Anger – Week 46 of the 52 week short story challenge

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For the purged

‘So,’ he said, ‘What makes you feel angry?’

I looked at him with the kind of face you pull when you really can’t believe that someone has asked you such a silly question.

‘You know better than anyone what makes me feel angry.’

He laughs. ‘I know what I think makes you feel angry but I don’t know if they are the same things. Tell me? I really want to know.’

I shrug and take a deep breath. I hate these word games but we have to play them so I might as well get it over with.

‘Child abuse, adult abuse, domestic violence, abuse of power – particularly when it is well-paid MPs and greedy members of officialdom taking money and services away from those who desperately need them. Let’s face it – abuse makes me angry – in any form.’

He nods calmly, infuriatingly calm in fact.

‘So how does it feel when someone who doesn’t even know you accuses you of ‘abusive behaviour’ then?’

That makes my hackles rise.

‘The alleged ‘abusive behaviour’ was accidental and it was not aimed at any individual, and doesn’t meet any prescribed criteria of abuse anyway.’

I can feel my face getting hot and red.

He nods. Still calm.

‘But somebody felt offended by that behaviour. Somebody felt strongly enough about the abusive behaviour to complain about it, didn’t they?’

‘No. It wasn’t like that and you know it wasn’t. The powers that be were after us because they disagreed with us. They were frightened of the power that we held due to our numbers and so they sought to cut those numbers down – by using underhand – and I think illegal methods.’

He frowns. ‘Illegal? How do you mean?’

‘I never gave anyone permission to go trawling through my social media accounts. I only gave them the details because they said that the information was needed to communicate with me. I don’t think that the person who originally made the form thought that the data would be used in such an underhand way. That kind of Machiavellian process comes from someone with a particularly devious and hateful mind.’

He is still frowning and I can see that I have him on uncomfortable ground. So do I press him or back off? I look over at my lovely friend; the one who supported me when I had to battle against authority before. She gives a very slight shake of her head and I back off. He looks down at his sheaf of papers again.

‘I need to ascertain whether or not you feel any regret over your actions – and whether you would be likely to make this kind of comment again.’

This really makes my blood boil. My friend is desperately trying to catch my eye and calm me down.

‘All I did was retweet something that someone else said – and unfortunately that same person added hash tags on the end of the tweet that I hadn’t even noticed. I subsequently found out that the words in those hash tags were banned from use three weeks later. I regret not noticing those words now but as they were banned after they had been used, I had no control over the action. Would I be likely to make that kind of comment again? No. Nor would I be so foolish as to allow anyone to have access to my social media accounts.’

‘That wasn’t quite what I was asking for.’

‘That is all you are going to get from me. I am the person whose reputation has been defamed, I lost my vote as a consequence of this underhand behaviour and now you expect me to grovel and apologise? Forget it mate!’

It is at this point that my friend puts her hand on my arm and turns to the young man.

‘Please don’t take it personally, we both know that you are trying to sort things out but I don’t think the people who started this realise how much harm has been done – or what a horrible position you are being put in having to go round and sort out issues that are of someone else’s causing.’

Although I am angry, I know that she is right. This earnest young man is not responsible for causing my anger. The people who did that are too frightened to face us because they know what damage they have done. It was intentional. All part of a noxious plan to put the wrong person back in power. I am still seething but I am back to a simmer rather than a boil.

‘I can offer you membership but this incident will stay on file.’

This is not fair but there is a bigger picture here. This ‘staying on file’ is intended to insult me and make me feel so angry that I stand up and walk away – if you don’t want me then I don’t want you. But that is exactly what they want. They failed to get rid of enough of us to win at the first attempt, so now they are trying to alienate us with this additional slight.

I look across at my friend and she nods.

‘Okay. Do what you want. I want to be a member so that I can help to get rid of the people who are attacking the vulnerable people and making them suffer.’

His shoulders slowly sink back down to a normal level and he seems surprised that I have capitulated so easily.

‘It isn’t just about me you see. I have to remember that there is a bigger picture. I really don’t care about what your boss and his deluded friends think of me. My thoughts are my own and will stay that way if there is any chance that they’ll be used against me again. There is one thing though…’

My friend looks worried and so does the young man.

‘Not only do I love the Foo Fighters, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Stranglers, but Lemmy from Motorhead will always be my hero. So ner.’

It ends in laughter and more than a little relief. I don’t see it as stepping down. There is work to be done and I need my freedom in order to support others.

And then I stepped out of the shower.

 

 

 

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Near Death – Week 45 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘Hello?’

‘Hello? Can you hear me?’

I’m pressing the button on this pendant I wear around my neck but nothing happens. Usually when I press it I get a crackly voice from the other end telling me that I have come through to the ‘We Care Service’ and what did I want?

I don’t use it often because I have difficulty hearing what the woman is saying and now, when I really need it there is nothing.

Not even the reassuring beep that tells me that although the line is busy, they will get back to me as soon as possible.

Nothing.

I can just see the clock from here. It’s still early; six o’clock and the time when I would usually be up making my first cup of tea. something to set me up for the day as I sit and listen to the news on the radio.

I could watch the news on the television that my granddaughter bought me but I prefer to listen early in the morning. I don’t want the intrusion of strangers in my house yet.

Today I would welcome anyone to my house.

Today even the lad who has been burgling houses in our area would be welcome. I would tell him where to find my money, my wife’s jewellery, my medals even, if he would call 999 as he leaves.

The floor in the hallway is cold. I should have had carpets fitted but my wife was always proud of these tiles. Minton she said they were and she wouldn’t dream of having them covered up with some old carpet.

I could have had the carpets fitted when she died, when there was only me to think of but every time I look at these tiles I think of her.

I see her as the young girl I carried across the threshold of our house; as the mother of our daughter, tired but proud in her hospital bed, and then I see her bringing our baby girl home to the bedroom I had so lovingly painted pink in her honour.

She did us proud our girl; married well and presented us with grandchildren. I had never thought of our daughter as being traditional but she named her children after her mother and me. Keeping the memories going she said. A legacy.

I never thought I would outlive her, and her mother.

When I came home from the war my lungs were useless; poison gas, cheap tobacco and a cough that never really went away. As if to remind, I cough now and the pain from my legs wracks my body.

I used to have people who came in to check on me. Cheerful young women who did my washing and made me meals. Someone to talk to four times a day; not as good as my wife, who never seemed to stop talking but at least they filled a part of the void when she was gone.

Now they are gone too. Cuts in social care.

A brisk young woman came to visit me, and decided that my care package was too large for my needs. I didn’t need all this help as I was obviously self-caring. I didn’t need to go out to lunch clubs; the transport was very expensive and they were closing down the day centres anyway. She gave me this pendant but was at pains to tell me that I would have to buy the new batteries for it.

I have batteries in the fridge but I can’t reach them.

I can’t reach the telephone.

I can’t reach the door.

I can’t go on.

I can’t.

I can’t give up.

Today of all days.

I look at my coat, hanging out of reach on the coat hook.

I can just see the poppy.

I should be getting my breakfast and making myself presentable so that when my granddaughter comes to fetch me for the parade, she will be proud of me and the part that I played.

So tired.

All I want to do is sleep.

To sleep and have the pain go from my legs.

What legs?

I can’t feel them.

I should be able to feel them. To feel the pain that has kept me awake at night for over seventy years. There is no pain. Just cold.

I look at the clock again. Where has the time gone? I don’t remember being asleep but four hours have passed since I last looked.

I want to sleep. It’s time for me to join the people who I love and miss. This is no place for old men like me – we may have been seen as heroes once but now we are just a burden on the state – a burden that the taxpayers can’t afford according to that brisk young woman.

So tired.

‘Grandad?’

The sound of her key in the door pulls me back from the place where pain has gone and there is just a soft glowing light that draws me in.

‘Grandad? Hang on in there. I’m calling an ambulance. Don’t leave me Grandad.’

It isn’t time yet. Her hands are warm as she tucks a blanket around me. Her hands are warm like her mother’s and her grandmother’s, and while I long to feel their touch again this beautiful girl pulls me back to the present.

I open my eyes and focus on her face. She looks tired and worried so I do my best to smile as if I was okay. The poppy on her coat is close to me and I reach out to touch it.

‘Not yet then?’ I ask.

‘Not yet. Not today of all days. Love you Grandad.’

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The Year I was born – Week 44 of the 52 week short story challenge

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This is a short, short story today because my fingers are busy doing NaNoWriMo – my ninth successive year with eight successful contributions behind me.

One of these days I will get around to editing the work and looking for an agent. I promise myself this every year but as 2016 has been so lousy, maybe this is the right time to start off a more productive new year.

I could have just worked my way through the Wiki page but when I looked there were only a few things that jumped out and had any influence on me and my life.

My birth took place on a council estate in my Mum and Dad’s bedroom at approximately 1620 hours and while my older siblings were watching ‘Popeye’ downstairs with my Dad. As a consequence my Dad wanted to have ‘Olive’ as my middle name. My Mum had different ideas and she won.

I had a mop of black hair when I was born and strange slanting eyes – so unlike my siblings that my Mum was convinced I had Down’s Syndrome. She eventually confessed her fears to the visiting midwife who told her to stop being so daft.

Very obligingly, my hair fell out a few days later and I turned into the blonde tot pictured a year later in the picture above.

My eyes turned out to be extremely short-sighted but this wasn’t discovered until I was eight years old. I had been a full-time spectacle wearer up until a year ago when I had cataract surgery on both eyes. My lens replacements mean that I only need specs for close work and my long-sight is on a par with the eagles (not the group).

I was born on the day that Berry Gordy Jnr founded Motown records.

A month later the music died when a plane with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper (and their pilot Roger Peterson) crashed into a mountain in Iowa.

Fidel Castro became president of Cuba and women in Nepal won the right to vote.

Barbie made her debut in March; I always had Sindy dolls, although I did briefly own a Tressy – ‘her hair grows’  – well it did until my big brother and I investigated the outsize belly button that retracted her hair. Bald and unloved she went in the bin. We were callous children.

Various things happened throughout the summer – Cyprus gained independence and joined the UN – and the first Xerox machine was introduced to an adoring public. We no longer adore copiers and printers – we just shout at them.

The Twilight Zone premiered on telly and Asterix the Gaul was born.

November saw the completion of the first stage of the M1. It took another thirty years to complete it. More pertinent to me in my later life  – the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN.

I spent ten years working in child protection. Things have not improved over time and now that I am out of the official social care sector I feel sad that my ex-colleagues have so few resources to protect those who so badly need their support.

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One Character – Week 39 of the 52 week short story challenge

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There was a girl I knew at school.

Her name was Karen.

I didn’t know her well – we were in different classes and in different streams.

In an effort to be non-judgemental the streams were named after colours, but everyone knew that Red was the top stream, Blue was the middle stream and Green was the bottom stream.

I was in Red class, Red stream – eventually. During the first few days of my attending secondary school they managed to lose my records and so I was put in Emerald class, Green stream.

Not only that but they put me in the remedial class.

It was quite nice at first. We had our own little room in the old part of the school. We had a lounge area, some tables and a small kitchen area where our teacher – Mrs W – made us warm (but not hot) drinks.

We also had biscuits.

My friends were  a bit jealous.

I spent the first day colouring in.

I spent the second day colouring in.

I spent the third day colouring in.

Mrs W could see that I was getting a little bored and allowed me to cut out pictures for the others to colour in. The scissors were blunt ended.

This was when I met Karen.

She had a mop of mousey curls, a squint and her school uniform looked as if it had been made for someone much smaller and older. She was a quiet girl; most of my companions were quiet apart from one girl who rocked in a chair and occasionally screeched.

Mrs W and I learned how to calm the girl down after a few days.

My Mother did not think that I should be spending my formative years colouring in so she went into school with me after my first week.

The headmistress; a large, round woman who wore a lot of pale pink Crimplene, listened to my Mother with a patronising look on her face.

‘I’m afraid all mummies think that their girls should be in a higher set.’

My Mother, red hair sparking, said that she wasn’t moving until the demon headmistress had phoned my primary school and asked for my records to be sent over.

The headmistress phoned and was put through to my old headmaster; a lovely man who was so respected that he had a street named after him many years later. I liked him and he liked me. He told the headmistress about my academic achievements and even said he would drop my records over on his way home.

I was promoted the next day.

Being in the top class of the top stream was hard work and there was very little colouring in.

The scissors had points though.

One of my new classmates knew Karen. She wasn’t very nice to her; sneering at her old clothes, and on one occasion when Karen failed to respond to her teasing, this girl even pulled Karen’s curly hair.

My new best friend Georgina, and I pulled the nasty girl off and I took Karen back upstairs to Mrs W, who was quite pleased to see me.

She even let me make Karen a warm drink.

I wanted to know why the nasty girl had picked on Karen, and I got the answer from another girl who had been to the same primary school.

Karen lived in a children’s home.

That was why her clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out her squint.

That was why she was so quiet.

I am ashamed to say that apart from saying ‘Hi’ in the playground or in the school dinner hall, I didn’t see much of Karen after that.

I was too busy being the school rebel and avoiding the headmistress.

Every morning at assembly (I went through an atheist stage where I pointedly refused to sing hymns and kept my eyes open during prayers), I fantasised about running up the steps to the stage and pushing the headmistress off.

In my fantasy she bounced like a giant rubber ball.

She bounced down the school hall and out of the double doors, finally fetching up against her office door.

It was just a fantasy.

Luckily the deputy headmistress took me for English and had my back when things became awkward – usually about my interpretation of school uniform.

Time passed.

I took my ‘O’ levels and I passed.

I went on to the local Tech to do my ‘A’ levels and I passed again.

After a brief flirtation with drama school, and working in bars, I ended up volunteering in a children’s home.

I began to understand what life must have been like for Karen.

The home was run by an older couple who treated the children fairly well but it was always an institution – never a home.

After three months of volunteering, I got a permanent job as a houseparent at another establishment. The staff team was younger; less rigid and I began to understand how we could change things to make life better for the children and young people we were caring for – and we really did care.

I spent ten years working in children’s homes.

I never forgot Karen and I did my best to make sure that those in my care had clothes that they liked – and that fitted.

I took them to medical appointments and I did my best to sort out issues at school.

Most of the staff I worked with tried to make the children’s lives as close to a home life as possible.

Sometimes we succeeded.

I qualified as a social worker and I watched as the homes were closed down because the current thinking was being ‘in care’ was unacceptable. Children were sent home to parents who didn’t know how to care for them and didn’t really want them anyway.

Some children were fostered and life improved for them. There were others who no amount of good fostering could help.

In those cases the children drifted into disaster and the foster parents became disillusioned.

It was while I was taking time out to raise my own family that the scandal broke in my home town.

The officer in charge of a children’s home was arrested for child abuse.

Physical, sexual, financial, psychological – you name it. He did the whole lot.

He was the officer in charge of the home where Karen was placed.

It wasn’t a life for her and the other children she lived with.

The abuse went on for years until someone had the courage to stand up and shout.

It wasn’t Karen.

The officer in charge was found guilty and sent to jail.

So was his wife and two other members of staff.

I’m sorry Karen.

Sorry that I wasn’t more of a friend to you.

Sorry that I didn’t understand what you were going through.

I never forgot you though, and now I understand.

That was why your clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out your squint.

That was why you were so quiet.

 

 

 

Three Siblings – Week 4 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I came back to work after a week’s holiday and found the Bennett family in residence. Two girls and a boy; they were withdrawn and several of my colleagues were finding them difficult to deal with. As a consequence of this – and because I was in the middle of my social work training and considered best placed to take on the ‘awkward’ children, I was allocated as their key worker.

The first few days were spent going about my usual routine of getting children and young people out of bed, dressed and down for breakfast. As a female member of staff I usually worked in the girls wing, but as one of the few females who would volunteer to get the boys up I had the chance to observe all three children without being too intrusive.

Ray was the eldest of the three; at fourteen he was in the middle of our group of boys but he was very much apart from the lumbering big boys constantly flexing their macho muscles, the voice-breakers who turned from squeaky to bass at a moment’s notice and the little ones who had some very severe behavioural issues.

Ray constantly sought the company of his sisters; twelve year old Angela and eight year old Suzanne. The three of them were frequently found in a small and very self-contained huddle in the TV room or at the far end of the veranda when told they had to go outside for some fresh air.

After three days of trying to get to know my key children, I stayed on for a couple of hours after my shift ended in order to sit and read their case files.

It was not comfortable reading.

For the past six years the Bennett parents had been arguing over access arrangements following their divorce. Their mother had custody of the children after fleeing domestic violence and spending a period in a hostel. She had never reported her husband’s abuse to the police and there were no third-party evidence records, Mr Bennett was denying any form of abuse and demanding that he have weekly access to his children.

The children refused to see him.

They had been to family court on numerous occasions and it was accepted by Mrs Bennett that the children would attend a centre where their father could have supervised access. Mr Bennett refused this however. He wheeled out a number of family friends who attested to his good character and what an excellent father he had been. They also claimed that Mrs Bennett had mental health problems and was using the children to get back at her ex-husband.

At the most recent court appearance the judge had made an order that the children should go out to dinner with their father once a week without supervision. Mrs Bennett was distraught. The children – led by Ray – flatly refused to go and the judge ordered that they should be taken to a children’s centre as their mother was ‘obviously’ having a disruptive influence on them.

They came to us in just the clothes they stood up in. A hastily appointed social worker had been to their house and collected clothes and belongings but their mother was in such a state that the suitcases contained a strange jumble of items that had to be supplemented by our meagre stock of clothing and toiletries.

Until things were resolved the children were not allowed to have visits or even phone calls from either parent. Letters and cards were to be opened by staff and vetted before being given to the children. The social worker had been charged with compiling reports on all three of them, and, as the key worker, had to compile daily reports based on my own observations and those of my colleagues when I was off duty.

What had I observed so far? Ray was quiet; he didn’t join in with the usual banter and he sought the company of his sisters wherever possible. Angela was equally self-contained but Suzanne was more sociable; joining in with the younger girls when they chatted about hair and clothes and TV. A look from her brother or sister would bring her away from the group and back to their sides.

We were one of the few centres in our local authority to have a school unit on the premises; educational assessments had so far revealed that all three children were of above average intelligence but would not participate in team activities and would not talk about their past. Of the three, Suzanne was the most outgoing but any attempts to get her to talk about her home life were quickly prevented by the interventions of Ray and Angela.

We all tried to break through to them but after two weeks we were still no closer to understanding what had sparked their defiance in the courtroom. The social worker had been to visit their mother several times but she was just as withdrawn and reluctant to say anything other than that the children wanted to stay her and that she was frightened of her husband. The social worker stated – rather gruffly – that Mrs Bennett seemed unable to say anything specific about what it was that her husband had done to her.

Unable,  unwilling or terrified?

The good thing about training to be a social worker for two and a half days of my working week and coming in to carry out usual duties for the other two and a half, was that it was easier to put my newly acquired knowledge into practice. We were currently studying play therapy as a means of getting children to open up about their experiences. The more I learned, the more I wondered if this was a way of finally getting through to the Bennett children. I talked to my tutor and he gave me some books to study, together with a group of therapy dolls; mother, father and three children.

I had an idea that the key to it all was to get Suzanne alone, so with the blessing of my manager, I arranged for her to be released from morning classes for a couple of hours. I found out later from the teachers that Ray and Angela were rather distressed when Suzanne left the room and they had to be quite stern in order to prevent them from following her.

I had set up one of the smaller conference rooms with cushions, bean bags, toys and the dolls. I also laid on refreshments in an effort to make the atmosphere as pleasant as possible. Colleagues were advised not to disturb us. I’d spent the previous evening reading up on everything I could relating to the use of dolls in play therapy and although I was nervous, I also felt exhilarated at the thought that I might possibly get to the bottom of what was disturbing the Bennett children.

It wasn’t easy. Suzanne had been well-schooled by her siblings. The wall that the three of them – and their mother – had built up was almost impenetrable.

Almost.

I used the dolls to talk about my own family. My father coming home from work, my mother cooking dinner, my sister reading a book and my brother and I playing with his cars.

All very normal and harmless.

Suzanne picked up the father doll and put him to one side. She put the mother doll and the three children together on the sofa I had made from cushions. Then she picked up the father doll again and looked at him.

She looked at me.

‘Would you like to say anything to the father doll Suzanne? Or to any of the other dolls?’

Suzanne looked back at the doll. I could see that this was difficult for her and being a novice at play therapy, my tutor’s advice about not going too far or too fast was ringing in my ears.

Suzanne threw the father doll face down on the carpet.

‘You are a bad man. You make Mummy cry and you come into mine and Angela’s room at night. Ray says we mustn’t tell though.’

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Why mustn’t you tell?’

‘Ray says that Daddy will kill Mummy if we tell. He saw Daddy in the kitchen with Mummy. Daddy had a knife. He hurt Angela and made her cry too. We don’t like Daddy. That’s why we won’t go to dinner with him.’

She started to cry then; frightened because she had told the big secret. Frightened that her Daddy was going to hurt them or even kill their mother. I put the dolls to one side and we hugged before polishing off most  of the sweets.

Leaving Suzanne building a car out of Lego, I went next door and spoke to my manager. He called the social worker – who was out of the office as usual – so we decided that the next step was down to us.

I went down to the classroom and collected Ray and Angela. They looked sullen and even more withdrawn than usual. From the glances that they gave Suzanne, I could see that they knew something had happened.

My manager took the lead. He explained that adults often try to get children to keep secrets but that some secrets are bad, and the adults have no right to make children keep them. He told them that a part of our job was to protect children from bad secrets and keep them safe from people who frighten them.

They were truly frightened and now we knew why. My manager looked over to me and indicated that I should let them know that we understood their secret.

‘I think that your Dad has asked you to keep some bad secrets. I think that he has told you that if you tell anyone, he will hurt your Mum and then you’ll have to go and live with him. I think that your Mum is just as frightened of your Dad as you are and that’s why she has never told anyone about what he does to you all. You shouldn’t have to keep secrets like this. It isn’t fair on you, or your Mum. We will do our best to protect you. Will you let us help?’

It took a while but we both knew we had to be patient with them. The three exchanged glances and eventually Ray spoke.

‘He doesn’t hit Mum but he makes her cry and tells her how useless she is. He – he – hurt Angela and he said he was going to do the same to Suzanne when she is a bit older. He says it is his way of showing them how much he loves them and if we tell anyone he will pay for someone to kill Mum and he will get custody. He has lots of money and he can pay for a decent lawyer to make it look like we are the liars. If he tries to hurt my sisters I will kill him. I don’t care what happens to me.’

Ray’s croaky boy-to-man voice brought tears to my eyes. My manager took charge at this point. We had to get the police child protection unit involved and once the social worker was tracked down, she came in and took over supervision of the interviews.

The children had been through several different hells but as a consequence of their disclosures the court order was overturned, their father was arrested and once their mother realised that they were all safe, she gave an interview that confirmed everything her children said – and more.

Packing up their worldly goods to go home was one of the happiest tasks I had ever undertaken. It wasn’t the end of the story by any means but we had started the ball rolling and the social worker was arranging for counselling for the children and their mother.

Their father was remanded in custody. He had maintained his very professional coldness throughout, but when the alleged sexual abuse of Angela was brought up, he snapped and attacked the female detective conducting the interview. From the names he called her, and the threats he made,  it left no one in any doubt of the mental abuse he had inflicted on his family.

He was found guilty and imprisoned but who knows what lasting damage was done to those three children and their mother? Hopefully the counselling helped but that sort of support is expensive and when cuts have to be made in social care, aftercare and support of abused children is a low priority.

If there is any justice in the world then there should be a happy ending to this tale.

A Counterblast to – ‘A Counterblast to Tobacco’

 

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As you can see from above, King James the First was not impressed with tobacco back in 1604. His feelings were based on a personal dislike rather than on the reams of statistical evidence that assaults us everyday and provides proof positive that the black stinking fume is bad for us – for all of us – whether we smoke or not.

I hold my hands up in supplication.

I was a smoker.

I am writing this, not to defend smoking or smokers, nor to jump on the anti-smoking bandwagon, but merely to express my own very subjective thoughts on the  subject.

As I write, my atmosphere is slightly polluted by the whiff of Gap Boy’s latest fad – he has taken to sitting in a garden chair and smoking cigars round the corner of the patio where he thinks I can’t see him.

Ah, but I can SMELL you my dear!

And I won’t admit it to my darling GB but I quite like the odd whiff of cigar smoke because it reminds me of Christmas Past.

I know that GB dabbled with smoking at school, closely followed by a self-righteous condemnation that would have put old James to shame. Uni Boy has always been scathing about smoking – but then he IS a scientist!

The current cigar smoking is a GB affectation that Hub and I refuse to condone by actually buying any for him – yes, he actually put them on my shopping list! Neither do we complain however, because this is a surefire way of prolonging his fad.

Like his mother – GB is very good a being a rebel – so we try hard not to provide him with a cause.

My own first taste of the aforesaid offensive weed came after scrambling over the back fence of my primary school into the gorse bushes of Donkey Common, and ‘enjoying’ half a No. 6 pilfered from somebody’s dad’s  fag packet..

It was gross.

It was worse than gross, it tasted foul, smelled foul and made me feel very sick.

I was in the minority however because I wasn’t actually sick and I also managed to get back over the fence and eat a masking Murray Mint before playtime finished.

In terms of the playground etiquette, I had made my bones. Not bad for a posh speccy four-eyes who liked poetry.

Smoking did not become a habit at that time fortunately. I changed schools and having a fag wasn’t a part of their curriculum.

My next experiment with tobacco was in senior school and did unfortunately lead to my subsequent addiction – although I never smoked at home – my mother would have KILLED me!

I worked my way through Peter Stuyvesants and progressed on to Rothmans.  Then style and a Saturday job in Boots enabled me to explore the delights of Sobranie Black Russians  – and when I was feeling really outrageous – Sobranie Cocktail cigarettes.  They looked too pretty to smoke; lilac, pink, turquoise, yellow and a delicate shade of green, but they did have the advantage of enabling an element of colour coordination with my outfits.

Colour coordination has always been SO important to me.

I had a brief dalliance with St Moritz but the fresh mintiness seemed at odds with the naughtiness of smoking. The teacher who upbraided me for smoking them outside the school gates was outraged. I’m still not sure whether this was due to my temerity in smoking so close to school or whether she felt embarrassed by her own rather drab Silk Cut.

A change of boyfriend and I moved to Gauloise and Disque Bleu – accompanied by a hacking cough and a bad stomach from too much strong black coffee. I looked cute in the beret though.

In an attempt to please another lad and wean myself off the evil drug, I tried smoking Honeydew herbal cigarettes. I smelled like an autumn bonfire and very nearly gave up smoking altogether because the thought of sparking up the herbs made me very nauseous indeed.

Luckily for the tobacco producers, I changed boyfriends, gave up the Saturday job and took to rolling my own cigarettes. Oh, the delights of a fresh packet of Old Boots or Golden Virgins! Oh, the sadness of scraping together a few stale strands from the bottom of the packet to make a limp rollie that went out every few seconds.

I gave up smoking when I went off to drama school.

It was a choice between alcohol and tobacco, oh, and the odd meal here and there.

Two years later I left the bacchanalian delights of the theatre and took a more hardcore approach to alcohol by becoming a barmaid.

Asthma reared its ugly head and compounded by the boozy , smoky atmosphere of the pub, I managed to avoid taking up smoking again although, once I’d repaid my student overdraft, I had plenty of money at my disposal.

It was the stress of social work that was my undoing.

Having left the safety of the public bar for the complicated hierarchy of a children’s home, I quickly learned that a guaranteed way of getting respite away from the children, was to go into the office to write up the event book whilst having a ciggy.

Non-smokers had to wait till the end of the shift to be able to do this, and if it had been busy, this could add another half an hour onto the end of an already knackering shift. The possibility of having an asthma attack was preferable to doing unpaid work or looking on longingly when other staff disappearing for a fag break.

If you can’t beat them, join them, so I did.

I worked my way through Camels, Raffles (very sweet-tasting – ugh) and finally settled on 555 State Express. This was partly because they tasted okay and partly because my uncle and cousin worked in the baccy factory that produced them.

Even in my addiction I could be loyal!

I still didn’t smoke at home though, despite the fact that I had finally purchased my own first home – a ground floor studio flat that was mine, all mine – apart from the large part that belonged to the Alliance and Leicester Building Society.

I worked my way up the social care ladder, and as I did, so rules and regulations changed to ensure that vulnerable young people were only allowed to smoke in designated outdoor areas, had to be supervised by a member of staff (or two or three – depending on how many smokers were on duty), and that all cigarettes, matches and lighters had to be locked away in the office at the end of a smoking session.

My ability to make roll-ups made me quite popular with the kids – and although nowadays, social care departments would be up in arms at the very thought of a member of staff condoning smoking in this way, back in the eighties my nimble fingers were seen as part of my skill set. My manager was known to smile benignly at the sight of me, sitting on the verandah surrounded by maladjusted adolescents learning patience whilst waiting for me to roll them a ciggy.

It was whilst I was taking my social work degree and working part-time that I was struck down by a three-week bout of ‘flu that saw me bed-bound and existing on food that my mother ferried round to my bijou and Bohemian (untidy) studio flat.

The very thought of smoking  made me heave and cough. I had unwittingly given up the drug.

I still liked the smell of cigarette though and there were moments when our study syndicate meetings (which took place in the Bay Tree pub) tempted me to partner my drinking hand with a cigarette-wielding other.  The thought of how ill I’d felt stopped me and within another couple of weeks all my cravings had gone.

I was cured! And without the benefit of hypnosis, cold turkey, peer pressure, medical advice or guilt.

I’d also put on all the weight I’d lost during my ‘flu bout and acquired several pounds more.

So I take no real credit for kicking the habit and don’t feel that I can ever be one of those horribly self-righteous ex-smokers who make snide comments but look envious when the smokers troop outside to sit in designated gazebo.

Hub and I didn’t know each other then. He gave up smoking at almost exactly the same time – although his habit had been whittled down to a luxurious rollie smoked at the end of a long day at work whilst strolling around his parents’ rather large garden.

We met. We moved in together. We got engaged. We moved to a house. We got married. Neither of us needed to smoke. Twenty-seven years later we still don’t need to smoke. We are very, very lucky.

But, we love our friends who are smokers and wholeheartedly empathise with those who know the perils but can’t give up.  I have often gone outside for a spot of passive smoking when attending courses and conferences – it still seems to be the cool kids that are outside having a fag.

Things are getting more difficult though; not only do intelligent smokers appreciate the potential harm of their habit, they also get penalised at work as well as at play.

 In my last office, smokers had to clock off and on, and leave the premises in order to have a cigarette – or two – or three – may as well make it worth the walk.

Management smokers, however, got round this by leaving for meetings a good ten minutes early so that rather than being on a smoke break, they were considered to be ‘en route’.  Some managers would play the same game after meetings, claiming that the meeting had only just finished despite the fact that everyone had seen them out of the window, lurking in Smoker’s Corner.

Hub and I are unanimous however in our dislike of those who use their addiction to skyve  and dump the workload off onto the non-smokers. Neither do we like having to breathe in the stench of smoke-drenched breath – get a mint or some chewy for heaven’s sake!

I also think that there should be a separate office coat stand for non-smokers.  It is revolting having to rummage under a pile of stinky coats and jackets to find my own – now equally smelly and polluted coat.

I hate it when people stand right in the doorways of shops and smoke.

I hate it when a crowd of patients, some pregnant, others on drips, all in their nightclothes, stand or sit in wheelchairs outside the entrance to the hospital – having a fag.

I used to hate it when I was in a restaurant or cafe and someone on the next table lit up a cigarette when I was still eating.

I hate it when the government starts making noises about banning e-cigarettes despite the fact that they appear to have proved a life-saver for many smokers who are desperate to give up.

I have never tried one and I’m not sure that I fancy having a ciggie substitute that tastes of vanilla, bubblegum or chocolate.

GB had a very short-lived flirtation with e-cigarettes.

Another fad.

Dining with a friend with an e-cig does not offend me. On the contrary, I am no longer deprived of their company and they aren’t sitting there twitching, having rushed through their meal because they are desperate for a nicotine fix.

I am not against smoking.  I am against dying from smoking related diseases.

‘At Twenty-Two – Love Goes On’

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They say that most people have a special person – a teacher or a work colleague – who had a profound effect on their lives. Sometimes they disappear and you never see them again, sometimes they come back into your life in a most unexpected way.

In my third year at primary school I was a horror.

I was the original temper tantrum kid and if anyone – teachers especially – dared to cross me, I would leave the classroom with a screech and spend the rest of the morning or afternoon swinging and singing to myself in the playground until it was time for lunch or hometime.

This never occurred at home. My mum wouldn’t have let me get away with such behaviour.

It really began in the second year when Miss S broke a ruler across Lesley’s calves.  It was a wooden ruler and Les had a knack of tightening his calves just as the ruler hit, causing it to splinter and have no impact on his legs at all.

Miss S was not pleased and we all got detention because of Les’s legs. She stopped using the ruler though.

Up until that point I had quite liked my teachers; respect went right out of the window that day.

In my third year Mr M was our teacher. He had a goatee beard when they weren’t fashionable. He shouted a great deal, wielded the gym slipper when punishing the boys but saved his most savage criticisms for the girls. Not the pretty girls, but those like me who wore National Health glasses and hand-me-down clothes.

If I failed to answer a question in class I was stupid.  If I answered correctly I was being a smart ass – and nobody likes a smart ass.

There were a couple of us that he routinely picked on with an unprofessional glee,  but one day the worm in me turned. I had tried to shut out his noise for months but when the weather improved and the world outside seemed more appealing, I broke free.

 I got up from my seat after a particularly scathing reprimand and walked out. He grabbed my cardigan as I left the room but I shrugged out of it, screamed in his face and ran. Torn between running after me and deserting the class, Mr M stayed where he was and I sat on the swing in the playground; cold but happy to be away from the shouting that made my ears ache and my heart pound.

It took a few more of these episodes before Mr M stopped picking on me.  The school secretary spotted me on the swings two days running and brought me into her office.

She gave me a sweet and asked me why I was out of class.  I told her about the shouting and how Mr M pulled my cardigan off me and made me cry. I told her that I sat on the swings to make the bad noises go away.

The head teacher got my mum to come up to the school.  I hadn’t told her about Mr M because I thought I would get into trouble.

Mr M disappeared within half an hour and we had an elderly supply teacher who looked like someone’s grandma and read us nice stories till the end of term.

My teacher for fourth year was Mr W.  He was a games teacher with a reputation for using his spare gym shoe on any boy who messed around in games or PE.  He didn’t use it often because he tended to keep his pupils busy.

On the first day of term we had a general knowledge quiz.  I won.

At playtime, Mr W called me to his desk. He smiled and spoke very softly.

“You are very good at general knowledge.  I hear that you also write stories and poems, and that you like to draw.”

I nodded.  I had been expecting a telling off although I wasn’t sure what for.

“I like poems and stories, music and art.  I like people who enjoy learning.  Do you enjoy learning?”

I nodded even more vigorously.

“Good.  I also need you to let other people learn too, so from now on, even if you know the answer in a quiz, don’t put your hand up.  If no one else answers then I will ask you.  Okay?”

Still dumb, still nodding, but smiling too.

“I also want you to promise me that if you feel upset or angry, you won’t leave the classroom but you will write me a note about it and we will sort things out later.  Promise?”

I promised.

 I wrote poems and stories.  I answered questions when Mr W asked me.  I danced and sang and acted in Mr W’s productions. From then on, I only went on the swings at playtime or lunchtime.

He loved Greece and was a great fan of Nana Mouskouri; he used to bring her records in to play to us. I like to think that we loved him enough to listen quietly.

Not surprisingly, for such a good teacher, Mr W was offered a better position at another school and we both left at the end of the year.  I organised a whip round and managed to find three Nana Mouskouri albums that he didn’t have.  We both had watery eyes that day.

Winding life on, and at twenty-two years of age I was working as a revolting houseparent in a local authority children’s home.  One of the girls had been caught smoking behind the bike sheds at school (where else?), and I had to accompany her to a formal telling off by the new head teacher.

I think both of us felt nervous as we sat in the corridor outside the head teacher’s room.  The school secretary came out to  usher us in. part of me wanted to ask her for a sweet, then I remembered that I was a responsible adult now.

The head teacher was Mr W.  I grinned hugely as I said his name.  He hadn’t changed – well his black hair was turning grey at the edges and his moustache was more bushy than I remembered it.  He blinked a couple of times, then smiled just as hugely as he recalled my name.  No more National Health glasses or hand-me downs; I’d gone upmarket, had designer specs and penchant for jeans and rugby shirts.

The next ten minutes were spent updating each other; his progress through the ranks to his first head teacher position and my more chequered career through drama school,  bar work and after the soda syphon incident, a spell as a volunteer in a children’s home that led to my current permanent post.

My naughty girl was temporarily forgotten.  She had the sense to sit quietly whilst we talked, and when we eventually remembered her, Mr W merely frowned and told her that he didn’t want to see her in his office again.

In the three years that I worked at the children’s home, I had cause to work with Mr W on several occasions; our children were not the easiest to deal with.  Most of them had spent years being rejected and neglected, so solutions weren’t always easy.  Mr W could always be relied upon to look beyond the issues and use his imagination to motivate rather than punish. Our children thrived in his environment.

We lost touch after I qualified as a social worker and moved to another children’s centre.

I met my Hub whilst working there, and two years after we married, a familiar name caught my eye one evening as I leafed through the local newspaper.

Mr W had retired at last and was going to relocate to his beloved Greece.

Three weeks after he retired he was killed instantly by an uninsured boy racer.  The boy t-boned Mr W’s beloved Jag as he pulled out of the local Spar shop car park one Sunday morning when he went to collect the papers and some milk.

On and on like the sea
Love goes on eternally
Troubles come then they’re gone
Love goes on, on and on
Like the sea
Love goes on eternally’

 Love goes On – Nana Mouskouri 1970