Tuesday

she changed it all

She wasn’t a bad girl, not at all. She wasn’t wicked or evil or any of those things. She had no sociopathic leanings or a desire to be cruel. Even as a little girl her teachers and family alike recognised that she didn’t have a malicious bone in her body.

Which is why it makes this discovery all so difficult to understand.

Interviews after the event, with people who had met her or people who had been her friends, all gave the impression that she was a perfectly normal young woman. The overall impression gathered was that she was quiet and attentive. Charming and reassuring. Good to confide in and an excellent listener. Her responses were always reasonable and well thought out. She very rarely entered into conflict and never displayed aggression. She had a healthy level of curiosity and seemed to be very intelligent.

Which is why this whole business is so unsettling really.

Her history reveals maybe a little insight into how such a situation could have developed. As is liable to happen when things like this occur book companies and newspapers were desperate to cash in. They pleaded with her for interviews. They offered substantial amounts of money for the exclusive story; her point of view. She politely declined. Her family were also approached. They say that everybody has a price and whilst the media couldn’t reach the price of her or her close family some of her cousins were bought fairly cheap. Initially cheap but, for what the papers got, far too much money was spent on these snippets of misinformation. Spying some ready money these distant relatives were happy enough to concoct stories of ritualistic animal abuse as a child and perverse leanings which were completely untrue. The extent of the lies were later revealed under some close scrutiny and a trial for libel in which the papers lost more than they had offered her in the first place.

Researchers came out baffled when a book profile was suggested. Like the newspaper people they approached her with offers of large sums of money and like she did with the newspaper people she politely declined. Those people who made the visit to see her went with many preconceptions. It’s hard not to when you hear so much reported about an individual. They all left feeling a little disconcerted, preconceptions shattered and a significant level of doubt. Like those who investigated her, those who knew her, those who were related to her and like everyone she’d ever met they just didn’t think she was capable of that which they knew she had done.

Background checks showed very little in the way of deviant behaviour. The people wanted an explanation just to help them understand what makes a person end up like this. The people were largely disappointed. She grew up just outside an average sized city in an average sized house. Both her parents remained together and she had one sister who she got along with very well. There were no disturbing uncles or bad babysitters or forceful boyfriends. There was no difficulty at school, she got good grades and seemed very happy. She wasn’t a social outcast and had a happy childhood and a small but good group of friends who she always remained in contact with. She went to college and performed very well and got a place at university studying medicine. She had volunteered at her local hospital since she was 15 with the intention of applying for medicine later on and was by all accounts very pleased.

She went to university and met a young man, the letters home to her parents from her early university days tell of courting and happy times. Her tutors were interviewed and always said she was a bright girl who didn’t struggle with the work load and never missed a lecture. She worked part time in an old peoples home to supplement her student grant and her colleagues have since reported her to be hard working and considerate. In the middle of her second year, and much has been made of this, she suffered a very bad illness.

It started with a cold which wouldn’t shift. It has been said that she was looking tired for several months, from the start of term, it was assumed she was just working too hard. She had been to see her doctor and they pronounced her fine if a little anaemic. Before Christmas break she was taken into accident and emergency by her young man because she had a terrible temperature, headache and was pretty incoherent. After running their tests the hospital confirmed that she was suffering a pretty bad case of meningitis and she was placed into an isolation ward where she stayed for three months whilst she recovered. When she was finally allowed out of hospital she still needed a long time for rest and recuperation. The university were sympathetic and were happy for her to repeat the year that she had missed and offered her a special grant to help support her throughout her subsequent years on the course. An offer she took up and started afresh the next semester healthy and well. The head of the department has said they awarded the grant because they truly believed she was a talented young woman and would one day make an excellent doctor. It seemed a shame to allow this unfortunate illness to become a barrier for this and there were concerns she was doing too much work and too little play. A medical degree with a part time job as well would be a strain for any individual.

This illness did not affect her subsequent grades which were consistently good and it has been said her attitude was the same. If anything she was more cheery having met a new group of people and having a larger set of friends now. She was more social and had more time to study now the financial pressure was taken off her. The rest of her time at medical school went without note and she graduated with a respectable degree.

Surgery was her chosen field and when she went out to her first position as a graduate her story began to get interesting. It was a large hospital with a large surgical department and she was to work directly under a consultant surgeon Mister Phillip Burton. Mister Phillip Burton had been a doctor for thirty years and was not one to suffer fools gladly. He was also not the type who was happy about women doctors let alone women surgeons. In his thirty years of doctoring he had only just gotten used to the idea of male nurses, female doctors was still far too much for him to get his head around. So he did not know what to make of this bright enthusiastic young girl. She seemed, to him, to be mocking him and all he stood for. Their relationship started badly and never really improved. Initially he tried ignoring her presence completely, there were a plethora of moronic registrars and house officers who were of the correct sex he could converse with. When, after six months of this stony front, she refused to transfer he changed his tactic to incorporate what a modern lawyer would probably call bullying but to Phillip Burtons mind was just setting the situation straight. He’d order her to file case notes and make him cups of tea. Womanly duties he considered. If she dared enter his theatre prior, during or post surgery he would ensure she was given a menial non medical job to do. Be it helping him on with his scrubs, filing of paperwork or cleaning. She did all these things he asked and never grumbled once. Only after a year of work with Mr Burton and no so much as a stitch to her theatre record did she register a complaint.

The hospital took Phillip Burton to task and lectured him about the cost of surgical staff. About how important it was to develop these young minds. About how in this day and age it just wasn’t on to discriminate against people just because they happened to be women. He was ordered to give the girl some theatre time and treat her as he would any of the male staff.

Mister Phillip Burton did not much like this.

During her first surgery where she was allowed to the table Dr Burton made her step down five times for allegedly contaminating the sterile field. The scrub nurse for that day has gone on the record saying that she saw no contamination and that the situation was all of Dr Burtons making. It was another week before she was allowed back to surgery during which Dr Burton tutted and swore at every move she made. The following week doctor Burton intentionally forgot her name and spent the entire day referring to her as girl. For the next three weeks he refused to let her see case notes or theatre lists so when she arrived she was completely unprepared for what the day might hold. Her colleagues said she coped extremely well considering but Dr. Burton didn’t really see it this way and was often heard labelling her as an incompetent goon. For the next few months Dr Burton would allow her to the able as instructed but he took great pleasure in concocting various ways of making her life miserable by doing so. His wife (now ex wife) has gone on record as saying “It was all the bastard talked about for months – he had a real sadistic streak.

In May about a year and a half into her employment at this hospital she was on a private ward with Dr Burton checking on the previous weeks patients. In room seven – the Oxford suite, resided a patient who was extremely wealthy although no one really knew what for. Dr Burton liked the private patients and liked the money he got from them so tended to be far more attentive to their whims and desires. He was always happy to answer their questions and it has been said that the attention he lavished on the more wealthy patients was a not so subtle way of ingratiating himself into a higher social arena. It never really worked out for him though, even his wife (although the ex should be emphasised again) would describe him as a loathsome creature.

In room seven whilst Dr Burton was schmoozing as hard as he could and ignoring her completely whilst she tried, in vain, to run the check up she was obliged to do she knocked a kidney dish containing various bottled samples to the floor. The incident was a minor one really and the kidney dish had been badly balanced by an over-tired nurse in the first place. There was no damage to the samples and no real harm done. The old metal kidney dishes having long been replaced by cardboard disposable ones it wasn’t even especially noisy. She knelt down to retrieve that which had been dropped and while she was down and vulnerable the not so good doctor in the words of a passing orderly “totally flipped his lid”.

There is a fairly good account of what followed. Dr Burtons words were loud and commanded attention. Patients and staff alike gathered at the door of the Oxford suite and watched slack jawed and wide eyed as he tore into the shocked young doctor on her knees. Whilst the duration of the verbal onslaught that follows is up for debate (estimates run from five to fifteen minutes) the level of insult directed at the girl are not. Dr Burton did not hold back, with arms and spittle flying, he imaginatively called her all names he could think of. If she tried to interrupt or apologise he would talk over her louder. If she tried to stand up to face the doctor he actually started throwing pens at her. He seemed entirely oblivious to the patient he had so recently been buttering up or the crowd he was drawing. It has been said he looked like he was enjoying himself.

As previously noted the duration of this attack is unknown and in some respects is irrelevant, no one doubts the ferocity, the effect was still the same. When he had run out of things to say he placed his hands on his hips and glared at the girl defying her to say something. Reports state her eyes were glassy and she looked on the verge of tears. Everyone who has been asked agreed the following things happened. She lowered her head and sighed, there were tears dropping onto her theatre blues trousers but no one saw her actually cry, she gripped tightly in one hand a screw top bottle containing a sample and when she spoke it was calmly without excessive volume. She unscrewed the lid from the top of the bottle, threw a full tub of bright yellow urine into the doctors face and calmly said: “You, sir, are a god-damned bully”.

The crowd cheered.

Dr Burton looked like he didn’t believe what was happening and when he registered that the fluid dripping down his face was actually urine he scrabbled around looking for something to throw at her, settling on a clipboard. He then made as if to slap her while she was down. Onlookers have gone on record saying they truly believe the doctor would have physically assaulted the girl had the patient not intervened. As the doctor raised his arm and swung towards the girls face the wealthy patient recovering from surgery in room seven grabbed the doctors wrist and ordered him out. Initially the doctor made no movement but the wealthy patient (who cannot be named for legal reasons) raised his voice and ordered the doctor “Out of my room now, I pay you well enough you will do as you’re told. You will leave, you will close the door behind you and you and those other vultures will piss off”.

What happened next no one knows. She’s not talking to anyone and wealth patient, lets call him Mr X, can’t. We know she was in the room for an hour. Several members of the hospital management team tried to interrupt them at several points and were politely but firmly told to “bugger off”. When she finally left the room it was to quit her job without notice. There were objections to this but when it was pointed out that if they insisted on making her work her notice there would be legal action the hospital had little choice but to acquiesce. She went straight back to room seven where Mr X had been busy discharging himself and they both left. That was the last the hospital saw of either of them.

Her friends and family discovered that this incident had occurred only years later. At the time she told them that she had left her hospital job and was going to become a home carer. This was a great surprise to them all as they knew how passionate she was about surgery, about being a doctor even, this was, in their minds, several steps backwards. She reassured them best she could that she was extremely happy with this decision and that in fact financially she would be better off than she was currently. This seemed to placate some of her loved ones worried but some were still worried that this would not stretch her enough.

She was having none of it.

Her young man was concerned but after six months of regular hours, a steady income and a happy girlfriend he was in no real position to complain. He saw her more than he did when she was working at the hospital and she seemed far more content in her work. She would come home exhilarated and happy and it thrilled him to see her like this. They moved in together nine months into her new work situation. After eighteen months he had worked up the courage to propose and has gone as far as buying a ring. But before he had chance she was arrested and the whole story became public.

She had never spoken to him about work, or to any of her friends and family. As far as any of them knew she was working as a home carer for a very wealthy man who would rather have a doctor than a nurse around. Her actual job description, which was never recorded on paper, was something far more sinister.

The police tapes from the initial interviews after her arrest have been leaked a long time ago now. She never denied anything because she never understood why she would have to. The famous scene where the young officer became overcome with nausea and vomited into the corner of the interview room is now legend. The way she came over to try to nurse him and he vomited even more violently at her touch struck a strange chord in each of our hearts. She was obviously caring. She was obviously considerate. She was so obviously an intelligent girl so why couldn't she see why everyone else found her actions so loathsome?

The arrest came after one of her “patients” suffered a change of heart and made an official complaint. The manor in which she worked had a recorded staff of 75 and rising. It was also, it turned out, her duty to tend to the staff as well as the wealth benefactor. The staff were profiled afterwards and each had something in common besides their eventual fate. These were desperately alone people. There were no friends and family, in most case they were orphans. Many homeless runaways from tragic lives had been employed by our wealthy Mr X. all employees lived in an annexe of the manor and none of them, since the day of their employment until the day of the arrest, had ever left the grounds.

And for very good reason.

The complaint came from the now extremely rich and currently in hiding Annabelle Brixton. Despite the fact that she bought this situation to the attention of the world she has never received much of a sympathetic ear. Well, of course initially, when it was her word against everyone else's she did. But as the story unfolded and her fame rose despite her technically being the victim public opinion was generally very negative towards Ms. Brixton.

In the beginning there was Ms. Brixton, in the dead of night entering a police station somewhere in Sussex (not disclosed for legal reasons). How she got there is not known to this day. There are rumours that Ms. Brixton was actually a journalist with an ex boyfriend who had gone to live in the manor. These rumours are unconfirmed at this time. Ms Brixton walked into a police station wearing a cowl and cape and announced that she would like to make a complaint. When asked the nature of her complaint she threw off her cape to reveal her perfectly functioning second set of arms.

In the dead of the night Mr X's manor was raided and 75 staff members with varying degrees of physical abnormality were bundled into buses and taken away. On hearing the disturbance and viewing the goings on, on the CCTV both Mr X and his partner, one Mr. G. Bullard who had been working as a butler but was later disclosed to be his lover, opened up the safe in their room, locked the door and took a large barbiturate overdose. The police took thirty minutes to break down the great door to the bedroom by which time both Mr X and Mr Bullard were quite dead.

Inside the safe were a number of scientific papers, a number of hand written consent forms- 76 all told, a legally binding will and a video tape. At the same time of the raid our girl had a knock on the door and was duly arrested. It is reported she accepted the grounds of her arrest without complaint or question while her partner went “positively mental” and was restrained by the police.

The scientific papers contained within the safe detailed surgical procedure for transference of entire limbs from one individual to another which retained full function. There were some papers detailing how to reattach hands that had been severed and even one on donor genitalia which would still lead to normal procreation even in the case of sex change operations. The consent forms were written by the staff members recording their willingness to undergo the procedures that occurred at the manor. There was no set formula to the consent forms. No indication that they were forced to copy any existing document or any indication of confusion to what they were agreeing to. The will left all the worldly belongings of Mr X and Mr Bullard to our girl. The videotape, ah the videotape, that was a confession.

Mr X gained his wealth by donation. He too was a doctor who had left the medical profession to work solely for an independently wealthy man, who again can not be named for legal reasons so we refer to him as Mr A, who had gained his money through inheritance from his father who was a big noise in industry. Both Mr X and his benefactor had something in common and this was their sexual orientation although there is no indication that the relationship between the two was anything more than business. For Mr A it was not a simple case of homosexuality he was one of the poor individuals who suffered the fate of being born into the wrong gendered body. More than that it can be argued he was born into the wrong time as modern day sex change operations are no rare occurrence. Mr X was one of the pioneers in sex change surgery but it was his biggest regret that in the lifetime of Mr A it could not be perfected and Mr A passed away in the body he was not born to inhabit. He promised Mr A that he would endeavour to ensure this problem would not be a problem for any future generations. In addition to this whilst working for Mr A, Mr X had lost his left leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident. An affliction which caused great distress to Mr X and although he had the best prosthesis money could buy it was just not the same. This is where the manor came in.

When he took his staff on he explained to them what his aims were and detailed the research involved. For many years those who were dying and had no one would find out about the manor and come to live out their last days in a completely secure and happy environment and were more than willing to donate whatever they had to Mr X for this. He had taken the surgical techniques so far but his own ailing health and disability meant he needed to take on someone to continue his research. In the video he outlines his hospital check up and the time he met a newly qualified doctor being abused by her senior in the public glare. He said he knew as soon as he saw the urine hit the old man's face that he had found his replacement. So he hired her.

The video now becomes extremely moving for the select few who have seen it. Mr X's eyes well up and he openly weeps at the talents of his newest recruit. It was she who first perfected the whole functioning limb transfer. As has later been verified Mr X died standing on two feet, as it were, the surgery a complete success. It was she also who made the breakthrough of gender realignment and within the manor there was one couple who through such a swap had managed to produce a normal healthy baby girl.

In the video Mr X takes full responsibility and pleads that for the sake of science and scientific progress the girl not be punished.

There was also a letter in the safe that hasn't been recorded on public record. It was a letter of apology to the girl and an explanation of his suicide. He knew he wouldn't be able to deal with it so Mr X and Mr Bullard made a pact which they ultimately stuck to. He told the girl that all his money was now hers and suggest she bribe an official and have him posthumously blamed for the whole thing. She refused to do this and instead accepted whatever fate befell her.

The scientific community was revolutionised by the papers that were provided in the safe. Her works made a difference to people across the world. To this day she receives letters of thanks from transgender couples who have concieved, from accident victims who can walk and write again. Donor cards have been amended to include limbs and wombs. The world has changed thanks to one woman but was this enough to save her?

Of all the staff members that were taken from the manor that night there were a variety of physical anomalies. There were women with six arms and men with four legs. There were women with four ovaries, there were even people who had arms for legs and legs for arms. Of all the people she had modified only one person made any complaint and that was Ms. Brixton. What amazed the rest of the world was how happy the modified were. They continued to live in the manor after the trial was over and records have shown that all of them were content.

So, was it enough to save her? Well, no. It couldn't go unpunished but punishment was hard to prescribe. The trial went on for four long years without bail and popular opinion varied as to what would be fitting. Life in prison was suggested and dismissed. She hadn't actually killed anyone and with only one complainant it was deemed too harsh. Ms. Brixton applied for compensation and received a healthy sum before refusing to participate in any more legal proceedings and buggering off with her new found wealth to another country. Her second set of arms removed and no harm done. The public had no sympathy for Ms Brixton and while she may have received hundreds of thousands initially for book sales and newspaper stories they soon turned on her. It was suggested our girl serve a lesser prison sentence. This was agreed to be acceptable and four years was decided upon. Four years which was incidentally the length of the trial which she had spent in a minimum security prison anyway so they considered it served.

Then there was the question of her medical licence. The prosecution argued that she should never practice medicine again but the scientific community who were suffering a sort of ecstasy buzz from her research caused an outcry at the suggestion. It seemed, they suggested, sheer waste to allow a brilliant mind to just rot. Think of the benefits...

So, it was decided that she could not practise medicine on the general public any more but was allowed to continue with some highly regulated research. The manor was turned into a research facility and the findings and practises were kept public and submitted to an ethical and regulatory board. After it was all over she lead a fairly private life choosing, like the other inhabitants of the manor, to stay within the grounds for most of the time. She married her young man and had a family of her own. She would allow anyone in to tour her facilities but would rarely answer the questions they wanted answering.

There has never been an accurate account of the events surrounding these discovery's or the motivations of my mother. Until now, that is.

Sunday

the children of field orange are trying to kill me

I live in a village with a static population. The village is called Field Orange and if we had one of those friendly welcome signs on the outskirts it would quite accurately read;

Welcome to Field Orange
Population 100

Accurate because the village is indeed called Field Orange and the population is always one hundred exactly. It never changes and has been like this as long as we can remember. That’s not to say that we don’t die because we do. At the time of one birth there is a death and with every death Field Orange receives a newborn. Population one hundred, that’s Field Orange.

The accuracy is furthered because of Field Oranges situation. This small village I call home is located amid a sea of orange fields. We grow poppies, orange poppies and they surround us as far as the eye can see. I’ve read a history of Field Orange and some years ago an errant farmer decided to experiment with the horizon. Initially he began with Red poppies but they would not take. He tried yellow poppies to the same effect. He tried carrots and broad beans, he tried cabbages and violets. He tried carnations and roses but nothing would grow except the beautiful orange poppies. Eventually this farmer was run out of town for what was assumed to be lunatic behaviour. This occurred coincidentally at the exact same time of my birth.

Everyone in Field Orange is a farmer, we all go out to the fields to gather poppies and we have no schools. We have no hospitals or stores. The women do not stay at home to clean and cook. Every morning at 6am we go to the fields to collect the poppies. At lunch time we take whatever food we want from the communal barn and in the afternoon we go back to gathering the poppies. That’s not to say we are backwards because we are not. We are educated as our children are educated and sometimes one of us goes away to university and another is born. It’s rare though, we all like it in Field Orange. At 7am a truck comes to take the children twenty miles away to the nearest school. The truck also takes a list of what we, the village and its occupants, want. Sometimes it’s food or new boots. The other day I asked for a book and an oil lamp for reading at night. At 5pm the truck comes back and unloads our supplies and the children and we load up the poppies and wave goodbye until tomorrow. We don’t gather poppies of an evening and we never gather poppies of a weekend. It is a simple but happy life we lead here in Field Orange.

Well I was happy but the last three days have made me distinctly paranoid. Remember I told you I ordered an oil lamp for my room? I like to read; I like detective novels the best and often try to read after dark time by the pale light of the moon. It can be a bit of a strain. In the big houses we all sleep in a dormitory but if we want to we can to use out-house to sleep in. Not many of us do, but new couples and snorers and other antisocial night time people will use the out houses. I thought if I had a lamp I could read in one of them without disturbing any of the other residents of field orange.

So three days ago my lamp arrives and I’m pretty excited. I’ve just got a new novel “Murder in a Sea of Corn”, which sounds very exotic to me, so I decide to make use of these outside facilities. My oil lamp is little and brass with a tapering glass top that looks crimped along the edges. It was a very pretty little lamp and I hope it didn’t cost them a lot of money (a concept I vaguely remember from my school days). It came with a strong smelling bottle of purple oil for burning and six spare wicks. I borrowed a pack of matches from Benny (who is trying to quit smoking) and took my book and my blanket out to the farthest shed in our little village perimeter. I settled happily amongst the hay on the floor. My lamp I lit and had hung from a nail on a beam just to the left of where I lay. I opened my book and became oblivious to everything else around me. I often find total absorption in books, the earth could tear in two and swallow people whole and I’d only notice when the book was torn from my hand, I swear it.

Which is why it took me a little while to register that the barn was on fire. The smell of burning hair combined with the pain on my head was invasive enough to drag me from my book world. I slapped out the embers on my hair, grabbed my book and fled. It didn’t take long for the fire to take hold. Those from the dormitories had come out and stood staring alongside me at this burning building. When we got a grip a chain gang was set up from the water pump to the barn as buckets of water were passed along and thrown at the fire. There was little hope of saving the out house but it would be a disaster for field orange if the fire spread. It might have been a disaster if I had died as far as I know no one is ready for a newborn but saying that, field orange always finds a way, field orange population 100.

We were up nearly all the rest of the night dousing the fire, there was no real harm done and no one was mad at me, I felt very guilty. The men with the vans came in the morning and told us not to worry about picking poppies that day. The children could have a day off school too. They would come back the next day when we were all rested. Everyone went back for some sleep. Everyone except me that is. When the barn had cooled I went to see the place of my shame. I thought I must have hung the lamp badly and it had fallen. I also wanted to avoid everyone for a while. Guilt is a terrible, terrible, thing. The barn was in a pretty bad state, it was amazing that it was still standing really, my blanket and the hay were little more than dust now. The walls and ceiling were black and the smell was pretty awful. My hair wasn’t too badly burned, I would ask Molly to cut it some time; she was handy with a pair of scissors.

I saw the remains of my lamp on the floor and the guilt welled up inside me and threatened to burst out of my eyes. I felt like crying, I was choked up and tired. It was such a pretty lamp and it had been such a nice idea and I messed it all up. I went to see if there was anything redeemable from my lamp. Maybe the brass was ok and I could get a new glass bulb for it. As I neared I knelt down because completely out of place and a source of confusion for me was the large round rock that sat in the middle of the shattered glass of what was my lamp. I don’t know how long I was knelt there looking at it before the next attempt on my life. I figured this out afterwards, that it was a deliberate act, but at the time all there was, was pain and a lack of consciousness.

Molly found me a few hours later, there was matted blood at the back of my head and cuts on my face and arms from where I landed on the glass, there was a rock very similar to the one amidst the glass lying right next to my head. I think it was thrown at me. I gripped it hard and refused to let go.

The others think maybe the out house roof was instable and something had fallen. They think I shouldn’t have gone there and it was my own fault. I think they are wrong.

My wounds were tended to and I was made to rest. Everyone went and feasted and I lay feeling sorry for myself and confused as to why someone would try to do this. My head hurt and my eyes weren’t focusing so well so I couldn’t even finish my book. The detective had just dismissed the character who everyone thought had done the foul deed and was about to draw a shocking conclusion. I was desperate to know who did it. It turned out I was also desperate for sleep.

I slept for some time but it was not a continual sleep. I was woken at one point by an immense pressure on my face and I had difficulty breathing. I was being smothered and I couldn’t fight back. A noise at the end of the dormitory caused the pressure to suddenly be taken off and the perpetrator fled. I was disorientated and tried to stand and to focus on who would do this but all I could make out was a small receding shape.

The noise was Molly, she had come to bring me some tonic to help me sleep and to change the bandage on my head. I told her of the smothering and she told me it was night terrors like I was imagining it. She didn’t understand but acquiesced when I begged her to make someone stay with me. Benny came and stayed with me while I slept because he’s trying to quit smoking and you can’t smoke in the dormitories.

It was early evening when I came to again, the start of dusk is my favourite time, and I decided to go for a walk. Benny had nodded off in the armchair next to my bed and I didn’t want to wake him. My head felt a lot better so with the last of the light I thought I would take my book and find somewhere to finish it. I took my rock too. There was still some blood from my head on it.

It was warm outside and I walked past the tables of people sitting and talking and still eating from the massive cook off they had held this afternoon. Nearly losing my life three times had somewhat quelled my appetite. I’m not afraid to die you understand but I want it to be when it is the right time. Not because some unknown force has decided it so. The most peaceful place in field orange of an evening is in the orange fields. All buzz and business during the day but empty and quiet at night. I knew I wouldn’t be disturbed so I went to find a spot to sit and read for a while. There was some bare ground where I had been picking yesterday so I went there. A circle cleared of poppies about six foot in diameter. I lay amidst the orange flowers and read the detectives summation. How he had removed all possibilities except one and the conclusion however improbable it may seem was definitely correct. He was about to name names I was so close when the shower of stones began. My first reaction was to look up to see who was doing this but I looked too high. The pain was immense as rock after stone after pebble crashed into my skin. I adjusted my sight and circled around me smaller than the poppy stalks they stood amongst with nasty grins and catapults and rocks in hands were the children. I cry out for them to stop and hear a shrill giggle from my left. A dark haired girl no older than 15 turns her back to me and finally I understand. Strapped to her back in tattered blankets looking fragile and beautiful is a newborn. Field Orange population 100 and she has broken the rules.

The rocks keep coming and I am almost numb from them now. I think my head is bleeding again and I am sure the bruises are bad. With the last bit of strength I have I lie on my stomach and write it in the dirt with the rock in my hand – the children of field orange are trying to kill me.

Thursday

grab rail

A long time ago the world was very different my child and in the town where I lived the highlight of the month was the opening of the grab rail. It was right at the end of the dusty main road fenced off to the public most days by tall wooden gates which were locked by a large and ugly padlock. Nowadays such a thing would probably have you young folks trying to pick locks or climb fences to just get in. It was an intriguing thing and I could understand such a temptation I suppose but it never honestly crossed my mind or the mind of any of the other town folks. On that one day the people from town as far as twenty or thirty miles away would journey over. I know that doesn’t sound like far to you, little one, but back then it was practically the other side of the world. So powerful was the draw of the grab rail.

The surrounding fence was a curious thing too now that I think about it, 10 foot tall and not like the fences you will know. It must have taken ages to build and cost a lot of money too because we were far from any forests. The wood had to be specially imported, my Grandfather told me, from the wagons that came through from time to time. The structure was about twenty foot square and once as a kid I, like all my peers did at one point, counted each tall pole of wood. The fence was comprised you see of tall tree trunks that had been stripped and pointed and driven into the ground. There were two hundred and eighty four tree trunks. I know you see because I counted them.

The day of the grab rail was always the last Saturday on every month, come rain or shine. On the Friday before the day of the grab rail day the women and children would take the day off and make decorations for the fence. In the summer there would be garlands of colourful paper flowers covering every inch of the fence. We’d make them more than twice as long as the height of the thing so they would be decorated inside too. In the autumn the garlands would be dried flowers, berries and bunches of tied up herbs. I liked the autumn most I think as the herbs always smelled wonderful. I was determined when my day came I would go to the grab rail in the autumn. I hoped desperately that it would turn out that way. The winter would be holly and ivy and winter berries and in the spring we would hurl and position many coloured ribbons. No one except the mayor was allowed into the grab rail fence before grab day and his role, well, it was pivotal.

Every grab rail day the townsfolk and the visitors from afar would gather outside as early as six in the morning waiting for the mayor to turn up. He wasn’t ever duty bound to arrive before 10am but the anticipation was just too much for some people. It was an event. I was often there ahead of time myself.

The mayor would wear his ceremonial robes and descend from his offices carrying a red velvet bag with a red velvet ribbon laying out and over the top for each name inside. The route for the mayor was always the same and was always decorated in the same theme as the grab rail pen. If the weather was fine there would be burning scented oils to fill the air also. Around his neck on another red velvet ribbon he wore the key to the padlock. When he reached the edge of the crowd, always a respectful six foot away from the pen, he would drop to his knees and kiss the key causing cheers of jubilation from the crowds.
When he was a younger man he’d leap back up before approaching the ornate barrel placed at the gate of the pen. Did I tell you about the barrel? Never mind now, I’ll come to it when it matters. Don’t interrupt me child I’ll forget my place. Now, yes, he used to leap up but our mayor lived to 107 so after a time he had to be helped up and after an bit more time he had to be helped down and up. In his later years he was confined to a wheelchair and the ritual of the grab bar had become outdated so he was no longer required to exert himself or even carry that key. He always did though, right up until his last breath. I have heard rumours that moments before his death as his remaining family gathered round he pulled that key from his neck and swallowed it. Died by choking on it the silly sentimental old fool; so important once was the grab rail.

The barrel outside the gate of the grab rail was placed there the evening before the day itself. It was a small little thing on a carved wooden pedestal. I’ve been told it was made by a man who was extremely happy with his grab rail day, a blacksmith who married a wealthy land owner’s very beautiful daughter, he made the barrel and the elaborate floral decoration on the outside to replace the unceremonious bucket that he’d had to put his name in. I got to admit, it was a beautiful bucket, I couldn’t imagine grab rail day without it.

Up until the Mayors appearance the men would get their names put on special slips that were folded and placed inside the barrel. I suppose a more cunning man would put his name in several times but I don’t think that ever happened. These were fairly innocent times. It might have though, it was never checked, the names were all burned on the end of day bonfire along with the decorations and everything else.

So anyway, yes, the mayor would kiss the key and make his way to the barrel where he would pause and make his silly little speeches. Always for the sole purpose of dragging out the agony of the expectant men and women gathered. He would give thanks for every inane thing that had happened over the last month and then describe the joyousness of the day with as many drawn out flourishing descriptives as he could manage. As a child I used to giggle as he went on and on, watching the distressed fanning of the women and the beads of sweat forming on the brows of the men. I wasn’t laughing when it was my turn though; I finally understood the power that mayor had over us. The bugger, I liked him though, don’t look at me like that I only said bugger and you know he was a bugger. Ok, I promise, no more curse words.

Bloody women...

Names would go into the barrel and the mayor would plunge his hand in and pull out a slip of paper for every ribbon that spilled out of his red velvet bag. He’d call each one out loudly and clearly and upon hearing their names the men would go and stand next to him. Some months it was only one or two men because there were only one or two ribbons. The record was twenty three men on one month. That was a great day I was only six but I remember it being very exciting. Once all the men were gathered the mayor would take his key and unlock the great big ugly padlock. I often wondered why they didn’t get a nicer padlock really but then I suppose folk are fond of tradition and it would have been weird without the thing.

The men would line beside the mayor and he would shake each hand and wish them luck and unlock that big ugly padlock. He would go inside and close the door behind him. There was silence after he had entered. I always held my breath and I’m pretty sure everyone else did the same. We knew what happened, what must happen, he would tie each identical ribbon to the grab rail, at the other end a tiny red pouch would contain the name of the women eligible to be wed from the surrounding areas. All women became eligible on the date of their 19th birthday. A great big register with all the names and dates of the females born for miles around was kept in the register in the mayoral office. Women could opt out of course but I think that was a rare occurrence. We never knew who had their name in exactly, we guessed sometimes, it was always uncertain. The men when they decided they were ready put their names into the barrel and if they were lucky got their names pulled out of it and went to pick a wife. It was the luck of the draw which may seem backwards to you little one but it was actually pretty fair. I don’t remember anyone being terribly unhappy with the way things went for them.

After the mayor had tied the ribbons to the grab rail he would open up the great gate on the pen and let the chosen men folk in to pick a ribbon. It was never a scrabble it was always a very calm and ordered. I wondered how they knew which ribbon to go to, how it was the right one for them, it always worked out.

The men would come back to the gates with their bag in hand looking as nervous as they had when they went in. The mayor directed them in turn do draw the paper from the bag and clearly announce the name of their bride to be. With each name there were cheers and general well wishing as the blushing young woman would go to her very-soon-to-be-husbands side.

The rest of the day was taken with weddings and celebrations. There was feasting and dancing late into the night. It was always a great day.

What? Yes I’m getting to that. Of course I did. Let me talk will you? Damned children. I first put my name into the bucket when I was 19 years old. There was a girl I’d always had a soft spot for who had turned 19 that month and I figured I wouldn’t mind being married to her. Pretty curly hair and big eyes. It wasn’t my month though and she married a butcher. Plus it was the summer. I’d never imagined I’d have any luck in the summer. I waited another two months before putting my name in again. It was October and the weather was mild, the decorations smelt great and I was nervous this time. A sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach I was convinced I was going to throw up all over everyone. Anyway, I had absolutely no idea who had their name in or how many there would be. When the mayor came out he had five red ribbons hanging over the velvet bag. When he dropped to his knees to kiss the key my heart leapt. When he plunged his hand into the barrel I was convinced I was going to pass out. I’ll admit to you now that when he called my name I jumped up and squealed. I stood alongside the other men shifting from side to side nervously. The mayor said something to me and winked but I have less idea now than I did then of what he said. I don’t know how I walked into the grab rail pen. My legs moved independently of my brain. I remember thinking how worthwhile the decorations were because they looked so beautiful. And there it was, such a simple thing really, a single pole of wood spanning the entire width of the pen. Hanging neatly and equidistant (the mayor had done a good job) where the five velvet bags. We looked around at each other, nervous laughter and looks, each of us too frightened to make the first move. Then in unison (and I have spoken to each of the men who were there that day, none of us knew how we timed it like this) we each went and stood in front of the bag that was ours. I can’t tell you how I knew but I knew, second from the left – that bag was mine.

It was over in minutes, it was always over in minutes, but it felt like days stood there holding our bags looking round at each other. For a brief moment the nerves had subsided as we had made our decisions but as soon as we had our bags in hand the nerves kicked in again. Had we chosen wisely? Would we like our brides to be? Outside the pen the mayor directed us all to read aloud the names of our chosen women. I was fourth (as this was the position of the bag – my bag) and my mouth went as dry as a – what? I wasn’t going to say that I was going to say desert, of course I wouldn’t say that in front of the kids. What? Oh, that time, well I was a little inebriated then. Now? No, no, now I’ve only had a couple. Anyway, I’m reaching the climax of our story will you shush!

My mouth went dry, little ones, and my head was swimming as I opened the bag and pulled out that little slip of paper that would change the entire future of my life. I croaked out the name and a gasp erupted from the crown as the prettiest girl I had ever seen made her way to my side. And that, children, is how I met your grandmother.