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Lamb Holm Whispers

12 Feb

Alberto walked across the island to the chapel and went in.

‘Alberto’

He looked around.

‘Alberto?’

He looked around again but could see no one.

‘Alberto, over here, come and see.’

He followed the direction of the voice and found Luigi, kneeling in the Sanctuary, gazing up at Our Lady, smiling down from the ceiling.

‘It’s finished.’

Alberto fell to his knees to thank God for the miracle. Was the miracle the ceiling or that he was kneeling next to Luigi?

Alberto and Luigi were both serving with the Italian Tenth Army in North Africa when they were captured and brought to Lamb Holm.

Lamb Holm, a small lonely island in Orkney. The surrounding sea, dark, hostile and menacing, whipped up by the ever threatening storm. The spray, biting and salty. Bitter and bleak, the surf breaking on the shores of Scapa Flow and the rusty frames of the blockships, obstructing the narrows, made this a miserable place to be. It was the perfect location for a prisoner of war camp. The Italians, captured during World War II, were brought to this desolate isle and set to build the Churchill Barriers.

Camp 60. In 1943, the camp commandant and the camp’s priest agreed that a place of worship was required. Two Nissen huts were joined together and formed a makeshift chapel.

It was constructed with whatever materials they could lay their hands on. Domenico Chiocchetti painted the sanctuary end of the chapel, his fellow prisoners decorated the entire interior.

Alberto and Luigi often came to the unfinished chapel and not wanting to disturb the angels they spoke in whispers.

Luigi: ‘How I wish it all to be over and we can go home.’

Alberto wasn’t sure.

‘To what, Luigi?’

‘To Mamma, the food, the wine, to the sun and the warm sea.’

Alberto tried to interrupt. It was futile. Luigi was in full flight. He made his homeland sound like heaven. Alberto didn’t feel he had left heaven when he was sent to North Africa. Just left one hell hole to end up in a worse one. But here, in Orkney, it was all over peace. He could live with the cold.

He didn’t pass these thoughts to Luigi. No point. He hoped when Luigi returned home, he would be made welcome. He hoped he would sit in the sun, eating pasta cooked by his madre and everything would be how he imagined.

Alberto tried to engage Luigi in conversation about the war and how lucky they were to be out of it. But Luigi was having none of it, and so it was back to the sun and the sea and the food and the wine and Mamma.

And always they had to return to their work.

At the weekends it was the chapel. It was surprising how accomplished they had both become, how they had all become, under the direction of a master. Alberto would never have believed himself to be capable of such artistry. Such creativity. Domenico stressed that imagination knows no limits.

Luigi sang as he created. He sang as loud as he could. He would sing for Mamma when he got home. His voice echoed from every corner and rebounded into the chapel. Alberto and the others, applauded the songs they all knew so well. O Sole Mio and Sorrento. Sorrento always left someone crying and they all cheered and joined in Funiculì, Funiculà.

How Luigi and Alberto had come together they could not remember but they had become friends, comrades. Comrades as different as they could possibly be. Comrades, tolerant and strong.

A comradeship that would end suddenly and dramatically.

For some reason, no one ever knew why, Luigi left the hut, where they slept, in the middle of the night. He passed the guard, unseen, and into the dark. With arms outstretched and singing, he walked into the sea. His body was found the next morning, He had been battered against the rocks and was hardly identifiable. Alberto was stunned. Stunned, shocked and distressed. His friend had given no indication he was so unhappy. They were prisoners, yes, but Luigi was always on about going home and how wonderful it would be. How he longed for home. The sun, the wine, Mamma.

Alberto reproached himself. He should have noticed something. Had his attitude to going home affected Luigi? Dashed his hopes of a happy return? Alberto wished he had kept his mouth shut but they had shared so many intimacies. It wasn’t Luigi’s fault that Alberto didn’t have an adoring Mamma who wanted to cook his favourite food, who wanted to love him and welcome him home from the war with open arms. He wept, wept for Luigi and for himself.

Alberto went into the chapel often after that. He prayed for Luigi’s tortured soul and prayed for his own forgiveness. If only he could tell Luigi he was sorry.

And so it was a miracle that he was kneeling next to Luigi now.

He didn’t have to ask. Luigi spoke first.

‘Alberto, you must not scold yourself. I am happy and with Mamma. She called me that night, she wanted me to sing and I went to her. Now we sing all the time. We eat pasta and drink wine and the sea is never cold.’

Alberto began to cry. Large tears, loud sobs.

And then a voice from nowhere. The voice of a child.

‘I heard them Daddy, there were voices, voices and sobbing. I heard them.’

Teapots and Riffraff

10 Nov

BETTY tipped the contents of the teapot over his head before throwing it at the wall. For a split second neither of them moved. It was as if the film had ceased to roll, then, when the projector sprung back into action, so did Betty.

She ran up the stairs to the bedroom, grabbed her jacket and headed down to the front door hoping to make her escape before the credits went up and he realised it was all over.

Betty made it into the street, heart thumping, awaiting a hurl of abuse. Mercifully, nothing. She picked up some speed and the house disappeared as she rounded the corner. Then, another stroke of luck, a 73, which would drop her at her dad’s, was waiting at the bus stop.

She hopped on and threw herself into the seat behind the driver crouching against the window. She felt hidden and safe, at least for the next half hour. The conductor didn’t come for a ticket. Maybe he sensed her distress.

Betty thought about how things had been when she first met Ralph. He was tall, good looking and a sergeant in the Army. He had a presence, a confidence that made her feel secure. He was never stimulating company, talked about himself and his achievements a lot, and was not very exciting in bed. But nonetheless, he was dependable and protective without being obsessive.

Betty had been a great responsibility for Violet, her mother. Betty, a teenager out of control, uncontrollable. Violet was sure she would become pregnant to one of that rough lot who had moved out of the East End into those new houses over the bridge.

As soon as Violet could surrender Betty to another, she did. To Ralph, the son of one of her friends at the Women’s Institute. Ralph was reliable and not just after one thing, not like that lot over there. She would nod in the direction of the bridge. Betty smiled at the memory. If only her mother knew. However, her mother believed, marrying Ralph would save her daughter from becoming pregnant to one of that riffraff .

Ralph became a prisoner of the Japanese in 1943, leaving Betty alone in her own house with no chaperone, no curfew and no limits. It was as if someone had opened her cage door and gone away. She went wild. Sometimes with riffraff and sometimes not but always with people her mother desperately disapproved of. Betty’s reputation spread.

Violet was struggling to hold her head up in public and was starting to miss meetings at the WI. She prayed for Ralph a safe return, a rapid safe return. At this rate she was going to lose her flower arranging skills. Her husband didn’t seem to mind what people thought. Betty was just like him and Violet told him so.

Betty reached her dad’s just as he was showing Florence, his new lady friend, Violet died and left him in peace in 1953, how to change the oil in a car. This involved him lying on his back, under the kitchen table with screwdriver and bucket. Florence appeared interested and only slightly amused. She had grown used to Ernie and his strange little ways. Loved him for them.

Betty stood by the table, Ernie addressed her feet and legs, ‘You left him then? This time for good? I’ll just finish this and you can tell me all about it.’

Florence saw this as an opportunity to leave. It was never her intention to change the oil in a car.

‘I threw the teapot at him, dad.’

‘Well done, did it make contact?’

‘It did, with the wall.’

‘Never mind, a lick of paint will sort it. Want a cuppa now?’

They sat for a while, Betty and her dearest dad. They drank tea and chatted about nothing in particular. She chuckled when he told her he had taken Florence for a posh meal and asked for Chicken Frickarse for two.

‘What did Florence say?’

‘Nothing, she laughed along with the waiter.’

She envied his relationship with Florence.

It had never been like that with her and Ralph. Never had time to be like that.

She remembered going to the station to meet him when he was released in 1945. Encouraged by Violet, she put on her best dress and coat, made up her face and sprayed on the last of her Evening in Paris. Violet didn’t know she had got it from an American airman, along with the nylons. She was early and apprehensive. Betty knew this was the end of the life she had enjoyed. She tried to feel guilty but couldn’t. She stood looking at her feet which would not stay still. They wanted to run.

The train chugged in. Betty painted on a smile and looked for Ralph. She wondered how she would greet him. How should she greet him? After all he was her husband. Was she expected to run into his arms squealing how she had missed him? Could she play that game? So many questions; answered when she saw him. He was in the first carriage behind the engine and emerged through the smoke. It was only when he said her name she realised it was him.

‘Hello Betty, how are you?’

She just stared at him her scarlet smile turning into a gaping red hole. She tried to speak but couldn’t. If she hugged him he might break; she had no desire to kiss him.

‘What happened?’ And trying to catch her breath, quickly, ‘I am so sorry.’

They went home and tried to settle into something resembling a normal life. Betty played the caring wife while Ralph struggled to get better. In time his outward appearance restored, he reverted to something like his former self, talking about himself a lot but leaving a big gap where 1943-1945 should be. But now there was an edge to his behaviour, hostility in his conversation. Betty felt she was living on the rim of a volcano which was about to erupt. Eventually it did, several times, smouldering in between.

Ralph’s language was spiteful and cruel. His face transformed into a mask of hatred. He lashed out at her several times. She tried to understand, all the time knowing it couldn’t go on for ever but not knowing how it would end.

And now here she was, sitting in her dad’s kitchen drinking cups of tea.

‘What’ll I do dad?’

‘Go back, get your stuff and come home.’

Home had never been with Ralph. Betty and Ralph only ever had a house and now she was out of there and coming home. Home to someone who cherished her. Spoke to her with affection. No malice, no spite, just humour and love. Home to dad.

She finished her tea.

‘I won’t be long.’

‘I will be here.’

Betty caught the same bus back to the house she had shared with Ralph. No ticket. She jumped off just before the corner. As she turned into the street she saw an ambulance outside her house. She walked cautiously towards it. Surely Ralph hadn’t killed himself; Seppuku. He was always threatening to do so, telling her how brave the Japanese were in the face of defeat. Did he believe he was defeated? Did he feel dishonoured and beaten by a woman?

There was crowd at the gate. The police were leading Ralph away. She stood back, not wanting to be seen. And then she saw. A body lying on the path being covered with a sheet. Betty gasped as she recognised herself.

The Secret

29 Sep

HER tears made the ink run as they dropped on to the letter she was reading.

‘No.’

Lizzie whispered the word although there was no one else in the room.

‘No.’

There was no one else in the house. The house where the sisters had lived all their lives; the house they were all born in; the house with the outside lavatory and no bathroom; the little house where they had been so happy as children; the little house, in the little town by the sea.

Lizzie and Edith were twins. Twins, but not identical. In fact, they were so different in appearance that they could have had different fathers. Lizzie, as fair and blond as Edith was olive skinned and dark. But they had a strong connection, loving, trusting and intense. Despite their looks they were so rarely apart that people did not know which was which.

In 1919, the boys who had survived the Great War, returned home. And in August 1920 a ball was to be held in the Victory Hall. Musicians from neighbouring brass bands regrouped and formed a dance band. They were due to strike up at eight. Refreshments would be served in the Supper Room at ten thirty and ideally every lady should be escorted. Waiting to be invited to supper was both exciting and agonising.

Archie asked Lizzie up for the first dance and the next and the next. They shimmied and swirled, sashayed and strutted around the floor. He invited her to supper. She was in heaven. During supper they chatted and laughed and fell in love.

The following weeks flew by, summer faded into autumn and autumn soon became winter. The slump was as biting as the north wind. Archie left the shores of this country fit for heroes, on a boat from Liverpool. It was January 21st 1921; the date was etched into her brain. He headed for the New World promising to send for her. As a token of his love he gave Lizzie a brooch, a delicate stripe of gold with an opal tear drop. A tear drop to copy the ones Lizzie would cry for the rest of her life.

The weeks turned into months and the months into years. Lizzie thought her heart would break, thought she would die. Edith was her consolation. They took long, silent walks, hand in hand along the shore. She felt the warmth of Edith’s caring and the comfort of knowing that nothing would ever break their bond.

One glorious summer’s day Edwin Thompson and his cousin Toby invited the sisters to join them for a game of tennis. Lizzie was reluctant but Edith persuaded her and they met on the courts behind the Victory Hall. Lizzie remembered the night she met Archie there; she felt a strong sense of betrayal. Hadn’t she promised to wait for him?

Lizzie teamed with Edwin and played mixed doubles. They all arranged to meet for another game at the weekend. Lizzie expected to partner Toby this time but he got together with Edith. Afterwards, they went for tea. Edith and Toby went to the counter, leaving Lizzie and Edwin alone.

‘They seem to be getting along.’ Edwin said.

‘Mmm, yes.’ murmured Lizzie, conspiratorially.

Lizzie felt slightly, ever so slightly, envious. Wasn’t that like her and Archie in the beginning? Her envy turned to concern. Was Toby going to go away and forget Edith like Archie had forgotten her? In that moment, she began to feel resentment. Resentment towards Edith for being so happy; resentment towards Toby for his potential treachery and resentment towards Archie for his disloyalty and disregard.

Edith and Toby came back with the teas. Lizzie turned to Edwin, suddenly.

‘Do you take sugar?’

Edwin appeared bemused by her sudden attention. Until then she had appeared aloof.

‘Yes please, just one.’

From that moment Lizzie and Edwin became close. He was charming and courteous. They spent the rest of the summer playing tennis and having picnics. She accompanied him to the theatre and they sang together in the church choir. Edith and Toby sometimes joined them but Edwin preferred it when they were on their own.

Edwin was the local pharmacist and a member of the local Masonic Lodge and considered himself to have some standing in the community. Edith was thrilled when he asked her to be his partner at Ladies Night. He insisted on paying for her gown and they went together to choose it. He had wonderful taste and although she fancied the blue silk he thought the lavender suited her better and he was right. She looked beautiful. He brought her a collage of violets to wear on her shoulder. That evening he asked her to marry him.

The next day Lizzie told Edith.

‘How lovely, you said yes?’

‘I said he will have to speak to father.’

Father said, ‘Yes’ and so therefore, did Lizzie.

The wedding was as grand affair as their little town had seen. Lizzie hardly recognised any of the guests. Edwin assured her that they were the best people and due to his status in local society he was obliged to invite them.

Their honeymoon was brief and awful. She hated the intimacy. Edwin sensed her reticence and his attitude towards her quickly changed. Wasn’t she his wife, the woman who promised before God, to obey him?

Edwin bought a house in a nice area of the town. They had a son, Stanley. Stanley died of consumption when he was three. Lizzie thought she would never recover from the heartbreak nor the desolation she felt at losing the two men who had touched her life so briefly and whom she had loved so much. Edwin put Stanley’s death down to frailty, inherited from Lizzie’s family. She fell into despair, despair that stayed with her, despair she could not shake off. He constantly reminded her that she had married well and for that she should be grateful.

Edith’s liaison with Toby spluttered before finally fizzling out. He married someone else very soon and Edith remained in the little house. Lizzie and Edith saw each other as often as Edwin considered appropriate. Edith seemed not to notice the depth of Lizzie’s wretchedness. She was happy that Lizzie had forgotten Archie and settled for Edwin who would not take her dearest sister away. Edwin was Lizzie’s solace for a love lost. Edith was happy for her sister.

On September 17th 1947 Edwin died suddenly and on his own. Lizzie had been to choir practice and returned home to find him on the floor in the parlour. She felt nothing, only sorrow that he was lonely at the end; sympathy she would have felt for anyone. She had to step over him to reach the telephone.

After the funeral she settled down in Edwin’s house. She made some changes and her mood lifted. She was free to cry for Stanley and to think of Archie and wonder. She and Edith became closer, the bond ever tighter. No one to follow them, no one to mourn, they were content.

They reminisced, laughed and cried together, chatted about Edwin and his smug ways and speculated about Toby. Edith had had several liaisons during her life but they never amounted to anything. If anyone was crass enough to mention she had been left on the shelf she would retort, ‘Yes, but taken down and dusted off now and again!’ And then they would giggle like adolescents. Edith was happy just to be with Lizzie. They never talked of Archie.

Weeks before their ninetieth birthday, Edith became ill and the end came quickly. Lizzie didn’t leave her bedside and when the time came, Edith grabbed Lizzie’s wrist, her bony fingers gripping so tightly that her knuckles gleamed white. Her last words, before she went to the light, were, ‘Lizzie, I’m sorry.’

The day came when the little house went under the hammer and Lizzie had to clear it. She had decided to only take a few personal things, things that reminded her of those happy times when she and Edith were children and then she would lock the door, turn and walk away without a looking back.

She found the letter hidden in the lining of the lid of Edith’s jewellery box. It fell out when she was poking about amongst the rings and brooches.

The envelope was addressed to Miss Elizabeth Mackereth and it was postmarked from the USA in June 1921. It had turned brown over the years and Lizzie was afraid it would tear when she opened it. Folded inside were some American dollars and a note which read,

‘My Dearest Sweetheart,

May the fair winds of change carry you to me soon.

Yours forever

Archie’

A Book of Feathers

19 Sep

She opened her handbag, it was full of feathers. Little white fluffy things like you find around the base of a dovecote. Diana knew this because they had a dovecote when they were kids. The residents squabbled and cooed and fussed and fluttered and their feathers drifted to the ground like snowflakes.

That was years ago, she’s now thirty seven with one broken marriage and a broken relationship behind her. The children, three to one man and one to the another are not behind her, they are here, right in front of her, causing mayhem. Diana couldn’t manage on her own, never expected she would have to. She was completely unprepared.

‘For God’s sake, will you stop?’

She could hear her own voice reverberating. She was out of control, again. She reached for the Diazepam. She wasn’t addicted.

It had been a trying day. Most days were trying but this one seemed particularly so. She would take the lot of them to the library. As luck would have it, they all liked books and the library did not permit mayhem. They had a calming half hour and Diana managed to choose something for herself.

Eventually, but not without more shouting and threats she got them all to bed. The little one still slept in her bed and she always stayed with him until he dozed off. It crossed her mind that she would miss him when he went into his own room and as she tucked him in she thought what a rubbish mother she turned out to be. The thought came and went, replaced by another. Should she start the book or tidy the house? No contest. Diana poured herself a glass of red, found her reading glasses and threw herself onto the settee.

She opened the book and several little feathers floated out.

‘Good god!’

She brushed them to the floor to where the others lay after she shook them out of her bag earlier. Crumbs and dust combined to provide a covering that obliterated the pattern in the carpet. She made a mental note to get the hoover out.

Diana opened her book. After a few minutes her eyes felt heavy. Suddenly, she is waiting for granddad to come home from the war. He had been in the desert with the Royal Engineers, a Sapper. Diana knew this because she and grandma had been looking at photographs. One of him, in khaki drill, leaning against a truck. He had written, ‘Me in Tripoli’on the back. There were others, ‘Me in Egypt, me playing cricket in Cairo, me with a stray puppy.’ Diana loved him so much. Her love was so intense that she had raised his status to hero. She never met him but knew that he had built things like bridges, cleared mine fields and was once a despatch rider who fell off his motor bike on Mount Carmel. When they discussed the most holy of all mountains at school, she was so proud to be able to say she knew where it was and had a photograph. Diana idolised her granddad. If he was here he would know exactly what to do.

Awaking with a start, her hero faded away. She dragged herself up the stairs and snuggled into her squirming bed warmer. In a few hours it will all start up again. She wondered how long she could put up with it. Her life was becoming a nightmare. Her childhood with grandma was so lovely, how had it come to this? She’d married Shithead for a start and it was all downhill from then on. They had three children together before he decided he was gay and needed to ‘come out’.

‘I’ve been living a lie.’ He blubbered on his way out. She chased him up the path, throwing plant pots at him. The ones with hyacinths in. His favourites.

‘Living a lie?’

She screamed. It wasn’t a question.

The children watched from the kitchen window. He called her a mad bitch.

And she was. Mad and getting madder. One day they’ll cart me away, she thought. The mad bitch from number 46.

How mad was she when she had a night out with another mad bitch who got to the school gates early, in time for a gossip before the kids were let loose.

‘It’ll do you good to get out.’ The mad bitch at the school gate said.

Diana organised her neighbour to babysit and in a daze of diazepam and alcohol she went out to do herself some good. And here she was nestling into him.

The next day started like all others. Diana finally got the litter to school and went to sit in the park with her book. She couldn’t sit in the house, it was a pigsty. An overwhelming feeling of melancholy overcame her. She could not see the future. Four kids out of control, a house tumbling down around her ears, a mother who kept telling her to pull herself together.

More feathers came spilling out of her book.

‘Was the last borrower a bloody pigeon fancier, for Christ’s sake?’

She read the words but they meant nothing and with every page she turned, more feathers. Slapping it shut and putting in on the seat beside her, she sat, gazing through the shimmering silver birch trees to glistening water of the boating lake. Quiet now. Quiet and peaceful. It would be so easy. Diana reached into her pocket and felt for the prescription. She could just go to sleep on this seat and never awake. No screaming, no pigsties, no worries. Her mother would have to take the children.

Suddenly.

‘Hello love, you alright? I’ve been watching you, you were miles away.’

Diana wondered why she didn’t tell him to bugger off, but he had a kindly, soft northern accent.

‘I’m fine.’ She lied.

‘I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a long time.’ he went on. ‘All your life, in fact. I was there the day you were born. You seemed to muddle through until now. I’ve been sending you signs.’

Diana turned to look at him. She saw his tanned hands, the backs covered with freckles, his ruddy, smiling face and his red hair bleached by the sun to sand. She recognised his desert drill and dusty boots.

She took his dry rough hands in hers; tears ran swiftly, chasing one after the other down her face falling off her chin on to the dryness which gave them a fluorescent appearance. She choked and tried to speak. Sobbing, she managed,

‘Are you my granddad?’