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

‘Erwin! Erwin! Where are you?’

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

‘What is it Mother?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I promise Mother.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Birthday – Week 23 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I can remember every moment of your birth-day – and that of your younger brother who was considerably bigger than you but slipped out with an ease and speed that caught the midwife on the hop. More of him another time.

Before you were born I had two miscarriages. I wasn’t sure if I could carry a pregnancy to full term; if I would ever know what it felt like to hold my child in my arms, to watch him or her grow into an independent person.

So when we got to the thirteen-week scan and could see your little heart beating, your Dad and I (and your Grandma) finally dared to hope that our dreams might come true. They didn’t do scan pictures in those days but your Dad had come prepared and was allowed to take photos of the screen.

We christened you Parsley. After Parsley the Lion, a character in one of our favourite children’s programmes – The Herbs. It wasn’t until the twenty-week scan that we found out that you were a boy and you became Robin. Robin Goodfellow. Robin the Hooded Man. His friends are more than fond of Robin. All our hopes and joys were invested in you.

This pregnancy was different.  All the symptoms that had been missing in the previous two pregnancies were there; the nausea, going off certain foods, craving other foods – especially cod in cheese sauce and crunchy cornflakes with strawberries.

You don’t like fish.

We went to National Childbirth Trust antenatal classes. All first-time parents, all nervous and full of questions – except for the immaculate health visitor with the designer bump and gorgeous husband who was planning a water birth at home. She knew it all – and she made sure that we knew that she knew it all.

Fast forward to the day before your birth-day. Things felt different. I started fussing and nest building. The labour bag was packed and unpacked a dozen times and when my waters broke – luckily after we had been shopping at Sainsburys and put it all away – we phoned the hospital and were told to come on in.

You were in no rush though. Your Dad and I spent most of the following morning trudging round endless hospital corridors in an effort to get labour started. It was more diverting than lying on a hospital bed and feeling uncomfortable. The words of our antenatal teacher rang in my ears. ‘Keep upright as much as you can and let gravity do the work for you.’

The nurses on the ward would have preferred me flat on my back and well-behaved because they kept losing me.

Our consultant – who bore a striking resemblance to Maggie Smith – turned up at half-past two in the afternoon and although she smiled, we could see that she was slightly disappointed that you weren’t likely to make an appearance before she clocked off for the day.

We went into the labour ward around six o’clock that night. You were on the way. I tried to remember all the things our teacher taught us. Then I got told off. I was doing the empowering grunting thing. ‘Don’t waste your energy screaming – grunt and push.’

The midwife told me I was frightening the other mummies with my Neanderthal noises. I ignored her and carried on. Gas and air made me bold. Your Dad grinned and got the odd whiff of gas and air.

You gave us a bit of a fright when you finally emerged at half-past seven (in time for Coronation Street according to Grandma). Your APGAR score was low because you had managed to wrap the umbilical cord around your neck – not once, nor twice but three times. Liberated and unwound, you pinked up nicely and let out a yell. The midwife let go of the end of the cord and – according to your Dad because I was out of it by then- it flick-flacked around and sprayed the ceiling. Tennessee Chainsaw Massacre apparently.

Your Dad had you to himself for the first hour of your life. The midwives weren’t happy that all the placenta had come away so I had to go to theatre and have a ‘scrape’ under general anaesthetic. By the time I came around  I was back on the ward with you and your very proud Dad.

I never drink full fat milk and I’m not enamoured of egg sandwiches but these were offered to me and nothing ever tasted so good.
Your Dad went home to bed and I tried to sleep. You were in a cot beside me and I kept one hand on your head all night to make sure you were real and no one could take you away.

We had to stay in hospital for three days; I had stitches and you were jaundiced. It was torture because we lived so close to the hospital that I could see our house. Every night your Dad stood out in the garden and shone a torch so I could see he was thinking of us. I knew that.

We escaped on the fourth day and I can remember lying on our bed at home, feeding you and devouring Kentucky Fried Chicken. We were told to get you out in the sunshine to get rid of your jaundice.

You got sunburn – the yellow turned to pink and your ~Dad went out to buy a sunshade.

We didn’t do too bad for new parents; we only forgot you once. I’d strapped you into your car seat and left you at the top of the stairs for your Dad to bring down and put in the car. It wasn’t until he started the car that I realised something was missing. You slept through the whole thing so I don’t think you were mentally scarred.

Our theme song was ‘Kooks’ by David Bowie. You came to live in a lovers’ story. We hope you haven’t been sorry.

The antenatal class met up again six weeks after you were born. We shared our birth stories and showed off our babies. We tried not to look smug when the golden couple turned up with their screaming baby (and not very pretty). The water birth at home had to be abandoned and she was rushed into hospital for an emergency C-section. All that expense! Unlike her baby, the mother was very quiet during our catch up session. She looked rather unkempt and her husband’s tee-shirt had sick marks on the shoulder – just like the rest of us now.

So the birthdays came and the birthdays went. You were a left-hander and you skipped to school because you loved it so much. A prodigious reader;I had to buy two copies of each Harry Potter book when they came out because you didn’t want to wait till I had finished it. I always finished first but you said this was because I didn’t have to go to school and lose valuable reading time.

Senior school followed primary school, and we were told that you were officially a National Gifted and Talented Youth.  You made your own path – avoiding games and PE as much as possible  – but you were a very strong swimmer which made up for it. When everyone else was wearing an extremely short school tie, yours was a more respectable  – and acceptable – level because you didn’t care about such things.

You had your group of friends and parents’ evenings were embarrassingly wonderful for all of us. Dad helped you with your German and I dredged the depths of my mind for my GCE French. The maths and sciences were beyond me.

You aced your GCSEs and went onto college to do your ‘A’ levels. I panicked when we didn’t get a call from you after you got your results. I had visions of you throwing yourself into a canal in despair because you hadn’t got A stars.

I shouldn’t have worried. You sauntered in and showed me your results. All A stars. What was the fuss about Mum?

University was a foregone conclusion. So was your first-class honours degree in Chemistry and now you are studying for a PhD with a long title that I can never remember. Something to do with amino acids.

You are a teacher. A mentor. A scientist. You also mix a mean cocktail and know how to have a good time. Your knowledge of politics astounds me and I value your advice (and your cocktails). You are a bit more of a dedicated follower of fashion since the school tie days.

We don’t see that much of you because you are a hundred miles away and have your own life to lead but you know that you have surpassed our expectations and that we are very, very proud of you.

Robin Goodfellow. Robin the Hoodied Man. His friends are still more than fond of Robin.

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