By Chris Wilson
“Oh Mum; do I have to go and see Auntie Cassie? Why can’t I just stay at home?”
Susan Appleby glared at her son, and angrily held open the door of the car, but he just stood still and grumpily frowned back at her. He was fed up, he wanted to be alone with his Xbox, his Mum didn’t understand him, and he had nothing in common with Cassie. He was bored, it was the last week of his summer holidays, and he was a just a normal teenager. Why couldn’t everyone see that, and then just simply leave him alone.
Susan coughed sharply, and yanked the car door back even further. He looked at her again, but then he got in the car. He had learnt to be careful for some while now, as since his 14th Birthday, she had always seemed to be tired and angry. These days she never seemed to be happy; one day he hoped to find out why.
Driving out of the farmyard, Susan Appleby looked in the driving mirror of her Landrover, and inwardly swore at her teenage son Robert who silently glowered back at her in return. He had been such a good boy, up until his 14th birthday, but now aged 15 he was revolting, and she relished the thought that, one day, his obnoxious rite of passage would come to an end. She could accept, if not like, his hooded jackets, torn jeans and smelly trainers, and she had learnt, through painful experience, to avoid going into his room, but there was one thing about him she loathed. She loved the English language, and his illiterate and imbecilic use of the language, when he chose to speak it, drove her insane.
She slammed her foot down on the accelerator. Loose gravel and mud spattered against the farm entrance pillars, and then with an impatient snarl from the engine and gearbox, she swept out of the farm entrance, and onto the narrow country roads, that led to the village below. He had promised to see Cassie, the school holidays were finishing. As a teacher, she had a ton of work to do for the new term time, and she was determined to keep Robert to his word.
It didn’t take long to get to Cassie’s, and slamming the car doors behind her and Robert, Susan marched him up to Cassie’s front door. She might know what to do about Robert, he might listen to her; and then be persuaded him to go inside. She rang the doorbell impatiently. She knew she was in a filthy temper, but she was sick and tired of Robert. Since Susan’s childhood, Cassie’s house had always been a sanctuary; all she wanted to do was to get inside. In her fury she didn’t look at Robert, and she didn’t notice that he had stepped to one side.
Cassie, christened Cassandra, but much preferring Cassie, didn’t have an examination to her name; and she had never seen a university. A psychologist could have been some, one, two, or three wheeled contraption that spun along down the lane, but even though she was aged over sixty, she still was nobody’s fool.
She saw the car speeding, she heard the clamorous doorbell, and on opening her front door she saw Susan’s anger, and how reluctant Robert was to come inside. There they all stood in silence, and for a moment , Cassie looked at her visitors carefully, before deciding what to do. It was pointless to keep both of them together. Susan needed adult company, Robert needed to be alone. It was time to enact a plan.
“Susan, you need a coffee. Robert, the stream at the back of the garden needs unblocking. Do an old lady a favour will you, and see what you can do!”
Robert watched his mum and Poppy go inside. He gazed back across the lawn, and ponderously walked towards the stream , and the small silver birch copse that lay at the back of Cassie’s garden. Cassie and his Mum would be nattering, they weren’t interested in him, so this time was his now. He could do nothing, if the fancy took him, and, all alone by the water no adults would try and lecture him. Not even his mother would have her say.
There was nothing wrong with the stream. Stopping for a moment, he tried to work out why he was there. It was warm day however, and there was no-one around to bother him. Lying on a grassy shelf by the stream edge, he closed his eyes, and allowed himself to dream. Then, and only then, the sounds of the stream and woodland slipped within him; and suddenly Robert relived the smells, sounds, and pleasures that, so many years ago, he had always enjoyed.
Then he was six and, playing Pooh sticks with imaginary friends. The stream had also been his kingdom, wherein he was the king. Filled with fiery dragons and knights in shining armour; it was a wonderful world, and one which he thought would last forever, but he was wrong.
He had grown up, puberty had hit him, and now such joys were far away.
There were no dragons, and the knights, if there were any, were sleeping. The boys at school called him a Mummy’s boy, the girls laughed at his sexual ignorance and experience, and, due to the loose tongue of a school therapist, he was known as a late developer by all the teachers at school. Now he stayed in his room when he should have been socialising, he bunked of school when he should have been on the sports fields. Whenever he was in the company of his extended family, they were always kept at arm’s length, or even better, completely at bay. It was easier that way, no-one seemed too bothered by his actions, and, all alone in his fortified and heavily defended castle, fewer people could hurt him, and he could push most of his pain away.
Yet his thick high walls meant he was lonely. He wanted friends, he wanted to be liked at school, and be part of his family and the local community, but like an elephant at a vicarage tea party, he blundered around clumsily. He didn’t know how to communicate, or understand the unspoken social rules. There was no-one he could talk to, not even his parents. His mother was always angry, and, with his father always away selling his paintings, she was too busy to talk to him. Even if he wanted to open up to her, he felt that his feelings and words were deemed worthless, and only deserved to be pushed away.
Yet this place was still a haven; a lighthouse in a storm, and almost imperceptibly, his worries and teenage confusion faded away. His mind drifted deeper, but then in his mind’s cavernous silence, the river began talking to him. He opened his eyes, rolled over sluggishly, and looked down at the water.
“Slip slop; plop and gurgle”
Just a small stream, a flat ledge and a handful of glistening stones, but as he watched, the shimmering water danced, slid, and then plopped over the crisp dark ledges and beyond. He enjoyed the solemn plop of the water in a deep hollowed out rocky basin, and the gurgling chuckle as the water merrily scurried away. He rolled back and closed his eyes again, but the water kept on singing, and high above him, tall silver birch trees softly rustled and whispered in the breeze. He allowed himself to sink further, and slowly he drifted back in time.
“Feel, taste, hear, and listen to the water; Robert.” Cassie had once told him.“She’s a gracious lady, so don’t fight her and don’t run from her. One day you’ll hear her song!”
He could hear that song now, and it was wonderful. Mum could find him if she needed him; and, if she felt like doing so, even Cassie could come out by her side.
“I’m sick of him Cassie. He’s so quiet, and no matter how hard I try I can’t get through to him. All he does is grunt and glare at me, and keep me at arms distance. What am I doing wrong Cassie, why can’t I communicate with my son?”
Cassie sighed and, having poured out a coffee for herself and Susan, she leant back in her chair. Cassie was the local “ Fixer”. Everyone came to her for guidance, and everyone assumed she knew everything, as somehow she always had an answer lying by her side. Yet nobody really knew her, and carefully screening her childhood from everyone , nobody knew of the insecurities and loneliness that she had suffered as a child.
She was fine now, she had blossomed late, had a successful if childless marriage. Now she was a widow, but she enjoyed a degree of financial security which had always been denied to her. Yet her family had known poverty, severe poverty during her childhood. She had worn second hand clothes which had been donated to help the poor within the neighbourhood, and gone without sweets that others munched greedily. Worst of all was the pious can’t reeled out by the Headmaster. He was teacher by trade, but a lay preacher by belief and inclination, and she had heard the sniggers around her when he had one day stood at the school lectern.
“For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.”
He had meant to be kind, and the school of higher social obligations, but he wasn’t wearing the clothes that others had worn upon their shoulders. Sitting pretty on his cloud of inner sanctity, he was unaware of how she felt, as, a foot taller than all those around her, she had acted as a beacon for all of their whispers and sneers. She had hated the Headmaster as he solemnly looked down from the Lectern, and at that moment she would have gladly escorted him to Hell.
Although Robert had never known financial poverty, Cassie knew what he was going through, yet through her experience working with a local fostering and adoption agency, she also understood Susan as well. She was a good mother, she worked hard, and it was difficult for her with her husband away selling his paintings, but she was “do-er” rather than a dreamer like Robert. They lived in separate worlds, each world having different rules and languages, and though they were not at war with each other, the two worlds were incompatible. Neither of them knew how to cross the gulf that lay between them. They didn’t know how to talk to each other, let alone laugh and play.
There was one way to bring them together. A natural and almost forgotten way that, lost in an ever growing sea of speed and technology, was now close to disappearing , but still as powerful as it had ever been before.
“ Slip, slop, Plop and Gurgle. “She murmured to herself, as Susan, oblivious to her words, carried on complaining.” Slip, slop, plop, and gurgle; maybe that old stream will give up it’s secrets , and show the pair of them the way to go.”
Taking a sip of her coffee which Cassie had placed before her,she enjoyed the unexpected sweetness that ran over her tongue. She only took sugar in her coffee when she was tired or stressed out for some reason, and it was good of Cassie to realise that such a time was at hand. Robert was still Robert though, regardless of any sweet coffee, so she carried on off loading her woes onto Cassie, hoping against hope that she would take away her troubles, or at least push them to one side
“You know how it is Cassie. You bring a child into the world, you do your best by them, so you do at least expect a little in return. Now only yesterday…”
Susan listened to herself while she carried on talking, and looked at Cassie who sat impassively before her. She shouldn’t have mentioned the child, as , for medical reasons, Cassie never had any children, but she could talk about anything to Cassie, as she always seemed to understand.
She loved Robert, but never really understood him. Opposites attract, her mother had told her when Susan had got married to her husband Peter, but it does help when they are on the same planet, or at least playing on the same stage. Susan and Peter had always been different. They loved, and fulfilled a need in each other ,which had been denied to them by nature, but such differences put their marriage under strain. A born teacher and a consummate manager ,she had married an artist who was totally immersed in his dreams. Like father like son, she thought to herself sadly, as she heard herself ranting on inexorably, not a drop of common sense or reality between them, and never any interest in really getting things done.
She liked practicality, planning, and order, but running a farm, being a teacher, and looking after a 15 yr old hoodie was difficult, and she sometimes wished that at least one of them might help , and thereby relieve the strain. How to persuade them to do so; that was her problem. It was akin to teaching Chaucer to a pair of adorable, but rather stupid, Basset Hounds. They listened intently, and they tried to understand her, but all they managed to give back to her, was a mournful stare.
She took another sip of coffee, a welcome break from her peroration, and in doing so she noticed Cassie looking out of the window. Damn the woman, Susan thought angrily, she’s not been even listening, but then her anger dissipated, as Cassie turned back to her with a smile.
“Sorry Susan, I’m not ignoring you, but I want a quick word with Robert. Can you be a darling and wash the dishes for me? Then, if you want to, you can join us outside”
Susan just grinned. Cassie always had been an artful Dodger when it came to soap and water in the kitchen, but washing up was fun and comforting. Dirty dishes, cutlery, and coffee mugs always looked so much better after cleaning. They seemed to stand to attention and call to her. They allowed themselves to be dried, polished, and stacked neatly, before being securely frogmarched away.
“Tis the voice of the sluggard, I heard him complain, you have wak’d me too soon I must slumber again”
Cassie stood on the other side of the stream, and Robert he didn’t know whether he was awake or still in a dream. He was glad to see Cassie, as he wanted to tell someone about the song in the water; but then he didn’t know what a sluggard was, and it sounded quite rude. He looked back towards her, and hearing her soft yet infectious laughter, he knew he was awake, and that she had disconcertingly read his mind.
“Never heard of or seen a sluggard, well look in the stream Robert, and tell me what you see.”
He rolled over slowly, and looked into the stream . He saw a face. It was his face. Bleary eyed, dishevelled, spotty, and befuddled, his reflection morosely peered back at him. For a moment he felt very foolish, but then it didn’t matter. He was happy, he was at peace with himself, and he rediscovered a simple joy that he never thought he would find.
“Slip, slop; plop and gurgle! I said you would hear her song”
Robert got to his feet, smiled, looked at Cassie, and burst out laughing. He had indeed been a sluggard, he had been an idiot, but that was now history. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he wanted to talk to his mother. He wanted to build a new friendship, and try and help and understand her. How could he make a breakthrough though? Maybe the old stream would know.
Susan needed that chat, but having stayed behind to clear up the dishes, it was time to move. She crossed the lawn swiftly, then she stopped and listened. Laughter, Robert’s laughter was all around her, a laughter she hadn’t heard it in years. She saw Cassie and Robert. They were just standing there; laughing. Was this really her son, was he actually happy; and so softly behind the laughter; what was that curious sound?
“Slip, slop; plop and Gurgle”
She knew this song from her own childhood. It hurt slightly as she was so much older now, but as she looked at Cassie and Robert, she began to see a faint glimmer of better times to come. She was tired, horribly tired, but maybe could listen to each other, try and work together, and though it would be difficult to begin with, there now was a hope for a real future to come.
“Slip slop; plop and gurgle”
The water carried on singing; but now it was a chorus; it wasn’t just a song.