About Grace Lessageing

I am writer of novels, short stories, flash fiction, blogs. I lead a creative writing group. I am an Ex infant teacher, living in Christchurch, Dorset, UK. My brand new novel, The Conways at Earthsend was published on January 28th 2021 can be found on Amazon, Waterstones, Hive and Goodreads and is available in either paperback or e-book versions. You can also read The Year of Familiar Strangers, available as an e-book from Amazon. You can visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Jane-Deans-Novellist-Short-Fiction-and-Blog-102757711838272 Happy reading!

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 slice of Christmas 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.

I ask Ava if she has any photos of Lucy and I am rewarded by her feverish 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 already 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.

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/

Continuum

The festival season is just around the corner, so here’s a fitting piece of fiction to capture the anticipation, the shared thrills and the bitter sweet memories of youth…

              We are waiting. Mickey elbows Dylan and stumbles to his feet, mumbling something incoherent. I glance at Shona, who is wearing her habitual expression of puppy dog longing. ‘Take me!’ it says.

              Dylan shrugs before shambling off after Mickey. He calls over his shoulder, ‘I’ll bring us back some chips’, then he’s gone, plunged into the throng that’s gathered for this year’s headliners ‘Continuum’, whose gear is just being set up.

              Shona looks at me pink faced. She leans forward and grips my arm. ‘Maz-has Dylan said anything about Mickey and me?’

              I don’t want this. I don’t want another ‘does Mickey care about me?’ discussion.

              On stage, the roadies are threading cables around the platform and repositioning parts of drum kit. I take a bottle of sun lotion from my bag and unscrew the top, squirt a little on to my finger, inhaling the coconut smell as I spread it over my forearms. I offer the bottle to her. ‘You should cover up, Shona,’ I warn her, ‘the sun is stronger than you think.’

              With her fair skin and white blond hair she could burn in a rainstorm, but she shakes her head. ‘Tell me’, she pleads. ‘What’s Mickey said about me?’

              I’m scanning the surrounding crowd now for Dylan’s large, reassuring bulk to reappear with the chips and it’s getting tricky keeping this space with standing, jostling fans closing in around us. How will Dylan and Mickey find us? The ‘Metallica’ T-shirt they tied to Shona’s umbrella as a marker is submerged and in a moment I’m going to surrender to claustrophobia so I get to my feet like everyone else. I lean down to her.

              ‘Can we talk about this later, Shona? We need to pick our stuff up and get ready for Continuum. If we hold up the umbrella the boys will see it.’

              Shona didn’t come for Continuum. On the train she’d played no part in the argument about which of their two albums was better or whether the new bass player was any good. She hadn’t joined in with any of the songs and had admitted to not owning any of the band’s music. Shona is here because of Mickey. Mickey is barely aware of her existence.

              She is up at last and I can pull the rug up, roll it and stuff it in my bag. I turn to her. ‘Look!’ I shout, ‘the announcer is on stage. They must be ready to come on! Where have those boys got to?’ I squeeze the T-shirt clad umbrella under my arm and stand on tiptoes, straining to see above the mass of bodies.

              ‘Maz’ she persists. ‘What do you think I should do?’

              I want to swat her like an irritating fly now and I’m mad at Mickey for leaving her with me. ‘What do you mean, ‘do’? Just enjoy the band, Shona, like everyone else. It’s what we came for.’

              But she is not to be distracted. ‘You and Dylan,’ she says, her voice raised to a plaintive squeak above the burgeoning excitement of the fans, ‘You’re so good together. I want that for Mickey and me. I want us to be a proper couple like you are.’

              I turn on her. ‘Shona, Dylan and I aren’t a ‘couple’. We’re just mates hanging out until we go to uni. We get on ok, that’s all.’

              She stumbles a bit, jostled by fans behind her and turns to throw them a furious look. ‘All I want is Mickey. I want him to marry me.’

              I stare at her. How can she be so deluded?

              There is a roar and as I stretch to see over the heads in front I spot Jacob Rimmer, the band’s vocalist and frontman running on to the stage. He takes the mike from its stand and bounces to the front. ‘Hello Wilchester!’ he calls and is met with a deafening din from the hoards below. I’m grinning with the infection of the thrill as the remainder of them run on to take their places. ‘Are you ready for Continuum?’ he hectors and the response is an ear-splitting bellow.

              At this moment Dylan reappears, pushing through, head and shoulders above most of them. He’s cradling three polystyrene boxes like babies in his arms and my relief is about more than chips. He hands us a box each as the first, pulsing drum beats herald the first number, prompting us to grin at each other like idiots then we’re nodding, stamping and hollering along with everyone else in between hot, greasy mouthfuls. I love this. I love the shared adulation, the belonging, the elation of knowing all the songs and joining in companionable singalong. It is all at an end too soon, even with two encores.

              As the crowd begins to thin I realise I’d forgotten about Shona but she’s still there, behind us, looking kind of droopy, as if she won a holiday and it was to Skegness. Dylan reaches out and grasps her round the neck, pulling her to him in a clinch. ‘What did you think of THAT then, Shona-lona?’ he bawls, ignoring the woodenness of her response and the tears that are making their way down wet channels on her face.

              ‘Where’s Mickey?’ Shona hiccups, slumping against Dylan, who has a way of pulling in his chin and frowning when he’s flummoxed, which makes me laugh. Releasing her from the bear hug he shakes his shaggy head. ‘Haven’t seen him.’

              ‘We’ll give him twenty minutes then we’ll need to get the train,’ I tell them, ignoring the girl’s stricken expression. ‘You can wait, Shona if you want but I’m not missing the train home because of him.’

              We’re picking up the chip boxes and collecting our belongings when he reappears, loping towards us, an inane grin hovering around his lips. As he reaches us he folds his gangly frame down on to the ground and motions us to do the same. He stretches out his long legs and leans back on his hands, revealing a ribbon of smooth, tanned stomach in the gap of his between his T-shirt and jeans. His head rolls back and he sighs. ‘Man…’ he slurs, ‘man…. Shona has knelt on the grass beside him but Dylan and I stare down, rucksacks on our backs and still holding the chip boxes.

              Mickey’s unfocused eyes fix on Shona. ‘That was some fantastic shit, man’ and as she kisses him he rolls backwards on to the grass pulling her to him. She’s smiling like she won the lottery.

              ‘Come on, let’s go’ I say to Dylan. He gestures towards Mickey, who is uttering senseless chuckles where he lies with Shona draped over him like an exotic quilt.

              ‘We can’t leave him like this, Maz.’

              ‘He’s got Shona to look after him. I don’t want to miss the train!’

              Dylan hands me his chip box, stoops and grabs Mickey by an elbow, dragging him up, shouting, ‘What did you take, Mick?’ He’s a big guy, Dylan, as tall as Mickey but with a beefy frame. He puts an arm around Mickey’s waist. Shona’s hanging off the other side as if she’s welded to him.

              We make slow progress towards the station, surrounded by thousands of homeward bound fans which makes me wonder if we’ll even get on a train let alone get home but Dylan manages to drag Mickey all the way to the station, up the stairs, on to the platform and at last on to the train where we sink down in a heap by the exit doors.

              It’s nearly Christmas. From my seat on the coach I’m gazing out at the drab towns as it travels southwards. I’m wondering if my choice of St Andrews was a deliberate ploy to get as much distance as possible between my home town and uni. This is my first visit home since I left in September and I’m hoping to help the time to slip away by catching up with friends but my messages and texts to Dylan have not been answered so I suppose he’s been as caught up in university life as I have. I don’t call my parents as often as I should, although the few times I’ve spoken to Mum she’s had no news of any of them-Dylan, Mickey or Shona. The Continuum gig seems a lifetime ago now.

              I’ve left it late to do any Christmas shopping so I struggle up on my first morning at home and walk down into town, where the familiar streets look smaller to me and a little tired; some of the High Street businesses have disappeared or been replaced by charity shops but at least it’s warmer here than in Scotland.

              I’m browsing in the fair trade shop when I think I see Shona. I say ‘think’ because to begin with it’s just the back of her, the signature white hair hanging down like a waterfall but when she turns I get a shock. Her shape has transformed and she has the substantial swell of pregnancy. Before I’ve time to move she’s spotted me and she’s making her way around the display to reach me.

              ‘Maz! It’s great to see you!’ As she leans forward to air-kiss me I’ve an uncomfortable sense of the proximity of her bump, as yet unmentioned. ‘You’re looking,’ I hesitate ‘-well’. She steps back and circles her protruding stomach with her forearms, her eyes dancing with excitement.

              ‘I’m having a baby in March.’

              ‘Congratulations’, I murmur, ‘Is it…?’

 She breaks in. ‘It’s Mickey’s.’

              I’m nodding but I can’t look her in the eye. ‘And are you and Mickey…?’

              She laughs. ‘No, Maz I’m not with Mickey any more. But my baby will have a dad. We’re living with my Mum at the moment but we’re going to get a flat as soon as we’ve got enough money for a deposit.’

              I’m struggling to understand. This is Mickey’s baby but he won’t be the father.

              ‘You met someone when you were pregnant?’ She shakes her head, chuckling.

              ‘No-no one new. I’m with Dylan, Maz. He wants to take on me and the baby, too. He doesn’t care that it’s Mickey’s. He got a job at the DIY store and they might be making him a department manager. You must come round and say hello!’

              Back home in my bedroom I put on my headphones and listen to ‘Every Life’, my favourite Continuum album. Sitting on the edge of my bed, listening to Jacob Rimmer screaming out the lyrics the tears stream down my face. Dylan. Big hearted Dylan. No wonder he didn’t reply to my messages and texts. All this term I’d thought he was at uni and he never even started. I’ve lost him and with him my old life, my home life, my formative life.

              Christmas comes and goes. I go through the motions with my family, the traditional, familiar routines a soothing background to the mourning I feel. Much as I love my family I realise I’m looking forward to getting back to St Andrews now, to throwing myself into the new term.

              At last I’m on the coach, pulling northwards, the January skies leaden and a fitting backdrop for the grey cities we pass and the dreary mood I need to leave behind. I listen to music, read a course book and at some point I sleep. It is late when we pull into the bus station. I stand to pull my rucksack from the rack, shuffle down the aisle to the front and down the steps into Scotland. There is a fine drizzle falling so I lift my face and let the soft mist bathe it, tasting the wet smoky air and I’m smiling. Soon I’ll be back in halls. There’ll be news, gossip, coffee, doors open, laughter, music blaring. This is my new life and I love it.

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/

Back into Oxford-

We’re undertaking a rain spattered bus tour of Oxford, sharing the top deck with a couple from Sidney. This typical British weather won’t be what they’re used to and I’m sad for them- or perhaps it’s a novelty and renders their experience more authentically British?

Our bouncy, enthusiastic guide, Catherine keeps us interested with plenty of anecdotes and by making references to our respective home locations. She knows plenty about everywhere, seemingly and hails from Somerset, herself. As we make our soggy way through the streets and past the individual colleges she provides us with a ‘who’s where’ of writers, artists, politicians, artists and otherwise famous people who attended them. There’s a comical moment when she mentions Boris Johnson and Husband interjects with ‘BOO!’ causing much hilarity from the Australian couple.

We’re not tempted to ‘hop-on-hop-off’, or certainly not to hop off, although the Australian pair alight when we pull into the bus station, taking their wheeled cases with them and off to Scotland, as the woman tells me.

It’s day 2 of our mini stay at the club site just on the outskirts of the city of Oxford and the morning arrives with much improved weather. After our previous day’s soggy walkabout we dined in the local pub- a perfectly acceptable pub meal- and all is well.

For this next day we’re meeting family members at the park and ride and heading back into city for a closer look at some of the colleges and historic buildings. After meeting up we clamber on to a double-decker bus and up the stairs to the top. The front seats are empty! In our dotage, we’ve all regressed to childhood in our delight in sitting on top at the front for the bus ride, enjoying a wonderful sense of almost-vertigo as the tall vehicle rounds corners, lurching like a galleon on the sea, and we’re able to peer down into peoples’ gardens or into top floor windows.

We alight in the city centre. Husband, who has a map, becomes the navigator. As usual I’m having to run to catch up most of the time due to photographing things [Husband has never been one to pause for photographical activities]. We get to look at a lot of things we passed on the ‘open-top’ and viewed through rain-streaked windows but this time the sun is out and even warm.

Today we can take ourselves to a restaurant and enjoy a long, leisurley lunch and we opt for a French bistro down a little side street, https://www.pierrevictoire.co.uk/find-us/. It’s great food in a rustic space that feels comfortable and intimate- ideal for catch-up chats.

There’s more wandering after lunch, although nobody feels like a long hike, or clambering up the ‘motte’ of the old castle which is surrounded by paths and also flanked by the historic jail.

Eventually we’re back at Queen’s College and the little old coffee shop, feeling it would be churlish not to stop for tea and cake before we amble to the bus stop for another lurching, swaying ride back to the park and ride. There’s more tea at the van and we bid our goodbyes. Home tomorrow…

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/

For our first foray by van this year I know I’m bound to forget something and of course, I do. In spite of copious list-making, notes to myself and references to our inventory we get as far as the supermarket before realising I’ve neglected to pack a bottom sheet for the bed. I’d been congratulating myself on even remembering the bedding itself- having once forgotten all of it- when it dawned on me, half way down the first aisle of Saunsbury’s. But all was not lost and I picked up a perfectly serviceable cotton sheet in the bedding aisle for £6 [a spare, white cotton, fitted sheet is always useful].

The weather is kind and it feels good to be off in the van- even if only for a couple of days and not very far. We’re going to Oxford, a mere two of hours away, to a site we’ve stayed in before which is conveniently next to the ‘park and ride’. Oxford is notorious for its lack of parking, snarled up streets and throngs of sightseers, making bus travel into city essential.

For non UK readers, Oxford is well known for its historic, 900 year old university and has been called ‘city of dreaming spires’, a description coined by the poet Matthew Arnold. The beautiful college buildings are spread over a wide area, some open to visitors to wander inside the gate and gawp at the splendid quadrangles in honey-coloured stone. Oxford has been a popular film location for many years, providing the set for Harry Potter films and much of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, among other productions.

First we settle into our pre-booked pitch and have a gentle wander around our immediate locale, where there’s a weir and canal boats moored. The site is almost always busy but we’re here mid-week. A weekend stay would be impossible in this popular spot. In the evening we stroll along the main road to the nearest pub, which is perfectly adequate for an evening meal next day.

The next day we wake to a gloomy start, with grey clouds and an ominous sky. This does not bother the ducks on the grass outside the van, who wait for the staff member to unlock the office and head inside to pester him for breakfast- a well-rehearsed morning ritual.

But we’re not too downhearted, as for the time being we’re not going to walk much and had already planned to use the open-top bus. It’s a strategy we sometimes employ for looking at cities, giving us a chance to choose what we’ll come back to and providing us with an interesting [hopefully] and informative narrative.

We get to use our [oldies’] bus passes for the journey into town then, having located the bus tour office we clamber on and up. We’re fortunate. The covered area at the front of the bus has only two occupied seats. Catherine, our guide follows us upstairs. We’ve earphones but they’re not necessary as she’s sitting behind us!

Regular readers will have learned about Elton, our reluctant guide on Cape Verde [https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/118951799/posts/4623291456] but Catherine is everything that Elton was not; well-informed, enthusiastic, engaging and fun. Our top deck just has ourselves, an Australian couple and herself so we can sit back and enjoy the ride, the stories and the views through the rain-streaked windows…

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/

Spring Fiction 3

This week’s post features a third tale from the archive- one that is based on a true story told to me by the Milo character!

Bella and Roly

     It is inevitable that at the very moment she appears over the small hillock Milo is bending to attend to a small, neat pile of excrement, fumbling as he packs it into the plastic bag he has reversed over his wrist, tying the ends together and looking around for a waste bin. In the absence of this facility he clasps the bag in both hands behind his back, attempting to match Bella’s attentive exploration of a clump of grass by perusing the horizon. A miniature speed boat is making a dash towards Christchurch harbour, its droning hum and distant splash barely claiming his attention. When she draws nearer he is able to appreciate today’s outfit; Capri pants and a sleeveless, black, polo-necked top. ‘All very Audrey Hepburn’, he thinks. He has perfected the art of scrutinizing with one eye whilst pretending to look elsewhere with the other, or so he imagines.

    She stops for a moment to call Roly, who emerges from the undergrowth like an attack vehicle, heedless of the prickly gorse and bounds along the path towards and past her, having perceived, doubtless by nose that Bella is nearby. The little westie realizes and makes for Milo, her protector, cowering behind his ankles so that he can just spot the black tip of her nose poking from between them. Roly, brazen in his interactions, lopes up to them both and attempts to thrust his course, brown nose through from the front, eliciting a laughing remonstration from his owner.

“Roly! That’s not very polite, is it?”                                                                                         

    Milo manages a weak smile which he knows must look imbecilic. He is unable to fend off the giant, woolly poodle whilst hanging on to the plastic bag. Deciding it would look odd to bring one hand around to the front and leave the other behind his back, he stays in position to be buffeted and slobbered upon by the ignorant Roly. He makes an attempt to reconfigure his smile, succeeding only in achieving a leering grin as he senses a trickle of sweat running down the side of his face. By now Roly has begun to express interest in the bag, meaning that he will have to ‘come clean’ in more ways than one. She comes to his rescue.

“Roly, GET OFF! Oh, I’m so sorry. Let me help you.” She leans down, treating him to a view of her neck in all its slender vulnerability, strands of blond hair sliding across it like silk. He must speak now or be forever categorized in her head as a simpleton or mute. She has grasped the dog’s collar and is tugging him away.

“Ah go on, you’re alright. He’s only being friendly, aren’t you lad, eh?” Too late Milo reaches to touch the top of the poodle’s head, revealing the swinging bulge of plastic bag. She asks, “Can I get rid of that for you?” and before he realizes she has whisked the bag from his hand and dragged an unwilling Roly across to a waste bin on the other side of the path, which he has overlooked in his preoccupation.

“Thanks. I didn’t’t see it, the bin there, must be going blind,” he says and sifts through his mental reference of small talk for some gem of conversation to keep her on the path a little longer. She lets go of Roly’s collar and returns, bending down to Bella.

“Oh, she’s so sweet!” she coos. “How old is she?”

Milo feels more confident now, drawn on the subject of his little dog.

“Sure she’s only a year-just had her birthday, didn’t you Bella?”                                                                     

________________________________________________________________________

    A few days later Milo is driving to Alfred’s office to deliver some drawings. He whistles through his teeth in time to the bronchial rattle of windscreen wipers and glances in the mirror to check on Bella in her customary position on the parcel shelf. Milo reflects on the progress he has made since last week, checking off newly discovered facts. He now knows her name; Louise. He practises saying it. “Louise”, prompting Bella to shift her gaze, pricking her ears in curiosity. He knows where Louise lives; an immaculate cliff top ‘des res’ with stunning views of the bay. He knows that she has a son who is away at boarding school; that she is married. Why is it that on the very few occasions he has ever met desirable women they are always attached? Or is it that he is only attracted to attached women? No, this can’t be true, as he becomes attracted first, before he discovers the attachment, unless, of course married women exude some mysterious, chemical element that ensnares unwary single men.

    He pulls in to Alfred’s yard, takes the document case from the back seat and calls to Bella, who hops out and follows him through the drizzle into the office. Draughtsman work has always provided him with an adequate income, although since his divorce from Diana he doesn’t enjoy the lifestyle he used to have. He feels no resentment about this state of affairs, having assumed the blame for it long ago, but he experiences a pang of inferiority when he thinks of Louise’s husband, Stewart, a banker who travels the worldfor his commodities trading, whatever that is.

————————————————————————————————————

    During the next couple of weeks a routine develops in which Milo takes Bella out most afternoons and it is understood that they will meet Louise and Roly. He is not sure how this routine has evolved, but is thrilled that it has. The walks, he notices are becoming longer, making him later home, but now that the evenings are lighter he is able to work on his drawings until late, so he is unwilling to curtail them.

   On one such afternoon he arrives with Bella at their usual meeting place, stomach churning in anticipation, and loiters on the path, leaning on a bench seat. There is a small, brass plaque in the middle of the backrest. ‘In memory of Connie Blakely’ it reads, ‘1910-1989. She loved this spot’. Absorbed as he is by the sunshine, the views and his thoughts, he fails for once, to notice Louise’s arrival, so that she is there, next to him like an unexpected apparition.

“Hi there!” she greets him. Her voice is almost breathless, seeming on the verge of laughter. Today she is wearing a pale yellow sundress, the thin, shoestring straps allowing tanned shoulders to be displayed. Milo knows something about fashion in all its descriptive detail, from having listened to the trivial banter of his two daughters.

He turns towards her, the stirring he always senses in her presence beginning uncomfortably early, and nods.

“Ah, you’ll have been taking advantage of this weather then? You’ve got the makings of a good tan there”. She smiles. Her eyes are hazel, and one has a small fleck in the corner which might be regarded by some as a flaw, but to Milo it only adds to her loveliness, contributing a kind of vulnerability, making him want to…..

    The moment is shattered by a high pitched shrieking that splits the air in two and renders any conversation pointless. They turn round together, the sight that meets their eyes one of abject horror, one that will haunt Milo in his thoughts and in his sleep for weeks to come. Roly and Bella are locked together like a single, demented creature, the monstrous, woolly poodle almost entirely encasing the little terrier as he pumps away into her and snarls a drooling, lascivious grimace while beneath him the smaller dog is wailing and yapping. Louise gasps and dives towards the pair. She moves to grasp Roly by the collar but is repelled by his snapping. She shouts his name in a futile attempt to dislodge him. Milo, feeling sick now, moves behind the couple to try and pull the larger dog off, an action that proves hopeless. The two humans can only stand back and watch in silent revulsion, waiting until the awfulness is over, the shrieking subsides into a pitiful whimper and Roly has disengaged himself with a self-satisfied grunt, loping off into the undergrowth with a callous air of indifference.

   Aghast, Milo lunges for Bella, who is still crying, though rooted to the spot, and picking her up, without any word or thought, runs with her back the way he has come, back to the main road and on, not drawing to a halt until he gains the sanctuary of his own shabby front garden. He rustles in his pocket for his house key, fumbling, hampered by the small dog tucked under his arm, manages to get the key into the lock and enter, slams the door with his foot and leans against it, as if under siege.

   As his heavy breathing subsides he takes stock of the situation. Although Bella’s cries have settled to a whine she is trembling. He takes her through to the kitchen with a view to getting her some water but as soon as he lowers her to the floor she scuttles under the cupboard where she remains, continuing to complain in an almost accusatory fashion. He spends the greater part of an hour lying on the floor attempting to coax her out before giving up and deciding he needs a drink. He pours a generous slug of Irish whisky-a Christmas present from his daughter Siobhan, then wanders into his living room and sinks onto the settee, exhausted.

————————————————————————————————————

  Seated with Bella in the vet’s waiting room, Milo peruses the various posters advertising vitamin supplements or advocating inoculations. There are only two other patients besides Bella. One is an elderly, depressed-looking cat with a strange, milky eye, the other unidentifiable due to occupying a small cage, but presumably a diminutive rodent. Normally Bella would be demonstrating her disgust at having to attend the surgery by growling and barking in a sharp, irritating way, but since what Milo terms in his mind ‘the assault’ of two days ago she has been quiet, even the whimpers having settled into silence. Now, in the waiting room she sits, mute on his lap and makes no effort to bully the grey cat or poke her nose into the hamster cage.

“Mr Doyle?”

When Milo takes the little dog into the surgery she shrinks to the farthest edge of the table so that a protective hand is needed to prevent her from sliding off. The vet, apleasant woman in her forties, smiles encouragement.

“What can we do for you today?”

It only takes moments to relate the story, although Milo has had to rehearse it in his head on the way in order to find appropriate words for the vile act. The woman is used, however to embarrassed dog-owners and puts him at ease with her matter-of-fact response, questioning him and nodding whilst stroking the top of Bella’s head. She inspects the terrier and pronounces her generally in good health and no harm done.

“But what if she’s conceived?” Milo asks.

“Well” she begins, “She may be pregnant, but it’s too early to tell yet. The problem is she’s really too young to whelp, barely a puppy herself. We usually prefer bitches to be a little older before they have a litter. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. She will recover from the upset of it all, of course. In the meantime just treat her as normal, offer her food, walk her and so on. If she is expecting you’ll need to have her looked at-and of course you’ll need all the help you can get!”

————————————————————————————————————

   It is three weeks before Milo can summon up the courage to walk Bella on the cliff top path. She is almost her old self again in all respects bar one. She is expecting puppies. He has started out at the time he would have left if he’d been anticipating a meeting with Louise. He does this without any notion of what he will do if he sees her. Part of him dreads seeing her, part of him is desperate to, yet this anomaly is not to be resolved today, since he and Bella are almost alone on the cliff top, a situation that induces both relief and disappointment. Sitting on ‘Connie’s’ bench and looking out at Old Harry Rocks he speculates that she may be away on one of their frequent trips to St Lucia. This being the case, Roly would be incarcerated in the upmarket kennels she has mentioned, a fitting sentence for one guilty of such a violation, he decides. Walks have become as uneventful as they were before he first saw her, not unpleasant but without anticipatory excitement or post-walk, lingering lust. He misses her.

________________________________________________________________________

    It is to be three more weeks before he sees her again. June is living up to its flaming reputation, the sun producing a shimmering haze on the horizon, beads of sweat on his back and a lumbering waddle from swelling, tubby Bella. Spotting Roly first, his heart leaps in exhilaration before lurching into the depths as he remembers that his sartorial standards have slipped during her absence and he has pulled on his most disreputable shorts, a stained vest and a pair of worn loafers. Then she is there, an apparition in blond and gold, adorned in a stripy, halter-necked top and matching shorts, her laughing grin and enthusiastic wave causing him to forget all that has passed. He has stopped on the path and Bella has taken the opportunity to lie down, panting hard, tongue lolling out. Roly gives her no more than a passing sniff as he lopes past. ‘Will she notice Bella’s condition?’ wonders Milo, ‘Or will I tell her?’

————————————————————————————————————

    Milo will always say, when recalling the night that Bella’s puppies arrived, that no event in his life has been so exhausting or so stressful, even including the nights he spent years ago rocking his new born children. After all, one small baby cannot possibly demand as much attention as seven blind, mewling, squirming pups. It is difficult to say who was more traumatised by the experience, he or Bella but by the time the last tiny creature has emerged, wet fur plastered to its slippery, little form, both man and dog are spent. During the next few hours the vet’s warnings are proved to be justified in that Bella wants nothing to do with the tiny, squeaking things and takes herself to the furthest corner of the makeshift run he has constructed in her attempt to be free of them. Milo, left with the task of hand rearing the puppies, lacks the time or energy to daydream about Louise and has no opportunity to either work or sleep. Help is subsequently forthcoming from Siobhan, who drops in one evening to find her father slumped on the floor asleep with a recently fed, somnolent pup on his lap and offers to take a turn with the two-hourly feeds.

    After three weeks, when Milo and Siobhan have begun to feel that they have never executed anything else except this ceaseless round of feeding, cleaning up and mothering the squalling litter of puppies, Bella’s progeny have begun to explore their immediate environment, tumbling on top of each other in interactive play. They are balls of caramel coloured fluff, impossible to tell apart; four males and three females. Now that they can be left for short periods Milo can resume his drawing work and take Bella out walking, an activity that she is happy to return to since it removes her from the seven small beings she loathes and resents the most.

    Seated at his drawing board ready to begin work one afternoon, he takes a pencil from the tray, feels the sharpness of the point and begins to apply some shading to the curved side of a pipe joint. The doorbell rings; an irritation. He is scowling as he hops off the stool to answer the door, a blurred shape like a distorted photo in the glass.

“Am I disturbing you?”

He flounders as he grapples with a mixture of disbelief, pleasure and embarrassment, eventually finding his voice.

“Not at all. Come in, why don’t you? Did you want to see the pups then?”

The puppies’ enclosure dominates the kitchen so that it is necessary to sidestep around it to gain access to the cooker, sink and worktops. Louise climbs into the pen, exclaiming in delight and scoops up a yapping, fluffy ball.

“Will you have some tea?” Milo has made it to the kettle.

“Please,” she nods without turning round, the puppy nestled against her. Her dress is one of those garments that starts pale at the top and darkens towards the hem, sky blue turning to azure.

“What are you going to do with them?” she asks, “I’d love to take one, when they’re ready of course. And I feel awful about the trouble you’ve had. It must have affected your work and everything. We wanted to try to make up for it, if we can. I had an idea.”

————————————————————————————————————

    It is late summer. Milo leans on the balcony rail outside his new studio and watches the afternoon ferry as it inches away across the channel. Behind him Bella and her son, Fergus doze together in a basket, companionable now that Fergus has ceased the demands of puppyhood and Bella is protected from further mishap by the ministrations of the vet. Milo thinks he will go down and make tea soon, although he is still overcoming the awkwardness he feels whenever he uses their designer kitchen. In only a week she will be back, presenting him with the now customary dilemma of proximity and longing. But for now the ferry, pinkish with late afternoon sun vanishes over the horizon as he stretches and yawns with something that almost resembles contentment. 

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/

Spring Fiction 2

This week’s post is another vintage story from my archive…

After Hilda

            I was shocked. I thought it was my Hilda, kneeling there, her head all sort of bent over, her neck stalk thin with her hair hanging down the side of her face; the same as my Hilda, only it couldn’t be, could it?  Because Hilda passed away three years ago.

I’d been minding my own business, doing my walk like I always do, like Hilda said I had to.

“Mind you keep fit, Arthur,” she said, so I go out every day, mornings mostly because its light and I’m not too tired. It’s always the same route – along the top, down the path, back along the promenade and up by the café. That’s the tricky part, the climb back up. I stop for a rest before I start uphill. That’s when I saw her, when I went to sit down; a woman, kneeling down by a big suitcase, still, like a statue.

            When I calmed down, I realised of course it wasn’t Hilda. This woman wasn’t clean and smart. She was unkempt. Her hair was straggly, greasy looking. I couldn’t see what she was doing there on the promenade, kneeling beside a suitcase.

            I’ve kept myself to myself since Hilda went. I do my bit of shopping, read the paper, keep the place tidy, watch the telly. But I couldn’t walk past this woman. I thought she must be in trouble so I asked her. I said “Are you alright?”

            I could see the glints of her eyes through her hair, looking up and sideways.  I knew she heard me.

“Do you need help?” I said.

This time her head moved a fraction and she spoke, not very loud. I had to lean forwards to catch the words.

“Get lost. I don’t like men”.

 When she said ‘men’ she made it sound dirty, like it was a swear word.

            I was taken aback. I know I’m not the most wonderful specimen of manhood that ever was, but I’ve done my best in life. Hilda never complained, not even when I had to do everything for her, at the end.

            She couldn’t be comfortable, knees on the hard concrete with the wind whipping round and making dust blow all over her. I know I should have carried on with my walk but it made me feel awkward, as if a parasite had got inside my head. I’m from a generation when you were supposed to take care of women, hold doors open, take their coats, be a knight in shining armour. I thought I’d give it one more go then I’d carry on home and make a pot of tea.

            “Oh, I’m not all that much of a man,” I told her, because I’m not, these days. “Are you looking for somewhere to stay? There are a number of guest houses along the cliff top. I haven’t stayed in any myself, but I’m sure they are clean and comfortable; better than here, at any rate.”

            I could tell she was building up to speak again from the way the strands of hair blew away from her head. She didn’t so much speak as spit and the words came out like they’d been shot from an air rifle. “Piss off!” she spat, and her head dropped again.

            By now I was beginning to feel the cold. I decided to call it a day. I said goodbye and trudged up the path towards home, where a pair of slippers, a cuppa and that programme about clearing out the attic beckoned.

            The next time I saw her was at the bank. It was my club night and I had to nip into the lobby to get some money for a pint. I go out once a week on a Friday to the club same as always; Hilda’s instructions again. I follow all her advice. I nearly decided to stay in though, because it was one of those nights when it’s so cold it feels like someone’s stabbing you. Anyway I went in and she was there, kneeling on the carpet this time, which is an improvement on the concrete in the promenade shelter, at least.

            There was no-one else in the lobby but I know the bank has one of those camera things so they can keep an eye on what goes on. They must have known she was there.

“We meet again,” I said. I make it a rule to carry on being polite to people however they are to you. She did that little head movement thing that showed she heard.

            I walked to the machine, put my numbers in and waited for it to present me with the notes. I like to tuck them away before I leave the lobby. You don’t know who’s watching when you get into the street. It came to me then. I knew from the Evening Echo there was a homeless shelter on the other side of town, a place run by volunteers from a church, I thought. I went over to her.

              “Listen, I’m sorry I don’t know your name, did you realise there’s a place where you can sleep the night, all clean and warm? You’d be safe there. Anyone could walk in here and I know its inside but it’s still blooming freezing! If you like I’ll get you a taxi. The driver will know where it is.” I had a tenner in my hand, one of the notes I’d just withdrawn and I waved it at her.

            Well that caught her attention, that ten pound note. It was the first time I’d really seen her face. It was leathery, weather-beaten skin; like it was painted with all life’s tough experiences; but there was something else on that face- a sly little gleam in her eye.

            “I don’t want to go to no shelter. There’s men there.”

I shrugged. I couldn’t argue. Without doubt there would be men there, although there must also be people in charge, making sure no harm was done.

            Something made me persist. Perhaps it was that she reminded me of Hilda, or just that I couldn’t go against the old-fashioned manners I was brought up with. I pulled out another tenner, thinking I’d have to forgo the second pint, but I’d put up with that. I held up both the notes.

“I’ll get you a taxi and you can have a proper meal and a bed for the night.”

            She was interested. She didn’t look at me but couldn’t take her eyes off the money in my hand.  “I don’t like people bossing me about.”

            This was getting to be hard work. “I’m not bossing. I’m trying to help you. Look, there’s a cab rank across the road. I’ll get one over.”

            It seemed like she was going to agree because she started zipping up the suitcase so I opened the door and waved at the first cabbie in the line. When he pulled in I leaned in and explained what I wanted him to do. Give him his due, he was willing, considering she wasn’t the cleanest passenger he could take, and he knew where the shelter was. He even stepped out to help with the case; but when he bent to pick up the handle she jumped up and flew at it.

“Don’t fucking touch that, it’s my stuff. Nobody touches my things, right?”

            We looked at each other, the cabbie and me. It was like we were two RSPCA men off ‘Animal Rescue’ trying to save an injured cat. He held his hands up to show he meant no harm. “Alright love,” he said, “but this gentleman” he looked at me “has made a very kind offer. You won’t do any better tonight.”

            So between us we got her into the taxi, and she did allow the bloke to lift her case into the boot. I gave her one of the notes and handed the other to the driver. “And keep the change, mate” I told him. She reached inside her coat to tuck the money away, looking furtive like a squirrel burying a nut, and I saw a glossy card hanging around her neck on a purple ribbon; a bus pass.

            I felt like I’d been had. I’d assumed she’d got no money for transport.  I wanted to ask her why she couldn’t just go to the homeless shelter on the bus but I realised it was too late now. I closed the door. The cabbie gave me a ‘thumbs up’. “You’re a good man” he said before he swung the cab round the mini roundabout and set off down the high street. I stayed watching, although it didn’t get very far.

            When it drew level with the Co-op I saw it pull into the parking bay. The driver got out, went to the back, pulled out the case, opened the passenger door. She climbed out. For a moment I felt like I was watching one of those sketches on the telly they used to do without words. Ronnie Barker did some.

            As the car drove away I sort of shrivelled into the nearest shop doorway. I forgot to feel cold, I was so curious to see what she’d do. She started trundling the case back towards me; head down facing the ground like she’d dropped some change, and right on past my doorway to the bank. She lifted one hand off the handle of the case and pushed the lobby door open then she went back inside, pulling the case behind her.

            I must have stood there for a few minutes staring at the closed door of the lobby, trying to get my head round what I’d seen and what a mug I am. If Hilda had still been alive she’d have had something to say about it. I can imagine her now, telling me what a silly old fool I am; but it was done.

Stan was already on his second pint, standing in his customary position at the bar when I got to the club.

“You’re late” he said.

            I ordered my beer and drank most of it before I told him what had happened. Stan and I have been mates for years; since we started together as apprentice sparkies –so long ago it seems like a history book now. He’s a good listener though, and he didn’t interrupt. When I finished he just laughed. He said I should put it down to experience; then he told me a funny story about a boy scout who got told off for coming home late for his tea. The boy told his mum he was late because he was helping an old lady across the road. The mother said, “Why would that make you late?” and the scout replied “She didn’t want to go.”

            He’s got that knack of cheering people up, Stan has, which is why we’ve been mates for so long.

            I had plenty of time to think about it all over the next few days. I even saw her on the bus a couple of times, fiddling with the strap on her case and muttering, although I steered clear and sat as far away as possible. In the end I rang the number for the homeless shelter, thinking they might be able to shed some light on what she was up to. The lady I spoke to, Polly, laughed when I described ‘Suitcase Sally’ to her. That’s what I’d started calling her, in my head; Suitcase Sally.

            “Oh, so you’ve met our Elsie, have you?” she said. “Yes, she is a crafty old bird; uses every trick, that one. She does sleep here occasionally but she has to be desperate because she can’t stand anyone of the male gender. No-one knows why. Some ghastly experience in the past I suppose.”

            She told me some more about the shelter, this Polly. She sounded a pleasant person. I pictured her, plump, motherly, red-cheeked and cheerful, like that Lorraine Kelly who does a talk show. When I told her how I’d only wanted to help Elsie she made me feel less of an idiot.

            “Don’t worry. You did all you could, Arthur.”

            Then she said if I was concerned about the homeless in my area, why didn’t I visit the shelter, meet some of the volunteers, see what they do and think about giving them a hand? She said I needn’t decide right then, I could think about it and call her again. There were different jobs to do, not all dealing directly with the down-and-outs; driving, cleaning up, a bit of maintenance.

            I went out for my walk, following my same old route, stuck in the old, familiar rut. I thought about how Hilda had needed me in the last months before she passed away but afterwards I became useless, a spare part.

            I walked quicker than usual, not stopping for a sit down, either. I was keen to get home and ring Polly. I’m going to be a volunteer at the homeless shelter. I don’t know what Hilda would say if she knew but I hope she’d understand and perhaps even be just a little bit proud.

Spring Fiction 1

Travel tales are temporarily held up at the moment. During the hiatus I’m posting some of the oldest short stories I’ve accumulated and which litter my computer like a a motorway verge. Here’s the first, and it IS a little travel related:

Margaret’s Night Out

              I got home even later than usual the other night. I always like to take my time. I suppose you’d say I dawdle, unlike setting out in the mornings, when I rush off like a rat up a drainpipe, to use one of dad’s expressions. It’s not that I ever oversleep. It’s that my workplace, well, that’s my favourite place in the world. I can never wait to get there. I love everything about it, from the warm, homely smell of the fresh baked bread, to the cackling laughter of my two workmates, Pam and Vi; from the noisy bustle and jangling shop bell to the colourful rows of regimented doughnuts and cherry bakewells standing to attention in sugary limbo until bagged and ready for action.

              Like I said, I was a bit late and as soon as I stepped into the porch I could tell he was rattled, as normally he calls out to me.

“Is that you Margaret?” he will say, which is daft for a start, because who else is it going to be?

If the BBC News at Six begins in my absence my dad has no one to share his disgust and outrage with, no one to acquiesce to his views, nod in conformity and admire the wisdom of his analysis. I put on my cheeriest smile before opening the living room door.

“Alright, Dad?” realising, of course, that he wouldn’t be. He was scowling at the TV set, a bitter cloud of resentment hanging around his Parker Knoll armchair.

“Why are you so late?” he growled, still fixed on the screen.

“We were short of a few things, so I stopped off at Palmer’s. I’m getting your tea now. A bit of fish do you tonight?”

Ducking into the kitchen before hearing the inevitable moan I grabbed an apron and began peeling potatoes. I couldn’t explain to Dad what had delayed my homecoming, because he’d be bewildered that the allure of the travel agent’s window could be more powerful than the contents of the six o’clock news, especially when accompanied by his own, insightful comments. Those advertised destinations stir me with their exotic promise; their glamorous names resonate in my head: Goa, Madeira, Indonesia, Bali, Madagascar. Whilst there is no question that I will ever journey beyond the boundaries of this country I am a traveller in my imagination, voyaging wherever a travel guide, a brochure, my armchair or my dreams transport me.

An urgent ring of the telephone jerked me from my reverie, so that I dropped the peeler into the saucepan to answer it.

“Hello Margaret. How are you? Is Dad there?”

I noted the usual lack of pause between enquiry into my wellbeing and the unnecessary query as to Dad’s whereabouts and took the phone through, mouthing ‘Frank’ as I passed it to him. From the kitchen where I’d resumed supper duties I could hear my father pontificating on the failings of this government and the dreadful consequences of not reintroducing National Service. When I returned to retrieve the handset I was surprised to learn that my brother was still on the line, wishing to speak to me, an occurrence likely to contribute further to Dad’s displeasure.

“Yes Frank. What’s up?”

“I thought I’d sound you out first, Margaret, before the old man knows. I’ve been offered early retirement. It’s too good to refuse, so Bev and I, we’ll be moving out to our place in La Cala in June. This house is already on the market but we don’t need to stay. The agent can handle it. We thought perhaps when we’ve sorted ourselves out you could bring Dad for a visit. I know how you like your holiday programmes, Margaret. Come and see the real thing, you and Dad, eh?”

Thinking of nothing appropriate to say in reply I made non committal murmurings before replacing the phone in its dock. La Cala did not figure amongst the intriguing and desirable places jostling together in the maps of my dreams. It lay amongst the sprawling conurbation surrounding Benidorm and accommodated countless communities of ex-pats, whiling away their days on the tennis courts and their evenings in the bars. I recoiled at the idea of visiting alone, let alone taking my father, who is demanding enough to care for at home. I could hear him calling me then, a note of annoyance accelerating into exasperation in the repetition of my name.

“What did he want then, Frank?’”

“He was just asking what you might like for your birthday”. Taking a moment to absorb this he shook his head.

“Frank knows what I like. Dunno why he’d need to be asking you!”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Shall I put one of your Dad’s Army’s on? You like those.” He grunted in the affirmative and was soon engrossed in his favourite DVD, part of a box set Frank had bought him for Christmas.

Settling down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and the latest ‘Hercules Tours’ brochure I ran my fingers over the glossy cover where a photo of the Taj Mahal at sunset called to me like a siren to a sailor.

 At work next morning we were sorting out the delivery, stacking the shelves, lining up the pasties under the counter when the door opened and hot Rod walked in. That isn’t his real name, not the ‘hot’ part anyway; just what Pam and Vi call him. He’s working on the shop conversion next door. Vi nudged me, an ostentatious wink distorting her round, pink face.

“Customer, Margaret!”

I put Rod’s custard Danish into a bag and gave him his change, waiting for him to leave before turning to look at the girls, who were leaning against the loaf slicer, tears of laughter welling up and about to flood the shop.

“Tell you what”, declared Pam, “If I was single there’d be no stopping me. You could do a lot worse Margaret, couldn’t she Vi?”

Vi nodded, adding an ambiguous “Or even if she wasn’t single”. Vi never made a secret of her unhappy marriage to Den, whose unsavoury exploits she’d frequently described.

“Have you thought any more about the quiz night on Friday, Margaret, up at the snooker club? We could do with you on our team, with you knowing so much about countries, capitals and all that. Do you good to get out, too. Your dad can cope for a couple of hours, can’t he? My Kevin will come and pick you up. “

These two women have invited me out more times than I’ve made ham sandwiches and I’d always declined, citing my father as a reason, but for once I felt a bubble of rebellion growing inside and heard myself say, “Alright. Why not?” to the flabbergasted looks of my friends.

              At home I scrutinised the contents of my narrow wardrobe, hoping to discover some forgotten item that might be suitable for an evening out, but the occupants of the hangers retained a resolute familiarity in their service as work clothes. I could not recall the last time I’d been to a social gathering, still less the outfit I’d have worn. Perhaps I should buy something new, although I was forced to acknowledge that dressing for Friday’s outing was the least of my problems.

              I waited until Thursday evening to broach the subject. I made sure I was home before six, made his favourite liver and bacon for supper, agreed that Frank had done very well for himself and was the best son anyone could have. Once this eulogy had subsided I took a breath.

“I’m going out tomorrow night, Dad. Pam from work’s invited me to a quiz. She and her partner are picking me up at seven.”

Although I’d taken pains not to blurt it out in a rush, my announcement rang with triumphant accomplishment as if I’d entered into high society, like Eliza Doolittle going to the races. I felt myself redden as he turned to look at me, something he rarely does, a small, perplexed frown knotting his brow.

“Pam from work?”

Keeping my resolve, I maintained the cheerful smile, while I began to bluster in an attempt to mitigate the awful consequences my absence would bring about.

“I’ll do your supper, Dad, before I go and I’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need to hand. You can always phone me if there’s an emergency. I won’t be late back so I’ll be here for bedtime as usual.”

He turned away, seeming to sag and shrivel in the chair like a cushion leaking stuffing.

“I’ll be going to bed now, Margaret, if you please.” That was all he said, but whilst I couldn’t escape the feeling of portent his silence carried I was filled with a bullish determination, so that I muttered ‘I AM going out’ repeatedly while I got his Horlicks and made his hot water bottle.

 There was a skittish, party atmosphere in the shop next morning as the girls teased me about the evening to come, a flippant  suggestion from Pam as to whether ‘hot Rod’ might like to join us and a cross-examination from Vi over the intended outfit. The pleasure I normally derived from these exchanges, however was tempered by nagging anxiety, as my morning ministrations had been met by stony, grim faced silence from my father, prompting me to whisper ‘I’m STILL going out’ as I left the house.

              Later, dashing homewards it was difficult to say whether my feverish nerves were due to the impending, unaccustomed jaunt or uneasiness about my father. Letting myself in I sensed a barely perceptible alteration in the atmosphere as if the air held an electrical charge, even though the television was burbling away as usual and Dad ensconced in front of it. I got no response to my ‘alright, Dad?’ or when I brought him the tray bearing his supper, upon which I’d lavished great care and attention.

“Right Dad, I’m going up to get ready now”, I said, but might as well have told it to the TV screen. I went up and began attempting to squeeze myself into a black skirt I’d last worn about eighteen months ago and which had seemed a good idea for the quiz outing until I tried the recalcitrant zip. Gearing up for one last tug I was holding my breath and wrenching in my girth when I caught the sound of a thud from below. I let go of the zip and nipped out to the landing, skirt sagging round my hips. Beneath me at the foot of the stairs lay my father, prone, limbs flopping like a rag doll. I ran down. My heart beat with a strident pounding that throbbed in my chest and ears. Leaning down I noticed a liquid red line emerge from under his head and flow along following the join in the laminate floor. I straightened, stepped over him and into the kitchen. On the table the ‘Hercules Tours’ brochure remained, impassive, bearing a picture of the Taj under a blood red sky. I grabbed the phone and the kitchen towel, sat down on the hall floor. I lifted his head gently onto the towel, then my lap, observing the pale, waxy pallor of his skin, the shallow rasp of his breathing. I punched 999 into the phone, gave all the details.

“It’s alright Dad. There’s help coming” I said, as I smoothed the wisp of baby soft hair from his face. His eyelids, papery and almost translucent, trembled and his thin lips jerked to produce a word.

“Margaret?”

“Yes Dad. I’m here. You’re safe. Stay still now, till the ambulance comes.”

His voice quavered as a glint of wetness materialised in the corner of his eye.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Margaret”.

There was a distant sound of a siren now, as the ambulance approached. I looked away from him.

“I know Dad, I know.”

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/

Ready and Waiting

Home is never a bad place to be. In fact, we should feel lucky to have one, when so many do not. And now that the cold of winter has finally lost its grip there are pockets of sunshine between bursts of rain. The garden is waking and those first, bright, lime green shoots are appearing as well as hoards of weeds.

We are, however in house arrest at the moment due to circumstances [ill health] and inevtably we’re wishing we could be off on a travel adventure, as so many others are, according to social media.

Our last big trip was last autumn, to Corsica and Sardinia. On our return, knowing the van would be used much less throughout the winter I did my thorough, interior clean. I have a routine for this. I use a bucket of hot, soapy water. First, I deal with the fridge, taking out the shelves and grills and washing it all. Next I tackle the cooker, sink and worktop before turning my attention to the shelves and drawers inside our larder cupboard.

All cutlery, pans, plates, cups etc are brought indoors to be stacked into the dishwasher before being returned to their [clean] spots. Then it’s the ledges, windows and cab. The front cab is always covered in dust and grime after a lengthy trip. After this I turn my attention to the miniscule shower and toilet.

Lastly there’s the floor, which gets vaccuumed then scrubbed. I take the mats outside, hang them on our garden wall and give them a good bashing to eliminate dust. Of course there are times when rugs etc need replacing.

The exterior is Husband’s responsibility, as are the changes [he likes to call them ‘modifications’] he is always trialling. I have yet to find a good system for storing mugs and glasses that eradicates clinking noises as we travel. I did try florist’s ‘oasis’ foam but it crumbles, leaving a dusty deposit on everything. At the moment the mugs on the shelf travel with tea towels wrapped around them.

Though the van is getting elderly [aren’t we all…] it scrubs up well, is reliable [so far] and won’t be swapped any time soon, although at the moment it is languishing outside our home while we wait for health issues to be resolved…

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/

Dorset Day Trip

The winter sun excursion to Cape Verde was over. I’ve mixed feelings about it as a holiday destination. Yes, there is much to love- the colourful culture, the [mainly] great restaurants and bars, the wide, wild coastline; but also much that is less enjoyable- the constant wind, the too-numerous roaming, wild dogs, the many abandoned building sites, scruffy with litter and dog poop. So, all in all, despite its frequent comparisons to the Caribbean, I’d certainly prefer the West Indies- which is more expensive, of course.

Back at home, we begin to think in terms of campervan trips. Husband enjoys pimping the van, sending for bits and pieces and always looking for ways to enhance van life. After the winter it feels like a good idea to get the van out for some day trips and get back into the swing of using it by some local travel. Even on cold, inclement days it’s a pleasant experience to park up somewhere, preferably with a good view, make some lunch, put the heating on and relax with a book.

So it’s on a grey, gloomy Sunday that we opt to drive out in the van, down the coast westwards to Weymouth for the day. Weymouth is a bit like Bournemouth’s poorer cousin, though the reasons aren’t clear. True, many seaside towns are impoverished and run down but it’s difficult to see why Weymouth would be. It has all the advantage that Bournemouth has, including stunning, sandy beaches. It has a direct rail link to London, albeit further down the line. It has charming, character architecture- including a beautiful Georgian seafront. It has a gorgeous harbour flanked by pretty, pastel coloured buildings; yet so much of the back streets and narrow lanes is unloved and in dire need of restoration.

But first, lunch. We need somewhere to park that does not have a low barrier and will be out of others’ way- and we find it, on the outskirts of the town, a large car park by the nature reserve- perfect! We can have lunch and a walk round the reserve, which has a sizeable lake and reed beds. It’s a short, circular walk but the cormorants are posing.

Then we’re off into town, to the seafront with its iconic clock tower and the sand artist, who has a permanent, sheltered stand these days. I love the buildings along the front, higgledy piggledy and characterful. The old harbour is also picturesque. Years ago there was a wonderful museum at Brewer’s Quay called ‘The Time Walk’ which was thrilling for children of all ages but no longer exists.

Rain has threatened all afternoon but we dash into a coffee shop as it begins to fall, then make our way back to the van for a rain-swept drive home…

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/

Ups and Downs and Endings

This post is a continuation of a travelogue thread on the subject of Cape Verde. Track back to previous posts for the full account…

Our trip to Sal Island, Cape Verde is almost done and we’re undertaking an island tour, driven by our tour guide and driver, Elton. His guiding style consists of driving us somewhere, telling us where we are and opening the doors to let us out. En route, he is engaged with his phone or largely silent. We’ve no clue at all as to where we’ll go or what we’ll view.

Nevertheless we’re seeing places and having experiences, the last [detailed in last week’s post] somewhat unnerving and decidedly soggy.

I survive the incident in the shark-ridden waves, principally by being grabbed at the eleventh hour by the shark watch guide, Girondelo. I’ve been teetering as a large wave approached then he snatches my hand and holds me upright. My camera also survives, which is a stroke of luck; not so my shorts, which are sodden.

When Girondelo signals that we must return to the shore, I realise with dread that there’s another trek over the spiky coral in the thin, rubber shoes I’m wearing, a slog like stepping barefoot over a field of Lego bricks. He repeats his haul of me and my screeching self until we reach the sand- a relief! Husband, in sturdy crocs, has fared better and is only a little damp. Giro wants us to peruse his ‘shop’, to which we acquiesce, On viewing the assorted items on his tiny, wooden stall we select something to grace our naff shelves at home…[https://gracelessageing.com/2018/07/08/the-ghastly-gathering/ ], paying an inflated price, of course, but then I’m still not sure whether he almost drowned me or saved my life…

Elton is, as usual ensconced with his phone in the car, stirring only to open the doors to us and shrugging when I point out my wet shorts will be on his upholstery. We bump along the unmade road once more and off up into some hills where the dusty track is worse still, throwing us all over the place and winding up and up. At the top we draw up, get out and can peer down into a huge basin where there are salt flats. We’ve seen a lot of salt flats but this is quite a spectacle as it’s perfectly framed by the surrounding hills. Above us there is an ancient and decaying structure of wooden planks and beams with wheels and pulleys, presumably for processing and transporting the salt down the hill to the nearby bay. It’s bleak and more windy than ever up here but it’s atmospheric.

There’s not much more to the tour, except for a brief stop at an attractive bay where there’s a pirate-themed bar and restaurant based in an old shipwreck.

Then we’re off back to Santa Maria and our hotel.

With only a day or two left we decide we should find a restaurant in the town for our evening meal, rather than the more local ones we’ve come to know. After looking at Tripadvisor we choose ‘Ocean’, a large, busy place on the main square which gets rave reviews. One side of the establishment is given over to bar, the other to meals. We arrive about 7pm and are led to a table in a corner by the lavatories…hmm…

We order a starter and a main meal from a menu that’s burger and pizza heavy but offers enough choice, at least to cater for my dietary difficulties. After a time the starters come and they’re fine- even too much when we’ve a main meal to follow, so I wrap up my dim sum and stow them in my bag for next day’s lunch. Then we wait…and wait. A glance around at other tables shows that those who’ve come in after us are already on their next courses, also our waiter is entranced by the two diners who’ve just sat down at the table next to us, fist-bumping with them and asking where they’re from [they are French].

During our wait there’s a hiatus and the entire waiting staff do a dance routine to the guitar playing of the musician in the corner- all very slick, but we are definitely wanting our meal now.

It’s been 45 minutes and no sign. Husband collars a passing waiter [not ours] and asks where our meals are. The waiter goes to see. We wait again. I nab another waiter and ask where the food is. Suddenly there’s a flurry of activity and some panicked faces as they scurry in and out of the kitchen. By now we’re aggrieved. We opt to leave, standing up as a woman approaches with two plates. It’s too late and we’re annoyed. We leave the money on the table for our drinks and starter as three of them pursue us, protesting. But it isn’t nice to be neglected in a restaurant.

We start back towards our end of town and plump for a modest but popular place we’ve been to before, where we are served lovely food with a smile. I get my revenge on ‘Ocean’ with my own Tripadvisor review.

Our return flights are to be overnight. We’re lucky to be seated by the emergency exits for the flight to Lisbon- less lucky to be waiting on the tarmac for an hour and a half for the second leg of the journey, resulting in our missing our bus home from GW, London. C’est la vie…

Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/