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Posts Tagged ‘beginnings’

A story of small beginnings

I didn’t know Uncle Bob, until that day I was ill. At family gatherings, he rarely spoke and always had this vacant look about him, like he wasn’t all there. He was pleasant when spoken to, but never seemed to join in the fun, and seemed a bit,… well,… embarrassed. Dad said he was odd, but Mum – Uncle Bob’s sister – said he was just a bit quiet, and always had been. Dad, being more of an outgoing sort, said that being quiet amounted to the same thing: odd. He seemed to forget I was a bit on the quiet side, too. Or maybe he didn’t.

I can’t tell you exactly what was wrong with me that day. I had a lot of problems, when I went up to big school. I’d been to a rubbish primary, one where they taught more Bible than maths and English, when at big school I discovered maths and English were the things they wanted, while the bible didn’t feature at all. I’d a feeling maths and English were what I wanted to get myself off the ground, but it was a bit late to be starting from scratch. So I was feeling like I didn’t fit in, and that I would never be any good at anything that was really wanted.

Some mornings I couldn’t face things, so I’d invent tummy aches. Nowadays, they’d be calling it mental health issues. I don’t know, maybe it was. All I know is I just hated school, and couldn’t work out how best to fit in, given the backward place I’d come from, and how not to feel like I was disappearing every time I walked through the school gates.

But anyway, this particular morning I’m quivering like a jelly outside the school office, where all the slackers and sick notes got dumped, and some poor teacher draws the short straw, and is told to drive me home. Dad’s at work, which is just as well, because he would have hit the roof, but Mum’s on the way out to work as well, and with a look of disbelief on her face as we draw up. And there’s no one else who can look after me except, maybe,… Uncle Bob.

I’d never been in Uncle Bob’s house before. Dad would never go round, you see? It wasn’t like our place. We lived in a semi on the edge of town. Mum and Dad had gone through it, made it all modern. We had a telephone, and a colour TV, and even some plastic grass instead of the real thing, so Dad didn’t have to mow it. They were well off, my parents on account of them both working. Both drove cars, which was rare in those days. Meanwhile, Uncle Bob lived in this place up by the moors. It wasn’t a big house but stood on its own, and was shaded by these big oak trees from the front, but open to the moors at the back. Dad said it hadn’t been touched since Adam was a lad, that it looked neglected, and creepy.

There was no TV, not even a black and white one, and worst of all, no telephone. If uncle Bob wanted to ring anyone up, he had to walk a mile down the lane to the phone box, not that he ever did – ring anyone up that is – and of course no one could ring him. You might wonder how anyone could manage, now, but in those days you could do everything you needed to do by letter. They were slower times, and no one expected an answer to anything straight away. It had electricity and water, but Dad said Uncle Bob used very little, and either lit candles or went to bed when it was dark. I don’t know if this was true. Dad said a lot of things about Uncle Bob, but I think this was more to reassure himself the way he lived was the right way of thinking about things, and Uncle Bob’s was wrong.

So anyway,… Mum can’t ring Uncle Bob to ask if he can look after me. She has to drive round on the off chance he’s in and not off out on his motorbike somewhere. She’s getting agitated because it’s a way out of her way, and she’s already running late, and frazzled by it, and I’m feeling like a burden, and dreading the thought of a day with my odd uncle Bob.

He looks surprised when he opens the door, me and Mum on the doorstep, and me unable to meet his eyes.

“Hello, Sandra,” he says.

I’d never heard him say mum’s name before. He spoke it warmly, like there was a person inside of him, a warm person, with feelings. But I could sense Mum was uncomfortable. I suppose it was living with Dad. Bob was her brother, and they’d grown up together, so there was a blood bond between them, but Dad was her husband, and though he never said anything rude to Bob’s face, he said plenty that was rude behind his back.

Bob was only a little older than Mum, but already retired by then, or at least he wasn’t working. When I asked Mum about it, she said it was complicated. Dad said it wasn’t complicated at all, that Bob was just a layabout. I learned later on Mum and Bob had inherited quite a bit of money, when Granddad passed away. Mum and Dad had used their share doing up the house, and changing their cars for newer ones, then going to Spain a couple of times. Bob had banked the money and given up his job instead, calculating that, if he lived frugally, he could make it to pension age without having to do another shift down the pit. It was some years later when I learned about his friend, Stephan, losing an eye and an arm in a pit accident, and Uncle Bob having to stop the bleeding, and Stephan screaming with pain until the deputy came along, with a shot of morphine. Things like that happened a lot in the pit. I wouldn’t have wanted to go back underground after that, and given the chance,… well,….

Anyway, from what Mum and Dad said, I expected Uncle Bob’s house to be falling apart, even a bit dirty, but it was all right. It was just a bit different, that’s all. He had a lot of books – walls of them. Books to read – stories and such, books that told you about stuff, and then lots of notebooks that he wrote in and, most surprising of all to me, he had a table set up in the back lean-to, where the light was good, and in there he used to paint little post-card sized pictures of trees and flowers, and chestnuts and leaves,… not to sell or anything. When he’d done, he just kept them all in a shoe-box.

I suppose we made a bit of a prickly start, that day, both me and Uncle Bob being of a reticent nature, and then me with my head full of the things Dad had said about him. I wondered if I was being punished, actually. I’d caused such a fuss, coming home from school like that, I imagined the grown-ups had conspired to make sure I wouldn’t be doing again it in a hurry, and how better to do that than have me spend the day with Uncle Bob. I heard Mum’s car disappearing down the road as she hurried off to work, and my heart sank. He stood there for a bit, like he’d not a clue what to do, and then he said:

“Do you like drawing?”

And I said: “I’m no good at drawing. ” Because, like I told you, I felt I wasn’t good at anything, and it was too late to be starting.

And Uncle Bob said: “That’s not what I asked.”

No. It wasn’t. And I did like it. Drawing I mean. But it seemed the world I’d entered needed you to be a genius at everything right away, or it wasn’t interested. “Well,… I like it, but,…”

“Liking it’s a start,” he said. “Liking’s it’s a good start. The best start. As for being good at it,” He shrugged. “Who cares? But that’s something we can sort out, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

He nodded. “Follow me.”

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Les joueurs d’echecs – Honore Daumier

So, I’ve decided my name is Thomas Marston. I was a Captain in the Queen’s Royal Highlanders, and I’m a hundred and forty-one years old. My birthday celebrations have been somewhat muted since everyone I know is long dead. Also, the ongoing pandemic in the UK is still making it difficult to get people together – not that I bother much with birthdays anyway at my age.

We’re into our third year of quarantine now, with most other countries, bar the States of course, pretty much back to normal. But if you have a fully stamped CV passport, with all the known mutations up to date, you can at least get into town now and then for a coffee, which is what I’m doing here. Before all this kicked off I’d fallen into the bad habit of shambling into town wearing any old muck. Nowadays, I polish my shoes and press my trousers, like it’s a special occasion, which I suppose it is, mostly on account of its rarity.


The café is quiet this morning. There’s just this fierce looking woman, sitting over there in the corner. She appears to be glowering at me over the rim of her teacup and looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t place her. Then there’s that old guy, sitting by the window. I spotted her before I spotted him. I don’t know what her problem is. Could we have met before, and I was inadvertently rude or something? Might we have had a relationship at one time? The latter seems unlikely. For all of my advanced years, I have no problem with my memory and I clearly recall the last woman I courted was in nineteen fifty two.


Relationships are a particular problem, as you can imagine. I’m told I’d still pass for forty – which is the age I normally claim – but romantic entanglements tend to fall apart when the lady in question finds out how old I really am. It’s not that I’m bothered much about that sort of thing any more, though at times I feel the company would be pleasant. Anyway, she’s definitely not an old flame – I mean most of those would be very old indeed by now. Something about me interests her though, and it doesn’t look to be in a good way. Perhaps she mistakes me for someone else.

As for the old guy, what’s interesting about him is he’s got this little fold-out travelling chess set, and he’s playing both sides of the board. You’d see that a lot in cafés, and on long train journeys, once upon a time, but not any more. Now we just flick on our phones. He has an old-world look about him – nudging eighty perhaps. He sees me looking, unhooks his mask and gestures.

“Do you play?” he asks.

I do, actually. My game is unimaginative, but solid. After all, I’ve had a longer time to practice than most people, and you can’t help picking up a few tricks along the way. He’s well-dressed, a tweed jacket and tie sort of guy, and he has a kindly sort of face. He’s probably lonely, so I see no harm,…


Then my mobile rings, which pulls me up a bit. It rarely rings, since very few people have my number. So, if it does ring, it’s usually a scam, or a cold call. I note it’s a London number, and I don’t know anyone in London. Okay, so here we go: it’s an automated voice purporting to be from HMRC, the UK tax authority. They’re threatening criminal action against me for fraud. I make a note of the number, block it, then mail the number out to the government’s cyber-security service. I’m sure they do their best with this sort of thing, but I can’t help imagining they must be overwhelmed.

So, then I set the phone aside, bring myself back into the moment, but by now the old guy has gone, ditto the woman, and the café. Instead, I’m sitting at the dining table in front of the laptop, blinking into the morning sunshine through my window, chasing the tails of a story as it slips back into the unconscious.

I suppose there were scammers a plenty, even in Marston’s younger days. But we seem more vulnerable to attack now, the shady ones turning up in the middle of our thoughts, in the middle of our living rooms and leaving dirty footprints on the carpet. They hit you with a carefully crafted line to get your attention, then it’s on with their nefarious patter. If only such ingenuity were put to good use, we would surely have solved the millions of problems that vex mankind by now.

It’s easy to think no one would ever fall for such things, but the innocent and the unwary do, and clearly often enough to make it worth the while. As for me, it spoiled the taste of my coffee. To remain innocent and trusting throughout life is surely a virtue worth protecting, and one of the unspoken crimes of the scammers, even against those wise to their tricks, is to render us cynical and suspicious of the world.


Anyway,… Captain Thomas Marston. I’ve used him before. Interesting. I thought we’d done with each other but apparently not. And if not, then I’m sure I’ll catch up with him later on, find out what else he has to say for himself.

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Les joueurs d’échecsHonoré Daumier – 1863

So, I’m thinking of writing a story about chess. Well, not actually about chess, but somehow it’ll feature chess. Why? Well, it’s popular at the moment, thanks to the Nexflix series “Queen’s gambit”. I should get some downloads on the back of that, especially if there’s a chess piece on the cover of my book. What’s not to like? Okay, let’s go,…


I see a couple of oldish guys. Yes, I know, young strapping bucks would be better, guys of college age, say, where the female interest is so young they’re still playing with Barbie-dolls. But that was all such a long time ago for me, so oldish guys it is because you’ve got to write what you know, and I’ve not the patience to fake it any more.


They meet in a coffee shop. One guy’s playing both sides of a pocket chess set. He sees our hero sitting there on his own, looking glum, so invites him to play. He’s testing this theory the world’s gone to hell in a hand-cart. Not only that, but he reckons the general public is as thick as mince, as evidence by the fact no one plays chess any more, except him. But our hero does. He doesn’t play like a pro, but he manages a decent game. He doesn’t win, but has the old guy sweating a bit. They agree to meet again and play some more.

The old chess guy has a daughter – ah, here we go! Her husband’s gone off somewhere with a floozy, and broke her heart. She’s no kids because I don’t want any kids in this story. Kids always take centre stage. They whine a lot, and have the adults running round like simpletons, trying to please them. So, no kids. Right?

The daughter? Well, she’s a looker of course, otherwise why bother? And she’s posh. She comes across our two old guys playing chess, and our hero falls in love with her, I mean at once. Heavily, deeply, seriously. But this is no ordinary love. This is from the depths. It’s an unconscious projection of ground shaking, Biblical proportions. But there’s a serious age gap. Let’s make it thirty years, so she’s not going to look twice at him. I mean, he’s not even worn well. He’s grey and craggy, and he’s been ill, and he looks a mess with soup stains down his jumper. And he’s not stupid. He knows there’s no prospect of a Hollywood dénouement there. But that said, what the hell is he supposed to do?

Then it turns out the old guy’s some kind of toff, with a big house in the country. He starts inviting our man out there for weekends, so he sees a lot of the daughter, as well as playing chess. She’s sweet and intelligent, still young enough to start over, and live a normal life with someone her own age. As for our guy, she’s a little frosty with him, thinks he’s weird actually, because he’s edgy when he’s around her, on account of him thinking she’s a goddess. But he’d never say anything about that because he’s a gent, and knows it’s better to do the decent thing. So far, so unrequited, and long may it remain so.

So that’s the set-up, but now the story’s up to fifty thousands words, and fizzling out because I’ve no idea how to solve the puzzle of it. It’s as well I never started writing the thing in the first place, isn’t it? Maybe it just needs another character to unlock it.

Okay, I see an older woman, someone unsentimental, practical, sturdy and above all human. I see the kind who’d wash his jumper in exchange for him mowing her grass occasionally, and just,… well, helping him to smarten himself up a bit, because she sees something in him it would be a shame to let life crush the – well – the life from. But let’s not get carried away here. She’s no time for love-stories. She isn’t even looking for a man. But she doesn’t mind sharing a glass of wine with one, so long as he doesn’t go thinking that gives him rights of ownership.

Now, she sounds interesting, and I’m liking the sound of things again, so we’ll push it out another twenty thousand, see where it leads. But then, ah,… damn,… there’s still the Covid problem. I mean this is a contemporary story, so strangers can’t meet that way any more, can they? Nor can they go inviting them round to each other’s houses. Plus, the cafés are shut, and we’re all wearing face-masks which makes it hard to read people, let alone fall in love or play chess with them. And the world’s such an unstable place now. I mean God knows what’ll come along next and hijack the story in the middle of my writing it? Been there, done that. Got the tee-shirt. Twice.

Maybe I’m better going off-world this time, writing a space-opera. I’ve done a bit of Sci Fi in the dim and distant, and that might be the safest thing to write in 2021, something well away from our physical reality. Or I could dip once more into the liminal zone between dream-time and topside, where anything is possible and anything can be true. But contemporary love, tenderness, empathy, the subtlety of human relationships? Hell, man, that looks like it’s over, unless you can do it by Zoom or something. I can set it back to 2015, but I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning, let alone who the PM was in 2015, or what was on the TV, and was Netflix even a thing back then? No, I’m hardly going to do justice to the background details, am I?

So, we’ll park it there for the better and save ourselves a whole year of trouble, never having typed so much as an opening line. Maybe some other writer will have the pleasure and the pain of it. Or no, wait,… how’s this:

“Do you play?”

No, it doesn’t speak much to me yet, it doesn’t suggest this cast of characters has much to show me. And it’s me they’ve got to seduce first. But, that said, whether the story gets written or not, it’s as good a start as any. So we’ll sleep on it. If the dream fairy gives me a working title by morning, we’re on.

Good night all, and welcome to 2021.

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