Yellow Mama Archives II

Bruce Costello

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Think Tank

 

by Bruce Costello

 

It began with a champagne breakfast. Afterwards, the twelve thinkers sat in a semi-circle, hands behind heads, eyes on the Minister of Health. The morning sun streamed into the room, illuminating a fish tank in which goldfish swam in endless circles, or pressed their vacant faces against the glass, staring out, opening and shutting their gobs.

“Thank you all for coming,” the Big Man said, standing and reading slowly from a tablet, his fancy business shirt barely containing the belly that flowed over a belt extended to the last hole. “Mental health reform should seek to increase access to mental health care across the nation, deliver it in timely manner, efficiently and effectively, and identify and disseminate evidence-based practices to improve consumer outcomes.”

He looked up and swept the room with his politician’s eyes before continuing.

“This Think Tank we have assembled here today brings together a broad range of expertise to pursue excellence in mental health policy. You are all without exception experts. Your thoughts are exceedingly important to the government. So welcome to you all.” He smiled and for a moment looked almost human. “Now over to you guys to toss some ideas about. Sorry I can’t stay. I’ll hand you over to your esteemed colleague Dr Hamish Bacon representing the College of Psychiatrists, who has kindly agreed to chair the meeting.”

**

Dr Bacon, who had drunk three glasses of champagne over breakfast and whose neighbor Mrs Jones had recently died, staggered to his feet.

“Who would like to speak first?” he called out, after rapping on the desk for silence. “One at a time, please.” He plonked back into his seat, aware of being rather tipsy, hoping nobody would notice.

The Think Tank erupted into life and soon speech bubbles filled the room. Dr Bacon could actually see them. Dribbling down chins. Ricocheting around the walls. Bouncing off the ceiling. Buzz words puffing out their chests, oozing pseudoscience. And lengthy professional terms reeking of scholarship – like cognitive-behavioural, psychoanalytically-oriented, psychopharmacological and biopsychosocial.

‘Brown words, all of them. Blah blah blah,’ Dr Bacon said to himself, gazing at the fish tank and thinking of the deceased Mrs Jones. ‘We are born. We struggle through life and then we die. What’s it about? And what’s the use of words? We know nothing but think we do, say one thing, do another and lie about the truth. And who cares? Blah blah blah. Rah de rah de rah. Did I say that out loud? Nobody’s looking at me - I can’t have. Or maybe I did and nobody heard. Everybody talks. Nobody listens. And this room’s like an oven with sunlight pouring in and I’ve got a head like a pneumatic drill and I’m meant to be chairing this bloody meeting. How do I get them to shut up and speak one at a time?

Dr Bacon looked around. The Manager from the Ministry of Social Welfare with earrings like bicycle wheels was opening and shutting her scarlet lips with supersonic rapidity. The President of the Psychologists Guild was punching the air with his fists, and shouting about this or that, causing his ponytail to swing wildly. And the Vice President of the Counselors’ Association (apparently standing in for the President who was having a mental health day) had issues coming out of her ears, all crying out for vociferous expression.

But to rap on the desk...to call the meeting to order...to stand and challenge the onslaught of words...to take charge? A chainsaw started up inside Dr Bacon’s mind and the room grew giddy around him. He clasped his head in his hands and his face slumped to the desk.

 

**

 

He wanted to stand. He wanted to shout: “Stuff your stupid evidence-based systemic approaches, your endless theoretical constructs, your long, learned words, your intellectual formulations and your statistically-proven best practice treatment methods.”

 He wanted to shout these things at the top of his voice and overturn his desk with a great crash and run from the room.

Or - the thought suddenly occurred to him - he could do the professional thing...insist on silence... then calmly share with the meeting what he’d learned from his personal therapeutic encounters with the loving Mrs Jones, a woman of short words, who’d never stepped foot inside a university. The loving woman he’d always turned to when his soul was troubled...who looked at him quietly with gentle eyes...saw every quiver on his face and heard every word he said or didn’t say...who listened to him with her ears, her eyes and her heart...who discerned the buried secrets of his soul and restored his belief in himself.

 Dr Bacon stood up, swaying, an impressive figure with a bushy beard and a red face with swollen eyelids through which glinted red eyes.

And it seemed to him that nothing was real anymore. Nothing. HE wasn’t real, the people before him weren’t real, just a two-dimensional collection of pretentious gits who knew everything and doubted nothing, opening and shutting their gobs, talking crap words, listening to nobody, their academic brains no more capable of understanding the human mind than goldfish were of swimming to the sun. And the sun would rise tomorrow and Mrs Jones would still be dead.

There was only one thing to do and Dr Bacon did it. He upended his desk with a great crash.

In the silence that followed, Dr Bacon tiptoed to the fish tank, picked up a pottle left lying alongside, and sprinkled a little fish food on the surface of the water. He watched the fish rise, googly-eyed and gaping, and he gazed for a time at a stream of bubbles gurgling up from the bottom. Then Dr Bacon turned to enjoy the shocked stillness behind him, where the others, like stunned cod, were gawking at him in a silence as thick as aquarium glass.

He walked over to the President of the Psychologists’ Guild, emptied the pottle of fish food on his ponytailed head and departed.


Weird World

 

Bruce Costello

 

           Feet on the coffee table, hands on the windowsill, a shaggy dog is conversing with the moon. Hearing human noises, he leaps down. His young man enters the room with a female person. They’re holding paws.

          The dog recognises the female’s body smell from regular inspections of his man’s clothes and hands, though she’s obviously been trying to disguise her natural aroma by rolling in stinky female stuff.

          So that’s what she looks like,” the dog thinks.

           “Oh, you’ve got a mutt!” the female exclaims. “Does it shake hands?”

          The dog brushes past her outstretched arm and sniffs her crotch. She yelps.

          “Down, boy!” says the man.

          The two humans lick each other for a time and then shut themselves in the bedroom.

          The dog returns to the window, which is now wet with condensation. Two blobs of water slide down the glass collide and merge.

          The dog runs to the bedroom door and smells around its edges. He whines, slumps onto the carpet, stretches out his front paws and lays his head on them. Time passes, about as long as it takes to eat a bowl of biscuits. He drops off to sleep, but twitches and cries.

          Waking with a start, he hurries into the kitchen, where he’d left a pig’s ear on the floor.  With his snout, he pushes it into the spidery space between the fridge and the wall.

          In the morning, the humans emerge from the bedroom. The man looks dog-tired, as if he’s been chasing cats all night. The female struts about like she’s got two tails, head held high, ears perked up, eyes bright. Says she’s gotta see a dog about a man, leaves the room, and returns looking mighty pleased with herself. The dog runs to the kitchen to check on his pig’s ear, but it’s still where he left it amid the dust and cobwebs.

          The female has a thing she calls a bong. She sniffs smoke from it.

          “Please don’t,” says the man. “My father was an addict and my mother taught me to hate that bullshit.”

          “Just try it. For me. You’re only young once.”

          That day the man stays home.

 

The female remains at the house for many moons until they start to fight. Then she runs away and doesn’t come back.

 

 The man gets his own bong, gives up going out every morning and mopes around the flat with a hang-dog look. He stops grooming himself and hair grows wild all over his face. He won’t take the dog for walks and sometimes gets very growly.

          The dog experiences a spiritual crisis, no longer converses with the moon and starts peeing inside.

 

 Day follows day and night follows night.

 

Something’s not right. The dog pricks up his ears, sniffs, and runs to his man. Water is falling from the man’s eyes and over his face. It’s like rain, but tastes different. The man is making strange noises. He tells the dog his mother has died. The dog nuzzles into him and that night returns to his rightful place in the man’s bed.

         

More days, more nights.

 

There’s a knocking at the door. A young woman is there with kind brown eyes and a gentle smell. The dog stares at her, head cocked to the side, tail thumping against the porch wall.

          “Oh, hullo, Pooch. Just thought I’d pop around to see if Peter’s alright. We miss him at work, you know.”

          “I’m fine!” the man shouts. “Bugger off.”

          The dog seems to shake his head. His tail quivers, and then curls between his legs.

          “Thanks, fella,” the woman whispers, ruffling the dog’s head.

          She calls out: “I’m worried about you, Peter,” and enters the flat.

          The man is sitting on the sofa. The dog leaps onto his lap and looks expectantly at the young woman, his big brown eyes glowing through straggly eyebrows.

          “They do say people grow to resemble their dogs,” the young woman jokes. She sniffs the air, and looks from dog to man, and from man to dog, as if she can’t tell one from the other.

          The man’s face cracks a smile.

          The humans talk and talk, slowly at first, with grunts and silence from the man, and softness from the woman. Then words start to fall fast and loud from the man, like biscuits into a bowl. The dog hurries to the kitchen to retrieve his pig’s ear. He wolfs it down, and returns to the sofa, but gets bored with talk talk and goes to his place by the window.

          The sky is dark. The dog lifts his head and bays, then watches as the clouds scamper off and the moon appears, big, bright and odourless. It winks at the shaggy dog and frowns down disapprovingly on the human world.


The end.



A Case of Paracosm

Bruce Costello

 

When my estranged son heard a cardiologist had given me three months to live, he paid me a visit, the first in forty years.

He moved my single bed into the sunroom looking out over the harbor and here I spend my last days, gazing across the grey water to the grey hills with their dismal shroud of winter cloud.

I can still get up to the loo, but the effort tires me, so I always wait till I’m busting and sometimes don’t quite make it.

I live alone and see few people. The meals-on-wheels lady comes daily. The district nurse comes fortnightly. A caregiver woman comes for half an hour each afternoon. A few friends and old colleagues drop by occasionally and try to cheer me up, but they piss me off with their hail-fellow-well-met joviality, and I’m rude to them, so they’ve mostly stopped coming. Except for one old buddy who brings my whisky. I must admit I like a drink now and then. More now than then, to tell the truth.

My son stopped coming after he asked about his inheritance, and I told him everything was going to the Salvation Army. He muttered something under his breath and took off—discarded me for the second time. At least his mother, my third wife, only discarded me once.

I’ve often thought that dying would be easier than living, but I’m not so sure now.

The idea of death frightens me, but life confuses me. Half the time I don’t know whether I’m Arthur or Martha, whether I’m coming or going, what’s fiction and what’s truth, what’s fact and what’s fantasy, who you can trust and who you can’t trust.

My only safe place is the space inside my head.

But there’s one doctor who visits me quite often that I really love: Denise Donaldson. She’s not my own doctor, just somebody I knew before she became a doctor. I’ll tell you about Denise shortly.

I don’t think I’m afraid of actually being dead. At worst, it will feel like it did before I was conceived. And at best… well, I often think of Virginia, my mother’s younger cousin, who died decades ago with a serene smile on her face and a Bible in her hand. These days, I think about Virginia a lot.   

Apart from Denise and Virginia, I can’t think of anyone else I’ll regret leaving behind when I die.

Basically, after a lifetime of people, I’ve had a gutful.

People wear me out with their expectations, their demands and manipulations, their brutality when they don’t get their own way.  

But I often daydream about Virginia and imagine her hand on my forehead, like when she lived with us when I was a boy, and I suffered severely from asthma.

I’d wake up in the night, wheezing and gasping, couldn’t breathe, and Virginia would always calm me down with her gentle touch, as not even my mother could.

Sometimes I wish I were a little boy again and often I actually feel like I am one, though the reality is, I’m over 80. I think I’m going soft in the head.    

But I must tell you about Denise, my doctor friend.

When I was in hospital for my last dose of surgery, Denise happened to walk past my bed to see one of her patients. She recognized me at once, though she hadn’t seen me since her high school days, thirty years before, when I was her form teacher and she was a right little so-and-so.

We chatted for a while and when I got out of hospital she turned up at my place one day and started to visit frequently.

I enjoyed her coming, because she was lovely to me and I could talk to her about anything—not just about the weather, but about the important life and death stuff. She was not into airy-fairy reassurances and glossing over of realities. She was just what I needed.

And somehow I thought she needed me as well. There was a loneliness about her, a particular flavour of sadness.

She never talked about her private life. At least, not directly.

Once when I was telling her about my third wife, Denise quoted that famous Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, who famously said: “If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t get married,” and she laughed, as if it were a great joke, then fell silent.

“It’s just so unfair, what’s happening at home,” she blurted out, after a while, the words just sliding from her lips. And the look on her face! I wanted to reach out and touch her, but you don’t do that when you’re an old man or people might think you’re a dirty old man.

Anyway, she resumed chatting and stayed for longer than normal, as if reluctant to leave. When she finally stood up to go, she hugged me long and hard. I asked what she’d meant by that quotation, but she just laughed. 

Anton Chekhov, she told me, was always just joking around. The same writer who said, when somebody asked him how he was feeling, “I feel like a donkey, with a stick in my mouth and a carrot up my arse.”

Denise was laughing as she walked out the door and I could still hear her laughter as she walked down the path.

*

A week later the district nurse tells me that Denise is dead. I ask her what happened, but she can’t or won’t tell me, and it’s obvious to me she’s making it all up for some reason. She’s lying. Denise can’t be dead - that’s unthinkable.

And sure enough, Denise’s visits resume. She reappears in my room about a week later, sits on the bed and talks to me as if she’s never been away. After that, she starts turning up any time of the day or night and next thing I know, she’s living with me.

She sits beside me during the day and at night she slips out of her clothes and slides into my bed. It’s no big deal. We cuddle all night and that’s all we do.

It’s the best relationship I’ve ever had. No sidetracks. No tangents. No kids. No marital minefields. No expectations. No social life. No sex. Nothing to go wrong.

I tell her about me, and she opens up and tells me about her. We talk about who we are, what we think about life and how we feel about each other. We talk about crappy things from our pasts, shake them around, toss them about, then forget about them. We live in the present tense.

And then, would you believe it, Virginia, my mother’s cousin, who used to babysit me, Virginia whom I’d thought had been dead for decades, turns up out of the blue, looking soft and serene, just like I remembered her from when I was a kid.

I introduce her to Denise and the two get on really well, like best sisters. Virginia is at a loose end in her life and has nowhere to stay, so Denise suggests we ask her to move in with us. Virginia accepts instantly.

The pair set about tidying my room. They start by taking down the musty old net curtains and cleaning the windows inside and out. Light and colour start to pour into the room and this makes such a difference.

And now with my two favourite women caring for me, I start to feel better. My health is returning.

I think it’s probably the district nurse who arranges for the cardiologist to call around and check me out. A tall American wearing a bow tie, sunglasses tucked in his top pocket, he is gobsmacked to find my heart is on the mend, that I’m actually going to live.

“It’s a miracle,” he says. “Fantastic. How did you manage that?”

“I’ve been well looked after,” I say. “There’s nothing to equal the curative love of a good woman and when there’re two of them in your bed, you’re on a winning streak.

“Well, whatever you’re doing, and however you’re doing it,” the cardiologist says, raising his eyebrows, “keep doing it.”


A EULOGY

 

Bruce Costello

 

I was the first newspaper journalist you’d ever met, you told me, and you’d thought all newspaper journalists were men! I explained you’d just become the world’s most famous 100-year-old woman, so naturally our readers wanted to know about your life, and I was fortunate to be the journalist the newspaper sent to interview you, a month before the launch into space.

Once the interview got underway, you began to relax and to open up.

Back in your early days, you told me, life was simple. It was about riding your bike to school, mucking around with other kids, and catching tadpoles in the creek.

Life wasn’t about death. People didn’t really die. Or if they did, it was just some old person you’d never heard of, like Dad’s uncle Albert, Mum’s cousin Freda or whoever. You couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

You went to school, came home, played and scrapped with the other kids, skited about how many tadpoles you’d caught, or looked for four-leaf clovers on the front lawn with the girl from over the road.

At Sunday School you learned to recite the Ten Commandments off by heart. One year you even won a prize.

Your Mum stayed home most days and did the housework. When you got home from school, she was baking scones in the kitchen, stoking the fire or darning Dad’s socks.  Dad rode his bike to the factory and wore bicycle clips on his trouser legs. When he got home from work, he’d sit on the back doorstep to take his boots off. Clodhoppers he called them.

You were all smiles talking about your childhood, but when we got onto your adult years it was a different story.

Your Mum and Dad died within weeks of each other. Not long afterwards, you got married to a steady sort of a chap you met at a dance who’d saved up and bought his own car.

Then, when war came, he was called up and sent overseas.

Two years fighting Germans in the Western Desert and another year as a prisoner of war changed him from the love of your life to someone you barely knew … but you stuck with him. You stood by your man but at what cost!

Eight years of screaming nightmares and boozing. You stuck with him, all in vain as it turned out, because he shot himself eventually. And the shame of his suicide fell on you. People can be so cruel, you whispered, and you turned your face from me to hide the tears.

There was something about your great age and your experience of being a woman that highlighted an emptiness in my own life.

You’d lived life to the full, loved and cried a lot, but boy could you laugh! Peals of silver, like the moon laughing through gaps in thunder clouds.

And you enjoyed living in the rest home. It was the best time of your life, such an easy existence with built-in friends, staff to take care of every need, and you didn’t even have to help with the dishes. But it was also the worst time of your life, because you had time to reflect on the past and experience the sadness you’d been too busy to feel while it was happening.  

After your husband died, you kept yourself going. You had a daughter to live for, and you did. There were no hand-outs in those days. You got a job cleaning motels and worked yourself silly. By the time you were middle-aged, your hair was white, and your face was wrinkled. You put your daughter through High School and got her into Teachers College, although it meant you had to take on a second job.

You saved your pennies and paid for her wedding, then helped her through the trauma of divorce a few years later after the sod took off with another woman.  

When your daughter had a nervous breakdown, you took over the care of her three children. One of them got pregnant at the age of thirteen, and you adopted the baby yourself – that was baby Merrilyn, the great granddaughter who, as a young teenager, entered you in the world-wide contest that you won, which made you famous around the globe.

Your name went into a big electronic hat sort of a thing along with the names of thousands of other 100-year-old women from around the world and it was drawn on live TV by the President of the United States. A publicity stunt for him but what a prize for the winner!

You won the chance to be the first 100-year-old woman in space … to rocket skywards from Cape Canaveral and orbit the planet five times. You would be the only passenger on board, escorted by the richest man in the world flying in his own spacecraft with two flight crew and a flight attendant to see to your every need.

 You knew there were some risks but that was alright. You were informed you might die if anything went wrong, but what the heck.

You knew about death now. All your friends had been through it … you knew it was nothing to fear. You had heard Henry Scott-Holland’s poem so often at funerals, you knew it off by heart.

 

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you.

 

And so on.

 

“Think of it,” Merrilyn said, when she told you you’d won the draw. “Age is just a number. Do it for womankind. Show the world what women are made of.”

“Righto, dear,” you said.

And what a trip it was … flying to Florida in the United States then travelling by coach and limousine to Cape Canaveral, cheering crowds lining the streets, TV cameras everywhere. Through the week of safety training, then through the  countdown, the launch, the broadcasts from space, your face was radiant with delight, beaming into millions of TV sets the world over, your silver peals of laughter echoing through the universe.

On the fifth orbit, the crew captain informed you something had gone wrong with the heat shield, making safe re-entry impossible. He explained the spaceship was doomed to keep circling the earth, and everybody aboard would die when the oxygen ran out … or the choice could be made to opt for a quick ending - an attempted re-entry that could finish only in a fiery death.

Whether to die slowly or turn to ashes quickly and painlessly was the choice. The world’s richest man broke down on live TV, and pouted as he passed the responsibility over to you.

You had to choose.

So, what did you do?

You played scrabble.

 You played scrabble with the richest man in the world, and you beat him. 260 points to 106.

Then you made your decision.  

And the last sound the world heard from you was half a peal of silver laughter.

In 2010, New Zealander Bruce Costello retired from work and city life, retreated to the seaside village of Hampden, joined the Waitaki Writers’ Group and took up writing as a pastime. Since then, he has had 148 short story successes— publications in literary journals (including Yellow Mama) anthologies and popular magazines, and contest places and wins.

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