A Magic Spell – Week 47 of the 52 week short story challenge

monsanto01-1024x683

I am your one magic spell – and you have one only.

You cannot hurt or kill anyone,

Nor profit financially.

History cannot be undone,

Mankind’s basic physiology must remain unchanged.

Me: So, I can’t get rid of mass murderers or dictators or those who ruin people’s lives?

Spell: Definitely not.

Me: And I can’t change history so I can’t undo the referenDumb.

Spell: The country spoke – apparently.

Me: When you say ‘physiology’? Can you clarify?

Spell: Race, colour, creed, preference, appearance – nothing can change.

Me: I wouldn’t change that anyway but…

Spell: Yes?

Me: Can I change attitudes?

Spell: Perhaps…

Me: Then I can ask for a world where people can live peacefully; where wealth is distributed more evenly, where education is available for all, where we look after the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable and the young?

Spell: You can ask.

Me: You said I had one magic spell. How do I make the spell work?

Spell: Abracadabra doesn’t work, neither does clicking your fingers I’m afraid. You can put those sparkly red shoes away as well.

Me: It was worth a try.

Spell: That’s a part of the spell.

Me: Trying?

Spell: You won’t get anywhere if you don’t try.

Me: It won’t be easy will it?

Spell: Nope.

Me: Persistent.

Spell: Yes.

Me: No matter what?

Spell: No matter what.

Me: On my own?

Spell: Oh no. There are many of you, but you have to find each other and work together.

Me: Are you absolutely sure we can’t get rid of the really nasty people?

Spell: Why stoop to their level?

Me: So nothing unpleasant then?

Spell: Nope.

Me: But we can do it?

Spell: Jez. We. Can.

black-magic-spells

Advertisements

Near Death – Week 45 of the 52 week short story challenge

download-1

‘Hello?’

‘Hello? Can you hear me?’

I’m pressing the button on this pendant I wear around my neck but nothing happens. Usually when I press it I get a crackly voice from the other end telling me that I have come through to the ‘We Care Service’ and what did I want?

I don’t use it often because I have difficulty hearing what the woman is saying and now, when I really need it there is nothing.

Not even the reassuring beep that tells me that although the line is busy, they will get back to me as soon as possible.

Nothing.

I can just see the clock from here. It’s still early; six o’clock and the time when I would usually be up making my first cup of tea. something to set me up for the day as I sit and listen to the news on the radio.

I could watch the news on the television that my granddaughter bought me but I prefer to listen early in the morning. I don’t want the intrusion of strangers in my house yet.

Today I would welcome anyone to my house.

Today even the lad who has been burgling houses in our area would be welcome. I would tell him where to find my money, my wife’s jewellery, my medals even, if he would call 999 as he leaves.

The floor in the hallway is cold. I should have had carpets fitted but my wife was always proud of these tiles. Minton she said they were and she wouldn’t dream of having them covered up with some old carpet.

I could have had the carpets fitted when she died, when there was only me to think of but every time I look at these tiles I think of her.

I see her as the young girl I carried across the threshold of our house; as the mother of our daughter, tired but proud in her hospital bed, and then I see her bringing our baby girl home to the bedroom I had so lovingly painted pink in her honour.

She did us proud our girl; married well and presented us with grandchildren. I had never thought of our daughter as being traditional but she named her children after her mother and me. Keeping the memories going she said. A legacy.

I never thought I would outlive her, and her mother.

When I came home from the war my lungs were useless; poison gas, cheap tobacco and a cough that never really went away. As if to remind, I cough now and the pain from my legs wracks my body.

I used to have people who came in to check on me. Cheerful young women who did my washing and made me meals. Someone to talk to four times a day; not as good as my wife, who never seemed to stop talking but at least they filled a part of the void when she was gone.

Now they are gone too. Cuts in social care.

A brisk young woman came to visit me, and decided that my care package was too large for my needs. I didn’t need all this help as I was obviously self-caring. I didn’t need to go out to lunch clubs; the transport was very expensive and they were closing down the day centres anyway. She gave me this pendant but was at pains to tell me that I would have to buy the new batteries for it.

I have batteries in the fridge but I can’t reach them.

I can’t reach the telephone.

I can’t reach the door.

I can’t go on.

I can’t.

I can’t give up.

Today of all days.

I look at my coat, hanging out of reach on the coat hook.

I can just see the poppy.

I should be getting my breakfast and making myself presentable so that when my granddaughter comes to fetch me for the parade, she will be proud of me and the part that I played.

So tired.

All I want to do is sleep.

To sleep and have the pain go from my legs.

What legs?

I can’t feel them.

I should be able to feel them. To feel the pain that has kept me awake at night for over seventy years. There is no pain. Just cold.

I look at the clock again. Where has the time gone? I don’t remember being asleep but four hours have passed since I last looked.

I want to sleep. It’s time for me to join the people who I love and miss. This is no place for old men like me – we may have been seen as heroes once but now we are just a burden on the state – a burden that the taxpayers can’t afford according to that brisk young woman.

So tired.

‘Grandad?’

The sound of her key in the door pulls me back from the place where pain has gone and there is just a soft glowing light that draws me in.

‘Grandad? Hang on in there. I’m calling an ambulance. Don’t leave me Grandad.’

It isn’t time yet. Her hands are warm as she tucks a blanket around me. Her hands are warm like her mother’s and her grandmother’s, and while I long to feel their touch again this beautiful girl pulls me back to the present.

I open my eyes and focus on her face. She looks tired and worried so I do my best to smile as if I was okay. The poppy on her coat is close to me and I reach out to touch it.

‘Not yet then?’ I ask.

‘Not yet. Not today of all days. Love you Grandad.’

red-poppy-flowers-2

A Secret – Week 40 of the 52 week short story challenge

‘Whose turn is it now?’

Suzie looked round the table and pointed at her aunt.

‘Auntie Carole! Come on Auntie Carole. You must have a secret tucked away?’

Carole felt a cold shiver down her spine and did her best to avoid looking at her mother who was sitting next to Suzie.

‘I might have to think about that Suzie. Move on to someone else while I do?’

Suzie looked disappointed but turned instead to her Uncle Paul.

‘How about you Paul?’

Squeezing his wife’s hand, Paul looked as if he were dredging up a past memory.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘Before I was courting your Auntie Marie, I actually fancied her friend Deborah. In fact I thought I was going to the pictures with her but she never turned up. Luckily I bumped into Marie, invited her to the pictures instead and the rest is history.’

Marie punched him in the arm.

‘You never told me that! You told me that you were going to meet up with some mates who let you down! I didn’t even know that you fancied Deborah!’

He squeezed her hand again and smiled.

‘I did say it was a secret. I didn’t tell you because once I’d spent the evening with you I didn’t fancy her anymore.’

‘Did Deborah ever tell you why she didn’t turn up?’ Suzie asked.

‘She went out with a guy called Tommy instead. You knew Tommy didn’t you Carole? He was in the same gang as you and your friends for a while.’

Another chill went down Carole’s spine and she began to get a sickening feeling in her stomach. It was the mere mention of his name that caused it. That sparked a far too vivid memory of his dark curly hair and his dark brown eyes. She glanced over at her mother and saw the barely perceptible shake of the head.

They were conspirators.

Carole and her mother.

Keepers of a secret that no one else knew about.

‘Whatever happened to Tommy?’ said Paul. ‘He was always hanging around and then, when I came back from America there was no sign of him. I suppose he gave up on Carole when she went off to stay with your Great Auntie Meg in Wales. It would have been a bit of a trek for him – even on that old motorbike he had – but I thought he was really smitten with you Carole.’

‘Ancient history darling,’ said his mother. ‘Come on birthday girl, choose another person with a dark and desperate secret.’

Suzie grinned, loving the attention, loving the fact that she had her family around her on this special day. She looked round the table again.

‘Daddy? Have you got a terrible secret?’

Her father took in a deep breath which made his wife hold hers in fear of what would come next.

‘Okay. I have never told anyone this but when I was a bit younger than you Suzie, I pinched some eggs from the farm next door. There was a stack of boxes outside on a table and a honesty box. Your Grandma had sent me out to buy eggs but I spent the money on tobacco so I had to pinch the eggs instead.’

‘I’m shocked Dad!’ said Paul, trying to keep a straight face. ‘Did you get caught?’

‘No. I had a birthday the following week and I used some of my birthday money from my sister Meg to put in the box. That’s the only thing I ever pinched and I spent the whole week feeling dreadful.’

‘Your turn Suzie? What secrets have you got hidden away?’

Trying not to blush now that the wrong kind of attention was turned on her, Suzie gulped and turned to her Auntie Carole.

‘I went into your room to try on one of your dresses once. I saw a box of letters in your wardrobe and I was going to look at them but I heard Mummy calling me so I sneaked out again. Who were the letters from Auntie Carole?’

Her mother interrupted before Carole could speak.

‘I expect she means the letters that you and I sent each other when you were in Wales Carole. We used to write to each other every week without fail. I got rather lonely without either of my children at home. I didn’t know that you’d kept all those letters Carole. How sweet of you.’

The expression Carole saw on her mother’s face was anything but sweet and she knew that she would have to find a new hiding place for the letters that held her secrets.

‘But then I came along,’ said Suzie ‘And you weren’t lonely anymore.’

‘You were a bit of a surprise but you were also a blessing my darling. Daddy and I had you all to ourselves when you were a baby.’

‘Life in the old dog yet, eh Dad?’ said Paul winking and leering. His wife punched his arm again, a little harder this time and pulled a face at him. He shook his head in bewilderment, but made no more comments.

‘Have you thought of anything yet Auntie Carole?’

Carole took in a deep breath, far deeper than her father’s and squared her shoulders.

‘I do have a secret. There’s only one person in this room that knows my secret apart from me and it’s one that I’ve kept for years.’

‘Tell me?’ Suzie jumped up and down in her seat. Her mother got up from the table.

‘That’s enough now. I need to clear the tea things away, and didn’t you say that you and Marie were going on to friends this evening Paul?’

This time Marie kicked him under the table, and Paul, knowing his wife’s methods of non-verbal communication, nodded.

‘Come and help me wash up Carole dear.’

Now silent, Carole followed her mother from the room. Her father fetched Paul and Marie’s coats, then with Suzie holding possessively onto his arm, walked them out to the car and waved them goodbye.

Paul was quiet at first but once they were clear of the house, he stopped the car and turned to Marie in puzzlement.

‘What was all that about? All the punchings and kickings?’

Marie shook her head.

‘For an intelligent man you are incredibly dim at times.’

‘What? What?’

‘How old is Suzie?’

‘Fifteen. You know she is. It’s her birthday today.’

‘And where were you when she was born?’

‘In America?’

Correct. And where was Carole?’

‘In Wales with  Auntie Meg? She went there to recover from glandular fever.’

‘Glandular fever was it?’

‘I don’t know. I wasn’t here. She seemed fine when I went off to do my gap year in America and then I come back to find that she is in Wales herding sheep and my mother has had a baby. At her age!’

Marie looked pityingly at her husband.

‘Have you never wondered why it is that your parents, you and your sister are all fair with blue eyes, and Suzie has curly black hair and brown eyes?’

‘My God! Are you saying that my mother had an affair?’

Marie raised her eyes heavenwards.

‘You really are slow on the uptake sometimes Paul. Not your mother. Your sister. Carole.’

‘No! Who with? Some Welsh bloke? That would explain the colouring.’

‘Tommy. I saw the expression on Carole’s face when you mentioned his name so I didn’t say anything about what happened to him.’

‘What did happen to him?’

‘Motorbike accident. Well some say it was an accident, others say it was deliberate because Carole had had been sent away. Your parents wouldn’t tell him where she had gone and I don’t suppose he knew about your Auntie Meg living in Wales.’

‘But – but – if the baby was Carole’s how did Mum get away with pretending it was hers?’

‘Cushions, I suppose. People were a little surprised but a late life baby isn’t unusual. Your Mum and Dad went to Wales to see Carole for a fortnight and miraculously came back with Suzie. No one questioned it.’

‘So Suzie is my niece, not my sister?’

Marie nodded and put her hand on his knee.

‘What do I do Marie? What can I say?’

‘Say nothing. It isn’t your secret after all. I think that Carole came close to telling me once but your Mum came in and interrupted us. You love Carole and Suzie don’t you?’

‘Of course.’

‘I expect that they will tell Suzie one day – but it’s up to them. Apart from which I have a secret that I’ve been aching to tell you all afternoon.’

‘Oh no. Not more revelations!’

She took his free hand and placed it on her stomach.

‘This is the best kind of secret. I did a test this morning. I’d like to keep it a secret for another couple of weeks though?’

 

 

 

One Character – Week 39 of the 52 week short story challenge

1266923_10151818491754871_1047027520_o

There was a girl I knew at school.

Her name was Karen.

I didn’t know her well – we were in different classes and in different streams.

In an effort to be non-judgemental the streams were named after colours, but everyone knew that Red was the top stream, Blue was the middle stream and Green was the bottom stream.

I was in Red class, Red stream – eventually. During the first few days of my attending secondary school they managed to lose my records and so I was put in Emerald class, Green stream.

Not only that but they put me in the remedial class.

It was quite nice at first. We had our own little room in the old part of the school. We had a lounge area, some tables and a small kitchen area where our teacher – Mrs W – made us warm (but not hot) drinks.

We also had biscuits.

My friends were  a bit jealous.

I spent the first day colouring in.

I spent the second day colouring in.

I spent the third day colouring in.

Mrs W could see that I was getting a little bored and allowed me to cut out pictures for the others to colour in. The scissors were blunt ended.

This was when I met Karen.

She had a mop of mousey curls, a squint and her school uniform looked as if it had been made for someone much smaller and older. She was a quiet girl; most of my companions were quiet apart from one girl who rocked in a chair and occasionally screeched.

Mrs W and I learned how to calm the girl down after a few days.

My Mother did not think that I should be spending my formative years colouring in so she went into school with me after my first week.

The headmistress; a large, round woman who wore a lot of pale pink Crimplene, listened to my Mother with a patronising look on her face.

‘I’m afraid all mummies think that their girls should be in a higher set.’

My Mother, red hair sparking, said that she wasn’t moving until the demon headmistress had phoned my primary school and asked for my records to be sent over.

The headmistress phoned and was put through to my old headmaster; a lovely man who was so respected that he had a street named after him many years later. I liked him and he liked me. He told the headmistress about my academic achievements and even said he would drop my records over on his way home.

I was promoted the next day.

Being in the top class of the top stream was hard work and there was very little colouring in.

The scissors had points though.

One of my new classmates knew Karen. She wasn’t very nice to her; sneering at her old clothes, and on one occasion when Karen failed to respond to her teasing, this girl even pulled Karen’s curly hair.

My new best friend Georgina, and I pulled the nasty girl off and I took Karen back upstairs to Mrs W, who was quite pleased to see me.

She even let me make Karen a warm drink.

I wanted to know why the nasty girl had picked on Karen, and I got the answer from another girl who had been to the same primary school.

Karen lived in a children’s home.

That was why her clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out her squint.

That was why she was so quiet.

I am ashamed to say that apart from saying ‘Hi’ in the playground or in the school dinner hall, I didn’t see much of Karen after that.

I was too busy being the school rebel and avoiding the headmistress.

Every morning at assembly (I went through an atheist stage where I pointedly refused to sing hymns and kept my eyes open during prayers), I fantasised about running up the steps to the stage and pushing the headmistress off.

In my fantasy she bounced like a giant rubber ball.

She bounced down the school hall and out of the double doors, finally fetching up against her office door.

It was just a fantasy.

Luckily the deputy headmistress took me for English and had my back when things became awkward – usually about my interpretation of school uniform.

Time passed.

I took my ‘O’ levels and I passed.

I went on to the local Tech to do my ‘A’ levels and I passed again.

After a brief flirtation with drama school, and working in bars, I ended up volunteering in a children’s home.

I began to understand what life must have been like for Karen.

The home was run by an older couple who treated the children fairly well but it was always an institution – never a home.

After three months of volunteering, I got a permanent job as a houseparent at another establishment. The staff team was younger; less rigid and I began to understand how we could change things to make life better for the children and young people we were caring for – and we really did care.

I spent ten years working in children’s homes.

I never forgot Karen and I did my best to make sure that those in my care had clothes that they liked – and that fitted.

I took them to medical appointments and I did my best to sort out issues at school.

Most of the staff I worked with tried to make the children’s lives as close to a home life as possible.

Sometimes we succeeded.

I qualified as a social worker and I watched as the homes were closed down because the current thinking was being ‘in care’ was unacceptable. Children were sent home to parents who didn’t know how to care for them and didn’t really want them anyway.

Some children were fostered and life improved for them. There were others who no amount of good fostering could help.

In those cases the children drifted into disaster and the foster parents became disillusioned.

It was while I was taking time out to raise my own family that the scandal broke in my home town.

The officer in charge of a children’s home was arrested for child abuse.

Physical, sexual, financial, psychological – you name it. He did the whole lot.

He was the officer in charge of the home where Karen was placed.

It wasn’t a life for her and the other children she lived with.

The abuse went on for years until someone had the courage to stand up and shout.

It wasn’t Karen.

The officer in charge was found guilty and sent to jail.

So was his wife and two other members of staff.

I’m sorry Karen.

Sorry that I wasn’t more of a friend to you.

Sorry that I didn’t understand what you were going through.

I never forgot you though, and now I understand.

That was why your clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out your squint.

That was why you were so quiet.

 

 

 

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

SUNRISE-microsoft

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

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

Order is paramount.

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

She does this every day.

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

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

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

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

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

She knows them all though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for her to come in?

No one ever waits for her to come in.

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

The tables are clean now; the toilets too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

every-sunrise-gives-you-a-new-beginning-and-a-new-ending-let-this-morning-be-a-new-beginning-to-a-quote-1

Inside a car – Week 13 of the 52 week short story challenge

 

I woke up when he drew back the curtains and the bright shaft of sunlight hit my eyes.

He turned to me and grinned.

‘Let’s go to the seaside. It’s gorgeous out there.’

I never need to be told twice.

It took him slightly longer to get ready than me but then he has to take his paraphernalia with him; wet suit, surfboard, shoes, towel, shorts. I travel a lot lighter.

Outside the sun is even stronger and after we are seated, he opens the car window for me, knowing how much I like to feel a breeze in my hair.

We live about half a mile from the beach; he has surfed at better places but on a day like this we don’t want to be driving for hours. I can see how happy he is at the thought of being in the water again, and although I’d rather stay dry, I can appreciate his eagerness to get in the sea on such a lovely day.

It’s still early and there are no other cars in the car park when we arrive. Aware of the fact that the fine for not paying the car park fee is pretty steep, he nips out of the car, buys a ticket and displays it on the dashboard.

I sit tight whilst he unloads his kit; I know better than to get in his way.

Making sure that he has everything he needs, he comes back into the car and sits beside me, ruffling my hair and smiling.

‘I won’t be long. See you soon.’

And he is gone.

The window is open a couple of inches, and at first the fresh breeze that blows through it takes the edge off the sweltering sun but as the sun moves up in the sky and the breeze changes direction I start to feel uncomfortable. I wriggle down in my seat in order to avoid the heat but it doesn’t help.

Looking over my shoulder I see that the back seat is still in the shade. It means moving away from my window but he said he wouldn’t be long. I clamber between the two front seats; it’s a tight fit but eventually I am on the back seat and it is much cooler.

Time for a doze. I was up early this morning after all.

I don’t know how long I was asleep but a knocking on the window wakes me and I sit up with a start. It’s really hot in the car now and the sun has moved again so that I am directly in its glare. The front seats are just as bad and I am so thirsty.

I hear the knocking again and look up to see a woman peering in at me, shading her eyes against the strong sun. I don’t make a sound though because I know he will be back very soon and all will be well.

The woman stops knocking but I hear her talking into her phone. The words are indistinct. I squeeze myself into the tiniest patch of shade left in the very back of the car where he usually keeps his surfing gear.

There is a bag of food and drink there and I sort through it looking for anything to slake my thirst. I know that I shouldn’t be doing this but I’m beginning to feel desperate. He isn’t usually gone this long. Something must be wrong.

The woman comes back and she has some other people with her. I look for his face in the crowd but it isn’t there.

There is a woman in a uniform outside the car now. She taps on the window trying to attract my attention but I sit very still and do as I have been told.

A car draws up beside her.

It is a police car. I know this because he has told me all about them when we are out driving. He always drives more slowly when he sees one of these cars.

I can hear the people talking outside the car again.

The man from the police car moves to the passenger window and I shrink back as he smashes his metal stick into it. The glass goes all over the seat and I hope that I won’t be blamed for the mess.

He opens the passenger door and reaches through to open the rear door. I am torn between fright and the relief that I feel from the rush of air that fills the car.

The woman in the uniform climbs into the back seat and sits down. She is smiling so I think that perhaps I may not be in trouble after all.

‘Come here sweetheart. Come and get some fresh air and a drink.’

I am so hot and thirsty that I do as she says. I climb over the back seat and sit beside her. She strokes my hair and helps me down out of the car.

I don’t make a sound; not even when she slips a collar over my head and attaches a lead.

‘Good girl,’ she says, and I follow her to a shady spot where a bowl of water is waiting for me.

I lap at it and wait anxiously while she refills the bowl from a plastic bottle.

The policeman is looking at the parking ticket. He does not look happy.

‘I’ve checked the temperature out here – 27 degrees – according to this ticket she’s been in the car for nearly three hours. ‘

The woman in uniform shakes her head in disgust. The policeman has already asked the people in the crowd if they know who owns the car, but they all came to the car park after us so they wouldn’t have seen him go off with his surfboard.

Then I see him.

He is limping and a man in red shorts is supporting him and carrying the surfboard.

He tries to break into a run when he sees the crowd around the car but he falls over and the policeman rushes to help pick him up.

‘Is she okay? I didn’t mean to be away so long. I twisted my ankle and had to wait for some help.’

The policeman and the woman in uniform still look very stern.

‘She was very hot and thirsty. Have you any idea how hot it was in the car? You parked it in full sunshine. We had to break your window to get her out. Another half an hour and she would probably have been dead.’

‘I’m so sorry. I only meant to have a quick surf before taking her for a walk along the beach.’

The woman in uniform shakes her head again.

‘You should never leave your dog unattended in a car at all. How would you like it if someone put you in a thick fur coat and locked you in a car with little fresh air and nothing to drink?’

He is sitting on the edge of the driver’s seat now with me in his lap.

I lick his face.

It is salty but not the kind that comes from the sea.

The man in the red shorts has strapped up the twisted ankle and although I can see the pain on his face, my man says that he can manage to drive us home.

The policeman takes his details and says that he might be taken to court for animal cruelty.

The woman in the uniform is looking less stern. She has been watching me as I settle happily against him, my paw on his arm. He is mine and he is tethered and safe.

She strokes my head and I smile my doggy smile.

‘She’s had some water. I think we caught her in time.’ She turns to the policeman and shakes her head but this time she is smiling.

‘Do you live far away?’

‘About ten minutes drive.’  I have never seen my man this unhappy and I lick his cheek again. He buries his face in my hair and holds me very tight.

‘Go on. Go home and get some ice on that foot. RICE! Rest, ice, compression and elevation. I can see a little dog who will be very happy to make sure that you keep off that foot.’

The lady in the uniform is still smiling as we drive away. I am in the back seat because of all the glass where I usually sit.

We drive home slowly and he keeps telling me how sorry he is and how he will never do it again.

I know that he won’t and I am happy.

Three Siblings – Week 4 of the 52 week short story challenge

stick-figure-unhappy-family-fun-cartoon-divorce-abuse-concept-33512931

I came back to work after a week’s holiday and found the Bennett family in residence. Two girls and a boy; they were withdrawn and several of my colleagues were finding them difficult to deal with. As a consequence of this – and because I was in the middle of my social work training and considered best placed to take on the ‘awkward’ children, I was allocated as their key worker.

The first few days were spent going about my usual routine of getting children and young people out of bed, dressed and down for breakfast. As a female member of staff I usually worked in the girls wing, but as one of the few females who would volunteer to get the boys up I had the chance to observe all three children without being too intrusive.

Ray was the eldest of the three; at fourteen he was in the middle of our group of boys but he was very much apart from the lumbering big boys constantly flexing their macho muscles, the voice-breakers who turned from squeaky to bass at a moment’s notice and the little ones who had some very severe behavioural issues.

Ray constantly sought the company of his sisters; twelve year old Angela and eight year old Suzanne. The three of them were frequently found in a small and very self-contained huddle in the TV room or at the far end of the veranda when told they had to go outside for some fresh air.

After three days of trying to get to know my key children, I stayed on for a couple of hours after my shift ended in order to sit and read their case files.

It was not comfortable reading.

For the past six years the Bennett parents had been arguing over access arrangements following their divorce. Their mother had custody of the children after fleeing domestic violence and spending a period in a hostel. She had never reported her husband’s abuse to the police and there were no third-party evidence records, Mr Bennett was denying any form of abuse and demanding that he have weekly access to his children.

The children refused to see him.

They had been to family court on numerous occasions and it was accepted by Mrs Bennett that the children would attend a centre where their father could have supervised access. Mr Bennett refused this however. He wheeled out a number of family friends who attested to his good character and what an excellent father he had been. They also claimed that Mrs Bennett had mental health problems and was using the children to get back at her ex-husband.

At the most recent court appearance the judge had made an order that the children should go out to dinner with their father once a week without supervision. Mrs Bennett was distraught. The children – led by Ray – flatly refused to go and the judge ordered that they should be taken to a children’s centre as their mother was ‘obviously’ having a disruptive influence on them.

They came to us in just the clothes they stood up in. A hastily appointed social worker had been to their house and collected clothes and belongings but their mother was in such a state that the suitcases contained a strange jumble of items that had to be supplemented by our meagre stock of clothing and toiletries.

Until things were resolved the children were not allowed to have visits or even phone calls from either parent. Letters and cards were to be opened by staff and vetted before being given to the children. The social worker had been charged with compiling reports on all three of them, and, as the key worker, had to compile daily reports based on my own observations and those of my colleagues when I was off duty.

What had I observed so far? Ray was quiet; he didn’t join in with the usual banter and he sought the company of his sisters wherever possible. Angela was equally self-contained but Suzanne was more sociable; joining in with the younger girls when they chatted about hair and clothes and TV. A look from her brother or sister would bring her away from the group and back to their sides.

We were one of the few centres in our local authority to have a school unit on the premises; educational assessments had so far revealed that all three children were of above average intelligence but would not participate in team activities and would not talk about their past. Of the three, Suzanne was the most outgoing but any attempts to get her to talk about her home life were quickly prevented by the interventions of Ray and Angela.

We all tried to break through to them but after two weeks we were still no closer to understanding what had sparked their defiance in the courtroom. The social worker had been to visit their mother several times but she was just as withdrawn and reluctant to say anything other than that the children wanted to stay her and that she was frightened of her husband. The social worker stated – rather gruffly – that Mrs Bennett seemed unable to say anything specific about what it was that her husband had done to her.

Unable,  unwilling or terrified?

The good thing about training to be a social worker for two and a half days of my working week and coming in to carry out usual duties for the other two and a half, was that it was easier to put my newly acquired knowledge into practice. We were currently studying play therapy as a means of getting children to open up about their experiences. The more I learned, the more I wondered if this was a way of finally getting through to the Bennett children. I talked to my tutor and he gave me some books to study, together with a group of therapy dolls; mother, father and three children.

I had an idea that the key to it all was to get Suzanne alone, so with the blessing of my manager, I arranged for her to be released from morning classes for a couple of hours. I found out later from the teachers that Ray and Angela were rather distressed when Suzanne left the room and they had to be quite stern in order to prevent them from following her.

I had set up one of the smaller conference rooms with cushions, bean bags, toys and the dolls. I also laid on refreshments in an effort to make the atmosphere as pleasant as possible. Colleagues were advised not to disturb us. I’d spent the previous evening reading up on everything I could relating to the use of dolls in play therapy and although I was nervous, I also felt exhilarated at the thought that I might possibly get to the bottom of what was disturbing the Bennett children.

It wasn’t easy. Suzanne had been well-schooled by her siblings. The wall that the three of them – and their mother – had built up was almost impenetrable.

Almost.

I used the dolls to talk about my own family. My father coming home from work, my mother cooking dinner, my sister reading a book and my brother and I playing with his cars.

All very normal and harmless.

Suzanne picked up the father doll and put him to one side. She put the mother doll and the three children together on the sofa I had made from cushions. Then she picked up the father doll again and looked at him.

She looked at me.

‘Would you like to say anything to the father doll Suzanne? Or to any of the other dolls?’

Suzanne looked back at the doll. I could see that this was difficult for her and being a novice at play therapy, my tutor’s advice about not going too far or too fast was ringing in my ears.

Suzanne threw the father doll face down on the carpet.

‘You are a bad man. You make Mummy cry and you come into mine and Angela’s room at night. Ray says we mustn’t tell though.’

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Why mustn’t you tell?’

‘Ray says that Daddy will kill Mummy if we tell. He saw Daddy in the kitchen with Mummy. Daddy had a knife. He hurt Angela and made her cry too. We don’t like Daddy. That’s why we won’t go to dinner with him.’

She started to cry then; frightened because she had told the big secret. Frightened that her Daddy was going to hurt them or even kill their mother. I put the dolls to one side and we hugged before polishing off most  of the sweets.

Leaving Suzanne building a car out of Lego, I went next door and spoke to my manager. He called the social worker – who was out of the office as usual – so we decided that the next step was down to us.

I went down to the classroom and collected Ray and Angela. They looked sullen and even more withdrawn than usual. From the glances that they gave Suzanne, I could see that they knew something had happened.

My manager took the lead. He explained that adults often try to get children to keep secrets but that some secrets are bad, and the adults have no right to make children keep them. He told them that a part of our job was to protect children from bad secrets and keep them safe from people who frighten them.

They were truly frightened and now we knew why. My manager looked over to me and indicated that I should let them know that we understood their secret.

‘I think that your Dad has asked you to keep some bad secrets. I think that he has told you that if you tell anyone, he will hurt your Mum and then you’ll have to go and live with him. I think that your Mum is just as frightened of your Dad as you are and that’s why she has never told anyone about what he does to you all. You shouldn’t have to keep secrets like this. It isn’t fair on you, or your Mum. We will do our best to protect you. Will you let us help?’

It took a while but we both knew we had to be patient with them. The three exchanged glances and eventually Ray spoke.

‘He doesn’t hit Mum but he makes her cry and tells her how useless she is. He – he – hurt Angela and he said he was going to do the same to Suzanne when she is a bit older. He says it is his way of showing them how much he loves them and if we tell anyone he will pay for someone to kill Mum and he will get custody. He has lots of money and he can pay for a decent lawyer to make it look like we are the liars. If he tries to hurt my sisters I will kill him. I don’t care what happens to me.’

Ray’s croaky boy-to-man voice brought tears to my eyes. My manager took charge at this point. We had to get the police child protection unit involved and once the social worker was tracked down, she came in and took over supervision of the interviews.

The children had been through several different hells but as a consequence of their disclosures the court order was overturned, their father was arrested and once their mother realised that they were all safe, she gave an interview that confirmed everything her children said – and more.

Packing up their worldly goods to go home was one of the happiest tasks I had ever undertaken. It wasn’t the end of the story by any means but we had started the ball rolling and the social worker was arranging for counselling for the children and their mother.

Their father was remanded in custody. He had maintained his very professional coldness throughout, but when the alleged sexual abuse of Angela was brought up, he snapped and attacked the female detective conducting the interview. From the names he called her, and the threats he made,  it left no one in any doubt of the mental abuse he had inflicted on his family.

He was found guilty and imprisoned but who knows what lasting damage was done to those three children and their mother? Hopefully the counselling helped but that sort of support is expensive and when cuts have to be made in social care, aftercare and support of abused children is a low priority.

If there is any justice in the world then there should be a happy ending to this tale.

‘Bacon and Egg’

This story takes place in the days before mobile phones and smoking bans.  Local authorities had a policy of placing children in small group homes staffed by male and female houseparents.  Sometimes the staff and the children had a good time, sometimes it was hellish. There were some very dedicated staff who genuinely wanted to make a difference but there were also those who saw the job as a good skyve, or worse still, the opportunity to work out their own issues on children and young people who deserved far better.

begg

Management usually appointed houseparents based on experience and how the candidate dealt with the interview but on this occasion the manager had invited one of the junior members of staff to attend the interviews and have a say in who got the job.

He was torn between two candidates; both men were experienced in the field of children’s residential care, both interviewed well but  one had considerably more charisma than the other.

The other staff members that had been on duty whilst the interviews were being held had made their own assessments when  showing the candidates in and offering refreshments. One of the men had been charming and pleasant, the other looked nervous and uncomfortable.

In the end the manager and the staff came to a stalemate over who should be appointed.  One of the male staff joked that at this rate it would have to come down to star signs.  Some of the staff scoffed at this but a quick list was drawn up nevertheless to establish the astrological make up of the team.  The quieter candidate was a Sagittarius, the other was a Taurus and in the end the dearth of earth signs was the clincher.   ‘J’ –  the happy guy in the cowboy boots was appointed and the balance of the heavens was restored – allegedly.

J worked out very well to start off with.  The kids seemed to get on with him although it was noted that some of the older boys were a bit hostile, even wary but this was put down to the alpha male effect.  The teenage girls were all over him like a swarm of bees and certain members of the female staff weren’t far behind, but he dealt with it sensibly and made it quite clear that he was very happily married.

There was something about him that made her feel uneasy when she met him but she did her best to ignore the feelings and concentrate on the job and the course that she was studying for. She was still one of the younger members of staff and didn’t want to make waves this early in her career.

Holidays with a group of ‘maladjusted adolescents‘ were not easy and the inevitable behaviour issues and subsequent damage often prevented a second visit. J suggested a week at Butlins because he had taken kids from his previous home there,  and a succession of coffee mornings, bring-and-buy sales and a sponsored silence (not very successful) raised enough money to subsidise the paltry holiday fund that the local authority provided.

Not all the staff wanted to go on the trip so it was easy enough for the manager to choose enough people who actually wanted to go.  J was amongst them. A couple of the kids couldn’t or wouldn’t go on the holiday but they had staff who were happy to take them on day trips and rent videos to keep them busy during the holiday week.

She had to admit that she enjoyed that week and the opportunity to get to know the children who stayed at home better.  The cook took the week off whilst the home was half-empty, and both staff and children had a chance to take over the cooking, introducing a healthy change from the usual fish and chips, Sunday roast and spaghetti bolognaise.  The high ratio of staff to kids, and the relaxed attitude of both groups during that week strengthened relationships as well as cooking skills.

The holidaymakers returned; high on a diet of cheap takeaway food, fizzy drinks, late nights in the ballroom and long days on the fun fair or watching the wrestling and knobbly knees competition. No one died or even got into a trouble as far as they knew, they weren’t thrown out and staff had even been offered a discount if they booked for the next year.

J was undoubtedly the hero of the moment and riding high on a wave of popularity.

That was when his guard dropped.

Prior to the holiday she hadn’t worked with J much, but when one of the male staff got promoted to deputy manager in another home, she found that her shift pattern had been changed to his.

Sleep-in shifts in a children’s home were often a flash point for staff to embark on short-lived flings or long-term relationships that usually led to one party having to work elsewhere.  She usually had a boyfriend in tow and hadn’t worked with anyone she even remotely fancied – J included.

He had seemed to be unusually friendly and talkative throughout the shift.  They parted ways around nine o’clock in order to get the kids through their baths and settled for the night. Around ten-thirty, she came back downstairs to write up the logs in the office, J joined her and instead of making himself a coffee as usual, he pulled two cans of lager out of his rucksack and offered her one.  She declined politely and carried on writing.

J finished the can, chucked it into the bin and opened a second, then a third and finally a fourth.  She knew that drinking on duty was frowned upon but she also knew that it was the unwritten rule not to tell anyone – there wasn’t anyone else on duty to tell anyway.  She finished up the logs and went into the kitchen to make sure everything was washed up and for Friday morning.

J followed her and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle as he leaned on the work top next to her. She could smell his breath; lager and cigarette-tainted.

He was far too close.

She moved away from him and busied herself with sorting out the cereal packets.

He put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her towards him.

She shrugged him off and told him that she wasn’t interested, that she was tired and wanted to go to bed.

He told her that she was obviously frigid then and stomped off into the front room to roll himself a cigarette.

She ran up the stairs and pulled the chest of drawers in front of her door, her heart beating wildly.  She heard the distinctive sound of his cowboy boots clumping up the stairs and turned out the bedroom light.  The footsteps approached down the girls wing corridor and she held her breath as he tapped quietly on the door. The sound of her heart was deafening and she was sure he could hear it.

He tapped again but receiving no reply, cursed and stomped off down the corridor.

She lay on the bed fully dressed and dozing but woke at every sound, so she gave up around six o’clock and got up.

One of the boys was sitting on the landing.  He looked very pale.  He told her that J had come into his room and pushed him around a bit, then stormed off to the sleeping in room in the boys wing.

The boy told her that they were all scared because J had been crashing around in his room and shouting.  He managed to get onto the landing when the noise stopped and had been there curled up behind the bathroom door ever since.

She took him downstairs and decided that she should call the manager.

The phone  line was dead.

She could have gone out to the phone box to call for help but that would have meant leaving the children alone and unprotected.

They drank coffee and talked, the boy and herself, until the cleaners arrived at seven am.  They both lived nearby and one of them ran home to phone the manager.

There was still no sign of J, but when the manager arrived he went up to check with both the cleaners creeping behind him; they said they were there for his protection but they were just being nosey.

The room was wrecked: littered with more lager cans, the phone wires ripped out of the  socket and  heel marks all over the wall where J’s cowboy boots had kicked out again and again.  J was lying in a drunken stupor on the floor.

Other staff were called in; she was sent home and J’s wife came to collect him.

The official line was that he’d had a nervous breakdown due to stress.  She was disciplined for not contacting the manager when J started drinking, and her protestations that she had been too afraid to report her colleague fell on deaf ears.

J was suspended for six months but for most of that he was ‘off sick‘.  He was given a phased return with no sleep in duties and no working alone with female staff.  She did her best to be empathic toward him but the very sight of him made her skin crawl.

The local authority had instituted a policy of closing down most of their children’s homes, and over the next couple of months there were no replacements when children and staff left that particular establishment.

J kept his nose clean  for a while and his working restrictions were lifted.  The manager was replaced by a middle-aged woman who was not prey to J’s charms and had very strong feelings about staff drinking – or even smoking on duty. Addicted to his roll ups, J would find any excuse to take the one remaining girl out for a walk so he could satisfy his habit. She was a quiet bookish girl who prefered to stay in, watch videos and make things.

He became very solitary and those who would still do sleep in duties with him reported that he would sit downstairs for most of the night and cook meals that were found in the bin next morning, barely touched.

She was working with the last resident during the day; they had been painting glasses with stain to sell at a craft market.  The table was covered with newspaper and they’d had a lovely messy time of it.  Tidying up rapidly before getting ready for the evening meal, she had dumped the newspaper in the kitchen bin intending to empty it in the morning. She went home after the meal, leaving J, another female member of staff and the girl watching the TV.

She got a call at three in the morning.

The house was on fire. they all got out safely but J was ill because he ran back in to grab a fire extinguisher.

The female member of staff was hysterical after having had to get herself and the girl out of the house via the fire escape.  Desperate to do anything to help she was given special permission  for the girl to come and stay with her for the rest of the weekend.

They were allowed back in to look at the house on the Monday.  She walked through the smoked damaged rooms with the manager.  It transpired that J had decided to cook himself bacon and eggs after the others had gone to bed.  He also had a roll up which he threw  in the kitchen bin.  A bin very obviously full of newspaper.

The fire service couldn’t say for certain whether it was arson or an accident.  The contents of J’s stomach – barely digested bacon and eggs – were deposited outside the front door when he threw up after inhaling smoke.  He survived. The home was closed because it would have cost too much to repair the damage.

The girl and the staff were sent off to other homes, with the exception of J who was advised to resign quietly whilst off sick. His wife laid the blame for his decline at the door of the staff member who had rejected his drunken advances, but she walked out on his herself a couple of months later.

The young houseparent didn’t know what happened to him after that.  She didn’t want to.

It took a long time before she could stomach the smell of bacon and eggs.