A Strange Small Town – Week 48 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It was a funny little place; lacking the charm of the nearby yachting village or the charismas of the larger and well-know yachting town upstream. As teenagers involved in the sailing scene, we were dismissive of the place. It was ‘touristy’; shops decked out with brightly coloured buckets and spades, inflatable rings and airbeds, rock with a generic county name through the inside and boxes of fudge and toffee bearing pictures of grazing ponies.

It was a place for passing through and rarely stopping. A place inhabited by holidaying grockles and nouveau riche who had bought their holiday homes without realising that the town was quite a way from the sea. Our village, the village where we stayed in the summer, sailed out to the castle and camped in the boat park. Apart from the yacht clubs and the pub, there was nowhere else to spend your money and any other entertainment or supplies good be acquired in the big town – without having to pay over-inflated tourist prices.

I remember one summer in particular. I still have the photographs of us all lounging outside OUR yacht club – there was great rivalry between the two clubs. Hair stiff and bleached from hours sailing, half-worn wet suits (it was easier to leave the bottom half on and wriggle out of the top).  Clutching half pints of rough cider and feasting on freshly made crab sandwiches. Nothing else really mattered that summer.

One of our group had very rich parents who owned a holiday cottage across the road from the pub. We took it in turns to sleep there or in hastily erected two man tents in the boat park once the clubs were closed. We knew that we weren’t supposed to be there but provided the tent was packed away before the morning sailing started, the older members of the club turned a blind eye.

Not that it was peaceful sleeping in the boat park; people ignored the sign ‘Frap your halyards’, and a s a consequence the night was punctuated with the sound of unfrapped halyards tinkling against masts. Hedgehogs and foxes rustled their way round the boats, looking for dropped sandwich crusts and half-empty crisp packets. The sun disturbed our fretful dozing and spurred us on to collapse the tent and stagger across the road to the cottage for coffee and toast.

The summer came to an end – as it always does  – and we departed to our various courses and jobs. That summer could never be repeated anyway. In moving on, we jolly sailors lost touch with each other and other entertainments replaced the joys of sailing.

The village never lost its charm for me; enhanced by discovering that one of my favourite authors had written a trilogy of books loosely based on family life in Little Village and Big Village, with the Island across the sea playing an integral part. I made subsequent visits; with friends, with groups of children I was responsible for, and ultimately with my own husband and family. It became a place of pilgrimage; somewhere to go and lose the troubles or celebrate happiness. There was a stark contrast between the still quiet waters around the harbour and the crashing waves out on the
Spit. Waves that were so ferocious that year in and out, new methods of prevention had to be found to prevent the sea encroaching on the houses nearby.

I found out very early in our relationship that my husband had also sailed from the village – though at a different time from me – and that he loved it as much as I did.

 

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Winding the time clock on, our children became adults and needed less entertaining on holidays, so when the opportunity arose to spend two summer weeks in a cottage in ‘my’ village, we jumped at it. Part of me was worried that the village would have changed, that it would no longer be the magical place I remembered – that we both remembered.

It was like stepping back into a time capsule. The pub was still there – although it had added an extra wing and a conservatory – but the cider was just as good and the sandwiches – made from freshly caught crab – was wonderful. We could see the boat park from our bedroom window; people were still neglecting to frap their halyards, and although we didn’t have the credentials to venture into either of the yacht clubs, we didn’t need to sleep in tents either. I had my favourite author’s books on my Kindle and delighted in spotting thinly disguised landmarks as we walked the dog along the harbour side and around the various beaches.

It was a wonderful fortnight. We caught up with family and friends; the tiny backyard was the ideal venue for a family get together in the sunshine. The dog loved his seaside walks and I achieved a lifelong wish. I had sailed out to the castle on many an occasion – and  came back the same way, but I had never walked the mile and a half along the shingle bank, nor taken a ride on the little ferry boat that tied up at the harbour wall.

The strangest revelation of our holiday was the exploration of Big Village.

It wasn’t full of grockles and holiday shops anymore. Charity shops rubbed shoulders with a wine bar and a delicatessen. The Co-op was stocked with normal food and there was no sign of sticks of rock or boxes of fudge. At the suggestion of friends, we ventured further to the beaches further away from Little Village, and found some beautiful examples of Art Deco architecture along the sea view.

Big Village wasn’t such a bad place.

On our last day we met up with our lovely friends for a long and leisurely brunch in the sunshine at a cafe on the beach. A very happy start to the process of packing everything back into the car and heading North for home.

It was good to go back to Little Village and find it just as beautiful and enchanting as I had found it before. Better to still was to roam around Big Village and find that it wasn’t such a strange small town after all.

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‘Express Holiday’

She tried so hard to be a mum to her husband’s children.

It didn’t help that their own son Michael Junior was a handful; younger than his half-siblings and testament to his father’s wandering eye. The boy wore a jumper with ‘Rebel’ written on it for good reason.

She found her stepson Lennie easy to deal with; the poor little soul had physical disabilities and was very small for his age.  He was compliant and sat at the table without any complaint – but then he had little choice.

His older sister Miranda  was a tough nut to crack.  A blonde, beautiful seven-year old; maternal towards her own brother but openly hostile to the small, loud intruder who claimed her Daddy’s attention so efficiently and bore his name as well.  She largely ignored her new stepmother, another intruder who was younger, prettier and happier than the Mummy they had left at home for the weekend, and who would inevitably be crying because she missed them both – and her ex-husband.

Michael Senior returned to the table empty-handed.  His wife and children looked hungry and crestfallen.

“No rice crispies but they have got cocoa pops. Are they allowed to have cocoa pops? Lennie, do you want toast?  I’m having the full English. Can they have fruit juice?”

She sighed.  Eighteen months ago Michael Senior had been living in the same house as his two eldest children.  She was aware from her own experience that he was not what you would call a ‘hands-on’ Daddy but surely he knew what his children liked to eat?

“Miranda can have cocoa pops…..”

“I want muesli. I don’t like cocoa pops.  Mummy never buys cocoa pops.  Mummy says they make your teeth go rotten and then Daddy will have to pay out for us to have new teeth.  Mummy says.”

Miranda’s face was set.  Michael Senior recognised that expression.  It was the one that drove into the arms of his sweet young receptionist and led to the birth of Michael Junior, a divorce settlement that he could ill-afford and the low-key shotgun wedding that mollified his new wife’s irate and somewhat shady brothers  – but only just.

“I’ll get you some muesli darling, and some toast for Lennie and Michael Junior. Shall I bring it back before I get my breakfast?”

“Yes please Michael, and can you bring some cutlery too? Michael Junior! Sit down!”

“Daddy! I want Daddy!”

“Daddy will be back in just a moment with some nice toast.”  How she prayed that Michael Senior would have the forethought to put the toast on plates and bring butter and Marmite too.

He hadn’t.

Miranda got her muesli.

The toast was piled up on one plate; no butter or spreads, nothing to spread them with anyway and two glasses of fruit juice that Miranda appropriated for herself and Lennie, leaving Michael Junior to set up another banshee wail.

“Juiiiiiiiice!  I want juiiiiiice!”

Michael Senior had already left the table at speed after spotting that a fresh tray of bacon, sausages and scrambled eggs had just been put out.

“Miranda?  Could you please keep an eye on your brothers while I get a knife and some spreads please?  Don’t let Mikey get down off his seat?”

Miranda scowled.  Mikey was Daddy’s name when Mummy was being nice about him and remembering the happy times.  She did not and would not recognise that screaming baby as her brother.

Michael Junior got down off the chair seconds after his mother had walked the few yards to the service counter and ran towards his father.

A lady and man were sitting at the next table.  The lady caught Miranda’s eye and said “Your little brother has got down from the table.  He’s gone that way.” She smiled but Miranda didn’t.  Her face was inscrutable as her stepmother returned dragging  a screaming Michael Junior by the hand.

Toast was buttered and anointed with Marmite, cut lovingly into soldiers for Michael Junior and Lennie.  Miranda listlessly chased her muesli round the bowl, her face coming to life when her Daddy reappeared with a loaded plate of food, a serviette and a single mug of coffee.

“There’s no room at this table; I’ll sit over here.”

Michael Senior seemed oblivious to the fact that his desertion had reduced his youngest son to tears and caused quiet disappointment to the other two.

His new wife, hungry and now unable to leave the children until Michael Senior had finished his breakfast and was free to mind them, took a deep breath and forced herself to stay silent.

The couple at the next table got to their feet; the lady waved at Miranda and smiled.  Surprisingly Miranda smiled back.  So did Lennie, and Michael Junior waved his soldier with a Marmite grin. His mother blushed.

“I’m sorry about all the noise. I hope it didn’t spoil your breakfast.”

The lady smiled again.  “It didn’t.  Our children are nineteen and nearly twenty-one.  They used to wander off and kick up a hell of a racket. It will get better, I promise you.  You have lovely children.  Have a good day but don’t forget to get some food for yourself.”

The words were the first drop of  praise she had heard all weekend.  Praise from a stranger.

Michael Senior was on his feet.

“Is everything alright?  Were the children making too much noise? Do I need to go after them and apologise?”

“No, the lady just said how lovely they all were.  Can you move back to this table please Michae,l whilst I get some breakfast too?”  She got to her feet .

“Of course.  Silly me. How could I forget about you my darling?” he said as he moved his breakfast back to the children’s table.

“You won’t again.” she said to herself as she walked slowly across the hotel dining room and picked up a coffee cup.

The lady stopped by the door and turned around just before leaving the room.  Their eyes met.  With a nod and a barely perceptible wink, the strength of ages was passed over from one mother to another.

She drank hot coffee for the first time in months whilst she waited for her toast and watched Michael Senior struggle to control his children.  Perhaps it was going to be a holiday after all.

 

 

‘Three Degrees of Social Influence’

“Jason! Hey Jaaaayssssonnnn!”

Jason looked up from his laptop and smiled at the vision before him.  Nico; red skinny jeans, lime green polo shirt,virgin white Converse and a casually draped peach cardigan that was in danger of slipping off his fashionably slight shoulders.  Pulling out the chair opposite, Nico sat down with a flourish and crossed one leg over the other, his foot flipping in an attention-grabbing manner. He was being watched by the other students in the room and he knew it.

“Guess what!”

Jason shrugged his chunky and less fashionable shoulders, camouflaged by a uniform black tee-shirt and grey hoodie that enabled him to blend in with most backgrounds.  “What Nico?  What have you heard?”

“Well.” Nico leaned forward conspiratorially, “You know like, I was going to a party at Amelia’s last night?  So sick! Huge country farm, parents away, big brother in charge but like he is always SO out of it!”

Having been omitted from the invitation list, Jason had tried to ignore the buzz that had gone around college regarding the party. As it was a major talking point, this had not been easy and packing up his books to go home on Friday night, it had been particularly painful listening to the excited babble.  He slid out of the room as quietly as he could and walked home trying to convince himself that the party would be a total failure, that Amelia was a stuck-up phony and that he wouldn’t have gone anyway even if he had been invited.

“Anyhoo!  It was a DISASTER!” Nico squealed, his expressive legs crossing and recrossing themselves. “Somebody put the address on FaceAche! There were like literally HUNDREDS of people there!  Police, ambulance, fire brigade – did I tell you that someone torched the barn?  Amelia was like totes DEVASTATED! She’d been so careful just to keep the invitations to friends ONLY but one of her friends must have like posted the information to THEIR friends and then like  they posted the invitation to THEIR friends and ZILLIONS of strangers turned up!”

“Much damage done?” Jason said as he executed a couple of swift keystrokes on his laptop.

“Oh my days yes! The barn burnt down.  Rooms were trashed, all the booze went and like the caterers left once the food fight started.  Amelia’s brother was arrested for a public order offence – he was like TOTES drunk – and Amelia threw everyone out.  Some of the girls were supposed to be staying the night and they had like NOWHERE to go!”

Raising his eyebrows slightly, Jason stopped to take a sip of his Americano coffee from the utilitarian white mug.  The waitress brought over Nico’s beverage; creamy beige in a tall glass with a long spoon and accompanied by a flake and marshmallows.  It rejoiced in the name of Choco-Mocha-Vanilla-Latte-Macchiato; Nico had opted for extra whipped cream and a sprinkle of cocoa powder. It was a barrista’s work of art with a carefully executed heart-shape in the cream.  Other students rushed to the counter to order the same, but no one came back with a solid white mug.

“Is that your essay?  I’m going to have to ask for an extension.  I just don’t understand this three degrees of social  influence stuff at all.”

Smiling slowly, Jason saved his essay, emailed it to his tutor and pressed delete in his FaceAche settings. He looked pensively at his friend.

“How many FaceAche friends do you have Nico?”

“Oh, like hundreds I suppose.”

“So suppose you had some good news.  Such good news that you wanted to tell ALL your friends on FaceAche.  That’s one degree.  Then one of your friends decided to tell all of their friends, none  of whom actually know you personally. That’s two degrees. One of your friend’s friends thinks that the news is SO wonderful that she decides to tell all HER friends too.  Suddenly loads of people who you don’t know are aware of your good news.  It’s been established that good news spreads more quickly than bad.  Isn’t social media a wonderful thing?”

Nico’s gorgeous brow furrowed.  He opened his mouth to speak, looked over at the innocent face of his friend and tried to remember if he had actually told Jason where Amelia’s party was being held. He felt a little nauseous and pushed his coffee creation away.

Satisfied that the fake FaceAche profile he had created on Sunday morning had been well and truly deleted leaving no trace to himself, Jason closed down his laptop, drained the last of his Americano, and got to his feet.

“You coming Nico?  Class starts in five minutes.”