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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That London – Week 5 of the 52 week short story challenge

 

 

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When my parents split up, there were just over six weeks before the end of the summer term. During that time I was catching two buses to get from one side of the town to the other. This came to an end when I got run over by a green station wagon at a busy crossroads in the middle of the main shopping area. It wasn’t a terrible accident. The car was slowing down at traffic lights, I sustained a grazed knee, cut my ankle and found myself sitting in a daze on a traffic warden’s gabardine mac, holding up traffic while an ambulance was called. I can still remember the smell of the coat and the confusion of crossing the road one moment and being flung up and out into the middle of the crossroads.  I would probably have been patched up at A&E and sent over to my mother – who was working on the hospital switchboard – but the kindly traffic warden insisted on picking me up and putting me in the ambulance. He bumped my head on the roof and concussion was added to my hitherto minor injuries.

It was enough to make my mother move me to a junior school closer to my Auntie Dee’s  and although I had the sporadic protection of my three male cousins, it was hard trying to make friends, especially as the accident had left me so frightened of crossing roads that I didn’t play out much. The other problem I encountered was that my fellow pupils had trouble getting to grips with my name: Cheryl, Shirley, Cherie were just a few of the variations. In desperation I announced that my name was Fred, and it stuck, much to my mother’s horror.

‘Why Fred?’ She said. ‘Any name would have done, but Fred!’ I shrugged, thinking that people would forget it by the time I moved up to secondary school in September. They didn’t. It stuck. It probably endured because in an all-girl school, our little clique consisted of Lee, Jo, George and me, Fred. Even the teachers – the more civilised teachers – called me Fred. The sub-human teachers – especially the hag who pretended to teach geography – treated me with the disdain reserved for anyone out of the ordinary.

Fred was not the good little girl I had been at junior school. Fred was an embryo rebel who lived in a bedsit with her mother and who had waved goodbye to a normal family life. She drank barley wine and hung around the student union bar on Friday nights when most of her peers were at youth clubs.

Within our group, it was George that was my best friend. She lived in the ground floor of an elegant detached house split into two flats. Her dad – also called Fred – was an aging hippy married to a much younger woman. George and her two older brothers treated their bewildered stepmother with a rudeness that the poor woman had done nothing to deserve. Their own mother had done a flit many years before, so she wasn’t to blame for the splitting up of their ‘happy’ home.

From all accounts George’s mother had been at the centre of the London party scene when George’s father met and married her. She knew rock stars and actors and after reluctantly bearing three children, had returned to her roots leaving confusion in her wake. George and I were thirteen when we went to stay with her in London for a very long weekend. We were so excited.  ‘That London’ was a place of magic and mystery; a place you went to on heavily supervised school trips to see exhibitions at the V&A, or the much vaunted Tutankhamun exhibition. I went to that one, I queued for hours, I brought home a paper carrier with King Tut’s death mask on it and not much else. I was older and more cynical by that time.

Our trip to London started well. We were met at Waterloo station by George’s mum. She presented us with make-up boxes from Harrods and took us out to dinner at a chic Italian restaurant round the corner from the three-storey Chelsea mews that she was looking after for friends. Until that moment, spaghetti bolognaise was something that Crosse & Blackwell did and it came in a small or a large tin. I may have turned my uneducated nose up a bit at the authentic Italian version. Okay I did but so did George. Her mum plied us both with red wine and thought it amusing when we got a bit squiffy. She was not quite so amused when we both threw up later that night. We had to clear it up ourselves though. She was far too gone and shut herself into her bedroom to avoid  the heavings and the smell.

She took us to Biba the next day and I spent 75 pence on a black scoop necked tee-shirt with yellow and black striped sleeves. The only Biba item I ever owned and I kept for years afterwards  even though it made me look like a bumble bee. That afternoon we went to the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square, saw ‘What’s Up Doc’ and gorged ourselves silly and hyper on unsuitable snacks. More upchucking ensued after a bumpy taxi ride home.

By Sunday we had spent nearly all of George’s mum’s limited funds and relations were rather frosty when we failed to show sufficient appreciation at being taken to the jousting at the Tower of London before being put on the train to come home. I was in disgrace because I had wanted to wear my favorite purple needlecord jean jacket. She said it was common  so I had to swelter in my shiny black PVC mac – with stick on cherries. Parting was not sweet sorrow. We were ungrateful brats and hell would freeze over before she ever invited her daughter – and her daughter’s equally obnoxious friend – to stay.

I think that our joint upchucking and hangovers after all the red wine had set the seal on our stay. George’s mother didn’t have a maternal bone in her body and we stopped being amusing when we started making a mess. We stood in the corridor of the train and sang King Crimson songs all the way home. Our fellow passengers weren’t exactly enthralled by two scrawny teenagers warbling ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ and scowling at anyone who came out of the carriage to use the toilet.

Being only 40 minutes away by train, London was accessible to us, and became even more so as I moved into my mid-teens. I nearly had a very exciting meeting with a famous person. I was doing a project on Edward Gordon Craig – actor, director and scenic designer – as part of my ‘A’ level drama and theatre arts. I came across an advert in The Stage regarding research into the actress Ellen Terry – Craig’s mother. I wrote off to the box number and was delighted – not only to get a reply but an invitation to meet up at the V & A.  My mother had visions of me being kidnapped, raped or worse by some wicked theatrical type and so I wasn’t allowed to take up the invitation. Poor Nigel Hawthorne – I think I would have been safe with him somehow.

I became more blase about going up to London; shopping trips to Oxford Street, live music at the Hammersmith Odeon, the occasional matinee. It was a place to pass through en route to somewhere else when I was at college in Birmingham but never a place to actually live.

When our youngest was four we planned a mega trip to that London; he and his brother thought we were just going to visit Daddy’s airport and were gobsmacked when we climbed aboard a Luton-bound Easyjet. A train to central London, the underground and a sight-seeing trip on a double decker bus. The boys loved it – especially when we arrived at the Science Museum. We were going to take a trip on the Thames but time ran away from us.

I had always been quite chilled on my previous visits to the capital, but with two small and inquisitive boys in tow, my maternal instincts had me seeing perils round every corner. A fear of pickpockets and muggers outshone that wonderful Tube station scent that I knew so well. We survived it though and my baby boy announced that it was his best birthday ever.

Our most recent trip to that London was in the year of the Olympics. We were given free tickets to go on the London Eye and as we were spending a week down South to see family, we took the opportunity to travel up by train.  Our eldest son was away at Uni but being the intrepid train traveller that he is, he planned our journey and acquired the tickets for the trip.

I was less fearful on this trip. I like being on trains and so does my husband. My six foot baby boy was less enamoured – especially with the people who used their phones on the quiet carriages. The London Eye was wonderful and the boat trip that was part of the package enabled us to catch up on the experience we had missed out on years before. My baby boy liked London – but only if there weren’t any people in it. They spoiled.

That was my London. I’ve no desire to go back. Liverpool and Manchester are sufficient for me now.