Paper candles burning bright

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Many years ago my parents procured a shop-sized roll of Christmas wrapping paper whose pattern became the unmistakable trademark of our family Christmas. When I first remember that roll it was too heavy for me to lift. By the end of its life several years later the thick cardboard core was covered with just a few thin layers of paper that no one wanted any more.

The pattern was distinctive: Candles blazing on an orange background. Endless candles burning throughout my childhood, bridging the gap from primary to secondary school. Some years even my school books were covered in that paper.

The cardboard box that held the stones that held up the Christmas tree was also covered in that paper. And in the strange way that memory is both reliable and unreliable, when I close my eyes I can still feel and see that paper, and yet what I see is more the essence of the paper than anything I could accurately reproduce.

But when I begin with the paper, I can gradually see everything else as it was in my childhood home at Christmas: the white tablecloth, the serving dishes of celery and carrots, the gas fire, holly on the picture frames, the World Book encyclopaedia, the piano, the brass and wooden ornaments on the black mantelpiece. Voices calling in the hall and cousins arriving and the smell of red wine.

In this way I can always go home for Christmas. If I could find a scrap of that paper somewhere, maybe through some alchemy I could use it to travel back in time, or maybe the spell would be broken forever.

Wishing a joyful Christmas or happy holidays to all the regular readers of this blog and to any newcomers.

The Laws of Love by Clare O’Dea

Some children start out unwanted but are soon loved and cherished. It was not so with me. Once unwanted, always unwanted. When I reached an age where I could question this, I could only conclude that I was missing the loveable ingredient possessed by other children, and no amount of eagerness to please would make up for this.

If my eldest brother is to be believed, my parents were happy in the early days. There was laughter and fun, there were callers and outings. Ten years later, when my newborn cries were keeping everyone awake, there was bitterness and want.

I developed a system of good and bad luck omens. Walking home from school I would fall back from my brothers and sisters and bet my wellbeing on chance variations in detail along the route. If the Currys have sheets on the line I will get a smile from mother, if it’s clothes I’ll get a clout, if it’s nothing, I’ll get nothing. I had the odds well worked out.

Mealtimes were quiet. There was none of the grabbing and rushing people associate with big families. We had our portion and we wanted to savour it. Not to forget my mother’s temper, which had a civilising effect on us all. I did not go to bed hungry although if I woke in the night hunger was lurking. We had clothes to wear, we washed. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

Escape was a room in a boarding house in Dublin 7, a house of straw as it turned out. I got shop work and independence, blighted at first by unwelcome attention from men in the neighbourhood. I faithfully sent money home and scraped by. A new room in a new house and life turned a corner. I met your father.

Shall I recite for you the list of his virtues? You could not know them all, for what child does? In the order in which I discovered these sides to him: he was good company, true to his word, thoughtful, tender and compassionate. He was in love with life and with me by association, and so together we built a house of sticks. What you saw between us was less than we started out with, to be sure, but it was still something good.

When I discovered that I was expecting – pregnant was considered a coarse word in those days, much too blunt – I felt the deepest and fullest satisfaction of my life. Those were my glory days.

Nothing could match my zeal. I was going to be the perfect mother. I was determined to shield you two from any harm at any cost. You placed your fervent baby love in me; I mixed it with my anxious adoration and gave it back to you in dangerous measures. It is not an exaggeration to say that I worshipped you. The light that shone from your eyes was my sun, moon and stars. I feasted on your purity and beauty. Your father could only watch and pray.

No doubt many mothers delight in every gesture and utterance of their children. But if they do, there is a counterbalance – feelings of criticism and irritation. This was missing in me. I bathed you in love and subjugated myself to you and your needs. There were no tensions between you children because I fulfilled your every desire. My purpose in life was to see that you wanted for nothing. I am truly sorry.

Wherever I was in the house I ran at the first cry. I smoothed over every conflict, made equal room on my lap for victim and culprit. When you stumbled I caught you before you hit the ground. I cooked only your favourite foods, bought your favourite toys and shoes, protected you from challenges and disappointments. I was ever vigilant. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

School was torture for me – hours of the day when anything could be happening to you, and all out of my control. I redoubled my efforts at home. There your spirits were replenished before you went out to face another day of adversity without me. Your father, Lord rest him, could not compete with my fanaticism. He retreated into his own life outside the home, which suited us, didn’t it?

This has been the way of our family until now. And look where it has taken us. For all the love I heaped upon you growing up, your cupboards are bare. Your every action motivated by self-interest, you can only muster mean-spirited possessiveness and call it love. Christopher is the worst offender, the newspapers are sure of that. What he did to that poor girl is one thing, but who can fathom his lack of remorse? No-one, apart from the woman who nurtured that weakness over many years.

What about you Paula? The results may not make headlines but I have failed you just as badly. When I think of all your father’s virtues, you match each one with the opposite vice. You navigate your way through life with wilfulness and spite. People are drawn to your narcissistic ways and then hurt by them. Your children suffer, their father too. I have my reasons alright.

Now that your father is gone, the house reverts to me. When you get out of prison Christopher there will not be a home here for you anymore. I am selling and plan to buy a small house of bricks for myself. I will not be passing the address on to either of you. Paula, get a nanny. If it’s any consolation I blame myself.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction. I haven’t posted any short stories for a while because I discovered that publishing on a blog breaks the ‘previously unpublished’ rule for most journals and competitions. All the same, sometimes it’s nice to send a story out for its own sake.

The oldest profession in the world

Farmer-Kneeling-Picking-Dandelions

Just sharing my most hated cliché, narrowing as it does women’s myriad innovative roles over the millennia in hundreds of civilisations to the least interesting and freely-chosen job on the list. To prove my point, I’ve written a little scene set in the city-state of Zabala in the Sumer Civilisation in 3,500 BC. Call it anti-cliché fiction.

“I like the dress,” Namini said, reaching to feel a corner of the red and gold cloth, before embracing her friend with the Sumer evening greeting of three kisses.

“Thanks, I got it from a neighbour. She sells her own stuff and it’s not expensive,” Sulah answered, sitting down on a mat by the window.

“Not Fatiza?” Namini called from behind the bar where she was loading her tray with fresh drinks.

“Yes, that’s her name. Her mother and sister are weavers too.”

“I know the family. Lovely people. What can I get you?”

“Just a tea thanks, I’m exhausted. I’ve been transcribing a massive contract all day. Look at the blisters on my hands.”

Namini came over with the tea and inspected Sulah’s hands gently.

“They are working you too hard there. I don’t know how you put up with it.”

Sulah shrugged. “They pay well and I can live at home. It’s hard to find a job like that. You know my cousin Lamila, plays the lyre? She has to stay at the temple seven days a week. The ceremonies are endless, she says.”

“I know. Who’d be a musician? The only job to have in a temple is priestess. People waiting on you day and night, listening to your every word, I wouldn’t mind that.”

A group of customers came in and Namini’s smile brightened artificially as she sailed over to them. While she was getting their drinks, more people began to arrive, in pairs. The busy part of the day was beginning for Namini, just as Sulah could go home and relax.

Sulah saw a young girl with elaborately-braided hair come in and sit alone, her dress draped low over one shoulder. When Sulah looked again the girl had pulled her dress up over the knee to reveal strong brown thighs, the legs of a country girl. A man from the first group crossed the small room to join her, placing a coin in front of the girl before he sat down.

Trying not to stare, Sulah gathered up her things to leave. She slipped into the back room where Namini was filling bowls of dates and olives.

“Namini, is it possible there’s a woman selling her body in your tavern? I just saw a man offer money before he sat down with her.”

“Don’t worry Sulah, I know her. It’s a new thing some women are doing. You know it’s been a bad year for farmers in the west. She needs the money, has some debts to pay off for her parents. Better here than down by the city walls.”

Sulah frowned. “As long as you know what you’re doing. I’m off. See you soon.”

“See you pet.” Namini paused to unwind and repin her hair. “And by the way, you should speak to Mazana the midwife about your hands. She has a good selection of creams as well.”

“Where is she based?”

“Well, she moves around a lot, from baby to baby. Ask one of the women selling spices at the market, they’ll know where she is.”

“Thanks Namini. Have a good night … .”

On her way out Sulah cast one more glance at the girl with the braided hair who, realising she was being noticed, turned her head to the side, resting her elegant fingers under her chin in the classic pose of Tanta, the Goddess of Courage, but also, as every child in Zabala knew, the Goddess of Fear.

It was while I was researching an article recently for swissinfo.ch about prostitution and human trafficking in Switzerland that I realised how often this offensive cliché is still being used by fellow journalists. Can we move on please?

The importance of being Swiss

The boat is full
The boat is full

My husband picks his way through the crowded hall. It’s late and many people are sleeping but I am keeping watch over the children, waiting for his return. He kneels beside me and shows me a cereal bar in the inside pocket of his jacket. The little ones will have something to eat in the morning.

We huddle together, sharing the blanket. After a while I turn and search his face for information. His eyes do not meet mine. I wait for him to share his news. Here we have all time in the world.

“I heard something,” he finally whispers. “There’s going to be another resettlement contingent. Brazil has offered to take a small number of Swiss. There are 18 places on the boat tomorrow.”

I can hardly hear the last words he speaks but I know what this means. It is the news we have been waiting for, the news I have prayed for and dreaded every minute since we arrived in this godforsaken place.

“Did you put the names down?” He covers his face.

“Tell me you put your names down.” He nods.

He cannot speak so I say the lines for him. “You have to take this chance. There is no other way. As soon as I can I will follow you, find you. We have to think of the children.”

That night I dream of our old home in Switzerland, forever out of reach now in the contaminated zone. We are sitting around the table, talking and laughing. I can see the delicious fresh food and the happy healthy faces of my children and I feel blessed. I reach out to touch the cheek of my youngest but where there should be soft, warm skin there is nothing, only air. Trying to control my panic, I feel for the dishes and glasses, sweeping my hands up and down the table. Nothing. What terrifies me the most as I claw the air where my loved ones should be is that I cannot tell if I am the ghost at the table or if I am the only one left.

***

A piece of flash fiction there for the weekend, inspired by an important step I took today. After almost 11 years in Switzerland I have finally applied for citizenship. I could have done it any time since 2008 but I’ve waited until now. The question I’ve been asking myself is – why?

One thing is I’m not alone. Only a tiny percentage of the foreigners living in Switzerland (including second and third generation immigrants) who would be eligible to apply for naturalisation actually do so. The reasons for that reluctance are complex, like everything in this country, but to some extent it’s a standoff.

The non-Swiss are eyeing the Swiss as if to say: “I may be here but I’m not one of them.” Meanwhile the Swiss are holding up a sign in the four national languages: “You may be here but you are not one of us.”

There is some serious bridge-building needed in Switzerland right now and a terrible shortage of engineers. I would suggest bringing in some EU workers but I’m not sure that would go down well.

Yes Switzerland is multi-cultural, but it’s a place where identity matters. Identity matters to me too. Up to now I’ve always thought of myself more as an emigrant rather than an immigrant, as a way of holding on to the person who left Ireland in 2003.

I don’t mean I haven’t integrated; I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dropped in a fondue pot. What I mean is I was afraid I would lose something important by becoming Swiss. Now I feel differently. The long stay in Ireland last year helped. It reminded me that Ireland will always be there and I will always be Irish.

But my life is here now and I want to participate more in Swiss society and, most particularly, I want to vote. Don’t take the story too seriously, I am not applying for citizenship in case I become a refugee at a future date following a nuclear meltdown (there is a nuclear power plant nearby by the way, we get sent iodine tablets in the post every few years, just in case).

No, it’s just that after years of being a very welcome outsider, I am ready to take my place now among the Swiss on equal terms.

June Sailing (flash fiction)

What does a writer want? To be read. Since I started this blog I’ve written several short stories, some of which are short enough to qualify as flash fiction. My submission strategy is a bit haphazard, something I need to work on but it is based on the sound if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed principle. So I’m delighted to say that this weekend I saw my first story published online as part of National Flash Fiction Day UK. The link to June Sailing is here http://bit.ly/11XiU9g and there are lots of other stories to browse through if you’re curious. But if you only have time for my 500 words, read on!

June Sailing by Clare O’Dea

Nancy stuffed the ferry timetable under the tea towels when she heard the key in the door. Careless of her to be looking at it so late in the afternoon. Not that she needed to check this month, there was a sailing every day, sixteen down, fourteen to go. Quick as a cat, she sprang into the kitchen. It was important to be doing something when he arrived. She opened the fridge and started checking expiry dates. Bill appeared in the doorway, filling the space.

“Tea in ten minutes,” she said, gripping a milk carton. A welcome calm settled over the kitchen as the three men fell on the food. You could call them three men now; the boys had lost any echoes of childhood grace. Almost overnight they had changed into gruff creatures with hard arms and hard hearts. The spit of their father, people liked to say. Nancy leaned against the sink as usual, watching for a moment before she turned to start on the washing up. Bill spoke with his mouth full.

“Cut out the pot-walloping Nance.” She turned off the water immediately. Sometimes the noise bothered him, other times not. A minute passed, the men chomping, Nancy trying to gauge the tension. Hunching her shoulders slightly, she approached the table to pour the tea. No reaction. She melted back to her place at the sink. Her hands crept into her apron pocket where she started to pick furiously at the skin around her nails.

Nancy felt the first dull tug of period pain and her heart skipped. This little monthly victory was always welcome. Twelve years ago she was told she would never bear children again. ‘Can I have that in writing?’ she asked the doctor.

“Good grub,” Bill said, pushing his plate away. Nancy risked eye contact. He was smiling. In fact he only lost his temper once a week at most, and one of the things that set him off was her being timid. A more intelligent woman would know how to handle him better.

“You do a shopping today?” Nancy’s cheeks flared red, her terrified blood started to run for cover. This was his way of saying he knew. Bill took another slug of tea.
“Did you get the shaving foam?” False alarm, he hadn’t noticed her panic.
“It’s in the bathroom,” Nancy said, standing back to let her sons leave the room. The television went on in the lounge but Bill stayed, watching as she cleared the table.

“Here, you should get some new clothes,” he said, holding out a fifty. Nancy looked at the money as if it were something unfamiliar before reaching for it. Bill grabbed her wrist gently.

“Am I going to get a thank you?” She let him pull her in and sat on his lap for a kiss. That fifty brought her to her target. It would pay for the taxi to the ferry in the morning. Our last kiss, she thought and wrapped her arms around him.

Family Resemblance

The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)
The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)

Walter shook out his umbrella in jerking movements. “What a day,” Louisa said, stepping back to let him into the hall. She noticed he was wearing galoshes; Christopher would find that funny. In ceremonial style, Walter carefully arranged all his wet things on and around the coat stand and removed his sketch book from a damp leather satchel.

“Have you explained everything to them?” he asked, smoothing down his tweed suit. “Of course,” Louisa said, determined to be pleasant. She’d forgotten how blatantly he skipped social niceties.

“And they will cooperate?”

“They’re good girls Walter, you needn’t worry,” Louisa replied, her gaze criss-crossing his unlovely face. He was so like their father today with his bristly hair and manner. An image of the old man flickered in her memory, seated in his study, tilting his head so she could reach his cheek for a goodnight kiss. The last child of his third wife, even she could sense he was weary of playing Daddy by then. So different, she imagined, to Walter’s home life twenty years earlier.

A thump sounded from the dining room followed by muffled giggling and shushing. “Shall we?” Louisa said reaching for the door handle. She had issued strict instructions to the girls to stay in the room until she entered. Christopher agreed that it was time they stopped charging to the front door like hooligans every time there was a caller.

Nora was standing by the mantelpiece holding the lustre jug, her cheeks glowing pink, while Peggy and Maude sat straight-backed at the table. “It’s not broken,” Nora said, holding out the jug. Louisa took it from her eldest and touched her cheek gently. “Come and say hello to your uncle Walter.”

The girls lined up and shook hands with the visitor, looking angelic in their Sunday pinafores. Louisa was pleased to see the children were in awe of him and she hoped the feeling would last, keeping their behaviour in check.

Louisa waited for Walter to take charge but he stood as if in a daze, holding the sketch book to his chest. “How would you like to begin?” Louisa asked when the pause grew uncomfortably long. “Or would you prefer some refreshment first?”

Walter’s lips were trembling. “Could you ask them to sit at the table again? Perhaps they could gather at the corner and study something together?” He was almost whispering. The girls looked at their mother. “Here take this,” she said, pressing the jug back into Nora’s hands. The children followed his directions and Walter pulled out a chair for himself, positioning it by the sideboard.

Louisa glared a final warning at the girls and turned to Walter with a smile. “There. Should I leave you now?” Walter hesitated. “She’s just like my Gloria,” he said, staring at Nora. Louise looked and in that instant saw the resemblance and understood the loss for the first time. She squeezed his shoulder and left the room.

Inspired by The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)