April Short Fiction 2

Today’s post consists of Part 2 of the story that began last week, ‘In Vino Veritas’, in which we met middle-aged, moody Harris slumped in a corner of the pub and obsessing over one of the bar staff

In Vino Veritas [Part 2]

Realising he should have prepared better, he tries to think of something witty or flirtatious to say before she’s finished serving him but when she turns to place his beer in front of him all he can manage to croak is “Quiet tonight”. She nods, smiling again. “Yep! We might even get off early, you never know!” She’s offered him the card machine now and there are only seconds left until her attention is elsewhere. He clears his throat. “Do you have far to go, you know, to get home?” She’s checking the transaction as she speaks. “No, not far.” Then she’s away, collecting glasses from the counter to take to the washer.

Harris returns to his corner. A couple have come in to stand at the bar and are exchanging pleasantries with Acquaintance. They will have come for a post-performance drink, he thinks, since they’re dressed up and this is about the time the theatre chucks out. Megan is serving them. She’s pretty enough, he thinks, although the dyed, black hair, nose stud and the tattoos are not to his taste and she lacks the magic, luminous magnetism that radiates from Shona, who has not returned from the glass washing area.

He leaves his beer and makes his way through to the men’s room. While it has a cubicle and two urinals, there is barely room to turn around in the narrow space. Randy Andy has compromised on toilets as he does on everything else- ‘except for bar staff’ Harris thinks as he washes his hands. Through the paper-thin partition wall, he catches a drift of conversation, the tinkling, musical voices of young girls. Shona and Megan are gossiping in the alcove by the glass wash. He puts his ear to the wall as his hands drip dry.

“Eugh! Got the perves in tonight then!” [Megan]

“Tell me about it! That short one with the greasy comb-over is so creepy! He’s always staring and when I serve him, he never takes his eyes off my chest!” [Shona]

He stands, frozen by the wash basin, stares into the pock-marked mirror at his thinning hair with its long strands brushed forward to disguise the pink circle in the centre. He places his still damp hands over his burning face and leans against the wall as the door is pushed open and Acquaintance steps into the room, filling up the tight space. Harris drops his hands as the man peers at him. “Are you ok, mate?”

He nods and pushes past Acquaintance, thinking only of escape now. He abandons his half-drunk pint, grabs his coat and scarf and makes for the door, the girls’ cheerful ‘Goodnight!’ ringing in his ears as he stumbles away down the road.

In the cold, night air his stinging cheeks cool as he plays the scene over and over in his head until he is at his own front door, taking out his key and stepping inside the hallway, silent except for the ticking of the living room clock. He hangs up his coat and goes into the living room where only red pinpricks of standby light illuminate the gloom. In the half dark he goes to the drinks cabinet and pours a generous slug of whisky into a glass before sinking down into his armchair. The liquor’s enveloping heat trickles down inside him as he rests back, the scene blurring a little now. Perhaps he’ll have one more drop before he tiptoes upstairs to slide into bed beside his wife. She’ll be asleep, of course. He’s thankful for small mercies.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

April Short Fiction 1

Continuing a mini-series of short stories concentrating on character, here’s one based on observations from local hostelries!

In Vino Veritas [Part 1]

Harris stares into the fading froth on his pint of Meadowlark craft beer and heaves a long sigh before lifting the glass to his lips and taking a gulp. He sets the glass down and surveys the early evening crowd from his vantage point, tucked into a dark corner by the log burner.

Another solitary drinker, propping up the bar turns and acknowledges him with a barely perceptible nod before turning his back. Harris doesn’t know this other man, not really. He is just another lone, paunchy, middle-aged man passing some time with a beer before going home to…what? A cold, empty flat? A blowsy, TV obsessed wife? A noisy, chaotic home of clamouring kids? Who knows?

From the space tucked into a corner behind the bar, a small nook around a corner Harris can’t see into, peals of laughter ring out. Shona, he knows, is there, fooling about with her fellow bar tenders, sharing a joke that he, along with fellow drinkers on this side of the bar is not privy to. He wonders what the joke might be? Are they laughing about their boss, randy Andy, an overweight, over-familiar and over-opinionated slob who over-estimates his power over the young girls he employs? Or are they giggling about the customers they serve, he and the nameless, nodding acquaintance plus three younger men in football kit playing darts in an alcove on the far side of the pub?

He keeps his eye on the bar while he swallows more beer, waiting for the moment when Shona will return to the counter to serve another customer or to wipe up some spills. After a moment she appears. She’s flushed, still chuckling, swiping her unruly hair back behind her ears and tugging her tiny skirt down before she leans her elbows on the smooth, brown gloss of the bar and indicates nameless man’s glass. “Another?” she asks him and he nods, leaning forwards to mutter something for her ears only. She straightens up, giggling and Harris feels a hot, jealous, irrational flush overcome him, that she should be sharing an intimacy with Nodding Acquaintance and not with himself. Still, his own glass is almost empty. One more mouthful and he can go to the bar for a second pint, although he’ll need to time it so that she serves him and not one of the others.

He finishes the beer and waits while Shona pulls three glasses of lager for the footballers, rising from his seat while she is at the till and making it to the bar before she’s replaced the card machine. He catches her eye. “Same again?” she smiles and it’s like a warm shaft of sunshine bathing Harris and warming his being to the core. She flicks a long curl of blond hair back and takes his glass, her slender fingernails topped with pink, sparkly gloss. There’s a narrow sliver of black lace visible above the vee of her T-shirt and below the smooth, brown skin of her neck. Harris knows he’s staring and glances quickly at Acquaintance to mitigate it.

Part 2 of ‘In Vino Veritas’ can be read in next Sunday’s post.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

New Year Fiction 2

Here’s another fiction short telling of two women meeting during a family Christmas gathering. As the saying goes- you can choose your friends but not your family…

Christmas with Julia

                I am standing in the kitchen, tea towel in hand. I am drying cutlery and have just plucked the newly sharpened, steel carving knife from the rack. I can feel the weight of it and its smooth, shiny blade beneath the cotton fabric of the tea towel.

“Julia,” I say.

She totters towards me on spindly heels, expression composed into beatific, engineered grin.

“Oh Eve, can we be friends now? Can we? You and me?”

                Her features have grown sharp and pointed from all the years of anorexic self deprivation and she has begun to pencil dark arches of eyebrows beneath the highlighted fringe of her expensive, West End bob, giving her an uncanny resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West so that I expect, at any moment, she will cackle, wave her wand and change me into a frog.

“How about a smile? Come on! Give me a smile!”

                She leans nearer and I recoil, catching her hot, sour, wine-laden breath as she lurches forwards. I try to force my lips into the shape she demands.

“That’s not a real smile. It’s false. You are false. You are like my next door neighbour; false.”

                I don’t know the luckless neighbour; nevertheless I experience an empathetic warming towards them. I am still holding the heavy blade inside the towel. The insult sidles in to nestle amongst all the malicious comments Julia has dredged up and heaped upon me over the years. They roll through my thoughts now, like cine film. She is raising her arms, heralding the strong possibility that she may drape them around my neck in a repugnant embrace.

“Tell me what’s wrong. What’s stopping us from being friends?” She frowns, head on one side, her lips downturned in clown-like caricature.

                “This is not really the time or the place”, I tell her, as her arms drop to her sides. My fingers have settled comfortably around the handle of the knife, the blade continuing to rest in my left hand. She straightens, lifting her chin. “Yes it is! Tell me now! I want to know!” Her voice has risen, become a high pitched bark, threatening to summon the others from the Christmas table.

“Alright. If you must know, Julia, it’s because in all the years I’ve known you, you have never passed up an opportunity to make a spiteful remark.” I look down at the tea towel while I say this, sliding the cloth back and forth along the length of the implement as if it were a precious item of silver. When I raise my eyes to hers her thin lips are open in an outraged ‘O’ above the drop of her pointed chin and she splutters as a burst of laughter drifts through from the dining room.

                “You’re making that up. I’ve never said anything nasty to you. I always try to be friendly to everyone. You’re just a cow! A jealous cow!”

                I glance at her shiny, yellow, Jimmy Choo stilettos and her green Dior dress. Outside, her sleek, black Mercedes gloats over my second hand Nissan, sneering. I think of her ‘off-plan’, ‘Berkeley’, limited edition, cul-de-sac home, her time-share villa in Tenerife, the new Rolex watch my brother has just bought her and as I smile at how wrong she is she takes it for agreement, lifting her arms once more and moving in to encircle my neck, her face against mine. I try to draw back in her strangling grip but I am caught like a rabbit in the jaws of a trap, my hands and the towel-clad knife pillowed between us. I squirm, manoeuvring the bundle as I propel my lower legs back to create a space then take my left hand off and thrust the lethal blade up and forwards, where it enters in a swift, effortless slide through the flimsy fabric of the dress, encountering little resistance in the wasted flesh beneath her ribs. She grunts, stiffening, pulling back and away, her eyes stretched wide in surprise, a quick glance down at the knife’s sturdy handle protruding and a red stain spreading now on the shimmering silk across her abdomen. She sways for a brief moment, her mouth working to form words, her arms flailing.

                She grasps the worktop on her way to the floor, slithering down the cupboard door to leave a long, vivid, scarlet smear like spilt Claret and finally making contact with the tiles, the surprised expression frozen now, the skinny legs at unnatural angles, still punctuated by patent yellow caps.

                There is a clack-clacking of heels as she enters, startling me from a trance.

                “Eve!” she exclaims, “Penny for them!”

                “Oh Julia” I say, “I was just finishing off, and thinking about desert.”

                “None for me. I never touch it, but you love puddings, don’t you? Anyone can see that!” She pivots on the spiky, yellow heel, exiting with a satisfied smirk, leaving me to caress the carving knife like a secret lover.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

December Fiction

Regular readers of Anecdotage may have noticed that November’s Fiction Month was missing this year, replaced by the last few episodes of Australia 2011. In recognition of this, December’s posts will feature short fiction. Here, then, is the first part of a story about a larger-than-life character who is not all he seems at the beginning. The story concludes in next weeks post:

A Neighbourly Manner [part 1]

‘I wonder what she sees in him?’ I kept saying.

            ‘Leave it alone, can’t you?’ Richard grumbled, or he would shake out a new page of his newspaper in a crackling signal of finality. But one month on the events following that afternoon dogged me as I weeded the border or strolled along the lane to the farm for eggs.

After we’d received the invitation I’d been full of excited zeal, wanting to make a reciprocal gesture before we’d even taken a step along the wide sweep of their driveway, but Richard had curbed my ambitions by frowning,

‘Let’s wait and see how it goes. We haven’t met them yet. We are only neighbours, nothing more. By all accounts they are society people so I don’t suppose we will be of any interest to them except as a kind of ‘country bumpkin’ story for their London friends.’

Despite my husband’s dashing of cold water, I continued to harbour fanciful thoughts of what might transpire. I knew that the manor house next door received a constant flow of visitors despite the seedy state of its accommodation. Some were well known figures in publishing, the media or the arts, invoking thrilling fantasies of meeting someone famous. Who knew what might transpire? This could be the beginning of a series of gatherings to which we were part. I began to run a mental inventory of the contents of my wardrobe and concluded it was lacking in some areas.

The previous occupant’s attempt to run Chiddlehampton Manor as a hotel had failed in a gurgling whirlpool of bankruptcy, depression and alcohol dependency. Villagers who had worked there told of stained carpets and mouldy en suites in the twenty three bedrooms; slimy, brown grease covering kitchen surfaces, dwindling bottles in the wine cellar, failed initiatives such as ‘poker breaks’ or ‘murder mystery weekends’ attracting a desultory handful of revellers and resulting in increasing event cancellations.     

            The parlous nature of the building lent even more urgency to my desire to see it and to meet the latest occupants, who wanted it for a country retreat, no less. A country retreat! Twenty three bedrooms and bathrooms, a ballroom, eight acres of grounds containing stables and seven cottages for staff plus a vast, walled garden with endless greenhouses-all now fallen into disrepair; disintegrating into the chalky, Dorset soil from which it had risen.

            There was a blustery March wind gusting across the fields as we walked through the open gate into the driveway; gaps in the two rows of elegant beeches that bordered the sweeping drive, and fallen branches. Weeds punctuated the centre of the crumbling tarmac as it curled around to reveal the yellow stone manor house nestling in a dip below.

            I stopped for a moment to admire it, tucking the box of homemade shortbread under my arm. Richard had scoffed.

‘They won’t want that. Their sort is used to posh nosh; Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, all that sort of thing’. I’d ignored him of course, as only one who is shackled to a curmudgeon for thirty two years can.

            Even in a decadent state the manor is beautiful. A graceful old house whose romantic symmetry complements the rustic setting of rolling Dorset countryside. As we approached the columns of the grand portico I shivered, hanging back as Richard strode up to the vast, oak door and pressed the bell in his no-nonsense way.

            In the ensuing hiatus my misgivings expanded. ‘Do you think they’ve forgotten?’

            Richard snorted. ‘Let’s hope so! Then we can go home and have a cup of tea.’ But steps could be heard echoing inside.

            I’d heard plenty about him from villagers, in the pub or at the community shop but I was still unprepared for the experience of meeting Jackson Agnew. That he was ‘upper class’, ‘stinking rich’and ‘ponsy’ was circulating the public bar of The Cuckoo, with ‘a bleeding, towny nob’ thrown in by Noah Barnes, Bendick Farm’s cowman, who was not known for holding back on his opinions. Little had been expressed about Dr Agnew’s companion; whether she was partner or wife or daughter no one knew, only that she was ‘posh totty’ [Noah Barnes again] and thought by some to be a model or an actress.

            The door was not so much opened as flung wide and filled with him; with Jackson Agnew. His frame crammed the doorway, everything broad, everything extended, from his lengthy arm and thin fingers reaching out to shake Richard’s to his gaping grin and booming ‘Hello hello-Welcome to my humble abode!’

            Once I’d followed my husband into the hallway my own hand was enveloped and squeezed. ‘We meet at last!’ he said and his voice was like a deep, mellow gong echoing around the cavern of a hall with its bare walls and floorboards. After I’d glanced around the barren space I noticed he was scrutinising our faces, hungry for our reactions.

            ‘I expect you’ve been in here hundreds of times, haven’t you?’

            Richard was peering up at the ceiling, eager for a sign of damp, death watch or woodworm. He avoided Jackson’s gaze as he replied.

            ‘We haven’t lived in the village all that long ourselves; retired here from Bristol eighteen months ago. We had no cause to come to the hotel. If we want a drink we go to the pub.’

            ‘We met the Judds, of course, out and about, you know, when walking the dog,’ I added.

            Jackson grinned. ‘Yes. Pour souls. What a state they got into. Shall we move into the lounge and we can rustle up a cup of tea, or something stronger if you like?’ He looked beyond us to an open doorway, calling, ‘Darling, our neighbours are here.’

            We walked through into what had been the hotel bar but was now being used as a makeshift kitchen and dining room. Here, overhead the ceiling was adorned in an ornate series of murals decorated in gold leaf portraying rotund cherubs cavorting with plump maidens in diaphanous robes. Jackson caught me scrutinising it and barked in noisy mirth.

‘What do you think of that? Someone went to town, didn’t they? Are you familiar with the Baroque style at all? Ah, there she is! Darling! These are our nearest neighbours, Richard and er…’

I broke in. ‘Lena’

‘Lena, of course. Richard and Lena.’

She was standing behind the bar, motionless, an almost smile on her lips; eyes that had been fixed upon him moving in a slow turn towards Richard and myself. In that moment I understood why all of the descriptions of her had been correct and at the same time wrong, because while she was young and undeniably beautiful there was no element of Hollywood style; no trappings that could be considered cosmetic enhancement. And one thing was clear. She could not in any way be mistaken for his daughter, since no daughter in the world would ever look at her father like that.

She moved around to join us, extending a hand, first to me.

‘Imogen.’

Her voice was soft and low and her neat features dominated by intense, deep blue eyes that held mine; her short, glossy cap of black hair a stark contrast with the near translucent pallor of her skin. She took my proffered shortbread, murmuring ‘how kind’ before placing the plastic box on the bar.

While Richard’s responses are never obvious I noticed from the widening of his eyes and a slight flare of his nostrils when she took his hand that he was impressed.

‘Now’

We swung towards the master of the estate. He had a look of Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp mustering his numerous children as he addressed us.

‘Shall I take you for a tour before we have tea?’

I nodded before catching my husband’s expression, which was set into ‘I don’t want to be here much longer’ mode. He glanced at his watch.

‘Perhaps just a short tour’ I suggested, and we followed Jackson through the connecting doors at the end of the bar into the adjoining drawing room; another vast, empty space with tall windows facing on to the grounds and adorned with only a huge, stone fireplace.

As we wandered through the network of rooms I hung back to allow Richard and Jackson to get beyond earshot and Imogen to draw level with me as I pretended to examine a carved mantel.

‘It’s all so big,’ I began, gesturing at the room. ‘Whatever will you do with it all? Do you have a large family to fill it up?’

‘Oh no,’ she shrugged. ‘I have one son and Jackson has a stepdaughter. But he loves large rooms and he wants a project now that he is semi retired.’

‘And how about you?’ I asked her.

‘I won’t be retiring any time soon.’ She gave that enigmatic half smile, yet I was undeterred.

‘And do you work in the same field, in art dealing?’

            She smiled a little wider then, as if enjoying a private joke. ‘Oh no, no-nothing so glamorous; I am a nurse.’ Though my surprise must have registered on my face she was disinclined to elaborate. I pressed on. ‘It will be difficult for you to spend so much time here then.’

She began to walk in the direction of the men’s voices, speaking swiftly, clandestine-voiced, over her shoulder.

‘We don’t live together, Jackson and I. He lives in Kensington and I am not so far from here, in Dorchester. We meet at weekends.’

            I caught her up, wanting to know more but she was intent on reuniting our group.

Jackson was explaining his plans to Richard, his long arms waving about and his cultured vowels bouncing around the bare walls. When we approached my husband gave me a meaningful stare, which I chose to disregard.

‘We thought we’d make this our kitchen as it’s so sunny. Imo would like to turn it into a monument to Monet-all yellow walls and blue tiles, but I like a bit of sexy steel and glass myself.’ He beamed at us, ruffling Imogen’s glossy hair and she closed her eyes, liquefying under his touch. Throughout the remainder of the tour she stayed close to her man as if every moment without him was wasted.

All attempts to engage Richard in feedback regarding the visit were quashed, his only remark being ‘bought himself a trophy wife.’ I knew better than to argue, but it was obvious to me that beautiful Imogen was infatuated with her distinguished, older lover, wealthy or not. 

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Harry Styles and the Gaping Well of Ignorance-

On the way up the road to watch the film, ‘Dunkirk’ we bumped into a friend and neighbour. We couldn’t stop to chat, we told him, as we’d got tickets to the film. ‘Look out for Harry Styles’ he advised us as we walked on. Harry Styles? ‘I wouldn’t know Harry Styles if he jumped put and bit me on the bottom’ I called back over my shoulder. And it is true, I wouldn’t. Oh I’ve heard his name-I’d have even hazarded a guess that he’d been in a boy-band. Further than that I’d have no more clue than about who’d first split the atom. Besides-I did not choose to see ‘Dunkirk’ because of who was starring in it.

We watched the film in our local, somewhat low-tech, volunteer-run, theatre, where they just about stop short of serving teas in the interval. While the adverts were on [and what Husband likes to show his age by calling ‘Pathe news’] there was a commotion in the row in front of us caused by not one, but two couples sitting in the wrong seats, the turmoil ensuing when the legitimate seat-holders arrived. The second couple further entertained us by producing their tickets and discovering they had seats for the following Friday. What a humiliating exit!

                The film was marred for me by inattention to detail where Dunkirk seafront was concerned. I’m fairly sure those sixties-style apartment blocks did not exist when the troops were being evacuated from the beaches. But I was grateful we were spared the sort of gory exposure of body parts that ‘Saving Private Ryan’ had in abundance. About half way through the action Husband nudged me to hiss ‘that is Harry Styles’, though I was little the wiser for this, the character and the actor unremarkable and undistinguishable from the other young men in the movie. I was able to identify wonderful Mark Rylance, even though I’d no idea he was in the film. Towards the end, [and I’m sure it isn’t a spoiler to tell you], when two of the survivors were on the train home getting feted as heroes I whispered to Husband that you could tell they were back in Blighty because the sun was shining, prompting him to snort loudly in the hushed auditorium.

Now we are in the South of France and the enigmatic Harry Styles has reared his bland, barely identifiable head once more, having been in a video on a screen in a bar in Frontignan. ‘Look’ said Husband, ‘It’s Harry Styles’. Harry was flying in the sky somewhere, singing. Husband seems to be au fe about contemporary culture, whilst when I try to conjure up a list of those I would recognise I can come up with no more than four or five. ‘I think I’d recognise Justin Bieber’, I say-but wasn’t there another Justin a while ago? With a name like Timberland [a boot manufacturer].

In the end it’s no use attempting to keep up, because Harry, Justin and all the rest will have been superseded in no time by the next wave of ‘stars’. What is an old granny to do? Ignore it!

What’s in a Name?

Giving someone a name is a weighty responsibility. Parents-to-be could do worse than wile away the months of waiting by pondering which names will give their new arrival the best start in life. They should take care. It may be tempting to follow trends or get carried away with the idea of using the name of your favourite footballer, actor or rap artist; the allure of an invented name may be strong, or perhaps the use of an iconic place, weather condition or season. Research however suggests that names carry a heavy influence in the lottery of life’s successes and failures. Want your child to attend a prestigious university? Name your son James or Simon, your daughter, Eleanor.

A fiction writer building up a character can convey a great deal in the selection of their name. Gender, age, social class and nationality can all be carried in this one word. Hilda, Ivy, Albert or Fred? You know which generation they are from. Gillian, Susan, Peter or Colin? You know these too, although of course some names ‘come back’ into fashion [‘Alfie’ and ‘Stanley’ are two of these].

Teachers who become parents have a more difficult task in naming their offspring. The pool of possibilities will be shallower, since most names will carry connotations. The classrooms of my past are littered with negative memories of ‘Jasons’, ‘Waynes’, ‘Sharons’ and ‘Traceys’. For some mysterious reason, as soon as I went public with my firstborn’s name, proud of having selected something neither outlandish nor too ubiquitous, there was an explosion of the name-the hospital nursery bursting at the seams with them so that my son was destined always to share his name with thousands across his peer group.

Teachers are also used to bearing witness to parents’ inabilities in the field of spelling. Many children begin school [and life] saddled with an eccentric and misspelt name. Parents-bear in mind that your child’s teacher will have to begin the school year by compiling numerous class lists for a wide variety of purposes. If you furnish your little one with a long, hyphenated and complicated moniker this is going to be both time consuming and aggravating for their teacher, especially coupled with double-barrelled surnames, which consistently fail to fit into any sort of grid.

I loved the recent story of the research ship that was the subject of an on line competition to find a name. One wag’s suggestion of ‘Boaty McBoatface’, though not meant to be taken seriously became a clear favourite and attracted more than 18,000 votes, an endorsement that serves to show the British sense of humour is alive and kicking, even if the instigators of the competition are intending to overrule the choice.

 

Fiction Month Week 3-New Short Story Begins Today!

Caught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod.

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

The old man smiles his understanding.

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

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

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

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

He scratches his head, frowning at his glass.

“Things was different then.”

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

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

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

I am. I thank him.

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Month 2015. Unmanned on a Wednesday. Part 2

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

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

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

“You mean he’s married.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused to observe the effect her words were having.

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

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

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

“It’s possible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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