A Curse – Week 33 of the 52 week short story challenge

Angelika had no memory of the event. Members of her family had told her about the incident over the years and it had been embroidered with numerous opinions until it formed the basis on which they all lived their lives.

She was only a baby at the time. Lying in a Silver Cross pram; decked out in pink and white ruffles that matched the festoons of her own christening outfit. Her mother, father and three brothers were taking her to the church; walking through the streets, proudly showing off the new baby to neighbours who came out to watch or to join in the procession because they had been invited to the ceremony too.

It was to be a grand affair. A baby girl after three boys and her mother was in seventh heaven. A baby girl to dress in lace and loveliness after several years of mending blue and boisterous. After the christening the guests were walking across the graveyard to the church hall for refreshments. Money was tight so any hard-drinking would be done in the local pub by the men, once the women and children had gone home for the evening.

Unlike her older brothers, Angelika was quiet throughout the ceremony. Her big blue eyes fixed on the priest’s face as he anointed her with the holy water, then she smiled and in response he kissed her forehead gently. Her parents smiled at each other. This was a gesture that the priest saved only for the most blessed of babies and the congregation heaved a collective sigh of relief at this good omen.

The celebration party was a great success; there were plates of cakes, pastries and sandwiches made that morning by those in attendance. A special christening cake had been made by Angelika’s aunt and it was surrounded by a pile of pink-wrapped presents containing silver rattles, mugs, bangles and more frilled dresses.

The men folk, fairly sober despite some smuggled bottles of beer, were jolly and tolerant of the children who were running around the hall, sliding on their knees and eating far too many of the lurid pink-iced cupcakes.

The older members of the family – and congregation – sent those with children back to their homes so that they could clear up the hall in peace, and indulge in some gossip about the outfits worn by the younger women. Angelika’s mother gathered her boys together and with the pram loaded down with cake and presents, they set off for home.

Angelika slept.

It was as they were walking down the High Street that they passed an old lady dressed in black. Angelika chose that moment to wake up and sneeze.

‘Să te binecuvânteze copilul.’ said the old lady.

Angelika’s mother shrieked, crossed herself and hurried on down the street the boys who, confused by her behaviour, scurried after her. The old lady stared after them and shook her head in bewilderment before going on her way.

By the time they arrived home, the children’s mother was almost hysterical and the usually placid Angelika was wailing in sympathy. Kindly neighbours helped them into the house and put the kettle on.

They listened to Angelika’s mother’s tale of having been cursed on the way home by an old gypsy woman. As one they crossed themselves and looked heavenwards for help. One of the older boys was sent to fetch the men folk back from the pub. Some of them came home, others roamed the streets looking for the old woman but she was long gone and safe.

Things seemed to go wrong for the family from that moment on. Angelika’s sunny temperament disappeared, replaced by a child who no longer tolerated the pink frills and embroidered frocks. She tore them and dropped her food on them and by the time she was walking, her mother had to resort to putting her in her brother’s hand-me-downs – which she never damaged or soiled. Her golden curls had to be cropped after she became entangled in a thorn-bush, a thorn-bush that her older brothers were wise enough to avoid.

Every time Angelika deviated from what was expected of a ‘girl’, the tale of the gypsy’s curse was resurrected, repeated and embellished.

Angelika didn’t feel cursed. Well, only when she was forced into clothes she felt uncomfortable in or had choices made for her that she didn’t like. She proved to be a force too powerful for her superstitious parents, and by the time she became a teenager, Angelika was pretty much given a free rein.

She knew that she could take advantage of the situation – and sometimes she did – but as well as being blessed with big blue eyes she also had quick wits and intelligence that left most of her extended family way behind.

Exams came and were passed with ease. With the backing of her teachers, she informed her parents that she intended to go to university. No one argued with her, although it stretched the family finances to the limit. and they would have been much happier marrying her off to one of the men who had been boys at her christening.

Now that she was old enough to understand the curse – and the situation surrounding it –  she demanded that someone tell her exactly what was said. Her oldest brother, refusing to repeat the words, wrote down what he thought the old woman had uttered.

University was a revelation for Angelika. She met people who were not bound by superstition and old wives tales.    No that she was away from her family and with access to computers and books, there was something she needed to find out. What did ‘Să te binecuvânteze copilul’ really mean?

The library provided the answer. Angelika learned about the concept of ‘sympathetic magic’ and how it creates in the believer a self-fulfilling prophesy. Someone grows up thinking they are ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ because they are told that.

On her first visit home from university she assembled her family in the kitchen and held up a card with the words of the curse on it. Her mother shrieked and crossed herself. The older members of the family looked heavenwards.

Angelika turned the card over and showed the words she had written there.

‘Bless you my child’.

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At Sea – Week 32 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It was the first Tuesday of the month and just after eight o’clock in the evening, so the venue had to be Simon’s Wine Bar, because that was where Jo, Lea and I met up. We had been meeting here since the wine bar opened three years ago, and before that we had frequented a number of different bars and restaurants on a reasonably regular basis – holidays, childbirth and objecting partners excepted.

We had been friends from schooldays; Joanna, Leanne and Georgina, shortened to Jo, Lea and Gina over the years. We met for the first time, when standing in serried ranks in the school assembly hall, we were sent to our allotted form tutor and marched off to the classroom that was to be our base for the next five years.

Situated in the older part of the school, parquet flooring, dark wooden cupboards with sliding doors and piles of dust in the deepest recesses. We didn’t realise it at the time but we had been lucky enough to acquire Mr Beck as our form tutor. Out of all the first form tutors, he was undoubtedly the most human and easy-going.

At the time there were only four male teachers in our girls-only school; lovely Mr G who taught chemistry and was considered too scatty to have a form to look after, Mr Beck who taught physics and technical drawing, and the two religious education teachers; the Rev and the Perv. They only worked part-time and it was always a relief to walk into the classroom and find that the Rev was on duty. He at least was a real vicar whereas the Perv was a Methodist pastor who liked to massage the shoulders of girls that were too afraid of him to object.

Needless to say, he never laid a hand on me, Jo or Lea; according to our other friends we exuded an air of arrogance and rebellion. Whilst some teachers did their best to split us up we always managed to be sitting together for the next lesson like three magnets. This only changed when we had to make choices about the future and select our options for the final two years of school. Lea was artistic and creative, so art, pottery and needlework were easy options for her. Jo was the scientist, and whilst she had been known to connect up the Van Der Graaf generator to the classroom door and shock her less observant classmates – or student teachers – she was Mr Beck’s favourite and could do no wrong in his eyes.

I was used to the teachers looking at me in a funny way. My brain and I had the capacity to stun when sufficiently motivated  but I was always a rebel in my own lunchtime. No cissie uniform for me; I stalked the halls in jeans and Doctor Martins, daring any foolish teacher to reprimand me. It’s hard to be a rebel when there is no challenge though. I was the writer, the historian and psychologist. I was one of the first students to tackle the social psychology course and it was partly due to my high marks that the course – together with philosophy and sociology – was added to our curriculum.

Jo and I stayed on for sixth form but Lea went off to study hairdressing and beauty techniques. Her mother ran a couple of salons across the city and it was a given that Lea would step into her mother’s shoes one day. Had she been as much of a rebel as me, she might have objected but she was always the most compliant of us – and the most elegant and well-groomed. When her classmates were suffering from greasy hair and adolescent acne, Lea, having access to an endless range of beauty products and being blessed with clear skin, sailed through her school days with unnatural poise.

Jo went on to medical school and became a GP. I chose a university up in that London and lived a Bohemian lifestyle that resulted in me being left with two small children, a heap of debts, a pile of half-written novels and a deep spiritual wound inflicted by my poet lover who went off to the US to find himself. Fortunately my parents welcomed me and their grandsons home and I managed to scrape a living for the three of us by writing articles for women’s magazines and promising myself that I would finish my novels one day. By the time my boys were in their mid-teens, I had bought us a tiny terraced house laughingly described as an ‘artisan dwelling’, Lea was still single but had expanded the beauty salon chain and Jo had married a police sergeant and given birth to twins very shortly after. Family planning was never her thing – but then it hadn’t been mine either.

The three of us kept in touch throughout the years and once we were all back living in the same city, the monthly meetings began in earnest. As befitting her role, Lea remained elegant and beautiful, I had streaks of grey at my hairline – a  consequence of being disorganised and leading a life bedevilled by constantly having to unearth football boots, chemistry books and clean clothes from the  dark caves where my boys could be found, so that they wouldn’t get into trouble at school. They still got into trouble for their rebellious attitudes and a refusal to conform but I knew who to blame for that. Jo’s face was etched with worry lines even before the twins turned up; I commiserated with her over the posset stains on her shoulders and the fact that none of her pre-pregnancy clothes fitted anymore.

It was Tuesday and the three of us were sitting at our favourite table with a bottle of red wine breathing and three glasses ready. It was a few minutes before Jo and I put our own worries and thoughts aside in order to notice that something was wrong with Lea.

She poured out the wine and took an unusually inelegant gulp before squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath.

‘I have a problem, girls.’

Jo and I looked at each other, mentally assessing which one of us would ask the question. Under the table we did rock, paper, scissors. I usually beat Jo by wrapping her rock with paper but on this occasion she pulled a sneaky scissor trick and so it was me that put on the sympathetic face and asked. ‘What’s up Lea? How can we help?’

Jo kicked me under the table.

Lea put down her glass. ‘I think I’m in love.’

Double relief for Jo and myself. We started to smile and formulate congratulations but something in Lea’s face stopped us.

My turn to ask the questions again.

‘Who with? Do we know them – him – her?’ I hedged my bets. Lea bristled.

‘Him of course! No you don’t know him. He’s offered me a job too.’

Jo and I did a double take.

‘But you have all the salons. You don’t need a job. What kind of job?’

Lea looked at me pityingly. ‘I have good managers in all my salons. I need a change. I’m SO bored.’

‘What kind of a job?’ Jo echoed my questions. ‘Who is he?’

Lea took another gulp and another deep breath. ‘His name is Daryl. He is the entertainments manager on the Ocean Princess and he has asked me if I want to take on the beauty salon concession. It means signing up for a year and although the money isn’t wonderful, it would mean that I get to visit Florida, Italy, Spain – the itinerary is vast. The chance to get a real tan, evenings off, dinner at the Captain’s table, what more could a girl want?’

‘But, you’ve never been abroad Lea. Do you even have a passport?’

‘I know. I’ve always been too busy. I want to do something else with my life. You and Jo, you have children, Jo has a husband. I need a change. Can you sign my passport form Jo?’

‘Daryl? How did you meet him?’ I was a little miffed that she hadn’t asked me to sign her form but then I wasn’t really that much of an upstanding member of the community really.

Lea looked a little guilty. ‘I caught him trying to poach my staff.  He was a bit embarrassed and took me out to lunch to apologise. We got talking and well … you know.’ She finished lamely.

‘How old is he?’ Jo had the bit between her teeth now and the inquisitorial GP in her took over.

Lea blushed. ‘Twenty-five.’ she muttered.

‘That’s ten years younger than you. He’s a toy boy!’ I knocked back my wine and emptied the rest of the bottle into our glasses.

‘Are you really in love with him Lea or is it just the idea of sailing off into the sunset?’ Jo was still in her professional guise.

Lea looked at her watch. ‘I asked him to come and meet you. He’ll be here at nine o’clock.’

This was sacrosanct. Tuesdays were for the three of us. No exceptions. Ever.

I ordered another bottle of red and we didn’t bother to let this one breathe. I was the wordsmith and mine failed me for the moment. Jo concentrated on scratching a patch of posset she had discovered on her leggings. Lea was silent.

‘When will you go?’ I said eventually.

‘I haven’t signed any contracts yet but the next sailing is from Southampton at the end of the month and they need to have a manager in place before they sail. I think I want to do this girls, but I need your help. I trust you more than anyone else and if you think – well – if he isn’t the right one for me…’

This was a new element to our friendship. Lea had always been very choosy about men and neither Jo or I had ever sought an opinion on our partners – although I often wished I had.

Daryl arrived exactly at nine o’clock. He was handsome – in a theatrical way – he had good dress sense, an immaculate hair style and a tan that hadn’t come from a machine. He was charming, attentive and nothing like any man Jo and I had ever met before. He didn’t exactly sweep us off our feet but we could understand how he had captured Lea’s heart. The wine and the shock made us both dull and sleepy. Lea sparkled in Daryl’s presence.

Lea and Daryl went on to a club. Jo and I went home to our families in a taxi; we both felt old and boring.

By the end of the month Lea had sorted out her salons, signed up for a twelve month concession on a cruise liner and organised both her work and social wardrobes. Daryl continued to be the love of her life and though we cried on our last evening together, Jo and I wished them both well.

Lea was a great success as the manager of the beauty salon.

Daryl turned out to be less of a success; they had only been at sea for three days when Lea discovered him snogging one of the dancers backstage. He protested that he was just comforting her because she was homesick but the dancer told a different tale and within a few hours Lea had testimony from a parade of young girls who had fallen prey to Daryl’s charms.

He was offloaded in disgrace at Fort Lauderdale after breaking a few more hearts, by which time Lea had come to the attention of an aging but handsome millionaire who had signed up for a cruise to take his mind off the death of his wife. He signed up for another cruise when that one ended and carried on cruising until Lea finally agreed to terminate her contract and sign up to being his wife.

Lea sends us letters from her homes in the US. She never forgets our birthdays or those of the children. We think that she is happy. We hope that she is. We try to meet up on Tuesdays Jo and I, but it isn’t the same. Now it’s us that are at sea.

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A Small Political Intervention – Week 31 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I’ve always liked people who have a twinkle in their eyes. A wry smile rather than an ear-splitting guffaw. A sense that there is more going on behind those eyes than you might think.

I’ve already written about my renewed interest in political matters (Week 29 ‘To Thine Own Self Be True‘) but recent developments require a small updating.

I am officially a registered supporter of the Labour party – having forked out my 25 quids and refrained from using threats, bad language or failing to support the aims and objectives of the Labour party.

Twitter has become a bit of an obsession and I am sure that I retweet far more than I should but I haven’t had any rude comments – so far.  I follow quite a few comedians and writers, organisations dedicated to preserving wildlife, the Green party (I promised the  young Master of Science and all things Green that I would – although I don’t follow him on principle in case I see something that a mother shouldn’t.) I also follow my wonderful cousin Ali Sparkes who writes brilliant children’s books and my friend Mark who runs a business cleaning ovens, houses and offices.

The number of people I follow – and who follow me – has increased threefold in the last couple of weeks. The bulk of my Twitter acquaintance has come about because of Jeremy Corbyn. I have also discovered the joys of muting and blocking – the Twitter equivalents of Pacman – and a satisfying way of getting rid of Twitterers who are rude, threatening or trying desperately to get other people into trouble.

As a new Labour party member, I took it upon myself to find out who the MPs were, who they represented, those that were brave enough to sign up for Twitter, and what kind of tweets they put on.

My conclusions are:

  • some Labour MPs are exceptionally hard-working and use their Twitter accounts to publicise events and good works in their constituency areas. They don’t put negative tweets on. You can learn about them as people and MPs from what they write.
  • some Labour MPs use their Twitter accounts as a weapon to disrespect other members of their own party  – and other Twitterers. They moan about bullying and abuse but are quick to make threats, abusive comments and tell HUGE great porkie pies in order to whip their supporters up into a frenzy. You can learn about them as people and MPs from what they write.

I do my best not to retweet stuff with lots of bad language; I know that tempers run high and there are times when a good swear helps but not in writing and not in a place where it can be used against you.

Fellow Twitterers that resort to personal insults get blocked (after I’ve had a sneaky peek at their profiles). Someone had a look at mine and commented that I wasn’t worth bothering with – phew!

Apologies to the nice chaps out there but most of the really aggressive and abusive Twitterers do seem to be ‘ bully boys’ of a certain age who have little else to do but make nasty comments and cause trouble. Block!

I like Jeremy Corbyn because he doesn’t do nasty. Even when faced with the most biased interviewer or Cruella de May herself, he remains calm, reasonable and polite.  People complain that he doesn’t defend himself in PMQs but this is merely because he doesn’t have to stoop to the personal insults, cackling and hectoring of Cameron, May and their supporters. The silly Labour boys and girls who join in with juvenile and disruptive behaviour fail to understand that they are making themselves look stupid. Who wants to elect an MP who behaves like a spoilt child and a bully?

I certainly don’t.

The trouble is, we have become so used to politicians being arrogant, rude, insulting, lying, claiming ‘honours’ for friends, and being totally out of touch with their constituents, that when an honest man appears, a man who doesn’t wear Savile Row suits, uses public transport or rides his bike, AND is a vegetarian, we don’t know what to do.

We don’t believe him.

Politicians are not allowed to be honest and trustworthy. They are supposed to have deep dark secrets concerning the source of their wealth, their illicit affairs and their unsavoury habits. We have been overtaken by career and hereditary politicians who are looking for fame, glory and power. Especially power.

No.

Enough now.

There are good politicians out there. People who have gone into politics because they want to make changes for the good. Because they want to help disabled people, disenfranchised youth, immigrants, people living below the poverty line – anyone who needs them really.

People like Jo Cox MP.

She may not have agreed with everything the leader of her party did and said, but she would not have sworn at him, accused him of persecuting her or threatened violence to him. She tried to achieve change through positive words and actions. Other MPs would do well to look back on her works and learn from them.

Aggression, violence, lies and threats solve nothing. Using them to try to harm Jeremy Corbyn is pointless; he shrugs off such behaviour like the impotent drops of poison that they are. We give people the power to hurt us and somehow, Jeremy has has the skill of diminishing that power – wherever it comes from.

I shall continue to Tweet and Retweet. I don’t know if Jeremy will win the leadership election – I really hope he does and that the Labour party pulls itself together and upholds the aims and the objectives that it so keen for the rest of us to uphold. I hope that the silly boys and girls on the back benches stop squabbling,  work for their constituents and support their leader as they should – he was democratically elected after all and the Labour party embraces democracy – doesn’t it?

The Referendum has already caused hurt and harm throughout the land – and I don’t care what the Brexiteers say – they had no idea of the devastation that a Leave vote would cause for all of us.

Now is the time for the Labour party to unify behind their leader, not indulge in petty fights and name-calling. Time to earn trust and expect nothing more than respect for good works.

It is a time to be honest, to understand the meaning of integrity.

It may not be Jeremy Corbyn who leads Labour into a General Election in 2020; there are other MPs in the wings who are not ready to lead just yet but given time…

They are the MPs that listen and learn, that fight against discrimination and prejudice, that put themselves out to combat injustice.

No more nastiness please?

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A Magical Object – Week 30 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It is hidden on the lowest shelf of the display cabinet; tucked between a Peter Rabbit christening mug, a pale blue lustre-ware coffee set and a Jubilee medal. It is only hidden to prevent small hands from taking it out – although those hands are no longer small.

She knows it is there. She has known it all her life; has been privileged to hold it, to feel the weight of it in her hand and smell the leather sheath that protects it. There are others too: larger and more frightening than this replica which sits in her hand so comfortably.

During the war her father was a Marine. He could often be distracted into telling tales of his experiences but it was when he talked about the Ghurkhas that she listened intently, hanging on to every word. Often she would curl up on his lap. She was his little Chuckles and he was her hero.

Photos and memories of that time portray him as a tall man with a mop of curly hair that he controlled with Brylcream. That is how she sees him in her mind still. Carrying her from a bus trip to see his oldest sister; her blonde head tucked into his neck, feigning sleep until they got home.

He had seen it all during the war. Death and disorder. His time in Malaya sparked his admiration of the Ghurkhas. He had stood chest high in the freezing sea helping to assist his fellow soldiers onto dry land. The sadness and futility of war saddened his mind and the bitter cold affected his heart and chest, and would be the death of him one day. Having travelled, he had little or no ambition left, would not learn to drive or rise above his steady job in a supermarket warehouse.

His wife had a lust for learning; she wanted to travel, to holiday in somewhere more exotic than Hayling Island or Highcliffe. Over the years she became more dissatisfied and found excuses to stay later at work rather than come home to a man she had begun to despise.

Her parents were not well-matched. Sometimes he would shout and sometimes he would sulk; his sulks turned into a depression that could last for weeks. Her mother was the one with the fiery temper; in snapshots of time she was shaking her fist and scowling at whoever had the temerity to take her photograph, but she was warm too, and loving and always wanted the very best for her children. She  had fallen out of love with him long before she left and it was only the children that kept them together.

He gave his children legacies though. He made them hot chocolate with rum in it; sprinkled curry powder on their dinners and got them up in the middle of the night to glory in the spectacle of a thunderstorm. As a consequence, even now, his youngest daughter loves rum and thunderstorms although she got into trouble for asking for curry powder to spice up her school dinners.

Her parents split up when she was ten years old. She was Daddy’s girl and a part of her wanted to stay with him but she was the youngest, trauma touched them all and she left in the middle of the night with her mother. She chose not to see her father for another six years.

When they met up again he had changed. No longer tall, rather portly and his glossy black hair was grizzled and grey. He looked like Albert Tatlock from Coronation Street. It didn’t matter though, he was still her Dad and she was still his little Chuckles.

When she moved into a shared house, he brought her a small black kitten so that she would have reason to come home at night. Sprog. A wild and often malicious creature that liked to hide in the bottom of sleeping bags and emerge like a bullet from a gun when the occupier’s feet made contact. He would also lay in wait for the housemate who had to go through her room to get to his own. He was no match for a fluffy black cannonball with needle sharp claws.

Once a fortnight, regular as clockwork, her father would send her a postal order for three pounds. Her maintenance, it often paid for a takeaway curry or a drink or two at the Students’ Union bar. His cooking never really improved; most things were cooked to a crisp or had a strange mixture of ingredients. She visited every week for the evening and they would watch TV together; he burping gently and she sucking a tactfully concealed indigestion tablet.

He approved of the man she chose to be her husband, and lived long enough to meet and hold both his grandsons. In the same year that his youngest grandson was born he was struck down by a fatal heart attack. He went quickly. He went the way he would have wanted to go; in the middle of making tea and coffee for a group of workmen who were installing central heating in his block of flats. They gave him CPR but it was no good. The damage done by the cruel sea all those years ago finally took its toll.

Her brother had the big Ghurkha knives after their father died but he remembered her attachment to the little replica knife and this is why it sits in her display cabinet now, why she takes it out sometimes to stroke it and smell the leather sheath, and remember the man who brought it home from the war.

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To Thine Own Self Be True – Week 29 of the 52 week short story challenge

 

 

 

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This week’s title was actually F*** You but I thought that might be construed as being a little aggressive so I amended it a bit. This isn’t really a story as such – a bit of a rant maybe so skip on out of here if you aren’t interested in what I have to say.

I was raised in an atmosphere of mild politics. My Dad was a shop steward for the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW) when he worked for Sainsburys, and my Mum was secretary to her branch of the Transport and Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) when she worked for British Rail (before privatisation). At that time men working for BR had four free rail tickets per year and discounted tickets for themselves, their wives and families. Women working for BR only got these perks for themselves and not their families. My Mum fought for parity and my Mum won.

When the Social Democrat Party was formed, Mum was one of the first people to join because she didn’t like the way Labour was heading. After seven years the SDP merged with the Liberal party and Mum reverted to her Labour roots. She was very involved in social security tribunals and managed to overturn many unfair and arbitrary decisions made by other more ‘qualified’ panel members. She had a strong sense of justice and remained interested in politics all her life.

Her legacy to me was ‘To thine own self be true‘.

In my teens, my own dalliance with politics was more than a little mercenary. I joined the Southampton International Socialist group when I was fifteen. I was studying modern history and like so many other teenagers, thought that communism was the answer – for a very short while. SIS was quite glamorous; they were all older than me, bought me lager and lime in the pub and tried in vain to get me to stand in the precinct in town and sell ‘Socialist Worker’.

I had expressed a desire at the time to be a journalist – or a social worker.

By the time I had left school and started on ‘A’ levels, my interests had moved  dramatically, and to the NUS and the local students’ union. I participated in events and activities and by the time I was in my final year I was elected (unopposed) as Entertainments Secretary. Not that any of my events ever made much of a profit – some of them made an outstanding loss – but they were always entertaining.

I attended the Blackpool NUS conference in 1979. I met the Goodies and was present when Keith Joseph was discovered lurking up in the balcony. We stood up as one and hissed at him, refusing to go on until he left. It was all rather exciting at the time.

Politics were put on hold for a couple of years as I dallied with speech training and dramatic art, and a close encounter or two with my local pub.

A twist of fate and a couple of soda siphons led me back to social work and a job on the lowest rung of the ladder as a houseparent.

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On my first day at work, the deputy officer in charge stopped me as he was leaving.

‘I need to have a word with you – tomorrow.’

Panic!

What had I done wrong?

I barely slept that night and could cheerfully have thumped him when I discovered that he just wanted to ask me about joining the union – NALGO (National Union of Local Government Officers – later absorbed into Unison). I joined. More out of relief than anything else.

In 1984 we went on strike. It was almost as exciting as going to conference. We were out for three months in total and there was an atmosphere of camaraderie as we sat outside on picket lines with our tents and camping chairs. I was working in a children’s home and whilst agency staff were employed to ‘look after’ the children, in reality the children spent more time out on the picket line with us.

NALGO paid our wages and we thought we were making an impact.

We weren’t.

The strike fizzled out when the weather turned bad. We returned to work without realising how much damage had been done. Homes were closed. Junior staff like me were redeployed but senior staff found themselves passed over for promotion because of their disloyalty in going out on strike.

The cost was high; a lovely man who had been a driving force in our protests became so depressed by his demotion and lack of prospects, that he took his wife and son out for a drive in the country, drugged them both and rigged up a hosepipe to the exhaust.

All three of them died.

They weren’t the only ones who died as a consequence of the strike. I promised myself that I would never go out on strike again.

Life moved on and I managed to avoid union membership or too much political involvement bar voting in local and national elections. I usually voted Labour – except for the year when I didn’t like the candidate and was persuaded by my eldest son to vote Green. My husband has his own preferences but we decided a long time ago not to argue over politics – so we don’t.

Then I came across Jeremy Corbyn. I liked him. Compared to the glossy, posh-suited politicians he was a breath of fresh air – although he had been around for a long time apparently – quietly rebelling against the Blairite MPs who were only a step away from the tories.

My sons introduced me to social media; the eldest to Twitter and the youngest to FaceAche – although he unfriended me very quickly.

‘Mum! Stop liking my posts!’

We use FaceAche now to keep in contact with friends and family mostly. My husband and I share a page so it is an eclectic mix of both our interests.

I came off Twitter for a while because it was becoming my favourite waste of time.

I don’t always like what I see on FaceAche. I skip over or hide anything that I find unacceptable and I expect others to do the same if they see anything they don’t like amongst my posts.

It came as something of a shock when a family member disowned me because of poor Jeremy Corbyn. Apparently she saw him as the spawn of the devil and responsible for all that is bad in the world. I was given a choice. Stop putting my thoughts and opinions on FaceAche or be unfriended.

It hurts when someone you have known all your life turns their back on you.

To thine own self be true.

I am in my 50s now and have many years of social work under my belt. It’s a shame if others are upset because I won’t do as I’m told just to make them happy, but I think I have earned the right to know my own mind by now.

Then came the Referendum.

My eldest son is a Master of Science and a PhD student. He spoke very eloquently in defence of staying in the EU, knowing that EU funding is responsible for most of the research carried out in this country. He showed me where to find information on the possible effects of leaving the EU and I posted them on my page – with the proviso that no one HAD to read it if they didn’t want to.

Scroll – scroll on.

Most of our friends and family were of the same mind. There were more casualties though; a friend who felt that it was her role in life to put opposing posts on my page in order to give more ‘balance’. The posts were totally subjective and not well researched so they were deleted. And reposted. And deleted. I had to block and unfriend in the end to save my sanity. It was not a decision I took lightly.

To thine own self be true.

The murder of Jo Cox MP was shocking and showed so clearly how easy it is for political hatred to influence the most vulnerable in society so that they can commit such heinous crimes and believe that they are doing the right thing.

Such a waste of a life.

The Brexiteers won.

There was an increase in racist attacks almost immediately – as if the outcome was an excuse to persecute and harass anyone with a different skin colour, accent or surname.

I was accused by another family member of being a bad loser because I wasn’t happy about the outcome. I didn’t feel that those who had voted to leave on the grounds that it would stop us being ‘over run’ by immigrants and ruled by the EU had really looked into the possible economic and environmental impact.

I was getting very fed up with being told to ‘get over it’ by people who had caused chaos without knowing fully what they had done.

Said family member stated that ALL remain campaigners were being horrible (by pointing out that leaving the EU wasn’t going to happen overnight and that there were going to be a lot of casualties). I dared to argue and was told that I should stop playing the victim and that I was full of hatred.

To thine own self be true.

Block and unfriend.

I have never felt myself to be a victim of anyone or anything. My Mum taught me to stand up for myself and the things that matter to me.

There have been times in my life when the strength of opposition has been huge – but never totally overwhelming – due largely to the support of my husband, friends and family.

I don’t hate anyone or anything – except maybe spiders. And Brussels’ sprouts.

To hate you have to want to kill – it takes quite an effort for me to exterminate a spider so I couldn’t kill a fellow human being however repellent their behaviour is. I certainly don’t hate anyone just because we see things differently.

The current Labour situation angers me. I despise bullying and the abuse of power. Liars and arrogant politicians who ignore their electorate are equally despicable.

The behaviour of certain Labour MPs, the Parliamentary Labour Party  and Labour NEC goes beyond despicable.

Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t bitch about his fellow MPs or about the opposition. It drives them mad and they do their best to goad him into a response that can be spread around the media like wildfire.

I’m back on Twitter.

I joined Labour to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Labour NEC changed the rules.

I joined Unite so I could vote as an affiliated member and vote for Jeremy Corbyn.  Labour NEC changed the rules. I will stay with Unite though, I like their policies.

I joined Labour as a registered member and paid my twenty-five quid so that I could vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Labour NEC set a timescale of forty-eight hours to register and used a woefully inadequate website that constantly crashed due to the huge numbers of people trying to register.

It took me eight goes but I got through in the end and I have the email to prove it.

Many of the people who became registered voters are on low incomes and are having to go without to pay their twenty-five quids.

I feel humbled by those who have made this sacrifice in order to see that justice is done.

A nice woman set up a crowdfunding site to for those who couldn’t afford it. She raised over fourteen thousand pounds but the NEC have told her that she has to shut it down because it is ‘buying’ memberships and against the rules.

Not sure how you can buy memberships for people who have already joined the Labour party but needed to stump up and extra twenty-five quid in order to vote.

I have learnt much from Twitter.

I have learnt that it is better to block than to bicker with people who are out to cause trouble. Using the ‘Mute’ option on Twitter is also very satisfying.

I now know the truth about the Blairites who are doing their damnedest to distract people from the Chilcot Report – and who are behind the whole ‘get rid of Jeremy Corbyn‘ campaign because they know that he will not defend the part they played in the Iraq war.

I have witnessed the arrogance of people who spread lies about death threats, bricks through windows, homophobia and anti-semitism – without realising that they will get found out in the end.

The media (most of which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch) has forgotten the meaning of impartial reporting – especially the BBC.

The total lack of compassion shown by those who will vote for nuclear missiles that cost billions of pounds but jeer at the poor and the disabled.

I hope that Jeremy Corbyn overcomes the obstacles; that he remains leader of the  Labour party, that the NEC and PLP finally realise that it is the members that they answer to – not to the media, big business or Blair and his acolytes.

I hope that those who choose to support Jeremy Corbyn have the opportunity to serve their constituents well. There are many more bright stars waiting in the wings.

Jeremy Corbyn is an honest man; a man of integrity, a rare thing in a world of lies and political spin.

To thine own self be true.

 

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Ending at Sunrise – Week 28 of the 52 week short story challenge

SUNRISE-microsoft

As the sun sinks down below the horizon, she picks up her bag and checks that all the contents are there.

She already knows that nothing is missing. She has a list and checks it several times as she packs her bag each day – just in case.

Order is paramount.

Her flat is small and immaculately tidy. A place for everything and everything in its place. The cutlery and crockery from her evening meal have already been washed and put back in the cupboard.

She does this every day.

As part of her routine, she looks in the mirror, making sure that her hair is brushed and that she has no lipstick on her teeth.

Not that anyone would notice if she did have lipstick on her teeth.

Her lipstick is pale. She tried a brighter colour once but her mother told her that she looked like a tart so she wiped it off quickly.

Her mother is gone now and there is no one to comment on her lipstick or how she dresses, but the spectre of her mother’s past stops her from making any changes – ever.

No one looks at her as she walks in through the staff entrance; she has become invisible to her customers and fellow workers.

She knows them all though.

She listens to their conversations but ensures that no one catches her eavesdropping. That would be against the rules. Her rules.

The rules are for her own protection. That was what her mother told her years ago when they first came to live in this tiny flat. A flat that was paradise compared to where they had been before.

They are a motley crew, her customers. Some are old and lonely, using the warmth of the place to stave off the return to a cold home. Others are young; student types with their eyes glued to their mobile phones, giggling at something they have seen and sharing it with their friends. Often they have been drinking; loud and jolly, filling the place with noise and energy.

Her colleagues are less varied. They are all younger than her, and carry out their work with a levity born of the knowledge that this job is just a stopgap; a step on the way to something so much better. Except for the manager. He is tense and angry, feeling that he deserves better than this.

Her coat and bag are put neatly inside her locker after she has extracted her uniform and laid it carefully on the wooden bench. She has two overalls and when she gets back from work each day she washes her uniform and hangs it up to dry in the tiny bathroom of her tiny flat.

Taking one last look in the mirror by the door, she smoothes down her overall and pats the pocket where she has put her keys to the staff cupboard.

The shape of the keys reassures her. A token of normality in a frightening world.

Out in the corridor, she keeps her head low as she passes the manager.

‘The disabled toilet needs cleaning and some uni kid has thrown up all over one of the tables. Get it sorted – the staff have been waiting for you to come in.’

She nods obediently as she unlocks the cupboard and takes out her work tools; the mop and bucket, disinfectant and catering size cleaning roll.

Waiting for her to come in?

No one ever waits for her to come in.

Like a spectre herself, she moves quietly round the tables, mopping up messes, clearing away the detritus of a fast food diet, not even wondering anymore how people can waste so much food when there are people starving all over the world.

The tables are clean now; the toilets too.

She surveys her work with pride although she knows that she will have to start over again in a few minutes.

As she takes her mop bucket out to empty it, a young man bumps into her as he leaves the toilet.

‘Watch where you are going old woman!’ he says as he brushes invisible dirt from his ripped jeans.

‘Sorry, so sorry.’ she whispers and then regrets opening her mouth as he looks at her with something far worse than disdain.

‘Get back to your own country you dirty Paki. We don’t want your sort here stealing our jobs.’

Hearing the sound of raised voices, the manager appears and pushes her into the kitchen whilst apologising to the youth. He offers him a free drink by way of appeasement.

On automatic pilot, she throws away the soiled cleaning roll and empties her mop bucket, wiping them out carefully before returning them to the cupboard.

As she pulls another bin liner from the roll, the manager reappears. He does not look happy.

‘How many times do I have to tell you not to wind the customers up? This is your final warning.’

He turns on his heel and goes back to the kitchen. He does not realise that the other staff laugh at him behind his back, or that he is about to be moved to another branch in a less salubrious part of town and will never get the opportunity to deliver that warning.

She knows the signs. She has seen it all before. Another day draws to an end.

As the sun rises, she takes her bag and coat out of the locker and heads home to the safety of her tiny flat again.

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Poems – Week 27 of the 52 week short story challenge

6000

A few topical poems…

 

There once was a man called Gove

Chinless and spineless thereof

A lack of charisma

No joyous melisma

Made his journo wife give him the shove

 

Boris

Opprobrious oaf

Reckless recreant resigned

Immigrants intimidation injustice isolation

Sordid

Farage

Arrogant

Egotist

Puffed up with pride.

Despot

Fantasist

Opponents decried.

Hypocrite

Con artist

We know that you lied.

Nostalgia – Week 26 of the 52 week short story challenge – halfway there

brat

The scene in the photograph is idyllic; a long garden with flowered borders and a neatly mown lawn. At the end of the lawn is a large tree and under it, a group of children cluster around a young girl. I am one of those children and looking back up the garden to the house, I can remember seeing all the grown-ups looking out at us with glasses of champagne in their hands.

The house belonged to my grandparents. The celebration was for the twelfth birthday of my cousin Caroline, it is she that is sitting like a queen in our midst. She is chubby for her age and the pink be-frilled party dress that my aunt has dressed her in makes her look like one of those crinoline ladies that people put over their toilet rolls.

She is an only child and spoiled rotten. We are a large family. Our grandparents had seven children and nineteen grandchildren ranging in ages from my cousin Andrew aged fourteen, down to our newest cousin Rachel. She is only a few months old and is back in the house with the grown-ups and half a dozen other under-twos who can’t be let loose in the garden.

One of my aunts emigrated to New Zealand; she and her husband don’t think that Caroline’s birthday party merits uprooting their four children in order to make a long and very expensive journey to England. They are off the Christmas and Birthday card list as far as my grandparents are concerned.

We’ve only had a twenty minute drive to get here and I didn’t think it was worth it either. It was my birthday a month ago and my grandparents didn’t even turn up at our house on the day; they were busy doing something or other with Caroline.

Caroline’s father jumped ship when she was three years old. His wife, my Aunty Suzy, had spent every last penny he earned on Caroline and herself. He had grown exhausted by Suzy’s excesses and, finding a sympathetic ear, went off with his secretary. Suzy and Caroline came to live with our grandparents and the rest of the family were knocked back into insignificance almost immediately

My Uncle Charlie fell out with Suzy some years ago, so he, his wife and their two children are absent as well. Like all his other brothers and sisters, Charlie felt that Suzy and Caroline were running through the family inheritance as fast as they could but he was the only one to stand up to her. Suzy is the apple of her parents’ eyes; she could do no wrong and Caroline has inherited all of her most toxic traits.

My grandparents were not bad people. They loved all their children and grandchildren – just not equally.

I am back in the present day. I am tired and tetchy. I have to juggle a demanding job, a neurotic ex-husband, two daughter at universities and my mother. I don’t want to look at photographs but it is the only thing that makes my mother happy nowadays.

My mother, her memories faded by time, looks at the photograph and smiles.

‘That was such a happy day.’ she says as she touches the faded photograph with her forefinger and turns the page of the album.

‘Was it?’ I say, doing my very best to keep my voice even. ‘Don’t you remember what happened after that photograph was taken?’

She shakes her head and I am in a quandary. Dementia has robbed her of her memories and although I want to shake her and share my memories, I can’t and I won’t, but I remember it all so clearly.

Caroline presided over our group because she did that in everything, but as today was her birthday she had even more special powers. She had been given a book on palm reading – when I say given – I mean demanded from her grandparents. She had decided, after reading a few pages and looked at some pictures, that she was now an expert and would read all our palms.

She started with Andrew; technically the eldest but we all knew that he was different. He was quiet, fascinated by insects and animals, and today we would probably say he was at the lower end of the autistic spectrum, but in those days he was just different.

He very reluctantly held out his grubby hand. Caroline looked at it with disgust and made some pretence at tracing the lines without actually touching them.

‘Hmmm, your lifeline isn’t very long. Can’t see you living past your mid-thirties. No children and a failed marriage. You really haven’t got much to look forward to have you?’ Caroline smirked and motioned Andrew to move away from her.

I was the next oldest.

‘Come on Trisha. You aren’t scared surely?’

‘No thanks.’ I managed a brief smile and backed away.

‘Coward! The twins next then.’ She beckons Sally and Tom over, knowing that at eight years old they are still under her power. She fails to find anything interesting in either of their hands and waves them away to join Andrew on the outskirts of the group.

She deals with my four year old cousin Alice in a very imperious fashion, knowing that her mother and Alice’s mother aren’t on speaking terms at the moment either.

Apart from myself, that leaves one child – my beloved baby brother Gerald. He is three years old and a beautiful but frail child. He has spent much of his short life in hospital and we are devoted to each other. Unfortunately he has yet to realise that the golden-haired, pink-clad Caroline is to be avoided. He breaks free of my grasp and runs to her when she offers him a sweet.

Grabbing his hand, she looks up at me triumphantly.

‘Gerry’s lifeline is very short Trisha. No marriage and no children but then he was never expected to last very long was he?’

I pull Gerry out of her grasp and with him under my arm, I carry him back to the house. My mother can see something is amiss and takes me aside. When I tell her what Caroline has said, she calls my father over and he starts gathering up our belongings.

‘Leaving so soon?’ Suzy purrs. The other children – and Caroline – have come in from the garden and Caroline has lost no time in telling her mother HER version of the incident.

‘It’s just a bit of harmless fun darlings. Caroline didn’t mean to upset Trisha, but you have to accept, she does get upset SO easily.’

Nevertheless, we leave, followed speedily by the rest of the family visitors. The birthday tea untouched, the birthday candles on the cake have not even been lit. Yet again, Caroline and Suzy have split the family.

My darling brother Gerry died a month later, and whilst we knew that Caroline was not the cause, I still blamed her for his death, and went on blaming her whenever anything went wrong in our lives.

My cousin Andrew got married just before his thirtieth birthday. We all thought there was a chance of success because she worked with adults with learning difficulties and seemed to understand him. She certainly understood the benefits system. Andrew became very depressed when his bride of a year left him. A neighbour found him unconscious after overdosing on the pills that were supposed to help. He never regained consciousness. Thanks Caroline.

My grandparents were so wrapped up with Suzy and Caroline that they barely noticed our absence. As they grew older and more frail, Suzy put them in a care home. She had very cannily arranged power of attorney for both of them, and had them change their wills so that she was the sole beneficiary. We didn’t even know where they were until they died – within a few days of each other. The solicitor contacted us to tell us the outcome of their wills.

It was just a formality.

It didn’t take Suzy long to run through the money, and then the house had to be sold. Caroline was in private education and the bills for her dance classes, elocution and etiquette sessions had to be paid.

Caroline lost weight; she became willowy and glamorous courtesy of costly nips, tucks, breast augmentation and a nose job. She treated her mother with contempt, especially after their inheritance was no more. Suzy aged badly after this, sold up the smaller house that she and Caroline had moved to, bought a small retirement flat for herself and rented an apartment for Caroline up in London.

‘Caroline has so many good friends in London and she needs to finish her courses if she wants to settle there.’

Famous last words Aunty Suzy. Where were Caroline and her good friends when you were diagnosed with terminal cancer?  If you had gone to the doctor sooner; if you hadn’t spent all your money on Caroline and her wonderful lifestyle, if you hadn’t raised one of the most selfish, hateful women I have ever met.

Suzy died penniless last year and we clubbed together for her funeral; her remaining sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces – even those who still live in New Zealand.

My mother sits in the armchair in my front room. She spends much of her time there in a rosy cloud of nostalgia, looking at pictures of the old days.

The old days.

The days before Caroline got involved in sticking cocaine up her nose.

The days before she got involved in drug smuggling for her ‘good friends’ to pay for her nasty habits.

The days before she was found dead in her rented apartment. The police broke in after the landlord advised that she hadn’t been paying the rent and there were a lot of flies around. No sign of those good friends now.

It is time for another funeral. We have had to club together again. Caroline wanted a pink hearse with horses but we can only afford the basic package. I’m hoping that my mother will have forgotten about the pink hearse and the death of her only son when she cries at my cousin’s funeral.

 

Pink Hearse

Summer Solstice- Week 25 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘Come with me my love?’ he said. ‘Come with me and we’ll celebrate the coming of summer. We’ll dance and sing. We’ll watch the moon rise and the sun come up the next morning.’

He made it sound so magical, but then he made everything sound magical.

‘Please?’ he said, taking my hands in his. Such strong hands with long, slim fingers. A musician’s hands and he knew just how to play me.

‘It’s going to be special this year. Not just a full moon but the Strawberry Moon. It takes years to come around and who knows if we’ll see another one?’

‘Why is it called the Strawberry Moon?’ I asked. He was six years older than me and he knew so much more than I did.

He smiled. Squeezing my hand and looking deep into my eyes.

‘Come with me and you’ll understand.’

That smile. It was so sweet but mysterious and I felt so drawn to him.

Four months.

I will always remember the first time I saw him. I was transfixed.

I’d gone to the student union with some friends to see a group play. Not that I attended the Uni, I had a few more years of school to go, but the bar staff didn’t really care how old you were anyway.

The concert itself was mediocre. A group of men and women dressed in hippy clothes; they danced, sang and acted out some poetry but after an hour of perching on a rough wooden scaffold board, we decided it was time to slip out quietly and head for the bar.

That was when I saw him. He was tall; a good head and shoulders taller than those surrounding him. His mop of brown curls dipped past the collar of his worn but clean denim shirt. His jeans were tight in all the right places, and he was leaning casually against the bar, pint glass in one hand, guitar case clutched in the other.

There were lads clustered round him as well as the usual group of worldly girls who frequented the bar – but didn’t attend the Uni.

He was smiling. That slow smile that I came to know so well. Then as I was gazing at him, our eyes met and his smile grew wider as I blushed. In hushed tones I asked my friends if they knew who he was but they were as fascinated as I was.

He drained his glass and I felt desperately sad at the thought of him leaving. Instead he opened up the guitar case and took out his guitar. Perching on a bar stool he began to play. I ignored my friends. I had to watch him. Had to watch those long fingers plucking at the strings and when he began to sing ‘Light My Fire’ in a low but very clear voice, I was mesmerised.

He played half a dozen songs; they were covers but he made them his own and despite his friends asking him to play some more, he shook his curly head and nodded in my direction. This was a man who knew how to leave them wanting more.

Picking up his newly filled glass, he came over to our table and pulled up a chair.

‘Hi, I’m Tommy. And you are?’

‘I’m – I’m Giulia.’ I gasped and blushed again.

‘It’s good to meet you Giulia. Did you enjoy the group?’ His voice had a very slight American twang to it.

I pulled a face about the group.

‘I thought you were much better.’

‘Why thank you. Can I get you a drink?’

My still-full glass of barley wine was sitting in front of me. It tasted foul but it was cheap and more potent than beer or lager. I could make a bottle last all evening if necessary. I shook my head and pointed at the glass.

‘No thank you.’ My mother would have been so proud of my good manners.

‘Is that barley wine?’ he picked up the glass, sniffed it and wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘Do you really like that stuff?’

‘Not really, but it’s cheap and everyone else drinks it.’

‘Would you rather have a Coke or some orange juice then?’

‘I’d love some orange juice.’

He turned to a friend who was at the bar.

‘Can you get me some orange juice for the lovely Giulia please?’

In seconds the drink was in my hand and I sipped it gratefully. It was a taste that would always remind me of Tommy.

‘You have the most incredible eyes Giulia. They are like a cat’s eyes, green and very observant.’

The cynic in me sighed because I had heard this before. Next he’d be saying how my hair was like a raven’s wing and my skin the colour of warm honey.

My mother’s eyes, my father’s hair and complexion. She was an innocent girl from Ireland who came over to work as a nanny and was swept off her feet by an Italian sailor who she met at a dance.

They met, they married and they created me. Joy was short-lived however because my father went back to sea after I was born and I never saw him again. He was killed in a brawl in some sleazy bar. We never really knew the details. As a consequence we were very close, my mother and I. We had no secrets.

At a time when my fellow schoolgirls were spotty, pale-skinned and very self-conscious, I had a permanent tan, long glossy black hair and my mother’s green eyes. I was used to people looking at me but put it down to my being unusual rather than attractive.

Tommy failed to mention the skin and hair though. He asked me questions about my life and told me about his. He was twenty-one, worked in a music shop in the town, lived in a student house with his friends at the bar, and had spent some time living in America with his father. When he wasn’t working, he played his guitar in local pubs and clubs.

Then he asked if he could walk me home.

He handed over his treasured guitar to the housemate who had brought my orange juice over and I waved goodbye to my friends.

He took my hand in his. We walked through the grounds of the Uni, down the hill to the little bridge and under a weeping willow tree he kissed me.

It was a good three miles to my house but I didn’t want the walk to end – ever – but it did and I knew that my very protective mother would be watching anxiously for my return.

Tommy wrote down my address on the back of my concert ticket and tucked it into his jeans pocket. Lucky ticket. I had already memorised everything that he had told me. We parted on the corner of the road – out of my mother’s sight.

Tommy was working at the music shop the next day but being Saturday, I was free to meet him for lunch without having to embroider a tale of meeting friends for my mother.

Four months. We saw each other nearly every day; I had to get a bus to town from school and then another bus to my home so it was easy enough to break my journey and see Tommy at the shop. My mother was used to me taking my time to get home. I didn’t exactly lie to her about where I was but Tommy became my first ever secret.

My friends were envious; they wanted to know every detail. Had we done ‘it’ yet? If we hadn’t done ‘it’ yet, how far had we gone?

Tommy was a gentle man; aware of my tender years and lack of experience – he was my first real boyfriend after all – he never pressured me. I knew from his ex-girlfriends – and there were many – that he had definitely done ‘it’ with them.

Especially Angie. Angie had long straight blonde hair and big blue eyes. She wore a tailored black velvet blazer, skin-tight jeans and a black tee-shirt sequined with a crescent moon and stars. She was older than me and epitomised cool. I only met her the once; our paths crossed as I was going into the toilets. Sobranje Black Russian cigarette in hand, she looked me up and down, sneered, blew smoke in my face and stalked off leaving me choking, embarrassed and confused.

I asked Tommy about her reluctantly. He hugged me and said that the world was full of Angies but there was only one Giulia for him. I felt loved. I felt special.

‘Come with me?’

More than anything I wanted to go with him and see the Strawberry Moon; to dance in its light and to watch the sun come up.

I knew that my mother wouldn’t let me go, so I began to make plans. Plans that involved collaboration with my best friend Joanna and the possibility of a sleepover. Joanna wasn’t that keen but she was a good friend, and as she lived some distance from my house, there was little chance of my mother ‘dropping in’ to check on me and we didn’t have a telephone at the time.

I smuggled clothes to Joanna’s in advance. Part of me was excited but part of me felt guilty about keeping this secret from my mother. Tommy blew it all away though, with his soft pleas and his gentle smile.

The fateful day came at last and my mother walked me to the bus stop, carrying the overnight bag that I would be swapping for a rucksack when I got to Joanna’s. I hugged her but couldn’t look into her eyes, those piercing green eyes, because I knew that she would see my secret.

Tommy and his friends picked me up in an old car that they had borrowed. I squeezed into the back seat with Tommy and two girls who, already high on something, giggled for most of the journey and then fell asleep until we reached our destination.

There was an air of party already; tents were being erected, campfires built, guitars strummed and old friends greeting each other. Tommy had acquired a tent and a sleeping bag from somewhere. He put it up quickly and we stowed our rucksacks and Tommy’s guitar inside before joining the rest of his friends.

We danced. Tommy played his guitar and we sang. We watched the amber-coloured moon rise and drank rough cider from paper cups. When the celebrations had died down, like many of the others we went back to the tents.

No need to go into the detail but it was a night I will never forget. We did ‘it’ under the Strawberry Moon. Tommy and I became one and fell asleep in each other’s arms.

The sound of a flute woke us later on and climbing out of bed, we saw the sun rising and we joined the others as the longest day of the year began.

It was a very long day.

We drove home at lunchtime; it was a much quieter journey but Tommy dropped me off near Joanna’s and we arranged to meet at the shop the next day. Joanna met me at the door and I could tell from her face that something was wrong. My mother sat on the sofa in the front room. Her face was both sad and angry. Joanna’s mother called a taxi to take us home.

I was grounded initially; hoping that Joanna would get a message to Tommy and that she could pass his on to me but my mother already had it covered. My mother made me promise not to contact Tommy, and I, made guilty by her sadness and disappointment, did as I was told. Two days after the solstice my mother and I were on our way back to Ireland to stay with her family. My mother came back on her own a fortnight later to sort things out with the house and to give in her notice at work.

How she knew at that early stage that I would be pregnant, I’ll never know. Sod’s law that I – the good girl – would get caught out on my very first time. My mother’s family closed ranks around me and my beautiful baby girl was born into our midst.

I called her Summer.

I never heard from Tommy again, or Joanna, or any of my friends. My mother cared for Summer and I went back to school and passed my exams with excellent results. Apart from Summer I had little else to think about.

In my mind I had decided that Tommy had got back with Angie, and I tried to be happy for them.

I trained as a nurse and just as these things do, I fell for a doctor. He was kind and clever, and prepared to take on Summer as part of the package. He met with my mother’s approval as well as the rest of the family. We moved to California when Summer was ten years old and I spent hours on the beach under a very yellow sun.

Summer grew up to be an artist and a musician. She met a fellow musician on Venice Beach and they had three beautiful children. They were living my dream. There are grey streaks in Summer’s brown curls but her fingers are long and clever.

My mother died four years ago and kept a secret to the grave. When we visited for the funeral, my aunt presented me with a box tied with a red ribbon. It contained Tommy’s letters to me; one almost every day at the start, then tailing off as he failed to get a response. All professing his love for me and his bewilderment at me disappearance. My mother told my friends that we were going back to Ireland but didn’t give them an address. She left a letter for me apologising for her secret but also saying how proud she was of my success, of Summer’s success and of the beautiful babies.

Summer had always known about Tommy. Had always known that she was different and she pored over the letters for hours when we came back. She wants to know what happened to Tommy but I am not sure.

So tonight, I look up at the Strawberry Moon with my youngest grandchild asleep on my lap. I ruffle his soft brown curls and my mind drifts back to a magical night in 1967 when I watched the sun rise for the summer solstice.

 

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Cliffhanger – Week 24 of the 52 week short story challenge

Home For Sale Real Estate Sign Isolated on a White Background.

The ‘For Sale’ sign outside her house came as a bit of a shock. She didn’t remember putting it up for sale and she didn’t recall her partner Andy saying anything about it.

Sarah parked her car outside the house, grabbed her bag and files, locked up and went to inspect the sign again. It looked new.  Had the estate agent made a mistake and hammered it into the garden of the wrong house? She looked at the houses either side of hers and shook her head. Surely one of them would have said something; they were on good terms with all their neighbours and putting your house up for sale was the sort of thing you let other people know about. Wasn’t it?

Still puzzled, Sarah let herself in and put the files on the hall table, bag on the floor and keys in the designated bowl. Andy bought the bowl for her; partly out of affection and partly exasperation as they were late for yet another party because she couldn’t find her keys. It was a very pretty bowl. White pottery with a pattern of delicate poppies and cornflowers. It was very feminine in a way that try as she could, Sarah could never achieve.

She didn’t do little dresses with frills, spend hours over her hair and makeup nor squeeze her feet into fashionably high and uncomfortable shoes.  She was aware of the fact that she would never be Andy’s ideal woman, but then for the last twenty years he had been anything other than her ideal man.

‘Andy? Hello?’ She shrugged off her coat and hung it on the neat but characterless coat stand.

‘Up here.’ Came the reply. His voice sounded odd, and she wondered what she had done this time. Taking extra care to put her boots neatly on the shoe rack, Sarah walked slowly up the stripped pine stairs.

He wasn’t in their bedroom. She turned around and walked into the guest bedroom, not that they ever had any guests.

Andy stood behind the bed, which was covered with clothes, toiletries and a very large rucksack that still bore the label of the outdoor pursuits shop Andy loved to frequent. He looked up and gave a slightly guilty smile that made him look even more goat-like than he normally did..

She frowned. ‘Some idiot’s gone and put a For Sale sign up in our front garden. I was just going to ring the estate agents and ask them to remove it. What’s all this Andy? Are we going somewhere?’

‘Er, WE aren’t. I am. The sign isn’t a mistake. I’m putting the house up for sale.’

‘Our house? Why?’

‘My house. My mother’s house originally. I’m going away.’

‘But – but – we’ve lived here for twenty years. Where are you going?’ Sarah sat down on the very edge of the already crowded bed.  She didn’t like the house. She never had, and any attempt to remove the remnants of Andy’s childhood and his mother’s desire for neat, orderly and feminine, had been gently but firmly rebuffed.

‘We aren’t going anywhere Sarah. I’m leaving tonight and I’ve put the house sale in the hands of my solicitors. You can stay here until the house is sold of course but the estate agent thinks that she can get a fairly quick sale.’

Brain whirring as she tried to process Andy’s words, Sarah sat immobile on the bed. Andy continued packing things into the rucksack.  He was an excellent packer she would say that for him. He folded clothes very precisely and knew exactly which of the Velcro edged pockets would be best for the object in his hand.

‘Where are you going Andy? Shouldn’t we have talked about this?’

Patiently, he put down the pair of immaculately ironed shorts that he was rolling into a sausage that would prevent any travel creases.

‘I’m going to Thailand. I’ve worked my notice already and my plane leaves at twenty-hundred hours. I have booked a taxi to take me to the airport. I don’t want any scenes; you know how embarrassing I find them.’

‘Why Thailand? Why now? Are you going alone? Why are you selling the house? Why didn’t you tell me this a month ago when you handed in your notice?’

‘So many questions Sarah. I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand and whenever I raised the subject you made some silly comments about ladyboys and kidnapping. Some idea you got from one of those trashy novels you read I suppose.’

‘But – but – but what am I going to do? I won’t have a home anymore, what will our friends think?’

‘MY friends already know and think that I am making the right decision. We’ve gone stale Sarah.  We were never that compatible in the first place but your untidiness and slapdash ways have been driving me to distraction for years. It was charming at first but now it’s just self-indulgent. My sister will be coming up to pack my belongings and put them in storage while I’m away so I’d be grateful if you could start looking for somewhere else to live so that she has less to go through.’

Sarah hated Andy’s sister Abigail with a passion.  The thought of her rummaging through the house, their house, made her feel incredibly angry.

‘Don’t I have any say in this at all?’ she shouted at him, her hands balled into tight fists that desperately wanted to punch him in the face, to grab hold of that silly ginger goatee beard and tug it till his eyes watered.

‘Ah yes. time for the hysterics. This is why I didn’t tell you before. You really are rather predictable.’

‘I hate you Andy!’ she said vehemently.

‘Good. That makes it a lot easier for me.’ he picked up a neatly typed list and handed it to her. ‘This is an inventory of the contents of the house. Those typed in black belong to me, those in red are yours or things that we bought together that I don’t wish to keep. Abigail, my solicitor and the estate agent all have copies of this letter too.  Would you mind moving off the bed now please? I have to finish my packing.’

Sarah stood up and walked slowly to the door.  She felt numb, unreal. Her instinct was to go into their bedroom, throw herself on the bed and cry extremely loudly. This would have no effect on Andy whatsoever. Passion of any sort was alien to him.

She went into the bedroom nevertheless and got under the duvet. She  rolled over to Andy’s side of the bed and sniffed his pillow hoping that the remaining scent of his hair might break through the wall that was building up around her.

Nothing.

He’d changed the bedding.

Sarah wanted to scream and shout and rave. How dare he! How dare he plot and scheme behind her back in this way. She’d seen no change in his manner over the past month, had she? She rewound her memories and found no major arguments.

Nothing.

She found no major moments of happiness either.

Andy would wake her with a cup of coffee, then he would shower and shave, eat his horribly healthy breakfast and be out of the door before she had even made up her mind as to whether she would shower or have a bath. The choice was usually dictated by how long she had lingered over her coffee and the BBC news.

They had been embroiled in a cold war over the television in their bedroom almost from the start of their relationship. It was Sarah’s television and she needed its cheery morning information to wake her up.  Andy had no time for lingering  and lost no opportunity to express his disdain for her.

The more she thought about it, the more Sarah had to admit that Andy was right. They were going through the motions of a relationship but there was no laughter left, no fun. Just a distant, healthy, athletic landscape gardener and an untidy, disorganised social worker who found her partner’s style of living both reassuring and stifling.

It was warm and comforting under the duvet and, as had always been her habit, Sarah fell into a deep sleep that wiped away all that had happened since she had arrived home.

It was such a deep sleep that she barely registered the affectionate peck on the cheek and the gentle ‘Goodbye’ as the bedroom door clicked shut.

When she woke, the house was quiet, too quiet.  she reached for the remote and turned on the television in time to catch the end of the ten o’clock news.  It wasn’t until she’d finished watching the weather that she remembered Andy.

‘Andy?’ she called, half hoping that he would reply but knowing that he had gone. She rolled out of bed and wondered for a moment why she had been in bed fully clothed in her going-to-meetings suit and vaguely pretty blouse that she had allowed Andy to buy her.

‘Andy?’ she called again and pushed open the guest bedroom door. The bed was bare now, save for another copy of Andy’s inventory list. She pushed it onto the floor in disgust and decided that she was hungry.

Making as much noise as her be-socked feet would let her, Sarah stomped down the stairs in a manner guaranteed to annoy Andy, if he was there.

But there was no response.

The curtains in the lounge were drawn and the sidelights on, the kitchen was similarly put into evening mode by Andy before he left. Thoughtful to the last.

Thoughtful! How could it be thoughtful to abandon your partner of twenty years and sell the house from under her? Sarah pouted as she opened the fridge door looking for immediate food. The shelf containing Andy’s macrobiotic foodstuffs and bottles of water was empty. Her shelf was always more interesting anyway. It certainly was now; Andy had stocked it with the items that he normally found disgusting. Sarah extracted a can of Diet Coke, some sliced cheese and bread.

She made her sandwich and left the knife and chopping board on the worktop. She didn’t even bother with a plate, as twenty years of Andy’s rules flew out of the window. It felt good to be curled up on the sofa, balancing her sandwich and can on the leather arm whilst flicking through the TV channels for something other than wildlife and gardening.

The phone rang and without thinking, Sarah jumped to her feet knocking over the can and spreading breadcrumbs onto the floor. She looked at the phone. Abigail. No thanks. Leaving the answerphone to deal with her much loathed  sister-in-law, Sarah dug her mobile out of her bag and went back into the lounge, stepping over the sticky mess on the floor. She could hear Abigail’s annoyingly sweet voice being patronising over the phone as she left a message guaranteed to patronise and infuriate Sarah.

When in doubt, phone a friend.

‘Jude?’ Sarah could feel her voice cracking already.

‘Hello Honey. No need to explain. I got home from work today to find a type-written note from your ex-beloved explaining why he was running away to Thailand without you and selling the house. Little rat!’

‘Why didn’t you call me Jude?’

‘Your phone was off.’

‘He must have done it before he left. Pig!’

‘He’s gone then?’

‘Yes indeed!’ Sarah tried to inject as much enthusiasm into her response as possible.

‘And I bet you are drinking Diet Coke and eating a sandwich in the lounge without a plate or coaster in sight.’

‘Right again. I’m not sure what to do now though. I spilt my drink on the floor and there are crumbs everywhere.’

‘I’m on my way. Are you still hungry?’

“Yes, this cheese sandwich is disgusting.”

‘Good, what we need is red wine and kebabs.’

‘Won’t Dan mind?

‘No, my darling husband sends his love and hugs and asks that you send me home in one piece tomorrow. I’ll be there in half an hour.’

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