Eclipsed by Catherine Kirby

“It’s 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.”

“Oh, it’s nice eating in the garden. It’s called alfresco, which is Italian for ‘in the fresh air’. Charlie just told me.”

“You’re getting it all wrong, as usual. Italians don’t do barbecues.”

“Whatever,” Ivy sighed. “Besides, it’s convenient for keeping tabs on the workmen, love.”

With his newly crowned teeth, Al crunched into his cos lettuce until it disintegrated into bitter strings.

So, 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 him down.

Ivy 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.”

“Yes, I can honestly say that all that smoke and dripping sweat really helps me work up an appetite for eating out.”

Ivy’s face lit up. She was quite prepared to forgo his sarcasm if he would join in.

“At a decent restaurant,” he added.

Ivy took a long, slow breath. “Now Al love, you must try to be kind. You were young once yourself, remember?”

Why 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.

Not 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.

“Sausages!” Ivy loaded his limp paper plate with several of the little black tombs Charlie proffered.

“Look more like mummified fingers, to me.” Al muttered.

Ivy narrowed her eyes at him. Then smiled sweetly in Charlie’s direction. Charlie moved on hastily.

“Barbecued 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.”

“My 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.’”

“Louise 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 pointedly.

“Can’t 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."

“None 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.

No 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 do.
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.

Vaguely, 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.

Distracted 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 been torched.

“Quick, water, Ivy! Ivy!” He wailed.

“It’s 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 did that.

The two small boys, who crouched under a while plastic table close by, chortled in loud whispers, “Granddad’s being an old fogey again.”

“Yeah, he’s an old git, isn’t he?”

Al 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.

Al 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.

Al felt beat of the sun on his head as his hat disappeared and a small voice announced,

“Granddad, I’m trying your hat on.”

“No 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.

“Don’t 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?”

“Take no notice. He’s just old. He can’t help it.”

Al 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.

Al 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.

“Freeze!” She shouted as she pressed the shutter.

Silly 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.

Ivy frowned suspiciously.

“Go 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.

“Quiet 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.

“Relax and smile, cheese please Louise, that’s it.” Al knew his snap would be as good as anyone could hope for. It was easy.

Everyone 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.”

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 he did.

Now, 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.

A 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.

Seated 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.

The 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.”

Al clamped his lips tightly together. He wasn’t risking his new crowns on this young upstart.

The 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.”

Obviously 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.

When 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.

No 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.

Gradually 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.

“Al, the doctor says you can come home today. Pleased?”

He grunted but he kept his face blank as he always did now.

“Guess what?”

Stupid 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?”

“Louise is waiting to greet you when we get home, that’s what.”

“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.”

The 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.

“It’s good to have you home, Al. There now, you sit quietly in this nice comfy armchair while I fetch Louise.” Ivy scurried away.

Al 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 again.

Ivy returned and popped her head round the door. “Close your eyes love, and put out your hands, Go on.”

He felt pretty silly, but if Louise had agreed to this he’d go along with it too.

He 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.

He’d been cheated!

Ivy 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.”

Al grunted.

“You 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, Nelson and Louise.” The budgie plucked at Al’s hair. “Good boy, Nelson.”

“Oh Al, isn’t she beautiful?”

Al’s shoulders sagged. He splayed out in his chair like a bunch of wilted tulips. Ivy knelt down beside him and reached for his hand.

“I’m sorry pet. I still love you, Al. I’ll stand by you, I promise.”

He 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.

From the top of the curtains a reedy voice piped up, “Good boy! Good boy, Nelson.”

The End

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Copyright 2005 Catherine Kirby. All Rights Reserved



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