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…

 

 

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Fiction Month: Renaissance.

      Fiction month concludes today with an extra story-dedicated to anyone who, like myself was a child of the fifties when television was in its infancy and children’s programmes reflected the times. This was an era that pre-dated political correctness, colour TV, children’s presenters and all that ensued and for all its crude presentation held a kind of naive innocence. One of my own childhood favourites was ‘The Woodentops’ which first aired in 1955. To view a sample, visit youtube.

Renaissance

                She stirs. Her eyelids part in a narrow slit although it is still dark. What has woken her? She shudders and feels a sharp intrusive dig on her left side, wedged as she is between two others.  There it is again; a blow to her ribs. Her eyelids widen as she gasps, feeling around with her right hand for the offending weapon. An elbow.

‘Jenny!’

She stiffens. ‘Get off me! What are you doing?’ Her small, high voice is thick and slurred from under-use.

‘There’s someone out there. I can hear sounds-steps. Listen.’

Jenny groans. ‘Leave me alone, Will. I’m asleep.’

‘You’re not asleep. You are talking to me.’

She lifts her head as far as the space will allow. In the oppressive darkness of their space there are rhythmic snores amid the sighing breaths and snuffles of sleep as well as an occasional whimpering yap from the dog as he dreams of biscuits and buried bones.

‘There!’

She feels her brother’s hissing breath as the sound of steps approaching and receding invades her consciousness. In the gloom she knows he is listening too just as she knows everything he is thinking. After a moment a thin strip of light appears below them along the floor. She takes in a sharp breath and needs to cough but stifles it, reaching instead for her twin’s hand. There is an abrupt rattle as the door knob is twisted which prompts rousing from the others and whimpering from the baby, who threatens to howl.

‘Did you hear the voices?’ Jenny can feel Will trembling. The dog is stirring, a low growl heralding what could become a tirade of barking.

‘Don’t panic. I’ve got him.’ It is their father who has wrapped a restraining hand around the dog’s muzzle.

They are all awake now and straining to hear. The footsteps have disappeared but the light remains. Jenny frowns, trying to think how long they’ve been here and what prompted them to have been banished to this dark, musty cell. She can remember someone saying they should be kept as she was brought in but none of them knew what they did to be banished and hidden away like pariahs. If the footsteps return they might find out. She allows herself to hope.

She tries to stretch her limbs but in doing so elicits an outraged ‘Oy! Watch yourself!’’ from Sam who is squeezed next to her other side.

Mrs Scrubitt’s voice is tremulous as she utters, voicing all their thoughts into the half- light. “What are they going to do with us? They might be having a clear-out, like. Will they be…doing away with us, do you think?’

Jenny trembles. Sam’s mum is right. They could be cast into a bin somewhere or thrown on to a bonfire. Mummy intervenes. ‘There’s no use in worrying what’ll happen. What will be, will be. Whatever they do we’ll be all together, like always.’

They are startled into silence then as the footsteps return, more this time. There are voices at the door and they hear a key in the lock. The door opens, deluging their small closet with blinding light, forcing them to wince and squint at the unaccustomed brightness.

Jenny swallows and lifts her chin as they prepare to face whatever fate awaits them. A large face looms into hers and she shrinks back into a space she does not have. There are two of them scrutinising, exclaiming.

‘Take care! They’re very old, you know-nearly seventy years!’ The voice booms like a fog-horn in the little cupboard until Jenny’s ears feel like exploding balloons.

‘They’re in good shape though!’ The second voice is softer. After a moment a warm, scooping hand envelops her and she is off the shelf, travelling outside the safety of the cubby-hole and along a bright, white corridor. She closes her eyes as the glare prompts tears to stream down her face. Then she is in a large room, comforted to be sitting on a surface she recognises as wood and mummy and baby are placed next to her.

The two giants discuss them. ‘Of course, if we’re going to remake it there will need to be changes. The show was made before political correctness was thought of.’

The other one chuckles. ‘Yes of course. We can’t have a Mrs Scrubitt and we’ll need to address the nuclear family issue. Plus the fact that they are all white, fully-abled and middle class.’

Jenny glances across at Mrs Scrubitt whose face has become an unnerving, chalky white and whose mouth is open in a silent cry.

‘I’m not so sure that they were middle class. He is a farmer.’

‘Yes but Mum doesn’t go out to work and they can afford to employ servants.’

‘OK. Well maybe we can use Mrs Scrubitt as extended family and Mum can be a farm worker, too? And how about giving one of the twins a disability? I don’t know about Sam Scrubitt though. There may not be a role for him.’

Jenny and Will exchange a stricken look as Mrs Scrubitt claps a terrified hand over her mouth.

 

Four months later they are on set. Jenny has become adept at the sign language she must use to communicate with her twin, they have all learned to call Mrs Scrubitt ‘Grandma’, Mum has had a new wardrobe consisting of overalls, has got the hang of the power tools she must use and they’ve all adjusted to their new, ebony colour as well as remembering to call Sam, who’s been given some exuberant dreadlocks, ‘Denzil’.

Fiction Month. ‘The Courtyard Pest’ [Part 2]

               Nancy has heard enough from Jeffery and takes an escape route. Will she be able to integrate into her new community and can it offer her any of the comfort and friendship she misses?  Part 1 of this story can be found in last Sunday’s’s post on ‘Anecdotage’

The Courtyard Pest

Part 2

               Having had to demonstrate her intention by leaving the flat, she wanders along the High Street and turns down the lane leading to the library. There may be a noticeboard showing local events, groups and activities or at least someone who could point her in the right direction. The building is new with lots of internal glass. She spots a small, neat, grey woman like herself wearing a navy raincoat and realises it is herself, reflected in a rotating door.

The vast space is decorated in garish lime greens and scarlets. At a circular desk she has to wait as one librarian is attending to a young woman with a foreign accent and another is talking on the phone.

At last she is directed across to an area designated ‘local information’ where there are brochures, wall maps and a noticeboard advertising special interest groups and activities. She reads each flyer. There is a cycling club, meeting each Sunday morning at seven, a ‘knit and natter’ group in a church hall on Monday afternoons, there is the WI, the University of the Third Age and Psychic evenings. On a low table is a file labelled ‘cultural events’ and she bends to begin flipping through but is interrupted by a commotion around the reception desk.

Nancy straightens to peer around a bookcase and sees a figure in a beige waistcoat gesticulating at the librarian, who is responding by adopting a decidedly non-library tone and pointing in the direction of the exit doors.

“Mr Marsh, as I’ve said before we cannot stock every periodical and the library is run according to local authority guidelines. Now I’m sorry but unless and until you are able to follow our code of conduct I am going to have to ask you to leave the building and you may be barred from entering the premises in future.”

Her neighbour doesn’t spot her as he is escorted out of the exit doors. She sits down to look through the file of cultural societies, noting one or two phone numbers down then waits ten minutes before she leaves to avoid bumping into him.

She has walked twenty five yards before a dizzy spell threatens to topple her and she stops by a bus stop, clutching the side of the shelter until it has passed, then perching on the narrow plastic bench inside. A bus pulls up, disgorging several passengers; the driver leaning forward to see if she’s getting on. She shakes her head and takes a few deep breaths as the doors wheeze closed.

 

Back in the flat she feels jittery and unsettled. Perhaps getting on with her unpacking will help. But when she leans down from her bed to get a box out from underneath the dizziness descends like a fog and she sits back up, closes her eyes and sinks on to the pillows. A deluge of jumbled images gushes in to a background of piercing squeaks which rise to a crescendo, at which point her eyes fly open and she is aware of the door bell ringing with an insistent, lengthy clang.

“I didn’t know if you were in.” There is an element of reproach in his frown. “I thought I’d better let you know I’ve put some rat poison down in the alley. In case you go out that way. Let me know if you see anything, won’t you?”

It takes Nancy a moment to gather her thoughts. “Yes. Thank you. I will”.

He clears his throat. “Can I interest you in an early evening glass of wine? Over at my place?”

She pulls the edges of her cardigan together, aware that she is dishevelled from sleep. “Just a small one” he continues and she can think of no excuse to refuse. She keeps him at the door while she slips her shoes on and fetches her bag and keys. “All secure?” he asks, as she locks the door.

His flat is as different from hers as an identical design could be, the surfaces crammed with objects, odd-shaped stones, pieces of wood, metal parts of things; the walls clad in pictures, photos, mirrors and hangings. It feels claustrophobic, as if the entire space is closing in on her. She murmurs ‘thanks’ as he hands her a glass, watching as she takes a cautious sip. “Know your wines?” he asks, “Where do you think that one’s from?”

Tempted to say ‘Tesco’ she perches on the edge of a sagging sofa covered in piles of magazines and shakes her head. He grins, holding his glass up to an imaginary light. “Algeria! You wouldn’t know, would you? A friend brought it back from a trip for me. I love the stuff.” He places his glass on the edge of a shelf, snatches up an object from the coffee table and offers it to her. “What do think this is? Any ideas?” She turns the small, circular, metallic item in her hand. It has an opening with a serrated edge like tiny, sharp teeth

“A nut-cracker?”

He chuckles. “It’s a pepper grinder. African. I bet you’ve never seen one like that before!”

She clears her throat. “I must go, Jeffery. I have some calls to make. Thank you for the wine.”

“You haven’t finished it!”

“No. It’s very nice. But I’m not much of a drinker. It goes straight to my head I’m afraid”. She picks up her bag. He continues to stand, tilting the glass up to drain it then twirling the stem as he watches her.

Back in her flat Nancy makes some tea and takes it into the sitting room. She finds the numbers she wrote down in the library. As she picks up the phone she is distracted by a sound. She sits still and concentrates. There! A scraping, grinding sound, like a pot sliding along on the slabs of the courtyard. Jeffery told her if the rats got into the yard they might dig up the bulbs. She goes to the patio door and pulls a curtain back, peering along the shaft of light that’s been cast. But there is nothing other than the pots standing motionless in their places.     A rat, however large would not be strong enough to move a large, terracotta pot full of earth. The sound must have come from something in the alley; someone trundling something along there, perhaps. She picks up the phone again.

It is two twenty three when she wakes, having fallen asleep thinking about her telephone conversation with Rebecca Fripp, of the local amateur dramatic society. Rebecca’s response to Nancy’s enquiry had been Luke-warm, as if she’d be doing her a favour by allowing her to attend a rehearsal. But they always needed ‘front-of-house’ help, she’d said, even though Nancy’d explained about her experience in set design. Once she is awake, she is unable to drift off again and thinks that perhaps she should get up and make tea. She stretches out her hand to the light and there! There is the sound: scrape. Outside the windows.

She freezes, stomach churning, her skin prickly; but forces her feet to the floor; tiptoes through to the kitchen. She takes her time in the half light, pulling open a cupboard door to withdraw a heavy pan with a long handle. She breathes in long, slow pulls like an automaton. She returns to the living room, pan held to her side in one hand and uses a finger to create a slit of light in the long curtains.

A wind has got up, stirring the trees over the alleyway and chasing leaves around the small yard; but there is also a dark, rounded shape moving around the pots. Nancy grips the pan handle and uses her other hand to inch the patio door open. The swishing breeze is louder as she steps outside, flattening her nightie against her legs. She searches for the shape then spots it-moving from behind one pot to another. In two paces she is there. She pulls her arm back straight like a forehand smash and swings hard at the shape. Crunch! The contact is sickening, jarring her arm as she stumbles. The shape topples and she drops her weapon. She takes a step forward to look but the foot gives way, sliding and she falls to her knees in the wetness, confused. There has been no rain so why is there a puddle? Reaching out she feels fur, wetly sticky; then she is swaying, sinking as the fog descends.

 

She is dressed and in the chair when Sarah arrives. “Ready, Mum?”

Got your tablets and everything?”

Nancy nods. She stares at her daughter, eyes wide. She swallows. “Sarah-I can’t, I don’t…”

“Shh-Mum it’s ok. You don’t have to go back to the flat. Danny and I have packed all of your stuff. You can take a case with you today and the rest will follow.”

“How…how is he?”

“He’s doing alright, Mum. He’s a tough old boy. His skull has a small fracture but it will heal. He doesn’t blame you. He’s an idiot to have been there in the middle of the night! ‘Checking the rat bate’, apparently.

A solitary tear rolls down her mother’s face. “I’ve caused so much harm. I’m so sorry”

Sarah takes her hand. “No, Mum. I’m the one who should be sorry. I should never have nagged you to come. Now we must go or we’ll be late.”

Nancy stands and accepts her daughter’s supporting arm. In the car she sinks back, closing her eyes to picture Meg’s sparkly eyes and the way specks of scarlet lipstick are visible on her teeth when she grins. “You don’t have to downsize, dear” her friend had told her, sitting by the hospital bed. “Just come back and live at my place. We can look after each other, can’t we? And you can come back to The Nettlehide Players, where you belong.”

Nancy had nodded, feeling relief course through her like a transfusion. Of course. It was all anyone wanted or needed. To belong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Month 2016.

This week marks the start of Fiction Month on Anecdotage. In this first, dark story two very different daughters attend a celebration of their father’s life-only to find that his young widow is absent. But where on Earth can she be?

The Crackling Feast [Part 1]

                Who are all these people? Alex squints into the still bright glare of the late afternoon sun as she tries to identify someone-anyone amongst the chattering guests. She watches them standing around on the paths and the lawn, glasses in hand, appearing and disappearing in the intermittent billowing smoke. This disconnect must come from living at the opposite end of the country and having become an infrequent visitor.

“He knew a lot of folks, your dad. He was involved in everything, you know; amateur dramatics, music society, history society, Scouts, gardening club, church council…”

“I know.” She cuts him off. It is Reg, her father’s old scouting friend. He is bent and frail, the hand enclosing his supporting cane wrinkled and liver spotted. His voice has grown tremulous.

“He was generous with his time and his money. Look at all this! Even at the end he made sure that everyone he knew could have a get together and have a good time. But Jacintha’s not here. I find that odd, don’t you? Do you know why she chose not to attend?”

Alex turns from the photos she’s been inspecting, the visual archive of her father’s life. She’s in some of them, a grinning toddler wielding a beach bucket or sitting squarely with a large dog. There’s one of them all together; she and Christina, their mother and father, posed against a backdrop of the Houses of Parliament.

“No. I’ve no idea why she isn’t here, Reg. Have you asked the solicitor?”

The old man shakes his head, shuffling away towards the bar and muttering. “It’s not my place to pry.”

Now her sister is making her way across the grass, clutching her wine glass, wrinkling her nose as a drift of smoke engulfs her. “Darling!” she drawls, kissing Alex on the cheek. “Good God-was that us?” She bends towards the photo, a slender vision of elegance in pale green shot silk. “Whose idea was it to have this ghastly hog thing? It’ll make everyone’s clothes smell like a bloody bonfire, not to mention greasy drips all over everything. I can’t believe Jacintha allowed it; she being such a rampant vegan and all that other hippy stuff.”

“Jacintha’s not here.”

“No, she isn’t, is she? There might be a God after all.”

Alex raises a brow at her sister. “She made Dad happy, Chrissie and looked after him when his health failed. You surely didn’t begrudge him some happiness in his last years.”

Christina straightens and takes a sip of dry, white wine. “I don’t begrudge him getting a wife younger than us. I do begrudge her taking our inheritance. I don’t know about you, darling but I could just do with a few grand at the moment.”

Alex sighs. “Divorce is expensive, you know that better than most.”

Her sister’s impudent grin is accentuated by the jaunty hat perched on the salon-perfect highlighted hair. “It is an essential, darling, not a luxury. Have you met Simon yet?”

Alex frowns. She must mean Simon Patterson, their father’s solicitor. How is Chrissie already on first name terms? Feeling an urge to escape the sibling she cannot relate to she leaves her with the photographs and wanders out towards the source of the smoke, where a rectangular metal box like a coffin revolves over a nest of coals. Here, intense heat has not deterred a throng of spectators all fascinated by the revolving steel casket. Upon each revolution an oblong window reveals a glimpse into the interior, where the russet skin has already wrinkled and cracked in glistening rivulets of fat, a plump carcass sizzling and spitting on its long skewer. The watchers murmur together in a shared commentary of greedy anticipation and disgust. “Mmm-smells wonderful, doesn’t it?” “How long until it’s ready?” “Not sure if I fancy it now”.

Alex stares, fascinated as the window comes around. Whatever body part is visible has not burnt enough to obliterate a dark blue shape like a stamp.

She leaves them to their ghoulish observations and returns to the house; the home that they grew up in, now customised by Jacintha’s enormous paintings, batiks, weavings, appliqués, pots, sculptures and installations. She’d been nothing if not prolific in her output, filling every wall, alcove, shelf, nook and cranny with her creations, eradicating every vestige of their mother in a sustained and vigorous onslaught; elimination by pottery. Alex climbs the stairs.  From the landing window she can see the carvery taking place below on a trestle table which is also laden with bread rolls, paper plates, bowls of salad and plastic boxes of apple sauce

In their marital bedroom she opens the door to an immense old oak wardrobe in which the profusion of Jacintha’s hand-dyed flowing skirts, shawls and dresses is barely contained and wonders where her father kept his clothes? A musty scent emanates from the clothing-faded perfume overlaid with hints of her skin. She’d been into anything alternative and believed that a rigorous regime of personal hygiene destroyed the body’s natural oils. Alex can remember the shock she and Chrissie had experienced on meeting her, almost ten years ago now. They hadn’t been prepared for their father to begin a new relationship, still less with a pierced, tattooed, dreadlocked artist wearing rainbow harem pants.

She is startled by her sister’s voice calling upstairs and returns to the landing to look down.

“There she is! We were looking for you darling! Come down and meet Simon.”

Alex makes a slow descent to shake the hand of a tall, angular man standing by her sister. He is a man who is accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle, judging by the sweep of his grey hair and his casual but expensive clothes. A pale blue cotton sweater is slung around his shoulders and his feet are bare inside designer deck shoes. “I own a classy yacht” the clothes say and the deep, tanned skin is a clue to where he sails it.

“I’m delighted to meet you”, he tells her, his voice deep, rich and aristocratic. Chrissie is wearing an expression Alex has seen before on too many occasions, like a child with the run of a sweet shop. “Come on Alex. Let’s all go and get some food. We should sit down or we won’t get a table. The firm that supplies these hog roasts is something else, you know. All their carcasses bear a trade mark. I saw it come in on the truck, proudly displaying a shield in blue ink on its rear end.”

She follows the two of them outside and over to the counter, where a queue has formed for rolls stuffed with hot, greasy pork, crisp crackling and sweet apple sauce. Next to them in the line a woman is also explaining to her companion that each hog carcass is etched with a code in some kind of hieroglyphics detailing the heritage of the pig, its lineage and place of birth. “It seems almost indecent, doesn’t it?” she laughs. “As if we were eating someone we’ve been introduced to!” Her friend is chuckling and Alex feels a slight nausea at the idea of the greasy meat topped with crisp, bubbly crackling. Ahead of her she can see Chrissie and Simon sharing a joke or an intimacy, her head tilted up towards his, her lips parted in a smile. The familiarity of this scene makes her weary. She breaks free of the queue and walks down to the end of the lawn to sit on a bench in the shade.

Read Part 2 of ‘The Crackling Feast’, the conclusion, next Sunday- 

Fiction Month-The Exchange [part 2]

Check last Sunday’s post for Part 1…

I ask Ava if she has any photos of Lucy and I am rewarded by her feverish, relieved smile as she replaces Matthew’s guilt-inducing image with that of her student daughter.

Plates of beer battered cod with potato wedges and mushy peas are delivered to a neighbouring table, momentarily distracting me with the waft of delicious, hot grease. It is what I would choose if I were lunching.

We three have less in common these days; now that our children have grown. Once, as young mothers meeting at the school gate, starved of adult company, we could never see enough of each other. When I look at them now I think how age is most cruel to the once beautiful; Beverley no longer the willowy, well healed style guru, Ava’s slender, elfin appeal grown brittle as a dried twig. Beverley didn’t understand Rob, she’d explained when justifying her adultery to me. He’d needed someone to talk to, someone to console him when things went wrong with the business. If I’d considered that she’d undertaken the consolation with a little too much enthusiasm I’d kept the thought to myself. In any case, Beverley was too embroiled in her own dalliance with Mr Smirnoff to care or even to notice what her husband did.

All that remains of the hot chocolate is a circle of glossy, brown sludge in the bottom of the mug, a last scraping I might attempt to access with the long spoon if I were on my own. Ava still has half a cup of cold, black coffee, impressive as ever in her ability to make a coffee last for the duration. She is reaching into one of the bags to bring out two small parcels wrapped in co-ordinating Christmas paper from Marks with matching gift tags. Not for her the ironed out, salvaged wrapping from last year or three-for-a-pound from Savers. I wonder why it is we’ve continued with this ritual.

We have exchanged gifts every Christmas since we met, the first few years’ offerings being humble, home-made items, sewn or baked or grown, rather than the competitive quandary the exchange has now become.

Beverley presents her own gifts. They will have been purchased from a craft stall or a tiny, beach front gallery; a driftwood photo frame, shell jewellery or a hand-thrown pot. They are wrapped with that artful carelessness she retains, as though she has scoured the beach for cast off paper and string. Ava plucks her package from the table and turns it in her red-tipped fingers, exclaiming how interesting it looks. I assume from the shape that she has the pot this year. Sensing their expectation I withdraw the two, identical parcels from my bag.

Infrequent as they have become, I have grown weary of these meetings; weary of these two self absorbed women and their confessional outbursts, the inconsequential chatter and the shadowy events that lie under each rendezvous like bubbling volcanic pools. I have extracted what I needed from them only as recompense for my services over the years as confidante, counsellor, shoulder-to-cry-on and keeper of secrets. Now I am ready to move on.

Ava thinks the parcels look the same. They look like books. Is it a novel? Do they have the same gift? I nod. The same book?  Yes. Is the author someone they’ve heard of? I’m still nodding. When she tells me she hopes it ends happily because she can’t bear sad endings I say she will have to wait and see. Bev has shown little interest and has stowed her holiday reading away in the leather appliqué satchel she brought and stood up. I’m guessing she is anticipating her first, warming, reassuring slug of liquor of the day as if she were going to meet her own secret lover.

Ava straightens and tuts, rearranging the silk scarf around her neck, smoothing her blond, highlighted hair. I wait for her to say she must look a sight but she gathers her bags and reels off a list of appointments she has before picking Matthew up from nursery; travel agent, chiropodist, the returns counter at Burberry. She wants to know where I’m parked because we can walk together and I know she is anxious to find out if I think Bev suspects anything. I could tell her that Beverley wouldn’t notice if a bomb exploded here in the café but I surprise her, instead by deciding to stay here, in my seat, alone at the table.

Then they are gone; the farewells said; the promises to meet again soon and the air kissing are all done. I don’t need to consult the menu before returning to the counter, since the seductive, lingering aroma of cod and chips is pulling at my senses and cannot be ignored. I am happy to sit alone now while I wait for my lunch, and contemplate a future which exists without Ava and Beverley but with a significant upturn in my fortunes, now that the royalties for ‘The Exchange’ are flowing in such a satisfying way and my account is inflated by a substantial advance for the second novel. Is it a sequel? No. I have said everything I want to say about those two parasites. They can edit their own future. I’m still working on mine.

Fiction Month 4. Caught [part 2]

Status

                 Caught [part 2]

                  Next morning a stiff breeze has sprung up as I stroll up to the village store on the Copseway to buy a newspaper and a pint of milk. On the way I search for the old butcher’s shop that was Ernie Brabrook’s, but almost all the buildings that housed businesses have been converted to dwellings, either having been demolished and rebuilt or their big front windows bricked in and I no longer recall the exact location of Ernie’s place. All I remember is standing inside while my father waited for his order to be prepared, the sawdust floor dusty beneath my feet and the cold, raw carcasses dangling, white on their metal hooks, an odour of chill sweetness and the resonant thwack of the butcher’s cleaver as he prepared chops or steaks.

The store assistant is solicitous. My father will be missed by the community, she says, and how am I getting on with clearing up the house? Feeling heartened by her concern I ask if she knows anything about Imberton Dance Band and the various members. She nods as she packs my purchases into a bag.

“My parents used to go dancing every Saturday. A girl called Mavis used to come and babysit us.”

I take the photo from my pocket and place it on to the counter. She looks closely before shaking her head.

“I can see that’s your Dad, in his young days, and that was his brother. But I don’t know the others I’m afraid. I’d have been too young, I suppose.”

When I mention Dick Abbott a look of recognition springs to her face.

“I was in the same class as June at school. We were a fair bit older than you and your brother I think, so we’d have left to go to the secondary by the time you two were in the juniors’ class. She was sweet, but she was a bit soft, if you know what I mean; not the brightest, but always kind and smiling. It was awful, what happened to her.”

“I heard she died. What was it, illness?”

She purses her lips, looking grave.

“No, nothing like that; she drowned in the brook that runs along the bottom of the field behind the house. ‘Accidental death’ they said it was, although no one knew how she came to be there. She was in her night clothes when they found her; all a long time ago now.”

I take a diversion back to the bungalow, down an old, overgrown footpath that leads to the narrow rivulet behind what was Abbott’s shop, with a dwelling at the rear. We’d dangled jam jars on strings into the stream to catch tiny stickleback, bearing them home triumphantly then being made to return them by our stern parents. The brook is no longer the rushing torrent of my memory, rather a thin trickle, banks overgrown with tall, bushy nettles. I wonder how she could have drowned, here in the shallows where the water is inches deep and the gravel of the stream bed ruffles the flow. Further up the sloping field the back of the house is just visible, changed now; refurbished. A new wire fence provides a barrier before the brook, where none was before. Perhaps she sleepwalked down to the stream and fell, found herself tangled in the undergrowth or mired in some mud. I’ve an image now of her night clad body lying cold in the water under the moonlight, her dark hair loose and mingling with the eddying current, but surely she’d have called for help?

My father’s modest house, the pride and joy of his later life seems diminished now that his furniture and effects are packed up to be distributed or disposed of. The rooms are strewn with cartons of bric-a-brac, books or bin bags full of clothing ready to be taken to charity shops. The walls bear the ghostly shapes of the pictures and mirrors that hung against them. His upright piano awaits collection. This is all that remains of his life. We humans spend a lifetime accumulating objects only to leave them all behind us for another to discard.

I make tea in the ancient ceramic teapot my parents always used. It is lined with a crust of brown stain but to succumb to dunking tea bags into cups feels a betrayal here in their kitchen. While I’m waiting for the tea to brew I ring my wife to tell her I’m almost done with the clearance and I’ll be returning home tomorrow.

I’m about to pour the tea when I catch sight of Arnold Goodridge unlatching the front gate and labouring up the path towards the front door and I think he must have smelt the tea to have timed his arrival like this. He settles into the worn settee with the ease of one who has sat there, in that same spot on many occasions, leaning his walking stick against the arm and placing a bulging manila envelope on the seat beside him. He glances around the room at the bare walls and loaded cartons as he sips the tea, nodding in sage acknowledgement, his chest still heaving with the exertion of his walk.

“Going up for sale, is it?”

“I’m afraid it is, Arnold. The family is too far flung to keep it. I’m hoping to drop the keys with the agent tomorrow, on my way home.”

He puts his cup and saucer on the coffee table and opens the envelope to pass me a few photos. I move to sit next him while he describes each scene. There are more pictures of the band, of course, but also snaps depicting charabanc outings to the seaside, village fetes and family parties, many showing my parents and their friends, the most striking aspect their smiles as they face the camera. It would be easy to assume that their lives were one long holiday on which the sun never failed to shine.

I pore over one shot of the beach, where my parents and another couple, all dressed in their Sunday best, are installed in deck chairs on the sand behind a number of children of varying ages playing with buckets and spades. Amongst the offspring is a young girl of about eleven, with soft, dark eyes, clad in a typically substantial swimming costume of the era, her arm around a sturdy child who I recognise as my brother. He is looking into her face with an adoring smile.

“There’s June,” Arnold offers. “She always did love the littl’uns. She’d have made a good mum if she’d had the chance.”

“Arnold, how did it happen? How come she drowned in the brook? There’s so little water. And why was she wearing night clothes?”

He gazes at the photo as he begins to talk.

“It was like I said. When Dick started stepping out with Mae they was only young, so it weren’t really serious, if you see what I mean. Then she fell pregnant with June and it was all Hell let loose. In them days it was like the end of the world. It weren’t long before that a young couple had drowned themselves in the lake from the shame of it and the fear of being found out. There weren’t any choice for them. Dick had to marry her quick, so when the baby came they could just say it was a bit early, like.

They lived with Mae’s parents to start with. It must have been hard for Dick. He was always a bit of a one for partying, had an eye for the girls. He could of taken his pick of ‘em, too if he’d wanted. But he was stuck with Mae then, and didn’t he know it! She never forgive him for landing her with a baby so young and I don’t think she ever thought he was good enough for her neither.”

“But she must have loved the baby when she came along. June was so pretty and so sweet!”

“She were. She were a cracker! But she were never the brightest, if you get my meaning. She weren’t going to get to college or anything like that.”

“Is that why she ended up helping in the shop when she left school?”

He nodded.

“Mae hated the shop, like everything else. She thought it was beneath her to work behind a counter; didn’t think she should work at all. ‘Course the shop folded in the sixties and Dick retired then. It had never made much money. Customers preferred the stores up on the Copseway and you could see why. Mae drove them all off, with her spiteful tongue and her nasty ways.”

“So what did June do, when the shop closed down?”

“She took up hairdressing, somewhere down Hardwick way I believe it was. Of course she favoured her Dad for looks, so she weren’t short of a few admirers. I think she did do a bit of courting, while her Dad was still alive but nothing serious. Then Dick passed away, a bit sudden. After his funeral no one hardly saw Mae. She stayed indoors, kept herself to herself, and June stayed looking after her. There weren’t no more gentlemen callers because Mae wasn’t having it. She were too scared June would up and get married and leave her. Thing was, with Dick gone she only had her daughter and they used to say in the village that were when June changed, stopped smiling, like. Some said it were because of losing her Dad, but I reckon there were more to it than that. That bitter old witch made her life Hell, that’s the sum of it. She tormented her and bullied her until her life weren’t worth living. And June, she were caught, like in a trap. She’d nowhere to go and couldn’t leave her mother. It got so she couldn’t stand no more. So she took the only way out she could. There were more to the stream in them days, but most folks don’t need a lot of water if they’re determined to drown their selves. You know the rest.”

He puts the photo on the coffee table before looking up. When he catches my expression he puts his hand on my arm, his face softening.

“I shouldn’t of probably told you all that, what with your Dad and all. Not exactly a cheerful story, is it? But you got to remember it were all a long time ago.”

“No, I’m glad you did. And I’ve enjoyed looking at the photos and hearing all the other stories.”

On his way out Arnold stops on the path to button up his jacket.

“Know what I reckon?” There is a mischievous gleam in his eye as he adjusts the stick in his grip. I shake my head.

“Them lot in the band, they’ve been up there waiting for your Dad to join them. Now he’s got there they’ll be making heaven jump to the beat with all their tunes!”

Though I don’t share his conviction, the image is so pleasing I have to smile as I thank him again.

 

I wake to an overcast sky, feeling moved to make haste with loading my car and starting on the long drive home. There is little of any monetary value amongst the house contents and nothing of use or ornament to us, the next generation, for whom tastes have changed. I have wrapped and packed the few items my brother and I decided upon as keepsakes; one or two first editions, leather bound, a hand painted tea set, a couple of prints and the box of photographs, which I have volunteered to sort and annotate. Everything else will be removed by a clearance company, leaving the empty shell of the house ready for viewing by prospective buyers. Once I have locked up and pulled the front door shut behind me I know I will not be returning. I pocket the house keys in readiness for the estate agent.

Before leaving the village I pull into the lay by outside the churchyard. I want to spend a few minutes alone by my parents’ grave, an action I doubt my busy life will allow in future. The new plot, freshly piled with earth stands out like a brown scar among the neat, green mounds surrounding it. Soon the simple headstone will bear the addition of my father’s name informing the reader he is ‘reunited at last’ with my mother. There are, as he requested, no bouquets wilting on the soil, donations having been made, instead, to the hospice that cared for my mother. He’d been pragmatic to the last, made all his wishes clear; his only desire to be laid to rest here in the rustic setting of the village churchyard next to his deceased wife.

I have no faith in an afterlife. I believe that our allotted span above the earth is what we get. I know that my parents are not here, under the soil in this country graveyard, nor do they exist anywhere except, for a short passage of time, in my memory. But the shady, green space with its gentle hummocks, vases of chrysanthemums and trailing ivy is a peaceful spot for contemplation and remembrance. I wind my way through the graves, stopping here and there to read a name and a date where they are visible, not obliterated by algae and age. As I round the corner by the low stone wall I halt as my attention is caught by a simple, marble, upright slab with the inscription, ‘June Elisabeth Abbott, 1945-1978, ‘Resting where no shadows fall’.

I perch nearby on a neighbouring slab. Her plot is overgrown, a joyous carpet of daisies and dusky pink autumn crocuses. A light mist of drizzle has begun to drift down, lifting a rich, earthy aroma from the vegetation. Somewhere close by a robin begins to trill a jaunty song. Then, at last I feel the tears well up and course down my face in hot, salty tracks until I drop my face into my hands and I’m howling, there in the secluded churchyard with the ghosts of my past for company.

After a while, when the tears have drained away I stand and brush the moss from my clothing before walking back through the grassy mounds and ancient stones to the gate. In the car I pick up my phone and call my wife. She asks if I’m alright. I tell her I’ve missed them all; that I love them and I’m ready to come home now. I start the car. When I get home I want to hold them, my wife and children; catch them in my heart and never let them go.

 

 

Fiction Month 2015. Unmanned on a Wednesday. Part 2

Strangers Muriel and Niamh are bonding in the launderette-and Muriel finds they have more in common than an article of clothing…

[Part 1 of this story can be found in the previous post]

She gazed into the gyrating turmoil of clothes. “It’s complicated.”

“You mean he’s married.”

Muriel stared at the circulating washing. She realised now what the familiar item was. She was sure it was a shirt; one that her husband used to wear, but hadn’t for some time. She could remember where he’d bought it, when they’d been on holiday in Italy. It was an expensive, designer shirt; flamboyant, the colours an unusual mix of purple, red and cream, the design vivid and abstract like a Picasso painting.

A machine to the right of them jolted into an angry whirl as it prepared for its rinse cycle. Muriel continued to gaze into the enigmatic circle where the mingling colours jostled for prominence.

“I’m not shocked,” she said, once the raging machine had settled for a quiet, resentful simmer, “but it makes me sad. I’m guessing he’s an older man? I’d say you were too good for him, too young and lovely to waste your life on him.” She hauled her eyes away from the washer, from which a trickling sound issued.

Niamh drew out a tissue from her sleeve and blew her nose. “I don’t know why I’m opening up to you like this. I’ve not told anyone else. You must be easier to talk to than most people. I would never be able to confide in my mother like I’m confessing to you. Can we chat again next time you come? We could go for a coffee or something.”

Muriel was silent, contemplating the revolving drum. It turned this way and that as if undecided. The younger woman stood abruptly and began pulling articles from the dryer, which had churned to a grumbling halt. The Italian shirt tumbled out into a pale blue, plastic basket, pock marked with cigarette burns. She had her back to Muriel, speaking harshly into the cavernous cylinder.

“I’ve been too personal, haven’t I? I’m always like this with people; not reserved enough, nattering like we’ve known each other for years. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry. Say something. Please.”

She turned around. She had the shirt in her hand. Muriel nodded at it. “I see you don’t send his washing home for his wife to do.”

Niamh held the hot garment against her cheek as if the spirit of her lover was bound within its vibrant folds. “I love to do things for him,” she said. “I pretend I’m married to him. I spend hours finding new recipes to cook for him. I like to open the wardrobe and see some of his clothes hanging next to mine. That way I’ve got some small part of him when he’s not with me.” Facing the dryer as she closed the door, she missed the fleeting look of weary scorn that passed over Muriel’s face. A stab of cruelty thrust out, threatening to pierce the friendly bubble of shared confidences.

“He won’t leave his wife, you know. They never do.”

“He is going to leave. He’s waiting for the right time to tell her. He’s sensitive to her needs. I love that about him.”

She was folding garments now and placing them into a rectangular laundry bag. There was a brisk manner to the way she was pushing the clothes into the bag, as if she could press her conviction into the still warm fabrics.

“I wonder if he knows what her needs are.”

“She’s been occupied looking after the children all these years and now they’re growing up and leaving-like yours are. He has to wait for her to find a new direction in her life; something to fill the void her children have left. You must know how that feels. How have you coped with the extra time on your hands?”

Muriel smiled an enigmatic, knowing smirk. “Oh I like to travel. I’m always planning the next holiday and preparing for it. I like comfortable hotels in beautiful locations with wonderful, scenic views. I enjoy eating in expensive restaurants, shopping in exclusive stores and finding exquisite, original art works.”

She paused to observe the effect her words were having.

Niamh stared, transfixed as she listened then nodded, grinning, her creamy skin pink with enthusiasm. “My man is well travelled. He’s going to take me on exotic trips once he’s free.”

She lifted the strap of her leather satchel over her head and gripped the handle of the chequered bag. She looked at Muriel.

“Shall I see you at the same time next week?”

“It’s possible.”

“Go on, you know you want to! I can give you an update on progress. I’m seeing him tomorrow night. He might have told her by then! Bye for now!”

She pulled open the door and stepped out, leaving the bell jangling. Muriel watched as she crossed the road, negotiating the passing traffic, tossing her head to rid the glossy, dark fringe from her eyes. Then she disappeared round a corner. Although the two machines had stopped, Muriel continued to sit in the silent laundrette. Outside the light was beginning to fade and glare from the headlights of passing vehicles cast intermittent flashes into the scruffy room.

It would soon be time to start packing, she thought, wondering what she would need this time.

She was jerked from her thoughts by the strident ring of her phone.

“Ah, I’ve got you. Where are you, Mu? I got home hours ago!”

“I had to come to one of those laundry places. The new washer won’t be delivered until next week.”

“Good God, Mu! Don’t these places collect and deliver or something?”

His voice crackled. “Anyway, never mind that now. I’ve found us some flights to Geneva. Thought we’d do the Swiss lakes. Fancy it? The flights are on Friday morning. I’ve just got a meeting tomorrow night to tie up some loose ends then I’ll be free.”

Muriel stood, pocketing the phone, savouring the anticipation. Last time they’d stayed at the Grand Hotel Kempinski on the lake. Their room had overlooked the Jet d’eau fountain. She would have to contact an ironing service in the morning, one that could do a rush job. She could spend tomorrow evening researching excursions and places to eat.

She crammed her laundry items into the holdall in an unceremonious bunch, stuffing recalcitrant clothes down into the corners, heedless of the creases that would form as they dried. When the zip gaped in an obstinate refusal to close over the bulging, newly laundered items she capitulated and grasped the handles, leaving it open in her haste to be away. She pulled the door, hearing its accompanying clank for the last time as she tugged the bag through to the outside. Trudging past the window she glanced back in at the stark, Spartan room, the plastic chairs and the worn lino and exhaled a profound, heartfelt sigh of relief.