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 4]

In this, the concluding part of The Emerald Cave, Kate hears Emerald’s story and has a chance to put her side of the experience to her former friend. Will Kate find peace in the sharing of her trauma, and will her relationship Emerald be rekindled? Read on here to find out. We begin as the two have begun to converse. To read from the beginning of the story, check into previous posts…

She half shrugs. ‘We left the UK, Lincoln and I. We came here to France. We worked, mostly casual jobs like helping with the grape harvest. We…split up.’  She pauses. ‘Lincoln moved on. I stayed. I met Henri. We’ve lived here, in this village ever since. How about you, Kate? Are you married?’

She glances up, catches my expression of incredulity.

Me? How am I? I’m aware of my rapid breathing and knowing this is the prelude to a panic attack, I close my eyes and count the breaths in for a slow ten and out. After a minute I open my eyes and meet her gaze. She looks away. I snatch my chance.

‘My life was ruined, Emerald. It’s only through meeting my husband, David that I’ve been able to come to terms with my own, near-death experience and your drowning. I suppose you had it all planned out, did you? Befriending me, the hopeless, mousey loner, pretending to like me then luring me to that inaccessible place, drugging me and leaving me to fate?’ I lean forward and she recoils. Her eyes become moist. ‘Have you any idea at all,’ I ask her, ‘how terrified I was and how cold and desperate?’

She’s studying the table, tracing the wrought-iron pattern with a finger as she moves her head from side to side.

‘And the aftermath!’ I continue. ‘The circus of hospitalisation, police, journalists! My whole family spending weeks of creeping in and out of their own house; the curtains drawn day and night, the phone off the hook, the constant ringing on the doorbell! And you! You were swanning around France with your boyfriend having fun! Thanks, Emerald!’ I sit back. There’s silence.

‘It wasn’t like that.’ Her voice is low, almost a whisper. ‘My life then- maybe it looked fun and free. Maybe other girls envied me, I don’t know. But I wasn’t happy, Kate. I was alone, insecure. My Mum wasn’t there, ever in the house. She was with her boyfriend. At first it was just occasional nights, then weekends, then she moved in with him.’

‘Why didn’t you go, too, Emerald? Why did you stay in the house alone, if you were so unhappy?’

She shrugs; looks away. ‘Emerald?’ I persist. She stares at her lap.

‘He…’ she stops. Then I realise. She’d stayed in the house alone because the boyfriend she’d described as boring had been abusing her.

‘Did your Mum know? Why didn’t you tell her?’

‘I…couldn’t. Maybe she guessed; I don’t know. He threatened me. He said I’d never see her again if I told her. In any case she chose him instead of me, didn’t she, so I suppose she didn’t care much either way.’

I am aghast. ‘But after you disappeared, she was devastated. She was all over the news crying and telling her story.’

She nods. ‘She’s made money from it; selling her story to the tabloid press.’

We sit in silence while I try to digest what she’s told me. ‘How did you do it, Emerald? When did you start hatching your plan to escape?’

She sighs. ‘At the beginning, when we met up, I just saw you as a kind of ‘project’, I suppose. I liked the idea of befriending you. You seemed so lost and lonely. I told Lincoln I’d had enough and wanted to leave, to make a new start somewhere where my Mum and Geoff couldn’t find me, he came up with the idea of faking my death. Somehow, he thought of involving you, to make it more realistic.’

‘Is that where the drugs came from? From Lincoln? Was that the ‘occasional work’ you told me he did?’

She nods. ‘Yes.’

‘But you took them, too, Emerald! Why didn’t you pass out like I did?’

There’s a pause. She looks at me, her eyes wet with tears. ‘I didn’t Kate. I’m sorry. I just pretended to take them. But I knew the dose we gave you wouldn’t do you any harm.’

‘How? How did you know?’

She shakes her head, staring down at her lap; blows her nose on a tissue. Her voice is small, almost a whisper. ‘How did you get out, Kate? What happened?’

‘Do you care? Why?’

‘I’m an adult, now. I understand that what I did was shocking and criminal. But then I was a child and I was a victim, too.’

She’s right. ‘OK. Well, when I woke, I was terrified. I was cold and wet and thought you had drowned. It was dark. I couldn’t see a way to get out. All I could do was wait and wait. It was hours, Emerald, hours later that I heard a helicopter noise. I waded as far towards the entrance as I could and waved into their search lights. Then they dropped a line down with someone and hauled me up. I was in hospital for a couple of days but they said I was lucky. In the aftermath I became a recluse, refusing to go to school or anything else. My parents got me a home tutor. I started a university course but dropped out before the end of the first year. I drifted, living at home, doing dead end jobs. I started seeing a counsellor, David. He and I are married now.’

I sit back. I’m bone tired.

‘It didn’t last with Lincoln. He smuggled me out of the country. We did various jobs like fruit picking and we ended up here, doing odd jobs like helping with the grape harvest. He left. I stayed. I met Henri, the tour guide here and we got together. We live in the village and have three children.’

‘Does he know? Henri? Does he know about your past?’

‘Yes. I had no papers, Kate, so we could never get married and I can never go anywhere, either.’

I look around at the view of the vineyards and surrounding countryside. ‘There are worse places to be captive’ I say.

‘Yes, but I know I’ll have to confess at some point. I need to tell my children, for a start.’

              The gravel crunches as David approaches our table. He looks from me to her and back again, an enquiring expression on his face.

              ‘This is Emerald, David. Emerald, this is my husband, David.’

              She squints up at him. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ she says. He holds out his hand and shakes hers then pulls out a chair and sits.

              ‘I should get back to work,’ Emerald murmurs.

              ‘And we should go.’ David touches my arm, jerking me from the trance I feel I’ve been in.

I nod. ‘Yes, we won’t want to be cycling back too late.’ Emerald stands and holds a hand out to me. She doesn’t comment or ask where we’re staying. I take her hand. We don’t hug. We don’t arrange to meet up again. ‘Goodbye’ I say. She nods, turns and walks away. I look at David and he takes my hand as we wander back down and through the sleepy village, bathed in late afternoon sunshine.

              We unlock the bikes and set off along the lanes, the rhythmic peddling soothing, the sun -drenched vegetation exuding a relaxing, earthy smell. I’m barely aware that I’m cycling as my mind processes what I now know.

              Later I drift off to sleep in the barge’s cosy cabin and it’s a solid, dream-free slumber. When I wake it’s morning and I feel like a child waking on Christmas day, as though a weight has lifted from me.

              We breakfast out on the deck. I’ve told David everything now. He’s anointing his croissant with jam, then leans across the small bistro table. ‘I’ve been thinking. Shall we go somewhere different next year? Italy, maybe? What do you think?’ I smile back. ‘Italy sounds good! We’re not tied to here, are we? We’re free to go anywhere we like!’ And it’s true. I am free; freer than I’ve ever felt in my entire life.

Here we leave Kate to get on with her life. How was the story? Did you read from the beginning? Feedback , as always will be very much appreciated. Feel free to comment . Visitors to my blog, Anecdotage are extremely welcome!

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.

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.

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.