Island Life

“It’s horizontal rain again,” said Sarah in a flat voice devoid of her characteristic good humour. I was writing up my notes from my day in the field and was annoyed by her interruption. However, she‘d broke my concentration, so I looked out the window of our hideous, seventies built cube of a bungalow and saw that, not unusually, a strong north wind was blowing the heavy rain over the endless white-foamed, choppy sea. I admitted it was a bit bleak.

“A bit bleak,” she replied. “You’ve got a real gift for understatement.”

I sighed and leaned back in the wooden chair I’d made during my short-lived, but intense love affair with carpentry.

“Come on, love. Loads of people dream of a having a sea view from their living room window.”

“Yeah, but most people would wake up screaming if their dream dropped them in a housing estate in the middle of the North Sea.” I heard despair in her voice rather than the gleeful animation that once characterised our verbal sparring.

We hadn’t moved to the Shetland islands by choice. The cuts in the forestry service on the mainland were deep, and it was Shetland or no job.

Then, we could still joke together.

“So,” she’d said. “We need to branch out, or be axed.”

“Yes dear,” I’d replied. “It appears we are being uprooted.”

Sarah took great pleasure in telling her friends that her husband, the tree surgeon, was relocating to the notoriously treeless Shetland islands. We’d never been that far north, and it was easy to laugh from the comfort of our beautiful old cottage in the tame landscape of the Trossachs.

A year later, Sarah had lost her laughter, and I would have done almost anything to get it back. I use the word almost as when I look back it’s clear I should have taken her back home, but I was obsessed by my project to reforest the island. In my childhood, I had fallen prey to many short-lived preoccupations such as perfecting a 180 heel flip on my skateboard or building a CB radio from components sourced in obscure electronic magazines. My worried parents would nag me to spend time on school work, hang out with friends, and even begged me to watch TV. However, when I focussed on a project, I would survive on just a few hours of sleep each night.

My folks were delighted when I married Sarah, and they believed I had, at last, grown out of my odd, obsessive behaviour. However, I knew Sarah was my simply my latest, and greatest obsession. I hadn’t changed at all.

Perhaps, if we’d stayed in the Trossachs, then everything would have been fine. I could have passed my strange projects off as hobbies, and Sarah’s friends and family would easily have compensated for my periods of inattention.

Unfortunately, we moved to the barren landscape of the Shetlands. My job was to experiment with growing different species to coax a forest from the inhospitable soil that could withstand the salt-infused and wind battered atmosphere. Of course, I became obsessed, how could I not?

Now, while trees will never thrive on this Island, I have my forest, and the recipe has been successfully replicated in various corners of the island. Shetland has trees once again, but it means little to me. Sarah couldn’t cope with the emptiness of the endless sea surrounding the featureless terrain. She could see no beauty In the acres of flat boggy moorland, and no one could appreciate the concrete ugliness of the village in which we lived. She took her own life, and since then my mind is full of thoughts of what should have been. That’s my obsession now.

A Pair of Star Crossed Mice

I think my little Jemima will take the crown this year. She’s already won best in show eight times. One more win, and she’ll be mouse of the year. She is a beautiful black mouse, and as laid down in the standards, her sleek coat is evenly coloured throughout her whole body. Her tiny dark eyes shine with an almost human-like intelligence and compassion. When I whisper into her tulip shaped ears, I could almost believe she understands everything I say.

I’m hoping that victory for Jemima will lead to salvation for the National Mouse Club. That might sound dramatic, but the current committee are ruining this historic association. The chairman, Kevin Green, and his merry band are inexperienced and altogether too arrogant to listen to an old-timer like me.

“Bill. It wasn’t personal. No hard feelings, eh?” Kevin had said on the evening he stabbed me in the back. I taught that young man everything he knows about mouse fancying, so it was a bitter pill when he, with no warning, stood against me at the national AGM. He gave a speech on how the club had to move with the times and adapt the strict guidelines laid down by our founder Walter Maxly. Now the club welcomes all comers and runs sessions on such diverse and idiotic subjects as cross-breeding to create new species, mice as a pet for children and, unbelievably, a lecture on gerbils and hamsters. I’ve taken a step back from the club and focussed my energies on breeding traditional black mice. Attention to detail and a great deal of effort has led to the production of a generation of the most superlative mice that I’ve ever seen. Of the current crop of siblings, undoubtedly, Jemima is the best.

So, at the final show of the year, my girl has already taken the prize in the best of breed. Now the judging begins for best in show. She’s up against Kevin’s mouse, Mickey. I’m not joking, he really has called his show mouse Mickey. That kind of blatant populism and trivialisation should lead to instant disqualification and I fantasise about adding this into the rulebook when I’m re-elected. The judge holds up Mickey and Jemima together. Mickey is a broken marked mouse which means that he is white with uneven black splodges. I’ve never been that keen on the marked varieties, but there were some excellent, banded mice competing in his class. I suspect that favouritism got him this far, but marked mice are always the bridesmaid.

 

##

 

I hate the touch of the clinical, impersonal judge. He lifts me up by my tail and holds me in his big, cold hands. I look over to the right, and I’m cheered at the sight of Mickey in his other hand. Mickey is super cute and has these fantastic black spots all over his white body. He looks across at me and says, “Hey Jemima, this guy needs to warm his hands.”

I giggle. Although I’m stressed, Mickey can always make me laugh. We’ve been meeting at mouse shows all year and have even rubbed noses through our cage bars a few times. That was nice.

When my owner Bill cradles me in his gentle hands and tells me of his troubles, I long to offer him words of comfort, but of course he can’t hear my tiny mouse voice. So instead, I need to win each contest and help him regain his rightful place. That’s a lot of pressure for a small mouse, and as the season goes on, I’m starting to feel it.

There is a strange sensation in my tail. I think it has developed a slight kink. This can happen when a mouse is unsettled, but you don’t win shows with a less than perfect tail.

“My tail is kinking Mickey,” I say.

He senses my desperation and replies, “Don’t worry babes. I got this.”

Mickey sacrifices the contest by biting the judge hard on the finger. I barely have a chance to think, “My hero,” before the judge drops both of us. There is chaos in the room. Bill is shouting about disqualification while Kevin is laughing uncontrollably. Mickey and I meet up below the table. There is no cage between us, and no feuding owners to stop us.

 

Umbrella

Julie is a bit different, but she makes my Dad happy, and he hasn’t been happy since my Mother moved on eighty years ago. It’s tough on the grandparents when one of them has to make space for a child. He would have preferred to move on himself, but it wasn’t to be, and we lost Mum. Of course, many of her characteristics live on in young Bobby, but I guess it’s hard to see the things that were special in the woman you loved when they are packed into the body of a young boy. Anyway, whatever people have to say about their relationship, Julie is good for my Dad.

They met through his charity work. He was always a great champion of earthlings, and he campaigned vigorously in favour of immigration. To be honest, at the time, I was less keen. I couldn’t understand why if Earth was full to bursting, they didn’t just implement the one in, one out policy that worked for every other planet. Julie has explained to me now that this concept does not sit well with the human culture. So, as long as they don’t try any of that unmanaged breeding here, then I think we should be tolerant.

The first time I met Julie she put her arms around my body. I was frozen to the spot with fear, but the longer her arms were there, the less frightened I became. She calls this a hug, and it’s actually kind of nice. I do it to her now each time we meet. I even tried it on my husband Dave, but he wasn’t keen. Julie doesn’t try to cover up her humanity. She actually wears her hair short which accentuates her big, goofy human ears. She has five long fingers on each hand, and although this looks kind of freaky, she can do incredibly intricate tasks with them. Honestly, her hands are almost as good as feet.

Dad and Julie visit a lot, and she is just like one of the family now. Everyone loves her, and I know this makes Dad proud. One day she was telling us this story about her Mother, and she mentioned that she’d been a famous singer. I wasn’t sure what a singer was, but I didn’t want to seem ignorant or insensitive, so I didn’t ask. Luckily, at the age of eighty, Bobby is too young to care about cultural sensitivities, so he just asked straight out. “Julie, what’s a singer?”

I find it hard to explain what happened next. Julie spoke some words in a human language, but the sound was different from ordinary speech. Her voice went up and down in tone, and there was a kind of rhythm. It was beautiful, and it made me both happy and sad at the same time. When she finished there was silence, and we all stared at her in wonder.

“That’s singing,” she said, evidently pleased with our reaction. “You should have heard my Mum sing. She was way better than me.”

Bobby asked her to sing it again in our language. It was even better when you could understand the words. They didn’t make total sense, but somehow the image of sharing an umbrella with the person you loved was quite powerful. I was surprised when I noticed that my Dad had tears in his eyes, and it occurred to me that perhaps Julie held his umbrella.

The song went through my mind during the next week until eventually, in the shower, I found myself singing about my umbrella. I don’t think it sounded as good as when Julie sang it, but it felt even better.

Buddy System

Warning – Swearing

I put on the uncomfortable weight belt that digs into my skinny hips, and I think about the bruises I will have by tomorrow.
“Okay, Steve.” Dad gives me a huge grin and an exaggerated OK sign that shows how much he loves going in the water with his two boys. My brother Barry comes over and says “let me help.” He stuffs my arms roughly into my buoyancy jacket and then lifts my mask so that it pings back sharply onto my face.
“Areshole.” I whisper. I struggle to the open gate with my heavy tank and awkward flippers and step tentatively off the boat. Dad and Barry, dressed only in shorts, jump off the gunnel with a whoop. I bob around in the choppy water trying not panic as the waves flood over my face.
On the descent, I crash onto the ocean floor with my customary lack of grace. I suck hungrily on my air as I flail around trying to get my balance. Dad and Barry hover and watch as they breathe calmly through their gills. When I finally get my act together, I look at them with a resentment born out of embarrassment. Generally, I can just about cope with being the only normal in a family where everyone else has a superpower, but this diving bullshit is just rubbing my nose in it.
Dad gives the OK signal, and we both reply in kind. As Dad looks away, Barry raises his middle finger at me.
“Oh great, rusty fucking metal,” I think as we move towards the shipwreck. Suddenly we are enveloped in a shoal of fish, and, to be honest, this is pretty cool until Barry disperses them with a few kicks of his big webbed feet. It pisses me off when Dad rewards Barry with an indulgent smile. I wish he would listen to Grannie’s warnings.

“Be careful with Barry, Son. Remember your great Uncle Alfred.” He’d been the only supervillain in our family, and Grannie had spent most of her adult life battling him. “I could have stopped Hitler before he got started if it wasn’t for that bloody Alfie,” she would lament when she was on the sherry.
“Mum, the only supervillains that I need to battle are the politicians and corporations who are ruining the oceans.” My Dad can be a bit pompous, but, to be fair, the great TV watching public can’t get enough of his underwater documentaries.

Dad indicates that he is going to say hello to Pedro, an old lobster who lurks below my depth limit. I admit that I used to believe that he could actually converse with sea life and Barry never lets me, or anyone else forget this.
It’s just Barry and me now, so I prepare myself for some mischief. Barry grabs the handle of my tank and drags me inside the wreck. I wave my hands and legs about, but the struggle is futile as Barry is safely behind me. I plummet to the bottom of a hold when he lets me go. The water is thick with the silt that I displaced in my panic, and although my eyes are wide with fright, I’m effectively blind. I can’t seem to get sufficient air in my lungs, and my rapid breathing is loud in my ears. Instinct compels me to bolt for the surface and I collide violently with the top of the hold and then land at the bottom.
“Stop panicking, Stop panicking,” I tell myself and struggle to slow my breathing down. At last, I get some benefit from the boring old diving stories that Dad’s friends repeat whenever they have a beer. I want to search frantically for an exit, but force myself to stay still and wait for the silt to settle. Visibility improves enough for me to read my air gauge, and it transpires that I don’t have much time.
“If you got in, you can get out.” I try to fool myself into staying calm. I inch around the perimeter of my prison feeling for the gap. One side, two sides, and then on the third side, there’s a doorway. I propel myself out using my hands, and with little thought to the danger in ascending too quickly, I make my way to the surface.s

I float on my back breathing deeply and loving the feeling of the sun on my face. I wonder if Dad will believe me.

Wand

She missed the bus. Jane waved and shouted “Hey, hey,” at the back of the moving vehicle.
“Shit,” she whispered.
Now, she was stuck in Perth, while her gear was winging its way to Aberdeen. The driver had given them ten minutes at the bus station to have a toilet break, get a coffee, buy a chocolate bar or whatever. According to her watch, she was two minutes late.
“That driver doesn’t take any prisoners,” she thought.
“Okay, I’ve got my phone, money and credit cards. It could be worse.” Jane started to calm down a bit, but then she had a terrible realisation. In her mind, she could see her neon pink bag on the empty seat beside her on the bus. Not only had she left her magic wand on the bus, but she had also left it poking out the top of her bag.
She rushed to a cash machine and without a thought about how she was going live for the remainder of the month, withdrew the full 200 pounds left in her account. Jane jumped into the first taxi in the rank and shouted: “Follow that bus.”

Bobby was so bored. His Mum didn’t let him read on the bus since the time he was sick on the way to Glasgow. ”Look out the window,” she told him. Out the window was boring. Her head rested against the window, and he could hear her snoring softly. He looked around the bus. There weren’t many passengers and most were sleeping.
He stretched out his feet and kicked the back of the empty seat in front a few times. It transpired that the seat wasn’t empty at all. The head of a scary bald man appeared before him. The man adjusted the red bandanna that covered his eyes and glowered at Bobby.
“Quit it, wee man. I’m trying to sleep,” said the scary man.
“Sorry,” whispered Bobby in terror.
Bobby kept quiet for a while. He barely moved for fear of disturbing the man in front. After ten minutes, however, his terror had diminished, and boredom had returned. He looked around again and spotted a bag on the seat across the aisle. He liked the bright pink colour. He loved pink things, but for some reason, his Dad wasn’t keen on the colour, so Bobby was never allowed pink stuff. He went over for a closer look at the bag.

The taxi driver turned around and looked Jane.
“Follow what bus? There are loads of buses.”
“The bus to Aberdeen.”
“Aberdeen. That’s three hours away, lassie.”
“We can catch it when it stops in Dundee if we hurry,” she said.
He sighed and started punching something into his SatNav. Jane watched in agony as he took his time selecting the route.

Bobby’s Mum woke up and smiled. “Hey Bobby, how are you doing?”
He smiled back and then realised she was going to be mad at him for borrowing the magic wand.
“Where did you get that?” she asked.
He used the wand to gesture towards the bag. She grabbed it off him, stuffed it back in the bag and looked around nervously.
“You’re in big trouble,” she whispered.

Jane willed the driver to go faster. When she couldn’t stand it any longer, she asked him “do you think you could speed up a bit?”
“I’m travelling at 50 miles per hour.” He even talked slowly. “Studies have shown, this is the most economical speed to travel.”
She wanted to shout at him, but she sensed this would be counter-productive.
“I really need to catch that bus. All my gear is on it.”
“Okay. I’ll move up to 55.”
Jane closed her eyes. One more strike and she was out of magic school. If she had to report a missing wand, she was finished. It would be even worse if someone managed to use it to perform some kind of misguided magic.

Through some small miracle, the taxi passed the bus just before Dundee. Jane re-boarded and was extremely relieved when she found her bag and wand exactly where she’d left them. As the bus arrived in Aberdeen, she smiled at the cute little boy in the seat across the aisle. “He must be shy,” she thought as he looked down to avoid her gaze.

Once all passengers had disembarked, a small green frog with a red bandana hopped off his seat and onto the floor below.

Survival

He followed her into the woods. He was pretty sure she was going to overnight on the hill beyond. Why else would she set out in the late afternoon with such big pack? He’d spoken to her earlier in the car park.

“Hi there. It’s a lovely day.”

She had been happy to reply. “Yep. It’s another hot one.”

As he walked behind her on the trail, he played with the cigarette lighter in his pocket. It had fallen out her bag as she’d hoisted it onto her back. He wasn’t sure why he picked it up, but he thought it might be useful. She was moving fast, and he stayed a respectful distance behind. He had got a good look at her when she had focussed on changing out of flip-flops into hiking boots, so he already knew she was hot. Now, he also knew she was fit.

He upped his pace to pass her, and this allowed him to exchange further pleasantries.

“Hello again,” he smiled at her. He prided himself on his nice, reassuring smile. It had served him well.

“Hi there,” she smiled back at him. Why not? She probably thought of another solo hiker as a kindred spirit.

He checked her plans, just in case she was taking a different, more unusual route.

“You going up the Ben?”

“Yeah. I love this walk.”

“Me too. See ya.”

He knew he had to leave it at that. They couldn’t meet again for a while, or she would think him creepy.  This meant he had to stay ahead of her, and given the pace she set, this wasn’t easy. The day was hot, and he was wearing long trousers and sleeves. The girl, by contrast, was dressed in shorts and a vest top. He rolled up his sleeves as he didn’t have to worry about DNA evidence yet. In fact, all going well, he wouldn’t have to worry about it at all. He had his methods, and in general, managed to stage quite realistic looking accidents.

The question was, would he do it today? He took the cheap disposable lighter out of his pocket and rotated it in his fingers. He didn’t always kill them. Sometimes, just knowing that he could was enough. However, it had been a while since his last kill, and although it was fun to plot out the perfect crime, it was even more fun to do it. He ignited the lighter a few times. She might not miss it. She might have matches or a spare lighter. On the other hand, she might have no other way of lighting that tiny, lightweight stove stored in the mesh pocket of her bag. As he often did when undecided, he chose to make a game of it. If she managed to light her stove and make dinner, then she was safe. If he had to bail her out by offering her a light, then she was in trouble.

He stayed ahead of her and reached the summit first. That allowed him to drop over the other side of the hill and hide behind some boulders. If she did spot him, he would pretend that he planned to sleep under the stars. If she didn’t see him, then he could watch her set up camp. She didn’t see him.

She pitched the tent quickly and efficiently, then balanced her stove on a flat rock and emptied the contents of a Tupperware tub into the pot on top.

“That girl is pretty good at the camping game,” he thought.

She checked inside the side pocket on her bag and looked dismayed to find it already unzipped and empty.

“Shit,” she said as she looked through her bag. She searched with increasing urgency until, eventually, she’d emptied the entire contents of her bag. She sat back on her heels and, more slowly this time, she repeated “shit.”

“Whoops,” he thinks. “Looks like she’s stuffed.”

“Okay. I guess this is the emergency I’ve been waiting on.” She appeared to be talking to a tiny tool in her hand. She collected some heather, made a nest, and he heard the noise of metal striking metal. Surely, there was no way she was going to pull this off. But, eventually, there was a single spark which was followed by yet more sparks. She shouted, “yes,” as the heather caught fire.

He was disappointed, but he does not consider breaking the rules of his game.

Popcorn

Retirement had never looked so appealing as it did just before we sold up. I hope you can forgive me Bob, but I was tired. It was the late eighties and, if you remember, I was already a couple of years past retirement age. Our cinema wasn’t doing very well. People wanted the variety of a multiplex, and we couldn’t offer that with our single large theatre. When that businessman made us an offer on the place, I thought It was the answer to our prayers, and I could have wept when you turned him down. I can still hear you mumbling “there is no way a yuppie in a baggy suit is turning my cinema into a car park for his yuppie friends to park their Ferraris.” You were so stubborn, and even when the young man increased his offer, you refused.

I stupidly allowed myself to hope when, a couple of weeks later, you said you had a surprise for me. I knew that the kids had been nagging you to sell the cinema, and I thought they had got through to you. Now we could leave the cramped flat above the cinema, and move to a lovely cottage by the sea. You know I always fancied Bognor Regis. It was a bitter disappointment when, with a flourish, you revealed the big secret. A popcorn popper. A huge, noisy and expensive popcorn popper.

“This is going to turn things around for us, love.” You grinned at me as you caressed the glass and shiny red metal. “This baby came all the way from the US of A.”

Well, as you know, it didn’t turn things around. We were struggling to pay the bills with just a few customers during the week, and a half full cinema on a good Saturday night. I was too old to be vacuuming popcorn off the carpet between each show, and honestly, people were so messy with that stuff. I watched you get disillusioned with the machine, and I hated to see the hope drain out of you. Still, you refused to sell.

I won’t lie to you Bob; those were tough days for me. One afternoon, I took a break and watched that horror B movie from Australia about killer rats. You know how much I love a horror flick, and I needed to relax. For some reason, even though I didn’t really like popcorn, I was clutching a huge bag of the stuff, and my hand seemed to travel automatically from container to mouth. I watched the screen in delicious terror as the rats multiplied, grew and started to challenge the supremacy of humans. I could always forget my worries in a good film. When the house lights came up, I looked down and noticed that I had dropped popcorn everywhere. It was on my sweater, my seat and the floor. I was just as bad as the customers, but unfortunately, I had to clean it up myself. That’s when I had the idea. You’re not going to like what I did next, Bob, but I’ve kept this secret long enough.

I purchased two rats, one male and one female, from the nearby pet shop, and I just let them loose in the cinema. I like to think that the end justifies the means although I hope that my actions didn’t traumatise any of our customers. At first, just the occasional person would claim they saw something dart across the theatre. However, the rodents thrived on their popcorn diet, and soon there were reports of rats running over the feet of the audience. As you know, It came to a head when a woman watching Beetlejuice looked down at her lap to see a rat calmly looking up at her, just waiting it seemed for her popcorn to scatter. She screamed the house down, and you were mad when you had to individually refund every ticket.

The environmental health department claimed that the popcorn had encouraged an infestation and shut us down immediately. Someone must have tipped off the yuppie who turned up later that day with a new and opportunistically reduced offer. What choice did you have now?

We never made it Bognor, but life has been good in Brighton by the sea, and I’m going to miss you when you’re gone.  I’ve watched you enjoy a retirement full of fishing and walks on the beach, and, to be honest, I don’t regret my actions.