get tweeting?’ Nigel said, mustering every ounce of contempt his voice could bring to four simple words. He bristled with indignation because he had detected a note of sarcasm in the unknown rat's voice. He had a suspicion the voice belonged to Voltaire, a natural dissenter who had never quite fitted into the higher echelons of rat society. Even more reason to -
‘Employ a PR company to spin positive ratty images,’ shouted the voice. ‘Promote ratty celebrities and outlaw phrases like you dirty rat.’
‘A good idea,’ Nigel had to admit.
‘Or rats leaving a sinking ship.’
It was definitely Voltaire. The sniggering had started now, as it always did when someone lowered the tone of a serious debate. Nigel took the opportunity to demonstrate his spiritual purity and his masterly self-control when a couple of chunks of solidified chip fat floated by. He ignored the general melee, kept aloof from the feasting and waited for peace to descend once more.
‘The answer,’ said Nigel slowly and deliberately. He found he was smoothing his whiskers as if he'd enjoyed some of the chip fat himself. What was the answer? The question seemed ages ago now, never mind the answer. The whole sewer was filled with the mouth-watering odour of chip fat.
‘Wow, look what's coming.’
Nigel glanced sharply along the sewer pipe. A whole mass of chicken scraps floated towards the assembled multitude. Nigel sighed, shrugged then dived into the sewage and struck out strongly for a plastic bag full of giblets. Sometimes image had to take second place.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Photos of Mum

I only have a few memories of Mum because she died when I was four years old. She didn’t cross my mind for years until Dad passed away fifty years later. After a grey village funeral, I was left with his house on the edge of the moors. Dad hung on there to the bitter end, rejecting all offers of assistance until those last few weeks of helplessness.
As an only child, the grim job of clearing the place fell to me. To begin with it was black bin-bags and rubber gloves, but later I had time to sift through some memories. It was then that I came across an old photo album tucked away at the back of Dad’s massive mahogany wardrobe.
‘Who’s that Mum?’ I was sitting on Dad’s bed leafing through the album when Claire, my youngest came into the room and pointed to a grainy black and white photo. Claire was helping me clear the house – doing most of it if I’m honest.
‘It must have been taken at Margate, when your grandmother was alive. She didn’t go big on holidays.’ The photo showed me standing between my parents on Margate beach. Mum wasn’t looking at the camera, but was staring down at me with that look of hers.
‘I’m surprised you remember her if she died when you were four,’ Claire said. She picks up on details like that.
‘Well I do remember... Some things...’
‘Although you look slightly older than four to me.’
‘I suppose I look old for my age.’ Claire was right – I could easily be five or six - but family photos don’t lie, do they? Anyway, my memory was never sharp.
‘How strange,’ Claire mused.
‘Oh well, perhaps we should call it a day,’ I suggested. ‘You have to get back to London and I have to take this lot to the tip.’ We cast a shared glance over the black plastic bags stuffed with Dad’s things. By unspoken consent we’d had enough of junk, rubber gloves and half-buried memories.
‘What will you do next Mum?’ We stood in the tiled hallway. It was icy cold, although I hadn’t felt the chill till then. The tiles didn’t help – that and the November weather and Dad’s ancient heating system.
‘Oh I’ll sleep over in the spare room now I’m started. I want Dad’s house to be on the market as soon as possible. It won’t fetch much because it’s so big and old. Dad never looked after it. Most folk will think it far too lonely - stuck out here on the edge of the moor.’
‘It’s a lovely location,’ Mum.
‘I never liked it, even though I grew up here.’
‘Okay Mum – I’ll call you tomorrow.’ Claire shrugged on her jacket, fumbled for her car keys before giving me one of her hasty kisses. She disappeared through the front door, pulling it shut with a bang. I heard the sound of her car start and the scrunch of gravel on Dad’s weed-clogged driveway.
When Claire had gone I made cocoa and switched on the ancient electric fire in the front room. Being November, most of the trees were dark and skeletal against a late afternoon sky. Dad’s huge lawn was covered in golden-brown leaves and an early dusk rolled off the moors like thick, viscous mist. I locked up the house while my cocoa heated up on Dad’s cast-iron kitchen stove. After a last check round I prepared for a short evening and an early night. I was tired.

‘Hello - is that you Claire?’ My words were automatic. I’d been woken from a light sleep by my mobile phone. I fumbled it to my ear, assuming Claire was trying to call me. Who else could it be? According to my phone it was ten minutes past two. Apart from the tiny glow of its screen, the room was pitch dark and I could hear a moaning, fretful wind on the moors beyond my window.
‘Is that you Lynda?’ I didn’t recognise the sharp voice, although Lynda is my name.
‘Yes – who is this?’
‘Is that you Lynda?’ The tone was harsh, accusing. Then silence. The connection had gone dead. I plonked my phone onto the bedside table and fell asleep.

Next morning was awful, with rain driving across the single-glazed windows, a restless sky seething like a witch’s cauldron. Claire phoned early to see how I was getting on and what bits of the job I intended to get stuck into next.
‘I haven’t even breakfasted,’ I protested. I was in the kitchen gazing through the window across a lawn of soggy leaves. I kept the mobile phone pressed hard to my ear as if that way I’d be slightly closer to Claire, to the sane, real world she represented.
‘I’m not nagging Mum – I’d just like to know how you are getting on.’
‘I’m fine love. I’ll nip off to the recycling centre to get rid of Dad’s clothes and the bedding we packed up yesterday. I’ll need some more bags soon.’
‘Okay Mum – see you at the weekend. Take care.’ Claire rang off and I switched the kettle on to make a pot of tea. Breakfast was toast and jam bought in from the village store. The fridge was a no-go area. I couldn’t even face Dad’s little pile of tinned food. From upstairs I fetched the photo album, something to browse through over breakfast. The front door rattled in the wind as I climbed the stairs, a frisson of gloom washing over my soul as I thought of all the work still to do. Weather and memories slowed me down, held me back from something I never wanted to do in the first place.
‘Margate... when did we go to Margate?’ I studied the holiday photo over a slice of toast and a big mug of strong tea. I’d scoured the mug, and scoured it again, before I cared to drink from it. Should have brought my own. Didn’t think.
‘This must be the last photo we ever had of Mum,’ I mused then jumped as a gust of wind hit the kitchen window with a thwack. It howled across the moors – nothing to appease it apart from some scrubby gorse. My mobile burbled into life again.
‘Is that you Lynda?’
‘Yes – who’s calling?’
‘It’s me you fool...’ then silence. The call cut off as before.
Was it the same flinty voice that woke me in the night? I shrugged, cleared away the breakfast things and filled a few more bin-liners. Later I took Dad’s clothes to a recycling place about twenty miles away, drove there and back in driving rain, hardly came across another vehicle. How long would this dispiriting task take?
‘I ought to get a house-clearance firm in as Claire suggested. There’s nothing here worth saving.’ I spoke aloud as I warmed myself with coffee after the recycling trip. ‘What about the furniture? I can’t shift all that.’ I gazed round at worn out furniture. Nobody could possibly want it.
The loud knocking was almost welcome as some kind of contact with the outside world. I dragged open the front door against the wind and stared into the rain. Nobody there.
‘Damn wind.’ I slammed the door shut and returned to the living-room. I’d browse that old photo album again. I wasn’t achieving much apart from recycling Dad’s clothes, an excuse to get me out of the house. I’d check round first – persuade myself the job wasn’t worthwhile. Upstairs in the guest room, I found my overnight things bundled into a bin liner. It lay on the bed like a great black growth, my empty holdall on the floor, flat.
‘That’s odd.’ I untied the bin liner, struggled with a tight little knot I couldn’t recall tying then emptied my things onto the bed, repacked my holdall. ‘I’ve been in a trance all morning,’ I explained to myself, wishing now that Claire had stayed. Downstairs with the album, I noticed another seaside family photo stuck to the next page. I’m standing between Mum and Dad, holding Dad’s hand. Margate again? I didn’t remember the photo, or where it was taken. I shivered a little, because I was most certainly more than four years old on that photo. Quite unmistakable.
On an impulse I pulled on my coat, grabbed my keys and hurried to the car. I drove too fast into the village, pulling up by the churchyard where Mum had been buried years ago. Dad was in the same grave now, although he certainly wouldn’t have wished it, given a choice. Head down against the rain, I squelched round the side of the church. The whole place dripped in abandoned silence. The gravestone was new because I’d ordered a replacement when we buried Dad with Mum. The dates were as they should be. Of course they were. Feeling a little ridiculous, I did a simple mental calculation.
‘That’s right. I was four years old when Mum died. So why do I remember just what she was like... remember her so well?’ I spoke aloud and stared at the gravestone, getting wetter and wetter for no reason, all because a date carved in granite wasn’t about to change. ‘Maybe Dad always told me the wrong date – maybe Mum died later. That could be why I remember her. Or was I building false memories on the album photos and those weird hints Dad let slip... near the end?’ I ran through a glooming dusk back to the car.
As I turned into the drive, an upstairs light seemed to glow briefly, then a landing light. Someone hurrying downstairs? I began to panic at the clammy thought of how alone I was, not up to dealing with an intruder. All was dark when I killed the car lights. I sat still for a moment, pulling my fragile courage together.
‘Trick of the light - I’ll soon be rid of the place – never liked it.’ I slammed the car door without getting out, waited then climbed out of the car and slammed the door even harder. Nothing. No lights. No sounds. Only the odd, soundless whispering you get from the moors at night. I unlocked the house door with as much noise as possible. ‘Come on in,’ I said loudly, foolishly.
Silence greeted my entry. Silence and that familiar, ancient chill. Once inside I busied myself as best I could, waiting for six o’clock, the time Claire would be home from work. She never answers her mobile if I call during work hours, so I’ve learned to wait if I want to chat.
‘Hi Mum,’ Claire said as soon as I got through. ‘Everything okay?’
‘It’s fine, although I don’t seem to be getting through the job as quickly as I thought.’
‘Leave it Mum - I keep telling you I’ll help. Come home and we’ll tackle it together at the weekend. Let’s just bring away a few mementos; we can get a house clearance firm to finish the job.’
‘Oh I don’t know... I can’t decide what to take or what to keep.’
‘Even so Mum - ’
‘I keep looking through Dad’s old photo album.’
‘Which album is that Mum?’ Claire sounded anxious.
‘The one with that Margate photo - where I look too old. I found another...’
‘Oh yes I remember. I think you should put that album away Mum. Put it away in a drawer and watch some TV.’
‘Why should I? I’m fascinated by it dear – all those memories -’
‘Not now though Mum. Put the album away and watch some TV.’
‘I will dear.’ I broke the connection and settled down with the album. It was fascinating. I was amazed that I’d never seen all these photos before. Dad was so grimly reticent until right near the end when he hardly knew what he was saying. I shivered in a draught as I turned the pages. The last photo showed me sitting on the sofa in Dad’s living-room. I have a book on my knees, just like the photo album. I seem to be leafing through it. Mum stands behind me in the doorway, glaring over my shoulder with that familiar, evil look in her eye...

Friday, 17 August 2012

Mr Mifsud

I first saw her while sitting on a big, flattish rock under a Judas tree. I knew she was about my age by the way she walked. She crossed the ground at a steady plod as if resigned to the heat, but she’d still prefer to be somewhere else.
Probably not Maltese I decided. Her sensible shoes raised little puffs of dust as she made her way to my perch under the tree. It wasn’t me she was interested in though. I was lurking under the only bit of local shade.
‘Hello there – are you waiting for someone?’ she asked as she came within range.
‘I’m waiting for Mr Mifsud,’ I replied. ‘He’s meeting me here – to explain why my house hasn’t been built.’
‘I see.’ She sat heavily beside me, sharing my lump of rock and my Judas tree. ‘Well it is rather a nice location for a house - here on the coast.’
I stared across the patch of wasteland where we now sat side by side. We were quite alone the two of us and were certainly on the coast. I couldn’t deny that as the blue waters of the Mediterranean lay no more than fifty metres away beyond a few scattered rocks and tufts of browned grass.
‘But my problem,’ I explained, ‘is not so much the location as the lack of a house from which to enjoy said location. There should be a house here - mine.’ I turned towards her, common politeness finally getting the better of me. ‘My name is Alec by the way - and please excuse my manner. I’m very annoyed with Mr Mifsud.’
‘Oh dear Alec, I quite understand,’ she replied easily. ‘A number of people in Malta are annoyed with Mr Mifsud.’ She turned to face me, smiling brightly as if she’d made a little joke. Startled by the fact that she too must be waiting for Mr Mifsud, I studied her more closely. As I’d guessed, she was the same age as me – about sixty. Grey hair, dark skirt, white blouse and dusty black shoes as if she’d come here on business. To back up that conclusion she carried a kind of briefcase – brown leather and new.
‘So you know Mr Mifsud?’ I asked.
‘I know of Mr Mifsud,’ she replied, emphasising the ‘of’. After that she fell silent, as if she could say more but I was supposed to prompt her.
‘You know of Mr Mifsud? How am I to take that?’ I dutifully prompted.
‘Just that - I know of him.’ She shifted her position on the rock. I wasn’t all that comfortable myself, but there was nothing else to sit on.
‘What do you know?’ I asked bluntly.
‘I know who he is and I know his case number,’ she replied. ‘I also know he’s due here for a meeting of some kind.’
‘Yes he’s due to meet me... His case number? Are you his social worker?’ I laughed at the idea, in spite of my situation and that fact that I didn’t really know what I was going to do apart from rage and rant at Mr Mifsud. When he turned up of course.
‘Well he’s bound to have a case number isn’t he?’ Her tone suggested I’d said something naive. She frowned, fiddling with her new briefcase as if a little put out by my laughter. I noticed she wore gloves too. Another anomaly in this heat.
‘If you say so.’ I shifted my bum on the rock. It was hard and the Judas tree wasn’t all that shady.
‘Of course he has a case number. We have to allocate a case number so all the paperwork hangs together. The case number is our starting point. We couldn’t follow the Directive properly without it.’
‘The directive?’
‘The EU Directive. You must have heard of it - dealing with undesirables. The Eliminations Directive we call it, although that isn’t its official name of course. Anyway Mr Mifsud has to have a case number before we go on to the elimination stage. Nothing happens without a case number, but once we have one we swing into action.’
‘Elimination?’ I laughed again. ‘Are you going to shoot Mr Mifsud?’ I smiled at her as I said this, not wanting to hurt her feelings in case she turned out to be an ally - however unlikely that might be.
‘Of course I’m going to shoot him. I didn’t go on the eliminator’s course for nothing you know.’
‘Eliminator’s course?’ By then I knew I was floundering.
‘I haven’t done poisoning or explosives yet, but I’m certified for shooting. I may do poisoning and explosives next year, but then again I may not. I retire in a few years. This is just to give me something different to do before I retire.’
‘What – you’re here to shoot Mr Mifsud – as a pre-retirement project?’
‘Well yes – if he deigns to turn up that is.’
I gazed around the patch of waste land, the unfinished road and straggle of trees lining it. There were no buildings anywhere, no sign of human life, no sounds at all apart from our voices. The strangeness of it all was getting to me so I tried to lighten things up by going along with her story. ‘I’d like to shoot Mr Mifsud too,’ I said.
‘You can’t,’ she replied immediately. She sounded cross. ‘That’s my job.’
‘It was only a figure of speech... I mean I haven’t actually got a gun.’
‘More to the point, you don’t have the paperwork either,’ she replied.
‘The paperwork?’
‘Oh there’s loads and loads of paperwork generated by an elimination – reams of it. Ninety percent of my training was about dealing with the paperwork. Get the paperwork wrong in the EU and you end up in a right mess. The practical stuff - the shooting was easy. I was issued with approved elimination hardware - ’
‘Elimination hardware?’
‘A gun you would call it. Anyway I was taught about the safety catch and which way round to load the whatsits – the bullets. That was about it. The paperwork was on another level entirely. Much more difficult and far more detailed. That took up most of the course.’
At that point a blue Citroen bounced its way onto our patch of waste ground, breaking up what was turning out to be a more and more surreal conversation. At the sight of the car, my own troubles came flooding back. Perhaps this was the elusive Mr Mifsud? Or another nutter? My companion stiffened and clutched her briefcase tightly.
‘Here comes your case number,’ I said. I sniggered uneasily as I said it, but I don’t think she heard me. The Citroen drove up to us in a cloud of gritty dust. Mr Mifsud wound down the window and flashed his amiable but fatally dishonest smile.
‘I see you’ve already met each other.’
My companion fumbled in her briefcase and pulled out an automatic pistol. It was black and about the size of a small cannon. She pointed the thing at Mr Mifsud, squeezed her eyes tight shut and squeezed the trigger. There was a deafening bang, a puff of smoke and my heart nearly disappeared into my trousers. Then she opened her eyes and blinked.
‘Hit or miss?’ she asked eagerly.
‘Near enough,’ said Mr Mifsud, his smile as broad and toothy as ever. He hopped out of the car and opened the passenger door. ‘For your first practical you did very well – apart from closing your eyes. We can work on that.’
‘Did I really?’ My companion seemed inordinately pleased with herself. ‘But I won’t have to do all the completion paperwork will I?’ She dropped the huge pistol into her briefcase, fastened it up and climbed into the passenger seat of Mr Mifsud’s car.
‘No – no completion paperwork this time,’ said Mr Mifsud. He nodded an amiable nod in my direction and climbed back into his car.
‘What about Alec? What about his house he says you promised?’ I heard my erstwhile companion say as Mr Mifsud started the car.
‘Oh Alec is just here to supply background,’ said Mr Mifsud. ‘Somebody else will deal with Alec. He’s with another lot now.’ He drove away in a cloud of dust. I realised my mouth was still open, so I closed it. Then I thought about my next move, but soon realised I didn’t have one. In the end a house is just a house I thought... and I’d only handed over a deposit... a substantial deposit in used hundred euro notes... but only a deposit... I legged it.

Thursday, 2 August 2012