Showing posts with label Booklet 10. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Booklet 10. Show all posts

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Married in D Minor by Ryan Coull

 Cora sipped coffee and gazed out through the open kitchen window at the rear garden. Her husband sat slumped in his deckchair, drinking little green bottles of beer, reading his paper, the modest patch of lawn lit in brilliant July sunshine. The summer breeze teased what remained of his white hair, like static electricity, and fanned the corners of his newspaper. 

    She came away and slipped out a postcard from beneath the fridge magnet, its photograph showing the interior grandeur of the Vienna Opera House. Cora turned over the card and skimmed again the superlatives in her best friend’s tidy hand. Wonderful time. Amazing architecture. Glorious weather. 

     She walked outside with her coffee mug, her face pleasantly baked under the afternoon sun. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day again, Arthur?’

    Arthur drank beer. His blue checked shirt was unbuttoned to the navel. ‘Sure is.’

‘Have you taken your pills?’

‘Yep.’

She hesitated by the whirligig clothesline. ‘They’re expecting temperatures to break records over the next couple of days.’ She drank her coffee, looked down at him. When he didn’t answer, she said, ‘I thought we might go for a walk.’

    He blew carefully into the newspaper’s pages, separating them. ‘Walk where?’

    ‘Doesn’t matter, really.’ She watched bumblebees and an orange butterfly flit among the lilac flowers of a shrub plant. ‘It’s such a nice afternoon. Perhaps down along the water, what do you think?’

    ‘I’m reading the paper.’    

    ‘Oh, come on, Arthur. You sit out here every day, drinking beer.’

    ‘I’m retired. I’m allowed to sit in my own garden.’

    ‘Of course, I just mean . . .’

    He made a shooing motion. ‘Give me peace, woman, go on.’

    

In the room by the stairs, Cora sat at her walnut Steinway piano, moving her fingers over the major scales. The music rack was empty, so she ran off a few basic melodies by rote, the notes floating around her. As a soloist, she kept the piano’s top raised for improved resonance. Its keys had begun to yellow slightly, but the soundboard was unaffected. The room stood unfurnished except for the piano, white transparent drapes softening windows, sunlight flaring across the laminate floor. The walls displayed her various framed achievements and certificates of competence, arrayed equidistantly around a pendulum clock. She played a great deal less nowadays than in her teaching years, her fingers considerably less nimble, but having the Steinway here went some way to keeping alive her love of the instrument.

    ‘I’m off down the bettin’ shop,’ Arthur announced, startling her. When she turned, he was standing in the door, grey cap on his head, newspaper under his arm.

    ‘To give away more money?’ 

    ‘I don’t complain when you sit in here, tickling the ivories.’

    ‘I don’t tickle ivories. I taught piano for a living. And that, incidentally, has nothing to do with wasting our money.’ 

    ‘Whatever. Why don’t you just learn to look the other way?’

    He left, and the front door opened and closed, noticeably louder than necessary. A tear formed warmly in the corner of her eye. She quickly wiped it clear, as if unwilling to be seen crying, despite now being quite alone. 

As she regarded the clock, its second-hand circling relentlessly around, so she felt again the uncomfortable sense of time—of life—slowly wasting. She looked at her hands, aged and slack-skinned, and marvelled how the body continued to deteriorate while the mind, for the most part, remained the same. She positioned her pale fingers and struck D minor, traditionally considered the most melancholy of keys, its sound reverberating throughout the space until it dispersed, consumed by the silence. Then she shook her head and closed the varnished fallboard and vacated the room.


Next day, the heatwave continuing, Cora observed Arthur through the kitchen window as she finished up the lunchtime dishes. She had the radio on low, the classical station playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Arthur was supping beer in his deckchair, perusing his paper, topless above the waist now, his sagging flesh burned an unsightly red, paunch exposed in all its glory. 

She dried her hands, opened a drawer, and withdrew her glossy cruise brochure. She smiled as she paged through the scenic destinations—France, Bora Bora, Singapore, America, the fjords of Norway—admiring both them and the great lavish ships, like floating hotels, ready to take you there. The liners provided terrific nightlife, the brochure revealed, great dance halls and Broadway-style shows, fine dinners interspersed with music, from classical to Memphis blues. Something for everyone. Through her mind’s eye, she saw herself stepping out to a cabin balcony, champagne flute in hand, the setting sun flashing a million sparkling sequins across the ocean’s breadth. But, alas, the scene was difficult to accept as anything other than a dream . . .    

Since they had retired, she from teaching, Arthur from his warehouse job, she felt they were under each other’s feet more than ever. It wasn’t surprising really, with both of them constantly kicking around the house, less like man and wife than like passing lodgers. And his irritating little habits did annoy her: the way he sat out there and periodically picked at his nose, for instance, as if it didn’t matter whether or not she was nearby to see it. The way his eyes darted around as he drank from those stupid green bottles, like a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. 

Now that she really considered it, many things about him irked her, from the terribly uncouth smacking noises he made when he ate, to his stony refusal to visit her mother when she was alive. And what about his moods? He hardly smiled any more, certainly not at her. Sometimes his abject lack of affection cut her right down to the bone. Occasionally, when feeling particularly blue, she wondered if he had remained faithful to her throughout their years together. She mulled over the path she’d chosen when she was young, and the various outcomes her life may have had. 

Perhaps a good holiday would work wonders. Perhaps it could release some of the tension. A nice cruise. She took a cornetto from the freezer, one of her limited guilty pleasures, and flipped through images of sun-splashed foreign lands, savouring the ice cream and raspberries, the wafer cone, and finally its rich chocolatey base.            

When she finished, having returned the brochure to its place, she wiped her hands and stepped outside and stood in the sunlight beside Arthur. He was wearing shorts and sandals and nothing else.

    ‘You know what Dr Kilbride told you about drinking so much,’ she said, indicating the little drained bottles by his feet.

    He penned a circle on the newspaper’s racing page. 

    ‘. . . Arthur.’

    ‘What?’

    ‘Dr Kilbride said you shouldn’t drink so much. He also advised you lose weight. Your sugars and cholesterol aren’t good.’

    ‘Hell does he know. Them quacks, they love to dish out advice.’

    ‘You shouldn’t sit here without a shirt. You’ll burn.’ She stooped and collected a couple of the empties. ‘I’m going to brew coffee, would you like some?’

    He circled with the pen again, batted at a fly. ‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’

    ‘Busy with racehorses.’

    ‘Give me peace, will you, woman.’


Cora prepared coffee—for one—and sat at the kitchen table, pondering her life and how it had turned out, something she found herself doing more and more lately. She looked at Maryanne’s postcard from Vienna, the tiered seats of the Opera House, pinned to the fridge door. She contemplated another flick through her travel brochure, but wasn’t in the mood now. What was the use in torturing herself? The situation wouldn’t change.

    She believed people’s situations, their status quo, were ultimately the result of all the decisions they make. Which partner to take and whether to remain with him or her. Where to live and whether to stay there. Which career to follow and whether to stick it out. Who to avoid or befriend. Whether to travel or always put it off. Whether to turn down a date or see where it might lead. To accept injustice or fight against it. Indulge or abstain. Countless choices over many years.

    Cora drank her coffee. 

It seemed she didn’t make decisions any more, that Arthur made them, based solely on the effort the subject in question entailed. When they had married many decades ago, it’d felt like the beginning of something unique, exciting, full of possibilities. Had she been entitled to feel expectant—or had she been young and naive? Either way, it hurt now to reminisce, knowing as she did that the majority of those possibilities had not reached fruition, and perhaps were never destined to in a life of routine and repetition that, after a while, felt like marking time. Marriage wasn’t a fairy tale, she knew this better than most, but that didn’t stop two people from trying, did it? Contrary to an exhilarating journey, wedlock had proved a steady, single-track progression, and she wondered if others felt this way after a lifetime of marriage. Relationships were hard, and many failed, and nobody could exempt themselves from the possibility. She had loved Arthur—at least she believed she had—but was never really sure he’d felt the same. He had told her he loved her, of course, although not for a long time now and never very convincingly. Often, when considering how little he conversed, how little he did, she couldn’t avoid the notion he had simply settled for her, that he was no happier trundling along this single track than she was.

That night, occupying separate single beds, Arthur tackled a crossword while Cora cooled her face with a handheld fan, which whirred quietly like an oversized summer insect. On her side table was a paperback copy of Mozart: A Life in Letters, but the air remained too warm to concentrate on reading. The window stood open but it didn’t help. She glanced across at her husband, chewing her lip.

‘What do you think about a cruise, Arthur?’

    Arthur printed an answer, pressing against raised knees. He plucked off his thick glasses, frowning. ‘Cruise?’                                            She smiled, working the fan. ‘I’ve been looking at a brochure Maryanne gave me. We’ve got money tucked away, we can afford it. Imagine: the journeying, the anticipation, the fresh air.

‘Can’t get this last bugger.’ He tapped the newspaper with his pen, like a conductor with a baton. ‘Ten letters, finishes with an e,’ he said. ‘L in the middle. Dreary or uninspiring.’

    ‘Arthur . . .’

    ‘Why you wanna go trekkin’ round them far-flung places? Can’t even drink the water in half them damned countries. What kind of endorsements that?’

    ‘We owe ourselves a break.’

    ‘Cruises, they’re bloody expensive, Cora. No. No, I don’t think so.’

    ‘We’ll just give all our money to the betting office, shall we?’

    ‘I’m retired. I wanna bet, I’ll bet.’

‘So I gather. Being retired doesn’t make gambling a worthwhile pastime.’

‘Does for me.’

    ‘It’s lacklustre.’

    Arthur put his glasses back on. ‘Call it what you want.’

    ‘The crossword. The answer is “lacklustre”.’

    ‘Hey, look at that . . . There it is.’    

Arthur completed the grid and clicked his retractable pen. He switched off his lamp. Cora switched off her fan.


In the morning, as Cora loaded the washer, the phone rang in the kitchen. She dialled down Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on the radio.

    ‘Mary!’ she said happily, drawing up the little corner chair. ‘How was Vienna?’

    ‘Fantastic,’ Maryanne told her. ‘Ooh la la. You and Arthur have to get away, Cora, really, you just have to. Did you mention the brochure to him?’

    ‘Oh, no, I haven’t got round to it yet,’ she lied. ‘But I will. I will. Come on, more about the trip. It was an anniversary, wasn’t it?’

    ‘Forty years,’ Maryanne said. ‘It’s hard to believe us pair have lasted so long.’

    Cora smiled. ‘Oh, you don’t mean that.’

    ‘No, I don’t. It was so breathtaking, Cora. The Imperial palaces, St Stephen’s Cathedral. Don’t get me started. It was all just, well, breathtaking. You’d love the Opera House, it’s simply divine.’

    ‘I saw it on the postcard. It looks wonderful.’

‘And what about this heat? God, it’s unnatural. Oh—and guess what Doug gave me on our last night, before we went to dinner . . .?’

    ‘What?’

    ‘A beautiful bracelet, with alternating rubies and diamonds.’

    ‘Really?’ Cora regarded her own unadorned wrist. ‘That’s so lovely.’ 

    ‘I spent the whole evening peering at it, right through the meal and everything.’ Maryanne touched on the Grand Ferdinand Hotel and its nearby restaurants, then said, ‘Ooh, listen, Doug and I’ve pencilled in a few pina coladas for tomorrow evening, just to sort of finish off the holiday, you know. Why don’t you and Arthur pop round, we’d love to see you both. Are you free?’

    ‘I’ll ask him,’ Cora said, staring at Arthur’s old colour-drained underwear in the wash basket. ‘It should be fine.’

    ‘Great. I brought you back a chic little something I think you’ll love. Any time after seven.’ Maryanne giggled, sounding decades younger than her years. ‘I’ll look out the rum and coconut milk.’ 


Around noon, Cora draped and pegged washing on the whirligig line. She was barefoot, the soft lawn warm beneath her toes. The sky was an expanse of faraway blue, marred only by the contrails of a passing plane. The air felt even muggier than earlier in the week, almost unbreathable, and was odorous of shorn grass and creosote. The neighbours’ Irish setter barked playfully, the sounds growing louder as the prancing dog would near the high perimeter fencing. And she heard the distant whine of an electric saw.

    ‘The weather said it might be the hottest day of the year,’ she began, fluently fixing coloured pegs to the clothesline.

    Arthur shifted in his chair. He licked his thumb, turned the page. ‘Feels like it. Like a bloody sauna. We’ll pay for it, though. Always do.’                        

‘It’s gone above forty degrees in parts of Europe,’ she said. ‘Forty-two in Paris. We’re inching towards it here, too.’ When he didn’t respond, she separated a bedsheet from the load, and said, ‘Maryanne phoned.’    

    ‘Hmm. Thought I heard you gassing to somebody.’

    ‘They’ve just come back from holiday. Doug gave her a ruby-and-diamond bracelet for their fortieth anniversary.’

    ‘La-di-da.’

‘They’re having a few drinks at the house tomorrow.’ She glanced at him. ‘They’ve invited us round, sometime after seven?’

    ‘They’re your friends, Cora, not mine.’

    ‘Doug’s your friend, Arthur.’ She pegged the sheet, smoothed it out. ‘Least he tries to be. I told her we’d go along, you know, just for a little while.’

    ‘You go if you want, I’m staying here.’

    Cora stopped what she was doing. ‘Please, Arthur. Only a little while.’

    He drew a paisley hanky across his brow. ‘Listen to him prattling on about his fancy liqueurs and conservatory? I’ll pass, thanks.’

    ‘They’ve just got back from Vienna, it’s a nice gesture.’

    ‘God. Be pictures an’ stories an’ all sorts. Look what we did. Look where we went.’

    ‘Arthur, you can’t spend your whole life sitting out here.’

    ‘Go on, woman. Give me peace.’


By early evening the weather remained stifling, too close to cook anything save simple cheese omelettes and side salads. Cora, in her striped apron, chopped baby tomatoes and cucumber and shredded lettuce. The radio played Mozart from the corner, whose compositions always instilled in her a sense of freedom, of relaxation. A fan spun cool air on the worktop. She had a glass of red at her side, from which she sipped and topped up at intervals. She’d set about beating eggs when she turned and absently glanced out at Arthur—and gradually her practiced wrist-motion came to a stop.

He was standing unsteadily, bent at the middle, clutching his left forearm with his right hand. His newspaper lay on the grass, large pages curling, trying to blow free. Cora laid down the glass bowl and fork. Arthur’s eyes were gripped shut, his face pained, his lips moving as if in attempt to communicate something. He took a few stuporous steps backwards and collapsed over the deckchair, capsizing it.

Cora rushed across to the phone and snatched it from its mount. When she returned to the window, Arthur had worked himself onto his back, his mouth open, arms outflung, his chest rising and falling slowly. She watched a moment longer, before placing the phone down on the counter. Then she retrieved the bowl of eggs and turned from the window. She closed her eyes against tears she knew would come, and went on beating, as Mozart’s symphony soared through the kitchen.


© Ryan Coull

Blessed by Amy Harte

 “Anybody would think I was ill, the way you’re fussing. Get off to work and don’t be late picking me up! I don’t want to be in here any longer than I have to be.”

Emma leant into the hard pillow and folded back the stiff white sheet.

“Shouldn’t I wait until someone comes to see you?”

“That could be hours yet. Now sod off!” Emma smiled at him, “It’ll be fine, Ok?” she smoothed down her blonde bob.

Terry fumbled around in a carrier bag and placed a bottle of Lucozade onto the cabinet . Moving a plastic glass nearer to her, he scrunched the carrier bag up and shoved it into his coat pocket.

“Right then…good luck, see you soon darling. Do you want a drop of this before I go?” he asked, his hand poised over the Lucozade bottle.

“If I want some I can pour it myself!” she glared at him.

He rolled his eyes to the ceiling, “Ok. Give us a kiss then,” Terry leant across the bed and kissed his wife; pinched at her cheek. She watched him as he walked up the ward and waved as he disappeared through the doors.

Emma looked around her. Every bed was taken; mostly those who occupied them were sleeping. She checked her watch, just gone seven, she wished it was seven at night, and then she would know.

She wondered how long it would be before someone would come to see her. It seemed too quiet. She had expected Doctors and Nurses to be rushing around, catering for their patients’  every need. Some sort of emergency maybe; anything but this tranquillity. ‘Holby City’ this was not, she thought as she reached across for her magazine.

‘A mum at 52!’ was emblazoned across the front page of the Bella magazine. The reason Emma had chosen it.

“Fifty-bloody-two. I can’t wait that long!” Emma muttered as she opened the magazine. She looked at the index and flipped through the pages to the relevant article.

Before she could read the first paragraph, she heard footsteps. A young Nurse was smiling at her as she approached the bed.

“Settled in Emma?” The overweight nurse flicked over a page on a clipboard in her hand.

“Yes thanks,” replied Emma.

“Good. Well, I’ve spoken with Mr Payne and he will be up to see you around nine,” she stared  down at the clipboard.

“I’m Rebecca; I’ll be looking after you today.” Rebecca smiled, ‘If there’s anything I can get you just press the buzzer here Ok?” Rebecca puffed up the stiff pillow.

“Thanks,” said Emma.

“Tea then?” Rebecca asked as she peered at the open magazine at the foot of the bed and picked it up, “Fifty-Two eh? My!”

“Tea would be great thanks.” Emma said, feeling a little embarrassed at Rebecca noticing her reading material.

“Be right back.” 

***

The occupant of the bed next to Emma’s began to stir.

“I’m sorry if I woke you,” said Emma.

A middle-aged woman turned in the bed and rubbed her eyes, focusing on Emma.

“What time is it?” she croaked.

“Nearly eight. My name is Emma. I came in this morning. Are you Ok?” Emma noticed how pale the woman looked.

“I feel like shit to be honest with you. Let me wake up a bit,” yawning, she pushed herself up in the bed. As she stretched, Emma noticed her wince.

“Are you in pain? Shall I call someone?”

“No, it’s just the stitches. Still a bit sore. I’m Jo, nice to meet you Emma. So, what are you in for?” she asked as she pulled out a pair of glasses from their case.

Emma laughed, “You make it sound like we are in prison.”

Rebecca came scooting down the ward with the promised cup of tea.

“Ah, Good Morning Josephine. And how are we this fine morning? Tea?”

“Bloody awful and no, stick your rotten tea!”

“I take it you have met our Josephine, Emma. Here, nice cuppa for you.” Rebecca placed the saucer onto Emma’s bedside cabinet.

“Huh!” scoffed Jo, “You lot don’t know what a nice cuppa is! Take my word for it Emma, that will be your first and last, once you’ve tasted it!” Jo pushed her glasses up her nose with her middle finger and grinned.

“That’s just your opinion Josephine!”

Emma sat, enjoying the banter between these two women, and took a sip of the tea.

“Told you it was crap didn’t I!” Jo laughed.

Rebecca shook her head and walked away, smiling.

“I’ve had better I must say,” cringed Emma.

“So, what you having done then?” asked Jo as she turned onto her side to face Emma’s bed.

“Exploratory Laparoscopy. It’s just routine,” said Emma.

“Only in for the day then? Shame. Thought I might have had some decent company for a while. This lot are bleedin’ useless!” Jo waved her arms around the ward and winced.

“What have you had done?” frowned Emma, disturbed that Jo seemed to be in considerable pain, and praying that she wasn’t going to say, “Same as you’re gonna have.”

“Been sterilized,” Jo coughed.

“God, why?”

“Why? Cos I don’t want any more bleedin’ kids and my old man won’t have the snip. I tell you, men! Biggest coward’s god put breath into.”

“How many have you got then?” Emma swung her legs out of the bed and sat on the edge.

Counting with her fingers, Jo shrieked, “Six of the little sods!”

“Oh, you lucky thing. That must be marvellous!”

“How long have you been trying for a baby then Emma?” asked Jo?

“We’ve been married two years, so…two years!” Emma laughed.

“Plenty of time yet then.”

Emma noticed a tall man come onto the ward, probably late forties Emma guessed. Dressed in a dark blue suit, holding a few papers in his hand he spoke softly to Rebecca. Emma saw Rebecca nod towards her. This was him! Her very own consultant. The one who would put her mind at rest.

Jo followed Emma’s gaze, “You under him? Payne by name…blah blah blah,” laughed Jo.

“Yes Mr Payne, is that him then? Doesn’t he look smart?”

Jo frowned at Emma, “Best you don’t worry about what he looks like and hope he knows what he’s doing! Only the other day, I was reading about this poor cow who…”

“Good Morning Ladies,” Mr Payne stood smiling at the foot of Emma’s bed.

Jo grunted and turned onto her back, pushing her glasses up onto her forehead, she closed her eyes.

“Mrs Kennedy…Emma.” He held out his hand as he slowly walked around her bed, “I’m  Mr Payne. I shall be performing your exploratory Laparoscopy today. Sorry we had to get you in so early but I have a very busy schedule as I’m sure you can imagine.” Emma shook his hand and to her surprise he sat very close to her on the bed.

“Now, what we are going to do is this. After we have had our little chat, you’ll have your pre-med, then you will be whisked down to my theatre where I shall have a jolly good poke about and see what is happening in there,” gently, he patted Emma’s stomach, “And then you will wake up! Now, how does that sound?”

Emma nodded. She had felt like this once before, when she was about six years old, sitting on Santa’s lap in his Grotto.

“Is there anything you would like to ask me? I see you have signed the consent forms. This is normal procedure Emma. The reason being, should I find anything nasty.” He got up from Emma’s bed and rested his hand on her shoulder.

“No, I don’t think so,” Christ, why couldn’t she say, “What do you mean ‘nasty’?”

“Right then, so I’ll be seeing you.” Mr Payne patted at the bed and walked away.

Emma sat patiently waiting for her pre-med. Butterflies were fluttering away inside her as she dreamt of the time ahead, when this would be over and she would have the sound knowledge that there was nothing wrong, no reason why she shouldn’t become the mother she so desperately wanted to be. Knowing Terry had come through his tests without a hitch, Emma just knew that it was a matter of simply waiting for ‘Mother Nature’ to take her course.

They had to be patient, that’s all.

It was Rebecca who came to give Emma her pre-med and told her to wait a few moments until it had ‘kicked in’ and then she would be ‘taken down’.

Emma wished Terry were at her side now. She needed a hand to hold.

She didn’t have to wait long before a hospital porter arrived to take Emma to the pre-theatre room.

She lay on the narrow bed staring up at the bright lights. Drowsiness came over her. She vaguely heard the anaesthetist say, “Ok, let’s do this,” as a needle was jabbed into her arm.

***

She opened her eyes and saw a blurred outline of the anaesthetist looking down at her.

“Welcome back Emma,” he smiled.

Emma blinked.

“I’m thirsty as hell,” she moaned, licking her dry lips.

“We are going to get you back up to the ward my love. Then you can have a cuppa. Got your vision back?”

“Yes.” Emma felt as though she had been in some terrible accident and was sure to die.

***

Back up on the ward, she felt that there was a fist inside her lower stomach, punching at her insides. Tentatively, she pulled the sheets back and carefully lifted the smock they had dressed her in.

Emma gasped. What they hell had they done?

Frantically, she reached for the buzzer and pressed down continuously until Rebecca appeared through the curtains.

“Emma? What can I get you?” Rebecca stood staring at Emma, “I’ll fetch Mr Payne.”

Emma began to cry as Rebecca went away. There was a tube coming out of another incision to the right of her stomach and she followed this tube down to a cylinder at the side of her bed. This wasn’t right, it couldn’t be right!

Within minutes the curtain opened and Mr Payne appeared. He pulled a chair up to the bedside, placed a clipboard on his lap and folded his hands together.

“Emma. Are you feeling much pain? The anaesthetic is most likely wearing off now so we will give you some painkillers…”

“What have you done?” Emma sobbed.

“Emma, there were complications. You see, when I had a look at you I discovered your tubes were seriously infected. I am amazed you have not experienced any pain in the last few years. I had no alternative Emma than to remove them you see.”

“You did what? But I …” Emma tried to lift herself out of the bed.

“Please Emma. You have just undergone major surgery, I strongly advise you to keep still and get some rest my dear.”

Emma stared at him. She wanted to lash out at him. She wanted to hurt him, very badly. Did he not realise what this meant?

“It’s very unfortunate, I know. But I really could do nothing else. Your tubes were infected and severely damaged. Had I not removed them, I would surely have been seeing you in the very near future performing an emergency operation.”

“Go away.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said go away!” Emma fixed her glaring eyes on Mr Payne. He slowly got up from the chair, sucked in his cheeks and left the bedside.

The room started to swirl as Emma tried to reach for her handbag.

“Jo! Are you awake Jo?”

Jo opened the curtains, “Christ almighty!”

Emma pulled at the sheet and covered the ugly mess.

“My bag. I need my bag, can you get it for me. Get my phone out. I need to phone Terry. I need him here!”

A sob caught in her throat as Jo cradled her in her arms. This was not how Emma imagined the day to turn out. Far from it. 

***

Fifteen minutes later, Terry entered the ward. 

“Oh, Terry. I’m so sorry. I am so sorry.”

“Hey, come on darling. We’re not beaten yet. What’s happened?”

Emma lifted the sheet.

“Shit!” Terry stared at the blood-stained stitches across his wife’s stomach,

“What have they done to you? Oh my sweetheart, come here,” he pulled her closer into his warmth and planted kisses on her forehead, “It’s going to be Ok Emm. I promise you it will be Ok. I need to speak to that Mr Payne. I’ll be right back.”

“No, Terry! Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”

Terry waved both his arms above his head at Rebecca who was already watching the couple. 

She knew what he wanted.

Mr Payne walked briskly toward the bed and yanked the curtains shut.

“Mr Kennedy, I have explained to your wife that an infection and severe damage to your wife’s fallopian tubes came to light whilst I was carrying out the operation. Therefore what I have performed is known as a Bilateral Salpingectomy.”

“That doesn’t mean anything to me. Can you explain to us in a way we both understand please?” Terry leant his head to one side and frowned.

Mr Payne sighed, “Emma had a viral infection, and I had no alternative than to remove both the fallopian tubes. As I have also explained, had I not done so, she would have been in a serious position, in say, six weeks, six months, time.”

Terry swallowed hard.

“What caused the infection? How did she get it? How long has she had it?”

Emma fixed her eyes on Terry.

“As I say, it was a viral infection; we call it Pelvic Inflammatory Disease…” 

Emma interrupted the consultant, “I can’t have children can I?”

Mr Payne coughed and pulled out a handkerchief from his trouser pocket.

“Answer her!” Emma felt Terry’s grip tighten as he held her hand.

“No. I’m afraid not. However, the IVF success rate is extremely…”

“When can I go home?” Emma said quietly.

“I would like to keep you in for several days just to ensure that all is healing correctly. Then we shall review the situation.”

***

“Well, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise dear. I mean they can be a handful. And I can tell you this, if I had my time over, I would never have had any.”

“Thanks a bunch,” said Terry as he stubbed a cigarette out in the ashtray, “Charming that.”

“Well son, I’m sorry. But children have such a way of dominating your life that you tend to not have one yourself.”

Terry’s mother arranged the flowers she had brought for Emma, in a large vase in the middle of the dining table.

“What you have to concentrate on now dear, is getting up and about again. Then you can consider the future,” she stood back and admired the display.

“What future?” said Emma as she stared out of the window.

“It’s a cruel world Emma dear,” Joan pulled on her overcoat, “Only God knows why.”

“Please don’t start spitting the bloody Bible at me Joan! Maybe you would have me go to bloody church, press my palms together and pray for a bloody miracle!”

“Emma!” Terry leapt off the settee and stood over his wife.

“It’s Ok dear. I fully understand. I’ll let myself out.” Joan pecked at her son’s cheek and patted Emma on the shoulder, then left the house.

“There was no need to be quite so rude, Emm.”

Terry stood and looked at Emma, slumped in the armchair, still gazing out the window.

“I’m off down the pub. See you later, perhaps you’ll be in a better mood then.”

“Yes, that’s right, off you go. Go drink yourself to a standstill Terry. If that does it for you, then be my guest. But let me remind you of just one thing, and that is, when you come round from your drunken stupor, we still, will have no children.”

***

She heard the front door slam, and watched him, from the window. She carried on staring out of the window, searching for her crime. Slowly she opened her dressing gown and inspected the seven-inch scar. Still red raw, it spread in a jagged line across her lower abdomen.

She let her head fall into her hands. As she stared down at the floor she noticed part of a book poking out from beneath the armchair. She leant down and pulled at the book. The Oxford Dictionary of First Names stared up at her. She opened the book and saw, in Terry’s handwriting, 

Merry Christmas Darling, how’s about Oliver for a boy and Olivia for a girl? Terry

Xxx’

The telephone rang, interrupting her grief. She let it ring. She knew it would be her own mother and she knew what she would say.

“How are you today?” and “Have you given any more thought to adoption?” and Emma would want to reply with, “How the hell do you think I am today? The same as I was yesterday, and the same as I’ll be tomorrow. And I want our baby, not someone else’s!” Finally the ringing stopped. 

A few seconds later, it started again.

“I need to get out of here,” Emma said quietly to herself, “I need to get out.”

She pushed herself up from the armchair and climbed the stairs as an old lady of ninety might. In the bathroom, she sat gingerly on the edge of the bath. She turned both taps on and poured bubble bath into the running water. She watched the bubbles form and burst. Gently, she stepped into the warm water and let the warmth run over her body. She lay back and watched the scar drown beneath the bubbles.

After she had rubbed herself dry with a soft towel, she dressed herself in a loose fitting dress. Within the hour, she was ready to venture out. She took a deep breath and let herself out onto the street. 

She had no idea where she was heading and let herself wander, taking each step cautiously,

until she found herself in the local park. She sat down on a bench exhausted, and watched the browning leaves fall from the trees around her.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad. After all, there was always IVF. But where would the money come from? Terry wanted to re-mortgage the house, do anything in fact, to raise the money. But how many times would they need to raise the money? IVF was no certainty; Mr Payne had made them well aware of that at the outpatient’s consultation last week.

Spits of rain began to tap on Emma’s head; she looked up into the greying sky.

Wrapping her coat around her. She got up from the bench and gingerly headed back home.

***

She knew it was there. It was on route to her house, well sort of, it just meant walking the long way home. She stood outside the gates. Parents were chatting amongst themselves, waiting for their precious children to come out to take them home. She stared into the playground, litter was blowing in all directions, an empty crisp packet caught in the netball net.

They came streaming out through the gates. Running up to their waiting parents, arms open, satchels slung around their necks. 

Emma knew one wouldn’t be running up to her. Ever.

Emma didn’t notice the rain had got heavier as she pushed the key into her front door. She sat down in the armchair fatigued, dripping wet and swayed from side to side.

*** 

Friday night was still a shopping night. That had not changed. They sat in silence as Terry swung the car into the supermarket car park. He turned off the engine and got out, walked around to Emma’s door and helped her out. Still in some discomfort, Emma smiled up at him. 

God how sorry she felt for him, more so than she felt for herself. Her heart ached for him. He seemed to have aged ten years in just ten weeks. His dark curls no longer shone, his bright blue eyes, no longer bright. A constant look of fatigue etched on his face.

Eventually he would leave her for someone who could give him what he longed for. She knew it and she dreaded it.

They wandered up and down each aisle, both tossing into the trolley their favourite things. Then they reached the ‘baby’ aisle. Terry pulled at the trolley and went straight on to the next aisle. He placed an arm around Emma.

They emptied the shopping onto the conveyor belt at the checkout and Terry saw a young woman walk towards them with a child sitting up in the trolley, she joined the queue. Terry smiled at the child and it began to cry. Emma swung her head around as if someone had called her name. The crying got louder. Terry looked the other way, watching a young man pay for his goods in front of him and Emma. The child’s crying turned into a scream. Emma looked at the mother of the screaming child.

“Can’t you shut it up?”

“What did you say?” frowned the young mother.

“I said! Shut it up!”

“Emm! Love, leave it,” Terry held onto Emma’s arm pushing her forward down the checkout.

“Well, I mean! If they can’t control them, they shouldn’t have them!” Emma flustered as Terry began to throw their shopping into carrier bags.

The child stopped screaming and gazed at Emma. Its tear-stained face broke into a smile. 

Emma flinched.

“That’s seventy-eight pounds and forty pence please.”

Terry handed the cashier the money as Emma held the child’s stare.

“Emma. Come on love.”

Emma snapped back into reality. She looked at the shopping, now piled back into the trolley all bagged up. How did that happen? Had they paid? She looked questioningly at Terry.

“It’s ok love. Come on.” He nodded his head toward the exit doors.

Emma turned back to the young mother, “I’m so sorry.”

Terry guided Emma through the checkout and out of the store.

Back in the house, unloading the shopping, Terry stopped passing items to Emma. She looked up at him from the fridge door.

“What?”

“Emm, I want you to think real hard about what I’m going to say, love. Real hard Ok?”

Emma took the carton of juice from his hands.

“What? What is it?”

Terry looked down at his feet and moved from one foot to the other, “I think it might be a good idea, worth thinking about anyway, that you…umm…seek some kind of help. Professional help I mean.”

The carton didn’t split open as it bounced off the floor.

Terry added, “It’s not uncommon you know? Loads of people seek professional help from the proper quarters at times like these,” he knelt down and picked up the carton of juice.

“See a shrink you mean!”

“No, not at all. I don’t mean…”

“You think I’m losing it? Going off my head?” Emma placed her hands on her hips, “And exactly what do you mean by times like these Terry?”

“Look Emm. It’s a suggestion Ok? I’m trying to salvage something out of this cruel blow. I know we can’t afford the IVF. I know that. I’m not stupid. But maybe one day…Look, all I’m saying is for God’s sake let’s not lose each other as well!”

It was enough. Emma faced him as they stood in their kitchen, realising the depth of one another’s pain and anguish.

***

“And so, I would like to finish off this pathetic attempt at a speech,” the crowd laughed, “by thanking my beautiful Emm for the past ten years. And for putting up with me and I want her to know, I am looking forward to the next ten!” The crowd got to their feet and clapped Terry as he bent down and kissed Emma.

The music started up again and the crowd took to the floor. Terry pulled at Emma’s chair and they too went to the dance floor. He wrapped his arms around Emma’s neck as they swayed to the music.

“I should be the one thanking you for putting up with me Terry,” Emma nuzzled into Terry’s shoulder, “All those years of hell I put you through.”

“It’s over now Emm. We got through it. Ok it took some time for us both to adjust, but we did it. I’m happy and healthy Emm, and as long as you are too, then we have all we need.”

“Seeing that psychiatrist made me realise something very important that I had missed.”

Terry stopped dancing and stood back and looked at Emma.

“You want to tell me what it was?”

Emma stared at him, “I got it wrong.”

He frowned at her, “Got what wrong?”

“I believed that having a child was a blessing. To be blessed, you know? But I was wrong, because it’s you. I’m blessed to have you."

© Amy Harte

The Barista of Verona by Steve Goodlad

“This is my cousin Merrie’s coffee house; we should be safe in here”. Juliet felt like a fugitive evading the law and crept in ahead of Romeo. Romeo’s nonchalance was an act but they both seemed to relax once they were off the crowded street.

Merrie was surprised to see them both and looked Juliet up and down with little heed to

discretion. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes until she turned to Romeo, her favourite cousin and asked what she could get them.

“Two cappuccinos’?” he said looking at Juliet. She nodded approval and was glad to look away from Merrie’s searing appraisal and seek a place to sit.

“I shouldn’t be here” she said once they were seated opposite each other.

“Now you have second thoughts” he said with a grin. “It didn’t take much persuasion to get you to climb down from the balcony.”

“I was scared for you being on my Fathers property. You could have been caught by his security.”

“I cut the wires on his CCTV” admitted Romeo.

Juliet was astonished. She couldn’t believe the turn of events of the last few days or what she had got herself into. Her Father had held a party for several hundred “wannabe” noticed people, a handful of influencers of products he had a finger in, some players from Hellas Verona the Capulet owned team of Serie A, dignitaries that he liked to keep sweet, the local constables that he paid to look the other way at certain times of the day and who should stroll in but the son of a Montague. Montague owned Chievo Verona and Romeo was their star striker, but their team was less than mediocre at the side of Hellas.

Romeo had a forged press pass for one of her Fathers tabloid newspapers, using a camera to pose as paparazzi. No one expected a Montague to have the gall to elude security. Their eyes had met initially on the red carpeted entrance where she was begrudgingly greeting guests on behalf of her Father in front of the public as though at a film premiere.

Merrie placed two coffees in front of them. Juliet noticed the one nearest to Romeo had a heart shape of chocolate sprinkles, whereas hers was plain froth. She ignored the obvious slight.

“Why were you really at my Father’s party?

“Juliet, to be honest with you”. He leaned forward conspiratorially his gaze so close to hers he could see the hazel speckles of her eyes. “My cousin Benny had noticed my melancholy.

It’s not been a great season. He told me of a fair-haired girl he knew about. She was a Capulet and he dared me to attend the party and seek her out”.

“But how did Benny know of me?”

“He didn’t. He was talking about Rosy, but I don’t know what he saw in her. As soon as I saw her, I decided to leave, until I saw you on my way out and then….. I had other plans.”

She smiled. “She thinks she’s the Queen of Verona that one”. Cousin Rosy was older and she thought herself beautiful but Romeo had not thought so and he seemed smitten with Juliet and willing to risk her Father’s wrath if he ever found out who her lover was.

“If Tybalt finds us, we’re done for” she said

“Who is he anyway?”

“He is my cousin and one of Fathers henchmen. He thinks himself important. Father thinks he’s a minion. Tybalt thinks he deserves greater favour and he seeks ways to please Father to accelerate his management credential in his cartel. He recognised you that night and made a great show of your expulsion from the party to make sure Father knew the whole story. Ironically, you did him a favour and he will seek you out if only to further his chance of promotion”.

“He doesn’t scare me” and then he hesitated as a shadow passed over their table and he looked up to see the red shirt of Tybalt, the Capulet uniform. He sat down next to Juliet’s seat.

“Fancy meeting you two” he sneered at Romeo.” Does Capulet know you are here?

Tybalt looked at Juliet’s lipstick-stained cup.

“There’s been another security breach at the Capulet estate, I don’t suppose you know anything of it?”

Juliet turned on Tybalt to scold him for following her.

“You should leave your phone at home,” Tybalt said to her.

“You tracked me?”

“Your Fathers orders, he wants you home and an end to this nonsense with a Montague”

“Capulet must be a real control freak if he cannot allow his own daughter to make her own mind up about who she sees and doesn’t?” It was a risky riposte by Romeo if Juliet was insulted too by it, but she understood full well the family dynamics she was born into, its restrictions now more apparent in her late teens than when she had been younger.

“Montague must be getting slipshod if he allows his star striker to skip training from Chievo. No wonder they are Serie B.”


Romeo was on his feet in a flash, the jibe hit a nerve. Tybalt stood and challenged him to meet him in the yard for “a bloody nose”. Romeo restrained him and tried to explain his reluctance to fight back as a kinship with Juliet.

Merrie rushed to his side, negative publicity could affect her business and she knew Romeo could not risk an injury. “He’s not worth it Romeo”. Then she added: “Out now, both of you”, to Tybalt and Juliet. “These are my premises; the Capulets are not to be welcomed here”.

“Romeo?” Said Juliet

Romeo sat back down, Merrie’s hand still on his shoulder.

“Ha, his defence of you is just like Chievo” smirked Tybalt

Juliet gaped and Tybalt grinned. “Take it easy Lightweight” he said. “You honour your team above all else. Come Juliet, we are not welcome here as the lady said: “star-cross’d lovers indeed.”

© Steve Goodlad

And Chaos Ensued by Hilary Taylor

 She sat back in the cheap plastic café chair with a wry smile on her face. Anyone observing her would wonder at the calmness she exuded given the melee surrounding her. Then again, they might comment on her luxurious silky mass of curls nestling around her shoulders and framing her perfectly shaped heart face.  They might even exclaim how her eyes were like gazing into a pool of melted chocolate, and her mouth was a perfect pink pout.  But then, no one really ever observed her, if they did, then they would fail to remember her presence, or be unable to describe her, which considering her stunning looks was puzzling to say the least; though it never surprised her, they became too focussed on the chaos and mayhem that always seemed to surround her.



This had been intended as a quiet interlude on her lengthy journey, a short break for a coffee and cake in the peaceful Spanish resort. A chance to stretch the stiff, aching muscles, let her skin breathe and cool in the gentle sea breeze; give the beloved Harley time to recover from the first section of the journey. It had not been intended as an opportunity for her to engage in her passion, her ‘raison d’etre’, but she had been unable to resist the urge to cause a rumpus. She needed the adrenaline rush as much as humans need air to breathe.


It had been so easy too, it always was – but still, it satisfied that inherent desire within, that feeling of control and power she thrived on.  All she had needed to do was spray her evocative “perfume” (a special blend named ‘Pandemonium’ specially for her) in the direction of the two young couples and sit back for a couple of moments to wait for chaos to ensue. It started simply with raised voices from the men and nervous giggling from their young ladies, then the accusations led to punches being thrown, and chairs knocked over.  They, who had been best of friends only five minutes previously, were now sworn enemies and intent on destruction. The young women, whilst trying to stop the fighting initially, soon succumbed to the ‘perfume’ too, and began clawing, biting and pulling out clumps of hair. Within five more minutes, more of the customers would throw themselves into the fight, and a stupendous affray would alter the peaceful resort forever.


She uncrossed her long slim legs clad in ripped jeans, pulled on her biker boots which she had removed to give her toes a chance to relax properly, and picked up her helmet.  With one last look of sheer pleasure at the scene unfolding in front of her, she strode across to her only prized possession, laughing deeply and throatily. 


“Come on old friend” she said, caressing the leather seat before she climbed astride, “Time to leave before anyone realises what actually started the fight! Shame, as it was just starting to get really interesting!”  As the engine roared to life, she thought about the journey ahead of her- War, (for that is her name), had several hundred miles still to go in the heat and dust, to get to her destination and contracted job- creating havoc in that small Eastern European country no-one had ever heard of, until, that is, she arrives to alter everything forever! 


Once that contract was fulfilled, she would be riding onwards to the next destination, though this time she would be meeting up with her brothers, Famine, Pestilence and De’Ath.  It would be great to meet up with them again, it had been a few years, and they always had such a party! 


“Right my trusty steed, let us go, conflicts to start; Armageddon awaits!”


© Hilary Taylor

The French Connection by R.T. Hardwick

 ‘I didn’t want to come here.  I wanted Menton.  It’s cheaper and not so full of posers.  You can’t walk a hundred yards without some Frenchman ogling your girlfriend.’

James Jackson is annoyed.  You can see it in the flare of his nostrils, the curl of his top lip. 

‘Calm down,’ replies his best friend, Mark Oxford. ‘You’ve had a shock, that’s all.’

‘Shock?  I’ll say I’ve had a shock. It’s not every day that you find your girl would prefer to be with a Frog than you.’

‘I say, steady on,’ says Rose Tremayne, who happens to be the girlfriend in question.  ‘There’s no need to jump to conclusions.  Marcel’s a friend, that’s all.’

‘Marcel, is it? M-a-r-c-e-l.  Rolls off the tongue, does it?  Unlike James, of course, which is just a plain and simple English name.’

‘You have to admit, he’s a handsome devil,’ says Mark’s wife, Penelope. ‘Full of Gallic charm and all that.’

‘What do you expect?’ says Mark ‘A chap with two days’ growth on his chin, wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloise?’

‘In the meantime,’ says James, ‘I’d be obliged, Mark, if you’d let go of my wrists.’

‘Certainly, as long as you lay off Rose.’

Mark releases his grip and James begins the vexed process of showing restraint.

Rose is one of those women who is attractive enough to make any boyfriend jealous. She is blonde, late twenties, with the type of vellum skin stretched over high cheekbones that give her the aspect of a delicate piece of porcelain, to be nurtured, protected and worshipped.  James worships her.  Unfortunately, Rose has the pleasant, outgoing nature that borders on the coquettish, and Marcel, who is the receptionist at the Hotel la Régènce in Villefranche-Sur-Mer, has recognised that and has made his move, discreetly, of course.

Whereas Marcel is slim, dapper and extremely handsome as well as oozing charm by the bucketful, James is short, dark, with a temper that is never completely under control and occasionally bursts out like a spring from an ancient mattress.

Mark has secretly loved Rose for a long while, though he hasn’t made that entirely clear to Penny, the dark gipsy girl, raven-haired and feisty, whom he married two years before.

The quartet decide to splash out on an expensive holiday and three of them settle on Villefranche-Sur-Mer, because it sounds posh and they will be guaranteed sunshine for the duration of their stay.  James is the only objector but the vote is carried, three to one.

There have been tensions from the start. James hates French cuisine and grumbles constantly about it. Mark wants to explore the surrounding towns and villages, especially rich areas such as Aix-en-Provence and Grasse, but Penny wants to lie in the sun and turn her dark skin into burnished teak.  Rose has come to the conclusion that she no longer loves James, whom she now thinks is a bit of a bore and a tightwad with money.   When they dine a deux and a restaurant bill for one hundred and fifty euros is presented to him, he turns an interesting shade of puce and demands that Rose pays half. 

Then Marcel shows up one night, when Rose is in the hotel bar and James is lying down, nursing a headache brought about by the infernal heat.  

I mean, there isn’t even air-conditioning and the blasted room costs a hundred and forty a night. 

Mark and Penny are outside, seated on a bench on the seafront, on a gloriously warm evening, watching young couples promenading up and down la plage.


‘Mademoiselle, you look stunning tonight.’

‘Thank you, Marcel.’

‘May I buy you a drink, an aperitif, perhaps?’

‘I’ll have a campari and soda, thank you, Marcel.’

‘Miss Tremayne…’

‘Call me Rose.’

‘Rose – an eminently suitable name if I may say so.  Rose, I have a confession to make.’

‘Have you, Marcel?  Perhaps you should make it, then.’

‘Mademoiselle Rose, I desire you.’

‘Do you, Marcel?’

‘With every beat of my heart.’

‘Marcel, what about James, my boyfriend?  He’s lying upstairs, chewing paracetamol.’

‘Mademoiselle Rose, I fear that Monsieur James is a trifle ennuyeux.’

‘Ennu-what?’

‘How do you say it in English?  Somebody who is tedious in the extreme.’

‘I agree.’

‘I am afraid that he is not a suitable lover for you.’

‘I agree.’


Mark and Penny return from their people-watching and espy the pair in intimate conversation.

‘Uh-oh,’ said Mark. ‘James isn’t going to like this.’

‘Don’t tell him, then. Christ, they’re only talking,’ says Penny.

‘He’s practically got his tongue in her ear,’ remarks Mark. ‘There’s something going on.’

‘Leave them be,’ says Penny. ‘I need a drink.  Let’s go to the other bar.  We don’t want to disturb the young lovers.’

 ‘He’s my best friend.  I’ve a duty to tell him what I’ve seen.’

‘You have to put your oar in all the time, haven’t you Mark?  You can never leave well alone.  You’re always interfering.’


‘I am off duty,’ says Marcel. ‘I have a bottle of cognac in my room.  I would be honoured if you would condescend to join me for a drink.’

Rose smiles and says: ‘Lead the way.’


‘I’m glad you told me,’ says James, as the quartet stand arguing under a parasol amongst the china cups and saucers outside the café where they have partaken of a breakfast of coffee and croissants.  The two English women seated at the next table are especially interested in the conversation.  One leans so far forward to hear the dialogue that her elbow slips off the white plastic table and she fetches herself a nasty blow on the chin.

‘I’m going back to my room,’ says Rose.

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Penny.

‘You’ve had it, James,’ says Mark. ‘She doesn’t need you any more.  That’s obvious from last night.  She’s head over heels with him.’

James pulls back his right fist and lets Mark have it full on his chin.  It makes him feel a whole lot better.


© RT Hardwick

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Shopping Trip by Hilary Taylor

Sophie had cajoled and wheedled him into coming on this trip. It wasn’t usually his “thing”, preferring to be down the pub talking football with his mates on a Saturday afternoon, but there was none on this weekend, so no excuses! She was skipping along the path, talking incessantly and excitedly, he felt like the condemned man, and started to drag his heels, trying to delay the inevitable as much as possible.

As they approached “The Little Shop of Dreams” his sense of dread increased, why had he agreed to do this? She had heard that this place had unique designs and that was what she wanted and she needed him to help her choose!

They walked up a little dark side street that not many serious shoppers frequented. As they approached, he could see how unassuming, and a little drab the frontage was, but the dress in the window looked astonishing, like the stars from the sky had been drawn down and attached themselves to the diaphanous material caressing the mannequin’s curves. As they walked through the door, the gentle music seemed to soothe his mood and reassure him that this was the right place to come.  The racks of dresses surrounded the walls, and they seemed to whisper and sway to try and gain attention. The pinks, purples, blues, greens and yellows to one side of the room, to the reds, burgundy, creams and whites on the other, sequins, lace, brocade, devore……. A cacophony of colour and texture!

“This won’t take long”, she had told him, but as he settled into the welcoming folds of the armchair, thoughtfully provided, he knew he would be in for the long haul. He closed his eyes and wished his wife had lived to see their daughter in her first ball gown.

© Hilary Taylor

Officially Dead by Emily Dixon

 “I’m sorry Mrs Koalt,” the Doctor looked genuinely upset to be the bearer of bad news, “There’s nothing more we can do, we’re going to have to pass him over.” Dr Bennet glanced at the men standing outside the room.

“Where will they take him?” Felicity was calm. She’d heard about the virus on the news, the odd case here and there, nothing to be concerned about. Until Eddie came back one morning explaining that he’d picked up a patient who had it. He’d kept his distance, talking to her through the French doors, refusing to come into the house. They’d had to burn the ambulance, he said, him and David were being taken straight to the hospital in specialist transport. Just as a precaution.

Now he was inside a giant bubble, hooked up to machines. David was god knows where.

“I don’t know”. Dr Bennet wasn’t sure where the men took them. They just turned up for the patients who still had full brain activity – regardless of the rest of the body shutting down.

Felicity watched the men as they entered the room and wheeled her husband’s bubble away. The Dr handed her a death certificate. This was what happened when virus patients got taken. They were officially dead.

Three weeks later.

“Breaking news. A fire has swept through a government run facility that was set up to investigate the new virus. There are believed to be no survivors…”

*Ding Dong Ding*

The doorbell. Felicity turned the news off and walked toward the front door. She could smell something burning.

Her 4-year-old son came running up the hallway excitedly. The burning smell was stronger now, acrid and charcoal-like. Toby stopped.

“I opened the door for daddy.”

She stared at him in disbelief, eyes wide and unblinking.

“You did what?”

© Emily Dixon

Justice In A Kidney Tray by Cindy Pereira

 Cindy has opted out of online publication

A Sociologist on Brick Lane by R.T. Hardwick

 Had this clever woman at my stall yesterday. 

‘Good Morning, my man,’ she says, in the way of a Roman emperor.  She’s got a voice like an oboe, low and fruity.

‘I’m researching the importance of markets as social spaces in towns and cities.’

‘Come again?’ I replied. 

‘Annual footfall levels in markets have reduced from six to five and a half million in two decades.’

‘Football levels?  That’ll be because Millwall are so bleedin' useless these days.’

‘Footfall levels.  The number of individuals that attend markets.’

‘I put it down to people not knowing the metric.’

‘Conversely, the number of farmers’ markets has increased by 250%.’

‘Posh folk who buy there wouldn’t know if it was sirloin steak or the inside of a cow’s backside they were buying.  Stall down the road’ll sell you a plate of jellied eels for two quid – better than rump steak, in my view.’

‘We intend to examine different socio-demographic and economic contexts in local population profiles.’

‘Yeah, we do a lot of that down Brick Lane.’

‘We’re looking at both covered and uncovered markets.’

‘Well, my stall is uncovered when it’s dry, and I’ve got this bit of tarpaulin to drape over it when it’s wet.’

‘For a market to function well as a social space, there is a need to attract visitors.’

‘Look around my stall, lady.  Bin bags and liners, sweeping brushes, tupper boxes, loo paper.  Every community needs loo paper.’

‘But the unexpected?’

‘It’s all here, lady.  Builders’ buckets, duck tape, sheets for the bottom of bird cages, thermoform dinner plates.  You can’t get more unexpected than those.’

‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘You seem to be an imbecile.  Where did you say the jellied eel stall was?’

I said to Charlie later:

‘If looks could kill…’

© RT Hardwick

Date Night by Caitlin M Kearns

 Dom had told Clare he’d meet her outside the bistro at half seven.

Clare, who hadn’t been a date in nearly three years, had dolled herself up for the occasion. New dress, red lippy, even a small heel. She’d met Dom on a dating website. She’d tried the apps but worked out pretty quickly your average Tinder user wasn’t looking for a pear shaped receptionist rapidly approaching her 40’s. It was one of those websites where you had to pay, and they’d find you your “perfect” match. Dom was 93% compatible, though obviously they had different opinions on the importance of timekeeping.

Clare’s stiff shoes were beginning to rub away at her heels as she shifted from foot to foot. Should she call him? Send him a text? She plucked for something simple, with a slight hint of underlying passive aggression.

“I am here, see you soon :)”

Ten minutes passed, no reply, and no sign of Dom. This is what you get for putting yourself out there, she thought. As it got to eight she started planning her evening, she remembered she had a bottle of Barefoot Pinot in the fridge, and began to plan where she'd get her portion of cheesy chips to accompany it on the way home.

“Sorry I’m late.”

Clare looked up at Dom, a sweaty, bald headed man in his early 40’s. At least he wasn’t lying about his height, she thought to herself.

“How long have you been standing there?”

“Half an hour. I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show.”

“I’m sorry...I got you these.”

Dom thrust a limp and uninspiring bunch of garage bought flowers under Clare’s nose. Maybe cheap wine and cheesy chips wouldn’t have been so bad after all...

© Caitlin M Kearns

The Vaccination Centre Volunteer by Steve Goodlad

 This was a new site to Stephen and one that took its responsibilities seriously. He had completed all the on-line training and knew about the Safeguarding Adults Policy, hand hygiene, Risk Assessments, GDPR, being a Fire Marshal as well as how to recognise anaphylactic shock, so he had all the requisites the NHS deemed necessary to be a carpark marshal volunteer at a Vaccination Centre.

Being the repository of the sum of all human knowledge, he could wear a hi-vis jacket and point his arm to vacant bays with some authority. However, having never been inside the Vaccination Centre he didn’t have a clue what went on in there. That did not deter him from answering the questions the public asked him. What is the point in all those online certificates if at the first question he says;” I don’t know”? Stephen had a dentist with halitosis and he wasn’t going to be like him. So, he made up credible answers like: “they put it on a sugar-cube if you are scared of needles” or “of course it’s painful, you are being pierced with a big needle”.

Word must have got back to the volunteer coordinator who posted Stephen on ever more remote parts of the site which was vast, and to justify her decision she reinforced his importance by overstating the crucial strategic positioning of his skills to this particularly difficult and complex area of the car park and the unilateral decision making to appoint Stephen that task as though he was the only one who would fully comprehend its intricacies.

Needless to say, Stephen saw no-one all day. It was -2 degrees and he got no break from doing nothing. The caretaker on locking up the site found him and asked: “How long have you been standing there?”

© Steve Goodlad

Pope Urban by Stephen Lisle

 I was dressed as the Pope and standing in the sunshine at the intersection of Flatbush and Snyder. It was so hot that the asphalt bubbled.

The cars crawled, with their windows dropped, too parched to go faster, and on the street, a chef sat on a plastic chair, head slumped between his legs, sweat pooling.

The walk sign was white hot and the crossing tutted at me to cross. I couldn’t hear it because underneath my Papal tiara I wore my headphones. A ridiculous flourish to my costume.

The robes were now anything but pure. Around the collar and cuffs, they were soiled where my sweat had leached. This was just one of the outfits they supplied at the start of the contract. A banana suit, unbranded superhero and knight in man-made fibres.

It was easy work. As long as I had music, I just kept moving, along Flatbush, and kept my sign up high. I kept moving and Dave’s Costume Shop kept pushing the money to my account.

A man leant out of a car and shouted. I took off the headphones.

“What you doing?”

“What?”

“What you doing with that sign?”

“My job.”

He looked unsure as he drove off and when he reappeared on foot.

“I own it, Dave’s.”

“Really?”

“How long have you been standing there?”

“Since 9.30. Honest.”

“No, I didn’t… Look, the shop closed two years ago. Dave, my dad, he died. I guess no one said.”

I took off my hat.

“Are we still paying you?”

“Someone is. Every week.”

He stood for a moment then he said he would keep paying me to advertise a shop that died. I saw him, maybe every other week, driving slowly past, smiling at the sign in my hand.

© Stephen Lisle

Inaction Speaks Louder by Rachel Smith

 Thwack!

Mary froze.

The obscene drunken screaming abruptly stopped. She held her breath. The familiar fear coursing through her body held in hiatus.

Did he fall off the mezzanine balcony?

She had just turned down the corridor that led to the guest bathroom. Hoping to reach that safe haven and lock the door before her husband caught her. The long hours she had spent cowering in that stark, cold white room haunted her and yet, at the same time she longed to be there.

Once in that room she didn’t have to reason with him, to beg or plead. She didn’t have to stare into his feverish eyes, hoping that her expression is one of love. One that will calm the beast.

The chill of the bathroom tiles soothes her bruises like a cold compress. The old and the new.

At least he’s never hit my face.

She still didn’t move.

With the yelling gone, other noises reached out to her. The low hum of the cistern, the distant television burble, the wind moaning through the eaves up above. Her own shallow breath.

Slowly, she retraced her steps round the corner onto the first-floor landing. The balcony railing faced her and, for that moment, it dominated her existence. Pulling her step by step.

She peered over the edge.

Her husband lay on his back, eyes closed and mouth ajar as if asleep. The shattered wine bottle sent merlot streaming across the grey marble flooring. An ever-widening pool of blood circled his head.

He might survive if I call for an ambulance now. Or, I could pretend I was asleep. That I didn’t know until the middle of the night … or the morning, just to be sure.

Mary took one last look.

“I hoped you would die this way.”

© Rachel Smith

Blood is Thicker than Water by Cindy Periera

 Cindy has opted out of online publication

‘Tis Goodbye by Hilary Taylor

 The woman was crying hard now – proper, full-on “ugly crying”.  What had started as a gentle sniffle and a slight dampness at the corner of the eye, had developed into great heart-wrenching sobs; red, swollen eyes, and huge salty tears mixing with snot.  The tissue box was empty, the waste bin full.

Theirs had been a relationship lasting ten years, though she had been aware of him for some time before.  He had been the man of her dreams; he was exactly what had been needed at the time.  Everyone told her what a brilliant mind he had, how kind, how thoughtful, how handsome. Over the years he had matured and was now a true leader- a Detective Superintendent; empathetic but strong, forceful but respected; passionate but fun loving, and very much a handsome “silver fox”.

How she had adored him, had loved basking in the adulation that came with being associated with him. She had been the one to guide him through his career, had protected him from the baser elements of the world he was a part of, had masterminded his success. Yet now, here they were, the end of the relationship.  It had to be, she needed to move on, there was so much more to do, to explore, and she was being stifled by him.

“I hoped you would die this way” she whispered.  “I’m so sorry to do this to you, but at least it’s a hero’s death and it’s really the only way for me to break away from you fully”.

With one last wipe of the eyes, she put her glasses on and bent forward over the laptop, Detective Superintendent Roberts was dead and her long-standing book series finished. Two more words and then off to the Editor….. “The End” she typed.

© Hilary Taylor

Snow Angel by Steve Goodlad

 We weren’t allowed to visit until your last day when we crept into the hospital like disguised fugitives and were shown your shrunken form that we hardly recognised. Your heavy-lidded eyes barely flickered as we held your hand and spoke useless words of comfort, willing you to go, to no longer prolong your pain, willing you to stay so that we could take you home.

For weeks we had waited, watching your texts diminish, then the calls from the exhausted nurses reading from notes and emotionless scripts, rehearsed with other patients who had already passed. Then the last one suggested we drop everything.

We stood above you in our layers of PPE and scrubs, like clinical aliens watching you try to breathe your last, performing our eleventh-hour duty, squirming like children desperate to go out and play, to be anywhere but there facing the reality.

One of us must have carried the virus over the threshold, carried it unseen like an innocent drug mule and smeared it on a shared surface. The one who took home the shopping? The one who took their children to the play-park? Took the bins out? It no longer matters.

We wanted to take you home. We could have borne you on the sledge, like a snow queen one last ski run, one last snowball fight. With anything else it might have been possible. One last goodnight.

We trudged through the snow in silence until he suggested we went to the park. We lay in the soft powdery snow and I imagined you with us, like when we were children, making snow angels and everywhere the ice-crusted fringes of tree tops, the glint of winter sun, the dazzling light. “If you had to go” I spoke aloud, “I hoped you would die this way”.

© Steve Goodlad

For Better, For Worse by Liz Berg

 The letter had triggered it. She encouraged him to believe he had offered to drive her, in case she had a bad turn. 

More fool her when she’d opened her mouth and “Do you know where we’re going?” came out.

“Of course, I know.  I’m driving us there, aren’t I?”

“When the letter came you said you had no idea where it was.”

He harrumphed and muttered about fool women. She turned her head to the window and stared out at the blustery sky.

The crossing was choppy. The boat struggled to land, the chain winched tight before it was clamped and they were let off.

At the top of the road a police car blocked all exits, its blue lights flashing.  Her heart pulsed to its beat. Would he get fed up and turn around? He’d done that when the children were little, refusing to wait even ten minutes for a jam to clear. They’d returned home in tears.

She breathed again as the police cleared the blockage. They turned right at the top, following the road into Stonehouse. Her eyes searched for clues to their destination, desperate for a sign before he snarled at her.

A yellow notice told them to turn right and they were into new territory for them both. The sward of green on her left was welcome as were the town villas on her right.  A masked man waved them down and checked their papers before showing them to a parking spot.

At the barricades they were checked again by masked people.

“Waste of time,” he grumbled.

All too soon they were sat in opposite chairs with their sleeves rolled up.

“This won’t take long,” said another masked man.

A sharp prick and it was all over.

“Glad we got our COVID jabs together?”

© Liz Berg

The Beacon on the Shore by Darren Arthurs

 “This won’t take long” the man said as he stepped onto the short, narrow jetty that led from the choppy waters to the lighthouse. His knees felt stiff as he placed a foot onto the sodden wood, but his blood contained as much salt as the sea and he had a few good years remaining in his joints.

He took a final look back at the small craft and thanked Gordon for bringing him out here at such short notice and wondered if Gordon’s useless son, Henry, had the same desire to spend his days on the water.

The air was cool and damp and the pathway was illuminated by the pale moonlight that made his ascent to the circular building a little easier. Why Joseph, the keeper, had not lit the gas burner meant something was wrong, whether that was the lighthouse or Joseph himself remained to be seen. Either way, it was the man’s responsibility to check.

Gripping the length of thick rope that acted as a handrail that ran parallel to the path, the man looked out to sea, he wondered what ships travelled out there in the darkness, where they had travelled from and what cargo they carried. The world was changing, becoming smaller, new trade routes established, it was a time of much change, but they would still need the warning light from the beacon on the shore.

Upon reaching the small door, the man used his shoulder to gain entrance, shoving the heavy wood backwards and immediately feeling the shift in conditions. The base of the tower was warm and sheltered, circular with a staircase running upwards and around. He placed one foot on the bottom step and hesitated at the sight of a bloodied boot print.

“Joseph?” he called up into the gloom.

© Darren Arthurs

Dying With A View by Felicity Edwards

 The hospice nurse arrived. Mr Cambell met her. “Thank you so much for coming. Jen, my wife, is in the front room. We moved her bed there so she could see the view.”

The nurse soon had Jen washed, and the bedclothes changed. The bed was one of those where a button smoothly changes the position of the patient. Alyson put Jen in a comfortable upright position. “I’m going to check your syringe driver. Then I’ll leave you until this evening.”

“Will you be coming back?” Asked Jen.

Nodding, Alison said, “Yes, I must top up the driver.”

Jen dozed a bit as Pete sat next to the bed, holding her hand. Jen opened her eyes and looked down the hill and out over the forest. She sighed. “I’m sorry to leave you like this. We had so many plans.”

“I know, but let’s not think about that, let's concentrate on now. At least we completed all the alterations and you’ve got the best place for the view you love.”

They talked as they always had. Jen’s words were slower. Spontaneously, she dropped off to sleep. As he sat looking at her, it filled him with sadness, tears coursing, unchecked, down his face. But pleased she was home, not lying all alone in the hospital. He took a shuddering breath, kissed her forehead and whispered. “I hoped you would die this way.”

She opened her eyes and smiled at him one last time. “Thank you, my love. You have always been my rock, but I have to take this journey alone. Please turn the lights out so I can see the stars, one last time.”

She slipped away so peacefully. He marvelled, as in life, so in death, she was quiet and composed.

© Felicity Edwards

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Updating

 We are in the process of adding the stories for Booklet 10...