Saturday, 30 January 2010

Earth Stood Hard As Iron: Part 3

It was her laugh that did it. That glorious sparkling laugh as she threw her head back, red hair splashing out behind her. That was when Gordon knew. She had been looking at him curiously all evening, brow furrowed, mouth closed but turned up at one corner. Eyes ablaze. Come on Gordon, her face seemed to say, I dare you to make me laugh.

Gordon had sat down at Mary’s table earlier that evening. They were all in the Trout and Carrot on Portobello Road, a respected Real Ale establishment of the 1960s. It attracted hippies, oddballs, students, Mary and her friends on this particular night, and Gordon. A low haze of cigarette smoke drifted across the room transforming it, at least in its clientele’s eyes, from a nondescript pub into a furtive noir speakeasy. Low conversation hummed across the tables while protest songs jostled with Thelonius Monk on the jukebox – here was a melting pot of idealists, cynics, critics and dreamers. In the corner by the toilets a drunk man with dank ginger braids threw his hands in the air and talked at all who passed, preaching to no-one in particular about nothing at all.

“Good evening ladies,” Gordon had said, appearing through the smoke and pulling up a stool, flashing his impeccable grin. Curly blond hair tumbled over his forehead and over his ears, and he had face so open and inviting that one couldn’t help but wonder if he was in fact an old family friend on a house call.

“So, I’m Gordon,” he said, cocking his head and nodding knowingly, “And you are?” Four slightly startled, incredulous young women stared back at him. Fawns in the headlights of his devastating social candour. It was Trish who broke the deadlock.

“Trish.” And then Jane.


“Mary.” Mary!


Well that was easy, thought Gordon.

They were art students, enjoying a night out on the tiles after handing in their portfolios. Gordon was, as always, charming and courteous, the consummate gentleman. These were the days when a gentleman could approach a lady and it wasn’t thought inappropriate or louche. Back then he was open, honest, joyful; a far cry from the lonely and cold old man into which Time had bent him.

“So Gordon,” the girl called Jane had said at one point, “We’ve told you about us. What about you?”

“Aha!” Gordon’s mischievous grin flashed once more across his face. “Ladies, I work in film.” He could anticipate the response. There was a series of Oohs and Ahs around the table, followed by an unintelligible babble of questions. What films? Who for? How much money do you make sorry for asking? None of them had ever met anyone who worked in film.

“Have you heard of Pinewood?” Of course they had. “I work on the Carry On films – we’ve just wrapped filming one this week, actually.” Gordon leaned back on his stool, trying to combine looking suave and not tipping off the back of it. He had no clue if the film had actually wrapped that week, but it sounded impressive. He finished off his pint.

As the conversation continued, Gordon and the girls became more animated as their defences came down – in part due to familiarity and in part due to beer. They talked life, loves (and ex-loves), they even talked politics. For some reason they discussed at great semi-sober lengths the relative merits of the Shetland pony. Eventually it was closing time and they bowled outside through the frosted glass double doors. The night was crisp, stinging their cheeks and numbing their lips, an unseasonably bitter breeze wound through the streets. Yet it was refreshing instead of painful, after the hours spent in the Trout And Carrot. The reek of second-hand smoke flushed from their noses and was replaced with the simple smell of cold.

Mary, the quiet redhead who had said very little all night, had captivated Gordon from the start. She was, in truth, the reason he had sat down at the table in the first place. As the group wandered aimlessly down the street he sidled up to her. She pushed her chin into the high collar of her woollen coat, hair spilling over the back, and turned to face him, a soft smirk on her lips.

“What do you really do, you charlatan?” were her first words. Gordon felt her peer right into him. Rumbled. He tried to stare back, to stare her down, but couldn’t hold it for long.

“Films! I work in films!” He threw up his arms in protest.

“Yes of course. But what. Do. You. Do?” She emphasised each word as if he were a disobedient child ignoring a mother’s instruction. Go and sit on the naughty step. He slumped his shoulders and dipped his head slightly in mock defeat.

“I make the tea,” he said quietly and then looked her right in the eye, smiling as if to express his innocence. But this was enough – Mary shook her head in disbelief at Gordon’s liberty with the truth. Then, her smile became a laugh, her warm, wonderful laugh. Incandescent.

“Unbelievable,” was the only word she could manage, taking his hand in hers.

Gordon was smitten.


The morning sun shone through his thin curtains, its pathetic rays illuminating brief pathways for dust motes across his off-white walls. The paint he’d used was called Summer Breeze or something, he knew that, but this flat never seemed to feel the summer. Gordon woke with a furry mouth and a throbbing head, wondering why his nights out always end up like that. He flung an arm across the bed to collect her and draw her close to him, but found himself alone. What time was it? 10am. Late. Where is she? She was here. She must be in the bathroom.

He rolled out of bed tangled in sheets and tripped his way into the bathroom. It was empty and the silence was punctuated by the staccato of the dripping tap that could not be turned off. She must be in the living room. He stumbled forwards again and discovered she was not. The living room was freezing and quiet and he hugged the sheets closer around his naked body.


Gordon’s heart nearly fell out.

Mary was gone.


“Hello?” says a voice he almost recognises. He breathes into the phone for a few seconds, unsure he’s even got the right number. “Hello?” says the voice again.

“He- hello,” Gordon manages at last. His mouth is dry, even drier than normal and his heart thuds loud in his throat. “I’m looking for Mary McCandless.”

“This is she,” says the voice. It is indeed she, almost exactly. Faded by time and brittle from cigarettes, but this is undoubtedly Mary. He can almost hear her laughing again and see her green eyes, her startling red hair. Almost.

“Someone – Joseph – told me to call you,” Gordon pauses and swallows, his mouth is dry, “This is Gordon Strathairn.” There is a gasp and the telephone receiver clatters to the floor. Gordon can hear a cough and a muffled curse as she apparently scratches around on the floor to pick it up again.

“It fell under the chair,” she says eventually, slowly, “Must have slipped out of my hand. Gordon – why? What’s going on? Why did Joseph call you?”

“I was hoping you could explain, Mary. It’s been a long time.” His heart is pounding and he doesn’t know why. He hasn’t thought about this woman in many, many years.

“Yes. Gordon, I never said, I-,” she pauses as her voiced cracks almost imperceptibly, “I’m sorry. For leaving that morning. I’m sorry.”

“Joseph called me and said that – I – I don’t understand,” Gordon sits back in his chair and suddenly it is all so obvious: He has lived his entire life in complete ignorance. Ignorance of a family, a son, a descendant. Of Mary McCandless, that radiant young woman from that one infinite evening. “I tried to find you, I went back to that pub every day for a month - ” But that is all he can manage.

“Yes,” Mary’s voice is low as she searches for the words, “I’m sorry.”

“But is Joseph, I mean,” Gordon cannot quite bring himself to say it, not yet, “Who is he?”

“He is your son, Gordon.”


“After all these years, you still don’t know how it works?”

“No I mean – how do you know he’s mine?”

Mary does not answer. Gordon is half convinced that this is all a trick, a prank, the other half of him desperate for it to be true. He has no idea why. He is desperate to just wake up, return to his low existence, safe. And then crosses himself – this is no dream. If he had never met Mary then life would be almost exactly the same, right up to this point. He wonders how his life might have turned out had Mary stayed in his bed just a few minutes longer. At last, Mary speaks.

“You were the only one.”

This time, it is Gordon who drops the telephone.

“What?” he says, picking it up from his lap.

“You were the only one, Gordon. I met you and I wanted you, only you. Then… well, then I got pregnant and scared. No man wanted me as a single mother.”

“And you never thought I should know I had a son?”

“My mother wouldn’t allow it. She was a hard woman with,” Mary pauses to consider her words, “different ideas.”

Gordon’s mouth opens and closes slowly like he is speaking through a plate glass window, making no sound because he doesn’t know which words to say. Is there a correct response to news like this?

“He was very much like you were, as far as I could tell,” Mary offers. Gordon is silent.

“What, um, what next?” he says eventually.

“I think that is for Joseph to tell you.” What do you mean? he wonders, “I’ll speak to you soon Gordon. Happy Christmas.” Mary replaces the handset and Gordon is left alone with the low buzzing hum of a dead line.

For a time he remains perfectly still, telephone glued to his ear, breath pooling in front of his face as it waltzes into the frosty air.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Earth Stood Hard As Iron: Part 2

Gordon wakes with a start. Nothing has moved, nothing changed. His breath still hangs frozen in the air and his face feels distant and stiff, a marionette he can only vaguely control.

“Cal? Where are you?” He mumbles into the blanket wrapped around his body and tucked up to his chin; it’s hard to articulate words when you’re so cold. “Cal?”

The small dog trots obediently in and meets Gordon’s gaze.

“Cal.” A smile spreads across Gordon’s face. Neither is alone. Cal hops up once more onto his lap and settles into the faint depression of the blanket where he had spent the night, enjoying the warmth that reminds him of sleep.

“Happy Christmas old chap,” Gordon says, patting his friend’s head. They sit together for a few moments, Cal immediately beginning to doze as Gordon runs a hand down his weary companion’s back. A sigh from both. “Time to warm ourselves up, I think. Won’t be a moment.” He lifts the dog from his lap and rises slowly, placing Cal back on the warm patch in the chair before turning on the electric fire below the mantelpiece. “Both bars today. Let’s have a treat.”

The television remains on from the night before, having gone from meaningless dross to snow to dross again while they slept. Gordon turns it off and settles back into his chair, pulling the blanket over himself once again. He finds himself facing a bare wall, a glowing fire and a blank screen.

No, it’s Christmas, there must be something on.

With a deep breath Gordon unravels himself once more from the blanket and gets back up again. One of these days he’ll get a television with a remote, but for now this one has picture and sound, and that is all they need. He clicks it on to the BBC. Just the news. It’s cold, people are sad about something someplace, but happy that it’s Christmas. No surprises.

The man and his dog settle into that familiar ritual of Christmas day, of celebrating within one’s meagre means and being glad of it: Special food for Cal (a surprise), a cup of real coffee for Gordon and two bars on the electric fire for them both.

As yesterday it is cold out, too cold to leave the house unless you have to. Church can wait till next year. Instead, they watch Songs Of Praise on the television, Gordon singing along under his breath to those familiar carols. An observer would only see lips moving and hear the occasional deep note or grunt, but Gordon truly is singing; the quiet song of a cold, weary old man. The carriage clock on the desolate mantelpiece ticks over impatiently, marking time until the day’s end.

He gets up only once more in the next 3 hours, to go to the toilet. His hand is cold on the flush, and the water from the taps might as well be ice. As he’s up, Gordon begins to prepare his measly Christmas feast. Peeling the carrots and potatoes, pairing the sprouts; the cold makes these simple things as tortuous as threading a needle. Gordon fills a pan with water, lights the hob and places the vegetables in; one saucepan is enough for everything.

For a moment he stares into the gas ring and allows its heat to caress his face. Suddenly, the harsh bell of a ringing telephone shatters his silent peace. No-one rings Gordon, not even on Christmas. He moves slowly, reluctantly, half hoping it will stop before he reaches it. It does not.


“Hello, is this Gordon Strathairn?” An unfamiliar voice on the other end of the telephone.


“I - ” the voice wavers, “Gordon, I’m sorry to disturb you, but - ”

“No cold calling!” Gordon slams down the handset, and starts his slow hobble back to the kitchen. The phone rings again before he’s even reached the door.


“Gordon, I’m sorry, but - ”


“Please, I’m not selling anything - Please?”

“What do you want?” A pause on the other end of the line. Five seconds is a long time without words in a telephone conversation and ten seconds might be considered rude. After fifteen, one wonders if the other person is even there. Gordon waits. “What? Who is this?” There is a deep sigh on the other end of the telephone.

“This is your son.”

A thick fog of silence hangs between them once more. For Gordon, time stands still; the television makes no sound, the pipes stop creaking and only the incessant ticking of the mantelpiece clock seems able to break into the stony tomb of the living room.

“I don’t have a son.”

“I’m afraid you do.” This is now the voice of a man, flesh and blood, grown-up. Insistant.

“Is this a joke? Leave me alone.” Gordon moves to put the telephone down again but only gets half way.

“Please.” That note of desperation again, undeniable. “I’m sorry to interrupt Christmas like this, please apologise to your family for me?”

“There’s no-one here, it’s just me and Cal.”


“The dog.” Cal is asleep in the chair and snoring gently, having made a generous blanket-nest for himself in Gordon’s otherwise vacant chair.

“Listen,” says the voice, again with resolve, “I know you don’t believe me - ”

“You’re right.”

“And you’ve got no reason to. But, you do know someone called Mary McCandless?” At this, all the fight and bravado, all the gruffness, is sucked out of Gordon like poison from a wound.

“I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” he says. “Almost forty years.”

“Call her, and she’ll explain. Here’s her number.” The voice says a phone number and Gordon notes it down with a racing heart. Mary McCandless. Notting Hill Carnival in 1966, she was all flowing hair and skirts while he was scrawny in drainpipes and a Beatles t-shirt. They had danced, drank, believed they were in love. And then she went, and he went, and that was that.

“Are you sure?” Now it is Gordon’s voice that wavers. “I mean, are you sure?”

“I’m sure Gordon. Just call her.” This voice was gentle now, kind and caring. Big news for an old man.

“Wait! What’s your name?”

“It’s Joseph. I’m afraid I have to go. Take care now, I’ll speak to you soon.”

“Goodbye - ” he pauses, “Joseph.” The line goes dead and once more Gordon and Cal are alone in each other’s company. Gordon stands above the telephone, staring at it, pondering the conversation. It is like he has just witnessed it rather than actually taken part, a remote observer upon the fallout of someone else’s miscalculations. Mary McCandless. Joseph McCandless. The unfamiliar names twirl around his head. Could this be real? Could this be happening, on Christmas day of all days?

He smiles privately. Christmas day for Gordon is largely the same as any other, except the television is better and the shops are shut. But the sentimentality is still there, the idealism and hope. Perhaps that was what that phone call was – sentimentality. A fatherless man hoping to right some unspoken wrongs of the past, buoyed up by the spirit of the season. But in all likelihood it was a cruel, extremely cruel practical joke. But Mary McCandless! Who could know that name?

Gordon looks at the crumpled piece of paper in his hand and the number hastily scrawled upon it. Taking the phone with him, he slumps down in his chair and begins to dial.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Earth stood hard as iron

The dull swirling of Gordon’s frozen breath is the only sign of life in the tiny apartment; Choirboys’ voices lilt softly through the still air from the radio in the kitchen, cutting sweetly through the silence. Gordon sits still as a stone, wrapped in blankets whilst Cal, his small mongrel terrier, keeps his feet warm. The room is cold, barely above freezing, a single bar of the electric fire struggling against the bitter winter. It’s cheaper that way.

Gordon blinks as if waking from a dream, moves to stretch his frozen joints, and flexes his numb lips.

“Come on Cal,” he says quietly, “It’s time to go for a walk.”

They shuffle down the hall to the door, and Cal looks on as Gordon agonises over putting on his coat, scarf, gloves and boots. The laces are hard to do. Finally, Cal’s lead is clipped onto his collar.

“Let’s go.”

They tread gingerly from the doorway, the icy gravel cold on Cal’s paws. Normally it’s only a three minute walk to the shops, but this arctic trudge seems like an eternity; The thawed and refrozen snow is sharp and makes progress difficult. Gordon and Cal move slowly through the desolate streets, but finally they round the corner to the welcoming light of the Co-Op. The festive lighting and soft carols on the loudspeakers are comforting, as is the blast of hot air from the door heater. Cal realises he hasn’t felt this warm in days.

Let’s stay?

Cal trots round after Gordon, happy in the warmth – two carrots, a small bag of potatoes, a small bag of Brussel sprouts and a double pack of turkey breasts. Each item is placed carefully, painstakingly, into the basket. A pack of mince pies. The essentials for Christmas cheer. They are greeted at the till by Jan, the lady who manages the store and lives above it. On Christmas Eve, who else would you expect to find working here?

“Hi Gordon! This it?”

“As always, Jan.” Gordon looks to where Cal is waiting patiently, sitting at his feet. “The second one’s for the dog.”

“Lovely, Gordon.” Jan slowly packs the shopping into a flimsy plastic bag – even the heat of the shop doesn’t seem to loosen up her arthritic hands. “Just you and him this year, is it?”

“As always.”

“Yes.” Jan stops packing for a moment and looks straight at Gordon, the first time she has met his gaze since he arrived in the shop. “Stay safe, Gordon, and warm.”

Gordon nods silently and turns to go. He tugs on Cal’s lead and the small dog reluctantly rises to his feet.

Please, let’s stay? Just for a bit?

“Bye Gordon.”

The doors slide silently open and Gordon and Cal step from the comforting warmth into the frigid air of the outside world and onto the crisp snow. They slip and stumble back up the hill, the walk taking even longer on the way back. The world is silent, dead. There is no sound save Gordon’s breathing and the ice crunching underfoot. No one wants to be outside; they are at home, warm, celebrating the season with families, children, mulled-wine and chocolate. One or two cars drive gingerly past but quickly their lights disappear around the bend, and Gordon and Cal are left alone in the dark once more.

Gordon fumbles the key in the lock with his numb fingers, gloves painfully inadequate against the frosty air. Inside is little better. He dumps the bag of shopping in the kitchen and re-opens the half empty bottle of red wine, pouring a mug’s worth into a saucepan. Cal sits obediently by his master.

“Time to warm up, Cal,” Gordon says, gently placing a bowl of dried dog food in front of his companion as steam begins to rise from the saucepan.

Back in the living room again, hot wine in his hands, Gordon holds the mug to his face and allows the steam to thaw his nose, his cheeks. Finally he allows himself a sip, and then another. The warmth spreads through his mouth, his throat, and at last he can feel his fingers once more.

There is nothing of consequence on the TV; a carol service here, the dour weather reports on the other side. Gordon finishes his wine and huddles under the blanket. Cal hops up into his lap and together they warm one another, eventually falling into a restless sleep.

The television, however, remains on throughout the night, casting its silent snow over Gordon’s shivering body.