A Sixties Summer

I am very happy to tell you that my story, A Sixties Summer, was chosen as this year’s winner of Sutton Writers Apollo Prize. Hope you enjoy the read. Comments always welcome.

A Sixties Summer

My grandmother’s garden was a world away from the one I knew. Foxgloves and Lupins; Snapdragons and Sweet Peas – a fragrant world of flowers, raising their petaled heads to a perpetually blue sky in my memory of that Summer, and all growing up taller than the height of my own seven-year-old head.

As my grandmother pointedly told my father, when he dropped me and my little white suitcase off at her tiny end-of-terrace cottage, it wasn’t her job to teach her granddaughter. But by the Summer’s end, when I had fully recovered from my bout of pneumonia and returned home to books and homework, to ballet lessons and piano practice, my head was full of all those magical names from my grandmother’s garden: Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Painted Lady; Robin, Dunnock and House Martin; Quince, Crab Apple and Damson.

Not that I approved of all the names. Unlike my father who spoke only when he had something to say and encouraged those around him to do likewise, my grandmother talked to anyone, anything and nobody in particular. I soon learned I could do the same. ‘They shouldn’t just be called House Martins,’ I announced to my breakfast of boiled egg, bread and butter and glass of milk. I had grown fond of those dear little black-capped birds, with their comings and goings to their nests of spit and mud, as they fed their noisy broods in the eaves right outside my bedroom window. ‘They should be called House Martin and House Mary,’ I informed the large brown teapot that took up the centre of the table. ‘That so,’ my grandmother would say from time to time. More often she’d say nothing at all in direct response.

If I was often ignored in my grandmother’s house, or at least appeared to be, it was a pleasure I’d been denied as an only child in my father’s house and one I took advantage of. My father had always made a point of listening to everything I had the courage to say, correcting my grammar as necessary. Whereas my grandmother took little heed of the nonsense that I talked to her, to the teapot, to the birds and flowers as I drifted around in my convalescent state or lay on my back in the long grass watching the clouds for hours on end. The boundary between myself and the outside world felt thinner that summer. I absorbed something deep and nurturing from the soft air and sunshine, the dried grass and warm soil. If the birds and plants had decided to talk back to me I don’t think I would have been at all surprised.

From time to time one of my grandmother’s many brothers, my Great Uncles, would appear. To each I insisted on giving his full title. Great Uncle Tom played card games with me for old pennies from a jam jar after supper; with Great Uncle Jack I picked red currants, dyeing my hands, mouth and the front of my dress with streaks of red speckled with seeds. Perhaps my grandmother had not been entirely truthful about teaching me nothing, or at least she felt somebody should try. Her youngest brother, Great Uncle Jim, taught me a rhyme with which to recall the Kings and Queens of England, a speech by heart from Henry the fifth and my times tables right up to twelve twelves, all whilst throwing and catching an old tennis ball between us. He also helped me pen a postcard to my father each week, to which my grandmother always added the words, All’s well here.

But more useful than any formal skills or knowledge, at my grandmother’s I learned how to fit in, how to slip into the gaps in the casual but true affection that was offered without comment or cost. I learnt to make myself useful by stirring the batter for Toad-in-the-hole, to dress and wash myself without the fuss of home; to turn up for meals when called in from the garden; to kiss my grandmother’s lined cheek after supper and take myself up to my bed in the back bedroom, where I slept deeply in the furrow in the middle of the lumpy mattress and woke each morning to sunshine and House Martins.  

The village children were, however, a different matter. When my grandmother took me with her to one of the village shops – a useful pair of hands for an extra shopping bag – I was always stared at and sometimes questioned outright. ‘Why ain’t you at school?’ Here my grandmother’s habit of ignoring direct conversation was no help. The questioner would persist, more loudly now. ‘Why ain’t you?’ Despite having my edges softened at my grandmother’s, it was obvious to my questioner that I was not from the village. My smocked cotton dresses weren’t quite right and my soft leather sandals, though scuffed, were a bit too special. My cheeks would blaze but I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, answer and the most help my grandmother ever gave was to mutter, ‘Get lost now won’t you,’ to my persecutor when finally even she became irritated.

Then came the knifeman. He arrived on his bike in the early morning, tall and lanky in a shiny black suit with a long pale face above, looking to my child’s eyes like one of the long handled knives from my grandmother’s kitchen. He set up his bicycle on the front path of the cottage and began with the sharpening of the kitchen scissors, sitting astride the stationary bike and using the pedals to turn the grey stone grinding wheel that was attached between the handlebars. I stood transfixed by the strange process, but was roused by my grandmother. ‘Run and tell number 2!’ She gestured across the way. ‘The knifeman child, cottage number 2.’

And because there was no further discussion I found myself crossing the narrow lane and knocking on the door of number 2, which was opened to a whole family at breakfast. What was I to say? In the event I didn’t have to say anything. ‘Knifeman!’ the child at the door shouted, looking past me and across to my grandmother’s garden where the knifeman had by now taken up the garden shears. The whole family scraped back chairs and set to it, opening drawers and cupboards, as the child sprinted off to knock at the next house with the important news.

I returned to my grandmother’s cottage and took up my prime position, seated on an upturned bucket, both out of the way but with a perfect view of the knifeman at his work. By the time he had sharpened every metallic cutting surface in my grandmother’s house a long line of children was waiting outside the gate, each child wielding an implement to be sharpened in one hand and clutching a coin for payment in the other. There were carving knives and kitchen knives; filleting knives and penknives; embroidery scissors and dressmaking scissors; secateurs and shears; scythes and billhooks. I sat and watched all morning as these were sharpened by the knifeman to the perfect surface for cutting, trimming or shaping; filleting, slicing or slitting; slashing, snipping or shaving; incising or whittling.   

Quite why this mattered I didn’t know, but my status was so raised by this event that the next time I ventured out with my grandmother’s shopping bag I was asked, ‘What’s yer name then?’ Beneath my shyness I was not stupid. ‘Toni,’ I replied, knowing Antonia wouldn’t go down well. ‘That’s a boy’s name, ain’t it,’ was the reply. ‘Course not,’ I said.  I did not, it must be said, go on to make lifelong friends with the village children, but from then on I let go of my grandmother’s hand whilst out shopping. I swung the shopping bag with a jaunty confidence and was greeted by name if another child happened to be out in the lane or queuing to pay at the new till in the tiny village supermarket.  

When my father arrived in his car in late August he was greeted by a child browned in the sunshine, watered by the occasional soft spattering of summer rain and generally nurtured from the spindly seedling he had left behind in May to convalesce. If I hadn’t for a moment thought of the comforts of my modern sixties home, with its fitted carpets and television, I realised I had missed my father’s reassuring taciturn presence. For his part, if he was taken aback by the smiling child in a well-worn summer dress and bright cardigan it had taken my grandmother all summer to knit, he didn’t let it show. Although I would miss my grandmother dearly my father and I were happy to be once again in each other’s company. Maybe my father was not quite so ready for such a full and extensive account of my countryside stay on our long drive home, but he didn’t venture to say so. 

Miranda Lewis 2022

Advertisement

Please excuse Jack wearing his trainers to class, only he lost his school shoe in the river.

Please excuse Jack wearing his trainers to class, only he lost his school shoe in the river.

It were like this Miss Grimble…

Me and the Nipper, we’re feeding the ducks when the Little Blighter leans too far. Seizing his coat tails sharpish, we splash as one into the churning waters.

Plunging down down , almost to a double funeral, I grasp the foot of a passing swan. Spluttering and crying, we’re swept downstream.

Slowing down at the meander, the Nipper grabs a branch.

Muddy, soaked and shivering, we’ve almost clambered out when a mighty trout swallows my leg whole. Shaking and cavorting, I pull free but sacrifice the shoe.

So that’s the shoe Jack, and English composition homework?

Miranda 2022

As a primary school teacher I received many interesting notes from parents. This one, about the lost shoe in the river (that I’ve reproduced as my title) is real. Jack’s story of what really happened…I’ll leave you to decide.

My local river (the River Wandle, a tributary of the London Thames) is fast flowing but shallow in most parts; no children were harmed in the course of this story.

Many thanks to our esteemed Friday Fiction host, Rochelle and to Ted Strutz for the photo.

To jump into the swim and fish out more tales click here.

Private Property

Private Property

I gave up cutting and dyeing my hair years ago, also parties and socialising and all that nonsense. I do live in a normal house, unlike the hippy on the beach.

He was boiling up a kettle when I strolled that way early this morning. He was older than I’d presumed, that beard threaded with silver.

‘Fancy a brew?’ he called.

‘You do know this beach is private,’ I replied, instantly regretting it.

He just smiled. ‘And the view?’

I followed his gaze to where the sun-burnished sky met a gently rippling sea.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Tea would be lovely.’

Miranda 2022

Welcome to Friday flash fiction, hosted as ever (ah, there is some continuity in a crazy world!) by the esteemed Rochelle, and this week with a fantastically evocative seascape from Bradley Harris.

To sail away on a raft of stories (and with absolutely no travel restrictions or testing requirements) click here.

Happy New Year to all. In 2022, may you get a chance to misplace your phone, your shoes and all your troublesome obligations, if only for one long afternoon, and exchange secrets with the sky and the sea as you take a stroll along the beach.

City Tree

City Tree

For years I stood vigil outside a human dwelling at the edge of the city. I missed the hushed companionship of the forest but I gave my shade freely, bound the earth with my roots.

An owl perched amongst my leaves. I soaked up water and made oxygen.

Harmonious coexistence. 

Until they mutilated my limbs, tore out my roots and paved over the rich earth beneath. Until they burnt my body.

I do not mind. My soul lives on amongst my sisters the clouds. I look down on fire and flood, on drought and hunger and I wonder at it all.

Miranda Lewis 2021

Welcome to Friday Fiction, hosted by the esteemed Rochelle. Thanks to Dale Rogerson for the photo and also to all who visit.

A special thanks to those who stay to comment.

A Coda…

I realise my story will do nothing to raise your mood if, like me, the COP and various climatic world events have left you reeling.

The house I was born in 1960, on the edge of London, definitely had a huge tree (I was very small!) growing in the front garden.  When I visited the street a couple of years ago, sadly all the trees and every front garden had been replaced with a paved area.

My dad drove a Ford Anglia in the sixties and used to sometimes stop in the road outside his own front door, so that I could run down the garden path and hop into the front passenger seat. He then drove us around the back of the house to our own garage.

Nobody uses these old garages anymore, but the grassy lane running along behind the back gardens is still there, now beautifully rewilded and a real corridor for city flora and fauna. A little piece of living hope clinging on in a concrete world even though every front garden has disappeared…

The New Woodsman

The New Woodsman

They said the new woodsman had broken the bank, crashed his Jag, killed his wife. And I said, they said too much.

Springtime I traded my ex-husband’s discarded jacket and a bottle of whisky for a sack of charcoal. Later he mended my fences.

They said the new woodsman slept on a bed of moss, never washed and had a tail tucked down his patched old trousers. When I saw him rise naked from the river, shaking ribbons of sunlight from his shaggy mane, I knew at least two of those were untrue.

And I said, second time lucky. Maybe.

Miranda Lewis

Welcome to Friday flash fiction here on a Wednesday, hosted by the indefatigable Rochelle and with a great photo from Alicia Jamtaas that sent me straight back to a little woodland tale/tail of yesteryear. So it’s Friday reprieve time – hope you enjoy it.

Thanks to all who visit and most especially those who stay to comment. For more woodland frolics from around the globe click here.

Open Wide

dale-rogerson2

Open Wide

‘My name is Archibald; I’m a dentist from Streatham!’

But the sailors did not listen. ‘Jonah!’ they cried as they tipped him into the swirling ocean.

Down, down, down he went.

‘Jonah!’ mouthed a passing octopus.

‘Jonah!’ gulped a huge blue whale as he swallowed Archie whole.

Down, down, down with no time even to check the state of the whale’s molars.

In a red-roofed cave Archie came to rest. He reached for his phone.

‘Thank god, a signal! Elizabeth I am so sorry.’

Beep, beep; cannot receive you call right now.

‘Think I’d make it that easy?’ sighed God.

M J Lewis 2017

(100 words; genre: dentistory)

As an Anglican Atheist I’ve always loved this particular bible story and somehow saw a whale’s maw (if whale’s have a maw!) almost immediately with this photo.  My dear departed cat was called Archie – he had almost no teeth by the end. Not sure how my brain joined up all those dots, but hope you enjoyed the story.

Come on in for more 100-word stories. A big thank you to Rochelle, our host at Friday Fiction and to Dale Rogerson for the intriguing photo.

Thanks to all who read and especially to those who stay to comment.

Ambitions

ceayr3

Ambitions

You caught the express train to the city, running down the steps two at a time. A shout to the guard – whistle to his lips – and you jumped on.

My ambitions are simpler.

I sit in the waiting room, listening for the reassuring chug of approaching steam, the slam of doors, the cheery greetings of the porter. I stroke the cat, sip my tea.

Not this train; not today.

I seem to be wearing a hat and veil; my full-length dress rustles as I rise to make my way back through the meadow to the house with the three chimneys.

M J Lewis 2017

Welcome aboard my 100 words of Friday Flash Fiction, hosted as ever by the gracious Rochelle and with a photo this week from the author of many a flash tale himself, C. E. Ayr.

Do come in, sit down and admire the ever-changing view out of the window here.

Thanks to all who visit and most especially to those who stay to comment.

Things My Grandmother Taught Me

ceayr-purple-door

Things My Grandmother Taught Me

Lavender sprouted from my Grandmother’s fingertips and lilac nodded around her backdoor.

‘Let us pray,’ she’d say as she knelt, trowel in hand. ‘Amen, and one for the squirrel,’ was my cue to heave her up. Once we tumbled right over, her stick-thin frame cushioned by my stocky little body.

Today I’ve brought all her favourites – purple crocuses, alliums, tulips. I stick the fork into the rich soil and she raps on the window.

‘Who the heck are you?’ she hollers across the lawn.

The best thing about spring bulbs – you can plant them in hope or despair; they’ll bloom anyway.

M J Lewis 2016

It’s Friday already so I’m late for Friday Fiction. Thanks as ever to our talented host Rochelle and to C. E. Ayr for the beautiful photo. For more prose, purple and otherwise, click here. 

Purple is one of my favourite garden colours, so my brain took me straight out into the garden. But hoping somebody writes, or has written, a story about the creation of Henry Perkin’s purple dye, Mauveine. If nobody’s done so, might have to do it myself. It did create a sensation at the time, not unlike a version of tulip fever.

2016-04-21-16-23-24

A Talented Generous Man

bjc3b6rn-14

A Talented Generous Man

Over canapés at my lover’s funeral, I met his wife. He’d played first violin to my cello. Our affair was the fiery passion to the soothing harmony of his marriage. An open secret in the orchestra – and she’d never even suspected.

‘So sad, ‘I said. ‘Such a talented generous man.’

She sighed. ‘That old excuse. You knew about his mistress? What a cliché – the local piano teacher.’ She met my frozen gaze. ‘Sorry, I’ve shocked you. The whole village knew – it was an open secret. I worked it out about nine years ago. See that sweet little girl over there?’

M J Lewis 2016

Whoops! Absent for a while from Friday Fiction and then I produce this sordid little piece. Or maybe it’s high camp – depends how you take it. The truth, the whole truth is sometimes not as lovely as we’d like.

Thanks as ever to our talented host Rochelle and to fellow Friday Fictioneer Bjorn Rudberg for the photo.

Sixties Childhood

claire-fuller-8

Sixties Childhood

I’m old enough to remember those callers to the house who have now disappeared – the knife-sharpening man, the fizzy-pop man. Mostly men it seems, though once a traveller-woman persuaded my mother to part with a lovely summer dress.

After the brooms-and-mops man had called my mother would give me the sweet little sample tins of polish and I’d buff up the miniature piano in my dolls house.

Oddly the sitting-room in my doll’s house– polished piano, too many pictures on the walls and a large clock, made out of an old watch– very much resembled my real sitting-room today.

M J Lewis 2016

Welcome to all who visit Friday Fiction and a particular thanks to those who stay to read and comment. Thanks as ever to our host, the writer and artist Rochelle and also to the Friday Fiction regular and writer, Claire Fuller who supplies the photo this week.

(Please note all Friday Fiction photos are copyright and should only be posted in conjunction with Friday Fiction or by permission of the photographer.)

img_2782