Ian Betteridge

Personal stuff, not tech, some fiction

This started life when I was sat outside a cafe in central London, near quite a few of the very touristy hotels which tend to harbour well-heeled tourists. This girl walked past, I made some notes, and this turned into the opening for a story. I would like to know more about what she gets up to, because she sounds like fun. Annoying, but fun.

At 14 she took a trip to London with her parents. London! The greatest city in the world, home to punk, home to everything she believed in. In the hotel in her room – her own room! – she dressed in the clothes she wanted to, the clothes that marked her out as different in Minnesota, the clothes which would send her mother into a silent sulky rage. A long-sleeved fishnet top she had bought for the occasion, Sex Pistols t-shirt defiantly over it. Combat trousers with holes in them. Her platform Doc Martins, which had tipped the baggage over the limit at the airport (she had made her father pay extra rather than leave them behind). Her make up took forever. Just her eyeliner took an hour.

Her parents knocked at the door to check if she was ready, and she shouted no. Minutes later they knocked again. Five times, each time louder and more insistent than the last, until she ran to the door, yanking it open so hard it hit the wall.

As they left the hotel, she said to herself: “OK, walk like you know what you’re doing. Walk like you’ve walked more than five minutes in these shoes. And when people stare – stare right back.”

The only people dressed like her were Japanese tourists. The British girls, far from being the snarly attitude-laden Demi-vampires she expected, looked... normal. Where were the punks? Where were the people like her?

Not, it seemed, in an Angus Steakhouse.

This piece was written as a quick exercise based on two writing prompts: sentences plucked at random from books, with the aim to write something that connects the two. Normally these are quite throwaway, little warm-ups to get me in the mood to write, but I like something in this story. It’s not finished, and I might not finish it. But it’s fun.

“Did you know coffee grounds are a sure cure for baldness?” His booming voice came from the kitchen, and even though I couldn't see him, I knew exactly what he was doing: holding the empty coffee pot at a 45-degree angle, staring intently at the mucky grounds at the bottom, and pondering whether to fish them out and spread them across the glossy patch at the crown of his head.

I say at the crown: the reality was that the default state of his head was hairless, with only a fringe above the ears indicating he had once had long, flowing, amazingly sexy hair. It was the first thing that attracted me to him and the first thing I loved about him that disappeared.

“I said, did you know that coffee grounds are a sure cure for baldness?” he marched into the living room where I was trying to write, coffee pot in hand. It was, as predicted, tilted away from him. There were toast crumbs in his ridiculous moustache, the one I had been trying to convince him to get rid of for about twenty years. It made him look like a banker.

“Yes,” I mumbled under my breath. “Now can you please go away and leave me alone while I try and write.”

He puffed his chest out, face drooping as he realised I really wasn't interested in either the grounds or the state of his head. “Oh. Sorry.” He turned and wandered back to his spot in the kitchen, the place he always stood. It's not just that everything he did and said was entirely predictable. Perhaps after 30 years of marriage, that was something to expect, even to embrace. I knew couples our age who celebrated these little rituals, and even loved each other more for them.

It was his complete lack of awareness that I had changed and how much I didn't want him to be there, being exactly the same for the rest of my life.

“Are you getting ready?” came another shout from the kitchen. “We need to go in ten minutes, and you're not even dressed for the funeral.”

Annoyingly he was right. I had been lost in the writing, the work which was now sustaining us in, as he said “the style to which we have become accustomed” after he took early retirement. He took the role reversal easily, me now the breadwinner, him the semi-useless domestic help.

Twenty minutes later, we were in the car, the one that he insisted that I should be a passenger in even though his driving was getting increasingly worse. He claimed it was down to him needing new glasses. Of course, actually, just getting new glasses was beyond him: the calls and letters from the optician were ignored, the glasses he had increasingly perched on the end of his nose as he looked over them to read. It was another thing which made me dislike him.

We pulled up at the cemetery and got out. Another friend gone, another family with their loved one torn away by time. And here was I, wishing it was him. My life had been a long series of waiting games: waiting for him to want to marry me, waiting for a baby to appear, waiting for our child to leave home so I could have some peace. And now waiting for him to finally do the thing which most mattered to me: dying and freeing me from his everyday annoyance.

By the graveside, the children clustered around their mother. They were holding hands at the funeral: a tiny gesture of love and care. Would anyone hold hands at mine? He wouldn't be there to see it (I was very sure of that), and our daughter had no siblings to hold hands with. Perhaps my sister would be there and give her that simple human gesture of love. If she bothered to come, of course. My sister and I were best described as “not close”.

I wanted him gone. Why wouldn't he do the decent thing and just die? Some days I even fantasised about taking that into my own hands. Bludgeoning him to death with a leg of lamb, which I would then feed to the detectives investigating his murder. Tying him up in a warehouse full of explosives with a timer, then calling the police and sending them to the wrong address.

Batman. Was that from Batman? My head was always full of other people's stories and endings. Perhaps that was why I found it so hard to write my own.

No more watching “Murder she wrote” at 2am with a bottle of wine open for me.

I made up my mind: I would cure him of his baldness for good.

The sound of a ticking clock is something we rarely hear now. With computers sat in our pockets and wrists, the passing of time is silent. It lacks the steadiness of a clock’s metronome.

When you hear ticking, you become aware of the other rhythms which define your life and its passage. The slow breathing which you realise it more shallow and dangerous, more fragile than you would imagine. The gentle thrumming of your heart beat, a sign that your blood pressure is higher than it should be.

A clock ticking is mechanism brought to bear on the world’s fluidity. It fences in time and comes from the same age as enclosure in England. As we carved acres of commons with newly made hedges and fences, so we divided our lives into the steady tick of the clock.

The buzzing wings of an insect also follow a regular rhythm, but they rise and fall in intensity as the energy of life strains harder or more softly in the creatures’ muscles. Fibres twitch, firing faster as the insect’s nervous system points it in one direction or another, up or down, responding to desire and danger in equal measure.

The beating of a heart. The buzz of an insects wings. The ticking of a clock. All setting rhythm into the world.

You were such an odd child”

In my mid-40s, I talked to my mum about a memory I had from when I was very small. It was sitting on the edge of my parents bed with her, mum holding me close and singing to me. In my memories, she often sang to me ,and the song I remembered most was “Nature Boy”, a Nat King Cole record which talked about “a very strange enchanted boy”. I had never realised that my mum was singing to me as that strange boy, but I always knew that that was what I was.

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Christmas

BEEE-BORRRR BEEEEEE-BORRRR BEEEEE-BORRRRR!

Police sirens in my childhood weren’t like they are now when they make the WOW WOW WOW noise that we copied from the American cop shows. Instead, they had that bee-borrr sound, up and down, up and down.

My parents made an terrible error when they bought me a remote controlled police car with flashing lights and a loud BEEE-BORRR sound one Christmas. Christmas was too exciting for words, and as I never had any patience for anything I would get up at a ridiculously early hour to run downstairs and open my presents.

Sometimes I’d be so tired that my parents would find me asleep in the front room – never a “living room” – amidst a nest of torn up paper. But the police car was too exciting. It wasn’t a radio controlled car, as those were too expensive, but connected to the orange remote via a cable that was a few feet long. You couldn’t stand far away from it. And I didn’t as I drove it through the dark of my parents bedroom, sirens blazing.

The Starship Enterprise that fired plastic “photon torpedoes”, little disks which shot out when you turned the top of the saucer, was another present had its down side. Aiming carefully at the baubles on the Christmas tree, which were actually Romulans in disguise, I was a little surprised when the silver bauble exploded into a million tiny fragments of glass, drifting gently down and embedding themselves in the carpet, where they would continue getting into people’s feet for days.

“Glass?” I thought. Who makes baubles of glass? Ancient and fragile, they had made it through Christmases with my siblings: Lynne, running around and shouting no doubt, and David trying to keep up. Lynne, always the Sargent major: Dave the loyal footsoldier, willing to jump off the roof of the shed (and break his wrist) without question.

But they didn’t survive me.

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