This afternoon I attended one of the regular creative writing workshops at Chilli Studios in Newcastle. I arrived late. Everyone was already hard at work writing from a simple prompt. The task was to create a piece of writing based around five words.
Roses, Love, Yellow, Anger, Thorns.
Five words. Simple enough. Except my head sometimes runs in unexpected directions. I did manage to include three of the five words in what I free wrote. Two of them I only included in passing because I was feeling bad about ignoring the list. In all honesty I read the word “Roses” and that was it. My head was set on a path from which there was no return.
This path. Freely written in about forty minutes and only slightly edited in the course of typing. A word corrected here and there. Two lines missed out. I’m posting this here because people asked me to. I am an innocent of all things except forging some sentences that have a length and complexity heading towards one of Proust’s shortest utterances.
Lancaster and York. Two noble houses whose quarrels and attempts to seize or maintain the throne were over long before my own War of the Roses. The dukes would have laughed hysterically at my own petty quarrel. Even the common men might have let out a slight chortle had they not been busy being forced to fight and perhaps kill or die for the sake of powerful men whose politics wouldn’t change a thing for a farmer in Wakefield. My own war had no battlefield on which memorials would be raised five hundred years later, visited by a dozen people a day in hatchback cars who would stop and stare for five minutes, remembering that the corn fields concealed the ghosts of fighting men then driving away and forgetting, their duty to historical conscience and imagined social pressure alleviated and dismissed.
No. There would be none of that for me. Or Benjamin. Benjamin my brother and my enemy in war. Lots of war. We shot each other countless times as we grew up, never in anger. Sometimes many times a day. With our pop guns, smoking from caps that made us feel so grown up as if firing pistols at people was an essential part of the definition of adulthood. And before that, before finding such luxury toys at the local jumble sale for five pence, before spending our hard unearned twenty pence a week on extravagances like the ornaments of an old lady who’d died, Mrs Burke perhaps, the evil witch from round the corner at number twelve. Was she really so evil just because she had a wart on her crooked nose and smelled of violets? Before all that, our guns didn’t smoke and Benjamin and I would run through the field and hide in the trees shouting “Pow! Pow! You’re dead” at each other and “No I’m not. You missed me you idiot. Pow! Pow! You’re dead now.”
We slaughtered each other over and over because war is fun, war’s a game, and there are goodies and there are baddies who deserve death. We butchered the evil Germans. Massacred the Red Indians who surrounded our blanket fort making “Woo woo” noises by repeatedly putting their hands over their mouths. And we congratulated ourselves for such brave deeds, dreaming of the day we too could play for real, play for king and country, bomb the bastards.
All the time we plotted against each other but we smiled, laughed, rang out the joy of the killing fields. Only later would we learn the game wasn’t anything like a world of bleeding, of anguished, terrified, agonised screams that bore no resemblance to our imagined death throes rolling on the floor shouting “Aaaaaaagh, Urgggggh, you got me!” We came to learn it the hard way but that’s a story for another occasion. Childhood was innocence. And in our innocent ignorance we could play at dying. Death is fun.
We only really fought over one thing, Benjamin and I, something so tiny that you, like the ancient soldier, may laugh too. Our War of the Roses was fought over this: Why did Benjamin go and eat all the strawberry creams out of the Roses Selection Box in the Christmas of 1984? How could he have been so bloody mean when he knew they were my favourite?
We fought. For real. Ripped clothes. Ripped skin. And a trip to hospital. Not for me. Oh no. I was smaller than him but still managed to get him to break his arm in a fall. Mum and dad were furious and I was sent to bed. I didn’t even get to watch the evening film that Christmas Day. Of course I thought it completely unfair and spent the evening dreaming plots of revenge on cruel Benjamin the strawberry cream thief; how I would pour water in his bed, cross out all the words in his favourite book, and draw a moustache on the poster of his favourite pop singer in his bedroom. Until I recalled that the picture showed Freddie Mercury, with ready grown facial hair. Mum was being unfair to me too. I decided I should follow Freddie’s sage advice to “Tie Your Mother Down,” maybe on the railway tracks like a cartoon villain. Perhaps The Hooded Claw seeking to do away with the beautiful Penelope who I had a crush on, except my cause would be justice, retribution for all criminals in the case of the scoffed chocolates. I’d find my revenge. Just wait and see. I cried too, unable to process the loss of missing the television premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, and knowing I’d be a laughing-stock at school the following term.
Benjamin was brought home. Arm in plaster, already signed in red pen by one of the nurses who had drawn a little heart too, a token that momentarily wrung jealousy from me. I looked at his face though. He looked utterly miserable as if the joy of killing a German would never be felt again and the thrill of hiding in the big apple tree across the lane was something of the past. He approached, wounded, staring at his feet and spoke an unexpected apology. “Sorry for eating the strawberry creams. I promise I’ll let you have them next time. If I can eat the fudge.” At the last part mum let out a shocked and angry “Benjamin!” and he said sorry again. This time without an ultimatum.
Well I forgave him didn’t I? What else can a brother do in a relationship filled with such unspoken love as ours? Boxing Day was a treat and we sat together all day by the fireplace in our uncle’s farmhouse kitchen, playing games and singing songs about war, about enemy football teams, a particularly funny peculiar woman on television, and how we wanted to move to America and be cowboys.
The war was over. Armistice was achieved, all treaties signed, and all was well. Until Christmas 1985 and the horror. Oh, the horror.
Mum refused to buy us Roses. Just a bar of Dairy Milk each. “We don’t want a repeat of last year,” she kept saying. So I didn’t get any strawberry creams. Not one. And war raged again.
Notes: I do not have a brother named Benjamin. There were no broken bones in my childhood. And strawberry creams are definitely not my favourite in any chocolate selection box.