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Tribute to a Plastic Carrier

by Bishti 

Posted: 18 January 2009
Word Count: 1372
Summary: 1,417 words

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I could never understand his way of life. Now, I am left to wonder about his death.

The chill of the wooden bench penetrated my bones like tooth-ache pierces the jaw. I was sitting outside the pub, close to the place where Sam ‘fell.’
Sam was my dad. He was sixty eight years old.
He was a small man, five foot six, and never more than 120 pounds, who hid behind a beard and a flat cap.
From the time they were invented, it seems there was a plastic carrier bag in his hand. Funny, I had forgotten what was in the bag, until now.
As well as the occasional grocery item, there were books… cowboy stories by Louis L'Amour, with titles such as Dark Canyon and The Burning Hills.
“Boring” I told him, long ago, when I was a teenager and into romantic fiction. He told me Louis L'Amour was romantic, that when researching his books Louis L'Amour hoboed across the USA, hopping freight trains with men who had been riding the rails for half a century. There was more, Louis L’Amour had had a sporadic career as a boxer, like my grandfather.
Sam and romance? No, not possible.
Sam never learned to drive and always took a bus or walked. He walked with his head down. As he aged, the plastic bag appeared to grow.
In the fifties and sixties, when he was a young man, there were long queues at the bus stop on Gorsey-Lane. Men mostly, in their beige and kaki overalls, coats buttoned against the weather, camouflaged and indistinct, waiting, with their canvas carry-out bags and flasks, their sandwiches wrapped in foil or paper, travelling to work in the hectic dockland, anticipating the 5 o’clock whistle, smoking and dreaming, but never dreaming of the death of the docks.
Smoke was everywhere, in the smog laden air, in the home, on the bus, in the workplace and always in the lungs.
Sam would be among the men in the bus queue. He was a painter and decorator. Apprenticed at fourteen, he worked all his life. What he earned was divided unequally between the betting shop, the pub and his family. There were five of us, and my mum. We came to expect little from him.
Meanwhile he loved Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle group, laughed loudly at the Goon show, Spike Milligan especially, and listened to Billy Cotton’s Band Show every Sunday afternoon, after dinner.
He dressed in drainpipe trousers and greased his hair with a quiff until it resembled wet tarmac, complete with sleeping policeman. He thought he was the ‘bees knees’ when he wore his gold silk cravat with his shirt neck open, and rather cruelly made me watch Quatermass and the Pit on our black and white telly. I was petrified. My stomach scooped as I hid behind the couch, closing my eyes and plugging my ears with my fingers. When I thought he wasn’t looking I would try to escape from the room. That made him laugh more.
Recently I watched an excerpt from the series, and I suppose I can see now how ridiculous it was, but I still find it difficult watch scary stuff on the television.
He was never home for long and that suited me.
For Sam home was a place where there were people who demanded things, a wife who argued and shouted, and children, who were sent to bed but still listened, to the loud and sometimes violent arguments, and to the cursing and swearing, although the silence that followed was often the most frightening of all.
For him the pub was easier than home, and the bookie promised escape and excitement.
I was eighteen years old, when my parent’s marriage ended. Sam took refuge in a series of bedsitters and small flats, always close to a pub. For a time we didn’t see him, not knowing where he lived, then as if by magic he appeared, on the second coach at a tea-break stop on a day-trip to the lake-district.
I was with my husband and two daughters. Sam had never met my youngest, his two year old grand-daughter. I was delighted to see him and we arranged to meet in Keswick, our destination. When we arrived, after alighting from the other coach, we spent a frustrating half of our day-trip searching for him again, pub to pub. Some things never change.
And now I sit, here outside his regular haunt, the Rose and Crown, on this wintry afternoon, and I wonder.
It began, for me, with a visit to his bedsit.

“What happened? How did you get those bruises?”
“I fell angel, in the road.”
“You look awful. When…when did you fall?”
“Last week, sometime,” He shook his head and appeared to be struggling to remember. “Been in bed since…” He coughed and his chest rattled, his skin was pale and clammy.
“Get me a ciggy angel.”
“I’m calling the doctor.”
“When’s Pat coming?” Pat is a smoker, like the rest of my family.
When she arrived she gave him a cigarette, something only a smoker would understand I think. He coughed the smoke into his lungs.
The doctor called an ambulance.
In the hospital he was diagnosed with pneumonia and was given intravenous antibiotics. For the next few days he drifted in and out of consciousness until finally he fell into a deep sleep. He died alone in the hospital, before any of us realised what was happening.
Just a couple of weeks earlier he had been his usual self. Not fit, but fit enough.
My sisters and I cleared his bed-sit. We kept a few items, photographs and postcards mostly. The rest went to the Oxfam shop in two carrier bags.
At his funeral the chapel was full, standing room only for some. I remember being surprised. Why all those people? Perhaps it was the quiet nature he portrayed. How did the world see him? My grandmother used to say, ‘Street angel, house devil.’
He had adopted a glint in his eye, like he understood more than he let on. I know he kept secrets. I didn’t know he knew so many people. I had certainly never set eyes on most of them. They came from his local pub, from his old hang-outs, and from other places, to pay tribute.
There was a whispering, we, his family, never heard until long after that day, until after we had scattered his ashes on a windy Wirral hill.
Then, someone spoke. They heard he hadn’t fallen. They heard he was attacked and beaten on his way home from the pub. Afterwards he had taken to his bed. Then he contracted pneumonia.
I heard it. I heard the whispering and looked up. Wrinkled and torn, the plastic bag was caught in the wintry branches of a spiky black-thorn tree. Sad, like the faded flowers of a roadside shrine, it was the symbol of a loved-one lost to life and remembered with a synthetic tribute.
How long does it take for a shiny new carrier bag, swept into the branches of a tree, for it to deteriorate into ragged grey tatters that sigh like an ailing banshee?
Again, I wondered, who was it? Who attacked and beat him? A lone opportunist, someone with a grudge, or a group of young thugs, kids having a laugh?
Were they drunk or sober?
Did someone watch him, there, in his corner seat in the pub, holding his pint with trembling hands, wandering to the bar on unsteady legs? And when he left, long after the bar had stopped serving, and all the beer soaked regulars had gone to join the late queue for chips, or to seek their warm beds, was he followed, confronted, or taken by surprise? And after, when he was bruised and beaten, how did he get home, alone, to that dingy bed-sit?
I don’t know the answers, and never will. I’ll never know why he claimed he fell, or why I failed to act. Time had passed before anything was said. What could be done? It was too late. It is too late. All that remains is the collusion of silence, and the death-rattle of a plastic carrier bag.

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Comments by other Members

Beverley at 12:36 on 18 January 2009  Report this post

Read this piece through from beginning to end. I thought it was a really good piece of writing. You have dealt with death in a family very well. Sometimes when we are near to someone we love we miss the obvious, then afterwards on reflection we realise the truth and ask ourselves how, why?

CathM at 22:12 on 18 January 2009  Report this post
Bishti. This is a really strong piece. I really enjoyed it. You’ve used a lot of description and imagery but so tightly that it comes over as subtle and understated (and, not clumpy or OTT). You’ve captured the character and person of Sam very well – through his mannerisms and relationships. A couple of sentences that I just loved:
“Not fit, but fit enough.”
“He coughed the smoke into his lungs.”
“Wrinkled and torn, the plastic bag was caught in the wintry branches of a spiky black-thorn tree.”

Suggestions in terms of development/next draft:
Perhaps play around with ending. E.g. possibly end with “It is too late.” I did like the sentence that came after but I’m not sure if it is the stronger ending – I don’t know, and I’m just throwing the idea out there.

Also, at the start where you write ‘fell’ – I’m not entirely sure if the single quote marks really add to the meaning (although, I understand why you have placed the word in ‘’ but I think it might be stronger without) – again, it’s just a suggestion that you might want to explore.

tec at 16:32 on 19 January 2009  Report this post
Hi Bishti, I thought this was well-handled and kept my interest to the end. I did find some of the language somewhat over-blown - I think it's so hard to writing about death, particularly a tragic, violent death like this, without being maudlin, overly dramatic, etc. Sometimes I thought you had the tone just right (for ex - "He died alone in the hospital, before any of us realised what was happening. Just a couple of weeks earlier he had been his usual self. Not fit, but fit enough.") but other places in my view it tended towards the overly sentimental ("Sad, like the faded flowers of a roadside shrine, it was the symbol of a loved-one lost to life and remembered with a synthetic tribute.") This was especially towards the end - the first half I thought all flowed so well. Along the same lines, I wasn't crazy about the title and the extended plastic bag metaphor - it seemed a little forced, especially at the end. and there were a couple passages in the end that confused me - "why I failed to act" and "the collusion of silence". I see that she is blaming herself, which I suppose is a normal reaction to an unexpected death of this sort, but those terms suggested a larger pattern of conduct, of more people involved - who were colluding? People perhaps didn't speak about the attack, but by then the damage had been done... or is it silence regarding his alcoholism in general? Apologies, I am nit-picking here but those two phrases seemed to jar a bit.

One other point - I found the narrator so accepting and sympathetic towards her father, whereas I thought some degree of anger would be natural. this especially hit me at "I was delighted to see him" - after he had been an absent parent, then disappeared from her life, I was surprised there wasn't any rancor at this sudden chance re-appearance. you say "some things never change" but this implies a sort of wearied acceptance. anyhow, maybe this is what you were going for, which is entirel valid of course, but might be worth exploring some of her conflicting emotions?

Thanks for posting - I really enjoyed reading it!


Bishti at 21:28 on 19 January 2009  Report this post
Thanks very much for your comments, and Tec I have made a couple of the adjustments you suggested, a definate improvement.
Thanks for taking the time.

apcharman at 09:23 on 20 January 2009  Report this post
Hi Carol,
I enjoyed reading this. It has a slightly mournful tone, but then, it is about mourning, so that seems entirely appropriate.
The main section flows very well, but I thought there was something stuttering about both the start and the end.
The very first sentence stands alone; an attention grabber, but didn't really grab me. Could this be a question? Or something more obscure? Those first few sentences don't seem quite sure where the start is. Shouldn't it start on the Plastic Bag? Equally, at the end, there is a great list of questions. I wonder whether a single question might be more impactful?

Bazz at 19:42 on 23 January 2009  Report this post
Hi Bishti, i really liked the tone of this story, very sad and thoughtful. I think the main character is well written, you've captured that wistful sadness when someone you should have known better is gone for good...

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