Tragedy Ends in Romance – Week 42 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar…  Scrub that. I was actually working in a small bakery. The owner – Charles – liked to refer to it as an ‘artisan bakery’. I felt that profits would be up if we sold a few more sausage rolls and pies, instead of sourdough loaves and sweet potato pasties.

Most of our customers were pretty ‘right on’. Men with long revolutionary’s beards and tight red jeans. Women with layers of tie dyed clothes and multiple piercings. Charles had squeezed in a couple of bistro tables and spindly legged chairs in order to upgrade us to a cafe. Fairtrade products were stacked artistically on the counter tops and a shiny cappuccino machine was Charles’ latest toy.

We were rarely busy.

I started there as a Saturday girl while I was still at school. Saturdays were slightly busier because of the weekly market outside. When I started doing my ‘A’ levels I had Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons free so Charles offered me some extra work.

This was partly to give Charles and his partner Aimee some quality time together. Aimee did most of the baking, as well as serving in the shop while Charles indulged in intellectual conversation with one of his many mates who perched precariously on the chairs, bought one cup of soy milk pumpkin latte and stayed until closing time.

Quality time.

Aimee and I got on well. I’m sure that she would have liked to run up some sausage rolls but Charles was adamant that everything in the shop was vegetarian friendly.

We had our secrets, Aimee and I.

On market day we often had disappointed customers who pulled faces at the very thought of sprout and coriander quiche, or Savoy cabbage and marrow ciabatta, before rushing off to the chip shop or Maccy D’s.

Charles refused to admit that, however honourable his principles were, the general public did not agree with him. The cafe was losing what little money was being made on the bakery sales, and there were not that many takers for the hefty loaves that were more suited to being used in dry stone walls than gracing tea tables.

I could see the signs, and was casting around for alternative employment when fate changed the course of my life.

On an even more sluggish than usual Thursday afternoon, I had cleared all the tables bar one, washed up and was in the bakery at the back of the shop when I heard a huge crash.

Aimee was upstairs in the flat having a lie-down. Charles was sitting at one of the tables with his friend Ben.

Well, he had been sitting at the table with Ben.

When I looked through the door into the cafe all I could see was dust and the front of a large van poking through the place where the shop window used to be.

‘Charles? Ben?’

The van’s engine was still running and I could see a man slumped over the wheel. I couldn’t see Ben or Charles.

I couldn’t see any chairs or tables either.

I backed into the bakery and got out my phone.

‘Police, Fire or Ambulance?’ said the operator.

‘All three I think. A van has crashed into the shop front  where I work. There’s a man unconscious and I can’t find my boss – or his friend.’

The operator assured me that help was on the way and that I should stay in the bakery in case the shop front collapsed.

I did as I was told, listening out for any sound that Aimee might have woken up. I had a feeling that she was pregnant – but hadn’t told Charles – and once she went up for a nap it would take more than the shop being destroyed to wake her.

The fire brigade were first on the scene.

I showed them where the rear entrance to the bakery was, and two very large and rather handsome firemen joined me in order to carry out their assessment of the damage. One of them managed to get into the van and turn the engine off. I saw him look at his companion and shake his head.

The man in the van was dead.

There was no sign of Charles and Ben.

My fireman took me upstairs to check on Aimee. She was fast asleep still but we woke her up in case the crash had affected the structure of the flat as well.

We sat in the back of an ambulance; we were both shaking and neither of us was brave enough to ask the other about the whereabouts of Charles.

My fireman came back looking puzzled.

‘We’ve checked. There’s no one in the cafe. A lot of mangled metal and we’ve got the guy out of the van. Are you sure there were two people in there?’

I shrugged. They had certainly been sitting there when I’d cleared the tables and did the washing up  but I hadn’t left the bakery until I heard the crash.

Aimee began to relax a little.

‘Could they have gone somewhere else?’

I shook my head. Charles rarely left the cafe during opening hours unless he was shopping for supplies and he tended to do that on Sundays.

A policeman tapped the fireman on the shoulder.

‘We’ve found them.’

‘In the shop?’ Aimee was trembling again.

‘No. One of your neighbours spotted them. They were in Maccy D’s eating burgers.’

I’m not sure if Aimee would have preferred Charles and Ben to have been squashed under the van. She was so angry.

A shamefaced Charles and a grinning Ben appeared in the doorway of the ambulance.

I got up.

I had the distinct feeling that I wasn’t needed.

The fireman held out his hand to help me down the step.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘I think so. I’ve a feeling my job prospects just took a nose dive though. Even if Aimee forgives Charles for his lapse, the shop is pretty well wrecked. Do you know why the van crashed?’

‘Officially no but unofficially the paramedic thinks that the guy had a heart attack and was probably dead before he hit the window. I guess we should be grateful that the cafe was empty and you were safe.’

I could have been mistaken but I had a feeling that my fireman blushed when he said this.

He really was very handsome.

‘Do you actually like all this veggie stuff?’

‘Hate it. Aimee and I often have ham sandwiches when Charles has to nip out to the shops.’

‘Only,’ and he blushed even more, ‘I was wondering if you’d like to go out for a meal – when you feel better of course.’

‘I’m fine. Now I know that Charles and Ben are okay – and that Aimee will finally be able to own up to Charles that she doesn’t like veggie stuff either. It’s a shame about the poor man in the van but it could have been much worse – couldn’t it?’

He nodded and looked at his watch.

‘I finish at six. Are you free tonight?’

My turn to nod.

We didn’t go to Maccy D’s.

Our first date was at the little Italian restaurant far enough away from the cafe so that I didn’t have to look at the boards across the window and the yellow police tape flapping in the wind.

My fireman – now known as Tommy – has become a permanent fixture in my life and I had very little inclination to look for another job.

Aimee and Charles – and the new baby – gave up on the bakery business.

I lost contact with them but I heard that the insurance payout was very generous.

It was a shame about the man in the van though.

 

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Creepy Story – Week 9 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Melie looked at me in astonishment.

‘No! You wouldn’t!’

I grinned.

‘Why not? I am young, free and single. It’s 1982 and I can do what I want.’

She shook her head despairingly, a gesture she made quite often when we were discussing my latest fad.

‘You could – anything might happen – it’s dangerous!’

‘What’s so dangerous about it? It’s in the Evening Echo. They have to keep details of their advertisers  – and anyway – he’s given his home telephone number. Melie, I’ve spoken to him. He’s sounds really nice.’

‘Hmm,’ she said, looking very doubtful. ‘He might sound nice but how do you know that he is? He might be very clever and just putting on the niceness to lure you into a sense of false security.’

‘You are SO suspicious.’

‘There are stories in the papers. About girls who get raped and murdered after answering these personal ads. What did his ad say anyway?’

‘Here, I’ll show you.’ I dug the folded page of newsprint out of my weighty tapestry shoulder bag. Smoothing it out on the table top I pointed out the advert, circled in lurid green highlighter pen.

‘Single male GSOH WLTM single female for socialising/romance?’ Melie looked at me as if the words she was reading were in a foreign language. ‘What does all that mean?’

‘You are so seventies Melie! GSOH means ‘good sense of humour’ – which you have to admit I definitely have. WLTM means ‘would like to meet’. They charge by the word when you put an advert in so people use the initial letters instead. It’s like a code.’

‘Yes, but ‘socialising/romance’?’ She pulled a face.

‘Okay, so I’m most definitely not looking for romance but dinner and drinks, cinema, live music. I’m up for all that provided someone else is paying.’

‘You called him?’

‘I did. He has a good sense of humour – well – he laughed at my jokes anyway.’

‘He must have a good sense of humour. You didn’t tell him the one about the pickled…?’

I grinned. ‘I most certainly did. That’s my barometer joke. Not everyone laughs at it, but he did.’

‘That could well mean that he’s a perv though. What does he do for a living – assuming he has a job?’

‘Don’t be sarky Melie.  He fits windows and stuff and drives a company van. I even have the name of the company he works for.’

Melie looked sceptical. ‘He could borrow the van from a mate. It could be a red herring.’

‘He said it was yellow.’

‘What? Oh you idiot! When are you supposed to be meeting him?’

‘Tonight! Tonight!’

‘Where?’

‘Up at The Hop. It’s within walking distance and I can slip out through the beer garden if he turns out to be gross.’

‘Aha! So you have some doubts already then!’

I shrugged, not wanting to give her too much ground. ‘I told you that I was being careful. I even blocked the number before I phoned him. He asked for my contact details but I said that we weren’t on the phone yet and I was phoning from work.’

‘What did you tell him you did for a living?’

Melie was well aware that I wasn’t always truthful about how I earned my crust – especially when meeting a new bloke.

‘I said that I worked in a boutique in town. Don’t look like that Melie. Blokes always get funny when I tell them what I really do.’

‘It isn’t something to be ashamed of you know, social work is a respectable profession.’

‘Yes, but once you admit to being a social worker they either decide that you are a nosey do-gooder and run a mile,  or they start telling you about their disturbed childhood. Life is much simpler when you work in a boutique – and anyway – it isn’t a total lie. I did work in a boutique once.’

‘Three weeks during the summer five years ago. That was the place that went bust after you threw black coffee over the manager’s suit wasn’t it?’

‘He deserved it, and it was his fault it went bust not mine – he was stealing money from the company. It doesn’t matter how long ago I worked there anyway, nothing much changes when you are flogging knock-off clothing.’

‘What time are you meeting him?’

‘Seven-thirty.’

‘I’ll be outside in the beer garden then.’

‘You really don’t have to be so protective of me.’

Melie gave me that look.

‘Yes I do.’

*********

I walked into The Hop just before seven-twenty. In our house, being less than ten minutes early was considered to be bad manners. My Single Male had given me a vague description of himself; slim, short dark hair, glasses, jeans, navy tee-shirt and denim jacket. I was wearing my customary uniform of black; jeans, scoop-necked tee-shirt, and a cheap Chinese satin jacket that I had picked up in a flea market. The weather being a little inclement I also wore a pair of black fingerless gloves and an enormous knitted scarf. I thought I looked the business. Dr Who had a lot to answer for.

There was no sign of anyone remotely resembling My Single Male; a couple of guys playing pool, the usual drunken teacher propping up the bar and some old chaps eking out their pints in a corner.  Looking through the window to the beer garden, I could see a rather chilly Melie huddled in her Army Surplus greatcoat and woolly hat.

Reluctantly I bought myself a barley wine and found a table near the ladies’ toilet – and the door to the beer garden. Three sips later and a denim-jacketed male walked through the doors. He was slim-ish, dark-haired and his glasses broke up a pock-marked and sallow face. I waved in a slightly regal fashion and he walked over to my table. I had obviously been more truthful about my appearance than he had. The dark hair was greasy, as were his jeans, and his tee-shirt did not look as if it had ever been near a washing machine.

I took off my jacket and bag while he was at the bar, placing them so that he would have to sit opposite me rather than on the bench seat next to me. He sauntered back with an overflowing pint of lager and after shooting some glances at my barricade, he opted for the chair I indicated.

He must have been talking from a script when we had held our telephone conversation because he seemed barely able to string two words together now. I chatted – a little manic perhaps – about nothing very specific.

He grabbed my free hand across the table and tried to take my glove off.

‘Stop it!’ I yelped as I pulled my hand back.

‘Sorry.’ He picked up his pint and slurped it noisily. ‘I just wanted to read your palm. It’s my hobby. You can tell a lot about people from reading their palms.’

‘I bet. What other hobbies do you have?’

The question seemed to throw him a bit. I could almost see the cogs whirring under his lank locks. I knocked back my barley wine quickly while he thought.

‘Films. Yeah – foreign films. I’ve got a mate who works on the boats and brings them in. Do you like – you know – art films?’

I knew exactly what kind of foreign films were brought in by mates on boats, and no, I didn’t like them. My smile was fixed as I placed my empty glass on the table.

‘Want another drink?’ he asked.

‘Yes please. Barley wine. I just need to go to the loo.’

I waited till he was at the bar and ordering before I made a dash for the beer garden, dragging my jacket and bag behind me.

‘Melie! Quick! Creep alert!’

Melie and I ran out of the beer garden and down the road as fast as we could. We didn’t stop until we got to the safety of Melie’s house. I was sure that we’d had enough of a head start but we spent a good half an hour peering round the edge of the curtain in case a yellow minivan drew up outside the door.

We bribed Melie’s brother and his mate to go up to The Hop and see if the Creep was still there. It was worth the price of two pints just to know that he wasn’t hanging around for us. I gave that particular pub a miss for several months anyway. I took Melie’s advice and gave the personal ads a miss too.

A couple of months later a young barmaid was raped and murdered when she finished her shift in a town centre pub. No one ever got caught but a friend of a friend said that she had been in the habit of looking at personal ads in the Evening Echo.

There was a photo fit of the bloke she was seen talking to at the bar before she finished work that night.

Slim-ish, dark greasy hair, glasses, denim jacket, tee-shirt and jeans.

Creepy.