Friday, 10 April 2020


I do not post frequently anymore - given that it is pointless speaking to an empty auditorium - and social media are so full of garrulousness that the resulting cacophony constitutes white noise, a cavernous emptiness.

But here is a short story that forms both a stand alone tale from my AnaThema (poems and short stories) and the opening chapters of the White Edition of The Flight of Birds.
I put this story here because both books, under my alter ego Alan Howard, are almost impossible to get hold of.


   Amelia looked out of her bedroom window overlooking the square. Small clouds were playing across the grass under the watchful eye of the sun. The trees solemnly whispered their secrets into the deeper shades fringing the square, only to have them snatched away by the inquisitive shadows of the clouds flitting through and thrown in careless asides to one another across the bristling manicured lawns designed for the gentry of years gone by.
   What secrets these trees could tell, she thought; whole histories of laughter and pain, as generations of people sped through the square with their triumphs and tragedies, as fleeting and impermanent to their greater lives as these playful petulant clouds.
   And of her own secret? What did they know of that? What did they whisper in their strange rustling tongues about Amelia Pegler and her so-fleeting presence here?
   Children, now, were playing out of school on this late spring afternoon, careless of all but the moment, as hers had been not so long ago. She remembered folding her own little Katie into her arms as that mother over there was now doing; healing her with a kiss, just as she was.
   It was as if she, Amelia, and Katie were revisiting the square as it was then; as if she was reliving this past now from her elevated perspective, up here on her verandah; as if the opening of these French-doors with their soft lace filtering the vulgar glare of reality, as if this act of itself could, in a blinding instant, transport her to see what she would see, what she willed herself to see: herself, Katie and John, her husband, in those happier times when there was hope and simply a future to be taken for granted.
   The sudden squalling of a child on the green, rising to a wailing crescendo; the sight of her squirming in her mother’s arms and pointing a blaming finger at a little boy nearby, of their rising and approaching the boy; the mother’s gesticulations, so obviously angry, so blatantly defending her little darling, despite the perplexed protestations of the little fellow, sharply awoke Amelia from her reverie. She rose slowly from her chair in the window and walked to the railings.
   She looked along the road edging the square, then diagonally across the square itself to the point where her daughter, Katie, returning from school, would cross at the Pelican crossing before making her way either round or across the square.
   She kept this vigil each day: Kate’s rounding into view, the raising of her eyes towards the balcony, the breaking out of her smile and the shy wave of recognition. She lived for these moments when, separated, however briefly, they were reunited once again.
   Amelia waited until Katie appeared and waved, as always, before re-settling herself in her armchair in the sun.
   How many more days, she wondered? She was blowing her nose clumsily as Kate stepped into the room and Kate’s vision of her was of a half-silhouetted figure in her armchair, her head stooped against the brightness outside.
   “Mother, you shouldn’t sit so long in a draft like that; you’ll catch your…” Kate stopped.
   “Death of cold?” Amelia chuckled. “Would it were so easy, my dear. I would welcome it.”
   “How are you today?” Kate knelt before her, taking her hands and kissing them, before placing them back in her lap and looking up into her grey-blue eyes.
   “Oh, alright. So-so, you know. I’m still here,” Amelia replied, “Make me a fresh cup of tea, will you darling? Mine’s gone cold,” and then, silently, to herself alone: I love to see you move about me, Katie, my darling; so young and lithe and guileless. Your every gesture, the angle of your wrist as you pour from the pot, the tinkling circles of your stirring, the way your eyes glance up to meet mine as you hand me my cup, the mellow purring of your conversation, recounting the day’s events, which falls upon the nape of my neck like a gentle stroking in the twilight of my attention, inducing bliss…
   “Careful, Mum, you’ll spill it!” Kate leaped forward to steady her mother’s cup.
   Jogged out of her meditation, Amelia said: “I’m sorry, dear, I seem to nod off so easily these days.”
   “Perhaps it’s the medicine? Shall I reduce the dose?” asked Kate, “Are you in pain now? If not, I could reduce it a bit.”
   “Yes, you could try that for a while. It might help keep me awake. I don’t like falling asleep when you are here. It seems such a waste.” Amelia smiled. “I stay awake when you’re not here, you know, because I worry for you. And then, when you are here, it’s such a relief I suddenly seem to relax and nod off, just when I least want to. It must seem as if I don’t care.”
   “Never mind, Mother. Shall I put some music on?”
   “If you like. You choose something. I’d like to listen to what you like. It makes me feel as if I can come closer to knowing you, from within, so to speak.”
   “Ok. You asked for it.” Kate picked up her laptop and picked an album. A raucous dissonant music reverberated from the speakers of the hi-fi they had set up in her mother’s room. “Is that loud enough for you? I think I’ll shut the doors now, before the neighbours complain.”
   Amelia watched her as she went to the French-windows and looked out. The world would be continuing much as it had half-an-hour earlier, with little regard for their domestic tableau. As it would long after their small charade was done.
   The light became diffuse and hazy where the sun shone through the lace, and waves of subtle hues flowed across the room with the slow motions of the curtains. Its dreamy peacefulness contrasted sharply with the bellowing issuing from the speakers. Amelia smiled as she watched her daughter. Her intense green eyes like sea-grass, the fleck of pale grey that ran through Kate’s auburn hair above her left temple was as if a single shaft of sunlight had crept through the closed curtains to shine onto  it.
   “Strange,” thought Amelia, “I wonder how she came by it? She has always refused to dye it out. Maybe she regards it as a badge of honour, marking her out as somehow unique.”
    Kate’s feet were tapping furiously with the music as if impatient of this enforced companionship.
   “You can go, if you like,” Amelia said, “Dad will be home soon.”
   “It’s ok. I’ll stay till he comes,” replied Kate, “but do you mind if I do my homework here for a bit? I’ve got rather a lot to get finished tonight.”
   “Of course not. I’ll just listen and watch,” replied Amelia.
   Kate fetched her books and set to at the writing desk near the window.
   Amelia watched her daughter hunched over the books, writing furiously, pausing, looking up into the air and then resuming her scribbling.
   “Such purposefulness,” she thought to herself, “such concentration – as if there were some meaning to it all.”


   Kate Pegler and her father stood arm in arm beside the simple gravestone in the tiny churchyard of her mother’s childhood home. They looked out over the Wildbrooks towards the downs as the clouds in the east turned pink and mauve, reflecting the sunset behind them.
   Refusing cremation, Amelia had wanted to be buried here, in spite of the fact that she was not religious, because these wild meadows, so often flooded, saw the autumn transit of immense flocks of birds in migration from the cold north where they bred, to the warm south in winter, and their return passage in the spring.
   She had always regarded these water meadows as a sort of spiritual nexus, a symbol of the passing from one existence to another. She had told her ‘darling Katie’, that the flight of the birds through this place somehow embodied for her the endless cyclical transformations of the universe. She had told her that she felt more in harmony with the idea of an eternal recurrence than with the hard arrow of time that epitomized the idea of the irreversible progress of man.
   She had told them she wanted to be able to look out over this scene for eternity and feel herself a part of this great rhythm of renewal and rebirth.
   “Ironic, isn’t it,” she had said, “that I should be buried in a Christian churchyard in order to enjoy a very unchristian eternity. But beggars can’t be choosers, and I can’t just go demanding to be buried anywhere. This is the nearest I’ll get to where I want to be.”
   Kate and her father had travelled down from their two-story flat on the tree-lined square in a once well-heeled part of London that morning, after seeing off the removals men and locking up. She had gone back in for one final look round, straight to her mother’s room to fix in her mind that vista that was her mother’s last, from the balcony of her bedroom.

   Kate had been awakened suddenly one morning by a strange screeching noise followed by cry for help from her father.
   Kate rushed in to find her father, John, struggling to hold her steady. Amelia had, with her husband’s help, got out of bed that morning, taken two paces into the room and frozen, wracked with pain.
   Amelia, though as thin as a bird now, had suddenly seemed to take on a deadweight that even his strength found difficult to bear. Every slight movement was accompanied by an uncontrollable scream from her mother.
   Kate took Amelia’s other shoulder, and the pair of them manoeuvred her back to the bed and laid her as gently as possible on it.
   Kate couldn’t help herself bursting into tears in sheer frustration at her helplessness as she whispered endearments into her mother’s ear, stroking her hair. She looked across to her father and saw tears running down his cheeks as he fiddled with her morphine drip.
   “Could you help me with this, Kate,” he said, “I can’t see properly.”
   Kate rushed round the bed, wiping away her own tears and hastily increased the rate of the pump’s infusion.
   Only a few days before they had cut these back because Amelia appeared to be undergoing a phase of remission, experiencing much less pain and being able to go downstairs and walk around their house for the first time in months.
   Soon the muscle-spasm that arched Amelia’s back relaxed, and she subsided into a morphine-induced sleep.
   “I’m afraid this looks like the end, Katie darling.” Her father whispered. “The oncologist said it would reach her spine soon and that that would signal the final phase. We just have to accept it and make her as comfortable as possible.”
“It can’t be, can it?” cried Kate. “She seemed so well yesterday, walking about. She looked so happy as she looked at everything in the living room.
   “It often happens. Remission. Though not so short,” replied her father. “Perhaps she was storing memories, my darling, for when she goes.”
   The Macmillan nurses called an hour later, changed her and made her more comfortable.

   Amelia slipped slowly away. In the first hours she would open her eyes and look lovingly at Katie or John, whoever was keeping watch, swabbing her brow and cleaning her mouth of the saliva gathering there and spilling over as she turned her head in a hopeless attempt to communicate. The only words they understood through the wheezing rattle of her attempts at speech were: “Thank you, thank you.”
   Later she just laid passively, eyes closed, whimpering when any attempt was made to move her. When Kate removed her oversized nappy to change her, she peed like a baby in the sudden rush of cold air.
   She ceased eating. Kate and her father made numerous attempts to force teaspoons of water between her lips.
   Towards the end her frail chest heaved in spasms as she took tiny gasps of air, three or four at a time, and then relaxed and didn’t breathe for what seemed an eternity to Kate. Then she would repeat the process. Her eyes were sunken in their sockets and her cheekbones and nose seemed to grow as the soft tissue dissolved beneath her almost translucent skin.
   Seeing her mother visibly waste before her was too much for Kate, and it was almost with relief that she obeyed her father’s instruction to “nip down to the shops to get us some dinner, or we’ll starve.”
   When she returned, she saw her father standing quietly at the top of the stairs, looking vacant and lost.
   “What is it?” She cried, running straight up the stairs to him, “What’s happened?”
   “She’s dead. She died a few minutes ago. She just opened her eyes wide, took a deep breath and then collapsed back, giving a long sigh.”
   Kate ran in to her mother and was about to fly to the bed to hug her, when she saw the strange expression of surprise in her mother’s wide eyes and open mouth. She seemed beyond reach, now, untouchable. An involuntary shudder shook her to the core.
   Kate approached and looked down at the corpse of her mother, this cage in which her spirit had dwelt. It looked so empty. She gently pushed Amelia’s lower jaw shut and closed her eyelids. Her mother’s expression looked more peaceful now. More like her living self as she was in sleep.
   But Kate would never forget that awful vision of life departed from this hollow shell, that had, in a different guise, borne Amelia through life and brought her, Katie, into being, now lying prostrate before her.
   She leaned forward and kissed her mother on the brow, cupping her face in her hands, as Amelia had so often done when she thought Katie was asleep when she was a little girl. Through the memory of those secret kisses Kate saw her mother once again as through the eyes of a child.
   She turned to her father, hovering in the doorway as if the room had suddenly become strange and frightening to him. She rushed to him and they embraced. Kate’s father hugged and hugged her, as if by doing so he could somehow bring them all together again, bring his own dear Amelia back to life.

 A gentle tap on her shoulder interrupted Kate’s recollections. “I think it’s time we left. We have to get to our new home tonight.” Kate’s father squeezed her hand and started as if to leave.
   “A moment. Just a minute more. I’ll catch you up.” Kate replied.
   “Ok. But don’t be long. We really must go. We can always come back.” Her father turned his back on her and she watched him walk into the sunset towards their car.
   Before departing, Kate knelt by her mother’s grave and, with one hand on her tombstone, made a solemn promise: “I will return, dearest mother, and tell you of our lives. I will watch the flight of birds and though your body is imprisoned in this cold earth you shall see through my eyes and through me live on.”
   Kate stood and walked back to the car and her waiting father.


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