Crossing

Opposite sides of the road, waiting for the little green man.

An old lady mutters near me, impatient, laden with plastic bags.

I can’t wait to pass you in the middle,

I know that the beeping and the grumbling engines will fall silent,

As I catch your gaze.

But today is one of those days –

Headphones firmly in and beanie hat pulled down tight,

Your eyes never lift from the tarmac

That glisters with frost in this cold month.

You’re like an animal that hibernates, so tentative in every winter breath.

When it was warm you used to catch my gaze. In the summer

When I wore jeans and a belly top,

And not this school skirt, with the wool socks,

And broken plimsolls,

Around cold wet toes.

I wonder if we will cross paths again in the summer when I’m seventeen,

And I wonder–

“Eh, love – the light’s just gone green.”

 

By Rachel Norris

(Prompts: wistful, traffic lights, Alan Warner quote)

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Forest

Forest

The trees are knotted
in the spot where the bluebells grow
in June.

Gnarling, their roots twist
into strange, exotic shapes—
Spirals and triangles, spikes
like barbed wire.

We used to sit here
as children. We knew the notch,
the dark hard eye,
the tender part which you cut
to get the sap out.

Everything here is a cycle;
there is no flow of time,
no regress or
degeneration.

In summer the frost fades
to forget-me-nots;
through the canopy, long
into the evening, light lingers
in splinters and sparkles.

So I return;
the trees seem to whistle.
You hear their singing, its softness
like pining. Walk with me.

The greenness changes with the seasons.
Now I look upon it,
these tufts of grass, these oak leaves
glow with yellow fire—
chocolate, chestnut, cinnabar.

I look upon the colour, my fingers
scratching the eye. Its hardness
comes apart like ice.

I stare into that black spot,
the cavernous passage laden with frost,
the eye like a moon.

In the copper of twilight I see you again:
grass in your hair,
bluebells in June.

by Maria S.

(Prompts: green-man.jpg, passage, degeneration)

Little Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

(William Blake, ‘The Lamb’).

A cloudless morning with the glint of spring and smell of distant woodsmoke. Graham was shifting hay for the horse, the strain in his back wrenching every time he bent and lifted the pitchfork. The horse kicked and snorted in the stable opposite, impatiently awaiting her new abode. Jasmine was a haughty one, a retired racehorse whose bulging muscle helped drag the old carts over the field when the trailer broke down – which, these days, it often did. Every now and then, Graham stopped his work to give Jasmine a Polo mint and a hearty pat on the flank.

“Makes me sad to see you upset,” he cooed to her, “I’ll be finished soon.” Jasmine sniffed.

This was the last spring that Graham would spend on the farm. He was fifty five years old and had lived there all his life. The thought of leaving pained him more than the crick in his spine.

The task was to clean up the land and the barns and sort everything before summer. The architect kept ‘popping round’ to inspect the grounds and survey the house, but aside from dishing out cups of tea, Graham and his family did their best to ignore him. It was unbearable to be reminded of what was soon to happen.

Graham’s wife, Marjorie, had pulled down all the old junk from the loft. There were books with mouldy pages, miniature soldiers, a typewriter they had sold for twenty pounds in a local jumble sale. One of the few things they had kept was a toy lamb. Its label was frayed and it had lost some of its fluff, but was still soft and awfully sweet, with bright little marble eyes. Marjorie had hand-washed it in the sink, gently scrubbing the attic’s must and muck from its fur. Watching her in the kitchen through the twinkling dust particles, Graham felt he had never loved his wife more. Thirty two years and nothing came between them.

Graham decided to give the lamb to his grandchild, Ella. She needed something to remind her of her roots. When his son Andrew had told him he was going for a job in the city, Graham had tried not to show his disappointment.

“It’ll be a good life, Dad,” Andrew had said as they looked out over the wheat fields, “with good pay and security. Times are changing.”

Yes, times were changing. There was no denying that now.

There was the ever-plunging price of dairy; the endless inspections; the cost of upgrading machinery. People leaving the village because rural life simply wasn’t feasible these days.

Once, Graham had held visions of his daughter inheriting Jasmine, galloping across the fields with her glossy copper hair streaming behind her like reeds underwater. There would be homemade jam and Sunday breakfasts, early mornings of pearly dawn, showing his children how to milk and lamb and clean the cows. But his son was a lawyer, and his daughter had died, years ago now. Her ashes were scattered out in the hills, where the wind-turbines went on endlessly spinning. Soon, when they were forced to leave all they had ever known, there would be nothing left of her memory.

It was getting towards twilight now, and Graham had set off to bring the animals in. The sky was darkening with amethyst clouds as the crescent moon revealed herself, tired and wan. He too had never felt so weary. The collie dog was on her best behaviour and soon the sheep were under shelter, but he was having some trouble with the cows. He stood upon the hill shouting as if he were calling to the elements themselves. He shook and howled; he knew he was losing it. Droplets of rain began to fall on his face, mingling with his tears. Growing ever more violent, the crying sky splashed down on the soil and filled the holes in his boots.

Finally the cows were inside and Graham was trudging back towards the farmhouse, soaked to the skin. Just then, he saw a familiar car pull up in the drive. It was his son’s immaculate BMW, now apparently streaked with a line of mud. Graham heard the doors slam shut and the sound of voices. It was Ella, singing! Even with the cold rain dripping down his neck, the simple melody filled him with warmth. He rushed inside to join them.

“Bloody bushes caught the side of my car, you need to get them cut back Dad.” It was the first thing Andrew said to him. This time, however, Graham ignored his whiny voice.

“What’s the point when we’re leaving so soon?” He sighed.

They all sat down for Marjorie’s best steak pie, but when she looked at her plate, Ella protested that she’d become a vegetarian. Surprised but with a smile, Marjorie rustled up some pasta and ruffled the girl’s ginger hair as she served it to her.

“It’s just wrong to hurt animals,” Ella explained as she tucked into her dinner. And as Graham lifted a forkful of pie to his lips, he paused. He thought of the sorrow of market day, the poor beasts he’d had to sell because they were getting next to nothing for their milk. He thought of the chickens killed for their dinners, and the people that came in trailers to take away the lambs.

“You know, that reminds me of something.” Decisively, he put down his knife and fork and pushed away his plate. He left the room and Andrew and Marjorie exchanged confused glances, though nothing would keep them from their food.

A few moments later, Graham returned with the cuddly lamb. Something Ella had said struck a chord in his memory.

“I’ve got a little present for you,” he knelt by his granddaughter’s chair as he handed it to her, “I think you should have it, more than anyone else in the world.” Ella looked at him with shining eyes as she took the lamb and pressed its softness to her pink cheeks.

“Oh she’s lovely!”

“Lovely indeed,” Graham agreed. The toy had, of course, belonged to his own daughter. It was the missing piece; the only thing they could take away when they had to leave. And in Ella’s hands, Graham knew she would live on in the sweet innocence that had so suddenly been stolen from her.

Jasmine, now, would only live on as long as her legs weren’t lame, and the other animals would probably be taken away. The land might be tainted with steel and concrete. But at least Graham could leave behind the cruelties he now recognised. He could pass on the tiny piece of spirit that would never leave these hills. The spirit of sunlight and sadness, freedom and laughter; the spirit of his daughter.

(Prompts: rain, pitchfork)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Crocuses

There is light that freckles the air, where the dew drops that cling to branches catch the sun. You walk along the path that you did four years ago, thinking the same array of painful thoughts. Once, you stopped and sat on that bench with a friend, watching the squirrels dart along the treetop branches. You had only known this friend a few months, but her mother was suddenly dying. She had no clue of what was happening, only that time itself was shifting, the particles that made up her night and day were imploding with new distortions. You could not help her, so you sat beside her and talked about the weather, and how maybe spring would be coming soon.

The park is silent and still, because it is the middle of the day and everybody else is out working. You wonder how you might justify this excursion. The afternoon stretches out in front of you, long and full of longing, promising nothing. There is a way in which you’re not really walking at all; more like floating, your legs feeling light and your head a little dizzy. You miss the days when you were strong and healthy. Ducks are tentatively playing by the pond, waddling and flapping and adding cyan to the scenery with their rain-shined feathers. The water is still partly frozen, glimmering with all its depths and reflections. You have a sense of someone standing beside you. Your cold hands clutch the railings and your fingers feel the rusted flakes of paint, which you fight the urge to peel off. You find yourself shaking.

The sun will not stop coming out, will not stop forcing itself through the thinnish clouds which have left a pale membrane after the rain. The cloud breaks up and drifts away in cotton streams, barely more visible than airplane trails. You feel the sun warming your back, warming you even through your winter coat. It’s almost frightening. You did not expect this. You should have turned back; should have sat in the cafe and waited for the dark to come, so you could go home and eat. But now you don’t want to go home and eat.

You trudge up the path, your chest heaving from the strain of the gradient. A little dog bounds past you, yapping, and the owner is chasing after it. You turn back and for some reason the dog turns back too as it is running, turns back and stares right at you. Something flashes in its yellow eyes and you have to look away. You feel it gape in your stomach. You know that you are missing something.

There is a secret glade behind the evergreen trees at the top of the park. You used to come here in summer and read Laurie Lee while you ate from a bag of cherries and listened to a man nearby plucking at his guitar and singing. And once a stranger had asked you for the time, but it was not yours to give.

You come to the glade because even now – especially now – you crave its safety. In the comfort of the solitude you feel suddenly weary. Your limbs have lost their solidity. You lie down, slowly lowering yourself onto the grass. It is like falling into the arms of a favourite friend, soft and wanting. The smell of the earth passes through you. It is damp and cold after the rain, but the feeling of this does not chill you. Lying down on your front, you turn your face towards the trees where the light is beaming through in selective rays. White light, the fade of the day. That’s when you see them: the crocus shoots. They are white too, pure little things with their waxen petals erect to the sky. And the gaping inside of you subsides, because you realise that maybe spring is coming after all.

(Prompts: photograph of crocuses, wistful)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Paradise Missing

Granny used to take us to this park, when we were children. She’d walk us halfway across the city, her little court shoes clacking on cobbles. Sometimes she’d dodge across the road, not bothering to wait for traffic. Things stopped for her; she didn’t stop for them. She’d have one of us on each hand: James on the left, me on the right, both giggling with delight.

“Children!” she’d boom, “this is a splendid day! A golden day among millions, and not to be wasted!” People would stare at her in the street, stare at the crackling fire of her eyes and smile. Her special park was tucked away behind a labyrinth of secret paths and alleyways. There’d often be beggars, crouched in the shadows. Granny always had a pinch of a penny or two, a flick of silver that she’d drop in their cups.

“That’s for your tea, love,” she’d say smartly. They’d smile up at her in amazement, with her nodding back primly and us children wide-eyed as alley cats.

This garden, this park, it was roughly a kind of hexagon. I worked this out as soon as I could count, could place it in my book of geometry, a photo stamped from mind to page. Vines and sweet peas sprawled up the walls, while tulips and sunflowers and marvellous roses sprung out at you in lovely clusters. It was all so pretty and full of peace, a sanctuary from the busy city. And James and I, well, we’d run around crazy – chasing each other, rolling in the soft lawn, smelling everything, naming every bird and plant and bee as if we were Adam bestowing language upon Eden. Granny, on the other hand, would sit on a wooden bench shaded by this old willow.

“Resting my bad legs,” she’d say. We thought she was pretending, that she never needed resting. She watched us dance and laugh in play, smiling away to herself. I could never tell what she was thinking; was she happy, sad, did she miss her youth? When I got bored of James I’d sit beside her on the bench, and she’d let me plait her beautiful hair. It had once been a princess’, long and golden; it was still long, but now streaked with ash and silver.

“Rapunzel,” I’d sing to her.

It was only when the church bells chimed that we realised the real world. Granny would exclaim, “Oh gosh! The time!” and she’d rush along, as if terrified of worrying our mother. As soon as we left that park, we were never quite sure if we’d really been there; its verdant beauty seemed to melt into unwashed windows, bleak streets, the coarse grey of concrete.

On the way home, she’d stop at a fudge shop and buy us anything we liked. I always chose hazelnut praline; James scoffed white chocolate and Granny would take a rum and raisin and wrap it in paper for later. We always ate ours straightaway, our cocoa-smeared faces giving the game away, while Granny would wait until after supper. While we did our homework, I watched her out of the corner of my eye, nibbling the fudge and sneaking whisky into her tea. When she died, Mother found the empty stash in the old dog’s kennel, an array of oaky smells and bottles that glittered in brilliant green. It was just like Granny, the silly maid, Mother said. Always up to no good.

After work on Fridays, I still go back to that fudge shop, though the man that owns it doesn’t know me. Why would he recognise me, after all these years? Sometimes though, I feel like he senses something in me; a spark, something of Granny’s, maybe. Mother said she was always getting into trouble, having fun behind everyone’s back – even in her seventies.  The old man at the fudge shop – he must be ninety-odd now – always gives me free samples, throws them in gift bags, glints a yellow smile. But all that sugar is a hollow kind of sweetness, a brief comfort. Rain or shine, storm or snow, every Friday I’m always looking for that garden, wandering the city from road to road. When I find it, I’ll get back to her heart, get back to my youth. Until then, I can only remember and look, lost in my trapping gratitude – the memory of how lovely it all seemed. Yet as time goes by, I begin to think that the garden didn’t exist at all; that maybe it was one of Granny’s perfect dreams.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: gratitude, generation, bench [picture]

Berry Picking

It was late August and the evenings were still long. The air in these years is fresh and pure, mottled only with the playfulness of imagination, a flickering light of primary colours; that melody, that lovely  paradox of possibility and infinite security. I’m not sure how old I am, maybe nine, maybe ten; maybe even seven. I think I have plaits in my hair: blonde messy plaits with grass and leaves caught in them, as if I were some kind of woodland creature. I run and spin around a lot, my breath always caught in the dizzying air. Me and my limbs like climbing trees. I reach for branches with my arms; my thin fingers cling to them with earthy nails.

My cousins are here and we’re playing a game. There’s an old rowan tree at the back of our garden, which sucks all the light in the morning then bounces it back towards afternoon. Since it’s nearly September, the tree is rich in an abundance of vivid red berries, gleaming like the eyes of so many children. But to our eyes, they are precious and lovely as rubies. We are pirates, plundering treasure. We are climbing the tree and picking them – every last one – and tossing them in a bucket we’ve found in the shed. I remember the shed so clearly. The shed smells sweetly of sawdust, and that rainy, swampy scent of wet grass that comes from the lawnmower. Sometimes we sit in there, in the stuffy warmth, amongst the buckets and spades and gardening tools, and swap made-up stories.

No time exists in these summer evenings; only the bubbles of our laughter and the slow-changing light. The way our skin glows pale and moonlike as it grows darker. The way our voices float upwards, swallowed by a sea of stars.

We’ve cleared most of the tree now; its branches are bare of berries – left only with green. A green that blurs at the edges, that makes our spirits shimmer. The four of us stand at the foot of the tree, admiring our handiwork. The bucket is almost full.

‘But I can still see some up there!’ someone says. We look up and there are several handfuls still clutching the branches at the top of the tree. We wonder who will be brave enough. The boys step back kicking their feet. I am the oldest; by nature, it will be me.

I climb with ease, with my young sweeping limbs. No looking down. No fear, no notion of falling. My vision is confined to the enticement of those scarlet fruits above me.

And soon I am there, waving my arms triumphantly. I pluck the berries and toss their clusters down to the ground. They fall fast in bloodied, godlike rain. From up here I can see the whole town: what seems like a thousand rooftops rendered magical in the purplish twilight. An atmosphere that pulls at my brain. A moon emerging from a murky horizon, the church steeple thin and eerie against a backdrop of silken clouds. It is all wonder, a view that somehow contains me in its pocket of time. I shake as I finally break away and climb back down.

My cousins hug me as I become the day’s heroine. A whole tree, stripped clean. A child’s harvest of earliest autumn.

My mother calls us inside, but we do not listen. The air is still warm, the light now sparkling with summery darkness. One of us goes to retrieve a potato masher, and we stand round our bucket, our cauldron, like little witches. We take turns to smash the overflow of berries, passing the masher round, watching the red drip and slush and seep as we crush vehemently. Are we making a potion, a poison? Performing mystical rites? Brewing our own bittersweet jam, with its distinct tartness that pierces the tongue and waters the eyes?

We are concocting a tonic for time: for the long hours that melt and fade as we grow and change and lose the clarity of innocence, of childish sight. We relish something tangible and bright.

by Maria Sledmere

Prompts: childhood, potion