Turn, Turn, Turn by Bruce Costello

An ageing grandmother meets an old physics teacher who helps her to reframe her problems; by Bruce Costello.

"To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season..." my mother hums in her hospice bed, mind and memory very much alive.

"Remember us singing that in the old Wolseley, Paula?" she says. "It's okay to be old and dying. Old people know they've had long lives. Young people never know when they'll be struck down. You have to make the most of now."

I was going to tell her Derek's drinking again, there's another hole in the kitchen wall and these bruises aren't from banging into a door - but what's the point?

Her fingertips glide over the bruise on my wrist.

"He's a lost cause," she says. "Life's too short. Find someone better."

I know she's right, but time's running out. Of course I'd like to find a man to love me! But after all this, I couldn't cope with that.

Funny, isn't it? Life's such a scream.

My three year old grandson Billy's eyes light up when I hand him a new packet of plasticine modelling clay with its rainbow coloured strips glistening under cellophane.

I take him to the beach. We sit and watch families at play.

Overhead, seagulls twirl high against a hazy sky. There's a crimson-hued halo around the sun and the air is sultry. Clouds are forming in the distance.

"Yeh!" Billy cries, spotting some children abandoning a seesaw. He jumps off my knee, grabs my hand and pulls me over to it.

I stand at one end and bounce him up and down until sweat trickles down my make-up. Billy squeals with glee, his little legs kicking the air, as if riding a horse.

"It's easier if you actually sit on it nearer the fulcrum," calls out a grey haired man with a little girl, claiming the other seesaw.

"The what?"

"The fulcrum. The pivot. The middle!"

He shows me and we start to chat. His name is David, his granddaughter is Cherie. He makes me laugh by suggesting we leave our grandchildren to one seesaw, and take over the other. I'm not used to enjoying myself, and after a while think up an excuse to leave.

The humidity is oppressive as David and Cherie walk with us to the car park. David's Mazda is next to my old Laser.

"Nice car," I say. "Looks brand new!"

My eyes are attracted to the M emblem, its stylised wings glinting in the sun, like a bird flying to a distant shore.

I feel faint and begin to sway. David takes me to a bench seat, beside the lagoon that feeds into the sea. Families from the camping ground play in the sand, paddle canoes, swim and splash each other. Dogs chase sticks and boys skip stones.

The sun dances across the rippling surface. I shade my eyes.

"Can I drive you to a doctor?"

"I'm just tired, and can't handle the heat," I answer, then blurt out: "My mother's dying. My husband's a violent drunk. And me, nearly 60, stuck in ground hog day!"

I begin to cry - quietly, so the children don't notice. David opens a bag and hands Cherie a loaf of stale bread for the children to feed the ducks.

"Stuck," he mutters, as he pulls a folded handkerchief from his shirt pocket and hands it to me. "Inertia: the tendency of unmoving objects to remain stationary."

I look at his face.

"Before attempting to overcome an object's inertia, first check its centre of gravity," he says, then slaps himself on the cheek. "Sorry, I've just retired from thirty years as a physics teacher. Spending too much time alone."

His eyes are grey and kind.

"No, please go on," I reply.

"Without equilibrium, an object is at risk of toppling when its inertia is broken."

"I know about toppling."

"And, invariably," he mutters, "if an object lacks internal power, it needs an outside force to break its inertia."

I nod.

Billy and Cherie come running up, tumbling over each other and laughing, as they're pursued by a flock of waddling ducks led by a fat white goose.

David hands them more bread and they dash off, calling the birds to follow.

The glare off the water is less intense now as I turn to him and ask: "What about an outside force that strikes from within?"

He gazes at me, one eyebrow raised.

I take a deep breath. "Cancer," I whisper. "It's three days now since I got the diagnosis. I'm due to start radiotherapy in a week. You're the first person I've told."

David leans in.

"At my age," I hear myself saying, "I'm not afraid of dying but of not having lived."

Words start to tumble from my lips, like marbles from a bag. David says little, but listens.

Eventually, the children get tired and grizzly - time to deliver them back to their parents.

"I bring Cherie here most fine days," David calls out the window, as he starts his car.

"Perfect symmetry," David says, a fortnight later. Gliding along in his blue Mazda, smooth as a cloud, we're on our way to a seaside cafe.

I'm thinking about Billy, and wondering if he's ready for a little paint set. When I visited this morning, he was in tears. His pretty plasticine colours had mixed into a blob the colour of poo.

It's warm in the Mazda. The soft seat embraces me. The aroma of leather evokes another car, another day... a maroon Wolseley, Mum and Dad up front, singing. Then the beach at last! Dad's deep voice: "Look, Paula, there's the sea. Give it a wave." And Mum's golden laughter.

David's voice breaks into my reverie: "The best thing to do for others is to look after yourself..."

We pull into a rest area. He turns to me.

"Funny thing, life," he murmurs. "After coming into it head first, we each don't have long to find our equilibrium before we're wheeled out feet first."

"A time to take stock," he whispers, leans across, and kisses me lightly on the forehead.

The sound of The Byrds flows around us in eight speaker stereo.


  1. A gentle, wistful story of the connections between people, in the past and in the present, in spite of horrible realities. It avoids the cliche of an 'happy ever after' ending but is permeated with hope and affection. Thanks,

  2. An elegantly constructed piece. The physics of turn, turn, turn remind the reader in an non-didactic way that life is about chance and coincidence within the general laws of relativity. As Ceinwen astutely points out a happy ending doesn't actually appear on the page, this story could go anywhere now.
    B r o o k e

  3. It's a wonderful story reminding us about time and purpose. Yes, those of us of a certain age don't worry about dying young, so other concerns creep in. A beautiful day and a ray of hope make for an excellent read. I loved it!

  4. Physics and Ecclesiastes and the sea--a perfect combination.

  5. Great post. Really enjoyed while reading. All credit goes to Author