Fiction Month has Arrived!

November is Fiction Month on Anecdotage, where a selection of my latest short stories are showcased free in honour of Novel Writing Month, the onset of Winter and longer, darker evenings. Just the opportunity to curl up and have a read.

Story 1 is a gently dark tale for Halloween:

The Uninvited Guest

            How many there are! The only space remains here at the back, near the door. I’d have chosen to sit here anyway, since I am less likely to be spotted and can make a swift exit whenever I choose.

Who selected this music, I wonder? It makes me realise how little we know those who are closest to us. I wouldn’t have opted for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It is far too gloomy. ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ would have been a more cheerful opener-and more appropriate, of course.

Ah-someone is closing the door. The service must be about to begin. And there is someone approaching the podium, the woman they’ve chosen to officiate. She’s Pastor Mona Chesterton, according to the programme. They’ve got that correct, at least; getting a woman to do it.

I can just about see the casket from here, between the heads of those in front. I’m hoping it’s cardboard, sustainable and eco-friendly; only one spray of flowers so they must have asked for donations instead.

Pastor Mona has asked Val to take the stand. She’s going to read a poem. Ha! This will be interesting! Although I love my sister Val, she isn’t the most literary of people. I think her reading material consists mainly of ‘Hello’ magazine and the Daily Mail so she’ll have had to Google funeral poetry or ask someone for a suggestion. Yes. Just as I thought: ‘Stop All the Clocks’. She’d have remembered it from ‘Four Weddings’. When it comes to Auden I’ve always thought ‘Tell me the Truth about Love’ was one of his best. She must have practised reading the poem but she’s made the classic mistake of reading too fast. I notice she’s sat herself next to Stan, close enough for their arms to be touching and a little too close for mere comfort. I suppose she’s got what she wanted now, hasn’t she? Good luck to them is what I think.

Stan isn’t going to say anything. That’s wise of him. The hollow echo of his words would be magnified in this cavernous building with its barrel-vaulted ceiling.

They’re all standing to sing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. What a cliché! The singing is a bit weedy, as if they are a load of drunks at four o’clock in the morning, which is disappointing. I’d have liked some gusto, a rousing chorus of enthusiastic mourners.

Ah, here are James and Becca, together, for moral support, perhaps? They’ve got scruffy pieces of paper. I suppose James has scribbled something on the way here, which is his normal approach to any task. Becca looks pale but dignified and I expect she’d be delighted to be described so. They are a handsome pair of young adults, considering the genes they’d have been handed. I’ve enjoyed hearing their childhood memories but I was startled by their choices. Camping? When was that? Perhaps they went with Aunty Val…

Pastor Mona is summing up now, with the platitudes used by those who never knew the deceased. She’s asked everyone to stand for the final hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, which will be appropriate for Stan and Val, at least, as the carton begins to slide away behind the blood red curtain.

It’s time for me to leave so I’ll slip out during this dirge of a hymn. I’m glad I came but happier still to be outside in the fresh air of this April afternoon.

I know what you did, Stan and Val. They say revenge is best served cold and cold is my future now. I’m going to extract a great deal of entertainment from watching your regrets as I occupy your dreams and loiter around your shared bed disturbing your recreation.

I feel a new spring in my step and a soaring joy to be away now. You’re a long time gone. Can’t wait to get started…




Where is Your Threshold?

At a party last January a fellow guest, on asking if I was retired wanted to know how I ‘filled my days’. Fill my days? I found this question startling, for my concern is not ‘filling days’ but rather, how to cling on to each day ‘Carpe Diem’ fashion when there are to be less and less of them.

But it is true that many fear retirement for the boredom that may ensue. Most ‘take up’ activities, golf, good works or learning something. You hear stories of failing marriages as couples get under each other’s feet when precipitated into close proximity for so much of the time.

The Offspring are fond of recalling well-known phrases and sayings from their childhood that seem to have been uttered by their mother with monotonous regularity. Among these is ‘I wish I had time to be bored’-my retort to any complaints regarding ennui they may have had. And I did wish it. With a full-time teaching post, two small children and a house to renovate I did fantasise about having the time to play solitaire, file my nails or watch the gloss drying on the skirting boards.

The fact is, as a generation I think we were taught as children to tolerate boredom. I have early memories of rising on Sunday mornings, polishing my shoes and traipsing down through the village with my brothers to Sunday School. I realise now, of course that this was no more than a cunning ruse on the part of my parents, who felt no need to accompany us, to snatch a sneaky child-free hour or two. Sunday School was deadly dull and set the bar for Church, which ensued when we became too old for Bible stories in the vestry.

Church services were a masterclass in boredom. What was there to do, once you’d scrutinised your fellow worshippers, found the hymns in the book, fiddled with the tassels on the hassock, shredded the sweet wrapper in your pocket?

School assemblies came close and were exacerbated by the excruciating discomfort of sitting for aeons on a cold, hard floor. But the boredom they provided amounted to a theme park ride compared to the crushing tedium that was ‘Speech Day’-thankfully only once a year, but a feast for connoisseurs of monotony.

School lessons themselves seemed to have been planned with boredom in mind. A gowned teacher would appear in the room, at which we would stand up; they would mount a small podium and sit, at which we would sit. They would open a file and read ‘notes’ from it, demanding that we, the unhappy, captive addressees would write it all down in our ‘rough’ books. What an impressive frittering of time it all was! Compare this method to teaching strategies of today, where teachers must compete with screens, swing from chandeliers, use fancy dress or formulate elaborate scenes to grab children’s attention!

That today’s preoccupation with saving children from boredom is laudable is in no doubt-nevertheless I, personally have never found the occupation of time to be a problem, so maybe it was all that early training?

Celebrating a Long and Well Lived Life

There is no other life event that compares to a funeral. You expect weddings to be picture book pretty, baby-naming to be joyful, divorce to be bitter and embattled, but a funeral can be any or all of these things and more besides, depending on your relationship to the deceased.

Last week I went to my cousin, Gordon’s funeral. He’d reached the grand age of 92 and was the son of my eldest uncle. Like many families of the age, my father’s family was and is an enormous, village tribe consisting of so many branches I’ve lost track of who everyone is and how they are related to me. Being the youngest of seven my father was uncle to Gordon at an almost identical age, prompting my grandfather [who died before my birth] to use ‘Uncle’ as his nickname.

Gordon’s funeral was held at the church in the village of my birth, a tiny, country church in a beautiful, picturesque setting, bathed in the glow of the May sunshine. The small building was packed, as it was for my father’s funeral five years before. My brother and I were directed towards the front pews. Would we know anyone? We are from the family that ‘got away’-my father having left the village with us to take up employment in another part of the country, hence contact with the many aunts, uncles and cousins has been sporadic and increasingly rare.

We made our way up the aisle, aware that curious looks were pursuing us. The lack of familiarity was mutual. I stopped by the first pew with some space. The occupants turned their faces to me, the fleeting blankness eclipsed by impulsive wide grins of recognition. These are two of my best remembered cousins; my recollections of them ingrained as glamorous, fifties belles in stiff, circular skirts, heels and beehive hairdos. They stood to hug us as we all exclaimed our pleasure at meeting.

Of my grandfather’s four sons, my father was alone in pursuing a career away from greengrocery, and Gordon had continued the fruit and vegetable business his father [Edgar] ran. His coffin was born past us adorned with a riotous profusion of flowers, fruit and vegetables, including bright bunches of carrots, vibrant spears of broccoli and large, emerald cabbage leaves. What more life-affirming sight could there be than a mountain of freshly picked plants?

I have attended a variety of funerals during my life; some consisting of no more than six attendees, sad affairs that make you glad, at least that the deceased was not present to witness such a poor turnout. Gordon was a gentle, amenable man, affording to everyone he met the same smiling courtesy and kindness and nobody would have been more proud and delighted to have seen the crammed church, the smiles of recognition and the pleasure we all took in re-acquaintance.

Hymns sung and thoughts sent, we all gathered in the village community centre for tea, cake and recollection.

For those closest to Gordon it was of course an unutterably sad event but there must be an element of comfort to be gained from reflecting on what turned out to be a cheerful and celebratory occasion.

Worldly Troubles? I blame God…

                When my brothers and I were small children we were sent to Sunday school. We would begin on Sunday mornings by undertaking a thorough cleaning of our shoes [in my case it was most likely Clarks sandals with the cut out flower in the toe] then have to walk down through the village to the church and into a small section of the vestry where we would listen to Bible stories and sing along to a hymn:

                ‘Jesus bids us shine with a steadfast light

                Like a little candle burning in the night

                In this world of darkness we can shine

                You in your small corner

                And I in mine’

was a favourite.

                The best part of Sunday school was the stamp, gravely distributed and stuck on to a card as proof of attendance.

                My parents did not accompany us to these privileged gatherings, preferring to stay at home and enjoy the Sunday morning free of us-and who can blame them? My father was, in those days an occasional Church goer. But my mother was an unabashed, self-confessed atheist- brought up a Catholic, schooled in convents where [allegedly] she was beaten with a rubber slipper, until all vestige of religious belief was truly eradicated.

                Having learned at Sunday school that life after death was a trip to heavenly paradise I would sit on my mother’s lap and seek reassurance from her that this was assuredly the case, only to be told that death was ‘like a candle being snuffed out’. There was that candle theme again.

                The hypocrisy of sending us to Sunday school whilst admitting died-in-the-wool atheism appeared to present no qualms for my mother. Presumably the opportunity to off load us for a morning was compelling enough to overcome them. In any case my father put in a sporadic appearance at church at that time.

                Some years later, long after I’d begun to acquire my own lack of belief an aunt wrote to tell me it was time for me to become ‘confirmed’-an undertaking I took very little time to decide upon. I wrote back [extraordinarily politely for a mardy teenager] explaining that I didn’t know if I wanted to be a member of the Church of England-or indeed any church, come to that.

                Later still, when my own children came into being there was pressure from family members to have them christened, as I had been. I held out. They might want to be Buddhists, Hindus or atheists. Who was I to choose a religion for them?- And if I did, what was to stop them from rebelling, as all self respecting teenagers should?

                Because that is what I find baffling about indoctrination. Yes, small children are little sponges who soak up knowledge, skills or gobbledegook indiscriminately, only to rage against everything they’ve been taught as soon as a hormone raises its head above the window sill. So how come fervent devotion to religion is still rampant in the world, causing mayhem, war and suffering? And what ‘God’ would allow it all to happen?