I barely looked at the mug, but that was enough to send it falling out the cupboard on to my kitchen floor. I'm not usually clumsy but sometimes, when I'm upset, accidents happen.
"It didn't smash!" Vicki 's shocked reaction suggested that was further reason for her to be angry with me.
Usually I'd have joked about how lucky I was, but she was in no mood to hear about my good fortune. "Of course it didn't, I've got cushioned flooring," I said.
"No you haven't!" She reached down, "Oh! I could have sworn they were real tiles."
"Perhaps that's not the only thing you've been mistaken about?" I asked.
"It isn't," she snapped. "I thought we were friends."
"We are," I said, hoping it was still true.
"Then why charm yourself into the job I wanted?"
"You wanted the promotion?" I probably sounded as surprised as Vicki had about the mug. I knew a few others had applied for the job, but thought the main reason they'd done that was to prevent it going to someone from outside. That's caused problems in the past.
"Why wouldn't I?" Vicki demanded.
Because she wanted to have babies and be a stay at home mum. She hadn't actually said that, but I'd been so sure it was what she really wanted... Oh dear, what had I done?
Everyone else had congratulated me on the promotion, saying I'd be perfect for the role, but not Vicki. Her look had said she'd like to burn me at the stake. Later she'd barged past me hissing, "I'm on to you."
The words had made me shiver. Although she couldn't know for sure, it was possible she'd guessed the truth. Because of that, and because I didn't want her to stay angry with me, I'd used my persuasive powers to get her to come to my place after work and talk about it.
She'd followed me home, accepted my offer of tea and sat on one of my kitchen chairs, just as she'd done many times before. Everything was going fine until I dropped the mug and broke the spell.
"You lead a charmed life, Tina."
She's said things like that before and I've managed to laugh it off. Not this time.
"You always have all the luck," Vicki continued. "And if it doesn't come naturally you fix things so you get what you want. I know what tricks you played to get promoted."
"Tricks?" That's not the word I'd have used.
"It's pretty obvious how you got round Mr Roberts. He's always looking down our tops."
She thought I'd slept my way to promotion? Thinking it might be better if she believed that, I just shrugged.
"Maybe you got away with it this time, but you better watch out – what goes around comes around."
She was right about that. I could have pointed out that insulting the person who was just about to become her new line manager wasn't a good idea, but I didn't. There's no way I'd use my power to hurt her, I'd much rather patch up our friendship.
"I'm sorry you're upset over this," I said, "I honestly didn't think you were bothered about the promotion."
Vicki looked into my eyes for a moment, "If you say so." She didn't sound totally convinced, but I felt she wanted to believe me.
Conjuring up positive vibes, I made her tea in the mug I'd dropped.
"Perhaps it's the mug which is lucky, not me?" I jokingly suggested.
"Could be." She gave a brief smile, "Having to get jiggy with lecher Roberts isn't exactly lucky."
"No." I shuddered. That man was going to be my immediate supervisor and he was truly awful, but I really couldn't do to him what he deserved.
Vicki's face wobbled and I hoped she was going to laugh over the idea of me seducing the horrid Mr Roberts, but instead she started crying.
"Come on, tell me what's up. It's not about the job, is it?" I coaxed.
Between sobs, she told me I was right about her not wanting promotion; and why.
"All I want is a baby."
I learned her doctor had said, although it wasn't entirely impossible, the odds were against her.
"I did apply for the job, but only because I thought having a career might somehow make not having a family less painful. It wouldn't have helped and you'll make a much better manager than me."
Incredibly relieved that what I'd done hadn't been an awful mistake, I hugged her tight.
She hugged me back, "Sorry, Tina. Of course you wouldn't have done what I said... with Mr Roberts. I don't know what came over me."
I did. "Hormones?" I suggested, "Some women do get emotional at, you know, that time of month."
She stared at me, "But it isn't ... well, it is, but I'm not ... Oh my god! Do you think ...?"
Vicki rushed off to get a pregnancy test, leaving me very, very relieved. And absolutely determined never ever to interfere in anyone's life ever again.
As soon as she'd gone I reversed the spell on my kitchen tiles. I never did like that cushioned stuff, but at the time it was all I could think of to explain about the mug. Some people say tiles are cold but that doesn't worry me.
The myth about witches' feet not touching the floor is true. So is the one about all our deeds coming back to us threefold.
(c) Patsy Collins
He watched her rolling and folding, placing each item into the deep suitcase. She had never let him pack when they were going away. She said he wasted too much space and she prided herself on getting everything into one case, no matter how long the holiday. Every Summer, he’d just wanted a case of his own that he could throw his things into at the end of the trip and pour out onto the bedroom floor once home, unleashing the smells of the Mediterranean into their cramped, Holloway flat. But she would just shoo him away and slot everything in, like a jigsaw made up of bras, toilet bags and shirts.
Now, however, she was packing just for one and it was not linens and bikinis for some short getaway, but clothes for her new life with a man she’d met online, whilst he had been working every hour God sent to pay for the mortgage, the kids’ school and university costs…. the holidays.
Watching her was like watching his mother making her famous Sunday trifle, thirty years earlier: A base layer of larger clothing – jumpers, jackets and formal dresses – were laid down first, then the T-shirts and trousers, balled up so they wouldn’t crease, and finally the underwear and socks, filling the gaps like thick cream oozing into any gaps between the fruit and sponge. But thinking of his mother brought no comfort as he struggled to accept his wife’s betrayal. As she rolled another T-shirt, squeezing the life out of it, searching for an air pocket in which to stuff it, his anger boiled up inside him, unleashed, never again to be packed tidily away.
And as his hands closed around her throat, squeezing the life out of it, the T-shirt fell to the floor.
As he looked into the suitcase, trying to fit everything in as neatly as she would have done, he realised that it was harder than it had ever looked and a fleeting, grudging admiration for her skill scuttled through his mind. But then this was always going to be harder than a few skirts and pants. Indeed, he was quite pleased with this first attempt. He’d put the heavy things in first, as he’d observed over all those years, making a base layer with the torso and the head, and if he could just loop this leg round a little more to line the edge of the case, he could probably get the zip done up.
(c) Maddy Allen
Prohibition has not been imposed in Quebec; consequently ‘bootlegging’ is non-existent. This makes Papa Charlie happy. He owns the only hotel in town, a good lucrative business which keeps him rewarded in profits and luxuries he can afford. The shining Alfa Romeo parked in the sun is his pride and joy.
In his earlier life, Papa Charlie had been a co-pilot for Air India and enjoyed the travelling and good salary. Eventually he gracefully made his final landing on terra firma.
Today is 11 November, Remembrance Day and Papa Charlie is been busy lubricating his customers. ‘Bravo’ he cries, as he throws another empty whisky bottle into the recycling bin. The echo of glass hitting glass reverberates around the saloon.
Papa Charlie, is a fit man, reaching over six feet tall. He claims his health and vigour is complimented by regularly playing golf and consuming an average of one kilo of lima beans per month.
He flexes his muscles and looks across the smoke hazed room. A grin adorns his face as he observes ‘yankee’ Mike and Juliet practicing their tango. Although they are both out of step, they elegantly trip over each other’s feet unaware of the presence of Oscar, the bar ‘romeo’, a typical ‘alpha male’ who is nearby, sexually gyrating his hips into slow foxtrot frolics.
Past the twirling and rotating bodies, Papa Charlie surveys his collection of ageing and tarnished posters hanging on the opposite wall. His favourite, ‘Zulu’ portrays the backs of the red coated British soldiers pointing their guns towards the warriors. The second poster has a more temperate flavour, depicting the foothills and rise to the glorious Sierra Nevada, the high mountain range of the Iberian Peninsula.
Suddenly the door swings open and a man appears, wearing a Delta Force uniform.
“You’re late Victor,” scolds Papa Charlie.
“I had to go to the dentist”, replies Victor in a muffled voice, “My mouth tastes awful.”
Papa Charlie scans Victor’s face and observes the swollen cheek. He notices something is different.
“I haven’t seen you wear those before,” he says pointing to a large pair of plastic spectacles Victor has balanced on his nose.
“What?” Says Victor.
He looks puzzled. He slowly lifts his hand up to his face and nose. “Oh blast,” he shouts, “X-ray goggles. Well bugger me, I never noticed I still had them on.”
Papa Charlie reaches for a bottle and two glasses.
“Come on Victor, you look as if you need a drink, I’ve got a good whisky just for you.”
“What’s that one then?” asks Victor.
‘Stag’s Breath.” came the reply.
(c) Jolie Marchant
“Are you okay?” Martha asked while she fiddled with the corner of the plastic menu. Instead of answering Willem pushed back from the table. He walked over to the counter to order a portion of fried chicken. She had hoped for a meal at one of the many Lebanese cafes they’d passed on the way from his one-bedroom flat but he’d said he didn’t want to be out long, he wanted something quick and easy.
“What’s wrong?” she asked when he returned.
He didn’t reply. Instead he sat staring out the window, his blue eyes scanning the street. Not knowing what else to say she bent her head and noticed the corner of the menu had split. She picked at the sides so they separated even more and hoped for him to tell her he’d missed her, to tell her he couldn’t let her go just as he had during their nights together in Dubai. His intense kisses back then had touched a deep, empty spot inside her being. When they’d parted she’d pretended it was okay but her body had ached for weeks afterwards in London like it was going through a withdrawal process. Perhaps that’s how her father had felt when he’d tried to give up his addiction.
“I’m sorry,” Willem suddenly said.
She looked up, disorientated for a moment and wondered what she was doing here in Sydney with a man she hardly knew.
“I’m not myself at the moment,” he said.
She nodded. She’d told him in Dubai about her difficult relationship with her father, how bad it had been when he was drinking. How it had pulled her out of shape but now things were better. She was better. He’d listened quietly but she was sure she’d seen pain bound up behind his eyes.
“I’m in a bit of trouble,” he said.
She stared at the creases around his eyes and felt his leg twitch under the table. What did he want her to say? She was thankful that the waitress interrupted by dropping a box of chicken onto their table. Willem picked up a drumstick and started pulling the meat and gristle from a bone. I need you. The words he’d emailed weeks after they’d parted ran through her head. Wasn’t that why she’d booked an Emirates flight and travelled for 26-hours to be here? This wasn’t just a holiday fling. He needed her. Wasn’t it enough that she was here?
“Did you hear me?” he said touching her on the wrist. “I’ve got this debt that needs repaying but I’ve got nothing left.”
“Right,” she said. Her stomach groaned with hunger but she pushed the greasy chicken box away. She had money but he probably knew that. How else could she afford to travel, to constantly be jumping on and off planes? The constant movement soothed her anxiety, brought some relief from that gnawing sense of fracture within. When they’d first met, Willem had said she was lucky to have such freedom. She’d liked him saying that but it wasn’t really freedom. The truth was if she stayed in one place too long she was afraid the cracks might start to appear and then she would begin to break into too many pieces. There’d be no way back from that.
The cash till beeped and jolted her out of her thoughts. She glanced about and saw the restaurant was now empty of lunchtime diners, the tables cleared, the strip lighting flickering overhead. She turned back to face Willem.
“I don’t know what will happen to me if I don’t repay it.” His mess of dark hair fell over his eyes so she couldn’t read the expression on his face.
“Well, how much do you owe?” Her voice sounded brisk, business-like.
He smiled. “You know I love you.”
She clenched her teeth. There had been too many men over the years, too many casual romances. She knew she’d been fickle, played with men’s affections but she’d never really wanted love. Well, that would require staying in one place wouldn’t it? It would mean putting down roots, intimacy. She shuddered. The air conditioning whirred through the filters. She’d seen what love could do. It had crippled her mother and broken her soul.
A bus rattled past outside. Martha pulled her bag off the floor and took out her purse. She couldn’t love this man she’d flown across the world to see again. Didn’t want to. Kindness was all she had to offer. She might lose her money, lose her faith but to lose her heart, then she’d be in real trouble. The only way to be free again would be to move on, let him go.
“Come on,” she said. “There’s a bank across the road.”
He raked his hand through his hair. His blue eyes stared at her intently.
“You’ll help me?” She heard a note of disbelief in his voice.
She nodded silently.
The creases round his eyes softened, “Once I pay off this debt we could go travelling together, get away just the two of us,” he said. She saw his gratitude etched deeply across his face.
“I don’t think travelling is the answer,” she said standing up. She didn’t tell him that staying in Sydney with him wasn’t the answer either.
She crossed towards the open door but stopped as a child raced past outside. For a second she watched the child in her purple sunhat chasing the pigeons off the pavement and remembered herself at that age laughing freely at everything and nothing. How happy she’d been! In that moment she saw the truth of her present situation. All the travel and holiday romances meant nothing. She was lost not living. She was simply avoiding herself and needed to change. Now as she stepped out into the full glare of sunshine she hoped to fall in love, not with this man she hardly knew, but with life again.
(c) Kate MacWhannell
I asked Angela if there was anything else on the TV besides her damn soaps. She threw me the control, instead of putting her reply into words, because after twenty years of marriage it seemed that we only spoke to each other when it was absolutely necessary. She left the room for the toilet or the kitchen: I don’t think she said.
I fumbled the remote and it fell between the cushions of the sofa. I slid my hand down the side of the material and brought it back out, along with twelve pence in change and a takeaway menu from a Chinese that had been shut down by the environmental health authorities last year. I went back in for further investigation and my fingers touched upon something else. When I pulled my hand back out I saw it was a condom wrapper.
Caitlin, our fourteen-year-old daughter, had been seeing a boy named Joshua for a few months, and it was no secret to either of them or my wife, that I was against the relationship. If you could even call it a relationship. Angela was a little more liberal towards the whole thing. Joshua had been around a few times to study, but we never let Caitlin close her bedroom door when he was. As far as I knew – as far as she had told us – they had only kissed once with their tongues (which she didn’t enjoy), so surely she couldn’t have –
But I didn’t want to think about that.
I shouldn’t have been surprised though: sex didn’t have anything to do with love anymore. Kids these days didn’t respect the act, or fear it the way my generation did. They treated virginity like a poison that had to excise from their bodies. But Caitlin was different. We had brought her up well. She came with us to church every Sunday, prayed by her bedside every night, and she never cursed or took the Lord’s name in vain.
But perhaps I was being naive.
I put the condom wrapper on the coffee table and stared at it. It looked like it had been ripped open roughly. I winced. I wondered if she had put it on for him.
I shook my head and the image evaporated.
At least she was being safe. She knew about the risk of disease, and perhaps the greater risk of pregnancy. So in one respect, my unfortunate discovery proved she wasn’t being completely irresponsible. But on our sofa? I shifted uncomfortably. I didn’t know when she would have had that opportunity: as far as I knew, they had never been together in the house alone.
Angela returned from wherever she had been and handed me a cup of coffee. I thanked her and she squeezed in beside me on the sofa. I slurped the frothy heat from the coffee and waited for her to notice the evidence on the table.
“Where’d you find that?” she asked, almost immediately.
And there it was.
It was, of course, a valid question. But there was something in that moment immediately before she asked; something in the way she caught her breath as she sat down next to me, and seemed to be afraid to let it go; something about how she almost spilled the coffee as she set it down on the table, and how she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking after she had; something in the blush that descended upon her face, and the way her gaze darted this way and that; something about the way the question fell from her mouth seemingly against her will.
There was something in that moment that told me she already knew the answer.
(c) Brian G Ross
Vincent van Gogh had been out walking his imaginary dog. He found it helpful to have imaginary pets. And it was the dog too who first sniffed the thing. It stopped mid-step at the gate and gave a loud yelp. Van Gogh found the dog’s behaviour quite baffling. This had been an obedient dog, unlike other imaginary stuff. When he tried to induce it inside, it resisted.
Something was really off. He opened the gate and passed. Behind, the dog whined, its yelps a premonition. He stood thinking, dreading. Then went up to meet the thing in the atelier.
The light had faded out the window a while back. The lamps were not lit yet. He rested on the door-step, adjusting his eyes to the dimness of the workshop. All around the room canvases of half-finished paintings, colours, brushes, palette knives, were scattered on the floor and on the chairs. He peered into the dusk of the room, his eyes blind after having been outside in the colours and light. He searched the window seats, the folds of the curtains; crouched down to look under the chairs and tables. The thing was directly in front of him, crouching, just off the threshold. He was disquieted for a moment when he saw it. He was expecting something that lurked.
The thing was a thick mound teeming with a swarm of eyes, bulging, crowded one over the other and staring at him hostilely. The eyes blinked constantly; first closing slowly, then all opening one by one in a pattern.
The whole movement was like a shimmering of the beehive. Hairy spiders crawled up Van Gogh’s spine. First instinct was to run for the door, which he resisted. Even face to face with the abhorrent thing, he accepted that the flight was impossible, now, after having seen it. Its visual imprints would be caged in his memory, forever.
He mulled over if he should call neighbours and friends to help him get rid of it, but decided against it. Can things like these be shown outside? He thought of his critics. No, let it not be seen by anyone, he came to the conclusion after thinking it over. He knew what was required of him, his own responsibility. He needed to throw it out of the house. But he was loath to go near it, and touch. It could not be swept off, nor raked out, and while shovelling it; might slip and slide onto his feet. The last image made him break out into cold sweats. He fetched a blanket from the bedroom and flung it across the thing. Then skipping into the room he started stacking
furniture and paintings on the loose ends of the quilt. The thing lay roofed in, impassive and unmoved.
The next morning, he was roused up by a steady, low scraping noise. In an instant, he was out of the bed and on the stairs to the workshop. The bundle of eyes, for that is what he called it now, had wriggled out from under the blanket. He stood with the doorknob in his hand, listening to it move inside. He did not want to look at it in the daylight, desiring his conscience to be deceived; to let it remain an illusion of nights. All the same, it was there, squirming against his labour of love - his masterpieces.
He came outside, rather breathless. The sun was up and the air was luminous with the smells and colours of the morning. The bright greenery of the foliage glowed in the gentle light. The scent of the fresh barley hit him and his nostrils flared up keenly. He breathed deep into his lungs, his cells lapping up the oxygen, hungrily. All his being shivered in response to the stirrings of life.
All this beauty was like a pain — a delicious anguish, that quickened his steps, filled his heart with dreams. His soul was awash with rapture which would metamorphose into the longing to create. A single eagle, its wings chipped by age and weather, swooped down out of sight. He walked on.
Then it rose, triumphant, a field mouse clutched in its talons. His heart contracted. He had never had any stomach for the cruel necessities of nature. But it was in his make-up. It made him what he was.
Then he stopped. Along the road, a bank of purple flowers with big yellow hearts nodded their heads in the light wind, proud and aloof, and yet strangely fleshy and miserly of life. A reluctance, like a sudden coldness, came over him. He thought of the bundle of eyes writhing through his things, its loose, puckered skin folding over the eyes in slow sickening waves. He realized abruptly what a multitude the thing was.
Peasants trooped to the fields. It was going to be a windy day, one in which breeze sprang up in the tops of the trees and one felt heady with all the motions. He liked days like this. Liked to be blown about with the elements. But still the thing walked over his canvases, like on a grave. He felt inadequate and inept to the existence. Quite overwhelmed; his dampened spirit refused to rise again.
He turned homewards, rueful of the day. He knew what was to be done.
(c) Sobia Ali
Every few minutes he would adjust his ill-fitted suit, a stretch of the sleeve, tug on the trousers. It almost didn’t seem worth killing that man over. He always knew he was meant to do God’s work. It wasn’t his destiny to be kept under lock and key in the ‘loony house’. If he wasn’t willing to get his hands a little dirty in God’s work, how would he get accepted? So he did what he had to do - broke out of that crazy place where they kept feeding him those pills and started looking for the Devil.
Then he spotted her. She was a redhead, with her blasphemous skirt that was almost threads and a loose shirt that openly mocked Revelation 17:5. He would start with her.
As she crossed the lawn, he could see a party in progress. It was as if God was sitting at his shoulder, pointing him in the right direction. She had led him to the lair crawling with the sinners. Behind every flash of skin and each drag of their funny cigarettes, he could see the face of the Devil. They had tried to ‘fix’ him up at the centre, but they didn’t realise it was not he who was broken. It was the world that needed fixing.
He entered the house, passing through the throng of people. Each touch sent a thousand snakes crawling over his skin. The air was thick with their collective stench, but it only made him more resolute. He could just keep her in sight amongst the constantly bobbing shoulders and heads. Her voice crackled in Devil’s symphony as she freely embraced the bodies in her way. They were so consumed by their debauchery that they paid absolutely no attention to the middle-aged man in the ill-fitted suit. They will soon enough, he knew. But first, he needed to find the redhead in this crowd. As he clawed his way, his eyes fell on a carving knife in the table. It was as if this place wanted blood spilt. He slid the knife under his jacket and set in pursuit of the redhead.
“Hey! Can someone grab another case from the basement?” Someone shouted.
“A case of beer coming right up!” Replied the redhead. That voice would never stop haunting him.
He spotted the door to the basement on his right and snuck towards it. A flight of stairs led into the basement. He descended and crouched underneath the stairs, where he would wait for the unsuspecting redhead.
This was as good a vantage point as any for what he had in mind. About a minute later, he heard footsteps at the top of the stairs. The sound descended down the stairs with the accompanying body. He heard a button being pressed and a patch of light appeared next to the foot of the stairs. This was his redemption, his final payment.
He could almost smell her revolting perfume now. As he gripped the knife for the final lunge, another voice called out from the top of the stairs.
“… and also prep the basement for the ritual. I guess we’ll have to make do with that suit guy today!”
(c) Vaibhav Sharma
I didn’t tell a lie but I didn’t tell the truth either. I just didn’t tell.
I was four years old. I’m seventy-four now but I can recall every detail of that day. I have an excellent memory which seems to be a blessing these days. Years ago it would have been just that your granny had gone a bit loopy. Now there’s a whole industry of memory tests, scans, and medication. Spare me!
The few photos I have of my childhood show a cute and angelic looking child. Here I’m sitting on a swing, all curly blond hair and winning smile, a veritable Shirley Temple. I was doted on by my parents until, that is, she came along. Then everything changed. People would stop mother in the street, bend over the pram and coo at her. They would turn to me and say
‘Can I take your baby sister?’
‘Yes’ I would reply without a moment’s hesitation.
‘She doesn’t mean that’ mother would say apologetically. ‘You love her, don’t you Ruth?’
Cue for me to hang my head and stay silent.
The day that ‘it’ happened she would have been only a few months old. Mother had called to see an elderly couple to whom we were vaguely related. I’d spent an uncomfortable hour, sitting on a scratchy horsehair sofa that had made the backs of my legs red and itchy. Trousers had yet to become an accepted form of dress for girls. My mother had chatted on and on, and I was hungry. At last we set off for home, but then she decided to call at the corner shop. I wanted to go into the shop. I might get some sweets, a stick of liquorice, or a chocolate mouse. Failing that, as the shop was filled with factory workers from the local mill getting food for their lunch break, I might get patted on the head, or chucked under the chin, and my mother told what a pretty child I was. One in the eye for that ‘pudding in the pram’ out there.
Fate decreed otherwise though. The pudding started to cry and my mother insisted I stand outside.
‘Just keep jiggling the pram handle and hopefully she’ll go off to sleep.’
I was mortified. She’d won again, the pudding. I stood jiggling as mother watched from inside the shop and nodded encouragingly. The more I jiggled the more furious I got. I started to kick out at the pram wheel. Mother could only see the top half of me, so I kept on smiling and kicking, until I swapped from the wheel to the brake. I knew full well what would happen, but I was full of devilment. Sure enough, after several hefty kicks of the brake, the pram took flight. It started to roll along the pavement, and as the road was on a slight incline it gathered speed, ran off the curb, veered into the road, and hit the tram lines, tipping over onto its side. I must have run after it, for the next minute mother and several workmen charged out of the shop, and into the road to retrieve the pram and child. The pram was a wartime Utility pram and built like a Sherman tank. In those days there was little traffic, except for the trams, delivery vans and horse drawn milk floats. My sister, tucked snugly inside the pram, was therefore, none the worse for wear.
Mother, however, was distraught. We were escorted back to the shop where mother was seated and given a strong, sweet, cup of tea.
‘I couldn’t have put the brake on properly’ she kept saying, over and over.
‘It’s all my fault. She could have been killed and it would have been my fault.’
Standing at the side of her chair, looking down on the now sleeping baby on her knee and then at my tearful mother, I said not a word. Nobody asked me what had happened, so I never told a lie. They came to the conclusion that if the brake had been applied lightly, the jiggling of the pram handle would probably have been enough to cause it to give. The matter was laid to rest, along with the truth.
That incident taught me a useful lesson in life, however. From then on I found that a sweet, angelic face can be a great advantage.. People always believe the best of you. It saw me through many close calls. I never needed to tell a lie, nor did I need to tell the truth. I just didn’t tell. You could literally get away with murder, and I should know, because eventually I did.
(c) Dorothy Snelson
It was on one of my post lock-down walks that I first met Reg. It was a lovely day and I fancied a quiet sit down but the only seat available was on a bench next to an old man. It was awkward at first, two strangers seeking solitude but obliged to engage out of politeness. I didn’t stay long but enjoyed our chat. I’ve been back every day since, and Reg is always sitting there in the same spot. Now we’re like old friends and chat for ages.
Reg is old school, ‘of a certain generation’ as my old man would have said. The ‘politically correct’ police would have a field day with him. But whilst some of the things he says make me cringe, he also makes me laugh and I haven’t done a lot of that lately. Nobody has.
I’m later to the park today, not that it matters – I’m pretty sure Reg spends most of his day sat there. He just says he’s waiting though he never says what for.
To my surprise, however, today he’s not there, somebody else is. I glance around but there’s no sign of him. I amble towards the bench – our bench – and see an old lady sat in his spot. She turns at the sound of my approach and smiles.
“Hi,” I reply. I’ve stopped and am inexplicably staring at her. It’s starting to get awkward. I hope she hasn’t got one of those personal alarms or she’s likely to use it.
“Would you like to sit down?”
“Out enjoying the sun?”
“Yes. And waiting.” That vague response works for Reg, so perhaps it will work for me and she’ll leave it at that.
“For your wife?” she asks glancing around.
Nope, didn’t work. Further explanation is required. I try to calculate how rude it would be for me to get up and walk away.
“I’ll have a long wait if I am – she ran off with my best friend. She even took the dog.”
Bet she wishes she never asked now.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her smile is warm and genuine, and I instantly regret my abrasive tone.
“It’s alright, I’m getting over it. I miss my dog though.”
“Sounds like you’re better off without her. Your wife, not your dog.”
“Maybe. What about you, I haven’t seen you here before – leastways not in the two weeks I’ve been coming?”
“Oh, I used to come here all the time with my husband. I’ve been poorly these last couple of weeks, so haven’t been out.”
“Oh dear, that’s not good,” I reply, hoping she doesn’t notice me surreptitiously inching away from her. I don’t do illness, especially not after the virus.
“Don’t worry, dear, I’m over it now and it was nothing contagious.”
She noticed. “Sorry! Old habits.”
She smiles, probably out of pity.
“It’s so peaceful here, I thought I’d come and talk to my Reggie. That’s my husband – he passed away three weeks ago. We came here every day. This was our bench. Being somewhere he loved brings me comfort.”
My head is spinning. Reggie? Surely, she can’t mean Reg? He looked pretty alive to me. “I’m sorry for your loss.” My words sound hollow.
Surely this is just a coincidence – but where is Reg?
She suddenly gets to her feet and smiles at a family walking down the path towards us. Probably her relatives. I turn to ask her, but she’s vanished. Literally. How is that possible for a lady aged somewhere north of eighty?
I glance at the bench and notice a shiny, brass plaque screwed into the backrest. I have never seen it before as Reg always sat there blocking it. Before I can read it, I realise that the family are standing next to me. The middle-aged couple feign smiles as the two teenaged children stare sullen faced in my direction.
In an afternoon of awkwardness, this reigns supreme. I notice the woman is clutching a bunch of lilies and surmise the plaque is in remembrance of somebody they loved, and they’ve come to lay the flowers.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m intruding. I’ll go,” I say, hoping to beat a hasty retreat.
“No, please stay, you’re not intruding at all. They’d be pleased something they cherished was getting used,” says the woman laying the flowers beneath the plaque.
“My parents. They loved it here. This was their bench.” She nods her head towards the plaque inviting me to read it. Trying to ignore what Stacy gets up to after school, according to the graffiti to the right of the plaque, I read:
‘In loving memory of my husband Reginald “Reggie” Palmer. Until we’re together again’.
“We had that plaque added after my father died a few weeks ago. Now we’re have to have one made for Mum.”
“Both your parents have passed away within a few weeks of each other?” I ask incredulously.
“Yes. My father died three weeks ago, and my mother was taken ill about a week after that. She passed away yesterday. We wanted to come somewhere today where we knew they’d been happy together. The doctors aren’t sure what she died of yet, but I am – it was a broken heart, pure and simple. At least now they’re together again.”
“I don’t suppose you have a photograph of them, do you?”
If it is an inappropriate request, they don’t seem offended. The woman fumbles around in her handbag before pulling out a much-cherished photograph and handing it to me.
My breath catches in my throat as I study the image. It is probably a few years old but there is no mistaking the couple smiling back at me – it is Reg and the old lady.
Fighting down the lump in my throat I hand the photo back and once again offer my sympathies. Then, without saying another word, I turn and head for home.
I guess Reg’s wait is over.
(c) Jeff Jones
Leaning my bike against an old wooden seat, I removed my helmet and gauntlets and stared up at the inn sign.
The Rest Awhile
I would, but not for long. The tank was almost empty, and I still had ten miles to go. I must not be late. My attendance was essential. I had been trying for months to find a replacement and this day was to be my last chance.
Tucking my helmet under my arm I pushed against the ancient door. It groaned but reluctantly gave way. I bent my head and entered.
“Hello,” I called to the gloomy bar.
The barmaid glanced up.
“Hello,” she said, then tossing back her hair returned to her reading.
Not a very promising start I thought but needs must. I strode across the worn carpet towards her.
“Is there fuel to be obtained here?”
She lifted her head and raised her eyebrows.
“Not here, sir. This is an inn.” She grinned and pointed towards the beer pumps.
“Well I’ll have a half of that then perhaps you can direct me to where I may find fuel for my steed.” I gave my helmet a quick tap.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, her alluring presence seemed out of place. She smiled in a most disconcerting way. I found myself quite inexplicably discomforted.
Her full red lips parted to display the tip of a pink tongue that slipped along her even white teeth. Pulling at the beer pump she bent her head to watch the creamy foam frothing into the glass. She stole a quick look up through long dark lashes and my breathing took a break. Placing the overflowing glass onto the bar she withdrew her hand from the cold vessel leaving a film of mist on her fingers. Licking them dry she met my eyes with a sultry look.
I took a quick glance at her reading material.
The Taming of The Shrew. A play script and not just any script!
I took a welcome draught of the cool beer.
“Is there a garage in this village, preferably one that sells petrol?”
“Oh yes, sir,” she said, pursing her full lips in an exaggerated pout. “And it does sell petrol. Sometimes.”
“Sometimes? Well, can you direct me to this garage where I may purchase some petrol?”
“Indeed I can, sir.” She inclined her head. A dark twirling curl threatened to escape from the comb holding the unruly mass at her crown.
“Good,” I said, draining my glass. “Direct me then, dear lady.”
“Around the corner, sir,” she said. “Not a hundred yards.” Her laughter now was barely contained.
I nodded my thanks and prepared to leave. My leathers creaked in furious reluctance.
“But it’s closed,” she murmured.
I turned back slowly. The leathers seemed pleased.
“When will it be open?”
Wearing an infuriating playful smile, she leaned an elbow on the bar and tucked a hand under her chin.
“Depends,” she gurgled.
“On what, may I ask?”
Despite my hurry, I was truly beginning to enjoy this.
“On my Dad.”
I took a deep breath. Calm yourself I advised my lurching heart. This girl is toying with you. She is captivating, clever, and oh so confident. I was thrilled to think that I may at last have discovered the one!
“I’m tired, hungry and I need to be somewhere else, apart from this enchanting place, very soon. Much as I am enjoying your company, I fear I must postpone this little game, madam.”
“Dad’s gone to get a spare part for a car he’s repairing. No-one else to man the pumps I’m afraid. He’ll be back soon. Won’t you have something to eat while you wait?”
She pointed to the menu beside her.
I sighed. Placing my helmet on the bar I threw up my hands. “Ok, I suppose you’re the chef as well?”
“Course not. That’s my mum.” She chuckled and pointed to the Ploughman’s Lunch on the menu. I nodded. She drew a deep breath, turned her head and gave a piercing shout.
“ONE PLOUGHMANS PLEASE MUM.” The glasses above the bar trembled.
A cheery face appeared around the kitchen door.
“You annoying our customers again Kate?”
“Kate?” I mimed; eyebrows raised. She inclined her head.
“What do you do when you’re not annoying customers, Kate?” I asked.
“I’m an actor. Learning my lines for an audition this afternoon,” she raised the play scrip and waved it at me. I almost choked.
“At The Grand Theatre, four o’ clock?” I roared.
“Aye, sir.” Her dark smouldering eyes narrowed. She glared at me now, hands on hips and tossed her head. “How…”
Gathering up my helmet I drew it back in a flourish, not quite as elegant as a plumed hat but it would have to do. I gave a deep bow, quite difficult in riding leathers, but I think I accomplished a suitably elegant pose.
“Director and Petrucio at your service madam.”
She turned a deep shade of pink and gasped.
“Worry not, dear Kate, attend the audition.” I cried.” I cannot wait to see your performance. It is sure to be quite, quite scorching!”
Her ringing, sizzling laughter had me gasping for breath.
Following lunch, I was directed to the garage. We parted having arranged to meet at the theatre for a read through of The Taming of The Shrew. I was relishing working with this electrifying lady.
We had only four weeks of rehearsals before we began our tour of Italy.
Could she do it? Of course she could; with my able assistance.
I admit I was rather looking forward to telling my present leading lady, my wretched, dreary wife, that I had at last found a permanent replacement for her.
Jubilant, replenished and refuelled I continued on my merry way.
(c) Donna Hughes