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.

Short Fiction 2

Today sees the conclusion of a brand new short story, ‘Empathy in a Country Churchyard’. Part 1 can be read here: https://gracelessageing.com/tag/churchyard/

Empathy in a Country Churchyard [Part 2]

“So how are you, Judith?” she asks. I’ve got the choice of looking at her and answering or pretending I haven’t heard. If I answer I’ll have to look, which I do. And I know her. She’s looking a lot older, but well preserved, which is more than can be said for me. She still has blond curls, although I suppose these days it’s out of a bottle. She’s got the coat and she’s got patent, pink pumps to match, plus one of those dinky little bags, in pink of course, with a gold chain.

“Sharon”, I reply. “Why are you here?”

She chuckles. “You can’t accuse me of coming to gloat, Judith and I didn’t come out of curiosity. No- I’m here for the same reason as you; just visiting. Does that surprise you?”

He’d met her when she went to the print shop to order leaflets for a business she was starting: bespoke cakes for all occasions. Oh yes, he told me all about her. At first it had been anecdotal, the meeting, while he was talking about his day. Then he began mentioning her more often. After a bit he stopped talking about her. That was once they’d started having an affair, I realised. It doesn’t take long to surmise your partner is playing away because they get careless, and not just with stray hairs on collars. They stay later at work with feeble excuses. Their phone calls become more numerous and have to be private. They must to explain the increased incoming texts outside of work hours. He didn’t try to lie when I confronted him though.

“He’s dead, Sharon. Why would you want to see him?”

“Why would you? He wasn’t a great husband to you, was he?”

I look down at Malcom, or rather, the mound that Malcom has become. I haven’t tended it. I don’t bring fresh flowers to put in the grey, metal vase- or even plastic ones. I haven’t weeded it or planted it with primroses or brought along favourite items or a photograph. I haven’t scrubbed the stone, which has become encrusted with yellow lichen, the engraving almost obliterated now.

I raise my eyes to hers. “I come to make sure he’s dead. And to tell him all the things I should have said before.”

She’s leaning forward. “Did you love him, Judith?”

I shrug. “I suppose I must have done, in the beginning. Or perhaps it was only lust. I don’t remember. Did you?”

She nods, slowly. “Yes. I did. But you know something? He cheated on me, too.”

I settle back. Something eases inside me, as if a taught stretch of elastic has been slackened. “So you’ve come here before?” I ask her.

“Not every week, but now and again. It’s a lovely, peaceful place, don’t you think? I know you always come on Wednesdays, which is why I’ve always avoided them before, but I felt that enough time has elapsed now that we don’t have to be sworn enemies and we’ve quite a bit in common, haven’t we?” She’s smiling a lopsided grin. I can see what Malcom found attractive in her.

We sit in silence for a bit then I look at my watch. She looks at hers, too. “Does your daughter bring you? Pamela, isn’t it? Malcom was always very proud of her. You must have done a good job in raising her.”

“She brings me under sufferance. She doesn’t approve of my coming here every week. She’ll be back to collect me soon and she won’t be happy to see you, I can tell you that now.”

“She knows about me? That was unnecessary, wasn’t it? He never left you, after all, Judith, in spite of all the philandering. Why didn’t you send him packing?”

Why hadn’t I? For a moment I consider what my life might have been like if I’d thrown him out. I’d have been less comfortably off, for a start. I might have had to work full-time instead of enjoying part time hours. There had been Pamela to consider. She’d only just started at school when he began his dalliance with Sharon. Pamela always adored her father. But the one, overriding, persuasive factor in allowing him to stay had been that I liked his playing away. I liked his attention being elsewhere and the onus was off me to provide anything other than occasional meals and housekeeping. After the first shock and humiliation of Sharon’s existence I’d learned to adjust and enjoy my freedom from him. We became relative strangers sharing a home, ‘ships that pass’.

“I didn’t care, Sharon; not really. I was glad for someone else to take him off my hands. Now I think you need to disappear before Pamela sees you.”

She stands, brushing down her posh coat and picking up the dainty bag. “Will you be coming next week, Judith?”

“Oh yes. I don’t miss a week unless the weather’s too awful to be outside. Pamela hates it. I’m a burden to her, these days.”

Sharon’s looking down at me and grinning. “I’ve enjoyed chatting today. Why don’t I pick you up next week and we can visit together? Then Pamela won’t be put out and we’ll be company for each other.”

The next Wednesday comes round and, true to her word, Sharon picks me up and we go to the cemetery together. After a couple of times, she produces a flask of coffee and some doughnuts.

“Might as well make a morning of it,” she laughs. “What did you tell your daughter?”

“I said I’d met a friend in the cemetery who’d be bringing me in future. She was surprised but quick to agree. It’s let her off the hook.”

After about a month Sharon suggested we shorten our visit and go on down to the seafront for lunch. Then when she asked me if I thought Malcom would mind if we by-passed the cemetery sometimes and go straight to the beach café I didn’t think twice.

I haven’t told Pamela who the ‘friend’ is that picks me up to visit Malcom on Wednesdays. To be fair, she hasn’t questioned it and I know she’s relieved it’s just not her job any more.

Sharon tells me it amuses her to think of Malcom looking down at us from somewhere. “What do you think he makes of us down here having a good time together, Judith?” she asks me and I can only smile. “To be honest, Sharon, I don’t bloody care!”

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 Short Fiction 1

Back from Tom’s Field and continuing to drown in the suffocating, germ-ridden aftermath of Covid I’ve applied myself to writing a new, short story. Two women meet in an unorthodox setting and have something in common

Empathy in a Country Churchyard

                “Mum, could we just go somewhere different this morning?”

Pamela. She says it every week. I watch from the window as she pulls up outside. She comes bustling up the path carrying the shopping, opens the door with her key and I can hear her impatient breath huffing and puffing as she stomps into the hallway. She opens the door and unleashes her exasperation. “It’s a lovely morning. How about going to the beach today and getting a coffee in the sunshine? Shall I get your shoes?”

“You could get my shoes” I tell her. “But I don’t want to go to the seaside. Just the usual, please.”

“Wouldn’t you like a change of scene once in a while, Mother? Whatever do you find to do, sitting in the same place, surrounded by the same, gloomy sights every week? Let’s face it, you never got on with him so why do you keep on going to visit him?”

“I like it there” I say. “It gives me a chance to think.” I’ve had to raise my voice now because she’s rummaging around in my kitchen, opening and shutting cupboards with a noisy efficiency of irritation.

It’s a lengthy business, these days, levering my feet into shoes, prising my body from the chair and thrusting unwilling limbs into sleeves but at last we make our way outside and she locks the front door before helping me out to the road and into the car. “Put your seat belt on” she orders, as soon as I’ve twisted my bones into the shape required by the seat.

“I’ll just drop you at the gate.” she snaps, like a piece of peanut brittle. “And I’ll go and do a few bits. You can make it round to there, can’t you?”

She never comes with me to the bench and I’m glad. I want peace and quiet, not a dreary, repetitive rant about how unsatisfactory her life is. She never needs to tell me what a burden I’ve become when it billows out in every sigh and tut.

She stomps around to open my door then I manoeuvre my legs round and prize myself out, remembering to take my stick. I catch my breath a bit, lift my hand as she pulls away. I feel lighter when she’s gone, like I’ve risen to the top of a murky pool. I turn towards the entrance and progress towards the bench; my bench, or at least that’s how I think of it; only it isn’t mine. It belongs to ‘Valerie Fraser, beloved wife of Geoff, mother to Gillian and Carol and grandmother to Daisy, Stanley and Olivia’. I assume Valerie doesn’t mind me using her bench every week since she’s got no use for it herself.

I’m just settling myself on Val’s bench when a flash of livid pink catches my eye, appearing through the gate- a woman in a magenta coat. I feel affronted by this, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps the colour of the coat feels inappropriate, or that I’d expected to be alone. Usually, it’s just me and a distant groundsman. Worse still, the woman is zig-zagging along the paths in my direction, like she’s coming to the bench and I don’t like the idea of this at all.

I make a point of taking no notice when she sits down on the other end. I think maybe if I ignore her, she might take a hint and leave. I’m irritated because I was just getting into my stride with Malcom and I’d been preparing what I was going to say for a week. Anyway, this woman in pink, she’s studying me. I know this without looking and I know she’s going to start talking, which is the last thing I need. I stare down at her shiny, pink shoes and I’m aware of how I must look in Malcom’s voluminous, old car coat and my extra-wide, orthopaedic slip-ons.

Who is the woman in pink? And what does she want? Empathy in a Country Churchyard concludes next week...

New Year Fiction: Extract. The Year of Familiar Strangers

16.             Spain. August 1990.

To round up this month of fiction, I’m finishing with a chapter of my novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’ [available to read here:https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=9CMNW442QEAC&keywords=the+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1642020119&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C117&sr=8-1] Helen’s husband, Robert disappears as they are about to embark on the return ferry from Spain after their holiday. In this chapter Helen and Lydia try to ascertain his whereabouts and work out what they should do…

Spain. August 1990           

The world appeared to drop away in a swooning, sickening drag as Helen stood motionless beside the abandoned car staring at the space in the open boot. She shouted to Lydia.

“He must be ill. He must be in the toilets or something. We have to find him!”

“He’s taken his bag, though. Why would he take his bag to the loo?”

Helen slammed the boot closed, went to pull the keys from the ignition and closed the door.

“Come on. We’ve got to find him.”

They ran back across to the building. Lydia pulled at her sleeve.

“We can’t just walk into the men’s loo. We’ll have to ask someone.”

A couple were standing beside a tall table drinking machine-bought coffees from plastic cups. Helen imposed a calm, rational expression on to her panicky face before addressing the man.

“Senor…”

He broke in. “It’s ok, we’re English.”

She began again. “I’m so sorry to interrupt you,” she glanced at the woman then back to the man. “It’s just that my husband left the car to visit the toilet some time ago and hasn’t come back yet. I wonder…I mean would you mind very much checking to see if he’s in there and if he’s alright?”

He put his cup on the table. “Of course I’ll look.” The woman had adopted a sympathetic smile.

“I expect he’s gone to stretch his legs. Have you had a long drive, dear?” She was a little older than Helen, who thought she would not be able to tolerate the woman’s well-meaning, motherly platitudes and could only give a weak nod. Robert had not gone to ‘stretch his legs’ taking his suitcase along. The husband emerged from the gents.

“No one in there. I looked in the cubicles just to make sure, but it’s empty.”

“Well, thanks anyway.” She grabbed Lydia’s arm and propelled her away and out of the building to stand in the bright sunlight, where more vehicles had joined the lines of waiting cars and caravans.

“We’ll have to talk to an official. Let’s go to the ticket office and find someone in charge. They can do a proper search of the terminal buildings.”

“Wait, Mum!” ‘Mum’ was a term she seldom used. “Dad’s taken his case. He won’t still be here, will he? He’s gone off somewhere. We don’t know where or why. What can the officials do about it?”

“I know! I know he has his case!” Helen snapped at her and saw her flinch at the unaccustomed rebuke. “But he must be ill, surely. His mind must be unbalanced, or he’s had a lapse of memory. We have to find him. What else can we do?”

            They were escorted into an office and invited to sit in front of a desk. A bearded man in a blue, short-sleeved shirt appeared a few minutes later, greeted them and sat down behind the desk.

“Senora…?”

“Thurrock, Mrs Thurrock.”

“You have a problem, Senora?”

            Behind him on the wall a clock in the shape of a ship’s tiller ticked away. Helen glanced at Lydia and was rewarded by an expression of consternation before looking across at the ticket office manager.

“Yes. It’s my husband, Robert; Robert Thurrock.” She paused, expecting that he might need to write it down, but he sat immobile, waiting for her to continue.

“He has disappeared. He was in the car, in the queue for the ferry. My daughter and I came into the passenger building and when we came out he was not there.”

He shrugged. “Senora, your husband has gone, perhaps to the toilets or he has seen an acquaintance, or to walk.”

Feeling that she wanted to shake, or to slap him, Helen narrowed her eyes and was aware of Lydia watching her, fearfully.

“Senor, my husband has taken his luggage from the car.” She chewed her lip, looking down at her hands twisted together in her lap then met his concentrated gaze. He leaned his elbows on the desk, steepling his fingers together. The clock’s ticking filled the ensuing moments like a dripping tap. At last he spoke again, matter of fact but not unkind.

“Senor Thurrock must have an appointment; somewhere he has to go. Perhaps he forgot to say to you, or you have not understood? If he takes the luggage then he needs it for his appointment, no?”

“We cannot leave without my husband.”

The clock’s ticking seemed louder, insistent. The bearded manager sat back in his chair.

“Senora, if you do not depart on the next ship your ticket will be lost. You will have to reserve a new departure. What can we do? It will be best, I think, if you embark with the next sailing. Your husband can follow when he returns.” He stood and held out his hand. The interview was over.

            They returned to the waiting line of vehicles which extended to three new lanes now, as the shadows began to lengthen. A woman got out of the car in front of theirs. Lydia nudged her mother.

“It’s her; from the passenger lounge.”

The coffee-drinking couple were in the adjacent car and had spotted them. The woman came round.

“Any luck, dear?” They uttered a simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

“He went to get a shower,” said Helen. “He’ll be back in a bit.” Lydia turned on her as they got into the car. “They’ll see he isn’t with us when we drive on to the ferry!”

“What does it matter? I don’t care about them. What are we going to do?” She got into the passenger seat as if Robert would be occupying the driver’s place. Lydia came around and opened the door to sit next to her, sitting at an angle where she could see her mother’s face.

“We have to go. We have to get on the ferry when it loads. We can’t do anything else.”

“There’s still more than three hours left. Let’s walk. I’ll go crazy if I have to stay in this car and wait!”

Across the road from the queuing lanes there was a formal park laid out with palm trees and a network of paths punctuated by wooden benches in the shade. They wandered into the park and sat on a bench; a cool, green space away from the desultory, tarmac, fume-laden ferry queue. Silent, they stared unseeing at the mottled shadows dancing on the path, each lost in respective thoughts. Helen chewed her lip, trying to decide what their course of action should be, but came to the same, desperate, hopeless conclusion every time. They would have to go without him.

“Supposing he’s ill…” She looked at Lydia, who shook her head.

“He isn’t ill, at least, not desperately ill like he needs hospitalisation. He can’t be because he was fine driving here, wasn’t he? Apart from the speeding and the risky overtaking, I mean.” She stood up. “I’m dying for a coke or something. Can we find a bar? There must be one around here.”

They exited the park to walk along a road next to the quayside where there were a number of seafood cafés with plastic tables out on the pavement, none of them much patronised although peering through the open doors into the gloom there were figures standing at the bar in each of them; sipping late afternoon brandies or small glasses of lager. Seeing them made Helen think that she, too, would very much like a brandy and she stopped at a small bar on a corner, leading the way to a table outside in a patch of sun. A waitress bustled out with menus.

“Just drinks please,” Helen told her. “A brandy for me and… a coke?” she asked Lydia. Her daughter pouted, leaning her arms on the table. “Better make it a brandy and coke.”

The fiery liquid trickled a burning trail down into her churning stomach, laying a protective coating over the raw, painful reality of the day’s events. She finished it and ordered another, her daughter eyeing her with a nervous glance.

“Do you want another one?”

Lydia shook her head. A semblance of rational thought took shape in Helen’s mind, in that nothing could be done until they got home, then telephone calls could be made and questions asked.

            The second brandy came. She sipped it, leaning back and closing her eyes; feeling the evening sun’s warmth, wondering how a sensation could feel pleasant under circumstances so dire.

“Alright,” she said, “We’ll have to go without him.”

            The queuing lanes were full of vehicles now. As they approached the car Helen began to realise with a tremor of nerves that she would have to drive Robert’s car up the ramp and on to the ship, a task that seemed impossible in her shredded, light-headed state. She rested her elbows on the BMW’s roof, her face dropping into her hands in a turmoil of frustration and anger. How could he do this? How could he disappear without explanation, leaving them alone at the quayside? Tears coursed down between her fingers and dripped on to the black roof of the car, creating streaky runnels in the dust. She felt a hand on her shoulder. “Oh, Mami!”

She turned to her daughter. “How am I going to get this thing on to the ferry?”

Lydia put her arms around her. “It’s OK. Don’t worry. I can do it. I’ll drive it on.” She walked round to the driver’s side and got in. “Give me the keys. It’s not as if I haven’t driven it before.”

Half an hour later the lines of cars began to move. The girl started the engine and followed the car in front, concentration frozen on her face in her rigid stare and the determined set of her lips. Helen remained silent while they moved along on their way to the ramp then began to inch up it; hoping they wouldn’t have to stop the BMW on the slope and have to use the handbrake. As they gained the top she let out a breath, not realising she’d been holding it in. They rolled on into the position the deck hand wanted before stopping as he held up his hand. Perfect. She turned to Lydia, who had now relaxed in a slump, allowing herself a small smile of triumph.

“God! That was brilliant! Well done, love!” She reached over to pat her on the back, receiving a delighted grin in return.

“Right, come on Mami, let’s get our bags out. We can go and find the cabins. Don’t forget to bring the tickets!”

Helen found she was moving like an automaton, acting on her daughter’s instructions in a bizarre role reversal, although she was grateful for the direction in her confused and brandy-soaked state.

“I want to go outside and look,” she said as they ascended the stairs to the passenger decks. “One more look along the quay, just in case he’s there. We’ll be able to see more from up on deck.”

Standing at the rail a breeze ruffled her hair and made her shiver. The last of the vehicles were crawling up the ramp like beetles and getting swallowed up by the mouth of the car deck; a stream of container lorries continuing to rumble their way into the hold. She scanned the whole of the quayside, emptying now of traffic; looked further to the road. Was he out there somewhere watching, waiting for the vessel to depart? Was he searching the ship for them as she searched the area around it for him? Or was he long gone into another journey to who knew where?

            An announcement over the tannoy about collecting cabin keys from the purser’s office prompted them to go inside, where they waited in line and picked up the two keys; a double and a single. They located the corridor, unlocked the door to the double, threw the bags then themselves onto the beds. Helen lay on her back and stared at the low ceiling.

“We may as well share this one. It will only be more miserable if we’re on our own.” Lydia swung her legs down and sat up.

“We might be able to get the money back for the single cabin. Shall we try?” Helen shook her head, eyes still on the ceiling.

“Let’s not. We have enough to deal with.”

“Well I’m going to get a shower then. You might feel a bit better, Mami, if you do the same.”

Helen looked across at the girl-woman who was taking charge. “Shower,” she agreed, “then the bar. I anticipate the need for another brandy, and you must eat!” She lay down, closing her eyes, seeing again the empty space in the car boot like a gaping chasm.

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.

New Year Fiction

I’m starting 2022 with a complete short story, written entirely in dialogue. The character of Roger is based on someone I met long ago, when on a similar journey to Erica’s…

Blind Date

“Erica, is it?”

“Yes; Hello and you must be Roger.”

“That’s me! Roger the Dodger! Not really-just my bit of fun. What can I get you, Erica? Glass of champagne? You do like champagne, I hope?”

“Just a small glass of white, please. I do drink champagne but only on special occasions. Pinot Grigio is fine.”

“So what are you saying? This is not a special occasion, is that it?”

“Oh no, of course I didn’t mean…”

“Don’t worry love. I’m not offended. I’m only having a laugh. A glass of your best Pinot for the lady, my man, and I’ll have a single malt, no ice.

Did you find this place alright, Erica? Didn’t get lost?”

“No. I am familiar with the area. I have one or two friends who live around Fratton. That’s not far, is it?”

“No, but this side of the golf course is better; nicer properties. You can see my place from the first fairway. Did you notice my motor on your way in? Remember I said on the phone, look out for the Merc with the special plate-did you see it?”

“Yes. ‘RU55BIT’. Was that it?”

“That’s the one. Do you get it? RU-that’s me, Roger Urquart, then the 55-that’s meant to be two Fs. That spells RUFF. Then there is BIT. It says ‘Rough Bit’. It’s rather droll, don’t you think?

Well, Erica, what sort of things do you get up to? What ‘floats your boat’ as they say?”

“All the usual things, I suppose. I like to read, go to the theatre, see friends. I go for an occasional meal, go to the gym; but work takes up a lot of my time.”

“No special hobbies then? How’s the wine? OK?

Tell you what; I bet you’d like a spin in my little kite, wouldn’t you? It’s a thing that’s dear to my heart. She’s a Piper Cherokee, a little cracker! I don’t mean she’s got cracks in! I’m only joking! She flies like a dream. I take her over to Le Touquet some weekends. Do you like France? I can go over there for lunch and be back home for dinner. Do you like the sound of that?”

“It sounds…interesting.”

“Oh it is. It always goes down very well with the ladies. I don’t mean ‘goes down’ as in crashes! I’m jesting! You’ll soon get to know me. I’m a laugh-a-minute bloke.

Did you say you were divorced?”

“Yes, three years ago, but it is all quite amicable now and the children spend plenty of time with their father.”

“Ha! I’ve been married three times. That’s a triumph of optimism over bankruptcy, you might say! Especially now I’m young, free and single again. I get on alright with Mary, my first wife, but the other two; they’re a couple of scroungers. Gold diggers, I call them, the pair of them; always after something. If I had all the dosh I’ve spent on maintenance payments I’d be minted now. You know what Rod Stewart said? ‘I’m not getting married again, I’m just going to find a woman I don’t like and give her a house’-So true!”

“I wonder why he did get married then, if he didn’t like the woman.”

“Fancied the pants off her, I expect, if you’ll excuse the expression. Doesn’t last though, does it, Erica? ‘Once the thrill is gone’ and all that?

So have you done a lot of this Internet dating malarkey? Met many blokes yet?”

“No, you are only the third person I’ve met.”

“What was wrong with the other two then?”

“Nothing was wrong with them. They were perfectly pleasant people. There just wasn’t a connection, a spark. Perhaps I didn’t have much in common with either of them.”

“What do you reckon it is that gives you a spark? Give us a clue! If I can find out where the other two went wrong I’m in with a chance. What sort of men do you go for?”

“I like the people I meet to be well mannered, I enjoy stimulating conversation and of course a sense of humour is a very attractive quality, I think.”

“Phew! That’s lucky. I’m doing alright so far.

I must tell you, Erica that I’ve met quite a lot of ladies in this Internet game and you are by far the most attractive. In fact I’d say you are in a different league to all the other ones. For a start most are very economical with the truth where their age is concerned. Some of the ones who say they’re in their mid forties, they’re either lying or they’ve lived hard lives. Mid sixties would be nearer the mark. How’s the wine? Can I get you another?”

“I shouldn’t have another, thanks. I can’t be late or drink too much. I have an early meeting to get to in the morning.”

“Soft drink then or a coffee?”

“I won’t, thank you. I must be getting home.”

“What a shame! We should have met up at the weekend. We’d have had more time to get to know each other. Still, there’s always next time. When are you free? I’ll take you up in my little plane; show you my joystick! Boom boom!”

“It is a tempting offer, Roger, but I’m going to decline. If I have to be honest I don’t really think I’m your type. I wish you luck with your future Internet dating though, and thanks for the drink.”

“Ah well, you can’t win them all. I can’t say I’m not disappointed, but you know my number if you change your mind. It was lovely meeting you. Don’t forget your coat, love. Bye bye.

It’s your loss.”

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 2

Today’s post sees the conclusion of a short story. You can read the first part in last week’s Anecdotage. Lena has a puzzling encounter, Imogen learns some home truths from a surprising source and Richard astonishes his wife with some revelations she does not expect.

A Neighbourly Manner [Part 2]

We saw nothing of our new neighbours in the ensuing two weeks, but before we’d left that afternoon I’d elicited permission from Jackson to walk our dog, Molly, in the grounds of the manor and for Richard and me to continue to walk across them as a short cut to the pub.

‘Do as you like, my dear!’ he’d roared, throwing a gangly arm around my shoulders, ‘It’s Liberty Hall!’

And so it was the next weekend, while walking with Molly down the driveway, pausing to admire the view of the house with infinite swathes of daffodils surrounding it that I spotted a figure striding along ahead of me, dressed in a voluminous raincoat, wellington boots and a sou’wester hat; a vigorous, purposeful gait, head erect, hands in pockets.

‘Not Jackson Agnew’, I surmised, since he was taller and I’d the distinct impression that it was a woman; yet the figure lacked Imogen’s neat style, from the rear at least.

Our gregarious Jack Russell terrier had rushed ahead to greet the walker, who stopped and bent to the little dog. I could see from the profile it was indeed female and not Imogen. As I drew close the woman grinned as she made a fuss of Molly.

‘Good Morning! Friendly dog! I am Kristina and I guess you must be our neighbour-Lena, perhaps?’

I may have looked as confused as I felt, for she waited for my response, continuing to grin in an abstract, good natured way. Since she appeared older than Imogen I assumed she must be a relative, possibly a sister of Jackson’s, except that she spoke in a heavy enough accent to demonstrate that she was not of British origin, perhaps Scandinavian. She had a flamboyant, Bohemian look; red curls escaping from the sou’wester, bare legs between the Mac and the boots.

We strolled on together. A scud of spring rain began to sprinkle us. ‘Are you here for long?’ I asked her. She tilted her head to the sky, allowing drops of rain to fall on to her face and into her open mouth.

‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ she laughed. ‘I love English weather! We are just here for the weekend. My daughter must not be left alone for too long. She is supposed to study for her exams but without supervision, well I guess you know what teenagers are like. But these builders, they must also be supervised.’

We were almost at the house, which was encased in the cage of scaffolding that had arrived and been erected during the week in readiness for the replacement of the roof, a renovation that had prompted Richard to describe Jackson Agnew as having money to burn.

I remained silent, absorbing the ‘we’. Imogen had also used ‘we’. Was she here at the manor too? Who was Kristina? She was surely too old to be the stepdaughter Imogen had mentioned.

            We parted company with a ‘see you again’ from Kristina as I made my way around to the rear of the manor, where Jackson’s BMW was parked, though not Imogen’s Fiesta. ‘She could be out’, I thought, ‘she could be shopping or running an errand’ but I felt this couldn’t be true. The most likely thing was that she was working.

            Richard, when I described the events of my walk declared that he was neither surprised nor interested in ‘that man’s affairs’, but I was disappointed not to have seen Imogen, who I’d hoped to involve in village life. I’d saved some literature for her about parish activities and was hoping to have a conversation with her about the village History Society. I couldn’t help wondering if she knew Kristina was there, or even if she knew of the other woman’s existence.

            We left Chiddlehampton and the UK a few days later to spend April in Marbella with our son, who works there as an architect. We prefer to visit in spring or autumn when the Spanish temperatures are less sweltering than in summer.

            On the day following our return I collected Molly from some friends in the village who look after her when we are away and decided from her disgruntled expression and affronted manner that I should offer a brisk walk as a placatory gesture, so I combined this with a route through the estate. I was keen to learn what changes had occurred and who might be in residence.

            In our absence the mature trees in the grounds had taken advantage of the balmy May sunshine to burst into blossom so that intermittent drifts of white or pink petals showered across in a light breeze. Scaffolding was still in place around the creamy walls, although the roof replacement looked to be almost complete.

            Around the back in the car park area I noticed that an unsightly, corrugated pergola had been removed to reveal a semi-circle of elegant columns, a stunning feature. Jackson then had not been idle. His car was parked next to one of the sets of French windows facing the lawns. I loitered for a few minutes in hopes of spotting him or Imogen, or even Kristina, but with no obvious signs of human activity I continued through to the meadows with Molly.

            That evening, when Richard suggested we stroll down to the pub and catch up with some village news, I needed no persuasion. Since the evenings had drawn out and drawn the locals out, the garden of the Cuckoo was as busy as the two bars, making it tricky work getting to buy a drink. I noticed that most of the tables were occupied with diners, too.

             We’d just managed to gain access to the counter and the attention of the bar staff when I felt a rangy arm clamp around my neck and winced as a deafening voice boomed in my ear.

            ‘Well, well! The wanderers have returned! Welcome back you two. Did you have a good time? You must come down and see all the changes we’ve made. You won’t recognise the place! We have a table over in the alcove. Come and join us. You will let me get those, won’t you, old chap?’

            This was addressed to Richard, who’d not turned his head during the greeting, but responded while taking a note from his wallet and handing it across the counter.

            ‘We only came in for a quick one.’

            I could have predicted my husband’s reply, however I was not about to allow an opportunity to talk with one of the two women pass me by.

            ‘But we’ll come and say Hello. Where are you sitting?’ A quick scan of the tables revealed no one resembling either of them.

            We picked up our drinks and followed Jackson through the throng to the alcove. A woman was seated there, not Imogen, not Kristina; a young woman with a mane of dark curls and a heavy pasting of make-up, dark, sooty eyelids and a scarlet gash of lips. Jackson introduced us. When she stood she revealed a swell of cleavage above the line of her blouse.

            ‘This is my friend Liliana. She is an architect and has come to help with the interior design plans.’

            The woman placed her hands on Richard’s shoulders and kissed his cheek, one side followed by the other, continental style. Her fingers, resting on my husband’s upper arms were long and tapered, nails topped with the same livid red as her mouth; as she leaned to offer the same treatment to me I caught a whiff of sweet, pungent perfume.

            ‘I am happy to meet you’ she breathed; her speech coloured with a strong Latin accent which was confirmed by Jackson’s adjunct.

            ‘Liliana is Italian.’

            Beside me on the bench, Richard was silent, concentrating his attention on his pint of Best as Jackson continued.

            ‘She is also a terrific artist. We’ve brought some of her canvases down to see where they’ll hang. You must come and take a look.’

            As he spoke the woman’s lips smiled in their red slash, her eyes narrowing until I thought she might purr like a pampered cat stretched on a hearthrug. To fill the conversational void I murmured something non-committal and took a sip of my wine.       Richard lifted his glass and tipped it back it in uncharacteristic gulps before turning to me.

            ‘We can’t be too long, Lena. Don’t forget Bob is coming round this evening.’

As we walked back along the lane I asked him, ‘Who on Earth is Bob?’

            ‘No one. Anyone. What does it matter?’ he replied, ‘I just couldn’t spend any more of my time with that insufferable man.’

            The May weather turned unsettled as some gusty showers blew over in the middle of the next week and it was during a heavy downpour on Wednesday evening that the bell rang. I’d been clearing up the kitchen and Richard was upstairs in the study editing his latest batch of Spanish photographs. I hadn’t heard a car pull up so I assumed it was someone from the village as I opened the door.

            It was Imogen, though barely recognisable as the radiant girl of six weeks ago. With her hair plastered to her head and her thin shirt stuck to her, soaking, she looked bedraggled. She also appeared to be in some distress, from her red-rimmed eyes and stricken expression. I reached out and all but tugged her inside the hallway, where she stood dripping, her thin shoulders shuddering. I wasted no time.

            ‘Whatever has happened?’ I asked her. ‘Come into the lounge. I’ll put the fire on!’

             Her mouth opened to speak and produced only a shivering sob as she allowed me to tow her into the living room.

            ‘Wait here,’ I told her, ‘I’ll get you something dry to wear.’

            I went upstairs and hissed at Richard’s enquiring face as I grabbed a towelling robe then I dashed back and pulled it around her before sitting her down in an armchair like a child. ‘I’m going to put the kettle on,’ I said, and by the time I’d returned my husband had seated himself in the chair next to her. He glanced at me.

            ‘Let’s all have a cup of tea,’ he suggested.

            As I left the room she began to mumble in halting sentences dotted with ‘sorrys’ and ‘thank yous’ until Richard leaned forward, put his fingers together and asked her, ‘Can you tell us what is wrong?’

            By the time I’d set the tray down she was into her dismal story, which was no less depressing for being predictable; a whirlwind, fairy tale romance rising from a chance meeting with a charming, wealthy, practised, older suitor who’d promised the world before exposing her fully to the circles in which he moved. Circles which included a whole host of other women; ex-wives, of which Kristina was one, ex-partners, ex-girlfriends, ‘friends’ who would like to be girlfriends, ‘friends’ who were ‘helping with the designs’ like Liliana, married women, single women and all with one purpose-to be Jackson’s wife.

            Having swapped a ward shift and wangled a couple of days off Imogen had planned to turn up without warning and give her intended a surprise, but when she left the car and approached the house she looked in at the un-curtained window and saw him with Liliana; the two of them dancing in the stark emptiness of the drawing room, one of his long arms around her waist, another with a glass of wine in hand. She’d stood in the rain and watched them, watched as they laughed together at the intimacies he whispered in the woman’s ears making her throw her head back in delight. She didn’t know how long she stood in the rain watching. She’d felt panic rising, welling up, threatening to overflow into a scream and then she’d run, back along the curving drive and through the gateway up the lane to our front door. The girl’s breathless narrative ground to a halt as she sniffed; taking another tissue from the box I’d placed beside her.

            Richard sat back in his chair, crossing one of his legs over the other and turning his head a little in Imogen’s direction without looking at her face. He began to speak in a quiet monotone. He told her that she may feel distraught now, but that she would recover. He reminded her that she was a strong, independent woman and had proved it by raising a child on her own and following a responsible, highly valued career. He said she must remember that she’d led a good, happy life before Jackson and would do so again; that she must never allow any man to control and manipulate her feelings or treat her as an object to be owned and cast aside like a painting or a house; that a relationship should be based on mutual love and respect and she should look at me, Lena for an example of a resilient, capable woman; that our marriage might not look glamorous but he’d never been in any doubt that he’d chosen the right person. Throughout this monologue she sat motionless, her shuddering sobs subsiding, her narrow shoulders lowering, her eyes fixed hard upon Richard as if he were dragging her from a swamp.

‘Right,’ he concluded, ‘it’s far too late for you to be driving back tonight. You can stay in our guest room, which is always ready’. He looked up at me. ‘My wife can lend you anything you need. Shall we open that bottle of brandy we brought back with us? This would seem to be a suitable occasion to try it.’ He winked. I have a feeling my mouth was hanging open.

He asked Imogen for her car keys, declaring that he would fetch her car from the Manor.

Later on, I ran a hot bath for our guest, after which she was subdued enough to submit to being tucked up in bed.

I extracted a promise from Imogen as she left next morning that she would under no circumstances email, ring or visit Jackson Agnew, neither should she respond to invitations from him, all of which she agreed to with a solemn nod. Her puffy face and red eyes showed that she’d wept the night away, but as she drove off Richard assured me it would pass.

‘Let’s go out for lunch,’ he said and I knew the subject was closed.

            Some unspoken agreement kept us from cutting through Chiddlehampton Manor’s grounds for a couple of weeks and we were relieved to see no sign of Jackson or any of his paramours in the pub, or anywhere else in the vicinity.

            It was June when we returned from a week in Torquay and saw the sign on the gate at the end of their drive. ‘For Sale- Grade Two listed Manor House with OPP for eight apartments’, it read. It was to be sold by the agent ‘Knight and Rutter’ who are known for their upmarket properties.

            Doctor Jackson Agnew and his entourage, it seemed, had moved on.

Wishing all regular readers and visitors a very happy and peaceful New Year

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.

Banjo Wakes

This month sees the debut of my novel, eco-thriller ‘The Conways at Earthsend’ , published by Pegasus. [The Conways at Earthsend by Jane Deans | Waterstones, or The Conways at Earthsend: Amazon.co.uk: Deans, Jane: 9781784659615: Books]. For more information, please visit my author page on: Facebook. In celebration of this event I’m posting up a new short story for readers, followers and visitors.

This story describes a different kind of journey:

Banjo Wakes

When he wakes it’s dark. He waits for an outline, for a glow or a contrast but there is none. He becomes aware by degrees, lying on his back, his right hand caught underneath him so that he must shift. He is able to move a little but his hand and arm that are trapped feel numb. He reaches across with his left hand and tugs at his right, a coat sleeve, some kind of woolly fabric. He needs to stop and rest between tugs but at last his arm is freed, although there’s no sensation in it. He rubs his left hand and arm until prickly pins and needles run up and down his fingers and his wrist, then some feeling begins to return.

He moves his head from side to side and touches the floor where he’s lying. It’s a little warm and smooth with a few knobbly protuberances and it’s damp with some kind of viscous deposit. Reaching up and to the side it feels identical, except that the wall he’s lying against seems to curve inwards as it rises and has the same, slimy residue. It is odourless.

Can he sit up? Should he try? His arm and hand are restored and he tries rolling, throwing his right shoulder across until he’s on his front then pushing up on his elbows. He’s out of breath now and stays, leaning down on his elbows to wait for the panting to subside. That’s when he feels the vibration under his fingertips and hears a dull, pounding beat like a machine.

He sways a little and some awareness seeps in. Where is Judy? Is she here in this place with him, or is he alone? How did he get here? He takes a shallow breath and pushes himself into a seated position. Now he’s gulping and heaving with the effort but if there was a glimmer of light, he’d have more chance of spotting it by seeing both ways. He leans back against the curved wall until he’s recovered his breath.

Every part of him aches; every joint, muscle and organ heavy and sore, as if he’s been run over by a steamroller. Is that it? Has he been in a road traffic accident, pushed into a drainage pipe? Perhaps he should try and call for help? Does he have a phone? He roots around, feeling for a pocket in the woolly coat and finding one, but with nothing in it. His legs though, are bare and he is not wearing shoes. Where is Judy? He tries to remember where he was before he came here and what he was doing. The dull throb continues in a relentless rhythm, the beat familiar, a song he knows, music he’s played himself, with the band. The band! Of course, he is a musician and plays a stringed instrument-a banjo! And something else; it’s his name. His name is Banjo, too.

When he tries to hum the tune, nothing comes out but he moves his fingers as if on the banjo strings and in his mind’s eye there is an image of Judy, next to him, playing bass and belting out a harmony to the chorus. Now he knows the song. It’s ‘Copperhead Road’, Steve Earl’s country number about bootlegging and drug running and he runs through the lyrics in his head: ‘Now my name’s John Lee Pettimore…’ He can hear Judy’s strong vocals as she stands by him at the mike, close enough to smell her fresh, citrussy scent and see the light dusting of freckles across her cheek.

He has to find a way out. And he has to find Judy.

He turns his head to the left and stares long and hard into the dark void but can make out no shape or line, then turns to the right, thrusting his head forward and gazing, holding his laboured breathing back until there, at last he detects a minute, white pinprick.

It’s something. Maybe it’s a light or maybe not. But to ascertain the source is better than sitting here doing nothing. He takes stock. He is neither hungry nor thirsty, which is just as well as there is nothing here. Nothing except darkness.

He takes a breath before manoeuvring back onto elbows and knees facing the white dot and begins to move towards it, Copperhead Road playing in his head along to the pulsing throb of the tunnel. After a few seconds he must rest, flopping down on his stomach this time and it seems as if the vibrating beat is faster as he listens. Then it slows again. He pushes up, labouring to get back on his knees and moves forward.

Banjo has no idea of time here or how much has elapsed since he began to move, resting between bursts. Sometimes, when he stops he sleeps, waking on his stomach, neither hot nor cold, thirsty or hungry. Whenever he wakes the pounding of the tunnel is slow.

It occurs to him that he might be dead, in which case, what is he crawling towards? Is he making his way towards an afterlife? He feels himself crumple inwards like an eggshell. It’s too soon; he hasn’t said goodbye to Judy. There is still so much to do. He’s not ready. He frowns and grits his teeth. ‘Get on with it, Banjo!’ he tells himself. Whatever is there, he needs to find out, needs to get there and this is no time to wallow in self-pity.

Next time he stops he pulls up into sitting again for a proper rest and to check the dot. The curve of the tunnel wall supports his back as he leans in, noting that his clothes are soggy with slime from the deposit he’s picked up. Now, when turns to look at the white speck he sees that it’s bigger and when he concentrates, he thinks there may be faint, pale shafts radiating inwards from it. If he’s correct this will be a light. His heart pounds. If it’s a light can it be the tunnel entrance?

He’s encouraged, and crawls on with renewed energy, his heart beating along with the tunnel’s throb…’Now Daddy ran whisky in a big, black Dodge’…the lyrics ring through his head as he goes, coming back to him now. Other than aching he’s not injured so he couldn’t have been in an accident. Was he abducted? Imprisoned here? But why would he be? He is neither rich nor famous.

He doesn’t allow himself another look until he’s managed another five bursts of crawling, but when he does stop to sit up the circle has grown much larger, light shafts illuminating the tunnel entrance, enabling him to see a grey and purplish glow, textured with something like threads. It’s puzzling, almost as if the tunnel was a living thing; the inside of a creature. Has he been swallowed up by an enormous beast? That would explain the warmth, although not the fact that he is still alive-if he is alive. If he isn’t alive, he has not much further to go to discover what the afterlife has in store for him. Either way he must plough on.

When he stops again to gather strength it’s clear that one more effort will take him to the tunnel entrance, and now he can see that outside is a clear, pale blue, indicating that the tunnel will exit to the outside somewhere and that it is a bright, sunny day. He considers this, feeling around in his woolly pockets once more for something that will help when he’s out. He has no means of communicating with Judy. He can remember where he lives but will he know the way back from wherever this is? Supposing he’s miles from anywhere? It could be a desert, or a mountaintop. And the lack of footwear is going to be a problem. He shivers, in spite of the tunnel’s warmth.

Banjo readies himself for the last push and crawls towards the big, blue mouth, his heart beating fast and his eyes squinting in the blinding light as he arrives at last, breathless, lying on his back across the threshold. He squeezes his eyes closed for a moment against the glare.

The pounding has stopped. There is a voice.

“Banjo? Are you with us at last? Hello!”

He stares into the blue, realising it isn’t as he’d thought, sky. It’s blue fabric on the arms and torso of a person. Now he can hear a high-pitched bleeping and when he plucks at the woolly sleeve of his coat, he finds it’s a blanket. He frowns as the someone leans down to peer at his face.

“Do you know where you are? You’ve been asleep a long time. Lie still now and we’ll let your wife know you’re awake. Judy, isn’t it?”

Banjo blinks, looking around at the array of tubing and machinery surrounding his hospital bed, remembering nothing of the circumstances that brought him here but feeling that the journey he made as he fought his way along and out of the tunnel has been the hardest of his life. He looks up at the blue-clad nurse and mouths the words, ‘thank you’, and she places her gloved hand on his arm for a brief moment and smiles.