Retelling – Week 43 of the 52 week short story challenge

A retelling of the Latest Decalogue by Arthur Hugh Clough – http://www.bartleby.com/71/1423.html

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You should have one Leader, but if you have more

You’ll split the vote with three or four.

Keep no graven Edstone, there to be

Worshipped or paid for fraudulently.

Swear not at all, for each banned curse

Will only make the purging worse.

Beware the conference, if you attend

Your delegate may not be your friend.

Honour the Party, that is, all

From whom Compliance may befall.

You shall not kill, but use your knife

To stab in the front and take a life.

No other Party may ever compete

Your loyalty has to be complete.

Steal from the members, an easy feat

It takes such little skill to cheat.

Accuse who you will and let it lie

Festering in the media whilst Eagles fly.

Covet the prize that others achieve

But keep the best tricks up your sleeve.

Run up a spreadsheet to garner those who

Would ever dare to oppose you.

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Tragedy Ends in Romance – Week 42 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar…  Scrub that. I was actually working in a small bakery. The owner – Charles – liked to refer to it as an ‘artisan bakery’. I felt that profits would be up if we sold a few more sausage rolls and pies, instead of sourdough loaves and sweet potato pasties.

Most of our customers were pretty ‘right on’. Men with long revolutionary’s beards and tight red jeans. Women with layers of tie dyed clothes and multiple piercings. Charles had squeezed in a couple of bistro tables and spindly legged chairs in order to upgrade us to a cafe. Fairtrade products were stacked artistically on the counter tops and a shiny cappuccino machine was Charles’ latest toy.

We were rarely busy.

I started there as a Saturday girl while I was still at school. Saturdays were slightly busier because of the weekly market outside. When I started doing my ‘A’ levels I had Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons free so Charles offered me some extra work.

This was partly to give Charles and his partner Aimee some quality time together. Aimee did most of the baking, as well as serving in the shop while Charles indulged in intellectual conversation with one of his many mates who perched precariously on the chairs, bought one cup of soy milk pumpkin latte and stayed until closing time.

Quality time.

Aimee and I got on well. I’m sure that she would have liked to run up some sausage rolls but Charles was adamant that everything in the shop was vegetarian friendly.

We had our secrets, Aimee and I.

On market day we often had disappointed customers who pulled faces at the very thought of sprout and coriander quiche, or Savoy cabbage and marrow ciabatta, before rushing off to the chip shop or Maccy D’s.

Charles refused to admit that, however honourable his principles were, the general public did not agree with him. The cafe was losing what little money was being made on the bakery sales, and there were not that many takers for the hefty loaves that were more suited to being used in dry stone walls than gracing tea tables.

I could see the signs, and was casting around for alternative employment when fate changed the course of my life.

On an even more sluggish than usual Thursday afternoon, I had cleared all the tables bar one, washed up and was in the bakery at the back of the shop when I heard a huge crash.

Aimee was upstairs in the flat having a lie-down. Charles was sitting at one of the tables with his friend Ben.

Well, he had been sitting at the table with Ben.

When I looked through the door into the cafe all I could see was dust and the front of a large van poking through the place where the shop window used to be.

‘Charles? Ben?’

The van’s engine was still running and I could see a man slumped over the wheel. I couldn’t see Ben or Charles.

I couldn’t see any chairs or tables either.

I backed into the bakery and got out my phone.

‘Police, Fire or Ambulance?’ said the operator.

‘All three I think. A van has crashed into the shop front  where I work. There’s a man unconscious and I can’t find my boss – or his friend.’

The operator assured me that help was on the way and that I should stay in the bakery in case the shop front collapsed.

I did as I was told, listening out for any sound that Aimee might have woken up. I had a feeling that she was pregnant – but hadn’t told Charles – and once she went up for a nap it would take more than the shop being destroyed to wake her.

The fire brigade were first on the scene.

I showed them where the rear entrance to the bakery was, and two very large and rather handsome firemen joined me in order to carry out their assessment of the damage. One of them managed to get into the van and turn the engine off. I saw him look at his companion and shake his head.

The man in the van was dead.

There was no sign of Charles and Ben.

My fireman took me upstairs to check on Aimee. She was fast asleep still but we woke her up in case the crash had affected the structure of the flat as well.

We sat in the back of an ambulance; we were both shaking and neither of us was brave enough to ask the other about the whereabouts of Charles.

My fireman came back looking puzzled.

‘We’ve checked. There’s no one in the cafe. A lot of mangled metal and we’ve got the guy out of the van. Are you sure there were two people in there?’

I shrugged. They had certainly been sitting there when I’d cleared the tables and did the washing up  but I hadn’t left the bakery until I heard the crash.

Aimee began to relax a little.

‘Could they have gone somewhere else?’

I shook my head. Charles rarely left the cafe during opening hours unless he was shopping for supplies and he tended to do that on Sundays.

A policeman tapped the fireman on the shoulder.

‘We’ve found them.’

‘In the shop?’ Aimee was trembling again.

‘No. One of your neighbours spotted them. They were in Maccy D’s eating burgers.’

I’m not sure if Aimee would have preferred Charles and Ben to have been squashed under the van. She was so angry.

A shamefaced Charles and a grinning Ben appeared in the doorway of the ambulance.

I got up.

I had the distinct feeling that I wasn’t needed.

The fireman held out his hand to help me down the step.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘I think so. I’ve a feeling my job prospects just took a nose dive though. Even if Aimee forgives Charles for his lapse, the shop is pretty well wrecked. Do you know why the van crashed?’

‘Officially no but unofficially the paramedic thinks that the guy had a heart attack and was probably dead before he hit the window. I guess we should be grateful that the cafe was empty and you were safe.’

I could have been mistaken but I had a feeling that my fireman blushed when he said this.

He really was very handsome.

‘Do you actually like all this veggie stuff?’

‘Hate it. Aimee and I often have ham sandwiches when Charles has to nip out to the shops.’

‘Only,’ and he blushed even more, ‘I was wondering if you’d like to go out for a meal – when you feel better of course.’

‘I’m fine. Now I know that Charles and Ben are okay – and that Aimee will finally be able to own up to Charles that she doesn’t like veggie stuff either. It’s a shame about the poor man in the van but it could have been much worse – couldn’t it?’

He nodded and looked at his watch.

‘I finish at six. Are you free tonight?’

My turn to nod.

We didn’t go to Maccy D’s.

Our first date was at the little Italian restaurant far enough away from the cafe so that I didn’t have to look at the boards across the window and the yellow police tape flapping in the wind.

My fireman – now known as Tommy – has become a permanent fixture in my life and I had very little inclination to look for another job.

Aimee and Charles – and the new baby – gave up on the bakery business.

I lost contact with them but I heard that the insurance payout was very generous.

It was a shame about the man in the van though.

 

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Tragic Romance – Week 41 of the 52 week short story challenge

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The boy and the girl were eighteen years old when they met on social media in 2008.

As well as being American teenagers, they both suffered from cystic fibrosis (CF); a genetic disease which they were both born with.

A cruel disease that causes a build up of sticky mucus in the lungs, digestive system and other body organs.

People with CF often look ‘healthy’ but a large part of their lives is taken up with physiotherapy and having to use a nebuliser to disperse the mucus.

The mucus can lead to chronic infections and the need to be given in-patient treatment in hospital.

Many people with CF have to take a cocktail of medication to keep their symptoms under control – and often that isn’t enough.

So these two young people had already been battling against diseases when they met online.

He was in hospital at the time and she was at home but having a difficult time with her breathing.

Whilst social media often gets the blame for stalking, harassment and sending out the wrong messages, for these two young people, it gave them the opportunity to share experiences, to understand feelings that those around them could not comprehend because they weren’t teenagers with CF.

Not surprisingly, they grew closer despite the physical distance between them.

In time that closeness developed into love.

Another cruel aspect of CF is that the risk of infection is even higher between CF sufferers.

The girl knew about this. Her consultant had emphasised this risk to her throughout her young life.

The boy she fell in love with on social media had an added disadvantage; he had a particularly dangerous infection that could pose a risk to the girl’s life.

The people around them knew about their love but also knew that meeting in person could threaten both their lives.

The girl took a decision; she wanted to meet the boy in person – whatever the risk.

He drove for six hours to meet her.

The magic became a reality and they married in 2009.

Their health deteriorated.

They both had to give up work and by 2014 lung transplants were necessary to prolong their lives.

The boy had his first, and despite the chronic infection that complicated his CF, it was a success.

The girl had to wait and then cope with the devastating news that her Medicare insurance had run out and that she would have to leave hospital for sixty days in order to qualify for more treatment.

But she was too ill to stay out of hospital and had to rely on public medical insurance back in her home town.

Away from her husband and away from the large hospital that was experienced in treating her condition and doing lung transplants

Red tape prevented them from being together.

Red tape prevented the girl from getting the medical support she badly needed.

They drew up a bucket list of things they wanted to do:

  • to drive through every state
  • to learn another language and visit the country where it was spoken
  • to write a book together about their young lives
  • going shopping together
  • watching TV side by side on the sofa

Friends set up a crowdfunding page to pay for the girl’s transplant.

She is still waiting.

Her husband was admitted to hospital and died in September 2016.

Red tape ruined two young lives and cut short their happiness.

In England in the 1940s, the National Health Service was created to provide a free medical system for all ‘from the cradle to the grave’.

The Conservative government are trying to sell the NHS to private providers; hell-bent on destroying a service that has saved so many lives, in order to line their own pockets.

Save our NHS so that this kind of cruelty won’t happen in our country.

Cut the red tape.

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A Secret – Week 40 of the 52 week short story challenge

‘Whose turn is it now?’

Suzie looked round the table and pointed at her aunt.

‘Auntie Carole! Come on Auntie Carole. You must have a secret tucked away?’

Carole felt a cold shiver down her spine and did her best to avoid looking at her mother who was sitting next to Suzie.

‘I might have to think about that Suzie. Move on to someone else while I do?’

Suzie looked disappointed but turned instead to her Uncle Paul.

‘How about you Paul?’

Squeezing his wife’s hand, Paul looked as if he were dredging up a past memory.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘Before I was courting your Auntie Marie, I actually fancied her friend Deborah. In fact I thought I was going to the pictures with her but she never turned up. Luckily I bumped into Marie, invited her to the pictures instead and the rest is history.’

Marie punched him in the arm.

‘You never told me that! You told me that you were going to meet up with some mates who let you down! I didn’t even know that you fancied Deborah!’

He squeezed her hand again and smiled.

‘I did say it was a secret. I didn’t tell you because once I’d spent the evening with you I didn’t fancy her anymore.’

‘Did Deborah ever tell you why she didn’t turn up?’ Suzie asked.

‘She went out with a guy called Tommy instead. You knew Tommy didn’t you Carole? He was in the same gang as you and your friends for a while.’

Another chill went down Carole’s spine and she began to get a sickening feeling in her stomach. It was the mere mention of his name that caused it. That sparked a far too vivid memory of his dark curly hair and his dark brown eyes. She glanced over at her mother and saw the barely perceptible shake of the head.

They were conspirators.

Carole and her mother.

Keepers of a secret that no one else knew about.

‘Whatever happened to Tommy?’ said Paul. ‘He was always hanging around and then, when I came back from America there was no sign of him. I suppose he gave up on Carole when she went off to stay with your Great Auntie Meg in Wales. It would have been a bit of a trek for him – even on that old motorbike he had – but I thought he was really smitten with you Carole.’

‘Ancient history darling,’ said his mother. ‘Come on birthday girl, choose another person with a dark and desperate secret.’

Suzie grinned, loving the attention, loving the fact that she had her family around her on this special day. She looked round the table again.

‘Daddy? Have you got a terrible secret?’

Her father took in a deep breath which made his wife hold hers in fear of what would come next.

‘Okay. I have never told anyone this but when I was a bit younger than you Suzie, I pinched some eggs from the farm next door. There was a stack of boxes outside on a table and a honesty box. Your Grandma had sent me out to buy eggs but I spent the money on tobacco so I had to pinch the eggs instead.’

‘I’m shocked Dad!’ said Paul, trying to keep a straight face. ‘Did you get caught?’

‘No. I had a birthday the following week and I used some of my birthday money from my sister Meg to put in the box. That’s the only thing I ever pinched and I spent the whole week feeling dreadful.’

‘Your turn Suzie? What secrets have you got hidden away?’

Trying not to blush now that the wrong kind of attention was turned on her, Suzie gulped and turned to her Auntie Carole.

‘I went into your room to try on one of your dresses once. I saw a box of letters in your wardrobe and I was going to look at them but I heard Mummy calling me so I sneaked out again. Who were the letters from Auntie Carole?’

Her mother interrupted before Carole could speak.

‘I expect she means the letters that you and I sent each other when you were in Wales Carole. We used to write to each other every week without fail. I got rather lonely without either of my children at home. I didn’t know that you’d kept all those letters Carole. How sweet of you.’

The expression Carole saw on her mother’s face was anything but sweet and she knew that she would have to find a new hiding place for the letters that held her secrets.

‘But then I came along,’ said Suzie ‘And you weren’t lonely anymore.’

‘You were a bit of a surprise but you were also a blessing my darling. Daddy and I had you all to ourselves when you were a baby.’

‘Life in the old dog yet, eh Dad?’ said Paul winking and leering. His wife punched his arm again, a little harder this time and pulled a face at him. He shook his head in bewilderment, but made no more comments.

‘Have you thought of anything yet Auntie Carole?’

Carole took in a deep breath, far deeper than her father’s and squared her shoulders.

‘I do have a secret. There’s only one person in this room that knows my secret apart from me and it’s one that I’ve kept for years.’

‘Tell me?’ Suzie jumped up and down in her seat. Her mother got up from the table.

‘That’s enough now. I need to clear the tea things away, and didn’t you say that you and Marie were going on to friends this evening Paul?’

This time Marie kicked him under the table, and Paul, knowing his wife’s methods of non-verbal communication, nodded.

‘Come and help me wash up Carole dear.’

Now silent, Carole followed her mother from the room. Her father fetched Paul and Marie’s coats, then with Suzie holding possessively onto his arm, walked them out to the car and waved them goodbye.

Paul was quiet at first but once they were clear of the house, he stopped the car and turned to Marie in puzzlement.

‘What was all that about? All the punchings and kickings?’

Marie shook her head.

‘For an intelligent man you are incredibly dim at times.’

‘What? What?’

‘How old is Suzie?’

‘Fifteen. You know she is. It’s her birthday today.’

‘And where were you when she was born?’

‘In America?’

Correct. And where was Carole?’

‘In Wales with  Auntie Meg? She went there to recover from glandular fever.’

‘Glandular fever was it?’

‘I don’t know. I wasn’t here. She seemed fine when I went off to do my gap year in America and then I come back to find that she is in Wales herding sheep and my mother has had a baby. At her age!’

Marie looked pityingly at her husband.

‘Have you never wondered why it is that your parents, you and your sister are all fair with blue eyes, and Suzie has curly black hair and brown eyes?’

‘My God! Are you saying that my mother had an affair?’

Marie raised her eyes heavenwards.

‘You really are slow on the uptake sometimes Paul. Not your mother. Your sister. Carole.’

‘No! Who with? Some Welsh bloke? That would explain the colouring.’

‘Tommy. I saw the expression on Carole’s face when you mentioned his name so I didn’t say anything about what happened to him.’

‘What did happen to him?’

‘Motorbike accident. Well some say it was an accident, others say it was deliberate because Carole had had been sent away. Your parents wouldn’t tell him where she had gone and I don’t suppose he knew about your Auntie Meg living in Wales.’

‘But – but – if the baby was Carole’s how did Mum get away with pretending it was hers?’

‘Cushions, I suppose. People were a little surprised but a late life baby isn’t unusual. Your Mum and Dad went to Wales to see Carole for a fortnight and miraculously came back with Suzie. No one questioned it.’

‘So Suzie is my niece, not my sister?’

Marie nodded and put her hand on his knee.

‘What do I do Marie? What can I say?’

‘Say nothing. It isn’t your secret after all. I think that Carole came close to telling me once but your Mum came in and interrupted us. You love Carole and Suzie don’t you?’

‘Of course.’

‘I expect that they will tell Suzie one day – but it’s up to them. Apart from which I have a secret that I’ve been aching to tell you all afternoon.’

‘Oh no. Not more revelations!’

She took his free hand and placed it on her stomach.

‘This is the best kind of secret. I did a test this morning. I’d like to keep it a secret for another couple of weeks though?’

 

 

 

One Character – Week 39 of the 52 week short story challenge

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There was a girl I knew at school.

Her name was Karen.

I didn’t know her well – we were in different classes and in different streams.

In an effort to be non-judgemental the streams were named after colours, but everyone knew that Red was the top stream, Blue was the middle stream and Green was the bottom stream.

I was in Red class, Red stream – eventually. During the first few days of my attending secondary school they managed to lose my records and so I was put in Emerald class, Green stream.

Not only that but they put me in the remedial class.

It was quite nice at first. We had our own little room in the old part of the school. We had a lounge area, some tables and a small kitchen area where our teacher – Mrs W – made us warm (but not hot) drinks.

We also had biscuits.

My friends were  a bit jealous.

I spent the first day colouring in.

I spent the second day colouring in.

I spent the third day colouring in.

Mrs W could see that I was getting a little bored and allowed me to cut out pictures for the others to colour in. The scissors were blunt ended.

This was when I met Karen.

She had a mop of mousey curls, a squint and her school uniform looked as if it had been made for someone much smaller and older. She was a quiet girl; most of my companions were quiet apart from one girl who rocked in a chair and occasionally screeched.

Mrs W and I learned how to calm the girl down after a few days.

My Mother did not think that I should be spending my formative years colouring in so she went into school with me after my first week.

The headmistress; a large, round woman who wore a lot of pale pink Crimplene, listened to my Mother with a patronising look on her face.

‘I’m afraid all mummies think that their girls should be in a higher set.’

My Mother, red hair sparking, said that she wasn’t moving until the demon headmistress had phoned my primary school and asked for my records to be sent over.

The headmistress phoned and was put through to my old headmaster; a lovely man who was so respected that he had a street named after him many years later. I liked him and he liked me. He told the headmistress about my academic achievements and even said he would drop my records over on his way home.

I was promoted the next day.

Being in the top class of the top stream was hard work and there was very little colouring in.

The scissors had points though.

One of my new classmates knew Karen. She wasn’t very nice to her; sneering at her old clothes, and on one occasion when Karen failed to respond to her teasing, this girl even pulled Karen’s curly hair.

My new best friend Georgina, and I pulled the nasty girl off and I took Karen back upstairs to Mrs W, who was quite pleased to see me.

She even let me make Karen a warm drink.

I wanted to know why the nasty girl had picked on Karen, and I got the answer from another girl who had been to the same primary school.

Karen lived in a children’s home.

That was why her clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out her squint.

That was why she was so quiet.

I am ashamed to say that apart from saying ‘Hi’ in the playground or in the school dinner hall, I didn’t see much of Karen after that.

I was too busy being the school rebel and avoiding the headmistress.

Every morning at assembly (I went through an atheist stage where I pointedly refused to sing hymns and kept my eyes open during prayers), I fantasised about running up the steps to the stage and pushing the headmistress off.

In my fantasy she bounced like a giant rubber ball.

She bounced down the school hall and out of the double doors, finally fetching up against her office door.

It was just a fantasy.

Luckily the deputy headmistress took me for English and had my back when things became awkward – usually about my interpretation of school uniform.

Time passed.

I took my ‘O’ levels and I passed.

I went on to the local Tech to do my ‘A’ levels and I passed again.

After a brief flirtation with drama school, and working in bars, I ended up volunteering in a children’s home.

I began to understand what life must have been like for Karen.

The home was run by an older couple who treated the children fairly well but it was always an institution – never a home.

After three months of volunteering, I got a permanent job as a houseparent at another establishment. The staff team was younger; less rigid and I began to understand how we could change things to make life better for the children and young people we were caring for – and we really did care.

I spent ten years working in children’s homes.

I never forgot Karen and I did my best to make sure that those in my care had clothes that they liked – and that fitted.

I took them to medical appointments and I did my best to sort out issues at school.

Most of the staff I worked with tried to make the children’s lives as close to a home life as possible.

Sometimes we succeeded.

I qualified as a social worker and I watched as the homes were closed down because the current thinking was being ‘in care’ was unacceptable. Children were sent home to parents who didn’t know how to care for them and didn’t really want them anyway.

Some children were fostered and life improved for them. There were others who no amount of good fostering could help.

In those cases the children drifted into disaster and the foster parents became disillusioned.

It was while I was taking time out to raise my own family that the scandal broke in my home town.

The officer in charge of a children’s home was arrested for child abuse.

Physical, sexual, financial, psychological – you name it. He did the whole lot.

He was the officer in charge of the home where Karen was placed.

It wasn’t a life for her and the other children she lived with.

The abuse went on for years until someone had the courage to stand up and shout.

It wasn’t Karen.

The officer in charge was found guilty and sent to jail.

So was his wife and two other members of staff.

I’m sorry Karen.

Sorry that I wasn’t more of a friend to you.

Sorry that I didn’t understand what you were going through.

I never forgot you though, and now I understand.

That was why your clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out your squint.

That was why you were so quiet.