Categories
Musings

September Nights

By Mike Smith

How beautiful this darkness! The air is still and comfortably warm, which for people of that age is surprising at this time of night. Half an hour and today will be over and night will have tipped into tomorrow’s early morning. The darkness will remain for an hour or two, more in fact now the year is turning too, with another season slipping into place.

Houselights are already off, not that there are many to be seen in any case down here in the valley: only the glimmer of one or two through the trees at each end of the river’s wide curve, and of the farm of course, behind, upon the rising ground. The double pizza-slice of flat grass field is a flood plain for when the river rises after heavy rain miles away upstream on the high fells. It has gathered becks as it falls and flows, and under the strictures of Civil Servants who have environmental boxes to tick no-one now who lives alongside keeps the channel clean, but natural processes clog and choke it for years until some catastrophic surge scours it out, bringing down fallen trees to smash bridges and riverside buildings to smithereens, collapsing banks and gouging the channel clean to bedrock.

The river’s nobody’s friend now; nobody’s resource. But miles away suits in offices can put up on their screens all sorts of proofs that everything is as it should have been since the ice-sheet’s retreat, when no-one lived here.

But tonight, the darkness is so complete that even the black amphitheatre of trees beyond the river’s further edge has merged with the black cloud-lagged starless, moonless sky and all has fallen silent. And people of that certain age, surprised at how pleasant it is to be motionless and silent, as if in a void, and to smell the faint odour of the distant pines and to feel the air warm upon their still warm skin, and to catch the sharp tang of salt upon their lips from tears running down their cheeks, they wait.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

Does this Make Me a Psychic?

By Erwin Coombs

Shark’s Teeth. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The credibility of a writer is important. Of course, anyone’s credibility is important because without it, you are keeping time with someone who is a phantom of a personality if they can’t be believed for one reason or another. One must trust that the person telling a story is not sitting in a Starbucks for hours at a time nursing a small coffee and babbling away about things that never happened or didn’t happen that way. Just to put your mind at rest, I’m not currently in a coffee shop, I never linger over coffee and everything I say happened, more or less as I describe.

Here’s where my credibility might be called into question: I am psychic. There, I said it, it’s on the page, a frank admission that makes most people start to wonder where the nearest exit is, or perhaps you are now looking for the nearest recycling bin for this peice. I remember saying this to a fellow at a party once and his expression froze. Not being the most socially adept creature, he was looking for a way to get away from me before I put a hex or curse or whatever it is psychic people do.

He grabbed his cell phone and said, “Sorry, I better take this.”

And as he backed away his phone began to ring. So, either he was pretending to have a call, or he was the psychic — one who knew it was coming. But he found an almost smooth way out of a conversation with someone who might just be an oddball. You do not have to fake a call and presumably you’re reading this with open eyes and an open mind, so let me tell you a bit about this nether, dark world that both fascinates us and repels us like standing naked before a mirror once you’re well into middle age. Here is a story that might not be spooky in the other world sense, but it certainly gave me pause.

It was an overcast fall day in an old room in an old school. How’s that for a spooky, atmospheric set up?  I was teaching another class of basic level grade 10 boys. These poor devils have been committed opponents to English classes likely since their first day in kindergarten. Again, it’s not that they’re dumb, at all. But they sure didn’t like English class.

I came up with a brainchild of an idea to get them to work. I could always keep them quiet and seated, which is a feat in itself. But to get them to work I thought I would go right back to a depression era technique and told them I would give the best student of the day a prize. Now these poor working-class sods were not used to prizes. Mostly at home they got slaps across the head for transgression both real and imagined on the part of parent(s) whose only embrace of parenthood involved forgetting to bring a condom. Their faces lit up at the prospect of a prize. An award! They had spent their school years running into punishments, but a prize!

I felt a little bad when they immediately grabbed their pencils (this time not as a weapon), opened their books (this time not for a pillow), and began to read and write. There is no more stirring or heartbreaking sight for a teacher who cares than watching students try so hard to do something well for which they have no confidence. I sat at my desk and began to wonder.

The first thing I wondered was what could I give for a prize. I assumed they would scoff and make some kind of a sucking noise with their teeth. In 1991, this was a favourite of rappers to display dismissiveness. I had encountered it many times as a teacher. My defense was to ask, in a sincere voice, if they wanted some floss.

“Floss? For what, man?

“Sorry, I thought you had something stuck in your teeth from lunch. I do have some floss in my desk. It’s been there for a while, but it might just do the trick of dislodging that bit of food you feel the need to suck out.”

With a lot of teachers this might well have resulted in a small-scale riot. But my kids knew I liked them, and I tease and, as I said, they might not be bookish smart, but they knew sarcasm when they heard it and they usually just laughed.

But back to the problem of offering a prize that I didn’t even have. I cast a quick look around the room for possibilities. There were some posters on the wall of an educational bent that I could use. There was a lovely one of a parachutist drifting down to earth with the caption below saying: “The mind is like a parachute. It only operates when open.”

I could imagine telling some poor slob that they could take that home for a hard day’s work. I imagine I would eventually make it out of the class, but not in one piece. The pounding I would take would put me on long term disability. Not a terrible idea but the journey to get there would be hard.

I thought about the money in my pocket, full five dollars and some change. But wouldn’t that be a bribe or some form of prostitution? And the next class all behavior and production would come with a price tag. And when the principal got word that I was paying my students, it would mean a different route to long term disability.

I rummaged through my desk drawer when I saw it. My salvation! It was a glass jar of shark’s teeth. Now why in God’s name would a teacher have such a thing on his desk. Simple. It cost me nothing and was a gift. My wife’s uncle was this eccentric but genuinely nice man who collected things. It didn’t matter what, he would collect them. He had scoured the countryside looking for Indigenous arrowheads and tools and guess what? He found them by the hundreds. His collection was so impressive that the Royal Ontario Museum gladly took them when he offered them up out of the goodness of his heart. So, one day we were in his cavernous basement, strewn with rocks and fossils and bits of metal and God knows what else. It was a summer day, and his hay fever had the better of him. He let out a sneeze that no doubt shattered an arrowhead or two.

He blew his nose into a handkerchief that would likely never be used again for any human purpose. He looked down at the contents and said,

“Oh, I thought my nose was bleeding, but it’s snot (instead of it’s not, you see).”

That was exactly the kind of joke this guy made and one of the reasons I found him so much fun to be with. The odd thing was he had survived a German work camp as a teenager during World War II, one in which his brother had died. Yet here he was, in his seventies, bent and old and so full of life and always finding a reason to laugh. How could I not like him?  And now was he related to some of Tina’s family? They were people who could find a dark cloud in the second coming of Christ.

“You know he really should have called first. This is really not convenient.”

Anyway, this jolly old fellow saw me admiring his countless bottles of shark’s teeth lined up on a shelf.

“Geez, just take one. I got plenty.”

“That’s awfully good of you, Bill. But all the work you took yanking them out of their mouths. It just doesn’t seem right.”

He would never laugh at my jokes, but I know he liked them.

“Here, you keep ‘em. Mostly they were lost in bar fights anyway.”

So, thank you very much, Bill. Now I could give my winner a reason to not add my teeth to the collection.

The class came to an end, and I knew I had my top student. I would have liked to have given them all something because they had all tried, and I was very proud of them. But if you give a prize to everybody then it takes away from the very idea of a prize which is a celebration of accomplishment in a field of others. It reminded me of the increasingly bizarre notion that had come up in education in the last few years, namely that everyone is special and stands apart and should be recognised as such. I am all for increasing students’ sense of self-worth but here’s the trick: if everyone is special, then nobody is special. If every child is recognised and labelled as having poor behaviour or attitude because of their genetics or how they were raised or because they weren’t tucked in at night in order to maximise their potential, then they all have an out.

Unfortunately, it gives every kid a playing card that they can pull in any situation. I remember breaking up a fight and as I guided the hulk along to the office, he looked at me wide eyed and said, “It’s not my fault…I have anger issues.”

This was a kid that was not exactly a future student of psychology. A future as a study model of aberrant psychology possibly. But he had been told by teachers and counsellors and no doubt his parents that his ‘acting out’, to put it mildly, was the result of this syndrome. It is to laugh for.

Though I wanted to reward them all, I knew that I had to choose just one. Bobby Mack (yes, it did sound vaguely like a cosmetic line) was the one. I don’t think anyone ever made fun of his name to his face. He was very tall and naturally very strong. His strength wasn’t achieved from holding big books in the library. His love of academics was an empty love. He was, however, a very good future plumber. That’s why he was at school. He was a likeable fellow with a good sense of humour, I knew this because he laughed at my jokes. 16 years old in grade 10, turning his life around to pursue his love of plumbing. It would also help him support the two children he had with two different girls similarly young. Ah, well, he had a goal and I felt he could do it.

With a few minutes to go before the end of class I stood before their expectant faces and said my piece.

“Well, after careful consideration, and after having fed data into the computer, it has been calculated who is student of the day and thereby the winner of a prize that will change their lives.”

I love a big build up, but the faces in front of me told this young teacher that they didn’t use computers, only had calculators for projectiles and didn’t think lives could change. I cut to the chase and told Bobby to come on up and get his prize. He lumbered to the front of the room with a shy smile as the class applauded.  I’m sure the guy never won a prize in an English classroom in his life. When I say applauded, I mean a few did, several whined that they should have won. One fellow called out,

“Oh, sir, that’s not fair. You’re a racist.”

I looked down at this white face, back to Bobby’s white face and wondered where he got that complaint from.

“No, it’s not racist. For one thing I didn’t even know you were Chinese.”

“I’m not Chi…!”

He cut himself off realising that there was both a joke as well as a jab in there for him. Bobby stood in front of me and I slowly, for even more dramatic effect, took out my little bottle of shark’s teeth, took one out and put it in his outstretched hand. The smile didn’t run from his face, it sprinted. He looked hard at the tooth and held it as though he were holding a turd.

“What the hell is this?”

As he was genuinely angry and outraged, I let the swear word go. It floated up into the air not to be addressed by the tough teacher I usually was. It fled the room along with his smile and his joy at having won. He was angry. He was big. I was scared.

“That, my friend, is a shark’s tooth from Florida!” I said, pumping up the item like a door-to-door salesman.”

“I thought I was getting chocolate, or money or something not weird.”

“I want you to know why that is such a prize, far more valuable and lasting than chocolate.”

He still looked angry, but I sensed he would listen. I figured I better talk fast and good or start running. At the Faculty of Education, they taught us that running away from threatening students can chip away at one’s credibility in the classroom. I addressed the whole class as well.

“A hundred years ago there was a shark swimming in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t know about death; it didn’t know about anything. It simply existed. That’s all it wanted, to eat and swim and make little sharks, not because he thought those were good things to do. He just did what came naturally to him…stay alive and make more life. But he died, in some way we will never know. And now Bobby here is holding one of his teeth in his hand.

This is a reminder to all of us that life is beautiful, but it doesn’t last. That shark had a last day on this earth and so will we. We don’t know how or when. But one thing we do know is that we should treasure every day we have, and remember, always remember, this is the only life we have and today is the only day we get, so make the most of it. Value it. That shark, though he didn’t know it, has taught us that lesson.”

Bobby now had the tooth between his fingers and smiled.

“Yeah, that’s kind of cool sir…thanks.”

He tucked the tooth into his pocket and took his seat. The bell went a minute later, and I was pleased to see several kinds around Bobby as he showed off the prize that had meant less than nothing to him moments before. I was proud of myself for having taught a lesson, a life lesson that would hopefully stick with those kids for their whole lives.

I know it stuck with Bobby for the rest of his life. For his life ended that night. He was at a party, a drunken argument and another kid came back with a gun and shot Bobby in the head. I like to think he had the tooth in his pocket and that maybe his last day on earth, he might have valued the little things a bit more, his child’s smile, his mother’s farewell hug. I even fool myself into thinking he looked up at the sky for once, not to check the weather, but just to be happy.

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Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

My Christmas Eve “Alone”

 By Erwin Coombs

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Years before I became a teacher, I found myself in the sad position of having a four-year BA and being in the middle of a recession. The recession was the economy. On a personal level, I had a pretty good depression going. Not being able to get into a Faculty of Education and not being able to find a decent job, this newly married fellow was forced to take the only job he could find as a security guard.

Now I don’t mean to disparage security guards. They have a nasty job with a nastier pay. But you’ve seen these people. They are usually on the cusp of what we might term the unemployable. When I say cusp, I mean they are leading the parade of that group. And it’s not their fault. Many are new immigrants whose education credentials have not been recognised. Or they are retired men who cannot stand to watch their lives fritter away at home so come to malls and office lobbies to wear a uniform and do the same. And then there are young people, as I was, who are caught in hard times and have no other choice.

After a couple of humiliating jobs waiting tables in chain restaurants where I would remarkably come home with less money than what I would take to my shift, I jumped at the offering of a job as a security guard. The next time you’re in a chain restaurant, I want you to look kindly on those employees too. They are usually bright and assigned the all-important tasks of making sure the salad bar is inviting. And while you’re in there take a closer look at the salad bar. It is old and crusty and sprayed with oil to make it look shiny. But we had to make it look less toxic. Any idea how few employees eat that salad? Lots and lots.

Okay, when I say jumped at the job, that might be an overstatement. One doesn’t jump at that sort of employment. One stumbles, slithers or falls into it. But here I was offered a job at $5.75 an hour!! It was an olive branch. That very phrase has a biblical origin, apparently. But there was nothing biblical or God giving in a job like that for those wages. Don’t get me wrong. I was raised in a white trash upbringing where one didn’t expect anything necessarily good. Instead, one only hoped very hard that nothing too bad would happen that day that might lead to a poor night’s sleep — such as the arrest of a family member, an eviction from your apartment, or the like. As a survivor of this sort of upbringing, the prospect of a job didn’t seem that bad. What, after all, was I going to do with a specialization in English Lit. and a major in history? Apparently, I was going to guard office buildings in the wee small hours of the morning.

But while that might seem a sad conclusion to years of study, there were some perks. Imagine, for example, the sheer utility of having to wear a tie that clips on! Think of the minutes, and in the totality of a year, the hours saved not having to struggle with said tie. Pop it on and you’re ready to do whatever it is that fellows with clip on ties do. Oh yeah, that would be security work. The assumption being giving workers like me, those ties in the event of an altercation, you wouldn’t be choked with that tie.

When you are making $5.75 an hour, and you are brandishing what has appeared to be a useless university degree over your head, what’s going to happen if an altercation does occur? Let me tell you, you are going to, to put it politely, not intervene. There was no chance of my tie ever being touched by anyone except my sad, trembling hands before a sad, trembling shift at wherever they put me.

And for my second shift of what was to be my “permanent placement” I was assigned to a tall office tower in downtown Toronto. It was a plumb job, high end lawyers, businesses that made obscene amounts of money doing God knows what God knows where. And they had entrusted me to keep it safe throughout the long dark winter nights. Was I honoured? No, I wasn’t honoured. I only felt deflated. And to make matters worse, my first shift was on Christmas Eve, the graveyard shift, from nine p.m. to nine a.m. Christmas morning. Envisage if you will a bleaker prospect. Here I am, a young man, head full of ideas (granted, not his own) and lines of poetry and hope for the futures of his world and the world in general, newly married and, yes, making minimum wage, working on Christmas Eve. Gradually the poetry and the hope faded.

But to be fair it wasn’t entirely without a bright side. My wife had gone to visit her family outside of Toronto for Christmas. Had I not had a shift to cover, I would have gone with her. Her family were a small-scale variation of a war zone. Nobody got along and there was never a peaceful moment, instead there was only a lull between battles. There were tears and accusations and more tension than one might find in a tightly strung tennis racket. When I told her that I was expected to perform my duties as a poor imitation of a cop for this special night, and that she would have to go enjoy the majesty of her family without me, I was not as sad as one might think. In fact, I had a novel to read, a thermos of tea and the prospect of 12 hours of not watching a family engage in a bench clearing brawl over two days.

But fate had other plans for me. Other plans of a Christmas Carol variety.

I showed up early to get the very precise instructions of how to get through the night. My boss, a veteran of many years, who commanded all the respect one might command when sporting a polyester jacket uniform, was very specific.

“There’s no one in this building tonight. Except you. There is a fellow on the second level parking garage, but he never leaves his cubicle. And, uh, between me and you, that should make you feel safer.”

“Safer. Why?’

I started having visions of a madman on some kind of a parole programme given parking duty having committed the most heinous offences.

“Well,” my boss continued…” he’s one of them.”

He let that comment hang in the air for me to absorb and be shocked at. Of course, I knew what he meant. This was 1987, and the world was still in the throes of homophobia and misogyny and racism and all the other features of Neanderthal thinking that was, thankfully, about to be knocked on the head by people with fully developed brains. But I wanted to have a bit of fun with this monkey boss.

“You mean, he cheers for the Montreal Canadians?” I tried to sound both outraged and frightened that such a man would be my workmate through this long night.

Bob, the Neanderthal boss, was a little shocked that I hadn’t picked up on his primitive subtlety.

“NO… he’s a fag!”

I pretended that it would take me a while for that to sink in and put on a shocked face.

“You mean, he….?”

“That’s what I mean.” He said, almost in triumph of having gotten his point across. “But don’t worry, as I said, he never leaves his cubicle, thank God.”

Within ten minutes, Mr. Meathead had left the building and I was alone. Except, of course, for the serial homosexual rapist that I had been warned about. I went right down to see him two floors below to introduce myself. And there he was, sitting in a tiny cubicle with classical music playing and reading what looked to be a fairly serious book.

“Hi, I’m Erwin, tonight’s security guard. It’s my first shift so if there are any problems please don’t call, I’ll likely be napping on an office couch somewhere.”

He laughed and we joked about Bob the Ape man and how if were both in this job one year from now we would have a mutual murder/suicide pact. I left him alone and went upstairs to begin my action-packed shift of watching. And watching. And, if there was time later, watching.

Now as this was my first shift, I thought I should probably do some of what was expected of me. We were told to go on perimeter patrols. These were walks around the out and inside of the building looking for narcotics dealers and nuclear terrorists and generally the sort of high-end criminals who intrude into empty offices in the night. And we were to record in our little make belief police notebooks where we had patrolled and at what time and what we had discovered. After a couple of weeks, it dawned on me that the patrols were not necessary. But I was dedicated enough to still record the patrols in my book. Had I been a little more honest I would have recorded the following:

10:15 p.m. went to office lounge and took delicious 15-minute nap

11:00 p.m. found cookies in staff lounge… ate same

12:30 a.m. finished latest novel…surprise ending quite good

2:00 a.m. considered the merits of suicide as I peered over 15th floor balcony onto atrium…. otherwise, no unusual activity

4:00 a.m. wondered why my cat sleeps so damn much

But as I said, this was my first shift, so I dutifully walked about and scribbled down my report. All had been very quiet until I got to the first level of parking. There were literally no cars in either lot, everyone with lives being at home while I celebrated Christmas Eve in their empty building. But it was not as empty as I thought it was. There, across the lot, I spotted what was obviously a homeless old man who had broken in no doubt to escape the frigid outside. My several hours of rigorous training had taught me what to do in this situation, so I called out the lines I had learned that might save my life one day.

“Hey! You!! You shouldn’t be here!!” I yelled in my deepest, most authoritative voice. The old man, who was shuffling more than walking turned his head to look at me and gave the most peaceful smile. And then he hid behind a concrete column in the middle of the lot.

I have read enough detective novels to know what my next step should be. I must go to the other side of the column to find him. That’s the kind of skill set one acquires from reading. I did, but the shuffling old fellow was a bit faster than I imagined, for he had run around the column to avoid me. I followed. He ran, I followed. Before long I was running around the column chasing no one, and the image of the dog chasing its’ own tail came to my mind. There was no way he could have escaped my most professional pursuit, but he had. I stood there, out of breath and dumbfounded. There was an intruder in the building, and I had let him, somehow, get away. And now I had to report it.

I jogged down to the serial rapist one floor below. He was surprised to see me, perhaps because I was not the same calm looking fellow who couldn’t give a flying damn about this job. I looked worried. Mostly because I was.

“Listen, Mark, not to alarm you, but you should know, there’s an intruder in the building.”

“An intruder?” he looked concerned enough to put down his book.

“Yes, I think it’s a homeless fellow. I’ve got to call it in to headquarters and then notify the police.”

This all sounded very by the book and what ought to be done. Naturally, I was making it all up. I had no idea what procedure was, and I had never read “the book”. And as far as headquarters went, I knew it was staffed by the same South African lunatic who had trained me, if he was even awake. And as for the police, I supposed that made sense as this guy was, strictly speaking, a break in sort of fellow. I was hoping for some guidance from Mark who looked, sadly, like this wouldn’t be his last year at this cubicle. He must have had a lot of great books he wanted to read.

His attitude became casual.

“So, what did this guy look like?”

“Well, he was old, with a gray beard…”

Here is where he cut me off.

“Long gray coat, shuffled when he walked, pleasant smile, fairly short…?”

“Christ, you saw him too! Did he come up to you?’

“No, he never does. He just walks and smiles and disappears.”

Now at the idea that Mark allowed this guy to walk about at his leisure my security guard instincts (never very sharp) kicked in.

“Did you report it??” I asked accusingly.

“Oh, Erwin, you can’t report a ghost. Well, you can, but why bother?”

I looked at him in a predictably stunned way.

“A ghost?”

“Oh yeah…I see him every so often and he just comes and goes and just goes. He has disappeared before my eyes more often than first dates I’ve had. But unlike my first dates, he always comes back with a smile. Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”

Now here’s something else to imagine. You are alone in a big building, you’ve seen a ghost, you have the prospect of many more hours alone and you are told you’ve seen a ghost and that you might see him again but not to worry as he’s harmless. I don’t doubt that ghosts exist and never have. I also believe that they are harmless.

Does this mean that I want to be with one overnight in a building alone? Nope.

I can also tell you that security guards do several things most people aren’t aware of. They pilfer little things, like pens, staplers, cookies (as I hinted at earlier) and they sleep. Sitting alone for a long time and trying to stay awake, it’s tough. Sure, you can play a radio, you can read, you can make plans for an escape from this life that you couldn’t have had nightmares about when you were younger. But ultimately sleep stampedes towards you and you nestle your red eyes into your polyester shirt sleeve laid out on the desk and sleep. But not when you expect the old ghost of Parking Level Two to come by for a Christmas visit. That was the only night I stayed awake for a whole shift. And it was purely from fear, not dedication to my profession. The paltry pay was compensated for with this experience, so I have no regrets about having taken this job. Who knows what adventures lie in the most seemingly bland corridors we travel through!

Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Living up to my Seafaring Name in Tasmania

Narrative and photographs by Meredith Stephens

When I asked my mother why she called me ‘Meredith’, she told me that she had named me after one of the children in the class she had been teaching before she got married. Still curious, I looked up the meaning of my name and found that it meant ‘leader of the sea’. But it wasn’t until my seventh decade that I left the cloistered world of academia and became a seafarer. Then I was finally able to live up to my name, at least partially. Not only did I become a sailor, I also became a serious hiker, and learnt how to replace my daily shower for sporadic dunks in the ocean.

Alex, Luke, Verity and I were sailing south along the rugged western coast of Tasmania to Port Davey. The morning we arrived I ventured onto the deck and noticed that there was no beach, and the foliage was scrub rather than forests. As we entered Port Davey, we noticed still waters and jagged mountains. Several other yachts were anchored in the cove. Kayakers wove their way hugging the coast. I sat on the stern of the deck taking in the scenery that few people have the chance to observe. Port Davey is only accessible by small plane or boat, not by road.

Once anchored we decided to climb Balmoral Hill. Luke chose this because it promised the best rewards for the least effort; it would be a relatively easy climb with spectacular views. We made our way in the dinghy to the shore. We followed the wombat tracks, pushing our way through the bushes and native flowers, and reached the summit in under an hour. Balmoral Hill lived up to its promise. Views of Port Davey extended in all directions. The climb down was more challenging than the climb up, and I found myself lagging behind the others as usual.

We returned to the boat and it was still only 3 pm. We hadn’t been able to take regular showers because of the limited supply of fresh water on the boat. Luke and Alex decided to have a swim. Alex begged me to go in too.

“If you go in, I’ll give you a gin and tonic,” promised Alex.

He knew that was a sure-fire way to entice me in. I donned my swimsuit and secured my hair on the top of my head. I poked my feet into the water. Alex kept encouraging me to go in and finally I braved the cold brackish waters. I willed myself to stay in for a minute or two before climbing back up the ladder. Then Alex offered me a brief but hot shower on deck. True to his word, he brought me a gin and tonic with my favourite snack of hummous and seaweed crackers.

It was still early afternoon.

“Do you want to go ashore again?” Alex offered.

A narrow strip of white shore was enticing us. We made the 100metres trip to the shore in the dinghy. The shore consisted of white granite pebbles. We walked up and down the pebbles so that they could massage the soles of our feet, providing a shiatsu-like treatment.

The next morning Alex and Luke were looking forward to climbing Mt Rugby.

“How long does it take to climb?” I asked Luke.

“About six or seven hours.”

Alex had always encouraged me to go on daily hikes with him, and I was worried that I would have to undertake a six hour hike up Mt Rugby. Alex read my mind, and I realised that he was not expecting me to accompany them. He reminded me how to use the VHF [Very High Frequency] radio in case we needed to summon help. Verity and I stayed on the boat, working on our laptops in the saloon, gazing through a window at Mt Rugby, as the boat gently swayed back and forth. I went onto the deck periodically to scan Mt Rugby to try and sight Alex and Luke, but couldn’t find them. Before I knew it they had returned.

That evening, while positioning the dinghy, the rope became intertwined in the propellor. Alex donned his swimmers and dived quickly into the cold water to cut the rope. Every now and then he emerged from the water with his mask. His legs and feet were visible beneath the surface of the tannin filled water every time he dived back in. Eventually he cut the rope and returned to the boat.

The next morning we continued to Joe Page Bay to see the swans. After anchoring we hopped into the dinghy and headed for the lagoon. We noticed flocks of swans in the distance but as soon as they heard the engines of the dinghy they took off. The water was too shallow because it was low tide. We were at risk of hitting the river bottom, so we eventually turned around and returned to the boat.

It was another two days before we exited Port Davey. We headed back in the direction of the open ocean to anchor for the night, ready to leave the next day. Alex and Luke carefully chose the calmest spot in the north-west corner of Brambell Cove. Mt Millner was beckoning so we took the dinghy ashore and headed up the mountain.

“What if I can’t do it?” I asked Alex.

“You can rest on the beach if you like,” came the reply.

We entered a shady grove and found the path. Verity and Luke took the lead and Alex the rear, so I wouldn’t get left behind. The wombat track was studded in deep holes and it was hard to enjoy the view of the islands while being careful where I placed my feet. I thought we had nearly reached the summit, but it kept stretching ahead.

“You go ahead. I don’t need to get to the summit. I’ll rest here.” I pleaded.

Alex was having none of it.

“Look! We have reached the saddle. You can even go downhill for a bit before we ascend again. Not much further to go!” he encouraged me.

How could I disagree when Alex had so much confidence in me? I continued to clamber up the mountain. The bare surroundings turned to dense scrub and I had to push the branches away from my face to clear the way. Then in my haste I found myself falling backwards. My landing was cushioned by some thick undergrowth. My feet, bound up in my heavy hiking boots, stretched before me and I was tempted to rest a bit longer, but I worried about holding the others up, so I took a deep breath and summoned the effort to get up. No sooner had I reached the summit than I realised that it was another false summit. Rising before me was a steep incline to the sky.

“I can’t do it Alex!” I called behind me.

“You’re very nearly there. Then you can say that you climbed to the summit.”

I didn’t really care about being able to boast that I had reached the summit. Would anyone be impressed by that? But again, Alex’s enthusiasm pressed me on. With such encouragement it would be surly to refuse.

After climbing the steep incline I really did reach the summit. I caught a glimpse of the seascape below and the conical islands dotted in the bay. The fierce sun was oppressive and so I turned away, gratefully sat down on some heather, and pulled my hair away from my neck. Alex gave me some water.

“Do you want to walk to the other end of the summit?” Alex invited me.

If you walked to the other side you could look down on an ocean bay, but I could view it from my seated position and this time I really did decline.

After sitting there for twenty minutes I was cool enough to brave the descent. Luke and Verity climbed down quickly and waited on the shore. Alex took the rear and we trod along the wombat path trying to avoid the holes. Finally we reached Luke and Verity. We removed our hiking boots, hopped into the dinghy and motored back to the boat.

We had to ration fresh water and did not want to waste it taking a shower. I didn’t relish bathing in the ocean but I was both hot and perspiring so I felt I didn’t have a choice. I popped on my swimsuit, asked Alex to pull down the ladder, climbed down and immersed myself in the water. Finally, I was cool and clean. I couldn’t imagine being any more tired after the strain of the climb, the punishing sun and immersion in cold water. I am surprised I managed to mount the false summits and reach the real summit. It shows how encouragement can push you beyond the goal you set for yourself.

Alex prepared dinner. Behind the boat the sunset over the sea turned from an intense orange to purple. That night the boat was so still that we could have been excused for thinking we were on land. I was finally beginning to embrace my seafaring name.

Now that I had some sense of having earnt my first name, Meredith, I was ready to explore territory featuring the second part of my name, Stephens. My Great Aunt May, born around 1906, used to explain how her forebears had run a ‘Stephens’ shipping line in London in the late 1800s. Even my surname had a seafaring connection.

The next day we headed out to the open ocean past Bramwell Bay on our left and Breaksea Islands on our right. We anchored at Spain Bay, took the dinghy to shore, and then hiked to the other side of the peninsula. First the vegetation was low, and gradually gave way to bracken. We had to push the branches aside as we trudged through the mud. Then the path entered a forest with a canopy above the trail. Wooden stairs gave way to Stephens Bay. We sat on a rock to rest, and nibbled on some of the dry seaweed washed up on the beach, wondering what it would taste like if rehydrated in a misoshiru soup. I pondered whether I had an ancestral connection to this place as ships on their way from England to the east coast of Australia would have passed by this bay.

Back on board, despite the cold, I thought I would brave the waters again to refresh myself. I donned my swimsuit and tentatively climbed down the ladder into the sea. Alex dived in before me and I could tell from his expression that it was colder than we expected, as we were closer to the ocean. I held onto the ladder and vigorously moved my legs to warm myself up. I could only manage thirty seconds in the water despite resolving to last two minutes.

The next morning Alex entreated me to get up so as not to miss out on the spectacular scenery as we rounded southern Tasmania. The seas were as calm as they could possibly be. The boat was gently cantering in slow motion across the swell. South West Cape loomed in the distance, about an hour away. Luke was at the helm and Alex, Verity and I climbed carefully to the front of the boat holding onto the rails, and sat on the foredeck while we passed the cape, as the sun forced its way into view. Five hours later we rounded South East Cape, one of the five southernmost capes in the world, the others being West Cape Howe (Western Australia), South Cape (New Zealand), Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.

Heading to the South West Cape, south western Tasmania

After so many decades spent in libraries and classrooms, my life had taken a turn and I suddenly found myself surrounded by ocean. Of course, living on a boat did not mean I would abandon reading and writing. In fact, the long hours at sea afforded even more time for these pursuits. This was especially the case when at anchor waiting for rough seas to subside, out of internet range, when there was little else to do. Nevertheless, I think my mother would have been more than surprised had she known that I would spend weeks at sea in some of Australia’s most remote waters. Neither of us could have imagined how literally I would grow into my name.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Slices from Life

Getting My Nemesis

By Erwin Coombs

You might be wondering how on earth Dusty, the cat, played such a huge role in my downfall. I suppose I should use the defence that the title of this piece is nothing more than literary license because for one thing, I have never had a downfall. Oh, I’ve had many falls and stumbles, but no major catastrophic tragedy that cast me into the pits of despair. I suppose rather than the pits of despair, I have just visited the suburbs of despair. And having lived in the suburbs, I don’t mind equating these two. That is one of the many wonderful things about life, that we can fall, but invariably we rise again, as it is said in a part of the Bible I can never remember, though I fall I shall rise. Confucius said it as well: that our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. The title of this book is misleading, to an extent. I never fell, absolutely, and Dusty had nothing to do with my stumbles. In fact, she was a factor in helping me to get up again and again. A cat? Yes, one might be amazed at the soothing companionship that pets offer generally. I don’t mean all pets. I can’t imagine a turtle, for example, offering solace at the end of a rotten day at work or after your partner has just told you that you are now a lone wolf and good luck with your future. But let me get back to when I finally decided to get a cat.

I was on my own and had rented a bachelor apartment. I was determined to have a pet, particularly a cat, as cats had been a big part of my life since I found the stray Dickens twenty years ago. It was the first of the month, moving day, and as I had not a lot to move for reasons to long to go into, I thought I wouldn’t go a day without company, so I asked my daughters to come with me to the Humane Society to pick one out. My eldest daughter was a little hesitant as she and her boyfriend had adopted a dog few months earlier and had to return it, for reasons once again too long to go into. As a result, she felt that she was blacklisted and that her picture was up on screens and walls and would somehow be subject to abuse at the hands of the workers there. I tried to explain that these people were very well intentioned and likely not wanting to seek revenge for the return of an animal. I mean, I asked her, what could they possibly do? Shame her in front of the other caged animals? Sick a wild pack of rabid pooches on her? But she was nervous enough that she left the choosing of my cat to me and Josie.

My other daughter and I went cruising through the rooms looking at the imprisoned beasts. Any visit to one of these places can be sad. They really do look like prisoners as they pace their small spaces and when you pass by a cage, they seem to do their best to be alluring, realizing on some level, that this stranger might just be their ticket out of Sing-Sing. They rub up against the bars and look at you with these pleading eyes that seem to say, “Please like me, take me home.” It’s every meathead’s dream of what a single’s bar should be like but isn’t for meatheads. My daughter finally found one that she connected with and told me to come over and have a look. It was an American Shorthair, grey and with lovely kind, green eyes. The assistant opened the cage for me and let me put my hand in to have a pet. It was a lovely meeting until the blood was drawn. Mine, I mean, not hers. She lashed out not too fiercely at my hand and I pulled back too late. Josie looked up at me and said,

“Dad, you moved too quickly!”

My argument was that the quick move was the result of having been assaulted and not the cause, but she was intent that this was the one for me and so, naturally, I agreed, as I held my hand up to prevent my life’s blood from escaping.

“There not used to being touched, poor things.” said the worker.

I looked at my gash and wondered if there would be any pity for me, or only another condemnation at having been doing jazz hands in a cat’s cage, but there was none. Nevertheless, I agreed to take this one home and started the paperwork. The woman across the desk took my particulars and my cheque and told me, quite casually.

“And we won’t charge you for the cream.”

“Cream?” I asked, “What cream?”

For a moment I thought that they were going to offer an antibacterial tube for my hand given that one of their inmates had attempted murder on me. But not even close.

“The cream for her backside” came the “as if you didn’t know” response.

“Why would I need cream for her backside?” I asked bracing myself for an answer I knew wouldn’t be pleasant. I mean, any conversation around creams and cat’s backsides is not going to work out well, and this one didn’t.

“As you probably noticed, the kitty is a little bit bigger than she should be.”

A little bit? This was one fat cat. Cats as a rule are about as sedentary a creature as you’ll find so being a little bit chunky is par for the course, but this one was two pars for the course. I didn’t mind as I thought I’ll get her slimmed down with a gym membership and controlled diet.

“And the cream on her anus will help her lose weight?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh no, it’s just that she is so big she can’t really reach her anus to clean it, so she has a wee bit of an infection. The cream will help clear it up. Twice a day, but I suggest you wear a glove as you do it.”

If there was one thing I didn’t need a suggestion about as to when to wear a glove it was that. I didn’t relish the idea with a glove anyway. We took her back to my sparsely furnished new apartment and put her down on the floor while I set up the all-important pooh box and, more important to her, the food and water bowl. She was still a nameless cat, so I asked the girls as I was busying myself rushing about, as much as one can in a bachelor apartment, setting up for my new roommate,

“Well girls, what should we name her?”

“Dusty.” Came the immediate response from Josie. And it made sense as she was a gray furred kitty with lovely white bits as well.

“Because she’s gray?” I called out from the bathroom as I scooped kitty litter into the target box.

“No.” said Josie. “Because she’s eating a fluff of dust.”

And that is my cat, Dusty. As if being so obese that you can’t clean your own backside wasn’t evidence enough, she has an eating compulsion that will not stop, even at dust. But we forged strong bonds and became good friends. As a matter of fact, there is a gay theatre in Toronto called Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Company, and they are quite good. So, from day one I would refer to Dusty and I as just that, buddies in bad times. Of course, the times weren’t bad exactly, but they were certainly getting better.

Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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Categories
Slices from Life

It’s Amazing the Things We can Do

By Erwin Coombs

That’s the title of a narrative that needs explaining. I have to start off by being quite honest: I was raised in a cloud of cynicism and despair. As I’ve already hinted — my upbringing was classically dysfunctional with a broken home at age six and all kinds of attendant problems. Poverty was one. Actually, poverty is never one problem because it has a ricochet effect like shooting a gun in a metal room as it leads to a whole bagful of treats that make life that much more difficult. Apart from the outward signs of misery, there were all kinds of internalised ones.

I am a huge optimist by nature and why I don’t know. It might have to do with a faulty IQ or some brain injury suffered in youth that I can’t recall, for obvious reasons. Mind you, I did fall out of my highchair when I was a toddler in Cairo, Egypt. I don’t know if the highchairs at that time were substandard or perhaps my mother didn’t bother to do up my safety belt, but I went down like a ton of bricks to the non-carpeted floor. I’m sure there was no permanent damage, except for the fact that there is an indent in the middle of the top of my head.

When I was young and had hair, I remember occasionally coming across that indent and thinking “Thank God I have hair to cover THAT thing up with!” But God has a delicious sense of irony and between Him and gravity, or rather with gravity working as his foot soldier, time chipped, or rather pulled away at my hair. And as my hairline receded like a Maple Leaf fan’s playoff hopes, that deformity became a feature of mine. I’m not a vain man, by any stretch, but this was a bit to deal with. Over time, I got used to it.

I recall one day I was helping out in one of my daughter’s grade two classrooms. I was sitting reading a story to several cute little kids when one of the girls asked, in a completely good-natured way, “What’s that big lump on your head?” I wanted to explain that rather than a big lump it was actually a crevice which gave the appearance of a big lump, but how lame would that have sounded? Instead, I did more of that thinking on my feet thing and said, “You see, Ariana, I have so many smart thoughts that I don’t have room for them in my brain. So, I store them there.”

She looked wide-eyed at this new marvel she had never heard of before and I could tell she was impressed. I had turned what could have been a potentially embarrassing deformity for my daughter into a point of admiration. I had new cache as the really smart guy. Score one for Dad.

Thinking back on that highchair fall, there was another potentially brain damaging incident that took place in Cairo. Given that there were two such events it’s amazing I can even remember them. But I guess the damage was fairly minimal, though I’m sure several former teachers of mine would claim otherwise. We had just arrived in Cairo as my father was posted at the Canadian embassy, but our house wasn’t ready yet. That meant a two week stay at the Cairo Hilton on the public coin. Being a toddler, I couldn’t entirely appreciate how cool this was, but my family did and when Dad was at work we spent a lot of time at the pool. I couldn’t walk then but neither could a lot of the guests who made good use of the pool-side bar. My Mum no doubt did, and my siblings were busy playing childish games. I was plopped on the steps of the shallow end of the pool to bake in the sun and hopefully not teeter into the water. Hope is a fine thing, but you don’t want to risk a toddler’s life on it. And sure, as shooting I did the teetering and as with the highchair, toppled to the bottom. The landing wasn’t so bad, it’s just that there was no resurfacing to go with it and so I sat comically at the bottom, no doubt waving my arms and looking wide eyed.

Meanwhile, on terra firma, someone thought to look for me.

“Has anyone seen Erwin?’

If I had a toddler that was missing poolside, I would have phrased it a little more urgently. But the whole family circled the pool until my brother Eddy spotted me at the bottom, now fairly blue through lack of oxygen and called out.

“There he is!” I believe he said it like a child finding a hidden Easter egg in a hunt instead of a drowning sibling. But for all that they did pull me out, dry me off and I was not much the worse for wear. Here’s a funny follow up lest you think that our childhood experiences don’t have some kind of resonance in our adult years. I was never told of this almost drowning incident until I was well into my teens, for some reason. Yet my whole life I had been, and am still, subject to a recurring nightmare where, you guessed it, I am at the bottom of a pool, gasping for breath and I wake up panting. As the song says, take good care of your children. If you don’t they might end up with misshapen heads and poor sleeping habits.

There was a third incident in Cairo involving a camel and the pyramids. My God, but it sounds like I’ve had this exciting life but really most of it has been spent holding onto a channel changer and dreaming of better days. While in Cairo the family decided to take a tour around the pyramids riding camels because, hey, that’s the thing to do there. And it would have been a grand idea except that my Mum had just strapped the baby me onto the camel before she got on when the camel decided that one passenger was enough, and it bolted. Camels are ornery beasts and when they get a mind to something they do it and apparently kidnapping the blonde baby was a bee in its bonnet so off it went. Soon one of the camel instructors leapt onto another camel and chased me down in the Sahara after a few minutes. Had he not, I might well have wound up as a Bedouin being raised in the desert as some sort of a poor man’s Lawrence of Arabia. Looking back on my time in Egypt, it seems clear that my parents had decided to do away with me but lacked the foresight for a proper plan or the energy to keep at it. But I hold no grudge. They did have three other mouths to feed, after all.

Despite all those damages to my brain at an early age I have managed to negotiate this old world with some degree of success. And one of the points I want to make in this narrative is that people are extraordinarily able to do things they think they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, if that doesn’t sound too convoluted a sentence. In other words, we can accomplish things under the most enormous pressure and under terrible conditions that we think we might not be able to do even under ideal circumstances. What this says about human beings is that we are to be marveled at and not despaired over, as we so often do. We look down on our species and God knows we look down on ourselves countless times a day.

The old ‘pop’ psychology of examining the self is not just a cutesy way of filling up self-help books with advice. Self-help books are generally, a dark alley to visit. They are great at momentary inspiration but generally don’t last beyond the initial reading. That’s why people keep poring over them again and again. And here is one of the problems with self-help books; they tell us what we already know to be true and what should be done. The advice is common-sensical. But following advice is much more difficult than just seeking it out and so we repeat the patterns of dumb behavior. And as long as we are seeking advice from a friend or a book, we get the feeling we are doing something. It calls to mind the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who said, “No longer talk about what a good man should be. Be one.” Or in the words of my father, “shit or get off the pot.” I’ve always thought a good title to reveal this problem with self-help books would be Breaking the Self-Help Dependency Cycle: Volume 8.

Returning to my narrative highlighting the amazing things people can do and not even realise they can do it. I have a life and death example from World War II. I knew an old woman whose life had been a series of tragedies. Sure, she had had some joy. She was born in the First World, had children she loved and grandchildren, had friends and all manner of hobbies from knitting to crocheting and everything in between. Mind you knitting and crocheting are close so there might not seem a great deal in between, but there is, and she pursued them, getting a joy out of the little things in life. This despite the fact that she was raised in Nazi occupied Holland, had a brother who died in a Nazi work camp, one of her children was killed in a traffic accident while just a boy, her husband had died of cancer, she had defeated cancer, well, the list goes on. But despite the list of reasons to give up and surrender to despair she found joy where she could, displaying a strength of character that people who have suffered much less and whined much more would do well to learn from.

Here is her story of doing what you think you can’t when circumstances demand you step up and find a solution instead of an excuse. This lady, Gail, was living on a farm near some woods during the Nazi occupation of her country. One of her two brothers had died in that German work camp so the other one who was at the same camp, decided that he was not going to stay. He escaped from Germany and somehow made his way home to the farm. His family hid him, but he had to spend a lot of time living in the woods to avoid the SS (Shutzstaffel) who knew he was there but couldn’t catch him. One day he was at the farm splitting wood when word came that the SS were coming for him. He naturally ran to the woods. Here was the trouble. The Nazis arrived and demanded to know where he was. Gail was the only one home and denied that he had been there for over a year. The crafty head of the unit spied the partially split pile of wood and asked who had been doing this job. Gail calmly said she had, and as the Nazis had taken away the men, she had no choice, now did she? The head of the unit nodded calmly and in an equally calm manner took out his revolver.

“You are doing a very good job. You’re pretty skilled for a little farm girl, aren’t you?”

He looked at her smilingly and gestured to the pile of logs.

“Show me how it’s done. If you can prove it wasn’t your brother who did this, well, that will be fine. If you cannot, you die here and now at the hands of an officer that you’ve lied to.”

He stepped back, keeping the gun pointed at Gail. She told me she had never picked up an axe in her life, but she knew that if there was ever a time to do it and to learn how, this was it. She said that she was trembling inside but knew that that fear had to be kept hidden. She also knew that if she failed and was killed it would redouble the SS man’s commitment to track down her brother. Even when her life was hanging by the swing of an axe, she was concerned with the fate of someone else. And this also speaks to me about the true nature of humanity. Despite the fact that whatever selfish tendencies we have can be played upon to act in more selfish ways by people who make a profit out of selfishness, we are fundamentally a caring species with streaks of unselfishness that are not merely streaks but represent our true colours.

Gail stepped up to the pile, picked up the ax and said a silent prayer of desperation and hope while she put on a brave face,

“Dear God, please, just let me swing this axe true, just this once.”

She had seen others do it and tried to replicate their movements, placing a log on the stand, shifting her hands down the shaft and giving a mighty swing. The log split in two with the softest sound. She hid her own amazement and looked at the man holding his gun and her life in his hands with a bored “See?” sort of expression. The Nazi uncocked his gun and placed it back in the holster.

“Couldn’t have done better myself. Carry on,” and he and his men walked away to continue the search for the brother that I’m happy to say was never successful. That’s the brother whom I knew as a delightful old man who had given me those sharks teeth all those years ago. He, like his sister, was so full of life and happiness despite all they had gone through. Or perhaps not despite but because of all they had gone through. From the wonder of a hundred-year-old shark’s tooth to the smile of their babies in their arms, they loved all that life had to offer because they knew how precious and, surprisingly, readily available joy is in this world.

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Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These narratives are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poetry

Last Lights

Poetry by Mike Smith

LAST LIGHTS

Some colours glow as darkness falls
Orange of bracken in the last light
The sky’s pink, the grey of walls
Some glories show at the brink of night

Orange of bracken in the last light
Stronger than in mid-day sun
Some glories show at the brink of night
Even in our endings much may be done

Stronger than in mid-day sun
This gloaming will not be for long
Even in our endings much may be done
Listen to the night bird’s song

This gloaming will not be for long
Tho’ blues grow richer as the light fades
Listen to the night bird’s song
Calling the shadows from their glades

And blues grow richer as the light fades
The sky’s pink, the grey of walls
Calling the shadows from their glades
Some colours glow as darkness falls

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Categories
Poetry

A Falling Frost at Bank House Garden

By Mike Smith

Winter has arrived. I’ve found starved robins
on the path, as pale as old barolo.
 
Hard frost has told the trees, time to let go.
Leaves fall like dead birds from the sycamores.
 
Dew-drips drop from spider threads.
We’re draped with mist,
like garden chairs out of their season.
 
From each bud’s tip as it begins to freeze,
leaf edge and pine needle, pearled globules squeeze.
 
I motionless, while winter breathes me in
and settling air around my shoulders slips.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com . This poem was part of the Crichton Writers’ (Dumfries) anthology (2007).

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Categories
Pirate Poems

Pirate Blacktarn & the Mermaid

By Jay Nicholls

PIRATE BLACKTARN AND THE MERMAID


Pirate Blacktarn was sailing on a quest.
Each day he woke, feeling full of joy and zest.
“I’m going to find a mermaid, swimming in the sea
And then when I find one, I’ll ask her to marry me.”

The crew all sighed, “Blacktarn’s full of daft ideas,
We can see this adventure is going to end in tears.
Who’d marry Blacktarn when he doesn’t wash his hair?
And he’s got holes in his socks that let in all the air.
He’s lost his sword and the sheath is full of sweets
And he’s useless at cards ’cos he always cheats.”

“If he thinks a mermaid is going to marry him,
He’s soft in the head,” agreed Parrot Tim.
“Poor old Captain,” said Stowaway Fay,
“But we won’t find mermaids anyway.
They’re magic and mysterious and secret and strange
And they live in hidden places, far out of range.”

But then one evening, after a long day’s sail
They saw a mermaid on a rock, swishing her tail.
“A mermaid, a mermaid,” Blacktarn cried with delight.
“Come Crew, come and see this special sight.”

“Mermaid, mermaid, mermaid ahoy!
I’ve come to marry you,” cried Blacktarn with joy.
But the mermaid just laughed and jumped from the rocks.
“I can’t marry a man with big holes in his socks.”

Poor Pirate Blacktarn was dreadfully upset
But he found Bosun Mick, mending a fishing net.
And he asked if he’d help him mend his holy socks.
“You do it,” said Mick, “here’s the sewing box.”
So as the red sun set and the silver moon rose,
Poor Pirate Blacktarn sat darning his hose.

Then the very next day, all tidy and neat
He went to the mermaid, who sat looking sweet
And he showed her his socks and his very clean feet.
“Now you can marry me, oh mermaid my dear.”
“Oh no,” she said, “you’d better disappear.
You haven’t washed your hair for at least a year.
And your beard is tangled and matted and rough
I can’t marry you, you’re not smart enough.”

Poor Pirate Blacktarn shed a very sad tear
Then he whispered to Rakesh, hardly loud enough to hear
“Please will you lend me your comb and your shampoo.”
Rakesh was astonished but he didn’t dare to argue.
All night long, Blacktarn washed and brushed his hair
And curled and combed his beard with the utmost care.
And then in the morning, all shiny and tangle free,
He went to the mermaid and asked, “Will you marry me?”

But the cruel mermaid only shook her head
“No, for you haven’t got a sword,” she said.
“And even worse, you keep sweets in the sheath.”
And laughing she dived into the waves beneath.

Poor Pirate Blacktarn went grumpily away
“Looks like I’ll have to go searching today.”
“Will you help me find my sword?” he asked Big Bob the cook.
“No,” answered Bob, “you’ll have to look.”
All day and night, Blacktarn rummaged through his junk
And found his rusty sword, hidden by his bunk.
He cleaned and polished till it gleamed and flashed
Then put it in his sheath and to the mermaid dashed. 
“Now you must marry me, please dearest mermaid.”

“Oh no Pirate Blacktarn, I can’t I’m afraid.”
“Oh dear,” groaned Blacktarn, “now what must I do?”
“Nothing, because I’m married to a merman, fine and true.”

“What!” Blacktarn jumped up and down with rage,
Then burst into tears and started to rampage.

“But never mind Pirate, I’ve bought you a gift
For I can see your spirits are in need of a lift.”
And she held out a shell, all curved and curly,
A beautiful thing, all whorled and pearly.
This magical shell you must put to your ear
And the music of Mer is the melody you’ll hear,
The sound of their singing will make you happy again
And you’ll forget all your anger and sadness and pain,
So all your hard work hasn’t been in vain.”
And down she dived into the green sea’s domain.

“Farewell Pirate”

Blacktarn held the shell and listened amazed,
For a wonderful music made him joyous and dazed.
“You know,” he said merrily to his startled crew
“I’m glad I didn’t marry, it really wouldn’t do.
That mermaid now, might have made a nice wife
But would she have suited our sea faring life?”

“Well come on crew, now we’re single and free
We must get sailing across the Lemon Sea.”

Note: The ‘Pirate Blacktarn’ poems were written in the early 1990s but were never submitted anywhere or shown to anyone. By lucky chance they were recently rescued from a floppy disc that had lain in the bottom of a box for almost thirty years. There are twelve poems in the series but no indication as to what order they were written in and the author no longer remembers. However, they seem to work well when read in any order. They all feature the same cast of characters, the eponymous pirate and his crew, including a stowaway and an intelligent parrot. The stories told by the poems are set on a fictional body of water named the Lemon Sea. (Dug up by Rhys Hughes from the bottom of an abandoned treasure chest).

Jay Nicholls was born in England and graduated with a degree in English Literature. She has worked in academia for many years in various student support roles, including counselling and careers. She has written poetry most of her life but has rarely submitted it for publication.

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Categories
Poetry

An Instant

By Mike Smith

AN INSTANT

Suddenly we stop, the sheep and I,
Even the squirrel on the wall.
I’m carrying sticks. They’re in the field.

I heard nothing at all
But suddenly we stop, the sheep and I,
As if there were a distant call,
Even the squirrel on the wall,
Suddenly motionless eyes peeled.
I’m carrying sticks. They’re in the field.

Maybe there’s some message on the breeze.
I heard nothing at all.
Perhaps they’re more finely tuned than me,
But suddenly we stop, the sheep and I,
As if some deity had drawn us to a halt,
As if there were a distant call
From one who had authority over us all,
Even the squirrel on the wall.
For a moment we’re like a photograph,
Suddenly motionless eyes peeled,
As if something amazing had been revealed.
I’m carrying sticks. They’re in the field.

And the best of it is,
Maybe there’s some message on the breeze
That I can read too.
I heard nothing at all,
But we all know there are other senses.
Perhaps they’re more finely tuned than me,
Or can see more clearly,
But suddenly we stop, the sheep and I
And I’m included with them all,
As if some deity had drawn us to a halt,
Not with a command but
As if there were a distant call
Addressed to someone out of sight
From one who had authority over us all,
That we just overheard,
Even the squirrel on the wall,
That made us stop and realise.
For a moment we’re like a photograph,
Wondering if perhaps there is some deep intent,
Suddenly motionless eyes peeled,
Hiding behind this pure invention,
As if something amazing had been revealed,
Going about our proper business.
I was carrying sticks. They were in the field.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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