Thursday, 24 May 2012

Lives and lessons of others

Every week I work in an old second-hand bookshop in Kew Gardens. I love sitting in the window as the sun works its way round, writing without the distractions of email and internet and browsing and reading all the weird and wonderful books. And another great thing about it is the mix of people who pop in with their interesting stories, lives, reading preferences and questions.

Last week a lady came in and we talked for over an hour. She works locally and has known the place for years. As soon as she came in, she felt at home and sat on the floor stretching. She has multiple sclerosis. She works hard. She does a paper round at 6am seven days a week. She is a full-time carer for an ex-SAS soldier. She also delivers papers in the afternoon. She was tired, but not too tired to talk. We chatted about the Leveson Inquiry; we discussed the saga of the Chilean miners trapped in 2010. We shared stories of where we’d studied, instruments we had learnt. She told me about her bullying neighbours, about living with MS, about her experiences of doctors and nurses. I told her about my travels, about teaching, about working in the shop. We talked about people’s attitudes to health, to work, to life. I really liked her. Having MS for 12 years hadn’t stopped her. She was in pain and was the one looking after someone else. “You’ve just got to carry on, haven’t you?” she said.

A writer came in the week before, looking for books to help him with his research. He stayed for half an hour, telling me all about the two true stories he was going to combine in his own book about the Vietnam War. The more I listened to him, the more I realised how brilliant an idea he had and what a fascinating story it would make. Unassuming and modest, the man’s face didn’t agree with me when I told him I thought it would make interesting reading. “Well, I hope someone reads it,” he said.

A while ago an old man came in. It was a cold afternoon and he had been the first customer for over two hours. He browsed for a short while and then sat down on one of the chairs. I was writing my book at the time and he just sat there, waiting for a pause in the tapping of keys. It came. He then stayed for an hour and a half, telling me all about his two marriages, especially the second to a Russian woman who he was thinking of leaving. He revealed all the things she had done over the years, how she made him feel worthless, how ungrateful she was, lazy and manipulative. He hadn’t seen his grandchildren because of her. His eyes were sad; sad and tired. I listened. He looked up: “I don’t know what to do. I’ve been thinking of leaving her.” I told him that in my opinion it sounded like he would be happier that way. He stood up to leave. “Yes, but I love her,” he said.

These are a handful of characters I have met in my three months at the shop. Each one weaves a tiny square on my tapestry of life. And each one offers a life lesson, a memento to take away.

Love is enough.
Keep writing.

Don’t give up.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Soul Food

Every Sunday I read the Soul Food column in Stella magazine. I love the snippets of foodie childhood memories the chefs share; and how, more often than not, they have taken those important dishes from their childhood and worked them into their own menus. I am not a chef and nor do I own a restaurant, but I have always thought about what I would write for the column if I had to. It was hard. There are so many wonderful kitchen memories and dishes up for grabs that still loiter about today in my kitchen, popping up when the need hits. But I decided to keep to their word limit (220) and so here it is; my soul food. What's yours?

Soul Food
Laura Milsom, teacher and writer

Grannie grew up on a farm in the Ukraine and was used to cooking fresh and filling fare. Her generation had learnt how to make a lot from very little. Grannie’s soup was one of these dishes. She would use seasonable vegetables added to Sunday’s leftover carcass.
      Her huge pot would bubble away for ages. You would hear the salt and pepper grinding and knives skimming chopping boards adding more ingredients. You waited, knowing it was best to be hungry. Finally we would sit round the table to eat. Her soup could be lunch or dinner because you didn’t have to follow it with anything. We ate it with bread and butter and took our time. It was thick, full of goodness and delicious beyond reasoning for its simplicity. There was its hint of meat; then suddenly carrots, greens, potatoes, parsnips. It was like an allotment had exploded in your bowl. And the bowls kept coming; there was third, fourth portions, and plenty more for later.
      Grannie never said exact amounts of what she added. I believe there was a secret ingredient, which she has taken with her. We try to make it and get close: close enough to be taken back to our childhoods and those hearty bowls of soup; that warming taste of goodness, always made with love.

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Bandage, part two

This is the second half of the short story I posted on Friday, The Bandage.

The Bandage, continued.

“Michael, stop fidgeting. You’ll make it worse.” Abigail put a calming arm on his plaster cast. At least it used to be calming.

“It itches. How much longer does it have to be on for?”

“Two more weeks. Then you’ll be as good as new. Christina, sit back down please. We haven’t finished.”

“That will be the end of the season! I was going to get player of the season for sure. This is shit.”

Christina looked at her father and Freddie looked up from his plate. Abigail closed her eyes a second too long.

“Michael, language.” Her husband’s voice surprised her, although it was too soft for her liking. She added, “It’s making you better, Michael. It’s not just for show. Christina, please.”

Christina slumped back into her chair. “You shouldn’t have been such an idiot then.”

“Whatever.” Michael shovelled more food into his mouth with his good arm. Peace again.

“Dad,” Christina said, “can I go to Russ’s band’s thing this weekend?”

“Where and what time is it?” Freddie pushed his plate away and sat back. His hands went behind his head.

“Why should she get to go out, she never finishes her dinner, never tidies her room.” Michael had suddenly finished as well and threw his fork down. It missed the plate and crashed into his glass.

Freddie turned to his daughter, incredibly thin and incredibly beautiful. She reminded him of an energy he had lived by a long time ago. “It’s a good question, Teenabopper. Why aren’t you eating?”

“Not hungry.” Arms folded like swords across her chest.

Abigail hunted her daughter’s face. Seeds of shame had been sown somewhere. She couldn’t think why. “Darling, you need to eat.” She said it as gently as she could.

Christina got up and glared at her. “What? So I end up like you?”

The kitchen door slammed. Freddie stood up.

“Please don’t go after her; that was rude.”

“I’m not. I’m going to the gym and then I’ve got a call with Japan. Back soon.”

Michael felt sorry for his mum. He wished he could take away the sadness in her face. She looked defeated. “Shall we have some ice cream, Mum?”


“Doctor, I love my wife. Or I used to. No, of course I still do. But she used to be so different. I couldn’t get enough of her. What do you mean in what way? In every way. I’m a man. I have needs and she filled each one of them. Oh, she was so beautiful. And she taught me things. We used to play this word game after sex. I don’t know why we stopped. Yes, the kids came along. She was always seeing to them. She was perfect and then I just didn’t notice her. The affairs? Not really affairs. They weren’t anything. I suppose so, they were fun and exciting. No, it didn’t mean anything. The weight? Not really. It just crept on. It did annoy me, but I had to keep the money coming in. Sex? Not much. Maybe she was getting it elsewhere.”

“No, Sarah, I never even looked at another man. I always loved Freddie. He remained so beautiful, so handsome. That’s why I felt so ugly and betrayed. He didn’t have to tell me he was disgusted with me, I could see it in his face. The diets helped, he started to notice me again and that felt good. But it was like so much time had gone by. He wanted me back to my university days. That was impossible, we were different people. The kids had finally gone and it was just us again. That was better for him, he got all the attention. What do I want? I just want him to love me for me. I’m fifty-six years old. I’m not nineteen. Yes, we’ve been having sex again. Better for me than him. I do feel guilty about that.”

“Of course I feel guilty, Doctor, but we’re past that now. And I think it’s great she’s back to normal. I mean, I didn’t leave her because she got fat. I’m still here, aren’t I? No, I’m doing this because she wants me to. OK, I can make this easy for you. Perfection. That’s what I want. I love her. So much. Yes, I’m sure about that.”

“I just want to be me, to be happy. He will still say some things. But I think he loves me, maybe too much. Sarah, there’s just a physicality with Freddie. It’s always been there. Oh, I relished in it when I was younger. But now. It’s just good to have my husband back. I know he won’t cheat anymore; we’ve reached a good understanding. It took a while to patch things up, but this has helped. We’ve healed and mended bridges, I think. But you know, Sarah, the plaster can always come off, you know?”


Freddie sat in the car outside the hospital. His thumb hovered over his mobile phone. He couldn’t do it. They could all wait. He threw the phone into the passenger seat.

“SHIT!” He banged his fists on the steering wheel, yelling at it, pounding it, crying to it. He rested his forehead and let the tears flow. He had never been afraid to cry. Tears dropped onto his trousers. He felt cold.

In one decisive moment, Freddie got out of the car. He ran over to the hospital. The woman on the front desk knew him and didn’t stop him as he tore past her, red face and clenched fists. He took a sharp left, running faster, crashing through doors, and bounded two at a time up the stairs to the second floor.

He collapsed at the nurses’ desk. “I need to see her. Please let me back in.”

“You can see her, Mr Balding. But you’ll have to wait. Give me five minutes and I’ll take you to her. All right? Take a seat just there and wait for me.”

Freddie sat and stared at his wedding ring. He hadn’t noticed it in so long. But it had always been there. It felt tight. He tried loosening it, turning it round in his fingers. He remembered first putting it on. It hadn’t been the done thing in those days, but he’d wanted to. Abigail had been right. She had been right about so many things.

“Mr Balding.” The voice was at the end of a long tunnel. He allowed his arm to be taken to a place, sterile, cold and shiny. He followed his arm. There was Abigail.

“I’ll leave you alone.” Someone closed the tunnel and there was silence.

Freddie stepped towards his wife. “Darling.” The vowels echoed off the walls. “Abigail.”

He reached out and touched her hand. There was no need to squeeze it, let her know he was there. He stroked it with his fingertips as he looked towards her face.

The bandage was still partly there. Her eyes and nose were both free, but her cheeks, chin and forehead were still hidden from him.

“I wanted it, didn’t I? Can I see you now? Can I know?” He brought his hands to her face and gently stroked her closed eyes. He felt his wife was there, all there behind those eyelids. That’s what he had first seen, that is where he had fallen all those years ago. He leaned down and kissed them, his own tears on Abigail’s closed eyes.

“You’ll get bored of me. You’ll find someone else.” Had she said those words, laying in his bed, half naked, totally beautiful? “No I won’t. You’re perfect, bloody perfect.”

Freddie rested his hands on her bandaged cheeks and kissed her mouth through it. Abigail would have to stay as she was; perfect inside and him blind to it as he always had been. He walked out of the room to go and call his children. No more cover-ups.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Bandage, a short story

In The Bandage, I am interested in the notion of physical beauty and what it represents to different people; how it comes to define them in their and others' eyes. I wrote this short story a couple of weeks ago while working in the bookshop where there is peace and inspiration aplenty. I am going to post it in two parts. Let me know what you think.

The Bandage

“I can’t wait to see you.”

“I’m just here, Freddie. I’m right here. You can see me right now.”

“I know that, Darling. Don’t be silly, you know what I mean. The package. Everything all new again. It’s going to be amazing when the bandage comes off.”


Abigail sank back into her pillows and closed her eyes. Pain tingled around her face. Her heart felt like it wanted to escape her chest. She was hot, inside; not sweaty. She tried to think how she had gotten here.

“I brought you myself. Is something wrong?” Freddie went closer to the bed and leaned towards his wife, not quite reaching touching distance.

“I… sorry, did I say that out loud?”

“Get some rest, Darling. You’ll need it for the party on Saturday. I’ll be back in a bit.”

She didn’t open her eyes as she heard his soft leather shoes tap out of the room. It was just her, her pain and her unknown face.


“Abi, he’s a wretch! Freddie Balding? You serious?”

Abigail curled her fingers round the wine glass stem. Just hearing his name sent fire through her body. She sat more upright and looked at her friend, who was covered in frowns.

“He’s not.” Her voice was soft. “He’s the sweetest person you’ll ever meet. I know he’s got this reputation, but… oh, you don’t even want to see the poetry he’s written me. He’s passionate. He’s brilliant. When I’m with him-”

Lucy held her hand up and smiled. “OK, I don’t need to hear any more of that. If you’re sure. I just assumed what everyone else does about him. I mean, he’s been linked with some pretty famous faces around town.”

Abigail sipped the last of her wine. Lucy’s face was now full of smirks and questions. She would have to explain. Somehow she would have to tell her friend that Freddie Balding had fallen madly and passionately in love with her and that what had started out as a flirtatious adventure had soon blossomed into something real, something more than sex and pet names. There were now plans to live together after graduating, plans for them to get married on his parent’s ranch in South Africa, plans to have children and a long, wonderful life together.

Later that evening as she biked home Lucy thought about her best friend’s news. She choked on the thought and laughed out loud, full of wine and gossip. Her best friend was going to marry Freddie Balding! The bike hit a cobble and swerved. Lucy went flying into a lamp post. At the wedding that summer people were told Lucy was lucky to be alive, let alone wearing only an ugly bandage around her head.


He woke to the smell of sex and soap. The shutters were down, but the slits of light bursting in orange on the floor said it was another beautiful day.

Freddie rolled onto his side and ran his fingers through his hair before playing with Abigail’s nipple. She had been awake for over an hour, debating whether to leave him while he slept and enjoy the peace of their private beach, invigorate herself in the sea.

“Morning Sexy.” Freddie nuzzled into her side and came around to lie on top of her, his tongue stroking her collarbone and neck.

She shifted under him, he suddenly felt heavy.

“What?” He rolled off and she got out of bed.

“Let’s go outside,” she said, putting on a sarong and opening the blinds. The sun poured in with the sounds of morning birds and waves lapping.

“I’d rather stay here with you. Your drive me wild.” He softened his face. Blond curls fell over his forehead. His bottom lip, plump and pink, stuck out. His green eyes swirled, smooth like homemade ice cream.

Her heart lurched. She smiled at him and pushed it back down. There was no getting over his beauty, his love for her.

“Come on Abs, don’t leave me here all alone. I’d die. My heart would break. I’d bleed to death without you. You would come back and there would just be a pile of blood.” He laid back, hands resting behind his head. She watched his stomach muscles clench and ease and his shoulders relax into the pillows, his tanned skin like toffee over their snow.

Abigail took a step towards him. The sun was warm on her bare feet. It looked so beautiful out there, a whole paradise just for them. She slid onto the bed. He slipped his hands under her sarong.

“You can’t have a pile of blood. It would be a puddle.”

“Well, you saved me, Abs,” he murmured into her hair as she leaned in closer. “You bloody well save me.”

She kissed him on the lips and covered him with her body.


“I’m sorry, Mrs Balding, I can’t tell you where he is. I simply don’t know. The diary says Fletcher meeting, which is a new development south of town. He’s probably running late from that.”

Abigail wondered if secretaries all went to a special school to learn how to speak with the same clipped and feminine tone. And to lie for their bosses.

She put the phone down as Michael walked in the door. “Mummy, Christina’s spilled her milk.” He stood in the middle of the kitchen, a spitting image of his father except in Thomas the Tank Engine clothes. Abigail gathered her son up and took him through to the living room, where his sister was making hand prints from the milk which hadn’t soaked into the carpet.

“Puddles!” she cried when she saw her mother.

Abigail laughed. “Come on you two, come over here. Thomas the Tank Engine will be on in a minute. Wait there. I’ll clean this up. No more hand prints, OK Christina?”

Thumbs went in mouths and silence prevailed for some seconds until the theme tune started. Her children sat happy in their world and Abigail cleaned up the milk listening to the Fat Controller tell off a train.

“Mummy, is the Fat Controller your brother?” Michael looked over at her from the couch.

“No Darling, why do you say that?”

“You have the same faces, Mummy, don’t you?”

Christina shouted, “Mummy Fat Controller!”

Abigail looked at her children. “I’ll bring you some more milk,” she said.

The second part will be posted over the weekend.