It’s always a delight to hear from readers and recently a lovely lady called Gilly Metcalfe wrote to me to say how much she enjoyed my Idea Store column in Writers’ Forum, particularly the one where I was talking about how my family have inspired so many of my short stories.
“I have so many handed down family stories ” she told me. “My mother was one of ten children and like you, loved putting on plays. My grandfather, a publican, was a founder member of Chelsea football Club and had the Rising Sun ( now The Butcher’s Hook) they were just opposite the playing field at Stamford Bridge and my aunts and uncles had many childish memories of hilarious events connected with those days.
She then went on to add a delightful poem that she had written about her father, who was always trying new things,
A Man of Many interests
He had a go at many things
All in strict rotation:
Pelmanism, Christian Science,
And deep sea navigation.
Riding horses, roller skates,
(He ended up in plaster).
Studying the stars and Fates
(That was a disaster).
Potted meats and picnics
And camping by the river.
Keeping up with Father
Sent us all a-quiver
He joined the Home Guard, did his bit
As shrapnel showered down.
He fought the fires and faced the blitz
To save old London Town.
Now the man of many interests
Has new challenges in hand,
Bungee jumping with the angels
In happy Neverland.
Isn’t that fun? Gilly’s family and her father in particular sound fascinating so I contacted her to find out more about them and, of course, about her.
“I am in my nineties,” she told me. “I have so many family stories. The Fire Dance was what my father performed at our parties. Each child was given a box of matches and he danced energetically, wearing a newspaper Hawaiian skirt made by my mother and cut into long fringes and tucked into the top of his trousers. We had to try and set fire to him as he danced. Finally he would slow down so a child could actually set fire to the fringe. He would then snatch off the skirt, throw it down and stamp on it until the flames were out. Everyone ran around the room screaming. The Fire Dance was very popular.”
I’m sure it was although I wonder what today’s Health and Safety people would make of it! And Gilly has many more family memories to cherish.
“So many titles come to mind: ‘Great Aunty Minnie and the Christmas Pudding, ‘Great Aunty Minnie gets the Better of Hitler,’ ‘Great Aunty Minnie Disapproves,’ and so on. Or my Grandmother accidentally sending a false moustache to the Bank with a note saying, ‘Please place to the Credit of my Account.’ Another time, when she minded us for the day, the dog ate the middle out of the egg-and-bacon pie. She turned the crust upside-down and spread jam on it. That was our dinner, but it still had bits of bacon rind in it. We made the most of everything during the war.”
Grandmother’s jam and bacon pie would probably go down a storm on Masterchef. I asked Gilly what she writes about when she’s not writing poems about her father.
“I have written lots for feature pages in local newspapers, magazines, and anywhere – a wide assortment of subjects ranging from ‘Rare Moths of Dungeness,’ ‘Malaria on the Marsh,’ The Wickedest Man in the World,’ and many biographical pieces on blue-plaque awardees. Also fiction and poems of all sorts – ‘How to Draw a Kingfisher on a Computer,’ and I’ Got Bovver wiv my Little Bruvver.’ And nature poems and lots and lots more. I have spent the last two years researching for an academic paper on ‘God’s Word on Baler Twine’ which is about the mysterious scriptural textboards in the little Romney Marsh churches.”
My thanks to Gilly for such a fascinating glimpse into her wonderful family. and I hope she goes on writing about them and about her many other interests for many, many years to come.
The copy for that particular issue of Writers’ Forum was written when I was emerging from a post-Covid brain fog and I used the rest of the column to talk about a short story I wrote that was inspired, not by my father this time (there’s no way anything he did comes close to that Fire Dance!) but from a card I bought for my Chartered Accountant son.
In my column I explained to my readers how this jokey card led to a short story idea and promised that the story ‘Out of Balance’ would appear on my blog. So, here it is:
Out of Balance
Jane bristled as she read the birthday card.
“Old accountants never die,” it announced. “They just lose their balance.”
The card was wrong on so many levels. First, thirty-five was not old. Second, she had never lost her balance in her life, either literally (thanks to her daily yoga practice) or metaphorically (thanks to the fact that she was a totally consistent, even handed Libran) and she wasn’t about to start doing so just because she was now half way to her three score years and ten.
And third, that it should have been Conor, of all people, to have sent such a card proved what Jane was beginning to suspect. That she and Conor were totally incompatible.
In fact, to paraphrase his silly card, as a couple they were completely out of balance.
Her doubts were confirmed later that day. As always when there was a special occasion coming up, she had everything planned. She’d treated herself to a glitzy new dress that had cost not only an arm and a leg, but head, shoulders, knees and toes as well. But it was so worth it. She was off to have her hair done this afternoon and she’d managed to book a table at Luigi’s, the smartest restaurant in town for this evening. She couldn’t think of a better way to spend her birthday.
It didn’t bother her that it was always down to her to do all the arranging, even for something like this. Conor was hopeless at that sort of thing.
But that was fine. She was good at organising. He wasn’t. That was just the way things were and she was ok with that. No, it wasn’t his lack of organisational skills that were giving her these crippling doubts but something much more fundamental.
The truth was, they were total and complete opposites. He was a dreamer, she was the practical one. He was an optimist, she a realist. He liked dogs. She liked cats. The list was endless.
And their relationship simply wasn’t going to work.
Should she cancel this evening, feeling the way she did? It was hardly the right thing to ‘dump’ someone in a place like Luigi’s, was it? She sighed as, being the true Libran she was, she weighed up all the possible options. She was in a right ‘mardle’, as Conor would say.
Then her phone rang. And her ‘mardle’ suddenly got a whole lot worse.
“Hi, sweetheart.” The excitement in Conor’s voice made his Irish accent even more pronounced than usual. “I’ve got some terrific news, so I have.”
So, no ‘Happy birthday, Jane’. Nor even a ‘Did you get my card?’ Just ‘I’ve got some terrific news, so I have’
This better had be terrific, Conor O’Mallin, so it had, she thought.
“What is it?” she asked as she reminded herself that her idea of ‘terrific news’ and Conor’s were often poles apart.
“Remember that agent I was telling you about? Well, he’s in town tonight. He’s going to be at the Three Bells checking out some local bands – and he wants to hear us. Apparently he’d heard us at some gig we did a few weeks back and thinks we may be what he’s looking for. This could be it, sweetheart. The Big One.”
“Tonight? But I’ve booked Luigi’s. I told you -“
“Cancel it. We can go to Luigi’s any night. But I’ll never get this chance again.”
“But it’s my -” she began but stopped. He was so caught up in the excitement of the ‘Big One’ that he’d obviously forgotten that today was her birthday. Disappointment thudded to the pit her stomach. She’d so wanted her suspicion that things weren’t going to work between her and Conor to be wrong. But there was no pleasure in being proved right.
It wasn’t about him forgetting her birthday – he had, after all, remembered to send her a card. It was yet one more example of how very, very different they were.
“Now you will be there tonight, won’t you?” he went on, his voice fizzing with barely controlled excitement. “Because I’ve got something really special -“
“No, Conor,” she cut in, wishing with all her heart she didn’t have to do this but knowing she must. “I won’t be there, I’m afraid. I’m going to spend the evening with Mum. I might even persuade her to come to Luigi’s with me. She’s still very low, you know. Missing Dad and all that.”
There was a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. Jane could imagine the expression on his face. The puzzled look in his eyes. She steeled herself not to give in and tell him she’d come tonight after all.
“Oh my God. How could I have been so stupid? It’s your birthday.” He’d finally remembered. “Jeez, I’m so sorry, sweetheart. It’s just – well, the call from the agent pushed everything out of my head. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. But I can’t -“
“I know you can’t,” she said, struggling to keep the tears at bay, at least until she could end the call. “Don’t worry about it. Best of luck for tonight,” she added. “Not that you’ll need luck. You’ll be brilliant, as always. We’ll talk tomorrow, OK?”
The call ended, she sat staring at her phone for a long time. She knew she was doing the right thing but why did it feel so bad? Was it because she couldn’t imagine life without Conor? He made her laugh, he made her cry but he always, always made her feel gloriously, zingingly alive.
But you couldn’t build a future, a life on zing, could you? You only had to look at the mess her father had left behind when he died to realise that. It didn’t add up. And for Jane everything had to add up.
Lose her balance? Not this accountant, no matter how ‘old’ she became. It simply wasn’t in her nature.
“Conor and I have broken up,” Jane said, totally unprepared for how much saying those words would hurt. “Or, we will when I get around to seeing him so that I can tell him to his face. It’s hardly the sort of thing to do in a text, is it?”
“Don’t get me wrong, love,” her mother said. “It’s lovely to see you. But why aren’t you out with Conor? I thought you had a special night arranged?”
“But why?” Her mother’s eyes widened with astonishment. “I really thought he was The One. You were so good together.”
“Because… well, because..” Jane twisted her hair around her fingers and avoided her mother’s eyes. “Because I don’t want to end up with a man like Dad.” The words came out in a rush. But she ploughed on, trying to ignore her mother’s shocked intake of breath. “He – he was an irresponsible dreamer, just like Conor. Always looking for the next best thing but never quite finding it. Lurching from one failed dream to the next. And then, when he died, leaving you with such a mountain of debts that you had to get a job in that pub, working all hours to earn enough to pay it off -“
“Stop right there, young lady!” There was an edge to her mother’s voice that Jane had never heard before. “For starters, if you do find a man like your father, then you’ll be one very lucky girl, believe me. And I always thought Conor was that man.”
“Then you thought wrong. I’ve just realised how incompatible we are. He’ll never change.”
“And why would you want him to?” her mother said. “I knew what your father was like when I married him and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about him. Yes, he was a dreamer, Jane, just like your Conor -“
“Not my Conor any more.”
“Just like Conor and I was privileged to share that dream. And yes, we had some hard times. But he was a good, loving husband and a kind and caring father. You can’t ask any more from a man.”
Jane shook her head. She didn’t want to remember what a kind and caring man her father had been. Didn’t want anything to breach the wall she’d built so carefully around her heart since his sudden shocking death from a heart attack eight months earlier.
Her mother looked at her intently. Then her voice softened. “I’d no idea you felt like this about your Dad. But, sweetheart, you’ve got it all wrong. I didn’t take that job to pay off his debts. Where on earth did you get that idea from? Yes, there were a few, but they were covered by his life insurance. I took the job in the pub to get me out of the house during the long, lonely evenings. And I love working there. It’s really helping and the people are so nice.”
Jane stared at her mother without speaking for a long, long time. Then, slowly the wall around her heart crumbled and the hard lump that had lodged in her chest ever since that awful day began to dissolve as the tears flowed unchecked down her face.
Her mother put her arms around her and held her close. “It worried me that you never cried for him, darling,” she said, her own voice choked with tears. “It’s time to let go of all that anger. I felt angry too, you know. Still do sometimes, in fact. I look up at the stars some nights and I want to scream and curse at him. It’s all part of the grieving process, so I’m told.”
“Why didn’t he take better care of himself, Mum? Why didn’t he go to the doctor, like we told him to when he first had those chest pains? If he had -“
Her mother put a gentle finger on Jane’s lips. “It was his time,” she said softly. “That’s all. And what you need to do now – what I need to do as well – is focus on the good times we all had together. The grieving process is hard because he was so very, very much loved. But it’s the price you pay for loving someone. A price I’m more than willing to pay. And if I had my time over again, I wouldn’t change a thing – except,” she added with a wry smile, “I’d frogmarch the stubborn old fool to the doctor instead of believing him when he said it was only indigestion.”
An hour later, Jane’s tears had all been spent, her make up repaired and she felt better than she’d done since her father’s death.
She’d also made a discovery. Something her accountancy training should have made her realise sooner.
It was all about debits and credits. The first rule of double entry book-keeping, that she’d learned all those years ago, was that for every debit there is a corresponding credit. That’s what achieved perfect balance. Total opposites, balancing each other out.
Just like she and Conor did. His yin to her yang.
The Three Bells was so packed she had some difficulty getting across the crowded bar. Conor and his band were in the middle of a number. It was one of her favourites and she was disappointed to have missed it. It ended with huge applause and her heart swelled with pride.
Conor held up his hand and spoke into the microphone.
“Thank you so much,” he said. “Now, for our last number, this is a song for a very special lady who sadly can’t be here tonight. I wrote the song for her but I’ll sing it anyway.”
Suddenly, he looked across to where she was standing and a huge smile lit up his face. He began to sing.
I spread my dreams at your feet,
My life, my love and my song.
Together we are complete.
One life, one love and one song.
Old accountants needn’t lose their balance, Jane realised. Not if, like her, they’d found the perfect counter-balance.