Piggeldy and Frederick

On Saturday afternoons my childhood friend Barry (see the story The short form of flying) watched Piggeldy and Frederick, a strange cartoon translated into Afrikaans from the original German. I watched it with him because we didn’t have a television. My mother refused to let something into the house that couldn’t listen and wouldn’t shut up. My sister and I pleaded with her but it didn’t help.

“Besides,” my mother added, “we’re poor. Ask your father.”

“Are we poor?” we asked my father.

“We’re not getting a TV,” he said.

So Barry and I watched Piggeldy and Frederick at his house. It was on Channel 1 just after lunch. Barry was fanatical about it—Piggeldy and Frederick could not be missed.

To miss Piggeldy and Frederick was easy. Each episode was only three minutes long. We got ready well before the time and kept very quiet, afraid of Barry’s father and the mute complexion of his anger. He did not approve of cartoons, nor, as far as we could tell, of anything else that others enjoyed.

“Be quiet,” Barry whispered and turned the volume down until he was sure that only we could hear the TV.

Each episode was essentially the same. The opening scene simply said Piggeldy and Frederick. Then we saw Piggeldy, the smaller of two pigs. Piggeldy asked his older brother, Frederick, a question. The entire episode consisted of a few crudely animated scenes in a specific pattern. Barry marvelled at the notion that the whole thing, short as it was, could follow from a single question. In his house, questions were dead ends, the last stops before trouble.

The narrator would say, “Piggeldy wanted to know what love is,” or something similar.

“Nothing easier than that!” Frederick grunted. “Come along!”

And off they went, floating above a field with only their little legs moving. Soon, Piggeldy was overwhelmed by doubt and asked, “Do you truly know what love is?”

“Of course I do,” Frederick said and stopped. “At my age, I must.”

“But tell me then,” Piggeldy implored.

Frederick closed his eyes and rubbed his ear against Piggeldy’s ear.

“Love is like that,” he announced when he was done.

As Barry shifted where he sat against the sofa and wrapped his arms around his knees, I wondered what this meant to him. His parents never touched him, except in anger.

“Is that it?” Piggeldy wanted to know. “Just rubbing ears?”

“There’s more,” Barry whispered as Frederick wavered, “No—it’s also for hunchbacks and bow legs.”

“Bow legs?” Barry whispered. “What’s that?”

“But I have neither a hunched back nor bow legs,” Piggeldy wailed. “So you don’t love me!”

“What’s a bow leg?” Barry whispered again.

“You don’t have one,” I said. “Shut up.”

Piggeldy and Frederick continued, but I knew that Barry was no longer paying attention. He was, I now know, where he’d still be many years later when we sat on a ledge above the Tugela gully and he told me that he was sure you could see him from far away in his mother’s only picture. I think he loved to climb for the same reason he loved Piggeldy and Frederick—both combined the intimacy of contact with the certainty that you’d be let go.

“And then,” the narrator’s voice always said, “Piggeldy and Frederick went home.”




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Second-hand regret

I can write this now because I’m reasonably sure that the old lady I’m going to tell you about is dead. At the time, about twenty years ago, she was very old, perhaps in her eighties, and so even if one allowed for extreme longevity, she’s probably gone.

I had just bought a BMW, a second-hand car, but the first car I wasn’t ashamed of. The previous cars had been a succession of nightmares. The first was a Beetle that wouldn’t start, and once it got going, refused to stop. After that came a limp sausage of a Citroën, and then two disastrous Nissans, one a liver-like maroon, and the other a pukish green, both bought on a whim and without the patience to wait for a sane colour. The BMW was white and sedate and perfect. It came as close to a car I’d like as a car can ever come, given how little I cared about cars in general. It wasn’t so much that it was great as it was that it wasn’t complete shit.

The Sunday after I got this BMW, Mia and I drove it a mile down the road to the Pick n Pay in the Adelphi Centre in Sea Point. We parked in the underground lot of the centre and went shopping. When we came out, bags in hand, an old lady was struggling to reverse her blue Honda out of its bay. As she meshed the gears and stalled the car, I saw that she had crashed into my new second-hand BMW. Its rear number plate was bent and there was a smear of blue paint across the fender.

“Hey!” I called out as I rushed closer. “What are you doing?”

She lowered her window. “Excuse me?”

“You’ve scratched my car,” I yelled. “Look!”

“I didn’t,” she mewled. “I promise.”

Mia and I were on our haunches, examining the damage.

“See,” Mia called out. “It’s blue, like your car.”

“I promise,” the old lady whimpered. “I haven’t bumped into anything.”

“But look at it,” I cried. “Here, and here!”

The blue paint on my car was a little lighter than that of her Honda, but it was probably to be expected.

“But I didn’t,” the old lady said, seemingly near tears.

“What do we do now?” Mia muttered without moving her lips.

I stood up. “How can you do this?” I asked the old lady.

“But I didn’t,” she said again. “Really—”

She made to open her door, but I stopped her. “Never mind,” I said and waved her on. “Just go.”

“I promise I didn’t—” she said, a trace of uncertainty now in her voice.

“Just go,” I said again.

“Can you believe this?” I asked Mia when she’d driven off. “It just takes one old—”

“What’s your number plate?” Mia asked.

“I—”

The BMW was identical to mine, but it wasn’t mine. Mine was parked one lane back from where we were.

Mia and I looked at one another. “Go!” she cried. “Just go! You can still catch her!”

I ran out of the parking lot along the same exit lane the old lady had taken, but as I got to Rhine Road, her blue Honda turned the corner into Main Road and was gone.




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His master’s voice

Tania had a slight moustache. She sighed a lot and constantly complained that she hadn’t slept and was tired. This was a little out of place in our group. We styled ourselves as an unpublished version of the Algonquin Round Table. We met at a coffee shop on campus every day. We were young and we were convinced that we’d soon be famous. Perhaps most of all, we slept too little and we never complained that we were tired. It wasn’t clear to me why Tania was there.

“She’s doing a Master’s in business management,” my friend whispered with some distaste. “I think she knew someone who’s left. Now she’s a leftover organ of sorts, you know, like a coccyx.”

“I don’t care how she got here,” I said. “I was smuggled in from physics.”

“Yeah,” my friend shrugged, “but you say things.”

“I guess. But why is she always exhausted?”

“If you ignore the moustache,” my friend explained, “then, on the outside, she’s twenty-two.” He checked to make sure that she couldn’t hear us and added, “But deep down she’s ninety.”

I always marvelled at this paradox when I saw her. Being old before your time was surely worse than the problem I had. I was young after my time. I was immature, and it certainly looked like I would stay that way. Just as I tried to compare these two states, I would catch myself entertaining a perverse fantasy in which I grabbed Tania and kissed her to find out what the moustache felt like.


One day, Tania made an announcement. “My grandmother is dead,” she said.

We couldn’t tell whether she had mentioned a fact of history or a detail of an unfolding event.

“When did she die?” someone asked uncertainly.

“Oh,” Tania said and checked her watch, “three hours ago.”

“But you didn’t say—”

“Oh,” Tania smiled, “it’s alright. She was ninety.”

My friend and I exchanged a glance.

“I’ll appreciate some help with her things later this week,” Tania added. “Especially the parrot.”

This last bit energised us considerably. “A parrot?”

“She had a grumpy sulphur-crested cockatoo,” Tania said.

“A grumpy cockatoo?”

Tania flattened the tablecloth around her cup and mumbled, “He swears.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

We leant forward. “Like what?”

“Oh,” Tania whispered and blushed, “like shit—” Then, after a pause, she continued, “—and fuck. And so on.”


We had all heard of swearing parrots, but we’d never met one in person. Three days later we went with Tania to her grandmother’s house. The house was a Victorian-style mansion near campus, on a large plot.

“Was your grandmother rich?” someone asked as Tania pointed out a framed photograph of her in the vast foyer. The photo showed a rather masculine woman, likely in her sixties at the time the picture was taken, glaring at the camera. She sat in a chair and behind her stood a smallish man, with his hand on her shoulder in the style of photos taken in the late nineteenth century. It was clear who wore the pants in the house and it was also clear where Tania’s moustache had come from.

“Oh,” Tania said with a little smile, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

The house had the faint powdery smell of an old person. Pink hydrangeas grew at every window. There were rows and rows of Royal Doulton figurines in Victorian display cabinets of such ornate carving as to suggest that they had grown like vines from the floor. Everything was hideous. It seemed entirely reasonable for the people of Victorian England to have gone off to administer colonies. They probably couldn’t bear it at home.

“This is fabulous!” a girl who wrote maudlin poetry exclaimed. “It’s the Bather!”

She indicated a fairly un-Victorian figurine of a bashful girl disrobing, and whispered, “It’s very rare.”

“Is that from Victorian times?” I asked, surprised at the nudity.

“No,” she said, “it’s more like the 1920s, I think.”

I couldn’t have cared less if it had once belonged to Cleopatra. It looked like trash to me.

“Well,” I asked, “is it—is it expensive?”

I had swallowed the words at least just in time not to say them, but it was clear that I’d thought them.

“Oh,” Tania said and did a bonsai smile, “I don’t know. My grandfather collected them. It was his passion. My grandmother always hated those things.”

“Oo!” the poet exclaimed and clasped her cheeks at the sight of a crimson sofa that looked like a giant, mutant butterfly.

“Where’s the parrot?” someone else got to the point.

“Oh,” Tania said, “Pete’s upstairs. He’s upset.”

“Pete the Parrot?”

Tania nodded. “My grandmother got him when my grandfather died. My grandfather was Pete, and so Pete was Pete.”

“Why’s he upset?” we wondered.

“He’s plucked out his feathers,” Tania shrugged.

There was a pause as we absorbed this new possibility.

“Is he upset because he plucked them,” I asked, “or did he pluck them because he was already upset?”

“Don’t get technical,” someone chided me. “You’re so insensitive.”

“Poor thing,” someone else cut in. “He misses his mistress.”

“Oh,” Tania said, “it’s not because of that. Two days ago I put his cage on the lawn while I cleaned the attic. When I returned, he’d killed five pigeons.”

We looked at one another.

“How’d he do that?”

“Oh,” Tania said, “he put his food just inside the bars of his cage, like bait, and when the pigeons poked their heads through to get it, he decapitated them.”

For a few moments, no one said anything.

“I think he’s angry because I stopped him,” Tania added reassuringly. “That’s when he plucked his feathers. He’s very grumpy. He’s always been that way.”

“Maybe he killed the pigeons because he’s sad,” someone tried. “You know, about your grandmother.”

“Oh, no,” Tania said. “He was nasty to her too.”

“Really?”

Tania shrugged. “They hated one another.” She brushed a fleck of dust from a secretaire. “My grandmother hated my grandfather,” she said. “And when he died, about ten years ago, she got Pete so she could hate him too.”

“Did she say so?”

“Oh,” Tania said, “no, but my grandparents always argued. Always. They sat on the patio out front and swore at one another as though there was some sort of contest to see who could make up the worst insults.”

“That doesn’t sound like—” I began.

“My dad said so too,” Tania cut me short. “He always insisted that it’s just the way they were. I was twelve when my grandfather died, but I can still remember those arguments.”

Tania’s parents had died in a car crash a few years earlier. As far as we knew, her late grandmother was the only family she’d had left.

“But surely your father would have known,” my friend said.

Tania waved this away.

And she kept those ceramic things she didn’t like,” he added.

“It was the same with the parrot,” Tania continued. “Constant bickering.”

It’s a strange thing that you can get to know people as readily through someone who never understood them as you can through someone who truly did. It was obvious that Tania had missed out on the better parts of her grandmother and had instead ended up with only her moustache. The glaring woman in the foyer was very likely annoyed with the photographer.

“Business management,” my friend whispered.

“Go get Pete,” Tania said.


The sight of Pete was one you couldn’t prepare for. When Tania said that he’d plucked out his feathers, she neglected to mention that he had plucked out everything he could reach. Only the downy feathers on his face and the fan of his crest remained. He was an outsized head floating atop a scrawny, mechanical body. This strange combination perched on a rod in a large cage and scowled at us.

“Beautiful plumage,” someone joked.

“Fuck off!” Pete squawked.

We burst out laughing. It was just too much.

“The Victorian Blue,” someone else added.

“Wanker!” Pete screeched in an old woman’s voice.

“Oh Jesus,” my friend said, “do you think the grandmother—?”

“Jesus,” Pete nodded vigorously and spread the feathers of his crest like the fingers of a hand. “Cunt.”

If you’d shaved a male lion a Mohican, he would not have been a more surprising sight. Yet Pete was headstrong and proud, despite his condition. He had learnt what he could say from a misunderstood and lonely woman, and now he was misunderstood and lonely in turn. It wasn’t the pigeons. We were torn between provoking him some more and feeling sorry for him, and while we hesitated, Pete shifted on his perch and eyed us.

“He must be cold,” the poet crooned. “Are you cold, sweety?”

“Shit!” Pete bobbed up and down.

“I think he wants to be insulted,” I said. “Maybe that’s how it worked.”

My friend put his face near Pete’s cage and said in his most menacing voice, “You ugly motherfucker.”

Pete flicked his crest and did a little dance. “Slut!” he crowed.


A few minutes later, after everyone had gone to help Tania, I stood by Pete’s cage and wondered what it was that would now become of him. Tania would inherit this house, I thought, and him with it, but I wasn’t sure that she understood either of the two in the way her grandmother would’ve wanted. I picked up the cage and headed for the stairs under Pete’s watchful gaze.

“Uh,” he grunted.

I stopped on the second step. “What?”

Pete sighed.

I put another foot forward and as the stairs creaked, he spoke up again. “Uh.”

When I took another step, he did so again.

“Shut up,” he groaned.

With a chill I realised that I was hearing Tania’s dead grandmother, grunting and sighing as she carried Pete down these same stairs every day. The three of us proceeded, grunting and sighing, and as we did I thought about this old woman in whose place I now stood. I would never know her, but I suddenly wished that I had. She had lived here in her eighties, alone, for ten years, telling a bird about a man. Only now and then was she interrupted by a visit from her frumpy granddaughter. But what was she like before that? An hour earlier I would have given it no further thought, judging by the house and the ugly things within it. But now I wasn’t so sure. Now I could picture her and the original Pete on the patio outside, sparring as they sipped their gin and tonics under the canopy of bougainvillea and jasmine I saw as we came in. There was something strangely familiar about them. My parents had devoted a large fraction of their energy to an argument that broke out in their last year of high school and to which they returned in a game of verbal violence that had more rules than it appeared to break. To me, this had always been the grammar of love.

I stopped on the last, wider step. From here I could see a part of the patio through mullioned French doors. In recent years, I was sure, the old lady had taken Pete outside whenever the weather permitted, and there the two of them had spent hours expanding his vocabulary. But years before that, in the spring and early summer, those doors would have stood ajar. From here, I supposed, I would have smelled the heady perfume of jasmine carried in on the still air of the late afternoon. And from this very step, if I strained just a little, I would have heard the two old lovers on the patio as they remembered their life together and traded insults. It was obvious to me that Tania had no inkling of the terms of their endearment.

“Pete’s lonely,” I told her in the kitchen. “He’s like a mirror in an empty room.”

“Oh,” she sighed, “he’s just grumpy.”

Pete fanned his crest and said nothing.




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Wholesale assholes

Last Friday I saw something in the dried fruit aisle at Costco that made me thank the universe for the existence of random coincidence and my momentary good luck. I was already angry, even though I’d only been in Costco for what must have been less than a minute or so. But in that minute I’d already had a futile argument with a man at the door whose sole task it was to check whether you were a Costco member as you entered Costco.

“Why would I be here if I wasn’t a member?” I asked.

“I must check,” he insisted.

“It’s not as if I want to be here,” I added. “I wouldn’t sneak in.”

“I must check,” he said again.

“They can check when I pay,” I said and marched on just as other people entered.

“Sir!” he called after me.

I continued, but seconds later he was at my side. “Sir,” he wheezed, for he was very large, “your card?”

I dug my card from my back pocket and showed him.

“What about these people who have now walked in without you checking them?” I asked.

“He’s just doing his job,” a young woman in a mask said and showed the man her card. “You don’t have to be an asshole.”

I walked off, my ears burning. If Mia had been here, she’d have called me an asshole too. I was thinking about this and about the very real chance that I might actually be an asshole when I turned into the dried fruit aisle. I was looking for tart cherries, but what I found was a moment of rare and wonderful coincidence. An enormous man blocked the aisle. He was in his seventies and had a faded red beard with what appeared to be a yellow nicotine stain around his mouth. In his hand was a quad cane, a walking stick with four little rubber feet. Before him danced a small Asian woman, older still, who had a similar, smaller cane. The two sets of feet had become entangled.

“Let go!” she yelled and yanked at her cane.

“Lady, keep still,” the man said and pulled this way, and that.

“Hey!” the little woman yelled.

A second later the two canes came apart.

“Asshole!” the woman snapped and staggered off.

The man and I looked at one another for a fleeting moment. He shook his head in bewilderment and limped away.




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Wishful thinking

Many years ago my friend Jack and I drove through Athlone in search of a shop he’d read about. We got lost and ended up in slow-moving traffic on a road lined with the shacks of squatters. The settlement covered several blocks of vacant land. It was the height of summer and the smell of human sewage and burnt food was sweetened in the midday heat. People sat listlessly on the sidewalks among the litter and ribbons of sand drawn about by the wind. Others begged and harassed motorists at intersections. It was dangerous to be there among those who had so little to lose.

In a narrow alley between some shacks, a man was whipping a dog with a piece of hosepipe. The emaciated animal was tied to a rusted shopping cart and couldn’t get away. It yelped and strained against the rope around its neck. The man struck the dog as though he was beating a rug. His motions were mechanical and rhythmic, seemingly without anger or intent. He saw us but he continued all the same.

We have killed this man many times since that day, but he’s never dead.




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Bart

When my father was a kid he had a friend called Bart who was an orphan. Naturally, Bart was on the poor side and never had much in way of clothes or toys. What little he had, he was very attached to. Bart eventually became a lawyer but he remained attached to his things despite now having more of them. We had met him when he’d visited once, and my sister had remarked that it looked as though someone was wringing his neck—he had bulging eyes and was stringy and thin.

“He has a goitre thing,” my father said.

Years later, Bart got married. One Christmas, he and his wife came to visit us at Oyster Bay. Bart had bought a new car, a green Audi. He was not happy that the road from the nearest town to Oyster Bay was not tarred. After a painstakingly slow drive from town, he refused to come the last two hundred meters to the house. The road was too bad and his car was too new. He parked the Audi under a tree and he and his wife walked the rest of the way with their bags.

From the house, we could see his green car under the tree. It looked like a strange grassy knoll. Every now and then Bart would stand at the window to check on it.

“It’ll be fine,” my father said when Bart checked on the car for what felt like the hundredth time.

“He’s just that way,” his wife remarked under her breath. “He’s always been.”

By Christmas Day, Bart had relaxed a little. He checked on the car a little less frequently. After lunch, he walked past the window and suddenly exclaimed, “What the fuck!”

By the time we all got to the window, Bart was already running toward his car, which was covered in goats. The goats belonged to people who lived in shacks some distance off. We hardly ever saw them, but the green car and the tree it made accessible were probably too tempting for them.

We watched as Bart scattered the goats with flapping arms and drove back to the house.

“We’re leaving!” he cried when he emerged from his car.

The Audi looked like a green golf ball.

“But it’s Christmas,” his wife wailed. “I said not to park under a tree.”

“Pack!” Bart barked.

When they’d gone my father recalled how Bart had once refused to dry clean his Harris Tweed jacket when they were at university. “He didn’t want to let the thing out of his sight,” my father laughed. “So he washed it himself.”

“What happened?” we asked.

“It came out three sizes smaller.”

My father blew his nose and wiped the tears from his cheeks. “If you guard things too closely,” he said and shook his head, “loss will find them. It knows all the places.”




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There’s room at the bottom

Yesterday, in Bellevue, I saw a homeless man who staggered along 4th street near the Downtown Park. He looked worse than the average homeless person, somehow, and dragged a bag of things behind him instead of pushing a stolen shopping cart. Every now and then he stopped and swayed and then shook his fist at passing traffic or cursed at imaginary objects on the sidewalk. I watched him as he bumbled about, and as I always do, I wondered how it was that he had ended up on the streets. Was it drugs? Or some tragedy? Or was it just a series of small things? How had he come to be here, on this particular street? Did he have friends who lived in the park? Where were his parents? Where, if got his bearings, was he going?

“Fuck you!” he shouted at the sky.

I sat on a low wall to which he now staggered. A few meters from me he rocked to a standstill. Under the dirt and matted hair, he was no older than thirty. He muttered something I couldn’t make out, and then, as if in reply, he screamed in disgust and slapped himself.

“Pussy!” he cried.

He repeated this double act a few times. He swayed back and forth, mumbled some slurred statement and then exploded in violent disagreement, slapped himself, and once missed.

As I walked back to my office I marvelled at the ease with which I’d seen his apparent self-loathing as a sign of hope, as a glimmer of the man he perhaps once was, or could’ve been. But I knew it wasn’t so. Maybe it was true instead, I thought, that a homeless man is the home of many homeless men.




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The longest night

The best arguments of my childhood erupted at the dinner table. One Sunday I wanted to know whether communism was a good idea.

“Communism is a good idea,” I declared.

My father put down his knife and fork and slowly wiped his mouth with a serviette.

“And how is that?” he asked with some restraint.

“They say it is,” I said. “Prices stay the same and everybody’s got a job.”

“Who are they?” my father asked. “What are these jobs everyone’s got? And where did you hear this crap?”

“Oh,” I chimed, “so now it’s crap? Just because I say it?”

“No,” my father said with what looked like even more restraint, “not because you say it. It’s crap because it’s actually crap.”

“Oh,” I chimed again. “And what do you know about communism?”

“We can sit here,” my father growled, “and talk about what I know about communism until your pimples clear up. What I want to know, before that time, is what you know about it.”

His food was going cold and he had his hands folded under his chin. I think he folded them like that to keep himself from any sudden impulse to slap me.

“So now you just turn it around?” I remarked with calculated cockiness.

“Dammit!” my father roared and banged on the table so hard that some of the dishes jumped. The argument proper had begun. Now communism would be cast aside. From this point on only the meaning of our words and how we said them would matter. My mother and sister left the table but my father and I remained. It was a house rule, one I have since come to appreciate more than most others. Regardless of the cost or the time involved, regardless of the number of far-flung incidents that were dragged into the fray as it unfurled, and regardless of how badly we hurt one another, arguments were continued until they were settled, until one of us had learned something. You couldn’t walk away, and we never did. My father once missed a flight because he and my mother couldn’t finish some quarrel they had gotten into on the way to the airport.

At two in the morning, my father switched to English.

“Jesus Christ,” he said in response to some claim I’d made. “Tell it to the Marines.”

This was a sign that the argument had now entered its more vicious phase. Switching to English signalled that we would now incorporate quotes and literature in a way that Afrikaans didn’t afford, and that the argument would now begin to turn upon itself. At the same time, it was a return to humour, however caustic.

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” I remarked.

My father gave me a long stare. “That’s why I’m using it on you,” he replied.

When the clock above the kitchen table ticked past four in the morning, we had fought about how he had never been satisfied with me, how he had always favoured my sister, how I had always belittled him when he’d taken the long way around a problem, how I always sided with my mother, and many other things. We had insulted one another and parachuted in supporting quotes from Maugham and Churchill and Cicero along the way. The house was quiet except for us and the dogs. In mid-sentence, my father stopped what he was saying.

“Would you like a coffee?” he asked instead.

He placed a cup on the table between us, fetched the jug from the filter machine and began to pour.

“I don’t know you as well as I think I do,” he said as he poured and looked me in the eye. “How much coffee did you want?”

As he said this, the cup overflowed onto the table.

“Stop!” I cried.

“You see,” he said as he put the jug away, “the next time you’ll know to stop me.” He waved a tired hand at the table and the mess he’d made. “The time after that we won’t need to say anything.”

As I lay in bed later I listened to the songs of the first birds and to the threads of my father’s voice that hung from my doorknob like a scarf.




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Others perhaps not

It’s strange how we move with time but cannot move against it. We map its landscape in memory and imagination and live as though we’re moving through it. But of course we’re not.

Today is the thirteenth anniversary of my father’s death. There’s nothing special about today—I know that—but as with all things that concern time, it feels as though there is. I tried my best today to remember what he smelled like, to remember his voice, its precise timbre, and wrap it around things he used to say. But instead I remembered the funeral of Jack’s brother who killed himself when he was twenty-three in 1987. At the funeral was a girl who loved his brother. She was small, with a small voice. After the service, friends of Jack’s brother took turns to speak of him as they remembered. She was the last one to come forward. She had brought with her a small note, something she had read somewhere, or written. She spoke not of him, but to us.

“Maybe you are lucky,” she said and adjusted her glasses.

She cleared her throat and started again.

“Maybe you are lucky and when you go there is still time to turn and wave before you walk off into a sunset of roses and fresh paint.”

She looked up and spoke from memory.

“Then again, perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you cross the street too carelessly one early Wednesday morning. Perhaps a boy who today learns long division will demand your purse and car one evening outside a restaurant twelve years and two months from now.”

She looked at her note, and then she continued.

“Maybe you go slowly and you sit and watch your time slip by like the Mondays in some diary.”

She folded the note and looked past us.

“But now?” she said. “Now? What are you going to do?”

She looked down and almost swallowed her last words. “Others perhaps not,” she said, “but you will know.”




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Even small ones wait

Mia and I went to Ikea today. That is to say that we travelled there in the same car, but after that our paths didn’t cross much. As so often happens, I headed in the direction of the things I wanted, got them, and was only distracted for a few minutes by a stand-up desk I hadn’t planned to get, and suddenly knew I had to. I collected the numbered boxes I’d need to build this desk from the tall shelves in the large warehouse that sits between the walk-through part of the store and the check-out lines, and arranged them on a flat-bed trolley. And then I was done. In all, it had taken me about twenty-five minutes.

A part of those twenty-five minutes was spent looking for Mia. I realised as I walked through the mock kitchen setups that she was no longer beside me. I walked on in defiance for a while, but then, as always, I caved in and went back. It was then that I came across the stand-up desk. It seemed quite fitting to me that I should buy something on an impulse in revenge for being left unsupervised.

After thirty minutes of waiting I decided to sit down between the boxes on my trolley. I felt a bit like a hobo but across the wide aisle from me another man had just done the same. We exchanged a knowing, wry smile.

“You’ve reached Mia Hannom,” Mia’s voice message informed me.

No, I thought, I haven’t really.

Over the next hour I watched various men who all waited, as I did. Most of them worked their phones and looked, as time passed, increasingly shipwrecked. I worked my own phone and reached Mia Hannom a few more times before I gave up. It occurred to me that there should be an international day of remembrance to honour all men who had lost the will to live while they waited for their partners in shops across the world. Just then a grandmother pushed a flat-bed trolley past me. It was empty except for her small grandson who sat on it and looked bored out of his tiny skull. They were waiting too, I realised, no doubt for the little boy’s mother.

“What does that cost?” I asked as a lame joke.

The grandmother stopped, mimed deep concentration, and announced, “He’s free.”

“I’m not free!” the little boy exclaimed. “I’m four!”

Much later, as Mia and I bickered about men and women, her sense of time, and her misleading voice message, I told her about this little boy.

“It’s not fair,“ I said. “Even small ones wait.”

“It’s not so bad,” she replied. “By now he’s five.”




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