Travel tales are temporarily held up at the moment. During the hiatus I’m posting some of the oldest short stories I’ve accumulated and which litter my computer like a a motorway verge. Here’s the first, and it IS a little travel related:
Margaret’s Night Out
I got home even later than usual the other night. I always like to take my time. I suppose you’d say I dawdle, unlike setting out in the mornings, when I rush off like a rat up a drainpipe, to use one of dad’s expressions. It’s not that I ever oversleep. It’s that my workplace, well, that’s my favourite place in the world. I can never wait to get there. I love everything about it, from the warm, homely smell of the fresh baked bread, to the cackling laughter of my two workmates, Pam and Vi; from the noisy bustle and jangling shop bell to the colourful rows of regimented doughnuts and cherry bakewells standing to attention in sugary limbo until bagged and ready for action.
Like I said, I was a bit late and as soon as I stepped into the porch I could tell he was rattled, as normally he calls out to me.
“Is that you Margaret?” he will say, which is daft for a start, because who else is it going to be?
If the BBC News at Six begins in my absence my dad has no one to share his disgust and outrage with, no one to acquiesce to his views, nod in conformity and admire the wisdom of his analysis. I put on my cheeriest smile before opening the living room door.
“Alright, Dad?” realising, of course, that he wouldn’t be. He was scowling at the TV set, a bitter cloud of resentment hanging around his Parker Knoll armchair.
“Why are you so late?” he growled, still fixed on the screen.
“We were short of a few things, so I stopped off at Palmer’s. I’m getting your tea now. A bit of fish do you tonight?”
Ducking into the kitchen before hearing the inevitable moan I grabbed an apron and began peeling potatoes. I couldn’t explain to Dad what had delayed my homecoming, because he’d be bewildered that the allure of the travel agent’s window could be more powerful than the contents of the six o’clock news, especially when accompanied by his own, insightful comments. Those advertised destinations stir me with their exotic promise; their glamorous names resonate in my head: Goa, Madeira, Indonesia, Bali, Madagascar. Whilst there is no question that I will ever journey beyond the boundaries of this country I am a traveller in my imagination, voyaging wherever a travel guide, a brochure, my armchair or my dreams transport me.
An urgent ring of the telephone jerked me from my reverie, so that I dropped the peeler into the saucepan to answer it.
“Hello Margaret. How are you? Is Dad there?”
I noted the usual lack of pause between enquiry into my wellbeing and the unnecessary query as to Dad’s whereabouts and took the phone through, mouthing ‘Frank’ as I passed it to him. From the kitchen where I’d resumed supper duties I could hear my father pontificating on the failings of this government and the dreadful consequences of not reintroducing National Service. When I returned to retrieve the handset I was surprised to learn that my brother was still on the line, wishing to speak to me, an occurrence likely to contribute further to Dad’s displeasure.
“Yes Frank. What’s up?”
“I thought I’d sound you out first, Margaret, before the old man knows. I’ve been offered early retirement. It’s too good to refuse, so Bev and I, we’ll be moving out to our place in La Cala in June. This house is already on the market but we don’t need to stay. The agent can handle it. We thought perhaps when we’ve sorted ourselves out you could bring Dad for a visit. I know how you like your holiday programmes, Margaret. Come and see the real thing, you and Dad, eh?”
Thinking of nothing appropriate to say in reply I made non committal murmurings before replacing the phone in its dock. La Cala did not figure amongst the intriguing and desirable places jostling together in the maps of my dreams. It lay amongst the sprawling conurbation surrounding Benidorm and accommodated countless communities of ex-pats, whiling away their days on the tennis courts and their evenings in the bars. I recoiled at the idea of visiting alone, let alone taking my father, who is demanding enough to care for at home. I could hear him calling me then, a note of annoyance accelerating into exasperation in the repetition of my name.
“What did he want then, Frank?’”
“He was just asking what you might like for your birthday”. Taking a moment to absorb this he shook his head.
“Frank knows what I like. Dunno why he’d need to be asking you!”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Shall I put one of your Dad’s Army’s on? You like those.” He grunted in the affirmative and was soon engrossed in his favourite DVD, part of a box set Frank had bought him for Christmas.
Settling down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and the latest ‘Hercules Tours’ brochure I ran my fingers over the glossy cover where a photo of the Taj Mahal at sunset called to me like a siren to a sailor.
At work next morning we were sorting out the delivery, stacking the shelves, lining up the pasties under the counter when the door opened and hot Rod walked in. That isn’t his real name, not the ‘hot’ part anyway; just what Pam and Vi call him. He’s working on the shop conversion next door. Vi nudged me, an ostentatious wink distorting her round, pink face.
I put Rod’s custard Danish into a bag and gave him his change, waiting for him to leave before turning to look at the girls, who were leaning against the loaf slicer, tears of laughter welling up and about to flood the shop.
“Tell you what”, declared Pam, “If I was single there’d be no stopping me. You could do a lot worse Margaret, couldn’t she Vi?”
Vi nodded, adding an ambiguous “Or even if she wasn’t single”. Vi never made a secret of her unhappy marriage to Den, whose unsavoury exploits she’d frequently described.
“Have you thought any more about the quiz night on Friday, Margaret, up at the snooker club? We could do with you on our team, with you knowing so much about countries, capitals and all that. Do you good to get out, too. Your dad can cope for a couple of hours, can’t he? My Kevin will come and pick you up. “
These two women have invited me out more times than I’ve made ham sandwiches and I’d always declined, citing my father as a reason, but for once I felt a bubble of rebellion growing inside and heard myself say, “Alright. Why not?” to the flabbergasted looks of my friends.
At home I scrutinised the contents of my narrow wardrobe, hoping to discover some forgotten item that might be suitable for an evening out, but the occupants of the hangers retained a resolute familiarity in their service as work clothes. I could not recall the last time I’d been to a social gathering, still less the outfit I’d have worn. Perhaps I should buy something new, although I was forced to acknowledge that dressing for Friday’s outing was the least of my problems.
I waited until Thursday evening to broach the subject. I made sure I was home before six, made his favourite liver and bacon for supper, agreed that Frank had done very well for himself and was the best son anyone could have. Once this eulogy had subsided I took a breath.
“I’m going out tomorrow night, Dad. Pam from work’s invited me to a quiz. She and her partner are picking me up at seven.”
Although I’d taken pains not to blurt it out in a rush, my announcement rang with triumphant accomplishment as if I’d entered into high society, like Eliza Doolittle going to the races. I felt myself redden as he turned to look at me, something he rarely does, a small, perplexed frown knotting his brow.
“Pam from work?”
Keeping my resolve, I maintained the cheerful smile, while I began to bluster in an attempt to mitigate the awful consequences my absence would bring about.
“I’ll do your supper, Dad, before I go and I’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need to hand. You can always phone me if there’s an emergency. I won’t be late back so I’ll be here for bedtime as usual.”
He turned away, seeming to sag and shrivel in the chair like a cushion leaking stuffing.
“I’ll be going to bed now, Margaret, if you please.” That was all he said, but whilst I couldn’t escape the feeling of portent his silence carried I was filled with a bullish determination, so that I muttered ‘I AM going out’ repeatedly while I got his Horlicks and made his hot water bottle.
There was a skittish, party atmosphere in the shop next morning as the girls teased me about the evening to come, a flippant suggestion from Pam as to whether ‘hot Rod’ might like to join us and a cross-examination from Vi over the intended outfit. The pleasure I normally derived from these exchanges, however was tempered by nagging anxiety, as my morning ministrations had been met by stony, grim faced silence from my father, prompting me to whisper ‘I’m STILL going out’ as I left the house.
Later, dashing homewards it was difficult to say whether my feverish nerves were due to the impending, unaccustomed jaunt or uneasiness about my father. Letting myself in I sensed a barely perceptible alteration in the atmosphere as if the air held an electrical charge, even though the television was burbling away as usual and Dad ensconced in front of it. I got no response to my ‘alright, Dad?’ or when I brought him the tray bearing his supper, upon which I’d lavished great care and attention.
“Right Dad, I’m going up to get ready now”, I said, but might as well have told it to the TV screen. I went up and began attempting to squeeze myself into a black skirt I’d last worn about eighteen months ago and which had seemed a good idea for the quiz outing until I tried the recalcitrant zip. Gearing up for one last tug I was holding my breath and wrenching in my girth when I caught the sound of a thud from below. I let go of the zip and nipped out to the landing, skirt sagging round my hips. Beneath me at the foot of the stairs lay my father, prone, limbs flopping like a rag doll. I ran down. My heart beat with a strident pounding that throbbed in my chest and ears. Leaning down I noticed a liquid red line emerge from under his head and flow along following the join in the laminate floor. I straightened, stepped over him and into the kitchen. On the table the ‘Hercules Tours’ brochure remained, impassive, bearing a picture of the Taj under a blood red sky. I grabbed the phone and the kitchen towel, sat down on the hall floor. I lifted his head gently onto the towel, then my lap, observing the pale, waxy pallor of his skin, the shallow rasp of his breathing. I punched 999 into the phone, gave all the details.
“It’s alright Dad. There’s help coming” I said, as I smoothed the wisp of baby soft hair from his face. His eyelids, papery and almost translucent, trembled and his thin lips jerked to produce a word.
“Yes Dad. I’m here. You’re safe. Stay still now, till the ambulance comes.”
His voice quavered as a glint of wetness materialised in the corner of his eye.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Margaret”.
There was a distant sound of a siren now, as the ambulance approached. I looked away from him.
“I know Dad, I know.”
Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/