Monday 22 August 2016

Let's Pretend it's the Ritz | A short story and some reflections on it

Us on holiday in Rhyl
I wrote the short story that follows some time ago. When I posted it on ABC Tales  some of the comments I received noted the relevance to today's society. I agree. However, this story - although it contains much fictional detail - closely relates to something that happened to my parents and I close to 50 years ago. If I had to describe in one word how I felt during my childhood it was cherished. Yet there were times when materially we didn't have very much and for a while in my first decade we were very dependent on the generosity of others for shelter. The one memorable night when we didn't have anywhere to stay prompted me to write this: 

Let's Pretend it's the Ritz 

It’s after 11 o'clock before we find somewhere to stay. 

I’m seven and three quarters and most of the time I’m excited when I’m allowed to stay up late but tonight I’m cold and I’m tired. My feet hurt too. I was already in bed when mum woke me and said that we were going out. I was cozy and didn't want to get up. We've been staying with Auntie Sue (she’s my mum's sister) and her boyfriend David, for a couple of months now. Their flat is nice, painted in blues and greens with squashy sofas and cushions and a glass table where we sit to eat. But it's small and mum and dad and I have to sleep in the same bed. I'm usually in the middle. Auntie Sue tuts when I leave stuff on the table or watch my TV programmes. And she got cross when I ate my tea from a tray. It was only a little mark on the cushions. There was no one around when we left but there was shouting coming from the kitchen.

 I didn't hear much.

 Auntie Sue said, 'the place just doesn't feel like ours anymore, it's such a mess all the time.'
Then David said, 'have a heart Suze it's your sister and your niece.'

We left then. I don't think we'll be going back.

Things started going wrong last summer. Dad lost his job and every time I came home from school something else was missing. First it was dad's car, then some of mum's jewellery and loads of other things, even the telly and the computer. I didn't mind that as much as I minded mum crying all the time. The more she cried the more dad moaned about the 'bloody government.' Maybe they've got all our best stuff. At Christmas mum and dad had no presents at all and I only got a book and some Lego.

After the school holidays mum stopped crying and was very busy packing up what we have left. We had to leave the house I've always lived in and my cat Bingo went to live with my best friend Beth. She says I can visit whenever I like but it upsets me so I've not been much. Our furniture and most of my books and clothes are in a garage somewhere. We won't get them back until we get another house and I don't know when that will be.

I'm in my pyjamas and feeling very sleepy. Mum and dad are still dressed.

Mum rubs my back.

"Let's pretend it's the Ritz," she says.

We've played the let’s pretend game a lot lately.

"Let's pretend we're eating turkey,” instead of corned beef, for Christmas dinner.

"Let's pretend we're on a day trip to Paris," and not in the library because it’s so cold at home.

"Let's pretend we're watching our favourite film,” rather than playing in the park (AGAIN) to give Auntie Sue and David some space. They should have gone to the park, there's loads of space there.

I wasn't sure where we would end up tonight but I didn't expect it to be a train. The seats are a bit scratchy and make me itch and we are all bunched up together but I don't mind. Dad has his arm around mum and I haven't seen him do that for a while. They used to cuddle all the time which was kind of embarrassing but I miss it now they don't. Maybe the train will take us somewhere nice and mum and dad will be happy again.

I start to doze as mum talks to me about snow white sheets and gold taps, free food and drinks, breakfast in bed and sweets left on pillows. Whatever this Ritz place is it must be posh. I fall asleep and dream of hot chocolate with marshmallows. It's stuffy. I wake up hot. Mum and dad are talking. I listen.

"I'm so sorry that it's come to this," says dad.

"It's not your fault, it's no one’s fault Pete. We'll get through it. Together." That's mum.
Then it's quiet. I guess they're looking into each other's eyes and maybe, I hope, kissing because there is a bit of a slurpy noise.

"Let's go to Frank’s," my mum says after a while. She sounds kind of bossy.

"But..." I think dad wants to say more but mum butts in.

"He's your father and he’ll help us Pete. He won't get tired of having Janie around." She’s stroking my hair.

"I know your pride is hurting but put up with his advice. It's our best chance to get on our feet again. Please darling. You know I'm right," she says.

"Yes. Yes, I do," says dad after a while. "Ok, we'll go tomorrow."

"Good," says mum. She sounds pleased.

It's quiet.

I sleep again.

Mum wakes me early and helps me get washed and dressed. The water is cold and the mirror above the wash basin is dirty. There's a bit of poo on the floor in front of the loo. Mum shudders. I close my eyes and pretend. . .

"Breakfast at Maccy Ds?" asks dad as he packs my night stuff and the others things we have used.

"YES," I say. "And we don't need to pretend we're anywhere else cos MacDonald's IS THE BEST.'

Mum and dad laugh and smile at each other. Dad touches mum’s face and she kisses his cheek. Now I know that everything’s going to be ok.

We leave the train hand-in-hand and skip down the platform. Dad waves at the night watchman who opened up the carriage for us and put the heating on. I'm a bit disappointed that the train isn't taking us anywhere but I'm looking forward to my breakfast and to seeing my grandpa.

Tuesday 16 August 2016

Sticks and Stones | A Short Story

Once, not that long ago, in a land, not that far away, there lived a man, who worked very hard. He dedicated his life to fighting injustice and was always the first to stand with those suffering discrimination or oppression. He travelled far and wide offering support to people who needed it and challenging those who put the wants of the few before the needs of the many. Unwavering in his principles the man’s views were not always popular although his good heart and his steadfastness became legendary across the kingdom. More often than not his beliefs and predictions proved to be grounded in good sense. When not at work the man lived a simple life, his lack of interest in material things unusual for the time.  

And so the man’s life continued for many years. Quietly spoken and physically unassuming the most powerful people saw the man as little threat to their position of privilege. For a long time this was the case. Despite the man’s efforts and those of a few others like him the kingdom, and other lands around it, became dark and dangerous places to live in. More and more people were reduced to existing in sorry conditions. At its worst this meant that some had no access to adequate food and shelter, or to good education and health care. Inequality sometimes led to prejudice and often the most powerless were unfairly blamed for social evils well beyond their control. Then came an opportunity when the man put himself forward for a more powerful position amongst those responsible for governing the kingdom. Slowly, but with gathering momentum, ordinary people throughout the land began to listen more closely to what the man had to say, and to join him in his commitment to social justice for all. In short they began to hope.

Watching the growing interest in and acceptance of the man’s message the rulers and those who would be rulers began to fear. Having greater access to the kingdom’s Magic Streaming Mirror (popularly known as the MSM) than the man and his supporters they began to spread false tales about him. Aware of the people’s regard for the man and his work they began by criticising his ability; ‘he is a good person but not strong enough to lead us’. When this didn’t work they moved to an attack on his ideas; ‘he’s talking rubbish, don’t listen to him’. Then, not surprisingly given the increasing obvious acceptance of them, they began to adopt, even to claim as their own, the man’s suggestions for action. At the same time they argued; ‘nobody likes him, he can’t deliver his promises, don’t trust him, trust us instead’. The critical messages were personal as well as political; indeed the personal is always political. So the man’s long-time principles were questioned, his character besmirched, and his lifestyle, choices, appearance and general self-presentation insulted. Through it all the man stood tall and got stronger, supported by the people who believed in him: young people and older ones, workers and those unable to work, those with enough to live a good life, others much more disadvantaged. They didn’t all agree with everything the man said, just as no one should, unthinkingly, uncritically, accept what they are told by others. But what all these people shared was a respect for the man’s obvious principles and they believed, like him, that the kingdom could be a better, fairer, brighter, happier place, if everyone worked together to make it so. And hence the Magic Streaming Mirror responded branding these people as na├»ve, as stupid, as wicked and worse . . . Its magic power was strong as it twisted the words of those who spoke in support of the man and magnified the voices of those that didn’t. And yet, many were able to question the dominant and dominating bewitching messages emanating from the Magic Streaming Mirror which championed the proclamations of those who wished to dispose of the man and take power for themselves. The people who resisted took comfort in, and drew strength from, communication and comradery relationships with each other. So much so that even when they were told, repeatedly, in various different ways, that they were not ‘real’ they knew that this was a lie.


The end of this story is yet to be told. The man and the people who accept and help to promote what he stands for remain under attack. The often confused and confusing negative stories continue to fester. But the resistance of many continues also. Although the kingdom is in many ways rotten, and there is a real danger that things could get even worse, there is also much hope for a better world. Many more people believe in fighting for a more positive future. Many more people believe in the power of community and the value of people powered politics. What is clear is that whatever happens next things will never be the same again.