Alone

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The entrance to the viewing platform closed at six, and George knew just where to slip in and hide while the stragglers were shepherded out. He disliked the subterfuge, but didn’t want to spend his last moments dodging tourists with selfie-sticks.

With just two more hours to go, George entered the waiting room. He had chosen the name at random, but he had promised himself he would give it this one shot.

The consultant saw a man in grey. Many of her clients looked nervous when they first came, some were defensive; this one had an air of suppressed agitation.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
George ruminated. “Empty,” he said. “Blank.”
“How long have you been feeling like that?”
“I don’t know. Ever since I can remember.”
“I want you to close your eyes and try to think back to the first time you ever felt it.”

George sighed. He closed his eyes.
“When you remember the first time you felt like this, I want you to picture the situation in your mind. Where were you? What could you see?”
An image came into his mind. “I remember,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “Now I want you to open your eyes and draw a picture of what you saw.”

George groaned inwardly. But too late now, he had struck a deal with himself, and anyway it was just the once. He started to draw.

The picture was bleak. There were dark walls, a corridor with a window, the skeleton of a tree blocking the view. A small figure in the foreground, all alone. No colours, no hope.
She asked him to describe his drawing, the scene he remembered, and how he felt in the picture.

“I want you to sit back comfortably in your chair. Feel your body. Feel the ground under your feet, feel the chair. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply and let go of any tension.” Her voice was calm and reassuring. “Now I want you to imagine that just in front of you there is an opening. A door in time and space. And just beyond it is the scene you just drew.”
He nodded.
“And now, in your imagination, I want you to step through that opening into that world as your adult self. What do you want to do?”

Without a thought, George stepped through the opening and scooped up his child-self in his arms. He could feel the fragile figure nestle against him, tiny arms wrapped around his neck. His heart was full, but he had no words. His eyes were wet.
Time stood still.

“Now I want you to take a deep breath. Feel your body, feel the chair. Slowly come back into the room.” The image faded.

When George stepped out of the building, a bird was hopping across the path. He followed it, and sat down on a bench.
The clock struck six, but he took no notice. He could hardly abandon the boy in the picture, could he?

Holding On

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Once there was a man whose name was Tim, though most people called him Fetch thinking that was his name.

Tim, or Fetch, was slightly eccentric and always dragged a large dead branch around with him. It looked like half a tree, really. One day the neighbourhood bully had mocked Tim walking by with his branch, tossed him a ball and yelled, “Here, fetch!” The other boys had laughed, and somehow the name had stuck.

Dragging a branch around with you all day every day brings a lot of problems with it. Tim had a hard time finding a job or a flat. Shops didn’t like it when he came in, and after an incident with the door, he couldn’t even go on the bus anymore. People mocked him and sometimes threw things.

Whatever difficulties the branch caused him, Tim found a way around them. Sometimes he thought wistfully about all the things he couldn’t do because of the branch, and then he hated it. Again and again, he decided to let it go, but somehow he just couldn’t.

A few times he tried to get help. The first time, they wouldn’t even let him in to see the doctor as he refused to leave the branch outside. Then, one day, he saw an advertisement for a new therapist promising a 100% success rate in letting things go. Tim decided to try again and made an appointment.

The man with very shiny teeth invited Tim to lie down on the couch. He was to close his eyes, let go of the branch, and count backwards from 100 in steps of 3. When he opened his eyes, everything would be alright, and he would no longer need the branch. Tim was scared, but he so longed to free himself of the branch that he screwed up his courage and forced himself to try. When he opened his eyes again, the branch was gone.

Tim screamed and screamed, and even under sedation he only calmed down when he was safely holding on to his branch again. He left the office shaking and promised himself he would never, ever trust anyone again. Better to live with his branch, however poorly, than to subject himself to such an ordeal again.

So time went on, and Tim still lived with his branch. The many practical difficulties didn’t bother him so much, but he did get lonely. No one seemed to want a friend who dragged a dead branch around with him. So when one day, as he was walking in the park, a lady looked up from her book and gave him a nod and a hint of a smile, it was almost a shock.

Tim thought he might have been mistaken, so the next day he took care to walk past the bench she was sitting on, and again she gave him a smile. It became a habit: he would walk past her bench, and they would exchange a smile. This may not sound like much, but for Tim it quickly became the best part of his day.

So when one rainy day she wasn’t there, he was very disappointed. He turned to leave the park, but then she called from a pavilion. Elated by this sudden turn of events, he went up to her, sat down beside her on the pavilion steps, and said hello.

From then on it became a new habit: they would sit on the bench together a while and talk. Nothing much, just things about the weather and the park, or maybe the squirrels. Then one day she asked him whether she could touch his branch. This was quite a shock for him. People had mocked his branch, some boys had tried to kick it, but no one had wanted to touch it, much less asked his permission to do so. But still he shook his head, he’d rather she didn’t. “That’s fine,” she said, “it’s your branch.”

A few days later, he shyly said she might touch the branch if she wanted. And she did. Gently, and not for long. “It’s a good branch,” she said. Tears came into his eyes, and he hurried off. “Why did you say that?” he asked the next day. “Well, it clearly means a lot to you,” she replied.

One day he asked about her job, and she told him she was a therapist with an office beside the park. He told her about his experience with the man with the shiny teeth. He couldn’t quite hear what she muttered, but he did catch the words “dangerous” and “quack”. Some weeks later, after making her promise she would never try to take his branch away from him, he made an appointment.

“Where did you get the branch?” The question surprised him. He had never really given it much thought, it seemed to have always been there. But slowly it came back to him. The sea-trip when he was a boy. The accident, the screaming. Grabbing hold of a floating branch, and never letting go.

“So it saved your life,” she said. Tim looked at his branch with new eyes. “I guess,” he said. “That’s something to be grateful for,” she said. “But maybe you don’t need to hold on to it all the time anymore?”

Step by step, Tim learned to let go of the branch. First just for seconds, then minutes. Soon he could cross the room and sit on the couch, hardly taking his eyes off it in the beginning, later only glancing at it now and then. Then he could leave it in the waiting area, and one proud day he came to the office without it.

Tim kept the branch, in his bedroom at first, then moving it to the spare room, and finally into the attic. And when he came across it by chance he would remember that whatever difficulties it had caused him, one day, when he had nothing else to hold on to, it had saved his life.

The Iron Kingdom

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Once upon a time there was a king who had four sons. The sons’ lives were ill-fated: one died of illness, another fell to his death from a tower, and a third was killed in battle. Then there was only one son left to succeed his father. The last young prince was a sickly boy, and doctors warned the king that his son’s heart might not be strong enough to let him live to be king.

This was a tragedy, not only for the king and queen who loved their last little boy dearly, but for the whole kingdom. Without a clear succession, many feared it would once again be racked by civil war. So the king offered the highest reward for anyone who could save the prince’s life.

Scores of healers and magicians made their way to the castle, but all the herbal droughts and magic amulets did not make the young prince any better. Indeed, he grew weaker by the day. So when at last a man came along and proposed a radical solution, the desperate king and queen were willing to listen.

The man who called himself the magister said he would take the prince away to heal. And as the problem was the boy’s heart, a band of iron would be set around it to make him strong. This had worked well on many a sickly boy, the magister said, indicating the hearty adolescents in his company. The king was impressed with the lads, with their mature and resolute air. Such a lad could well succeed to the kingship, he thought.

The queen did not want to part with her precious little boy, but the magister was persuasive. The young prince needed to be away from the restrictive castle atmosphere and the nurses’ coddling, to play and be educated amongst other boys of his own age. A boy who would one day be king, he said, must needs let go of his mother’s skirts one day. The prince would be in the very best hands and the iron band around his heart would make him strong. Reluctantly, the king and queen agreed to let the magister take the prince away.

The prince thrived, or so the magister’s reports told the king and queen. And once the boy had mastered his letters, his tales of sport and play warmed his parents’ hearts. As the king’s son and heir had been sent away, many noblemen’s sons were sent likewise. And their letters too told of sport and play, of lessons and rewards.

Now and then, the prince was sent back to the castle to visit so his parents could assess his progress. The queen would cry a little when he came, and more when he left again, but the king would always remind her it was all for the prince’s own good.

The years went by, and at last the prince returned for good. He was tall and strong now, fearless and resolute. But the queen found it hard to recognise the son she had sent away all those years ago, and she grieved for the little boy she had lost.

As the king grew older, the prince took on many responsibilities, and finally became king himself. He fulfilled his promise and became a strong leader, though he had little time for those who were weak or poor. Away from home he had known only the company of noblemen’s sons: now he knew little of ordinary people’s lives, and cared less.

When the young king in turn had sons, he too sent them away, and had an iron band set around their hearts to make them strong. His aging mother protested, surely they were healthy enough and didn’t need it. But her son only laughed: it never did me any harm, did it? So it became the fashion, and all the noblemen’s sons were sent away, and soon the daughters too. And an iron band was set around their hearts to make them strong.

For most of the children it seemed to work: they became resourceful and independent, if a little distant, a little cold. But some had their spirits crushed by the iron band: they died or left the kingdom, never to return. These were the weaklings, it was said, and the kingdom was better off without them.

Over the years, the kingdom changed. There had been greed and nepotism before, but there had also been laughter and music. Now the rulers had only cold disdain for all who were not of their kind, laughter was mockery or icy ridicule, and the music died away. The land became the Iron Kingdom, ruled by people with iron in their hearts.

But for those who fled, there was a signpost behind the pass leading out of the kingdom. It showed the way to a forge by a river where a smith with a crinkly smile would receive the traveller kindly. If they had that look of cold despair, he would offer to remove the iron band. “Can you do that?” they would ask in disbelief. “It will hurt,” the smith would say gravely, “but it can be done.”

Once the operation is over and the traveller is up and about again, they walk by the river. And soon they sit down, and the tears start to flow. Suddenly, they can hear the sweet gurgle of the river, the singing of the birds, and the shepherd’s pipe. For with an iron band around your heart, you cannot cry. And without tears, there can be no music, no laughter, and no love.

When the traveller sets off again there is still pain, but there is also hope. With heartfelt thanks the traveller takes leave of the smith, offering payment. The smith waves it away. “I was once like you,” he says, and shows his scars.

As the traveller leaves they exchange a smile of kinship: the kinship born of shared pain, which, eternal or fleeting, runs deeper than that of blood.

Abandoned

k16dscn0850A poem is never finished,
only abandoned.
– W. H.Auden, “quoting” Valéry

Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, – mot qui pour eu n’a aucun sens, – mais abandonné; et cet abandon, qui le livre aux flammes ou au public (et qu’il soit l’effet de la lassitude ou de l’obligation de livrer), leur est une sorte d’accident, comparable à la rupture d’une réflexion, que la fatigue, le fâcheux, ou quelque sensation viennent rendre nulle.
– Paul Valéry, au sujet du Cimetière marin.

After a break, I find the blog needs a bit of a wash and brush up. Sorry for any quirks. And thanks for the kind messages in my absence.

Three Wise Men

Three Wise Women would have:
asked directions
been on time
brought practical gifts
helped deliver the baby
cleaned the stable
made a casserole
… and there would be Peace on Earth!

– Anonymous