Compliments and Candy
By Michael John Kelly
The whole of the moon
He had long since abandoned his long and fruitless pursuit of perfection. Life had taught him that perfection was merely an illusion. It was like a rainbow, or a reflection in a still, clear stream. A thing of beauty, right there in front of his eyes, but remaining forever tantalisingly just out of reach. The reality was that there was always a flaw; always some tiny imperfection that would spoil even the most magical of moments. He had slowly and reluctantly accepted that near- perfect was as good as it ever got.
That fateful Saturday morning in Bristol was a prime example. It was April 11th, 1992, and all the ingredients were there for the making of a perfect day. Saturday was, by some way, the highlight of his week, and not only was the weather set fair, but it was spring, and spring that fairest of all seasons, had always been his favourite time of the year. As usual, however, there was something which wasn't quite right, and today it was the time. His watch told him It was 6-05 am, and John Joseph Barton had never been an early morning man.
He sat behind the wheel of his car, grumbling, muttering and cursing under his breath as he reflected on the unfairness of life. He was a few months short of his fiftieth birthday, and time, which had once been his closest friend, was fast becoming an arch-enemy. There was always so much to do, and so little time in which to do it. He groaned, sighed, stretched, yawned and then lit his second cigarette of the day. He grimaced at the realisation that another promised attempt to quit his nicotine addiction had once more resulted in failure.
“Tomorrow,” he whispered. There was always tomorrow, but deep down inside he was acutely aware that his tomorrows never seemed to arrive. He turned the ignition key, switched on his radio and set off on his journey.
The early morning traffic was light and his spirits slowly began to rise as he made good progress through the leafy suburb of Redland. Redland always looked good, but at this time of the year, the stately looking houses and tree lined avenues were at their best.
As he turned into Coldharbour Road, the voices on the radio were already beginning to annoy him, as a succession of so called experts pompously paraded their egos and opinions as to how and why Neil Kinnock had contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in that Thursday's General Election. The majority of the speakers expressed surprise at the result, but not so Mr. Rupert Murdoch. He was more than happy to let it be known to the world that he had personally played a major role in the eventual outcome. He was boasting loudly about his flagship newspaper, The Sun. He bragged about its banner headline, which brashly screamed to the world that ‘It was the Sun wot won it’.
Barton smiled ruefully as he listened to the discussion. He was not a political animal, and he felt a distinct sense of relief as the talking finally ended and the music started. Shakespear’s Sister sang the number one song in that week’s hit parade, Stay with me.
If this world is wearing thin
And you're thinking of escape
I'll go anywhere with you
Just wrap me up in chains
But if you try to go out alone
Don't think I'll understand
Stay with me
John Barton attempted to sing along, but his efforts were hesitant and badly off key. He quickly gave up, and conceded that he was far from fluent with either the lyrics or the melody. The failure brought another frown to his face as he realised that with each passing year, popular music was slowly leaving him behind.
He was soon smiling again, however, as The Waterboys followed with The Whole of the Moon.
I pictured a rainbow
You held it in your hands
I had flashes
But you saw the plan
I wandered out in the world for years
While you just stayed in your room
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon
This time, he was able to join in, and sing along loudly and confidently, and this time he was both word and pitch perfect.
Coldharbour Road had seamlessly become Kellaway Avenue, and the Golden Hill playing fields of Bristol Grammar School loomed large to his left. Those ancient fields were heavy with history and tradition, and the news that they were about to become the site of a new Tesco supermarket had fuelled massive protests.
Barton frowned at the thought of those famous old pitches, the scenes of so many dramatic last minute tries and match saving tackles, disappearing under a sea of concrete, but he was a realist. He was well aware of the power of profit, and had already accepted the eventual and inevitable outcome. Despite this, he still gave a token honk and a wave to the handful of weary looking protestors who were already lining up outside of the entrance gate, and he still felt a pang of guilt that he wasn’t standing alongside them. Instead, he turned right and headed down the narrow track across Horfield Common, which led to the Ardagh Bowls and Tennis Club. As he pulled into the car park, The Waterboys were building up to the climax of the song.
Yes, you climbed on the ladder
With the wind in your sails
You came like a comet
Blazing your trail
You saw the whole of the moon
The car came gently to a halt just as the Waterboys were coming to the end of the song, and he closed his eyes as he held the last, long, lingering note with them. The third cigarette of the day reached his lips, almost before he had finished singing, and then he switched off the engine, and sat back in his seat.
He felt a profound relief that both the car park and the Common were deserted. He wasn’t in the mood for idle gossip, casual conversations or false bonhomie with total strangers. Today, he could well do without them. He inhaled deeply on his cigarette, blew several smoke rings, and then tossed the gold coloured Benson and Hedges packet on to his passenger seat. There it lay along with a growing pile of empty packets and a whole week’s supply of Sporting Life newspapers. Craning his neck, he glanced into his rear view mirror and studied the sole reason for his being up at this ungodly hour. The shiny black Labrador puppy calmly returned his gaze, tilted her head to one side, and then he heard her tail thumping furiously against the upholstery. His mood lightened, his icy heart melted, and he smiled for the first time that day.
The puppy tumbled clumsily and somewhat inelegantly from the rear seat and was soon rolling in the damp, recently mown grass. Barton left her to her own devices and headed for the heart of the Common. Here, he stood and watched the sun creeping into view over the Purdown hills. It truly was one of those near perfect early spring mornings. The breeze was soft and so gentle that it barely disturbed the newly formed blossom, which was hanging proudly from the boughs. The sky was a faultless blue for as far as the eye could see, and the sound of birdsong was everywhere. From time to time he caught a glimpse of a single bird on the wing, but it was the invisible chorus that commanded his attention; the wall of sound that was pouring from the trees and the bushes. He had never listened closely to the dawn chorus before, but now he closed his eyes and marvelled at the variety of cheeps, chirps, warbles, trills and whistles he could hear. There were so many different sounds and so many different species. He felt just a little bit inadequate that he was unable to identify a single one of them.
Annie could have identified them all. He pictured her standing there with the palm of her hand raised, demanding silence. Five feet five inches of fiery red headed, Irish stubbornness and determination. Her head was on one side; her eyes closed, lost in deep concentration. Eventually she would have smiled that smile; the smile of triumph; the smile that always followed the moment of victory after a heated discussion or an argument. Yes, Annie would have been able to name them all.‘Blackbird… Bullfinch… Chaffinch… Thrush… Dunnock… Wren… Robin.’ Annie was a walking, talking human encyclopaedia with regard to birds. But Annie wasn’t there, and now he felt that familiar pang of frustration and irritation. He and Annie never did anything together these days. Right now she was at home, tucked up in the marital bed, alternately sleeping or dozing fitfully as she waited for his return.
Once upon a time they had been the golden couple; the envy of the neighbourhood. Theirs had been the first names on every party invitation list, but somehow they had lost their way. Somewhere deep in the past they had started to drift apart. He knew precisely when it had all started to go wrong, but had always been loath to admit to it.‘When the sex stops, love flies out of the window’. He recalled his mother’s cautionary advice on the day of his wedding.
Dear old Mum! Her advice had always been rather basic, but crammed full of wisdom. Wisdom almost certainly derived from bitter, personal experience. He should have listened, he should have taken heed, but still he felt sympathy for Annie. Hard though he had tried, he had been unable to make her dreams come true. All she had ever wanted was to be a good mother. Fate had decreed otherwise, and they had remained childless.
“Shannon! Shannon! Shannon! Shannon!” The voice interrupted his dreamy thoughts. It was female and each cry increased in both volume and urgency. The rising sun was low in the sky, and he was forced to shield his eyes from the glare. He quickly picked out the slightly obese yellow Labrador lumbering slowly towards him. The dog looked friendly enough, tail wagging, and tongue lolling. He leant forward to greet it.
“Steady on old girl.”
Onwards and upwards
She drew back the heavy white curtains, and invited the soft, first light of daybreak into her spacious bedroom. She lingered awhile at the window as she closely studied and admired her garden. The awesome power of nature, and the ever changing seasons of the year had always been a source of fascination to her. It bordered on being an obsession, particularly at this time of the year. For now it was spring; spring, the season of love, hope, promise and regeneration. The tell-tale signs were everywhere. Wherever she looked, she could see them. The green shoots of recovery, the buds, the blossom, the tiny clusters of pastel shaded early season flowers. She was proud of that garden; every square inch was the product of long hours of back breaking toil; it was all her own work. She stretched, smiled, and then skipped, almost childlike across the pale green carpet to the ornate full length, gold framed mirror in the far corner of the room.
“Happy birthday to you,” she sang quietly as she studied her reflection, but then she frowned as she remembered that her mother was throwing a party that night to celebrate the occasion. A party at her mother’s house invariably meant the introduction of a wholly unsuitable, predatory male to the table. Her mother had a mission in life to find a suitable partner for her daughter. Her mother was many things, but she wasn’t a good matchmaker.
Placing her hands on her hips, she stood motionless, intently studying her image. She was naked and fresh from the shower. She held the pose for upwards of 10 seconds, and then swivelled slowly, almost imperceptibly, first one way and then another. It was a well-practiced routine, which enabled her to view her body closely from almost every conceivable angle. Finally, clearly satisfied, she smiled and nodded self approvingly. All those long hours at the gym had paid dividends. She looked good and she felt good. More importantly, she felt strong again. The previous 12 months had been a long and difficult period in her life, but now Jack Maxwell was finally out of her bed, out of her house, and almost completely out of both her heart and her head.
“Onwards and upwards”, she whispered, and then giggled as she opened the nearest of the range of built in white wardrobes which covered the entire length of one wall. Maxwell at his very best, had been a master craftsman, and he had proven to be a class act when free from his demons. This room was the product of his finest moments, and there were reminders of him everywhere.
She studied the range of colour co-ordinated accessories hanging in the first of the wardrobes. They were arranged in perfect order; everything was totally symmetrical, for she was a perfectionist. There were six available colours; red, green, black, yellow, blue, and pink.
"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe", she worked her way along the line, jabbing and pointing with her left index finger. The age old rhyme selected pink as the winning shade, but she frowned and hesitated, before reaching out instead for red.
“A woman’s prerogative”, she whispered, and then promptly changed her mind again and chose blue.
Turning again to the mirror, she painstakingly brushed her dark, shoulder length hair, before braiding it expertly into a single plait, which she then carefully arranged to fall casually over her left shoulder. She dressed quickly, scorning any underwear or make-up, with the exception of a hurried application of Clarin’s to her face. She then turned her back to the mirror, and peered first over her left shoulder, and then the right as she meticulously studied her rear. With both hands she patted her buttocks three times as a sign of satisfaction.
The large yellow Labrador who had been lying on the floor at the foot of the bed, had been watching her every move. The dog seemed to understand that now was its time. It stirred, rose, stretched and then lumbered eagerly over to her, clearly anxious to receive its collar and lead.
“Good girl. Shannon,” she stooped and lovingly smoothed the dog. Shannon had been Jack’s pet, but he had turned his back on the dog, just as he had abandoned everyone else in his troubled life.
Shakespear’s Sister was singing Stay with me, as she switched off the radio, and attached the soft pink lead to the matching, studded collar.
“Come on girl, let’s rock; let’s go, let’s get lucky.”
There was a spring in both of their steps, as mistress and dog set off on the short 2 minute walk to Horfield Common.
The brisk walk along Maple Road led them to the lower entrance to the Common, and upon arrival she hesitated only briefly before deciding to walk in a clockwise direction. Together the two of them set off up the gentle slope which led to the car park. She always enjoyed the solitude of her early, Saturday morning start. She preferred the silence and the peace that dawn always provided, but as she turned into the car park, she was both surprised and just a little disappointed to find a car parked there. It felt almost like an invasion of her privacy, an attack on her personal space. The disappointment was quickly replaced by inquisitiveness. The gleaming powder blue car was not only a top of the range Mercedes, but was also a sparkling, brand new model. The bonnet was warm to her touch, and she knew the owner wasn’t far away. She looked around surreptitiously and then stole a furtive glance into the passenger window. She pursed her lips and whistled quietly.
“Every picture tells a story,” she whispered.
It took but a minute to find the owner. There he was, standing in one of her favourite spots, lost in thought, staring towards Purdown and watching the sun-rise. His black Labrador puppy was happily playing at his side. The stranger looked remarkably unremarkable. Everything about him screamed ‘Mr Average’. He was average height, and average build, with average good looks. He was not unattractive, and was smartly, but inexpensively dressed. She came to the conclusion that he was probably just the wrong side of 50.
“The man from C and A,” she whispered, and then giggled and snorted.
“This way Shannon,” she turned on her heel and retraced her steps, now walking anti clockwise. This way she would be guaranteed to meet the mysterious stranger head on.
He was still there when she reached the bottom corner, still in the same spot, still watching the rising sun.
“Go say hello,” she released Shannon from her leash, and the dog set off towards the stranger.
“Shannon! Shannon! Shannon! Shannon!” She took a deep breath, and then trotted off in pursuit. “It’s Watson to the rescue,” she giggled and snorted. as she ran. Something told her that this was going to be fun.