Tony Sent Me…

A frigid sun, not bright, lights this scene.  A car park, rarely so busy at this time of day, is crammed with shoppers on errands of desperation, pattering busily to and fro carrying bags stuffed to the gills with toilet rolls, tinned foods, more toilet rolls…

Tomorrow is lock-down day (again).  Another month of incarceration by the organs of the Nanny State.  Although enforcement of any kind, left in the hands of the local constabulary, seems unlikely.  Envisaging our beloved but utterly work-shy County Force in a role best delineated by George Orwell in ‘1984’ requires a stretch of anyone’s imagination:  nonetheless guilt nips at my self-confidence, reminding me I should not be in this place, that my presence here is forbidden – if I am caught…    

I glance about me, trying not to think how furtive I must look.  I have parked my car between lines as my OCD demands, and now I must give the signal we arranged, but dare I? Suppose my contact is late…suppose this is A TRAP!  Hunched low in my anxiety to avoid recognition I hit the horn.   The building is close by, its windows darkly shuttered, its bland brick faces staring back at me.  It gives no sign of recognition in reply.   

Come on!

I blast the horn again.   Every head turns. A bumper pack of toilet rolls falls to the floor.  All eyes are focussed on me, and my little white car.  The woman who has dropped the economy twelve-pack pins me with a glare of annoyance over the shawl collar of her blaze red cardigan as she wrestles it back into her carrier bag, but still the building remains, silent and inscrutable.

There is nothing else for it.  Disguised and cowled by hoodie and mask I leave the shelter of my car to head towards the only interruption in that unforgiving wall.  A small door: a plain door – a very closed door.   

I knock.  I pound my fists upon the panels.

The door opens.  Thank god it opens!

A face appears, a man’s face, masked.  The eyes above the mask glance quickly to the left, to the right.

He mutters, “Come in!”

Inside, the surgery looks much the same as it always has; the same consulting rooms, re-tooled perhaps for COVID victims such as I.  My doctor, too, would look the same if there was any feature of him I could see apart from those eyes.  In scrubs, with a cap to cover his head, he is almost a stranger.  To meet demands set in train by events of recent days, I must be tested for an urgently-required prescription and the only way to keep an appointment with him, given my sentence of self-isolation, involves masks and emergency doors after the fashion of a 1970s narcotics deal.   The surgery may be a clean, modern building, but in the face of a pandemic it has a new, more sinister face.

“I said come alone.  You got the cash?”

“Yeah – you got the stuff?”

“Yeah.”

Show me!”

“Show me the cash!”

The meet is concluded quickly, the deal done.   I return to my car more confidently, glad the moment is past.  I drive home.  As I pull onto my drive, my neighbour’s curtain twitches.  One of the most damaging side-effects of lock-down is mistrust.  Mistrust is everywhere now.

Whereas isolation is of no consequence to me, the forfeit of trust is harder to bear. I can imagine there are those for whom it will remain engraved upon their souls forever.

Thank you to everyone who has sent me their good wishes since my diagnosis for COVID.  I am pleased to say that with two days of self-isolation remaining I am still completely asymptomatic.   Of this, more to follow...

Mary

Tonight he finds her in his living room, seated in her favorite chair, gazing out at the view of the city beyond their window.  “Mary?”

“Who else?”  She turns to greet him.

“It is you, Mary!  It really is you!    Why here, of all places?”

“Oh, Richard, come on, you’ve been here before – often.  You are always dreaming of us together, in this room, but tonight I thought I would join you.  I want to be part of your dream. Why should the geography matter?”

“No, but you are different somehow; as if you were really, really here!  I mean – you seem so young!  You look no older than the day we met, all those years ago.  And isn’t that the dress…?”

“…I wore on our first day together?  You remembered.”

“Dearest, I’ll always remember.  Twenty-four years, and every detail of that day is as vivid now as then, but this – this is special:  I want…I want so much to touch you, to hold you…”  The regrets – the regrets come flooding in again, the sorrow for the wrongs, the penitence he may not serve.  It is all too late – too late for that.

“Richard, you are sleeping – this is a dream.  In your dream you can do many things.  You can touch me, hold me, love me if you like.”

“Please, don’t torment me, Mary.”

“A little, maybe.  Should I not?  Don’t I have cause, Richard?  Or reason to tease you, or fear you?  I have been, you see, very afraid. I‘ve many good reasons to curse my fate, because I have the misfortune to be a memory of yours. Yet this night is a special night, and I will make it your own.  Tonight I am a ghost to do with as you will, I will not leave you until dawn.”

“Is this forgiveness at last?  Can you forgive me?”

“For pushing me from the balcony that lies behind those windows?  For insisting I was suicidal?  For telling the world that I leapt to my own destruction?   My forgiveness is what your conscience craves?”

The ghost revives the memory again, and often as he has relived the betrayal, the jealousy, the fury of that night, it can still bring tears.  “It was an accident,” he weeps. “I didn’t mean it to happen.  You must know that.”

“No, of course you didn’t.  Nobody means to kill.  Anger takes over and you find strength you did not know you possessed.  You can look for excuses, for justification; as you have upon so many nights – it is not the issue here, not the reason I have come to you – not my cause to hope this will be a unique night for you.  This morning is a very special morning, is it not?  Christopher is twenty-one, Richard.  Our son is twenty-one today.  Or have you entirely forgotten that?”

“No.  No, of course not!  How would I forget my own son?”

“Well, let us see.  You sent him away to live with your parents in England when he was five years old, sent him to boarding school when he was eight.  This was his home, Richard, but you swept it from under his feet, uprooted him from his little universe and despatched him to the other side of the world while you stayed here.  He lives in England, you in L.A. How many chances have you taken to refresh your memory since?”

“That isn’t fair!  After…after us, I couldn’t bear to be near him.  I tried, I did honestly, but his every look reminded me of you, my darling.  So what I did was for him, as much as for myself.”

“His every look reminded you of your guilt, you mean, don’t you?  Is that why you never so much as visited – sent a card at Christmas, or a telephone call on his birthday, congratulated him at his graduation?  Richard, he is your son – your son and mine!”

“He never knew what really happened.  I’ve done my best.  I left him a gift, a special coming-of- age gift.”

“Ah yes, the gift.  Remind me of your gift…”

“But you are Mary; you have been watching; you already know.  This morning, when he wakes for his twenty-first birthday, Christopher will receive the key to a safety deposit box I placed with my bank’s London office sixteen years ago.   When he opens it, he will find bonds and share certificates inside – enough to make him financially secure for the rest of his life.  He will never have to work, or worry.  That is my gift to him, Mary.”

“How good it must make you feel – to be able to trade all that for a childhood!”

Richard smiles because he has often congratulated himself for this rich gesture.  Yes, his benevolence must do more than compensate for Christopher’s lack of a father.  “It is generous, isn’t it?  Few children can ever hope to receive such a gift: and it is not that I don’t love him – in some measure.  I said so on a tape I placed within the box – a tape I made the day after we laid you to rest.”

“And the day before your parents took him away.  What did you say on this tape of yours?  How you adore him, how you repent?  ‘Grow strong, my son, and learn from the failings of your father’.  Does it say that?”

“You’re judging me unfairly.”

“Am I?  In this respect, at least, you are wrong: I was not ‘laid to rest’ – could not rest while my philandering, guilty assassin walked free. Yet in all the generosity of my heart I wanted to be with you in these small hours. I offered you anything you wanted, a last gift. You should have taken it. Dawn is almost upon us; it is too late, now.”

“I don’t follow you. How is it too late? Why the finality?” He genuinely does not wish to lose the spectre that he has kept secretly in his thoughts for so many years. “Are you leaving me?”

“I left you, as you put it, out there on that balcony, a long time ago. But I can answer you: with the dawn, yes.

“Richard, my dear, you didn’t even press playback, when you prattled into that little recorder of yours.  You just offered excuses, dismissed your love in a few sentences and you tossed the tape into the safe deposit box.  Such a shame, Richard.  Such a shame.”

He frowns, suspicious at last.  “What are you keeping from me….”

“I?  I would keep nothing from you.  Tonight I came to give you peace.” Mary’s smile is chill enough to freeze the marrow of his bones. “Come close to me, Richard; come close and I will whisper to you – such sweet words.  I will tell you – no, come closer – I will tell you of a woman in fear for her life, in this room, sixteen years ago.  I will tell you how, after you had telephoned her in your rage she knew you were coming to her with murder on your mind, so she took your little tape recorder from its drawer and switched it on.  And I will tell you that tape was never erased, and how that woman’s every cry of terror and despair, and every word and blow of yours was etched upon it.  And then I will tell you that is the tape you sealed in Christopher’s safe deposit box.”

“No!  That isn’t possible!  I recorded on a clean tape!”

“You believed the tape was clear, because before I switched the recorder on, it was.  But your fingers shook as you pressed the ‘on’ button.  You didn’t record.  You should have replayed the tape, Richard.  You should at least have taken some of your precious time to do that.”

Panic overtakes him, a fear as debilitating as the moment when Mary, overbalanced, slipped from his grasp, all those years ago.  Can he think back so far?  Did he check the red recording light had responded to his finger on the button?  “I can telephone him!”  He cries.  “I can tell him there’s a mistake, that I’ve sent him the wrong key.  I can stop him opening the box!”

“Oh, my darling Richard, you have forgotten, haven’t you?  It is early morning here in LA, but the sun is high over London.  Our son has already opened the box; the tape is already played.  It is time to wake up, beloved murderer because your dream is over.  Any second now the telephone will ring.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit: Feature photo: Free-photos from Pixabay

It’s no use calling, Pandora – they won’t come back

Peter_Paul_Rubens_004
Inappropriate Touching? And who da kid in da Tree?

It was at Sunday School that someone told me either Adam or Eve (I don’t remember which) invented Original Sin, which I eventually understood to mean anything involving two bodies getting within touching distance of one another; especially if a certain kind of touching was involved. Superficially, I took in old, cracked oil paintings of unclothed Eve chastely holding hands with unclothed Adam, or of the chilly pair an olive tree’s width apart, their dignity preserved by gravity-defying fig leaves.  I didn’t really absorb the lessons of those early days, so I did not question them – only later, when things were beginning to happen to my own body, did I pause to wonder why my school lessons in Religious Instruction slipped deftly past the ‘virgin birth’ – ‘Jesus Bar Joseph’? – and wonder why an elderly Jewish carpenter would give his only son a Greek name?  Original Sin.   Ah, yes, of course!

I came late to my sex education, partly because I was shy as a child and did not share in some of my less inhibited friends’ experiments, and partly because my angelic pipes were insufficiently tuneful to place me in the church choir, so I never got to wear one of those convenient cassocks wherewith Father Flannigan demonstrated his personal immunity to Sin.  Weekday school playground was rich in anecdotes of choristers, both boys and girls, who learned to hit the especially high notes with the good Father’s able help, while those with artistic flair illustrated his endeavours on the school toilet walls. I had to make do with hearsay.

This is not to suggest I missed out on that essential ingredient of childhood in any way.  I had my share of experiences with ‘kiddy fiddlers’, from the sad, bent little man in the public toilets to the frustrated, lonely mother of one of my friends in my teenage years.  I will not elaborate too much, other than to say I was exposed to minor encounters in which neither birds nor bees played any poetic part, long before I became ‘of age’; and I gained from those experiences, rather than anything I was taught in a classroom.

In more adult years I would all too briefly brush with actors and actresses, an altogether more sensitized and tactile world of shared art and shared misfortune.  There is a phrase from the conclusion of Arthur Wing Pinero’s play ‘Trelawney of the Wells’ when Rose Trelawney realizes that, as an actor, her lifestyle sets her apart:   she describes her Company as “Splendid gipsies.”  Despite the play’s undeniable vintage, that description remains steadfastly true.   Joining a community of artists, as I was privileged to do, is gaining membership of a society with limitless generosity and untrammelled freedom of expression.  It also possesses an extremely healthy Bush Telegraph impregnated with a wealth of tales.  You could not pass a single beer-sodden Green Room evening without learning who was ‘a bit strange’ and who was not; whom to love, whom to indulge for their eccentricities, and whom to avoid.   The director who was ‘a bit affectionate, but an absolute darling to work with’, or the famous and immensely talented female singer with a very aggressive sexuality:  ‘don’t get caught backstage with her, sweetie’.  (A warning to other females, not males, BTW).

There were no victims in those Green Room discussions.  A fairly balanced distribution of ages and members of both sexes, yes, and true, there was always alcohol and usually an element of fatigue, but if you were seeking an ingénue, you were in the wrong place.  All were professionals, and I would say all knew exactly how far they would be prepared to go to secure a prestigious role.   I recall particularly an aspiring actress’s assessment of a director with whom she was due to audition:  “Darling, the job’s absolutely mine.  I can play him like a fish!”  (which proved to be right).

For myself, I emerged from those days with a palette rich in colour and a wealth of education about human diversity and resilience.   Experience, that which the academically imbued choose to rather patronizingly label ‘The School of Life’, taught me tolerance of others, their personal tragedies, their insecurities, often, and their perpetual alone-ness.  I learned to be at home with their differences, and where there were lines, personal lines, I needed to draw.  My real qualifications for life were gained in that Green Room, or from Father Flannigan’s choir practice, in that bar, or on that street.

I guess my education was no different from those of others, so I wonder at the apparent epidemic of outraged innocence that pervades everything media at this time concerning ‘inappropriate touching’ or minor assault.  We do not arrive at the essential signposts in our lives without having first learned how to read a map.  So ‘the rules have changed’.  No.  ‘Rules’, if we insist upon calling them such, must at least be written down; otherwise they are not rules, they are fashion.  Similarly, offences, if they are to be called such, must be proven.  Otherwise they are hearsay, otherwise they are gossip, otherwise they are anger, or envy, or greed.  If someone’s entire life is to be ruined, their career ended, their achievements set at nought, the very least requirement should be proof.  It should not depend upon an etiquette of constantly-evolving signals that are too easily misunderstood.

The truth?  Most of us, male or female, are touched inappropriately, spoken to suggestively, or affronted clumsily in some way, several times in our lives.  That does not make us victims.  That does not make us lose sleep at nights, throw ourselves into lives of addiction or quake every time a member of the opposite sex comes near us.   If it does, that says more about our own mental stability than anything else and yes, there will be the odd few to whom this will happen.  But most us could – should – simply smile, write it down to experience, and move on.

I used to be an advocate of the world-wide-web.  I gladly espoused its freedoms, joyfully joined in its crusades against corruption and falsehood.  I still do, but my mind is beginning to change.  I see how the distribution of power is beginning to be reversed; how easily those in positions of responsibility can become prey.  In the absence of a moral code, this medium, and its instigator, the gutter press, must exercise restraint or be restrained.   If moral democracy cannot survive, moral dictatorship will take its place.

The corollary to this is, of course, to say that there are a number of genuine cases of assault which are serious in nature, proven and should face a court of law, especially where the offence involves a child.  Whether names should be released before a trial is another issue, but there is a danger that these cases can suffer if a welter of copycat accusations follow each one.

Now, I will conclude with a slightly sideways shift – I ask you to please consider this.

A few years ago the town of Middlesbrough, here in England, was visited by a doctor claiming to have evolved an entirely new way (known as the ‘anal dilation method’ – need I elaborate?) for proving child abuse.   Within a couple of weeks, during which children under scrutiny were hauled about like chickens, two hundred – yes, two hundred – children were adjudged to have been subjected to severe abuse.   Two hundred parents (mostly fathers) were placed under investigation, public hysteria spread and court lists began mounting up, before somebody had the presence of mind to stand back and question this sudden epidemic.  The cases were reviewed and the doctor concerned was ‘moved away’ to a practice where she was not directly involved with children’s backsides.

Shortly afterwards, social services in Scotland tried to prove that an entire Scottish island was a nest of paedophiles.  This was unfounded, too, but not before the island’s people were exposed to the attentions of the media pack.

It does seem to me that quite intelligent people can be subject to zeitgeist in such a way that they lose all sense of proportion; maybe in a hunt for publicity, or reward?  I don’t know.  But that might be food for educators who are ever more intent upon narrowing and focusing the business of learning.  Maybe the fetters of specialisation are not a good thing.  Maybe we should distance ourselves from rampant progress and just take our time.