Friday, 31 July 2015

Between

A regular soft beep from across the room. The sharp tang of antiseptic playing with the fine hairs in my nostrils. The starched weight of fresh linen draped over me. Bright unforgiving light hurting my eyes. The click of efficient heels on linoleum. The distant ringing of a ‘phone somewhere down the hall.

I know where I am, even if I’m not quite clear on the details of why and how I got here.

And yet, somehow I don’t feel here. I feel separate, distant, like I’m stuck somewhere between this reality and an unknown something else.

I remember the pale scared look on my grandson’s face when I tried to tell him something this morning. Something that made perfect sense inside my head, but must have sounded like the ramblings of a deranged space alien to him, judging from the look on his face.

I remember shouts and concerned neighbours crowding round, fussing over me, urging me to lie down and not be scared. I remember wondering why on earth they thought I was scared and getting irate at their refusal to l heed my pleas to leave me alone and stop faffing about.

I remember a flash of white pain, followed by a wave of irritation when my hand refused to do as it was told and just hung there, useless, like a lump of putty.

I remember flashing blue lights, strong men with kind voices.

But I can’t remember what that thing sitting on the table next to me is called. The thing where they put water to drink. I wish I could remember, because I really want to tell my daughter – sitting silent and red-eyed next to the bed – that I’m thirsty.

I wish I could remember my name.

I open my mouth to ask for a drink, but meaningless moans and grunts tumble out. I feel like I’m wrapped tightly in a membrane, unable to move or speak, yet seeing everything, understanding everything. Caught between one world and another.

Maybe that’s what it is.

I’ll tell you what else it is – boring, and frustrating as hell, that’s what.

I want to wave my arms around, scream and shout, break through this barrier of unable that’s wrapped itself around me, let them know that I’m still in here.

“Hush, Mum,” my daughter says, stroking my hand. “Everything’s going to be alright. You’re a little poorly, but the doctors are going to fix you up. Don’t upset yourself.”

I look at her and I’m sure she can see in my eyes that I know she doesn’t believe what she’s saying. That she fears the worse and thinks that the truth would finish me off. She’s wrong. I’m not going anywhere without a fight. I’ve got too many things that still need taking care of before I’m done.

For a start, there’s Him Indoors. After so many years, he can’t be expected to take care of himself, make sure he takes his tablets on time, eat properly, go to bed when he should, lock up at night.  Who’s going to look after him if I don’t?

A tired-eyed nurses bustles in, checks my chart, casts an eye at the drip standing like a sentry next to the bed. Drip-drip-drip, the flow of whatever it is they’ve got me on to keep me alive is as steady as the low beeping from the machines.

I try to reach out, to touch her hand, thank her. But the unseeable membrane trapping me inside myself allows nothing more than a twitch of my hand, an incomprehensible slur and a desperate widening of my eyes as I strain to pass a word and get past this verbal constipation.

“Try to relax, Mary dear,” she says firmly, gently guiding my hand back to the sheet. “Doctor will be round in a while, and then we’ll get a better idea of how we’re going to get you back on your feet again.”

Inside, I’m seething. 
At being spoken to like an idiot child. 
At not being able to tell her I’m an adult. 
At the cruel twist of fate that has landed me between these asphyxiating sheets and my daughter exhausted and tearful in the chair next to me. 
At having all control wrenched from my now useless hands.

But at least I now know my name again.

A flurry in the air announces the arrival of the doctor, accompanied by a gaggle of medical students that don’t look much older or less scared than my grandson. Steely haired, and with eyes to match, the doctor scans the chart at the end of my bed and describes my case – a depressingly routine case – to his proteg├ęs, then asks for their prognosis.

“It’s good sign that the patient survived the initial stroke,” pipes up one. “But the danger remains that more will follow. The first 72 hours are critical.”

So, that’s where I am. Somewhere between.

Somewhere between the here and the hereafter.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Sunshine

George Apollonakis was a troubled man.

He sat at his desk, idly clicking his antique ballpoint as he considered the numbers dancing on the display floating in the air before his eyes. A frown played on his heavy Greek brow.

Profits were down.  Way, way down. Was he looking at the beginning of the end of the Midas Industries success story? The downward spiral that would reduce the world’s first multi-trillion dollar solar capture dynasty to a family of mere billionaires?

He stood up, stretched and strolled over to the panoramic window. He stepped lightly on a button on the floor and squinted as the darkened glass lightened to reveal the view of Ierapetra stretching out below him. One of the world’s sunniest spots, with more than 3,100 hours of pure sunshine every year, the historic city on the southern coast of Crete was now hidden beneath an umbrella of millions of solar panels shimmering in the heat haze.    

Apollonakis glanced at his grandfather, Papou George, frowning down in glorious colour from his portrait on the wall. A remote, mostly absent but all powerful figure rarely seen but always felt throughout his childhood. A man who sacrificed familial warmth on the altar of family wealth to pull triumph from the jaws of the Great Greek Depression of the 2010s.

What would he think of the downward path now showing up on all the company’s profit graphs? Not too kindly, Apollonakis mused. Having emerged from the ruins of a crumbling economy with a monopoly on the technology that would make Crete the world’s biggest growth market, Papou George had not been one to forgive mediocrity easily.

A mere half-century after Europe’s punitive protectionist policies had priced the disgraced Greece out of the economic playground, cutting off the lifeline for the Apollonakis family’s  moderately successful agri-business, its founder’s grandson was regularly touted as the world’s richest man, though if truth be known no-one knew just how much he had.

That could be about to change. Across the board, business was taking a hit. And once again, Europe was at the root of the problem - in particular, those trouble-making, sun-starved inhabitants to the north.

Funny that the same Europe that had been the catalyst for the rise of Midas Industries would be the first to relax its trading terms the minute pollution and climate change parked a permanent cloud over the powerhouses of the first industrial revolution. The French wine sector had collapsed, fields of solar panels were abandoned on German mountainsides, rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder had soared in the Baltic, suicide rates tripled even among the stoic Scandinavians, Vitamin D deficiency sky-rocketed in Britain’s colonial communities whose DNA was ill equipped for 360 days of rain a year. Ideal conditions for an enterprising Greek businessman with easy access to the sun and the smarts to secure a watertight patent on technology that went beyond converting solar rays to electricity, to enable sunshine to be captured, contained and transported in a range of forms to whoever was willing and able to pay the price.

But now a dent was appearing in the Midas Industries fortunes. The first chinks its armour. Sales were down across the board. Bookings for holodeck suite holidays fueled by bottled sunshine enriched with ozone extracted from the Libyan Sea were a shocking 23% down from last year. Developments in new wind, wave and refuse-generated energy had eaten into sales of solar power cells. Medical scares about growing cancer cases amongst the S.A.D. crowd treated in solar suites were keeping them away in their droves. And the authentic food movement was chomping away at profits of bottled sun-fed crops.

Overall, he was looking at a 47% drop in revenues. At this rate, the Apollonakis family fortune would be wiped out in a few short years. Something had to be done to stop the rot. Some new application to inject new life into the business.

He knew what he had to do. The one business area that had explored but never developed. It was a bold step, a controversial one, but the only one that could protect profits.

Redirecting the fixed orbit satellites intensifying the sun’s rays on farms in Crete, Rhodes, the Sahara and Nevada, like a giant magnifying glass, would take quite some doing. Not least, it would take some considerable leverage to persuade the scientists - but even they had their price didn’t they? The politicians would be easier. They always were. And once the new tool in man’s oldest game was ready, there should be no shortage of demand. The Water Wars raging in the Middle East and Central Asia; continuing Holy conflict across the globe as the pious killed millions in a race to moral superiority; the scramble for domination of the Poles.

It was just a matter of picking the right side, the highest bidder.


Apollonakis sighed, loosened his tie and shrugged off his shirt. Slipping on UV-blocking sunglasses, he opened a door and stepped out onto the balcony baking in 50 degrees of midday heat. Sweat pricked at his scalp, heat burrowed into his skin, promising painful burns. But he was determined, just one more time, to enjoy the sunshine like he had as a boy – before it became a weapon of mass destruction.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Savage

The tribe is everything.

Protecting our kinsfolk. Preserving our hunting grounds. Ensuring that our children, and our children’s children, will hold sway over our ancestral lands.

We don’t do what we want to do - we do what we have to. To survive.

Sometimes it demands more of us than we think we’ve got to give. That we do things that might make us flinch in horror. But survival is hard, and if you can’t do what is necessary, you’re left behind.

Those left behind are no longer with us. They are the other.

I knew I belonged from early on. Initiation was no ordeal. It was a liberation.

The old man was an aberration, a stain on our society. He deserved what he got for his filth, his unnaturalness. His eyes snapped open in shock as the first blow of club came down. He’d doubted a boy of fifteen could do it, that I was man enough.

He was wrong. I was strong, despite what he’d done to me. With every blow, I grew into the man I was destined to be, and his cries grew weaker, gradually trailing off to a mewing, puking whimper and pathetic pleas for mercy through snot and blood and swollen bruises.

I emerged pure, clean, like a filthy canker had been cut away by the sharpest of knives. I was reborn into the tribe, which in turn had been cleansed by my act.

I joined the elite. The chosen.

Tonight, we’re ready once again to do battle. To fight for our tribe, our purity, our survival.

We stand, armed with clubs and united in our devotion. The chief’s words harden our resolve. We’re ready. The enemy is as strong and determined as we are, but they do not have right or history on their side. We do. Our chants echo the heartbeat of the tribe we are fighting to protect. The time has come.

As we make our charge, our battle cry meets the howls of our foes. A chemical sting hits my nostrils. Glass breaks, heat flashes, smoke bursts and blurs my view of the Square. We continue undeterred.


We are the tribe, and the tribe is everything. 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Mannequin

Photo courtesy of Lorraine Margaret.
Barbara Millicent Roberts wriggled her toes into her high heels, smoothed her pencil skirt over her slim hips and leaned into the hallway mirror to reapply her lipstick. Squinting at her reflection, she smoothed an arched eyebrow and gave a self-satisfied smile.

“Not bad for an old gal,” she murmured in a sassy but still respectable mid-Western drawl.

Though she’d never confess her age or give in to the demands for comfort her body made as the years went by, she couldn’t help thinking back to her New York debut as a teen model back in 1959. What a knock-out she’d been, with her bouffant hair, chevron striped bathing suite and high heeled mules for poolside elegance. She still was, she noted with pride. No sensible shoes or baggy trouser suits for her, thank you very much.

Mincing into her all-pink vanity suite (nothing so pedestrian as a bathroom), she stooped to place the tell-tale Tena packaging and tube of varicose vein cream at the very back of the cupboard, far beyond where Ken’s prying but increasingly myopic eyes would reach.  A tress of platinum blond hair escaped its bobby pin as she stood up, but she decided to leave it untamed, to give her a gamine look she knew men loved so.

Ken liked to find her looking ‘natural’ when he got home after a long day on the golf course.

He also expected a perma-grin and smooth forehead on the face of his loving wife of all these years. Fortunately, Barb had that taken care of – thanks to monthly visits to that nice man down town with the syringes. A frozen expression of pleasantry was a small price to pay, wasn’t it?

A white Angora cat twirled figures-of-eight round her elegant ankles as she entered the all-American, fully equipped kitchen. Barb opened the door to the garden but was met with a malicious stare from the feline. She got the message, opened a tin of tuna and scooped it into the bowl on the floor. As she did so, a discreet ladder ran unfelt up the leg of her pantyhose.

Time to prepare dinner. Ken liked his meals to be ready on the table when he walked through the door. Barbara tied a frilled apron round her neat waist, smoothed the material against her heaving (yet strangely still pert) bosom and opened the door to the freezer. Tuna casserole or chicken pot pie? Running a manicured index finger along the spines of the neatly stacked TV dinner boxes, she counted how many were left of each tasty selection (wouldn’t do to give her man the same meal two days running, would it now?). Tuna casserole it was then. With just the merest of tremours, she removed the tray from its packaging, delicately pierced its membrane and placed it reverently in the microwave, ready to zap when she got the call that Ken was on his way home.

Meanwhile, it was time to gather in the washing from the line in the back yard. She sighed as she spotted her neighbor, Crazy June, sitting in her sun lounger with a scandalous Long Island Tea in her hand. With her shapeless shorts, ludicrous sunhat, and weather-beaten wrinkles, June was everything Barbara tried so hard not to be. And yet, she always had a glint of mischief in her eye and a big grin on her face. And she was always trying to rope Barb into some escapade which would certainly chip her nail polish.

Plastering a plastic smile on her lips, she gathered her laundry basket and tippy-toed out into the yard. The clack of her heels against the crazy paving betrayed her presence and June looked up from her book.

“Hey, Barbie girl,” she cawed, leaping up and galloping to her open kitchen door. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

She emerged with a second tall glass of the lethal amber liquid tinkling with ice and handed it over the picket fence.

“There’s a Woodstock Reunion at the Seniors’ Club in a while. How about you and me dig out our old love beads and hit the scene?”

Barb managed to hide her sneer of distaste at the sight of June’s greying brassiere strap as her too-big t-shirt slipped off her shoulder. She smiled sweetly and took a sip from the glass, hiding a shudder as the strong taste of alcohol hit her palate like a block of concrete wrapped in a slice of lemon. She remembered the late ‘60s – she still had the psychedelically-patterned bell bottomed and teetering platforms to show for it – but had no desire to re-visit those days. June, on the other hand, probably didn’t remember much of them at all.

“I don’t think so, June,” she said. “Ken will be home soon and you know he likes us to spend our evenings at home.”

She turned smartly, and headed towards the perfectly hung laundry now dry on the line. In her haste to escape her friendly but slovenly neighbour she snagged her skirt on a rose bush (pink, of course). Gathering in the linen, she smiled coldly, took her drink with a promise to wash and return the glass and headed inside.

The phone was ringing. It was Ken. Still at the golf club. He’d run into an old friend and wouldn’t be coming home til late.

“Don’t wait up, honey,” he cooed down the line. “You need your beauty sleep.”

That was it. Five innocent words. But words that made the usually rose-tinted Barb see red.

She downed her drink in one swig, swiped an angry tear from her immaculately made-up eye, took the tuna casserole from the microwave, dumped it on the floor and stormed upstairs. Five minutes later she came down, resplendent in bell bottoms and love beads, and called out the kitchen door.

“June! I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go, sister.”

But not before she took her pink ballpoint and wrote a note to Ken in looping letters on the message pad on the refrigerator:

Dear Ken,

Your dinner’s in the cat, and I’m finally having a life.
If you have a problem, you can kiss my plastic behind.

Barbie.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Barbara Millicent Roberts was last seen getting into a camper van with a Joe Cocker lookalike after her on-stage Joplin homage at the West Sweetings Seniors’ Centre. If anyone knows of her whereabouts, please call Ken Roberts on the Pink Alert hotline, sponsored by Mattel, on 555-……

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Gargoyle

From here, I can see the whole city spread out before me like an ant’s nest stamped open by an angry boot. 

Tiny figures scutter to and fro below – hungry for power, thirsty for revenge, or just trying to reach the end of their day in one piece. Some happy, some hungry, some in despair, some plotting - and all utterly unaware of my existence.

From my position high above the Square, I watch them, observe them, feed off them.

It’s what I - and my kind - have always done.

Once, our grinning grimaces could only be found high on the spires of churches – supposedly as a momento mori that the wages of sin were death, and worse in the ever after. But we’re living in an increasingly secular world, so we had to branch out to get our sustenance.  

Now, we grace the citadels of capitalism and churches devoted to greed and consumption. The pickings are much richer.

From my spot atop the city’s most exclusive hotel, I survey the big house where lawmakers talk endlessly, stage petty theatrics and issue edicts that most of them will never obey. 

The building itself is of no interest to me. Its energy is dulled by a miasma of damp, flaccid words floating over its roof.

But the Square in front of it, that’s a different matter. Emotion bounces off it like a manic pinball machine, like the ones I spent hours playing during my misspent youth. Before I became.

Sometimes, when music or laughter fills the air, my clawed feet shrink back and connect with the ground, like they did back them, long decades ago. Other times, the red mist of outrage takes my transformation one step further.

Last night was a good night. Anger was already buzzing in the air as the Square filled with the disillusioned carrying home-made banners and chanting their frustration like a mantra. I licked my stiffening lips in anticipation.

A rush of excitement as a group of black-clad men with flags on suspiciously thick flagpoles marched in. A shift in the air, like a haze of hate, hit me from the street below, bringing with it the metallic scent of violence. My nostrils twitched, and I felt a flutter beneath my bent-over shoulder blades.

A new scent joined the cocktail. A blaze of light and heat exploded at the feet of armoured police snaking their way across the Square.  My spirits soared as the fires of hostility burned brightly and angrily. And although their flames and anger dissipated after a while, it was not before I had drunk my fill and grown stronger than before.

Yes, last night had been a good night. I had fed well. 

A few more nights like that, and I could finally be strong enough to spread my leathery wings, release my grip on the marble precipice and break free.

Just a few more nights…

When words fail or flounder…

I never thought that I, of all people, would say it, but lately there are just way too many words. 

We’re bombarded by them on all sides. 
And yet, none of really them seem to say anything.

I’m in Athens, for heavens’ sake. The stage against which an epic saga of betrayal, ruin, dashed hopes, possible redemption, crime, punishment and the flaying of the human spirit is being played out before our very eyes, pages and screens. 
Where stereotypes speak louder that facts, and the roar of incensed coffee-shop debates drown out the buzz of summer’s cicadas.

But, instead of wallowing in the soup of syllables, I find myself in a state of linguistic paralysis.

You’d think that one of the benefits of these ‘interesting times’ we’re living through would be plenty of material for a word nerd like me. 

The problem is that there so many talking, shouting, screaming, pontificating about the situation here in Greece that I’m reluctant to dive in and add my few drops to the raging maelstrom of comment, analysis, observation, drum-banging, agenda-pushing and downright propaganda.

What, after all, can li’l ole me add that hasn’t already been done ad nauseum (in most cases) or much better (more rarely) by so many others?

That’s why, dear readers, things have been rather quiet over at Shemeanswellbut… Central lately.

That paralysis has even crept itself into my story-teller alter-ego. Like some kind of spiteful incubus sitting on my shoulder, whispering sour nothings in my ear about why anyone would want to read the narcissistic burblings of a mid-life scribbler. 
Assuring me that no idea I have ever had is original and that if I were to bump into Stephen King or Victoria Hislop with a sample of my stories, they would urge me – no, BEG me – not to give up my day job but to cast aside any creative writing delusions I may have.

I’m ordinary, boring, with nothing new to offer the world of readers, according to the hisses of that fiendish imp. 

About as fresh and exciting as a Marks & Spencer six-pack of white cotton high waist knickers. 
Practical, certainly. Functional, for sure.  Comfortable, probably. 

But comfortable is the last thing that anyone with literary pretensions should aspire to, surely?

OK, you can relax. I’m not about to launch a literary assault of fetish thong proportions to rival ‘Fifty Shades’ (even us cotton briefs of the linguistic underwear drawer have standards – and they’re about quality of writing, not salaciousness of subject material).

But, there is a little part of me that is thinking of 'going commando' for the rest of the summer. 
Instead of gathering my words safely together under the secure caress of cotton comfort, I’m thinking of letting them all hang out and damn the consequences.

I’m going to need your help, though. 

I need YOU to give me the push, the prompt, the shove, the challenge.


Give me a word a day, and I’ll try to repay with a few hundred, hopefully arranged in the kind of order that might make you laugh, cry, nod in agreement, shout in protest - or even just think a little bit.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about the ‘commando’ bit.

Monday, 1 June 2015

June is busting out all over!

One of the down-sides of being a girl is that every now and then you have to make a foray to the shops for 'the perfect bra'. Not just the perfect bra (and the perfect fit) for our own individual assets but also the perfect bra for every outfit, every occasion, every season, every mood.

In the summer, that usually means strapless.
And that means wading through a series of contraptions that make you look like you've got a pair of padded pyramids, ice cream cones or a couple of ballistic missiles strapped to your chest.

Though I am a well-rounded lass in every sense of the word, my boobs are among the better-behaved parts of my body. They're still sort of where nature originally placed them...   well, they're still closer to my chin than my waist anyway. I'm not used to being especially busty. They're definitely there, no denying that, but not in any high-profile in-your-face sort of way.

These days, I find the ever-growing array of FFs & GGGs et al (you know, the ones that look more like highly ornate crash helmets for Siamese twins)  a little scary. I don't recall there being so many of them when I first started shopping for something more than just moral support, but now the frillies section of your local M&S is swamped with the things in a variety of shapes, colours and a titillating selection of designs that bear no relation to the 'sensible' support we were urged to opt for way back then (good news for naturally well-endowed girls, of course). 


I find myself bewildered at the sheer range of colours, patterns and frills being thrust in our faces the minute we enter the lingerie section.

Maybe I'm just boring and too well advanced in years, but all I really want is something that will hold everything where it's supposed to be, make sure they stay there for most of the day and not cut off my circulation in the process.

Wooing my man with frills and flounces? Well, let's just say His Nibs has been with me for more than a quarter of a century and he has seen my underwear collection at its very best (racy black and red lace basque) and its very worst (thousand-times-washed, once-white-but-now-greying utility melon tamer teamed with saggy knickers).
So far, he hasn't run for the hills yet.

Most of the time, I just want something that will sit discreetly beneath my shirt, not day-glowing through the fabric to shout out its design and features, but just do its job and hold the girls in check. A bit of a challenge in these days when we're spoiled for choice.


Another thing, can anyone tell me whose boobs most of the moulded cups are modelled on? I was under the impression that most breasts were round-ish (mine certainly are). So why, oh why, do so many bras seems to have ambitions in the conical direction? Most off-putting. Madonna and Jean-Paul Gautier have a lot to answer for.

Whether you are super-sized or a bog-standard C-cup, it can come as a bit of a shock to my system to look down when wearing one of those shaped, padded bustenhalters and nearly poke your eye out on one of your own boobs!

If you're not used to it, it's very weird to feel like your breasts enter the room 5 minutes before you do. You feel like your body has been invaded by Jessica Rabbit or you've morphed into a reincarnation of Jayne Mansfield. Not a bad thing in itself, but definitely unnerving when you’re not used to, or keen on, being defined by your mammaries.

I could just slap on the strapless, get dressed, walk out the door and get on with my life without a second thought. And, believe me, that's what I try to do - until I catch a fleeting glimpse of myself in a mirror or a shop window, and then it’s like "What the...? Where did they...? How the hell did that happen!?"

But, there are advantages. On those days when you just don't have enough hands to do everything at once, you can simply wedge your frappe (iced coffee) glass into your heaving cleavage (bbrrr!), add a long straw - and hey presto! You're free to get on with things and enjoy your caffeine-kick at the same time. Look Mum, no hands!

Summer is coming (at least here in Greece - he, he, he!), and with it the strapless, backless etc. tops that let the warm breeze tickle your pasty flesh after the long winter under wraps.

Let's face it, most of us girls need all the support we can get.