The New term for my creative writing group started last week. This time there will be a theme running through our work which is ‘sanctuary’. This is because in March, as part of the Headingley Literature Festival, the group will be putting on a public performance of readings on the theme, very broadly defined. Our first homework was to write a short piece of flash fiction, in this case about 350 words, on some place or location that we personally think of as our sanctuary. Some of us found this quite difficult as, assuming sanctuary is some sort of escape or safe haven, those of us that have quite ordinary and harmonious lives, don’t need or have a sanctuary. Most of us wrote something on memories of childhood, early family life, or a particular place they find relaxing and re-energising. There were a couple of pieces on going to football matches on Saturdays! As our tutor, Liz, pointed out there is a tendency with this exercise for it to become rather sentimental. On the whole we avoided this but there is no doubt there was a good bit of nostalgia in some of the writing. I suppose a retreat into a nostalgic reverie of a more carefree or exciting time in our lives could be seen as some sort of visit to a sanctuary. I wrote two pieces, both personal in the sense that they are fictions based on elements of personal experience. The first, ‘en-suite’ is the one I read out in class.
Lenny felt safe at last. He’d been shown to a decent cell at Millgarth. The solitary window was too high to see out, but it was round the back of the station near the market so quiet at night. He’d had his cup of tea and sandwich. They had taken his clothes and insisted he had a shower before turning in. It suited him down to the ground; quiet, warm, en-suite after a fashion. Usually they let him go the next day after charging him with vagrancy or a breach of the peace, but this time it would be different.
He’d go to Armley prison for a while but he was banking on getting to one of the dispersal prisons out in the sticks. It didn’t matter where as there was nobody to visit him. He would soon fit in. He would keep his head down and mind his Ps and Qs. He was in his 60s now so he had little fear of becoming anybody’s plaything. He’d get on one of the education programmes, learn to read and write, perhaps get a job in the prison library, maybe the kitchen. He’d heard there are gardens at Full Sutton where the prisoners grow vegetables. That would be OK.
If his sentence is less than four years he might have to serve it all in Armley. He lay back in his bunk and smiled. He was pretty sure he would get more than four years. He hadn’t meant to kill the young man who had pissed on him as he lay in his sleeping bag, round the back of Schofields. He had hit him in the kneecap with the hammer he kept. As the youth lay writhing on the pavement he thought, now’s my chance, what’s to lose? It was October and he wasn’t sure he’d survive another winter anyway. Every problem is an opportunity he remembers a magistrate telling him once. Well, he’d had a lifetime of opportunities by her reckoning. This time he wasn’t passing it up. He had put the kid out of his misery with one massive blow to the head and settled back into the doorway to wait for the police.
The kitchen was my mother’s domain. It was only later I realised it was also her sanctuary. A war bride, daughter of a respected family within the business community, father a magistrate and President of the Round Table, she defied her parents and married a geordie private from the local barracks. Disowned and dispossessed they managed to have a reasonable life, but always had to be careful with money. We never had a car and holidays were spent with various of dad’s relatives. There was always food on the table and decent clothes but we missed out on many of the things our school friends enjoyed, school trips, holidays abroad, weekend drives in the country and the like.
In all my memories of her, mother seemed detached, alone somehow, despite keeping home for a family of five. I don’t remember any conversations between my parents. Once in a while I would see them on the sofa watching the TV with dad’s arm around her. On holiday they would sometimes hold hands walking on the prom. I think they loved one another. But mostly they lived separate lives. For a while mother tried going to dad’s working men’s club with him on a Friday evening and joined the ladies’ darts team but she didn’t fit in and it soon came to an end.
She spent most of her time, once we’d all started school, at home by herself. None of us were allowed into her kitchen. We used to feel guilty if we even looked into it when the door was open or the hatch through to the dining room. I would often see her at the kitchen table in her floral pinny, staring at nothing in particular or out of the window overlooking the back yard, a book open in front of her. I never saw dad read anything other than the News of the World. To me mother was a closed book and only much later could I begin to understand the unfulfilled possibilities of her life. I think that, sitting in her kitchen, she spent her time living in different worlds, the ones she entered though her books, and perhaps thinking of the ones she might have had if the army hadn’t come to Tunbridge Wells.