Where We Met

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They had met in the reading room of the British Library. One blue set of eyes met with another set of gray and the rest, as they say, is history.

She was probably a little older than him, and she was half way through her doctorate in Greek Civilization (and its impact on social structures). He was a mathematician who was studying for his masters, but who had always wanted to write books for children.

They had spent months not talking, and there were months of stolen looks and of conscious ignoring. An outsider might have thought that their behavior was more that of a teenage couple.

What had finally broken the ice was when he knocked a book on to the hallowed floor of the reading room, causing a resounding ripple wave of noise to circulate. This made her jump and she let out a little scream. Only a little one mind, but enough to cause murmurs of disapproval growing as a wave in the opposite direction.

He had mouthed the word, ‘sorry’ to her and she’d constructed a little smile on her face, as if to say, it was fine.

Later that day, they literally bumped into each other when she was returning from the café and he was off for a breath of fresh air.

“Sorry about that…you know….earlier….the noise,” he said, but was thinking how much easier things were in your head. How much simpler it was to imagine situations without the actual physicality of the other person standing right in front of you.

She thought he seemed kind, and cute and was hoping he would ask her for a coffee, or something, anything – even although she had just drunk a large latte.

And he did ask her, and that was also, as they say, history.

They spent several months of courting, always in between their hectic studying. It wasn’t until all of that was complete that they decide to get married.

There wasn’t much money between them and so they managed to rent a small studio apartment on the Holloway Road. He took several jobs, one of which was cleaning at the British Library during the night. He would come home, sleep for three hours and then rush off to work in a small company in the east of London.

They tried for children but it seemed that they wouldn’t be blessed, and in a way, it would have been hard for all three of them to live in such a small space.

“Perhaps next year,” he would tell her, then kiss her.

The third anniversary of their meeting in the British Library (to be more accurate, the first time they actually spoke – as neither of them could agree when they had first noticed each other) was going to be in ten days and he had something very special up his sleeve.

It had taken a lot of planning but it helped where he worked. The bosses at the Library weren’t too happy about cleaners messing about with stuff, but still he managed it.

Either life is random or it is not. Perhaps when your time is up, it is up, or maybe it is just a freak incident after all. Either way, the morning of the day of the end was just like any other.

He got up and walked down Holloway Road towards the Tube station. Perhaps if he had known this was his last day, he would have looked more closely at the little things: the faces of people, the flowers in a window, or the child who smiled at him. We are never so lucky to have that luxury, so when he crossed the road, there was a million things on his mind other than the London bus which killed him.

She remembered the young police woman who came to the door. She had a sergeant with her. The woman had asked her to sit and she sat down and watched their lips move. The person who stood up a few hours later as the room was growing dark was never going to be the same person again.

She was too torn to even cry. Her heart had been broken into a million pieces.

A week later, a week of tablets, relations, more tablets, not sleeping, tears, and drink, a letter arrived.

It was from him. An anniversary card to say how much he loved her and how much he looked forward to growing old with her. For a moment she had almost forgotten he was gone. It was like that every morning, a few seconds of happiness before the reality kicked her in the face.

At the end of the card (and after all his kisses) was a book reference, one from the British Library.

That morning she went to the library and requested the book, there was nothing special about it, except she suddenly remembered it was the book he had knocked from the table all that time ago. In the back of the book was a card, in his writing which said, ‘I love you’.

On the other side of the card was another reference for another book, the one she had been reading the day he had said ‘sorry’ for the first time.

And on this card, he told a small story of his life before and after meeting her. There was another book reference at the end this card. In all he had left messages in twenty books and together they made up a story of his life with her.

She sat there, in the reading room, too scared to cry and trying hard to breathe. It was – she thought – better to have loved and lost, than to have never known him.

She walked up Euston Road, and the sunshine bleached her heart a little. If life was random, she decided, then anything was possible. And she smiled at that.

 

bobby stevenson 2017

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The Tin Can That Loved

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What happened to her and why she was there, would always be a mystery. Sadie, on the other hand, could remember everything about her time in the house.

When Sadie had found the child, she had been wrapped in an old sweater, and had been placed on a step at the front door. She didn’t cry at all – the baby only smiled and gurgled. Sadie could remember all of that exactly.

In the past, Sadie’s role had been to look after her families, to cook for them, to clean for them, and babysit the younger humans. It always ended up being more complex than that. Humans were complex, their lives even more so.

With this little baby, Sadie saw it as a chance to become one of them, to raise the baby as her own. She called the infant ‘Tiny’, as she’d heard one of the humans referring to a doll with that name. She had the name stored in her memory for the day she might need it.

Although the baby had been placed at the door for someone or something to look after her, Sadie, herself, had been forgotten about. Like any old hardware, she had been left at the house when the family had moved on. For several years, she had kept the living space tidy, and when parts fell from it, she would repair them.

Her wish had always been to nurture, to be a mother, just like the humans. So when Tiny was left at her door, she felt that whatever God had been listening, had answered her prayers. Two lonely souls abandoned in a cold universe.

Sadie could never cause harm to a human but that didn’t exempt her from theft. Sadie stole milk for the child, then later she would steal more sold foods for her little Tiny.

At first, Sadie was determined to teach her little loved one herself, but after a few months of these well thought-out activities, she realised that Tiny needed the company of other humans.

Sometimes it was hard to tell mechanical hearts from the real thing and so, Sadie was able to convince the school that she was Tiny’s mother (which she was) and get her enrolled in a nearby school.

Tiny never questioned that her mother was a robot – to her Sadie was the universe, entire. She was a love source in an uncaring world.

As Tiny grew taller and stronger, Sadie never aged – not that it worried Tiny. Except at school, when comments were made about how her mother never seemed a day older – not like their mothers. Sometimes Sadie would disguise her face a little with a scarf so as not to make it so obvious that she was not like them.

Sadie watched as her daughter grew into a beautiful woman. She smiled as she saw Tiny fall in love and Sadie hoped that one day Tiny would settle with someone who cared for her as much as she did.

Then the world fell in on them both. Someone reported Sadie, some mother who was probably jealous of Sadie’s ever beautiful looks.

They came for Sadie and when she protested, as did Tiny, she was told that mechanical hearts were not capable of loving humans.

There was a trial about the moral rights and wrongs by the State and the Church; and as the media reported it: ‘the tin-can that loved’ – Sadie stood no chance, no chance at all. Sadie was, after all, a S(elf) A(ware) D(irect) I(nterface) E(lectro) and that was the beginning and the end of it.

Tiny made one request that on the day she was to be married, that she wanted her mother, Sadie to be there. This was granted.The following day, Sadie was taken away and destroyed but she was always remembered as the first mechanical heart that loved a human.

There are many kinds of love in this world, as many as there are people (and robots), and all of them are beautiful.

 

bobby stevenson 2017

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Strange Freedoms

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TOMMY

Tommy lived in a town where you had to be one thing or another. That was the way it was, that was the way it had probably always been. There was no room for neutrals, no room at all.

The folks who lived on the north side of the street gave their allegiances to the blue team and those on the south gave theirs to the green.

It was no use saying that you liked them both, or worse still, that you didn’t care about either – both of these cases got you beaten up. That was all that ever happened to Tommy, he was beaten up.

In this part of the world, for reasons that are better known to themselves, the greens went to one school and the blues went to another. Now Tommy wasn’t sure what the merits were in either system, just that he would have liked to have been friends with both, but as he already knew, that was impossible.

Both sides thought they were in the right, which meant that both sides thought that the others were wrong, and that included the folks who thought nothing about either; those folks were probably the worst according to both.

Tommy’s ma had passed away when he was barely out of nappies, and soon his father had met another woman who had caused him to move down south. Tommy stayed on in the town with his gran and granddad both of whom were neither green nor blue but just beige (if a person could be beige).

He had a lonely wee life, had Tommy, since he was a neutral and therefore was the lowest form of life, but there was one thing that made him happy and that was rock music. More importantly, David Bowie’s music.

You see, this was the year of 1973 and this was also the year of Glam Rock. Folks who weren’t trying to thump each other, were dressing up in glitter and sequins, and basically dodging folks beating them up.

When Tommy’s grandparents went to their beds, which was usually around 6pm, Tommy would put on the record, Ziggy Stardust and dress up as his hero. His hair would be red and his face was painted with his gran’s makeup – and he was the happiest boy alive.

One Saturday when the blues were marching for something and the greens were marching for something else, Tommy was left in the house because his grandparents felt that it was too dangerous for a boy to be out on the streets.

Right out in front of Tommy’s house, the blues came marching, shouting and singing from one direction, and the greens were singing, shouting and marching from the other.

Tommy hid behind the curtain to see what would occur, and that was when Tommy decided that he was fed up hiding and that he would go outside.

The blues and the greens were at what you would call, a stand-off’ snarling, and shouting abuse at each other – when suddenly they all stopped, and everything went quiet.

Tommy, all dressed up as Ziggy Stardust walked down between the two groups and started singing a song from his favourite album. In the silence some started sniggering, then there was laughter, then both sides shouted, then both applauded the wee rock star.

And for a few minutes both sides sang along with wee Tommy and forgot that they were either blue or green.  And Tommy felt it was probably the best day of his life – so far.

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KATIE

Katie and her sister came as a pair. They were born almost a year apart. They ended up in the same class in school when Irene (the elder of the two) was kept back and made to repeat a year.

They left school and worked in the same shop together and both went out with boys from the same street.

But for whatever reasons, they never got married – and became ‘old maids’ as some folks would say unkindly.

It was in Katie’s 70th year, and Irene’s 71st, when the younger girl noticed the changes in her sister. Irene began to forget things, (as did Katie) but it sometimes meant Irene leaving a stove or a kettle burning away. Then Irene started to imagine things and people (and they were things that Katie wasn’t able to see and share). Then Irene started to walk about at night and sometimes leave the house which meant that Katie had to go out into the dark and follow her, finally bringing her sister home.

The doctor grew concerned about Irene and told Katie that she must be prepared for Irene to go into hospital. So one night, on Irene’s final night in the house. Katie dressed up as one of Irene’s imaginary friends and she laid a pot of tea out on the table and Irene served sandwiches to everyone. Then in the dark they went for a walk, with Irene and all her friends. Irene and Katie sat at the edge of the forest watching the sun come up and Katie watched Irene have her final sleep on the outside.

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MARCUS

Five…four…three…two…one…

Then the school bell would ring for freedom that would last the entire summer. Marcus loved all those days that lay ahead – sunshine and heat in the hills of his childhood, and on the very hot days, the trips to the seaside – ice creams and fish and chips.
He used to lie next to the little beached fishing boats on the front at Hasting and stare at the blueness of the sky and wonder what it looked like from the other side.

And now he knew.

His life had been all rocket science, finishing up with him becoming an astro-engineer; a man who would spend too long away from his family, but he had to admit he loved it up here. Out in space – on the European station – several hundred kilometres above his home.

The Project Manager had asked him and the Bulgarian – Androv to check the pipe flow – it had a habit of closing down when the pipes went into the side away from the sun. But Androv had been in sick bay and Marcus had decided to check the pipes himself.

The fail-safe attachment had severed. He had no idea why. As soon as they noticed he was gone they would sound the ‘man-overboard’ alarm.

But it would probably be too late by then, and as he drifted further into deep space, he felt a peace and freedom that he hadn’t tasted since the days of the school bell.

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SADIE
Her friends were always there waiting on her. Sadie would stand on her bed and lean out the window, and below her window were her three best pals in the whole wide world.

Annie was the beauty – she would probably be a matinée idol and then there was Celia, who would definitely win a Gold medal at the Olympics. Sasha was the brainy one, the one who said that one day she would be a great doctor.

Sasha could whistle the loudest, so she always stuck two fingers in her mouth and alerted Sadie that the gang were ready to enjoy another day together.

Those were the best days of her life. She was sure there had been other days just as enjoyable – days when she had been a mother or even a grandmother, but she couldn’t remember those days at all.

But for the time being, Sadie waved to her pals below and shouted that she would be down in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. She always said those words, and her pals always laughed.

Just then the nurse came into Sadie’s room.

“What are you doing standing on your bed, Mrs Jenkins. How many times have I told you not to lean out the window,” said the nurse.

“But my pals, are waiting,” said Sadie.

“Well they are just going to have to wait a bit longer”.

And the nurse gave Sadie her medication which sent her to sleep, and in her sleep Sadie would leave the old folks’ home and join Sasha, Celia and Annie below for a day of fun and freedom.

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HENRY
His auntie used to ruffle Henry’s hair when he was about five, then put her massive hand underneath his chin and force his cheeks together to make him smile.

“Aggie, your boy, your little Henry is a worrier. He was born worrying and he’ll probably die worrying,” said an auntie who meant well.

But she had been right, Henry had never known a day when he wasn’t worried about one thing or another. He was always sure the sky was going to fall on his head.

He worried at night that his house had been built on top of a coal mine and that one dark evening he would be swallowed up.

Worrying became his friend, and it was a friend that he would be lost without.
It was on the day of his 61st birthday that he entered the bank to withdraw money to buy himself a present. He never kept money in the house just in case it was stolen.

Henry didn’t see the bank robber at the other end of the building but he did feel the bullet as it entered his chest and exited his back.

As Henry fell to the ground, he could see the blood – and felt satisfied that all his worrying hadn’t been in vain. And as the darkness came over him, he could feel a kind of warmth and freedom in his dying. He had nothing left to worry about now and that was just dandy.

bobby stevenson 2017

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The Vagabond Saints

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Where the sky welcomed the road at the far edge of town stood large monoliths of rock pointing straight at the stars; perhaps in an earlier time they had names of gods or demons but these days they were simply known at the Vagabond Saints.

My Grandfather had told me a story that they were the remnants of men who had idled too long at that point and who had been turned to stone by the forces who got annoyed by such things.

There was something peculiar about them – there always had been. They marked the boundary of the electric road, for it was known that if you switched off your car engine as you passed the Vagabond Saints the car would just keep on going.

Some said it was just a trick of the eye, that the land was actually going downhill at that point but the line of the horizon made a mind think otherwise. Other folks said it was where the underworld met the living and as such should be treated with reverence, and then there were those who laughed at such stories but who would run past at dark time when they were coming home from the bar and the beer was wearing off, taking away their protection.

I knew what they were, they were magic and that’s all I needed to know. One day when I was fishing at Gracey Hollow, I was in the process of pulling a trout out but if that fish didn’t want to fight to the very last. As I was easing the hook from its mouth, it gave one last fight and managed to drop back in the pool. The little creature ripped my finger open with the hook and the red of my blood was colouring the water.

I ripped a part of my shirt and wrapped it around the finger, praying that as long as God didn’t let my finger fall off , I would keep going to the church on a Sunday. As I got back to the border of town, I stopped to get some rocks out of my shoes. I rested my bleeding hand on the Vagabond Saints just to steady me like when all of a sudden a big beautiful warmth flooded through my body and the old bloody finger healed up. Like it was good as new.

I ripped the cloth off completely and sure enough there wasn’t a cut or a line or anything to say where the blood had come from. I got up and walked into town with a story in my head that I would be keeping to myself.

An autumn came and went, along with a winter and soon it was Spring again – the thing that happened at Vagabond Saints had been long forgotten. Until the day me and Jake who was my younger brother went into the Yellow Hills to try to see a wild cat. There wasn’t too much happening up in those hills so we called it a day a couple of hours before sundown.

As we descended Lawyer Pike, Jake slipped and I run to grab him but he fell a good 30 feet or more. My head flashed a million stories and none of them were good. I knew I was going to climb down there and find my only brother dead and gone. There were even crazy thoughts about how I was going to explain it to my parents. Like that mattered.

When I got there he was lying face down and moaning like he was somewhere else. I know that doesn’t make too much sense but that’s the way it felt that he wasn’t occupying his body at that time. I didn’t want to move him but it was going to get dark soon and the wild things would be sure to get him. So I flung him over my shoulder and I started to walk towards town hoping that I wasn’t causing too much damage even although he kept moaning.

At Vagabond Saints I sat for no more than a minute, as I lay Jake to rest a while. The funny thing was, he wasn’t moaning as much and that didn’t feel good to me. The next thing I must have fallen asleep and suddenly I was being slapped on the face and someone’s calling “Wake up”. It was Jake saying he was cold and that we’d better get a move on.

I told him I was sure he must be dying and he shouted “Not today, brother, not today”.

On the way back home we talked and talked and Jake felt that he’d just been winded, nothing more.

Life took me away from the town and from the Vagabond Saints, the way it does with everyone. I got a job at the other end of the country and I met someone, we settled down and raised a family.

Then one day the world opened up and swallowed my whole, my son, my love, the apple of my eye was sick. I would have laid my life down there and then if it would take away his pain but there seemed to be nothing that I or anyone could do. They were talking a few months at most, so you’re already ahead of me here, I guess. I took my boy to my home town. I pushed him in a wheel chair around the streets, showing him where I grew up and where I skinned my knees and then we finally stopped at the Vagabond Saints and I told him to touch the stones and he did and he smiled.

From that moment on, he just kept getting stronger and stronger. The doctors thought it was a miracle but I knew better, I knew he’d been cured by the Vagabond Stones. Then I began to wonder what do you do with something like that? Do I tell every sick kid in the area? Do I go to the press or the television people?

My boy and his girl came back to town a few years later to get married – he just loved the place although we never talked about the rocks. One balmy night, a few days after the wedding I went walking out to the stones, alone. There was a clear sky and a bright moon and I felt as if I could have walked forever.

I touched the stones just to say thanks and that was when the pain shot up my left arm, followed by a massive pressure in my chest, then my legs crumpled from under me as I got ready to say goodbye.

 

bobby stevenson 2016

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That Gregory Peck Incident

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She’d been living in the city long enough to remember to call an elevator – the lift, and the place where she was standing right now was a bookshop not a store.

London was a million miles away from northern Virginia but home was where God had placed her whereas this big city was her current choice in life.

She had been born in the town of Herndon, right under the flight path to Dulles airport. That was when the place was little more than an oversized village, but now each of the towns had grown to touch the next  until there were buildings all the way to the Potomac river and into Washington itself.

Nancy had never really seen D.C. as a city, to her it was just another small town where everyone knew everyone else. She had worked in administration at William and Mary College in Williamsburg but when her mother remarried and moved out, Nancy needed more money and took a job at Georgetown University. It was a bit more traveling but boy was it worth it.

Although Washington had always been on her doorstep, it was only when she started working there that she appreciated how beautiful the place was. Her father had been employed in the tax offices on Pennsylvania Avenue and at weekends the last thing he wanted to do was take the family back into the city. So for a long time she remained ignorant of what it had to offer.

Her father was many years older than her mother and died when Nancy was still relatively young. Eventually her mother married another government official and moved a few miles away to Great Falls, a more upmarket estate on the edge of the Potomac. Nancy very rarely visited her mother until her second husband also passed away and then she found herself visiting on a weekly basis.

Nancy and her mother grew closer during those years, walking in the Great Falls Park everyday and watching the great and the good of Washington riding their horses through the woods. When her mother began to lose her battle with ill-health, Nancy sold own her flat and moved in with her. She eventually gave up her job to nurse her mother full-time and over the next three and a half years she did so, until her mother quietly passed away.

Nancy found herself with no family to speak of, no partner, no job and very few friends who weren’t married – in fact nothing but a huge empty house overlooking a river. It was then that the idea came to her to sell up and travel the world. There would be enough money from the sale to keep her comfortable for a few years.

What she didn’t expect was to arrive at her first stop on the itinerary and stay there.

Eighteen months she had been in London and now she was employed at a branch of a well-known American magazine. Someone she had known at Georgetown had recommended her, one quick interview and the job was hers.

The work was hard, the hours were long and initially, to Nancy, it seemed that the city was indifferent to most. Unlike D.C. she felt that no one really knew anyone in London or for that matter really cared whether they did or not.

She had rented a decent sized apartment   (or flat as she now called it) just off of Kensington High Street. Her wages as a personal assistant would have never covered the cost of her living there alone, so until she decided what her next move was, she subsidized the rent with her own savings.

The folks in the office were mostly from back home and would socialize on occasion; the 4th of July, Christmas holidays, Hanukkah and New Years. She had hooked up with a couple of boyfriends but nothing to make her stay. If she was being honest with herself, she had been already thinking of moving on to Paris or to Prague. She had been to check out both places over several weekends and liked what she saw. Air travel within Europe was so cheap these days that almost anywhere was within easy and inexpensive reach.

Her office was in a prestigious building on Piccadilly which meant at lunchtime she could take in art galleries, sunbathe in Trafalgar Square, see the movers and shakers in Downing Street, or just take a wander through the West End and people watch.

She’d developed an odd little hobby, one that she would most definitely keep to herself. In D.C. there were never that many interesting buildings with elevators, at least not ones which were open to the public. So when she came to London she was fascinated with riding in lifts, something she had loved since she was a kid.  Nancy felt that if something was meant to be then it would happen, so when she discovered an interesting building with a lift, she would take it and get out on the top floor.

It always led her to some adventure or another but she was wary that one day it might get her into trouble – it never did; she played ‘Elevator Lottery’ and she always won.

On this particular day she was in her favorite bookshop, at the far end of Piccadilly, looking at nothing in particular yet at the same time watching the British at leisure. She noticed something she had never seen before – a lift over in a dark corner of the shop. There was no point in resisting as she was determined to find out what on the floors above.

She pressed the call button and when the doors opened, she stepped inside discovering it was empty. She then selected the highest number – ten – and pressed it. Sometimes it was nothing more than the administration floor full of accountants and managers and on those occasions she would make her excuses and take the stairs down. Even under these circumstances she would find forgotten floors.

The doors opened at the top and delivered her into the most charming of tea rooms, one that was open to the public but, by the looks of it, was a well-kept secret. This was a place for those who knew. The tables by the window had the most marvelous views of Westminster , Pall Mall and the parks.

Some sat at tables reading their latest purchases, some wrote on computers, some talked to lovers while holding hands. Nancy couldn’t understand why in all the months she had been working in London no one had told her of this place. Perhaps if you stumbled upon the tea rooms it was because you felt it was meant and there was no need to make its existence widely known to those who were not so deserving of such a prize.

Nancy took the last table for two beside the window and ordered a pot of Earl Grey tea and two scones. These arrived at her table very quickly and were delivered with a glass of water which she appreciated. She looked around the room and saw contentment on the faces of her fellow tea drinkers and made a mental note that she too would keep this place a secret.  As she bit into the crumbling scone she realized just how British she was becoming.

“May I?”

His question pulled her away from her thoughts.

Her eyes met a well dressed man in his twenties, who had a kind face and who was looking around as if to say, this is the last seat in the room.  It wasn’t of course but it was easier to join another single soul than push into a table of three or four.

“Of course, please sit.”

He pulled the other chair from under the table and sat.

“You’re American?”

“Virginian.”

“How splendid, I’ve been there, a wonderful State.”

He passed his hand above her cup and took in the aroma, “Earl Grey?”

“Mmm”

“Waiter, same please.”

She had loved the first scone but didn’t dare lift the second until his also had arrived. People couldn’t help it and were usually unaware of it but when only one person was eating, the other one at the table normally watched as their companion ate every mouthful. It was what we humans did.

When his tea and scones arrived they both got stuck in.  Nancy told that him this was all part of her world tour, that was if she ever left London. He told her that his name was Alfred and that he worked in public relations.

“Sometimes I just walk away for a shirt while, when it all gets too much. I find this a nice place to think, to get things clear in my head.” He said.

She smiled and felt as if she recognized his face, perhaps from television but was too afraid to mention it.

When they had finished their tea, he asked if she would like a walk or as he put it ‘a perambulation’ which she laughed at and he seemed to enjoy.  They walked down Lower Regent Street and across Pall Mall, down the stairs and into St James’ Park.

By this time the sun was shining and the park was awash with wild life, they sat on the grass and watched the world going by.

“I never get a chance like this.”

“What to sit in the park?” asked Nancy.

“I suppose, I am always busy and if not, someone always finds something for me to do.”

And talking of working , Nancy suddenly realized that she had to get back to work.

“If you must” he said, sadly.

“Oh, I must, I must.” And she wished him well giving him a kiss on both cheeks. Yes she was becoming European.

“Perhaps if you are ever in the tea room again, we might meet.”

“Perhaps” said Nancy.

And with that Nancy walked back towards Piccadilly even though she was sure he was still staring .

As she was perambulating  up Lower Regent Street, she realized that she did indeed hope she would meet him again in that secret tea room.

Twice a week she went back for several weeks but he never turned up.

Then one afternoon, as she sat down for her usual Earl Grey and scones, she started reading an early evening newspaper that had been left on the table and there he was in a photo on the front page.

Prince Alfred off to Afghanistan, it continued, the Queen’s grandson is off to fight for his country…..

Now there was a story to tell one day.

She took the stairs back down to the ground floor and went to the film section where she bought a copy of Roman Holiday – that one where Gregory Peck plays an American journalist who runs into a beautiful girl who happens to be a princess.

That night she poured a glass of wine, watched the movie and felt, for the first time in a very long time, that everything was going to be okay.

bobby stevenson 2016

 

 

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The Last of England…..the beginning

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Chapter 1  The beginning – Aldeburgh Beach, April 1958.

The sky was blood-red.

Stanley had been edgy all that day. Or at least, it had seemed that way to Alice ever since she had suggested a picnic on the beach. 

Now she, Stanley and their seven-year-old daughter, Claire were sitting shivering under a sky that would have delighted any photograph.  They had wanted some privacy – at least that was the way that Stanley had put it, and so they had moved along the beach towards Thorpeness. It was all shingles and stones, but they did love this part of the country and the sea was performing for them with all its heart.

Alice had laid a tea that her mother would have approved of, while Stanley and Claire searched under rocks for crabs. She called them a few times but the wind seemed to carry her voice off somewhere out to sea. The gulls, which cried overhead, had probably heard her voice more times that day than her family.

But she was happy, or at least content in a very British way. It had been thirteen years since the war and the country was now getting back on its feet. She had a small but important job helping organise the Aldeburgh Festival and Stanley had been teaching at various colleges in Suffolk and Norfolk. Claire, after a few health scares, was now growing into a beautiful young girl.

So why did Alice feel so empty in her stomach? Her mother had always been a victim of depression but had tended to keep out the way of the family during those particularly bad episodes. To Alice’s mother, depression hadn’t been a very British thing to suffer from in public. Sometimes, when Alice pressed her ear against her mother’s bedroom door, she could hear her mother praying or at least talking to God in her own West London style. Her mother would put on a very upper class voice   when she was talking to someone she considered to be important. Alice remembered that it was something her mother had failed to do when she had first met Stanley.

Yet, despite everything that had happened, she still missed her mother. The mother she could talk to any time of the day. She missed that woman more than she could ever tell Stanley. He had woken Alice in the middle of the night, telling her that her mother had gone. He had then turned over and had gone back to sleep. Having just woken, Alice had wondered, at first, where her mother had gone to exactly. Morocco, perhaps? Istanbul? Those were some of her mother’s favourite haunts and ones, which were considered to be very daring for a widow in the 1950s. But then her mother had been all that and more; she had always been adventurous. Alice felt that her mother had been a little disappointed that Alice hadn’t been more like her.

When Alice had woken properly the night of the ‘phone call, she had realised what Stanley had meant – that her mother had gone for good. Afterwards she had heard Stanley snoring and she wasn’t going to wake him up again to talk about how she was feeling. He was down to teach a class in Ipswich later that morning and that would have meant an early start.

Alice’s father had died in the war.
He had been a scientist or something similar, yet he’d never really told the family what it was he had done. It was while her father was working at some camp in Berkshire that he had met Stanley and brought him home to meet the family. Alice was sure that her father had approved of Stanley and had probably intended him to ask his daughter out. This he had done, and soon they were married. If not in haste, at least in a very short space of time. Love had nothing to do with it, although she had grown accustomed to him and would always miss him when he was away. 

But this wasn’t really love, not the Wuthering Heights kind. This was a very British marriage where it was better to say nothing and suffocate than bring shame to the family. Alice had said ‘yes’ very quickly, too quickly, perhaps, in case no one else asked her. 

She had held her breath for so long now that it seemed impossible to remember what fresh air tasted like.
Alice looked up and could see Stanley and Claire heading back. She waved, and her beautiful little daughter waved back with all her might. Claire was a fighter, she had to fight to stay in the world and nothing was going to take her. Stanley had seen Alice waving but had dropped his head, something he had been doing more frequently.

By the time her family had made it back to the picnic, the wind was whipping up the white horses and causing them to crash onto the shore. The napkins were being blown about and two of them disappeared over the sandbank at the back.
They drank their tea in silence, a behaviour that Stanley had always insisted upon, while they ate the perfectly cut sandwiches filled with cucumber from their own garden.

It was then that Stanley lifted his head and looked out to sea.

At least, that is what she remembers telling the police afterwards. There had been a large, red schooner on the horizon and it had seemed to be struggling with the strong winds.

Any normal person would have mentioned the ship’s distress but not Stanley. He had simply wiped the crumbs from his face, stood up and climbed over the sandbank for a better view or that is what Alice had assumed, and it was another thing she had told the police.
The last time she saw Stanley, he had his hands sheltering his eyes from the harsh wind – eyes, which she believed were following the schooner. Claire helped her mother pack up and it was just as Alice was about to ask Stanley to help her with the basket – one that she always found difficult to negotiate – that she noticed he had gone. So had the schooner. Alice asked Claire to run over to the sandbank and fetch her father but he wasn’t there.

From the sandbank, a person could see all the way to Thorpeness, back to Aldeburgh and even a mile or two inland but Stanley had simply vanished off the face of the Earth.

“You sure it was that sudden?” The policeman with the notebook had asked her later and she was absolutely certain that it had been.

The police had searched the beaches and land for several days, the locals had all taken their boats out to help but nothing was found of Stanley. He had simply gone.

What scared Alice was that she felt relieved, at least at first. Maybe he had wanted to disappear. The policeman, Inspector Whitstable, had asked her about their life together and by that, Alice had assumed he was meaning their love life. To her, that meant sex on a Saturday evening and sometimes during the week when they were on holiday. At first she couldn’t understand what Whitstable was getting at, but it soon became apparent. Did he have something troubling him? And by that, the policeman had meant another woman. Or man. She hadn’t even considered that possibility that Stanley was a queer.

If wasn’t sex that was troubling Stanley, then maybe there was money worries. But as she had told the police, her mother had left them comfortable for the rest of their lives. No, he wasn’t suicidal either. If anything, he disapproved of such nonsense. Stanley was conservative through and through and knew one day in his heart that he would have to account to God for his behaviour.

When the Inspector asked about Stanley’s work, Alice had to admit it was beyond her. She neither knew, nor cared what he did as long as he was a good father to Claire and a good husband to her. She didn’t tell the police that his office at the back of the house was always locked.

Alice, the devoted and loving wife, had even been a suspect in his disappearance and her fingerprints taken, but the suggestion was preposterous. She had a witness in the shape of her beautiful – their beautiful daughter. How quickly Alice seemed to want him dead and buried. He didn’t deserve those thoughts, and Alice quickly brightened up.

She would do all it took to find him. If he had run away, there must have been a reason. Perhaps she was the reason. Perhaps she hadn’t been a good enough wife. Yet hadn’t there always been a meal on the table when he had come home? Hadn’t she always listened to his problems? Hadn’t she always allowed him to lie on top of her when he wanted? What more could a wife do?

Aldeburgh  photo: http://www.telegraph.co.uk


Chapter 2  The newsreel –  Summer 1958.

She had surprised herself how quickly she had gotten her life back into some sort of normality. Between looking after her daughter and helping with the Aldeburgh festival, her days were always full of things to do. 

When she passed folks in the street, or in the grocers, they would either drop their eyes or pat her arm at her bravery in the face of her phantom widowhood.

Stanley was neither dead nor alive, but Alice was growing more and more accustomed to this state of affairs and a little part of her hoped he wouldn’t return.

One beautiful and warm summer’s day, she drove her and Claire to Felixstowe to look in the big-shops (as Claire liked to call them), followed by a fish tea, and then the cinema. Alice was hoping there was a Disney  on which usually satisfied the both of them.

Claire was almost sleeping by the time they entered the Regal, and as an extra treat, Alice had bought them both a box of chocolates and paid for the more expensive seats in the Circle. Alice looked around, and pleased that there was no one close by, slipped off her shoes and wiggled her toes. Stanley would have disapproved of such behaviour but then Stanley wasn’t here.

Claire was sleeping on Alice’s shoulder when the adverts came on, then she stretched her toes and laid against her daughter as the newsreel started. She smiled to herself as wonder how long it had been since she’d never felt so happy. Perhaps Stanley had disappeared through wishful thinking. She had another chocolate and smiled again.

The newsreel was discussing the latest fashions, what the Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh were up to, and then it happened. It was only a fleeting glance but she was one hundred percent sure of what she had seen. It had been a story on the changing face of the English seaside and the trouble that was being caused by riots on the beach at Brighton. It all worried Alice – because England, Britain even, was changing and not necessarily for the better. 

Then she saw him, he was standing at the back of the crowd on Brighton beach, he looked straight at the newsreel camera and then turned away. She would swear on her daughter’s life it was him.

She didn’t wait for the Disney, instead she helped put her fast asleep daughter in the back of the car and drove back to Aldeburgh.

What should she do? The police would think she was one of those potty women one reads about in the Sunday newspapers. She would have to check her facts and that would mean going back to Felixstowe.

Between the festival and looking after her daughter, she didn’t manage to get to the cinema until three days later and as luck would have it, the newsreel had changed. She had concocted some story about a long-lost relative when she approached the cinema manager. A nice man, by the name of Eric, had told her that the films had been sent back on the Monday to an address in London.

Perhaps she had just imagined it. Perhaps she was conjuring him up through the guilt of her caring little if he was ever found again. But what if it was him? How could she go on with her life wondering if any minute he could be standing at her door? She noticed that she’d thought of it as ‘her door’ and not ‘theirs’, and wondered if she was possibly the worst wife in the country.

The manager, Eric had scrawled the address in London for the newsreel and one Friday when Alice had a little time off she had taken the train to London. The film company receptionist, Irene from Upminster, had been as nice as nine-pence and had told Alice, that although they usually charged for a private viewing, seeing as it was her long-lost brother, and the fact that all the big guns were out at a meeting, Alice could view the film for nothing.  

A bored projectionist smoked about three cigarettes at the back of the room, and Alice had to shake him to waken him up when she got to the bit she wanted to see.

He played it over several times and when she asked the bored man to freeze the picture, he managed to do it but it vibrated a little. So she had to narrow her eyes to be sure of what she was seeing.

“Is that him?” Asked the projectionist.

Alice nearly jumped out of her skin, wondering if the man knew what was going through her head.

“Your brother, is that him?”

“I think so,” she said, but not in the way that finding a long-lost brother would make someone react. Puzzled, the projectionist just lit another cigarette and thought about the girl he was meeting that night.

By the time she got back to Aldeburgh, Alice was sure it was him and wondered what she should do next.

Stanley was alive and well and standing on a beach in Brighton. Or at least he had been when they made the film  There was something else at the back of her mind about the day of Stanley’s disappearance and that thought had been refreshed by seeing the sea at Brighton in the newsreel.

Stanley had received a postcard on the day he had vanished and she was sure he’d stuffed it in a book.

Alice went into Stanley’s office, using the door that had been broken open by the police. ‘They had found nothing of any significance’ but she was sure a clue was in the room.

She opened all of his favourite books and then out of one fell the postcard. It was addressed to Stanley and the message said ‘Time’. On the other side was a painting, one they both knew and loved – it was of a couple and child leaving on a ship to start a life in a new land. The painting was by Ford Maddox Brown and was called ‘The Last of England’.


bobby stevenson 2017

 

england

the last of England

 

bobby2 wee bobby

 

 

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Learn To Climb Trees

tree

Learn to climb trees,
And live with skinned knees,
Learn to jump gaps and laugh,
Learn to handstand,
Play a tune, join a band,
Learn to tap dance in the bath.
Learn to be foolish,
And live without care,
Learn to sing songs and cry,
Learn your name in Swahili,
And learn to climb trees,
And never stop asking ‘why?’.

bobby stevenson 2016
(Jina langu ni Bobby)  (Swahili)



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My Final Place

wedding

There had been an old Star Trek episode once, where the world was about to end in destruction and people could select (by the aid of a time-machine) a place to go in the past where they would survive – albeit, among strangers, and among people who did things differently – well, the past was like that.

And that, my friends, just about sums up where we are at the moment. In the first half of the twenty-first century technology had accelerated away into places never dreamed of. Computers were now biological, space travel had been available to many. Some preferred to stay behind on Earth – since it was all they knew or ever wanted to know.

My family was one of those who selected to stay – ‘cave-huggers’ they were called by those who saw themselves as more far-reaching.

I had never married and never had kids, and therefore my immediate family was all I had. Slowly but surely, each of them died off, leaving me more and more to fend for myself.

When this little planet, this little spaceship – that we were walking on, and which took us around the Sun every year – had started to fail, then we knew we were in trouble.

By the time the planet began to break-up, it was all too late to do anything about it – too late to leave, even.

The conclusive discovery of dark matter in that spring of 2019 had changed the whole scientific outlook. A million things were now possible, and time-travel (within a limited physical area) was also possible. There had been failures – sheep which had been sent into the past had returned in woeful conditions; most of them dead, and many of them mutilated.

Andy Forest was the first man to ever attempt a trip back in time – admittedly it was only as far as the day before and then he was to return. Which he did, remarkably intact. Although there was one flaw, Andy had been told to leave a note in a specific area writing down the date and time of when he was there. Andy did so and returned to us successfully, but the note never showed up. Doctor Phillius, our main man on the project, suggested that perhaps the past was in another dimension and that, the next day wasn’t just the ‘same place, a little later’ – one wag suggested that perhaps a cleaner had found the paper and got rid of it.

Perhaps when you went into the past, you disrupted the universe and caused a slip into a parallel one. The fact that you could come back to the future was because that was where you and your particles belonged. Anyway, I know I’m losing you here so I’ll stop with all the conjecture. Suffice to say that there wasn’t going to be a future to come back to shortly and that we all needed to decide pretty sharpish where we wanted to go.

Some went in pairs, some went in large groups. Me? I went on my own because I knew where I was going to travel back to – was going to be pretty personal.

That night I went through the process of getting all my jabs and medications that would at least give me a head start for where I was going.

The contraption could send me back in time but no more than one mile from where I was presently situated. I knew that there was a little area up by some water above the town that was never built upon, and would be safe to materialize.

That night they sent me back to a place in history where I believed I would be safe.

I awoke on the hill with a beautiful rising sun and I knew where I had to be by three o’clock.

When I got to the hall, there was a small crowd waiting to go in – I have to say it was strange seeing them in colour instead of the black and white Polaroid photos.

As I stood across the street, I saw the black car drive up to the hall and there they were, standing at the door and getting covered in confetti: my parents, newly married – I had come back to the sixties and I knew I was going to be happy here – even having the fun of watching myself arrive on the planet, one day very soon.

 

bobby stevenson 2016

photo: My parents on their wedding day 🙂

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