European Union

The rising morning sun was sneaking between the gaps of the medieval houses as I walked the narrow pathways of the Tuscan hill town. I had wandered from the busy the Plaizza Della Cisterna. I came upon a small courtyard, it felt private, silent, peaceful. I felt intrusive. The high buildings surrounding protected it .Even the sun was limited to shards piercing between the houses settling only on the stone monument at the centre. Planned like that or nature’s decision?

The monument was squared by double tiered wide shallow steps, grey, hard, but warming by the mid morning. I rested comfortably on them. My back was against the wall of the flower bed that rose from them. Ferocity did not engage so early even in summer. The heat was still just soothing. Large shrubs filled the flower bed, ivy bordering and stretching   over the base of the fountain that sat at the centre of the monument. Its gentle flow whispered into the old stone basin. I was drawn to be at one with nature and reached to touch. My fingers, surprised, enjoyed the clean coldness, my sleeve held the relaxing fragrance of lavender as my hand returning had caused my arm to brush against the shrubs. Contentment, being at peace with the world.

The sense of quiet was suddenly broken, sparrows chatter addressed the courtyard, dashing, shaking, flecking sunned sparkles of water as they bathed in the coolness. Their voices joined by the sound of innocence. The pleading call of an unseen child, high and pure, full of urgency shrilled.

“Nonna!“

“ Nonna!”

The large shrubs allowed privacy despite the proximity of the voice. I peered between them. Standing, a bent desert spoon in one hand and a worm in the other, a small girl kicking her sandaled foot against the wall awaiting acknowledgement. There was Nonna, or grandad sitting passively, lost momentarily sucking on the last of his cigarette, gently exhaling, the smoke playing around his nostrils.

He turned to respond to the her, she gazed upwards attentive understanding his response in a language which I did not. Together they moved along the wall to the corner where I had first seen her. Nonna was holding the worm now, she was busy digging unsuccessfully into the soil. They swapped and after a few spoonfuls and a nod of readiness she placed the worm into the soil and taking the spoon back from her Nonna carefully covered it.

Nonna bent forward, his rough cotton shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows its whiteness exaggerating the deep tan of his sinewed lower arms as he lifted her to him. He dusted her fringe to the side and gently kissed her fore head and she snuggled into his loose neck.

Turning he was surprised, briefly, by my presence.

“Nonna, “I ventured placing a hand on my chest.

He looked down at his gift, his reply a knowing smile.

Don Russell

 

Chillin’

Nancy wiped John’s paws after their early morning walk. She’d decided when the time was right she would have a dog and if she did it would be called John. It had been cold this morning, an early snap of winter in late autumn. She pulled the heavy oak door closed enjoying the safe thud as it met the frame and the warmth of her kitchen soothed. A bonus from putting a couple of the gas rings on before going out. It was something she’d done from around this time last year. It reminded her it was now over a year since she’d moved to the old cottage.

Nancy opened the broom cupboard, home for her wellingtons, John was trying to push his head between her feet. It was also where she kept his food. She gently nudged the jumping spaniel aside with her thigh as she gathered his bowl and breakfast. The sight of breakfast increased his excitement as he followed her across the kitchen. Her feet were toasty, the woollen socked moccasin things Martha her friend from the bank had brought her back from Canada were perfect. She was even able to wear them with her wellingtons.

She could hear the fire she’d set and lit before going out crackling healthily next door. John had gulped his breakfast as usual and she knew he would be settling down, exercised and fed to enjoy snoozing on the warm spacious hearth.

She spied through, sure enough he was already stretching out. She loved watching contentment. Her thoughts were interrupted by the whistling kettle. She’d come across it at a car boot sale and felt it fitted well with the style of the old cottage. That was the same day that she’d bought the two flat irons which were now bookends for best of her collection of the early cookery books that she’d amassed as a hobby during her working life in the bank. A Mrs Beeton’s first edition held pride of place.

The toaster pinged, she wasn’t the soggy buttered type, she liked a bit of crispness so ignored it for the present. She emptied the boiling water from the kettle into the stainless-steel teapot. Breakfast was generally the only time of day she veered towards the tradition of enjoying her tea poured from a pot apart from when she had guests. She’d bought the stainless-steel set, a tray, tea pot, milk jug, sugar dish at yet another car boot sale. She didn’t take sugar so the dish was kept for the few visitors she had who did. She’d used the milk jug initially but had discarded it when she’d began a new procedure with the morning tea. The tea pot could provide enough for three mugs so she added milk directly to the pot after she’d brewed the tea and wrapped the pot in a tea cosy. The tray was still used to bring her drink and toast through to the living room.

John whimpered. Dreaming? She smiled as she placed her toast and mug of tea on the table by her chair. The pot of tea sat a safe distance from the fire ready for the job of replenishing. The eight forty train rolled by. The train she used to take to work, the train that she’d first noticed the signal man’s cottage from, little realising it would become hers.

They’d been whispered caring concerns back at the bank. She’d heard them. How would Nancy cope without her work? It was her life. No partner to share her time with. She’d be lost. They’d been unaware of the sleepless nights as she’d struggled with increasing complexities of the job nor the huge weight her decision to retire had lifted off her shoulders.

The rural life suited. She settled into her “old comfy”. A floppy crinkled brown soft leather armchair, the type she’d enjoyed using in a local coffee shop. This had not been bought at a car boot, it had been in the house when she arrived.

Crunching into her toast she congratulated herself on the tang of her home made raspberry jam. John lifted a lazy eyelid, she saw it, it always reminded of John Wayne and cowboys sleeping with one eye open for some unknown reason. She knew, he knew it was getting close to crust time. She dropped them on the hearth near enough to enable him to slightly stretch his neck and reach without having to move the remainder of his resting body.

She picked up the tea cosied pot and refilled her mug, it still steamed, lovely. Placing it on the table she slipped her hand down and removed her paperback from the side of the cushion. Nestling in she began to read oblivious to the silent falling of the first snow of the season outside. The ten forty whistled in passing waking her. The fire was a little low but the room was warm, John was still dreaming on the hearth. She added a couple of blocks carefully so as not to disturb his slumber.

She checked the teapot, it was drinkable, passable. She remembered she wanted to make scones today, Martha was coming for tea on her way home from work. That would be a late afternoon job. She picked up her book which had landed on the floor and tucked her feet comfily under herself on the chair. She wondered how long until she’d doze off again. Bliss.

Family Matter

Me and Grandad

Dear Mam

I thought it might be useful to report back on my first day with Grandad. There are no areas of major concerns, however as this is how I am going to spend my Thursdays for the next three years I felt we should work within a spirit of transparency from the beginning. I believe it will be an essential ingredient in the success of my relationship with him.

Last Thursday our first day together has raised a few matters which should be addressed if we are going to follow our plan of transparency.

The messy bit to begin perhaps. Nappies, currently they are being applied back to front which is having a bit of an impact on leakage levels. Needs direction from you. There was also an exuberance to change me immediately after my lunch at twelve. If he had left me until twelve thirty it could have saved a second nappy change at twenty past twelve. This not a complaint on my part just a suggestion to consider that could ease his day.

Lunch, he appears to have well sussed. I had intended a bit of spoon grabbing, hand waving and keeping my mouth closed. I became so involved with the spoon becoming an aeroplane flying in food I forgot about any of these obstructions to cause complications at meal times. Lunch was a lot of fun. I was slightly confused however why he opened his mouth in unison with me each time the aeroplane flew in with my food. It was also quite a disconcerting view for me when I was trying to eat.

We went out in the car. Strapping me in was no problem, knowledge of the mechanics of getting the seat safely in the car were unnecessary as Dad fortunately fitted it before he arrived. The journey to the supermarket was dire, musically. Old Macdonald, Hickory Dickory, All the Kings Men, not for me Grandad, in car entertainment should be bit of Rag and Bone man, Sheeran or Shania Twain. Music choice needs dealing with.

Pushchair. Opening was a difficult process, kicking the wheels and, I think I heard swearing under his breath, did little to progress the process. There was a blushed relief at being caught putting the put boot in,so to speak , by a passing shopper who sensitively recognised his predicament and helped him. Manoeuvrability skills were never in question, his one hand driving whilst carrying a shopping basket was sublime. I quite enjoyed the outing. Plenty of comments on “what a happy boy” or “he’s got such a lovely smile”. One soul was forward enough to stroke my cheek in passing. I didn’t really mind as she also had a lovely smile.

Mam I know there were concerns about Grandad, how he forgets or loses his glasses, wallet, phone and car keys. Well he never lost any of these during our first day together. He has also promised me he will never drive away and leave me alone in the Asda car park ever again.

From your loving son

Alfie Butler (aged 10 months)

Darkness and Light

Sometimes it comes insidiously, a quiet mist which moving from a cloud to a shroud, encompasses me, swallowing my emotions, removing my pain and my pleasure, my sadness and my joy. There is almost a reward, the sense of self-pity, a temptation to swim in the pool of despair.

At first it is a little innocuous itch which comes and goes, but growing it becomes the black dog snapping at your heels. Less easy to ignore and requiring a great deal of effort to shake off. It drags you into tiredness, a worry about where it has come from, what route it is going to take this time? Will I survive? I have been here before. I am already beginning to plan strategies to change the direction.

I have found the initial step in the journey back is the acceptance that it is fighting to take me over again. Sometimes it’s okay to wallow a little in it, lull it into sense of winning. I feed myself in sad pieces for the cello that bring me to tears, uncontrollable tears that allow my otherwise flat self to have an emotion of some sort. A starting point.

A hint of recovery.  The return of the sudden fleeting warmth in a thought quickly lost like the sun disappearing behind the clouds. But cloudiness will become less, the coldness is defeated sporadically by those little moments of warmth that increase until they again take the upper hand.

My mind is moving worlds. It is not now the feel of the cold wind and the sound of lashing of rain on the window. It is the feel of the warm room, cosy in the chair protected from the fearfulness of outside. Harshness, soothed by the soaring of a bird, the gentle billowing of the breeze, the beauty and innocence of my grandchild, the unworried way he appears to handle his young life. This is the positivity. I realise having been at the bottom and that I am climbing again.

My energies return, I am getting stronger. I have reached the spring of my recovery, but it is not yet summer and the first edges of spring are closer to winter.  I am careful. I can be weakened and recognition can be tougher than denial. But it is recognition that has given me strength, a label, a path to follow to get out. The power to recover and the knowledge of having that power.

The power to survive!

 

Don Russell

Sunday Morning Reflection

 

There was a loud scraping on the pavement and a continuous tuneless whistle. I glanced to the bedside. Six thirty. The morning was bright through the thin floral curtains. Other mornings the disturbance would have been swallowed by the busyness of the day. Today it echoed in the emptiness of the street.

The bedcovers moved gently as Tina slept on. Sometimes she looked ugly, especially if she was lying on her back, open mouthed and snoring. This morning, breathing peacefully, hair sprawled, her mouth twitched a smile, possibly in some dream she would never remember. She looked beautiful.

I slipped on my dressing gown and quietly left the bedroom.

The rear gardens in Bartholomew Street reflected an era where scarcity of space to build was not an issue. Eighteen Ninety-Five in Roman numerals etched in the stone above our front door confirmed it. The four letter boxes also confirmed that like most houses in the street it had been converted into flats.

The bedroom lay to the front of the house so shared an outlook with the living room. Both received the sun early. Being on the first floor we tended not to close the window fully nor the curtains at all so the armchair was beginning to benefit from the morning’s warmth as I relaxed into it with a coffee.

I watched and listened in my silence to the sound and sights of his actions. What is it about our nature that attracts us to watch the workings of others?

Voyeurism?

The scraping was the result of moving numerous empty plastic milk crates topside down to construct a temporary extension to the shop front. Being situated on a corner allowed him to use a substantial area. The owner of the tuneless whistle wore a flat cap and a brown work coat that always made me think of Arkwright in “Open All Hours”. He was of similar build.

He worked steadily, completing the framework and disappearing into the shop returning with a large wooden board which appeared, to the untrained eye, too big to exit the door, but experience conquered. I smiled remembering the skill of the removers getting our sofa up the stairs. Further boards covered the rest of the extension. Finally, he dressed it all with rolls of artificial grass a Subbuteo aficionados dream.

Stopping for a rest, hands on hips he shared an exchange with two lycra clad women, directing his glance to their path as they ran around the corner into Bartholomew Street. He lifted his cap wiped his brow and disappeared back into the shop.

He returned a large brown bag, Wilja’s emblazoned across the middle, hoisted on his shoulder. The top must have burst, and with his body blocking the view potatoes suddenly appeared to be escaping from beneath the hem of his work coat  and bouncing erratically towards the kerb.

Tina voiced her loneliness from the bedroom. Tempted but declining, I returned to my coffee,the man, his unruly potatoes and the comfort of the sun.

 

 

Thoughts From A House Move

This morning, I was aware, in the quietness of a waking day that I was rousing the old wood in the cottage, and of its lazy creaking responding to my steps, welcoming strange feet. I wondered if the old new house we had left was as welcoming to its tenants.

The location of unfamiliar light switches to be learnt. Fumbling in the dark to find the toilet short lived by the miracle of memory.

A co-existence with nature the early morning birdsong accompanies the rhythmic rainfall on the conservatory roof. A relationship the old new place never allowed.

As I sit, the mountains that may have needed to be climbed yesterday seemed a non event, in fact they never appeared but we were protected. The precious magnificence of the preparing mind having already built unused foundations to cope if needed. We feed the dreams of a thousand situations. If we could but feed only these that really happen how much easier it would be.

The theatre of life moves on. A new act in the production, characters scarcely known to us dip in doing huge things in our lives and we trust them with the preciousness as they carry the table unaware of what’s behind the cup stains upon it.  The removers removed themselves. We gave them thanks. Our roles in each other’s play short by necessity. Closing the door on them leaving the crossroad of our time together begins to distance.

Loved faces joined later. Those who also understood the meanings of cup stains, and the rest of the plot. Safe, we’d gathered and shared fish and chips and heavily buttered thick sliced bread. But this was not until their work was done and they knew they had made us comfortable for the night.

So what of the days ahead, what love of life will be found here?  What has been carried from whence we came to be used in the new old place.  Our minds, our faith have moved with us as an ever present. But childlike we meet the unexplored, leading us to new things and mixing them with our experience and wisdom gives them our shape. The aroma of salt and vinegar and the red sauce stain remain reminding me again of last night’s communion at the breakfast bar. We have already produced an event to begin our history in this place. The first “do you remember when” moment?

The days of comparison will disappear. There will come with time, a moment of grounding, the concrete realisation we are not going back. The acceptance that there is loss of what we had be it bad or good, it is still loss. Our world will never seem quite the same again.

Don Russell

I Give You

 

I give you your stimulation,

But not my mind.

 

I give you your meal,

But not my labour.

 

I give you your wants,

But not my love.

 

I give you your way,

But not my truth.

 

I give you your importance,

But not my agreement.

 

I give you your visions,

But not my visions.

 

I give you your memories,

But not my dreams.

 

I give you your keys,

But not to my door.

 

Don Russell

Lest We Forget

The pained howl of a dog caused me to turn. The howl the result it appeared to be of dog paw meeting pushchair wheel. The father raised a hand of apology, his children already trying to soothe the animal by stroking it. The dog appeared none the worse and a shoulder shrugged smile from its owner reflected an acceptance, accidents happen. It was as I turned that I caught sight of it nestled amongst the clutter underneath the pasting table come stall.

I pulled it out, with its tired wrinkled brown leather top and crushed corners. It interested me. Intentionally I began slowly returning the item aware the seller was watching.  I casually made eye contact and with a degree of mock disinterest queried.

“How much for the old case mate?”

“Fiver!”

“I’ll give you two quid.”

“Three.”

I contemplated pushing for two pound fifty. Nah!

“Okay three. “

I was convinced it would match. If not, I was sure I could find some other use for it.

I already had two leather brown cases of similar style and wear. This smaller one was would complete what I needed for the display at the local travel agent’s window.

Getting home I checked inside for insects. It was lined in a lighter brown coloured material than the outside and there was a long cloth pocket of the same colour and material attached to the front interior edge. Instinctively I slipped my hand beneath the elasticated top of the pocket and slid it along. I felt something in the corner. My heart fluttered as I retrieved it. It was a small flat bag made from a piece of coarse tarpaulin which was folded across the top and sealed like an envelope.

I gently pulled the overlap and whatever was sealing it came away easily and lifting the flap I explored. Inside there were a few pages of writing, removing them I found them dated 21st March 1941.  The left hand side was ragged suggesting they’d been torn from some notebook or jotter.    The writing was immaculate.

It began –

Back at camp, safe for the moment. I am not sure how long a man is expected to suffer this way of living. Sometimes I envy those who have fallen. There is a peace for them, then I reprimand myself for such thoughts. They may have peace, I do not know, but like me they have families back home and I am sure their aim would have been to survive all this and be with to them again.

Today it was a long hard return march despite the initial elation of victory. The adrenalin had drained and we were men again. Dirty, muddy, tired, walking dreamlike, eyes battling to be allowed to close. Just men again. God had numbed our minds for protection. We would have gone mad if we’d to carry all the mental luggage. He’d sent it to rest in some back locker in our mind for another day, whilst we fought the more immediate battle of physically getting ourselves home.

We were sober drunk, our paths weaving with an over indulgence of tiredness. There was an unspoken conversation here. A silent love acted out in physical compassionate actions, the placing of our waning strength beneath the arms of flopping men who can go no further. The weight of war.

The road squelches as we journey. The roar from behind. We split going to our chosen side. No one rushes to clamber on board. Those who can don’t, those who can’t are gently lifted into the back of the truck.

No speech from the remaining, only an acknowledged glance to each other. This is a good thing to do despite the sacrifice. They are our brothers, love they neighbour, we have fought with them, we have the faith they would do for us as we do for them.

As we regroup back at the camp the gaps provide the reality of those whom we have lost. They are but memories, that is all we have left off them,this and sometimes the blood stains on our tunics  as we comforted them briefly in their dying moments before returning to the business of war. 

I carry his stain, he was from my street, we played together as we grew through times of laughter, pain, youth to man, just about men before we were called.

How I long for the greying smoking skies of home, smoke of production, not destruction. I am so tired I don’t know how much more I can take. I cry. An unseen voice mutters beside me, is it prayers to God for himself, or for me in my sobbing or does he mumble unaware in dreams from some back locker.

Continuing I realised I was now reading a rough draft of what I already read in the earlier pages but with scoring out and mistakes. I paused with an aching admiration at the resilience of this unknown man to strive for perfection in the midst of chaos. I was seventy years removed from all this but tonight I had been taken back to the 1940’s by this man’s poignant painful experiences and had shared an image of war I was unlikely ever to forget.

I carefully slipped the letter back into the tarpaulin envelope and placed it safely in the post rack by the front door for now. I picked the case up to put it with the others and I noticed a very faded name rank and service number stencilled on the leather base. Frank Doyle I had to find you a home……

 

Don Russell    19/03/17

 

 

 

 

 

Archie’s Gone.

Bones idly drew a line with the heel of his battered boot in the dust of the floor in the derelict. He sighed. Looking over at his companion he broke their silence.

“The kid could never keep his tin lid Bert.”

“He don’t deserve this Bones.”

“I don’t think the cop had a choice. The kid had been on the sniff and juice all the day before Bert. “

“Bones ah seen him afore, that cop. He’s a big bruisy bastard, keen with the baton. I tried to get the kid away. Get the fuck here Archie I shouted! No use he was on fire. Dent on the back of his head you could have rested an egg in. I went down to see him. Morgue on 27th and 5th.  I walks in. There’s a princess sitting in the waiting room. I say’s to the guy at the counter I’ve come to see Archie, I started to fill. I don’t know his second name.”

“Rogers, says this princess from behind. Archie’s mouth, sister or mother, quite tasty. Hooking up crossed ma mind but I threw it out before it settled Bones. Ye know, dignity and that.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time it happened Bert.”

“Na Bones, this princess had class. Outta place down our end.”

“Archie never said much about anything really Bert. Did you ask her who she was?”

“Nuh!”

“Did ya get to see him?”

“Ye Bones I seen him. I seen Archie, just lying there peaceful man, shaved, in a white robe, looked like Gabriel, washed long golden curly hair. The man at the counter told me the funeral was Monday over on the Jersey side. I’m not sure how we’d get there.”

“We knew the kid over this side, best leave it at that Bert.”

“She was still sitting there, the princess, when I came back. She looked at me kinda, sad. Ah remembered ah still had his cap, it fell off in the struggle and ah’d picked it up. Ah fiddled with it a while in ma pocket not sure, but ah took it out. Ah turned and handed it to her, I told her it was Archie’s and that he was a nice kid. She took it, kinda smiled, but said nothing.””

“That was a good thing to do Bert, have a slug of ma juice, calm the nerves.”

“Ta Bones. To Archie!”

“Steady with the bottle Bert you snake, you’re not that nervous!”

Welcome to my new website!

I’ve been writing short stories for a number of years and have finally taken the plunge to share some of them with the world. Over time I will publish a number of my stories here on this website and invite you to read and hopefully enjoy them. To see some older stories, please click the My Work option on the menu at the top of this page.