Thursday 11 July 2013

Green Grass Of Home

Margaret Bulleyment

Green Grass Of Home

Espresso – with a tiny spoonful of sugar

Strange stuff, grass. Lightfoot snuffles it; savours the familiar scents and pursues his favourite up the hill, until an enticing new odour launches him on a different trail. For him, every aroma begins an exciting journey, not a repetitive exercise.

   American grass is unforgiving, Anna. Little islands of tough,
tussocky, yellowed blades surrounded by parched earth, just waiting to trip you up. When I started training guide dogs, I'd shut my eyes to imagine what life was like led by one. I'd concentrate totally on each moment, waiting for that minute clue; a distinguishing smell; a familiar sound. No looking back, only stumbling forward, uncertainly.

   All these years later, I can let Lightfoot guide me, while I dream of seeded grasses waving in the warm breeze of an English summer's day. Buttercups, clover, bees, butterflies. Always butterflies. Flying freely, or stretching their wings out in the sun.

   I can even picture the lush, green lawn I played on as a child,
without getting upset at the memory. Feel the daisies tickle my bare
toes and remember when I was carefree.

   Now you're thinking, what sad old person wallows in chocolate box clichés of daisy-sprinkled lawns and an idyllic childhood that probably never happened.

   This sad old person, Anna. This sad, angry, old person talking into a machine, because she was stupid enough to break her wrist. I wanted to write you a proper letter, so I could organise my thoughts. Instead, I'm meandering on, with whatever comes into my head. Anna, my love, you deserve something better than this. See, another cliché. They just pop out. I'm full of them. I'm so cocooned in my little box these days, I can't think beyond it.

   I blamed Dad first. You'll laugh when I tell you that he left us for a woman who ran a garden centre. No wonder the lawn was so lush. Mum cried a lot, got divorced and found herself a new job at the NATO base across the valley. Then on the last day of the summer term, I came home to find my brother Tom, tearing around what was left of the lawn, wielding a baseball bat. Some shrieking madwoman was trying to run him out.

   ‘Come and join us, Emmie!’ screamed the madwoman. Mum's hair was loose, she'd never worn it like that before. ‘You're the pitcher now. Oh and this is Joe.’

   ‘Great to meet you.’ A massive hand crushed mine and held it, for an instant too long. ‘We're all gonna get along fine.’ His mouth smiled at me, but his eyes were cold and stary.

   And that was it. Joe, my new stepdad. Master Serjeant Jackson, US Air
Force, yes, mam. One tall black guy from Alabama, who loaded planes.
Months later, I found out he loaded them with bombs.

   Mum had never been happier though and that summer, they got married.
Only then, did they tell me I wouldn't be going back to start Sixth Form. ‘Joe's next assignment could be anywhere,’ said Mum, vaguely,’ but that's no problem. You'll go to the American High School on the base.
That way wherever we end up, you graduate and go to college. Tom can do the same.’

   So that was that. No one had thought to consult us, or even cared about it. I blamed Joe.

   Tom loved every star-spangled school minute, but I hated it. Absolutely hated it. I couldn't fail in lessons – a five-year-old could have passed – but I could fail, socially. If you weren't a cheerleader or dating a Neanderthal footballer, you had to survive in other ways.

   In those days you could smoke around school. Can you believe that? And that's what I did. I smoked for England. It seemed appropriate. Whatever I was offered, I smoked. Sometimes there would be a little pill, so I popped that down too. Mum and Joe were too busy drooling over each other to notice me and Tom lived out on the sports field.

   After a year, Joe was transferred to a base in New York State and I started another high school. I barely noticed the difference and if I did, I smoked a little grass and popped a few more pills. Everything was easier to get hold of now.

   I blamed Mum. She didn't look quite so happy now. Sometimes she would have bruises on her arms and she started pill-popping too. ‘Just for my nerves. Life's different here.’

   ‘Sure, Mum.’ When my school grades started to fall, she was too preoccupied to notice. Then I stopped going to classes altogether and just hung out with the other drop-outs. I'd never wanted a diploma anyway. If you attended class, you got one; so I didn't.

   Carlos was another misfit like me. His mum was Mexican, his dad,
American and a childless couple had been paid to take him away, as their own. He grew up with Repent ye now stuck on the 'fridge, so when he started to steal cars and was told he would be damned in hell, he left home. ‘Ahead of the flames,’ he'd shout, raising his arms to our stained ceiling, ‘with the Devil behind me.’ He'd make us laugh and most days in
that neighbourhood, there weren't too many laughs.

   Carlos was different; he always cared for me. We were frightened of the word love, but we looked out for each other. He graduated eventually; from stealing cars, to selling drugs. It was a rough world and we had to live. And die. Carlos died, protecting me.

   You were just a few months old and they took you away. Took you away from me and our grimy little room. But I was a proper mother. I knew how to look after you. I didn't give you away, Anna, I didn't. They took you. They took you and I blamed them for taking you away and I blamed Carlos for leaving me.

    I have an ordered life now. All these years I've learned, with order and education you can do anything. And if I sound like a teacher; that's what I am. Adult literacy. I got my diploma, I got my degrees and I'm a teacher. I'm sure that's what I would've been if I'd stayed in England, so I've achieved what I set out to do. I want you to be proud of me, like I've always been proud of you.

   I couldn't believe it, when Tom said he'd found you and you were in
England, of all places; adopted by a military family, who'd retired there. You're a married teacher with a two year old daughter. Anna, I'm so pleased about that. I envy Tom meeting you, but at least you know now, I've been thinking about you every day since they took you away.

   They told you, I didn't want you. It was devastating to find out the truth. I don't want to disturb your life, Anna, just meet you; even if it's only once. Meet my daughter and my granddaughter, like any other mother.

   Lightfoot's here beside me waiting for his evening walk. It'll be the last one for both of us. I've walked puppies 18,251 times. I've recorded every walk. How sad is that? I told you, I like an ordered life. Perhaps I might write a book about this place one day and use all those old diaries.

   I've tried to imagine your life, as I've mechanically gone through mine. I've thought of you eating breakfast in a high chair; sitting in a classroom; your first date; your wedding day. My imagination grew with you.

   Every day's the same here. I get up, decide between green pants, or green skirt and take Lightfoot up the hill, thinking of you and my granddaughter, Amy, in rainy-green England.

   Then I'm off to work. I have the best record of anyone who has ever taught here. Every student of mine, passes their literacy test, first time. I'm very proud of that. After lunch it's committee work, a nap and then dinner and the evening walk with Lightfoot. Dull, isn't it. Dull and boring. I like that. I know where I am.

   It can get tough here sometimes, but the puppies have kept me sane. I train only the very best guide dogs and that's something else I'm proud of. Tomorrow Lightfoot goes, his training complete and I will leave after him. I'll miss him. He's been my absolute favourite. Keeping the best 'til last. There I go again.

   Puppies behind Bars. It's a good name isn't it? It sounds like they're caged and restrained. They're not.  We are the ones behind bars.
We're the ones being restrained.

   Tom didn't tell you everything, Anna. I haven't broken my wrist. I just couldn't bear you receiving a letter with Blackwood Hills Correctional Facility, stamped all over it. As soon as I'm back in England, Tom will deliver this to you. I'm coming back, Anna. The whole family will be back where they belong and that's why you need to know everything, before you decide if you'll meet me.

   I could say I didn't mean to kill Pablo, just hurt him; but I hurt him, grabbed the knife and went on hurting him and hurting him. He killed Carlos, your father, in front of you and he paid for it. This time tomorrow, I'll have finished paying too. I don't blame Pablo.
There's no one left to blame now; not even myself.

   It's difficult not to get sentimental. Tom told me you have a long lawn in front of your house and you've even a Labrador, like Lightfoot. That's the picture I'll have in my head tonight, as Lightfoot and I walk over that scrubby old grass, for our last little journey together.

   The moment has come, Anna. I'm finally ready to escape out of my cocoon and spread my wings. All I ask, is that you let me fly across that lawn to meet you. If you can't face that yet, just send your Labrador out ahead. He'll find me stretched out in the sun.

About The Author

Margaret Bulleyment is a retired teacher. She has had short stories
published in small press anthologies; her children’s play Caribbean
Calypso was runner-up in Trinity College of Music and Drama’s 2011
International Playwriting Competition and she has twice had short plays
performed professionally, as a finalist in the Ovation Theatre Awards.

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