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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Dead or Undead – Week 22 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Another list.

A shorter one but one which tugged at her heart strings.

You blame FaceAche of course. In the days before social media people would tell each other how they felt – face to face, or on the phone – but people thought about what they were saying – usually.

Social media made it all so simple.

Snappy, ill-thought out comments typed on a computer, a tablet or a phone.

Press the send button and move on.

Blame it on auto correct or a typo if people take offence.

Shrug it off if you don’t care.

Time and experience had led you to an understanding of depression and unhappiness. You empathise with those who felt the pain and were in awe of those who fought against their demons on a daily basis.

Some survived the sadness.

Some didn’t, and she mourned the loss of them and that they could see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Then there were the people on the list.

People you knew and cared for.

People who you had listened to and did your best to support.

People whose unhappiness was rooted in the past, long before you knew them or was in a position to have any impact on their lives.

So why were they laying the blame at your door now?

Sitting on your shoulders, the pensive and impulsive angels watch as you scan the list.

‘Get rid of them.’ said Impulsive. ‘You don’t need people like that in your life. It’s only social media and if you block and unfriend them you can’t see what they have to say about you anyway.”

‘So sad.’ said Pensive. ‘These are people that you care about. Why do you want them out of your life?’

Does someone care about you when they send you hateful messages because you won’t do as you’re told?

Surely if people care about you they will accept you as you are – regardless of your political beliefs or whether you choose not to like the people that they like?

‘Be yourself.’ said Impulsive. ‘You don’t need people like that. They’ll sap your energies and make you feel guilty for things that aren’t your fault. Surely you should be allowed to choose your own friends and hold your own opinions without being told that you have to change to make other people happy.’

‘Yes.’ said Pensive. ‘But these are people who have been supportive to you. Friends who you trusted. Do you really want them out of your life. Do you want them to disappear?’

If they are going to blame you for their unhappiness, then yes.

Spotting phonies and parasites has always been so easy – except that spotting them long before anyone else does can cause issues. You find yourself wary and unable to trust them when everyone else is singing their praises.

Then the person concerned realises that you have seen through their facade; that you pose a risk to their life and slowly, they begin to spread the poison about you whilst proving themselves to be such a good and valuable friend to everyone.

‘I know the type.’ said Impulsive. ‘If your other friends are so blind then they can’t be worth much anyway.’

‘But they are.’ said Pensive. ‘It isn’t their fault that they are more trusting and gullible than you are. It isn’t a reason to cut them out of your life is it?’

In some cases, yes. The constant nagging to get you to change your mind wears you down. The pleading on behalf of a person who took money from you, told lies about you and put you in this unhappy situation. The hateful messages blaming you for everything that has ever gone wrong. You want them gone. You want them dead to you.

Pensive sighed, as was her way. Impulsive grinned, knowing that she had won this particular battle. They watched as the pen scratched through the first three names on the list.

‘What about these two?’ said Pensive. ‘What makes them different from the others?’

‘If they are making you unhappy, strike them off too.’ said Impulsive.

These are harder to get rid of. These two are people whose demons tell them that anyone who doesn’t think the same as them is against them. These two are people who either cut you out of their life, or who are not content to let you have your own beliefs and be true to yourself.

Before social media it didn’t matter.

Before social media you could think what you wanted about politics and it was your own business and no one else’s.

But now, you see a post that you believe in and you want to share it with your friends.

You work on the basis that if you see a post from a friend and you don’t like it, then you move on and ignore it.

These two people don’t see it that way.

One wants you to stop expressing your opinions on social media because they feel that you are wrong.

The other feels that you can only post your opinions provided you post the opposite opinion as well. This person feels that you need to provide more balance. This person insists on putting unpleasant comments on your page. Comments that upset you and your friends.

So you delete them.

The person repeats the comments and refuses to stop.

So you delete them again.

You send a message politely requesting that the person just ignore comments that they don’t like or keep their comments on their own page.

The person says they are trying to put balance on your page.

Both people blame you for their unhappiness and insist that it is you who must change to make them happy.

But that will make you unhappy.

‘You aren’t to blame for their sadness.’ said Pensive.

‘Even if you did what they asked you to do, something else would inevitably cause them distress and you would have compromised for nothing.’ said Impulsive.

That’s why they have to go.

That’s why they are on the list.

They will be missed but time will heal as it does with any mourning.

The pen strikes out the last two names.

The sun is shining through clouds.

‘Fresh air.’ said Impulsive. ‘Let’s go to the seaside and eat ice cream.’

‘Yes.’ said Pensive. ‘Time to move away from FaceAche and think more positive thoughts.’

Dead but not dead.

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2nd Person Perspective – Week 20 of the 52 week short story challenge

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This is for you. Leeroy, Ray, Chris, Nicky, Sarah, Kim and Mark.

In ten years of residential social work I came to know hundreds of children and young people.

The actual list is a very long one.

When I started work as a twenty-one year old volunteer in a small group children’s home, I was very naive.

I learned about bullying.

I learned that the abuse of children didn’t just occur within families.

I learned that whilst telling the truth was important to me, it wasn’t important to others who were older and in positions of power.

I met you Leeroy, and I won’t forget you. You were a small ginger-haired boy whose mother was too confused by her mental health issues to look after you. Plucked from your familiar but disorganised home and thrust into a huge, rambling house full of loud and angry children. You might just as well have had ‘victim’ printed on your forehead.

You bore the brunt of the fury of a family of six children. They aged from four to fourteen and had been taken into care due to their parents drug and alcohol dependencies and chaotic lifestyle. They were very protective of each other and had quickly learned to store up grievances to tell their parents when they visited every other Saturday afternoon.

Their parents were quite happy that their children were in care. They had no food or clothing bills to pay, no having to get up to take the children to school and no responsibility – which left them free to drink and party – provided that they were sober enough to turn up once a fortnight for the visit.

Although I was only a volunteer, I did my best to look out for you when I was in the house Leeroy.

I couldn’t be there all the time though, and I would often arrive to find you in tears having been set upon by your tormentors. I complained to the manager. He was too afraid of the family and their parents to do anything.

In the end I phoned your social worker and told her what was going on.

Of course there was no mention of the bullying in the log book – a work of total fiction.

Your social worker listened to me and a foster home was found for you, possibly because it was easier to move one small victim of bullying whose mother couldn’t fight for him, than to challenge the warped but effective dynamics of a family who had learned to manipulate the system so well.

You were eight years old then and you would be a grown man of forty-four now.

I never found out what had happened to you; I got a real job in another children’s home after three months of being a volunteer.

This job couldn’t have been more different. The home was modern; purpose-built to house up to sixteen boys and girls. The staff – including the officer-in-charge – were young and enthusiastic.

I was allocated two boys  – Ray and Chris – to ‘keywork’. You were rather scary Ray; coming up to your sixteenth birthday and about to move into the ‘Leaving Care’ programme which would see you moved into a bedsit and kitted out with the means to look after yourself. The material means that is. You were always very volatile Ray and whilst I learned quite quickly that you were also easily distracted, I found myself on the receiving end of your anger too many times. I tried to form some kind of a relationship with you but there had already been a family who rejected you and too many earnest key workers by the time we met, and there was a collective sigh of relief when we sent you off into the big bad world.

Oh but Chris, you couldn’t have been more different. You had started at senior school; a sweet-faced tubby boy who could have been another victim if it hadn’t been for a strong and united staff attitude toward bullying. Like Leeroy, you had a mother who couldn’t cope with life and you had been brought into care in order to relieve you of the responsibility of looking after her.

My job was to teach you how to play, to be less serious, to focus on your own needs and to leave others to deal with your mother’s demands.

Whilst Ray taught me about violence and aggression Chris, you reminded me that children in care need to be given the opportunity to be children. We had fun. We went to the Isle of Wight on the ferry, and spent the day on the beach watching the boats and eating sandwiches and ice cream. I introduced you to the library and to Roald Dahl.

I read ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ to you and your two roommates – into the early hours. You didn’t want me to stop and stayed awake whilst the other two were snoring. When I finished the book and left the room I found Ray and another older boy asleep in the corridor outside. They had been listening too.

You did well Chris; at school and in the foster home that we found you. We were never encouraged to keep in touch though, in case it prevented you settling into your new life.

It was one aspect of the job that I found hard.

Turn the time forward ten years; my husband and I are in an electrical store looking for our first CD player. My husband is talking to the manager – who looks a little familiar. Tall, slim and immaculately dressed.

Chris.

Chris who found it much easier to recognise me. Chris who is now the manager of this store, a husband and a father of a baby girl.

So proud of you Chris.

Completely humbled by the fact that you are so grateful to me for doing my job.

And you gave us a very good discount on the CD player.

Nicky, you were the never to be forgotten enigma. A strange boy who had come home from school one day to find that his mother had died, in front of the TV with an empty whisky bottle by her side.

One of the few real orphans I had ever looked after. You were quirky; you had suitcases of your mother’s clothes that you couldn’t be parted from. You were bright – too bright for some of the staff – and I had some of my most challenging moments with you.

Five sets of foster parents did their best to give you a home, and each time you came back to us, more angry and confused.

Officialdom shut the home down, together with several others, and one last set of foster parents had to be found for you. They were almost as quirky as you Nick, and they seemed to be dealing with your behaviour quite well.

I moved on with my life.

I qualified as a social worker and got promoted.

My new workplace was an observation and assessment centre – short-stay allegedly – and with education on the premises, and a secure unit.

Not long after I’d bumped into Chris in the electrical shop, you turned up at my new place of work.

A new admission they said. You might remember him from your previous place; his name is Nick. He is odd.

So you were sent to us because no one knew what to do with you. There were no other foster parents for you now that you were a six-foot seventeen-year old – who had an interest in hairdressing and whose personality had achieved full-blown camp. I found you delightful.

You were no easier to deal with; age and experience had given you to ability to wind up staff and other young people alike. You went through social workers like a dose of salts – especially the young and newly qualified who thought that they could make something of you.

Only you could do that.

You left us after a couple of months and moved into a boys’ residential home that specialised in settling those who were leaving care.

Years on, and the manager of that home is being prosecuted for abusing boys in his care. I would lay money on it that he didn’t try it on with you Nick.

I came across several Sarah’s over the years, but you were the most important Sarah to me.

Neither you nor Kim were easy to look after but then I always tended to have more empathy with the young people who presented a challenge.

Together with Kim, you came to my engagement party, and were extremely elegant in posh frocks and hats at my wedding. Friends and family were asking who you were and how I knew you both. I didn’t tell them you were looked-after children. You were far too composed and assured for that.

You had become friends.

I have no doubt that you sorted out life for yourselves.

Mark – you marked the end of the line for residential childcare for me.

You were so damaged at ten years old, that no end of therapy and one-to-one work could make a difference. We spent time together; we cooked, repaired an old rocking horse, went for long walks and I read bedtime stories to you but nothing I did could break through.

The other staff tried but found you impenetrable. Some of them blamed me because it was easier than admitting defeat.

I took a great many kicks and punches from you and one day it was all too much.

I was married to a man who loved me and hated seeing the split lips, the bruises, the black eyes.

It was time for a change – because I had to admit that I couldn’t help you – and because I had someone who cared about me too much to see me hurt myself anymore.

I’m sorry Mark.

I remember so many more of you from those ten years of working in children’s homes.

We laughed together; and we cried. We went to Butlins and giggled at the wrestling and the knobbly knees contests. We camped in the New Forest and got soaked, played Spotlight up at the Sports Centre and on one memorable occasion all sixteen children I had responsibility for absconded.

Ah, but fifteen of you came back before midnight, so we watched unsuitable TV and cooked fish and chips to celebrate.

From you, I learned how to deal with my own roaring boys.

How to let them know that they were loved – even if their behaviour was horrible.

I read them bedtime stories; we went to the beach, we camped out and got soaked.

My own roaring boys are in their twenties now and to me at least, seem to be quite well-balanced and confident.

So thank you; Leeroy, Chris, Ray, Nicky, Sarah, Kim, Mark – and all the others who touched my life.

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A Country Never Visited – Week 17 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Assembled at the train station on a sunny July day; bowed under the weight of rucksacks and tents and all doing their best to look cool and avoid being hugged by their attendant parents.

They were a motley crew.

Four boys and two girls with an intermingling of relationships that had already raised parental eyebrows. Trisha and Lea were best friends, which was just as well because Lea was now going out with Colin, who had been Trisha’s first ever boyfriend. Trisha had started going out with Tim just before Christmas but by New Year she had dumped Tim for his best friend Wayne. They remained friends despite this because Tim was a nice guy.

The sixth member of the group was Kevin, Wayne’s cousin and the only real birdwatcher in the group, although Tim, Wayne and Trisha did at least have their twitcher’s cards on them and a list of birds and animals they were on the lookout for.

In the early planning stages of this trip there had been brave and foolhardy ideas about hitchhiking the 450 miles north but the mothers of the two sixteen year old girls felt that they were being permissive enough in allowing them to spend a whole fortnight camping with four eighteen year old boys.

Seats were booked on a train to Waterloo; tube stations identified in order to get them to Kings Cross station where they would board a train for Aviemore and an eleven and a half hour journey in the relative comfort of a reserved compartment.

It would have been comfortable if Trisha and Wayne hadn’t spent the previous day sunning themselves at an outdoor pool. Trisha had fallen asleep and woke up to find that her entire left side was turning lobster-red. Wayne had been slightly better covered and it was only his legs that were burnt.

Sitting down hurt. Walking with a heavy rucksack on sunburnt shoulders hurt. Trying to avoid contact with humans or carriage walls in a small compartment filled with people and luggage was impossible. Trisha and Wayne were not known for their good humour anyway but pain and anxiety made their situation worse.

It had all seemed so exciting. Going to another country – okay, so it was Scotland and joined onto the end of England – but it was still unknown territory. Kevin and Wayne had come up with the idea of visiting the Cairngorms. Although only a half-hearted birdwatcher, Trisha did not want to be left behind and neither did Tim. The idea of her daughter going away with three boys met with resistance from Trisha’s mother but Lea came to the rescue and Colin, kind calm and reasonable Colin who had no interest in birds, deer or even camping, agreed to accompany her.

Trisha had some doubts about Lea and Colin joining them. She had quite liked the idea of having all three boys to herself so having to share the experience with Lea irked a little. Trisha’s interest in Colin was far removed from romance now but would Lea start making passes at her current boyfriend?

Wayne was more handsome, more intelligent and very attentive. Perhaps too attentive at times. Perhaps veering into possessiveness occasionally, and of late he had shown signs of the angry outbursts inherited – or learned  – from both his parents.

Wayne’s mother was prone to throwing things when angry: saucepans, plates, knives, any projectile that came to hand. His father was more of slow burner whose ire was inflamed by alcohol  and whose temper led to at least one night in a cell to cool off. Trisha’s arms had already been coloured with bruises from Wayne’s controlling hands but she pushed those incidents to the back of her mind because she loved him – and she knew that he loved her because that’s what he said when he saw the bruises.

It wasn’t bruises that were bothering her now though. She had grabbed a window seat thinking that the padded arm rest would be less painful against her sunburn. It was fine while she was awake but the long journey and a restless night meant that she kept dozing off and banging against the unpadded wall.  Wayne sat next to her with a silent Tim reading NME because he thought it made him look like a musician – which he wasn’t. Lea had nabbed the other window seat, Colin dozed happily by her side and Kevin, his nose buried in his bird guide, was oblivious to everyone and everything.

Trisha woke in pain as the train went round a bend and Wayne’s full weight fell against her. She pushed him away angrily. Confused by sleep, he started to argue but the presence of four other people stopped him and he moved an inch away from Trisha and crossed his arms like a sulking child.

By the time they passed over the border, tempers in the compartment were simmering. It was too dark to read by the tiny interior lights and too dark to look at scenery. The others did their best to doze but Wayne and Trisha couldn’t get comfortable and were snapping edgily at each other.

Eventually Trisha could take no more and stepping over outstretched legs, she went in search of the toilet.

It was occupied.

She rested her head against the cool of the windowpane. Standing up – even with a full bladder – was less painful and irritating than being back in the compartment. The sun was coming up and being able to see the beauty of the mountains and trees at last, had a calming effect on her.

The toilet door opened and a man came out.

‘I’d give it a few minutes if I were you.’ he said with a grin as he walked back down the corridor.

Torn between holding her breath and having an embarrassing accident, Trisha chose the former and filling her lungs, dashed into the toilet.

It was a relief on many levels when she got back out to the corridor again. Reluctant to return to a compartment of sleeping or grumpy companions, she carried on looking out at the scenery. The train stopped for signals and there, barely feet from the track, was a squirrel. Not just any squirrel but a red squirrel. Her first.

The sight made her incredibly happy. Especially because she was the only one of the group to see the squirrel. She turned round and saw a bleary-eyed Kevin emerging from the toilet.

‘Kev! Look! A red squirrel!’

He rushed over to the window, even then, taking care not to get too close unless he bumped into her sunburn. They looked at the squirrel, and the squirrel looked back. It was a magic moment.

The engine started up again and the resultant noise made the squirrel bolt for the safety of the trees. Kevin looked at his watch.

‘We should be arriving at Aviemore in about twenty minutes. I suppose we’d better wake up the others up.’

‘Do we have to?’ said Trisha.

Kevin, reasonable and sensible as always, pulled a bus timetable out of his pocket.

‘The first bus to the campsite leaves at ten o’clock. I think we’ll all be much happier once we’ve had something to eat and stretched our legs. The station buffet should be open when we get in.’

Trisha smiled and followed him back to the compartment. She woke Wayne with a gentle kiss on top of his head. Showing rare self-control, she sat down next to him while an excited Kevin told everyone about the red squirrel.

‘Trisha spotted it first.’ he said. ‘We’re really here. It must be a good omen. Just think, ospreys, golden eagles, dippers, even ptarmigan if we can get up on to the mountain.’

HIs enthusiasm did the trick and the thought of breakfast and the final leg of their trip  to the campsite galvanised even a tired and sullen Wayne.

The station buffet was open – just  – and fairly basic but the food was hot and there was coffee to wake them up.

The bus trip out to the campsite was uncomfortably bumpy; they weren’t the only campers and there wasn’t much room for all the luggage in the boot. It overflowed into the aisle and fell against Wayne’s sunburnt legs so that he was gritting his teeth by the time they arrived.

It was worth it though. The campsite was at the foot of the Cairngorms; well supplied with toilets and showers, a shop selling food and mementos, and the three pitches they had reserved were grassy and level. The sun shone and tents went up quickly – mostly due to Kevin’s expertise and the compliance of Colin and Tim. Wayne argued about everything  –  because he could – Trisha and Lea sat on a blanket and looked at the scenery having decided that this was the most practical help they could offer.

Looking back years later, Trisha remembered seeing the ospreys after a long, hot trek to Loch Garten. She remembered sitting by a waterfall watching the dippers. It was blissfully cool under the trees by the river’s side. There was the happiness of time spent at Loch an Eilein on the hottest day of the year when they were all feeling lazy and content, mellow on cheap cider, bread and cheese from the camp site shop.

They never made it up the mountain; the golden eagles stayed hidden and by the end of the fortnight entente was no longer cordiale.

Lea and Trisha fell out. Fuelled by cheap cider, Trisha decided  that not content with taking up with Colin, Lea was after Wayne as well. Wayne, equally fuelled, felt that Colin and Tim were after Trisha. Tim and Colin were confused. Lea took it out on Colin. Kevin – who had come for a lovely bird watching holiday and not to be surrounded by anger and jealousy – was sad and disillusioned. They had to tough it out because their tickets were booked and none of them had enough money to buy another ticket.

The journey home at the end of the fortnight was worse than the original trip; none of them wanted to spend nearly twelve hours in the same small train compartment with hastily packed tents and rucksacks. Tim and Kevin were the only people on speaking terms. Trisha was wearing her hair down in order to hide the black eye and swollen cheek. Wayne made no attempt to cover up the livid scratches left by Trisha’s nails after he punched her when she wouldn’t shut up.

They were rescued at the journey’s end by their parents and taken home with piles of dirty washing. Goodbyes were short and definitely not sweet.

Trisha and Wayne’s relationship continued for another couple of weeks until he decided that head butting her was the only way to get her to behave. His mother had suggested a good slap, his father had suggested getting engaged. Trisha’s mother looked her daughter squarely in the eye and told her she was worth far more than this.

Wayne shouted, threatened and cried when Trisha ended it. She lost contact with Tim and Kevin as a consequence because they were Wayne’s friends after all. In the rush of getting things sorted out so that she could start at college to do her ‘A’ levels, Trisha lost contact with Lea and Colin too.

There were lessons learnt in that other country; it was a place of great beauty and Trisha had no regrets about going there. Perhaps, if the six of them hadn’t gone on holiday together it might have taken longer for Wayne’s violence to emerge. Perhaps, Trisha would have borne more than the bruises, bumps and black eyes.

Many years later she heard that Wayne had married. That he had children and a wife who often wore her hair long to hide the black eyes and the bruises.

She saw the red squirrel though. She had to go to another country but she saw the red squirrel.

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A Villain’s Perspective – Week 14 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I should have known that she meant trouble for me. There was something about that bird that really wound me up; she really knew how to push my buttons.

I was fresh out of college and in my first job when I met her. It was at an induction course for new staff and I was scheduled to do part of the health and safety briefing. I was a bit nervous when I saw the sea of faces in front of me but I got through it and handed over to Joanne; technically my senior, who was going to talk about safety at work.

Unfortunately for Joanne, she decided to wear a pair of high-heeled shoes that would never meet H & S standards; she fell off them on her way to the stage and had to be helped to reception for a check from a first aider – who was due to give his own talk half an hour later.

I went back and delivered Joanne’s talk and in order to fill out the time I asked if there were any questions.

Bad idea.

A hand shot up.

‘Health and safety regulations apply to all staff, don’t they?’ She didn’t look sarky as she said this.

I nodded.

‘So, all staff should be wearing clothing and footwear appropriate to the work environment, shouldn’t they?’

Slow on the uptake, I nodded again.

‘I’m sure we are all very sympathetic about the young lady’s unfortunate accident, but if she had complied with regulations as you suggest…’

The sarky bird laughed. They all laughed. I blushed. My confidence gone, I looked helplessly at my boss Carl. He came on stage and gestured for me to leave. He joined in the laughter and apologised but pointed out that he couldn’t have had a better example to emphasise the importance of adhering to health and safety regulations if he’d tried.

I felt gutted. He had them in the palm of his hand. He was on my hit list and so was the sarky bird in the audience.

I didn’t even have to try to get rid of Joanne; she was demoted to the post room and I was bumped up to Carl’s deputy. Not much of a promotion considering there was just the two of us, a secretary and two work experience girls, but I was on my way.

Getting rid of Carl was complicated; people liked him and he had worked for the company for ten years. He was getting complacent though, happy to leave much of the work to me and the clerical staff. I soon had them all eating out of my hand; I knew the importance of turning on the charm.

After a few months of surreptitious cancelling and rescheduling of orders, meetings and training, Carl’s star was sinking and he accepted a sideways position into another branch of the company when it was suggested that he had lost his grip on the whole facilities issue. He never found out that I was the one who had sabotaged his work.

They interviewed me for Carl’s job and not surprisingly, I got it. He gave me a brilliant reference. Fool.

My next goal was to build up my very small team into something more impressive. It wasn’t hard; a mastered the art of being extremely accommodating to senior managers and effective at saving money. Why pay out for professionals when you can get it done on the cheap and earn yourself extra brownie points? The building janitors came under my remit now and I used them to carry out maintenance and delivery jobs that had been contracted out previously.

Okay, so they weren’t that good at carpentry and the shelves and worktops they put up were a bit dodgy, but they could paint walls, move office furniture and weren’t averse to a bit of unofficial work after hours if given sufficient sweeteners.

One of the work experience girls had taken quite a shine to me – and I fancied her too. I waited until she had gone back to school and turned sixteen before I made our relationship official of course; knocking off underage schoolgirls in office hours would not have gone down well – however tempted I was. She wasn’t terribly bright and had made a hash up of every office job I gave her but she was tall, blonde, very attractive and could be relied upon to do as she was told. My ideal woman.

The retirement of the canteen manager gave me my next opportunity to increase my empire. I would have responsibility for a cook, three kitchen assistants and a healthy budget to play with.

Saving money in the canteen was child’s play. I found a cheaper food supplier and changed the menus. The cook objected to the poor food quality and handed in her notice. The company marched on its stomach and as a consequence a replacement cook who didn’t care too much about good ingredients was appointed.

Most of the staff  were happy with chips; with fish and mushy peas on Fridays, sausages, burgers or pies during the rest of the week. I made sure that there was cheap salad available as I had already experienced the pointlessness of taking on the stroppy vegetarians.

My child bride and I got married – she was eighteen and pregnant by this time.

There were a few people who weren’t deceived by my charms; if they were on the same management level as me or lower, I did my best to undermine them. I was getting good at this game. Most senior managers realised that I was an asset to be used to their advantage; there were a couple who were cool and distant in their dealings with me. I was very careful not to cross them.

By the time I came across the sarky bird from the induction again, I had a son and a daughter, and a wife who was bored with being at home. She got suspicious when I took to working later than usual. She wasn’t that daft; there was a seventeen-year old cleaner who had added spice to my life. We would meet up for swift but exciting sex in a disused office when the building was deserted.

At about the time my wife was getting to be an unnecessary irritation, a new project team moved into the building. I was told to find temporary accommodation for them and ultimately an office – or two – as the team expanded. I was called in to a meeting with the senior manager in charge of the team and his team members – one of whom was the sarky bird from the induction.

‘Goodness me Adrian!’ she said. ‘Haven’t you risen up the ladder since the last time I saw you!’

I blushed and the other occupants of the room demanded to know what she was talking about.

She told them; she built up the story enough to make me look a total prat. They all laughed, not with me but at me and the sarky bird rose up to the top of my hit list.

After that, it was war. I did my best to make life as awkward for her and her snotty team but each time I did, she managed to put a halt to my plans.

The most embarrassing and potentially damaging thing she did was to grass me up to HR.

I had arranged for my wife to work in my office in the mornings – on a temporary basis – we used her maiden name because you weren’t supposed to have a spouse working for you. This had been a happy arrangement for about a month when I got a call from HR asking me when I had interviewed for a temporary office assistant, how many others had been interviewed and was it just a coincidence that the new employee and I had the same address?

It was a close thing. I could have been demoted or even lost my job but with a bit of careful briefing, my wife and I told a good story about her depression and her need to be out of the house again. I blamed my ‘bending’ of the HR rules on my love and concern for my family.

Success.

My wife was transferred to another office, and though she was still on a temporary contract, she was kept busy there during the mornings and I didn’t have the trouble of finding her meaningless jobs to do. That was someone else’s problem now.

I had no proof that it was the sarky bird that dobbed me in but the fact that she and her team members seemed to find me a constant source of amusement, and refused to treat me with the respect I deserved, that was enough proof for me.

It was war.

Trouble was, it was war on both sides.

My wife found out about my after-hours meetings with the office cleaner. A friend of a friend of the sarky bird in her new team told her and my life was hell at home and a work for a while. I had to sack the cleaner – which upset the other cleaning and janitorial staff. My wife went on strike when I came home from work and it took shedloads of expensive presents to get back in her good books. She really wasn’t as stupid as I thought she was.

Further cuts had to be made in the budget and it was decided that we would close the office building down and move the staff to a more central location.. We received a good offer for the land if the building was demolished and the new office building was only half-occupied so there was plenty of room there.

I got two of the most expensive estimates I could find for moving the furniture and equipment the three miles into town. Then I undercut them drastically by using our own janitors, hiring a couple of white vans, some large plastic crates and getting the staff to pack up their own offices.

Not surprisingly, senior management jumped at the chance of doing things on the cheap. We had a bit of a near miss when it was alleged that we had bats in the roof of the building though. As they were a protected species we couldn’t get the building demolished until the relevant inspectors had been in.

The crates arrived and were stacked up in the corridors. I got one of my staff to draw up a rota as to which office was moving and when. I saved more money by reusing the crates and going into the new offices to ensure that the staff were pulling their weight and unpacking quickly.

The bats turned out to be temporary residents so there was even more reason to get everyone moved and smash the building down.

There were more opportunities for promotion in the new building. I just had to pull this office move off first.

The sarky bird had moved on to another team; just to add salt to the wound, she had been appointed to a job that my wife had been turned down for. This new  team inundated me with demands; room for larger desks because of health and safety issues, storage for confidential files, an accessible meeting room – the list just grew and grew.

A few more cracks appeared in my master plan. I had told the staff to put as much as possible in their pedestal drawers – this meant that I needed fewer crates. The drawers had very small wheels however and the combination of ham-fisted janitors, bumpy car parks and tiny wheels meant that there was a large casualty rate amongst the pedestals – which cost a great deal to replace.

Then there was an accident.

Someone – and no one ever owned up to it – left a crate in an office doorway. A member of staff tripped over it and broke their ankle. I got my secretary to send out an email telling staff not to block doorways and corridors with crates so I couldn’t be held responsible.

We were down to the last week of the move. I was shoving a large desk up the corridor on my own when the sarky bird walked past.

‘Adrian! You should know better than to be moving heavy furniture on your own. Health and safety regulations! You wouldn’t want to have another accident on your conscience now would you?’

I growled.

She sniggered and went back to her office.

The final crates were stacked outside her office. Maybe the crates were piled a bit high but we were in a hurry.

There was another accident.

The sarky bird’s manager told her to get a crate down from the stacks to pack away some specific equipment. As she lifted the crate free from the stack, another one fell on her foot and damaged her toe.

I did my best to cover my back again but senior management laid the blame at my door – and at the door of her manager. They suspended her on a number of allegations regarding the disclosure of information about the workplace but as the accident led to her being off work for more than nine months the Health and Safety Executive had to be involved and all the allegations were dropped – apart from the allegation that she made sarky comments about senior managers – me included.

The upshot of it was that the company had to accept full responsibility for the accident and pay damages to the sarky bird. She also got a reference and pay in lieu of notice. I got demoted, and my wife got a job that she hated so much that she took it out on me at work and at home.

Okay. Other people lost their jobs because of me. Other people got injured. Senior managers stepped aside and laid the blame at my door and instead of being grateful for my having saved them a great deal of money, they also blamed me for the damaged pedestals and low morale amongst the janitorial staff.

I don’t think of myself as a villain.

I blame the sarky bird.

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‘Seconds Away! Round Two’

Saturday afternoons. ‘World of Sport‘ in the mid 1960s.

Curled up on the sofa next to her beloved Daddy for a whole three-quarters of an hour that seemed to go in a flash.

A fair-haired tomboy who lived for the moment that her Daddy came home from work mid-afternoon, reveled in the joy that was British wrestling, then stole quietly from the room so as not to disturb him whilst he listened to the final scores and checked his pools coupon.

Jackie Pallo, Mick McManus, Kendo Nagasaki, Big Daddy (why would anyone call a boy Shirley?) and best of all, Les Kellett.

It never occurred to her that anyone got hurt when they wrestled; they seemed to be made of india-rubber, and although there were times when her funny hero Les appeared to have been worn out and in pain, she learned quickly that this was just part of his act.  He would be on the verge of collapse but once his opponent had been lulled into a false sense of security, Les would come back with a vengeance and wipe the floor with him.

Together the child and her Daddy shouted encouragement and hissed at the designated ‘baddy’ who in turn was hurling mild insults at the umbrella wielding grannies ringside. It was real and scary and exciting; at that time there was little talk of fixing matches and the limited black and white camera shots showed only what the producers wanted the public to see.

It was bliss. It belonged to a time when she was Daddy’s little ‘Chuckles’.  A time when she first encountered the consequences of choice.  Coming home on the bus from her Auntie’s house in the early evening.  Should she fall asleep leaning against the warm cloth of Daddy’s coat sleeve, then be carried home in his loving arms and put straight to bed.  Or should she stay awake, enjoy the ride, skip home holding his hand and have  the luxury of a few extra minutes before it was bedtime?

Mummy was home; laughter and mock anger, the shaking fist whenever they tried to take a photograph of her, the steak and kidney pie which always had a little bit of pastry left over so that the child could make a grey and grimy jam tart.  Mummy was the one that read books and answered questions.  If she didn’t know then the four handsome blue and gold-bound volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica did.

It was a time of few complications. Of a large and loving family, of sunny evenings playing out with her friends, of learning to ride a friend’s bicycle, despite it being too big and the cause of her falling off often only to get straight back on it again.  The fearlessness of this action impressed her Daddy so much that he walked five miles to the nearest bicycle shop, bought a bicycle that they could ill-afford and proudly walked it back home. To see the look of joy on the child’s face and watch her, wobbling at first but growing in confidence as she rode round and round the grassy triangle outside the house, it made it all worthwhile.

Halcyon days with no indication of the storms to come.

In any relationship between two people there will be issues and challenges. Opposites may attract but the strength of a relationship depends not on the ability of one person to change the other, but on the desire to adapt to each other, to grow together or to part before any real damage is done.

Take a volatile woman with ambitions; with a need to acquire knowledge and experiences.

Take a man with a tendency to dark moods; with a history of war horrors and a need for quiet domesticity.

Take a child who loved them both dearly and who was growing distressed by her Daddy’s constant pleas that she would stay with him and always be his Chuckles, and by the increasing amount of time that her mother was spending at work .

The storm broke late one night. Her Mummy had been out at work, her Daddy had been particularly sad and demanding when she had wanted to be left to read her book.  She had felt resentful towards both of them and went off to bed early.  Raised voices from downstairs woke her and the child was witness to the sight of her Mummy, knife in hand, being strangled by her beloved Daddy.  The presence of the screaming child brought them to their senses and they backed away from each other, not realising that the scene would be imprinted in the child’s memory for many years, and that she would always feel that she was the cause of their separation.

Bags were packed, a taxi called and the child left with her Mummy in the middle of the night. She was shocked by the sudden change of circumstances and guilty because she felt that somehow, it must be her fault for having been cross with her parents.

She saw her Daddy once but the visit was spoiled by his insistence that her Mummy was a bad woman who had split the family up.  She wanted reassurance from him but all she got was anger and hurt.  She concentrated on her relationship with her Mummy from then on and her anger became focused instead on her Daddy.

The child stayed away from him for five years. Her Mum remarried and the child became a resentful and truculent teenager.

Adolescence raises many questions and circumstances led to a reconciliation.  An unspoken decision between the girl and her Dad meant that they never discussed her Mum.  The girl visited him once a week and ate his overcooked meals and eye-watering pickled onions with a love that repaired their separation.

There was no need for choice anymore.  She loved them both and the passage of time had mellowed the hurt for all of them.

The girl became a woman and after a series of wrong turnings, she found the right man.  Her Mum loved him and so did her Dad.  She knew she had made the right choice and was determined that if they had children, they would never have to experience the sudden shock of separation as she had, would never be frightened  by the murderous anger between two people who once loved each other.

Both parents are gone now but they lived to see their children make happy marriages and to know their beloved grandchildren.

For a long time the woman continued to blame herself for the events that led up to that night when she so nearly lost both her parents.  Eventually, and with some help, she realised that her parents – as adults – were  responsible for all that happened.  How could she, as a child, possibly have influenced their actions?  Her presence had not caused the split but it had certainly prevented a potential death and incarceration.

She broached the subject with her Mum some years after her Dad’s death, only to find that time had eroded the details of that night and been minimised to a minor spat, engineered by her Mum because she needed to escape the marriage so desperately.

The woman was glad that she had never discussed it with her Dad.

Saturday afternoons. Seconds Away!  Round Two.