SHORT STORIES FOR YOU FROM...
JAMES GAULT, M.G.D.,
‘Ice on The Window’ A short story from author M.G.D.
The world out the window was blanketed in heavy white. The thick prisms of ice blocked out a clear view of the holly berries just outside, twisting their images until they stretched like ghostly fingers. I pressed my hand against the cool surface.
“I remember a day like this, Martha.”
“It’s Elizabeth. Martha left this morning.” She smiled with that soft, sympathetic smile.
“I remember.” My face burned. I lifted a glass set near me on the window seal and pressed it to my cheek. “Sorry it’s hot in here. Would you put the fire out?”
She flicked the tiny knob near the base of the fire and the flame died.
“We had a real fire when I was a child. Papa kept it glowing, all day on Christmas. I don’t remember it getting this hot.”
“These gas ones are designed to heat the whole room.” She smiled with a flash of yellowed teeth.
I held out my hand, and she reached for it meeting my grasp. With a firm arm she helped me to the table. “I don’t understand I could heft the tree in myself, but lately my hands are so weak, and they shake so. I’m going to call Dr. Lauryn in the morning. I’m in need of some warm ginger, that’s what mother always swore by. Warm ginger will get the blood pumping. It is so cold in here. Martha, start the fire. You know it was a day, just like this, with ice on the window.
“Mama made a batch of gingerbread, it was a week from Christmas still, but she was going to the theatre, it was papa’s gift to her for Christmas. I was dressed in my flannel. As a child how, I loved it. I refused to undress from my nightgowns before I’d had my breakfast. My grandmother said it was downright indecent, but I didn’t care. I was a spoiled one. That’s what papa always told me.
“It was the first day of Christmas break, but for all I cared it could have been Christmas day because Minnie Douglas had become my very best friend, it was practically a vow. She brought me lace cookies, and lace cookies were all the rage. All the girls were exchanging them. All but the little Thompson girls in the back of the class. They were too poor for things like that. They brought homemade cookies to hand out.
“Mama said, the Thompsons were trash, and not to eat the cookies they brought from home. Papa disagreed that they were trash. Their father, he said, worked on the road crew, and it was a respectable job. He wasn’t some drunk or drifter.
Elizabeth Thompson though, was like a puppy. She was always following Minnie and Caroline Douglas around. Caroline, Minnie’s older sister, said her beau was first cousin to the Thompsons, but he wasn’t like Elizabeth Thompson. Her beau’s father was a driver for the Pact company. Driving people who were ever so rich. They were in the best society.
“Martha, bring me the box, please, and the twine.”
She handed me the speckled white box. I lay a porcelain doll in the soft paper crevice within. I couldn’t recall lining the box. Martha must have done it. I frowned. I didn’t like the nurses touching my things. Not things this special. I lay a twig of greenery lengthwise across the top, a pine cone stuck to the spindly branch.
“Do you think artificial would be better?” Martha suggested.
I glowered, what did she know about it? My hands shook as I wrapped the twine about it, the tiny speckles were like little pine needles on snow. “I think she’ll like this.”
I pulled the twine tight. “Martha, help me. I need to…”
She reached over my shoulder, smelling of pine and warm Chantilly, and pulled the twine tight. “It looks lovely. Do you want it now?” She pulled the folded postcard in my direction.
“Not yet, nearer to Christmas. I don’t want to write it too soon, and I’m not in the mood for writing.”
I stared down on the scene printed on the front; a girl in her frilled blue Christmas dress. Her mouth opened in conversation, and her friend with her white coat and muff stood smiling. “This one is perfect.”
“Yes,” Martha smiled. “It is, you said you picked it because it was just right.”
“It’s so much like that day. Minnie was coming over. She was going to come to my house, my very best friend was coming. Breakfast and lunch flew by mother left for the theater and it was getting close to time. We pretended all the day before, that it was to be a grand affair. Like a high tea, that a proper English girl would attend. This would be the perfect Christmas party. I sliced the gingerbread and rolled the napkins, I even brought out the good silver. Then ran up the stair to dress in my grandest outfit.”
“At that time, my grandest was my best coat and muff. Grandma got me the muff the year before, for Christmas. For a moment I glared at the snow out the window. Through the ice it was pretty, but I was so afraid that Minnie’s mother would forbid her going out in the weather. Just as soon as the thought crossed my mind my heart skipped. There was a knock at the door. Not a hard knock. A lovely soft tap at the front door. My new friend was a lady. We were going to have gingerbread and it was my first real Christmas party to host.
“I raced back down the stair, then corrected myself on the landing. Ladies you know, didn’t run, or arrive at the door out of breath. I sauntered. That was the word I believed to be correct. We had just reviewed it, and I got an A on my last spelling test. Sauntered sounded lovely, and I spelled it out as I came down the stairs. “I sauntered… s-a-u-n-t-e-r-e-d…”
“I flung the door open not wanting to be too swift or too slow. To my delight there was Minnie and Caroline. Both had come. My smile stretched well beyond lady like, but neither even seemed to mind they were smiling as well. And Minnie started to giggle as I told her about the gingerbread.
“I lit the Christmas lights. Mother said it was fine if we ate the gingerbread here in the drawing-room. I thought we could do it around the Christmas tree.”
“We can pretend it’s Christmas day.” Minnie practically screamed.
“Let’s get some crêpe paper and make up Christmas presents.” Caroline ordered. She was only a little older than Minnie, but she seemed like the grown up in the room. It’s hard to describe my delight having a girl a grade ahead of me, not mention one so popular as Minnie here at my house making crêpe paper gifts and eating ginger bread.
The room was cozy, with pine wood scenting everything down to the rug. Little needles stuck in the fur of my coat and it was far too warm to wear indoors. I started to remove it, the girls followed my lead taking their warm wrapping and hanging them by the door. They were dressed in lace, taffeta. I was glad I pulled on my Sunday dress. It wasn’t evening wear, but I thought I looked smashing with the soft puffs at the shoulders and the red and black plaid color screamed Christmas. We settled into our work. A happy glow shown on the cheeks of my new best friends.
“That Thompson girl,” Minnie chortled. “We were talking about coming over this evening yesterday and she never can keep her ears out of a conversation. She just stood there with that smile on her face.”
Caroline sighed. “She probably just likes to hear about what other people are doing. We said we’re going to a party at your house and she just stood there. I told her to come as well. I’m sorry, but we were in a spot. You can’t just ignore someone.”
“Not to worry.” Minnie smiled. “She watches her little sister in the evenings, so her mother can go to the project houses. She cleans there.”
I nodded there wasn’t much one could do in such a situation. “It was good you did. I mean, you just can’t ignore her.”
“Not in good society.” Caroline lifted a brow toward her sister.
“Minnie huffed, turning up her nose. A soft tap at the door brought all eyes toward me. I furrowed my brow, it was too early for mother and papa wouldn’t knock. “Postman maybe.” I smiled, that sounded important. Although it was too late for him, mother always said that when someone knocked unexpectedly.
“I pulled on my coat again and placed my muff over my hands. I was, after all, the lady of the house, for the moment. I opened the door, this time with a bit more caution than I had earlier. Papa wasn’t there, and I was sure there was some warning –although vague in my mind— about opening the door to strangers.
“I gasped slightly and blinked. There in the snow wearing soaked scuffed leather boots stood Elizabeth.
“Her smile faded, I suppose at my expression of shock. “I… you weren’t expecting me. Caroline said you were having a Christmas party and had invited me. Or she invited me… I should go.”
“No, don’t.” I found myself pleading. “It’s just they arrived, and they thought you weren’t coming. It’s just… you’re late.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Daddy took the truck to Woodberry and I had to wait for ma to get back. I walked here. I didn’t know it was this far.”
“Well, come in. Take your coat off. We were just having some gingerbread, and making Christmas boxes. We’re pretending it’s Christmas day and were making presents.”
Elizabeth gleamed. “I love doing that. My little sister and I made like a hundred toys out of paper from a catalogue.”
“That’s nice.” I tried to smile as I helped her out of her coat. What was Minnie going to think about this, and Caroline? “It’s this way. We are in the drawing-room.” I motioned.
She timidly fell behind me, I opened the door for her, but she hesitated. So, I went through first and she came in after.
Caroline stood slack jawed for just a second, before she pulled on her politest smile. “Elizabeth. I’m so glad you made it. Minnie and I were just saying we were afraid you weren’t going to, weren’t we Minnie.” She nudged her sister with her elbow.
Minnie nodded and looked down at her lap full of crêpe paper.
“Come and sit by the fire.” I offered directing her to the chair closet to the warm blaze. “She walked all the way from Lowling. Can you imagine that?” I raised a brow toward the two.
Caroline met the remark with praise of her fortitude.
Minnie only stared at her feet. I gathered my crêpe paper, and handed the mass to Elizabeth, who set straight to gluing and shaping the paper into curled ribbons. “Did you see the doll Missy got? She says it was from England. Her grandfather bought it for her, for Christmas.”
“Oh, it was so pretty! Porcelain with…” I stopped short. Minnie glared in my direction. I bit my lip. “It was a pretty doll.” I muttered.
“Yes, I thought it was lovely.” Caroline nodded, but her eyes focused down on her work.
“Does anyone want gingerbread? Mama says ginger is ever so good for you. That young doctor Lauryn is top-notch. He says--
“I do!” Elizabeth grinned from ear to ear.
“No thank you. I’m watching my figure.” Caroline spoke with an air that reminded me of the older girls in school.
I walked to the kitchen and served up three plates, placing them on the tea cart. Mother would be so proud, I could handle guest so cordially, even ones I didn’t expect, but as I came back in my hopes were dashed. Minnie and Caroline were gathering their coats and things. “So, sorry, dear,” Caroline said as she fixed her belt around her waist, “we must be going. Mother will be expecting us home.”
“Already.” I blinked. The ginger bread sat untouched on the tea cart. “You must stay for the cake.”
“We can’t,” Minnie brushed by me.
“We really must be going I’m sorry another time, perhaps?”
“Yes, that would be…”
“Caroline breezed by as well.
“Elizabeth stared wide-eyed toward the girls and then to me. I turned and walked the pair out, my cheeks burning and my mind swirling.
“I didn’t have to be a good hostess. The thought felt great, I would go upstairs. Elizabeth could let herself out.
“I walked by the drawing-room door, ran up the stair, dropped on my bed, and let the tears flow. It felt like a long cry, but when the tears stopped and I looked at the clock it had only been a few minutes. I looked out the window, catching just a glimpse of Minnie as she disappeared into the 7:30 bus headed back to home. The view from the window warped the picture, and to this day I can only recall her looking like a streak of swift moving taffeta, climbing onto a black bus.
“Mother wouldn’t be back until 8:30.” I stood and paced, then examined my face in the mirror. Could Elizabeth tell I’d been crying? I didn’t know. I splashed my face with water and paced at the landing of the stair.
“I drew up enough courage to slip back through the door. Elizabeth was nowhere to be seen. I looked around the room the tea cart still perched in the center with the gingerbread and napkins perfectly rolled, for an elegant dessert.
A head poked out of the kitchen door. “I’m in here,” a cracked,” voice said, she disappeared back through the door. “I wasn’t sure if I should let myself out.”
I moved to the room. The kitchen door leading to the street behind the house was open. An icy draft was blowing snow from the eaves inside, the white sleet rested on the rug.
“How are you going home?”
“Father was going to pick me up at nine.” She shrugged. “If I leave now I can meet him on the way.”
“Wait until nine then.” I looked about Minnie wasn’t here to care, and the air wasn’t heavy anymore. “Come on, let’s eat.” I shut the door and she followed me back. Removing my coat and muff I stretched my hands toward the fire. “Does your father have to clear the snow?”
She nodded. “He clears it sometimes. If he gets to, we get a pie from Markas.”
“He gets more money, so if he does, he goes and buys a pie.” She stared down at her feet.
“When my father gets more money, at work, he takes me out for a hamburger!”
She grinned. “Do you know, I thought Santa brought the gifts. Until Missy showed me the doll. She said she has to put it under the tree and pretend for her daddy’s sake.”
“I thought so too.”
“Why are you whispering?”
“In case he can hear.” I pointed to the window.” She laughed.
“I stuffed the spicy ginger bread in my mouth. Forgetting entirely about the forks and napkins.
“We talked about school and Santa Claus and all the things we just had to have for Christmas. I took out mama’s Sears and roebuck and we cut out our imaginary gifts. Ignoring the folded down page of the doll I’d seen mama hide on the closet shelf.
“You know it wasn’t all that different than this one.” I pointed to the box tied with twine.
The familiar face of Elizabeth smiled back at me. “A lot like it yes. You loved that doll. We both did. I sure do miss those days”
“Me too.” I put my hands on my hips. “You’ve seen your gift already? I can’t believe I neglected to fill out the card.”
“The picture is enough. I told you it was perfect.”
“You did? You already saw it, you snitch.” I laughed, “did Martha show you?”
“No, she didn’t. I’m sorry you caught me. I’m a sneak. I just couldn’t wait. But, I made you ginger bread.” Elizabeth lifted a parcel. “Merry Christmas.”
A few tears brimmed in my eyes. Elizabeth had been a friend to me for so many years I’d almost forgotten how we met. But snow like this, with the ice on the windows distorting a clear view of the world, always brought it back to me.
Contributed by Maria Doane
Old Tom - a comment on scepticism by James Gault
The whole village would agree that old Tom isn't the man he used to be. In the past he strode purposely; nowadays he shuffles. The military-style cane he now leans on used to be tucked proudly under his right arm. As he approached you, straight-backed, held head high, his eyes would challenge you to pay attention and he would greet you with a formal nod and a good morning. Now his eyes are fixed on his toes, and his greetings undecipherable murmurings if they are anything at all. No one knows this for sure, but he is reputed to have been a sergeant-major during the war. And everyone knew him for certain as a hard but fair foreman in the local mines after it. But the respect his reputation had earned him had now been replaced by a sorrowful pity that overwhelms the villagers whenever they see him.
The previous Old Tom was a man who knew everything, a man whose unquestioning certainty gave him an internal confidence which proved impermeable to any attempts to separate him from his opinions. These opinions held sway in the village pub, every Thursday afternoon, between two and four, when Tom met his cronies for a weekly pint and a blether. A lot of blethering, in fact! The landlord called it the 'pub philosophy club'. Every topic was covered, every problem solved. No crisis was too catastrophic, no trauma too troublesome, no situation too sensitive, for Tom's deep and wide knowledge and cool and calm logic to resolve. If only the great and the good had taken the time to listen in, how much better a place would the the world be now!
But that was before Bill moved into the village. An enterprising developer had bought up a row of derelict miners' cottages and refitted them in the modern traditional style, and Bill was swept in with a load of artists, antique dealers and university lecturers. Like Tom, Bill was retired, but from what no one has been able to find out. The popular hypothesis is that he was some kind of teacher, but some locals with a wilder imagination propagated the legend that he had unsavoury connections with the secret services. There was certainly something clandestine about Bill. Most people say more than they know, but Bill gave the distinct impression of always knowing more than he was saying. When he spoke, he restricted himself to the question form, so that after a conversation with him you felt as if you had been thoroughly interrogated. These, together with being an outsider of unknown origins, meant that the villagers just didn't take to him at all. So when the members of the 'pub philosophy pub' began to put it about that Bill was the cause of Old Tom's troubles, the village was only too ready to believe it. And to be honest, there was an element of truth in the rumour. The facts of the matter are these.
Soon after he moved in, Bill took to visiting the pub every afternoon where he allowed himself one glass of gin and tonic. Anyone who drinks gin and tonic in a working class mining village can hardly be said to be making an effort to fit in, but whether Bill did it out of ignorance, defiance or just plain cussedness was just one more of the enigmatic mysteries that surrounded him. In any case, his choice of refreshment left him pretty isolated in the bar, and if he wanted a bit of company he would have to take the initiative himself. So, one Thursday afternoon, having noted on his previous Thursday visits the animated discussions going on in the back of the room, Bill asked the landlord,
"What's going on over there?"
"That's just the pub philosophy club," he was told.
So Bill shuffled over to the table, because he was interested in philosophy, because he hoped to pick up at bit of information for his spymasters, or just because he wanted a bit of company, who can tell?
"May I join you?" he asked, sitting down before anyone could refuse. The others looked at him for a minute, then carried on talking as if he wasn't there. But Bill sat on, and this was how he managed to acquire the status of an associate, never a full, member of the pub philosophy club.
For the first few Thursdays, Bill contented himself with listening. The membership began to acknowledge his presence with a grunt, without ever addressing him directly. Acceptance into small communities never comes quickly. Eventually, Bill began to impose himself in the conversations in his usual manner, by injecting troublesome questions at inopportune moments. "Why is the British interest more important than those of other nations?" "What makes you think that women should have the same rights as men?" "Isn't it sometimes necessary to have a dictatorship?" These sort of questions always got right up Old Tom's nose. In his view, a lot of things were self-evident and to question them was to reveal yourself as either an idiot or, worse still, a traitor to Britain and the great British culture. Old Tom tended to treat Bill's questions with the contempt he felt they deserved, either by ignoring them completely or fixing the enquirer with a hostile stare before moving on to the next part of his argument. The others, of course, followed his lead, but the lack of response never seemed to damp Bill's enthusiasm and the questions kept coming.
Things came to a head one Thursday when the group seemed a little stuck for a topic to discuss. It was the football close season, parliament was in recess and no politicians, or even celebrities, had been up to any noteworthy mischief. The group were sitting in silence when Bill sidled over with his gin and tonic. So, to break the ice, he asked,
"What if the world wasn't the way it is, but was completely different?"
Well, this was just too much for Old Tom. I mean, how much stupidity could a man be expected to tolerate? Silence, or even a frosty look, was a completely inadequate response to such an inane thought.
"If the world wasn't the way it was," he muttered, angrily, "it wouldn't be the world, would it? It would be something else."
Tom's acolytes smiled. Old Tom certainly had the unwanted interloper there. But Bill wasn't finished.
"Why would the world not be the world if it was a bit different?" he added.
Tom resorted to his cold stare, and initiated a discussion on the oil price, the economy and how the vested interests of the rich and powerful always overcame the needs and rights of the working man. It seemed as if normal service had been resumed, but, as Old Tom's disciples were to discover, they had just witnessed the beginning of the end.
Old Tom appeared for the meeting on the next Thursday, but took no active part. The main agenda seemed to be the role of Britain in maintaining world peace, a subject on which Tom was known to have strong views, as he did on everything. But he sat there in silence, listening to his old friends putting forward their opinions, which were in fact his opinions recycled second-hand. The landlord, looking over from the bar, noticed that Old Tom seemed mostly uninterested in the proceedings, his eyes coming alive only when Bill interjected one of his previously unwanted and senseless questions. These questions were, of course, dealt with by the group as before, by being ignored, the old members following Old Tom's unofficial but unchallenged guidelines, and each time Tom' eyes sank back into a disappointed disinterest. According to the landlord's testimony, Tom was slumped when he came into the pub that Thursday, but was slumped even more when he left.
These then are the public facts of the matter, which wafted around the village with the usual distortions and additions that rumours accumulate in their travels. But in itself this public knowledge doesn't solve the mystery. The reasons for the changes in Old Tom are private, behind the closed doors of Tom's home, and in the secret recesses of his mind.
"Why would the world not be the world if it was a bit different?" Although Old Tom had dismissed this question in his usual offhand way when Bill had raised it, it came back to bother him again and again during following week. It kept him awake at night, demanding, so it seemed, some kind of answer. It made him think about himself. As a child he had been 'little Tom', in the army 'young Tom'. Down the mines he had been 'Mr Tom' to his subordinates, and now he was 'Old Tom'. So many Toms, and, when he thought about it, all so different. And yet, he was sure, they were fundamentally the same Tom, he still was who he was. He wasn't someone else because he had changed over time. He went for his usual walks along the river, stopping at the bank and gazing into the water. This river had been there for centuries, much, much longer than when the mines had been sunk below the ground and the houses built above it. Yet, watching a floating leaf speed downstream, it struck him that the actual water in any part of the river changed very few seconds. So was it the same river or a constant procession of new rivers? Once you start questioning, everything seems so uncertain.
By the end of that week, poor Old Tom didn't have an opinion left. He could no longer be certain about anything. He was distracted, so deep in thought trying to find answers that he was oblivious to the rest of the world. And he was depressed as the answers refused to come. Quite simply, to those how knew him he had just suddenly 'lost it'.
It's been a few months since these events took place, and I'm pleased to report that Old Tom seems to be improving a little. Now he occasionally notices people when they pass him. He didn't say anything at the "pub philosophy club's" meetings for months, but now, once or twice during the afternoon, his voice can be heard. But only ever to ask an occasional question.
OLD HONZA'S DAY OUT : a prize-winning short story by James Gault.
I’m really amazed that this seventy-five year old brain still manages to think every day. Well, not every day, exactly! I found myself this morning wondering what the hell happened to yesterday. I suppose I got up, I suppose I ate something, and then I suppose I sat in front of my half broken Russian TV watching fuzzy images without seeing. But I can’t be sure. I read somewhere that half of my brain cells must have died by now, but that’s not why some days my mind doesn’t seem able to do anything. I think it just says to itself, ‘Why bother?’ Hopelessness gets you like that. You try to switch on but there’s just no power. The thoughts just never get started. A whole day goes by and nothing moves.
But today is better. Somewhere I find the energy to get up and get out. I can’t go far. I walk slowly now, and there’s no spare money for tram tickets. So my Prague has shrunk to the little area I can shuffle around in the couple of hours before my physical energy gives out. Out of this old apartment block, across the tram lines, to the Golden Angel Shopping Centre and back again.
I totter to the glass doors of the Novy Smichov centre and they fly open with a deceptive gesture of welcome that reminds me of the promises of the five year plans of forty and fifty years ago. Repeated promises that prosperity was on its way! Am I witnessing its arrival now? I stumble around this packed, noisy bustle hoping no one will knock me over. Preoccupied crowds too busy to see me! I don’t belong to this purposeful hustle. It’s not for me and my generation. This is my little bit of Prague, but they’ve taken it from me. Again!
I can’t remember the golden age of the first Republic. I was eight when the Nazis came. Since then, I seem to have always lived in a desolate present between a past that was better and a future full of empty promise. Like I seem to have always lived in a place they told me was mine but where someone else was firmly in possession. It seems that there’s always someone from outside who has to come and save me from something. Nazis saving me from Jews, Russians saving me from capitalists, and now capitalists saving me from oppression! So many well meaning people helping themselves by helping me!
There’s a bench up ahead that I’ll be able to sit on if I’m lucky. We had benches under the communists and now we have them under the capitalists. The only difference is that capitalist benches are busier, more productive. Demand carefully researched and efficiently undersupplied. If I manage to fend off low-flying attacks from shopping trolleys, and if none of those shouting, fighting school kids get there before me, there just might be some space for me on this bench. And, even in the new market economy, bench sitting is still free of charge. Without paying a heller, without even having to buy an overpriced cup of coffee, you can sit on this wooden bench in this opulent palace of plenty, with these excellent views of displays of merchandise you can never hope to afford. Enjoy!
Damn! A fat lady has just sprawled herself and her two overflowing supermarket plastic bags over most of the space I had my eye on. Not much chance she’ll think of moving one of those bags to make a little room for me. I wonder if I can squeeze into the narrow vacant strip at the end.
Made it! The fat lady is looking at me as if I have stolen something from her. I understand how you feel, my dear. Sharing is no longer in fashion. You got to the bench first, it’s yours! I’ve no rights even to this little bit of it. If I’m too weak to take part in the struggle, it’s my problem. But this is one of my strong days. I would smile at her defiantly, if I could just find enough spare breath.
I lean back to relax and the idea crosses my mind that while this bench is pretty, the old pre-revolution benches were more comfortable. No, Honza! No! No! No! No! This is the new order. No complaining! Everything is better now! I am enjoying myself. Everything is wonderful. Get a grip on yourself, Honza! This is the new Czech Republic, land of liberty and luxury. You’ve got fifty crowns to last you until the end of the month and the freedom to work out for yourself that you’re happy.
A grumpy boy of about ten comes up to the bench and complains to the fat lady that he’s tired. ‘I’m sorry, Petr’ she tells him, ‘there’s no room on this bench,’ and, after a pause, she adds a pointed ‘Now!’ Both of them glare at me. I’m an old, decrepit waste of space, using up resources without making a contribution. Well, hard luck, you little monster! I got here first and this little corner of this bench is MINE! The new market economy, survival of the fittest! And, for just this once, I’ve been the fittest! Put your plastic bags on the floor and make room for your little whine, you fat hag! Or give him a clip across the ear and tell him to behave himself! I ignore them, and fix a defiant gaze on clothes I wouldn’t wear even if I had the money to buy them. God, but I’m having a good day today!
Eventually, faced with my unreasonable determination not to move, the awful Petr changes tack and begins whinging about a new computer game. The woman lifts her bags and struggles after her son, who is bouncing triumphantly towards the game shop. That’s the new Czech Republic – the younger you are the more power you have.
I take the chance to spread myself out in case another overloaded shopper sees the empty space beside me. Should I be really anti-social and sit right in the middle of the bench? Stretch out my walking sticks on either side so nobody can get near? Be like everyone else? After all these years, I should have learned by now to play the game, whatever the rules of the times might be. But I don’t spread myself out; I don’t hog the whole bench. I leave space for others. For sharing, for solidarity! I’m a dissident by nature, I suppose.
I’m so full of energy today I’m wondering if I might make an attempt at shopping. Maybe I could spend twenty crowns on a couple of vegetables to feed me over the next two days. Then it’s the weekend. My son will come and take me to lunch on Saturday. My daughter will turn up with a bag of groceries and cook for me on Sunday. She’ll put the leftovers in the old fridge and I’ll be able to live off them for the rest of the week. And then it’s pension day. If it all works out I might just have the price of a bottle of beer to celebrate the end of the month. I would get a job if I could only move just a little faster. A lot of people of my age work. Lucky bastards!
God but I’m having a really good day! My thoughts all make more or less sense to me, and I can even feel myself getting a tiny bit angry. I’m not dead yet. I’m going to tackle the supermarket. I know it’s dangerous. The space is more restricted in there: the crowds are faster and more determined. All of them out to get me! The slightest touch and I’ll be flat on my back all over the floor. But I need to eat. I can face
the scorn of the other customers at the checkout. ‘Look at the old ones, eating like they always ate’. You think we choose a starvation diet? Thin vegetable soup and meat twice a week if we’re lucky! You think it’s because we just can’t adjust to the change? ‘It’s what they’re used to. It’s what they want.’ Come on, give it a rest! Stop playing at doublethink to salve your guilty consciences. You’re living in comfort while we’re bloody broke.
I’m in the supermarket, hanging onto a trolley. I know I’m only going to put a couple of things in it, but it helps me stay upright. I feel something pushing into my back. This is it, head over heels and I’ll be looking up at the fluorescent lights. But by some miracle I manage to stay upright. I even find the energy to turn around and face my assailant. And even more power within me to glare! A look to wither! A harassed young girl pulls her trolley complete with toddler out of my back. She looks embarrassed, almost to the point of apologising. Another victory!
I hobble home, my plastic bag with its tiny cabbage and single carrot dangling precariously from one finger as I try to manage two walking sticks and my shopping with two feeble arthritic hands. Always so slow, always this constant fear of falling! But, all in all, it’s been a good day. If I’m lucky, I’ll have another good day tomorrow. One half as good would be O.K.
James Gault Prague 2007 - Contributed Nov 20017