|This is a sample from the last meeting. The author, Geoff Morgan, couldn’t resist a little delve into history on the theme: ‘Life’s Little Mysteries . . .’Just over one hundred years ago, the Palace of Versailles played host to several groups of diplomats whose purpose was to create a Treaty that would bring an end to the Great War. The British contingent had been allocated a suite that included a salon where they would sit discuss elements of the treaty as it began to take shape, a long tedious period of endless revision as phrases and paragraphs were beaten into an acceptable form.It was late-January 1919 and they were glad of the roaring fire set in a huge hearth, and of the surprisingly comfortable chairs set in a semi-circle around. The majority of the Palace was furnished with fine Louis XIV pieces. The chairs, with their gold-leafed frames, elegant fluted-legs, and sumptuously embroidered cushions were separated by an equally elegant table – slim cabriole legs and an exquisite delicate inlayed top supported by all the intricate scrolls and acanthus leaves that the French called their own. An exhibition of French style, wasted on the Americans perhaps, but there to impress the British.It was in the middle of the third week, as the British team returned from the main conference rooms, when it happened.An administrative-assistant whose job it was to carry the ever increasing weight of paperwork generated by all the parties, dropped his burden onto the table, perhaps a little carelessly.It swayed and gracefully collapsed to one side under the sheer bulk of documents. The crash caused two reactions. The assistant was not pleased when he realised he would miss dinner while he restored the documents to their correct order so that further work could continue; the Head of Mission looked in horror at the antique table, now part-buried in papers, but clearly wrecked. After 300 years of elegance, this table, in moments, had been reduced to mere splinters of wood.Now, if negotiations had been going well with the French, perhaps there would have been an option to say, ‘Sorry, old chaps, but we’ve had a bit of an accident’, but they had left the afternoon session fuming at the unreasonable manner of the French delegates. They were demanding greater and greater compensation from Germany, while the British, Italian and American staff warned such numbers would not be accepted.The Head of Mission demanded silence. He telephoned the Ambassador, stood nodding for a few moments and ended with ‘Thank you, Sir. I agree.’Under his instructions, the pieces of the table were extracted from beneath the papers, and broken into smaller pieces, the legs each pulled off, the sides ripped away and the top split into two with the aid of a manly-sized boot. Each part was diligently placed on the roaring fire, along with splinters from the carpet, its cremation overseen by all.In minutes, the table was no more.The Head of Mission engaged each of his team, and calmly stated, ‘You know nothing of this. From this moment, the absence of the table is just one of life’s little mysteries.’|
|This is another narrative piece from the same meeting. The author, Jo Malone, wrote a short story of just under 2,500 words. It is an edited excerpt from a work in progress. The short story has been included in full here to enjoy its powerful writing and imagery. Handbag (EDIT)|
Jonathan ran out of the school gates as though he had somewhere really important to go. The arms of his faded grey jumper were loosely tied around his neck and trailed behind him like the cloak of a superhero. He ran past all of the parents who were congregating in their usual place in the playground around the grotto of Our Lady and out through the heavy wrought iron gates, his lungs straining against the heavy weight of the hot polluted air from the noisy main road.
No-one was waiting by the fake brick and plaster replica of Lourdes for Jonathan. No-one ever came for him at home time but he didn’t mind that. He just minded the sympathetic stares and ran quickly so that he didn’t have to see them. To be fair to the parents, not all of the staring was out of pity for this eight year old, slightly scruffy boy with a too small jumper. Most people stared because Jonathan was carrying, as he did every afternoon, a big black ladies leather bag.
The bag, although large, a cross between a handbag and a shopping bag; wasn’t heavy, as it was now nearly empty apart from a plastic lunchbox. It didn’t hinder Jonathan’s flight through the dirty litter strewn streets and in fact, as he swung it alongside him, provided some momentum for his quick get-away.
It belonged to Sister Joseph. She was the Head Teacher at Sacred Heart Primary School and she was a nun. A proper nun. Not one of these modern nuns who dress in a dark navy suits with short hair and fool you into thinking they could be an office worker or a normal person. No she was a like a nun you’d see in films. She wore a long dark navy blue almost black coloured habit, a head dress and the most awful flat black lace up shoes. They were like lumps of black dough peeking out from under her hem, just waiting to be kneaded into shape.
It was difficult to describe Sister Joseph as so much of her was covered up and when she walked along the toffee coloured wooden corridors of the Victorian primary school, hands tucked inside her habit, it seemed like she could have been on wheels. Everything about her was round and her roundness was exaggerated by the folds of her clothes. Her round shiny face, pale as paper, peeked out through her wimple, wrinkled and worn with light grey, almost colourless eyes providing the only hint of who she really was. The person before she was swallowed up by all of these clothes and given a name that was a mix of a girls name – a sister; and a boys name – Joseph, Jesus’ dad.
“God It’s hot,” thought Jonathan suddenly stopping dead in his tracks half way down Ayresome Street. It was a sunny afternoon, the type you often get just after the summer holidays and before autumn properly begins. He stood on the pavement, panting slightly. Sweat dripped from his hairline onto his face. He pushed his hand through his hair using the wet sweat slick to try and flatten down his fringe that sprang back defiantly as ever. Pulling the jumper from his neck, he tied the ragged and frayed sleeves around his waist, balancing the bag between his knees as he did so. He looked down at the bag. It was zipped as usual and as usual he resisted the urge to open it. He was stood outside what was obviously a group of flats, he could smell garlic and hear a television set from a large wooden window, open on the top floor. These large old Victorian houses that had probably housed Middlesbrough’s wealthier families in spacious splendour but now provided small flats and bed sits for the town’s immigrant and student population.
He picked up the bag with his other hand and ran the few hundred yards to the hardware store corner and slowed down to a walk as he approached the crossing. The lollipop man was just stood there, as usual watching the traffic and waiting. He didn’t care what the weather was like. It didn’t matter to him if it was raining, snowing or blazing sun. He wore the same uniform. A white thick plastic coat and peaked flat cap, gloves that disappeared half way up into his sleeves and of course, the ubiquitous fluorescent metal lollipop.
One day last term when Jonathan got home from school, his dad, after hearing on the news that it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement, had actually tried it on the garden path. He’d had a drink, of course, but was funny drunk not mean drunk. Jonathan remembered that the egg had actually cooked a little, the white had gone opaque although the yellow still had that gloopy eyeball look. Even on that day, the hottest for ten years it said on the news, the lollipop man had worn his hat and his plastic coat. Jonathan now stood next to the lollipop man who didn’t actually look at him but acknowledged his presence by grasping his lollipop more firmly and staring straight ahead with concentration at the traffic whizzing by. A few years ago a pedestrian crossing had been installed at this junction but it seemed as though the lollipop man resented having to use it, feeling that the traffic should stop, as it used to by the power invested in him and his lollipop alone.
Jonathan’s fingers itched to press the button as he did when sometimes the lollipop man wasn’t there or when he was late for school. Instead he just stared at the hair growing out of the ears of the lollipop man. So much hair, Jonathan wondered how he could hear anything. And hairs grew out of his nose too. A big red bulbous nose with broken veins like a road map, that always seemed to have a small drop of water balancing of the edge of his nostril. Like a stalactite or was it a stalagmite? Jonathan couldn’t quite remember even though they’d only done them a few weeks ago.
Although he used this crossing twice a day every day since he started the school he couldn’t really tell you much more about the lollipop man. He couldn’t have picked him out in a police line up. He never spoke and you couldn’t see very much of him because of his peaked hat that he wore low over his face, shielding his eyes that were half hidden anyway under his huge bushy eyebrows. Jonathan knew where he lived though. He had seen him come out of a wooden door at the side of the Museum. It didn’t look to be a very big place but then, Jonathan supposed, there was only him and his lollipop, Jonathan reached the other side of the road while the lollipop man stayed in the centre holding back the traffic like King Canute. He picked up speed and ran towards the Cenotaph, running up and down the steps on each of the four sides until he finished opposite Albert Park Gates. Crossing the road he entered the park and made his way to the monkey puzzle tree. Keeping his eyes firmly on the ground he looked for conkers. He knew it was too early for conkers but he looked just in case. He loved it when conkers came. He’d walk to school filling his pockets full of the shiny brown nuggets of pure concentrated autumn, knowing he would be so popular at break time, giving them out to the kids who weren’t lucky enough to have a park to walk through every day. Of course he always kept the biggest and best for himself.
At the tree with its crazy twisted branches he untied his jumper from around his waist and plonked himself down onto the grass. He lay down for a moment to get his breath back and stared up at the sky not thinking of anything, just looking. This was a quieter part of the park. The path alongside the tree led to the side gates and was nowhere near the playground so only dog walkers and people passing through to the main gates really used this bit.
It was time to open the bag.
He sat up and placed the bag between his knees and opened the zip as he did every afternoon. He didn’t always open the bag here, sometimes he went into the walled garden sometimes he went further up the path as far as the ice cream coloured fountain and sometimes he sat on a bench near the tennis courts. He never knew before he entered the park where he would go but he always waited until he got to the park and was alone and could enjoy it.
As he pulled back the zip he could smell the familiar bag smell, it smelled of bananas and leather. Often it was a banana that she’d leave in the bag for him and sometimes it was a cake or a biscuit. Not one from a shop though like the ones he had at home on a Friday when they’d done the big shop at Fine Fayre and he was allowed to get a packet of Blue Ribbands or Wagon Wheels. No these were home made. Jonathan imagined that one of the nuns was in charge of cooking. He didn’t know which one it was but she was very good at it, Jonathan thought.
He reached into the bag and his hands felt the familiar white plastic lunchbox, slightly scratched. He opened the bag up wider. There were some papers at the bottom of the bag but Jonathan ignored these and kept feeling around. For a moment he felt a little bit sick.
“What if she hadn’t left anything today? What if she’d been so hungry she’d eaten all of her lunch?”
Then his hand felt a round hard object. It wasn’t an orange. He knew that straight away. It was different skin, smooth and rough and a bit thick. He pulled it out of the bag, the irregular globe topped with a small dusty crown filled his hand and he felt something sharp prick his thumb. It was a pin was his first thought. His next was that it was a pomegranate. Jonathan grinned and felt something like a lurch in between his ribs. She’d left him a pomegranate and a pin to eat it with! He felt something warm for Sister Joseph, something special that he couldn’t put into words, couldn’t even put into thoughts. He’d had a pomegranate once before. His dad had bought it when he mum was still at home and he’d cut it in half giving Jonathan half and his friend, Colin, from next door but one, the other half. He gave them both a pin which they used to poke out every single one of the tiny deep crimson jewels from the honeycombed binding. He remembered the sweetness bursting in his mouth and getting told off by his mother because his clothes were all stained bright pink by the juice. Like a bloodbath, his Dad had laughed.
This was too nice to rush and eat it under the monkey puzzle tree, he’d save it for later Jonathan pushed the pin deeper into the skin, pricking his finger slightly and put the pomegranate into his trouser pocket. Now he had to deliver the bag to the convent and get home in time for Grange Hill.
He ran across the grass and along the path that ran alongside the museum and big old private houses with large gardens that looked out onto the park. There in front of him was the convent. Another large house with a park view, the convent stood at the top of his road with its much more ordinary council houses. Jonathan pushed open the big wooden gate and walked along the stone path, bordered with rose bushes that grew in abundance in the front garden. Although Jonathan didn’t really notice the garden, it’s unstructured, slightly bedraggled appearance would have left a grown up remarking that none of the nuns seemed to have particularly green fingers. Jonathan pushed open the big black outer door to the house and stepped into the porch with its multicoloured tiles, a crucifix on the wall and a picture of Jesus with his heart bursting out of his chest and his hands in an open gesture raised to the heavens. But he didn’t look in pain, he was kind of smiling. Jonathan had clocked this picture the first time he’d come and thought it was a bit gruesome. Mind you with a religion whose main icon was a myriad of replicas of a half naked man nailed to a cross, that was to be expected.
Now the routine was that Jonathan would ring the bell and leave the bag in the porch. Often he was half way down the path before one of the sisters answered shouting, “God Bless”, at him. This time he rang the bell and waited. One of the sisters answered. To be honest they all looked very similar so he wasn’t sure which one she was. “Oh hello Jonathan my son”, she said. Her Irish lilt making the phrase sound extra kind. “Hello Sister”, Jonathan answered, looking down at his scuffed shoes that stood out, so ugly against the muted colours of the tiled floor. He pushed the bag towards her. “Thank You!”, he said, a half smile breaking on his face and at that turned and half ran, half skipped down the steps. “God bless you my son”, she shouted after him, closing the door. Jonathan didn’t know. Jonathan would never know until he was much older why Sister Joseph asked him to carry her bag home from school. She herself got a lift home from school from one of the other nuns so she could have easily brought her bag with her. But the other nuns did. They knew it was a way to look out for Jonathan, to have an excuse to give him something to eat, when he had forgotten his dinner money, as he often did, particularly in the middle of the week before his dad got paid on Friday; and provide a check point on the journey home from school for this eight year old boy, that would help keep him safe as walked home alone. Jonathan ran down the back alley. He’d soon be home. In his imagination the TV cameras from Grange Hill were filming his every move from behind the bins while the pomegranate in his pocket bounced rhythmically against his thigh.