The Subway. Episode 1.

So here begins a brand new, two part story in which the intricacies of female friendship are explored…

It would take eight minutes, I figured, to walk to the bank and return. I could be back in time for Cindy’s visit; even a short diversion to the shop for milk and a packet of biscuits wouldn’t add much more.

              Grabbing my purse and keys I stepped out into the overcast street and set off, brisk, mindful of the time.

              I walked fast, overtaking the stymied snake of traffic that choked the High Street most days and reaching the underpass just as the first, fat drops of rain began to spot the pavement. I descended the slope, feeling the usual frisson of tension at the mouth of the subway, an apprehension I fought each time I crossed under the busy road despite there being a steady flow of pedestrians in both directions.

              As I entered a thunderous deluge fell outside, a roar magnified by the dark echo inside the rounded tunnel and glancing behind me I glimpsed the flicker the lightning made while a rivulet formed to pool at the base of the slope. I had a fleeting vision of how my hair was going to look after it had been plastered to my scalp and my heart sank at what Cindy would say, given that she is inclined to criticise my hair care and indeed, all aspects of my appearance. Still, I pressed on.

              He was there, towards the end of the subway, about two thirds along, propped up and swaddled in a bulky sleeping bag. The homeless man; head slumped. There was no one else, no other pedestrians in the tunnel. They must all be sheltering in shops and doorways. I dropped my chin and walked, tormented by the usual questions. Should I look? Should I speak? Should I donate? Most days I’d stare straight ahead, fumble in my bag or look away at others but today there was no one, no solidarity in ignorance.

              I was almost level now. With nobody else to pass the buck to I paused to glance sideways, just a quick shifty to make sure he was alive. I wouldn’t want to pass by a corpse, or almost a corpse. That would make me heedless, callous. On the other hand, I didn’t have long. Cindy would be round soon, wanting her coffee. We needed to get together to plan our holiday which would require booking soon before the prices went up.

              His head hung over his chest but I could see enough face to note that the skin had an unhealthy, greyish pallor and a thin string of saliva hung from the corner of his mouth, dribbling on to a dark, spreading patch on the blue nylon of the sleeping bag. I stepped nearer and caught the dry, musty smell of him in the damp air of the tunnel.

              Normally he’s sitting in the bag, surrounded by empty styro-foam cups and dog-ends, gazing at passers-by and wishing them the time of day in the interests of his income. Normally he follows my progress through the tunnel with patient optimism and a murmured ‘Morning’. Normally his head is tilted upwards to engage pedestrians, eye-to-eye. It’s harder to ignore someone when they’re looking into your eyes.

              I looked both ways again in vain hopes of a passing Samaritan, only to see the stair-rod rain step up a level, a thunderous, roaring wall of rain. I bent slightly towards the inert body and cleared my throat. “Are you ok?” I croaked, unheard above the crashing rain. In a moment I realised that I would have to be the Samaritan and in a simultaneous recognition understood that I was ill-equipped for the task, having no medical experience or expertise and being an impractical nincompoop.  I experienced a hot flush as I remembered Cindy’s biscuits. There was nothing I could do about them now. I extended a tentative finger towards his forehead, which felt cold and clammy, like a newly caught mackerel from the fish counter. His eyelids were translucent and papery, trembling with each quick, shallow breath. When his lips parted to mumble an incoherent utterance, I jumped back as if stung.

              It had taken me a long time to get friendly with Cindy. I’d been a member of the singles club for more than five years when she joined. I was never after romance after Brian went, more that I needed to make new friends but I’d tended to be on the fringe of the group. I don’t have the gift of the gab-not like Brian had and like Cindy. As soon as she joined, she was the centre of the crowd like a bullseye in a darts board with everyone radiating around her. Then one club night they’d organised a board games session and I was sitting it out because Monopoly isn’t my thing and she came and sat with me, said she wasn’t keen either. We talked about what we did like and it turned out we both love holidays and sunny destinations but find it hard to travel alone. We’ve been away a few times since then. Cindy’s the gregarious type, starting up conversations with strangers, chatting up waiters. But she’s an air-head. She can’t get organised and she’s hopeless with money. I used to work in management so I’m used to dealing with money, timetables and plans, so I suppose we’re the perfect travel companions. I don’t mind that she’s so glamorous and a man magnet because I’d be hopeless on my own. But I often worry that she’ll meet someone, remarry and I’ll be back to how I was, back to being lonely.

              I took off my coat and draped it over the man the best I could, thinking perhaps he was cold. I don’t know a lot about first aid but it’s what people do in accidents, isn’t it? For shock or heart attack? Now I’d have to get to someone with a phone. I’d have to go out into the storm without a coat, find a stranger and accost them. Cindy would have no trouble with this but Cindy is not a mouse.

              I took the town side steps, reasoning it was more likely there’d be passers-by that side. I was soaked in seconds and once I gained the top, I scanned the precinct for someone. An individual rushed by, head down, ignoring my approach. Spotting a couple sheltering in the jeweller’s doorway I ran to them, gasping. They shook their heads, assuming, I imagine, that I was asking for money. I suppose by now I had the look of a vagrant myself with hair plastered to my face and clothes sticking to my skin. Desperate, I pushed open the door to the coffee shop next door and stood, dripping on the doormat.

              The entire clientele and all of the counter staff froze in a collective stare, which was mortifying in itself. I must have looked wild, as if I was about to draw a gun and shoot the lot of them where they sat hobnobbing over their cappuccinos and lattes and toasted tea cakes, but I took a deep breath and blurted, ‘Can someone ring for an ambulance? There’s a sick guy down in the subway!’ There was a short pause then a lone figure rose from the corner.

              ‘Show me’ was all she said. I led her to the steps and stood aside while she galloped down and was swallowed up by the tunnel. I began to follow, as did a number of café patrons, intrigued by the prospect of some pavement entertainment on a rainy afternoon. The café woman was kneeling over the recumbent man talking to him but with no response. She shouted. ‘Ring an ambulance. Do it now!’

Episode 2 of The Subway can be read in next week’s post. Thanks for visiting!

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/

The Emerald Cave [Episode 2]

In Episode 2 of The Emerald Cave, Kate reveals some more about how she became friends with Emerald and more on the subject of Emerald’s unorthodox existence. Episode 1 of the story can be found in the previous week’s post.

I sneaked a few glances at Emerald’s boyfriend, Lincoln, noticing he was good-looking in that boyband way, floppy brown hair and flawless skin. I wondered how old he was. Young men often look younger than their female peers. He was a driver, though so he had to be at least seventeen. I wanted to question her about him but was too timid to ask, especially as he was sitting opposite us.

I’d lost track of time but it was Emerald who asked me what time I should be home. I was going to be late and would have some explaining to do. Back in the car she wanted to know if I was doing anything on Saturday and would I like to go round to hers? I dithered again, feeling my cheeks burn, but said I’d like to, thinking I’d have persuading to do as well as apologising for lateness. I got Lincoln to stop at the end of our road in the small village where we live, so that I wouldn’t have to justify travel in an unreliable car with an unknown driver.

In the event, once I’d said I’d missed the bus and been chatting to a friend, my parents accepted the excuse and left it at that. My sister Sarah, however was more probing once we were alone and quizzed me about Emerald.

‘That new girl in your class? How come she is friendly with you, all of a sudden?’

I shrugged, not wanting to get into one of my sister’s superior sneering sessions. I left it until Friday to mention I was going into town to have a look round the shops next day. I don’t know why I felt the need to lie, but something told me my family wouldn’t approve of my visiting Emerald.

David has found somewhere for us to have lunch, a few miles away from the canal but through quiet, country lanes. It’s a small town but has one or two restaurants and a beautiful chateau where wine tours and tastings are available. I tell him we’d better not drink too much or we’ll be wobbling into the canal on our return and he replies that we’ve got all day and can even walk back if we need to.

Emerald’s home wasn’t what I expected. I met her at the salon where she worked, alone this time and we walked to her place, a meagre, terraced house in a large, modern development. There was a scruffy patch of paving leading up to a scuffed white door. She took out a key and unlocked it and I followed her into a cramped hallway half filled by a row of coat pegs bulging with assorted jackets. She led me to the end, into a tiny kitchen with two stools under a counter. It had a cold, empty smell like a disused canteen and I wondered if Emerald’s mum cooked much.

‘Take a seat’ she said and I perched on a counter stool while she made us mugs of hot chocolate in a microwave and sprinkled mini marshmallows on top. There was no sign of an adult in the house. We took our drinks up the narrow stairs to her box bedroom, which had a single bed with only the narrowest of gaps between it and the wall, a small desk and chair under the window and a hanging rail with assorted clothes. She put her mug on the desk and threw herself on to the bed and I did the same. Her walls were covered with posters, mostly music artists, some I knew and others I didn’t. On subsequent visits to her house, I began to think that, other than her bedroom, the house had an unlived-in look, the small, narrow living room spartan, with no books on the shelves, no photos or pictures, no cushions on the beige, faux-leather sofas, no ornament. Emerald had a small TV on a bracket in her room so I guessed she watched programmes there. I wondered if she felt lonely in the evenings or at weekends, but she seemed to have a lot of friends and there was Lincoln, of course and now, me.

‘Is your mum working today?’ I asked her.

‘Yep. She works in a care home. She’s on lates, so she won’t be back til about half ten. We can get pizza if you like?’

If my parents were worried or surprised that I’d gained a best friend, they didn’t express it, displaying little curiosity beyond ‘what does her father do?’; this from my father, who was stuck in some Victorian notion of husbands as providers. I’d explained that Emerald’s parents had separated, a situation my mother described as a ‘broken home’. As long as I was back by our curfew of nine o’clock and made sure they knew where I was, they were relaxed over my visiting my friend’s house. As much as they knew, Emerald and I were doing homework together under the supervision of her mother, not gallivanting about town, trying on makeup in Boots and spending hours in Hard Mock with various friends of hers, none of whom seemed to be school pupils. Sometimes Lincoln was around, often not. She was vague about what he did, saying he did ‘occasional’ work, whatever that meant.

At school I was now part of Emerald’s inner circle and as such my status became elevated and I was one of the gang. At home I was more vocal, entering into mealtime discussions and more prepared to stand up to my sister, Sarah. I had the feeling my mother was relieved as I overheard her telling my grandmother on the phone that I was ‘growing up at last’ and that I had a friend who was doing me good.

If anyone has done me good, it’s David. He’s made me stop worrying about events that are beyond my control and that what has occurred in the past need not blight someone for life. He’s taught me strategies that make me calm, like this cycling. We’re on the outskirts of the town he’s chosen for lunch. We lock the bikes up and stroll the streets on foot, perusing the menus of the cafes and bistros as we go. It’s a characterful, old town full of medieval, stone cottages, their gardens a riot of vines and flowers. We choose a restaurant by the bridge over the river, the tables placed across the road by the water.

I’d been friends with Emerald for a few weeks but had yet to meet her mum, who seemed to be working all hours. She also had a boyfriend whom Emerald tended to avoid, not for any sinister reason but due to his being ‘boring’. The Easter holiday came and went and I spent a fair bit of it hanging around with Emerald, when she wasn’t working in the salon. She’d offered to get me some hours there but I declined, knowing my parents would baulk at the idea. If I had spare time, it should be used for school work, they’d have said. Sarah, Jo and I had small allowances, for which we were expected to do chores around the house like ironing, hoovering and cleaning bathrooms.

The days became warmer and we swapped the café for going to the park, taking a rug and snacks and being joined by others. We larked about, often screeching with laughter, although I can’t recall over what now. When you’re fifteen the most trivial things can set you off giggling. I think what I loved most about Emerald was her ability to make me laugh; sometimes even remembering the laughter would set me off again afterwards, at home and I’d have to try and explain the joke to my perplexed family, never a success.

At the beginning of June, the weather became hot. One Friday, as we were in the lunch queue Emerald told me she was taking a Saturday off from the salon and did I fancy a day out? I nodded without hesitation. Where?

‘We could go to the seaside’ she suggested. ‘Take our swimming stuff.’

Our town was about an hour from the coast at the nearest point. ‘How will we get there?’ I asked her and she shrugged. ‘We can get a train, or Linc can take us.’

I told my mother the backpack with my towel and swimming costume I was taking was full of textbooks. After my initial misgivings about lying to my family I’d developed a strange indifference to fabricating the truth, as if it had developed with practice. I told myself it was kinder, that it would save them from worrying; a notion that now seems astonishing in the light of subsequent events.

We met at the station. I felt both jittery and excited to be having a day out. It was hot, the platform tarmac radiating warmth as we waited. We’d both brought snacks, my mother even providing a few food items ‘because Emerald’s mother is always feeding you’. I’d never told her that I hadn’t so much as met Emerald’s mother, who was always absent from the house whenever I visited, either working or with Geoff, the boring boyfriend, according to Emerald.

When the train pulled in, we fell into seats, giggling. Somehow, everything was funny, from the wheezing man in the ticket office to the elderly woman dragging a reluctant pug along the aisle. When a woman sitting behind us told her companion ‘I bought this coat last week. I thought it would see me out’ we both convulsed with silent mirth, hands over our mouths. So it was in a jovial mood that we stepped off the train into the bright, already searing sunlight of the small provincial station and walked in the direction of the beaches.

Once we’ve finished our lunch, David and I walk back across the bridge and up towards the chateau, a little way out of the town. There are vineyards either side of the lane, as far as the eye can see, except that the chateau itself protrudes from the rows of vines like a mountain rising from green, frothy waves. There’s a driveway and once we’re closer, a cute pedestrian bridge across a moat in which the rounded honey-coloured walls and turrets of the edifice are reflected. We enter through the elegant main gate and across a flagstone courtyard then in through heavy, wooden, open doors studded with black metal. To the right of the great hall is a ticket booth, to the left is a glass partition behind which is a gift shop, where I’m sure we’ll have to exit.

Soon we’re following our guide for the tour, Henri, along sumptuous corridors carpeted with a central red strip bordered by gold stripes and walls lined with statues and paintings. He tells us about the portraits, the previous inhabitants of the castle and entertains us with some stories. There is only one other couple for the tour today, a middle-aged German pair, happy for Henri to narrate in his near-perfect English. We follow him around the state rooms, ogling the elegant furniture, the long dining table, the chandeliers and the four posters, then we descend to the vast kitchen with its burnished copper cooking pots, its enormous fireplace and range. Finally, we descend down the stone steps to the cellars, a honeycomb of stone alcoves lined with dusty bottles and further still, tall racks of oak barrels. The smell is wonderful; a mix of smoky oak and ripe fruit. A small table is laid with a pristine white cloth and glistening wine glasses. Henri asks us about our preferences and goes to pluck a bottle or two from a rack.

Meanwhile we chat with the German couple who’ve been touring the south and are making their way back home, stopping where they fancy. We compare notes about this area and they recommend some more places to visit.

Read next week’s episode to find out what happened in the The Emerald Cave

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her latest novel, The Conways at Earthsend is 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, Novelist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

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.

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.

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.

Fiction Month1. Three Marriages.

November is Fiction Month at Anecdotage. This year’s Fiction Month is starting later than usual because I didn’t want to interrupt my travelogue memoir: Solo to Africa. Here then, beginning today is the first of a two-part, brand new story, ‘Three Marriages…

Three Marriages

It feels hopeless. I’m staring at my reflection, sitting here on the stool at my dressing table and I’m thinking I might just feign sickness and send Solange to the wedding on her own. I let go of the soft concealer brush. I can do nothing with the sallow shadows under my eyes, the furrows around my mouth, my sagging, fleshy cheeks, thin, pale lips and wrinkly neck. I can’t pretend I’m younger than my age, can’t compete. Instead I pull the comforting folds of my ancient, towelling bathrobe around me and consider my options for the day.

I could don gardening gear and make a start on the rose border; or I could walk the dog-a long, leisurely stroll across the meadows, returning via Mabel’s Coffee Shop. I could come back and do some baking. I could loll about in a hot, fragrant, bubbly bath with a large glass of Merlot and listen to an audio-book. I could heat up a ready meal and slob around on the sofa watching a film. Yes. It sounds a perfect Saturday. I take the towel from my head and begin dropping make-up items into the drawer, leaving a dusty pink trail across the glass top, then there’s a knock and my daughter enters before I’ve a chance to answer, bustling up behind me looking like she’s stepped from a page of Vogue magazine, wearing a cream silk jumpsuit, her honey-coloured hair swept up into a twist.

She is exclaiming before she reaches my stool. “Mother! What on earth are you doing? Do you know what the time is? The taxi will be here in twenty minutes! You haven’t even started your hair. Whatever is the matter?”

                So many questions. But she knows the answers. She knows how I feel about my wedding invitation. Emilia, the bride, is the daughter of my oldest friend, Sonya, and the same age as Solange. The two girls were born in the same month, grew up together, in and out of each other’s houses here in this sleepy corner of our Wiltshire village. It would be unthinkable not to attend the wedding, this most important event in our friends’ lives. Wouldn’t it?

Solange is opening the wardrobe and taking out the dress and jacket we spent days looking for, scouring the shopping centres of several cities, trudging around clothing departments, searching the independent boutiques until I felt that if I was to try on one more floral shift or fitted, peplum jacket I’d run screaming up the High Street in my baggy, grey underwear. I watch in the mirror as she hangs the outfit on the outside of the wardrobe, smoothing it down. It is a dress in muted tones of dove grey silk with a loose linen, duck egg blue jacket on the top. I gaze at it. On the rail it looked beautiful. On anyone else it would look wonderful. The lure of the gardening gear is stronger than ever.

Solange is thrusting a hairbrush into my hand. “Here”, she says, “Start brushing your hair while I delay the taxi and get some bits.” She rushes from the room, leaving me to drag the brush through my mangy locks.

She returns with a hair dryer and some cosmetics, dropping items on the glass. “Tilt your head up!” she instructs, and begins to sponge foundation on to my face, then “lids down!” as she dusts my eyelids with a deft sweep.

I try to protest. “Sh!” she hisses, continuing with her mission to make me presentable. “Did you get that sculpting underwear on yet?” I shake my head and she tuts. “Next job then.”

Together we squeeze my protesting body into the dress before she teases and coaxes my wayward locks into a semblance of style. I’m relieved to see that the veil on my chic, blue-grey hat conceals some of my face. Solange stands back like an artist assessing a portrait. She darts forward to adjust the hat then turns me towards the mirror. “Ok, Mum. Stand up now and take a look.”

I can barely breathe in the constricting underwear and I wonder how I’ll cope in these heels but I admit she’s done the best she could, although not enough to allay my humiliation in the face of young, beautiful competition.

She is glancing out of the window. “Come on. Taxi’s waiting.”

She thrusts a small, matching clutch bag into my hands, pops a creamy hat with a broad, sweeping brim on to her head and grabs my arm as if I’m about to escape. Moments later we’re in the taxi and she’s instructing the driver. I study her as she sits beside me, cool, sophisticated, adult and I wonder at how she’s becoming the parent here, to my diminished, fearful self.

My hands feel clammy in my lap as we pull up outside the church. Solange steps out of the cab and waits for me, then tucks her arm in mine. “You look gorgeous, Mum”, she says. “I’ve done a brilliant job!” She’s done her best, I think.

                I’m breathing fast, my heart thumping as we enter the sunlit churchyard. The guests must be inside by now and as we approach the stone archway of the porch, I can hear organ music; the last few notes of ‘The Wedding March’ dying away. The oak door is open a sliver, policed by an usher, the bride’s younger brother; he pulls it open enough to allow us to slip through and indicates a space on the last remaining back pew, on the bride’s side, of course. No one notices us slipping in to sit on the hard, wooden pew. All eyes are facing ahead, to the couple in front of the altar.

Emilia is in place, half-turned towards James, the groom, as the vicar prepares to speak. Now I’m feeling hot and cold, scanning the assembled guests for a familiar head, for another couple, an older man with a much younger woman, a couple who could be father and daughter, except they’re not.

 I think I’ve spotted them half way down the row. I nudge Solange, who is engrossed in the ceremony. “Is that them?” I hiss and she looks where I’m pointing, at a balding grey head next to a red-haired one, an auburn cloud of hair cascading, hatless in riotous ringlets over slim shoulders. My daughter shrugs. Even though the back of Giles’ head is as familiar to me as my right hand I feel a tingling jolt that he is there, only a few pews in front of Solange and me. Does she feel the same way? He is her father, after all, although she’s disowned him since he left us for a woman her own age. But Solange has eyes only for her best friend, a vision of ethereal beauty in French lace.

I drift into a trance of memory, the heady scent of wedding flowers like a drug as I recall my own wedding to Giles in the tiny Normandy village of my birth; processing along the village street followed by the guests, braving a cacophony of trumpets, shrieks and whistles, standing before the mayor, solemn in his finery, emerging into the sunlit courtyard, white damask clad trestle tables adorned with gleaming, silver cutlery and small bags of candied almonds tied with white ribbons. Canapés and champagne flowed before we sat for the meal, after which, the speeches. Giles took my hand and led me into the middle of the space as the band struck up the first dance and I thought I could never be any happier in my whole life than at that moment.

There is a sharp pain in my side. Solange is elbowing me. It is time to stand as the couple prepare to exit the church. They advance, sedate and glowing, glancing right and left to give a smile and acknowledgement, three small bridesmaids in pink satin stumbling and giggling as they follow. As they pass us all I want is to slide out now, to slink from this place and go home, home to a comfortable cardigan and a cup of tea.

Why is Claire so reluctant to attend the wedding? And what will she discover as the celebration continues? Check in next week for the conclusion to Three Marriages…

How was it for You?

January is my least favourite month-cold, dark and seemingly interminable. Many like to begin the month with a party. Here’s a story I wrote years ago about a New Year’s party that did not go according to plan…

The Rescue Party
Brian Meadon peers out into the darkness and is forced to admit a grudging fascination for the way the snowflakes are looming out of the sky and settling in an ominous and ever growing heap on his car’s windscreen. His initial feelings of hot anger and frustration with the car’s failings have ebbed away to be replaced with somewhat colder resignation. There is still just enough light outside to make out the writing on a road sign beyond his lay-by. ‘Stoodley Interchange’, it asserts, taunting Brian with confident superiority, even though accumulations of snow are creeping up its legs.
Settling back into his driving seat once more, Brian decides to give his phone another go. He is pleased with the way he’d remembered to charge up the battery, a task he’d frequently been accused of neglecting by his ex-wife. This small celebration of competence affords him a slight, smug smile until yet again ‘no signal’ appears on the screen in an impudent gesture almost as if it were conspiring with the road sign to humiliate him. At least the phone’s tiny screen casts a little light.
Brian shivers. He attempts to recall the advice being provided by experts on this morning’s Beeb’s news programme but it had been burbling away as a background to packing. If he’d not been carried away with optimistic anticipation of the evening revelries he might have paid more close attention to the weather warnings and in particular to dire predictions concerning road travel. What was one meant to do? Firstly, you should not travel at all unless your journey is absolutely vital. ‘Well’, thinks Brian, ‘It is vital to my wellbeing to have a bit of fun, so I’ve covered that one’. Secondly, you should ensure that loved ones know your whereabouts and your travel plans. Brian feels uneasy about this one, since although he has made Jackie, his ex aware that he has been invited to a ‘country house New Year festivity’ somewhere in Berkshire he had not been motivated so much by a need for self preservation, more a desire to demonstrate what a popular, well-connected and upwardly mobile fellow he has become since they split up. ‘Neither is she a loved one!’ he speaks aloud into the silent phone. He has not brought a shovel or a torch, but these would be of no assistance as the car is going nowhere, snow or not. A flask of coffee, however and a warm blanket, he has to admit, would have been very welcome by now.
An exploratory foray into his overnight bag yields little of any use to Brian except for a towel, which he drapes around his shoulders like a cape. He has also brought some pajamas which, whilst the additional layer would be beneficial, he feels reluctant to don in case of rescue. After deliberating he decides to bear them in mind as emergency clothing supplies. His feet are by far the most pressing problem, having become totally numb inside his shoes so that he compelled to scrunch his toes up periodically in attempt to regain some feeling. Should he, perhaps break into the bottle of wine he brought along as a contribution to the New Year do? He thinks not, for now; best to keep something in reserve in case, Heaven forbid, the situation worsens.
Another glance at the phone reveals the time to be 8.57pm, and forty five minutes since the last vehicle passed by. Brian realizes with a grimace that his careful calculation of timing in order to arrive not too early and not too late will now be academic. His arrival will now be, at best, late. What will the reception be like if, and when, he arrives? Misgivings flutter through his digestive system like tipsy hens and peck away at his confidence. Rob and Shelley are people he met almost a year ago and spent one week with, when comradeship was enhanced by the thrills and spills of the ski slopes. But they were charming, friendly and fun, seemed to really like having him around, have kept up with emails. The invitation had been issued with genuine warmth and re-issued as a result of his last email enquiry as to whether the party was going ahead.
Brian decides that he can utilize more of his clothing resources if he curls up on the rear seat. The time has come to employ the services of his pajamas-which he acknowledges he only brought as an afterthought, thus freeing up his towel as a foot-wrapping. The achievement of all this takes some time and energy, resulting in the opening of the wine, thankfully of the screw topped variety. He lifts his head up enough to swallow a mouthful and then shudders as a yawn escapes him. He wonders what is happening at the party now and imagines he is there, glass in hand, chatting up a woman, asking her to dance, getting close, feeling the rhythm, moving his feet, becoming warm, hot, sweating, thumping.
Thumping! Brian starts awake, wild eyed, dropping the wine bottle into his overnight bag, an intense, dazzling light in his face and an urgent thumping on the window. ‘Just a minute!’ he tries to shout, managing a feeble croak. He fumbles with frozen fingers to open the rear door which eventually opens with a gasping crack, having been yanked from the outside. A large, unearthly figure swathed in black is bending in to scrutinize him, playing a flashlight over the interior of the car. For a fleeting, delirious moment Brian believes he has expired; that this horrific apparition has materialized in the afterlife to exact retribution for his earthly sins.
“Good evening sir. Are you alright?”
Speechless, Brian feels an ignominious, hot welling of tears behind his eyes as he struggles to get a grip on his emotions at being found. Minutes later he is sitting in the police land rover clutching a hot cup of tea while the officer calls the AA number he has given him.
“Rescue vehicle is on its way sir,” the policeman tells him. The dashboard clock is showing 10.48pm. Flooded with a surge of optimism, Brian grasps that he has not missed the entire party, because it is a New Year’s celebration, and the nature of New Year’s parties is to extend up to, and indeed well beyond midnight. He pictures himself arriving at Rob and Shelley’s, hearing raucous laughter and the thudding beat of loud music, windows all lit and pulsating figures gyrating within. He will apologize for his lateness, explain his predicament, present the remnants of the wine, be hailed as a hero, exclaimed over, pressed with drinks and nibbles, surrounded by sympathetic, admiring women.
Whilst it takes longer than Brian has anticipated for the AA man to attach the defective car to the breakdown truck he calculates that he will still get to the party in plenty of time.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go home sir? You won’t be the only person not attending, I’m sure, then there’s the car. You’ll have that to deal with. How will you get it back?”
“No! These friends of mine, they’re almost family! They’ll be disappointed if I don’t turn up, and Rob’ll help with the car tomorrow. He knows loads about electrics.”
“How about calling them, though, sir? Just to be sure?”
“I doubt if they’d hear it!” Brian chuckles. “No, let’s just carry on and get there. It’ll be fine.”
They lapse into a silence burdened with the AA man’s skepticism.
It is 11.52pm when they pull in to the entrance to the lane leading to ‘The Orchard’.
“I’m going to have to leave the car here, sir. I don’t want to be going up there and not be able to maneuver or turn the rig round.”
“No problem! We can sort it out tomorrow. As I said, Rob will know what to do.”
Once the offending car has been detached from the truck the AA man is as eager for departure as Brian is for merriment. Brian pumps his hand, more in a desire for him to disappear than in gratitude, staying only briefly to wave as the truck rumbles away. Having stuffed his pajamas back into the overnight bag he sets off round the bend towards ‘The Orchard’.
It has stopped snowing. Against the inky sky there is the silhouette of a house, but as yet no sound or hint of light. He walks on to find a gate, more easily visible now that his eyes are accustomed to darkness, unlatches it and continues up a path to the front door. He stops to listen, straining to hear a hint of music or a voice, gazing at the windows for some chink of light, any sign of activity or, as a frisson of anxiety begins to insinuate itself, an indication of occupation. There is a small click. Brian is instantly illuminated by the security light, setting off a tirade of furious yapping from the bowels of the house. ‘Strange’, he muses ‘that they never mentioned owning a dog’. He procrastinates on the doorstep in a doldrum of indecision. It is clear even to him that there is no party taking place. The unnerving idea that this may be the wrong house fills him with dread, since he has waved off the kindly AA man to whom he’d exaggerated the description of his acquaintances as ‘almost family’. It is now twelve twenty one am and he is freezing.
Faced with the choice of once more donning his pajamas and towel and sleeping on the back seat of his car or rousing the inhabitants of this house, whoever they may be, Brian opts for throwing himself on the mercy of the householders even if they are strangers. At the sound of the doorbell the yapping acquires new vigor and he feels both anxious and relieved as an interior light is switched on and he hears a muffled voice. There is a momentary hiatus while locks and chain are undone then the door is opened a little to reveal part of a pajama-clad body topped by a pale, wary face. The face speaks.
“Yes?”
Brian feels weak with gratitude to some unformulated source that it is Rob who has answered the door, albeit not the party-animal Rob he’d envisioned, the ‘life-and-soul’ Rob of the pistes. Nevertheless this suspicious, guarded individual is recognizable as Rob.
“Hello Rob. Happy New Year!”
He proffers the half bottle of wine, affecting a merry grin in the hope that his teeth are not chattering too much. The distrustful figure in the doorway peers further out at him, blinking until recognition dawns.
“Oh it’s um..”
“Brian. From skiing! You know. Last February”
“Brian. Yes. Brian. From skiing.”
There is an interval during which Brian lowers the wine bottle to his side and Rob continues to stand in the small gap he has allowed between the door and the frame and contemplate the visitor. Somewhere in the background the yapping continues apace.
“What did you want Brian?”
Brian swallows. His lips have become dry and numb, his voice a timorous squeak.
“The party. The New Year’s do.”
“Party?” Rob’s eyes widen as he stares at him. The moment is interrupted by a woman’s voice.
“What’s going on? Who is it Rob?” and Shelley appears, swathed in a white toweling bathrobe and a bewildered expression. Rob half turns to speak over his shoulder.
“It’s Brian. From skiing. He’s come for a party, apparently.”
It is Shelley’s turn to squint at him, looking closely from behind Rob’s shoulder. Brian dangles the wine bottle, nervous snicker hovering on his lips. Shelley appears to rally, declaring,
“Well we can’t all stand here letting cold into the house. You’d better come in, er, Brian.”
He steps over the threshold, still clutching the wine bottle and continuing to sport what he hopes is his most affable and charming smile despite the ambiguous welcome.
“I seem to have got you up, don’t I? Was the party cancelled at the last minute? Only I’ve got a slight problem with my car. The recovery vehicle has had to leave it at the end of your driveway. I can probably get it moved tomorrow. Do you think there’ll be any taxis tonight?”
Their confused frowns lead him to pause as he glances from one to the other.

Fifteen minutes later he is plumping up a cushion on the sofa in their lounge and unzipping the side of a threadbare sleeping bag that is most likely a relic of Rob’s past travels. At last the dog has lapsed into merciful silence. He takes a sip of the tea he’s been given and moves stealthily to the living room door, the better to hear what is being shouted in the kitchen.
“What the Hell were you playing at, inviting that bloke here?” Rob’s anger has broken out now that he is no longer in the room with Brian.
“We were all pissed, Rob, if you recall and we came up with the idea of getting together at New Year. He wasn’t asked specifically. He was just there. He was always hanging around. Don’t you remember? We couldn’t shake him off; odious little man! We must have overlooked him when we decided to cancel.”
Brian listens in for a few more minutes until the recriminations and accusations begin to be repeated, then he pads quietly back to the sofa to insinuate himself into the moth-eaten sleeping bag. He lifts the remnants of the wine to his lips, whispering ‘Happy New Year’ before knocking it back in two mouthfuls. In the morning he will have to phone up and get his car taken home and with luck, scrounge a lift for himself. Once he is home he will ring Jackie. If she is feeling magnanimous he might get invited round there, especially if he says he’d like to see the kids on New Year’s Day. She might ask about the party. He will tell her all the details. How the champagne flowed like water, the house was a mansion lavishly decked out, the women gorgeous. He will name drop a few minor celebrities and hints about not sleeping alone. Yes. She will be impressed. The bickering voices seem further away now. Brian sighs. The bottle slips from his hand on to the carpet where it leaves a blood red dribble. A gentle snore escapes him. ‘Happy New Year’. Well it didn’t turn out so bad.

February Fiction 2

 

In Part 2 of ‘Lewis’s Basement Herbs’, Lewis’s mother’s mood becomes relaxed until the two receive an unexpected, early morning visit which is less than welcome…

 

Lewis’s Basement Herbs

Part 2

He waited for her to tell him to go to his room, to remind him of the ‘no TV’ sanction or to say it was bedtime, but she began to watch the next programme, a sport games show, not her usual choice. He noticed that she was smiling, another unusual event and once or twice she sniggered in an uncharacteristic way. At the end of the programme she turned to him and asked him to fetch a bag of crisps from the kitchen, which he did; one for her and another for himself. She tore into the crisps then requested the biscuit tin, helping herself to at least four, an unprecedented action. She sighed, wrapped her arms around him and kissed him, telling him what a good boy he was. Lewis grinned. The herbs must be making her feel better.
During the course of the next week Lewis sneaked a few more bags from the herb garden box and stashed them in his bedroom. When the tea caddy ran low, he topped it up with the herbal mixture. Life became more relaxed as he bathed in his mother’s benevolence and her tranquil good humour.
It was still dark on a school morning ten days later when Lewis was woken by strong light through his thin curtains, the sound of vehicles down in the road and heavy footsteps running into the building. He looked out of his window to see several police vehicles, their lights blazing and a number of police officers scurrying around, some of whom were accompanied by dogs sniffing the ground and wagging their tails. Soon the sound of their feet was echoing in the corridors and along the narrow balconies of the block and he could hear shouts and the banging of doors. He pulled a hoodie over his pyjamas and went out to the living room just as his mother appeared from her bedroom, wrapped in a voluminous towelling robe. It was five o’clock.
His mother was beginning to speak when their door was hammered by a loud knock and a voice calling, “Police. Open up please!”.
Lewis and his mother exchanged puzzled looks before she went to the door and opened it. A policeman, bulky in a yellow vest, with items hung about his waist and holding a leash attached to a laughing, wagging spaniel stepped into their small living room, filling it.
“I’m sorry to get you up but we have to search each flat I’m afraid.” He looked around. “It won’t take long and we’ll try to leave things as they are.”
Lewis thought he’d like to pat the dog, which looked friendly, but the policeman’s brusque manner was discouraging. The boy’s mother drew herself up into a statuesque stance, arms folded across her stout chest and scowled. “Officer! We are a law-abiding household. You won’t find any drugs in this flat!”
The policeman nodded. “I’m sure you’re right, Madam. But it’s procedure and as I say we’ll be out of here in a minute or two.”
The dog was whining and pulling, tail whipping to and fro like clockwork. They were in the tiny kitchenette in three strides, the woman and the boy following to lean in the doorway while the dog yapped and stood up with paws on the worktop, excitement vibrating through every hair of his curly coat. The officer turned to the woman. “Dog seems to be interested in your containers, Madam.”
Lewis’s Mum frowned at the policeman and pushed her arms higher over her bosom. “I don’t have anything except food in there-sugar, sweeteners, coffee and tea. That is all.”
The Officer withdrew a pair of gloves from his pocket. He took a caddy from the shelf, opened it and looked inside while the dog jumped beside him, barking, whining and wagging. The officer took another tin down, peered in and replaced it. He went for the third. Lewis heard his mother grunt in disapproval then the dog went wild, leaping up at the tin and barking in a frenzy. The lid was removed and the policeman shook it before sniffing the contents. He turned to the woman, tilting the caddy towards her.
“I’ll be taking this tin, Madam. And I’ll have to ask you to accompany me to the station. You might want to get dressed first. I’ll wait out here.” Now that the thrill was over the spaniel lay down on the floor, head between its paws.
Lewis’s mother’s mouth hung open as she stared at the officer. She tried to speak but no words came out. She frowned at Lewis as if begging him to help. After a moment she gathered her wits. “And what about my little boy? I can’t just leave him here you know. He’s only nine years old.”
Lewis licked his lips. He felt hot. He glanced at the policeman then at his mother, then back at the policeman. He cleared his throat, prompting them both to look at him. “Wha…what is in the caddy?” he stammered. The policeman waved the tin at him. “I believe this caddy contains an illegal substance, young man. Do you know anything about it?”
Lewis felt his face grow hot as he studied the laminate flooring. He mumbled, “Herbs-it’s just herbs.”
They were both staring at him now. He could feel their eyes on him, turning him to stone where he stood riveted to a fake knot in the plastic floorboard. “I put some herbs in the tea caddy” he managed to whisper, risking a sideways peek at his mother, who was gawping at him as if he was an alien. The policeman strode back into the living room and spoke into his radio.

Lewis led them down the steps to the basement room. Behind him he could hear the dog wheezing as he strained at the leash, enthusiasm rekindled at the prospect of more discoveries. As the boy reached the bottom of the steps and stood before the door with its frame of light, he felt a sense of loss at this, his own private retreat exposed to others’ eyes. He bent to swivel the numbers and pulled the lock open. The policeman, dog panting at his side, touched his arm. “Alright son, I’ll take it from here” and he reached in front of Lewis to pull the door open then he and the dog went in.
Lewis’s mother fixed him with what he had come to think of as the death-stare. “What” she hissed, “have you done?”

The new house still seems vast. Lewis’s new, bigger bedroom looks out over their small patch of garden and sometimes he just stands at his window smiling. Today he can see his mother sitting out on the patio and he thinks he’ll go down and offer to make her a cup of tea because this always makes her hoot with laughter. Nowadays she calls him her ‘lucky star’ for getting them this new home, away from dangerous gangs and threats, away from graffiti and basement drug manufacture. Once Lewis had convinced the police of his innocence, he and his mother had needed to be whisked away from the flats to avoid reprisals.
He wanders downstairs and outside to the tiny garden, his favourite part of the new house. His mother has sat down again so he perches next to her. “Mum” he says, bestowing on her his most guileless smile, “I’d really like to grow something in our garden, like we do at school. There’s a space at the end by the shed. I know what to do. I can grow some herbs. Please will you let me try? Please?”

I hope you enjoyed reading this 2-parter. Comments, whether you liked the story or not are much appreciated. Normal blogging will resume next Sunday. Thanks for visiting!

February Fiction.

By the time this post is published I will have deserted the gloomy shores of the UK to enjoy some respite from the wintery weather and the wintery political climate in the sunny Caribbean. While the West Indies is a fine and inspirational place for writing my budget does not stretch to the huge sums needed for internet use. Hence the next 2 posts are a BRAND NEW short story, which begins today and concludes with Part 2, next Sunday…

 

Lewis’s Basement Herbs

Part 1

The first time was spooky. From the top of the last flight down the steps an eerie glow radiated from a line around the metal door and a soft hum throbbed from whatever was inside. Lewis had been both intrigued and nervous as he edged down the last few concrete treads and stood listening, riveted to the soft line of light.
He knew nobody lived down here in the basement because the numbers on the ground floor flats began upstairs where the lift stopped. He’d been subjected to repeated warnings from his mother not to come downstairs to the basement; warnings that whetted his curiosity, seducing him down into the bowels of the block even as she was glancing at the clock in their cramped kitchenette and preparing to summon him to supper.
He wasn’t supposed to wander off, although he was allowed to venture down to the lobby floor and outside to the bleak, graffitied playground as long as there were no teenagers there to intimidate or indoctrinate him. But the play area held few pleasures for Lewis, who was an introverted, solitary child, small for his nine years and not easily able to make new friends. The dark basement with its narrow shaft of light, its smooth concrete walls and gentle hum had a womb-like comfort that soothed him after the rigours of a tumultuous school day and kept him from his mother’s irritable nagging over chores and homework. He began regular descents to what he considered to be his own, private retreat, sometimes bringing his tiny games console or a notebook and pen and after a few visits he’d managed to sneak a small cushion out of the flat to make the concrete step where he sat more comfortable.
One late afternoon he was ensconced on his cushion and engaged in drawing a monster in his notebook when he heard some quick, light footsteps approaching the basement door above him. He closed the notebook, pocketed the pencil and, taking his cushion crept around the corner of the steps into the dark alcove behind them where he crouched, making himself as small as possible while the mouse-like steps pattered down.
A short, slight figure, silhouetted in the shaft of light stood at the metal door fiddling with its padlock, which Lewis already knew to have a combination like the ones on the bikes in the racks at school. The door sighed opened with a rasp, flooding the small space at the base of the steps with white light. Holding his breath, Lewis edged back tight into the shadow but caught a momentary glimpse of the interior before the door was pulled to; what appeared to be a still, silent row of slender, dark structures, their base a glinting, reflective surface like the Christmas decorations in the city centre. He could hear the person inside bustling about and see her-he was sure the figure was female-flitting backwards and forwards across the narrow gap in the doorway. Supposing she was busy on some task, he crept from his corner and across the passageway towards the metal door, where the combination lock lay open. He looked at the barrel of the lock. There was enough light to see the numbers along the shaft opening: 6628.
By the time the girl came out of the room he was back behind the steps, having written the number in his notebook. He watched as she clicked the lock together before pattering back up the stairs and opening the basement door, leaving him once again alone in his den.
Lewis was thrilled. He felt like a detective looking into a mysterious incident, except that no crime was being committed. He was determined to investigate the basement room further but would have to try tomorrow as his grumbling tummy told him his tea must be ready by now. He gauged that the woman would be clear of the ground floor and went up the steps to the lift.
As he exited the basement door a voice assailed him.
“Whoa! What you at, fella?”
Lewis flattened himself against the door as the tall, rangy figure of Desi loomed up against him. Desi was a member of the notorious Bunja gang whose antics terrorised the inhabitants of the block and who Lewis’s mother had instructed him to avoid. Now he was trapped, his mouth dry, his throat constricted as though strangled, unable to utter so much as a squeak. But Desi persisted.
“What you doin’ down there, eh?” The tall youth jerked his head at the closed door behind Lewis and stepped forward so that he squashed the smaller boy, his tobacco breath hot and nauseous.
Lewis made a frantic effort to think of a reason for being in the basement. A lost cat? But tenants were not allowed pets. An errand for his mother? But he couldn’t think of anything. A game? But there were no other kids around. He held his breath.
Across the lobby a voice echoed. “Eh Desi! Time to go! C’mon!”
Desi gave the boy a hard shove against the door before turning and loping off to join his companion and Lewis slumped forward, exhaling with closed eyes as the two Bunja gang members disappeared out of the building.

Next day was Saturday and he was obliged to help out with going to the launderette, tidying his bedroom and accompanying his mother to the shops and back, carrying his share of bags. After tea and washing up he asked if he might go out to play, as it was still light and after some hesitation his mother agreed, although she stipulated that he must be in again by seven thirty.
He was careful to look around before opening the basement door. This time he’d brought a tiny torch he kept in his bedroom. He was breathless as he swivelled the numbers on the barrel into position and breathed out as the barrel unclipped, freeing the padlock, allowing him to grasp the handle and push gently, whereupon he was bathed in the white light of the compact room and stepped in, mouth agape.
The structures in rows were dark green, spiky plants, all the same, their bases encased in silver foil like his mother used for lining the roasting tin. There were bright, white lights directed at the rows and the entire room was warm and damp like the launderette on a busy morning. But the smell was not at all like the launderette. It was fragrant and herb-like. Lewis walked up and down the rows for a few minutes then he realised. Of course! This must be a herb garden. They had one at school in a raised bed outside in the playground; only this one was indoors and this one had only one type of herb, not the mixture they’d grown at school.
He sat down on a box in the corner, enjoying the warmth and the cosy, aromatic atmosphere and forgetting how long he’d been there. At last he remembered he should not stay too long in case the girl came back so stood to leave. He stepped away from the cardboard box he’d been sitting on and looked at it. It was not sealed. He pulled up the flap and peered inside. It was full of small plastic bags containing what looked like tea leaves. He knew about tea leaves because his mother was fussy and refused to buy tea bags, preferring to spoon tea into a pot. After a moment’s hesitation he pocketed one bag, replaced the flap and crept from the room, giving the door a gentle push and locking the combination. He hoped the girl wouldn’t notice that the numbers, when he swivelled them around were different but he guessed she wouldn’t look too closely as long as it was locked.
It was later than he realised. As he ran to the lift he glanced at his watch. It was seven fifty. The lift, when it sank into place contained one person: his mother, coming to look for him.
Lewis was grounded for the next three days. His mother gave him chores and stood over him while he learned spellings and times tables. He was sent to tidy his room each day after school and was denied TV. Seeking to sweeten her up a little, on the third day Lewis offered to make his mum a cup of tea while she watched Coronation Street, a proposal that led to a narrowing of her eyes in suspicion but an acceptance. He filled the kettle and took down the tea caddy. When he glanced into their narrow living-room he could see that she was engrossed in the programme so he withdrew the plastic bag of dried herbs from his pocket and mixed them in with the tea leaves in the caddy, augmenting the amount by about one third. His mother was always moaning about aches and pains. They had learned at school that people used herbs to treat illnesses. Maybe the herbs would help. He took her a cup of tea and sat down next to her while she sipped it and watched her programme…

Check in next Sunday to find out how the ‘herbs’ affected Lewis’s mother and what happened next…

Missing Persons

In an idle moment, whilst Offspring 2 was visiting last week we delved into the small archive of family photos I managed to salvage from my parents belongings before Sibling 1 ditched the entire caboodle into a refuse bin.

This did not happen recently, you understand. My father shuffled from the mortal coil nearly 10 years ago; but it is only now that Offspring has indicated an interest in constructing some kind of family tree and has enlisted my help in annotation. The help is limited, since my knowledge of our ancestral roots is woefully lacking.

My mother had 3 siblings and my father 6. I am able to detail my mother’s sister and 2 brothers plus their offspring [my cousins]. On my father’s side, where he had 3 sisters and 3 brothers I can name my uncles and aunts but am flummoxed by all but the nearest in age cousins. As my father was the youngest of 7, the age difference between he and his oldest brother was so great that he and his nephew [my cousin] were almost the same age, prompting my grandfather to call my father [at around age 4] ‘Uncle’.

I never knew my paternal grandparents, who had a smallholding on a modest farm plot in a Wiltshire village on the edge of The New Forest. But I know that my grandfather, Harry was a ‘character’ who took the produce to market in Salisbury twice a week on a cart pulled by a horse called Ginger. Harry, [according to my father] was inclined to squander some of the proceeds of his market stall in the local hostelry before he returned and was regularly brought back to the farm [much the worse for wear] by Ginger, who knew the way.

But I love the photographs; small, grainy monochrome snapshots of smiling subjects who seem always to be having fun, always to be in the sunshine or always enjoying a day at the beach, a picnic, a dog-walk. Often they are smoking a cigarette and appear to be sharing a private joke and I long to know what it is. These are their ‘selfies’, the difference between them and the social media equivalents being that they were not shared instantly with all and sundry and were left for us, the curious descendants to unravel their mysteries.

I wish, now that I had plundered my father’s memories before he departed. There are a few pencil annotations in my mother’s elegant, sloping hand on the back of a few, often with question marks, indicating that she, too was mystified by the photographs.

Yes, we could pay to discover our ancestry, but it’s not a route I want to travel down. Offspring, perhaps may do so in the future. But I have employed some of the characters in a story, published on this blog in 2015, an extract of which can be read here: ‘Caught’