Do stay awhile and enjoy your read...comments are welcome, it is good to know what you like or don't like so I can keep working on my writing...

Thursday, 28 April 2011

It takes two

They say never judge a book by its cover and they are bang on the money in this little tale...
She has a double chin and the hips to match. They swing with every step, calling all men’s eyes in their direction. Some women look away, envious or appalled. Others gaze in wonder, admiring their own sex for what it does best. You wouldn’t find Lilly Packer on the pages of vogue but then you wouldn’t find vogue on her coffee table either; so it was tit for tat. Clothes tight to every curve emphasise nature’s bounty. High heels lift her rear making it ride behind her, a cheeky wave of exuberance.
            Today is a special day; today the package arrives. It has been two weeks in coming, traversing the globe to reach this sunny little corner of England; the final destination. Inside this brown paper clad box lays a carefully wrapped gift. It is a gift that Lilly feels she deserves and so she bought it for herself; click went the mouse and zoom went the money; invisible over the ether setting in motion a scrambling for goods in a dusty store room out in the back end of nowhere. What a wonder technology is, she thinks, here I am on the edge of an island and from way across the sea this comes, all because I clicked a button on a screen. It makes her giddy to think on it; how compact the world has become. She prefers to think of it as wide open; big and ready for anything like she is; this is the world she wants to inhabit. In part it explains why she lives by the sea. Life feels unbound with that endless horizon; it is a vista to free the mind.
            At the post office counter the man winks when Lilly sways in, all crimson lips and mascara lashed. He mistakes her appearance for an invitation; a common misconception and one she graciously lets pass.
“Could I collect my parcel?” she asks and he hears a purr, a gentle caress of words in his slightly hairy ear that sets his pulse racing, flooding his cheeks as red as her lips. She slides over a docket. Below the counter he is standing to attention; the opportunity to turn away and hunt for the package is welcome relief. Breathe, he reminds himself, breathe. When he returns all is under control; he’s professional and courteous as he likes to be. Suddenly the wife with her chunky legs and frazzled hair is dearer to him than anything. He’d not last a week with a girl like that. He’s careful not to let their hands touch as the package slides between them; afraid of what actual contact with a being such as her might do.
            The package is clasped to her ample chest, forcing cleavage up and over, she glances down at it and smiles. Her ladies; once a curse but now a comfort. Every caress, wanted or unwanted she has matched, letting her hands reclaim the body that so many feel they own. One hand now keeps touching the box, as if testing it exists at all. Heels click and clatter on the pavement; a feminine tattoo leading her home. Hips swing in time but she is oblivious to the twisted necks of the men she passes as they contort to cram in a second glance. Today is special. Today the package has arrived.
            A sea view they said, the room has a sea view. Only if you lean out the window and squint sideways; which she does on occasion when the weather is too bad to take a walk out along the blustery shingle. No matter how warm the sun a breeze light and airy seems to inhabit the shore; stalking it like a lost soul stuck between worlds. Sometimes Lilly talks to the wind, soothing it with her tales of her own. And what a tale she will have to tell it after today. Her gift is finally here; in this very room with its thick rug and big bed; the dressing table crowded with cosmetics, lotions and potions to enhance what nature has granted and the large oval mirror to reflect back the masterpiece she creates daily. A fat vase squats on a small table, bursting with fragrant roses that seem too perfect to be real. She hates roses, especially pink ones. Roses come with thorns to remind women that all beauty comes at a price and it is this she resents. Given the choice she would have chrysanthemums, white ones. A flower glorious for its simplicity; but he does not go in for the simple things in life; hence his attraction to Lilly. What he does not understand is that she is primped and painted because she is protecting herself; the larger than life exterior shelters her thoughts from prying eyes. She’s been in this game too long to allow everyone access; it chips away who you are if you do. And he has no idea who Lilly is or he wouldn’t treat her the way he does. She peels down the skirt to inspect firm thighs, counting one, two, three bruises turning that ugly shade of purple. He only ever goes for the thighs so he can appreciate the rest of her guilt free; if you can’t see it then it didn’t happen. Well, two can play at that game. She opens the package slowly, relishing the power creeping into her veins like wine.
            When he arrives he gets down to business; a brief hello and he’s naked expecting her to do the same.
“Oh Boyce” she sighs, emerging from behind a screen in stockings and a corset, “Boyce, look here.” 

Eyes are dragged from navel to head slowly; he frowns, unused to instruction from this pliable plaything. Those eyes widen as he sees what is in her perfect white hand as it peeks forward from behind her back, pearly nails glinting in a shaft of sun.
“Goodbye Boyce” she says softly, almost as a prayer. There is no time for him to reply.
            Afterwards she sits in front of the mirror and removes all her makeup; a new yet familiar face emerges, gently she experiments with a smile. A loose shift dress slips easily over her curves, creating a softer silhouette; the heels remain. She is a heel kind of woman. A suitcase packed ready emerges from the wardrobe and a passport comes out from hiding at the back of a drawer; the name inside says Annabel Cleaves. Now, after five long years she can set foot out in the wide, wide world free to be herself once more.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Elvis and the ice-cream sundae

The wheels passing over the roughly joined paving stones gave a thrilling jolt, threatening a fall. Suzie realised roller skates were not the most sensible footwear for running away in. For hours she’d whizzed and wobbled up and down the front path waiting for her mum’s attention to slip away. Finally out onto the street the world ballooned before her, randomly she rolled left.
One hand clutched the Mr Bump duffle bag made by her Nan, the other waved around as if trying to point out twenty things at once. The skates had been a birthday present and over the last two weeks Suzie had tried to look as graceful as her best friend Judy, failing due to a complete lack of balance.
Suzie also received three crisp five-pound notes inside her birthday cards, one each from Aunties Mary, Doris and Anne. They lay folded inside her purse, the one shaped like a little sailor hat. This was her running away fund.
Three wobbly streets from home she stood opposite the Tea Turtle, a café famous locally for its ice cream sundae, four scoops topped with a whole glacé cherry, half a banana and lashings of raspberry sauce. Without hesitation she threw herself across the road, arms flung wide yelling, “Wheeeeee”. This abandon found a sudden halt as whirring wheels struck the kerb full force, flinging her towards the pavement, straight down like a dropped broom.
Inside the Tea Turtle he sat with his back to the door, half turning as it dinged cheerfully open, a pavlovian response, before returning his attention to the apple pie. Only the gasp of the waitress made him turn back around. In an instant he was off the stool and heading across the floor with the waitress close on his heels.
Suzie wavered on wheeled feet, knees and nose dripping blood onto the clean linoleum. No words came out but in her mind she was trying to ask for that sundae. Her chin bobbed up and down instead; nose screwed up with the effort of holding back tears.
He looked beyond the girl; eyes scanning the street outside then dragged them back to her startled bloodied face.
“You on your own?” sounded gruffer than intended. Suzie bobbed her head as a yes, making more blood spatter onto the floor. It reminded her of raspberry sauce and she wondered if she could ask for extra with her sundae.
“I’ll get some tissue,” said the waitress flashing the girl a quick smile. He scooped Suzie up and in two strides was back at the counter, plonking her on top of a high stool. She clanked her skates against the wooden legs, absently swinging her feet until she caught sight of his brow furrowing and stopped mid swing. In case she started up again he bent down saying, “I’m just going to take these off, don’t want you taking another tumble.” He didn’t see his own little girl very often, on the road with work all the time. Slightly out of his depth he fumbled over the laces and cursed quietly. A giggle bubbled up within her that wouldn’t go away so she let it loose, peeking to gauge his reaction through scrunched up eyes.
He tried to swallow the smile that crept up on him, saying, “Well little miss, looks like you’ll mend.” Once all the blood was wiped away Suzie looked a lot less damaged, she’d have some great scabs to pick at on her knees but the nose wasn’t broken. With a toothy grin she turned to the man, “My name’s Suzie, what’s yours?”
He hesitated before replying, “Elvis”, returning the toothsome smile. “Pleased to meet you miss, fancy an ice cream sundae?” The words made her eyes sparkle, expanding the grin towards her ears she declared, “Uh-huh”, nodding her head in time with each syllable.
“Don’t tease the man,” scolded the waitress. Suzie furrowed her own brow in confusion. She was so busy wondering how she’d said the wrong thing she forgot to ask for extra raspberry sauce.
Elvis watched her delve into the dish, spooning huge lumps of ice cream down her throat faster than it could melt. “Suzie, where’s your Mum?” She didn’t look any older than his girl who was seven and there was no way he’d let her wander the streets alone.
“I’ve run away” she said, thrusting out her chin, “I thought it was about time I tried”, she added matter-of-factly, returning her attention to the sundae. Elvis stifled a chuckle behind a cough. Ignoring her reply he said, “Your skates look shiny – are they new? I’ll bet they were a present.”
“Ooh yes, my Mum and Dad gave them to me for my birthday. I got lots of other things too; in my purse I have three five-pounds.” She waved the tiny sailors hat triumphantly.
“Well isn’t that wonderful, your family must love you a lot,” he said. Then as if the thought had only just occurred to him, “I suppose they’ll really miss you now you’ve left home.”
Suzie sank her eyes low. She hadn’t considered that, lost in dreams of adventure. The spoon hovered before her mouth as she struggled to find an answer. Ice cream puddled in her dish, finally she said, “I miss my Mum.”
The waitress shook her head, tutting quietly as she fussed with a cleaning cloth pretending not to listen.
Elvis reached out a hand, and stroked Suzie’s cheek. His fingertips felt rough not at all like her mums, more like Samson her cat’s tongue. She missed Samson too.
“You’ve had a rough day with that fall, why don’t I take you home and you can try running away another time?”
A great sigh escaped Suzie as relief hit her belly. “Can we go now? My Mum might be worried.”
Elvis took a deep breath before pushing the doorbell holding firmly to Suzie’s hand. He gave her a little squeeze of reassurance. Her mum threw open the door, face taut, braced for the worst, eyes wide with worry that widened further at the unexpected sight in front of her. Before she could speak, Suzie launched into her adventures, “Mum I fell over on my skates and Elvis bought me an ice cream sundae.”
“I’m sure he did sweetie,” interrupted her Mum, “but who is this nice man that brought you home?” casting an apologetic glance at the stranger on her doorstep.
Elvis blushed, “Err, I’m Elvis. I know. Can’t sing for toffee unlike the other one.”
Suzie’s Mum felt her face redden. “I’m so sorry. Thanks for bringing her home.” She turned to glare at Suzie, “And you, little madam, where have you been?” Suzie looked at Elvis for help, realising she was in big trouble. With a little shake of his hips Elvis said, “She’s all shook up. Got lost practising on those skates and took a nasty tumble.”
Suzie’s mum felt a grin loosen her face up. “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.” A huge guffaw escaped as she pulled Suzie in for a hug, over her shoulder she said, “Sorry, I am huge fan! I thought it was why she concocted the Elvis story. “Please come in, have a drink.” Unable to resist the temptation, with a wink she turned and headed indoors, shouting, “Justin, she’s back! Fetch some beers…we’ve got Elvis visiting…”

Friday, 25 March 2011

The seaside widow

For a while I had a job which involved taking photos of OAP's and I often wondered about the lives they might lead...this is a short story about just that.
The toes flop out from beneath the heavy feather duvet, feeling for the floor like a pair of newborn blind things, uncertain and wary of the world. They point down, dipping into the air slowly, as if into the chilly waters of the channel, which rock and heave just a short walk away. Nails flaked and yellowed beneath a clumsily applied layer of frosted pearl nail varnish lead the way to moccasins, the leather shiny with use. A watery light filters through the pattern of the curtains, providing enough illumination to avoid turning on the bedside lamp. Bunions slip out of sight and it is only then that the rest of the body emerges, slowly, with creaks and complaints, dismayed to be doing it all again. Evelyn Wainright and her body have fallen out these last few years; they don’t see eye to eye.
She perches on the edge of the bed, finally upright, pausing at the shock of gravity. This is always the hardest part, the morning. At least she has stopped feeling the empty space next to her, willing the worn, warm body of her Albert to be there. She’s grateful that time has been kind, erasing the memory of his cold lips as she kissed them goodbye, before they sealed the oak casket. It wouldn’t have been decent to bury him in anything cheap, Albert had standards, and even in death she felt obliged to honour them. No, it wasn’t that last kiss that she sighed over. Instead she allowed her mind to drift backwards, to Morecambe Bay; those fledgling days as husband and wife. Such magical words, transforming them from lovesick teenagers to a unit of two. Fingers intertwined they had strolled beside the waves, thrilling in the novelty of each other. And for them the feeling lasted, even when novelty slipped into familiarity. Windswept and sea salty Morecambe Bay was the reason they came here in the end; looking to find that same happiness for their twilight years. Albert had always loved the sea. Janet laughed when she’d told her where they were going at his retirement party, “Mum, Brighton is full of students and crazy hippies, what’s wrong with Devon or Cornwall? There’ll be loads more people your age there.” Evelyn had wanted to slap her daughter then, instead she said, “Your father and I want to stay active.” As if that explained everything. Truth be told she hadn’t fancied Brighton much herself, it had all been Albert’s idea. But now she wouldn’t be anywhere else in the country. Her twice yearly visits up to Bristol were a trial, missing the shush of the waves and the unique buzz of the seaside town. Janet had begged her to move up there after Albert passed away but she’d said no. What she hadn’t told her was that she needed to be in a place that had so many visitors. She needed fresh faces and new smiles. She needed her audience to change daily; because her stories changed with every sunrise and in a place where everyone knew you after a time she would be caught out. Now it had to be Brighton, because her stories were what she looked forward to each day.
“Well, I can’t sit here all morning”, she says to the empty room, half hoping for an answer. Silence snuffles around the slippered feet, gently she kicks it away. With a soft plop she’s standing and the day truly begins. These moments before she leaves the bedroom behind are savoured. This is her dressing room. Brighton is her stage. She is getting ready for her performance, using the solitude to find that space insider her head where confidence lives, confidence to get out there and pretend. For a good five minutes Evelyn stands stretching her arms high into the air. Up and down. Up and down. Because today is special she bends low, aiming fingertips at the feet, getting as far as her knees before the tendons rebel, still she holds the stretch there breathing deeply. With a “humph” she’s back upright and heading to the mirror. For a woman of seventy two she can, and frequently does get away with being ten years younger. The hair dye helps. They say that as you age you should go lighter but that is nonsense, Evelyn knows the auburn shade she favours is the key to her success. It brings out the hazel of her eyes, flecked with tiny spots of amber. Tiger eyes, Albert called them. Playfully she pulls at the skin either side, instant face lift, eyes open wide to catch the light, what there is of it. “I’m a tardy one this morning” she says, pulling the dressing gown off the back of the chair, wrapping it tightly round her body. It wouldn’t be right to open the curtains in her nightdress alone. Even though it is a second floor flat, standards must be maintained. With a flourish she pulls back the patterned fabric, and daylight floods the room. No dust dares settle; instead it floats in motes on the air, dancing away from surfaces cleaned daily. She swishes her hand through a beam of light and watches the motes scatter and weave, admiring their agility and pining for her own. “Still, not bad for my seventh decade, eh Evelyn?” she tells herself before heading to the bathroom for the first of twice daily ablutions. The cleansing ritual has five steps, ending with a generous amount of anti wrinkle cream. Albert had always admired her skin, even now in her dreams he would visit and whisper in her ear, “Evie my love, you’re as soft and scrumptious as ice-cream.” Often she would wake up giggling with a blush creeping over her cheeks. Today had not been one of those mornings, which was a pity. The encouragement would have been nice.
The air follows her out of the bathroom, scented, as she is, with vanilla and roses. The smell is old and young all at the same time, like apples on an ancient tree.  Now the hands go to work, the nails painted the same frosted peach, but neater than on the feet. Next the face is hidden behind a mask of gunk and goo as Albert called it. He liked her best without the make-up. “Gunk and goo, where are you?” she sings quietly as she hunts for the essential ingredients to turn her into a Russian matriarch, a Brazilian ex-pat and a Bulgarian lace maker, all of which she will be today. When she goes out on her story telling expeditions she’s always careful about the look. It has to be plausible for each person and the life they’ve lived; there is purpose to the charade and no room for public humiliation.  Especially not today; today is her wedding anniversary and in honour of Albert the Bulgarian lace maker will be crafting a veil for a society wedding; something timeless and classy just like he was.
On the coffee table in the living room sits a pile of travel guides and history books, biographies, anything that will help her get the details right, she doesn’t simply make it all up, that would be foolish. Her wide choice of subject matter confounds the librarians, “Mrs Wainright, you do have broad reading tastes”, they say every visit. Whether it is a compliment or a question she can never tell, but she always gives the same response coupled with a smile, “Thank you, it keeps me occupied since my dear Albert passed away.”

Friday, 18 March 2011

The green, green grass of home

The green, green grass of home is one of my weekly flash fiction stories. This week I'm dedicating it to my friend Mr D in celebration of his 40th.

Smoke fills the air, thick and choking but there isn’t a cough to be heard, only concentrated silence. All eyes focus on the table. Jason thinks it looks like grass, smooth as the lawns back home where he and Tara used to run when running was all that mattered. There is no room to run here; there is just the green of this table and the game. He grips the cards in his hand tighter. Ned eyes up the baize, all natty and picked, it is old this table, the green faded in places and speckled with tiny burns where someone’s cigarette has slipped. How many games, he wonders, have been played out across this table top? Too many; too many lives held in the balance of a deck of cards. A small sigh seeps out, a slow puncture, discreet but ultimately destructive. Henry saw the green and thought of the old pound notes. He misses them, always felt like you had more in your pocket when it was stuffed with notes. These silly coins rattle and jangle around like small change; you could have twenty quid in there and not know it. There is a damn sight more than twenty up for grabs tonight, thank god. The notes sit there in a pile, a mini Everest of riches just waiting for the right person. Henry needs that mountain, or rather Lizzie needs it and he needs Lizzie which really amounts to the same thing. His bum shifts in the chair inching that bit closer to the prize.
            All three men are pitting themselves against fifty two pieces of card with little more than a will to win. To lose means to lose the lot. Not just the cash but hope, a future and in Jason’s case his life. Maybe he was foolish to borrow like that. Everyone knows that Mr Ed is not to be messed with but Jason figured he’ll win big, pay him off and head home before anything else hits the fan. He hadn’t banked on the cards refusing to cooperate. His eyes flick down, just for a second; this wasn’t a tell or anything, just checking the numbers. A small smile edges round his lips which he hopes gives the signal that all is good; in fact all is not good and he might just laugh and never stop if he lets that smile get any bigger. He has nothing in his hand, sweating fingers grip numbers that do not add up. Not even a pair. This is the last game; there is nothing left to put down. Every player has put their entire stake into the pot and it comes down to these three with nothing more to gamble and everything to lose. Jason chews the tip of his tongue, a secret gesture of despair while his eyes soak up the table top and wish for home.  
            Henry lights another cigarette off the butt of the last. His cards lay before him, coy faces hidden like expert strippers just waiting for the moment of the big reveal. A fug of smoke bellows out from his soggy lips, joining the cloud above, a ghostly spectator with no interest in the game. He blows out another long plume, enjoying its dance and whirl into space, Henry remembers when he could move like that, lighter than air and twice as shifty. His old bones are not what they used to be but he still has a few moves left.
            “Beer?” Ned asks only because he has drained his and another is essential. Like Henry his cards are face down. Ned is afraid to look at them; his eyes bounce around the table and refuse to settle on the red and white backs of the five playing cards. Weren’t little Ned’s socks red and white stripes today? Ned blinks away the thought of little Ned’s face if he tells him they have to move house again. He waves to the hostess who ambles over and plonks three beers down by the men’s elbows, a little amber liquid slopping onto the baize turning the green moist and dark. Apart from the dealer there are no other people in the room; this isn’t the sort of place you linger once luck has deserted you.
Condensation gathers on the sides of the glasses, slipping and sliding down in trickles; sweat does the same on Ned’s forehead. Slowly, as if the speed with which he moves will determine the outcome he turns the cards over one by one. Thumb and forefinger grasp the bottom right corner each time, lifting it gingerly as if the card is harbouring a deadly spider. And flip, the card is turned. There is no need to mask his reaction; this is for all to see. Henry almost drools as each card shows its face, two down and three to go. Ned pauses, guzzles down the beer fast and deep. It cools the back of his tight throat and without asking the hostess comes over with three more. Jason downs his in a fat greedy gulp making his throat husky with the sheer volume tumbling down into his blood stream.
“Whisky please or bourbon if you have it.” It doesn’t matter anymore, he kicks back in his chair, limbs loose in defeat. Those two cards are a pair there in front of Ned. The ratty green table will be the last green he sees; Mr Ed owns this place he won’t be getting out the door, never mind back home. He sets free a careering wild horse of a laugh, loud and careless, liberated by the total lack of options available.
“Turn them.” Henry urges. He glances at Jason and offers a short nod, condolence condensed into a gesture; any one of them could be in his shoes. Ned leans back for a second, balancing the chair on two wobbly legs, weighing up the situation. Then he turns the third card. Three of a kind. An inexperienced player might get excited but Ned knows fortune does not smile until she’s damn ready and only when every card is face up from every player will the game be over. Quickly, he flips the remaining cards. Nothing. Three of a kind is as good as it gets. His gaze swivels in Henry’s direction but Henry is already on his feet and heading out the door, his cards upturned and discarded.


Friday, 11 March 2011

Peek-a-boo People

 Three people sat on a sofa; they looked ordinary, one with dirty blonde hair to a jutting chin, wearing jeans and beat up converse; she was Jenna and she was in charge. Next to her sat the brains of the unit; Billy knew all there was about computers and some more on top; he was geek through and through, down to the adidas vintage blue flash on his feet. Billy understood that it was the geeks who would inherit the earth and smiled his gap toothed smile at Melanie. Ah sweet Melanie with her dark bob, all neat and compact like a fold up version of a human, a factory model someone, a careless cleaner perhaps,  let loose on the streets. Beneath that perfectly plain exterior lay a mind like a bomb. Melanie brought energy to their little gang; surplus energy that leaked out of her fingers, tap-tapping their way through this planning meeting. Yet another planning meeting; what was up with all these meetings? What about some action? Yet she sat and tapped and smiled vaguely back at Billy, wondering if she would sleep with him or not. Perhaps it would help him get over her; or maybe she’d fall for him. It happened. One minute you’re having casual fun and the next, bam, without them you’re a wreck. If she thought about it too much it became alarming. Best not to think; just do.
            If you saw them you would think, students for sure; they all wore that slightly impoverished bish-bash style which involved no real style at all. It was anti-style, retro-style, ironic-style; ultimately anonymous, it blended. And they wanted to blend. To stand out from the crowd was to invite curiosity and they all knew the tale of curiosity and the pussycat. These three wore their individuality on the inside, where it counted. These three had a plan. It was Jenna’s plan really but she knew that without Billy and Melanie there would be no plan at all. Need was too strong a word she felt; glancing sharply at them both. A better word for it was valued. Yes, she valued what they could bring; their talents, gifts if you will. Both had been gifted with traits that afforded them a certain perspective on life; it was random luck when you thought about it. Which Jenna did, often. She liked to think things through. There’s nothing wrong with being thorough is there? Her attention to detail is what has brought them this far. This is what both these two beside her come down to; details pure and simple, components. Without them her plan cannot function. Soon it will all come down to Melanie and this makes her nervous. She can’t figure her out. Billy is infatuated; he thinks he’s hiding it behind those NHS specs of his but Jenna is a woman above all else and her feminine instinct is never wrong. Melanie seems not to notice, or at least not to care; Jenna would care if someone loved her like that.
            “I’ve been into their database and we’re all set. I’ve reloaded the code through the back door and when you go in it will all be there waiting. You simply ask and walk out with it.” Billy bit his lip to stop more info spilling out. These girls didn’t want the tech-specifics. He made it sound so easy, reloading code, huh, seventy-five hours of programming went into that last week alone and a hundred the week before. Billy was earning his share and more. It wasn’t the pay off though, that was only money. Billy’s heart quickened at the thought of another programmer, someone in-house, discovering his backdoor Trojan and how they couldn’t fail to admire the flourishes in his work. By the glaze skimming across Melanie’s eyes he knew there would be no appreciation of his efforts from her. Instead of feeling annoyed his gaze softened in her direction; the buzz and hum of suppressed motion all around her like a halo. She would play her part beautifully he was sure; as Jenna had played hers. Billy beamed at Jenna, wanting her to know that he was glad to do his bit; that her plan was worth his time. Jenna frowned.
            Melanie bounced gently in her seat, ready to propel her self forwards at any moment. “Right then, so, one hour, yeah? I’ll go in and do the do and meet you all back here.” She twiddled a poker piece of hair around a finger, red varnish glowing at the tip. It gleamed like a cigarette butt in the dark and Billy wanted to inhale her. Instead he nodded and held back the words good luck, which seemed unlucky to say out loud. Jenna curled her toes up, scrunching them into the floor secretly, while her face remained a calm mask.
“Yep, one hour. Any longer and we’ll be at the depot as planned.” This was the fall back, should it all go wrong. They would be safe there; Jenna needed a plan B. After Melanie left Billy and Jenna sat and looked at each other or the clock. In one hour they could do anything; go anywhere, be anyone. Sixty minutes is a long time when you count it out second by second. They could not stop the relentless flick of their eyes in the clocks’ direction. The TV was just noise, conversation was impossible and tea sat cooling in untouched mugs. The tick and tock towards all or nothing absorbed every corner of their consciousness.
            The door bounced open after fifty-eight minutes; Melanie threw down the satchels knocking the tea mugs off the table. Jenna didn’t even tut; it was done. Two years of careful planning came down to this moment; two bags on a table holding all their futures in clean, useable notes crisp and perfect. Melanie danced round the table throwing Billy a wink. She’d made up her mind; she would sleep with him tonight. It was her thank you, just as he’d said all she’d done is ask and it had been there.
            Perhaps it was the wink, Jenna wasn’t sure; she’d planned on sharing it, but maybe not. Why bring the gun otherwise? Billy and Melanie looked at the steely snub nose pointed in their direction and laughed; Jenna took up both satchels and left without a word. Melanie stood still for once; Billy gap toothed took in her beautiful simplicity with an open smile. She nodded and headed for the bedroom. The bam had happened.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Sleepless Nights

It was a velvet sky, smooth-black and sexy. No clouds spoilt the effect yet no stars peeked through; she tilted her head way back but not one winked out. She was alone which is exactly what she wanted. The old swing seat rusty at the hinges creaked and squeaked companionably as it rocked back and forth, back and forth. The tired fabric of gaudy flowers smelt of mildew and stale rain. Nadia inhaled and wished for rain; such a comforting smell, took her back to summers at nana’s house when the sun shone bright on long summer days and rain was just another plaything. The surrounding fields were so fresh after a shower like god had washed his creation. She laughed at this notion; as if there was such a thing as god.
Only the light from inside illuminated the garden. They were inside and she did not want to be there with them. Her eyes scanned the shadowy darkness with no fear. There was nothing to be afraid of out here; she owned every inch of it. Nadia let her mind stretch out to the darkest corners where her eyes could not reach, parading the borders of her territory. She sniffed the night air, lavender and something else; something fleshier hit her flared nostrils, gently like a nose bump from a puppy. A deep breath in sucked up the scent, savoured it at the back of her throat, she rolled it there like cigar smoke before exhaling long and luxurious. Ah, tonight she might indulge a little, let loose her inner demon; it was her birthday after all. That is why they were all here, to celebrate. Celebrate what precisely? That they believed they were edging closer to their inheritance. Another year to the tally was nothing more than a hindrance; no cause for a party in their eyes. Such a long tally it was too. A smile, small and twisted crawled across her face as she thought of them in there, mingling, chatting, and faking it all to remain in with a chance. They made her flesh creep these bloodsucking relatives of hers.
“How long, how long can this go on”, she whispered into the silence, enjoying the sound of her voice in the night air. It was a soft voice, not gentle but subtle with power. It was a power of sorts she possessed; wealth certainly but there was something more to Nadia than a bank balance, it was the part of herself she both loved and despised.
A small rustle caught her ear, Nadia turned sharply towards the sound. He emerged from the side of the veranda, brushing against the bushes that softened the shift from house to garden. His jacket was shabby but serviceable, his face bright in the darkness, the song whiter shade of pale skimmed across her mind as she took him in, all six foot four of him. Tim wore his limbs loosely; they flowed like ribbons from the solid core of his chest. This combination of lax movement and firmness presented an oddly reassuring figure. He made no effort to speak; just smiled a slow rolled out smile, sat down beside her and rocked them both gently in the tarnished old swing. Nadia loved Tim. He was the one. Of all her relatives he understood. Perhaps it was because he never asked her for anything; oh it wasn’t pride. Nadia was not a fool. He asked for nothing because he wanted nothing; needed nothing. He was as free from desire as she was saturated with it; not for him, no. She wasn’t perverse. Nadia craved life, blood pumping, sweat soaked, and imperfect life. No matter the years that ached out behind her; what counted was the swell and heave of the years ahead. She wanted more than she could have. Tim knew it; he understood that the night was not always for watching but sometimes hung heavy with longing and regret.
With no real movement involved his hand found hers and softly squeezed. “Happy Birthday Nadia.” Nothing else was said, she simply squeezed back and they both sat immersed in the night. Laughter from inside trailed out, high pitched, grating on the ear like a fork scratching over a plate. Crickets hummed in the grass trying their best to erase the intrusion from those inside.
“They’re waiting for you”, he said. The words seemed to float from him easily, moths on the night air. His wide smile did not hide judgement but rather invited it of the crowd inside. Tim had no time for his family, its mean streak and greed. To live was enough for him; and what a life this family had been granted; at a price admittedly but still, what a life.
“I don’t want to go in yet. I want to give you something first.” Nadia’s eyes were bright in the dark, sparkling with decision and delight. A playful smile skipped over her lips as they parted, she leant forward and went straight for the jugular. When Tim was almost drained and she knew his innermost secrets; she could be sure her decision was correct. He was the one. All the while Tim accepted his fate with no fight, his head tilted a little to ease her passage to his neck. He had done this to others so many times before; it was intriguing to be on the receiving end again, eyes closed to enjoy the pure sensation. This was first part, for some it meant the end but Tim knew that tonight would bring the second part; the change. Only when there was barely a flicker left in him did she tear at her own wrist and pour her gift down his throat.
            He gulped, slurped and gripped with iron jaws despite himself; this was Nadia he reprimanded, be tender. When she eventually pulled away, eyes still bright in a pale face, he felt a loss, sudden and severe. As her blood mingled with what was left of his Tim understood Nadia from all angles, her power became his power. This was the true inheritance; what they all wanted inside. The rest was trinkets and junk in comparison. Now the family could stop jockeying for position; the successor was crowned.
“Come”, she said, “Let's go make a toast. Shall we share our news with them? For the first time in three hundred years I will see sunrise.” The night sighed its satisfaction; a soft warm wind behind them as they entered the patio door arm in arm.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Tic Tac Toe

Bare feet and new leather shoes were a mistake that he would later come to cherish. At the time, as the blisters formed, he could see no virtue in his suffering. Pain was not the outcome he had been aiming for. Those shoes, tan leather with only three lace holes and a smart heel that clipped the pavement as he walked, had forced him to abandon lunches for a whole week. Well, it had been a choice between lunches and his Friday night down at the Fox and Grapes and a man has to have some pleasures in life. But he’d invested more than simple cash in them; they were his great hope in a box, and there they were not a mile from his home, grinding his hope into his heels.

It was the lace holes that had sold him on them in the end. Three was her lucky number, he’d read it in an interview and if three was good enough for her then it was good enough for him. No matter that the five-hole version was cheaper and a better fit. The sacrifice was worth the initial sense of pride he’d felt as his feet tic-tacked along the pavement, perfectly presented, on the walk towards his goal. Walking was something Jonathan Asquith did a lot of; out of necessity rather than any environmental impulse. And so he walked towards her that evening, covering the languishing miles between his home and the theatre at a steady pace. He saw no need to ruin a good suit by sweating into it.

For a whole month those shoes had sat in their box, unworn but touched, daily. Every time his fingers rubbed across the softness of the leather (not nearly soft enough as he later discovered) a vivid image of how the night would go shifted reassuringly across his eyes, oozing through his finger tips, preparing the shoes for their role. Shrouded in the privacy of soft white tissue they had waited patiently for their debut.

Getting ready he had taken special care, everything pressed twice, even aftershave made an appearance, a small sample of something expensive he’d cajoled out of a tight-faced assistant in the department store. Unsure of where to put it he dabbed a little behind his ears, at his throat, under his arms and in a fit of wild hope around his groin. Better to be prepared he thought. Not that he considered her a woman of easy virtue. Lastly he lifted the shoes from the protection of the box with a reverence usually reserved for religious icons or small babies. To him they were the symbol of his success, a success not yet achieved admittedly, but they would take him to it in style. As a widely read man, he knew the power of appearance in the arena of romance.

Placing them on the cold lino of his bedroom floor he pondered the sock dilemma. He was a sensible man at heart who knew that socks and shoes went together. But a photo of a man, some director or other, posing with her on a lawn outside a grand home in the country, ankles crossed exposing the bare flesh beneath, plagued his judgement. Her eyes radiated pleasure in his company, one hand lightly resting on his knee. The socks were left forlornly balled up on the bed, abandoned in favour of her approval. No woman had ever looked at Jonathan in that way. If bare feet were all it took, he was willing to experiment.

Six weeks earlier he had found out she was appearing. Her smash play touring the country graced his small town with its tragi-comic presence. Soaking up the announcement his hands had shook as the realisation took hold that her flesh and blood would be surviving on the same air as him. Closing his eyes he savoured the luxury of seven whole days in her vicinity. Flickering beneath his lids her face encouraged his budding plan.

He’d decided immediately that he would be there on opening night. Not one moment of time could be neglected that offered the opportunity to bring them face to face. For five long years he had followed the ups and downs of her personal life, the happy tumble of her career. Each tiny detail absorbed into his blood stream, minnow like, quick and silver she flicked through his veins with a proprietary air. The lack of any real women in his life made it easy for her to take full possession.

A photo, signed, sent by her fan club, graced his bedside table. Framed in art deco silver, something he knew she had a passion for, it gazed on him as he slept and greeted him each morning, giving a subtle purpose to his days. He’d scoured every second hand shop and flea market within a ten-mile radius to find the ideal frame for her perfect face. Every hour of every day was whittling down the time to when that face would look at his and know – know that he was the missing slice to her otherwise ideal life. All he had to do in that time was prepare – be ready for her in that moment. And that time had finally come. She would be there, in his town, within his dreams reach.

watch them again and again. The freeze frame button got a lot of use as his collection grew. Oh he knew her intimately. Every nuance of every facial twitch, the unique language of her eyes, the coded messages in the timbre of her voice, nothing escaped his adoring attention.

And so he walked that night with a bouncing step. Proud in his outfit bought especially for her, right down to the underpants. He was ready for his moment. Ignoring the fight going on between the laced up leather and the skin living around his ankles he kept his pace steady – although fleetingly regretful at the socks sitting useless on his bed.

Walking to the theatre had been timed so that he would arrive shortly before the final curtain. No, he hadn’t bought a ticket. His money had been spent on getting his look just so, knowing that once they met he could sit in the wings and watch her every night, soaking her up from that privileged vantage. Besides, he wasn’t concerned with the actress; it was the person behind the charade that captivated him. He wasn’t really interested in all that make believe.

The plan was to wait at the stage door, to catch her coming out and introduce himself. After that, he knew precisely how it would go; she would ask him to join her for a drink. They would talk until the sun came up. And he’d only return home to pack his things the next day before slipping into her existence as easily as she slunk on one of her furs.

The moon was half in, half out, a diplomatic light urging him forwards without making any promises. Straining to catch a star in the blue-blackness he was disappointed to find only shifting clouds. Hoping it wasn’t a bad sign he ploughed on. Originally he’d planned to arrive bearing flowers but decided that was too corny, besides which he knew she suffered from hay fever. Instead he carried nothing, he was going to give her a lifetime and that should be enough for any woman. He continued left-right, left-right towards the theatre as his feet reluctantly surrendered to the leather. To distract from this agony he went over and over in his mind the opening conversation they would share. The first words were crucial. For days he had practised in front of the mirror, ‘Hello Miss Moorefield, Jonathan Asquith, pleased to meet you,’ with his hand outstretched politely, ready to take hers. Keeping it simple he felt would give him more credibility, no gushing about being her greatest fan, everyone said that sort of thing. No, he was going to greet her like he would someone at a business meeting, respectful but firm.

A slight limp formed as he continued on his way, yet disappointment in the shoes performance bit harder than the leather into his skin. He carried on regardless, hope lodged like an infection in his chest, encouraged by the unseasonably warm evening air. Chin thrust out, he had a smile for everyone, although it was harder and harder to keep the smile from forming into a grimace as the shoes ate away at his feet. He even allowed a niggling doubt to enter his head as to the wisdom of socks with no shoes – but no – it was a thought that could not be given room to grow. At this point, her preferences ruled. Still, perhaps once they were together he could slyly start wearing the odd pair of socks; sneak a little practicality into her mix of glamour.

Finally he reached the hallowed pavements of the theatre, where her happily intact feet had trodden only hours before. Staring transfixed at the slabs of stone beneath him he wondered exactly where her shoe had fallen with each step. If he could, he would have echoed her steps precisely, fast-forwarding the moment of actual contact. Round the back the surprisingly seedy stage door entrance lacked the glamour of out front, no shiny paint, and only one big bulb in place of the hundreds making a sunburst of the theatre facade. He preferred it that way.

Only a handful of people milled around waiting for the door to abracadabra open and sprinkle some stardust onto the tired old street. That morning he’d phoned to check when the play would finish and was there with a good ten minutes to spare. Prepared in case she escaped immediately after curtain calls. Other people had obviously had the same idea, but unlike him, they clutched photos and magazines, cameras and old programmes. Haughtily he dismissed them as clinging fans, desperate only for a brush with fame. Whereas he was there for the lady herself and he wouldn’t care if she never appeared again in a play, film or magazine. He’d almost prefer it if she didn’t.

Placing some distance between him and the others he sat down on a step with a view to the door and gratefully took the weight from his feet. He would let the celebrity hounds go first. Although a mild evening, the hard concrete of the step was cold. He shifted trying to avoid the numbness building in his behind. In doing so the shoes jabbed deeply into his heel, releasing an involuntary ‘ouch’ from his lips. Damn the stupid shoes with their three miserly holes he inwardly cursed. And damn that director with his aversion to socks too. He was so close to her now and yet for the first time in five years he entertained the thought that perhaps he existed for something other than the dream of her. Was she really worth crippling himself over he wondered?

Unable to bear the discomfort a moment longer the shoes came off with a sigh of relief. Blood dripped slowly from his heels. The night air stung at the exposed raw skin with the irrational aggression of a horde of angry autumn wasps. Throbbing with the relief of freedom, his escaped feet seemed to double in size. He feared he would never get the damn things back on again and he could not present himself to her bare footed. That would be madness. Time would not deliver her to him twice; he knew that, he must speak with her tonight, fully shod. Grimacing he struggled to squeeze a shoe back on, doing a passing impression of one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters in the attempt. Recalling an old army tip his dad had taught him, he hunted through his pockets for a bit of card, anything to form a barrier between his wounded flesh and the vicious leather.

‘Excuse me, would this help?’ a tar edged voice offered, looming as if from nowhere. In an outstretched palm sat a box of plasters. The hand belonged to a woman, her face was hard, slightly defensive, but her eyes betrayed the kindness her gesture confirmed. There was no memorabilia waiting to be immortalised and he wondered why she was there. Not that it mattered; the plasters were enough of a reason for him. Accepting them gratefully he felt compelled to chat, ‘Thank you, damn stupid idea to come out without socks eh?’ Laughing she agreed, although admitted it was a mistake she’d made more than once. ‘It’s only skin, it’ll heal all right…’ She was refreshingly no-nonsense in her choice of words and he liked the way her laugh lightly bridged the air between them, softening the tension that lurks between strangers. Both lingered in a moment of shy silence, unwilling to abandon the small spark of conversation that seemed to hint at more to come. She lit up a cigarette to prolong the encounter. Neither one noticed the stage door open.