Friday, 25 April 2014

'Yours ever and getting worse...!'

Last week I spent a day going through a lifetime's correspondence as I needed to streamline my possessions following a recent house move (well at least get the lid to fit back on the box!) and was struck by how many letters I used to both write and receive.
Inevitably I found myself re-reading some of them.
Boys whose hearts I broke. Boys who broke my heart. Friends I have lost touch with. Friends and family who have died.

It was very poignant and at times I hardly recognised the 'Laura King' to whom they were all writing.
Curiously I came upon letters and cards from people I could have sworn never put pen to paper when I knew them, including my late ex Don, who had some hilarious sign-offs in true lovable rogue persona such as  'Yours ever and getting worse...!' But for all his bad boy ways, he was solicitor-strict about pagination and dating each page and card and roundly told me off in one missive for not always numbering and dating each page and making sure I had my address at the top (though his changed more frequently than mine). He had also sent me part of a novel he once started which I had duly edited and returned with some constructive comments. Then there were long email exchanges on philosophy and literature (remember the days when we all used to print our emails out as if we didn't trust them to still be sitting in our inbox when we opened it again...?) with a failed mature student I held a brief unrequited level of fondness for, but who fancied my uninterested feminist friend more (even reading 'The Woman's Room' to impress her), so that I found myself in a triangle unrequited romance. Eventually they allowed him no further extensions to turn in a non-rebellious thesis quoting Jonathan Swift at length and he left Oxford to be packed off overseas by his family where degree passes were less rated as a means of attaining a good career as long as you were well spoken. It worked and he is apparently now back in Blighty earning a decent living not compromising too many principles.

The letters from my late English teacher Mrs C were particularly hard to read as she took early retirement and then almost immediately found herself diagnosed with terminal cancer, just as she and her husband were building their dream home to enjoy in retirement. She died two days after her 53rd birthday. She was pretty well the only adult who could command my respect and really make me sit up and take notice growing up, aside from V, the wonderful woman and artist who was like a second mother to me, a large sheaf of whose letters and cards of distinctive 'dear heart' spiky handwriting I also tidied. Thankfully V is still very much around, albeit having had the most horrendous five years recently owing to a personal trauma.

I seemed to have the largest number of letters from my sister's best friend from school, a lovely girl called M who wrote incredibly long and newsy missives immaculately polite in asking just as many questions of and taking just as much interest in her correspondent as talking about herself and her own doings. Then there were witty postcards and notes from another M - a talented young writer I knew through a writer's group in Coventry whom I eventually fell out with when she started dating a guy who turned out to be a drug addict and I couldn't keep my judgmentalism to myself. Having won a place on the prestigious UEA literature course after Warwick Uni, she then worked for a charity and is now a teacher (and mother) up north, I believe.

One or two people I couldn't even place, so they were easy enough to dispose of. As for my ex-fiance, his cards were so obtuse I couldn't even understand most on re-reading them. But since I discerned an unhealthy pattern of complimenting me in one and putting me down in another and he had also rather insultingly put in the box all the cards I had ever given him, they too made themselves an easy decision to dispose of. Thank goodness we never got as far as marrying...
Christmas cards were filtered down to a favoured few and Good Luck leaving cards from various workplaces retained, if only to remind myself of all the names.

But oh, the thrill of all those letters and cards landing on the doormat - evidence that friends and loved ones had gone to real trouble to contact me. How can email, text and social media ever compete with that?
I am now making a concerted effort to use the postal service again - several times a week - before it disappears completely.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Spirits - a Short Story

And now for something completely different...
Fergus McCullen wended his uncertain way back to his bedsit illuminated by sulphur street lights forming orange pools on the pavement, the rain driving so hard it splashed back up off the slabs, but Fergus didn't mind. It was summer and the rain was almost warm for once, echoing his own warm and wet state of mind. He pished himself and the rain obligingly washed his trousers. He didn't have any underpants on. In each of his hands he held a flimsy loaded carrier bag, perilously close to disgorging its contents at any moment. He breathed a sign of relief at making it over the flyover, liquid sustenance intact. He should be home soon. Perhaps he would take that short cut across the wasteland. There shouldn't be anyone to give him gyp or rob his cannies at that time of night what with the rain pishing.
He trudged off the road just before a clump of trees and onto the unlit muddy path by the stream that led to the arse end of his estate. He felt weary and suddenly quite tired. These week long seshes were starting to catch up with him. He wasn't as young as he used to be.
Next thing he knew he had tripped over a tree root on the path and head first into the congealed stream, hitting his head on a half-submerged supermarket trolley on the way down. Somehow he managed to scrabble back onto the bank where he fruitlessly searched for his carrier bags, before realising to his dismay that they must have landed in the stream. 'Aye f***!' he exclaimed, sinking to his knees.
Fergus didn't remember how long he had been searching the stream using a large branch he had found nearby but he was sick of it. To make matters worse, some eejit was lying on the path getting in his way every time he tried to progress along it and giving the prostrate figure a kick didn't make the slightest difference.
The rain petered out and dawn slowly broke. A couple of drunken youths sauntered along. Fergus shouted out to them to help him find his cannies but they ignored him. They had however acknowledged the figure lying on the path and given it a testing kick. When the kick was answered with no response they searched the figure's pockets and relieved him of his loose change and a watch. Fergus watched them in disbelief as he recognised the watch. It was his pirate Rolex from his former landlord's trip to Spain. He looked at the figure on the ground. Same shirt as him, same trousers as him, same shoes as him, same face as him…? Fergus felt his face with his hands in growing alarm. 'Jeez, I am still me.' he thought with some relief. 'But who the f*** is that?' His relief quickly evaporated as a terrible realisation dawned upon him. 'Oh ma God! I'm deed and that's ma body o'er there!'
Fergus spent the next few hours rooted to the spot watching as a brown boxer dog eventually lolloped along the path and licked his body's face, shortly followed by its owner, a stout florid man with a shaven head and neck tattoos who, after prodding the figure with a Doc Martin, rang the Police on his mobile, his boxer dog still trying its best at resuscitation. Fergus watched as first the Police arrived, shortly followed by the Paramedics, and he was photographed, tagged and put in a body bag to be trolleyed into the ambulance. He snuck into the ambulance unchallenged and hitched a ride next to the CPR trolley to Glasgow Royal Infirmary where he was admitted to the Mortuary.
'Well that's a tenner you owe me Angus. Didn't I tell you we'd have the first one by 8am?'
'We don't know it's alcohol yet.'
'Ha! Smells like a brewery! Though it'll probably be the fall into the stream that killed him granted, but it wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been drunk.'
'That's cheating.'
'No, just extenuating circumstances. Tenner please.'
Fergus watched in horror as, bet honoured, they cheerfully set about scissoring his clothes off and joking about his lack of underpants and the urine they found in his shoes.
'We've got a right one here Prof. Can't even be arsed to go in the bushes. Bet his flat's in a right state.'
'Well PC Kirsty will soon find out and give us the low-down. Here's his ID in his coat lining. An off licence loyalty card, surprise, surprise. Looks like someone's already helped themselves to a watch and any small change'
Fergus watched as they set about disembowelling him, de-braining him and putting various other bits of him in specimen jars. His liver was a particular cause of jocularity, being enlarged to over twice its normal size, though his shrunken 'pea' brain was also scorned. They then added insult to injury by speculating his age at 55.
'But I'm 43!' he wailed.
He thought about his bedsit and suddenly found himself there amidst a scene of domestic devastation, no sheets on the stained mattress, old newspapers and dirty food containers everywhere, health hazard kitchen and bathroom, cigarette butts and pennies strewn, threadbare curtains dotted with cigarette burns from hours standing at the window. An absurd thought about 'tidying up' before PC Kirsty arrived occurred, but when he tried to open the cupboard under the sink to locate a decade old bottle of bleach he dimly remembered, his hand went straight through the knob and nothing happened. PC Kirsty arrived with a female companion and they both changed into white protective suits and, much to Fergus's affront, face masks, before beginning to root through the pathetic remnants of his forty three years, taking photographs and bagging and tagging anything either suspicious or otherwise of interest. They were more respectful than the post-mortem surgeons, albeit repeatedly marvelling at how people could get themselves into this state and how sad it was they seemed to be seeing more of this sort of thing these days, if somewhat disparaging about Fergus's evident inability to pay for his own funeral, judging by what they found. 'Well how was I supposed to know I was going to die at 43?' he thought bitterly. 'I'd have tidied up, bleached the sh*te out the bath and left you some friggin' teacakes if I'd known!'
Fergus's funeral at the local crem two weeks later was no less a grim affair, only PC Kirsty, her companion and a locum vicar present as the service was mumbled with the greatest economy of tribute paid to a deceased known only in name and cause of death before the red velvet curtains finally closed on Fergus's life.
Having watched his bedsit being stripped into a skip, fumigated and redecorated ready for the next occupant and then the said new occupant whooping with glee at opening the door for the first time into their new bedsit before starting on the whiskey, Fergus found himself at a loose end. He was getting used to being dead now and rather bored. And god, did he need a drink, especially after all he'd just been through. He also found himself increasingly angry at being dead, and so prematurely, none of his childhood dreams of becoming a trucker realised. To the point he gave old Tam the hobo a good shove for outlasting him as he drifted towards his old haunts in the city centre. That man had hung about the precinct like the bad smell he was since Fergus was a nipper and must have sunk twice as much booze as Fergus including meths. How the f*** did HE get away with it?
Fergus finally entered the Mackintosh Arms, his favourite drinking den of old, until his friends de-friended him one by one forcing him to embark on a solo drinking career.
And blow me if that wasn't Bill Dunstan at the bar with a whiskey in his hand and wearing a pale blue suit. What was that b***ard doing in a suit? Bill had actually been that trucker that Fergus aspired to be. Before it led to an argument from which their lifelong friendship never recovered, that is. Fergus found himself salivating at the sight of Bill's whiskey. He could see it, he could smell it, he could almost taste it. It was within his grasp. He reached, but as usual his hand went straight through. 'Bill!' he shouted! 'Bill! Gi' us a drink, you tight b***ard!'
But Bill of course could not see Fergus, though he felt a shiver in the warm-bodied bar he couldn't explain as Fergus drew near.
'Bill!' Fergus struck him on the back, and again his hand went straight through. He thought he saw Bill's eyelids flicker involuntarily as he half turned. A thought occurred to him. 'Well ah'm no nancy boy, but ah ken what would happen if I walked into him.' Fergus tested out his theory and walked into the broad expanse of Bill's back.
Much to Fergus's amazement he could suddenly feel the glass as a real solid glass and pick it up with his hand. His hand??? He looked down and saw a far chubbier hand than his own and with cleaner nails lifting the glass to his lips. He drained the contents in one. Whiskey had never tasted so sweet. He ordered another and another, revelling in his new physicality. He ordered a home made lamb and ale pie. It was so long since Fergus had last tasted food, real food, even when alive. 'Steady on Bill. Dinnae forget that round of golf tomorrae' a face he did not recognise chided him. 'F*** off.' He replied cheerfully in Bill's voice then laughed manically at the sound of his new self. The strange face looked taken aback and then scared before hastily making its excuses and leaving. Wise man, thought Fergus. Then he went through Bill's pockets to find out how rich he was. He was gratified to find a roll of notes in his breast pocket. Several hundred.  And then another roll of notes in his trouser pocket. 
'Trucker, my arse!' he thought. 'But this one's for you Bill you old b***tard.' And with that, Fergus drained his sixth whiskey of the night, impressed that his new body was holding up so well. Several drinks later he treated himself to a local hotel and drank the mini bar dry, staying for weeks and taking full advantage of room service and satellite TV. A wife and some children he did not recognise eventually began visiting and repeatedly pleading with him to go home, telling him he wasn't well and that he'd had a breakdown. He laughed and eventually agreed to go home with them. He hadn't had sex for years after all and Bill's wife wasn't a bad looking hen. Let the revenge go on.
Fergus was impressed to find that he owned a fine 1950s art deco style home in the suburbs with a swimming pool, everything white and brand spanking new. His wife Kaitlin was pleasantly easy on the eye, her aquiline nose and short dark bobbed hair set off by designer suits which neatly encased her petite but bosomy figure. Way out of his league, he thought with satisfaction as she swept their people carrier into the driveway, he in the passenger seat. He could take or leave their two chubby couch potato boys whose only interest in life it seemed were x-boxes. 'They'll be boozers' he thought with satisfaction as he showered later in the en-suite, his unwitting wife waiting for him in the bedroom. He felt suddenly excited as he towelled himself dry. He had purposefully drank little this evening. It had been so long. At least five years. He cuddled up to Kaitlin in bed. 'I'm not sure about this Bill.' She whispered. 'You've been behaving so oddly lately and I still haven't forgiven you for abandoning us like that. You haven't even had that appointment with the shrink yet'
'Ssssshhh' he replied kissing her.
Suddenly there was a whoosh and before Fergus knew it he was ousted and standing outside the bed watching Bill whispering strangely emotional-sounding reassurances and promises into Kaitlin's ear as he slowly began to make love to her.
'You b***ard!' he screamed and launched himself onto the bed, but he fell right through it and the floor into the kitchen below. He was a mere spirit again.
He never saw Bill in the Mackintosh Arms again and eventually found through trial and error that the only drinkers whose bodies he could hi-jack for any length of time before eviction were those of truly hardened drinkers whose strength of character and personality were too compromised and weak to fend off or eject him. Fergus took maximum advantage of his next joy ride - Pete, an out-of-work postman - jumping off the top of his tower block once he had run through the man's redundancy payment. He had once raped a girl anyway Fergus realised with a jolt when he had taken him over body and mind, so he deserved everything he got.
A retired Judge who had once given Fergus Community Service for theft and a binge-drinking female student followed next, whom he forced to turn lesbian for his delectation, greatly surprising the male students in her circle whom she had previously been both generous and enthusiastic about bestowing her sexual favours upon. Both ended up felled by alcohol poisoning and Fergus took great delight in visiting the local Infirmary to find out what the post-mortem surgeons made of both of those. Quite a meal as far as the girl was concerned, her pretty face making the national papers as a tragedy, not to mention a disturbing comment on our times. Fergus chortled to himself and resolved to look out for similarly stunning female students to hi-jack and hit the headlines with.
If Fergus had been better educated he could have fantasised that he were Zeus assuming different bodies and shapes, except they weren't exclusively his and moulded for his express use, but other peoples' and taken without their permission, but either way he was having a ball! Who would have thought that death would turn out to be the best thing that had every happened to him? Sometimes he didn't even drive his hosts to an early grave, but merely traded them in when he grew bored or their health started breaking down and he just couldn't be arsed to put up with a failing body, too sick even to enjoy a jar.
Regrettably his own neglectful boozy parents were long dead as he'd have enjoyed taking his revenge on them too. All those hours locked in his room and days only fed when they sobered up enough to remember. That was the thing about booze or even drugs. Children only get fed when their boozy or trippy parents are hungry and remember, and since they seldom are, going without becomes an occupational hazard. Eating out of neighbours' dustbins, or better still, from the bins behind cafes and restaurants almost became a way of life for Fergus.
But the Head Teacher who didn't believe him when Fergus tried to tell him what his home life was like was probably the next best thing. Thus was Mr Trevor Pangbourne's fate sealed. Luckily he turned out to be all too ready to have his retired body hi-jacked, having retired to the South of France for the sole purpose of drinking himself to death at a leisurely rate amid convivial ambiance and within sight of a mediaeval castle. The worst of it was, no ex-pat pal even raised an eyebrow as they toasted their late friend, which irked Fergus no end as he left the provincial graveside.
But his spell in the South of France gave Fergus an appetite for the travel he'd never experienced in life and he found that just by imagining a place he could be there, an advantage he didn't have when inhabiting an earthly body.
He was shocked to see how narrow his life had been in his filthy Glasgow bedsit on the dole and on his tod. Now he felt even more angry and cheated. The only certificate he had ever attained was his birth certificate. Ok, and death certificate. But what had his life amounted to? What had it all been about?
He felt an urge to return to the city of his birth. He felt sure that's where the answers lay. Invariably he ended up in the Mackintosh Arms eyeing up a brash shiny-suited young prospect who was regaling the saloon with his mobile phone Salesman of the Month coup, but whom Fergus sensed was already out of control. Multiple jars later and after a thrilling high-speed Police chase weaving dangerously around the ring road in the young salesman's Fifth Series convertible (Fergus had never learned to drive), he rounded the evening off in a head-on collision with a bus, hardly a dent incurred by the bus, but the poor salesman's bragging silenced forever in the concertina'd car, Fergus felt slightly guilty as he regarded the smoking wreck. How could he continue doing this having met the Pope on his astral air travels?
He shrugged. The salesman had annoyed him, rubbing his failure's red nose in the salesman's precocious success. He deserved it.
He wandered the streets and entered a hotel, peeking into various rooms for vicarious thrills. Then he came across an empty one and decided to treat himself. He had no physical need to lie on a bed but it was kind of nice anyway, so he did. Suddenly he noticed arms and legs emerging from the walls and as their faces appeared he recognised the victims he had joy-ridden into the ground, including the salesman from earlier that evening. They crowded in on him until their faces seemed only inches away from his. He felt suddenly fearful, then laughed. What were they going to do to him? He was already dead. Play their cards right and he might even show them how to enjoy themselves and dispel their bitterness towards him.
'McCullen!' exclaimed Mr Pangbourne, his face looming the largest. 'I think you'd better come with me young man. The headmaster wants to see you.'
'But you are the Head Teacher.'
'I refer to a headmaster of far greater authority than myself McCullen, for it is St Peter himself who wishes to see you.'
'And what if I refuse?'
'You'll be incarnated as an amoeba and have to start your chain of personal evolution all over again. An average of 10,000 lifetimes until you graduate to even the most primitive human life form again. And you know how you always hated doing homework.'
'Oh.' Fergus replied and, meek as a lamb, rose from the bed to follow Mr Pangbourne into the tunnel of light which now emanated from the hotel room's flat screen TV, his other victims forming a human cortege behind.
©Laura King