story was one of twelve I wrote in one month at Annamacherrig, an artist’s
retreat at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. It was financed by a (unique for me)
Arts Council Grant.
My personal brief was to create short stories that would in
some way reflect my strong, experiences as Writer in Residence in HMP Low
. I wrote six stories inspired by six women I
met and worked with in prison. To the amusement of some of the other artists, I worked
very hard at Annamacherig to take advantage of this rare writing break.
My personal brief was to create short stories that would in some way reflect my strong, experiences as Writer in Residence in HMP Low
One day I hope to return to Annamacherrig and write six more short stories. Or draft a new novel...
Eventually I developed these stories into a single
narrative calledPaulie’s Web, which many people seemed to enjoy.
Here it is:.
Queenie and the Water Man
Queenie’s hat was always cocked at a cheeky angle. She was very particular about her appearance. Her eye embraced those about her with frank confidence. She was extravagant with her perfume: this month Rive Gauche, next month Je t ’Adore - gifts from her niece, Janine, who was a flight attendant. Janine kept her auntie supplied with perfume and with liquor for her glass-fronted cocktail cabinet with the let-down shelf. The interior light - such an innovation when Queenie bought it in the Sixties - did not work now, and the mirrors and glass shelves were rarely dusted.
The first time the bad thing happened Queenie committed herself voluntarily to hospital; she praised the nurses and psychiatrists for their close care, despite her stifled resentment at their calling her Queenie, and not Miss Pickering. Queenie was a nice name to be sure, acquired by her at the age of six when she was May Queen in her village. After that she had abandoned her given name of Vivian for ever. But only Janine and two or three old friends were allowed to call her Queenie.
To everyone else she was always Miss Pickering. The world called her Miss Pickering. Two generations of schoolchildren in her village called her Miss Pickering. Even when two of them - grown up now and equipped with mobile phones and Ford Escorts - came upon her one midnight walking through the woodland, clad only in her petticoat and armour-like brassiėre, muttering lines from the poet John Clare: even these two likely lads called her Miss Pickering.
It was the lads’ kindness and distress which made her, that first time, decide she must seek help at the hospital. In the hospital the doctor gave her some pills so that when she got back home she no longer saw the Water Man rising, dripping pond weed and silvery fish, fairies dancing at his shoulder: the Water Man who smelled of almonds and honey wine.
It was quite a while before she decided to leave off the pills ‘just for a day or so’. That was when she sat back, walked around and waited for the sparkle to come back in her life, for the Water Man to stride the earth again. She put on her hat at its cocky angle, splashed herself with Je t’Adore and set forth.
Ah, wonderful! The colours were brighter and the noises were louder, more differentiated. People swept by her in warm beams of light. The buses roared and took on the aspects of scarlet tigers. The cars were insects, bright as jewels.
As she exclaimed and laughed at all this beauty people on the pavement gave her a wide berth. She began to go further and further afield, to drink in all the beauty, to allow the Great Ones to come before her. She would return to the little house later and later. Even then, she would be just about ready to get into bed when the beauty of the world outside would call her again and she just had to get up and go outside to bathe in its light..
One night she was actually in bed when some lines from the lovely Browning popped into her head.
“Thou, Soul, explorest -
Though in a trembling rapture - space
Immeasurable! Shrubs, turned trees,
Trees that touch heaven, support its frieze
Studded with moon and sun and star.”
She chanted the words again and again, racing through her back door through the wicket space in her fence, on, on towards the woodland “Trees that touch Heaven … Trees that touch Heaven”.
Ali Smith and George Onyatt, returning from a late drink at The Green Tree pub, saw her figure before them, fluttering in a long night dress. ‘There she goes again, Ali!’ George Onyatt gave chase and soon caught up with her. ‘Come on, Queenie,’ he said, his voice reasonable. ‘This is no way to go on. No way at all.’ He grabbed her arm.
She lifted her other hand and whammed him with her fist. ‘Miss Pickering to you George Onyatt! Miss Pickering to you and to your father as well.’
He caught her hand in his, tight. ‘Come on, Queenie.’ His tone was sneery. ‘Queenie’s good enough for you these days.’ That was when she brought his hand to her mouth and bit it, sinking her teeth to the bone. Howling, he let her go.
She stood still before him, then looked at Ali Smith who had now caught up with them. ‘My name is Miss Pickering,’ she said. ‘You know that, don’t you Alistair?’
That time Queenie was sectioned and in the hospital they gave her the pills that took away her visions of the giant trees and stars and the Water Man. She was meek, very good, in the hospital. She helped with the tea rounds, taught a young girl to read, and stayed tucked up in her bed all night.
When they had a case conference the professionals decided that Queenie Pickering was a prime candidate for Care in the Community, now not only fashionable but compulsory. Her house with its cocktail cabinet was sold. In a rare soft moment she had signed the lot over to Janine, her niece. Janine had sold it and gone off to build a new life for herself and her boyfriend Roger, in the depths of
But there was sheltered housing with a very kind warden. Queenie - for everyone called her Queenie now - Queenie could live there and the nurse could call every week to see that she was taking her medication. Everything would be Hunky Dory. Wasn’t that how Care in the Community worked?
After a week Queenie walked out of the sheltered house. She put on her hat - not so smart now - put all her most precious things in three carrier bags, and caught the long distance bus to the town where they would not find her. Best to lie low, she thought. Best to lie low. The gleaming Water Man would be there. He was everywhere, so he would be in the city. And the sky in that place would be studded with the pearly moon, the golden sun and the silver stars. And there again the trees would stride the earth.