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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The Crackling Feast [Part 2]

As Alex’s repugnance at the hog roast grows, her sister Chrissie’s appetite for the savoury treat increases. Chrissie and Simon seem to have developed a relationship. What have they been up to? And where has Jacintha gone?

The Crackling Feast concludes today. Part one is in the previous post.

 

Their father had been unusual in leaving express instructions that he didn’t want a funeral. He’d wanted this; a celebration, party, get together-call it what you like. He’d left it to Jacintha to issue invitations so she’d been surprised to have received the card-an elaborate, hand-painted creation on Jacintha’s own, customised, recycled paper. The woman had not been immune to the sisters’ antipathy, since they’d been at best Luke-warm when they’d greeted her at their infrequent meetings with their father. She must have realised she was the reason their visits had dwindled to annually, duty stops while en route somewhere. ‘Just a cup of tea, don’t want to put you to any trouble’. Jacintha would produce some herbal infusion picked from the hedgerows and proffer something inedible like nettle scones with tofu. It occurs to Alex now that these efforts may have been attempts to buy their approval, though in her own unorthodox way. Their father never commented on their lack of warmth towards his new wife, nor did he complain at the sporadic nature of their visits. Perhaps he felt it was the price he’d paid for her, for Jacintha; to lose the affections of his daughters.

Chrissie and Simon have settled at a table with their plates of hog roast. Chrissie appears to have overcome her repugnance and is tucking into a pork roll with gusto in between slugs of wine and peals of laughter at whatever Simon Patterson is saying. She glances at Alex then says something to him before getting up and approaching her, stumbling a little on her spindly heels. She sits down and drapes an arm around her younger sister, close enough for Alex to smell her hot, grease and wine laden breath.

“You should get something to eat, Alex. It’s really very good.”

“In a minute.” Alex stares at her lap. She and Chrissie have grown apart, their mother having been the glue that cemented their closeness as sisters. Now they rarely see each other and on the occasions when they do they’ve only had the one same conversation, one shared dislike of Jacintha. After a few minutes she allows Christina to pull her up and tow her to the table where Simon still sits and accept the glass of wine her gets for her. The plate she is handed is loaded with a pork roll, cole-slaw, apple sauce and a heap of greasy crackling, brown scored skin with a few blackened hairs still clinging. She nibbles at the roll and salad.

“So you’ve left the family at home then, Alex?” Simon Patterson is making an attempt at small talk. She shrugs. “It didn’t seem fair to drag them up here.”

Chrissie makes a face. “I’d have got to see my nephews! You’ve deprived me of the pleasure!” Alex looks sideways at her sister, who has never been shy about expressing her dislike of children.

The solicitor continues “She is quite a character though, Jacintha-a strange choice for your father to have made, don’t you think? All those odd tattoos in Greek letters and the dreadlocks?”

Alex puts her plastic fork down. “I suppose she made him feel younger-and I expect he got lonely. You must know where she is now though, don’t you? You must have been acting for them both-for Jacintha and our father?”

Chrissie is watching them, her small, white teeth nibbling on a piece of pork scratching. There are faint vestiges of blue ink near her fingers, indicating that this must be from the etched area of pig. Alex feels her stomach lurch as she recalls Jacintha’s ample, decorated thighs. Simon laughs. “All will be revealed” he tells her as the distant ringing of a spoon against a glass signals silence among the revellers.

The vicar asks for their indulgence, rising from his seat, paper in hand. He has a message for all of them, from Jacintha:

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all having a wonderful afternoon in the sunshine enjoying the good company, the delicious food and wine and the memories.

Edgar and I were only together for a short time before he was cruelly taken but for me it was the happiest time of my whole life…

Alex glances at her sister, who raises her eyes to heaven.

I ask you to understand that I am not able to be with you today to celebrate Edgar’s life as it is too soon for me to face people who knew us as a couple. In order to grieve I am leaving for pastures new and will be settling in Corfu where I am setting up a studio in order that my emotions can find an outlet in my work.

So it’s ‘Goodbye’. Bless you all and enjoy the remainder of the party.

In Edgar’s memory

Jacintha.

There is a pause before the guests begin to murmur again. Chrissie is still clutching the spear of pig skin marked in blue ink. Alex sees her peer at it, then across at Simon Patterson who returns her look with an almost imperceptible wink.

 

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 Week 3-New Short Story Begins Today!

Caught

Trap! Paralyse! Consume! An unwitting moth flutters in an innocent, random pattern only to be ensnared, caught in a mesh of elastic threads, thrashing wildly but doomed as the predator pounces to inject the body with piercing jaws, stilling the spasms, rolling it with rapid efficiency into a food parcel; to be consumed later.

Here in my father’s back yard, in the still warm air of a September evening, I am glad of a distraction from my task. I light a cigarette and inhale, watching the curling twist of smoke wind upwards. Excitement over, the rotund spider withdraws to the shadows, out of sight until aroused by the next tweak.

Back inside I gaze around at the devastation I’ve wrought and think it’s enough for today. Amidst the piles of books, sets of musical scores, files of correspondence and personal papers in my father’s study there is a box containing old photographs and it is these I’ve been perusing, losing a sense of time both literally and figuratively as I delve back into his life; a jumble of grey-brown, faded and dog-eared images chronicling events and scenes, depicting some characters I remember and many I do not.

I realise I am hungry but have no wish to eat here, alone amongst the detritus. I will walk down through the village to the pub. Before leaving I slip a photo into my pocket, a picture of Imberton Village Dance Band on stage. In the twilight, the quiet of the somnolent village street is punctuated only by the last, retiring song of a blackbird as he defends his province and by the distant, mechanical hum of a lawnmower.

To stroll along this street is to walk in my childhood steps, the way I went to school; down along the hot tarmac, treading on the raised tar bubbles that erupted like sticky larva under the sun’s  hot rays. Here in the gateway by the open field my brother and I paused to see who could pee the furthest as our exuberant, steaming fountains arced over the gate. On past St Mary’s where we languished, imprisoned at Sunday school, the time hanging heavy until we could loosen our collars and race back home to lunch, through the ivy clad churchyard, whose deceased inhabitants now play host to a newly interred inmate.

It is growing dark by the time I am level with the gravel track that slopes up towards Abbott’s, where a lone street lamp casts enough light for me to make out vestiges of the faded imprint on the side of the building; ‘Abbotts Grocery’. I pause for a moment, remembering. The old red brickwork had been painted yellow, the words in red and green, though now all that is visible is a faint square of flaking cream with a few pinkish lines. Old Ma Abbott, who’d seemed ancient to my seven year old self, must be long gone by now. But what of June? To my naive, infant scrutiny she had appeared grown up, although she couldn’t have been much more than sixteen when we plagued the shop in our crude, heedless bids for amusement. She would greet us, soft voiced, smiling with wide spaced, guileless eyes like a baby fawn’s as she tipped Rhubarb and Custards from a jar into a paper bag or ladled out ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder. I’d peer at her upswept, beehive hairdo and the way her wide skirt fanned out like daisy petals, buoyed up by layers of stiff petticoats as she climbed the step to replace the jar.

I’d been the youngest, tolerated but not acknowledged, the tagger-along, more spectator than participant as we roamed the village in search of diversion. We built dens, made bows and arrows or rudimentary, wooden guns, climbed the hay bales in Worts’ barn, fished in the stream, spoke in hushed whispers about the mysterious Bryant sisters, whose nocturnal activities had provoked speculative gossip from our parents. We played endless games of Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, when my involvement was accepted if I agreed to be the Indian, or the ‘baddie’ and submitted to the inevitable tying to a post to be danced around and jeered at or executed by bow and arrow or firing squad.

A few heads turn as I enter the pub, one or two nodding and murmuring in uneasy recognition. I am known to them nowadays only by association with my father. They are caught in the uncomfortable circumstances that accompany a meeting with the newly bereaved. I order my meal and take my pint to a lone, corner table, allowing them to continue their conversations unburdened by the obligation of sympathy.

While I wait I withdraw the photo and place it on the table. The band members are on a wooden stage flanked by velvet curtains in what looks like the village hall. My father is seated on a stool at an upright piano, to the right of the picture so that his face is only visible in profile, mouth open, his head tilted down, intent on his fingers as they depress the keys; one foot underneath pushing down on a pedal. To the left of the stage his brother Dib sits leaning forward to strum his banjo, a bowler hat perched at a jaunty angle, staring a broad grin into the camera despite the cigarette jutting from the corner of his lips. I guess that the slim, smiling woman in the centre at the microphone, dressed in a neat, dark frock with a lace collar is Doris Lampard. Behind them, less distinct are a guitarist and a drummer.

I am aware of someone standing at my elbow; a stooped, portly, elderly figure leaning on a stick, sharing my view, peering with rheumy eyes at the picture. I recognise him as Arnold Goodridge, one of my father’s friends, although I’m unsure of the connection. Perhaps he’d been a fellow parish council member, or they went to cricket matches together.

“That would have been a Saturday nighter,” he says, gesturing at the photo. “There’s your Dad, on the old Joanna, and your Uncle Dib up front. He was a lad, that Dib!”

The bloodshot eyes are lit with interest as he leans forwards to peer closer. I pull out a chair, inviting him to sit and he accepts my offer of a pint. He squints at the aged image, pinching it by the narrow, white border as he holds it up to the light.

“I know that Doris used to sing,” I tell him, “but who are the other two- the guitarist and the drummer?”

I wait while he examines the scene, his breathing rapid and wheezy, the sound my father’s piano accordion made when he was warming it up. He takes so long to answer his pint arrives and he lifts it to take a long draught before he speaks.

“That there,” he prods the guitarist in the picture with a thick, stubby finger, “is old Ernie Brabrook. He used to have the butchers, up on the Copseway. That’s up the road behind your Dad’s place. And that fellow behind the drums is Dick; Dick Abbott that had the grocers shop. You’ll remember that from when you was a nipper.”

I nod.

“I do remember. Walking past it tonight made me think of when we used to go up there for sweets. I’m afraid we went in more for the thrill than to buy anything. We were terrified of Mrs Abbott so we dared each other to enter.”

The old man smiles his understanding.

“Oh ah! She was a hard woman, Mae Abbott. Bitter, with a wasp sting for a tongue. Weren’t no one missed a tongue lashing from Mae at some point. ‘Course Dick got it the worst. He spent as much time as he could out of her way; he had his grocer’s round in the daytime, doing deliveries, then he’d be out with the band as often as you like, four or five nights a week sometimes. He played in the darts team, too.”

“So Mae didn’t go along to see the band? I suppose if Dick was on stage she’d have no partner for dancing.”

“Mae? No! She weren’t one for dancing. Back when they was first married she had June to look after. She only ever went out on a Sunday, to church, as I recall.”

“June must have been born quite soon after they were married, then.”

He scratches his head, frowning at his glass.

“Things was different then.”

For now the old man has completed his narrative. He drains his pint and hauls himself to his feet as my meal is delivered to the table with enquiries as to whether I’d like any sauces and another drink.

Arnold is shrugging his coat on, turning to leave then he stops to voice a thought.

“I might have one or two of them photos at home, the band and that. I’ll have a look and bring them round, if you’re interested.”

I am. I thank him.

“Arnold, before you go, can you tell me anything about June? Does she still live in the village?”

He grips the chair back as he faces me, his knuckles white, his breath whistling.

“I’d have thought your Dad would have told you. She passed away. Must have been twenty years ago; not that long after Dick, but before Mae. It were a sad business.”

The spiders have retired for the night when I go out to take a last cigarette in the cool air of the yard. This small space, illuminated by a shaft of light from the doorway is cluttered with accumulated rubbish and scruffy with weeds, neglected and unloved, another task to be undertaken before I leave. My father had been devoted to his small garden, growing gaudy dahlias and rows of fat onions, trimming the hedge and tending the pond, now relapsed into a murky, stagnant pool, clogged with choking blanket weed. When my mother died he’d withdrawn to the house, leaving his beloved plants to fend for themselves, as if the garden itself had been responsible for her death. Grief affects people in strange ways, driving them to relinquish lifetime habits and adopt new ones. I think how little I knew him in the later years, my visits short and peremptory and executed from a sense of duty.

I make my way to bed in the tiny, inhospitable guest bedroom, crawling between slippery sheets topped with unaccustomed, heavy layers of blankets and an eiderdown; the bedding a relic from when we were boys, although never in this cramped bungalow designed for retirement. The elderly bed springs creak and protest as I fidget, sleepless with memory. June Abbott; she’d have been in her sixties now. What had happened to her?

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.