Fiction Month 5 [the add-on]

This year’s Fiction Month is extended with a flash fiction short. Two elderly rock musicians meet on a sunny afternoon…

Drum and Bass

Two elderly men are sitting on a bench in the sunshine. One pulls his T-shirt up and over his head.
‘Christ, man! You shouldn’t be exposing yourself like that! Think of the public!’
Badger chuckles, casting a rueful glance down at his pasty, bulbous belly. ‘Ah Jez, you’re not seriously expecting anyone to recognise us, are you? They’d hardly have known us then, let alone now.’
His companion grins. ‘I wasn’t thinking of recognition-who is ever going to recognise a drummer and a base player? I’m just trying to save innocent holiday makers from unpleasant sights.’
Jez is tanned, wiry. He pulls a tobacco pouch from a pocket of his leather waistcoat and begins to roll a cigarette. ‘Want one?’
Badger shoves his sunglasses up and rubs his eyes. ‘Gave up fifteen years ago. One less vice! Still have a few though’
‘Let me guess’ ventures Jez, blowing out a plume of smoke, ‘Beer and women’.
Out on the beach a group of scantily clad teenagers is arranged on towels, listening to hip-hop, exclaiming over their phone messages, snapping selfies.
Badger tugs at his once luxuriant pony tail and grunts. ‘Probably not women so much these days. So how does it feel to be back in blighty? Like you’ve never been away?’
The base player sighs and flicks his cigarette end to the sand. ‘To be honest I’m thinking of giving up the bar, selling up and coming back, except I don’t know if we’ll get a buyer. Trade isn’t so good. Nobody’s heard of ‘Satan’s Spawn’ these days, let alone Jez Jarwood. People in Spain don’t have the money to spend boozing like they did. They’ll come in, buy one beer, nurse it for the whole of a sports fixture then go and drink at home.’ He coughs then begins pulling more tobacco from the pouch, yellowing fingers still string-hardened. ‘Then me and Paulette haven’t been getting along that well since the profits dropped. How about you? Still enjoying marital bliss?’
Badger’s face is turned up to the sun, his rounded belly glistening under it’s heat like a tight, sweating marrow. ‘We broke up. The lifestyle of a session musician doesn’t lend itself to family life. I see the kid sometimes-not as often as I should. Do you ever hear from her, from Jillie?’
Jez has his elbows on his knees, squinting, smoking like he’s facing the firing squad. ‘No. You?’
‘No. I thought she might turn up though. First gig for twenty years.’
‘We don’t know if she’s even alive, Badge; or where she lives, or if she knows about the gig or cares! She might be married, have kids-grandkids, even!’
Over on the sand two of the teenagers have returned from swimming and are chasing each other with handfuls of wet sand, screeching with laughter.
‘Did you-?’
‘No. Did you?’
‘No. I wanted to. We all wanted her, didn’t we? The other two.’
‘Yes. They did. Christ, it was messy, wasn’t it?’ He launches into a throaty coughing fit, bony shoulders shaking then he spits on to the sand between his boots.
Badger sits up and begins to struggle into his T-shirt. ‘They were good times, Jez, back then; even the fights. I’d go back and do it all again, wouldn’t you?’
Jez straightens up and flicks a few specks of ash from the faded denim covering his skinny knees. Who were they trying to fool with a ‘comeback’ gig? There was no trace, now of the taught body and blond curls he flaunted as a twenty something. Badger’s trademark white streak of hair amongst the black was lost in a mangy, grey comb-over. And Jillie, their brilliant, beautiful constant, their shared muse, she’d have aged, gathered weight, be mired in domestic life.
‘I don’t know, mate. We’ll see how tonight goes.’

Jez takes his case from the boot as Badger heaves his bulk from behind the wheel of his battered Audi and lumbers, wheezing around to make his farewells. He takes Jez’s yellowed fingers in his huge grasp and pumps. ‘It was a gas wasn’t it?’
There is only a slight nod in answer and a small smile. ‘Come over, Badge when you get a break. Bring the boy! Constant sunshine and all the paella you can eat!’
Badger grins. ‘Yeah. I might do that. Keep in touch, brother. See you at the next gig!’
He watches as Jez trundles the battered case into the gloom of the arrivals hall, where he turns one last time and raises a hand before joining the queue, then he squeezes back behind the wheel, selects Iron Maiden’s ‘Run to the Hills’, turns up the volume and drives away.

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Behind Him [part 2]

Part 1 of this story can be found in last week’s post…

Behind Him [Part 2]

                She stares unblinking at the man opposite her. It is her husband’s press secretary, immaculate in his dark suit. Why hasn’t he sent a woman?

He smiles. “I guess all this has been pretty hard for you, right? It would be tricky for someone with a political or legal background but-“

“Mister Spicer, if you mean I am an uneducated bimbo and of no consequence you can come out and say it. Everyone else has.”

He leans forward, smile undiminished. “Melania, your husband needs you there. He needs you to take up your role as first lady. You won’t need to do much except attend functions, support charities and stuff. There’s a team to help you. They’ll tell you what to say and what to do. You’d only need to turn up and look nice. It’s just for show.”

Just for show. She looks down at her manicured nails. “Mr Spicer I have a job. It is to look after my son. He is only ten years old.”

When she looks up the secretary’s smile has left his eyes. “I believe your parents are quite involved in caring for your son, Mrs Trump-am I correct?”

She feels hot now, here in this office with its automatic climate control and leans down to take a tissue from her bag, nodding as she dabs at beads of sweat on her brow.

“And they’ve been given an apartment right here, I think, just so as they can look after your son? That was pretty generous of your husband, right? And of course their continued life here in the States will be subject to immigration rules.”

As Melania stares at her lap she feels the tight stricture of the net she has placed around herself tauten, breathing in shallow gulps to steady herself before raising her head and nodding at him.

“We’re prepared to be reasonable, Mrs Trump. We can give you some time to organise things here. Let’s say you’ll move in when your son’s school year finishes this summer. How does that sound?”

She thinks of life here without her parents, without Papa. At least when she moves out of the Towers they’ll still be in the country.

“Yes Mr Spicer. I’ll move in the summer.

 

“But this is where you should be, Mela, by your husband’s side! Of course you should be at The White House. It’s what I’ve always said, haven’t I Papa?”

Her father says nothing but can see the desolation in her face.

 

A few months later she begins her schedule, attending a gala as first lady, standing by his side on the stage again. The wearing of the couture outfit suggested by her team, the immaculate hair and make-up cannot disguise the dead look in her eyes or the stiff pose she adopts. Whatever her husband has been saying has come to an end with the applause of the crowd and as he turns to beckon her she takes her obedient step towards his side to raise her hand. He moves closer, half turning. “Smile,” he hisses. “Come on. Remember who you are!”

And of course, she does.

 

 

A Topical Story

           This week’s post is Part 1 of a story in which the principal character is one you will recognise from media coverage. Foisted into the public eye, perhaps more than she has been comfortable with I began to imagine how she feels and if, maybe, she has regrets about the life she has chosen for herself…

               Behind Him

                It is like the sea, she thinks, a tidal surge with flashes of light. In reality the flashes are cameras and the surge is people. She puts her hand to the high collar of her coat and swallows, composing her expression, breathing in long, steady breaths like she has been told. There is a roar, startling her and she realises she’s lost concentration for a moment then she remembers and raises her hand in a wave, stretching her lips in a smile-not too wide. She doesn’t want to appear stupid.

Standing behind, she can only see the back of his head and his arms as he spreads them, the finger and thumb of each hand pressed together to make the point. There is another roar from the crowd.

He starts to turn his head and she feels her heart jump and her throat constrict as his hand strays out towards her; but she takes it, dipping her chin as she steps forward into the limelight.

“Smile now.” The instruction hisses from the corner of his mouth and she parts her lips a little to show the perfect, white teeth she has maintained for so long. Another wave of camera flashes later and she is able to follow him down off the stage, stepping with careful tread in the shoes she’s deliberated over and managing to keep her head up.

She trails along through the cheering crowd, nodding, maintaining the smile, her cheeks aching just a little.

“You looked so beautiful!” Mama had said last night. “The white jumpsuit so elegant! You did so well. We are proud, your father and I. The first lady! Living in that white house!”

Papa has not said much about her marriage since he asked her if she was happy the night before the wedding all those years ago. He’s been more reticent than her mother on the subject of how well she’d done to bag herself a multi-millionaire business man, asking only if it was truly what she wanted. He seems content enough now to have the New York apartment but is tight-lipped on the subject of politics, offering only one remark to her.

“Remember who you are, Mela. You are an immigrant like your mother and me. Success and happiness are not always the same thing.”

Alone in the spacious bedroom she watches herself on the news, her manicured brows creasing at the sight of her own figure bent awkwardly to the microphone in a hasty bid to summon up some supportive words, stumbling, parroting, ‘Make America great’, looking like the stick puppet that everyone believes her to be. More footage shows their ‘victory dance’ as she is clutched in a stiff embrace and his engagement is, as always, with the crowd and the flashing cameras as he gestures to them during every slow turn.

She thinks of William, her only real achievement, a ‘mini-me’ his father calls him and she wills it not to be so, thinking of her disdainful adult stepchildren, whose cliquey conversations and  spiteful remarks she’s learned to ignore. She wishes her son could grow up like Papa having a strong sense of justice tempered with compassion. He is not ‘Barron’ to her; can never be. She bites her lip as the news images roll on, the pictures plastering a cover on to the reality.

 

“No, I am not going to The White House. I’ll be staying here in the Towers with my son and my parents. It’s important for him to stay away from the media and to continue his studies. You can tell this to my husband. My son comes first. Politics is nothing to do with me; that’s his job.

 

To be continued. [Part 2 of this story follows in next Sunday’s post…]

Fiction Month 4-The Exchange [part 1]

The Exchange

            I am first. I am always first; always too early. I don’t mind. Getting here before the others gives me an opportunity to peruse the cakes and pastries at my leisure without the pressure of pretending disinterest. By the time they turn up I’ll have chosen; even, perhaps have consumed something. I’m leaning in favour of the ‘special’, a slice of Christmas cake, a rich, aromatic slab speckled with fruit and topped with a glistening, tooth tingling band of white icing and a dark green fondant holly leaf.

On the other hand, if I buy it now I may not have finished devouring it by the time one, or both of them appear, which would present an unseemly image. I should wait. I exert a seldom utilised self control, and having made a mental note of my preferred option I go straight to a table-the only remaining table, which is next to the toilets.

There are diners who are perfectly at home eating alone, able to consume an entire meal in solitude without appearing uncomfortable. They pull out a phone or a tablet with what seems like an endless deluge of emails, texts or photos, or they have some absorbing task to complete. I could take out my phone, but then I’d have to feign interest in the one text I’ve received today, from ‘Store 21’, alerting me to their ten percent off day, a snippet of information I have already viewed and which is unlikely to sustain my interest for the unspecified period I must wait. I fall, instead to studying the menu and have read it all through twice and memorised it before I spot Beverley weaving her way through the tables towards me.

While her sunglasses are incongruous on a winter’s day in the gloom of this dark corner of the café by the lavatories, she is dressed in her customary way, in flowing layers and expensive fabrics. She is a tall, statuesque woman and can get away with this look in a way that the shorter and dumpier of us cannot.

I rise to greet her and we embrace gingerly, like wary politicians before she discards her tweed cape and sinks down on to the seat. She is forcing a wan smile, which may indicate tiredness or something more sinister. When she tells me that Ava will be late I can only smile. Ava is late in the same way that I am early-by default. Not wanting to share too much before she arrives we talk of the weather, the traffic, how busy the shops are. I know my eyes are straying towards the menu as my stomach growls in an impatient demand for the cake, although Beverley is occupied in checking her phone to see if Ava has called again.

Then she is coming in, bumping tables and customers with assorted bags, turning this way and that as she scans the café for us. For a few moments I observe Ava, taking in her discomfort, her small, breathless panic as she stares over the heads of the assembled diners until at last I relent and offer a wave.

She bustles up, all puffing and blustering excuses. ‘What a busy life I lead’, she seems to say, though the bulging bags of her purchases tell a different tale. She is so sorry to have kept us waiting and only wants a black coffee. She places a solicitous, manicured hand on Beverley’s arm and inquires if she’s alright because she looks tired. I volunteer to order, more a ploy to ensure the capture of the Christmas cake than a magnanimous gesture, returning to the table to find them already engaged in showing each other photos on their phones. In the competition of life’s successes Beverley has scored the giant prize of acquiring a grandchild.

They turn to me-a diplomatic nod of interest in my unglamorous existence. Has George retired yet? Is Jacob working now? Still living at home? Such a shame.

The order arrives; black coffee for Ava, cappuccino for Beverley, hot chocolate and the cake for me. There is a slight pause as we all regard the cake, before I lever off the first, sweet, rich forkful.

Ava is asking Beverley how Rob’s business is going now, since he had to reorganise and lay off staff. Bev removes her sunglasses and rubs her eyes, bloodshot and dark ringed. The business is ‘ticking over’. They’ve begun looking for a smaller property in a less expensive area, seeking to down-size, to release capital. She speaks to Ava, avoiding my gaze. I am allowing a chip of hard, sugary icing to melt on my tongue, recalling how I visited for coffee one morning and found her in the kitchen, working her way through the contents of a vodka bottle with a determination that had eclipsed her memory the invitation. The failure of the business is not the sole reason for needing to release capital.

She straightens, takes a sip of the creamy cappuccino. In an abrupt change of subject she questions Ava about Matthew. Does Ava have any recent pictures? Ava reddens as she fumbles with her phone, then hands it across the table. Bev studies the photo of Matthew for what seems like a screen bite as Ava glances at me, eyes wide in her frightened face. Matthew is only two, an ‘afterthought’ as Ava describes him. Holding out the phone, Beverley frowns at the tiny sparrow of a woman opposite her and declares she cannot see anything of Steven in Matthew and I’m thinking, no, because there is nothing of Steven in Matthew-a fact that Ava confessed to me prior to his birth when faced with the dilemma of whether to tell her husband he was not the father. I lick my finger to sweep the remaining crumbs from the plate, wondering how three years can have passed since Ava blurted the tale of her sordid affair out to me in a moment of tearful desperation. What should she do? Should she tell Rob he could be the father of her baby? I’d advised her to leave well alone-after all he might not be the father. Who would know? She was frantic, sobbing. The child might resemble her friend’s husband; and of course, now he is older, he does.

To be continued-Part 2, the conclusion in next week’s post…

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.

Fiction Month 4

This week’s contribution to Fiction Month is a flash fiction-a short story in its entirety.

Alfie’s Monster

On the landing, between Alfie’s bedroom and the bathroom there is a monster. He thinks the monster must be nocturnal, because he has been learning about nocturnal animals at school. Alfie has needed to go for a pee for about the last ten minutes, but as yet has been unable to muster the nerve to cross the landing under the monster’s menacing eye.

“I’ll count to twenty” he murmurs “then I’m going.” Proud of his newly acquired skill in counting, remembering that until recently he’d have had to count to ten twice, he begins as slowly as the urgency allows.

A shaft from the landing nightlight illuminates where Alfie’s door is ajar, so he darts first to the edge of the shaft before steeling himself to leap across, hurling himself into safety and slamming the bathroom door. Despite having taken a mere fraction of a second to get there, he catches a glimpse of the fiend that has been threatening to overwhelm him; a huge head balanced upon an open, slavering jaw that mocks him with a rictus grin.

The pounding in Alfie’s chest has subsided by the time he is ready to make the journey in reverse. This time, having opened the door he keeps his eyes screwed shut and launches himself in the direction of his bedroom, knocking his elbow painfully on the bedroom door handle in the process. He dives into bed, plunging beneath the duvet and rolling into a ball like a hedgehog into its daytime nest.

Next morning, as Alfie conducts yet another extensive inspection of the landing, hoping to discover the burrow that the monster is using during daylight hours he can see nothing to suggest a hideaway but for the third time in a week he trips over a plastic sword, shield and helmet that are part of his brother Callum’s medieval knight outfit.

“Watch out!” Yells Callum emerging from the bathroom. “I need that stuff today for my history project.”

Rubbing his knee, Alfie frowns back at him. “Well don’t keep it here then. I hurt my knee on it.”

The period after supper is dominated by an animated account of Callum’s day as a medieval knight, including a reprise of the outfit, during which Callum, in a spasm of over-excitement leaps upon Alfie, shrieking, “Die infidel!” and in wielding his sword manages to capsize a vase and several family photographs. The boys roll together on the carpet, locked in mortal combat, Alfie banging his head on the coffee table and Callum losing his helmet. Their mother comes in to remonstrate, rights the vase and the photos, lifts the helmet from the floor, its visor hanging open. From his vantage point where Alfie sees the helmet’s silhouette on the wall he gasps. The monster!

In the warm, safe haven of his bed, as Alfie reflects on his foolishness the tousled head of his brother peers around his door. “There’s a snake living under your bed. A huge snake! It’s coming to get you!”