Sunday, 27 December 2015

"The Paper Samuri"

This is a short story what I wrote.  It's free on Amazon kindle just now where it has a lovely cover, so is my book "Two All - All for One".

The Paper Samuri

Nobody could put their finger on what made Aunty Audrey so different from the rest of us: no dreadful, traumatic event had occurred to threaten her existence, nor anything which may have warped her sense of security in those vital formative years; she hadn’t even had to suffer under the tyranny of school bullies, an affliction so common to quiet, thoughtful children, buffered as she was, by her insurmountable levy of siblings.  So why was she so different?  One with a romantic turn might now consider that perhaps she had been a vivid, lively creature, cruelly left dangling at the alter - or worse still - doomed to gaze out on stormy seas for a lost love, which that harsh mistress had snatched from her bosom, with Audrey forever standing on a cliff top, wedding veil in hand, as the wind caught and frayed the gossamer fabric as it had her hopes and dreams.  But nope, never happened.  Audrey was just different, but she was no less loved for it, and it would be a long time—although nowhere near long enough—before any of us would understand her, even just a little.

I like to think that out of all of us, I most closely resembled her: I had her nose and her tiny feet - even if they were burdened to support legs that could kick start a jumbo jet - but truthfully, that’s pretty much where the resemblance ended.  Audrey was the second oldest of six with cousins by the bucket load.  There she was, always neat, tidy and demure— and there was the rest of them, and eventually, the rest of us, all ruddy cheeks, big bones, and bigger appetites with never a hair in place and not a gaudy fashion we would not embrace.  Their mother, my Granny Ellen, used to say—generally with her arms folded under her enormous bosom (and bosom it most certainly was - not breasts, not boobs and absolutely not chest – for this was the physiological feature for which the word “bosom” was created, and having described Granny’s…its work was done)—that if it wasn’t for their father’s grey-blue eyes staring out from below Aunty Audrey’s sandy fringe, it could have been she’d taken the wrong baby home from the hospital, and that somewhere out there were some nice, quiet folk with one of us: a big, boisterous cuckoo, in their genteel nest.  I think we would all have agreed that we got the better end of the deal with the oasis of ever unruffled calm that was Audrey Christine Gilbert.
As far as I was concerned, the only irksome thing about Aunty Audrey was the rest of the family’s well-meaning but none the less demeaning assumption that she was to be pitied. Not a family gathering came and went, be it a funeral or a wedding, that in some clique—wherever two or more (usually) female relatives were gathered—at some point the conversation wouldn’t inevitably get around to “poor Audrey”.  Perhaps there would be an unwanted lull in the constant chatter, and a passing reference to, or an actual sighting of, my Aunty would inspire the mantra of  “ocht, tsk, poor Audrey”.  Spurious assumptions were made regarding her well-being and sense of worth based on the dogmatic beliefs of generations of women unwilling to consider there could be life beyond the conventional norm they had so eagerly embraced, and certainly on no more than a surface-scratch knowledge, even among those closest to her, of the unknowing recipient of their collective concerns.  A maudlin, midnight confession of longing and loss was about as likely to have poured from Audrey as unicorn tears from the kitchen tap.
One of my earliest memories is of watching Aunty Audrey at some interminable wedding.  Uncle Fraser, her brother, the baby of the family and only boy, then probably 24 or 25, was twirling her around the dance floor.  I recall thinking how pretty she looked as her light chiffony dress in pale pinks and blues swirled around her slender legs. I was taken aback by the words from one of the grown-ups far above me: “Poor Audrey”.  I couldn’t see what was so poor about my Aunty.  That evening, at least to my eyes, she looked like a fairy princess, so light on her feet, so ethereal as she turned and parried Uncle Fraser’s over-enthusiasm for vigorous spinning. I can remember just holding on to my mother’s skirt, arm wrapped around one of her substantial thighs, thinking of Cinderella, and if only my Aunty had long, blonde hair flowing down behind her, she would have been perfect.  Bloody Disney.
It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I understood why my older female relatives considered Aunty Audrey to be “poor” – it was, of course, the lack of a man, or even men, in her life.  The irony being that they spent more time bitching about the ones they had, even than they did considering the pitiable plight of Aunty Audrey and her manlessness.  Not only did my Aunty not have one of these treasured, flighty creatures, so hard to lure into one’s net, but, as far as any of them knew, she’d never even had a boyfriend, not even a date— not even a vague suggestion of one!  They blamed her shyness as having left her invisible to the male population, and it seems that apparently, she had never really “done herself any favours”.  I laughed scornfully at them (though never, ever to their faces – I fully intended to keep mine located on the front of my head, thank you very much), these over-weight, over-burdened, rapidly aging women that teenage me loved and despised in equal measure. Poor Audrey!? Huh! She had her own house, a good job in the office at the village High School and yes, her adored cats – Boris and Jim.  Teenage me envied Audrey’s lifestyle: she could do what she wanted when she wanted; queen of the remote controls in her own palace. And her place was always tidy, not cluttered by toys and screaming brats and their snotty-nosed friends; stained and scuffed by people and life. Just because Auntie A was single and hadn’t followed society’s script that had dragged them into drudge-dom, that she hadn’t been brow-beaten by hormones into breeding, didn’t make her “poor”…in fact, it was quite the opposite!  And I’d have told you this had you asked, with spitting vehemence, before storming off to find more enlightened society…or a sneaky wee drink…or someone to snog.  I recall at that time, to my subsequent embarrassment, actively seeking Aunty Audrey out, imagining some kind of kindred free spirit - but I never found it. It wasn’t mine to find.
Just over fifteen years on, one husband and two children later, and to my disgust, I heard myself clucking with the others over Aunty Audrey.  It was at a fortieth birthday bash for my Uncle Fraser’s wife, Cathy.  My daughter, Cassy, was three years old at the time, my son, Kieran, just four weeks, and as I stood there with him on my shoulder, patting his little back and smelling his sweet baby smell, I heard the dreaded words escape my lips: “Poor Audrey.”  Once delivered, never to be retracted, I reeled with horror as I realised I had just initiated myself into the gang I had once thought so misguided and risible.  The words tasted dry and sour, even as I said them, and they hung in the air in front of me, mocking me, condemning me: catch us if you can – take us back – can’t?...oh deary, deary me.  I’m sure I even heard a door slam as my teenage self with all her angst and vision, all her pith, vinegar, heart and soul, stomped out for good.
Time and years slipped by for me then in a constant roar like sea-surge, as tantrums aged into dramas with all the accompanying nagging worries and niggles, forever hanging round my neck like an itchy scarf you have to wear because someone who loves you made it. Are the children eating enough? Probably.  Am I eating too much?  Yes.  Well, husband Kenny’s definitely eating too much.  Are they growing and learning as they should?  Are they being scarred because I work part time at the library, and they have to go to Mum’s on a Friday after school?  Does the dog keep puking up because he’s seriously ill, or is he just an annoying, refluxing bastard?  Does Kenny still fancy me, really, or am I just convenient and can’t run fast?  Should I ban the Playstation and Xbox and insist they play outside more (Kenny and the children)?  But what if they get stolen by a paedophile (not Kenny) or run over, or run over by a paedophile?!  And then all of a sudden I realise time has done its thing, and that that was one predator I no longer have to worry about as I watch my lovely teenage son going out with that hatchet-faced, push-up bra wearing, foul-mouthed little harpy that works at Tesco—yes, I got a look at her Facebook page!  And in the midst of it all, Aunty Audrey kind of slipped out of sight and out of mind for a lot of the time, filed under: “she’s not said otherwise so she’s fine”.  And she was.  But every so often a vision of her alone and lonely would flood through me; a lava flow of guilt scorching the seams that held together my pride in our close knit family.  And I would rush around at the first opportunity - probably with kids in tow, school bags and swimming kits flying - maybe even accompanied by the refluxing bastard (the dog, not Kenny), and all for her sake, of course.  I never thought to call ahead and check that she wasn’t busy.  What could she possibly have been doing anyway that a magnanimous visit from myself or some other busy family member or members would not be a welcome break from?  It never occurred to any of us that we might be intruding.

In the end, I was the one who found her.  A book by an author I knew she liked had come in to the library (I work there full-time now that the kids are at university), so I’d decided to take it around to her since it was a Wednesday and we close at lunchtime on Wednesdays.  I stood there just looking at her sitting in her chair, smart and prim and waxy dead.  I said her name, but I knew she would not respond; wasn’t ever going to again, and I crumpled down on the couch opposite her and cried for my dearest, sweetest Aunty Audrey.  She was only 72 years old.  She hadn’t been ill, hadn’t complained of any aches or pains, but there she was, a shell of skin and bone that had once walked and talked, albeit quietly and with the minimum of fuss, and looking pretty much as she always had, really, and the one word that sprang into my head surprised me: it was content.
It was as I sat there with streaming eyes and hitching chest, just staring at what remained of this person I loved; seeing the years I had known her and the time I had spent with her become the past, that I realised something was different about her corner of the living room, the place where she always sat, and I stared for a moment, quite uncomprehendingly, at this rift in the otherwise unaltered room.   
Next to Aunty Audrey’s chair was a long, thin table.  As far as I could recall, it had always been there, it may have even been there since Granny’s day.  I certainly couldn’t imagine it not being - and always covered by a maroon table cloth that draped to the floor with a white lace one at an angle over it.  On top were usually a couple of books and maybe her china mug with garden birds on it resting on a coaster, of course, and towards the back, two polished bronze statuettes about thirty centimetres high, one depicting a woman in traditional Japanese dress, the other a samurai warrior, his sword on his back and his arms folded.  These two had always struck me as slightly out of place.  The only other ornaments in the house were old-fashioned ones that had been my grandparents’ or the appalling tat we had given her as children.  The statuettes, by contrast, were beautiful, and I had wondered before why they weren’t more prominently displayed instead of being stuck in the corner.  On that day, I discovered they had a purpose, which was more than to be mere objets d’art.  They were, in fact, utilised by my Aunty, by virtue of their weight and size, to hold back the table cloth, allowing her easier access to the paper on the shelf below.  There were stacks of it, reams and reams, going all the way back to the end of the shelf under the table, five bundles high, with more on the floor underneath.  On the left side, the side closest to her chair, most of the paper was still in the manufacturer’s outer wrapping with what I would come to know as katakana characters stamped along the edge - the suppliers name and address - with the top most sheets unbound, awaiting their turn to become more than blank canvases as the paper along the far side already had.  Here, the bundles were in varying sizes and tied up with the fibrous ribbon, the kind that you see around fancy soaps in gift soaps, and on these I could see Aunty Audrey’s meticulous handwriting in black ink.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but not looking to see what my Aunty had been up to would have been the act of a saint—so hold the canonisation, Your Holiness, because I was going in, and wild Papal bulls couldn’t have stopped me.  Eyes fixed on the top most sheets, my vision still blurry, I reach towards the stack of thick, creamy white paper and in particular, the slender sheaf on top with its carefully tied straw ribbon. Suddenly, a cold dread like ice water stole through my bones, and I glanced sharply up at my dead Aunty, imagination having conjured up a clawed, cold hand  reaching out for me, grasping my wrist in a rictus grip; stiffening neck creaking around to stare at me accusingly, with dead, opaque, eyes.  Of course, my Auntie’s body remained just as it had been, not a single hint of reanimation having ruffled her composure.  Too many horror films, I told myself, too many late nights reading ghost stories by kindlelight, which was probably why I nearly had a heart attack when the phone rang.  Loud and clear and here and now, it needed my attention, demanded that its needs be met, and an hysterical, high pitched whine escaped me, a sound I could not have ever imagined coming from my lips, as I froze, arm still outstretched, fingers brushing the pages.  I crashed back to reality, looking up at the dear, sweet, gentle woman I loved, beginning to cry all over again, (all snotters and soaking, red cheeks  - not at all how Aunty Audrey would have done it, I’m sure), and stumbling through to the hall, picked up the receiver, ending its shattering tantrum.
  It was my mother – my soothing balm and plaster, my answer to everything, my hot water bottle and best comfort; she got the ball rolling, calling the doctor, calling the others - an old hand already in the formalities and ceremonies of death; she took charge.  But before any of them arrived, I pulled the tablecloth down to hide Aunty Audrey’s secret, although its days as such, I knew, were now numbered.

And that number was three.  It was three days later when, for the last time, Audrey Christine Gilbert left the little house in which she had lived all of her seventy-two years.  And after what remained of her on the Earth was sunk beneath its surface, while everyone else was at Aunty Flo’s reminiscing and eating sandwiches, I made the excuse of having go and feed the Boris and Jim replacements - Custard and Frank.
The house was so still and lifeless – dust motes seemed to hang in stasis, sounds had hard, dull edges - even the cats seemed unnerved when we entered, and after a cursory examination, they retreated back outside to the still, fresh day.  Sparrows and assorted other small creatures needed their place in the food chain made clear.  I went on through to the living room but paused in the doorway, staring over at her chair and sighed loudly, the way you only do when you are alone and your heart is hurting.  Finally, I walked over and, hesitating for a moment, sat in her chair. The words would you steal my grave so fast made an unpleasant and unnecessary visit inside my head.  I could not begin to imagine Aunty Audrey ever saying such a thing, in life or in death, but it was enough to increase my discomfort tenfold, and I slid off it onto my knees in front. 
I was nowhere near so squeamish about lifting the tablecloth; however, as it had already occurred to me that the last time my Aunty had done so, it had been deliberately, as though she had known she would not be waking again when she dozed off that afternoon three days ago.  If not, if the Grim Reaper’s business appointment had surprised her as much as it had the rest of us, then surely there would have been some sign of what she had been doing:  paper fallen from her grasp or askew in her lap, a pen balancing in her hand or fallen to the floor - but there had been none of these tell-tale signs that her final breath had been mid-sentence.  I picked up the topmost bundle, the one I had reached for before, and undid the straw ribbon.
What I was to find out in the subsequent weeks was that the paper she used was of the finest quality, handmade in Japan, and that there were over three hundred straw-bound bundles.  The title of each piece was written first in the Japanese characters called katakana, then translated into letters I could recognise but written in romaji and finally translated into English.  There were fictional histories and legends, biographies, geographical notes and even some rough sketches, but mostly they were stories based primarily around two characters, not always, but usually, the main protagonists.  Beautiful, spellbinding, romantic, thrilling adventures, not at all old fashioned and fussy, but tales full of vibrancy and a lust for living, and all set in a fictional world—at least fictional for everyone but Audrey.  For her, I believe, it was real (or as good as), and she was able to describe every element of this place and its people, right down to the finest detail.  I think this is where she lived for most of her life, in waking and in dreaming.  She must have left this pale world behind whenever she could: it could offer her nothing compared to her world, this place where Audrey Gilbert shone and was truly alive.
But it was the first bundle – the one I had started with, which confirmed for me that Aunty Audrey knew her time with us was almost over.  It started with a covering note, which said that the dream she was about to retell had given her everything she ever wanted, that he had opened a door for her and she had more than happily walked through it as it closed behind her.  She said that she had never written it down before for fear that it would break the spell, and he would be gone. But finally, she understood such a thing could never happen. Having read through most of her work by now, I know who “he” is, but these opening words had left me so taken aback on the day of her funeral, that I went over them twice, thinking I had misread. She ended her note with the following:
“To those I love who love me back, and for those who care to know, here is my dream from all those years ago, the spark that lit the tinder.” I turned the page.

Kami No Samurai - The Paper Samurai

Sheer black sky, no stars, and only the merest hint of light, midnight black all around, but familiar, not threatening, not cold, a warm summer’s evening, but so dark – even a hand in front of my face was barely perceptible—the whiteness of my skin affording it a ghostly luminosity from what little light there was. 
I walked along this street on which I have always lived, but in my dream it felt so new, so otherworldly, and so clear, as though these were not the murmurs of a sleeping mind, but that I had slipped through dimensions, and only a hair’s breadth away the real world ticked on; people and cars going about their business, passing through and around me as unaware of my presence as I was of theirs.  But in my dimension, in my place, all was still; all was quiet and devoid of any life but mine. Nothing moved, not a sound broke the perfect silence.  I became aware of the grass beneath my bare feet where the road’s surface ought to have been: so cool, so silky, so soothing: the perfect balm. It felt to me as if I had run for miles or years on a hard-packed, unforgiving surface before I reached this place.
To my right was the row of houses set near the edge of what a teacher once told us was a raised beach. A geological feature of the landscape left over from the ice-age, it had risen above the water when the ice melted all those millions of year ago, and the land exhaled, relieved of all that weight of frozen water.  And to my left was the grassy verge that normally led down to a field below, the sea loch beyond that, and at the far side black mountains rose up straight from the water to challenge the sky.  But tonight the field was gone, the water much, much higher than usual coming almost up to the lip of our raised sanctuary, but still feeling somehow distant, so black, reflecting the starless sky above and around.  It looked in that dream world like a fathomless pool of oil, and not a single wave ruffled its surface.  It was then, as I continued my slow, steady pace that I saw a burst of radiant light break through that limpid surface, lasting only for an instant, and then it was gone.  Moments later, there was another.  Moonlight…it was moonlight.  In this place, it seemed to be that that was where the sun’s silver sister hid, not behind clouds above me, but beneath the black water.  The warmth of realisation dawned in me: these flashes of fragmented light were for my benefit, allowing me visual access to this world, making me part of it, not a stranger who had stumbled in.  I was welcome here.
I had walked almost to the end of the row and was nearly at my own gate when I became aware of the white forms standing in a still, silent line on the opposite side of the road from my gate, and at first I could make nothing of them, so I squinted, trying to make sense of what I saw.  I felt no fear or apprehension as I walked towards them, becoming aware that they were human forms, clothed in white.
There were eight of them standing still as sentries, heads bowed slightly beneath pointed cowl hoods so that I could see very little of their faces, and I became aware that their robes were of a style with which I was familiar.  My visitors were samurai in layered coats and trousers, their feet in wide, laced boots, hands tucked deep into the folds of their coat sleeves.  Curious and fearless, I walked towards them until I was no more than a foot away.  I peered at the figures—warriors, monks, whatever they were—studying them, studying their clothing, so stiff and so white realising that the fabric was not made of some heavy linen or canvas but of paper – thick, matte paper, perfectly smooth and utterly flawless.
I walked back up the line until I stood beside the first of them, reached out to touch his sleeve to feel the paper fabric.  But instead of my fingertips encountering the resistance (as a waking hand would), it sank through! And yet the samurai did not move.  I glanced up at him, staring, trying to see his face, trying to see if I had angered or even discomforted him, but he made no sign he even knew I had intruded within his form. Looking back at my hand, sunk up to the wrist within him, I marvelled at my fingers, shrouded in the insubstantial garments and within the insubstantial man.  I appeared to be no more burdensome to him than a butterfly on a tree branch, so I continued with my exploitation of his serenity, sweeping my hand back and forth, but only gently, as though swirling the surface of a crystal clear pond.  What had looked so solid moved around my fingers like smoke. Oddly elated, and even, I would dare to say, feeling slightly mischievous, I walked back down the row of sentinels, trailing my hand through one, then into the next, and the next, and the next – looking up at them, trying to see if any of them made a single sign that they knew I was there or what I was doing, but they did not stir.  Then, one from the end, my hand encountered something solid, right at his centre.  Startled, I looked up at him, and although his head was still bowed, I could see a smile on his lips.  “May I?” I asked and he nodded, just once, still smiling, and tentatively, I took hold of the object and withdrew it.  It was a fountain pen, not dissimilar to the one I am using now, the kind I would always use for writing our stories, and I studied it, entranced, as though it were the rarest of rare artefacts, as though it were a precious thing that held all the secrets of the world, and in a way, for me, it did.  I looked up at the paper samurai – kami no samurai, this one who would be my Paper Samurai - Watashi No Kami Samurai - and he was looking at me now, his smile full of love and tenderness and hope, and I did not want to go, I did not want to leave him—ever—but I knew I had to, at least for now, because dreams like these have a limited life span…it is only dreams like mine that do not.

Amongst Aunty Audrey’s effects, we found no scored-out list of publishers or agents; no stock covering letter, either, summarising who she was and why they should consider her work, and there was no sad folder of rejection letters.  I even scoured ebook lists in case she had self-published on-line, unlike my mother, who seemed to think that pressing a single key on a computer would result in her inadvertently hacking into the FBI’s database, surfing some pornography and giving away her bank account details, all while appearing topless on Youtube, Aunty Audrey was quite adept with her PC.  But there was no sign of her ever published online.  She clearly had had no interest in sharing her stories with the world; they had been hers and hers alone…until now.

Kenny and I moved into the little house, and in effect, I became the custodian of her work.  It’s all still under the table where she left it, and I’m still working my way through it all.  The hideous maroon table cloth and her scary, old chair are gone, but the statuettes of the Japanese lady and her samurai I keep beside me.  I fully understand their significance now.  Not only had they been chose for more than their aesthetic beauty, but for more than their worth as weights, too: the figurines of the woman and the quiescent warrior were Aunty Audrey’s secret - hidden in plain sight.

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