Jemima has made it to the end of the season, but only just.
‘I was sure we’d get at least three years out of her,’ Jen says, as I muck out the shed we call a stable.
I put this misplaced optimism down to Jemima’s acquiescence. For a donkey she is not prone to mood swings – what you ask her to do, she does, if slowly and arthritically.
It’s fair to say she has borne a heavy load since Jen acquired her in the spring. Apart from the weight of the local children, few of whom are underfed, there’s been the burden of Jen’s expectation, to which I myself have been no stranger in the two years since we became an item.
In Jen’s mind, Jemima was to be our conduit into the previously impenetrable life of the local community. Staunch as her efforts were, her success was limited. Each day, unsaddled and led sometimes by Jen, but mainly by me, she clopped up and down the sparse, unwelcoming sands across from our seafront house. The locals came, they brought their children, they parted wordlessly with a grudging pound – then, ride completed, went away. Towards the end of the season Jemima’s rear legs ceased to coordinate under load, and she is now an elderly and time consuming pet.
For Jen, however, setbacks are merely springboards to opportunity.
‘I’m a self-starter,’ she said, shortly after we were abandoned by the other members of the ‘collective of like-minded people’, who moved in (then swiftly moved out) of the derelict shell that became our home. Now, though owing much to Charleston Farmhouse with a dash of Gandhi’s ashram, Jen has rebuilt it in her own image. And it is habitable.
With the restoration of our home complete, our thoughts have turned to other forms of survival. Once it was obvious that Jemima had heehawed from the credit to the debit column, Jen applied for a part-time job in the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau. Her client-centred, solution-focussed approach now infiltrates most of our waking hours.
‘Are you sure your role extends to marriage guidance?’ I ask in innocence one evening, after she has spent an hour describing the interpersonal dynamics of her latest client’s life.
Jen stares at me in disbelief.
‘To heal you must become whole,’ she explains, as if to a turnip. ‘Life isn’t just about Council Tax.’
I nod and say nothing. Jen’s vision has always been broader than mine.
I observe my relief when she decides to teach yoga one evening a week. Spring is yet to arrive and the church hall she has hired is damp and drafty, but her classes are proving surprisingly popular, with women of a certain age and men of a definite vintage flocking in.
‘Their last teacher moved further down the coast,’ Jen explains to me, early on.
Others might think this ominous, but Jen does not believe in omens. Soon though, I hear her muttering as she rinses her leotard.
‘I’ve seen more flexible ironing boards,’ she intones, with bitterness, to the sink. ‘And as soon as I start the relaxation they fall asleep.’
Self-belief might be Jen’s default, but she can also feel underappreciated.
I meanwhile, in the absence of other possibilities, have taken up busking. On overcast mornings I stand alone and unamplified in the town square, adjacent to the cultural hub that is the local Tesco, trying to imagine I’m Mississippi John Hurt.
‘Nobody listens to thirties rural blues in this day and age,’ Jen advises me later, as I drop a meagre palmful of coins on the table. ‘But perhaps if I come with you…’
I don’t think of myself as a jealous person, but find it painful to admit that Jen’s ability to engage a crowd exceeds mine by about three hundred percent. Her voice, when she so chooses, is indistinguishable from that of Memphis Minnie, her harmonica sound from that of Sonny Terry. Standing at just over five feet tall in her flip-flops and crop top she effortlessly galvanises the local shoppers into generosity.
‘You have to make the effort to project,’ she explains to me later, not unkindly.
But soon a chill wind blows from the advice bureau. It would seem Jen’s professional involvement with the concerns of others has not been entirely consistent with her job description.
‘They don’t want creativity, they want time servers,’ she laments, as we sit together over a debriefing coffee.
‘It was tactless of the manager to offer to pay your notice if you agreed to leave immediately,’ I suggest.
With Jen, you’re never unsure when you’ve said the wrong thing.
‘Tactless bordering on bloody criminal,’ she yells.
‘I’ll make us pasta tonight,’ I mumble to her back, just as the door slams after her.
But with Jen a dark mood is but the passing of a rain cloud. Summer, she assures me, is the time of fresh beginnings. She has taken an online course in kite making, and sits at the kitchen table constructing tiny frames of dowel and balsa wood, stretched with brightly coloured painter’s cloth.
‘It’s like making miniature shoji screens,’ she tells me, her face absorbed, her fingers busy.
First batch completed, she sets up a stall on the beach. There’s a certain panache in the way she flings one of her ‘bijou aerobats’ to the wind, then manipulates its flight with supple wrists.
‘I used to fly kites on the Downs as a kid,’ she explains, when I comment.
The sight of Jen’s aerobat pirouetting on the sea breeze has immediate effect. Kids tug their mothers’ arms while old men look on wistfully. Sales prove brisk, and in response to discussions about technique Jen offers group tutoring at a reasonable rate. Mothers guide their daughters’ hands and fathers tag along with their sons, as local defence mechanisms start to crumble.
I knew they couldn’t hold out for ever,’ Jen tells me, matter-of-factly.
Lacking Jen’s powers of self-reinvention I tart up my CV yet again and address it to a company I know nothing about. They are seeking versatile people with initiative, they say. When I press the send button it feels like leaving an orphan on a doorstep. I decide to start a vegetable patch to preserve my self-esteem.
As the year lengthens into autumn, I take to sharing my morning thoughts with Jemima. She is a ruminative animal, in more than one sense. We stand together in the small field in front of her stable, and I explain that the future is not entirely without hope, while she grazes, and offers me the occasional solicitous glance. In moments of extreme empathy she stops chewing and rubs her muzzle against my thigh. She knows I have taken to filling my trouser pocket with oats. It is a secret we choose not to share.
Meet the Author!
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have been nominated for Best of Net and the Pushcart Prize, listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50), and included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, ‘The Violet Eye’, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. A collection of mainly new stories is being prepared for publication by Confingo Publishing in 2023.