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Why the Great Wall of China is made of rice

It’s made of rice.  Not many people know that.  It’s very useful, says Hilda, because if the Chinese ever run out of food, they can eat the Wall.  There’s a lot to be said for edible buildings.

Hilda is eighty five years old, though her estimate of when she was born varies, and frankly, it’s irrelevant.  She has the playful, slightly macabre and mischievous imagination of an eight year old.

When I suggest that, given how many Chinese there are, the Great Wall might not last long in a famine, Hilda says they can eat the herbiage growing on top of it.  Because, she says, all the bodies buried in the Wall have composted into excellent nutrients.  She’s philosophical about human tragedy, real or imagined.  She says with some relish that in China, girl babies are thrown in the river and ‘drown along with all the other rubbish’.  Then the fish eat them.  But ‘fish have to eat, don’t they.”

She reminds me of another old lady I met in a ward once, who asked my brother where she could get blackbirds.  When he asked her what for, she said she wanted them to put in a pie, of course.  Hilda prefers strawberries, which she puts under the mattress to avoid sharing with the carers and fellow-inmates.  Better squashed than gone, she says.

And yet, the book hardly exists that Hilda hasn’t read, from Dostoevsky to Robert Fisk to Germaine Greer.  She doesn’t like to socialise in the nursing home – the other women talk only about their health and the staff make her play silly games, involving balls and bingo.  Other people’s grandchildren bore her.

Her memories have become a story read long ago and half forgotten.  Did she spend twenty years in a Russian gulag? Was she a British prisoner of war?  A slave in Byzantium?  A spy?  She says she was.  Who knows.  She talks of many admirers, doing the hokey pokey when it was fashionable, flirting with the handsome victims of motorcycle crashes as a nurses’ aide in some hospital, somewhere, singing anti-Russian songs in Finnish, and her mother, a Polish aristocrat’s concubine.  It would make a better novel than most, if she could be bothered with the details.  “Of course,” she says impatiently when I ask when and where, “of course! Don’t you know that!”.  I’m trying to put down anchors in this plot, Hilda is floating free as plankton.

When I get home from visiting the nursing home, I google rice and the Great Wall of China, and guess what, she’s not wrong.  Well, not entirely, the bricks were stuck together with rice and sand, a kind of mortar.  Hilda’s little joke, not so confused after all.  Never underestimate old ladies.

Strange Stories: One Angry Man

Monday he felt fine. There was bacon and eggs for breakfast, and for once the eggs weren’t fried too hard.  He finished his breakfast with a sense of well being, looked out the barred window to the sunny morning beyond, gave his pecker a pat to make sure it was still there.

And then SHE came.

Brushing back long dark hair from her cunning, pretty face, wearing a cheap, low cut top, so he could see the swell of those tiny breasts he’d run his hand over so often, to her gasps and sighs.  Long sun tanned legs.

“How is she?”

“She’s staying with nanna and pop.”

“What?”  He couldn’t believe his ears.  “You GAVE my child to those people?”

She smiled, what she no doubt thought was a placating, soothing smile.  It felt like ground glass in his coffee.

“While I came down here to see you, Neville.  She’s perfectly happy there.  They love her, you know that – and they love you too.  Your dad sends his love to you, by the way, he hopes you -”

“He hopes I’ll die.  He hopes I’ll just fade away in  here, out of sight, out of mind, he’ll be able to forget he ever had such a defective son.  I know what he hopes.  Just tell him I hate him.  I hate him as much as he’s always hated me, I hate him more than you’ll ever understand, you bitch, you idiot….”

As he talked, his face reddening with anger, he watched her eyes downcast, her arms across her body.  She didn’t fool him.  She was hiding something.  She got up to go, reaching out to touch him goodbye.  He shrank from her furiously.

Tuesday was not so good.  He was consumed with nightmares.  What would happen to the child?  His child, with those people, who had tortured him throughout his own childhood, thought he was worthless, and now had his precious, hard won daughter in their steely grip.  Oh they said they loved her, they loved everyone.  Nobody knew what they were like – but HE knew.  He was so angry he almost forgot to eat his dinner, but it was roast lamb and mint jelly, his favourite, and he had to keep his strength up.

Wednesday he remembered the knife he’d hidden under the mattress.  He’d persuaded Paul to bring it in, saying they wouldn’t even let him cut his own meat here, he was starving.  Paul was his friend.  Paul knew he wasn’t supposed to be here.  SHE had put him here.  Paul knew there was nothing wrong with him, he was just a little nervous.  Highly strung.

She would visit again on Friday.  Mouthing all those meaningless words.  You’re sick, Neville.  Your parents love you.  If only you weren’t so angry, you could see….  Have you talked to the psychologist?  What does HE say?

He felt under the mattress.  There it was.  He felt a surge of heroic power.  So must Beowulf have felt, and Cuchulain.  There comes a time when a man must stand up for what he believes.  A man must have courage.  SHE thought he was weak, defeated.  She thought they could take his child and raise it in the ways that had destroyed him.  That fat, smirking bitch his mother, with her veined legs and her innocent snow white hair, and the father, brilliant, academic, feted – and with not half the genius of the ‘mad’ son he put away for life in this…hellhole.  Though, at least he had his own tv, that was something.

On Friday, he would be smooth and unctious.  He would confess his misunderstandings, look deep into her eyes, tell her the psychologist had done wonders.  She would look back at him with those long-lashed deceiving windows, reach out to hold his hand, perhaps sigh a little in relief – and then he would strike.  No qualms, none.  Saving his only daughter from a life with such a mother, such grandparents.  Death, yes –  she thoroughly deserved it, he would feel nothing, only pride.

He felt the point of the knife. It was sharp, pricked his finger a little so the blood ran.  He went to sleep on Thursday night thinking of her screams, her body awash with red, himself standing over her like an avenging angel, then, then…

The next morning, he could not wait for her footsteps on the lino.  His heart beat faster than a baby’s, his face and body hot, then cold.  He went to the bathroom, again, and again.  His nerves seemed a mass of cut wires, jangling and fizzing.

She came.  He smiled, sane.  Her eyes widened in pleasure.  She sat on the bed beside him.  He smelled her perfume, jasmine – it reminded him of freedom.  And his daughter, the only one who would really understand the gift he was about to give her.

He felt beneath the bed.  A present, he said, for you.  Something I made in craft.  Something to make up for it all, all this trouble I’ve put you through, and them too.

It wasn’t there.  He sank back, in despair.  They must have taken it, while he was in the bathroom, voiding his bowels and guts in anticipation of the last, heroic stand against insanity.  He groaned, suddenly, and turned his face to the wall.

She exchanged glances with the nurse, waiting at the door.

“What’s wrong? Is he on different pills this morning?”

“He thinks he’s lost something,” said the nurse, kindly.  “He’s been checking under his mattress all week.  At first we thought he’d hidden something to eat under there – they often do, you know – but we checked and there was nothing.  I spoke to the psych about it, it’s just a side effect apparently.”

She’s lying, thought Neville, lying in a dark haze, hearing the hated voices as from a distance.  She took it.  If I sleep, she’ll cut me with it and say I did it to myself, it’s suicide.  I won’t sleep, though, I won’t.  That night, as he drifted off despite himself, he wondered briefly, but what if there was no knife?

Then what am I?  Just one angry man, helpless against the world.  And he slept.

Meat and potato sex


Corn, peas, lamb chops….or sausages if chops turn out to be too expensive, jelly for afters but I’ll have to make it now otherwise it won’t be set and remember what happened last time, crystallising in the freezer like red bean-bag filler and the kids wouldn’t eat it, they didn’t eat their dinner either, maybe I’m a bad cook maybe they’re too thin…Mum, can I leave the table, Mum, why do you only give us horrible things to eat?  They only want to watch videos.

Ah, ah, now that’s interesting, I like that, I wonder how long he’s got to go, the pillow’s making creases in my face but that’s ok for now, thump, thump, thump goes the mattress sometimes my back hurts I must be getting older but it’ll be alright afterwards……

Have to pick Troy up from soccer in an hour, pestering about soccer boots, he has to have the right boots, can’t play soccer in any old thing, but how will I get the money?  Boots in the shop over fifty dollars, won’t his gym shoes do?  But he says no, break in his voice, tears in his eyes, have to have what the others have….money, try to save but every week can I have this can I have that…Last week his father bought him Buzz Lightyear and this week it’s a remote control aeroplane, now all they want is to go to daddy’s, daddy’s where all the toys are, all the light and good cheer….

Must make more noise…he’ll think I’ve lost interest.  Wonder if he’s thinking my bum’s too big.  He says it looks like newly baked bread, don’t know what that means, think it means soft and doughy…have to go out jogging tonight.  Thump, thump, sweat falling on me like dew….  Hard to tell when he’s going to – ah!  That’s nice, that’s nice, keep going like that, pull my hair, I like that, you can be my ape man and I can be your woman….just as long as I don’t look at you with your grey hair and your paunch and your middle aged breath.…mustn’t think that, puts me off…

Last night saw a cockroach skidding across the kitchen floor, hate those things.  Stamped on it, looked like a squashed prune, knew there were plenty more behind the cupboards…where do they live?  Probably crawl over the washing up sitting in the sink waiting for me to get to it but you know in the morning there’s no time to wash the dried rice bubbles off the plates it’s hard enough getting the kids to have their breakfast get their clothes on.  Kylie nearly drives me crazy, I’ll kick my legs, you try to get my pants on mum just see if you can do it, I never was any good at sport…GET YOUR BLOODY PANTS ON WE’RE LATE!

Mmmm….speeding up now, starting to make panting noises, is it me or him…not too long now, time to get the mind into gear, concentrate, concentrate, have to get ready to come, sound like it anyway, eyes shut tight, mouth open, breathe deep, is it pleasure or is it pain…looks passionate anyway, good enough for him.  Yesterday he said he loved me but that was afterwards they never mean it then, you can’t believe anything, why would anyone love me anyway….but I liked it, wonder if he’ll say it again…three times makes true and I could say it to him then, I love you, I love you, I love you…but I don’t.

Oh fuck!  Nine oclock meeting and I forgot to ring mum to take the kids to school…Oh, oh…have to ring her after I get my clothes on straighten the bed say goodbye see you sometime never really know when, pick Troy up get the sausages from the butchers don’t know what they put in them though, probably no meat at all, oh, oh, yes, please….forgot last week and the boss gave me dirty looks she’s got no kids the bitch doesn’t know what it’s like no lover either probably, like to see her fall under a truck, not much likelihood of that….oh my God, BRUCE!

Wet between the legs, cold on the sheets between us, head on his shoulder thinking, fifteen minutes to go, better get up need to go the toilet anyway five minutes to the soccer ground should check the oil in the car haven’t done it for weeks hope it doesn’t break down on the way to the meeting like last time stuck in the traffic five hundred dollars at the garage how will I ever….  Yeah, that was great.   What’s the time now.  Mustn’t forget the sausages.


It began as pins and needles, a trembling in her torso and a cold unease that spread like iced water from her groin to the back of her neck.

“You chose to be here,” he said, reaching out to touch her upper arm in the dark, surging water. Phosphorus trailed along the hairs of his forearm, trickling back into shadow.

‘I’ve given everything for you, my whole life, it’s nothing now, and you..’

She didn’t finish her sentence, couldn’t put the enormity of her emotions, her hatred and pain, into mere words.  Or perhaps she could have, into her words, but not his, not this human language that she still grappled with as if it were a pair of unfamiliar crutches, awkward and inadequate.

He stood there, chest deep, silent.  She breathed, felt herself grow with each intake, her body expanding with rage, with hopelessness, her fingers laced into the wide dark sea, her heart a whirlpool, her mouth a cave big enough to swallow this man and all who sailed in him.  Her eyes widened, the pupils flared, bottomless in the night.   She drew her lips back from her teeth, the sharp unforgiving jaws of a tiger shark, fast, powerful, deadly.

She reached out and put her two hands softly on his strong, once-dear neck. How soft it was. She could feel his pulse, a weak signal in the vastness.  Now she was warm, hot, heat raced to the end of her fingertips, to the long fingernails which rested lightly around his carotid.  In her mind the nails became claws, rock-hard, stone-cruel, coral-sharp.

You’re drawing blood.

Did he say that or did she? Her mind and her body were full with blood, bursting with it.  Even the sea seemed tinged with red, though the sun had set hours ago.  She put a hand to her mouth, tasted the salt thickness of it.  She saw him as he would be, soon,  ripped end to end, entrails slipping out into the current, swirling, dark blood warm against her body.  She would wrap herself in them, lashing them around and around, till he was hollow and she clothed triumphantly in his torn, wet organs.  She would suck out those green eyes, round and soft like oysters, feel his screams slide down her throat and swallow them with eager, fierce gladness.  She would take him by the hair and hold his face against her breasts, struggling and choking, till the water ended him.  She would..

She held him close.  His body rose to the surface, there was air in him yet, but no life.  She cried out, a thin, whistling sound no human could make, threw her arms around him and let the waves carry them together towards the empty, moonlit sand.

This is me exploring what it might be like to be really angry. I have difficulties with anger. I feel it sometimes, but I never really know what to do with it, or how to deal with it. I don’t like being angry. I can’t ‘do’ anger but sometimes I want to let loose a vast rage which would tear the world apart, or at least sweep away the person in my immediate vicinity, like a shed in a flash flood.  Luckily, only in fiction!