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THE WARM DARK TUNNEL

Freddie Hudson was cursed with a great memory. He could remember everything that ever happened to him. Every slight, every cruel comment disguised as humour, every kiss that led to heartache, every promise not kept, every humiliation, every betrayal by a friend, every stumble and fall in a life lived in search of meaning.

There were also bad memories too.

He remembered coming out of that warm dark tunnel of darkness and gazing up at the doctor painfully dragging him into a cold and clinical world. He had tried with all his might to scramble back but it was no use as the uncaring determined doctor gripped his little head harder and forced him into a place he wasn’t sure about. He always thought perhaps that was why he had a long neck. Some told him, much later, that it was the sign of good breeding but it never convinced him enough to give up his own theory.

On first viewing his parents seemed nice so Freddie decided to hang about and a short time later found himself cradled in his mother’s arms, his grinning dad beside them, in the backseat of a taxi on its way to what would become his boyhood home.

Once settled in his cozy compact blue room he began thinking about the meaning of it all and what all this fuss would eventually come to. He felt awkward imposing on this obviously struggling couple and guilty for the pain he had already caused his mother. This fear of imposing on people would remain with him all his life.

His dad like to drink stout and this miracle brew seemed put the old boy in high spirits – although it clearly had the opposite effect on mum.

“Stout is good for me!” his dad would utter with all the urgency of a serial killer pleading Not Guilty.

“Not when you’ve had ten bottles it isn’t!” Mum would counter in her best Perry Mason voice.

Observing all this sitting on his dad’s lap, Freddie was beginning to suspect he may be a genius. Well, at least in this household. After all, surely the solution to all this was simple. If only mum could just down a few pints herself she could join father and son in singing sea shanties that made absolutely no sense to anyone. And see the fun in it?

She didn’t. And so most nights his parents played another game where they would both reenacted the Battle of the Somme. Freddie very much appreciated the obvious effort they both put into this but it invariably left all three dissipated and feeling defeated.

It wasn’t long before Freddie was up and about and dispatched to school, an institution he loathed with every cell in his body. He thought it truly fraudulent that the teachers spoke gibberish and got paid for it. Yet part of him marvelled at their trickery and on several occasions offered to take over the class with his own form of gibberish which, instead of being rewarded for, got him beaten by the said teachers until he could hardly walk home. Upon completing that long painful journey he’d be greeted at the door by his smiling mum and the words, “How was school today, son?” On one such occasion Freddie found it difficult to speak so his mum cut in with her motivational skills, “Don’t worry, your dad and I were idiots at school too!” Freddie was tempted to ask if he could crawl back into her warm dark tunnel and shimmy up far enough to fall through some trap door and back to whence he came before he was so rudely awakened to this mad place. But refrained in the spirit of good taste and reverence.

Having survived school, Freddie realised he was old enough to be married so he did. He found a girl who seemed to honestly love him so he figured she was a good candidate to try and recreate the joyful association his parents had endured.  And so they took that huge journey down the aisle and thereafter were happy and life was simple and good for a time. Until it wasn’t.

Oneday she said something to him that he couldn’t forget. Or forgive.  So he went on alone trying to forget her and failing.

But as things developed, there was much to do, and shopping lists of things to clutter a life in order to distract a mind that never slept. Freddie’s religion was to stay busy. In a way he thought this would ward off death. For although this life had holes in it, it was all he knew.

He liked to hang out with his friend Jimmy Helle who’d never uttered anything that wasn’t a lie but his choice of words was compelling. Together they whiled away the days, one telling tall tales and the other pretending to buy them for the sake of a friendship. It was a fine relationship because they needed nothing from each other, other than the shared knowledge that they were witnesses to the futility of the passing parade.

Another pal was Alby who had more moves than a snake and was just as quick to disappear when a bar bill was presented. Alby was so dumb he joined ISIS thinking he was working for the CIA.

Around this time, Freddie had the sobering realisation that he had $32.56 to his name so he wrote a bunch of film scripts and hit the jackpot. Suddenly he found that he was irresistible to many women and it wasn’t long before he chose one of them to accompany him down the aisle. Again.

Things went swimmingly for a number of years and he found himself to be on everyone’s lips, especially actresses in need of a job. Or therapy.

Money rolled in but Freddie was too   busy to enjoy himself. Luckily he had a wife who wasn’t so busy so every day she very kindly thought up ways to spend his new found fortune. She was genius when it came to spending money and Freddie thought himself blessed to have her.

Freddie was also surrounded by a team of men who were good with numbers, which was a great relief to him as he’d found math to be as ridiculous as geomatry at school. He was told by these numbers men to just keep on doing what he was doing, whatever that was, and they’d handle the rest.

After Freddie had exhausted himself making 193 films in two years, the numbers men seemed disappointed that the workload hadn’t killed him. So crestfallen were they that they all took holidays at the same time and never returned. Freddie thought it was a little strange that he hadn’t received a postcard or any information on where all his money could be located. This was a major inconvenience as he’d been planning to take his wife (if he could get her out of the shops) and young son on a little holiday of their own.

The kindly men who were good with numbers finally popped up again years later and made a splash in the irrigation business before finally discovering their niche grading horse semen.

Soon Freddie’s name was mud everywhere, including his own home, and it wasn’t long before the Tax Department thought it might be opportune to lend a boot to the situation by charging Freddie with fraud. It wasn’t long before he found himself facing Judge Kafka in the Farce of the Century. Unfortunately Freddie didn’t have Paul Hogan’s millions, or even his own, to make the Laxative Department look like fools, so he had to rely on plain old common sense. Representing himself, Freddie stood and asked the Judge if the definition of fraud was “to financially benefit yourself through deception?” Judge Kafka smiled and affirmed that that was indeed the case. Freddie then stated, “Well I don’t have any money. So I guess I have disadvantaged no one through the deception of myself that the numbers men would take care of business whilst I was making 193 films. No further questions, you Dingbat” and sat.

This sent the court into an uproar. It had been a long while since common sense had been heard in public and the judge toyed with the idea of having him charged with contempt of court. The Lax Department then dropped the charge altogether and wanted to have Freddie retried on the grounds that they couldn’t understand the plot to one of his movies. Freddie stood  and asked them if they were able to follow The Lady From Shanghai to which they replied, “Not on your Nellie, no way” and asked the Judge to have Orson Welles joined in the proceedings. That’s when pandemonium broke out in the courtroom and Freddie was convicted for a parking offence, paid the appropriate fine and walked free. Then caught a tram home.

Urged by his wife (it was a public holiday and the shops were closed) to go to Hollywood and make another fortune for his family, Freddie accepted the challenge. Unfortunately, once he was away his wife, trying her own hand at fiction, told his impressionable son that Daddy had deserted them, leaving them penniless, except for a mansion and everything in it.

Whilst pounding the pavements in Hollywood, Freddie’s wife scored another bargain and moved one of her co-workers into the master bedroom to cope with those long, lonely nights and had Freddie served with divorce papers.

Pretty soon Freddie was seen drinking in bars that even Charles Bukowski would’ve turned his nose up at. He started on white wine and soon hit the harder stuff. One night he had a terrible nightmare and glimpsed hell in all its ugliness and debauchary surrounded by lost souls all screaming for mercy.  But taking a second look he realised he was actually standing on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Western at 3am waiting for the lights to change.

Work started to come Freddie’s way and soon he was being invited to all the right parties. Demi Moore wanted him to write a screenplay and Sharon Stone wanted him to take a shower with her.

Every day without fail Freddie sent home, well what was once his home,  gifts, cards, drawings, letters and, when he had it, money,  to his son. But strangely the money never seemed to reach his son and somehow ended up in the bank account of a doctor who shot Botox into women’s faces.

Freddie thought it was about time he wised up, so he married a bipolar movie star in Miami. They returned to L.A and settled in a rented home in Sherman Oaks and there was peace in the Valley. For a time. Some nights her mood swings suited the music and somehow together they stumbled through it. Two against the world. At times Freddie didn’t know if he was coming or going but after four years he found himself between leaving and gone. One particularly hard night, Freddie walked into the darkness and laid down in the road waiting for a bus to run over him.  Unfortunately for him there was a bus strike that night and misfortune followed misfortune until the marriage ended.

Somehow he came to be running a restaurant and proved to be so popular with patrons he was voted the unofficial Mayor of Santa Monica. He made some great pals amongst those he worked with like Ben, Gordon, Cathy, Pat, David, Neth and many drinks were consumed after closing time amidst shared laughter and stories. For a time it felt like he was part of a family again.

On the other hand, the two owners he worked for, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, were insane. Dum had the personality of white wallpaper and was the only wealthy Jewish doctor in L.A who couldn’t get laid. If he sat beside an attractive woman at the bar of his own restaurant and struck up a conversation with her, she’d be gone within 10 minutes. Sometimes less. Freddie named the empty bar stool next to Dum as the Seat of Death. His partner, Dee, always had a smile on his face even when you told him your mother had just died. He also spoke at a thousand miles an hour like a man who’d found the secret recipe of how to make speed.

Doctor Dum would sit on his regular bar stool every night after boring off every attractive woman in Hollywood and snarl at how popular Freddy was with people. It wasn’t long before Freddie was given his marching orders and on his way again, into the night with a thousand eyes and no particular place to go.

On one such night he gave all of his remaining possessions away and made his bed on the beach thinking, like the Indians do, that it was a perfect night to die. No sadness. No self-pity. In fact he welcomed the chance to now depart this strange world, leaving it like he came into it, with nothing. He closed his eyes and drifted off expecting to enter that warm dark tunnel again that would hopefully lead to a light. Or something.

But instead, he awakened to a new dawn and the disappointing realisation that a homeless person hadn’t killed him during his sleep. Then he looked around and witnessed a dawn of breathless beauty, and finally heard the voice of God as it said unto him, “Leave your cross here and find the music again.”

Freddie misinterpreted this message to mean go forth and populate so he found a jumpin’ little joint on Pico and exchanged numbers with lots of Black girls, until finally he got the right translation that it was all about the music being played at this club by a band of all stars led by Wadstar and Turk.

One night the doorman Basil Wrathbone sussed that Freddie had nowhere to go so he invited him back to his pad to share another 437 beers until they collapsed on the carpet and awoke a week later.

Sometimes between late at night and early in the morning, the bewitching hours, Freddie would see his new best friend appear giving a perfect impression of Creeping Jesus as he quietly inched in the darkness towards the Venetian blinds and nervously peeked out, whispering “The C.I.A are looking for us!” To which Freddie would reply from his living room sofa bed, “Why?” This question would rattle Basil and he’d give a knowing smile and creep back to his room. Sometimes they’d get so paranoid from this nightly activity that they’d watch endless repeats of Sherlock Holmes on TV in the hope that something, anything, would be resolved.

One day Freddie’s cousin thought he may be useful to him so he paid for his airfare to get him back to his suspicious homeland, Australia, the land of second chances and forked tongues.

Freddie returned and everyone patted him on the back.  Yes, everyone seemed pleased to see him except his old editor, the famous drunk about town Peter McBland who was genius at cutting the plot out of every film he edited.

Freddie was excited to see his son again but found that the young man’s heart and head had been poisoned by a woman who resented that her only achievement had been hitching herself to Freddie’s wagon. One night he invited his son to dinner and excitedly prepared a roast with all the trimmings and waited. And waited. Sometime after midnight Freddie turned the oven off. And something deep inside him too. Possibly the hope that the truth would win out and a happy ending might prevail. But life clearly wasn’t a movie.

An old friend Richard Masters, whom Freddie had once given a big break to, remembered enough to repay the favour. Richard was now running a very successful underground film festival aptly named P.U.S.S.Y and honoured Freddie by presenting a retrospective of 8 of his old movies. It was a roaring success and audiences cried in all the wrong places and the films were now deemed to be classics.

Freddie was hailed as a legend and people thrust awards at him in the hope that they’d weigh him down and he’d become stagnant like good old safe legends are supposed to behave. But it didn’t work and the bastard continued to live and produce new works.

In fact he lived to be 100 and received a telegram from the Queen  which read, “You’re a fucking miracle, Brad.” The fact that the silly old bitch had gotten his name wrong after too many G&Ts didn’t dilute Freddie’s delight in receiving this thoughtful correspondence and so he went on about his life, making mistakes, taking people at their word, searching for meaning in everything, and just being human.

His final words were reported to be, “Awwwfuckyasall!” Or something to that effect as he passed from this earthly world back into that warm dark tunnel of mystery, taking his place in our cherished and grossly rewritten history.

Text (c) Frank Howson 2017

Painting (c) Frank Howson 2017

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SO THIS IS HEAVEN.

 

The hardest thing to get used to in heaven is that there’s no time. Not that much of a problem for me as having been a writer I was used to nights turning into days whilst I chiseled away at a new work. There’s not much point continuing that profession up here as no one seems to have the time to read. But here’s something for old times sake.

What’s heaven like? Well, it’s like Portsea with nicer people. No one brags about what car they own, or their penthouse in London, or how they made a killing on the market this week because of a pending war. Conversations like that seem a little facile here. Oh, and you can’t judge anyone by the cut of their clothes as birthday suits are the fashion of the day in this place.

Yes, we’re a friendly bunch. All the veils that separated us on earth have been stripped away and the fear of intimacy no longer exists. That’s probably because our leader (he hates being called that) is such a down to earth person. On arrival he told me I could call him anything so I now address him as Ted. My first request was to meet Jesus but Ted (whom I assumed was his father) just smiled and said, “Haven’t you worked that out yet? You’re all Jesus.” He really loves answering any questions with a complete mind-fuck that silences you. A bit like Bob Dylan. It may take an eternity for me to get what he means. So, I mainly sit and ponder until my head hurts.

There are some really beautiful women to gaze upon. I like to hit on Marilyn Monroe which is an exercise in futility as there’s no sex here. We seem to not need it anymore, or the expectations and responsibilities that used to accompany it. We generally just chat which consists of smiling and staring at someone while you read their thoughts.

Ted, our leader who hates to be called a leader, loves chatting about his favourite food recipes. He keeps promising to let me taste his Peach Melba but so far he hasn’t delivered. In fact, there are no meals as that’s kinda pointless too.

One day, or was it night?, I asked Ted what the point of creating the human race was, and he answered, “Well I wanted to find out what’d happen if I dumped a whole lot of ignorant people into a paradise, gave them total free will,  and waited for the result.” I prompted him for an answer, “Which was?…” And he smiled and replied, “Pointless”. I’m going to need to sit and ponder that too.

The good news for men is we don’t have to shave anymore. And ladies don’t have to pluck anything.

I play cards with Freud, who should be called Fraud as he cheats at everything, and Van Gogh (still a grumpy bastard who can’t read a thing you’re saying). If Grumpy tells me again he only sold two paintings on earth I’m going to have to clock him. Vincent and I currently owe Fraud several million dollars but again it’s kinda…pointless.

Marilyn is looking very alluring as I sit here but the cruel bitch just likes to tease me. She taunts me with tales of how good Milton Berle was in bed and the fact that he used to trip over his own cock. This has obviously left a lasting impression on her. I wish I didn’t have to read her mind, it’s painful.

The one thing we do have is music. Ted is a freak about it. I sometimes think it’s like being trapped in an elevator and having to listen to endless muzak. Wagner is a favourite of Ted’s, although he occasionally, thank God, slips in some Elvis, whom he confidentially informs me was just as chosen as Jesus. I am now pondering the conundrum that both Jesus and Elvis are in us all.

This could take several more eternities to work out before I’ll have a follow-up question that won’t embarrass me in front of Ted.

God, he demands a lot.

It just crossed my mind that, between Freud’s cheating, Van Gogh’s whining, Marilyn’s tauntings about Uncle Milty’s cock, Wagner endlessly played far too loud, and Ted’s oblique answers, this could be hell.

 

(c) Frank Howson 2017

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GOODBYE BLACK, HELLO BLUE

The street beneath my feet
Has never let me down
Unlike the people
Who think they own this town
I tried my luck
But the cards were cut
When I complained
I was told to shut up

Goodbye black, hello blue
What happens next depends on you
I miss the world I thought I knew
Goodbye black, hello blue

I gave myself to you
But then you lost your nerve
I was your army
Always ready to serve
You cut me off
And you burned my flag
I surrender
In peace I pack my bag

Goodbye black, hello blue
I'll spend my life forgetting you
I'll miss the dreams that won't come true
Goodbye black, hello blue

So I'll be off
Until who knows when
I'll see you in the stars
Until the broken heal again

Goodbye black, hello blue
What happens now we can't undo
I'll miss the love I never knew
Goodbye black, hello blue

(c) Frank Howson 2017

Title suggested by Chris Thomas.


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MY FAVOURITE BOOKS LIST

A friend asked me to pick my 10 fave books of all time. The 10 best of anyting is a hard ask but here’s goes. I have chosen those 50 books that moved me the most and had the biggest influence.

1) THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2) GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens.

3) THE DISENCHANTED by Budd Schulberg.

4) THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde.

5) NODDY IN TOYLAND by Enid Blyton

6) A LIFE by Elia Kazan.

7) CRAZY SUNDAYS – F. SCOTT FITZGERALD IN HOLLYWOOD by Aaron Latham

8) CHRONICLES by Bob Dylan.

9) THIS IS ORSON WELLES by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich.

10) A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway.

11) THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

12) IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

13) A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens

14) HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain

15) WHAT’S EXACTLY THE MATTER WITH ME by P.F. Sloan

16) DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller

17) TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

18) TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald

19) POWER WITHOUT GLORY by Frank Hardy

20) PETER PAN by James M. Barrie

21) DIARY OF AN UNKNOWN by Jean Cocteau

22) ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE by William Goldman

23) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD by Ron Hansen

24) SCOTT & ERNEST by Matthew Bruccoli

25) THE POWER OF MYTH by Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers.

26) ERROL FLYNN – A MEMOIR by Earl Conrad

27) ON THE STREET WHERE I LIVE by Alan Jay Lerner

28) DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD by Eric Burdon with J. Marshall Craig

29) OLIVIER ON ACTING by Laurence Olivier

30) THE MUSIC GOES ROUND MY HEAD by David Johnston

31) FREE ASSOCIATION by Steven Berkoff

32) THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE by Robert Evans

33) MARILYN by Norman Mailer

34) HITCHCOCK BY TRUFFAUT

35) A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway

36) JOURNAL OF A NOVEL by John Steinbeck

37) PICTURE by Lillian Ross

38) HOME BEFORE DARK by Ruth Park

39) TINSEL by William Goldman

40) PORTRAITS by Helmut Newton

41) THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT by Quentin Crisp

42) THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell

43) TEN GREAT PLAYS by William Shakespeare

44) FINISHING THE HAT by Stephen Sondheim

45) W. C. FIELDS – HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES by Robert L. Taylor

48) THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN Volume 1 by Mark Twain

49) IN HIS OWN WRITE by John Lennon

50) THE ENTERTAINER by John Osbourne

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SLANDERED

Come to think of it, I have been slandered most of my life, one way or another. I guess it’s the price you pay for getting off your ass, sticking your neck out, and achieving something. Of course you sometimes stumble, that’s comes with the territory and sadly those moments will be the only ones your enemies cling to. It disappoints but makes you harder. At those times it will be difficult to see the humanity in others and to hold onto your belief that at the heart of all things lies a goodness. But in order to do your best work you must struggle to believe in those things even if you are bereft of evidence.

Why do people who know better, or should, slide to slander another? Envy? Ignorance? To elevate themselves at another’s expense? Or something far darker?

Wilheim Reich once wrote a book entitled “The Murder of Christ” – its conceit was that the murder of Christ keeps on being perpetrated. In a nutshell, all of us are born with a light force but most have it beaten out of us in childhood through dysfunctional parents or a school system that turns circles into squares. Those of us that retain that child-like light force, or positive openness to life, are doomed to ridicule, slander and the spiteful, destructive actions of others. The soul destroying realization is that most of these negative attacks are from those who profess to be friends.

According to Reich these people are mostly unaware of their actions or intentions. It is as if your mere existence irritates them. You see, light will always attract to itself the darkness that cannot rest until it has extinguished it.

The celebrated writer Arthur Miller, who was always reticent to discuss his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, once said, “It’s strange, but that girl seemed to draw to herself the very people who would destroy her.”

I have had my integrity attacked by law breakers; my talent questioned by people who couldn’t spell their name; my vision ridiculed by hacks who couldn’t direct traffic (and then went on to publicly prove it), my sanity tested by the mentally impaired, my compassion thrown back in my face by those whose dictionary does not contain the word “empathy”, and judged by thieves in a world where only materialistic items and wealth are valued.

I once stood up over a principal – I refused to work with a man who broke the law. In order to be rid of him I had to burn the fort. And myself. I once told Warren Zevon that story and not long after he wrote a song called, “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down.” Yep. I have the scars to prove it.

And yes, the days do grow short when you reach September. My life has been simplified by circumstance and I’ve paid greatly for that principal. I guess I grew up watching too many Gary Cooper films where the hero risked it all but won in the final reel. But they were just movies. Wish fulfillment. Childish dreams of a more just world.

More people have been murdered by words than by a gun or a sword. There are many killers amongst us who think by spreading unfounded gossip they don’t have blood on their hands.

The truth is, in the end, it doesn’t much matter to most people. And, sadly, neither does the truth. We live in a modern world where it is no longer respected. People are only interested in the abridged Readers Digest version that they can misquote at dinner parties in-between snorting lines of coke and boring everyone senseless with tales about how busy they are on their journey to death. They get their news from gossip rags like the National Enquirer, or some other celebrity dirt publication. They form their views from Chinese Whispers. They get their music lessons from Nero.

Your only reward in a Spartan life is to sleep the sleep of the just. And being able to look at your own reflection without flinching.

 

(c) Frank Howson 2014

 

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BULWARK

Empty like the dawn. The news channel plays static in my region. Ghosts haunt this apartment wearing masks of old lovers in order to taunt me. The telephone screams and the toaster purposely burns my bread. Sullied like thy father whose art is in heaven, leading me hot into Perdition, chained and whipped by forces of my own undoing. Gentle be thy name until I am called at midnight to visit the homes of the stars. Everyone of them shooting for a living, making stories of redemption and compassion while they condemn their workers to a hell on earth. Overt your eyes, dear servant, for nothing good comes of intimacy just pain and hang overs and the search for meaning in the nothingness of this bottomless well. Arise you cripples and walk, proud-like, James Arness-like, from this Holocaust we called home.

Beyond this space is the room nobody lives in. I have glimpsed pictures of it in a magazine in the days when such things mattered. Whatever happened to the Kinks and their sibling hatred as I darn my socks before throwing them out. All things must be mended before they are discarded says the good book but I have lost my place.

I watch movies of dead people acting happy in front of painted sets, their witty dialogue an offence before God.

People who are friends push past on their way to talk to those who hate them. Their name must’ve been in the paper this week and one senses they should know where “it’s all happening.”

I’m not sure Tonto was happy.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend sings Marilyn but she smiles as though she knows the truth about the Kennedys. She was always a smart girl, it’s there in her eyes.

I have been plotting my demise for some time now but can’t find the right door. Perhaps Tuesday.

Gladiators are felled by bad luck and a chip on their shoulders. Sometimes in the morning mist it is possible to see clearly.

The sea has risen around my island and although I find the view pleasing, the water is cold.

(c) Frank Howson 2014

 

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THE BIRTHDAY BOY

The old man had clearly lost his mind.

The young nurses at the home all loved him. He made them laugh. He regaled them with stories of his youth and all the beautiful women he’d known who’d loved him too.

These days his mind wandered and he found it increasingly difficult to concentrate for too long on any one subject or thought or conversation.  But he always had a smile for you. His mum had taught him that. “It doesn’t cost anything y’know and it can brighten up someone’s life.” He’d taken her advice seriously, as he’d done with most things she’d said, and he became known as a smiler. No matter how disastrous the turns of his life were he had a smile for you. Maybe that’s why he’d been taken into the hearts of so many lovely women who’d enjoyed his company.

He couldn’t much tell what was a memory or what was a dream anymore. Perhaps at some point it doesn’t really matter.

He wondered whether he’d told the nurses about how Marilyn Monroe had once stopped on the street to return his smile and touch his cheek. He could still feel her warm hand when he closed his eyes. She was so much softer in real life, and had the most beautiful caring eyes. He couldn’t help but tell her how much he loved her and she just smiled at him, the way Goddesses do. It was a sympathetic smile to one who could never have her in a million years but because of her soft heart she cared enough to leave him this beautiful memory. Something she knew would one day keep an old man warm.

He remembered being a young child and seeing the great Australian boxer Les Darcy step out of the shadows of a doorway and smile at him. Les was confident and successful and even a kid knew he was bound for glory. And then he was gone. He would die at 21, lost and despairing, so far from home. “Why did God take such a perfect specimen from this world and leave me?” thought the old man. What have I ever contributed to the world other than a smile? Yet those I have met were great. Truly great. They touched people’s lives and then like a comet were gone in a blast of dazzling fire.

“Hello, Mr. Cuthbertson, do you want the chicken noodle or the vegetable soup today?” asked the young nurse Rochelle.

The old man looked up at her beautiful young face and couldn’t help but smile.

“Has anybody ever told you how beautiful you are?” he asked.

She laughed. “Yes, Mr. Cuthbertson, you do every day. Now is it chicken noodle or vegetable?”

“I don’t care, love, it’s all shit.”

He fought the urge to tell her he hoped she’d never get to this stage. It would sound inappropriate to wish an early death on someone so sweet. And she wouldn’t understand.

“Okay, I’ll get you the vegetable. It’ll be good for you. We need you to stay around, don’t we?”

Why? he thought.

He looked at her beautiful curves as she walked away from him and smiled at how years ago he would’ve been beside himself with lust. Now, he could just appreciate the curves for what they were. Like admiring a masterpiece of art. Life does become simpler the closer you get to night. All the bullshit stuff just dies away and leaves you with the heart of things.

He looked out the window and watched the children in a nearby school playing. He remembered how he used to play with a young girl named Enid who lived in his street. They used to make mud pies and play house. These games were all Enid’s idea and he didn’t much like them but he pretended to and played them out of his great love for her. She told him she would marry him when they were older and that they’d never be apart. But then his parents moved to another house and Enid must’ve found it too far to travel. Or perhaps her parents couldn’t be bothered dropping her off. He often wondered what had happened to Enid. He hoped she’d had a good life and hadn’t wasted it waiting for him. He had a strong sense of responsibility and hated letting anyone down. If he saw her today he’d give her his best smile. All the girls had liked his smile. He had some teeth missing now. Poverty had set in and it was impossible on his budget to replace them. Or anything really. It made him feel self-conscious. But he smiled anyway because it was all he knew how to do and too hard a habit to break. Besides, most times people smiled back and that gave him such a warm feeling inside.

“Having a good smile can open doors, son.” Yes mum, I’ve never forgotten.

“Good boy.”

He thought again about all the lovely women that’d been in his life and was confused and sometimes angry that he hadn’t been able to keep any of them. Some had lasted years, but every time the money ran out, so did they. He had learnt that poverty takes away so much. It is certainly very hard on a relationship. Yes, a smile may open doors, but money closes them.

Back in his mind he thought about the night he had met Sophia Loren in Los Angeles. He happened to be at a hotel and she was dining there with some girlfriends. She was so taken with him that she called him over. He sat by her side and gave her his smile and she smiled back. “I like you” she said, “You have a very kind face.” Then she took his hand and they chatted. All night people came over and praised her. At the end of the evening he asked her if she ever got bored with being adored. She smiled and said “Yes. Sometimes I do.” She held his gaze and they looked into each other’s eyes for a long time. It was a perfect moment and perhaps he could’ve died there and then as life wouldn’t get much better. But he didn’t know that, yet. When she was leaving he took her hand and kissed it. She said, “I love you, you are such a gentleman. Your mother taught you manners.” He gave her another of his smiles and knew somewhere in the other world his mother was smiling too. She walked out of the hotel and he went to the men’s room.

Upon his return he saw that she was still lingering at the front door and looking in his direction. He froze, realizing that she must want more. In shock, nervous and not prepared for this, he foolishly walked on back to the lounge and to a life of regretting his cowardice.

But maybe it was better this way. He still had the golden untarnished dream of a perfect night and the sweet painful bliss of unrequited love. What if she’d tired of his smile. And then him. As so many had done. This way she lives on in the heart.

“Here you are, Mr. Cuthbertson, your lovely freshly made vegetable soup.”

He looked up and smiled at her and said, “Thank you.”

She smiled back. “You have such lovely manners, Mr. Cuthbertson. Did anyone ever tell you that?”

He smiled again as tears welled in his eyes, “Yes, someone once did. A long time ago.”

The next morning, Nurse Rochelle reported to duty. One of the other nurses rushed to her. “Did you hear about Mr. Cuthbertson?”

“No?”

“He died a few hours ago.”

“Oh no, I loved that man.”

“We all did. We’ve been trying to locate family but not sure he has any. Well, none still living. He was calling out the name “Enid” and seemed to be upset about not saying goodbye to her. Do you know anything about her? Or how we could contact her?”

“No, I’ve never heard of her.”

“He also mentioned Sophia Loren.”

For a moment they both laughed through their tears.

“But I think that may have been one of his dreams.”

But Nurse Rochelle wasn’t so sure. “You never know. He had such a lovely smile. I bet we’d be surprised who that man had met.”

They both stood there for some time not quite sure what else they could say. But knowing that their lives were now in some way inexplicably diminished by the man who had lived in Room 142.

“Oh shit,” said Nurse Rochelle.

“What?” asked the Nurse Bothemly.

“Today was his birthday. I’d organized a cake for him.”

“Well, let’s have it, and a glass of cheap champagne and watch a Sophia Loren movie. Do you think he really knew Ms. Loren?”

“I hope he did. And I hope she loved him.”

They laughed. Then cried again.

(C) Frank Howson 2014.