A Month of Fiction

It’s November, a month that brings dark evenings and chilly weather; a month for curling up by the fire and indulging in a novel or a short story. Here on ‘Anecdotage’ fiction is celebrated in November with a month of stories, new and hitherto unpublished. 

Story 1 begins with a simple, uncomplicated woman whose curiosity mingled with a desire to help lead to complications…

Chalet Concerto [Part 1]

           I’ve been married to Dave for twenty five years. Sometimes it’s hard to get his attention. I often think I could swing naked from the light fitting with a beer can in my teeth and he’d still be glued to the football; so when I told him someone had arrived to the chalet next door he didn’t so much as grunt, even though it was gone eleven and the Match of the Day credits were rolling up the screen.
I was looking out of the curtains when he turned the telly off. A light was on but nothing else. He said ‘Are you coming to bed or what?’
There was no chance I’d see who it was until the morning. Once I’d cleaned my teeth and got into my nightie Dave was already asleep, lying on his back snoring as I was tossing and turning, wondering who would arrive to a chalet at eleven fifteen. A single person-and with no car.
When I was making the tea next morning I kept looking out but I had to wait until after breakfast to spot her: Anne-only I didn’t know her name then. I went outside to put the shower towels on the rail-there’s a little decking area with a rail around and she was coming out with a handbag on her arm, a small, grey haired woman, hunched over and behaving a bit suspicious, like a burglar. She looked neat enough though, in a navy jacket and a pleated skirt. Only I thought to myself ‘it’s not holiday wear’; it’s not the kind of outfit most folks here put on to go walking the dog or sunbathing, or sitting on a lounger doing a puzzle, which is my preferred activity.
I called out to her. ‘Morning!’ and she turned her head to mumble something back before scuttling away towards the park shop. ‘I’m just going down the shop, Dave’ I yelled and I dived in for my purse. I was thinking we can always do with something or other-biscuits maybe or a nice bit of cake to have at coffee time.
I got down to the shop and said ‘Hi’ to Wendy on the checkout.
‘You’re an early bird this morning’ she said. It’s not a big shop, just a mini-market with stuff campers might need and it’s bit gloomy and cluttered. There were only two or three shoppers besides me and I soon spotted the woman in the middle aisle, looking at the tea bags.
‘They only have one sort’ I told her. ‘If you don’t like those you are welcome to borrow some of ours-I always bring tea bags. We’re quite picky about our tea!’ She half turned, not looking me in the eye. Her face had a sort of pinched, haunted expression. My mum would have said ‘like someone walked on your grave’.
‘Thank you’ she said, ‘I’m alright with these’. Her voice was refined, quiet and a bit posh. She had the packet of Red Label in her hand.
‘The milk’s at the end, in the chiller cabinet.’
‘Thank you’
‘Angela’ I stuck out my free hand. ‘Nice to meet you’. I waited then she took my hand. Hers was cold and dry. She had long, thin, papery fingers which struck me as unusual for such a tiny woman.
‘Anne. My name’s Anne’. It was almost as if she was telling herself as much as me, like she needed to remind herself who she was.
‘How about coming for a cuppa at ours this afternoon, Anne? Dave, my husband, he goes out playing golf in the afternoons so I’m on my tod most days.’
‘I don’t know.’ She was frowning, turning the Red Label packet over in her hands.
‘It’s nice to have a bit of company. I’d only be sitting doing my puzzle book otherwise.’ I gave her my best smile. Then she nodded, down at the tea bags, not at me.
‘Perhaps I will’
‘Good! I might see you this afternoon then!’ I left her and went to pick up a Battenburg and some Cherry Bakewells for later.

‘There’s a single lady next door-Anne she’s called. She might come round for a cup of tea this afto’.

      I was getting a bit of lunch while Dave read the paper. Once he’d finished eating he’d change into his golfing clothes, get his clubs and be off. I knew he wouldn’t be back until this evening because he always stops at the clubhouse for a drink or two or three. That’s when they discuss the shots they missed and pick over it all which is enough to send anyone into a stupor and the reason I don’t go and join them. Golf is boring enough, but golf talk would bore the shell off a tortoise.
To be honest I like it when he’s gone out. I put my lounger in the sun and get on with my puzzle, or read a magazine or even a book. I’m fond of Mills and Boon but sometimes I do a bit of historical romance. I usually make a cup of tea and now and again I have a glass of wine, which feels a bit wicked but indulgent-like I’m spoiling myself.
I sat out with half an eye on next door until about three o’clock. There was no sign of Anne so I put my wordsearch down, went to her chalet and knocked on the door. I realise this seems a bit pushy and I didn’t want to intrude but I had the feeling she’d wanted to be persuaded-and she could only say ‘no’, couldn’t she?
After a moment she opened the door. ‘The tea’s made’ I said ‘and I’ve got a bit of cake if you fancy it’. I’d made it difficult for her to refuse, so she stepped out, closed the door and followed me up on to our decking.
‘Now Anne, sun or shade?’
She sat on the wicker armchair where a small triangle of shade appears in the afternoons. I sat down opposite her in my usual sunny spot. I’d made a pot of tea and put out cups and saucers.
‘How do you like it? I like a good strong cup. Do you take sugar?’ She shook her head.
‘Help yourself to a slice of cake-or a Bakewell?’
She took the cup and saucer from me and stared down into it then as she raised the cup to her lips her face was wet with tears. I ran indoors to fetch a tissue and dropped it into her lap. She put the cup on the table and blew her nose.
‘Thank you. I’m sorry. It’s just-you’ve been so kind, Angela.’
‘Not at all. We’re neighbours, aren’t we? Even if it’s only for a few days! Is there anything I can help you with? I don’t want to pry and there’s no reason why a single person shouldn’t take a holiday on their own but here, it’s unusual.’
She twisted the damp tissue around in her slender fingers. I ploughed on…

Chalet Concerto continues next week…

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Grace’s Guide to Stress-Busting [at a stressful time of year!]

Many years ago, when I was  young teacher [and yes, I can remember that far back], I underwent some kind of training for something or other [I am vague about this part of the story] during which an older, more experienced ‘old lag’ mentioned that his most commonly used phrase to the students was ‘do your best’. As a new teacher I was happy to adopt others’ ideas and to try out their methods-even to use their phraseology, so I went away and back into my classroom to give ‘do your best’ a go.

On the face of it, ‘do your best’ doesn’t come across as an innovative, pioneering new educational method, does it? It would be unlikely to make a headline in The Times Educational Supplement or be lobbied for in Parliament, yet having tried it out in my own classroom I became an instant convert, finding it useful in a multitude of situations. Can’t find a glue stick? Do your best. Can’t solve the problem? Do your best. Can’t do your laces up? Do your best. Don’t like the person sitting opposite you? Do your best. Teachers of young children often find that while they are attending to one child they are beset by queues of others clamouring for attention. ‘Do your best’ works wonders.

All this was aeons ago, of course, even the final death throes of my career have faded into   the furthest reaches of the back shelves of the memory archives; but ‘do your best’ has not entirely disappeared from my vocabulary-rather it has metamorphosed into another, commonly trotted-out phrase: ‘I’m doing my best’. I advocate this retort to anyone struggling with anything. Behind with getting ready to go out? – ‘I’m doing my best’. Can’t manage the yoga Head-Down-Dog?  Can’t find a gift for your mother in law? Can’t get a novel published? Aha! That last one is complicated!

Then there is ‘I’m doing my best’s’ close relation, ‘I have done my best’; because while ‘reaching-for-the-stars’, ‘living-the-dream’ and all those other epithets for ambition are laudable aspirations only a few can actually say this is what they have done. Excellence is fine, applause, accolades and glory are desirable and fun, but all most people need is to be good enough; to be a good enough parent, an adequate bread-winner, have a comfortable enough home, scrub up well enough for a night out, ensure those around us are happy enough.

So with ‘do your best’ in mind, I would like to wish all readers, visitors, critics, the interested and the disinterested a most relaxing, uneventful, contented, unremarkable but good enough Christmas. Do your best. Don’t worry that you may be not having enough fun. And don’t attempt to change what cannot be changed or attempt what is impossible. That’s all.

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.

Snap!

                It is accepted that to be good at something, to excel, to be an expert-you must love that thing. You must have dreamed of doing it since childhood; have worked, or practised or studied at it in all your waking hours. It is true for great musicians, artists, sportspeople and of course, writers. But what if there is a pursuit you love, that you spend time on, you practise and you study-but you are, you remain, you continue to be completely useless at it?

                At school, for instance I was very fond of both geography and biology. In geography I loved drawing maps, shading in the contours and labelling everything. In biology I got enormous pleasure from drawing diagrams and again, labelling the bits. I’d spend time over these tasks, colouring along the coastlines in blue on a map, or shading in the joints on a skeleton. But it was to no avail. I bombed at both subjects and was [not unkindly] advised to ‘drop’ them like hot potatoes before ‘O’ levels loomed.

                So it is, nowadays with photography. I love photographing things. When walking in a new place I am rarely without my camera in my pocket-or more often-in my hand. I do, however have to have a compact, idiot-proof camera that will do everything for me except press its own button. I confess to no understanding at all of shutter speeds, lenses, exposures, filters and zooms [although I do have an excellent zoom on my little gadget]. I take snaps. I take many snaps of objects that have just gone past, or that are too far away for the camera to see, or are blurred or are in the dark, or are anyway, unrecognisable. But in this automated, computerised, digitalised age it matters not a flash, because that master capability exists-the delete button.

                These days anyone can have a go at photography and be ‘published’, [in much the same way as blogging]. Holiday snaps on Facebook must have become the new ‘postcards’. Myself, I’m not sorry about the demise of the postcard. They were a complete chore, a duty to be executed and got out of the way as quickly as possible. You had to choose them, buy them, get stamps. The shop selling the postcards might not sell stamps, or would sell stamps only of you bought cards from them. Then you had to think of something to write to Aunty Elsie or whoever. What could you write in that tiny space that would be interesting or amusing or informative? You could write in barely legible miniature documenting every moment of your vacation or you could use up the entire space with a vacuous ‘wish you were here’ kind of statement.

                No-I prefer the FB approach, except that due to an entrenched phobia about having my own phizog snapped I like to be behind the lens rather than the subject; and I get to be a published photographer –just like everyone else!