Near Death – Week 45 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘Hello?’

‘Hello? Can you hear me?’

I’m pressing the button on this pendant I wear around my neck but nothing happens. Usually when I press it I get a crackly voice from the other end telling me that I have come through to the ‘We Care Service’ and what did I want?

I don’t use it often because I have difficulty hearing what the woman is saying and now, when I really need it there is nothing.

Not even the reassuring beep that tells me that although the line is busy, they will get back to me as soon as possible.

Nothing.

I can just see the clock from here. It’s still early; six o’clock and the time when I would usually be up making my first cup of tea. something to set me up for the day as I sit and listen to the news on the radio.

I could watch the news on the television that my granddaughter bought me but I prefer to listen early in the morning. I don’t want the intrusion of strangers in my house yet.

Today I would welcome anyone to my house.

Today even the lad who has been burgling houses in our area would be welcome. I would tell him where to find my money, my wife’s jewellery, my medals even, if he would call 999 as he leaves.

The floor in the hallway is cold. I should have had carpets fitted but my wife was always proud of these tiles. Minton she said they were and she wouldn’t dream of having them covered up with some old carpet.

I could have had the carpets fitted when she died, when there was only me to think of but every time I look at these tiles I think of her.

I see her as the young girl I carried across the threshold of our house; as the mother of our daughter, tired but proud in her hospital bed, and then I see her bringing our baby girl home to the bedroom I had so lovingly painted pink in her honour.

She did us proud our girl; married well and presented us with grandchildren. I had never thought of our daughter as being traditional but she named her children after her mother and me. Keeping the memories going she said. A legacy.

I never thought I would outlive her, and her mother.

When I came home from the war my lungs were useless; poison gas, cheap tobacco and a cough that never really went away. As if to remind, I cough now and the pain from my legs wracks my body.

I used to have people who came in to check on me. Cheerful young women who did my washing and made me meals. Someone to talk to four times a day; not as good as my wife, who never seemed to stop talking but at least they filled a part of the void when she was gone.

Now they are gone too. Cuts in social care.

A brisk young woman came to visit me, and decided that my care package was too large for my needs. I didn’t need all this help as I was obviously self-caring. I didn’t need to go out to lunch clubs; the transport was very expensive and they were closing down the day centres anyway. She gave me this pendant but was at pains to tell me that I would have to buy the new batteries for it.

I have batteries in the fridge but I can’t reach them.

I can’t reach the telephone.

I can’t reach the door.

I can’t go on.

I can’t.

I can’t give up.

Today of all days.

I look at my coat, hanging out of reach on the coat hook.

I can just see the poppy.

I should be getting my breakfast and making myself presentable so that when my granddaughter comes to fetch me for the parade, she will be proud of me and the part that I played.

So tired.

All I want to do is sleep.

To sleep and have the pain go from my legs.

What legs?

I can’t feel them.

I should be able to feel them. To feel the pain that has kept me awake at night for over seventy years. There is no pain. Just cold.

I look at the clock again. Where has the time gone? I don’t remember being asleep but four hours have passed since I last looked.

I want to sleep. It’s time for me to join the people who I love and miss. This is no place for old men like me – we may have been seen as heroes once but now we are just a burden on the state – a burden that the taxpayers can’t afford according to that brisk young woman.

So tired.

‘Grandad?’

The sound of her key in the door pulls me back from the place where pain has gone and there is just a soft glowing light that draws me in.

‘Grandad? Hang on in there. I’m calling an ambulance. Don’t leave me Grandad.’

It isn’t time yet. Her hands are warm as she tucks a blanket around me. Her hands are warm like her mother’s and her grandmother’s, and while I long to feel their touch again this beautiful girl pulls me back to the present.

I open my eyes and focus on her face. She looks tired and worried so I do my best to smile as if I was okay. The poppy on her coat is close to me and I reach out to touch it.

‘Not yet then?’ I ask.

‘Not yet. Not today of all days. Love you Grandad.’

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The Year I was born – Week 44 of the 52 week short story challenge

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This is a short, short story today because my fingers are busy doing NaNoWriMo – my ninth successive year with eight successful contributions behind me.

One of these days I will get around to editing the work and looking for an agent. I promise myself this every year but as 2016 has been so lousy, maybe this is the right time to start off a more productive new year.

I could have just worked my way through the Wiki page but when I looked there were only a few things that jumped out and had any influence on me and my life.

My birth took place on a council estate in my Mum and Dad’s bedroom at approximately 1620 hours and while my older siblings were watching ‘Popeye’ downstairs with my Dad. As a consequence my Dad wanted to have ‘Olive’ as my middle name. My Mum had different ideas and she won.

I had a mop of black hair when I was born and strange slanting eyes – so unlike my siblings that my Mum was convinced I had Down’s Syndrome. She eventually confessed her fears to the visiting midwife who told her to stop being so daft.

Very obligingly, my hair fell out a few days later and I turned into the blonde tot pictured a year later in the picture above.

My eyes turned out to be extremely short-sighted but this wasn’t discovered until I was eight years old. I had been a full-time spectacle wearer up until a year ago when I had cataract surgery on both eyes. My lens replacements mean that I only need specs for close work and my long-sight is on a par with the eagles (not the group).

I was born on the day that Berry Gordy Jnr founded Motown records.

A month later the music died when a plane with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper (and their pilot Roger Peterson) crashed into a mountain in Iowa.

Fidel Castro became president of Cuba and women in Nepal won the right to vote.

Barbie made her debut in March; I always had Sindy dolls, although I did briefly own a Tressy – ‘her hair grows’  – well it did until my big brother and I investigated the outsize belly button that retracted her hair. Bald and unloved she went in the bin. We were callous children.

Various things happened throughout the summer – Cyprus gained independence and joined the UN – and the first Xerox machine was introduced to an adoring public. We no longer adore copiers and printers – we just shout at them.

The Twilight Zone premiered on telly and Asterix the Gaul was born.

November saw the completion of the first stage of the M1. It took another thirty years to complete it. More pertinent to me in my later life  – the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN.

I spent ten years working in child protection. Things have not improved over time and now that I am out of the official social care sector I feel sad that my ex-colleagues have so few resources to protect those who so badly need their support.

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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.

 

 

 

Another Place – Week 38 of the 52 week short story challenge

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We are the Iron Men.

Cast in the image of our creator and set in the sand to watch the sea as the tide comes in and out without fail.

My ninety-nine brothers and I see a world passing us by every day.

We do not stand in a line; we are scattered along the beach and some of us spend much of our time under the sea, others are half-buried in the drift of the sand.

Dog visit us and their walkers watch as we are sniffed and anointed; it doesn’t matter because the salt sea water washes everything away. Dogs on leads and dogs running free; large dogs that bark and gambol, small dogs that yap and chase their own tails, dogs in collars and harnesses, dogs wearing pink tutus and sparkling jackets. We do not think that they choose their own outfits.

People come and go; old people arm in arm, or holding hands and walking sticks, families building sandcastles and collecting shells, fishermen in green waterproofs, young lovers, joggers and cyclists, photographers capturing us from every conceivable angle and those who are alone and choose to immerse themselves in the spirit of this place.

We see the changes; wind farms rise out of the sea, ferries and container ships pass us by, irritated young men on jet skis learn to avoid us, the coastguard makes regular passes on a quad bike to ensure that all is well.

We weren’t supposed to stay here.

There were who people wanted us to be taken away; they said that we were a hazard to small craft and to tourists who got stuck in the soft sand at our feet. Some conservationists were concerned about the bird population being affected by our presence but other conservationists were fascinated by the barnacles and other forms of life that grew on our bodies.

They moved some of  my brothers in order to satisfy the critics; away from the bird breeding area and the small boats.

The people wanted us to stay – and the people won.

We stayed.

Because the people wanted us to become a permanent part of their landscape and their lives.

Students dressed us in outrageous garb, rescuing their adornments before the tide came in. Some of my brothers have been given sunglasses, another has had a bikini painted on him.

We stand and we watch.

The seasons pass over us and we are sentinels in the rain, the sun and as the wind whips the sand up into hillocks by our feet or causes the sea to lash against us and bury us under the waves.

This is Another Place.

We are the music-makers,

  And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
  And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
  On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
  Of the world for ever, it seems.

Ode – Arthur O’Shaughnessy – 1844–1881

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Scientific Discovery – Week 37 of the 52 week short story challenge

‘Erwin! Erwin! Where are you?’

He could hear his mother stumbling up the stairs, so he pushed the box under his bed and went out to meet her.

‘What is it Mother?’

She looked at him, knowing that the innocent expression on his face was usually a sign that he had been up to something.

‘Have you been in your grandfather’s study?’

Erwin opened his eyes widely, knowing that it made him look even more innocent. He shook his head.

‘Are you sure?  He says that some of his bottles have been moved around. Have you touched them Erwin?’

‘No Mother.’ Erwin looked down at his feet, unsure if he could keep up the pretence for much longer.

‘Hmmm. I must insist that you do not go into that room. Your grandfather keeps some very dangerous chemicals in there. Promise me Erwin.’

‘I promise Mother.’

‘Get ready for church now. Don’t pull that face at me. We are going to church whether you like it or not.’

Erwin followed her sullenly down the stairs. He hated going to church; hated his mother’s devotion to her religion almost as much as his father did. His father opted to stay home on the grounds that his own religion did not agree with that of his wife’s, but Erwin was still considered a child and had to do as his mother told him.

As if having to go to church wasn’t enough, Erwin had to wear his best  – and extremely uncomfortable clothes. His collar was starched and stiff; the bow tie pulled it even closer to his neck. The suit was made of wool and it itched wherever it touched. His shoes; new and shiny black leather, were rigid on his feet and his toes felt cramped and uncomfortable. Having to sit in this discomfort was torture enough but for two and a half hours the preacher droned endlessly about original sin and retribution.

Erwin made a promise to himself that if he ever had children they would not have to go to church. He also decided that if he was going to be accused of being steeped in sin, he would do what he could to deserve it.

The moving of the bottles in his grandfather’s study had been done with a purpose. Erwin had only removed an old empty bottle but he had identified exactly what he needed.  Row on row of glass bottles contained liquids with exciting names and he had moved the bottle that he required so that it was hidden at the back where it wouldn’t be missed. He just needed an opportunity.

The opportunity came that afternoon. His mother was having a rest in her room, and his grandmother had gone to hers. His father had retreated to his workshop and Grandfather had fallen asleep in the sitting room, full of food and with the cat asleep on his lap.

The cat and Erwin hated each other. It loved his grandfather, tolerated his mother and anyone that fed it, but anyone else who approached it, or tried to move it from the furniture, would be greeted with a hiss and a slash of claws. It saved its worse savagery for Erwin however, who bore the scars of those razor sharp weapons.

It was the work of a moment when everyone was out of his sight, for Erwin to slip into the study, pour half the contents of the bottle into a spare and replace the original. He closed the door, breathed a deep sigh of relief and crept quietly upstairs to his room.

He pulled the box out from under his bed and after wrapping the bottle in an old blanket, he pushed the box back out of sight and lay on his bed with one of his many books on the chemistry and physics beside him. The first part of his experiment was complete.

Erwin decided it would be better to wait for another couple of days, although he moved the box into his wardrobe in case one of the maids was feeling particularly house proud and chose to sweep under his bed.

His grandmother spent the morning teaching him English; Father was at work, Grandfather was at the university and his mother was out visiting one of the ladies from the church. Erwin waited until his grandmother had gone for another lie down, before grabbing the box from his wardrobe and putting it into the middle of the room with the lid open and the bottle uncorked. He used the blanket to wrap round his hands before going in search of the cat.

It was fast asleep in a pool of sunshine on the sitting room carpet. Erwin threw the blanket over it and gathered it up before it had realised what was happening.

He ran upstairs, put the wriggling, spitting cat into the box and shut the lid quickly putting his heaviest atlas on the top to keep it shut.

Erwin knew what would happen. Putting a cat in a box with an open bottle of poison could only have one outcome. If only he could think of a way of using a separate force to shatter the bottle – a separate force that could detect life – or death.

The box stopped shaking and Erwin felt sure that he knew exactly what the cat’s status was.

He still had time to smuggle the box downstairs and out into the woods at the end of the garden.

He opened the box and took out the bottle, thrusting it deep into the pile of rubbish that the gardener had amassed for a bonfire.

The cat’s motionless body was thrust deep under the rhododendron bushes, and Erwin finished his tasks by breaking the box up and putting it amongst the other pieces of wood on the bonfire.

When his mother returned, she found an innocent Erwin studying the books his grandmother had given him to read.

She looked around the house suspiciously but nothing seemed out of place, so she took off her hat and coat. It was later in the day after she had wandered round the garden that she realised that something was missing.

‘Erwin Schrodinger! What have you done with your grandfather’s cat?’

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Animal Perspective – Week 36 of the 52 week short story challenge

 

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Hola!

Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Scooby, I am eight years old and I was born in Valencia, Spain.  I am what is called a ‘random’ dog; you can also use the phrases ‘crossbreed’ or ‘mongrel’ but I prefer random because it suits my personality.  With regard to my parentage, rumour has it that a flat-coated retriever and a German shepherd dog may have been involved but hey – who really knows? Let’s face it – I am one handsome dog.

For the first three years of my life I was a Spanish dog; I poohed over low white walls, had no need of stairs and chased feral cats to my heart’s content.  That’s how we did things over there. My Spanish Mum taught me how to sit, stay, fetch, lie down and use my paw to make requests.  She also made sure that I had a pet passport and all my jabs were up to date.  I believe that she loved me very much.

In 2011 I came to England.  I don’t remember why.  It was cold though and I got into trouble over a neighbour’s cat.  You have to bear in mind that I was used to cats being vermin – like rats and pigeons and squirrels – there are kind people in Spain who try to look after the feral cats but there are so many that most people see them as a nuisance and don’t make a fuss if you remove one or two.

There was most certainly a fuss once I got to England.  I was no longer a bueno perro for doing what came naturally to me. I was the terminator dog. I was in deep trouble. Then I got out again.  Another cat bit the dust. My Spanish Mum could no longer cope with my Spanish ways and she signed me over to the RSPCA.

I was locked up for eighteen months.

My picture was on the website; a nice man did a video of me running around and playing with a ball, and I became very popular with the RSPCA staff and volunteers.  People came to see me and said how handsome I was – especially when I grinned or cocked my head to one side.  But other dogs came and other dogs went; as soon as people knew about my little problem with cats they turned away.  Many of them had cats of their own, or other pets that they thought I might take a fancy to.  I was an unknown quantity and people – quite understandably – were not prepared to take the risk.

There was a boy – well almost a man – who wanted a dog.  He loved animals and grew up in a house full of cats. His Mum promised him that when all the cats had finally made their way to moggy heaven, they would look into having a dog.  She told him to check the RSPCA web pages but not to fall in love too soon because they had to go on holiday first.  She also told him to put his laptop to some good use and do some research on what it meant to be a responsible dog owner instead of playing games where humans killed other humans.

His Mum spotted me on the web pages and pointed me out to the Boy and to his Dad.  His Mum liked my big brown eyes and the way my ears flopped over.  She could see that I had been at the kennels a long time and that I desperately needed a home of my own.  She told the Boy that if I was still there when they came back from holiday, they would come and visit me.

Right from the start the staff were very honest about my cat issues; from the very first phone call the Mum made, she knew what they were taking on but she and the Boy had fallen for my charms already (they had to work on the Dad a bit because he had never owned a dog before).

They came to visit me on the Mum’s birthday and took me for a walk in the wood outside the kennels.  I pulled a bit.  Well quite a lot actually but they persevered and by the time they brought me back to the kennels it was a done deal.  A deposit was paid and before they had even left a yellow sign with ‘Home check’ was put up outside my kennel. Somebody wanted me at last.

They came again the next day; the Boy was in charge because he was to be my new master – aided and abetted by his Mum and Dad.  I recognised them, and as a consequence began to show off my talents a little. I still pulled but they were impressed by the way I responded to basic commands (and the dog treats they bought me).

Each time they visited we got to know each other better and I began to love the Boy.  He hugged me and praised me – well all three of them did – but his actions were the most important.  I stopped barking when I saw them enter the car park and wagged my tail in ecstasy instead. Kind people cared for me and hoped that one day I would find the right family, and they had their fingers crossed.

One of the visits included a walk to a car; the Mum was worried about whether I would be nervous about cars as I’d been in kennels for so long.  Ha!  I jumped up onto the tailgate, sat down on the blanket and gave my famous grin.

‘Take me home now please?’

Unknown to me, the Mum and the Dad were doing things to make their house a safe haven where I couldn’t get out and chase the local cats.  They put trellis on top of the fence panels so I wouldn’t be able to climb over.  They found a dog-owning fence and gate maker who mended their old gate and made a special new one so that I wouldn’t get out of the back garden. They had loved their own cats and didn’t want to put temptation in my way.

They passed the home check and once the gates and trellis had been put up it was agreed that I could come home.

By this time I had my own lead, half-check collar and a harness which the Boy bought with him whenever they came to take me out.  He always had his Mum or his Dad with him when we walked but on this day he took me out alone.

When we got back to the kennels he didn’t hand me back the way he used to.  His Mum and Dad appeared from the office and they were both smiling.  The Boy was smiling.  They lifted up the tailgate and as the Boy strapped my harness to the safety belt, I smiled too.

We went home.  Mi casa.

Adios.

 

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