Miss Chatham

drawing of old lady

They walk together in the park
at three fifteen each day.
Miss Chatham and Euphorbia
quietly make their way.
One loved in life, one never held,
both showing time’s decay

Some note quietly, as they pass,
this singular mismatched pair.
The lady clothed in Sunday best
and her friend’s wild wispy hair.
Both alone, but twinned for life,
Miss Chatham and her teddy bear.

For Adoption

pregnant woman illustration

She holds a distant memory
of when a heartbeat matched her own.
A summer secret locked inside,
a child barely known.

A small, now faded picture holds,
a truth in grey and white.
A daughter held for one short day,
one silent tear-torn night.

To give a life, to hold a life
to bear but never see,
the future that the world might hold,
for the child she set free.

Two lives diverged, two stories cleft,
one lost one led away.
But the incense of a child’s warm hair,
still holds her to that day.

Dancing Alone

A sirens sounds for the daily dance,
a game that is carelessly played.
In covert signs and coded words,
Liaisons are sought, alliances made.

But those who don’t hear, or don’t know the rules,
are lost in this masquerade.

By day they are silent, in the evening alone,
weaving dreams that may never see light.
Mouthing the words of songs they have learned,
while dancing alone, hidden from sight.

Shrouded with empathy, dusted with love,
Trapped in their room, alone at night.

A Fall from Grace

simple drawing of a nun

It may have been just
that her balance gave way,
that dew damp grass
was the the culprit that day.

It might have been planned,
or purely by chance,
that no one would catch
her last backward glance

We may never know why
her life ended that way,
if her sight was obscured,
or her thoughts led astray

Not a word for her friends,
she left barely a trace,
at the end of her journey,
when she fell from grace.

She may never have known
the path she was on.
Life obscured her vision.
We blinked. She was gone.

Until Death

At my husband’s insistence, I undertook driving lessons. My hands perspired on the steering wheel, I frequently forgot which pedal to press, and the bleeping from the car’s sensors only served to confused me.

We had married on my eighteenth birthday. Derek was considerably older than me, but we enjoyed three amiable years of cohabitation before I killed him.

It had been his idea for me to hone my driving skills by reversing into our garage, so he was partly responsible for his demise. We lived in a large detached house with a double garage, but Derek never threw anything away, so there was not as much space as you might imagine. Benches were piled high with cardboard boxes, old chairs were stacked in one corner and rolls of carpet leant against the walls at various angles. In fact the whole garage was littered with worthless clutter. I hated it, and would have been quite happy to leave the car outside, on the gravel drive.

I felt the rear of the car rise as a wheel bumped over something. It could have been one of those rolls of carpet, or a cardboard box tumbled from its precarious perch. I was angry with Derek for making me do things I did not enjoy. The engine made a crunching noise as I struggled to put it into first gear and, when I managed to find it, the car instantly lurched forward. I felt another, slightly softer, bump. 

Turning off the engine, I got out to investigate. Derek’s body lay crumpled on the floor. 

I edged towards him, and heard someone scream. It was me. Dropping to my knees, I turned Derek onto his back. When I placed my hands on his chest to attempt resuscitation, there was no resistance, he was little more than a squidgy bag of broken bones.

By the time a neighbour responded to my cries for help, tears had caused my mascara to run, and my hair had come loose from its neat chignon. My knees had been grazed by the concrete floor, but they would recover in time.

For weeks afterwards I wore somber colours and never allowed a smile to crease my face. Even Karen, Derek’s mother, forgave me – and she was the judgemental type. In accordance with Derek’s will, I inherited the family business, along with the house and the pretty cottage in which Karen lived. If she had doubts about my account of that day’s events, she never voiced them.

Once Derek’s funeral was over, I went away for a few days to recuperate, and plan my future. Karen kindly agreed to house-sit, and take care of Derek’s cat. The sushi had only been in my fridge for a couple of days, maybe a week, I don’t remember precisely. I explained all this to both the doctor and the police. 

The postmortem concluded that Karen had suffered from anaphylactic shock. She died, accidentally, chopsticks in hand, at my beautiful antique dining table.

Everyone assured me it wasn’t my fault, and that Karen was always too impetuous. The term greedy was mentioned by someone. Tears once again ruined my makeup, but I have always tended towards displaying my emotions – when the occasion calls for it. 

Another funeral was arranged. It was a modest affair. Karen didn’t have a large circle of friends, and there was no sense in spending money on a lavish wake so soon after Derek’s – many would have been the same mourners.

I had never been fond of Derek’s cat, a long-haired Persian monstrosity called Brompton – and I’m sure he never liked me. Sadly, Brompton had finished off the sushi. We buried him with Karen so they could keep each other company.

Karen’s little cottage sold quickly. I never considered letting it out, and had no use for it myself. The proceeds of the sale funded an indoor swimming pool at the rear of my house. The design included sliding glass doors and a roof that could be opened to the sky on sunny days. 

Planning permission was problematic. The chair of the committee visited me on site, on more than one occasion. He was a charming man, but his wife didn’t understand the constant stress his job caused him. I mentioned that I had trained as a physiotherapist, even though I only lasted three weeks on the course, and suggested massage might relieve some of his problems. He was most grateful for my efforts, and very understanding about my planning application.

It made sense to sell the family business, after all, there was no longer a family to run it. Derek had been an only child, and had never previously been married, or even in a serious relationship. We hadn’t been blessed with children, although we had planned to start on that path quite soon. Unfortunately, I suffered frequent migraines during our short marriage, and Derek was always very understanding.

It came as a surprise to discover just how valuable the business was. There was something of an auction over the assets and warehousing facilities. With the proceeds of the sale, I bought a villa on the Mediterranean coast, situated on the edge of a golf course, and just a short stroll from the beach.

My immediate neighbour at that villa turned out to be a very pleasant gentleman, a widower whose only daughter rarely visited him. I never met her in the three years I lived there. Gerald and I often chatted in his garden, over a glass or two of wine. In the shade of a jacaranda tree he would tell me, in some detail, about the round of golf he had played that day.

He professed to being lonely, and said he enjoyed our conversations. Our consumption of wine did, on occasions, get a little out of control. His face was often flushed by the time we bade each other goodnight. He always held my shoulders and planted a soft kiss on my forehead. I would stretch on tiptoe, he was several inches taller than me, and kiss his cheek before we parted. He told me one evening that he regarded me as his surrogate daughter.

One warm summer evening, Gerald died of a heart attack. He had been arguing with his daughter on the telephone, his biological daughter, as he had come to call her. Before she rang, Gerald and I had been indulging in one of our favourite red wines. He stumbled a little as he stood. the phone was in the lounge. I took his arm, and was by his side during the ensuing conversation. His face reddened even more, he gasped, and collapsed on the tiled floor.

I did my best, but Gerald’s daughter kept squawking on the phone, causing me to panic, and driving all knowledge of what I should do from my head. By the time I recovered my composure, Gerald had passed away. 

I was not entirely surprised to be included in Gerald’s will, we had become very close. He was such a sweet and generous man. In the end, he proved more generous towards me than he did towards his biological daughter. 

Over the ensuing weeks and months, she made quite a fuss, trying everything she could to get me disinherited. But Gerald’s friends at the golf club rallied to my defence. 

My villa, the other residents, the whole complex did not quite feel the same after Gerald’s death. A retired couple bought his villa and I did not take to the wife. So, I also sold my own villa, and moved back to my original house. I was, by then, a reasonably wealthy woman, but one always worries about the future.

A few weeks later, on impulse, I booked a berth on a cruise to the Norwegian fjords. I suspected it would be predominantly older passengers, but thought there might be someone interesting on board, someone who might appreciate my company. It would provide an opportunity to reassess my situation in peace and quiet.

As I boarded, a steward informed me I would be dining at the captain’s table that night. He escorted me to my first-class cabin, which had a large balcony and was even more spacious and luxurious than I had anticipated. At dinner that evening, the company was charming, especially the captain. After the main course, I stole a glance at the adjacent tables. Not too far away, I noticed a familiar face. It was Gerald’s daughter. Her photograph had been on prominent display in his villa when I first met him. She caught my eye. I smiled and nodded politely, assuming she wouldn’t recognise me. 

Later that evening, there was a knock on my door. I had asked a steward to bring me a small glass of hot chocolate, and had left the door to my cabin ajar. My life changed yet again while I was enjoying the wonderful view from my balcony.

I will never know for sure, but I suspect they were Sadie’s hands, or maybe her partner’s, that closed around my ankles, and lifted me off the deck. Despite fiercely gripping the handrail, I found myself cartwheeling over the edge, and plunged into black, icy water.

Fortunately, the ship was about to dock, and my screams were heard by several people. Rescue from that cold, dark world was swift. But the fall had been from a great height, and several small vertebrae in my back were fractured. My consultant warned me that I might not completely recover.

The cruise company wanted to settle  compensation as quickly as possible, probably to avoid unwanted publicity. The sum agreed with my lawyer was substantial, and covered the cost of a full-time physiotherapist.

Jeremy was younger than me. He was an advocate of hydrotherapy, and it was a blessing I had splashed out on that swimming pool. During my treatment, Jeremy lived with me – so much more convenient for both of us. It was his skill and patience that helped nurse me back to full health.

We married two years to the day after we first met. But before we wed, I made him aware of my will. In the event we didn’t have children, most of my assets were gifted to a cat rescue centre. I still felt guilty over the fate of Brompton.

Within a year I was pregnant, and I gave birth, to a daughter. It was a mystery to me, but I suspected that Jeremy may have tampered with my birth control pills. Jeremy doted on our daughter, and his affection for me appeared to diminish proportionately. A not very satisfactory situation.

One Sunday, a few days after our daughter’s second birthday, I was lazing in the pool, balanced on an inflatable armchair which Jeremy had purchased for me. It had proved a pleasant novelty on a hot day, to sip a mojito with my feet dangling in cool water.

Despite all Jeremy’s efforts, I had never become a proficient swimmer, and was concerned when the armchair started to deflate. I called out for help, and Jeremy appeared. We had a telescopic pole by the pool, to which a net could be attached for retrieving leaves, or any other flotsam. He extended the pole and held it out to me. I grabbed it, but Jeremy didn’t pull me to the side of the pool. Instead, he guided me to the deep end.

As the chair exhaled its last breath, I knew mine wouldn’t be far behind. My most recent will left everything to my daughter and, until she turns twenty-five, Jeremy will be in control of all her assets. My fingers remained locked around that pole, as it pushed me, ever deeper, beneath the water.

The Swings

book cover for the swings

From the swings in the recreation ground, Tim could see his classroom across the bare, scorched grass of summer. Soon, rain would turn everything green again, but for now the world was ready to burn. Looking out of the window was Miss Roberts. She often stood there, always staring in the same direction, always towards the swings.

Today had been the first day of a new school year. Her warm words of welcome had not matched the weariness in her body.

The swings had wooden seats, worn smooth by generations of use, the iron chains tarnished and cold under Tim’s fingers. He started to swing, tucking his feet under the seat and flinging them forward to gain momentum, using his body, going higher with every pass.

Sometimes, the neighbouring, empty seat, would echo his movements. Tim was never concerned when this happened, or why it creaked, as though it bore a burden. He sometimes imagined a friend sitting next to him, creating in his head a boy slightly taller than himself, with dark, straight hair, flopping over his eyes whenever his head fell forward.

Miss Roberts watched them, both Tim and George, as they swung, side by side, back and forth. Tim was one of her current pupils. A quiet, intelligent boy, not unlike his companion had been. But where Tim was real, George could only be a memory from long ago, when she had been new to teaching. He had been a boy who could fade into the shadows, quietly hide in plain view. Until the day he vanished forever.

When George first spoke, it was in little more than a whisper. But an imagined friend, who voiced opinions about a teacher, was a novelty. Nobody was a huge fan of Miss Roberts. She was strict, sharp, always wanting everything done perfectly and on time. In truth there was nothing really wrong with her, she just wasn’t as much fun as some of the other teachers.

During break the next day, Miss Roberts took Tim to one side. She asked him whether he had been alone in the recreation ground after school. She pointed out of the class room window, across the field, to emphasise the location she was referring to. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. 

“Were you talking to George?”

Tim felt a lump form in his throat, and he couldn’t speak.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “Foolish of me to ask.”

Miss Roberts turned pale. She reached out to put a hand on the radiator. Tim edged away, unsure what to say or do. Miss Roberts blinked quickly, several times, her mouthed twitched, and she fainted.

When she came round, the children had been ushered out of the classroom. The head and a teaching assistant were kneeling beside her. She  started to explain, saying she had been late that morning, her alarm clock hadn’t gone off and that she had skipped breakfast. But the head told her that a paramedic was on their way, protocol she said, and insisted she get a proper check up. Miss Roberts agreed, but she knew there was nothing a doctor could prescribe to cure guilt.

For a few days after that, Tim avoided the swings. He wasn’t scared, although he might later have admitted to being nervous. When he did return to the playground, he wasn’t surprised to find his companion beside him on the swings once more. George no longer felt like a figment of his imagination, but was almost real, in an unreal way. Tim asked how he knew Miss Roberts and George said that she had been his teacher too. George had his elbows hooked round the chains of the swing and was counting on his fingers. 

“Thirty-six years ago,” he said. 

Tim had no idea how old Miss Roberts was, other than she looked older than his mother, but not quite as ancient as his gran. Tim asked George why he was here.

“To help her, I think,” George replied.

George had been in Miss Roberts thoughts every day since the accident. She almost gave up teaching after his death, but her friends and colleagues persuaded her to return to the classroom. It had been difficult to start with, but she fell into a routine. And she followed the rules, perhaps too rigorously at times. The relationship with her boyfriend ended. He said that she had become un-fun. Miss Roberts pointed out to him that un-fun wasn’t a word

“And that is precisely what I mean,” he had replied, and left.

He had been right in some ways. She was diligent, responsible, thorough. She would do her best to ensure no child ever suffered such a fate as George had. She ran her classes with exacting precision. The registers were marked with the same fountain pen, and the same colour ink, every day. Nobody complained about Miss Roberts teaching, but she didn’t make many friends either, not amongst staff, pupils or parents. There never was another boyfriend, even though she had not been without suitors.

Tim dragged his feet on the ground to slow the swing. It maintained a gentle swaying motion. George’s swing did the same. Wanting to know more, but wary to ask, Tim stared at the classroom window. A few brief showers had been enough to start new growth and the playing field  already had a green haze to it. 

“You want to know what happened don’t you?”

Tim nodded, and George told him how he had died. Tim caught the smell of burning as he listened, or maybe it was only in his imagination. 

Miss Roberts had been watching the two of them deep in conversation. But she was too far away to hear what was being said, even with the windows open. Her hands gripped the windowsill tightly, a splinter dug into the palm of her right hand. The terrible error she had made all those years ago still felt like yesterday. She knew that she would have to ask Tim again, but was now no longer sure what was real, and what imagined. Maybe she was finally losing her grip on reality. She even feared that she had only imagined Tim, that even he didn’t exist.

The next day, during the lunch break, when she was on playground duty, Tim fell and grazed his knee quite badly. It was her opportunity to talk to him alone. She took him inside, washed the cuts and applied a dressing, whilst she tentatively questioned him. 

“Tell me about your friend in the recreation ground?” she asked, not looking up.

It would hopefully appear an innocent question if George was only in her imagination, but Tim responded immediately.

“He’s not really a friend Miss, he just turns up sometimes.”

Trying to stop her hands from shaking, she asked Tim how they met.

“George isn’t actually real Miss. He told me he had died in a fire, thirty six years ago. “I think he’s a ghost Miss. Do you believe in ghosts? Please don’t tell anyone else, they won’t believe me.”

Miss Roberts promised not to reveal Tim’s secret, but asked what George wanted.

“He doesn’t know Miss.”

The next time Tim saw George, it was not on the swings, but in the school playground. Tim was sat on the warm tarmac in the sunshine, his back against the classroom wall, reading a comic. George sat next to him.

“Does she remember me?’ he asked. 

“Don’t know.’ 

Tim drew his elbows in tighter to his sides, not wanting to make contact with George, not now he knew how George had died. For a moment, Tim thought the sun had gone behind a cloud, then realised it was Miss Roberts shadow. She was in front of him, and spoke quietly so nobody else could overhear. 

“You can leave me with George. I’ll take care of him.”

Miss Roberts knew that George had been waiting many years for her to acknowledge his presence. 

“They said it wasn’t my fault George. But it was.”

The two of them sat in silence. Miss Roberts had spoken out loud, not caring if anyone heard her. Tim had only retreated a few yards and was pretending to read his comic. 

“I was scared Miss.” George mumbled.

Tim turned a page in his comic, then turned it back again a few seconds later. He hoped they would forget he was there, listening. 

“I was scared too Gorge, and confused. I didn’t know you were still in the building. I didn’t check.”

“You couldn’t have saved me Miss. Both of us would have died.”

Tim knew there had been a fire in the school many years ago, but it was  ancient history. There was, he remembered, a brass plaque in the hall, a memorial to the event, but he had never read the inscription. The door beside him was ajar and, despite pupils not being allowed in the building during breaks, Tim edged through the gap unnoticed. 

It was strange being inside the building when everyone else was outside. There was unusual silence where his every step echoed ominously. Making his way to the hall, Tim ran his fingers along the engraved words under the date on the plaque. 

‘In memory of George Sutton’

There was a loud explosion behind him, and Tim clasped his hands to his head. All he could hear was a painful ringing sound, and there was smoke everywhere.

The explosion startled Miss Roberts. She looked to the side and saw that Tim wasn’t there. Turning back, George had also disappeared. People were shouting, and the other teachers, who had been in the staff room during break, were now in the playground, lining up the pupils into form groups. Miss Roberts quickly scanned her group, looking for one boy in particular. He wasn’t there.

Smoke was pouring through broken windows and the main entrance doors but Miss Roberts didn’t hesitate. She squeezed through the door Tim had been sat next to, pulled her cardigan across her face to guard against the smoke, and made her way the sunless classroom.

Tim wasn’t aware of what had happened. His head hurt, he was coughing uncontrollably, breathing was difficult, smoke obscured his vision and sense of direction. He felt hands under his arms as they lifted him from the floor. He hadn’t even realised he was laying down. Something wet covered his face, stopping the smoke from choking him. 

Within seconds he was outside. Two strangers were bending over him, one holding some sort of mask over his face. 

“You’re going to be okay, you’re safe now, try to breathe slowly.”

Tim was taken to hospital. His parents arrived and told him not to worry, that the doctors said he was going to be fine.

“What happened?’ he asked.

Outside the school, as firemen checked and secured the building, George walked with Miss Roberts across a lush green field, towards the playground.

“I think I’m too old for swings, George,” she said, smiling at him. 

But Miss Roberts settled on the seat next to George. Her hands closed around the shiny new chains, and, in perfect unison, they began to swing. Back and forth, back and forth, they swung ever higher until both George and Miss Roberts slowly faded from view, and the swings came to rest. 

After that day George never joined Tim on those swings again.