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Monday, April 7, 2014

The Kindness of Oscar and Thomas

2014 Winter Contest Finalist
sharing the extraordinary in ordinary lives

The Kindness of Oscar and Thomas
by Eleanor Fitzsimons
n Monday, May 17, 1897, three frightened children were made to stand in line in the high-ceilinged central inspection hall of Reading Jail in Berkshire. The two older boys had been issued with coarse prison uniforms, each one emblazoned with a pattern of broad arrows signifying that the wearer was, for the time being, the property of Her Majesty’s Government. The youngest boy was so slight that no uniform could be found to fit him and he wore instead the ragged clothes that he had been arrested in. Each boy carried his bed sheet under his arm. All three had been convicted of snaring rabbits and were waiting to be escorted to the cells that had been allocated to them.
By chance the three lads were spotted by Prisoner C.3.3 as he was being escorted back to cell number three on landing three of C Block, located high above where they stood. A compassionate man, he was moved by the abject vulnerability of these children; they reminded him of his own two sons, aged ten and almost twelve at the time, although thoughts of his own beloved boys caused him nothing but anguish. Prisoner C.3.3 was due for release within two days, but the crime for which he had been convicted carried with it the probability that he would never see his sons again. He missed them dreadfully: ‘I envy other men who tread the yard with me. I am sure that their children wait for them’, lamented the man we know as Oscar Wilde.
Wilde encountered a good many child convicts during the seventeen months he spent in Reading Jail, but he had never before seen one as young as the little lad who couldn't find a uniform to fit him. Determined to help if he could, he made inquiries and learnt that the boys would be freed if someone paid a fine that was clearly beyond the means of their parents. Once he was back in his cell, he scribbled a note on a scrap of paper and slipped it under his door in the hope that it would catch the eye of Warder Thomas Martin as he patrolled the corridor. This scrawled note has survived and reads as follows:

‘Please find out for me the name of A.2.11. Also, the names of the children who are in for the rabbits, and the amount of the fine. Can I pay this and get them out? If so I will get them out tomorrow. Please, dear friend, do this for me. I must get them out. Think what a thing for me it would be to be able to help three little children. I would be delighted beyond words: if I can do this by paying the fine tell the children that they are to be released tomorrow by a friend, and ask them to be happy and not to tell anyone.’

The fine was paid and the children freed.

Wilde’s reference to ‘A.2.11’ demonstrates that he had also used this opportunity to inquire about a fellow adult prisoner, a young soldier named James Edward Prince who was being held in a cell located on the landing below him. Although it was perfectly obvious to the inmates of Reading Jail that this unfortunate man was suffering from some form of mental disturbance, his unorthodox behaviour had earned him the label ‘malingerer’. Rather than dealing with him sympathetically, the prison authorities prescribed a regime of regular beatings, and his anguished howls reverberated throughout the jail. Once he had discovered this man’s name, Wilde planned to use his access to the popular press to raise awareness of his plight and shame the authorities into intervening. His primary concern however, was for the children.

The notion of imprisoning children might seem barbaric to us now, but it was common practice in Victorian England, and represented a significant improvement on the treatment that had been meted out during the early part of the nineteenth century. Under the Bloody Code, a set of draconian laws that were in force between the years 1688 and 1815, children and adults alike were regularly sentenced to death for stealing; as recently as 1814, the year before the code was repealed, five children, all of them aged under-fourteen, were hanged at the Old Bailey for relatively minor transgressions.

Although their lives were spared during the years that followed, children frequently lost their liberty and their dignity. More often than not the crimes perpetrated by them were a direct response to the awful poverty they experienced; convictions for poaching and stealing food were commonplace. During 1845, seven children—six boys and one girl, not one of whom had reached his or her tenth birthday—were incarcerated in Reading jail. All had been sentenced to hard labor, with several suffering the further indignity of being whipped on release. When seven year-old Frank Stockwell was convicted of arson in 1884, he became the youngest prisoner to serve a sentence in Reading Jail. In 1891, a ten year-old boy was sentenced to three days in Reading for stealing cherries. The following year, an eleven year-old boy got twenty-one days hard labor followed by twelve strokes of the birch upon release for poaching rabbits.

Many of the warders in Reading Jail were family men who sympathized with the children under their charge, but each was fully aware that any attempt to express their compassion could lead to their instant dismissal, and leave their own families vulnerable to the very desperation that might result in their incarceration. One man among them was prepared to act on the pity he felt in defiance of the very real threat hanging over him. Warder Thomas Martin had been assigned to C Wing in February 1897, just two months before Wilde was due for release, and during that time the two Irishmen had struck up a strong and unlikely friendship.
Thomas Martin soon earned a reputation for compassion. He shared Wilde’s concern for the children who had been sent down for poaching rabbits and as soon as he realized that the youngest of them was too upset to eat the unpalatable, dry bread that constituted a meal, the kindly warder brought the boy some sweet biscuits that he had paid for himself. The poor child was so grateful for this act of generosity that he mentioned it innocently to a senior warder, having no notion of the harm this would cause. For this minor act of kindness, Thomas Martin was dismissed from his post and obliged to forfeit his pension.

Days later, Wilde, a free man by then, was horrified to read of Martin’s dismissal in the Daily Chronicle. Since he had been assigned to C-wing, Martin had shown great kindness to many of the inmates, and in particular to the man he called ‘the poet’. In defiance of  prison regulations, he had kept Wilde supplied with copies of the Daily Chronicle and a steady delivery of Huntley & Palmer Ginger Nut biscuits, which he obtained from the factory next door. On one occasion, as Wilde lay ill in his prison bed, Martin fetched him a prohibited bottle of hot beef tea, which he concealed beneath his shirt to avoid detection. As he returned to Wilde’s cell, Martin was summoned by the Chief Warder and obliged to stand talking to his superior for several minutes as the scalding bottle burned his skin.

Wilde had long planned to use the unique insights gained during his time in Reading Jail to campaign for prison reform and in a letter he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, later published as de Profundis, had declared: ‘The prison system is absolutely and entirely wrong. I would give anything to be able to alter it when I go out. I intend to try.’ Martin’s dismissal gave him the impetus he sought. Although Wilde had left England by then, and was in Dieppe at the time, he wrote a long letter, which he telegraphed to Henry William Massingham, Editor of the Daily Chronicle, protesting at the dismissal of Martin and highlighting the cruel treatment meted out to the children that were held in English prisons. This letter was published in full on May 28, under the heading: ‘THE CASE OF WARDER MARTIN: SOME CRUELTIES OF PRISON LIFE’.  It began:

‘I learn with great regret, through the columns of your paper, that the Warder Martin of Reading Prison has been dismissed by the prison commissioners for having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child’.

The thrust of Wilde’s argument was that children, unlike adults, simply do not have the capacity to understand, let alone reconcile themselves to, the notion of being punished by society for some perceived transgression: ‘The terror of a child in prison is quite limitless’, he wrote. Realizing that his argument would be more persuasive if he cited individual cases, Wilde described how on one particular occasion, as he was heading to the exercise yard, he witnessed the small boy who occupied a dimly lit cell located across the corridor from his own being spoken to sternly by two warders, one who was in the cell with him and another who stood outside.

Wilde describes how, in the face of this onslaught, the boy’s face became, ‘like a white wedge of sheer terror’, adding that, ‘there was in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal’. The next morning, Wilde overheard the child crying out for his parents and begging to be released. Rather than offering him any words of comfort, the warder on duty repeatedly told him to keep quiet, although in the man’s defense it must be remembered that he was prohibited from offering assistance and would have been dismissed if discovered doing so. To compound matters, this particular child had not even been convicted of any crime, but was being held on remand at the time.

One practice that concerned Wilde in particular was that of keeping children locked in their cells for twenty-three out of every twenty-four hours. Reading was primarily an adult prison and few special provisions were made for its younger inmates. If several children happened to be present in the prison at any given time, then they were permitted to receive one hour of school instruction in the prison classroom. Besides this, and the short time they spent in chapel, each child would pass the remainder of the day in solitary confinement, obliged to confront the horror of their circumstances while utterly alone.

Perhaps the most poignant line in Wilde’s epic poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written while he was in exile in France, reads: ‘For they starve the little frightened child, Till it weeps both night and day’. Wilde was horrified by the poor quality of food provided to inmates: breakfast at half-past seven consisted of a small piece of dry prison bread accompanied by a tin of water; at twelve midday each prisoner was served a main meal composed of a tin of coarse Indian meal ‘stirabout’, a type of cornmeal porridge; finally, at half-past five, a supper that was identical to the unpalatable breakfast was brought to each cell. Children who were upset and frightened could barely stomach this indigestible fare, but no alternative was offered.
Wilde proposed a series of reforms to address the shortcomings he highlighted, the most fundamental of which was that no child under the age of fourteen should be sent to prison at all. Yet he was pragmatic enough to realize that there was little likelihood of such a radical proposal being adopted and suggested instead that children who were incarcerated should at least have access to a dedicated workshop or schoolroom during the daytime and at night should sleep in a dormitory overseen by a night-warder. Wilde also advocated that children be allowed to exercise for at least three hours a day and receive a diet of tea, bread-and-butter and wholesome soup.

As to the warders, Wilde allowed that they were decent men on the whole who were constrained from showing any kindness to their charges, but he singled Thomas Martin out for particular praise, writing:

‘I know Martin extremely well, and I was under his charge for the last seven weeks of my imprisonment. On his appointment at Reading he had charge of Gallery C, in which I was confined, so I saw him constantly. I was struck by the singular kindness and humanity of the way in which he spoke to me and to the other prisoners’.

Although Wilde’s letter whipped up considerable public sympathy for Martin, the Prison Authorities would not entertain his reinstatement, and vociferously defended their actions in dismissing him. 

Although little is known of what became of Thomas Martin after his dismissal, what is certain is that, in spite of Wilde’s eloquent plea in his defense, he experienced a long and difficult period of unemployment, although efforts were made to raise funds on his behalf. In February 1898, a sixteen page reproduction of Wilde’s letter in pamphlet form, entitled The Case of Warder Martin was published by Murdoch and Co. and offered for sale to the general public at a penny a copy. A note from the publisher, carried on the front page, read:

‘Martin was dismissed. It happened in May last year. He is still out of employment and in poor circumstances. Can anybody help him?’

Wilde continued to campaign for prison reform. On March 24, 1898, a day that fell during the week that the Home Secretary’s Prison Reform Bill was due to be read for a second time, he had a follow-up letter published in the Daily Chronicle outlining, ‘what reforms in our present stupid and barbarous system are urgently necessary.’ It seems his campaigning was effective as, when the Prison Reform Bill became law in August 1898, a number of the changes contained within it replicated exactly the proposals proffered by Oscar Wilde.

As to the friendship between Wilde and Martin, although the two never met again, the warder maintained his admiration for ‘the poet’. After learning of Wilde’s death in 1900, Martin contributed a chapter entitled, ‘The Poet in Prison’ to R.H. Sherard’s Life of Oscar Wilde, published in 1906. Sherard, a loyal friend to Wilde, dedicated this biography to Martin and his touching dedication reads:

 To T. M., who in the extreme of adversity, proved himself the true friend of an unhappy man’.

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a freelance journalist and researcher. Her work has been published in The Irish Times, The Sunday Times, History Ireland and other publications, and she has researched documentaries for the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize with “A Want of Honour”, her proposed biography of Harriet Shelley. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. She is represented by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency and is working on a book examining the influence of women on the work and life of Oscar Wilde. She lives in Dublin, Ireland.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Young Writer's Next Step

Congrats go out to bioStories alum Kristi DiLallo for being accepted into MFA programs at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence. The essay "Writing Matters" that we first published by Kristi will be just the first of a long career. Expect great things from this young writer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

 2014 Winter Contest Winner
sharing the extraordinary in ordinary lives

The Old Spiral Highway    
by Liz Olds

t 15 I read On the Road and wanted to be Jack Kerouac. I wanted to live big and travel far. I wanted to hop on a freight train and go to the edge, to get picked up hitching by road-crazed hippies in beater cars going nowhere. I often put on my orange aluminum-frame backpack and, with nothing in it, walked to the edge of my suburban Maryland subdivision and imagined I would stick out my thumb and hitch to San Francisco, land of Ginsberg and Kesey. I had read Howl; I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was well-educated in the ways of the literary travelers, although I never walked that extra mile to the highway. But I dreamed, despite the lightness of the empty pack on my shoulders.
        At 18, finally free of the constraints of family and subdivision, I chose Idaho for college. Idaho represented the frontier and freedom to me. More practically, I picked Idaho because a high school friend also went there, although I chose Moscow, up in the northern panhandle, and she chose Pocatello in the south. I had the idea that we would see each other on the weekends, not realizing that we were actually 700 road miles apart. On my map Idaho looked like Maryland sitting on its edge. I had no idea how vast it was.
I had only hitched once, during my freshman year, down the Old Spiral Highway from Moscow into Lewiston, to scrounge in the Goodwill for the men’s shirts and pants I felt most comfortable in. But I had dreamed many times of a longer trip and looked forward to the time when an opportunity would present itself. How hard could it be? I would just stick my thumb out and magically a real Kerouac would appear to whisk me back up the Old Spiral Highway home.

hanksgiving weekend of my sophomore year, 1976, I decided to go to Corvallis, Oregon to visit an old flame I’d met at Girl Scout camp and hadn’t seen or spoken to in three years. I didn’t call ahead because it would rob the trip of its Kerouac-ness if I did. 
On Wednesday I took the Greyhound to Corvallis. Dusti, the object of my affection, wasn’t home. Her confused mother stood with the door slightly open and advised me to come back Saturday. I took the ‘Hound back to Moscow on Wednesday night, and on Friday night, with only the price of a one-way ticket left, took the red-eye bus back once again to Corvallis. My desire for a dramatic reunion replaced whatever common sense my 18-year old self may have possessed. I would trust to the gods of the road to get me home somehow.
The romance part was a bust. In the end, Dusti and her mother did put me up for the night, and Dusti agreed, rather too hastily I thought, to drive me the ten miles from Corvallis to Interstate 5, the inland highway that followed the line of the Oregon Coast. There I could catch a ride to Portland and then on east to Idaho. Early on the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, wisps of fog curled around the pine trees and swaddled the foothills. I caught a ride after just a few minutes and was in Portland by 9 AM.
I bought a pack of strong, foul-smelling Egyptian cigarettes in Portland to pass the boring wait between rides.
Still lucky, I was picked up by a travelling salesman in a Datsun 240Z and we cruised down Interstate 84 past the series of Corps of Engineers Dams on the north and the little streaming waterfalls coming down the high hills on the south. We topped the speedometer at 90 MPH which made me nervous, but the little sports car was built for speed and so was the highway.
The salesman was a chatty guy. He talked about his own life on the road, which was pretty straight and not what I was dreaming of with my romantic notions. He said he had thought I was a 14 year old boy standing by the side of the road when he picked me up. He bought me a hamburger and fries and I thought that was nice. Closing in on Walla Walla he suggested that I spend the night with him in his motel and I wasn’t sure if that was nice or not but since he didn’t push I didn’t need to know.
We reached Walla Walla, just 2 hours from Moscow, at 3:00. With plenty of daylight left and a stream of students heading back to school at the end of the long holiday weekend, I thought for sure I would get an easy ride and be home by dinner. The salesman dropped me off at a small strip mall on the outskirts of town. All the stores were closed. There was a bank with a time/temperature sign in front of it at my end of the mall. When I got out of the 240Z the sign read 3:00 PM/20 degrees.
I stood under the sign, smoking with one hand and hanging my thumb out with the other. For warmth I had on an old green parka with a fake fur hood and an orange lining I had bought at that Goodwill in Lewiston. It looked warmer than it was.
I measured the wait in cigarette puffs, drawing the smoke in deep while watching the number in the pack dwindle. I noticed the temperature numbers gradually going down as well. Apparently a cold front was coming in. But, not to worry. A ride would surely be along soon.
As time passed, so did the cars. No one stopped. No one would even meet my eyes as they sped by.
I could hear the buzz of the sign and watched the numbers on the temperature side falling. At first I didn’t feel it getting colder, but numbers never lie. Then the wind picked up.
My feet numbed. I wore high-top Chuck Taylors and some wool socks I had stolen from a friend. I hopped from foot to foot to keep the circulation going. No gloves, I didn’t like gloves. Can’t hold a damn cigarette with gloves on. The numbers on that temperature sign were rolling like a pinball score going the wrong way.
So was the sun. I would like to say at least it was a beautiful sunset, but the outskirts of Walla Walla are flat and that stretch of road with the little shoe repair shop and H&R Block office in the strip mall was pretty ugly. The sun just went down.
And the cars kept going by.
By 5:00 it was dark and 6 degrees. I had to admit to myself I was getting a little afraid. I didn’t really think I would die out there, but I would be in for a miserable night. I lit my last cigarette.
I jumped up and down, waving wildly as the cars passed. I could see into the warm interior of the cars, surprised at how clear the faces of mostly young students appeared as they averted their eyes when I tried to implore them with my own.
Now it was dark, a couple of hours into my wait by the side of U.S. 12 in Walla Walla, Washington. Time slowed, my blood was slowing, and the only thing going fast was that damn temperature sign, now at minus 2.
I’ve experienced colder temperatures, but never for so long and never so exposed. Every breath I took hurt my lungs and froze my boogers solid. My eyeballs felt like they were freezing. Shutting them didn’t help, they hurt closed and they hurt open. And I was getting pissed. There were plenty of cars on that road, occupants ignoring me as they drove in heated comfort home. Home. Why the hell wouldn’t someone pick me up and drive me home?
I stood by the side of that road for 6 hours.
Then, over a little rise came an old white Chevy panel van. I nearly cried when the yellow blinker came on and the van slowed. The driver reached across the passenger seat and opened the door.
“I’m just going ten miles up the road but at least you can get in and get warm for a while.”
The man seemed old to me but he couldn’t have been more than 35. He had a long, slightly disheveled and thinning blonde ponytail and a big full-faced beard. He asked was I going up to Moscow and I said yeah and that was the sum total of our conversation. The weak little heat fan blew on me from the dash and everything tingled.
After 15 minutes he pulled into a gas station, filled up the tank, went in to pay and came back with two Styrofoam cups of hot coffee.
“I believe I’ll drive just a little further up the road.”
We drank the coffee in silence. I knew I was taking a risk as he drove “a little further up the road.” It occurred to me that he might be a serial killer. In my young teenage dream I had not imagined this freezing, lonely trip, nor possible outcomes other than absolute safety. It was too late for second thoughts now; I was committed to this ride. But after a moment of doubt I opted for trust. Even though he didn’t say anything there was no menace in his demeanor. All I knew for sure was that the coffee was warm and so was I and the miles were rolling by under my butt. There didn’t seem to be much to say. We didn’t exchange names.

ixty miles later we reached the bottom of the Old Spiral Highway, the pass from Lewiston that rose 2000 feet in 9 miles of switchbacks, a two-lane monster road with 7% grades and no-shoulder drop-offs into thin air. This wasn’t all the way home, and I had a nasty stretch of road ahead, but it was a major crossroads with two 24-hour truck stops and plenty of cars and semis, a place to get more coffee and be inside, warm and safe until I could snag a ride up the pass into Moscow.
As I was getting out of the van I calculated the miles and realized his generosity added up to hours rather than minutes. He still had the ride back. I hoped he had music to keep him company. I didn’t really know what to think. Both the tough Kerouac part of me and the little kid who bravely carried an empty backpack to the end of the subdivision were astounded by his generosity. I didn’t know how to simply be present with his kindness. For the first time in an hour I felt compelled to say something.
“Thanks, uh, give me your address; I’ll send you some money.”
“No need. I’ve been where you are and I know how it feels. Just pass it on, man, pass it on.”
It seems important to me now that he did not take me all the way home. I noticed it then, but didn’t think about it much. Who in the world would want to drive up and down that Old Spiral Highway in the middle of the night? One moment of inattention could send a car over the side into oblivion.
Now I think that it was more than self-preservation. He did not patronize me by assuming I couldn’t take care of myself. I felt welcomed into the brotherhood of the road, the home I wanted at the time. A home I knew more about when I asked a young couple going up the hill for my last ride of the night than I had at the beginning of my long, cold day. Whether he realized it or not, he was treating me not as the fourteen year old boy I appeared to be, but as a fellow-traveler, and as someone who really would remember when I got the chance later on in life to “pass it on”.

Liz Olds grew up in Maryland and fulfilled her dream of traveling the U.S. by Greyhound, Amtrak, a 1969 red VW van, and her thumb in her salad days. She finally settled down 35 years ago in Minneapolis, MN where she currently supports her writing dreams cashiering at a big box store. She has been published in Inside Bluegrass, Paid My Dues, The Grapevine and was the recipient of the 1983 ALA’s Children’s Recording of the Year for the song “Just like Sally Ride”, which the late Ms. Ride especially enjoyed because it did not use her name as a pun. Liz plays the banjo and is a blues programmer on KFAI-FM. She recently graduated from the Foreword Apprenticeship Program through The Loft Literary Center.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Root

by Sue Hardy-Dawson

Motherliness arrived with my first child but even as my belly swelled, and his butterfly limbs flexed inside, I could not believe or imagine him. It crept in with his smallness; some indefinable grace touched me as he shifted in sleep, his eyes shivering beneath paper lids, and love and fear grew with his delicate life. Wrapped in a blue cotton blanket, anonymous in a ward full of infants, I felt his difference. This, his root within me, so painfully beautiful, that until I met him I’d never known true fear.

That having my son created a closer bond between myself and my parents is indisputable, but, more than that, it fashioned a commonness with their humanity. Mum, thirty years before, mini-skirted, slenderly blond, stares into the camera from a grey beach. Dad, his arms around her waist, peeps from behind her, smiling. I’m not there, not born or thought of. I remember my childish confusion at this. I couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t contain me and I had never before that moment considered the effect my arrival had had on my parents. They seemed so naturally part of me; demigods, all-knowing, all-powerful, but essentially made of granite. That they might’ve been terrified of taking on these roles never before occurred to me.

Childhood is a scrapbook of images; some merely grey foggy awareness of being, others vivid, hot with colour and sharply focused. The latter often surprise me with their intensity; long forgotten, they hover, waiting to be triggered by some chance circumstance. One is of walking along a mossy path at my great grandmother’s house near Whitby. There’s seaweed and salt in the air but I don’t hear the sea. I feel as if the gulls are screaming at me, like vast ships they sail above, sweeping away from the edge of the world. I pause before an old Belfast sink, it brims with slimy green water. I imagine swallowing it; the thought of its looming foulness sickens me. In the same house I stand supported by mum on a shiny butterscotch eiderdown. Sinking into its surface unsteadily, I attempt to bounce. Great-Nana sits dark against the window, trailing a stiff finger across an oak dressing table. I’m drawn to its fine lace cloth and fascination of opalescent-glass pots and bottles. The room is striped with shadow and smells faintly of lavender-water. Her face is unclear, just a hint of white curled hair framing her sadness the downward ark of her bottom lip. I remembered this sadness. It was all around her, in the fabric of her flowered smock and in the ticking of the clock over the grey tiled mantel piece, it filled the house completely, seeping into its fabric. I’ve visited other houses that await death and this feeling is as vivid to me as the paint on their walls.

I suppose the parent I became was fashioned from the scraps that mine had given me. This reflection of them solidified into who I must be. It felt a strange pretence, as if I wore a coat I’d never grow into. Knowing this, I secretly checked the house while my children slept, wandering in the darkness looking for ghosts and other more personal monsters.

Recently, in Knaresborough, I found myself wandering along the street where I grew up. It was a strange thing because my house was all wrong; its new door indifferently double-glazed, its once frilly windows bearing stiff disapproving blinds. In the garden was a small girl, perhaps three years old, her dark hair falling softly about her face. She could have been me in a dozen faded photos, pale frocked, white socked. Except this, when she looked up she had the wrong eyes. Nothing stays the same. How could it? But old friends remain as you leave them, until middle aged and looking like their parents they surprise you in town. It was the same with my house; a kind of bereavement that finds itself longing for the familiar and safe.

My old school rises from a narrow ginnel laced with horse chestnuts and sycamore. It is almost unchanged, the tiny houses edging its pathway reminding me of quaint fairy dwellings. Running my hands along their low stonewalls brings back a shimmering purple dress pulled from the school dressing-up-box. Held up, it floats in sunlight, dusty with chalk and powder paint. I need this dress in the way only a child can. I’m conscious of the hopelessness, of being jostled away by bulkier children with harder edges, I don’t ever get to hold it, which perhaps explains its mystery and impossible beauty. School was an uncomforting element. I was sensitive and therefore an attractive victim to both teachers and pupils. When there, I lived a kind of half-life of confused compliance, without any concept of how to make myself fit.

I think this is something of how my father felt about his work. Certainly when he arrived home in the evenings, his face and overalls dusted with oil, we knew not to hug him because it seemed he could hardly bear to be touched, as if the heaviness of his day was upon him and he needed the peace of his cleansing ritual before greeting us. Thus scrubbed, he would venture upstairs and create a riot of horseplay spiced with the naughtiness of mum’s feigned disapproval. Still, the warm darkness takes me to evenings spent curled under his arm, the sandiness of his cheek on mine, his lively stories echoing under the soap flavoured, yellow bedspread.

Mum was all bustle and fresh air; practical and loving, she tidied and polished my brother and I, just as on washing days she organised the washing, sacrificing it to the shaking innards of the twin-tub. The steam laden air of our pink and orange kitchen called us home from our wanderings, for butter soaked bread, hot buns and syrupy jam or even our own dubious creations, their pastry grey with our assiduous enthusiasm.

Back then time seemed infinite; a Christmas or birthday’s eve an eternity spent waiting for the first creeping light to break the sky, but this innocence was clouded by a cruel reality coming closer, its details quickening, leaving a bad taste. Life, which had seemed so perfect, was tainted. Childhood couldn’t last forever and, accompanied by this growing knowledge, I began to look beyond the fences of comforting illusion.

With all the magic gone, night-time became a place of insecurity and doubt. I had discovered death, the euphemisms adults used for this shameful thing had deadened its scent for a while but I was too clever to be fooled for long. I had all the answers I had never wanted. And the imagination that had endowed childhood with such riches proved just as powerfully real in its pall of self-destruction.

I think of that time as ‘the waiting’, it is not unlike sitting in an empty station. Having fallen from the train you have ridden all your life, the next is nowhere in sight, but inevitably it arrives eventually. For me it was the first summer of boys, creatures completely unconnected to my father, alien gigglers and punchers who communicated through their friends. There was a kind of unspoken segregation in the seventies, unbreachable even years after puberty, which ensured a succession of embarrassed fumblings and toothy collisions.

Sadly the Great War had begun—the tearing of the root. Started by a rogue sniper, one day a voice just came out of me, braver and more reckless than I. Too stunned and ashamed to admit it, I built a wall to keep my parents out. Confused and hurt, they perpetuated the siege in a succession of revenge killings. No terms were agreed; the conflict just stretched into a long cold silence.

Nana’s death broke the cold war; the pain of loss poured an icy bucket over us. In her silent house were all the words we had wished to say. Her beans waited on the stove in her orderly kitchen. Her armchair still bearing needles and two rows of knitting and, as we walked in bewildered silence, the last piece of normality, a simple shopping list written in her hand, melted us. Suddenly mum and I were clinging together, while all about us the world indecently carried on. But this brought us back; it made us remember what little things had started the fight, and how precious was the love that must end it.

It’s hard to reconcile the child I was and the mother I became. Still fragile, self-conscious, it seems the myth of adulthood is always somewhere distant; my place in the world often more about how I’m perceived by others. I realise now that my parents lied to me, every day for a time, though less so later on. They lied so convincingly that I never guessed for a moment. In every briskly pulled curtain or cursory check under the bed, with every smile of carefully practiced deceit, they told me there was nothing to fear, that they could make everything better. I know they lied because I became them. It was the root battered and stretched. I love well because I’m loved and born of that is the fear that everything will not be alright. So they lied and lied and their lies created a sanctuary, a safe place to come home to, and oh, how I love them for that.

Sue Hardy-Dawson lives in the United Kingdom. She is a poet and illustrator and is widely published in children’s anthologies including, among others, A & C Black, Macmillan, Bloomsbury, Schofield and Sims and Oxford University Press. She has an Open First Class Honours degree in Creative Writing, Literature and Supporting Teaching and Learning. She has been commissioned to provide workshops for The Prince of Wales Foundation for Children and the Arts. As she is dyslexic she takes a special interest encouraging children with special educational needs.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Knack for Obsession

by C.B. Heinemann

he first thing everybody told me when, at the age of twelve, I announced my intention to become a professional musician—and what I was forced to learn again and again from bitter experience—is that for every successful musician there are thousands who never make it. Knowing who will make it as predictable as knowing who will be whacked in the head by a falling meteorite. Most great musicians are obsessive about their music, but aren’t particularly photogenic, live in the wrong place, know the wrong people, and have no business sense. The ravages of fame and fortune are familiar to anyone who idly surveys headlines in gossip magazines, but a lifetime of unrecognized brilliance can warp a person in less obvious ways.

When I first met Mark, we were fourteen. His father had been murdered in Florida, and his too-hastily remarried mother and stern stepfather moved the family to Maryland. On the first day of school Mark and I got talking, and he later brought me to his house to show off his stash of monster magazines. It was an exhaustive collection, all neatly organized in a special trunk. He told me he had a tendency to “get a little obsessive.”

Mark’s mom and her new husband would get rip-roaring drunk every night, fight, tear the house up, and then go after Mark. Once thoroughly beaten, he was generally kicked out and forced to fend for himself—rain, shine, or snow. In order to survive he crafted a superficially pleasing personality to ingratiate himself to others. He frequently showed up at my window and asked to spend the night. The poor kid lived for weeks at a time like a stray dog, wandering from one friend’s house to another hoping to get a meal or a place to sleep. He always looked slightly emaciated, and his dense brown hair grew over his shoulders and down his back. Most of his clothes were given to him by friends and didn’t fit.
He lost interest in monster magazines after living with two real monsters, and re-aimed his obsessiveness at playing the guitar. He saved up money from working odd jobs and bought a 1964 Fender Stratocaster. While his parents crashed and hollered upstairs, he locked himself in his room and practiced. He listened to the great guitarists of the time—Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Clapton—and started writing his own songs. All through junior high and high school he practiced during most of his waking hours, even bringing his guitar to school and playing scales in the back of the classroom. After scraping up the money for a tape recorder, he started recording his songs. By the time he was a senior he had written hundreds of what he called “cosmic dream songs.”

Miraculously, Mark earned good grades. During the summers he would hitchhike up and down the East Coast. Whenever he returned from his adventures, he invariably had fallen in love with a girl along the way and obsessed about her--writing letters, calling, hitchhiking to visit her—until the girl couldn’t handle the single-minded intensity of his interest. What he had to show from those broken relationships were dozens of new songs.

Mark was always in love, and always on LSD, speed, or the latest hallucinogen. But he never stopped practicing and writing. He left home and lived with various friends over the years, and we played in several bands together. I found his preoccupation with music admirable, and his songs were unlike anything else I’d ever heard. I started to think that he might be a genius. We wrote songs together and formed a country-rock band called Sleaze, along with David Van Allen, who later became a well-known master of the pedal steel guitar.

Sleaze went through several incarnations over the years, and Mark became locally known for his expressive guitar playing and songwriting. However, he could never break through to the larger world and remained a local phenomenon. When Mark hit his mid-twenties he got a job working for a lab cleaning out monkey cages and, frustrated by lack of real success as a musician, stopped playing. He and his girlfriend holed up together for four years, working all day then studying astrology at night.

hen another friend and I finally pried him out of the house to help record our friend’s new band, we started a chain reaction in Mark’s life that led to him taking up music again with a vengeance. Punk rock had swept away the synth-rock bands and stripped rock ‘n roll down to bare essentials, which was just what Mark needed to inspire him. When we had a chance to join a “punkabilly” band with the great singer Martha Hull, we both dropped what we had been doing and spent two years on a wild ride that took us perilously close to fame and fortune. After the band fell apart and the ride screeched to a halt, Mark married a woman who promptly dumped him and dragged him through a grinding divorce.

He responded by drinking more, writing more songs, studying the Tarot, and working overtime at two low-paying jobs. When my band, Dogs Among the Bushes, found itself in need of a bassist, I asked Mark if he would consider joining us. Celtic folk-rock wasn’t his music, and bass wasn’t really his instrument, but I thought it would get him out there playing again. I doubted he would take me up on the offer, so I was surprised when he jumped at the chance. He never felt comfortable with our music or the bass, and I could tell because once he figured out a bass line for a song, he never varied it from performance to performance.

I contacted an agent in Germany who set up a four-month tour. At that point, Mark was forty-one, divorced, and what some called a “functioning alcoholic.” He worked day and night, lived in the basement of a friend’s house, and spent his few off-hours recording songs and drinking vodka.

A couple of months before our tour he met a twenty-two year old girl and fell for her—hard. He talked about her, wrote songs for her, and repeatedly dismissed the age difference. She was flattered by the attention, but I knew she had no serious interest in a man so much older. When she made an off-hand remark about him being “stuck in a rut,” he decided to prove himself by quitting his jobs the next day, buying a new car, and offering to run away to South America with her. Alarmed, she broke up with him, flinging him into a depression so deep that he didn’t get out of bed for weeks.

That was unfortunate, because the band needed him to help prepare for the tour. He drank, he chain-smoked, he cried, he called me in the middle of the night to tell me that something inside had “broken.” I knew that, after a crushing divorce and now a failed romance with a much younger woman, he was in the midst of a classic mid-life crisis. Younger woman, better car. Next, I guessed, would come a new obsession.

That guess came true with all the vengeance of the Lord. One evening he called me, insisted I come over, then sat me down and told me that the Holy Spirit had entered his heart and that he had finally accepted Jesus Christ as his “personal savior.” It was only two weeks until our tour, and I saw dark premonitions appear on the horizon.

Mark didn’t help with the earthly preparations for our tour—making phone calls, getting together press kits, CDs, posters, and photographs, or researching insurance and tax information we might need. He preferred to take care of what he called “the spiritual side” of the tour. It turned out that the bulk of his spiritual work involved reading the bible over and over again, going to every Pentecostal church service within a hundred miles, and driving around looking for “signs” from The Lord. By sheer coincidence, those signs kept leading him to his former girlfriend’s neighborhood to keep an eye on her and protect her from “demons.” I worried, half-facetiously, that The Lord might next instruct him to “cleanse the sinners” in the band and deposit their bodies into shallow, unmarked graves.

I flew to Europe early and spent a week in Amsterdam looking for a van to buy for our tour. It was challenging trying to find a cheap but serviceable van in a foreign city and then take care of insurance and registration. When Mark and the rest of the band arrived and I picked them up at the airport in our Volkswagen Transporter, Mark gave all the credit to his “spiritual” work and didn’t thank me for my efforts, since I was merely a vessel of The Lord’s will.

During the first weeks of our tour Mark was unusually subdued, generally sitting in the back of the van memorizing the bible and grinding his teeth. I became increasingly aware that he was observing the rest of us. As long as I’d known him he had always been a talker, so his silence was disturbing.

One night at a gig he approached me during a break and whispered that other members of the band were “surrounded by demons,” and needed to accept Jesus before it was too late. Another member was being “used by Satan” and had to be watched carefully. I later overheard him telling another band member that I was “falling under the influence of dark forces.” To Mark, it was obvious that God had arranged for him to join our band for the express purpose of leading us to Him.

I reminded Mark that I’d put in some time observing him, too—through his phases of obsession with astrology, tarot, and drugs—and none of them seemed to make him happy or a better person. He answered that this was the “real thing.” “You can see how I’ve changed,” he insisted. “I’ve been transformed by the Lord. Everyone can see it.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, if anything, he was more the same than ever.

In the German port city of Greifswald we got to know the manager of the club we played in, who happened to be an attractive young woman. I watched Mark employ the same pick-up tactics on her that I’d seen him use hundreds of times before his conversion, and for decidedly unspiritual reasons. He claimed he had no carnal interest in her—he was there to help her find The Lord. He looked quite pleased with himself when she agreed to go out for a picnic on the beach with him. When they returned she rolled her eyes and muttered something about him being a “holy prude.” I had to give him credit—he really was trying to save rather than seduce her. The problem was that she would have preferred to be seduced.

He repeated this behavior in several towns, zeroing in on attractive but troubled young women, cozying up to them before springing the Lord on them. He grew more frustrated with our music when he realized that nothing in our songs glorified the Lord, and as he told me, any music that leaves out the Lord is dead and meaningless. As our tour reached the home stretch, Mark felt emboldened, preaching at us incessantly in traffic jams on the autobahn or while we were lost on country roads. One night as we sat on a bench overlooking the Rhine he harangued me until I literally had to run from the Good News before I lost my temper. Another night in a hotel he filled a bathtub in which he planned to “baptize” us, and begged us to allow him to save us. “It’s only a little water and a few words and it’s over—you’re saved.” He almost got a sock on the chin when he tried to drag one band member—one who he felt had been getting a bit too comfortable with Satan—into the bathroom.

Mark’s fervor created a corrosive friction that brought the unsaved elements in the band closer together and eager to do Satan’s bidding—fire Mark. This became cemented into our plans on the night a tire on the van went flat and, while the rest of us dragged ourselves out into a rainstorm to change the tire, he stayed inside praying. Predictably, he credited his prayers for the new tire when we got back on the road.

After the tour he moved in with a German girl—attractive and troubled, of course—who was twenty-three but looked sixteen. The rest of us returned to the States and began looking for a new bass player. When Mark returned home after his girlfriend grew tired of his evangelical hectoring, we informed him that he was no longer in the band. It was an emotional meeting, and Mark gave us the same look that Moses must have given the Chosen People when he found them worshipping a Golden Calf. “So you all went sneaking around behind my back and plotting to get rid of me! After all I’ve done for this band, and all I’ve done for your eternal souls…”

“You moved in with that chick in Germany,” I said. “We need a bass player, you know.”

“I see Satan’s hand in all this.” He leapt to his feet. “I see demons all around you! I feel sorry for you, all of you!”

He proceeded to deliver a thundering, incomprehensible denunciation of our perfidy that was a cross between Jeremiah and Revelations before he finally withdrew in a chariot of self-righteousness.

 didn’t see Mark again for fifteen years. I finally ran into him at the funeral of a mutual friend’s mother, where Mark had been asked to play guitar on a song our friend had written. I hardly recognized him in a suit with his gray hair and stooped shoulders. He hugged me when I arrived, and told me that he hoped that Jesus had been with me all those years. Before getting up to play he said, “I haven’t played a note since that last gig in Germany. I’m too busy studying scripture. I’m kind of obsessive about it.”

He fumbled through the song and I felt terrible. After all those years of brilliance he could barely get through one verse. Then, as the song built momentum, he stood up straight and his eyes brightened. For one glorious moment, that old obsession from his youth cut loose a guitar run that made the entire congregation gasp. He looked around self-consciously, his shoulders slumped down again, and he stumbled his way to the end of the song.

For just a few seconds, that obsessive genius in Mark asserted itself. And for once I did pray, and I prayed for Mark. But I doubt it was a prayer he would have approved.

C.B. Heinemann has been performing, recording and touring with rock and Irish music groups for nearly twenty years. His Celtic rock band, Dogs Among the Bushes, was the first American Celtic group to tour in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. His short stories have appeared in Storyteller, One Million Stories, Whistling Fire, Danse Macabre, Fate, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cool Traveler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Car & Travel, Outside In Literary Journal, and Florida English.