A Tree with a Name Beginning with S

“I need a new tree friend,” I say to S.  “A tree like my oak Merlin, outside my window in Wimbledon.”

My new friend S. is a children’s and young adult fiction writer.  She doesn’t find anything odd or unusual about a middle-aged adult being friends with a tree, or, for that matter, that the tree should be called Merlin.  She takes a sip of coffee.  “Have you tried Lion Wood?”

“It’s too far to walk and up that steep hill,” I reply.  “I need a tree nearby.  Somewhere I can get to easily and say hello whenever I feel like it, without it becoming an expedition.”

Through her rimless glasses, S.’s blue eyes look sideways, to that corner of her mind where she probably stores her list of suitable trees.  I know she’s making a mental note to find me the perfect rooted confidant.

I’ve been within easy reach of one specific, special tree, for most of my adult life.  In Cambridge, it was the copper beech watching over Leckhampton Gardens, and the canopy – practically a tent – offered by the trailing branches of a weeping willow.  In London, there was the wise cedar of Lebanon in Bishops’ Park, and, later, in Wimbledon, my room looked onto a large, powerful oak.  It was a tree with stories and insight.  Merlin.  I don’t know why Merlin.  The name just kept popping into my head whenever I looked it him.  Him.  Because, for some reason, to me he was unmistakably a he.  On the night of St Jude’s Storm, I went to bed with the certainty in my heart that he would not crash against my windows, that he would keep me safe.  And he stood sturdy all night.

*

H. and I were strolling in the Cathedral precinct, a few weeks ago, when I suddenly stopped in my tracks.  “There it is!” I said.

H. also stopped and looked around.  “There what is?”

“My tree!”

Your tree…”

“Look! There! Straight ahead.”

H. accepts, with infinite patience and warm indulgence, that I was born with a certain amount of madness, so did not query my use of the possessive pronoun but followed my pointing finger with his eyes.  “Wow. That is impressive,” he admitted.

WP_20160207_002Before us, at the back of the Cathedral, beneath the flying buttresses, the most majestic of trees.  A cedar of Lebanon.  Tall, dark green, sprawling, some of its branches trailing on the grass, with round cones bobbing gently in the wind.  Alive.  Very much alive.  I slowly approached, took off my glove, and stroked its needles.  His needles.  Immediately, I felt many eyes turn towards me, watching me, studying me.  Quizzical, wary, judging, alert.  A chubby, pale green chiffchaff.  A couple of blackbirds.  A sparrow.  Wood pigeons.  And all the eyes I felt upon me but did not see, could never see with my eyes.  Chirping, whistling, tweeting, cooing.  Who is she? Friend or foe? What are her intentions? Shall we allow her into our world? And then there were all the voices I could never hear with my ears. Among them, a deep, booming voice.  A bass baritone full of warning but also promise.  A warning against contempt, a promise of reward for honour.  I couldn’t hear it, and yet I knew it was there.  The voice of the tree.  I leaned against the trunk and ran my fingers on the bark.  His bark.  A name suddenly resounded through my chest.  An ancient name.  S –.  What was that name? Yes, it definitely starts with an S, I sensed again, the healing power of the tree penetrating my hands and my back.  Tremendous power.  The kind of power whose respect you long to earn, whose friendship you want to deserve.  And a storyteller tree, custodian of mysteries, of knowledge.  A keeper of secrets.

I wonder how old it – I mean he  – is.

*

I text our friend J., who is a tree surgeon.  “Are you acquainted with the cedar of Lebanon at the back of the Cathedral? Do you know old it is?”

He replies, “Measure its girth.  One inch for every year.”

I take the tape measure from my sewing basket, and recruit H.’s help.  184 inches.  One hundred and eight-four years? It looks older, given its size and sprawl.  I try asking the Cathedral staff.  They don’t know.  “Ask one of the guides,” they say.  “If it’s a historical tree, one of the guides is bound to know about it.”

I suppress a snort.  A “historical” tree? Aren’t all trees historians, record-keepers of man’s fleeting visits?

*

“Let’s go and visit S –,” I say to H. after breakfast this morning.

“That’s an excellent idea,” he replies enthusiastically.

As we approach the cedar of Lebanon, as always, I find myself slowing down, stepping with caution, with deference to his awe-inspiring majesty and gravitas.

WP_20160207_004I get it into my head that I would like a cone.  In all the times I’ve come, I’ve never seen one lying around.  I ask politely.  Suddenly, I am convinced that I will be given one today.  I start walking slowly on the soft carpet of needles beneath the sprawling branches.  Nothing.  I am surprised, given the recent gales.  Perhaps after the next gust of wind.

There it is.

I pick it up.

Thank you, S –.
I hold it gently as I take it home and place in on my work table.  It has a wonderful smell of resin.  It’s beautiful.

It’s perfect.

Thank you.

Scribe Doll

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Zebras at the Opera House

Last night, I eagerly tuned in to the BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot.  It’s one of my favourite operas.  I didn’t listen to it till the very end, though, because I wasn’t grabbed by the performance.  I found Nina Stemme’s Wagnerian soprano too heavy and too lacking in crystalline quality for Turandot.  I felt that her diction was a little sloppy and, on several occasions, I thought I heard her swallow consonants and leave out vowels.  Marco Berti’s tenor, for me, was too thin, too deprived of richness, too throaty for Calaf.  I also didn’t care for the pace of Paolo Carignani’s conducting.  I found it too fast and lacking in drama.

Some of the above comments are a matter of personal taste and preference.  However, when the Met audience applauded uproariously, sounding as though they were about to bring the house down, I suddenly realised something: the audience always applauds uproariously at the Met or Covent Garden.  It’s almost expected.  It’s totally predictable.  And I wondered: is it a matter of manners or lack of discernment? Does the audience take its cue from the critics? Does fame equal quality, equal wild applause?

There was a time when audiences would hurl tomatoes, boo and hiss at performances and performers who failed to live up to their standards.  I don’t agree with such abusive behaviour.  Of course I don’t.  My many years working in the theatre has taught me just how hard everyone involved in a production works, and their efforts should be met with respect.  But, surely, it should also be an audience member’s privilege to express disappointment with a show or a performer, if s/he feels that the quality is inferior to expectations.  After, all, shouldn’t clapping and shouting “bravo!” be like restaurant tipping, i.e. subject to the standard of service received? There are many respectful ways an audience can convey the fact that it doesn’t like something.  Not clapping, for example.  Another, more drastic, expression could be leaving during the interval.  I know some people do that, but then how come whenever I attend an opera or listen to a live radio broadcast, there’s always – always – such roaring applause? Sometimes I almost wonder if it’s pre-recorded.

* * *

I first started going to the opera when I was sixteen, in Rome.  The Teatro dell’Opera hadn’t been revamped yet, and much of the upholstery was the worse for wear. The place was drab. On the rare occasion when a famous singer was scheduled to appear, you would have to start queuing for tickets at the crack of dawn.  The first person to arrive would take it upon him or herself to tear up little pieces of paper with numbers scribbled on them, and hand them out to anyone joining the queue.

I have fond memories of many a Sunday afternoon spent in the galleria, surrounded by characters who lived and breathed music, and were not afraid to express their opinion, even in voices that carried across the  auditorium in the silence that preceded the opening bars of the second or third act.

A ticket in the gods cost less than admission to the luxurious Barberini cinema, where the latest films were shown first, so I went very often.  Moreover, since I mostly went everywhere on my own, I found it much less intimidating to go the opera than the cinema.  Nobody up in the galleria found it odd that a teenage girl should turn up without parents, friends or boyfriend.  Before leaving home, I would wrap a piece of milk chocolate in foil and put it in my coat pocket.  By the interval, it would have softened exactly to my liking, and I would snack on it while listening to the other music lovers provide an in-depth, no-prisoners-taken, critique of the performance.  Mostly, they were music students from the Santa Cecilia music academy, and other, older, opera aficionados who could not afford a seat in the stalls.

In any case, the stalls were where the fur coats sat.  And the fur coats, we galleria regulars all knew, would applaud at anything that moved on the stage.

I remember a Rossini Semiramide with a spectacular set, and a Massenet Manon (which, my galleria betters, assured me, sounded far better in Italian than in French) where Raina Kabaivanska’s dress caught on the banister of a staircase, preventing her from walking down until rescued by a slow-on-the-uptake Des Grieux.  Then, Italy being well known for its art, its fashion, but also for its frequent strikes, there was the time when I attended a chorus-free performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

My first opera was Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.  My heart pounded at the opening bars.  The singing was excellent.  The set, however, was another matter.  At one point, the curtains swished open on several plywood or cardboard cut-out horses.  One of them had an unusual pattern of pink and orange stripes.  The conductor raised his baton.  The man next to me was watching through his binoculars. His voice carried loud and clear across the void.

“Look at that – they’ve even got zebras!”

The conductor lowered his baton amid a crescendo of shushing from the fur coats down in the abyss, and supportive giggles from the galleria occupants.

Now that‘s what I call audience power.

Please also read ‘Turandot – a Story of Redemption’

Scribe Doll

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Borzoi

I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I dodged my way through the Saturday lunchtime crowds by the market, and strode towards him.  Two women were stroking his cream head.  When he saw me, he slid past them and lifted his long aristocratic muzzle to my outstretched hand, from which I’d made sure I removed my glove.  I don’t like to stroke animals with my gloves on.  Just as I don’t like to shake hands with my fellow humans except with my bare hand.  I stared in disbelief at the rounded bust, the sharply tapered, greyhound waist, the wavy, silky coat that formed a kind of fur collar around his neck, the tall, slender legs, the long, bushy tail, the elegant demeanour.  I hadn’t seen one for over forty years.  “Is this a Borzoi?” I asked the owner.

“That’s right,” he replied with obvious pride.

I stood caressing the Russian wolfhound, then crouched before him, and he immediately wiped my face, all the way up from my chin to my nose, with his soft tongue.

A Borzoi.  I could barely believe it.  In Norwich.

The last time I had seen a Borzoi was back in the mid-Seventies.  In Nice.  I was nine.  On sunny winter days when there was no school, my grandmother and I would often take a walk along the Promenade des Anglais, and sit on a bench, our backs to the glitzy casinos that remained closed until the evening and the domed entrance of the Hôtel Negresco, looking at the sea so blue it seemed to have been painted cyan by Dufy.  La Baie des Anges.  I had semi-chronic bronchitis and dark rings under my eyes, and my grandmother said the sea air would help cure my cough.

Among the other strollers, we would often see individuals who were clearly not French.  There was something proud and other-worldly about them, I thought.  Sometimes, as they walked past our bench, they would overhear us speaking Russian, and stopped to engage in conversation.  The men would tip their hats at my grandmother, sometimes even lift her hand and brush it subtly with their lips.  The ladies would sit next to us.  All were considerably older than my grandmother.  Distinguished, formal, their hats and coats sometimes a little the worse for wear.  All overjoyed at meeting another Russian speaker.  “Oh, such a pleasure! Have you been here long? When did you leave? Before or after ’17? And does your granddaughter speak Russian? Oh, good, well done.  It’s so important.  My own grandchildren hardly speak a word.  I keep telling my daughter and son-in-law, but they just speak French at home.  ‘Katia’? Oh, how wonderful, you gave her a Russian name! And your family? Yes, many of my relatives disappeared, too.  Terrible times.  How could they do such things to their own people? Yes, we also received letters with half the pages missing.  And now so many of us are here.  At least the climate is mild.”

After they had gone, my grandmother would impress upon me that these were Russians.  Russians – not Soviets.  And, back in those days, their accent was noticeably different.

Some of these Russian émigrés would stroll with their dogs.  Borzois.  There was something about these hounds’ genteel demeanour and their sad eyes which, in my child’s imagination, very much symbolised the vieille Russie of the books my grandmother read and the stories she told, as well as the conversations I overheard among these émigrés.  Long, snowy winters.  Fairy tales.  Ballrooms with crystal chandeliers.  Rhymes by Pushkin and Lermontov.  Tchaikovsky’s heart-wrenching music.

One of these, a tall, formidable lady with steel-white hair gathered under a sable hat and piercing-blue eyes, befriended us, and would often invite us to her flat in the exclusive Cimiez area of the city.  Somehow, she had managed to smuggle part of her wealth out of the USSR, so lived in relative comfort, and – if I remember – paid the occasional visit to a plastic surgeon in Germany.  She had an impressive collection of fur coats and jewellery, and took it upon herself to “educate” me in matters which she felt my family clearly lacked the means in which to instruct me.

“Now, Katia, this is important: look at this mink.  How can you tell that it’s of the finest quality? Hmm? Remember, I told you last time.  You look at the long hairs, thickly set, the sheen… Wouldn’t you like to have one like this when you’re grown up? Now this one here is cream Astrakhan – very rare.  And this is leopard, of course…”

I listened politely while trying to catch my grandmother’s eye and send her a silent plea.

Later, at home, I wrote a fairy tale about a leopard fur coat that comes to life whenever a lady wears it, roars and sinks its teeth into the owner’s flesh, mauling her to death.  Eventually, I also made up variations on the theme with alligator handbags and snakeskin shoes.

As I crouched by the silky, friendly Borzoi outside Norwich market, I wondered if he was the descendant of a line that came from Old Russia.  Whether any of his ancestors had ever  strolled along the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice.  Whether I had ever stroked them, age nine, more fascinated then by them than by their owners.

Scribe Doll

 

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“So What Brought You to Norwich?”*

When I tell the truth, they don’t believe me.

I was brought to Norwich by a sheet of paper, a pen, and a china mug.

It was winter 2013, and I was at odds with my life.  There appeared to be an ongoing breakdown in communication, since my life seemed deaf to all my needs, and I was most definitely deaf to its guidance.  I had been living in London for nineteen years, although struggling to keep afloat would be a more accurate description of my existence.  I had been a theatre telephone box office clerk, a telephone market researcher, a theatre press agent, a reflexologist, a theatre producer, an English as a Foreign Language teacher, and an actors’ agent.  So, the previous autumn, I had finally reached the stage where, tired of swimming, I didn’t even care where or how far the next shore was.  I had no job, no home, no money, and only a moderate amount of will to live.  I was drained, shattered, off the grid.  I would fantasise about a friend – any friend – inviting me ’round for a bowl of hearty soup, a rich chocolate pudding, a glass of whiskey, then handing me a large box of tissues and being gently sympathetic while I cried my eyes out and wallowed in a bath of self-pity and self-hatred.  But friends, no matter how close, tend not to invite ’round folks who create black holes the size of asteroid craters in their living-room floors.  And that’s fair enough.

“I want to leave London,” I told a few people.

“But where would you go?”

I didn’t know.

“You must never run away from your problems.  You’ll only be taking them with you.”

Shame there’s no copyright on platitudes.  The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society would need to hire extra staff.

But where would I go?

My brain, of which I had up to then been inordinately proud, had not – I had to admit – served me all that well over the past four or so decades, so I figured I had nothing to lose by resorting to my instinct.  That was the point.  I had nothing to lose.  I was alone.  My misery was also my asset.

I took a sheet of paper, a pen, and a china mug.  I cut the paper into seven sections, and on each, wrote the name of a city at most two hours’ train journey from London.  Oh, yes, and it had to be an old, beautiful city.  I like to stroll amid buildings with stories to tell.  I folded each piece of paper, and put them all into my favourite china mug.  One with a black and white cat sitting on the windowsill of a house with gables, a roaring fire and comfortable furniture inside.  I placed my hand over the mug, shook it up and down, closed my eyes, and pulled out Norwich.

Norwich.  The country’s first UNESCO City of Literature.  The first city in the country where a female writer was published – Julian of Norwich.  The city with the ugly, sugar-cube castle over a slightly eerie shopping centre.  But a city blessed with temperamental, expressive, East Anglian skies.  I’d been there once, for a weekend, several years earlier, but could not remember anything much, except for the Castle and the Cathedral Close.  I didn’t know anybody there, and that was a point in its favour.  If you need a real, total change, no point in going to a place where familiar faces expect you to enact familiar patterns.

I told very few people about my plan.  I didn’t think many would notice my absence, anyway.  When I mentioned it to my dear friend P., he said it so happened his wife’s cousin lived in Norwich, and rented a room in her house.  I booked it.  I now had a home – albeit a temporary one.  Things were looking up.

A book I had been hoping to translate, and the rights to which the British publisher had been negotiating for months, was finally secured.  The day before my departure, the publisher rang to say my contract was ready to sign.  My first real translation contract.  Things were definitely looking up.

And so, one freezing February afternoon, as I dragged a suitcase crammed with dictionaries from Norwich Station, I discovered that Norfolk, despite what Noël Coward wrote, is not flat.  I also discovered that – as Northwickians are proud to point out – the winds here blow straight from the Urals.  Yes, that means they can be very, very cold.

I arrived in Norwich on Shrove Tuesday, and left again shortly after Easter.  Two months I would not trade for the world. Sometimes, when you’re drowning in problems, it’s useful to run from them just far enough uphill to get a full, panoramic view of them.  If you see how they’re laid out, you can plan your way out of them.  In a new place, where everything you react to is new and unfamiliar, you’re less tempted to react – and consequently, act – according to old patterns.

When he saw me off at Liverpool Street, my friend B. had said, “I wonder if, now you’re leaving London, things will unexpectedly unblock for you here.”

I remembered his words when I went back to London for the Easter weekend and, unexpectedly, was offered a wonderful, affordable room in Wimbledon.  A room with an old, wise oak tree outside the window.  A room where I knew I would be very, very happy.  A week later, I moved back to London.  Two days later, I was offered two well-paid teaching jobs, working for nice, appreciative employers.

Among my friends, Norwich became synonym of a gamble that pays off.  A re-set button.  A place to find yourself.

Two years ago, when H. and I were living in Brussels, and wondering where we could move since we couldn’t afford the obscene London rents, I joked, “There’s always Norwich.”

H. looked at me very seriously.  So seriously that, eighteen months ago, we moved here.  The friends I’d made here nearly three years ago welcomed me back.  The contacts I’d made and the knowledge I’d acquired here served me well.  Although I still miss London, I’m gradually learning to love Norwich more day by day.  One would think someone sent me here, three years ago, to lay the foundations of the home we’re making here now.

Perhaps that’s what life said to me, on that grim December night, as I was pulling a piece of paper out of a mug.  Perhaps I wasn’t completely deaf to its guidance, after all.

* If you would like to read about my 2013 Norwich adventure, please read from this blog post.

Scribe Doll

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– and that’s Jazz.

It’s 7.45 and all the tables are already occupied.  The staff are carrying in more chairs.  Drinks are sipped.  The hubbub of chatter hovers over the room, an evocation of the cigarette smoke of yesteryear.

The jam session is advertised for 8 o’clock and, as always, I wonder why everyone arrives so early, since the music never starts before about 8.30.  8 is when the odd musician strays in, casual, as though he happened to be passing and decided to drop in.  He deposits his instrument on the stage area, then backtracks to the bar.  A couple of other musicians drift in and slowly start tuning up.  They catch sight of a familiar face in the audience, nod, smile, go and say hello.  Totally oblivious to the social convention of time.  Someday, someone will explain to me what makes jazz musicians think they are exempt from the professional courtesy of starting their performances on time.  Classical musicians manage it.  Actors manage it.  The audience don’t seem to mind waiting.  Maybe the fact that the performers are free to be themselves, faults included, makes the audience feel loved.

Eventually, the musicians start playing and the audience starts nodding and foot-tapping in time with the rhythm.  Everybody knows the drill: about two-thirds of the way into the song, it’s solo time.  The double bass player strums, pinches and boings, eyes closed, Dum-dum-dum-ing to himself.  It’s the cue for the audience to applaud.  Then it’s the turn of the bass guitar.  Eyelids scrunched up together, face tense, suggesting a painful orgasm.  Audience duly applauds.  Last, but not least, comes the percussionist’s exhibition.  It’s often the longest, with all the hide, wood and metal getting an extensive thrashing that culminates in another hail of applause.

The singer steps onto the stage, with perfected languor and stylised weariness.  She brushes her mane of hair from one side of her neck to the other.  Eyes closed, head slightly thrown back, the mic almost brushing her lips.  It’s just her and the song in a private, intimate space.  Shall we all tip-toe out and remove our voyeuristic presence?

I observe that everyone on stage has either his or eyes closed, or half-closed with a vacant, expression suggesting sense-altering, direct communication with an extra-terrestrial dimension.

A jazz trademark seems to be to cut the verse of the song and attack it straight from the chorus.  Maybe doing what the composer and lyricist intended for the song would be too banal, too conventional, too conformist?

Ah, jazz.  Jazz is life. Or is it life is jazz?

Let’s just drop all that jazz.

Scribe Doll

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Welcoming In The New Year*

Raid all the cupboards and drawers.  Throw into the charity shop bag anything you no longer want, toss into the bin liner anything nobody would want.  Make room for the beautiful, the useful, the new.

Vacuum the carpets, remove the old footprints, that old and new friends may walk in and leave their footprints, instead.

Wash the windows, that golden sunlight may stream into the house, bringing strength to your enterprises, and the silver moonlight may permeate through, carrying inspiration into your dreams.

Scrub the kitchen, chase away stale old smells, that the stove, pots and pans may be ready for new, tasty dishes to bring together friends, and make the body healthy.

Tidy the clutter from the living room, light the fire, that its glow might kindle sparkling conversations, its magic inspire storytelling, and its warmth encourage laughter.

Clean the bedroom, erase all tiredness, that rest may become refreshing, chase away all nightmares, that happy dreams may take root, dispel all doubts, that pleasure may enter smiling, sweep away any anger, that love may flood in.

Put order in the study, that good ideas may find their way in.

Clear the desk, that work, creativity and good fortune may have a place to land.

Burn frankincense or sage, clap your hands, ring bells, make the bowl sing, that all goblins may flee and fairies fly in.

Take all dead and dying plants out of the house, to the nearby wood.  Nature knows better than the rubbish bin what to do with them.

Write down on pieces of paper the names of all men and women you no longer want in your life.  Say “Thank you”, “Sorry”, and “That’s all right” and drop the pieces of paper into the river one by one.  As you watch them being carried away by the stream, wish them well, that they go on to be gifts in other people’s lives.  Let them float away, that they may make room for new people to come into your life.  People who bring love, wisdom and laughter.

Stand under the shower and think rainbows flowing through you.

Fling open all the windows, open the front door, that health, wealth, inspiration, love, laughter may pour in.

And may 2016 sweep into your lives with fulfilled dreams by the armful!

You might also enjoy A Broom To Sweep Out The Old

Scribe Doll

 

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There’s no Santa Claus but…

Tamsin wrote the letter with her favourite pen.  The blue and gold one she had got for her birthday.  She formed all the letters carefully, so Santa Claus would be able to read her handwriting.  Her grandmother said good children had clear, neat handwriting.  She folded the sheet of paper, slipped it in the envelope, licked the flap and pressed it down hard.  Then she wrote “To Santa Claus” on the front.

In the living room, her grandmother had laid the table for afternoon tea.  She smiled at Tamsin. “Come and have some cake, darling,” she said.  “Have you finished writing to Santa Claus?”

“Yes.  I hope he brings me the teddy bear. I put him at the top of my list and I did say I want the brown one with the yellow paws and a green bow.  Do you think he’ll bring it for me?”

The grandmother cut a slice of chocolate fudge cake and put it on Tamsin’s plate.  “I’m absolutely sure he will,” she said.  “Now give me the letter so I can post it for you.”

Tamsin handed her the envelope.  “Can’t we post it together when we go for a walk after tea?”

“Oh, no, my love,” her grandmother replied.  “Santa Claus’s letters have to go into a special postbox.  It’s a bit far from here but I can post it on my way home tonight.”

Tamsin put a forkful of cake into her mouth and frowned.

“Don’t you like the cake, sweetheart?”

Tamsin nodded.  “Yes.”  She swallowed.  “Grandma, is Daddy coming for Christmas this year?”

The grandmother had been dreading that question for the past three Christmases. This year too she gave the same answer.  “No, my love. I’m afraid Daddy isn’t coming.”

The little girl toyed with her fork.  “He’s never coming back.”

The grandmother fought the impulse to contradict her.  Of course, he is, she wanted to say.  After all, that’s what she had said last year and the year before that, but there seemed little point in deceiving the child any longer.  Someday, someone would have to explain to Tamsin that her father had walked out on his wife and two-year-old daughter but, for the time being, the grandmother opted for silence.

“Is Mummy coming back tonight?” the child asked.

“Of course, she is. Why wouldn’t she be?”

Tamsin put her fork down.  “She won’t never come back from work, will she?”

The grandmother pulled her down from her chair, sat her on her lap and kissed the top of her blonde head.  “Your Mummy and I will never leave you, my darling.  We love you so, so much.”

Tamsin was fast asleep when her mother unlocked the door to the flat.  The grandmother was reading on the sofa.  She closed her book.  “I’m afraid she waited up for you as late as she could, but she fell asleep on the chair, so I put her to bed.  You’re late, again.”

The mother took off her coat and hung it up on the hook by the front door.  She slipped off her high-heeled shoes and went to join her mother on the sofa.  She sighed.  “I’m sorry, I had to finish a report.  I didn’t dare say no.”

“Tamsin hardly ever sees you.  Breakfast time and weekends.  That’s about it.”

“I’m doing my best, Mum.  I’m doing it all for her.”

“I know.  Are you hungry? I’ve made some stew.  It’s still warm.  I’d better get home now.  It’s late.”

She stood up from the sofa and looked at her daughter’s drawn face.  Then she leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.  “Eat something,” she said.  “It’s Saturday tomorrow, so you can sleep in.  Then you and Tamsin can spend the weekend together.”

*   *   *

Tamsin  bounced onto her mother’s bed.  “Mummy!  Where are we going today?”

Her mother’s eyes opened with a start.  “What time is it? Oh, darling, why don’t you cuddle up here and let Mummy sleep a little longer?”

“But it’s eight o’clock!”

“Just give me a few more minutes, love.  Why don’t you go and set the table for breakfast?”

Putting out the cereal bowls, Tamsin wondered if her grandmother had remembered to post her letter to Santa Claus.

The morning was spent in Tamsin’s least favourite place:  the supermarket.  She hated food shopping.  It always took ages.  After lunch, however, her mother took them into town.  All the shops were decorated with tinsel, baubles and fairy lights.  Tamsin loved it.  Whenever she stopped to look at a dress or a box of paints, her mother asked, “Do you like it, darling? Do you think you might like to have it someday?”

“No, thanks, Mummy,” she replied.  After all, there was no point in her mother buying her anything when Santa Claus already had her wish list.  Imagine if she got two of the same!

When they entered Tamsin’s favourite department store, her mother directed them to the toy floor.  “Why are we going there, Mummy?”

“We need to buy something for our neighbour Timmy,” the mother replied.  “What do you suppose he’d like?”

“Oh, Timmy only likes cars,” Tamsin said with a huff.

If ever her grandmother could not pick her up from school, she went home with her neighbour, Timmy and his mum.  They lived in the flat opposite.  Timmy was a year younger than Tamsin, and his mother’s cakes weren’t nearly as good as the ones her grandmother made.

“Oh, look, Tamsin, isn’t this the teddy bear you like so much?” her mother suddenly asked.

There they were, arranged in a pyramid atop a velvet puff: the teddy bears Tamsin had seen advertised on television.  Black ones with the red paws, and white ones with blue paws.  She tried to look away from the brown ones with the yellow paws and green bows.  “Er, no… not really,” she said.

Her mother picked up a car that was a model of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  “I think Timmy will like this.  Look, you can pull the wings open.”

They joined the queue to pay.  Tamsin was bored and hot.  Why were they buying a present for Timmy, anyway? It’s not as if it was his birthday or anything.

Tamsin’s mother suddenly took a sharp intake of breath.  “Oh, darling, don’t forget you mustn’t tell Timmy we bought him the Chitty car.  He’s younger than you and he still believes in Santa Claus.  You’re a big girl now, you don’t believe in all this silly nonsense any more, but don’t spoil it for little Timmy.”

There were suddenly red blotches before Tamsin’s eyes.  Everything went quiet, as though she was in a dream.

“Tamsin, did you hear me? I’m talking to you.  Darling, you’ve gone all pale.  Are you not feeling well?”

“Yes, Mummy, all right, I won’t tell Timmy.”

“Good girl.”

The rest of the afternoon was a blur.  Tamsin’s mother thought they had been out too long and that her daughter was tired.  It was unusual for her to be so quiet.  She even went to bed straight after dinner and did not insist on watching television.

*   *   *

On Christmas morning, Tamsin did not wake up with the usual excitement.  After breakfast, she sat by the tree and unwrapped a brown teddy bear with yellow paws and a green bow.  She wondered whether it was her mother or her grandmother who’d gone to buy it at the department store.  It was a beautiful, soft bear.  She hugged it and decided to call it Mr Brown.  She kept it with her the whole day and when it was time for bed she put him next to her on the pillow, and stroked his velvet nose.  “Shall I tell you a story?” she whispered.  She felt silly as soon as she had said it.

“Yes, please.  I love stories,” came the reply.

Tamsin sat up and turned on the bedside lamp.  There was no one else in the room.  She switched the lamp off again and hugged the bear closer.

“So, are you going to tell me a story then?”

Tamsin was astonished.  “Is that you, Mr Brown?” she said.

“Well, who else is here?” he replied in a soft, gentle voice.

“But toys don’t talk,” Tamsin said.

“I do,” said the teddy bear.  “Only don’t tell anyone.”

“It will be our secret,” Tamsin whispered.

Then she pulled the duvet over their heads, so her mother would not hear their voices,  and began telling him a story.

Scribe Doll

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