Pretending to Care

This short story was written as part of a writing project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and associated with the Sutton (South London) Past on Glass project.

The story is based on one of the thousands of images of local people taken by photographer David Knights-Whittome, between 1904 and 1918. To find out more about the discovery and preservation of this amazing local archive of places, events and most of all the local residents of Sutton, visit the Past on Glass wordpress blog.

Below is the lovely Miss Daly, photographed in 1905, who inspired my story for the project. I don’t know Miss Daly’s first name, but to me she is, now and forever, my little Iris.

Pretending to Care is entirely fictional and is not based on any real people, places or events.

Pretending to Care

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Chestnut Avenue Care Home, 2010

They like to pretend they care. That’s why it’s called a care home, I suppose.

Yesterday it was the one with the eyebrows serving the mess they call lunch.

I’d have been an opera singer, if it hadn’t been for the war.

That’s interesting, Iris, she said.

She couldn’t care any less if she tried. Thinks I don’t know the difference.

Chocolate pudding, Iris dear.

It’s the skinny one today.

Thank you, I say. My favourite.

This one at least has a bit more wit behind the orange war paint. It used to be the thing to be pale. A lady stayed out of the sun. All nonsense of course. Bodies, appearance; all vanity. All useless in the end.

Is it your favourite, Iris? Chocolate pudding, really?

No idea, I reply.

Body worn out, or almost; mind like a frayed ribbon.

So what’s the tastiest pudding in the whole wide world? If you could have anything you wanted. Have a think, Iris.

I can’t help giving a snort. But I never did like to disappoint people. A people pleaser they call it nowadays, as if it’s a condition, a bad thing. Perhaps they’re right.

Parties, I say. Birthday parties.

Me too, I love parties, she says. So what food did you have? Jelly? Trifle?

Blind man’s bluff, I say. And piggy-in-the-middle.

She kneels down on the floor next to my chair and pats my hand.

Shall we go back there? See what’s for tea?

As I said, I like to please. She looks so keen, I can’t just tell her to get lost, can I?

Sardines all over the house. Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement’s.

Presents too. Nicest one ever was a fur coat, soft as a kitten’s paw, from my dear Papa. A gorgeous fluffy hat to match. I was as cosy as an Eskimo. Papa tweaked my cheek and sent me down to the drawing room to show all the family. ‘Look at Iris!’ my brother Lionel shouted when I trotted in, so eager to please the gathering of aunts and uncles. ‘She’s a roly-poly Swiss roll, with a mighty meringue on the top!’ They all laughed of course. It’s what grown-ups do. I can still see their vile faces. Double chins wobbling, false teeth rattling. And the children laughing too. Fat cousin Francis with his tiny eyes shining, like buttons stitched into a cushion. Even my adored mother smiled, though she pretended not to when I hid my face in her lap.

I wake with a jolt. The skinny one is shaking my shoulder.

Wakey-wakey, Iris! Naughty thing, you fell asleep on me. We’ll never find that favourite pudding!

Meringue, I say. A huge, fluffy white meringue.

That’s wonderful. You remembered. Shall we see if we can make it for you sometime?

I nod. This one really does care. Gets it all wrong of course, but she tries.

I never could stand my brother Lionel. He was a bully to the core. Christmas, summer, I’d count the days until he went back to school. I found a baby rabbit once, kept it in a box in the gardener’s hut. It wouldn’t have lasted I suppose, poor little motherless thing, but I loved it nonetheless. Lionel let the dog in deliberately. Bit its neck right through. Baby rabbit head left on the floor for me to find.

The day Lionel went for good it felt as if the whole house sighed with relief. I can picture him now, suddenly apprehensive in his officer’s uniform. Would the bully be bullied, or worse? I covered my face with Papa’s handkerchief to hide the fact that I didn’t care if I never saw him again.

So you see there’s nothing new you can teach me; I know all there is to know about pretending to care.

Miranda Lewis 2017

Ladybird, Ladybird

It’s an odd thing to be bitten by a ladybird. First comes a vicious little nip, and you look down to see, my goodness, a ladybird! This was me on holiday in the States so I just assumed the US version was more assertive, armed to the teeth and primed to repel tourists. Quite unlike our own British varieties – tickly, sweet little creatures that scurry upwards to alight delicately from an upheld finger in order to fulfil their nursery rhyme duties.

Then came the Harlequins, creeping through the cracks in my closed sash windows and colonising my curtains…

Ladybird, Ladybird

Harlequin_ladybirds_matingThey cut down the trees in our road today: the big old sycamore outside my bedroom window, the entire row of stately limes at the top. All day I could hear the high-pitched whine of the chain saws, the shriek of the mulching machine. The men wore complete bodysuits and scary masks.

They’d come to the door earlier to check we were prepared. We hadn’t been able to get proper screens for the windows so we’d done a DIY job – extra strong gaffer tape around the edges of every wooden frame and a plastic sheet over the door, inside and out.  I closed all the curtains, couldn’t bear to watch.

And what did I do? Googled ‘Harlequin ladybird’ of course. Invaded the UK in 2004 apparently, arriving in the South East and subsequently spreading in all directions of the compass. Since then, during the past two decades, has effectively wiped out all native species of ladybird, due to its long breeding season.  The five-day-old Harlequin female can lays about a thousand eggs and a single female can breed for up to two years. In 2004 the voracious alien larvae wiped-out all those pesky aphids in our gardens, but they moved on to cannibalise their own native cousins.

First reported death from an allergic reaction to a Harlequin bite, August 2015. Which was also remarkable for the fact that Harlequins had been thought to bite only in the winter months, if woken out of hibernation in a state of extreme hunger. Since then, on average a couple of deaths a week. So you could say you’re more likely to step under a bus or to fall to your death in your own home than to die from the bite of a Harlequin. But that would ignore the fact that deaths have actually risen each and every year since that first fateful nip in 2015.

In the kitchen I tuck my trousers into my socks and wrap a scarf over my head. I pull on my gloves and reach for the car keys. I click open the car from the porch and jog the distance to the driver’s door. I’ve timed it just right so I’ll be able to park in my usual spot, right next to the school gates.

He has eczema and asthma and you let him out of the house, my mother said on the phone. She thinks he’s the perfect candidate for a reaction. Jake’s a teenager, I told her, with friends, a life. And they’re ladybirds for heaven’s sake; they can’t target the risk group.

They cut down the trees in my road today and I sat behind the curtains and googled ‘Harlequin Ladybird’. Ancient origin possibly ‘Herlequin’, leader of a legendary troop of demon horsemen. Now stay rational. They cannot think; they cannot single out a victim.

Form my parking space I hear a distant school bell as it echoes down corridors and around classrooms. I lean forward, nose to the windscreen, ready to scan the crowd of identikit hooded kids for my precious, vulnerable boy. The hood: once a statement of disaffection, now a protective necessity.

So here they come; hands in pockets, hoods up, swarming out into the open air.

M J Lewis © 2015

Photo of Harlequin ladybirds mating, Cumnor Hill, Oxford by Charlesjsharp

A spot of bother in the ladybird world