Fractal Myth

Paperbag Stories 11-12.

Number 11

[Michelle Chapman, ©July 2002]

SETTING: 'a wind-swept street corner'
PROPS: 'a room lined with shelves'
CHARACTERS: 'a fat man with short hair, wearing braces'
QUOTE: Vladimir Mayakorsky (Russian poet, 1893-1930) 12 April 1930
"The love boat has crashed against the everyday. You and I, we are quits, and there is no point in listing mutual pains, sorrows and hurts."

The wind whips around the corner of the small block of flats, bombarding its bulk with litter and leaves. A large man rests a bag of groceries on the step and fumbles for his key. His name is Leon, and he lives alone in the ground-floor apartment, alone that is, except for a tank of tropical fish. The entrance door opens into a spacious room furnished with a single desk and cluttered with paper. An alcove leads to a kitchenette and bathroom. His bedroom door is closed.

It is freezing outside, but the flat is warm and stuffy. A small electric heater under the desk clicks as its thermostat registers the cold air that follows Leon in. He begins unwinding the scarf from his throat, clumsily getting tangled in his heavy coat. Finally winning the battle with his clothes, he carries the bag of groceries into the kitchen and unpacks several tins of fish food, two weeks supply of microwaveable tv dinners, three jars of peanut butter and a number of packets of savoury biscuits. He opens one of the packets and, taking a jar of peanut butter and a knife, sits down at his desk for lunch.

The fish watch him curiously from their tank near the window. Now that he has removed his overcoat, it is obvious that Leon is grossly overweight. A middle-aged man with short, curly hair thinning back from his temples and thick gold-rimmed glasses, he wears a striped shirt with large damp patches under the arms and crumpled trousers held up by red elastic braces which cut into his paunch. The room smells strongly of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. The walls are lined with overflowing bookshelves, and the floor is covered with towering stacks of paper which constantly threaten to topple but somehow never do.

Leon is a writer. At least, he has an insatiable urge to arrange words on paper. He has never had anything published, but then, he has never submitted any of his writing to be published. His dreams of instant success prevent him releasing his work until its quality matches his expectations. His tragedy is that it never has, and he is beginning to suspect it never will. Still, he never throws anything away. Poems, stories, essays, bits of novel, all are to be found within easy reach on the floor of his flat. In reality, many are little more than a sentence, a single word or image, a fleeting impression begging to be put into words, but the words refuse to come. So he scribbles what he can, despairing over its lack of style.

His utter inability to capture the essence he feels so clearly drives him to distraction. He reads incessantly, trying to discover the secret to releasing the brilliant writing he knows is trapped inside him. He reads like he eats, indiscriminately consuming immense amounts and assimilating it into himself. He's inordinately pleased with that metaphor and notes it down on a clean sheet. After all, he reflects, collecting biscuit crumbs with the tip of a moistened finger, nothing comes from either intake except shit. Lurking in the back of Leon's mind is an unspoken fear that if he actually produces the masterpiece of his dreams, his success will create a precedent requiring another success and then another and another. The thought of all these expectations, especially of his own expectations, petrifies him.

He used to write with a silver pen on reams of foolscap paper, but last year Leon bought himself a computer and printer, thinking he could assess his writing more dispassionately if it wasn't in his own handwriting. There are times when the dam bursts and words come tumbling forth in an inspired stream. Always in the back of his mind at these times the voice of exaltation soars, exclaiming: 'This is the one. This is it. This is the piece that will lift your writing above obscurity. (He always addressed himself as 'you'.) This will give you your place among the classics. You will finally be able to look Keats in the eye and say "This grew from me as naturally as a leaf from the tree."' It is a high. An intense rush of fulfilment.

Then, like Icarus, Leon's longing for fame overpowers his creative abilities. He looks over what he has written with a critical eye. Its weaknesses leap into insurmountable prominence and its strengths sidle elusively like dust in sunlight. It's not all bad, he concludes. There is something there. He pores over it for days, but in the end, gives up - just for the moment, of course - let it sit. Give it time for the flavours to develop. With that comforting platitude the writing is consigned to the top of the latest stack on his desk, at an angle of precisely ninety degrees to the piece before. When a stack starts to lean, he transfers it carefully to the floor.

Leon stuffs the empty biscuit packet in the bin. He reads over the efforts of the morning. It strikes him as deplorably bad. He groans, leans back, stares at his bookshelves. Titles stare back at him, each beckoning with promises of imaginary worlds and original thoughts, all alive and vibrant, thrilling with laughter and tears. He transfers his gaze to his own waiting stacks, dives amongst them, reads a page here, a snippet there, all dead, cold, waiting only to be buried. Not a spark of life or truth surviving. All suffocated by a depressing clumsiness of thought and expression. Leon sits in the middle of the floor and howls in desperation. He must succeed. He must. He must. If only... A broken mirror hanging on the wall catches his eye. "Oh, Emma, what have I done?" he groans.

Emma is Leon's ex-wife. He hasn't seen her for six and half years, although the maintenance cheque comes through each month, regular as clockwork. They'd met at highschool, the poor boy with the bad attitude and the spoilt rich bitch ~ so stereotyped in their own minds that they went steady for three months before holding a real conversation. Leon sighs and wonders what Emma's doing these days. He stares at the mirrored shards nestled together in their gilded frame. It is the only ornament hanging on the wall of his flat. Emma's mirror. After graduation they had married, mainly because it was something nobody else seemed to want to do. They prided themselves on being different.

It had been fun at first. Emma bought a big house in an upmarket suburb and started decorating. Leon enrolled in law school. Eighteen months later he dropped out, arguing that study was stifling his creativity. For the next four months he loafed around, getting more bored and frustrated by the day. Emma was likewise finding the life she had chosen unsatisfying, realising she could no longer stand the people in her circle. All that her female friends were interested in were clothes, jewellery and other women's husbands. What Emma wanted wasn't clothes or jewellery or men. She didn't need any help acquiring possessions. Between them, she and Leon hardly dinted the monthly income from her investment accounts and the trust funds set up by her grandparents. All her life, Emma had never had to ask for anything. She assumed that was how things were meant to be, until meeting Leon had taught her differently. At first he was just another way to annoy her parents but once they started talking, things changed. From Leon she learned what it felt like to be always wanting. He wanted success. She wanted him. Being rich and beautiful, sure, getting his physical presence had been easy, but it wasn't enough. She wanted them to be fighting on the same team, companions, soulmates... friends. She had tried telling him how she felt, but he just didn't seem to hear. Ever since he'd left uni, Leon had been preoccupied, lost in his own thoughts. He only spoke to complain bitterly about his lack of progress and how difficult it was to write with all these distractions. In her loneliness, Emma eventually made friends with her cleaning lady, Lily.

Lily had arrived soon after the wedding, hired for the young couple by Emma's aunt. She moved into the tiny spare room next to the kitchen and for the first two years she was as invisible as the ducted airconditioning. Then, one day, Emma had breezed in from a shopping jaunt to find Lily seated on the staircase, in tears. Her natural sympathy overflowed and before she knew it she was seated next to the older lady, both sobbing their hearts out. She soon uncovered the source of the problem. Lily's grandson had been expelled from school for fighting. He was an intelligent kid with a chip on his shoulder, a talented, sensitive artist. Apparently he had been preparing a folio of drawings to submit to an art school which had offered him a scholarship. When he refused to show his work to another student, the other boy snatched at the paper and tore it. Lily's grandson lost his temper, struck out and broke his tormentor's jaw. He was expelled on the spot, instantly destroying his chance at the scholarship. Emma's mind raced. She couldn't seem to help Leon, no matter how hard she tried, but this boy... maybe here she could make a difference.

Emma got Lily to sit down in the kitchen and made her a pot of tea. Then she went to work. It took half an hour and a number of phone calls, while Lily watched in amazement. The two school principals hardly knew what hit them. Reeling under her generous offers of sponsorship they hastily agreed to overlook the young man's transgression, reinstate him with a clean record and reconsider him for the scholarship. Finally, Emma sent Lily off bearing the good news, and began to arrange a fund-raising dinner. She could easily have financed the whole thing, but she foresaw problems in the future. If set free, her generous impulses were capable of outstripping even her immense income. Besides, she had spent her whole life cultivating the acquaintance of moneyed people. Now she had an excuse to put them to good use. She went to tell her husband of her plans.

Emma found Leon lazing in the bedroom, watching cartoons on tv. She sat down at her dressing table and brushed her hair, studying him carefully in the mirror. He hadn't shaved for two weeks. Leon caught her eye and she looked away.

"What?" he asked. When she didn't answer, he continued self-consciously, "I'm getting ideas. See?" he held up a notepad which had been crushed beneath his elbow.

"You're just fine," she said. "I hope you find what you need." Then she told him about Lily's grandson, and her planned fund-raising party for the schools. "You will come and help me entertain them, won't you? You can be so charming when you try." Leon grunted, engrossed again in his program. "Did you hear me?"

There was no answer, so Emma turned to face him. He was scribbling something in his notebook, so she waited politely until he finished. When he put the pen down, she tried again. "Leon?"

"WHAT?" He dragged his eyes away from the television. "How am I supposed to think with all these interruptions?"

Emma lost her temper. She didn't mind him not working. She didn't mind him not studying. She didn't mind him not doing anything at all. He hadn't had much of a childhood. He deserved some time for himself. But if he thought he could completely ignore her, and then get narky because she wanted his attention for once, he had another thing coming. She wasn't asking much. The least he could do was be sociable on this rare occasion for an important cause.

Leon snapped back that his writing was an important cause. The only cause he cared about. There was silence for several minutes, then Leon spoke again in a calm, quiet voice. "I need to be alone," he said. "I can't compose here, surrounded by all this... this luxury. I'm not used to it. I want to move out."

"Well? Go then," Emma said, feeling her stomach twist. "I'll still support you."

Leon bowed in ironic acknowledgement. Without thinking, he repeated a line from a Russian poet which had seized his imagination: "The love boat has crashed against the everyday. You and I, we are quits, and there is no point in listing mutual pains, sorrows and hurts."

Emma was furious. Here she was, trying to give him everything, and he was so distanced from her he couldn't even say goodbye in his own words. She reached out, grabbed the first moveable object and flung it at him. It was the small gilt-edged hand mirror from her dressing table and it shattered against the bedpost, showering him with glass splinters. He laughed, collecting the larger fragments and fitting them back into the frame.

"I think I'll keep this as a souvenir," he announced, stalking from the room. The sound of Emma's tears followed him out the door.

Leon sits on the floor of his flat and remembers. Emma never held a grudge. She had contacted him the next day and matter-of-factly made the necessary arrangements, allowing Leon to believe he had become just another one of her charity cases. She was supporting struggling artists all over the city. What difference would one more make? At the time, Leon had accepted it as his due. He had always had to struggle while she had it easy. It was about time things changed. Besides, he was certain he would write a bestseller within the year. When that happened, he would no longer need her handouts. He would even pay her back. Then, finally, he would be able to court her from a position of equality. There is no doubt he still loves her. Only now... surrounded by six and half years of disappointed dreams, Leon admits he has failed. As the final beams of sunlight fade from his window, Leon crawls across the floor and drags himself into bed. He reads for several hours then falls asleep. George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying slips slowly to the floor.

Leon wakes early. He eats standing up, staring out the window. It is another bitterly cold day, but at least there's no wind. Leon feeds his fish then dresses to go out. It is no use sitting down at his desk. He knows it will only depress him. Instead, he plans to spend the day walking. He originally chose this flat because it was surrounded by parkland, but other than appreciating the view out his window, he has taken little advantage of it. Last night it had occurred to him that if he can't earn Emma with literary brilliance, he will have to get serious. Which means getting himself back into shape and finding a job.

Struggling to find the other arm of his overcoat, Leon realises that this plan will be no easier to bring to fruition than the last. He wraps his scarf around his neck, puffing with the effort. He can't possibly be that unfit, can he? No, it's just the stuffy room. Once he is out in the fresh air, he'll be fine, invigorated. He will walk across Centennial Park to that new bookshop he's noticed. A perfect start. This way his new goals will combine with the old. He thinks, when the blood is pumping around your body properly, it's bound to enliven your brain as well. This logic fills him with confidence. He waves cheerily to his fish and leaves the flat.

The cold air hits Leon in the chest. He gasps, clutches at his throat, stumbles down the steps. On the footpath, he collapses, noticing as he falls that a small crowd is forming. Someone calls an ambulance. As they wait, Leon hears the crowd speculating about him. The general consensus is a heart-attack, complicated by his weight. The ambulance men, the nurses and the doctors at the hospital agree. They pester Leon for his next-of-kin, and finally, in desperation, he gives them Emma's name. She's the closest thing to kin he's got. Lying exhausted on the rickety hospital trolley, Leon half hopes he will die before she arrives. It will save so much trouble. He remembers her perfectly manicured hands, the coiffures that took hours at the hairdresser, her flawless fashion sense and ability to wear clothes without wrinkling them. He thinks he knows what will happen. She'll breeze in, take one look at him, turn up her aristocratic little nose and cancel his allowance. What else can she do? She's not in the business of supporting failures. She expects a return on her investment. That's the deal, and he hasn't paid up.

"Leon?" The voice sounds like a child's, timid and unsure. He tries to crane his neck, but can't see anyone.

"Who is it?" He asks, annoyed at the nurse's stupidity. Doesn't she know he's strapped in? This stretcher bed is so narrow they have tied him to it. It obviously isn't meant for someone of his manly bulk. He is scared to struggle in case he falls off again. "Well? Is there somebody there?"

"Umm, it's me... Emma." She moves around the bed so he can see her, shyly brushing a strand of loose hair from her cheek. Leon is shocked. Surely this isn't the woman he remembers. She's wearing jeans and a baggy purple jumper. Her hair is pulled back in a rough ponytail, held by what looks like a strip of pantyhose. "You don't look too good." She says, in that strangely girlish voice he doesn't remember. She always used to sound like someone trained for public speaking (as of course, she had been). He is uncomfortably aware that he has changed, too, and not for the better. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asks. At first, Leon wants to refuse. It's all too complicated and he just wants to sleep, but then he thinks of something.

"My fish!" He stares at her. He would never have asked the old Emma to feed his fish, but this girl doesn't look like she'll mind, and besides, he has no-one else to ask. "If I give you the keys to my flat, will you feed my fish?" Then he recalls how he left his room. "Look, the place is in a bit of a mess, but don't touch anything, will you?" Her eyes drop and she flushes. Leon is ashamed. "Oh, who am I kidding? Touch anything you want. None of it's important. Hey, throw the whole lot out if you want. When I get out of here, I'll have to find a new job anyway. Perhaps something in advertising. Jingles and slogans. I should be able to manage that." His self-pity falters into silence. What does she care? But Emma lays her hand on his shoulder.

"Don't worry, Leon," she says. "You'll feel better soon. And of course I'll look after your fish." Emma picks up the keys from Leon's bedside table and leaves the hospital.

Opening the door to Leon's flat, Emma reels from the stale air. She instinctively moves to open the window, but suddenly realises if she does, Leon's stacks of paper will fly everywhere. Carefully, she locks the door behind her, and drives to her own house. There, she arranges for Lily to housesit and picks up a few essential items. Less than half an hour later, she is back in Leon's flat with a suitcase, a box and a cat.

Shutting the suitcase and the cat in Leon's bedroom, Emma unpacks the box in the front room. It contains a collection of ornate glass paperweights, each one a gift from Leon. In the early days of their relationship, Leon joked about the difficulties of buying presents for the girl who had everything. Then one day Emma had admired a heavy crystal ball in an antique shop. Leon had called it ugly so she forgot about it, until a week later when he presented her with a heavy, clumsily wrapped package for her birthday. It became a tradition after that, right up to the day when Leon left. That morning Emma had found an exquisite lead crystal globe, probably Victorian, encasing a perfect red rose. It had sat on her bedside table ever since.

Now Emma lifts it from the packing foam and places it reverently on top of the pile by the computer. One by one she lifts birthdays, Christmases and anniversaries from the box, polishes them gently and puts them to work. When all the piles are secured, she flings the window open wide, bracing herself to meet the chill. It feels wonderful to draw the cold fresh air deep into her lungs. She investigates his pantry and fridge, wrinkles her nose and goes shopping. While she's out, she arranges for several large filing cabinets to be delivered at the end of the week. Leon will be in hospital for at least a fortnight, and she has a lot of work to do in the meantime. Emma returns to the flat, makes herself comfortable and starts to read.

Many of the pieces begin strongly then fizzle into nothing. Some drag on interminably in the struggle to reach resolution. Others stop mid-sentence running out of ink or inspiration. Emma sorts and compiles Leon's work, noticing many items are actually complete with only minor editing needed to join the pieces together. She is amazed at the strange disorder she finds things in: the end of a story in one pile, its beginning in another, and the middle buried somewhere under a third; lines from separate poems scattered willy-nilly through the rest. She reads all night, fascinated by the diversity of the material, only realising it is morning when the cat clamours for breakfast.

Emma feeds the animals, then leaves to visit Leon. At the hospital she is stopped in the corridor by an officious nurse. Leon is sedated and is not allowed visitors for at least a week. He must be kept quiet. The nurse suggests that she ring once a day for a progress report. Emma reassures herself that Leon has everything he needs, speaks to his doctor, who is mildly optimistic, and since there is nothing else she can do there, goes back to the flat.

For the rest of the week, Emma and the cat read through Leon's papers, putting those aside which she thinks she can prepare for publication and filing others for Leon to work on later. She never considers that he might not be coming back. She has waited long enough. When she had smashed the mirror, the day Leon left, it had seemed symbolic. She decided then she would give him seven years to try his experiment after which she would find him and convince him he couldn't live without her. Now he has made it easy for her.

Halfway through next week, Emma is allowed in to see Leon. He has lost weight and his skin hangs loosely. Emma talks of his fish, and the weather, which is starting to warm up as spring approaches. She carefully doesn't mention his papers and he doesn't ask. He dimly remembers giving her free rein and prefers to die of the shock of finding she has destroyed them in his own home rather than in this ridiculous hospital bed. But somehow as he looks at the cheerful creature by his side, he doesn't think her capable of such duplicity. She visits every day, and they quickly reestablish the camaraderie that always marked their best moments together.

Emma is finally allowed to take Leon home after six weeks in hospital. She arranges for them to put him straight into her car, to stop him making noises about a taxi. No words are exchanged on the drive home. Emma silently hands Leon his keys and stands back. He steels himself and opens the door. Paperweights are arranged around the empty floor in place of his paper stacks. He is about to explode, despite the doctor's warnings against getting excited and his own resolve not to get upset, when something distracts him.

"Jasper!" Leon exclaims, as he sweeps the cat into his arms. "I never expected you to be still alive!" He grinned goofily at Emma.

"Oh, we take good care of each other, Jasper and I. Pity we can't say the same about you!" Leon has the grace to look ashamed. Before he can speak, Emma continues. "Don't worry about your writing. It's all safe. Some of it's quite good. I've sent a lot of it off to various publishers. It's about time you started collecting some rejection slips. Now, sit down before you fall down. You've got two hours to write before lunch, and then we're going for a walk in the park. OK?"

Leon stares at her from behind his desk. He starts to argue, then discovers he's only complaining from habit. "OK." He looks around the room. It is bright, clean and airy. Lace curtains screen the window and the fronds of a potted fern wave in the breeze. Jasper curls up in his old place between Leon's feet. He hears Emma in the kitchen, singing a hymn they learnt at school. He is happy. He turns on the computer and starts to type.

Number 12

[Michelle Chapman, ©September 2002]

SETTING: 'a park with a pond on a summer day'
PROPS: 'a wedding ring'
CHARACTERS: 'a woman with sleepy, hooded eyes'
QUOTE: Lord Byron (English poet, 1788-1824) To the Countess of Blessington, 1823:
"I am ashes where once I was fire."

Lena lay back against the roots of the massive fig-tree, shielding her eyes from bright sun filtering through thick green leaves. A bird narrowly missed her with its missile - a flying rat really, one of the noisy minors that colonised the town. She watched the white lump splash beside her and listened to the minor squawking its disappointment. From the seeds in its faeces she could see it had been feasting on figs. Hardly moving, she gathered a small pile of fallen fruit from the ground around her. The bird was still there, and more were arriving, alerted by its calls. Peering up, Lena lobbed fig after fig back into the branches. She was a lousy shot, but the crowd of minors chose discretion as the better part of valour and flew off to investigate a dropped hamburger on the other side of the park. Lena felt better. She hated the scavengers that capitalised on human waste and mess, crowding out the native fauna - as if humans weren't doing enough of that already. Humans. She was feeling particularly bitter today, but chasing off the minors had improved her mood, momentarily abating her frustration and bewilderment. She hadn't known what to expect from Luke when she told him she was pregnant. She certainly hadn't expected complete silence. When she told him last night he had not said a word, and what was worse, he hadn't spoken to her since. Eventually, she had stormed out of the flat, leaving him to sort himself out. Here, under the cathedral ceiling created by the fig, it all seemed strangely unreal.

A small boy launched a sailboat on the algae-green pond, carefully guiding it around clumps of reeds. His mother sat on the bank behind him, engrossed in a novel. As Lena watched, the boat drifted out beyond the boy's reach. He ran to the other side, pleading with the craft to keep moving towards him, but to no avail. It remained becalmed in the pond's centre. Lena laughed as the little boy ran twice around the pond. She could almost see his mind working as he glanced back at his mother, sat down and started divesting himself of shoes and socks. She wasn't worried. The pond was only about twenty centimeters deep, and she was close enough to run to the rescue if necessary. On the contrary, she applauded the boy's independence, and in a voyeuristic way looked forward to seeing the mother's reaction when she finally noticed what her son was up to.

Lena studied the other woman, who seemed oblivious to all except her book. There was no way Lena could see the cover, but it looked like a thick paperback. She was three-quarters of the way through, and turned the pages with single-minded intensity. Every now and then she raised dreamy eyes to check on her son. Lena looked back at the boy. He had rolled his trousers up above his knees and was about to wade into the water. His boat had capsized, and its gleaming white sail was now half-submerged in the green muck. A curious duck swam over to investigate, leaving the boy to dance in frustration on the edge, torn between his desire to save his boat, and his fear of the unknown.

Eventually, the sight of the upturned blue keel was too much for him, and the boy stepped off the edge, braving the duck and the murky water. His mother still hadn't noticed his plight. Lena felt sorry for him. She watched him resolutely wade towards his goal, a long stick held out in front of him to ward off his feathered foe. The duck took one look and left to find a less populated pond. In triumph the boy retrieved his boat. On his way back to shore, he stopped. Carefully lifting one foot, he plucked something shiny from between his toes. His first thought was to show it to his mum, but seeing she was still engrossed in her book, he looked around and caught Lena's eye. She smiled at him, curious to know what he had discovered. With his boat tucked under one arm and his find closely clasped in the other hand, he came to show her.

The object which he held out on his muddy palm to her was a plain gold ring. A wedding ring, Lena thought. She wondered whose it had been, and how it had got there. "Isn't it pretty?" she asked the boy, who nodded shyly.

"Would you like it?" he asked.

"Why don't you give it to your mother?" Lena replied, but the boy shook his head.

"She doesn't like rings," he explained. "Do you like my boat?" The future ownership of the ring had obviously been settled to his satisfaction. He flopped down on the grass beside her and, encouraged by her indulgent interest, started explaining the finer points of his craft to her. At that moment the boy's mother gave her habitual quick glance at the pond, and found it deserted. She was instantly on her feet, the book forgotten. Lena waved. Seeing her son seated comfortably beside a stranger, annoyance chased relief from the woman's face. She moved towards them and Lena stood up to meet her.

"You have a beautiful little boy," she said. "He was just showing me the treasure he found in the pond." The other woman jumped as though stung, staring at the ring in Lena's outstretched hand.

"May I see it?" she begged, her voice low and shaking.

Lena handed it over. The woman examined it carefully. Rubbing algae from the inner surface, she showed Lena two initials engraved in the gold. Squinting, Lena could just see a pair of intwined letters, an A and an E.

"Angela and Eric," the other woman said. Lena looked at her, questioningly. "He left me when Ben was two months old," she explained. "I never thought I'd see this again." The pair sat quietly watching the boy, Ben, who was once again sailing his boat on the pond. "Here, you take this." Angela shoved the ring back into Lena's hand. "When I threw it away I was so angry I never wanted to see it again, but Ben and I've come a long way since then. Even if Eric himself showed up, I don't think it would mean anything to me anymore. Do you know what Byron used to say? 'I am ashes where once I was fire.' That's it. That's me. Angela Ashes."

"Nice to meet you," Lena said, introducing herself. "What are you reading?"

Angela wordlessly turned it so Lena could read the title. The Getting of Wisdom. "Better late than never," she joked. "Actually, it's for a uni course. Now Ben's old enough to start school, he doesn't have as much time for me as he used to." She grinned. "We decided that rather than becoming a grumpy, lonely old mum, I should go to school as well. He's a good kid. My best friend, really. A much nicer person than either I or his father."

Alerted by some sixth sense, Ben brought his boat in to shore and ran up to give his mother a hug. Feeling that Angela was upset, he glowered at Lena. She looked at him seriously.

"You know that ring you found?" Lena asked. Angela caught her eye and imperceptibly shook her head. Lena winked.

"Ye-es." Ben answered, slowly, suspicious.

"Well, I've been thinking. This looks like a very special ring, doesn't it?" The boy nodded. "Do you think someone lost it, or did they throw it away?"

Ben chewed on a fingernail while he thought. "I don't know" he pronounced gravely, after deep consideration.

"Who does it belong to now?" Lena asked.

Fascinated, Ben thought some more. "It's mine, because I found it, and I gave it to you, so it's yours," he stated emphatically, looking for his mother's approval. Angela smiled.

"And what should I do with it?" Lena asked.

Ben studied her closely, trying to determine whether she was teasing him. Everything seemed above board, but you never could tell with adults. "Whatever you want" he ventured, at last.

"What would you do with it?" Lena asked.

He gave her a very grown-up look. "Do you really want to know?"

Lena looked at his mother, who shrugged. Neither of them could imagine what he might have in mind, but after all, it was his ring, in more ways than one. "Go on then," she said. "Surprise me!"

He grinned cheekily. "I want you to give the ring back to me. I'm going to make it magic, so when you get it back you have to keep it forever. OK?"

Lena laughed and dutifully handed over the smooth band of gold.

"Make sure she doesn't look, Mum," Ben ordered, as he ran off behind them. Lena resisted the temptation to peek and minutes later he was back, appearing suddenly from behind the tree. "Close your eyes and hold out your hand," he commanded. Lena obeyed.

Nothing happened. Then, just as Lena was about to speak, a much deeper voice said "Marry me?"

Lena gasped, opening her eyes. Luke was kneeling in front of her, while Ben and Angela waved from the pond-side. She sat there, staring at the ring in her hand. Luke laughed.

"See? I'm not the only one who can be shocked speechless!" He kissed her wrinkled forehead. "Don't worry, darling. It's bad for our baby." He smiled and began to explain. "Ben's a great kid, isn't he? I met him about a month ago. Asked him about his boat. He thought I was after his Mum, so I told him all about you. Before I knew it I was telling him how much I love you and how long we've been together, even that I was scared to ask you to marry me!" Lena looked at Luke, tears welling in her eyes. "It's true. Remember our agreement, when you first moved in? I promised not to tie you down before you were ready. When you said you were pregnant, all I could think was that you blamed me for ruining your life. Ben didn't know about that, but once he met you he told me to stop being so silly and just ask you! You see, while he was talking to you he noticed me lurking in the background making sure you were safe, so he just put two and two together."

"He's a bright kid." Lena said, still too stunned to think clearly.

"He sure is. He even gave us a magic ring!" Lena looked dubious and Luke reassured her. "Didn't I tell you not to worry? Ben overheard his mother telling you its history. He keeps a very close eye on her, you know? Anyway, Ben's already threatened me. If I ever hurt you, he'll never speak to me again, and when a seven-year-old says that you know he means it!"

He was staring at her so seriously that Lena started to giggle. Luke put his arms around her and together they collapsed in howling laughter. Suddenly Lena stopped and started searching the grass beside her.

"What is it?" Luke asked.

"The ring!" Lena gasped. "I dropped the ring!" She stood up to shake her skirt and the ring fell from its folds. Luke pounced on it.

"Well?" he asked. "What do we do now? You still haven't said if you'll have me!"

Lena started to laugh again. "Silly! Put that ring on my finger before you drop it again. I'm not taking any more chances." Luke slid the ring on her finger.

"This is just a place holder," he said. "I'll get you one of your very own for the wedding."

Lena shook her head. "No, I'll stick with this one, if you don't mind. It might bring us luck. If our baby turns out anything like Ben, I'll be perfectly happy. So long as you don't behave like Ben's father, that is."

Luke took her hand in his, running his fingers over the ring. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "And risk the combined wrath of you AND Ben? No-one's that brave." At that moment, the noisy minors which Lena had argued with earlier returned, and began bombarding the pair with ripe figs and other less pleasant projectiles. Running hand in hand from beneath the tree, Lena couldn't help wondering whether they'd be able to as good a job as Angela, even if they did manage to stay together. Then she pushed the thought to the back of her mind and wholeheartedly joined in Luke's laughter.

Paper Bag Stories: 1-5
Paper Bag Stories: 6-10
~ Paper Bag Stories: 11-12

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