Thursday 24 December 2015

Day 24: The Winter Cuckoo by Shirley Hammond

 Over recent years following retirement, my partner and I have welcomed many paying visitors to our home in beautiful West Wales.  A few of these we might describe as having provided somewhat unusual experiences! This story was knitted together from several colourful strands of such material........

 I am a lark. At home, my best work is done before eight a.m. When I am with the writing group I belong to, I enjoy writing pieces under pressure. These often seem to turn out better than stuff I have agonised over for days.

This is the first story I have had accepted for publication. I have, however, also reached the shortlists for several short story and play writing competitions. This success will encourage me to keep on trying!   

Wherever I am writing, it is important to me to be able to look around and see trees and sky.

During 2013, in County Wexford, on a Welsh/Irish exchange visit, our group attended a large evening gathering. We suddenly realised, to our horror that we were, as honoured guests, expected to contribute to the entertainment or ‘craic’ - whether by playing a musical instrument, singing or reciting poetry .

Not wishing to be accused of English snobbery, I accepted the microphone. Did the audience hear the spine-tingling strains of that glorious Welsh hymn, ‘Cwm Rhondda?’ Or experience the mournful pathos of ‘Danny Boy’ sung by a foreigner as a compliment to her hosts?

I’m afraid not.

I am, after all, a no nonsense Yorkshirewoman by upbringing.

So it was a dialect-word perfect rendition of ‘On Ilkla Moor bar t’hat’ that echoed round the hall.

And everyone joined in the chorus.

An extract from The Winter Cuckoo 

It was the Tiger’s fault.
Our neighbour is proud of her nickname. She is aware of her elegantly striped hair and the
feline slant to her eyes. She also employs, to effect, the purring vowels she developed for
 minor parts in television soaps twenty years ago - before she gave up her career for
Barney’s millions and an escape to the country.
What she doesn’t know is that she has earned the name, as far as the village is concerned,  in two other ways. The first by her somewhat predatory attitude towards men (wasted on  Gwyn, however) and the second because she never – ever -- calls round to see anybody  without having designs on their resources.
It is a freezing cold Valentine’s Day morning when she tells us the reason for her visit.
‘It’s about my friend Jason Knight. You might have heard of him. He’s making quite a name for himself as a sculptor. So clever. And such good company.’
‘Never heard of him,’ says Gwyn, who, since retirement from town planning, spends most  of his time growing vegetables and soft fruit in the garden.
‘Well, sculpture isn’t really your thing, I know that. But his reputation is starting to travel  way beyond the artists’ colony here. The only thing is, he’s split up from his girlfriend and  has had to move out of their house.  So sad.’
‘He had no choice in the matter?’ I ask. I used to work in social services.
‘Oh no, nothing like that,’ the Tiger says quickly, ‘just grown apart over the years. But the arguments weren’t helping his creativity. He needs his own space. And I suddenly thought – how wonderful if you could let out your flat to him.’
We have a small, self- contained flat on the second floor of our house, which we let out to holidaymakers in season. It’s popular with families, being cheaper than a cottage, and within walking distance of the beach.
‘Why can’t you have him?’ Gwyn asks.
‘Oh darlings – you know I couldn’t. What would people say, with Barney having died so recently?’
Barney was thirty years her senior. His earthly career collapsed last summer. The Tiger continues to occupy their enormous former rectory with every appearance of enjoyment and a Polish couple who do all the work.
She changes tack.
‘I thought I was doing you a favour!’ she mews. ‘He would be paying you. And he’ll be out all day. He’ll be no trouble.’
‘I suppose we could let him have it until Easter,’ I say, turning to Gwyn. ‘On a weekly let. I would have to charge for doing his laundry.’
There isn’t a washing machine or tumble dryer in the flat.
 ‘Only if he limits himself to two suitcases,’ says Gwyn. ‘And we’ll have to meet him first.’
Jason Knight turns out to be a tall, quietly spoken man of about forty, with greying hair tied back in a ponytail, a long moustache, and several tattoos which look like signs of the  Zodiac. He wears a lot of silver jewellery, and a vintage sweatshirt with a picture of Che  Guevara; but, on the whole, seems relatively inoffensive, and accepts our terms.

On the day he arrives, it is clear that Gwyn’s edict regarding luggage has been ignored.
Heavy-looking grey clouds gather, as a traveller acquaintance of his brings a truck to the front of the house and empties a mountain of possessions on to the drive. Being woolly  liberals, we fail to say anything at this point. It takes Jason an hour to get everything up the stairs. No, he does not want any help.
He refuses a cup of tea.

About the author 

Shirley Hammond is one of a dozen committed members of a creative writing group in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, run by author Judith Barrow. Her experiences of country living in retirement - and looking after holidaymakers from all walks of life over recent years -  have provided her with much interesting material. However, she holds to the adage that if a story is worth telling, it is worth embroidering.......



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