by Catherine Kirby
like a gathering of apes, Ivy – the family eating outside.
I hate it.” Al picked at his salad. “Wild animals eat
out in the open.”
it’s nice eating in the garden. It’s called alfresco,
which is Italian for ‘in the fresh air’. Charlie just
getting it all wrong, as usual. Italians don’t do barbecues.”
Ivy sighed. “Besides, it’s convenient for keeping tabs
on the workmen, love.”
his newly crowned teeth, Al crunched into his cos lettuce until
it disintegrated into bitter strings.
checking the progress of that hexagonal showpiece being added to
the back of the house, made real cooking too much trouble for Ivy.
He supposed Charlie could manage to toast a slice of bread, but
that wasn’t much in the way of experience when it came to
outdoor cooking. Obviously, the family’s requirements were
of more importance than his. Al couldn’t understand them.
A plate of burnt food, a lung-full of acrid smoke and dodging between
kamikaze wasps seemed to be all they needed to enjoy themselves.
His wants and opinions, as always, floated past Ivy into oblivion.
Inevitably his thoughts turned to Louise, an old flame he’d
never stopped thinking about since the distant day she’d turned
broke in on his thoughts, “Oh Al, you’ve got to admire
Charlie’s efforts. His face is as grimy as a sweep’s,
bless him. He’s been leaning over those coals for hours.”
I can honestly say that all that smoke and dripping sweat really
helps me work up an appetite for eating out.”
face lit up. She was quite prepared to forgo his sarcasm if he would
a decent restaurant,” he added.
took a long, slow breath. “Now Al love, you must try to be
kind. You were young once yourself, remember?”
did Ivy say such things, when she knew age had become an unfriendly
word to him? He kept himself in tiptop repair - eyes, teeth, and
hearing all regularly inspected. Aesthetically, he believed himself
to be something of an icon. He carefully avoided mirrors or having
his photograph taken in the belief that these images relied exclusively
on the angle of light at some arbitrary moment - a dangerous method
of self-appraisal. He preferred to cultivate conceit in safety by
protecting his appearance, at all times, from within a cloud of
melancholy inertia. It would be many years before anyone could seriously
consider him old.
Ivy, she had no dignity. He noticed that none of the workmen had
as much as blinked in her direction, and no wonder. She giggled
and chatted with the youngsters of the family as if she was little
more than a teenager herself. Despite her varicose veins she still
wore split skirts. In the garden, when the weather permitted, she
cavorted in a sarong or shorts with a bikini top supporting her
saggy breasts. Couldn’t she see the pitying way the kids regarded
her? Who did she think she was? If anyone looked their age, she
did. It was no good objecting though. She’d demolish his argument
with an arsenal of fluffy logic or disarm him with artful endearments.
He’d end up feeling as though he’d knocked down an innocent
baby rabbit dazzled by his car headlights. In defiance he clung
to his idol, Louise.
Ivy loaded his limp paper plate with several of the little black
tombs Charlie proffered.
more like mummified fingers, to me.” Al muttered.
narrowed her eyes at him. Then smiled sweetly in Charlie’s
direction. Charlie moved on hastily.
food is supposed to be charred. I hope Charlie didn’t catch
what you said. He’s worked very hard today, Al. I wish you’d
try to get with it, just a bit.”
Louse would never have treated me like this,” Al grumbled
half to himself. “’Al,’ she’d say, ‘how
would you like a nice roast for Sunday lunch, just the two of us?
The family can join us for tea. If the weather is good I’ll
lay us a big spread under the apple tree. We’ll have your
favourite – toasted cheese and pickle sandwiches and to follow,
banana fritters with cream.’”
was in another lifetime, Al. Try to concentrate.” Ivy waved
to one of the workmen who held up his mug requesting an umpteenth
refill. “I must go and get the men more tea but before I do,
just take a look at our Madeline. It wasn’t long ago she had
a long face. That Mark was a fool to chuck her but now she’s
got Charlie and she’s full of bounce again.” She said
see it myself. What’s so special about Charlie? If it’s
bounce she needs, she could do worse than to bounce these beef burgers
into the bin. Pure rubber."
of the rest of them is complaining. I’ve never said this before,
but come to think of it, maybe I should say it. I just wonder if
you and I might not be happier, if you had a bit more bounce, Al.”
With that, she sniffed hard and flounced off in the direction of
the youngsters, who jigged about to the racket that pounded to some
weird beat through open the patio doors.
point in grumbling if the neighbours didn’t. He’d only
end up with the family gawping at him as though he’d just
stolen all their savings and chucked them on the barbecue. Let them
get on with their bouncing, if bouncing was the best they could
Ivy, he noticed, kept glancing at him and dabbing at her eyes with
a tissue. All of a sudden, she ducked into the kitchen, as if a
summons had hit the mat and they’d been prosecuted for the
torture of musical notes, but, of course, he knew she was simply
brewing tea for the workmen.
Al suspected he might have been a bit unfair, and conceded that
perhaps she was right. He should have more bounce sometimes. For
one thing, he should have bounced right back after Louise turned
him down. He might have stood a chance of breaking down her resistance.
If only he’d persevered. Just supposing he’d proposed
a second time and Louise had said yes.
by this flash of enlightenment, Al bit into a sausage. Inside, it
wasn’t a bad colour and he’d crunched straight through
it without damaging his teeth. He chewed in a state of benevolent
wonder. He’d only lost Louise because the minx had tossed
him a flirtatious gambit, by playing hard to get, and he hadn’t
got it. He’d never understood women’s little subtleties.
What the hell was in that sausage? His tongue swelled as if it had
water, Ivy! Ivy!” He wailed.
only a sprinkling of chilli peppers, Al.” She dashed over
with a glass of beer. He rinsed out his mouth with the beer and
spat it over the rockery. He knew they’d all cringe when he
two small boys, who crouched under a while plastic table close by,
chortled in loud whispers, “Granddad’s being an old
he’s an old git, isn’t he?”
sat in his garden chair and sulked after that. He retreated into
feigned sleep beneath his tweed hat, but all the time keeping a
close eye on Ivy, who, between plying the workmen with refreshments,
enjoyed her family’s banter, along with the shriveled meat,
potatoes and limp chopped salad.
reflected that Louise would have encouraged a more cultured attitude
in their children. She’d have packed them off to Cambridge,
where they’d have made their mark both academically, and on
the sports field. Or maybe the pair of them would have been too
wrapped in each other to bother with children at all. They wouldn’t
have sat in the garden eating burnt offerings while a couple of
kids and four adults attempted to launch a flimsy kite. Nor would
she have allowed workmen to put up a glass box, from which to contemplate
the lawn and acquire third degree sunburn.
felt beat of the sun on his head as his hat disappeared and a small
I’m trying your hat on.”
you’re not. Get your own.” Al growled. He grabbed the
hat, examined the trout fly hooked into the band and planted it
back on his head.
worry, pet. I’ll find you a better one than that, come on.”
Ivy drew their small grandson into the house. Al overheard him ask,
“Why is granddad so horrible, gran?”
no notice. He’s just old. He can’t help it.”
had once asked the very same question about his own granddad, who’d
cultivated a forlorn and jealously guarded solitude that had received
respectful distance from the rest of the family. It had given him
an air of gloomy distinction, somewhat like Eeyore’s in young
Al’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ stories. Eeyore and grandpa
became Al’s interchangeable heroes. Years later, Al learnt
that grandpa Stevens had been unlucky in love. Grandma had been
protective of her husband. Keeping him in miserable bliss had been
her life’s proud achievement.
noticed now that Ivy had rearranged her hair and applied fresh make-up,
just enough to perk up a drooping spirit and to reawaken his nagging
conscience. He’d done something to upset her, but he hadn’t
a clue what. She’d brought out the camera and attempted to
group the family together, with the kids at the front holding up
the polythene kite.
She shouted as she pressed the shutter.
woman. He’d better do his bit. “They’ll look like
they’ve had a fright if you do it that way. You go and stand
with the others, love. You look,” he swallowed, “beautiful.”
He tried hard to give the compliment casually but it still staggered
through his teeth like a drunken lout.
on, put your arms round the young lovers and give us a smile.”
He shooed her away, unsure whether he was behaving like a fawning
hypocrite or a gallant crusader.
now, all eyes on granddad. He’s going to take a lovely family
picture.” Ivy’s plump cheeks creased into a marshmallow
smile that left Al hovering between nausea and a secret pride that
simply nudged him over the brink into contempt. How could he help
it? She dived on any of his rare utterances and turned them into
‘thought for the day’. How he longed for Louise. Family
gatherings made him think of her even more than at other times.
and smile, cheese please Louise, that’s it.” Al knew
his snap would be as good as anyone could hope for. It was easy.
leaned into a group and fixed a toothy grin on the camera. Ivy blinked
rapidly for a few seconds then forced her eyelids apart. “Quick
Al. Before I spoil it.”
had never occurred to him before but Al wondered suddenly, if, with
the exception of Ivy, they all suffered in the same polite boredom
Louise would never have bored them. She’d have ordered champagne
for the adults and she’d have organised the children more
sensibly. Swiping his best hat indeed! He’d never have presumed
on his own granddad like that. Ivy had no sense of his status as
head of the family. She was much too busy making tea for the workmen,
and checking how long it would be before she could arrange padded
deckchairs in her fancy new hot house.
cool breeze set a pile of paper serviettes scurrying across the
lawn, followed by two little boys and a yellow Labrador pup. Al
groaned. The sun toned down several shades. Eerie shadows slanted
across the lawn.
aloof in his garden chair, Al watched the others huddle into a group.
Their loud whispers snaked across to him. Trance-like he sank down
into his cushions. He heard them exclaim as the soft shadows clothed
them. Their bodies swayed and stretched into human headed eels.
Powerless to run, he gaped in horror. They slithered towards him.
He screamed. They surrounded him. Their eyes bulged and their fat
lips curled. Then the long shadows engulfed him too and he couldn’t
see or hear anything.
darkness lifted at last. Al felt fuzzy. Slowly, he gathered he was
in a hospital bed. A plain young nurse smiled down at him. “You’re
going to be alright, Al. You’ve had a stroke, but we’ll
soon have you walking and talking, again. Be a good boy now. Open
wide so that I can take your temperature.”
clamped his lips tightly together. He wasn’t risking his new
crowns on this young upstart.
nurse glared. “Like that is it? There’ll be no puddings
for naughty boys, you know. I shall speak to Ivy when she comes
in, too. You’ll learn.”
she’d been helping herself to the drugs and had gone mad.
He decided to wait for Ivy to give him an explanation. He really
should have stuck with Louise. She’d have stayed with him
and made sure he’d got seen by a doctor.
Ivy did arrive she made no attempt to listen. Not a glimmer of comprehension
showed in her eyes. He kept telling her he wanted to go home. He
needed to check his home brew. Any minute now, it would need bottling.
Ivy’s face drooped, low pressure set in over her brow as she
tried to drown him in a cloudburst, the silly cow. The nurse found
her a handful of tissues.
good relying on this lot, he’d get his clothes and discharge
himself. Except, that when he tried to get up he found that his
body had gone over to an enemy camp where it waged war against him.
A drip, attached at one end to a bottle on a stand and at the other
to the back of his hand, caught him unawares. He almost pulled it
down on top of himself. Exhausted he lay back and, to his shame,
tears streamed down his face. He closed his eyes, and refused to
look at anyone for the rest of the day.
and with great effort, Al recovered the ability to speak one or
two words. He grasped what had happened to him and began to accept
it, albeit ungraciously.
the doctor says you can come home today. Pleased?”
grunted but he kept his face blank as he always did now.
woman. How could she expect him to do that? No one ever did guess
what and, if by chance they should, it would only leave the other
person disappointed. “What?”
is waiting to greet you when we get home, that’s what.”
He noted how very different he’d made the same brief word
sound, and felt a sense of achievement. Nevertheless, Ivy refused
to be drawn any further on the subject. He clutched her hand, smiled
his crooked smile at her and even attempted to kiss the cheek she
offered him. But his squiffy mouth was not practiced. Instead, he
glugged at her like a gold fish splaying its mouth on the inside
of its bowl.
Ivy patted his shoulder. “Never mind, love.”
short journey home took years to complete, but he tried to be patient.
Ivy had taken pity on him, at last. It would almost be worth the
stroke just to be reunited with his darling Louise. She’d
shower him with sympathy and understanding. He hoped she’d
moved into one of the spare bedrooms, and would stay put until he
made a complete recovery. Then she’d become part of the family.
Peace at last.
good to have you home, Al. There now, you sit quietly in this nice
comfy armchair while I fetch Louise.” Ivy scurried away.
had been a little disappointed that Louise hadn’t rushed out
to meet him but any minute now they’d meet face to face, once
returned and popped her head round the door. “Close your eyes
love, and put out your hands, Go on.”
felt pretty silly, but if Louise had agreed to this he’d go
along with it too.
felt Louise’s hands close softly over his. “There!”
Then something fluttered against his fingers. He opened his eyes
with a start. “What!” He bleated, forcing not Louise’s,
but Ivy’s hands away, to reveal a cocky green and yellow budgie,
which shot up and perched on his head.
laughed. “Say hello to Louise, Al. The doctor recommended
getting you a pet. He said it would help you regain your speech.
I knew the only name you’d want for her would be Louise.”
look like Nelson with Louise perched up there on your head. Very
distinguished you look too. What do you think of our Nelson, Louise?”
Nelson, Nelson and Louise.” The budgie plucked at Al’s
hair. “Good boy, Nelson.”
Al, isn’t she beautiful?”
shoulders sagged. He splayed out in his chair like a bunch of wilted
tulips. Ivy knelt down beside him and reached for his hand.
sorry pet. I still love you, Al. I’ll stand by you, I promise.”
squeezed Ivy’s hand and attempted to say something in a soft
voice. At that moment his arrogance evaporated. The eloquent gibberish
that flowed said all his heart could offer.
Ivy began to cry. “Oh, Al we’ve been such fools. All
these years of silly bickering - we’ve wasted so much time.
Who knows how much there is left to us?” She laid her head
in his lap. Al started. Then slowly he lifted his hand and stroked
her hair with long tender wobbly strokes.
the top of the curtains a reedy voice piped up, “Good boy!
Good boy, Nelson.”
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2005 Catherine Kirby. All Rights Reserved