The last day you do something

wedding photo 1948

The last day you do something

You won’t know which day or what the thing is that you will never do again, but each day might mark the passing of someone’s conversation, a place you visit, or your doggedly independent struggle with self assembly furniture. Once upon a time, you fell in love for the first time, for the last time. You believed in fairies. You nodded to the woman on the bus who always had a red shopping bag on her knee. It may not have happened yet, but one day it will be the last time you pitch up at work at eight a.m. after walking home from a party at five with your shoes in your hand.

I don’t have the last message either of my parents left on my answer phone, because I didn’t know it would be their last. I do know that I’ve seen both of them for the last time, although that was only evident in advance for my dad. Mum, only superficially aware of who I was but up for a chat anyway at my last visit, was chuckling and waving when I left. My sister and I were on our way to see her on Thursday after a far from explicit indication from the hospital that things were not as straightforward as they had told us earlier. We arrived a few hours too late.

And so our trip was suddenly re-purposed towards a sadly familiar set of functions: solicitor, care home, funeral company, then back to the garden centre for another shrub. We knew what to do this time; if we had another parent, we would have this off pat. So we clinked a toast to our mother as the hotel gave us McGuiness Flint’s ‘When I’m Dead and Gone’ on a muzak loop, and the next day set off to variously baffle, confuse, and plainly perturb a series of people just trying to do their jobs. Our mother was brought up in the Harp of Erin in Bradford, the granddaughter of County Mayo publicans. She danced on the tables and dived under them when the local copper showed up because she was under-age to be in the bar. So we will have an Irish wake at The Limes. There will be a Ceilidh band. We will plant our mother’s ashes under a Mock Orange shrub next to Dad’s Cherry tree in the home’s garden. Then we will leave The Limes and we will know it will be for the last time.

Car boot giveaway – genuine articles, no tat, honest madam!

yarn-bomb

I’m having a clear-out. Like my wardrobe, my short stories’ cupboard is stuffed with last season’s pieces which don’t match or have odd bits dangling off the hems. I’ll be starting my MA in October and it seems likely that the process begun with the Open University courses in 2009 and 2010 will re-frame my writing, how I think of it, and how I want it to appear. Not that I’m cringing about the stories that are already out in the wild (and still getting hits, thank you very much, opportunist passers-by!). I’m beyond embarrassment, having worked in the NHS for over 40 years so that reports I wrote way way back still emerge occasionally and get quoted by younger clinicians (they’re all younger these days) who don’t quite twig that they’re quoting me to me. And wouldn’t it be insulting to the editors/publishers who chose those pieces to associate with their journal or magazine? So no, no regrets. Past work is what it is and if we move on, we build on those achievements.

 

My clear-out is not about dumping a load of old tat – although you might think some or even all of it is – and saying ‘that’ll do, I’m moving on’. It’s about separating what you might call my untutored work from what I hope will be something different, more confident, and built on an education in writing that I have never had. All my experience with education has been that it is about understanding principles, and not dogmatic training in some canon of technique. I’m hoping this course will be the same so that I can use the rules the way artists and musicians use tools. If I want to paint with a piece of potato on a stick or use a washboard as a percussion instrument, who’s to say that is wrong? Like etiquette, when you know the rules, you can break them to achieve an effect. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. I am also very aware of the Emperor’s New Clothes trap, where the prestigious get away with off-loading cynical tripe on people who know enough to be impressed but not enough to challenge them for fear of appearing dim. Art, music, writing, are all ultimately subjective experiences but I know it is possible to appreciate something as ‘good’ without actually liking it, and to know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘popular’.

 

So I think things might change a bit, and I want to put out last season’s items in little baskets out front while I re-stock the shop with new pieces; probably not designer, much more idiosyncratic than that I hope, but better crafted and with fewer loose threads. In the meantime, I will be taking out, washing, mending, dyeing, and generally making good the old stock. Short stories will appear here, longer ones on This Personal Space (where I hope to be joined by other Brit writers in due course), until my inner head pixies have woven up a storm of new material and given me permission to let it loose.

 

Now, can I interest you in this cheeky little home-knit – only one left?

 

‘Last Man Standing’

Last Man Standing

They didn’t kill me, just made me wish they had, bastards. We were all there that day, lined up ringside waiting for the off. It was top billing and we were crackling with anticipation, the scent of victory already creeping up our noses and fuelling our self-belief.  Our man was big. The biggest. I mean really big. So big their man couldn’t even reach him never mind hit him. So what, that it was barely a competition? All we cared about was winning. We had bets, we’d make a pile. We’d get the hell out of the gulags and away somewhere warm with women; lots of women, easy women.

Almost time.

Suddenly the noise dropped, we all held our breath over that tipping moment between the waiting and the battle, then the baying and roaring began as the fighters made their way through the pumping crowd. Sergei was unmissable, 7’2” of muscle and dumb intent, while their guy, Fyodor Vasiliev, was barely visible despite being a pretty impressive size himself. Roaring chants broke out, most of them anticipating Sergei’s bloody defeat of the pretender, but some of them silky-sly because of what they knew was coming.

They climbed into the ring, Vasiliev ducking under the ropes while Sergei stepped over them like he was in a child’s playground. The crowd went ape. Then everybody froze; nostrils flared and mouths open ready to howl allegiance. We froze too, a few more minutes and it would be over and we’d be rich. My chest was squeezed tight as a rusty wing-nut with the waiting.

Then the plan kicked in. Sergei began to puff and blow, his eyes went all wild-looking with huge pupils and even huger whites, and Vasiliev saw his chance. Leaping forward like a panther on springs, he hung a hard right on Sergei’s temple, getting in another with his left as he dropped back and skipped away. Sergei staggered; he wasn’t smart, our man, and he wasn’t used to being hit. We waited for the crash and Vasiliev being declared the winner. We practised looking shocked and mentally counted our haul.

But the plan was screwed. Sergei was used to a regular arseful of meds in the psych unit where we’d found him, but that didn’t include horse tranqs. This crap sent him nuts and he laid about him with arms like wrestlers’ legs. His face got redder, his eyes wilder, and when Vasiliev tried to make a run for it, Sergei grabbed his neck. Must have reminded him of the guards or something because he swung that man round like a piece of dead meat, which is what he was after a minute or so of being battered against the posts and thrown onto the floor. Now we were screwed. Painted into a corner with no Plan B. Sergei collapsed: twenty-five stone of him hitting the deck like a brick shit-house and dead seconds later. Vasiliev got his hits in first, alright, but he couldn’t win because Sergei outlived him. Last man standing rule.

(c) suzanne conboy-hill 2012