Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Simple Wooden Boxes

I suppose everyone has one particular childhood Christmas that stands out more than any other. For me, it was the year that the Burlington factory in Scottsboro closed down. I was only a small child. I could not name for you the precise year; it is an insignificant blur in my mind, but the events of that Christmas will live forever in my heart.

My father, who had been employed at Burlington, never let on to us that we were having financial difficulties. After all, children live in a naive world in which money and jobs are nothing more than jabberwocky, and for us the excitement of Christmas could never be squelched. We knew only that our daddy, who usually worked long, difficult hours, was now home more than we had ever remembered; each day seemed to be a holiday.

Mama, a homemaker, now sought work in the local textile mills, but jobs were scarce. Time after time, she was told no openings were available before Christmas, and it was on the way home from one such distressing interview that she wrecked our only car. Daddy’s meagre unemployment check would now be our family’s only source of income. For my parents, the Christmas season brought mounds of worries, crowds of sighs and tears and cascades of prayers.

I can only imagine what transpired between my parents in those moments when the answer came. Perhaps it took a while for the ideas to fully form. Perhaps it was a merging of ideas from both of my parents. I don’t know for sure how the idea took life, but somehow it did. They would scrape together enough money to buy each of us a Barbie doll. For the rest of our presents, they would rely on their talents, using scraps of materials they already had.

While dark, calloused hands sawed, hammered and painted, nimble fingers fed dress after dress into the sewing machine. Barbie-sized bridal gowns, evening gowns...miniature clothes for every imaginable occasion pushed forward from the rattling old machine. Where we were while all of this was taking place, I have no idea. But somehow my parents found time to pour themselves into our gifts, and the excitement of Christmas was once again born for the entire family.

That Christmas Eve, the sun was just setting over the distant horizon when I heard the roar of an unexpected motor in the driveway. Looking outside, I could hardly believe my eyes. Uncle Buck and Aunt Charlene, Mama’s sister and her husband, had driven all the way from Georgia to surprise us. Packed tightly in their car, as though no air were needed, sat my three cousins, my “Aunt” Dean, who refused to be called “Aunt”, and both my grandparents. I also couldn’t help but notice innumerable gifts for all of us, all neatly packaged and tied with beautiful bows. They had known that it would be a difficult Christmas and they had come to help.

The next morning we awoke to more gifts than I ever could have imagined. And, though I don’t have one specific memory of what any of the toys were, I know that there were mountains of toys. Toys! Toys! Toys!

And it was there, amidst all that jubilation, that Daddy decided not to give us his gifts. With all of the toys we had gotten,t here was no reason to give us the dollhouse that he had made. They were rustic and simple red boxes, after all. Certainly not as good as the store-bought gifts that Mama’s family had brought. The music of laughter filled the morning, and we never suspected that, hidden somewhere, we each had another gift.

When Mama asked Daddy about the gifts, he confided his feelings, but she insisted he give us our gifts. And so, late that afternoon, after all of the guests had gone, Daddy reluctantly brought his gifts of love to the living room.

Wooden boxes. Wooden boxes, painted red, with hinged lids, so that each could be opened and used as a house. On either side was a compartment just big enough to store a Barbie doll, and all the way across, a rack on which to hang our Barbie clothes. On the outside was a handle, so that when it was closed, held by a magnet that looked remarkably like an equal sign, the house could be carried suitcase style. And, though I don’t really remember any of the other gifts I got that day, those boxes are indelibly etched into my mind. I remember the texture of the wood, the exact shade of the red paint, the way he pull of the magnet felt when I closed the lid, the time-darkened handles and hinges...I remember how the clothes hung delicately on the hangers inside, and how I had to be careful not to pull Barbie’s hair when I closed the lid. I remember everything that is possibly rememberable, because we kept and cherished those boxes long after our Barbie doll days were over.
I have lived and loved 29 Christmases, each new and fresh with an air of excitement all its own. Each filled with love and hope. Each bringing gifts, cherished and longed for. But ferw of those gifts compare with those simple, wooden boxes. So it is no wonder that I get teary-eyed when I think of my father, standing there on that cold Christmas morning, wondering if his gift was good enough.

Love, Daddy, is always good enough.

-Martha Pendergrass Templeton-

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Christmas Apple


Once upon a time there lived in the city of Tyrol a little clock-maker by the name of Hermann Joseph. He lived in one little room with a bench for his work, and a chest for his wood, and his tools, and a cupboard for dishes, and a trundle bed under the bench. Besides these there was a stool, and that was all, excepting the clocks.

There were hundreds of clocks: little and big, carved and plain, some with wooden faces and some with porcelain ones – shelf clocks, cuckoo clocks, clocks with chimes and clocks without and they all hung on the walls, covering them quite up. In front of his one little window there was a little shelf, and on this Hermann put all his best clocks to show the passer-bys. Often they would stop and look and someone would say, “See, Hermann Joseph has made a new clock. It is finer than any of the rest!”

Then if it happened that anybody was wanting a clock he would come in and buy it.

I said Hermann was a little clockmaker. That was because his back was bent and his legs were crooked, making him very short and funny to look at. But there was no kinder face than his in all the city, and the children loved him. Whenever a toy was broken or a doll had lost an arm or a leg or an eye its careless mother would carry it straight to Hermann’s little shop.

“The little one needs mending,” she would say. “Can you do it now for me?”

And whatever work Hermann was doing, he would always put it aside to mend the broken toy or doll, and never a penny would he take for the mending.

“Go put it by till Christmas-time,” he would always say.

Now it was the custom, in that long ago for those who lived in the city to bring gifts to the great cathedral on Christmas and lay them before the Holy Mother and Child. People saved all through the year that they might have something wonderful to bring on that day; and there was a saying among them that when a gift was brought that pleased the Christ Child more than any other He would reach down from Mary’s arms and take it.

This was but a saying, of course. Old Mr Graff, the oldest man in the city could not remember that it had ever really happened; and there were many who laughed at the very idea. But children often talked about it, and poets made beautiful verses about it; and often when a rich gift was placed beside the altar the watchers would whisper among themselves, “Perhaps now we shall see the miracle.”

Those who had no gifts to bring went to the cathedral just the same on Christmas Eve to see the gifts of the others and hear the carols and watch the burning of the waxen tapers. The little clockmaker was one of these. Often, he was stopped and someone would ask, “How is it that you never bring a gift?” Once the Bishop himself questioned him: “Poorer than thou have brought offerings to the Child. Where is thy gift?”

Then it was that Hermann had answered: “Wait; you shall see. I, too, shall bring a gift someday.”

The truth of it was that the little clockmaker was so busy giving things away all the year that there was never anything left at Christmas-time. But he had a wonderful idea on which he was working every minute that he could spare from his clocks. It had taken him years and years; no one knew anything about it but Trude, his neighbour’s daughter, and Trude had grown from a baby into a little house-mother, and still the gift was not finished.

It was to be a clock, the most wonderful and beautiful clock ever made; every part of it to be fashioned with loving care. The case, the works, the weights, the hands, and the face had all taken years of labour. He had spent years carving the case and hands, years perfecting the works; and now Hermann saw that with a little more haste and time he could finish it for the coming Christmas.

He mended the children’s toys as before, but he gave up making his regular clocks, so there were fewer to sell, and often his cupboard was empty and he went supperless to bed. But that only made him a little thinner and his face a little kinder; and meantime the gift clock become more and more beautiful.

It was fashioned after a rude stable with rafters and a small crib. The Holy Mother knelt beside the manger in which a tiny Christ child lay, while through the open door the hours came. Three were kings and three were shepherds and three were soldiers and three were angels; and when the hours struck, they knelt in adoration before the sleeping Child, while the silver chimes played the “Magnificat.”

“You see,” said the clock-maker to Trude, “it is not just on Sundays and holidays that we should remember to worship the Christ Child and bring Him gifts – but every day, every hour.”

The days went by like clouds scudding before a winter wind and the clock was finished at last. So happy was Hermann with his work that he put the gift clock on the shelf before the little window to show the passers-by. There were crowds looking at it all day long, and many would whisper, “Do you think this can be the gift Hermann has spoken of – his offering on Christmas Eve to the Church?”

The day before Christmas came Hermann cleaned up his little shop, wound all his clocks, brushed his clothes, and then went over the gift clock again to be sure everything was perfect.

“It will not look bad beside the other gifts,” he thought happily. In fact he was so happy that he gave away all but one penny to the blind beggar who passed his door and then, remembering that he had eaten nothing since breakfast, he spent that last penny on a Christmas apple to eat with a crust of bread he had. He was putting them in a cupboard to eat after he was dressed, when the door opened and Trude was standing there crying.

“Child, child, what is the matter?” And he gathered her into his arms.

“’Tis father. He is hurt, and all the money that was put by for the tree and sweets and toys has gone to the doctor. And now, how can I tell the children? Already they have lighted the candle at the window and are waiting for Kris Kringle to come.”
The clock-maker laughed merrily.

“Come, come, little one, all will be well. Hermann will sell a clock for you. Some house in the city must need a clock; and in a wink we shall have enough money for the tree and the toys. Go home and sing.”

He buttoned on his greatcoat and, picking out the best of the old clocks, he went out. He went first to the rich merchants, but their houses were full of clocks; then to the journeymen, but they said his clock was old fashioned. He even stood on the corner of the streets and in the square, crying, “A clock – a good clock for sale,” but no one paid any attention to him. At last he gathered up his courage and went to the richest man in the city.

“Will your Excellency buy a clock?” he said, trembling at his own boldness. “I would not ask, but it is Christmas and I am needing to buy happiness for some children.” The rich man smiled.

“Yes, I will buy a clock, but not that one. I will pay a thousand dollars for the clock you have had in your window these four days past.”

“But, your Excellency, that is impossible!” And poor Hermann trembled harder than ever.

“Poof! Nothing is impossible. That clock or none. Go home and I will send for it in half an hour, and pay you the thousand dollars.”

The little clock-maker stumbled out.

“Anything but that – anything but that!” he kept mumbling over and over to himself on his way home. But as he passed the neighbour’s house he saw the children at the window with their lighted candle and he heard Trude singing.

And so it happened that the servant who came for the rich man carried the gift clock away with him. But the clockmaker would take but five of the thousand dollars in payment. And as the servant disappeared up the street the chimes commenced to ring from the great cathedral, and the streets suddenly became noisy with the many people going thither, bearing the Christmas offerings.

“I have gone empty-handed before,” said the little clockmaker, sadly. “I can go empty-handed once again.” And again he buttoned up his greatcoat.

As he turned to shut his cupboard door behind him his eyes fell on the Christmas apple and an odd little smile crept into the corners of this mouth and lighted his eyes.

“It is all I have – my dinner for two days. I will carry that to the Christ Child. It is better, after all, than going empty-handed.”

How full of peace and beauty was the great cathedral when Hermann entered it! There were a thousand tapers burning and everywhere the sweet scent of the Christmas greens – and the laden altar before the Holy Mother and Child.

There were richer gifts than had been brought for many years: marvelously wrought vessels from the greatest silversmiths; cloth of gold and cloth of silk brought from the East by the merchants; poets had brought their songs illuminated on rolls of heavy parchment; painters had brought their pictures of saints and the Holy Family; even the King himself had brought his crown and sceptre to lay before the Child. And after all these offerings came the little clockmaker, walking slowly down the long, dim aisle, holding tightly to his Christmas apple.

The people saw him and a murmur hummed a moment indistinctly through the church and then grew clear and articulate:

“Shame! See, he is too mean to bring his clock! He hoards it as a miser hoards his gold. See what he brings? Shame!”

The words reached Hermann and he stumbled on blindly, his head dropped forward on his breast, his hands groping the way. The distance seemed interminable. Now he knew he was past the seats; his feet touched the first step, and there were seven to climb to the altar. Would his feet never reach the top?

“One, two, three,” he counted to himself, then tripped and almost fell. “Four, five, six.” He was nearly there. There was but one more.

The murmur of shame died away and in its place rose one of wonder and awe. Soon the words became intelligible:

“The miracle! It is the miracle!”

The people knelt in the big cathedral; the Bishop raised his hands in prayer. And the little clockmaker, stumbling to the last step, looked up through dim eyes and saw the Child leaning towards him, far down from Mary’s arms, with hands outstretched to take his gift.

-Ruth Sawyer-

Monday, 29 August 2011

Good Neighbours

I'm munching cookies and listening to James Taylor's New Moon Shine. I've never updated this blog twice in one day, but there is a first time for everything.

I just got back the police station. Someone tried to break into my neighbour's house on Saturday afternoon while she was sleeping. He made a hole in ceiling of three rooms - first the bathroom, then two of the bedrooms, to see if he could find some purchase, something on which to jump on. Our ceilings tend to be a little high here.

She heard the noise but as is the way of terrace houses, thought it was coming from one of the neighbours. Maybe us. Maybe my father was up to something, knocking and hammering away.

She continued to sleep, but whatever was happening sounded too close to home. It couldn't be my father. When she came out of her room and investigated, she discovered the holes in the ceiling.

Oh My Gawd!

She let out a screech that should have roused the dead. Unfortunately, the two neighbours on either side (my Dad and the old nosey woman on the other side) were fast asleep and they failed to hear anything. Neither, apparently did our two dogs. The rest of us weren't there.

She ran to the kitchen in time to see the man leap off the roof and run to the park behind. As it is the Raya holidays, she couldn't get the holes fixed.

The neighbour lady, whose name I still don't know, was telling me this, as I went out to let Arnold out for a bit after his lunch. I can't let Maggot out as that white dog tends to not come back when let out. We don't know if he's being naughty or if he's simply lost his way.

I asked her if she had made a report. She said no. She was too scared to leave the house on Saturday. I said, no, you have to make a report, if only so the police can have it on record. I'll take you.

She was surprised. She hadn't even thought to ask me for help, even though I obviously do have a car. And I felt a little sad that neighbourliness was such a thing of the past. I mean, neighbours can be nosey now as they were then, but they won't be helpful. Each of us in our little teflon pods, not bothering to get involved, not caring.

So I had a quick shower and off we went. She kept talking, words pouring out over each other on the short drive there. How nervous she was, how all alone, how scared.

(I have written elsewhere in other pages about wishing I had been a better neighbour to her and I was glad that finally I was given a chance to make good on my words)

We got to the police station and this nice well-fed policewoman took down our report. She was a little brusque to begin with but she softened up and at the end she was actually smiling. I think she could feel for this lonely woman, living alone, three holes in the roof, so scared. We got the number of the police station, as well as the number of the HQ...so my neighbour could call at once if there was any more disturbance (she hadn't known what number to call before) to get one of the patrol cars come to her house. It's not much, but it's something.

Then I wrote down our house number, Dadda's mobile, my mobile.

As we were driving back, she offered to pay for the parking (it was a princely sum of 60 sen) and for my petrol. I shushed her and told her to pin those numbers up "big big" on her bedroom wall. And said, next time you need a lift to the police station, don't be shy to ask. After all, we have cars. (I was remembering all of December when I didn't and how awkward that had been).

She told me she had been a tailor before. She tailored clothes for Japanese clients and then her clientele had dried up as the ladies moved back to Japan with their husbands. And besides, she was getting old and her eyesight wasn't what it was before. And then she started babysitting. And now she wondered how long that would last. What with all these disturbances.

She's a good neighbour. Unfailingly pleasant and cheerful. Good neighbours are rare.

I suggested she get a dog but she said that would limit her movements tremendously. After all, a dog needs to be fed, walked and cared for daily. Even if it's just a guard dog. (Personally I think if she did get a dog she would get attached to it and not mind the other stuff so much, but I shall not be a dog proselytizer on the strength of my Arnold boy, who's sleeping near me, content after his meal, with his little cone encircling his head).

Anyway, I was glad I got to help. And I was glad that she agreed to be helped. And I was glad that the policewoman turned out to be so nice.

Father Hens



The night after we brought our first child home from the hospital, I held him in the streetlight half-darkness of our living room. Joshua was crying, a little pink bird, his breath ragged, his arms and legs stretching aimlessly. I sang him an old Irish tune and found Mackey – from the Gaelic word for son.

In those first moments of fatherhood, I imagined all the daring acts I would perform in my boy’s defense, all the intruders I would subdue. I laughed, noticing with a shiver the contrast between my dark fantasies and the perfect sweet-soft boy I cradled. As he fell asleep, a smudge of yawn and mew, I thought about my own father and a legacy that has made its way into my heart.

My father was a mother hen. Though it was my mother who raised the seven of us and did the thousand daily chores the brood demanded, it was my father’s job to worry about us. For him, it was an article of faith that life was out to get us kids, that no creatures as fine as his children could be safe in this brutal world.

He came by his concern honestly. He was a doctor, a general practitioner with a thriving practice. He saw the dreadful things that couldn’t possibly happen to children, except that they did. He warned us about lawn mowers, diving boards, lighter fluid, fish hooks, hunks of steak, “projectiles” of all sorts. He warned us about traffic, doors, windows and ice. He told us cautionary tales about broken bones, sledding accidents, a boy killed on a horse. A garrulous, cheerful man, he was also a connoisseur of chaos.

When our son was born, my wife and I began baby-proofing our apartment. We bought caps for outlets, cushions for sharp corners. We locked closets, installed gates, stashed matches, checked the floor for splinters.

And then we waited as Josh blossomed into danger, lifting his head, rolling over, crawling. Finally he stood up and walked, a staggering little drunk with a rabbit on his shirt. Suddenly he was tall enough to bang his head on the dining room table, then nimble enough to scramble over a chair. Each accomplishment brought new peril. I thought we would never be able to protect him. Once when he was six months old I had a dream about him. We were caught in a lightning storm, and I saw myself crouching over Josh, pleading with the sky.

About lightning, my father was a poet of doom. We were not only to come inside at the first drop of rain, but we were also to stay away from windows. According to Dad, no prudent person even took a shower when it was raining. When my brother Kevin and I were teenagers, Dad once drove his car across a golf course to scoop us from the fourteenth green. We thought Mom had died. No so. Dad had heard a weather report that rain was on the way.

Dad was a genius in his caution. Yes, we had to agree, it was not impossible to choke on a croquet mallet, and yes, though we’d never heard of anybody suffocating in a baseball mitt, we supposed that, too, could happen.
About driving, he was a master. Statistics had proved that there were more drunk drivers on the road on Sunday afternoon than any other time of the week. Or perhaps it was during Lent, or when it was hot – he would customise his warnings to fit each situation. As for sleeping over at friends’ houses, he was a stickler. He wanted his kids home.

He did, however, make one exception. When Kevin and I were Boy Scouts, we asked, with little hope, if we could go on a canoe trip. My father replied with all sorts of questions: What adults were going? How long would it last? We answered in reassuring tones, awaiting his inevitable response: more Irish-Catholic boys died in canoe trips than in World War II.

Suddenly he got up and called the Scoutmaster, asking questions, greeting each response with a skeptical grunt. Hanging up, he rubbed his hands in excitement. “Good news, boys,” he chirped. “I’m going with you. The O’Neils hit the Great White North.”

We couldn’t believe it. We wondered if Dad knew that camping meant sleeping outside, the place where it rained. Where bears lived. We arrived at the lake, convinced the sight of water would remind Dad that most people died of drowning. But no. We set out into the setting orange sun, a string of canoes, each loaded with two boys and a man. That night we pitched tents, cooked burgers, put on sweaters against the October chill and fell asleep, canvas-covered and little-boy-bone-tired in the grip of an adventure.

Morning came, cold and wet. Bundled in sweaters and rain gear, we set off across the lake. We were the last canoe in the chain, and the wind made the lake tough going. Before long, as the fog grew thick and the wind beat the waters into a gray-white chop, we lost sight of the rest of the boats. From the stern came, “Let’s catch up, boys,” and I laid my eighty-two pounds heartily into the paddle. Suddenly a wave hit the canoe broadside, overturning it, and dropping us into the frigid lake. We were a few hundred yards from a small island. As I came bobbing up, I thought this was going to be a great adventure. But when I saw my father, his hair soaked crazily to his head, his face a white mask, I knew this was no adventure. That remains the only time I have ever seen him scared. He glanced at me and looked quickly around. “Kev-in!” he barked.

“I’m over here, Dad,” Kevin said from the far side of the overturned canoe. “I’m all right.”

“Hang on to the boat, boys,” Dad said calmly. “I’m going to push it to the island.”

“Why don’t we just swim, Dad?” I asked.

“Hang on to the boat, Hugh!” he shouted like a stranger.

Dad struggled with the clumsy canoe, and it began to move toward the island, saddled with two shivering forms, a submarine now, headed for landfall. Suddenly, my father let out a giant roar. “Help! Help!” It scared me. “Help!” he shouted again.
“They didn’t hear...” Kevin began.

“Quiet!” Dad yelled, and as his voice caromed off the wind, an engine snarled to life, yapping across the water toward us. Finally the shape emerged from the fog, one man standing up in the bow, a second one crouched over an outboard motor – a gray presence coming out of a muted white morning sun. They fished us out of the water.

“Don’t worry, boys. You’re okay.”

When we got to the island, the men started a bonfire.

Dad took off all his clothes, told us to do the same, and we stood next to the blaze, three naked heathens. I remember its heat coming at me in great thumping waves. I remember my father wrapping his arms around us – rubbing our hands, our arms, our feet, our hearts. “Thank you, fellas,” he said to the men across the flames. “You saved my boys.”

When I was sixteen my father’s caution began to drive me crazy. Here I was taxiing for takeoff and he had his arms around my ankles. I used to imagine the romantic lives my friends led – letting the wind whip through their windows, staying out till all hours, taking showers in all kinds of weather.

Now, from my new-parent perspective, Dad’s caution makes sense. In fact, I occasionally wonder whether my father wasn’t a bit cavalier. After all, he let me play Little League baseball, a game in which an oversized twelve-year old throws a rock-hard sphere with as much velocity as possible toward your child.

As parents, we want it both ways. We want our kids to know all the world’s exhilarating stuff. But we want them to learn about it in a padded room down the hall. And this feeling never ends. Not long ago we shared a rented beach house with my brother and his family, and our parents came to visit us. As Kevin and I bounded around the surf, riding the waves on our bellies, I looked up and saw my mother and father walking along the water’s edge, trying to look casual, but gesturing for us to come in, and finally shouting across the wind to their grown sons, “Boys, don’t go out too far!”

Though I talk to my father rarely these days, he is never far away. Recently, my wife and I were planning to escape on our first childless vacation, and I heard myself suggesting that we take separate planes. If we did, although the chance of Josh’s losing one parent was doubled, the chance of his losing both virtually disappeared. After thanking me for a cheerful start to our vacation, Jody recognised my father’s style.

“Did your parents fly separately,” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “They stayed home.”

-Hugh O'Neil-

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Christmas Mother


As a kid growing up in Chicago, the winter weather was cause enough to remember a few Noels with a twinge of discomfort. My brother and I, however, had other things working against us well way back in 1925.

Our dad had died three years before, leaving our mom with only her pride and a strong back.

My brother, Ned, was four years older than me and went to school. It was necessary for my mom to take me with her to the only job she could find – a cleaning lady. In those days, work was scarce and money was scarcer. I remember watching Mom hour after hour scrubbing floors and walls, on her hands and knees or sitting on the outside of a window sill washing windows, four stories off the ground in freezing weather – all for 25 cents an hour!

It was the Christmas Eve of 1925 that I shall never forget. Mom had just finished working on the near Northside and we headed home on one of the big, red, noisy and cold Chicago streetcars. Mom had earned her $2.25 for nine hours of work plus a jar of tomato jam as a Christmas present. I remember after she lifted me onto the rear platform of the streetcar, how she searched through her precious few coins for five pennies and a nickel. Her fare was seven cents and mine was three cents. As we sat together on the cold seats we held hands: the roughness of her hands almost scratched my cold hands as she held them tightly in hers.

I knew it was Christmas Eve, and even though I was only five, the past few Christmases had conditioned me not to expect anything more than some extra food, a visit to Marshall Fields’ window display of animated toys and snow, and other kids’ excitement.

With Mom’s hand in mine and the knowledge that our Christmas basket had been delivered by Big Brothers, a charitable organisation, I felt a warm sense of security as we headed home.

We had just passed a major intersection where Wieboldts, a large department store, was letting out the last of its shoppers before closing for Christmas Eve. Their feelings of holiday cheer, cries of joy and happiness could be felt and heard through the cold, steel walls and noise of the travelling streetcar. I was insensitive to the joy but as I looked up at Mom I could feel her body racked with pain. Tears streamed down her weathered face. She squeezed my hand as she released it to wipe away her tears with her chapped and cracking hands. I will always remember her hands with the swollen knuckles, enlarged veins, and coarse surface that somehow reflected her sacrifices, her honesty and her love.

The bitter cold struck our faces like a slap as we stepped down from the streetcar and onto the icy, snow-covered streets.

I walked close to Mom to stay warm and looked into the front-room windows that framed brightly lit Christmas trees. Mom walked straight ahead without a side glance, one of her ungloved hands holding mine, the other holding a paper shopping bag which contained her soiled white uniform and the jar of tomato jam.

Our flat was a corner unit in the middle of the block. Each Christmas, Nick, the barber, sold Christmas trees on an empty lot next to his shop. In those days, tree lots were sold out long before Christmas Eve, leaving only broken or dead brown branches covering the ground. As we passed the quiet, emptied lot, Mom dropped my hand and picked up a bundle of broken, discarded pine-needle branches.

Our second-story flat was without heat except for a small pot-bellied stove in the kitchen. Ned and I fed the stove with coal that dropped off railroad cars a couple of blocks away and with wooden fruit boxes that we found in the alley next to our house. It was natural for each of us to bring home anything that would burn.
As we climbed the dingy, uncarpeted, wooden stairs to our flat, I’m sure my relief was only minimal compared with Mom’s. We opened the door to the front room that felt like a refrigerator. The still air actually made it colder than it was outside.
There was a front bedroom, off of the front room, and Ned’s bedroom, next to the kitchen, which were no warmer. The door to the kitchen was kept closed to keep what little heat there was in the bathless bathroom, the rear bedroom, and the worn linoleum-covered kitchen. Other than two beds and a lion-clawed wood table with four chairs, there was no other furniture or floor covering in the entire flat.
Ned had started a fire and had pulled up close to the stove to absorb what little heat it afforded and fortunately was absorbed in an old issue of Boy’s Life. Mom unbundled me and sat me next to the stove, then prepared the table for our Christmas feast.

There were few words spoken because the season was about joy, giving, receiving and love. With the exception of love, there was an obvious void in the remaining Christmas features. We sat facing the little wood stove as we ate canned ham, vegetables and bread. Our faces flushed with the heat as the cold attacked our backs.
I remember that my only concerns that evening were having to go to bed early because of no heat and the shock of cold sheets.

As usual, we washed our hands and faces in cold water, brushed our teeth and made a Rambo-like charge to our respective deep freezes. I curled up in a foetal position between the two sheets of ice with my socks and Ace cap still on. A cold draft of air attacked my behind because one button was missing from my thin, second-hand long underwear. There was no great anticipation about what I would or would not receive for Christmas, so I fell asleep fast and soundly.

Because the streetlight was directly opposite my bedroom window and the Oscar Mayer slaughterhouses were only half a block away, it was common for large trucks to wake me up several times a night. But at my age and with the cold, it was no challenge to escape back to my dreams.

During the twilight before dawn, I awoke. The streetlight clearly illuminated Mom’s ticking tin clock (with one missing foot). I hadn’t heard the milkman ratting bottles or his horses’ hoofs in the alley, so I knew I could sleep at least a few hours longer.

However, when I looked over to see my mother sleeping beside me, I realised that she hadn’t been to bed yet. Suddenly I was wide awake in a state of panic, wondering if Mom was sick or if she possible and finally had had enough and left.

The trucks had passed but my panic had not as I lay there staring at the streetlight with my wool cap over my eyebrows and flannel blankets up to my eyes. I couldn’t imagine life without Mom.

I lay in the icy stillness, afraid to get up and confirm my fears, but totally incapable of going back to sleep. Then, I heard a grinding, twisting sound coming from the kitchen. It was as constant as machine: it would stop for a few seconds, then continue, then pause again.

As best as I could tell time at that age, I figured it was about 5am. With the darkness of winter there was no assurance of what time it really was, other than it was long past the time Mom should have been to bed.

As much as I feared the truth, I knew I had to find it. I rolled under the covers to the edge of the bed and dropped my stocking-covered to the cold, bare wood floor. With the streetlight illuminating the bedroom, I could see my breath as clear as if I were out in the street.

Once into the darkness of the front room, I was guided to the kitchen by a light glowing from under the door which ajar. The grinding and twisting sound became louder as I approached. The stove had been out for hours and I could see Mom’s breath as well as my own. Her back was toward me. She had wrapped a blanket over her head and back for some small insulation against the cold.

On the floor to the right was her favourite broom, but the handle had been whittled off just above the sweeping portion. She was working at the old wood table: I had never seen such total concentration and dedication in my life. In front of her was what appeared to be some sort of a disfigured Christmas tree. As I stared in awe her effort became apparent to me. She was using her broken kitchen knife to drill holes in her broom handles into which she had inserted the branches of Nick’s empty tree lot. Suddenly it became the most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever seen in my life. Many of the irregular holes had not been effective in supporting the branches which were held in place with butcher’s string.

As she continued to twist and dig another slot for the remaining branches, my eyes dropped to her feet, where a small can of red paint was still open. A wet brush lay next to it. On the other side of her chair there were two towels on the floor that were almost covered with red toys: a fire engine with two wheels missing off of the back; the caboose’s roof bent in half; a jack out-of-the-box, with no head; and a doll’s head with no body. I felt no cold, no fears, no pain, but rather the greatest flow of love I have ever felt in my life. I stood motionless and silent as tears poured from my eyes.

Mom never stopped for a second as I silently turned and walked slowly back to my bedroom. I have had love in my life and received some elaborate gifts through the years, but how can I ever hope to receive more costly gifts or more sacrificial love. I shall never forget my mother or the Christmas of 1925.

John Doll

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Remembering Necker

This should have been featured on August 21, the birthday of the friend who wrote it. But it's being featured today instead, a tribute to the Necker Island that burned down, and the one that is going to be rebuilt. I remember when Nits came back from the trip, eyes aglow, full of exuberance. I remember chatting with her online as she wrote the story.

There was much joy in the making...so here it is:

By Anita Gabriel



THE West Indies' trade winds caress me as I loll about in a rich burnt orange-coloured day bed by the soft white sand beach. The soothing sounds of seagulls, splashing water, and a woman trainer saying “one-two-three and again ...” and intermittent chuckles are my lullaby as I drift in and out of my siesta.

It feels like a dream. But reality, this time, doesn't bite. I'm chilling at Sir Richard Branson's private paradise Necker in the blue Caribbean sea of the British Virgin Islands – his home, playground and workplace all wrapped up in one resplendent, magnificent Balinese structure spanning 74 acres.

A masculine laughter gently nudges me from my slumber; Branson is taking a stab at aqua aerobics with a few women staff in his beach pool. The weather that sunny afternoon, like everything else in Necker, is deliciously warm.

A little later, he pulls himself out of the pool and says: “A little bit more of this (he lifts his arms over his head and mimics a fish-swimming motion) and no one's going to take me seriously ...”. We laugh, concluding that aqua aerobics may be too feminine a sport for him. He trots off bare feet to play a game of tennis with Pete and I'm off to freshen up after an immensely rewarding two-hour massage at his Bali Leha Spa, perched atop a cliff and carved out of a hillside overlooking the spectacular Caribbean vistas. We promise to meet later for dinner at his beach pool's dining pavilion with a small group of his staff – his “extended family”.

Rollin' the dice with Branson

It's a cool night and true to the Virgin Group's business ethos, I'm having so much fun.

We have just finished a light salmon dinner, followed by the traditional English strawberries and cream. Branson suggests we play a game of Perudo or Liar's Dice Game - a traditional Peruvian game where each player has a cup and five dice, which we shake and mix then flip over the table using the cups as shield.

Simply put, players take turns in each round to guess how many dice shows a certain number and if they bid correct, they gain a dice and vice versa. The object is to be the last player with one or more dice.

"Anita, go for two ones," suggests Branson. He is out of the game, having lost all his dice after several rounds and is now guiding me as it's my first shot at this game.

A gentle breeze and the rhythmic sound of lapping waves accompany us on this lovely night. I follow my gut instincts instead - "three ones" I holler, when it's my turn to bid.

My wild stab in the dark is correct and it earns me a look of praise from Branson. "Good one. That was a good move," he smiles as he nods appreciatively.

As the game comes to a close, Pete emerges winner but my elation is stronger than ever. I've managed to outguess Branson, a sweet touch indeed to my perfect Caribbean sojourn.

The day before

“I feel guilty that you've come all the way just to interview me for an hour or so,” he remarks, a day earlier after about a two-hour long interview.

Branson is waiting for me, seated at one corner of his great home when I arrive. His home and the private island retreat for celebrities (reported to cost a whopping US$46,000 a night) appear to be undergoing some renovation. He calls this his “melting pot where we all take stock of what is happening and get away from everything apart from the fax machine.”

Two or three of his staff are at a nook in the centre of the grand home clad in sun dresses or shorts, hair clammed or scrunched up working away or sorting through some papers.

I notice Branson has scribbled some notes on his left hand – a reminder of sorts. He ushers me to the main part of the house, then leads me to a terrace where a hammock is strung up against one of the most picturesque views of the turquoise sea.

He gestures towards a large wooden day bed with a breathtaking view and asks: “Is this spot okay with you?” as he throws himself over and slides up the bed. I choke in disbelief and wilfully resist the urge to gawk. Instead, I pretend as if it were perfectly normal to conduct interviews in that manner. “Sure, no problem at all, Richard” and I slide next to him, separated only by a functional wooden tray with chilled beverage, to begin the interview, against the ever-soothing rush of the waves. - Aug 2007

Friday, 26 August 2011

Nobody's Worth It

Anita and I were having lunch and she called this up on her iPhone and then waited till I read the entire story. I was mesmerised. Then she said....you should put this up on your blog.

So I am. And here it is:

This is a true story as published in Sydney Morning Herald, about one lady who stepped off the beautiful cliffs of The Gap @ Watson's Bay Sydney. I chose the title: Nobody's Worth It, the line from the song by Queen .. "Don't Try Suicide, Nobody's Worth It" ... seriously folks, nobody's worth it.

SMH:
It is one of those things. Sometimes you write something that seems to touch a chord with readers, and in 25 years of writing for the SMH, I don't think I have ever had a greater, nor more poignant response than this piece. All of us have been touched by the subject of suicide in some measure, and my best hope is that this story might give hope to those who contemplate it. And I am quite serious, by the way, about there being a need to have a plaque at the Gap, at the spot Nellie jumped, telling something of her story.

t can be a place of tragedy but The Gap has witnessed miracles, too.
Advertisement: Story continues below
Nellie Bishop is not the patron saint of those who would hurl themselves into oblivion from The Gap, there on the cruel cliffs overlooking the ocean, but she should be.

For look at her now. It is a bright, beautiful Tuesday afternoon, November 13, 1923. She is a strong, athletic young woman, in a long dress - until recently, a clerk with the railways, living with her parents at Kogarah - and there seems nothing to mark her out from the passers-by, other than the intent way she gazes at the rocks below.

And yet, suddenly, she puts down her handbag and climbs through the small fence. She does not feel afraid. Only determined.

She simply puts her hands to her face and ... leaps.

Why did she jump? It's complicated. To her family and friends, she seemed happy enough. But the misery that propelled her over the cliff was well hidden.
Certainly, a large part of it was a broken romance.

For Nellie, the love of her life had been one James William Gallagher, a fine, strapping young man whom she had grown up with. She had been so proud of him - if fearful, too - when, in 1915, he had marched away to the Great War.
Alas, although James had returned in 1919, walking, talking and with both arms intact and nary a wound visible, he was not the complete man who had left her.

Tragically, James had taken a bullet to his nether regions and so was fearful that having children was out of the question.

The shattered James tried to make the best of it, saying that, while of course he still wanted to marry her, he did not want children, anyway.

But Nellie did want children - it was the dearest desire of her life. The pain of their subsequent falling out broke her heart and also, at least momentarily, her mind.

At the instant she jumps, however, with the wind rushing around her ears and blowing up her dress, she bitterly regrets her action and decides she does want to live after all.

But it is too late! Or is it?

Through an extraordinary, once-in-a-century quirk of fate, a freak wave engulfs the rocks below with such a flood that she hits deep water instead. She's alive!
Two old Italian fishermen - the brothers Rosario and Vincent Diamente - are nearby and look over to see her hit the water. They row like mad things towards her. The brave fishermen get to her, just six yards from the cliff face, where she is furiously treading water.

In the roar of the waves, nearly dashing themselves and her on the rocks in the process, they manage to get her on their boat.

Nellie is taken to hospital, where she spends the night, and is released the next day to her astounded and relieved family.

The upshot? Despite the blackness that propelled her to jump, despite being firmly convinced that there was no way out for her, that death was better than life, she was totally, comprehensively and stunningly wrong.

For Nellie Bishop really did live happily ever after.

She fell in love again with a good man and had eight wonderful children. Five of them joined the police force and one, Bob Bradbury, became NSW's highest-ranking detective.

One of her dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Bill Bradbury, became a police negotiator and ended up spending a proportion of his life successfully talking people out of committing suicide at The Gap. He had a story to tell them ...

Nudging 90, Nellie passed away from natural causes in 1988 as the matriarch of a large and loving family. There should, at the least, be a plaque to her at The Gap, at the highest point where she jumped, telling something of her story.

With thanks to the Bradbury family and acknowledgment to The Sun (November 14, 1923) and The Daily Guardian (November 16, 1923).



Thursday, 25 August 2011

Between Smiles

Things are a little chaotic at the moment, and I am a little bewildered. I feel tired and there is this road stretching in front of me that I have to sprint across...running, running, running, getting nowhere fast. I know that the first thing to suffer will be this blog. Because I may not have the energy to update it. But I have committed to updating it for a year...and do you know what? Today is day 102! Can you believe it? That I found 102 joy-filled things, pictures, videos or poems to put on my blog?

Round of applause.

I'm celebrating me.

Anyways, to ensure that this blog is updated during a period of great stress in my life (the more things unravel, the more they stay the same) I will be featuring the stories that went into the Christmas collection last year. I typed them out, made them into little booklets and gave them to about 10 special people. I also made a Christmas collection CD. And wassail. And cake. (This last has proved to be the most popular draw for this blog - I notice that people from all over the world stop by to see how to make the double fudge brownies - whatever floats your boat, I guess).

Later for you.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Monet Refuses the Operation


(Morning Coffee, Diane Leonard)

Doctor, you say there are no halos
around the streetlights of Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction,
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don't see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don't know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

-Lisel Mueller-

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Let's Tear This Century A New One!


In honour of my sister Jackie's 34th birthday, I thought I'd feature a little something she wrote to all us siblings some years ago. Her Christmas list. It captures the spirit of Jackie perfectly.

Happy Birthday Monkey Face!


Dear All,

In keeping with the crass commercialism of the season, I've produced my own definitive Christmas list of all the things I absolutely can live without but wouldn't mind having anyway. Let's further exploit our already beleagured planet's diminishing resources as much as we can whilst we still can.

Woohoo!!!!

- a good pair of black jeans- the kind that has to be hand-sewn by little Indonesian orphans for the benevolent multinational corporations who take such good care of them;

- rubix cube, rubicube or whatever- I think it's gonna make a comeback and i wanna be at the forefront of this retro revolution;

- chef's hat and/or apron with funny and/or ironic message. (Ironic means ready-to-wear);

-comfy sandals- the kind Jesus wore. He walked a lot of miles, on land and water and didn't get corns;

- contact lenses- my New Year's resolution is to periodically stick my finger in my eye, so give me a reason to otherwise I'll be displaying behaviour that deviates from social and statistical norms and that can't be good for my image;

- Peace on Earth

Well that's all folks. Hope this gives you an insight into the complex inner workings of my mind... or whatever. Btw I was just kidding about the peace on earth bit.

Let's tear this century a new one!!!!

love,
jackie

Monday, 22 August 2011

I'd Rather...


I should be transcribing and writing stories. I should be taking Arnold to the vet and for a walk after (or before). I should be trying to make some sense of this swirling mass of entropy that is my room.

Instead I am reading Jane Vandenburgh's Architecture of the Novel. With an introduction by Anne Lamott. Who says:

Jane is brilliant, lovely, difficult, dark, aglow and dangerous, rascally and sad, hilarious, spontaneous and talkative, with deep curiosity and lots of attitude. She might and almost certainly will say anything that crosses her mind. Maybe you have always dreamt that one day you, too, might capture your own version of this, on paper, both to help you figure out what your version even is, and in order to give it away.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Ella



This is Ella. Jackie's new puppy. Anyone feeling sad, morose or generally depressed with life need only meet her. And watch her light up as she comes over to make friends. See her little tail go wag, wag, wag. And watch her roll over so you can stroke her belly.

And then I dare you to keep feeling sad.

Or depressed.

Or dreary.

Or useless.

Golden retriever pups can be prescribed for a whole variety of ailments.

Oh yes, they can!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Advice to New Grads


What can I say, I love Anne Lamott. And you get to always know who I'm reading at any one time by whom I quote here. N'am sayin'?

You've graduated. You have nothing left to prove, and besides, it's a fool's game. If you agree to play, you've already lost. It's Charlie Brown and Lucy, with the football. If you keep getting back on the field, they win. There are so many great things to do right now. Write. Sing. Rest. Eat cherries. Register voters. And - oh my God - I nearly forgot the most important thing: Refuse to wear uncomfortable pants, even if they make you look really thin. Promise me you'll never wear pants that bind or tug or hurt, pants that have an opinion about how much you've just eaten. The pants may be lying! There is way too much lying and scolding going on politically right now without having your pants get in on the act, too.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Yaaron



One of my favourite Hindi songs...and the video that goes with it. Yaaron means friendship...and it's about a little boy. What could be sweeter?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Slipping and Sliding (More Pickwick)


'Now,' said Wardle, after a substantial lunch, with the agreeable items of strong beer and cherry-brandy, had been done ample justice to, 'what say you to an hour on the ice? We shall have plenty of time.'

'Capital!' said Mr. Benjamin Allen.

'Prime!' ejaculated Mr. Bob Sawyer.

'You skate, of course, Winkle?' said Wardle.

'Ye-yes; oh, yes,' replied Mr. Winkle. 'I--I--am RATHER out of practice.'

'Oh, DO skate, Mr. Winkle,' said Arabella. 'I like to see it so much.'

'Oh, it is SO graceful,' said another young lady. A third young lady said it was elegant, and a fourth expressed her opinion that it was 'swan-like.'

'I should be very happy, I'm sure,' said Mr. Winkle, reddening; 'but I have no skates.'

This objection was at once overruled. Trundle had a couple of pair, and the fat boy announced that there were half a dozen more downstairs; whereat Mr. Winkle expressed exquisite delight, and looked exquisitely uncomfortable.

Old Wardle led the way to a pretty large sheet of ice; and the fat boy and Mr. Weller, having shovelled and swept away the snow which had fallen on it during the night, Mr. Bob Sawyer adjusted his skates with a dexterity which to Mr. Winkle was perfectly marvellous, and described circles with his left leg, and cut figures of eight, and inscribed upon the ice, without once stopping for breath, a great many other pleasant and astonishing devices, to the excessive satisfaction of Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Tupman, and the ladies; which reached a pitch of positive enthusiasm, when old Wardle and Benjamin Allen, assisted by the aforesaid Bob Sawyer, performed some mystic evolutions, which they called a reel.

All this time, Mr. Winkle, with his face and hands blue with the cold, had been forcing a gimlet into the sole of his feet, and putting his skates on, with the points behind, and getting the straps into a very complicated and entangled state, with the assistance of Mr. Snodgrass, who knew rather less about skates than a Hindoo. At length, however, with the assistance of Mr. Weller, the unfortunate skates were firmly screwed and buckled on, and Mr. Winkle was raised to his feet.

'Now, then, Sir,' said Sam, in an encouraging tone; 'off vith you, and show 'em how to do it.'

'Stop, Sam, stop!' said Mr. Winkle, trembling violently, and clutching hold of Sam's arms with the grasp of a drowning man.'How slippery it is, Sam!'

'Not an uncommon thing upon ice, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller. 'Hold up, Sir!'

This last observation of Mr. Weller's bore reference to a demonstration Mr. Winkle made at the instant, of a frantic desire to throw his feet in the air, and dash the back of his head on the ice.

'These--these--are very awkward skates; ain't they, Sam?' inquired Mr. Winkle, staggering.

'I'm afeerd there's a orkard gen'l'm'n in 'em, Sir,' replied Sam.

'Now, Winkle,' cried Mr. Pickwick, quite unconscious that there was anything the matter. 'Come; the ladies are all anxiety.'

'Yes, yes,' replied Mr. Winkle, with a ghastly smile.'I'm coming.'

'Just a-goin' to begin,' said Sam, endeavouring to disengage himself. 'Now, Sir, start off!'

'Stop an instant, Sam,' gasped Mr. Winkle, clinging most affectionately to Mr. Weller. 'I find I've got a couple of coats at home that I don't want, Sam. You may have them, Sam.'

'Thank'ee, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller.

'Never mind touching your hat, Sam,' said Mr. Winkle hastily. 'You needn't take your hand away to do that. I meant to have given you five shillings this morning for a Christmas box, Sam. I'll give it you this afternoon, Sam.'

'You're wery good, sir,' replied Mr. Weller.

'Just hold me at first, Sam; will you?' said Mr. Winkle.'There--that's right. I shall soon get in the way of it, Sam. Not too fast, Sam; not too fast.'

Mr. Winkle, stooping forward, with his body half doubled up, was being assisted over the ice by Mr. Weller, in a very singular and un-swan-like manner, when Mr. Pickwick most innocently shouted from the opposite bank--

'Sam!'

'Sir?'

'Here. I want you.'

'Let go, Sir,' said Sam. 'Don't you hear the governor a-callin'? Let go, sir.'

With a violent effort, Mr. Weller disengaged himself from the grasp of the agonised Pickwickian, and, in so doing, administered a considerable impetus to the unhappy Mr. Winkle. With an accuracy which no degree of dexterity or practice could have insured, that unfortunate gentleman bore swiftly down into the centre of the reel, at the very moment when Mr. Bob Sawyer was performing a flourish of unparalleled beauty. Mr. Winkle struck wildly against him, and with a loud crash they both fell heavily down.

Mr. Pickwick ran to the spot. Bob Sawyer had risen to his feet, but Mr. Winkle was far too wise to do anything of the kind, in skates. He was seated on the ice, making spasmodic efforts to smile; but anguish was depicted on every lineament of his countenance.

'Are you hurt?' inquired Mr. Benjamin Allen, with great anxiety.

'Not much,' said Mr. Winkle, rubbing his back very hard.

'I wish you'd let me bleed you,' said Mr. Benjamin, with great eagerness.

'No, thank you,' replied Mr. Winkle hurriedly.

'I really think you had better,' said Allen.

'Thank you,' replied Mr. Winkle; 'I'd rather not.'

'What do YOU think, Mr. Pickwick?' inquired Bob Sawyer.

Mr. Pickwick was excited and indignant. He beckoned to Mr. Weller, and said in a stern voice, 'Take his skates off.'

'No; but really I had scarcely begun,' remonstrated Mr. Winkle.

'Take his skates off,' repeated Mr. Pickwick firmly.

The command was not to be resisted. Mr. Winkle allowed Sam to obey it, in silence.

'Lift him up,' said Mr. Pickwick. Sam assisted him to rise.

Mr. Pickwick retired a few paces apart from the bystanders; and, beckoning his friend to approach, fixed a searching look upon him, and uttered in a low, but distinct and emphatic tone, these remarkable words--

'You're a humbug, sir.'

'A what?' said Mr. Winkle, starting.

'A humbug, Sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, sir.'

With those words, Mr. Pickwick turned slowly on his heel, and rejoined his friends.

While Mr. Pickwick was delivering himself of the sentiment just recorded, Mr. Weller and the fat boy, having by their joint endeavours cut out a slide, were exercising themselves thereupon, in a very masterly and brilliant manner. Sam Weller, in particular, was displaying that beautiful feat of fancy-sliding which is currently denominated 'knocking at the cobbler's door,' and which is achieved by skimming over the ice on one foot, and occasionally giving a postman's knock upon it with the other. It was a good long slide, and there was something in the motion which Mr. Pickwick, who was very cold with standing still, could not help envying.

'It looks a nice warm exercise that, doesn't it?' he inquired of Wardle, when that gentleman was thoroughly out of breath, by reason of the indefatigable manner in which he had converted his legs into a pair of compasses, and drawn complicated problems on the ice.

'Ah, it does, indeed,' replied Wardle. 'Do you slide?'

'I used to do so, on the gutters, when I was a boy,' replied Mr. Pickwick.

'Try it now,' said Wardle.

'Oh, do, please, Mr. Pickwick!' cried all the ladies.

'I should be very happy to afford you any amusement,' replied Mr. Pickwick, 'but I haven't done such a thing these thirty years.'

'Pooh! pooh! Nonsense!' said Wardle, dragging off his skates with the impetuosity which characterised all his proceedings.'Here; I'll keep you company; come along!' And away went the good-tempered old fellow down the slide, with a rapidity which came very close upon Mr. Weller, and beat the fat boy all to nothing.

Mr. Pickwick paused, considered, pulled off his gloves and put them in his hat; took two or three short runs, baulked himself as often, and at last took another run, and went slowly and gravely down the slide, with his feet about a yard and a quarter apart, amidst the gratified shouts of all the spectators.

'Keep the pot a-bilin', Sir!' said Sam; and down went Wardle again, and then Mr. Pickwick, and then Sam, and then Mr. Winkle, and then Mr. Bob Sawyer, and then the fat boy, and then Mr. Snodgrass, following closely upon each other's heels, and running after each other with as much eagerness as if their future prospects in life depended on their expedition.

It was the most intensely interesting thing, to observe the manner in which Mr. Pickwick performed his share in the ceremony; to watch the torture of anxiety with which he viewed the person behind, gaining upon him at the imminent hazard of tripping him up; to see him gradually expend the painful force he had put on at first, and turn slowly round on the slide, with his face towards the point from which he had started; to contemplate the playful smile which mantled on his face when he had accomplished the distance, and the eagerness with which he turned round when he had done so, and ran after his predecessor, his black gaiters tripping pleasantly through the snow, and his eyes beaming cheerfulness and gladness through his spectacles. And when he was knocked down (which happened upon the average every third round), it was the most invigorating sight that can possibly be imagined, to behold him gather up his hat, gloves, and handkerchief, with a glowing countenance, and resume his station in the rank, with an ardour and enthusiasm that nothing could abate.

The sport was at its height, the sliding was at the quickest, the laughter was at the loudest, when a sharp smart crack was heard. There was a quick rush towards the bank, a wild scream from the ladies, and a shout from Mr. Tupman. A large mass of ice disappeared; the water bubbled up over it; Mr. Pickwick's hat, gloves, and handkerchief were floating on the surface; and this was all of Mr. Pickwick that anybody could see.

Dismay and anguish were depicted on every countenance; the males turned pale, and the females fainted; Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Winkle grasped each other by the hand, and gazed at the spot where their leader had gone down, with frenzied eagerness; while Mr.Tupman, by way of rendering the promptest assistance, and at the same time conveying to any persons who might be within hearing, the clearest possible notion of the catastrophe, ran off across the country at his utmost speed, screaming 'Fire!' with all his might.

It was at this moment, when old Wardle and Sam Weller were approaching the hole with cautious steps, and Mr. Benjamin Allen was holding a hurried consultation with Mr. Bob Sawyer on the advisability of bleeding the company generally, as an improving little bit of professional practice--it was at this very moment, that a face, head, and shoulders, emerged from beneath the water, and disclosed the features and spectacles of Mr. Pickwick.

'Keep yourself up for an instant--for only one instant!' bawled Mr. Snodgrass.

'Yes, do; let me implore you--for my sake!' roared Mr. Winkle, deeply affected.

The adjuration was rather unnecessary; the probability being, that if Mr. Pickwick had declined to keep himself up for anybody else's sake, it would have occurred to him that he might as well do so, for his own.

'Do you feel the bottom there, old fellow?' said Wardle.

'Yes, certainly,' replied Mr. Pickwick, wringing the water from his head and face, and gasping for breath. 'I fell upon my back. I couldn't get on my feet at first.'

The clay upon so much of Mr. Pickwick's coat as was yet visible, bore testimony to the accuracy of this statement; and as the fears of the spectators were still further relieved by the fat boy's suddenly recollecting that the water was nowhere more than five feet deep, prodigies of valour were performed to get him out. After a vast quantity of splashing, and cracking, and struggling, Mr. Pickwick was at length fairly extricated from his unpleasant position, and once more stood on dry land.

'Oh, he'll catch his death of cold,' said Emily.

'Dear old thing!' said Arabella. 'Let me wrap this shawl round you, Mr. Pickwick.'

'Ah, that's the best thing you can do,' said Wardle; 'and when you've got it on, run home as fast as your legs can carry you, and jump into bed directly.'

A dozen shawls were offered on the instant. Three or four of the thickest having been selected, Mr. Pickwick was wrapped up, and started off, under the guidance of Mr. Weller; presenting the singular phenomenon of an elderly gentleman, dripping wet, and without a hat, with his arms bound down to his sides, skimming over the ground, without any clearly-defined purpose, at the rate of six good English miles an hour.

But Mr. Pickwick cared not for appearances in such an extreme case, and urged on by Sam Weller, he kept at the very top of his speed until he reached the door of Manor Farm, where Mr. Tupman had arrived some five minutes before, and had frightened the old lady into palpitations of the heart by impressing her with the unalterable conviction that the kitchen chimney was on fire--a calamity which always presented itself in glowing colours to the old lady's mind, when anybody about her evinced the smallest agitation.

Mr. Pickwick paused not an instant until he was snug in bed. Sam Weller lighted a blazing fire in the room, and took up his dinner; a bowl of punch was carried up afterwards, and a grand carouse held in honour of his safety. Old Wardle would not hear of his rising, so they made the bed the chair, and Mr. Pickwick presided.

A second and a third bowl were ordered in; and when Mr. Pickwick awoke next morning, there was not a symptom of rheumatism about him; which proves, as Mr. Bob Sawyer very justly observed, that there is nothing like hot punch in such cases; and that if ever hot punch did fail to act as a preventive, it was merely because the patient fell into the vulgar error of not taking enough of it.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Buffalo Games


One of my favourite books from before was Out of the Blue...it was written by one of the authors of my favourite series - Chicken Soup for the Soul. Incidentally, Mark Victor Hansen came to Malaysia, and I interviewed him. It was one of those experiences...mainly because he bubbled forth with such clear joy...and although the PRs hovered nearby and kept interrupting saying it was really time for Mr Hansen to go have some lunch, he kept saying, OK, one story more, just one story more, just one story more...and he kept telling me stories. Lovely ones. The kind that uplift your soul and make your spirit soar. So here is a story from out of the blue. It's just quirky and unexpected and I love it.

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Animals not only have the ability to astound us with their wisdom and caring, they also can display an enjoyment of the outdoors that can rival our own. During the Iditarod, the dogsled race across the frozen wonder of Alaska, Gary Paulsen, a rookie driver, came upon another musher who had stopped his team and was gazing down a hill with rapt attention. He paused to see what was going on and found, to his great delight, the following extraordinary sight.


We were looking down on a frozen lake - one of the Farewell lakes. But it wasn't the lake that held his interest. Below and to the right, a group of four buffalo were standing on the shore. Two of them were in the grass at the edge and the other two were out on the ice.

"Somebody told me that there was a herd of buffalo here, but I hadn't expected to see them along the trail."

"Yes," I told the other musher. "Buffalo. I know. They told us..."

"No - watch."

I turned back, thinking frankly that he was around the bend. So it was buffalo - so what?

Then I saw what he meant.

The surface of the lake was bare of snow...and the two buffalo out on the ice were having a rough time of it trying to stand...one of the buffalo on the shore backed away from the lake, up the sloping side of the ridge, pawed the ground a couple of times and ran full bore for the lake.

Just as he hit the edge of the ice his tail went straight up in the air, he spread his front feet apart and stiffened his legs and slid away from the shore, spinning around in a circle as he flew across the ice.

When he slowed to a stop he bellowed, a kind of "Gwaaa" sound, then began making his tortuous way back to the shoreline.

While he was doing this the fourth buffalo came shooting out on the ice, slid farther (also tail up) than the last, made a louder noise, and started back slipping and falling.

I couldn't believe it and blinked rapidly several times, thinking I was hallucinating.

"No - it's real," he laughed. "I was passing when I heard the bellow and came up to check it out...I've been here an hour, maybe a little more. They've been doing this all the time. Great, isn't it?"

We lay there for another half-hour watching them play. The object seemed to be who could slide the farthest and each of them tried several times, tail up, happy bellows echoing on the far shore of the lake as they slid across the ice.

Buffalo Games...who would have thought it could happen?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Shining On You


This is a story Anne Lamott tells about a visit to the prison to teach a writing class. She brings along her friend Neshama who has been brought up in the oral tradition. So one will teach them to write and the other to tell stories. And this is what happens:

Then I introduced Neshama, with a concern that the prisoners wouldn't quite get her - this intense grandmother with a nice big butt and fuzzy gray hair, wearing a loud plaid flannel dress. I had invited her because I love her stories and knew it would be more fun for me, and because some people at San Quentin, like Neshama, hate to write but love to read and tell stories.

I had extremely low expectations - I hoped a few prisoners might form a guild, like the one to which Neshama belongs; I hoped they wouldn't hurt her, or overcome her, or try to make her marry them. Neshama walked to the mike and told her first story, her version of a folktale. It was about a man with no luck, who comes upon safety, wealth, and a beautiful woman, but is too busy looking for fancier luck, somewhere else, to even notice her. Neshama painted the story with her hands, leaning into the crowd, and drawing back, hopeful or aghast at the unlucky man's journey, smiling gleefully at the story's close. And the place went nuts. She stole the show right out from under me like rock star, while I looked as prim and mainstream as Laura Bush. Here they had thought Neshama was going to teach them a lesson, and she had instead sung them a song. Their faces lit up with surprise. She was shining on them, and they felt her shining on them, and so they shone back on her.

They asked her questions: Where do we find these stories? And Neshama told them: "They're in you, like jewels in your hearts." Why do they matter? "Because they're treasures. These memories, these images, come forth from the ground of the same wisdom we all know, but that you alone can tell."

The prisoners stared at her, mesmerized. They looked like family, and neighbors, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, all in their denim blue clothes. Some looked pissed off, some bored, some attentive; the older ones all looked like God.

When I at last got Neshama off the stage, I gave them a second round of my best writing tips. There was warm, respectful applause. Neshama got up and told a second story. It was about her late husband, and a pool he would hike to, where there was a single old whiskery fish swimming around. Neshama stripped her story down to its essence, because only essence speaks to desperate people. And the men rose to give her a standing ovation. It was a stunning moment. All she had done was tell them, "I'm human, you're human, let me greet your humanness. Let's be people together for a while."

Monday, 15 August 2011

What I See When I Wake Up


It's already August now. But I've only just turned the calendar. Can you blame me...all the images are so beautiful I tend to want to hang on to them for just a little while longer. But the August one is breathtaking.

So this is what I see, when I wake up everyday. Sometimes, I miss Legolas with his arrow in his quiver at me - the one poster on my door in Perth.

But this more than makes up for it.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Getting Older


I turn 40 this year. Surprisingly I'm not as fussed about it as I was when turning 30. I guess I've had a decade of becoming used to being in my thirties...and so the forties do not seem all that bad. In some ways, I like me better now. In some ways I don't. But then if I were perfect there would be nothing to strive for. Or fall into. Or merge with.

Feelings rise and fall. Maybe not with the same breathless intensity but I'm far from dead.

I love my dogs. Arnold is stretched out on the floor next to the cupboard, post-bath. He is keeping me company. Maggot is stretched out in the hall. He is a sensitive doggie and senses that Arnold doesn't like him in the room.

The two of them are getting on surprisingly well, in any case. Better than I expected. And that's always good. I need to go out soon and do some shopping. I want to take Arnold for a walk but it's too hot. So I'll do the other stuff first. Dog hair covers everything. I'm scruffy and dusty and I need a shower. But then I think...this is what the living do. This is how the living live.

Today, I want to share with you an essay by one of my favourite authors, Anne Lamott. About getting older. I think it's relevant. For me. And for some of my bestest friends. I can't believe I've gone all these years without reading Lamott. Thank you Patti Digh for introducing me to her.

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I was at a wedding the other day with a lot of women in their twenties and thirties. Many wore sexy dresses, their youthful skin aglow. And even though I was twenty to thirty years older than they, a little worse for wear, a little tired, and overwhelmed by the loud music, I was smiling.

I smiled with a secret smile of pleasure in being older, fifty plus change, which can no longer be considered extremely late youth, or even early middle age. But I would not give back a year of life I've lived.

Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life - it was given me me. It has provided time and experience and failures and triumphs and time-tested friends who have helped me step into the shape that was waiting for me. I fit into me now. I have an organic life, finally, not necessarily the one people imagined for me, or tried to get me to have. I have the life I longed for. I have become the woman I hardly dared imagine I could be. There are parts I don't love - until a few years ago, I had no idea that you could have cellulite on your stomach - but not only do I get along with me most of the time now, I am militantly and maternally on my own side.

Left to my own devices, would I trade this for firm thighs, fewer wrinkles, a better memory?

You bet I would. That is why it's such a blessing that I'm not left to my own devices. I have amazing friends. I have a cool kid, a sweet boyfriend, darling pets. I've learned to pay attention to life, and to listen. I'd give up all this for a flatter belly? Only about a third of the time.

I still have terrible moments when I despair about my body - time and gravity have not made various parts of it higher and firmer. But those are just moments now - I used to have years when I believed I was more beautiful if I jiggled less, if all parts of my body stopped moving when I did. But I know two things now that I didn't at thirty: That when we get to heaven, we will discover that the appearance of our butts and our skin was the 127th on the list of what mattered on this earth. And that I am not going to live forever. Knowing these things has set me free.

I am thrilled - ish - for every gray hair and sore muscle, because of all the friends who didn't make it, who died too young of AIDS and breast cancer. I'm decades past my salad days, and even past the main course: maybe I'm in my cheese days - sitting atop the lettuce leaves on the table for a while now with all the other cheese balls, but with much nutrition to offer, and still delicious. Or maybe I'm in my desert days, the most delicious course. Whatever you call it, much of the stuff I used to worry about has subsided - what other people think of me, and of how I am living my life. I give these things the big shrug. Mostly. Or at least, eventually. It's a huge relief.

I became more successful in my forties, but that pales in comparison with the other gifts of my current decade - how kind to myself I have become, what a wonderful, tender wife I am to myself, what a loving companion. I prepare myself tubs of hot salt water at the end of the day, and soak my tired feet. I run interference for myself when I am working, like the wife of a great artist would - "No, I'm sorry, she can't come. She's working hard these days, and needs a lot of down time." I live by the truth that "No" is a complete sentence. I rest as a spiritual act.

I have grown old enough to develop radical acceptance. I insist on the right to swim in warm water at every opportunity, no matter how I look, no matter how young and gorgeous the other people on the beach are. I don't think that if I live to be eighty, I'm going to wish I'd spent more hours in the gym or kept my house a lot cleaner. I'm going to wish I had swum more unashamedly, made more mistakes, spaced out more, rested. On the day I die, I want to have had desert. So this informs how I live now.

I have survived so much loss, as all of us have by our forties - my parents, dear friends, my pets. Rubble is the ground on which our deepest friendships are built. If you haven't already, you will lose someone you can't live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and you never completely get over the loss of a deeply beloved person. But this is also good news. The person lives forever, in your broken heart that doesn't seal back up. And you come through, and you learn to dance with the banged-up heart. You dance to the absurdities of life, you dance to the minuet of old friendships.

I danced alone for a couple of years, and came to believe that I might not ever have a passionate romantic relationship - might end up alone! I'd always been terrified of this. But I'd rather not ever be in a couple, or ever get laid again, than be in a toxic relationship. I spent a few years celibate. It was lovely, and it was sometimes lonely. I had surrendered; I'd run out of bullets. I learned to be the person I wished I'd meet, at which point I found a kind, artistic, handsome man. When we get out of bed, we hold our lower backs, like Walter Brennan, and we laugh, and bring each other the Advil.

Younger women worry that their memories will begin to go. And you know what? They will. Menopause has not increased my focus and retention as much as I'd been hoping. But a lot is better-off missed. A lot is better not gotten around to.

I know many of the women who were at the wedding fear getting older, and I wish I could gather them together, and give them my word of honor that every one of my friends loves being older, loves being in her forties, fifties, sixties, seventies. My aunt Gertrud is eighty-five and leaves us behind in the dust when we hike. Look, my feet hurt some mornings, and my body is less forgiving when I exercise more than I am used to. But I love my life more, and me more. I'm so much juicier: And as that old saying goes, it's not that I think less of myself, but that I think of myself less often. And that feels like heaven to me.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

And Now For Something A Little Tart


OK, so I've shared with you all of two chocolate-based recipes. Don't you think it's time for a little lemon? Well, I do. And this is a favourite. Try it, if you don't believe me, and see for yourself.

Ingredients
grated zest 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
6 oz (175 g) self-raising flour, sifted
1 level teaspoon baking powder
6 oz (175 g) butter at room temperature
6 oz (175 g) caster sugar
3 large eggs

For the lemon curd:
grated zest and juice 1 large juicy lemon
3 oz (75 g) caster sugar
2 large eggs
2 oz (50 g) unsalted butter

For the icing:
zest 1 large lemon
2-3 teaspoons lemon juice
2 oz (50 g) sifted icing sugar
Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 3, 325°F (170°C).

Method

Just measure all the cake ingredients into a mixing bowl and beat – ideally with an electric hand whisk – till you have a smooth, creamy consistency. Then divide the mixture evenly between the two tins and bake them on the centre shelf of the oven for about 35 minutes or until the centres feel springy when lightly touched with a little finger.

While the cakes are cooking, make the lemon curd. Place the sugar and grated lemon zest in a bowl, whisk the lemon juice together with the eggs, then pour this over the sugar. Then add the butter cut into little pieces, and place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir frequently till thickened – about 20 minutes. You don't have to stay with it – just come back from time to time to give it a stir.

When the cakes are cooked, remove them from the oven and after about 30 seconds turn them out on to a wire rack. When they are absolutely cold – and not before – carefully cut each one horizontally into two using a sharp serrated knife. Now spread the curd thickly to sandwich the sponges together.

Then to make the icing, begin by removing the zest from the lemon – it's best to use a zester to get long, curly strips. Then sift the icing sugar into a bowl and gradually stir in the lemon juice until you have a soft, runny consistency. Allow the icing to stand for 5 minutes before spreading it on top of the cake with a knife, almost to the edges, and don't worry if it runs a little down the sides of the cake. Then scatter the lemon zest over the top and leave it for half an hour for the icing to firm up before serving.

Friday, 12 August 2011

And I Would Say Goodbye

Today I'm thinking of those no longer with us. Addy spoke of our friend Mals, recently. She said she met someone who knew her, who used to go visit her in hospital every day. Mals had leukemia. She died in a very short time of finding out. Two strokes from the chemo, the loss of her ability to walk, and even, for the most part, to talk...and then she was gone.

I never saw her after she was diagnosed. I didn't get to see her before I left for Australia and when I came back, she said, wait, no, not yet (probably not wanting me to see what she looked like now, probably wanting me to remember her as she was, which I do, Mals, I do) and then she was gone.

It happened so fast, like a picture, fading from a screen, like this mists of dream scattering into wakefulness. I had a hard time dealing with it. And so I do what I always do.

I wrote.

I wrote her an obituary, the only one I've ever written...and today, as I remember her, I share it, with all of you:


It's the strangest things that remind me of you. Driving up ramps. Shopping at Isetan, KLCC. The backview of a blue Proton hatchback.

You gave me love and laughter.

And then you went away.

I cannot cry for you. I cried when Addy told me you were sick. I cried when Sree told me there wasn't much time left. I cried when I heard your voice, thin and tired, saying, Jenn, you have to let me go.

But when I got that text: Mala passed away at 6.15 this morning... I didn't cry then. I couldn't.

You were getting better. You were home from the hospital after so many months.

When I got back to Malaysia, I asked, when?

You said wait. You said, not yet. You were not strong enough for visitors. You said you'd tell me when.

You didn't say I'd never see you again.

So I wait for the phone call telling me you want to meet up for coffee. At Delifrance. Or Coffee Bean. Maybe Starbucks. We will talk about things that matter. Like your new job. Or my new book. And then we can stroll through Kinokuniya and thumb through a few books. We could try on a few clothes at British India or Padini and snort derisively at the fact that they seem to only cater for anorexic teenagers. We'd comfort ourselves with cinnamon buns. Or chocolate eclairs. Then we'll catch a scary movie (I'll peek out behind half closed fingers and you can stopper up your ears and we'll compare notes after and try to figure out what it was all about).

And then when it's time to go, I'll hug you tightly and tell you I love you.

And I would say goodbye.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Haroun and the Sea of Stories


This is one of my favourite children's stories of all time. I can't think why more people haven't read it and adored it the way I do. It was difficult trying to figure out just which excerpt to pick, and I finally settled for the one where we meet Mali, the Floating Gardener and Goopy and Bagha, who are Plentimaw fish. Iff and Butt are already in the picture - and together, the form Haroun's army - to go and fight Khattam Shud who is attempting to destroy the source of stories and bring the whole world into silence. And endless night.

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Haroun had not forgotten what his father had said about Khattam-Shud. "Too many fancy notions are turning out to be true," he thought. At once Butt the Hoopoe answered, without moving its beak: "A strange sort of Story Moon our Kahani would be, if storybook things weren't everywhere to be found." And Haroun had to admit that that was a reasonable remark.

They were speeding south to Gup City. The Hoopoe had chosen to remain on the water, zooming along like a speedboat, spraying Story Streams in every direction. "Doesn't it muddle up the stories?" Haround inquired. "All this turbulence. It must mix things up dreadfully."

"No problem!" cried Butt the Hoopoe. "Any story worth its salt can handle a little shaking up! Va-voom!"

Abandoning what was clearly not a profitable line of conversation, Haroun returned to more important matters. "Tell me more about this Khattam-Shud," he requested, and was utterly amazed when Iff replied in almost the very same words that Rashid Khalifa had used: "He is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. At least", and here the Water Genie abandoned the somewhat too sonorous tone of the preceding sentences, "that's what they say. When it comes to the Land of Chup and its people the Chupwalas, it's all mostly gossip and flim-flam, because its generations since any of us went across the Twilight Strip into the Perpetual Night."

"You'll have to forgive me," Haroun broke in, "but I'm going to need a little help with the geography."

"Hmf," sniffed Butt the Hoopoe. "Poorly educated, I see."

"That's totally illogical," Haroun retorted. "You're the one who's been boasting about how Speed has hidden this Moon from people on Earth. So it's unreasonable to expect us to know about its topographical features, principal exports and the like."

But Butt's eye was twinkling. Really, there were major difficulties involved in talking to machines, Haroun thought. With their deadpan expressions, it was impossible to know when they were pulling your leg.

"Thanks to genius of the Eggheads at P2C2E House," Butt began, taking pity on Haroun, "the rotation of Kahani has been brought under control. As a result the Land of Gup is bathed in Endless Sunshine, while over in Chup it's always the middle of the night. In between the two lies the Twilight Strip, in which at the Grand Comptroller's command, Guppees long ago constructed an unbreakable (and also invisible) Wall of Force. Its goodname is Chattergy's Wall, named after our King, who of course had absolutely nothing to do with building it."

"Hold on a minute," Haroun frowned. "If Kahani goes round the Earth, even if it goes very fast indeed, there must be moments when the Earth is between it and the sun. So it can't be true that one half is always in the daylight; you're telling stories again."

"Naturally I'm telling stories," Butt the Hoopoe replied. "And if you have any arguments, please take them up with the Walrus. Now excuse me, please, while I pay attention ahead. Volume of traffic has dramatically increased."

Haroun had plenty more questions to ask - why did the Chupwalas live in Permanent Night? Must it not be very cold indeed if the sun never shone at all? And what was Bezaban, or a Cultmaster, come to that? - but they were evidently nearing Gup City, because the waters around them and the skies above were filling up with mechanical birds every bit as fanciful as Butt the Hoopoe: birds with snake-heads and peacock-tails, flying fishes, dogbirds. And on the backs of the birds were Water Genies with whiskers of every possible hue, all wearing turbans and embroidered waistcoats and aubergine-shaped pajamas, and all looking so much like Iff that it was a good thing, in Haroun's opinion, that the colours of their whiskers were different enough to make it possible to tell the apart.

"Something most serious has occured," Iff commented. "All units have been ordered back to base. Now if I had my Disconnecting Tool," he added sharply, "I would have received the order myself, because, as of course Thieflets do not know, there is a highly advanced transreceiver built into the handle."

"Luckily, however," Haroun came back, just as sharply, "since you half-poisoned me with that dirty story, you worked things out; so there's no harm done, except, perhaps, to me."

Iff ignored this. And Haroun's attention was distracted as well, because he noticed that a large patch of what looked like a particularly thick and tough type of weed or vegetable of some sort was actually racing along right beside them, keeping pace with Butt the Hoopoe without apparent effort, while it waved vegetable-tentacles inn the air in a most disturbing fashion. At the centre of the mobile vegetable patch was a single lilac flower with thick, fleshy leaves, of a type that Haroun had never seen before. "What's that?" he inquired, pointing, even though he knew it was impolite to do so.

"A Floating Gardener, naturally," said Butt the Hoopoe without moving its beak. That made no sense. "You mean a Floating Garden. "Haroun corrected the bird, which gave a little snort. "That's all you know," it harrumphed. At that moment the high-speed vegetation actually reared up out of the water and proceeded to wind and knot itself around and about, until it had taken something like the shape of a man, with the lilac-coloured flower positioned in its 'head' where a mouth should be, and a cluster of weeds forming a rustic-looking hat. "So it is a Floating Gardener after all," Haroun realized.

The Floating Gardener was now running lightly over the surface of the water, showing no sign of sinking. "How could he sink?" Butt the Hoopoe interjected. "Would he not be a Sinking Gardener in that case? Whereas, as you observe, he floats; he runs, he walks, he hops. No problem."

Iff called across to the Gardener, who at once nodded a brief greeting. "Got a stranger with you. Very odd. Still. Your own business," he said. His voice was as soft as flower petals (after all, he was actually speaking through those lilac lips) but his manner was somewhat abrupt. "I thought all you Guppees were chatterboxes," Haroun whispered to Iff. "But this Gardener doesn't say much."

"He is talkative," Iff rejoined. "For a Gardener, anyhow."

"How do you do," Haroun called across to the Gardener, thinking that, as he was the stranger, it was his business to introduce himself. "Who are you?" the Gardener asked in his soft but abrupt way, without breaking his stride. Haroun told him his name and the Gardener gave another curt nod.

"Mali," he said. "Floating Gardener First Class."

"Please," Haroun said in his nicest voice, "what does a Floating Gardener do?"

"Maintenance," answered Mali. "Untwisting twisted Story Streams. Also unlooping same. Weeding. In short: Gardening."

"Think of the Ocean as a head of hair," said Butt the Hoopoe, helpfully. "Imagine it's as full of Story Streams as a thick mane is full of soft, flowing strands. The longer and thicker a head of hair, the knottier and more tangled it gets. Floating Gardeners, you can say, are like the hairdressers of the Sea of Stories. Brush, clean, wash, condition. So now you know."

Iff asked Mali. "What's this pollution? When did it start? How bad is it?"

Mali answered the questions in sequence. "Lethal. But nature as yet unknown. Started only recently, but spread is very rapid. How bad? Very bad. Certain types of stories may take years to clean up."

"For example?" Haroun piped up.

"Certain popular romances have become just long lists of shopping expeditions. Children's stories also. For instance, there is an outbreak of taking helicopter anecdotes."

With that, Mali fell silent, and the rush to Gup City continued. A few minutes later, however, Haroun heard more new voices. They were like choruses, many voices at a time speaking in perfect unison, and they were full of froth and bubbles. Finally Haroun worked out that they were actually coming up from beneath the surface of the Ocean. He looked down into the waters and saw two fearsome sea-monsters right beside the racing Hoopoe, swimming so close to the surface that they were almost surfing on the spray thrown up by Butt as it sped along.

From their roughly triangular shape and their iridescent colouring, Haroun deduced that they were Angel Fish of some variety, though they were as big as giant sharks and had literally dozens of mouths, all over their bodies. These mouths were constantly at work, sucking in Story Streams and blowing them out again, pausing only to speak. When they did so, Haroun noted, each mouth spoke with its own voice, but all the mouths on each individual fish spoke perfectly synchronised words.

"Hurry! Hurry! Don't be late!" bubbled the first fish.

"Ocean's ailing! Cure can't wait!" the second went on.

Butt the Hoopoe was once again kind enough to enlighten Haroun. "These are Plentimaw Fishes," it said. "They acquire their goodname from the fact that you have no doubt registered, viz. that they have plenty of maws, i.e., mouths."

"So," thought Haroun, filled with wonder, "there really are Plentimaw Fish in the Sea, just as old Snooty Buttoo said; and I have travelled a long way, just as my father said, and I've learned that a Plentimaw Fish can be an Angel Fish as well."

"Plentimaw Fishes always go in two's," Butt added without moving its beak. "They are faithful to partners for life. To express this perfect union they speak, only and always, in rhyme."

These particular Plentimaw Fishes seemed unhealthy to Haroun. Their multiple mouths frequently spluttered and coughed, and their eyes looked inflamed and pink. "I'm no expert," Haroun called to them, "but are you both quite well?"

The replies came swiftly, punctuated by bubbling coughs:

"All this bad taste! Ocean starts to hurt!"

"Call me Bagha! This is Goopy!"

"Excuse our rudeness! We feel droopy!"

"Eyes feel rheumy! Throat feels sore!"

"When we're better, we'll talk more."

"As you correctly guessed, all Guppees love to talk," Iff said in an aside. "Silence is often considered rude. Hence the Plentimaws' apology." - "They seem to be talking okay to me," Haroun replied. - "Normally, each mouth says something different," Iff explained. "That makes plenty more talk. For them, this is like silence."

Whereas for a Floating Gardener, a few short sentences are called talkativeness," Haroun sighed. "I don't think I'll ever get the hang of this place. What do the fish do, anyway?"

Iff replied that the Plentimaw Fishes were what he called 'hunger artists' - "Because when they are hungry they swallow stories through every mouth and in their innards miracles occur; a little bit of one story joins on to an idea from another, and hey presto, when they spew the stories out they are not old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old - it is the new combinations that make them new. So you see, our artistic Plentimaw Fishes really create new stories in their digestive systems - so just think how sick they must be feeling now! All these filthied-up sagas passing through their insides, front to back, top to bottom, side to side - no wonder they look green about the gills!"

The Plentimaws surfaced to utter one more wheezy couplet:

"Things are worse than we've ever known!"

"And the worst place is down in our Old Zone."

On hearing this, the Water Genie clapped his hand to his forehead, almost dislodging his turban. "What? What?" Haroun insisted on knowing; and so a now-even-more-preoccupied Iff grudgingly explained that the Old Zone in the southern polar region of Kahani was an area to which hardly anybody went any more. There was little demand for the ancient stories, flowing there. "You know how people are, new things, always new. The old tales, nobody cares."

So the Old Zone had fallen into disuse; but it was believed that all the Streams of Story had originated long ago in one of the currents flowing north across the Ocean from the Wellspring, or Source of Stories, that was located, according to legend, near the Moon's South Pole.

"And if the Source itself is poisoned, what will happen to the Ocean - to us all?" Iff almost wailed. "We have ignored it for too long, and now we pay the price."

"Hold on to hats," Butt the Hoopoe interrupted. "Hitting the brake now. Gup City dead ahead. Record time! Va-va-va-voom! No problem."

"It's amazing what you can get accustomed to, and at what speed," Haroun reflected. "This new world, these new friends: I've just arrived, and already none of it seens very strange at all."