Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Big Blue

 “I want to move into this area, and this is where people like you come in – because artists and writers aren't constrained by the scientific processes. You can speculate, imagine yourself in the world of the whale. And then open-minded scientists, by looking at what artists produce, may make hypotheses that will lead us onto paths that will begin to crack these great mysteries.”  Philip Hoare
The scientists can give us the facts and without those facts I couldn’t write this story let alone make it in any way authentic. I choose however to write the heart of the story.  

He glides through the deep blue water. He maintains a pace of about five miles an hour.  This is the speed he likes. It isn’t hurried. Every so often he comes to the surface to breathe, pushing out a huge jet of water. Then back down in to the silky wetness that is his home.
The cold doesn’t bother him. It never has. It’s what he knows. He notices it though. He feels as well the sun that warms him as he lingers a short while on the surface.
Then down to the depths, mouth open, then closed and pushing out the water, leaving the krill behind. His belly feels empty and will take a while to fill yet. Still he punctuates his time in the depths with trips up to the surface. Pull in, push out, pull in, push out then push up and push out again. Now dive down into the cold depths. Until, at last, he is satisfied and can linger for longer just below the surface.
The sun invites him to play. He jumps high out of the water and anyone watching must assume he is full of joy. Yes, a true jump for joy, a leap of faith, as his tail flicks off water. Three times, he repeats this, twirling his whole body round the final time, slapping the surface hard as he lands. His skin now feels fresh and parasite-free.  
He is fed. He is clean. He has exercised. Sleepy and relaxed he floats like a log with the water just covering him.  
He dozes but something comes through the deep, penetrates his dreams and now he is alert. “Wohm, wohm, wohm.” With a higher-pitched echo. He recognises at once the call of the calf and its mother. He turns himself to be in a vertical position, pushes his head out of the water and looks around but sees nothing.
“Wohm, wohm, wohm,” he hears again. He puts his head back under the water and can feel the direction of the call.      
Now he is fully alert and begins to swim towards the sound with all of his strength. He accelerates up to and beyond his earlier five miles an hour. Soon he is charging along at twenty, anxious to meet them.     
A squeaker-whistler joins him. Normally he wouldn’t mind. They’re company of a sort and often help to pick out a sensible route through the waves. This one, though, is irritating. She squeaks at him constantly, jabs at his head and seems to want to push him away. She’s no match for him of course. One flick and he could crush her but some instinct stops him from doing that. Then every so often she lets out one of her piercing whistles. It sounds like a warning. If only he could understand her language.
She will not let him alone.
She nudges him again with her nose. He turns slightly. 
A shadow falls across the water. Something is not right. His mate’s call is nearer but not so near for this to be her. What other animal could be so big to cast such a shadow? 
Now the squeaker-whistler is actually nipping his side, forcing him to turn. Now she is jabbering away even more ferociously. He can no longer hear his mate easily.
Almost too late he recognizes what causes the shadow. It is the machine that humans use because they’re not so good at swimming. He tries to turn away from it but it’s a struggle. He hears the human voices. They are just as frenetic as the squeaker-whistler. They seem to have as much difficult turning as he does. The machine’s roar drowns out his mate’s call altogether.
Somehow they manage to avoid each other. There is the smallest gap between them and the squeaker would have been crushed if she had not jumped so expertly out of the way. He’d encountered one of these machines before and had not been so lucky with no squeaker to help. The machine had turned over that time, spilling its human riders into the ocean and he’d grazed his side badly. The scar still throbbed sometimes in the cold depths.  
His heart races. He can still hear them coming towards them. They will run into the machine, too, if he doesn’t warn them. He lifts his great tail and slaps it down on to the surface of the water.  Several times rapidly. He utters a warning, to them and others of his kind.
The squeaker whistles. She’s probably sending a message as well to her kind. Just as urgently by the sounds of it.
The mother and calf return his call. They understand, it seems. They are heading north. The human machine is travelling now towards the south. The danger is over. For the moment at least. He sends a confirmation message. 
The squeaker jumps over his nose and dives beneath him. She squeaks quietly then nudges him gently. He needs to surface and as he does she jumps again, landing on his nose. He dives again and she swims in front to him. She seems to sense when he is going to surface and three times comes up with him, lying on his nose. He tosses her gently into the air. She swims round him and under him and then jumps across him. He lines himself up a little beyond where she lands.
They travel along swiftly now but not urgently.
She gives him one more nudge and then turns west, squeaking and whistling as she goes.
Big Blue turns a little more to the north. A mother and child are waiting for him there. He relishes the sun each time he surfaces. He will be there soon. He accelerates up to twenty miles an hour again.                      

Monday, 20 November 2017

Dancing to the Moon

The first time I set eyes on Patrick O’Leary what I had left of a heart almost jumped out of my chest. All I could see to start with were his soft blond curls I wanted to touch and his smiling blue eyes I wanted to have looking into mine forever. Then I saw him dance and I knew that I wanted to be his only dancing partner. For eternity.
I shouldn’t have even been there. I’m only sixteen. They’re very strict at the Clerkenwell Arms, especially when the Irish dance trials are on. But it was a new moon that night so I guess I was at my best. Talbot had warned me that I would still have a monthly cycle of sorts though it would be very different from before. And spot on, it follows the moon. This is always my shining day, the day of the new moon.
I’ve been like this for over a year now and I’m getting used to it. I can never remember the details of the moonless nights, but the next day I’m always full of energy, and confident and look much older and very glamorous. So, what with the lipstick, and the short skirt and that bitchy glow inside, I got in without them even asking for ID. I even bought a glass of wine for form’s sake. No sweat.
It was the music that made me go in. The music and a need for some warmth. Some human warmth that is - I don’t notice the winter’s cold any more. And I guess it was because I was just in that sort of mood. New moon day. Daredevil day.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he danced. Back and neck straight. Gaze fixed. Arms rigid by his sides. His feet never missed a beat and always came down in exactly the right place. My own feet started tapping to the music.
I used to dance when I was a little girl. Lots of us do. I never got all that far with it, though I was not at all bad. I just got into other things. Like you do. But I can still remember all of the steps.
He started dancing around the room. He paused at each table where any good looking female sat. His feet still worked, of course. I had to exercise so much self-control not to go over to those hussies and scratch their eyes out or tear out their hair. He was sweating slightly and his manly, slightly musky smell was getting to me. There were others in the room, other good-looking young men, some of whom were also dancers, but I only had eyes – and a nose for him.
At last he paused by my table and fixed me with his eyes. Tap, tap, tap tap, tappity tap, went his feet, as if they were asking a question. A faint smile opened his lips, his eye-brows rose slightly. His pupils grew large. He was taking me in, was he? The bitch inside smirked but I tried to keep my gaze neutral. Tapity, tap. Tap tap. He nodded.  
I stood up from the table. My feet began to work.  Yes, I remembered the steps. It was easy, especially with all this energy. In fact I had to keep it in check a little, or somebody would have noticed something. I didn’t even break a sweat or get out of breath. He was breathing hard by now yet he still kept exact time and rhythm. I loved him for that. I loved him because he was finding it tiring now and was still being perfect. The smell of him made my head light.
We were close at times. The place was so full there was barely a dance floor. We almost touched but not quite. As our shoulders and hands came within inches of each other I felt an exchange of energy. Tingles crackled through my body and I had the feeling that he gained some energy from me. We moved lightly around one another, our eyes and our feet in conversation. This was ecstasy. This I wanted forever. Tap tap tappity tap.
The music stopped. It had to eventually. It felt as though a thread between us was broken. The crowd in the pub started clapping and cheering. He was a little out of breath.
“Patrick O’Leary,” he whispered.
“Fyonah McBride,” I whispered back.
He nodded and held up his hand to shush the crowd. “Ladies, and gentlemen,” he cried. “Fyonah McBride.”
The crowd cheered and hooted.
He turned to me and grinned. “Fyonah McBride,” he said, “will you dance with me again?”
I nodded. “Of course,” I said. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I dance with this man forever? 
He kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you,” he said.
Now I was breathless.
But then he was surrounded by all the trial officials, and people who were obviously his friends and fans. The moon was rising. A tiny slither of common sense crept back in. This wouldn’t work. I was an underage school girl, with a strange monthly cycle, who had school tomorrow. Better just to go home and dream about him.   
The second time I saw Patrick O’Leary  I was on the bus two days later coming home from school. He got on at the corner of O’Malley Row and took one look at us all and went back downstairs. He looked straight at me actually, but I thank God that all he seemed to see was just another St Catherine’s girl in green. Green’s not my colour. Red and purple suit me now. And thank the lord all of us girls in this boring little Irish town decided that we wanted ankle length skirts for our uniform or he might have recognised my legs. But there was still enough time for those clear blue eyes of his to send a shockwave through my body.   
The third time I saw him was in the village chip shop the next day. I walked straight into him. He was coming in as I was going out.  I almost dropped my chips my hands were shaking so much.
“Fyonah McBride,” he said. “I’m glad to see you’re keeping your strength up. But have you been hiding from me? I need you to dance with me again. So when’s it to be then? Hmm?”  He lifted my chin up and made me look at him.
I almost forgot to breath. He was so lovely. Lovelier in real life than he’d been in all the dreams I’d made up about him. That look was what I wanted. That face.
He smiled.
“Go eat your chips,” he said. “But come tonight. Half past six. The Arcadia Rooms. Above O Brien’s. Don’t be late.” He touched my cheek and then carried on in into the chip shop.
I didn’t eat the chips, of course. What would somebody with a body like mine want with fat, greasy chips? As usual, I served them to all the stray cats and dogs I could find between the chippy and our house, preserving just a few as evidence.
“Fyonah, are you going to have your tea?” Daddy called as I went in through the back.  
“I’ve had chips, Daddy, look,” I replied, showing him the almost empty packet.
“Well, you know what your mummy said, if you don’t start eating properly…”
“Yes, and he’ll only say the same as before,” I said.
“You’re sure those chips were enough?” he went on.
“Sure, Daddy.”
Last time, four months ago, I’d refused to see anybody but Talbot when they’d insisted I saw a doctor.
“He’s a strange man,” said Mummy. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather see that nice new lady doctor.”
“Talbot or nobody,” I’d replied.
 They just put that down in the end to more of my teenage quirkiness. 
“She’s not eating properly,” Mummy had said to the doctor. “She doesn’t sit down at the table with us any more.”                                             
That was true. I usually took my food up to my room, disposed of it somehow and then brought the empty plate down later.
“That doesn’t matter so much,” said Talbot. “As long as she is getting enough nutrition, and she looks bonny enough to me.”
He weighed and measured me and mumbled “Fine,” several times.
Then he looked meaningfully at me. “And the – er – monthly cycle is going all right? There may be changes … as you grow … “
I nodded.
“You know what Dr Talbot said last time,” I said to Daddy and escaped to my room.
I spent the rest of the afternoon working through my wardrobe trying to decide what to wear for Patrick.       
Six evenings in a row we danced and hardly spoke. Tap, tap, tappity tap. It was as though our feet did the talking.  My energy was holding up. And he was fit – both ways – and strong. We grew to know each other well even though we didn’t talk. We communicated through our feet. And every evening he walked me home and kissed me before I went in. Just lightly. That daredevil in me wanted more from him.
“What about your school work?” said Mummy. 
“Not a problem,” I said. It wasn’t. I just did it at night while they slept. 
“Fyonah…,” warned Daddy.
Butt out!
The seventh evening was the end of the trials.
“The couple we want to go forward,” announced the judge, “are Fyonah McBride and  Patrick O’Leary.”
He hugged me and kissed my hair. “My good girl,” he whispered.
As we walked to my home that night he talked more than he had the rest of the time we’d been together. He held my hand and squeezed it tight. We were just like any other couple. When we got to my house, he pulled me into the shadows. And kissed me really hard this time. And though, as we got to the middle of the month, the daredevil was calming a little I still wanted more.
“Oh Fyonah McBride,” he said as he pulled away from me. “I think I’m falling in love with you.”
Well, good. Then, panic. If there was no dancing tomorrow, would I see him? All day and all night was already too long to be away from him. Could I bear even one evening alone?
“Can I see you tomorrow?” he asked. “Even though there’s no dancing?” 

We walked through the woods. Odd, he didn’t seem to mind the cold. Naturally, I didn’t. It was a fine evening otherwise, with the moon one night off full and shining brightly. A romantic dream. But common sense was kicking in fast. I couldn’t do this any more.
I stopped walking and held back. “I’m only sixteen and I’m still at school,” I said as quickly as I could.
His face did not move at first. Then his eyes crinkled into a smile and I had the sensation of my heart leaping.  
“I know,” he said. “I saw you that day on the bus. That’s why I’ve been careful.”
“But I am sixteen,” I said.
He pulled me back towards him and kissed me properly.
“Fyonah, oh my Fyonah,” he whispered. “Dance with me forever.”
Oh, I would, I would. I ran my fingers through his hair. That musky smell about him was even stronger tonight and I loved him all the more for it. He pulled me gently to the ground. I could not get enough of him and he seemed just as eager.  
Afterwards, as we were walking home, he sighed. He stopped walking and turned to face me.
“Oh, Fyonah,” he said. “I cannot see you tomorrow. Just the one time.”
“Can’t I come with you?” I asked. “Where do you have to be?”
“No, you really can’t, my love. You really can’t.” He touched my cheek and turned my face so that I was looking into those lovely blue eyes. “But the day after, there’ll be the dancing again. And after that….”
I had to be content. His eyes told me that he really meant it, that I couldn’t go with him. But they also told me that he would be back and that it wasn’t just that he’d got what he wanted and was ready to move on.  And I loved him all the more for it.   
I didn’t know what to do with myself the next evening. I was no longer content to dream of my man-boy. I wanted him with me now and always. Despite the full moon which should have brought some sanity and smothered the daredevil, she was still there, hanging on.
 I decided to try to run off my frustration and made for the woods where Patrick had loved me the night before. I was trying to relive those sweet moments. The memory was so strong that I could smell him but the lack of him as so great that I could feel tears stinging my eyes though I know I can no longer cry.
Then I saw a flash of green. A man’s jumper. Someone in the woods in front of me. That way of walking unmistakable.  So it wasn’t a memory causing to me to smell him. He was there and his scent was stronger than ever. What did it remind me of? Man? Dog? Fox? Animal-like anyway.  His smell but more of it. It made my ghost heart beat so strongly that it became a physical pain. Why was he here in the woods again? Did he have another lover?          
If he did and I found her, I’d kill her for sure.  
“Your emotions will calm mid-cycle,” Talbot had said. “This is the best time to kill for vengeance rather than food. You’re calm enough to calculate, to use good judgement, yet still strong enough to kill swiftly and cleanly. Avoid leaving evidence at all costs.”
My mid-cycle always coincided with the full moon. So, yes, I would kill but I wasn’t calm. Talbot was only half right.
Patrick suddenly dropped to the ground. He howled. If my heart could actually beat it would have stopped now. I realised now why he had to avoid me tonight. He too has a pesky  cycle. A moon-determined cycle.
This was dangerous for me, more dangerous than if I were a normal girl but the daredevil and the girl who loves Patrick were both too fascinated to move away. I watched the change.
You know, it isn’t how they show it in the movies or tell it in the books. Well, not in Patrick’s case anyway. He danced into it. He swirled and turned. Gracefully and lightly. Like when he’s at the trials. Like when he’s with me. With each turn he became hairier, more animal-like, more wolf than boy.  
His clothes and his flesh both turned into fur. Gently. Subtly. His eyes glazed over, lost their humanness. He began to drool, spittle streaking his fur silver. And that wonderful musky smell just got stronger and stronger. It made me want him so much – Patrick, that is, not the wolf. Then he turned and howled at the moon.
When he looked back at me his eyes were all wolf.  And then a flash of Patrick.  Was he looking at me, his lover, or at his greatest enemy?  I should have gone by now but I could still only stare.   
“Werewolves are our greatest threat,” Talbot told me just after the change. “The best time to fight them is at the middle of the cycle. You can also outrun them then – though why you would try to when you can kill no one of our kind would know.”  
Where could I run to? This island is not big enough.
“You can’t outswim them,” Talbot had said. ”If the water’s too wide for one stride, jump from boat to boat but don’t be seen.”               
He’s was still looking at me, the wolf. He should have jumped by now. Those could not be Patrick’s eyes. Talbot said the wolves never remember their human existence until the sun comes up.  But he knew something. This wolf did.  
I needed to run.
If I was to be Patrick O Leary’s dancing partner again I must run and run until the sun comes up.
He snarled, then howled and bore his teeth. He nodded his head, almost pointing the way I should go. Still he didn’t spring like Talbot told me he would.  
“I’ll see you tomorrow, my Patrick,” I whispered.
I turned and set the daredevil and the energy that’s left into running my fastest, over fields, though woods, jumping from hilltop to hilltop and then from boat to boat, ignoring the howls and growls and snapping teeth behind me.
“I will outrun you, Wolf O’Leary,” became my mantra. “For tomorrow I need to dance with my lover.”
I ran and ran. The first rays of the sun appeared over the horizon. The moon began to sink. But the howls were just as frequent and the musky smell seemed stronger than ever even though he was behind me.   
“He should be getting human again by now,” I thought. Even my extraordinary energy was going. I could have turned and faced him…. But I might have killed my lover or he might have killed me. 
I was getting weaker. Was it possible? Could one of my kind die of exhaustion? Never!
A pain shot up my back. How could this be? We are not supposed to feel pain. Something was gripping me and I could no longer hear him behind me. Wolf teeth in my side.  
This would not do. I felt the blood charging round my body, preparing me for the attack. The monster in me wanted to tear off the wolf’s head.
“Remember he’s your Patrick, your lover,” the girl in me whispered. I held back for a split second but then felt a snarl rising in my throat. I had his head in my hands now and I bent towards his neck, ready to bite. His musky smell was driving me into a different sort of frenzy this time.
The sun suddenly dazzled me as it slipped finally over the horizon. The moon had gone. A human hand was holding mine.
“Fyonah MacBride, will you dance with me forever now?” said my Patrick as he smiled at me out of his twinkling blue eyes. “Only don’t run so fast and so far the next time I try to ask you.”
I bit my lip and frowned. I’d almost killed him, my precious Patrick.
He touched me lightly on the cheek.
“Hey Fyonah  MacBride,” he said softly. “Don’t you worry now. We’ll get this cycle under control. We’ll dance to the moon.”
  Then I knew that Patick O’Leary would be my dancing partner for eternity. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Wild Geese over Radcliffe

Location: Chapeltown Road, Radcliffe
‘I saw some geese today,’ says Joe. ‘Flying across over the hills there. Beautiful they were. They fly in a V, you know.’

It’s worked then, giving Joe the big room with the en suite and making his armchair face the window. From his chair he can see the Pennines in the distance, with the wind turbines, and a vast expanse of sky. And if he stands up – he can stand for a short while – he can see the comings and goings on the street.

We’ve been here just over six weeks. Joe can get around the house quite well now. The first two weeks were great. He must have been tired out from the respite week in the care home while we moved. Perhaps his nights were disturbed there. The journey up here from Southampton took it out of him a bit as well. So, he went to bed just before eight and slept through until just after eight the next morning. It was like having a baby in the house all over again.

Recent weeks have been a bit more fraught. I’m a light sleeper and his en suite backs on to our bedroom. Plus he’s been taking something to counteract the constipation the iron tablets he’s on cause. It always seems to work in the middle of the night. Fortunately, I don’t hear the details, but I do hear the clop shuffle of a man who walks with a stick (stroke three years ago) and I can’t settle again until I hear the toilet flush and evidence that he has safely returned to bed.

Then one evening something really peculiar happens. Mark and I are just getting ready for bed. We’re just about to put our lights off and we hear Joe make his way down the stairs. Clop shuffle. Clop shuffle. Click, click as the lights go on one by one.

‘You’d better go and see what he’s up to,’ I whisper to Mark. I don’t know why I whisper. Joe can’t hear a thing. We have to write everything down for him.

Joe makes his way through our Tudor-style house – one room leads to another. He goes down the stairs, across the hall, into the lounge, through the dining area and then the kitchen and finally into the utility room. He rattles the back door. Then he shakes his head.

He turns, and shuffle clops his way back – through the kitchen, the dining area, the lounge, the hallway and up the stairs. The landing light snaps off.

‘What was he doing?’ I ask Mark.

‘No idea,’ he replies. ‘Just staring.’

The next morning Joe and Mark are down for breakfast before me. Joe is mashing his habitual Weetabix into its usual pulp. The walking stick again rests over a drawer handle, threatening to be forgotten.

‘He said he thought he heard burglars,’ says Mark.

‘But he doesn’t hear anything,’ I say.

Joe starts making a cup of tea. Naturally, he has no idea we are talking about him.
The cat bounds in suddenly, moaning and squawking about something. The there’s another noise. At first I don’t recognise it but then I’d swear I can hear voices. Human voices. Joe’s probably left his television on again. But they seem to be getting louder and clearer. Someone coming along the street, then?

The noise gets much louder. The cat goes berserk.

Joe suddenly looks up.

Then we see them. The flock of beautiful wild geese, flying in a V formation made up of three other V formations, cutting a pattern into the plain blue sky, making it all look effortless. They’re chattering away.

‘There they go,’ said Joe. ‘That must have been what I heard last night.’
He shuffles towards the lounge.

‘Do they fly at night?’ I ask, guessing that they probably don’t and knowing that I didn’t hear them anyway.

‘What did you say?’ asks Joe, handing me the pad and the pen. ‘You know I can’t hear a bloody thing.’